By: Nathan Leon Rodriguez
Ma told me that touching hearts was the meaning of life. I’d asked her about it after Pa died, after the men was lowering him into the dirt. The ropes was creaking, and I kept thinking about what if they dropped him down, down all the way and he never stopped falling until he hit heck. Ma was still crying and wiping her eyes with a tissue until they were angry red like when she catches me in the kitchen when I’m supposed to be in bed. She was grabbing my hand, and it was real sweaty like my back because the sun was real hot. I wanted my hand back, but I knew she needed it more so I let her keep squeezing it and sweating on it even after it started to tingle. I waited until the night time, when Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Greg and Maw-Maw and Pop-Pop all finally left and it was quiet except for Ma cleaning up the dishes, and I asked her.
“What is the point of life if we just die?”
First I thought maybe she didn’t hear me because she didn’t answer me.
“Ma?” I asked again but just with less words.
“I guess,” she said, but then she breathed out really hard and had to start again. “I guess we just have to touch someone’s heart. If you touch the heart of someone you love, even if it’s just one person, then they remember you when you die. And if they remember you, then you’re not really dead.”
I thought maybe Ma was drunk because I didn’t think that made a lot of sense, but I didn’t say nothing because maybe it would hurt her feelings. I didn’t want Ma to start crying again. How do you touch someone’s heart if their heart is on the inside? And if Pa touched Ma’s heart, and touching hearts means you’re not really dead, then was Pa still alive? That was silly – he was already in the ground. He couldn’t be alive in the ground because there’s no food or water or places to poop. And plus, Maw-Maw said that Pa was dead, and Maw-Maw never lies but Ma does sometimes like when she said too much TV would make me blind. Anyway, Ma did have a pretty big scar on her chest and maybe that was from when Pa touched her heart.
The next time I went to school, it felt like maybe I was in a story book or a movie. Everyone was real nice to me even though they usually make fun of me because I’m the worst at math, reading, and social studies, and I have to eat lunch alone, and when they say, “Tag, you’re it!” to me, they all run away and I can never catch them on account of my bad leg. But when I came back after Pa died, everyone was smiling at me and Mrs. Duncan even gave the class cookies but I got two and she winked at me.
At lunch, Jacob sat next to me. He never used to like me before because he’s the handsomest in class so sometimes I think the handsomer you are then maybe you become allergic to other people who are ugly because they don’t really ever sit together. But today he sat next to me and I could tell that other kids were pretending not to look but they was looking all the same. I stared down at my sandwich because maybe he was pulling a prank which is a mean joke like when Shelly told me that Mrs. Duncan gave extra credit to kids who called her ‘Ma’ so I did and the whole class laughed at me. But Jacob wasn’t pulling a prank. He told me that his Pa died too, and he said he would be my friend now because we had that in common.
Jacob sat next to me at lunch again and again. Sometimes, he shared to me his good snacks like Oreos and Doritos because Ma can only ever buy the fake brands like Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Yums and Party Cheddar Chips and they don’t taste the same even though they’re supposed to. Jacob and me made funny jokes and when we laughed some of the pretty girls rolled their eyes because I reckon they was jealous. Ma used to say that if you roll your eyes then sometimes they’ll get stuck that way. I figured out from Maw-Maw that Ma was lying about that so that I wouldn’t roll my eyes at her, but when the pretty girls did it, I wished Ma wasn’t lying.
When the summer got close, Jacob told me he could ride me home on his bike so that I didn’t have to walk because it was so hot that the grass was hard and yellow and my nose got red just from standing there. It always takes me a long time to walk home on account of my bad leg. When he told me about the bike I smiled, but then I had to hide it because I got scared of showing my crooked teeth in case he forgot I was ugly and my teeth might remind him that he’s allergic to me. I stood on the little pegs that come out of his back wheel, and then I put my hands on his shoulders but only a little bit because he smelled like soap and hair gel and I smelled like salty ham or maybe like a potato before Ma washes it. Please don’t notice I thought.
One day I had to skip school because I got really sick and Ma had to take me to the hospital. She cried a lot even in the waiting room and I knew why, because I was having the same sick as Pa before he died. But Pa was old already, maybe even 40, so that’s how come he died so fast. Kids don’t have to be scared to be sick.
