Heart Trouble

By Jacqueline Doyle

Jerry Borden’s heart had been hurting for over a week, but he’d thought the condition was psychological, not physical. Now, driving on a remote highway in Washington State, he considered for the first time that he should have called his doctor. His heart seemed to be clenching tighter and tighter, and while there might be good reasons to suffer emotional pain, this felt alarmingly real. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d overlooked the literal in favor of the metaphorical.

“In the midst of” kept running through his mind, like lyrics of a song he couldn’t shake, but he didn’t recognize the source. The sky was alternately overcast with gray clouds and brilliantly blue. Dense green forests of pine trees extended in all directions. When he’d accepted the invitation to speak at the conference he’d thought vaguely of Seattle, coffee shops. He hadn’t expected it to be quite so remote. He hadn’t expected to feel so alone.

“To die in the midst of all this beauty.” Is that what he was thinking? If he was going to suffer a heart attack, he’d happened on a heart-stoppingly beautiful place. And probably he would die, wouldn’t he, with no hospitals nearby, no police, hardly a car on the road. How long would it take before someone discovered him? Did some victims of heart attacks suffer slow deaths?  But he was only a couple of hours outside of Seattle. Probably the area wasn’t as remote as he thought. He had a cell phone in his briefcase, and with any luck it would have reception.

He was sweating slightly. The pain had eased up a bit. Maybe it didn’t mean anything at all. He’d become prone to anxiety and nervous hypochondria in his late fifties. Maybe he always had been, and Ellen had soothed his fears when they were younger, talked him out of it. Later she’d been less patient, rolling her eyes when he fretted over his symptoms. Her skepticism had been steadying.

He knew he had wronged her. You didn’t just walk out on a marriage of twenty-five years. His own heart was broken not because he missed Ellen, though he did. Or because Brandi Sue had begun to tire of him, though she had. It was because his daughters would no longer speak to him. “How could you do this to Mom?” Anna had shouted. “What kind of narcissistic monster are you?” Cilly had hung up the first time he called and hadn’t answered after that. She hadn’t returned any of his messages.

Priscilla, his Cilly, whom he’d rocked in his arms as an infant, and nursed through so many heartbreaks of her own. How was it possible that he’d lost her affection in one fell swoop, would no longer feel her arms around his neck, her peck on his cheek, hear her excited chatter? “Daddy, I’ve got to tell you something.” His eyes welled and he brushed away the moisture. Cilly would mourn him. He was sure of that.

He was startled as a roadside sign flashed by: Graves Excavation.

“In the midst of.” It was part of a church service, wasn’t it? Or a poem? In the midst of life we are in death? Once he’d been able to recite whole poems from memory, but his memory had become halting and vague in recent years, as if large patches had disappeared. He remembered Cilly’s birth but not Anna’s. A dance recital, Cilly maybe six, her face serious with concentration, her chubby arms raised like parentheses over her head. He could hardly remember the early years with Ellen, though he remembered the class where they first met, both undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin. He’d wanted to impress her with his erudition and had recited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from beginning to end. Not really a courtship poem, but Ellen had been drawn to him nonetheless. Now he wondered if there had always been something ludicrous about him—the young, earnest boy who took himself so seriously, and now the balding, older man still intent on impressing a young woman. “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.” Would even his death lack gravitas?

Jerry swerved to the right when a diner suddenly appeared, pulling into the gravel parking lot with his tires screeching. He turned off the ignition and sat for a few minutes, aware of the shortness of his breath, the fluttering of his heart. It was a relief just to know that there were other human beings nearby. His cell phone had three bars. Should he call someone? He tried Cilly’s number, but hung up when he got voice mail. If something was really wrong, they’d help him at the diner.

The low hum of activity inside revived his spirits. A middle-aged, bleached blonde waitress stood at the counter, coffee pot in hand, chatting with a customer, probably the driver of the semi parked at the far end of the lot. He wore a blue Seattle Mariners cap tilted back on his head, and had a tall red thermos next to his plate. The two of them laughed together as if they knew each other well. A few customers were scattered in booths—local tradesmen, they looked like, except the family with the child in the high chair. Dressed in outdoor gear from REI, they had a map open on the table, maybe were headed toward Fort Worden like he was, or Olympic National Park.

“Coffee?” The waitress stood by his table, still holding the pot.

“Got any decaf?”

“One decaf coming up.”

Jerry noted the roll of her wide hips under her shiny polyester uniform as she walked away. Fleshier than he generally liked, but she looked so comfortable. What would it be like to come home to such an undemanding woman every night, to curl up on the sofa with his head in her ample lap? “There, there,” she might say, massaging his scalp. He felt the stirrings of an erection and shifted in his seat.

