Rotund Heart
fiction by Beth Meko

The summer after her husband died, Lou Wriston began taking aimless drives, which she hadn’t done since she was a young woman. Back then she would drive at night, but now, late in life, she preferred to see the countryside rolling slowly out before her in the sunlight. The fields were lush shades of green, and tree branches met over the narrow road as if in embrace. She wondered what she was looking for, on these roads she knew so well. She figured she was trying to get away from her own thoughts as much as anything else. It worked for a while, but when she pulled the Wagoneer back up in front of the little brown house in the late afternoon, there she was again, the night spanning out before her.

Harold had fallen over on the snow shovel that winter and had been pronounced dead in the ambulance. Her daughter Sheila was fifteen years in the grave; her son Luke too busy drinking himself to death to return her phone calls. Her closest neighbor had been Doug Sidaway, who lived in the little green-roofed farmhouse down the road. He had passed out in his cinderblock garage the previous December behind the wheel of his station wagon, and hadn’t been found until February. After that she always saw the ad in the newspaper, “Starter Home in Country on Four Acres,” but the place sat empty for the longest time. Finally a young couple had moved in.

At first she couldn’t stand the couple. It wasn’t so much anything they did, although it irked her to no end to see the man puttering around the property in that flannel shirt and cutoff shorts, pink knees exposed. Lou didn’t think a man ought to be wearing shorts at all, especially while working. Made him look dim-witted. Mostly though, she had just been used to Doug, his bird feeders and windchimes, and now here were these young people with accents flat as a desert. 

Lou couldn’t get the thought of Doug in that garage out of her mind, and mentioned it to the young couple as soon as she spotted them carrying boxes into the house. “I just figured he’d gone down to his nephew’s in Florida for the winter,” she shouted over the whine of the engine, hanging her head out the window of her Jeep. “Lord, if I’d known he was sitting in that old junkbox like a mouse in a trap! Wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night.” 

The couple stood close together, clutching boxes to their chests, wide-eyed. She could tell her words spooked them, which she had to admit gave her a little thrill. It wasn’t often she had any effect on young people at all. 

Lou learned the couple’s names, Oakley and Marie. “Just call me Oak,” he told her, smiling. He was one of those people who always looked surprised; his thick framed glasses turned his eyes owl-large and she guessed that added to the effect. They always waved at her when she passed by as they sat on their porch, smoking cigarettes, arms crooked over the sides of the chairs. She often heard music coming from the house, something loud and young. 

Most of the projects scattered around the yard sat unfinished, but Oak did build a decent chicken coop, and stocked it with strutting hens. Before she knew it she was buying eggs from them. Sometimes when she stopped for her carton, they would invite her down to the porch for a sip. 

Lou couldn’t stop needling the couple about Doug. “Wouldn’t go in there if I was you,” she told them one evening on their porch, gesturing toward the garage, a dark shape against the tree line. “That old tub probably haunts it to this day. Lurching around drunk as the devil somehow, despite his time on earth being said and done.” 

“Old pervert better not try to lurch into our bedroom,” said Marie, and Lou grudgingly decided maybe Marie wasn’t such a little miss priss after all, despite the city accent. 

Lou wasn’t one to mention it, but she could hear the couple hollering at each other many nights as she sat on her own porch slapping the mosquitoes away. Voices carried further out here than one tended to think. Probably about money, she figured. Wasn’t it always? She’d deduced there wasn’t much of it to go around. Oak was attempting to create a “farmstead” on the property with a flimsy inheritance he had gotten from his father. That’s what Marie called it, anyway–flimsy. 

“He never finishes anything he starts,” Marie complained one night as they rocked in the peeling blue chairs on Lou’s screened-in front porch. The girl had taken to visiting some evenings when Oak was out. Lou guessed the girl was lonely, and even some old grouch like herself was as good a company as any. From Lou’s porch, the couple’s little sagging house was just a yellow glow where Marie had left the porch light on. She said that Oak had gone to see that wolf-faced kid who lived up the road in that brown trailer about a tractor. Hadn’t been back for hours.

