SPOTLIGHT: Heart Decisions by Joshua Britton

(First 12 Pages)

Gregory had a rare heart. His heart was not, however, one of those rare items anybody would have wanted, such as a cubic zirconia or a 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco baseball card. Most people wouldn’t have wanted Gregory’s heart, or at least not his, specifically. Nor would they have had a use for it were it given to them. One guy wanted it, though.

And the damnedest thing—every time Gregory said no, the Texan upped his offer. Gregory could have been a millionaire, if one didn’t need a heart in order to enjoy such riches.

The dogs scattered as Mathias pulled the family truck into camp. He walked down the slope toward the trailers where Gregory sat placidly in the middle. The extended family of thirteen shared a post office box, and Mathias held the bulk of the family’s mail in one hand, while his right hand waved a single envelope.

“Six million dollars, everybody!” Mathias said loudly, though only his senile mother was within earshot. “Six. Million. Dollars,” he repeated, slower and more deliberately, shoving the envelope roughly into Gregory’s chest. “And we’re living in dirt,” he added with a snarl and a glare.

Gregory caught the envelope before it fell to the ground. Although it was addressed to him, it had already been slit open.

“You can’t open my mail,” Gregory complained.

“You’re selfish, Gregory,” Mathias said. “You need to think of somebody other than yourself. Think of your children, why don’t you?”

“I am thinking of my children!”

Indeed, he thought that his children were better off with a living father, as opposed to a share of six million dollars with no father.

He was fairly certain that they were, although his daughter sure had been miserable lately. But aren’t all teenagers miserable? He looked up to see Rebecca returning from the latrine, scowling at him as she retreated back into their trailer. She blamed him for having to go outdoors to get to the latrine—she rarely went outside for any other reason.

Besides the stench of the outhouse, Rebecca was also sick of having to haul water up from the river to fill the wash basin inside their trailer every time she wanted to take a bath. Actually, Gregory usually hauled the water for her, but she didn’t like having to wait for him to do it. Her cousins, all boys, didn’t bother with the wash basin; they bathed in the river. They jumped in to get wet, climbed out to lather up, and jumped back in to rinse off. Sometimes the dogs jumped in with them. The cousins encouraged Rebecca to bathe in the lake, too. They argued that she saw them naked all the time—not by choice, she constantly complained—so it was only fair that she return the favor. Absolutely not, she maintained. Concerning his nephews’ lust for his daughter, Gregory was ignorant. He took it for granted that Rebecca would bathe modestly and in private, as did the other two females in camp.

The alligators in the river scared off some would-be swimmers and bathers, including Aaron, Rebecca’s youngest uncle, not quite ten years older than her. Aaron had still been a teenager when they’d all moved onto this lot together, and it was during their first few months that a small alligator—a juvenile, perhaps five feet from the tip of its tail to the tip of its snout—had crawled ashore and gotten uncomfortably close to the trailers. Aaron decided to have some fun with it. But as Aaron approached, the gator grew cautious and turned back for the water. Aaron bent over to grab it but got whacked by its tail. Undeterred, Aaron lunged for the retreating beast like a football player going after a fumble. The gator bellowed as Aaron’s arms wrapped around its middle. With its tail flailing and head thrashing back and forth, Aaron struggled to take control. Finally, Aaron stood up with the gator in his arms, its back pressed against Aaron’s chest, and its head and teeth pointed toward the sky, still fighting to go free. Aaron turned to show off his catch but tripped on a tree root. Man and beast fell, and man landed on beast. The gator bellowed once more, snapped its jaws, and caught Aaron’s arm. Aaron screamed in pain. It was Gregory who first arr-ived to Aaron’s aid, who pulled a knife from the holster on his boot, who plunged the knife into the gator’s head, and who made a rare trip to the drug store for disinfectants, anti-bacterial ointments, and bandages. Aaron avoided infection and, once the bandages were taken off, proudly displayed his gnarly scars. He sawed off the gator’s head and turned it into a souvenir, although the head soon began to rot and attract flies, at which point Aaron chucked it back into the river. The rest of the gator was eaten for dinner.

Needless to say, Rebecca would have liked to have had indoor plumbing.

The gator attack on Aaron was actually a good memory, and Gregory recalled his own heroism fondly as he sat down inside his trailer to respond to the most recent offer:

Once again I am flattered by your repeated interest in my heart. I appreciate your persistence, but I am still very much attached to it, as well as to the perks that come with such a vital organ. Best of luck to you in your search for a replacement. G.

Standing at the end of the dock, fifteen feet into the river, where the bathers—excluding Gregory’s eight-year-old son, who was forbidden—sometimes bathed, Gregory spotted a gator on the far bank. A boat ride a hundred yards in either direction would have provided great sight-seeing, but here alligator sightings were actually rare.