Maybe she went home after her shift, plopped down on the couch, and ordered her husband to massage her feet. Maybe her husband did all the cooking and grocery shopping too. Ellen had always accused him of shirking his duties at home. “You think it’s a breeze, raising two daughters and taking care of you on top of it?” It wasn’t that he thought it was a breeze. He just couldn’t focus on what needed to be done. Brandi Sue didn’t make those demands, or complaints. She was useless in the kitchen, and wanted him to take her out to dinner every night.

She was a former student, not a current one, and not so very young—thirty-four, which made her older than Cilly and Anna at least. He’d run into her at the Shell station near the university one afternoon. “Professor Borden? Is that you? You probably don’t remember me.” He couldn’t quite place her: a rangy brunette with windswept hair and hazel eyes a bit too close together for beauty. They’d gone out for coffee and she’d told him about her divorce and her jobs, first as a flight attendant, now in a travel agency. “I get discounts, you know. I just love to travel.” Jerry nodded, though he hadn’t traveled for years. He worked on his articles during summer vacations, went off to three or four-day conferences once or twice a year, but didn’t like to be away from home for more than a week. “Reading was a kind of travel for me, back in college,” Brandi Sue told him. “You were the best lecturer in the department.” He felt rejuvenated by her high spirits and open admiration. They met again, to talk about a European author tour she’d recommended, and went to her place afterward.

It almost felt harmless, dropping by Brandi Sue’s once or twice a week, but Ellen had become suspicious of his new attention to his appearance. “Another new tie?” she’d asked, as he adjusted a checkered silk tie in front of the mirror. “Dressing to impress?” He didn’t know why he’d confessed it all to her. He hadn’t planned to leave Ellen. When she kicked him out he moved into Brandi Sue’s scantily furnished one-bedroom apartment, on the second story of an aging complex on the edge of the city. The apartment was dark, with torn travel posters on the walls, and a grimy picture window overlooking a kidney-shaped aqua pool that no one seemed to use. Brandi Sue wanted him to go on a Mediterranean cruise with her. And then on an African safari. “People take pictures, they don’t shoot animals, silly. It’s not like ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ or anything.” She shook her head in mock dismay at his reluctance to embark on an adventure, but Jerry could see that her dismay was real enough. He talked about buying a condo for the two of them, hoping to appeal to her domestic side, but she didn’t seem very interested. “Home is where the heart is,” the old saying went, and Jerry had no idea where that was any more.

He scanned the menu, briefly considering the Heart Healthy option with egg beaters substituted for eggs, but decided against it. If he was having a heart attack, it was too late anyway.

The waitress came back and took out a pencil and pad.

“I’ll have the #2. Eggs over easy, hash browns, wheat toast, and bacon. Make the bacon crisp. And an orange juice.”

“Small or large?”


She smiled at him and he smiled back, grateful for her attention. He imagined her calming his worries. “You’re anxious, sweetheart,” she’d say to him. “It’s not your heart. You just have too much on your plate.”

The decaf was stronger than he was used to—robust might be the word—and left an acid aftertaste. He wrapped his hands around the hot cup, inhaling the coffee smell. When the food arrived, he realized he was ravenous.

“Where are you headed?” the waitress asked him. She seemed genuinely interested, and in no hurry. He liked that.

“Port Townsend. Actually the conference center at Fort Worden.”

“Coming from Sea-Tac?”

“You mean the airport? Yeah, I just flew in this morning.”

“Most folks take the ferry across.”

“I know. I was in the mood for a road trip though. It’s real pretty country around here.”

“That’s what they say,” the waitress answered. “Can I get you anything else? Ketchup?”

“No thanks.” Jerry hadn’t known about the ferry, and wished now that he’d taken it. He didn’t know why he had such difficulty admitting to ignorance. Or that he’d made a mistake. Did it make him feel less of a man? Ellen would have made him feel foolish if she’d been there. Ellen would have known about the ferry. There had been a map with the conference materials, and the route hadn’t looked difficult. He’d set off without bothering to read the directions. He’d take the ferry back, then.

The breakfast was perfect. He thought it might be the best breakfast he’d ever eaten, at least in a long time. He dipped his wheat toast into the egg yolks oozing onto the plate, savored each forkful of egg and crispy hash browns, picking up the bacon with his fingers between bites. Four pieces. Generous. The orange juice tasted like it was freshly squeezed. No wonder the waitress had put on some extra pounds. He’d like to know her name. Maybe she’d write it on the bill.

Downing the rest of the orange juice in a long gulp, Jerry stood up and edged out of the booth to ask for the check. His hand flew up to his chest when he felt a sudden, searing pain. His knees buckled. “This is it,” he thought, as he slumped to the floor, throwing an arm out to cushion his head from the fall.

The hum of noise in the diner ceased.

