Volume 3
An Online Literary Magazine
November 18, 2009


Some Hearts You Can't Even Give Away


Richard Holinger


Mike Hammer, the ultimate hard-boiled detective.

ring apples," Dad said. He had the TV turned too loud.


"Apples?" I yelled.


The thin, grizzled gray face turned on its pillow, his hollow eyes jousting with mine.


"Apples, yes, apples. A-p-p-l-e-s last time I looked. Write it down. You had a list before. Want me to recite it? Pretzels, Almond Joys, cheese popcorn..."


"Okay, fine." I dug the pad out of my backpack and wrote in my shorthand, "apls."


He had a rerun of "Columbo" on. He still loved anything detective. He had taught "The Hard-boiled Detective Novel," his signature course at DePaul, for the last 30 years, the enrollment dwindling. Far from forgetting characters' names, plots, and titles, he pursued and pushed literary minutiae relentlessly. Enrollment dwindled as word spread how Dr. Grant offended with his bellicose, overbearing style, embarrassing anyone with the temerity to raise his hand, and badgering the rest who balked in the back. I had taken his class when he was lecturer nonpareil, every desk filled with a note-taking enthusiast. His last year saw English department advisors bribing students with guarantees of no eight o'clocks if they would sign up for Professor Grant's classes. Then at home one day he tripped over his arthritic dog, Mike Hammer, broke both hips, fought convalescence, stopped reading, and that was that. "Oh, just one more thing," Columbo blared, turning in the mahogany doorway to set his trap. "Bye yourself," Dad said without irony, staring at the TV hanging from the ceiling, the remote held in his fist like a pitcher might cradle a baseball.


On my way down the fluorescent-happy hall, slow motion inhabitants in wheelchairs motored by, one heel after another on speckled linoleum. They didn't look as much ghastly as defeated, here to surrender, but without anyone to whom they could deliver their swords.


At home, I kissed Clarissa and looked in on Douglas, already asleep in his big boy bed.


"How's your father?" she asked as I spooned gooey lukewarm spaghetti on a paper plate. "You didn't call, so we didn't wait. I can throw those in boiling water, but they'll taste mashed."


"The usual," I grunted. "He treats me worse than his students."


"That's because you're his son and he loves you."


A siren wailed by on Ohio Street. "Someone's hurting besides me," I laughed feebly. "I'm thrilled."


Clarissa offered me her glass of Merlot. I took a sip then set it on the kitchen table. We used the table in the living room for dinner with relatives, the only time we call the eight-by-eight niche a "dining room." Add a real birch log in the faux fireplace, and it's faux cozy.


"How were classes?"


She remembered Tuesday was my busy day. Two freshman comps and a sophomore poetry.


"Why can't kids write with a straightforward syntax using the American idiom? I deconstructed one of their grotesque attempts at a sentence on the board, and they winced like watching Braveheart get quartered." I spooned in more pasta from the red and white bolus. "That's why I write. To satisfy my lust for simple transcendence, if just for a page or two."


"You want to know how my day went?"


Every time I looked at Clarissa, I mean really looked, which is fairly often, I wondered what super power she believed I owned. Other than my passion for books and penning an occasional story that convinced a hard-up editor to round out a winter issue with it, there's not much here: WASP background, mediocre looks, John Lennon glasses and a penchant for turtlenecks and corduroy, the college cliché. Maybe that's my best attribute, a normal guy in love with dreams of being Hemingway without the lion hunts, deep-sea fishing or escapades in cantinas.


"Absolutely," I said, my mouth full.


Clarissa crossed her blue-jeaned legs and leaned forward, picking up the communal wine glass and swirling the velour liquid along its sides before putting it to her lips and draining it.


"Maria told me when I picked Douglas up that he had pushed kids on the playground again, but not to worry."


"That's worrisome."


"Where does he get it, Drake?"


"Where does my dad get off being a bastard? Blame it on chaos theory. You can't depend on anything. Not genetics, not environment."


"Thanks, Mr. Happy." She smiled. "I need another."


Clarissa filled the glass nearly to the top and drank. "Maria said it's his way of saying, 'Hi, I'm here!' He's big spirited, and has to express it."


"'I contain multitudes,'" I quoted my favorite poet, Whitman.


"Is he gay, too? Will he be a male nurse?"


