Heart TroublesA Story by Alysa Salzberg
What’s in a person’s heart? I guess it’s what you live and die and could come back for.
To Whom It May Concern:
All residents are reminded not to leave trash bags outside their doors, even if only for a few moments. This could pose possible health threats to neighbors.
Mr. Thomas was always writing notes. That’s just about all I knew of him until those two horrible nights, and just about all I still know for certain.
Each character was so exact, I remember, the same width and length in millimeters as the letters before and after it. I always wondered why he signed his messages, though, because someone else in the building would inevitably scrawl something below his name. For example:
likes little boys
We used to live in a nice house, but when my dad left, it started to get run down. I was really pissed off at my mom, then one day I found myself thinking about “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Our house’s brown-stained gray stucco facade, and peeling wallpaper and worn floorboards, echoed my mom’s inner despair. When things got better, the house would look better.
Finally, we had to sell it, and hope no one would notice the bigger problems. As we drove away in our overstuffed car, I felt like some of our memories stayed behind, like lost and lingering ghosts. At the first red light, I wrote:
I’ll bleed forth
watching the stain spread
-- a distorted pool of deep red
in two shattered parts,
the ragged halves
of a broken heart
That later ended up on page 5 of my school’s Fall Literary Magazine.
Our new apartment was in the same town, at least. A big red Lego in a gated complex of red Lego’s, it looked like every other modern apartment building I’ve ever seen in north Georgia -- sunburnt brick, with open-walled, white-painted wooden stairwells in the middle. You’re probably used to seeing the place on TV by now; still, its new fame hasn’t made its appearance any more interesting.
We were on the highest floor, the third. When everything was inside and the movers had left, I just started decorating my room. My mom helped me put my Nightmare Before Christmas sheets and bedspread on my old bed, which looked strange in the new, bare-walled room. My Hexa poster went on the closet door, my full-length mirror went on the other side. The two small, framed Edward Gorey prints I’d asked my dad to buy me at the mall last year, went one below the other on the right side of the window. On the other side was my dresser. I taped the “Dream within a Dream” poster that Katie had bought me from Hot Topic, above my bed.
Later that afternoon, I went downstairs to put the trash in a dumpster, and there was Mr. Thomas, standing in front of the building notice board. He was doing what I would usually see him do: pushing a tack into the top one of his letters, the edge of his thumb turning waxy white.
“Hello,” he nodded at me. He was polite, but his pale blue eyes were mean. He was older, maybe in his late sixties, and tall but stooped. I nodded back and glanced at the note. Something about new recycling procedures.
I’m not really talkative, I guess, but I was raised well. “Do you like history?” I remember asking him. I’d noticed the stack of library books he was carrying, all about the Civil War. On the top was a book of Matthew Brady’s battlefield photos. Even then, before I knew anything, thinking of those photos gave me a chill, as the thought of them inexplicably always has, ever since I first saw one of them in our American History book in Fifth Grade.
In response to my question, or maybe to my shudder, Mr. Thomas just nodded. I got the impression maybe he was mocking me. “Goodnight,” I told him quickly, then went back upstairs.
I might have been the person who was closest to Mr. Thomas in one way: the wall behind my bed bordered on his living room wall.
I guess apartment living is good for a writer, because you can listen in, like a sort of ghost, following someone’s comings and goings. Retired from whatever job he once had, Mr. Thomas didn’t seem to have a schedule the way Mom or I did. The rhythm of his life was like irregular heartbeats. Sometimes, he left for days at a time. Whenever he was home, though, the History Channel was on. Old recordings of Presidents and World War II gunfire began to invade my dreams.
To Whom It May Concern:
Residents are kindly asked not to use the woods as a cut-through to other locations. Walking here can cause residents to bring ticks, pollen, and other nuisances and threats to sanitation, into our building.
“Some people have too much free time,” my mom muttered, as we passed by the bulletin board. I was spending the night at Katie’s while she went on a date.
to wonder if that specific letter was for me.
I cut through the woods all the time to get to the main road, or to go
I didn’t really know what to think about death, despite all the poems I wrote about it, and the skulls on my notebooks. I knew no rules for it. All I knew then, I guess, was that it was sad that someone could leave and never come back, or that you could die and take nothing with you.