“Call 9-1-1.” It was a woman’s voice, and sounded far away. “Someone call 9-1-1.”

The linoleum tile floor was cold under his body. His face was hot. He could see feet rushing toward him, and for a moment he gazed at the concerned faces looking down at him from what seemed a great height. It was easier to close his eyes, so he did. Someone, the waitress, squatted beside him, unbuttoning his shirt. “It’s going to be all right,” she was saying in a soothing voice. “Help is coming.”

“I think I’m in love with you,” he told her. Mouthing the words was an effort. “I think…” He realized he didn’t know her name.

“Don’t be absurd.” It was Ellen’s voice, but he knew she wasn’t there.

After a long while, he heard heavy footsteps and opened his eyes to six sturdy black boots. One of the paramedics strapped a blood pressure sleeve onto his upper arm while another sat in the booth asking questions and recording his answers on a clipboard. Was he experiencing pain? Had he been experiencing pain earlier today? Did he have a history of hypertension? Jerry answered in low monosyllables, gasping with each breath.

Was this it? Was he going to die here, so far from home, among strangers?

“We’re going to take you to the E.R.,” one of them said. “Just to check this out.” Jerry felt himself hoisted onto a stretcher. The diner passed in a blur, the air around him went from warm to cold as they bumped through the outer doors. Red lights flashed outside and a radio crackled. Someone passed his coat and briefcase through the rear doors as they settled him inside the ambulance.

His talk wasn’t until tomorrow. Today was just the reception, but he thought maybe he should call. Then thought, how utterly trivial and irrelevant the conference is. I should call Ellen, Cilly, Anna. Had Cilly noticed his missed call? Would any of them speak to him? Would they come to the hospital if he needed bypass surgery?

The paramedic with the beard had pulled up Jerry’s shirt and was rubbing icy goo onto his torso, attaching rubber suction cups and wires. “This is routine,” he said, and he talked some more, but Jerry couldn’t focus. He closed his eyes and didn’t open them until a blast of chilly air signaled the opening of the ambulance doors at the hospital. He had a confused sense of fluorescent lights and pale green walls as he was wheeled rapidly through a corridor. He heard snatches of conversation but couldn’t quite catch the words. Would any of the hospital attendants care if he died right now? They must be used to it. Jerry’s breathing was still halting, he felt an acid taste at the back of his throat, but his chest pain had abated. Maybe that was what happened when the heart stopped working. Ellen would be asking questions, if she were there. His body was limp as a nurse helped him out of his clothes and into a worn hospital gown. She fiddled with the suction cups and put another blood pressure sleeve on his left arm. “Am I okay?” he asked. “I can’t catch my breath.” The nurse didn’t seem to hear him. She shook out a light blanket, tucking it under his feet. “Someone will be with you soon,” she said. A monitor beeped quietly next to the gurney. Jerry dozed, wondering in the last split second before unconsciousness whether he would ever wake again.

“Mr. Borden?” A young man in green scrubs perched on a stool next to him, stretching out his long legs. “Mr. Borden? I’m Doctor Burrows. Can you tell me what happened?”

Jerry cleared his throat. “I’ve been having this pain in my chest.” He rubbed the left side of his chest. “And then it was so bad that I keeled over, I guess.”

“Are you on any drugs for hypertension? Any other medications?”

Jerry struggled to sit up. “Lisinopril. Nothing else, but my doctor’s been watching my cholesterol. The Lisinopril’s in my briefcase.”

“We can look at that later. Your bp was pretty low when you came in, but it’s getting closer to normal now. We worry about heart problems in an incident like this, so we’re going to do a chest x-ray, just in case, but your EKG looks fine.” The doctor held up an accordian sheet traced with vertical lines. When had they done an EKG? Maybe when he first came in. He was weary, trying to remember. The doctor looked very young, but he seemed to know what he was talking about.

“This could be a symptom of stress, or of severe acid indigestion. Apparently you had a big meal? Coffee? Orange juice? ”

Jerry nodded. “It was decaf.”

“How about stress?”

Jerry nodded. There’d been plenty of that lately, though he had no one to blame but himself.

“Too much stress can produce symptoms that mimic the early stages of cardiac arrest. Chest pain. Rapid heart beat. Nervousness. Cold or sweaty hands. We’re going to keep you here for a while for observation after the x-ray, but I think we can rule out your heart. You should see your personal physician as soon as possible for follow-up. In the next day or two, if possible. Do you have any questions?”

“How long will I be here?”

“Another hour or two should be enough, if there aren’t any new symptoms.”

“Can I make some phone calls?”

“Go right ahead.”