“They’ll do that,” Lou said. “Always going to see someone about a tractor. Just ask that old geezer over there,” she added, nodding her chin toward the empty chair in the corner with the sunken-in cushion. Harold hadn’t liked chairs that rocked, so he’d always sat in that one. 

Marie had a list of grievances against Oak, although Lou thought the two seemed to love on each other as hard as they fought. He was a slob, Marie said. Left his half-finished Dr. Pepper and beer cans all over, the same way he left ruins of unfinished projects dotting the property. Marie had abandoned many things, including her job as a school music teacher, to join him out here in “the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere.” Growing dust in some storage unit in Pittsburgh was Marie’s piano. Not a particularly nice one, admitted Marie, but she had inherited it from her grandmother and missed it dearly. Oak had sworn he would have it moved out here, but Lou knew that was a pipedream. On these roads lately you were lucky if your vehicle arrived intact, let alone a piano. 

Lou guessed she herself had thawed toward Oak. That April when her little gray cat had gotten stuck in that sycamore on the couple’s property, he had risked neck and limb to go up there after him. Brought Old Mister down squirming in a burlap sack. Since then he had done a few odd jobs for her – mended a porch rail, cleaned the gutters. It wasn’t like the man just sat on his butt all day. But she knew Marie didn’t want to hear anything like that. “Wouldn’t kill the man to get himself a decent pair of pants,” was all Lou said.

Marie held her cigarette like a weapon, puffing furiously, and Lou moved the heavy green ashtray closer to the girl. She herself had quit the habit as soon as she had found out she was pregnant with Sheila–what, forty-eight years ago now? Forty-eight. Sheila would have been forty-eight. Lou closed her eyes and rocked back in the chair, listening to the deep, wet sound of two bullfrogs competing in the little frog pond over on Beetroot’s property. Then the chug of an engine grew closer, and headlights traced a path down the hill until Oak’s truck shuddered to a stop down the road at the couple’s place. The truck door slammed. They could hear Oak whistling.

“Bet he bought that damn tractor,” Marie said, and then spilled her glass of wine all over her lap and the floor of the porch. “Oh god damn shit. Sorry.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Lou. She helped the girl clean the mess with a gob of paper towels she grabbed from the now-dark kitchen. She flicked the porch light on and moths flitted around the bare yellow bulb. “Hell, ain’t the only time any drink’s ever been spilled out here. Just ask ol’ goober hands over there.” She gestured toward Harold’s old sunken chair.

At that moment Old Mister, the cat, jumped down from the chair and the two women started, as if expecting to see Harold’s carcass rising from the chair spilling maggots every which way. They looked at each other, and their laughs rang out, drowning out the dim sound of Oak pounding on the door down the road. “Oops, guess I locked him out,” Marie said, and that just made them laugh harder. 

Lou’s hand flew up to hide her face, an instinctive move: she had always hated the way she looked when she laughed, ever since Harold had told her once that she looked like a rabbit. My, but her face felt hot. She’d been feeling a bit woozy all day but this was something else. She felt a numbness in her hand. Surely, her right arm shouldn’t feel as if she’d been hefting a bowling ball over her head. She shouldn’t be out of breath like she’d just run a marathon. 

Pain jittered like someone was swinging around a switchblade in her chest. She started toward the kitchen with the sopping wet paper towels, and then crumpled.

“Lou?” said Marie. Lou looked up at the peeling chair legs and the girl’s delicate face hovering over her, wine-stained lips slightly parted. Lou opened her mouth, but only a string of mushy-sounding syllables came out. She closed her eyes. She heard Marie calling out in a plaintive voice, footsteps coming up the gravel driveway, a male voice saying her name. When she opened her eyes Oak was holding up three fingers close to her face. “How many?” he kept repeating.