First they had to do tests but not like tests in school with paper and pencil. They took blood with a needle and put me in a big machine like a spaceship tunnel that scans what you have inside your skin. When I was in the hospital bed, Ma put on the TV and that made me happy even through the sick because they had all the channels we didn’t have at home and I got to watch Cartoon Network and eat Jell-O while she talked to the doctor. First the voices was quiet, but then I heard Ma start to cry real loud. She sounded like Aunt Charlotte's dog Buck when he howls at night.
The whole ride home Ma put the music on real loud so that her sniffles would be more quieter, but I still saw her wipe her nose first with a tissue then sometimes she used her sleeve like she told me not to do about a million times. The next day I couldn’t go to school again but Jacob rode all the way on his bike with the homework from Mrs. Duncan and Ma saw him for the first time and she smiled so big because it was the first time she saw me have a friend that wasn’t imaginary or an animal and plus he was so handsome and smart not like me because I don’t talk too good and soon they’re probably gonna put me in special classes either next year or maybe in middle school. But because Pa died just like Jacob’s Pa died, Jacob became my friend, a real one who helped me with my homework. Ma gave us the cheap cookies that aren’t Oreos and only half a glass of milk each and Jacob didn’t even make fun of it.
I had to keep missing school. That made me and Ma fight because finally I had a friend but I couldn’t sit with him, and if I kept missing school he was gonna forget about me and go back to the pretty girls and maybe even become allergic to me again. She said that wasn’t gonna happen but how did she know? She was only a kid a long time ago and she never had crooked teeth and a bad leg because I saw a picture of her so I know that’s true. But instead of school all I got was stupid doctors and more tests and even one time they had to give me surgery. I didn’t remember it on account of they put me asleep but when I woke up boy did those stitches hurt. Ma didn’t look the same she always just kept crying all the time and drinking more than ever.
The next time Jacob came over on his bike, he brought me flowers and a card that was signed from the whole class even Shelly. Ma left us alone and I knew it was because she was crying again, but it was nice anyway. We didn’t have nothing to eat in the house, so she told us she was gonna go to town and pick up some potatoes and maybe even a chicken. Ma’s funny, I knew we didn’t have no money for no whole chicken. Every night she sat by the letters that said how much the doctors cost and some of them was from Pa and some of them was from me, and there wasn't no money for neither one. But sometimes Ma was real good at getting the butcher guy to say yes one time I had to wait in the car but she came back with a whole ham so I just watched her leave to see what she could get.
“Are you gon’ die?” Jacob asked me.
I knew the answer even though Ma never told me but I heard Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw say it to her when they thought I was sleeping so I knew it was the truth but I didn’t want to tell Jacob and make him cry. I was so tired of everyone always crying around me and I knew why Pa started to get so angry all the time at the last days and I knew why Buck crawled under Aunt Charlotte's porch to be alone before he died. So instead of saying the truth, I told him what Ma told me even though I knew that it was one of Ma’s untruths.
“I won’t die if I touch someone’s heart. Ma says if you touch one heart and you love them…”
My face got real hot, hotter than when I called Mrs. Duncan Ma and the whole class laughed. Girls aren’t supposed to say love at my age because we’re too young but also girls aren’t supposed to say love first before a boy because it scares them to run away. That’s what Maw-Maw always said anyway, so I knew it was the truth, and Jacob was staring at me like before you run over a doe when they get that dumb shock when they could just run and be saved instead.
Jacob could have run and been saved instead. Instead of letting me touch his heart so that I could live forever even in the ground like Pa.
When the door opened back up, Ma dropped the bag of potatoes and chicken and hollered like the way they do in scary movies, and I knew why. I was trying to clean it up, trying to stitch him back like the doctors did to me. He was supposed to just have a scar like Ma did from when Pa touched her heart and then they lived together in love until Pa died. But I didn’t do it right, and instead his blood was all over the kitchen floor and my hands and my clothes and the needle and thread was slippery and Jacob had stopped crying a long time ago but not me. I cried and cried and Ma hollered and hollered and I wanted to explain that I just wanted to live forever but I couldn’t say the words.
I just wanted to touch his heart.
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