I didn’t have a problem with Mr. Thomas, no matter what anyone might think. I never had anything mean to say to him -- or to anyone, if you think about it, not even to Tommy Answorth, who once leaned over to me in Physics and said, “Are you a Goth, or just a b***h?”
There was just one time I was rude to Mr. Thomas. It was a few months after our first meeting, and many, many notes later. I’d just come back from walking Arthur Gordon Pym, the puppy Mom had bought me for my birthday. I love Arthur Gordon Pym. He’s a golden retriever with really soft fur. In the lobby, there was Mr. Thomas, in his spot near the bulletin board, his thumb turning white as it forced down a green tack. He turned to me, still pushing.
“So you’re the one leaving dog droppings all over the landscaping out front. You know, that doesn’t look good, and it costs a lot of money to clean up.”
That last wasn’t true; the landscapers came weekly - it was included in our rent. Maybe that’s what made me angry, or maybe it’s how he was sneering down at me. Normally I would have thought of how Mr. Rochester seems like a total dick but ends up being Jane Eyre’s true love, or of the lonely sound of the History Channel echoing through a quiet room. But instead, something else happened: “Excuse me, but have you ever seen me leave my dog’s droppings behind? How do I know it’s not you making a mess out there?”
Mr. Thomas stared. It was the only time I would see him look surprised, despite what was to come.
I’m definitely not a b***h, as Tommy Answorth had suggested, so when I said all that, my head felt like it was floating off my neck, and my stomach had dropped far below the rest of my body.
I picked up Arthur Gordon Pym and ran up the stairs. Once inside our apartment, I ran to my bedroom. For a while I laughed and looked at myself in the mirror, feeling pretty good and looking kind of pretty, maybe, in the black lace top Katie and I had found the week before at Goodwill. I thought of how I really didn’t pick up Arthur Gordon Pym’s poop -- it just wasn’t dignified -- and I laughed some more, but felt worry burning in my stomach. I’d have to be careful; I didn’t want any more problems than I already had in my life.
I’m going to admit one more thing: One day, I went to get the mail, and there between my mom’s bills and other stuff, was a letter for Mr. Thomas. I guess it’d gotten mixed in with our things by mistake. I should have just slid the letter into his mailbox, but I was curious. The envelope was handwritten, so it wasn’t a check or anything official. I guess I’m sort of an expert at that, because when my parents first got divorced, I used to open all my mom’s mail before she could. I don’t really know why.
So anyway, I took Mr. Thomas’ letter and ran upstairs with it hidden in the middle of the rest of our mail. I threw all the other stuff on the kitchen counter, then went in my room and locked the door. I worked the envelope open slowly. In books the people always do it with steam, but I was worried if I tried that my mom might come home early for once and catch me.
I was hoping for a love letter or something. But instead, it was just a card with a photo of an old man inside.
“Wade,” the letter went,
“Had a great time. When I get back from
PS The bullets sold for $300. Not bad.”
Later, when the body started showing up at our apartment building, I tried to get in touch with this guy, George Tucker. But when I called, his family told he’d been dead for a while, probably a few months after he’d written this note.
Time went on.
The day after New Year’s:
To Whom It May Concern:
Please consider beginning to remove your Christmas wreathes and trees. Keeping them up for too long can create dirty and inappropriate conditions for our building and its residents.
is a buttwipe
On page 2 of the Winter Literary Magazine:
One wilted rose
On the violet of her cold lips
A last kiss
Before I sent her body
Back to the sea.
The leaves falling on your forehead,
on your hair,
make me think of two lavender petals
that now rest,
I’ll never know where.
One night, everything changed. Mom was out, and I remember I’d just finished a section in the novel I was writing, and I was on my way to the bathroom to dye my hair again.
Suddenly, there was a noise in the hallway. I know what it was now, and I’ll never forget it, but it’s hard to describe. When we’d first moved in, my mom had opened a box and untangled the wind chimes that used to hang from a nail on the wall by our deck. They’d slipped from her hand and fallen on the tile floor, sliding towards the refrigerator. If you took the silver bells and discs away, the sound of the hollow wooden tubes was maybe the same as what I heard now.
