Monday, July 18, 2016

Lamar's Heart Problem

When he was too young to remember this, Lamar stayed at Mrs. Bernard's house while his mom and his dad were at work.

Mrs. Bernard had a round white face with a disappointed mouth, big green eyes and surprised eyebrows. She rarely smiled. Everything had pretty much worked out the way she hoped, but she certainly had nothing to sing and dance about.

Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and one time she scared the living daylights out of Lamar when she pulled out a couple of bobby pins, put them between her lips, allowing her hair to tumble Rapunzel-like down past her back.

She had no toys because her daughter, Thelma, was 17 and no longer needed them. Thelma was very tall, taller than Lamar’s daddy, and she had short blonde hair and wore all the Fifties stuff (but not all at the same time): poodle skirts, pedal-pushers, bobby socks, saddle oxfords, and the rest. But Lamar only got to look at her for a few minutes in the afternoon, after she got off the school bus and before his mom picked him up.

Thelma's hair style

Mrs. Bernard also had no television -- hardly anyone did in that neck of the woods -- so his entertainment, aside from his fertile imagination, was a radio that faithfully delivered holy-roller sermons, weather reports, and big-band music.

When she wanted Lamar to take a nap, she would sing him to sleep in her squeaking rocking chair. She sang hymns and lullabies.

As he grew drowsy, he would gaze through drooping lids at the pictures on her wall. Most of them were of her family, one of which was Mrs. Bernard's grandfather when he was a Confederate soldier. Staring blankly at the camera, the soldier didn't seem to have any feelings one way or the other.

Next to the soldier was a picture of someone Lamar recognized as Jesus from the fans everyone used in the air-conditionless Baptist church he went to. Jesus on the front, insurance advertisements on the back, the fan stapled to an oversized Popsicle stick.

But this Jesus was different. He was doing the usual hand gesture so popular in religious pictures, but between his hands was a reddish object with thorns around it and light rays shooting out of it.

Lamar asked Mrs. Bernard what that thing on Jesus' chest was. "That's his heart," she whispered.

"Why can we see it?"

Mrs. Bernard was silent for a moment, then changed the subject.

"You know, the Good Book tells us that Jesus stands at the door and knocks, and if we open the door he will come in. And that door is our heart."

"Jesus knocks on our heart?"

"Yes. Now go to sleep."

He became fascinated with that picture. He stared at it the way a dog stares at his owner when he doesn't understand what’s being asked of him.

Lamar kept trying to solve it. “Why can I see his heart? Does my heart look like that? Why is there barbed wire on his heart?”

He put his hand on his chest and he could feel his heart beating. That was scary. While his hand felt the thumping of his heart, his eyes were on Jesus’s chest. That was scarier.

The heart could survive outside the body.

Lamar wanted to go for a walk, so Mrs. Bernard let him out the back door where her yard quickly evolved into a pine forest.

"Go on out and play awhile, and just holler if you need me," she said.

He walked out into the woods, treading quietly on the soft pine straw which soon gave way to underbrush, some of it as tall as Lamar. He walked a little longer, looking for blackberry bushes. He knew to be careful picking the berries, or the thorns would scratch him and hurt like the dickens.

When he looked back, Mrs. Bernard’s house had grown smaller and he felt a familiar tingle conjured by the fear, guilt and excitement that always descended on him when he approached boundaries set by grownups.

He walked a little farther anyway. Something in the brush rustled.

When it rustled a second time, Lamar turned around and started walking back to the house.

Then he heard a rustle and a grunt. He felt a chill settle on his head and neck. He walked faster, but Mrs. Bernard's house stubbornly refused to get closer.

The grunt became a snort, and the rustling stopped. Lamar looked over his shoulder.

It was a pig. A dang big pig. And he was coming for Lamar, and, as he had done so many times in dreams, he ran for his life, hollering as he ran.

Mrs. Bernard bolted out the back door, raced her lumpy old body out to meet him, then pulled the sobbing child into her arms and shooed the pig away.

That pig musta been at least this big, maybe bigger.
Between sobs, Lamar could hear his heart beating, but this time it seemed to be in his head, thud-thudding in his ears. His heart had changed places.

Soon Mrs. Bernard was rocking him in her chair, rocking and humming, trying to calm him down. "There, there, it's okay, Lamar. Bless your heart, sweetie, bless your heart. Don't be afraid. It's all right. That pig wasn't gonna hurt you. He probably was just playing with you."

The rocking, her soft voice, her big arms holding him all snuggly next to her big old-woman breasts . . . it helped. He would not be killed and eaten, not this time. Rocking, he could hear her heartbeat blending with the chair’s rhythmic squeaking.

He heard the school bus pull up. Lovely Thelma bounced into the house, then shushed herself when she saw her mother rocking Lamar. He looked up at her. She was so beautiful.

Almost immediately, his mom came to pick him up, and Mrs. Bernard walked her into the kitchen and told her the pig story. Lamar stayed in the living room by himself, stayed seated in the rocker and studied the Jesus picture.

He didn't get it. Jesus’s heart out there, outside his shirt, for everyone to see. Beating. Beating faster when he was scared, probably.

His heart outside and just beating and beating.

Maybe, he thought, I could be walking down the road some day and see somebody like that. The chill returned to his head and neck.

About a year after the pig chased Lamar, though, he still had not met anyone with an outside heart. And he felt great relief knowing -- or at least being pretty certain -- that it probably wasn't going to happen, ever.

It was just one less thing to dread.

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