An argument between the couple ensued. Marie wanted to call 911 but Oak said that would take too long. It occurred to Lou that neither of the young people appeared to be sufficiently sober to drive her to the hospital. Oak carried with him the heavy smell of whisky, which intensified every time he leaned down to ask Lou a question. Marie’s face looked stark and pale in the yellow glow of the porch. “Well, I thank you. I’ll be just fine,” Lou said, finally able to force out some words. She tried to push herself upward, but the bowling ball sensation now sat squarely on her chest. 


The fluorescence of the emergency room was a shock after the 45-minute drive on the winding roads, wedged between the couple in their truck cab. A young nurse with shoulders like rails under her scrubs and dark smudges under her eyes hooked Lou up for an EKG while a male nurse reached around to attach a blood pressure cuff. She was dismayed to find her hair soggy with sweat. 

The doctor came in snapping gum, a habit that usually boiled Lou to a rage. He also appeared to be a high school sophomore, but that was nearly everyone these days now that she was old as the hills. She had had a heart attack, he explained, and they would have to keep her overnight.

“Like hell,” Lou said. 


They kept Lou for two days, during which time she fought with the nurses nearly constantly–for nearly giving her a double dose of diuretics, for unhooking her IV on her own to go to the bathroom. “I've seen makeshift battlefield hospitals more organized than this,” complained Lou, who had been watching the History channel all morning. 

That afternoon Marie breezed in, smiling, and Oak followed, wide-eyed behind a bobbing set of Get Well balloons. “Now what am I going to do with those,” said Lou, eying the balloons.

They assured her they were feeding Old Mister and giving him chin scratches. She thanked them for bringing her mail inside, although she made sure to let them know that she would be home the next day at the latest. She hadn’t forgotten that Oak often associated with that wolf-faced kid, who according to Eva from down the road was running a major drug operation in that trailer. But then, Eva also said the kid and his brother performed sacrificial rights up there, so who knew.

She told them about her heart, which had appeared swollen up like a blowfish on the X-rays, and the couple made distant, sympathetic noises in the way young people do when they hear about medical issues. “No need to worry. Old Fatty’s right as rain,” she said, thumping her chest.

“Sounds like something you would get at McDonald’s,” said Oak.

Lou coughed out a chuckle like a hairball. “Hell, old crank already done supersized himself.”

After the couple left she punched her son Luke’s number into the phone by the bed, stretching her arm as far as the IV cord would allow. Luke’s clipped tone came on the voicemail and Lou quickly hung up. A wife hitter, she mused. Black eye, bloody nose, or both – the account that had reached Lou had been hazy. Regardless, the wife now had a restraining order, and he was staying in one of those boxy apartments off exit 18. Waters Edge or Creekside or something like that, she could never remember, even though no water was in sight, just the constant moan of the interstate. 

Lou switched off the TV and looked at the balloons, nodding around where Oak had attached them to the windowsill with a strip of medical tape he had found in the cabinet over the sink. The tape was slowly peeling off the sill. Feeling depressed, she pressed the nurse’s button. Hell, maybe if she kept bugging them they would send her home. 


They did send her home the next day, after a lecture from another doctor who had no discernible chin or sense of humor. She’d told him she was surprised her heart was getting bigger and not smaller, considering it felt like some dark thing smoldering to ashes. The doctor frowned and brought in a laptop to show her images of two chest cavities: one with a normal-sized heart for comparison and then her own droopy old heart that looked like a fried egg sliding sideways off a dinner plate. He said this was very serious, and could cause another “cardiac event.” She could even experience “sudden death” if she didn’t make serious lifestyle changes. She didn’t dare tell him that “sudden death” didn’t sound half-bad when compared with the prospect of a slow one. 