The sound got louder. I went to look out the peephole. Arthur Gordon Pym followed me.
Moving down the hallway, was something I couldn’t believe. Bones, all bones, nothing but that and some tattered brown rags that dropped clods of dirt on the white ground. To say it simply, it was what looked like a skeleton -- a real one, not white but yellowish-brown. I felt very cold. Was it a trick? I strained my eye to see more, even though no part of me wanted to see anything else. I stared until the thing moved past the limits of the peephole.
Beside me, Arthur Gordon Pym seemed frozen in place. The toes of all four soft paws were splayed, his eyes were wide. He whimpered and swallowed.
The kitchen clock ticked loudly. I thought of all the dark rooms around me and imagined horrors there.
From far away came a noise I hadn’t heard before. I knew what it was, though: the doorbell of Mr. Thomas’ apartment. I carried Arthur Gordon Pym to my bedroom and sat down on the bed, holding him tightly in my lap.
The History Channel turned off, and the sound of Mr. Thomas rising from his chair waded to me through the thick silence.
“Who is it?”
The reply was muffled.
“Don’t open it,” I murmured. “Don’t open it,” I said louder. Arthur Gordon Pym whimpered. I took a breath to yell. “Don’t -- ”
The sound of the key turning, the sound of the door swinging open, then slamming shut.
“You have some things that belong to me.” The skeleton’s voice was reedy and unreal, but I could hear it clearly. It seemed like the wind, it could go through fissures and vents to reach my ears.
Mr. Thomas’ reply was steady and calm, “How did you get into the building? This is a good joke, I’ll admit.”
There was some other noise, hollow wind chimes clacked, and I heard Mr. Thomas give a low gasp.
“You have some things that belong to me,” the voice said again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you remember me from Resaca? You picked over my bones. You have some things that belong to me.” This time the voice was tighter than before, the words came more quickly, sharply, like something dangerous. “Buttons, jewelry, coins. A bullet.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” my neighbor insisted.
A wordless wind encircled us like a storm.
There was a pause. Then Mr. Thomas said: “I don’t have them anymore. I sold them last week.”
After a few moments of silence, the reedy voice returned: “Get them back.”
“I can’t.” Strangely enough, Mr. Thomas didn’t seem that afraid.
“Get. Them. Back.”
Arthur Gordon Pym gave a short bark.
“Shh!” I held his mouth closed.
“-What was left of them.”
“Where are my things?!” The wind whirled faster.
“They weren’t yours to begin with.”
“The bullet! That was mine. That was my blood splattered over the metal.” The wind settled. “Get. Them. Back.”
“I found them fairly.”
“You have one week.”
The door handle turned. The door opened. The hollow wood sound was in the hallway. When it was gone, I took my hand off Arthur Gordon Pym’s muzzle. He struggled out of my arms and hid under the bed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, getting down on the floor to see him. I held out my hand to touch him, but he didn’t move towards it.
A few minutes later, I called Katie. When I told her what had happened, she got quiet and then: “A skeleton? You’re not doing drugs, right?” It seemed like it was something she’d been meaning to ask me for a while.
I didn’t want to leave for school the next morning; I didn’t want to leave the apartment at all, I guess. I kept thinking about what I’d seen, and a feeling of terror would fall down my throat to my stomach. But then I’d wonder if I’d gone crazy or something.
In the hallway, there were tracks of red clay mud all over the white boards. That could have been from anyone.
When I saw Katie at lunch, I wondered if I should try to explain again. Instead I told her I was just trying to freak her out.
Back in my room after school, I kept moving around, and Arthur Gordon Pym kept looking at me and whining.
I put on his leash, and we headed for the stairs. A few feet away from them, Arthur Gordon Pym stopped dead. He whimpered again. His nose whistled.
“Come on,” I said. But he wouldn’t move.