He thought about it after the x-ray, and decided to put off the phone calls. He’d find a local motel later and call from there. Maybe leave a message with the conference administrator canceling his talk. He was exhausted. It was a writers’ conference, not an academic conference. They didn’t really need a lecture on Pound’s role in Eliot’s revisions of “The Waste Land.” Maybe no one did. What was the point of all that scholarship, the minor controversies and backbiting, the climb up the career ladder? He’d built up a modest reputation, but who cared really?

He left a hurried message later from the motel, grateful that he’d gotten an answering machine at the conference center, and not a real person. Although he’d been looking forward to the talk, a new sort of audience for his scholarship, now he felt freed from an obligation that no longer seemed important. The heater in the wood-paneled motel room glowed orange but the heat didn’t seem to reach the bed, where he sat with his back against the cold headboard, legs extended on the brown-flowered bedspread. The room smelled of mildew and Pine-Sol. He scrolled through the list of contacts on his cell phone, lingering at his wife’s and daughters’ names, and then decided to go next door for pizza. When he got back he took a hot shower, and then looked at his phone again.

He tried Cilly. When his call was transferred to voice mail, he walked around the room, switched the TV on and then off, opened the mini-refrigerator, which was empty, and peeked through the curtains at the parking lot, which had three cars in it. Under the rustic sign “Kountry Krossing Motel,” a neon sign reading “acancy” flickered. He decided to text Cilly. He never texted, and his fingers were clumsy. “Just out of hospital. Wd like to talk.” He switched on the TV and watched the local news at low volume.

He was in bed with the lights out when his phone rang.

“Daddy, it’s Cilly. Where are you?”

“I’m not sure exactly. Somewhere south of Seattle.”

“Seattle? What are you doing there?”

“I was supposed to speak at a conference, but I’m not going to.”

“Are you all right? Why were you in the hospital?”

“They thought it was my heart, but I’m all right, I guess. I’ll have to see Doctor Minter for a checkup.”

Cilly started to cry. “Are you really okay? When are you coming home?”

“Tomorrow. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“Is that woman picking you up?”

“No.” Jerry hadn’t even thought about Brandi Sue. It hadn’t occurred to him to call her. She’d be fine without him. Better off, probably. He couldn’t imagine himself baking in the sun on a Mediterranean cruise, or dying in Africa with Brandi Sue at his bedside.

“Do you want me to come to the airport?”

“I’d like that. I’ll give you a call tomorrow when I know my flight time and where I’m coming in. Probably SFO. I can’t wait to get home. I’ve missed all of you so much.”

Tears were rolling down his face when he hung up. He needed to talk to Ellen. He’d made a big mistake. He saw that now. He wanted his family around him, needed his family. He’d been stupid, foolish. Maybe Ellen would laugh about his dramatic trip to the E.R. for indigestion and stress. He deserved her ridicule. And her anger. He hoped she would forgive him.

Driving by the diner the next morning it occurred to him that he’d never paid for his breakfast. When he’d picked up his rental car the previous evening, he’d been in a rush, hoping no one would see him and ask embarrassing questions. But he didn’t want to stiff them for the bill, especially not the blonde waitress.

She was on the phone when he pushed open the door. She was heavier than he remembered. Her beige polyester uniform strained across her breasts. Today her platinum hair was pulled back in a ponytail that showed her dark roots. She gave him a warm nod of recognition as she half turned her head away to speak into the phone. “I know. Murray’s a real shit and I should know better. If it weren’t for the kids … Got to go now. Got a customer. It’s that nice old guy who had the heart attack yesterday. You know, the one I told you about?”

Jerry was momentarily annoyed. He wasn’t that much older than her, was he?

“How are you?” she asked. “You had us all worried there.”

“I’m okay. Can’t complain. I never paid my bill.”

“Oh that.” She laughed and waved her hand.

“No, really.”

“What was that—a #2, small OJ, and a decaf? That’s $6.99.”

He handed her a ten. “Keep the change.”

“You sure you’re okay? Want some breakfast?”

“No, thanks. I’m okay.”

He didn’t know what he’d found so attractive about her. She was just ordinary. An ordinary human being with problems like anyone else. Him. Ellen. Cilly and Anna. Brandi Sue. She might have saved him from death. But she wasn’t going to rescue him from the complications of life. Whatever mess he’d gotten himself into, he’d have to get himself out of.

Outside he inhaled the smell of the pine trees, chest expanding, as his heart opened to the limitless blue of the sky, the endless expanse of green forest on all sides. He climbed back into the car and headed north to the airport. Soon he’d be 37,000 feet above this tiny spot in the universe, heading home. It had been a bumpy flight on the way up, and they’d landed on the tarmac in Seattle with a shuddering thud. It would probably be rough going back too.



Jacqueline Doyle’s work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Confrontation, Jabberwock Review, Southern Indiana Review, and South Loop Review. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

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