Heart Failure

Roz Spafford

Published in Quarry West, #35/36

“They can wait,” he said, leaning one hip against the kitchen counter.

“They can’t, really,” I said. “Duncan has homework. And Selina’s day care charges me $5 for every 5 minutes I’m late after 6.”

“So—what, I’m not worth $5?”

“Oh Jesus Christ,” I said. “You don’t get it, do you? It won’t be five minutes, it will be 25. Do you know how long it takes me to make 25 bucks? 3 hours and 28 minutes, to be exact.”

“It’s always money, isn’t it? It’s always money, between us. And you have to rub it in, always, about what I can’t give you. Shit.” He slammed out the porch door and lit a cigarette.

“Sweetheart,” I said, following him outside. “I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just worrying about the time. And I don’t have a lot of money—I’m just stating a fact.”

“In my business,” he said, “there are no ‘just facts.’ Every fact is either useful or not useful to somebody.”

As always, Jim’s logic made my brain rattle. “So you’re saying,” I said, trying to sort it out, “that the fact that I don’t have money for overtime childcare when you want to hang out is a fact that’s somehow useful to me?”

“It’s 5 of 6,” he said. “Go get the kids.”

“Oh Lord,” I said, grabbing my purse. “Will you be here when we get back?”

“Couldn’t say for sure,” he said, studying the flaking paint on the underside of the eaves.

I decided not to tell them he was back. If he was gone when they got there, it would devastateDuncan, whose father was the hero of his own private TV show. Selina wouldn’t care—Selina would be a rich bitch when she grew up, assuming she met somebody with money. When Jim offered to take her places, she’d look at him with those cool gray-green eyes that belonged on someone five times her age, and say, “No thank you,” in her high firm voice. He started calling her “the ice queen.” I tried all kinds of ways of explaining it, from “She’s young yet” to “It’s hard for her, not seeing you often,” but he stayed hurt by it. “How’s frost-free?” he’d say when he called, and all I could say was “fine.”

When we got home, with enough dinner for 4, he was gone. So was my wedding ring, which I had left on the window sill above the kitchen sink.

A private investigator was what Jim was. When he was one. It wasn’t anything like in the detective novels, where the p.i. is a kind of genius able to put 2 and anything together to make 4. He told Duncan stories that made it sound like he was Lone Ranger Jim against the forces of evil, but in fact the forces usually won. Or bought their way out of it, but Jim didn’t tell Duncan that part.

I used to think that being a p.i. was the perfect job for Jim. He didn’t have to answer to anyone but himself, and he’s someone who doesn’t take well to being told what to do. He’s a hard worker, but an intermittent one, and p.i. work is plenty intermittent.

Partly the problem was that Jim was so god-awful choosy. He wouldn’t work for anyone who smelled of ethical ambiguity, as he put it. Which let out any corporate client, and most of the private ones. He specialized in lost daughter cases, but he only returned the daughters if he was sure they would be better off at home. Any whiff of abuse or mental cruelty, and he’d drive the daughter to Huckleberry House, the waystation for runaways, and send his report to Child Protective Services. No daughter, no check.

Which would have been fine, except that I was trying to feed two kids on the $7.20 an hour the school district paid me as an aide. Jim wasn’t struck by the ethical ambiguities in our own situation.

When he did solve a case and get paid, it was Christmas. He’d show up with extravagant toys for the kids and some superfluous piece of household equipment from Sears—a weedeater, a power sander. And everything—bedtime, homework—would be shot to hell. Sometimes he’d show up with pupils narrowed to a pinpoint, restless, talking a blue streak—and I’d know we weren’t getting a weedeater out of that paycheck.

“Jim,” I asked one of those nights, “how much cocaine are you doing?”

“Who have you been talking to, Ma’am?” he said, putting on a cowboy drawl.

“I have not,” I said without an accent, “been talking to anyone. I have been watching your eyes and your body whenever you get paid.”

“Ah, money,” he said in a Southern accent. “The answer to Freud’s question about women.”

“I am not talking about money,” I said. “I am talking about drugs.”

“Freud himself used cocaine,” Jim asserted, this time in the voice-over inflection of a network documentary. “And Sherlock Holmes. Should I claim to be superior to my teachers?”

“Oh for god’s sake,” I said. I dropped it.

He always came back. I always let him come back. I had long conversations with myself about why. I interrogated myself, as if I were already on some witness stand I knew I was headed for.