Eva from down the road drove her home in her ancient Ford Explorer, balloons swaying in back. There was mostly silence; things had been stilted between them ever since Lou had told Eva what she could do with the Watchtowers she kept slipping under her door handle. Eva cleared her throat a few times, and Lou suspected Eva had pinpointed this as a good time to save Lou’s soul, or secure her place in paradise on earth, or whatever it was she was always talking about. Probably the only reason she had come to pick her up. Lou’s sour demeanor seemed to dissuade her from going on with her usual spiel. 

Lou continued her day drives, often going out after a hard rain when steam rose from the narrow road in the slanting sun rays. Ivy crawled over the power lines, and lush weeds flourished in the deep potholes 
that she swerved to miss without having to look.

Marie and Oak, or one of them, had come over and straightened up the porch, leaving the glasses in the sink rack. Marie brought her a sack of vegetables from the garden: big and misshapen tomatoes, prickly cucumbers hot from the sun. Lou lined them up on the kitchen windowsill.

She tried to call Luke twice more – no answer. He worked long hours down at the recruiting office, which wasn’t such a bad thing, and when he wasn’t working he was likely at the bars, which was bad. He was avoiding her, probably. Their last visit, shortly after Harold’s funeral and after Luke had signed the lease for Sea Spray View or Water World or whatever it was called, hadn’t gone well. They had met at the Parkway diner on old Route 20. Luke, reeking of last night’s whiskey and sweating down his neck, had handled the menu with shaking fingers. Lou had mentioned that alcoholism ran in the family—which it did, on Harold’s side—and he had stood and walked out. 

Lou continued her day drives, often going out after a hard rain when steam rose from the narrow road in the slanting sun rays. Ivy crawled over the power lines, and lush weeds flourished in the deep potholes that she swerved to miss without having to look. She often saw Oak outside, puttering around in those damn shorts, building or mending this or that, and he would wave. “How’s old Fatty McSlab?” he would yell over the heave of the engine.

“Still ticking away!” she would call and wave out the window as she drove off. 

The couple had her over for dinner in late July. The house was cluttered and dim, alive with the whir of fans in every room. There was the same smell that Lou remembered from the few occasions she would bring in Doug’s mail while he was away—something like onions in the sunlight—but there were other smells now, potpourri and the faint musk of cigarettes. 

“We thought you were a goner,” Oak said as he moved to fill her glass from a giant-size wine bottle on the counter. Then he stopped short. “Wait, should I be pouring this?” 

Lou waved a hand. “They say it’s good for the heart.” 

“None for me,” said Marie. She had been boiling water for potatoes, and her cheeks were pink. Oak put an arm around her, and she pulled away, complaining that it was too hot.  “I’m knocked up,” Marie explained to Lou, blowing her hair out of her face and pointing at her flat belly. 

“Oh, my,” said Lou. “Boy oh boy. Was it a whoops or a yay?” The question came automatically; it was what she always asked her niece who seemed to pop them out on a yearly basis.

Marie didn’t seem phased. “Kind of both. Major whoops, then a kind of yay.” 

“Reckon it’s better than the opposite,” Lou said, thinking of her own children. “Well, this changes a lot. Things will be a sight different for you two now.” 

The two talked a bit about the piano—Oak whistled “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and Marie groaned—and then the conversation turned to Lou’s bloated heart. 

“I’m sorry,” said Oak. “It’s probably not too nice the way we’re talking about your heart.” 

Lou waved a hand. “Oh, I don’t give a hell.” 

“No, we need a more . . . PC term,” said Oak. “Like big-boned. Rotund. Something nicer.” 

“If that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Lou. “I sure as hell ain’t skinny and I wouldn’t want anyone calling me no ‘rotund.’ Call him what he is.” She turned her head back and finished the rest of the wine in her glass. A night bird warbled from the tree line at the edge of the yard. “Call him big ol’ Beefster McSlab.” 

They all shouted with laughter and Oak moved to pour another glass, but stopped when Marie shook her head at him.