The spaghetti and marinara sauce tasted good. The wine went well with it. "What do we do?" I asked between bites. "Wait for a parent to sue us because our son pushes her Suzy into the swing set, leaving her permanently doing a Daffy Duck impression?"


"To him, it's a sign of friendship, no matter what it looks like to others." Clarissa got up, walked around my chair, and began to massage my shoulders. "I've got to do paperwork. We're closing on the Foster condo tomorrow. You have papers to grade?"


That's when I remembered the manila folder, hugging two independent study fiction manuscripts, lying on my father's room floor. I had brought them with me, hoping he would be asleep so I could get started on them before he woke up. "God dammit."


"Did I hurt you?"


"I left them at the nursing home."


"Care center."


"They'll butcher me if I show up again without their stories."


"It's after nine."


"So I'll be up until one. What else is new?"


She went into our bedroom where her tiny desk supported a small mountain range of forms and stationery. "Don't wake me up," she called.


I bowed my head over the meal, and was asleep in seconds.


Because one type is larger, harder, and less succulent, it bears the name 'Honeycrisp.'
Two hours later I jerked in my dream and woke myself up. Swearing, I grabbed my keys and left for the nursing home, in two blocks of it when I remembered the apples. "God dammit," I said out loud and drove a mile out of my way to an all-night grocery.


"Hey, Mr. Grant," said the checkout boy.


I looked up and saw a familiar face.


"Robbie Markson," my former student said. "I had you for Comp 102."


"Right, right," I tried to sound excited, but the words came out weary and noncommittal.


"I did my paper on Ruskin, remember? You read the first page in class. Only the apples?"


"Right. Ruskin."


"I'm getting out of this job," Robbie explained, his hand resting on the bag of apples. "Real soon. They don't pay on time, and they want you to work overtime when you tell them you can't. This is temporary. Only until I get into a PhD program. I'm thinking of U. of C. or Stanford. You know anyone at Chicago? Hey," he dragged the bag over the scanner, "you apple binging?"


"My father," I said, and all of a sudden I felt a burning behind my eyes, then my chin began to quiver, and finally my whole body was convulsing.


"Hey, Mr. Grant, you okay?"


I watched, helpless and horrified, as he deserted his checkout post and circled the counter to where I stood bent over, my palms on the stained conveyor. He began to talk, one hand patting my back, the other stuffed in his front pocket.


"Man, you must have some pretty heavy shit going down. They say it's good to cry it out. Not unmanly at all. I cry at 'The Star Spangled Banner' before Cubs games, in fact. Like a damn baby. What do I care? I love my country, even though it does some pretty fucked up things. The music and the symbology get to you, you know? You know all about that, sure. You want some Kleenex? I'll run to aisle seven and get you some. Generic's on sale, buy two, get the third free. Family size, or whatever they call it. Hold on."


The friendly hand left me. I stared at the gum packed in a tight, straight rainbow on the shelf in front of me.


"Here you go, Mr. Grant. On me. I need some at home. My mom's got allergies and the floor is covered like a snowstorm. The dog eats them. Isn't that gross?"


He handed me two. I took them, wiped my eyes, blew my nose and after thanking my Ruskin-loving student, somehow handing over a twenty, insisting I pay for the tissues, somehow got out of there. At the nursing home, I sat in the parking lot and watched the mausoleum, not wanting to enter its sterile halls, but not wanting not to, either. I had to have my papers, and he would get his apples, along with a family-size box of generic tissues.


A page from Medizinal Pflanzen (Koehler's Medicinal-Plants), which was published in 1887 in Gera, Germany.

inter was late this year. End of November, and temperatures still hung in the 60s. Tonight a southern breeze made it feel like September. City sounds wrapped around me as I made for the front door, the rise and fall of revved engines at a nearby intersection, an occasional hostile honk, the noxious screech of wheels and the distant siren rushing to or from pain and terror or, as happens sometimes, the pleasant frustration of the false alarm.


The door to my father's room was closed. The nurse had waved me along with a plastic smile, but standing outside the door seemingly wide enough for two wheel chairs, I didn't know if I could open it. He had never invited me into his study, that vast forest of wooden bookshelves rising fourteen feet, his desk, to a five-year-old, monstrous as a Sherman tank, the only chair a sweeping wingback upholstered with wildflowers growing on a snow-white background never to be dirtied by shoe or hand, a dictum so stern and decisive it was never spoken.