Still, the double layer of chicken wire surrounding the chicken pen had been installed more to protect the chickens from gators than to keep them contained. The chickens were an awful disappointment. They just weren’t producing. Gregory had done everything right, as far as his book smarts could tell. He’d made several trips into town to visit the library for research, and he’d gone over his self-imposed budget to splurge on The Best chicken feed. But the roosters remained scrawny, and the hens weren’t laying.

They’d had two cows, too, but the female had already died, and the bull now appeared to have lost the will to live. Even at her best, the female hadn’t produced much milk, nor did the two of them produce a calf, which had been Gregory’s biggest hope. For milk, he thought, maybe next time he’d try goats.

“If one person prospers, everybody prospers,” Mathias said, having joined Gregory in observation of their pathetic livestock. “Remember that, Gregory? You kept repeating it when you talked all of us into moving here.”

Gregory doubted that he had ever said that. Nor had he talked anyone into moving here. He had offered to let them move in, although even that word was misleading. Some called it a nervous breakdown when he’d sold his house and everything in it, bought a trailer, and bought this patch of land. His mother-in-law had been living with him and his wife, and he wasn’t about to throw her out just because her daughter had died. Since nobody else wanted to take her, he had bought a second trailer to house her. Then he had suggested to Aaron that he move in with her, to help take care of her. Mathias and his boys had invited themselves shortly after.

“And now we’re trailer trash, Gregory,” Mathias continued. “My children are trailer trash—because of you.”

This wasn’t accurate either. If Mathias, his boys, and his ex-wife—late wife? no one was sure—hadn’t already been trailer trash before they joined Gregory, it was only because the run-down shack where they used to live didn’t have wheels. The trailer Gregory ended up buying and mounting for Mathias and his boys was an upgrade from that trash heap they’d been living in before.

“We’re living in filth, Gregory. All thirteen of us could be living so much better if only you’d do the right thing.”

“Am I part of that thirteen?” Gregory asked.

“All right,” Mathias said, realizing his mistake. “Twelve of us, then.”

Back when his mail was handed to him unopened, the Texan had sent Gregory several letters before the rest of the family learned what was going on. Despite the flowery phrasing of the Texan’s pleas, it was either murder or suicide he was asking for. In another life, Gregory may have been amused, even flattered. But a few years ago, his own wife had auctioned off her uninfected organs, in secret; she’d been terminally ill and miserable and had seen no reason to prolong the inevitable.

In his fourth letter, the Texan’s offer went up.

“Can you believe this, Buddy Boy?” he had said to his small son. “There’s a man in Texas who wants to buy my heart.”

“Really? Are you going to sell it to him?”

“Well, Buddy Boy, a person needs his heart to live. What do you think would happen if somebody cut a hole in your chest and took out your heart?”

“Nora already took my heart,” the small boy said. “She sits in front of me at school. She made me give it to her.”

“So now she has two hearts, and you don’t have any? That’s not fair.”

“I still have one; Nora gave me hers.”

“Right. Well, what I’m saying is that without a heart—an actual heart, that is—I would die.”

“Oh, no! Daddy! I wouldn’t sell your heart for a million dollars!”

Gregory hugged his son and kissed him on the top of his head. “You’re a sweet boy, and I love you.” He ruffled the boy’s hair and handed him the letter. “But look. He’s offering three million dollars.”

“Three million dollars?!” the boy shrieked. “Wow! You have a really good heart!”

The importance of keeping this a secret didn’t occur to either the boy or his father, and at some point the boy told his cousin, who told his brothers, who mentioned it to Mathias. Now most of Gregory’s mail was read before it got to him. And the offer was up to six million. How much higher would it go?

Mathias’s second oldest son climbed out of the water and onto the dock, stark naked. He faced the camp, grinning, his hands behind his head, rocking his hips back and forth.

“The grass is coming in thick!” he boasted.

The boy glanced around the camp, as did Gregory, both in search of Rebecca, though for different reasons.

Sure enough, on the other side of the camp, Rebecca screamed. She would’ve been annoyed by her flashing cousin, but she wouldn’t have screamed quite like this, and Gregory sprung to his feet in a panic, fearing that something was seriously wrong. Before he got too far, though, he saw Rebecca storming out of the latrine. One of Mathias’s younger boys was climbing on top of the latrine and peeping through the ventilation holes to spy on Rebecca while she was going to the bathroom.

“Next time just pee behind a tree, like I do,” the pubescent boy on the dock called.

“I hate this place!” Rebecca yelled as she got closer. “I hate you all!” she added after seeing her flaunting cousin on the dock. She climbed the steps to her trailer but paused once to look at her father. “And I wish you were dead.”


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