Lou found herself thinking about the young couple a lot. Everything seemed to remind her of them, from the weatherman on TV who looked a bit like Oak to a rosy-faced woman in a maternity jumper in a newspaper ad. She pictured what they would look like holding the baby, its little pink feet kicking out. She envied them and didn’t, poised as they were at the beginning of their lives. To make it in a world that seemed intent to shrug off you and your good intentions–she pitied them in that aspect. Hell, she pitied herself, trying to keep car, home and body whole, and it wasn’t like she had long to go. They had a lifetime yet.

She called Luke and left a voicemail, which was against her usual way of doing things. She didn’t like talking to things that didn’t talk back. Surely there was someone she could call, Lou thought, to check on him. The number to his and his wife’s house had been disconnected. What was the number to the recruiting office, that one in the abandoned mall off exit 10? Damn if she didn’t even have a phone book anymore. She knew there was an Army buddy he had been close with—he had visited here, way back in another lifetime when Luke had just gotten home from overseas—but she couldn’t remember his name, let alone find his number. She had had it, at one point. 

One afternoon she put on her reading glasses and opened the desk that sat hunched in the corner of the living room. Over the years Lou had taken to stuffing papers and mementos in there and forgetting about them. She thought maybe she could find the number to Luke’s Army friend there, or a picture with his name, anyway. When she rolled up the flimsy top she realized how crammed full the space had become. Papers shrugged out on either side. There were receipts and old photographs and obituary notices of people she didn’t remember, and some that she did. Weddings and retirement parties she only then remembered attending. 

But those things were from the newer past, after the kids were grown. Digging past those took her further back. Here was a grainy photograph, taken when Luke was a baby, looking small and smothered from his perch on her back. Sheila stood to the side, digging in the dirt with a toe, wearing a sundress and those plastic shoes that always left red marks on her feet.  Lou herself stared from the photograph with her unlined face, hair held back in a tortoiseshell barrette. She hadn’t been happy, she remembered, but in the picture her features looked soft, and a smile curved her lips. 

More photographs spilled through her fingers as she dug deeper—many of Luke and Sheila as children, Harold as a young man smiling tensely at the camera from a scenic train, Harold’s mother holding baby Luke. She spent the afternoon looking at these artifacts, only stopping when it got too dark to make out the faces in the photographs. She turned on the overhead light but it felt strange, seeing the room cast in this yellowish glow, with the heaps of papers in the middle. Corpses of fried bugs sat in the overhead fixture. She turned out the light, but left the papers out on the floor, almost tripping over them when she walked through the room the next morning.

The next day she went to the store that sat just past the first bend in town. It had been a general store back in the day, but now it was a Dollar General, oppressive fluorescent lights bearing down on teenage salesclerks chewing gum. Once there she realized she meant to buy something for Luke. The one time she had been in his apartment, she had noticed that he had only one towel, slung over the shower door. Who has just one towel? She bypassed the rows of bargain towels that would invariably unravel in the dryer and filled her basket with a stack of three plush, comparatively hardy blue towels. 

Briefly, she wondered if the couple down the road had a good set of towels. Probably not, she thought, judging from the disorder of the rest of the house. She considered picking up two more but stopped herself. My if she wasn’t turning into a regular mother hen. But on her way to the register, she spotted something in one of the plastic bins, where they put all the little trinkets: a palm-sized grand piano. Of course, it was cheap, stamped from a mold, with sloppy paint on the keys and a “Made in China” sticker slapped onto the bottom. But Lou headed to the register with it. “Brought you your piano,” she would say to Marie. What a laugh they would have. 


It was a wet summer, with violent storms in the afternoons, and the humid days seemed to stick to one another. Lou lazed on the porch a lot and hoped for Marie to come join her, but the girl wasn’t coming over as often now. Probably had a lot to do with that baby on the way.

She took the piano out of the plastic bag and looked at it. She regretted buying it now. Taken out of context, it had been a damn silly thing to buy. Little generic lump of plastic, a thousand others like it. They would snicker about her in bed together, some dotty old lady, giving her a plastic piano. Lou put it back in the bag with the receipt, twisted it tightly, and put it in the glove compartment. Probably wasn’t worth the time to return it, but she would if she got around to it. 