"It's unlocked, hon. Go on in!"


An elderly black woman in blue scrubs carrying sheets brushed in front of me and pushed open the door with her free hand before continuing down the hall, her short, round body listing from side to side with each pigeon-toed step. "He want to see you, no matter what time it be," she called back, giggling. "Don't you be scared."


She knew. Everyone knew. Everyone, that is, with a father like mine.


I peered into the room lit only by an invisible nightlight and the blue haze from bed B's silent TV screen that offered an ornate diamond bracelet, its price flashing in yellow numbers above it. On the floor beside Dad's bed lay the manila folder.


Tiptoeing in on squeaky running shoes, I set the box of tissues on Dad's bedside table and the cellophane bag of apples beside it. Without looking at the bed, I leaned down to get what I came for.


"Where's my candy?"


I froze, my hand outstretched an inch or two above the prize. Lifting my head, I stared into the man's gaze, his body lying on its side, his face aimed in my direction, his eyes boring into mine.


"Hi, Dad."


"What kind of apples did you bring?"


"I don't know. Red."


"I wanted McIntosh. Those look too big for Macs. Those look like Honeycrisp. Contrary to their name, they taste sour. They're a misnomer. Macs are sweet. Like the candy you didn't bring."


I bent down and grabbed my folder with both hands and straightened up. Even though I towered above him, he didn't turn his head to look up.




"Jesus Christ," he spat, "the one thing I ask of my son and he can't get it right. You think all apples are the same? They're as different as the difference between falling snow and snow on the ground is to a tribe of Inuits. They care about distinctions enough to give the two conditions two different names."


"We're not Inuits, Dad."


"The same is true of apples. Because one type is larger, harder, and less succulent, it bears the name 'Honeycrisp.' The other, smaller, rounder, and moister, receives the appelation 'McIntosh.' You have neither the..."


The low growl continued, its monotone raspy. I stopped listening, instead tucking my treasure under one arm and leaning down to kiss my father's cheek which never stopped moving, even when my lips brushed the whiskered skin.


"Goodbye, Dad," I whispered. I had papers to grade, a wife to get home to, a son to watch over. I would never be like my father. Never in a million years.


On TV, a pearl necklace was going for $424. The volume rose, bed B now awake and preferring late night sales to his roommate's ramblings. "Act now," the voiceover said, "and we'll throw in this spectacular faux gold-plated heart pendant absolutely free."


As I turned to leave, the box of tissues caught my eye. I dug for the first tissue, but like Robbie, pulled two out by mistake. I hesitated a moment, looked at my father, then stuck both in my pocket and went on my way.


At home, a stream of strong coffee had filled the Pyrex pitcher on the kitchen counter halfway when I threw the file on the table and the stories fell out, the precise, red script of my father's marginalia shocking me more than had it been blood. Tentatively I separated the pages, reading my father's comments. Lucid, insightful, helpful, supportive, encouraging. He couldn't have been more accurate or generous. On the last page of a story by my first year M.F.A. student, he wrote: "As good as this is, it could be even better. Consider giving Mark a more severe tragic flaw, one that cripples him. Of course, he cannot be aware of it, while everyone in his life is. That's where the beauty—and the horror—lie."


I tucked the stories back in the folder, turned off the coffee maker, and headed for the bedroom where Clarissa would already be deep in dreams, and where, thanks to my father, I would soon join her.



RICHARD HOLINGER'S work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times in Boulevard, Clackamas Review and Green Hills Literary Lantern). His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Witness, Other Voices, Cream City Review, ACM, Red Wheelbarrow, The Madison Review, Whiskey Island Magazine; creative nonfiction and book reviews in The Southern Review, Midwest Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, Northwest Review; and poetry in Boulevard, Chelsea, Southern Poetry Review, The Ledge, the new renaissance, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, ACM, Manhattan Poetry Review, Webster Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Texas Review, along with many others. Degrees include a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Illinois at Chicago (1993), and an M.A. in English from Washington University (1975). He's been awarded an Illinois Arts Council Artists Grant for poetry. Since 1979 he has taught English at Marmion Academy, a college prep school, in Aurora, Illinois. He lives in Geneva, Illinois, with his wife and two children.


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