The Artificial Heart
The Word: BILL
What led him to open the mail that day? He normally didn’t do mail, that was Carolyn’s province. The bills, the house, the painters and plumbers, taxes and whatnot. She was presiding angel. He made the money, she spent it. That was their joke. But he’d come home from work early, he’d had a breakthrough towards the silicone armature for the artificial heart. He deserved the afternoon off.
On the hall table among the other mail was a card, clearly a birthday card for him, from his old college friend Kathy Setzer, now heading her own lab at MIT. Kathy always remembered birthdays. Funny old Kathy. Carolyn had met her once at a John Hopkins reunion–his beautiful new wife had looked like a peacock in a barnyard. He never realized how plain the scientists were before. Carolyn had taken one look at Kathy and whispered, “She’s a full professor, for god’s sake, does she really have to shop at Penney’s?” Well, Kathy was a scientist, and Carolyn was a designer– recommended by the realtor when he’d bought the La Jolla house after he’d made his first five million. She’d just swept him up. Beautiful, organized, decisive. Saved his life, really.
The card from Kathy was so sweet. A Sierra club photo of people kayaking on Chesapeake Bay. Kathy had always been game for the outdoors, hiking, backpacking… That made him laugh—Carolyn’s idea of the outdoors was white wine on the patio looking out at the sunset. These days he went kayaking alone. He propped the card on the table, knowing his wife would have something tart to say about Kathy. His friends bored her. She preferred the money crowd of La Jolla, people she met through the museum.
Oh, what did he care who they had dinner with, at fundraisers and so on. He had her, he had his work. She took care of him in a way Kathy or a woman like her would never be able to.
Which was how he came to open the envelope.
It was just a bill. An Amex bill or something. He glanced over it, still thinking of kayaking Chesepeake. The old Hopkins days with Kathy Setzer.
The name on the bill stopped him. It wasn’t his, or even theirs. It was Carolyn’s brother Frankie’s. This address, but Frank Norman. For $12,586.35. Thank you for your last payment of $7,452. He stood looking at the bill, blinking. Why was he getting Frankie’s bill? And who in the world would have given Frankie Norman an Amex card? Let alone let him rack up a tab like that? Frankie Norman was a nice enough guy, but basically a surf bum—this was almost $20 grand worth of what? Carlsbad Mercedes, lease payment, $523. Frankie didn’t even drive a Mercedes… or did he? Some kind of sports car, yes… though honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw Frankie.
David could feel a shocked redness creeping up from the collar of his polo shirt, up his neck and into his face. Thank you for your last payment… Car payment, restaurants… Bessell Custom Surfboards. Airline tickets for two, LAN airlines, to SCL. LAN? SCL? He was about to Google it on his cellphone when the mystery of the acronym resolved itself a moment later–Hotel Grand Hyatt, Santiago, Chile. Grand Hotel Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. Two weeks at the Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. A suite.
Frankie couldn’t have gotten an Amex card. He began to search through the fat wad of mail. Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Another Amex, this one for Carolyn’s mother, living in a retirement community in Vero Beach. He gutted it. $3,267. About the same the month before. Well, at least the old lady wasn’t so greedy.
His head was bursting. His heart… he couldn’t afford a heart attack—RepliCorp’s artificial heart was years away. He couldn’t afford this.
Citi Card. Carolyn N. Stein. He ripped it open with such fumbling hands that he tore the bill as well. $88,273.67. Even as his senses reeled, the computational wheels spun in his head. He’d always been good at numbers. Words he distrusted, but numbers… Thank you for your last payment, $47,928. He couldn’t help adding it up. So far he’d seen a two month outlay of $160 grand and change. A year– that was almost $700,000. He hesitated to multiply by 24 days in a month that mail arrived. It was close to the end of the month, maybe this was the bulk of it. God knew what was on the other cards.
He thought of all those afternoons he’d come home and see her leafing through the mail. Anything for me?
He thought he might vomit.
His love, his beautiful wife. Carolyn, what have you done? But his eye kept scanning the bill. DeMolay Jeweler’s–$71,495. He pulled out his phone, frantically punched in the phone number that was conveniently listed with the entry on his bill, misdialed, had to start again. “Yes, DeMolay? This is Dr. David Stein. I wanted to ask you about a bill—yes, I’ll wait.”
The billing office came on. “Yes Dr. Stein?” A smooth woman’s voice.
“My wife was in there last month, she bought something from you, I just got the bill. What was that item, please?”
He could hear clicking. Of course DeMolay Jewelers was completely computerized, they could certainly afford it. “Yes, Mr. Stein? I see it, but I’m not sure, it might be a gift…”
He felt a twinge. What if she had bought a gift for him? But, she had not bought two weeks at the Grand Hotel Gervasoni for him. Or six Hermes scarves. “What was it?”
“A watch, sir. A Patek.”
“A man’s watch?”
He hung up and slipped the phone back in his pocket. He couldn’t breathe. He opened the sliding doors to the patio, went outside into the clean, cool afternoon, sat heavily in a patio chair, always scrubbed and ready for use. He sucked great lungfuls of ocean air. Out in the water, down at the edge of the Pacific glinting in the lowering sun, surfers rode the bluegreen waves. Frankie, on his custom Bessell surfboard.
But maybe it was a birthday gift for him… Maybe—
He saw her, in her white tennis dress, racket over her shoulder…
Did he have any money left at all? Was this all just a dream? His daughter, his wife… Should he wait for his birthday, to see if maybe–?
But he was no fool.
Then he stopped himself in mid-thought. Ha–of course he had been. A fool was exactly what he was, what he’d always been. A perfect fool. Was that how she’d seen him? As she discussed carpet and couches and lamps? A fool who owned a biotech company and ten major patents.
He looked down his list of contacts on his phone, and rang the lab at MIT. “Hi, Kathy?”
Her voice, so familiar, a bit nasal. “Dave! So cool, you called. How’s life in the big leagues
“Kind of crazy. Look, just wanted to thank you for the card,” he said. Someone caught a wave, riding it towards shore. “I mean really. It means a lot.”
“Hey, no problem. Hey, Dave–you okay?”
He was crying. Took off his glasses and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. The trendy glasses Carolyn had insisted he buy. Sprucing him up. “No. Yeah. Probably. You know.” What was the chance that Kathy, running her lab at MIT, would understand any of this, have any idea. $70K for a fucking watch. What did Carolyn do with all the stuff? Sell it on Ebay? She was an Ebay nut—he knew that, but he never….
He had to get his shit together. He couldn’t fall apart now. He had to be very clear now. “I have to go now. Just wanted to say… thanks.”
“You coming out for the reunion?”
“Maybe. If I can afford it.”
“Funny,” she said. “How’s your glamorous spouse?”
“Ever more glamorous,” he said, and rang off.
He glanced at his watch. His old Timex. His father gave it to him when he graduated from high school. Carolyn would be home any time now. He had to get ready. He had to clear his mind. He wouldn’t open any more of the envelopes. No, he wanted to watch her leafing through that stack of mail with that same calm, bland look on her face. Anything interesting honey? No, not really. He wanted to see that look, one last time.
Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word is: FRAME`