As the summer wound into fall Lou dug more relics from the cabinets, from the bench by the foot of the bed, even from pockets of old coats in the closet. Photographs, bills, pay stubs. Even that gold-embossed ticket to the symphony Lou had gone to see, one night when Harold was on night shift. Each one a yellowed artifact. All of it, she left on piles on the floor and the table. She couldn’t make herself return them to where they had suffocated for so long, year pressed upon year.

“Sure like to have you over for dinner to return the favor,” she said to Oak and Marie when she passed by their house, head hanging out the window, engine chugging along, “But I’m afraid my stove’s on the fritz.” In truth, she was a bit embarrassed about the state of her house, which had long since passed the stage of simple clutter. They’d think she was one of those hoarder people.  

Oak offered to look at the stove, but she talked him down, agreeing instead to hire him to prune that maple in her backyard whose branches had sprawled so wide they now scratched the roof.  “Next big storm, that thing’s liable to end up in the living room with me,” she said. They agreed on a price that was cheap compared to what some of the tree surgeons were charging this season, and she handed him the cash out the window. 


The day Oak injured himself trimming her tree, Marie’s parents were visiting: oddly similar looking folks, short with full heads of gray hair. They didn't look made of money, what with the dusty Toyota wedged behind the truck, but they had an air of superiority, Lou thought. They didn’t wave when she drove by that morning, just peered at her with frowns creasing their brows. Lou figured they didn’t know that’s what you do out here–you wave when someone passes by or else you’re a snot-nose. Hell, Lou even waved at old Beetroot after he’d woken her up at ungodly hours with that damn weed eater. Cursed him to high heaven through her teeth but waved all the same. 

When she got home, she saw the aftermath: half the branches carved from the top, leaving it bulging and misshapen, sawed-off branches littered around. It looked like a tornado had touched down–a little polite one that had mangled just that one tree and then ducked out. She felt annoyed, thinking about all Oak’s unfinished projects–never finishes anything he starts, Marie had said. 

As evening came she picked up the phone and called the cell phone number Marie had given her, and Marie gave her the news. Injured back, broken leg, emergency room. Lou said she was sorry to hear it and they joked about how these emergency hospital visits were getting to be a trend. “Guess I’m next when this bugger finally starts to look for a way out,” said Marie.


The next day she was weeding the flower beds when the truck pulled up, and from a distance she could see Marie and her parents helping Oak into the house. They walked on the sloped yard rather than the steep set of concrete steps and she could hear Marie directing them, her father answering. It seemed like the parents were going to stay a bit longer, help the couple out. Lou thought that was probably a good thing, but she felt oddly jealous of the two of them, playing such a nurturing role. Hell if Luke would ever need her like that, even if he was injured.  

She thought of the couple at the grocery store, seeing a cluster of Get Well balloons bouncing around near the registers. But she didn’t buy them. Better save every penny to finish the trimming job, she thought, eyeing the pitiful sum on the balance line as she ripped off a check and handed it to the clerk.

On the way back she saw Oak and the parents out on the couple’s front porch. Oak’s leg was propped up on the table, in a cast. His face was white and his eyes had a glassy look. “Hiya,” said Lou. “How’s that leg? Damn sorry it turned out like this.” Then she thought she shouldn’t have apologized, not in front of Marie’s mother with her little squinty-eyed face. 

Oak gave a little wave. “Oh, it’s going to heal up. How’s Old Fatty?” 

“Who?” asked the mother. “Wait, it was her property?” She had the voice of a vulture to match her accusing face. She raised her hand as if to stop Lou from leaving, and Lou’s temper flared. Woman sitting there too good to raise a hand as she passed by, acting like she could now control her coming and going like some kind of crossing guard.

