Hopeless Heritage

An emergency-room crisis brings up echoes of the past in this contemporary work of fiction.

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Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett.

“Git,” the cook said, “hear me? Git down to Winley’s and tell ’em I’m bad.”

This was the new cook at our school, Mrs. Cullen, who had toppled over in front of me as I was beating honey into the peanut butter. Hot rolls flew up, the cookie sheet slapped the counter and came down on her chest with a noise like a cymbal. So I did what she said, ran up the basement stairs from the kitchen and across the road in the already blazing sun to Winley’s. I ran past racks of stiff work shirts set out to air, and into the hot dark, where I waded over riding boots and galoshes and shouted out for Mr. Winley, without ever thinking there ought to be at least one teacher already upstairs in the school building who could come, without even putting out my hand to see if I could help the giant woman up off the floor.

“It’s the cook at school, she fell down!” I yelled. Hollow-eyed Mr. Winley emerged from the back of the store, his arms loaded with rope and halters and his head slapped to one side. His elbows stuck out of a stiff blue shirt with fold-marks in it as if he had just taken the paper bands off one of the shirts on the sale table. “We’re a ways from being open,” he said politely. Mr. Winley had managed the store by himself since his wife ran off, and everybody said five years was long enough to keep on waiting for her to come back, he ought to get up and start proceedings against her. But my mother said peaceably, “Leave him be, nobody around here for him to marry if he did quit his waiting.”

It was early morning, and there was not much more going on in town than back at home, where if I had not been chosen Kitchen Helper I’d have been still waiting for the bus with my brothers, at the end of our road with dew steaming off the mailbox. The week before school started we had filled our mouths with the blackberries there, and they were the last, there would be no more new red ones, only the hard white ones that never got a start and were promised to the molds.

Usually I rode down to the bus stop with my brothers, holding on behind our father on the tractor, but this was the week after Labor Day, my first week of being Kitchen Helper, and he had had to drive me in. It was the third week of record heat and humidity, and my new school clothes stuck to me.

“What’s the trouble, you say?”

“The new cook fell down. She wants you to come!”

Mr. Winley rolled his eyes and widened his nostrils. He said, “The cook?” and then as if he worked on a rusted spring he jerked my hand and hurried me out into the light and across the deserted road, the way adults always hurried, as fast as they could go without running. All the way into the schoolyard he was swinging his head like a cow being driven.

We got to the basement,and Mrs. Cullen was still slumped against the counter among the rolls on the floor, but by now the second batch of rolls, still in the oven, was smoking.

“Thought I’d burn up time you got here,” she said in a weary voice.

“Don’t open that!” Mr. Winley snatched the potholders out of my hand. I was in the Seventh Grade, I knew how to cook macaroni and butter-beans and make Parker rolls myself, and how to roll out pie dough and how to throw baking soda on flames.

“Don’t matter, let her,” said Mrs. Cullen. And indeed when Mr. Winley said “Stand back!” and let the big oven door down with a thud, the smoke that billowed out was just scorch, although the rolls were done for, not full and golden and puffing comfortably against each other but rolling on the tray, little and firm like new potatoes.

I set them on the counter and Mr. Winley sank down, holding out his narrow elbow for Mrs. Cullen to take, and squinting at her face. He said, “What happened here?” as if it were all in the past.

Mrs. Cullen was five-ten or more, and big, top-heavy, bigger on the floor than on her feet. When she leaned over the counter to bring down the cookie sheets it looked as if her legs would kick out in back as the weight of her drove forward.

“Heart,” she said, drawing the bib of her apron into wrinkles with her big fingers that could shove the gallon cans of baked beans from one hand to the other like a basketball. “All to which-ways.” Only then did I think there might be something other than her weight that kept her down on the floor. Mr. Winley thought so too. “Mercy, girl,” he snapped, “call the Rescue Squad! Don’t you people keep a telephone down here? Isn’t anybody can help?”

So I ran.

Oh, all of this came back to me as if that week of Labor Day were last week. I saw it all before me, in the waiting room at the hospital. I was waiting for my husband’s treadmill and scan to be over so I could take him home again. He was coming back from a heart attack.

It was not the first one. He is a tall, thin man, strong and active, but he has the heart of a fat, sick, stationary man. The heart is in his family. He has been sitting in waiting rooms like this for most of the years we have been married.

While he was getting dressed, the nurse called me in to see the doctor, who said as he wrote out a prescription, “So he retires a bit early and he’s a happy man.”

“A happy man.” If my husband will never be exactly happy—too familiar with calamity from an early age—neither will he act as if he isn’t, or complain, or encourage anybody else to complain. He will never sit back, he’ll always stand up, put on his cap, and go. If one of the children says, “I can’t keep on with this,” he will say, “Don’t then,” but not meanly, and of course they will keep on.

If I had felt like making a point I would have told the doctor, “This man won’t shed a tear for himself. He’s the next best thing to a happy man.”

When I got back to the waiting room I heard the tape this particular cardiology group plays all day—I remembered it from the last time, faint music that suggests some old-fashioned dance floor where couples are turning and dipping in a romantic but dignified way. The kind of music that keeps the present at arm’s length. I wanted to get away from the sight of all those instruments that record the efforts of a heart, so I put my head back and closed my eyes and went back to where I had left off when the nurse came to get me: A place and time in which half the devices in this building didn’t exist, and these three doctors hadn’t been born, where people blundered and guessed their way through primitive rescues, and scratched their heads while the clock ticked.

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  1. Clearly, Valerie Trueblood is a little obsessed with death, but, to her credit, her story is all about life. Clearly she likes to polish her prose and fit her sentences and tenses, but she knows when to stop, too. All in all, a lovely story
    memorably told.


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