I looked to where he was looking. On the landing, in the left-hand corner by the first step down, was a small whitish round thing. I moved closer and bent over it. Arthur Gordon Pym stayed behind. His leash, with its line of white skulls against black, strained between us. What I was looking at could have been, say, a game piece, or a discolored plastic part of something - but I understood as well as an anatomy student might have: it was the top of a skeletal finger or toe. I stayed fixed to the spot, like when you see a spider in the bathroom and don’t know if you can bring yourself to crush it, or even to run away. I wasn’t crazy, like someone out of Poe. I was still, staring at a piece of bone that meant I’d really seen what I’d seen last night.
Finally, I stood up and walked Arthur Gordon Pym back to our apartment. He ran beside me, and peed on the welcome mat. S**t. I cleaned it up with some paper towels, then patted him, made sure I had the key in my pocket, and closed him back inside.
A few paces down the hall, I reached Mr. Thomas’ door and knocked. I didn’t want to touch the bell.
The History Channel was on, so I knew he was there and alive and well. But he didn’t answer.
“Mr. Thomas, it’s me -- your neighbor,” I called out.
The TV turned off, and I heard him move to the door, but he didn’t open it. I wanted to just walk away, but I had to say something. “I heard what happened - last night. Maybe I can help you get back the stuff that - If you need any help, I’m good with finding things online - I could get the address - ”
He interrupted me from behind the door: “How do I know it wasn’t you who sent him here in the first place?” In his voice there was the same meanness I’d seen in his eyes. His eyes which, I could somehow feel, were staring pointedly at my black coffin earrings.
In our living room, I turned on the computer. The skeleton said he was missing some things. I Googled “coins, skeleton” and other combinations. Nothing came up that made sense. I thought again. He’d talked about a bullet a lot. I thought about the letter I’d stolen. I went to my room and took it out of my desk drawer (sorry George).
“Resaca.” The skeleton had mentioned that, too.
According to my research, it was an old Civil War battle site.
The War happened almost a hundred and fifty years ago. It was pretty hard to imagine anything surviving. But a friend of my dad’s, Mr. Patrick, used to say you could still find bullets, and even old buttons from the uniforms of decomposed soldiers, if you looked hard enough. The War happened a long time ago, but its traces had stayed behind, like a lot of things do. Like red clay and bone in a new, white-painted hallway.
I didn’t know much about Mr. Thomas, but I knew what I needed to know.
I took out an old stationary pad I’d never used, and wrote a brief note:
Dear Mr. Thomas,
Be careful with the undead.
I went out and slid it under his door.
He never replied.
The week somehow went by. Every morning when I went down the stairs, I walked as far as possible from the corner where the piece of bone was.
When the seventh day came, it was gone. At school, I told Katie I really had to study for a math test (true) and asked her to take Arthur Gordon Pym for the night so I wouldn’t be distracted.
She came home with me and took him. I tried not to show how much I wanted them both gone, but how much I hoped that somehow they’d stay.
An hour or so later, in the empty apartment, I sat on my bed, and waited. I felt like I would throw up. I felt like nothing was real.
The hollow sound came a little after sunset. I could hear it even in my room, even over the loud drone of the History Channel on Mr. Thomas’ TV. Cold chills coursed through my veins. Mr. Thomas’ bell rang.
He didn’t turn off the TV, and he didn’t get up. The bell rang again. And again -- soon it was sounding off without stopping. But Mr. Thomas still didn’t move. My head came to settle back on my neck.
And then I heard his door fly open.
Now the TV shut off, though I’m not sure by whose hand.
“You have some things that belong to me,” came the corpse’s popular refrain.
“No I don’t,” Mr. Thomas’ voice sounded calm. “They’re gone, sold to that fella in
“I told you to get them back.” The wind of the voice was a gale.
“If you’re really what you seem to be, they didn’t really belong to you to begin with. I’ve done my homework, I’ve studied up on archaeology. Your position in the ground says it all: You weren’t a soldier -- you were there picking the dead ones clean, and you got shot on the job. No, I couldn’t get the things back, and they’re not yours.” Mr. Thomas seemed annoyed, more than anything else.
“The bullet.” For one second, the voice sounded almost normal. Then it sort of choked. “You have made a terrible mistake.” Rage laced his words like frost on high grasses.