Lou leaned out the window. “Hope you’re not the suing type,” she called. “God knows it wouldn’t hold up in court the way I’ve seen him swinging around on that rope.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she regretted them. 

The woman stared at her. “Well, really, to say such a thing at a time like this.” 

Lou waved, not a hello or goodbye wave, but a to-hell-with-you one, and drove away.


Smart is what it was, to bring it up, Lou kept telling herself. You just never know with people. Have to cover all the bases. But a sour taste rose in her whenever she passed the couple’s house. She thought for certain the two went inside to avoid her if they saw the Jeep coming. She tried to think of some way to atone things with them. She could apologize, but she couldn’t even get the notion fully formed before her pride rose up and snatched it away. 

Her heart felt like some monstrous thing thrumming a rote and endless vibration through her rib cage. She pictured it as one of the plump slugs she would throw salt on in the rose beds, antennae twitching as they dwindled to husks. Sometimes as she watched her evening shows Old Fatty would start jittering and she would sit very still with her head back against the couch, waiting. But it was never time; death, it seemed, liked to play with its prey. She liked to think there would be some dramatic exit from life; something like the crescendos in the symphonies she used to listen to, but likely it would just be the same fluttering, the same waiting. 

One afternoon she passed and saw the wolf-faced kid standing on the porch talking with Oak, who stood hunched in the doorway. Oak raised a hand, but his eyes didn’t follow the Jeep as it passed. She thought Oak looked pale, and she was struck by the hollowness under his eyes. There was no hint of his old dumbfounded smile. The truck wasn’t there; Marie must have taken it somewhere. Maybe she’d left and taken the truck too, like some country western song.

On the passenger seat was the dollar store bag bursting with the towels for her son Luke, and another one with a few things Lou had found in the cabinets. Luke’s elementary yearbook, for one. His Army photo, adolescent babyface stern under the crisp green hat. Several pictures of him as a child, and a note in loopy handwriting she had found from one of his old high school girlfriends. She thought these things would give the two of them something to talk about together, or might prompt him to call her if she left them on the stoop. She wondered if she wasn’t getting sentimental in her old age. 

A warm afternoon rain pattered in fits and starts. Wipers squealing, she took the exit for Luke’s apartment building, a drab circle of buildings perched on the hill.  Lou knew Luke wasn’t there as soon as she didn’t see his car, but she wasn’t prepared to see the blinds of his first-floor unit rolled up to reveal a room devoid of furniture, step ladder and painting supplies the only items there. 

He was gone. But where? Jail for drunk driving? Would have been in the paper. Transferred? Rehab, maybe? He might have moved back in with the wife. Lou decided that was probably it. It wouldn’t be too unusual, although that woman did seem as if she’d had enough. And why hadn’t she heard from him? She had heard of this before; grown children who up and stop talking to their parents. Always figured it to be the parents’ fault, but it was something else when it happened to her. 

Lou swung off the main highway and coaxed the Jeep down the pitted road toward home. Her thoughts grew darker as she drove. She thought of the weight of Luke on her back, when she would carry him when his legs got tired as a child, his mouth a wet circle on her neck. How hard it is to carry the important things with us, she thought. What a futile notion, to drag anything intact through this narrow life. 

There was no car in front of the couples’ and the porch light was on. Lou hit the brakes, got in the glove box, and left the Wagoneer idling while she made her way down the stone steps to the porch and set the two bags on the chair–the larger bag with the towels, and on top, the little piano. 

Back at her house she sat in the car for a long while, the pile of photographs in her lap. Something you can hold and feel, she thought, even if it is just a stupid plastic piano or a pile of relics from a past only you care about. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, a slow, searching song coming in and out on the classical station on FM radio, winding through her mind like smoke. She didn’t go inside, even as a chill deepened in the air, even when headlights traced a path down the road and the truck door slammed in the distance, Marie and Oak’s voices ringing out to one another.

Beth Meko is originally from north central West Virginia and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Longleaf Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Oyster River Pages, and others

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