“Are you afraid, Mrs. Darnell, of being alone?” I imagined myself being asked by some crumpled man behind a desk.

“I’m alone most of the time, officer. He’s around only every couple of weeks, and I’m not seeing anyone—I never know when he’ll turn up. I do ok alone—there’s a fair amount to do with the house and kids, and I have friends, women friends, to talk to. And my sister.”

“Is it the stability of marriage you’re clinging to?” He would make notes on a warped yellow pad.

“I provide the stability; what Jim provides is the flash.”

“I assume you still love him.”  The officer is poised to check one of several boxes.

“I have got no idea what it means to love somebody,” I imagined myself telling him. “I find him occasionally charming, the way Duncan does, with his stories and his plays on words, but more and more I feel cynical and restless when he starts up—it seems like one more way to avoid real contact. When he’s in some kind of trouble, which I rarely know about, but when he is and I can see it, I feel something—but it’s more what you feel for children, a kind of swarming anxiety. And there are those rare moments when his wit or his intelligence is like no one else’s in the world, and I feel something like maybe what I once felt, but it doesn’t feel like love—more like hypnosis.”

Upside down, I would be able to see him across the desk write “N/A.”

“And your—your physical relationship, Mrs. Darnell?”

There is something about his body, but not enough about it. He is a lean man, and fit at 40: a p.i., he explained toDuncan, watching him swim laps, had to stay in shape for the contingencies. Duncan didn’t know what contingencies were, but he said the word over and over to himself. His pants hang just above his hip bones, and I follow that line often when I can’t look at his face, the line down his ribs to the top of his belt. I look at him like you’d look at a landmark you’d seen picture postcards of, the sleek glaciated slopes of the mountain, belted by trees.

In bed, not much happens. Even if I’m not angry about whatever, he’s liable to be in some story-telling mode, and I’ll doze off to the sound of his voice. I think we don’t want to touch each other. I think we just can’t give up the raw animal comfort.


I showed up at the house today, and right away she started in. That woman’s mind is as predictable as rain when you don’t want it. Money for this. Late for that. Money and time. Time and money—a cage with two bars. If I had to live inside a mind like that, I’d consider decapitation just to get some peace.

She wants me in that cage with her, and she can’t get over the idea that I won’t go. I won’t, in fact, go. 

What it adds up to is that she wants to control me. Wants me to turn up every evening like some sit-com father, ready to mow the lawn. Or even better, take the kids off her hands every other weekend so she can take extension courses or whatever women do. She wants some kind of gelding, some kind  of trained circus horse whose back she can dance on. She wants to tell my story for me—and look, she’s already got you seeing it her way: Working mother. Women’s wages. Shit of a husband, won’t contribute where it counts. Etcetera. Etcetera. You don’t need to hear it from her. Every women’s magazine tells you this story. Why don’t you read it there and stay out of our lives?


The ring, I assume, went up his nose, figuratively speaking. Or else he was keeping it for some strategic moment, some bit of private theatre, the kids as audience. I have not let myself feel anything about it. It’s a skill I have: I cannot do anything about what happens to me, but I can decide what to feel about it. It drives him crazy. I expect that the day he can get me to feel something is the last day I’ll see him.

That isn’t fair. (Damn right, it isn’t.) I’m making this sound like a Red Ridinghood story—all I was doing, your honor, was taking food to my poor invalid grandmother, but then this wolf…All I was doing was standing in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, when he…

I could have stopped it. I could have stopped this whole movie we’re in, could still stop it—but I don’t. On the other hand, if I had stopped it when I first should have stopped, Selina would never have been born. Which would be a sad story.


She thinks I’ve sold her ring for drugs. I haven’t. But I think I’ll go on letting her think so. Maybe I’ll pawn it—pawn it and redeem it, pawn it and redeem it twelve or thirteen times, one for each year of this marriage, this alleged marriage.  Pawning it would rename it, call it the commodity this marriage has become, for her anyway—for her.


On the other hand, Selina has already been a sad story. When she was eleven months, not quite talking, I left her and Duncan with Jim’s parents, having decided to get my life together, once and for all, I thought—to recover from Jim’s drug problem, find a job, restart a household. When I came back, having had several relapses into chaos, she was just past 2. Talking, she was a different person than I had thought she was, impatient and smart, with sharp refusals and unanswerable demands. She did not recognize me. She screamed when I put her in the new car seat.

