The Heart

Two troubled souls who—despite their love—simply would not, and maybe could not, be soothed

For a decade, my brother struggled to save his marriage, but late one winter night, he accepted that it was over, right after his wife almost cut off his thumb. It dangled from a strip of flesh while his wife, still holding the butcher knife, flailed around in a spasm of remorse. My brother moved to console her, insisting that everything would be OK, displaying the kind of humanity perhaps common only in people who believe they can wed heroin addicts and have things turn out well.

She was, needless to say, high at the time. He, for his part, had had a great deal to drink, but he wasn’t drunk, alcohol for him having become, over the better part of his 38 years, more of a stabilizer than an intoxicant. His refrigerator was always full of malt liquor, 40-ounce bottles stacked neatly on the bottom shelf like an arsenal of small torpedoes.There was a lone bottle chilling in the freezer; he had been about to remove it when his wife tore into the kitchen, grabbed a knife from the drawer and accused him of being unfaithful. She frequently displayed this sort of wild paranoia, though it is true that, earlier in the day, he had flirted with one of the moms at a birthday party he had attended with his two daughters and son. His daughters were 6 and 7; his son, 5. Now, having been awakened by their mother’s shouting, they stood huddled together at the top of the stairs, quietly watching as she retrieved a plastic baggie from one of the drawers and proceeded to fill it with ice from the freezer, a remarkably astute response, all things considered. She even had the presence of mind to remove the bottle of beer lest it be forgotten and explode, as others had before. She offered it to my brother. He declined, on account of being busy holding his thumb together. She placed the bag of ice against the wound and began wrapping it in place with a dish towel. Seeing them standing so close together, with my brother’s back pressed against the stove, a stranger entering the room might have mistaken this scene for something other than what it was—at least until after the thumb was wrapped, when my brother reached for the phone to call 9-1-1. “My wife,” he said when the operator answered, “fucked me up.”

The operator requested more specifics. He explained what had happened. Her voice heavy with boredom, as if my brother’s predicament was a common one or simply low-ranking on the crisis scale, the operator told him to keep his hand elevated until the EMTs arrived. When she advised him to keep the thumb cold, my brother felt a surge of appreciation for his wife, for the way she had moved to preserve his finger, which was an example of how caring she could be. Deep down inside, she was a good person; he’d never doubted this. On the surface, unfortunately, was a troubled soul, which —despite his love for her—simply would not, and maybe could not, be soothed.

This realization was long in the making, having been delayed by periods of sobriety when she was soft-spoken and kind. He had met her during one of those periods. They were both studying for their GEDs, trying to reroute lives gone off track, because she didn’t have to be on welfare forever, and he didn’t have to be a hospital orderly always. So there they were, taking a class at the local community college, where she sat at the desk to his left, her body petite and fidgety, her skin the color of coffee beans, making it difficult to see, in her arms and legs, the tracks that he’d later tell her didn’t matter. It was his unconditional acceptance of her that lengthened her abstinence longer than it had gone before, a full six months, so that when her relapse finally arrived, boring down on him like a massive hurricane, he’d already taken shelter in the area of the heart where reason does not venture. It was while there, no doubt, that he’d decided to marry her.

Our family struggled to make sense of this decision. Sometimes, when we spoke of it in his absence, we offered the kind of pop analyses one would find on a daytime talk show, using phrases like “low self-esteem” and “nurturing complex,” and then, exhausted by the futility of this exercise, I’d simply hope for her to overdose and die. It was an awful thing to do, and I regret it now, but she seemed to have a death wish; I merely wanted it to be fulfilled without also including my brother. Every day, I feared receiving the phone call that would tell me their bodies had been found in bed, both temples containing a single bullet in the manner of murders involving illegal debts unpaid. Because while it had reached the point where he was giving her money to get high, he could never give her enough, so she was driven to find it by other means. Often, this required dealing with the kind of people who would hold you hostage, forcing you to perform sex acts with men clutching $20 bills until the account was settled—this happened to her more than once. It happened, too, that thugs showed up at their house looking for her; threatening messages were left on their phone. So, yes, I wanted her to die. Instead, she gave life.Three children in three years, each one born premature and each one, like her, addicted and pleading for help.

One of them made a plea now. It was their son, whose own thumb was crammed in his mouth, making it difficult to understand him when he begged his mother not to hurt his father.

His parents pulled apart.
“What are you doing up?” his father asked. “Go back to bed. All of you, scat.”
“But we heard yelling.”That was the 6-year-old.
The 7-year-old added, “And we saw Daddy’s finger! It’s bleeding!”
“Go back to bed, damn it,” shouted their mother, “before I make ya’ll’s fingers bleed!”

Regardless of the effectiveness of the threat (the children did flee to their rooms without another word), my brother felt it was uncalled for. But there was no point in his saying so, because she was gone, replaced again by the addict who had thrust a knife toward his belly. It was the addict who yelled, None of this would have happened if you had not been messing around with some hussy! And: You think I don’t know what the hell you been doing all day? And also: You lucky only your thumb is on ice, motherfucker! It was the addict who scampered from the kitchen into the living room, from the living room into the dining room, from the dining room back into the kitchen, over and over, like a panther in a cage. But it was the woman he loved who came back, crying now, professing her sorrow, cursing her life, wishing she’d never been born and then wrapping her arms around his waist and tilting up her head to snuggle her runny nose against his neck, and for an instant—but only for an instant, because this thought was interrupted by the blare of approaching sirens—he believed he could still make their marriage work.

Outside, the street swirled in festive lights, celebrating its end.

About the Author

Jerald Walker

Jerald Walker is the author of two memoirs and How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, a 2020 nonfiction Finalist for the National Book Award. His work has appeared in publications such as The Harvard Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Iowa Review, and Mother Jones, and it has been widely anthologized.

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