All I Have To Do

Amy P. Knight

 

First, I take his heart, which has stopped beating, and I begin to squeeze it. It’s smoother than I would’ve expected, hard and round, like a baseball. I want to be gentle, but this requires force. I can already feel the strain in my fingers; I should have done my exercises. The heart springs back in my hand after each squeeze, leaving no trace that my fingers were there. But slowly, the blood that has pooled inside seeps out, down through the aorta and the pulmonary artery. As it trickles through the vessels, fresh blood arrives. Gradually, it begins to circulate again, through the dry stream beds of his veins. My shoulders ache. This is real.

I have done it. My husband’s heart is beating again. But without lungs, his beating heart is useless. I must inflate them like balloons, pressing my lips to the cave of their entrance. He needs more air than my old lungs can hold. I ignore the light-headedness, which I sometimes get when I stand up too fast. Those mornings, he steers me gently toward the easy chair under the window. But I can’t think about that now. I must let the air hiss out and start over, like Sisyphus on the hill.

When I open his mouth, the air doesn’t flow out on its own. I have to use my weight to force it out. I am too old for work like this. Yet somehow, the blood flowing through his lungs collects the oxygen that I have given him and carries it through his slowly waking body. His lungs begin to work on their own. His diaphragm has been roused from its sleep and is taking over the work, operating more efficiently than I could. He never did think to do things on his own. It was sixty-two years ago today, I showed him which engagement ring to buy, and he did the rest, the poem, the picnic. He did it all in secret and surprised me. Just needed a little nudge. That’s all he needs now. A hint.

He was like this when I woke up. He wasn’t snoring; that’s how I knew. He’s still sprawled on his back on our marriage bed. We went to Macy’s together right before the wedding and picked out this bed. We fought. He wanted a bigger one, but I reasoned with him. Tom, I said, we’ve only got so many square feet, and besides, why do you need to spread out so far from me if you love me like you say you do? And so we got this smaller bed. He probably doesn’t remember that argument. His memory’s going. He sometimes makes the same thing for dinner two nights in a row.

His chest is rising and falling, but he still won’t wake up. I haven’t done enough. He must need his liver, his kidneys, his stomach and intestines. And his penis will need life, too, even if only so he can pee when he comes back. Such an unromantic word. He never says things like that. I have to concentrate. There are other organs. A pancreas. A gall bladder. He will need his muscles. Someone younger would know what to do, the way the kids from next door always know what button to push to make the television come into focus. Maybe if I’d been able to have children, they could save him now.

When I was a little girl in Pennsylvania, I wanted to be a nurse, just like Clara Barton. I should’ve stuck to my guns, but that dream gave way, as I grew, to a love of flowers, to a life as a gardener. It was a bit backwards, me always coming in the house with armfulls of flowers for Tom. He arranged them in vases and kissed me, waltzing me around the kitchen right up until last week. I can’t be doing this. I’ve got to concentrate. I am wasting his precious time.

His brain. I will turn on his brain, and maybe it will tell the other organs what to do. Where is the switch? I put my hand on the back of his whiskered neck and feel for it. I press my fingertips into the indentations between his vertebrae, but I’ve lost much of the sensitivity in my hands, and I can’t feel a damn thing. The circuit is ready. I just have to find the switch.

And then, my left middle finger lands on it. A tiny, cold button nestled at the base of his skull. I hold my breath and push until my finger throbs at the tip where the nail is split, but it won’t budge. I simply don’t have the strength. Forget all the shirts I ironed, all the nights in that bed. What kind of wife can’t do something so simple as pushing a button? His legs are stiff. My throat tightens; perhaps I have done him a disservice by waking only pieces of his body. Maybe I am hurting him.

I swallow. This has to be possible. I’m just not doing it correctly. Perhaps, if I wait a minute, he will wake on his own. The button might loosen as his heart pumps. In the mean time, I will smooth away the wrinkles in his skin. I lay my hands on his face and slide them over the papery surface toward his ears. The skin pulls tight and grows more supple. Some color returns. I smooth over his nose, his cheeks, his pointed chin, all these spaces that I’ve known so well. He is beginning to look like he did the day I first met him, at the Independence Day parade on Mount Gretna. He’s melting back to youth under my spotted hands. The only pictures of him this young are black and white. There’s one beside the bed of the two of us. My hair was longer, and my teeth bright and even. He stood straight. I bend over him now, and it’s as though his half of the photograph were taken yesterday. I smooth his chest, his shoulders, his belly. I am uncreasing him, unworrying him. Dark hair begins to sprout on the top of his head. The white along the sides is turning an inky black. It’s working. He is changing before my eyes, back to the man I married. The man who confessed, after our wedding, that it was not my new negligee that won him over, but the hiking boots I’d hidden in the closet.

Now all I have to do is push this button in the base of his skull. Will he recognize me? He is young. Even if he knew me, old as I am, he would never want me. My hair’s grown thin, and there’s that tooth missing. I’m all wrinkles, stooped, no match for this beautiful boy. And if somehow he were to know me, and want me still, it wouldn’t be right. I could give him only a short year or two before it would be me lying here, and he would be left with this decision.

***

Amy P. Knight is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Lost, Almost, published in November, 2017 by Engine Books. She works as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Tucson, Arizona where she lives with her two dogs, Oscar and Ruby. Visit her on the web at http://www.amypknight.com, or follow her on facebook and twitter.