I did manage to get this job with benefits and to hold onto it, to lease a house nobody was going to want back for a while. When you have these things, they seem so basic as to not be worth commenting on. But when you don’t have them, it’s like roller-skating on ice.

All the time I think about that year and what I would not let myself know about Selina. Duncan, I think, handled it ok. Jim’s father established a kind of Hallmark card grandfather-grandson rapport with him: the games of catch. The fishing trips. The matching plaid shirts. When I thought of Selina at their farmhouse, I thought of her like the Gerber baby, placidly eating strained plums, whimsically rubbing them on her plastic bib, her grandmother doting, not restless like she really was. I thought of Selina thinking about her mother—her mother: me, like children might think of the tooth fairy: benevolent, unnecessary, always good news after pain and worry.

How did I manage not to think of the real Selina—refusing to eat, my sister told me later? Why, when Jim swore to me that he was clean, swore at me when he wasn’t, why, when I took him back into my arms, feeling the drug as if it were narrowing my own veins, did I not think of Selina, banging her head on the side of the crib?

It is the addict’s waltz—he steps forward, you step back. You step forward, he steps back, each step matched by the other.


“Mom!” I was trying to make a mornay sauce for the fish. Jim liked mornay sauce, anything strong and heavy, anything aged—brie, red wine, sour French bread—and the note he had left on my car earlier suggested he might turn up. “Mom!” I tended to let my mind wander while I was cooking, butDuncanwas digging through the garbage, pulling out the papers the butter had been wrapped in. “Mom, you’re killing us!”

“I beg your pardon?” I added the half-and-half to the roux.

“Mom, we’re going to die from cholesterol poisoning!”

“Not now,Duncan, I’m stirring.”

“Mo-om!” I looked up from the pan. Duncanwas near tears. I turned the burner off—if the sauce clumped, it clumped.

“Sweetheart,” I said, putting my arm around him. “What’s going on?”

“Cholesterol clogs your arteries till your heart explodes.”

“Honey, we only have to worry about cholesterol if we have a lot of it in our blood. Children don’t have high cholesterol. I don’t have it.

“Does Dad?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so. It’s ok, really. It’s good to be careful, but lots of nights we just eat vegetables and rice. They don’t have cholesterol at all.”

Duncan tossed the butter wrappers back in the garbage. He had one of those looks on his face like when I told him where babies come from or that Daddy had to go away for a while but would be back, a kind of “you-can-believe-those-things-if-it-makes-you-happy” look, indulging the naiveté of mothers. At dinner, he scraped the sauce off his fish. I didn’t comment. Jim didn’t show up. I had enough sense not to set a place for him.

I knew this wouldn’t be the end of it. One Saturday, I woke up from a nap on the couch—Selina was at ballet, and I, thank god, wasn’t driving the car-pool today—to find Duncan pressing my ankles with his fingers, the way we used to do as teenagers on the beach to see if we had gotten tan yet.

“Duncan,’ I said, pulling my feet away, “Duncan, what are you doing?”

“You’ve got edema, Mom.” He pronounced it like “enema,” so at first I didn’t know what he meant. There was real panic in his voice.

“What’s edema?”

“I don’t know but it means you’ve got heart failure.”

“I don’t have heart failure,Duncan. I’d know if I did. Where are you getting this stuff?”

“At school.” He didn’t lie well.

“Uh huh.”

“OK, I’ll show you.” He staggered out from his bedroom, and I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. The AMA Family Medical Encyclopedia. The American Heart Association Heart Book. Family Circle’s Home Medical Guide.

“Ok,” I said. “Show me the part about edema.”

Sure enough, one of the symptoms of right-side heart failure was ankle swelling.

“Yep, you’re right,” I said. “I must be dead,” and collapsed on the couch in a heap, trying not to laugh.

In less than a second,Duncanwas applying his full weight to my breastbone, in harsh, rhythmic pumps, and trying to blow air into my mouth.

He was also sobbing.

Good try, mom. I sat up. “Duncan, honey, I was teasing. I’m sorry.”

He rolled over on the rug, embarrassed by his relief. “I don’t think that was very funny,” he said in a strangled, playground-supervisor voice, and stomped off to his room, slamming the door pointedly.