“I’m not sure about that. Like you, I knew I could make some good money. I did.”
One thing I’ll say for Mr. Thomas, besides being a real dick (not the Mr. Rochester kind), he was also the bravest person I’ve ever met.
The ice in his visitor’s voice cracked and in this cracking came: “I’ll find a way to make you regret what you’ve done.”
With that, the hollow wood sound started again, and I heard Mr. Thomas’ door close. The hollow sound continued down the hall. My skin went cold.
When there was no more noise, I lie back on my bed. My neighbor had turned back on the History Channel. My clothes were soaked with sweat.
Mr. Thomas died three months ago. It’s been over a year since those two nights.
He’d apparently had heart problems for decades, so none of his relatives or doctors were surprised about his death.
As you probably know, the surprise came the morning after his funeral.
That morning, I woke up to screams coming from the floor below us. Mom was already dressed. After she’d looked through the peephole, we opened the door. Then, still seeing nothing bad, we ventured to the balcony. Our downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Cather, was still screaming, standing just outside her door, where a man was lying in a heap on her doormat.
Everything stopped. Everyone stayed in their apartments while the police and firemen came to ask questions and remove the body. At first we all thought it was someone who’d gotten drunk and wandered there before passing out. Then word got around that it was a dead body. No one had seen anything. No one knew who the corpse might belong to.
A few hours later, they confirmed that it was Mr. Thomas.
When I heard, I felt dizzy. “Are you alright?” my mom asked me. She looked like she felt like she should talk to me -- about death maybe or that I dressed too weird and the cops might start to ask questions. I shook my head and went to my room.
Mr. Thomas was buried again, after endless apologies from the cemetery.
The following night, I heard that sound. It made my blood turn instantly to ice, even after I’d had nearly a year and a half’s time to forget it. Hollow wooden wind chimes moving slowly down the hall. This time, a dull noise dogged every pace: something heavy being dragged. I shivered and pulled the blankets over my head.
Mr. Thomas’ body was found the next morning near the third floor balcony. The police and fire department came quickly and did the same things they’d done the morning before.
This time, the question was, who was digging up the body and placing it in our building? I knew the answer, but knew I couldn’t tell, because no one would believe me.
“This can’t go on,” the neighbors started complaining.
But it did go on, as everyone knows. Soon, news crews were showing up even before the police and fire departments.
I don’t want to describe what we saw every morning, but I think I have to. It was different than one of those Matthew Brady photos. It was in color, for one thing. The skin was pigmented like an old person’s fingernail. Some kids looked at his eyes, but I couldn’t. I don’t even know if there was anything left. The smell made me want to vomit, but maybe that had nothing to do with the smell.
The following week, Mr. Thomas’ body was moved to another cemetery, but still it would turn up somewhere in our building, morning after morning.
“My kids are traumatized,” Mr. Brown on the first floor complained. “And it’s unsanitary.”
“It smells awful.”
wrote a note to the
But still Mr. Thomas’ cadaver kept reappearing. Last week, as you know if you’re still following the story, or if you’re one of those kids doing the Weird Georgia tour and sneaking out here, they closed down our building, even though Mr. Thomas’ body still keeps showing up. We moved again, to another apartment complex that looks exactly the same.
Now there are no more hollow wind chime noises, though I do dream about them sometimes.
What’s in a person’s heart? I guess it’s what you live and die and could come back for.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mr. Thomas, and what was in his heart. It didn’t seem to be love or friendship, or even history. Like I said, I didn’t know much about him, but I can’t help but think I know what was there, and what remains, something solid as a bullet lodged in rapidly disappearing muscle and flesh: a last, unfinished letter.
To Whom It May Concern,
(I can see the precise lettering in my mind)
I would like to apologize to my former neighbors, and especially to the Residency Board, for the constant reappearance of my body in various locations in our building. I am aware that this is not only unsightly, but a health hazard and a violation of a number of city sanitation codes. I ask that you inform the proper authorities and that you please be patient.
likes being touched by firemen
© 2010 Alysa Salzberg
AboutA reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a good kid to be around if you don't like silence, a movie buff, a history buff, sometimes walks around the house in the buff, an ins.. more..