Oh God, I thought, I’ve ruined his life. I knocked on the door, calling him. He had locked it, and I could hear the scraping sound of his dresser being moved in front of the door. “Duncan, I’m really sorry. I really am. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

More scraping sounds: the cedar chest being moved to brace the dresser. I could go in the window, or I could leave him alone. I left him alone.

I looked over the books. He had bookmarks in all the places that described the symptoms of heart disease-the crushing pain, the disorientation, the shortness of breath. I could see him reviewing each symptom, mentally examining his family. I could understand if he’d been reading the section on adolescent sexual development; this was another story. What were the librarians thinking, letting him check out medical books? “They’re for my mom,” I hear him saying, and in a way, I suppose, they were.


So the kid wants to play doctor with his mother? Isn’t that just your basic latency period move? She thinks there’s a message in it. She thinks there’s a message in everything—when I send money, when I show up for dinner. She goes to groups—you know the kind of thing I mean. She wants to think he is disturbed; and she wants to think it is my fault.


Jim thinks I’m a controlling bitch, which is pretty funny given what I feel like. I feel like a fish on a line—the wrong fish, something you’d throw back. But he doesn’t throw me back, and he doesn’t reel me in, just leaves me here, twisting in the current. Everything else is a shadow in the water—my friends, the children, the children at work—everyone is indistinguishable, the shadow of one tree branch or another, waving in the wind. What I know is the hook in my mouth, the hook and the line and the water.

I rehearse myself saying it. “Jim. It’s the end of the road. Either you come live with us full-time or you stay away—full-time.” I thought about how silly that was: full-time, that man would make us all crazy.Duncanwould see through him pretty quickly, and Selina would be miserable from the get-go. And what would we say to each other after the children were in bed? He’d find new tools for mining under my skin. I’d develop more dead spots.

And if he went away forever?Duncanwould hate me. Jim would arrange for Duncan to know that I’d told him to go and stay gone. I could wait five more years for Duncan to be 16, far enough along toward being the man he would turn into, close to past harm.

These days, I think about magic-about magic flounders, about talking fish with lost rings, lost daughters finding rings inside fish. I think if I were given one wish, it would be for a way out: Jim shot by someone he was tailing—for Duncan, a hero forever. Jim taking up with some floozy with her tubes tied and heading west.


It’s pretty strange to be married to a woman who’d like to see you shot or committing adultery, whichever was quickest. My old friend, Mr. Freud, would have some comment, too obvious to bear repeating. I intend to stay in the picture, if only not to oblige her. In any case, there’s much she’s not saying, as I’m sure you can gather. Among other things, she knows my ship will come in one of these days, and she wants to be there to cash in on it.

Women are very weird about money. They have this idea about needing a regular diet of it, to prevent iron-poor blood or something. We never had money when I was growing up, and I don’t recall feeling the lack of it, though my sisters did, or said they did. My father worked the same piece of ground till his heart went out—none too soon, either. Jeannette would like to see me harnessed to some job, like a mule. She doesn’t know what that does to a man. I know. A woman can take it-a woman’s got a basic instinct for repetition.


He sent me the pawn ticket for the ring. I’ve got thirty days. I have never been so angry. He’s seen my budget—I’ve showed it to him. He’s the one who gets large lump sums. Everything I make goes to just living—rent, food, car insurance. My cards are charged up. I can’t get $350. I’m not sure I want it back, but this seems like a lousy way to lose it.


A guy comes into my office, guy about my age. Says he hears I find people. I say I try. He wants me to find his ex-wife. Shouldn’t be too hard, he says. She swore out a restraining order on him six years ago, and then disappeared via one of those shelter things women have, like the tunnels under Saigon. Sued him for child support, she did, showed up in court dressed like Jackie Kennedy in mourning, black hat with a veil. He’s been paying since then, to a bank in Bakersfield.

I ask him why he wants to find her. To apologize, he says at first. My daughter, he says finally. She would be—what—14? She’s grown up without me. I let it happen, he says.

I advise him to stop paying, leave the country, work outdoors, lose weight, grow a beard. Women love to domesticate, I remind him, and between the two of them, they’ve made you their house pet without ever having to see you. Look at yourself.

He was sexless as a fish-baggy polyester pants with a two-inch waistband, the kind with no belt loops and an elastic panel under the fly. Underneath his polo shirt, his chest appeared to have fallen, landing in a heap on the ledge of his pants.

Attachment is a man’s downfall, I say, as he studies his white socks. Kids grow like ice plant, I say. Tough and slippery. Adults need them to keep the ground from shifting. They don’t need us. He couldn’t hear it. I left him alone for a little, watched from the other room as he looked through the yellow pages under “investigators”—quickly, guiltily. He’d find someone to do it, but it wouldn’t be me. A man has to keep some standards.


 Fifteen days.


Old case finally paid up—girl quit running away. Bought me a few days of clarity. I thought about sending Jeannette a check for $350, but decided it was her problem.

She thinks I do it for pleasure, but that’s because she hasn’t tried it, and wouldn’t have the mental capacity in any case to cope with what she saw. The solutions to cases become perfectly clear—I dictate guidance to myself as it comes to me—and I can think about life as if it were happening in another country. I see the house—Jeannette’s house—as if it were resting at the bottom of a glass container, Jeannette and the children going in and out the doors like goldfish.


If I’m the fish, what’s the hook? Love, you’d think, but it isn’t. A habit-but I’m not like that. Or sex. But every time I think about sex, I can see myself from above, wiggling and thrashing, and I can’t imagine why a person would do such a thing.

What the hook is—is simply the hook itself. Like foxtails up a dog’s nose: they aren’t there for any reason, or because of anything the dog thinks about itself; it’s just their nature to work themselves forward. It probably has something to do with propagation—everything does.

I read a story once about a woman who had an affair with a married man—a 30 year affair, till the day he died. Had three children with him. She never knew when he’d turn up; she could be in the middle of anything—making soup, studying for her night class, putting the children to bed—and there he’d be, tapping at the window. Always the window, never the door, all those years. The interruptions were what she lived for: her love depended on them. Still, whenever she would try to redesign her life, he would interrupt, derail it, set her going in circles again. I don’t remember how it ended.

You always wonder about the children in these stories. I imagine that to her they came in and out of focus, like the faces around you when you surface from surgery. The story didn’t say whether the children knew he was their father, whether they tried to stay awake, hoping he would show up, whether they left him cookies by the fireplace. It didn’t say what happened to them, watching their mother held hostage by random contractions of the heart.

It’s too easy to betray children. You just hold them in your blind spot, and pretty soon, because you don’t see them, you think they don’t see you as you fishtail back and forth.

Duncan thinks himself too old for those pre-bedtime conversations parents congratulate themselves on. Instead he brings things up in the few spaces our lives allow: doing dishes, folding clothes.

“Mom, if you died, what would happen to me and Selina?”

“I’m not going to die, Duncan.”

“I know, but what if?”

“I imagine your dad would arrange to take care of you.”

“But what if you both died?”

“You’d go live with your Aunt Eileen, probably.”

“I’d have to change schools!”

“You know,Duncan, we aren’t going to die for a long time.”

“But anything can happen. Stuff happens all the time.”

“Duncan, you’ve been watching too much TV. Stuff doesn’t happen all the time. Mostly, nothing happens.”


Under my windshield wiper, a note, folded twice:

The ring was for sale. You didn’t go and get it, by which I have to assume you didn’t want it. You’ll say it was the money, but that’s evading the issue: money, as you well know, is just a euphemism for desire. I have bought it back and put it in a safe deposit box, County Bank, for Selina.

Someday she’ll want it. She’ll be that kind of woman.

Tell Duncan I have gone up to work in the Northwest, where the fishing is better. I have a big case up there to start me out. I’ll send him a postcard.

Tell yourself whatever you like.


I should have counted on him making some move like that, something to leave me both tethered and cut loose at the same time. He must have thought he was having some kind of conversation with me in which the ring was the verb. In one way, I feel desperately relieved: I know who won’t be there when I come home from work. I know how my days will go, and what I can count on. In another way, I know he’ll double back unannounced, the day I least need to see him.

Every Christmas, Duncan will be half waiting for him. He will never send an address, only postcards and obscure gifts—a camouflage vest for Duncan. A strapless dress for Selina, before she even has breasts.

It is clear enough how our lives will go forward. From the front door, I can see Duncan, watching some cop show I have told him to stay away from. Selina is in bed, combing My Little Pony’s lavender hair and singing something to herself, a curious, repetitive song which sounds like “Mommy, Daddy. Mommy, Daddy.” As I watch them, I feel some kind of breathlessness gathering in my chest.


“Heart Failure” received the Quarry West Fiction Award for 1999.