a short story by
J. L. HIGGS | Banker + Writer
This story is about the fragility of love, and of not truly understanding what it is to love someone until it’s too late. In writing the story, I drew upon people I’ve known, as well as personal experience.
Photo by Konstantin Aal
LOUIS OPENED his eyes. He’d spent another torturous night hearing the sound of her heart, trying to hold on to her, only to fail once again. Swinging upright, he planted his ashy gray feet on the floor. Across the room from his bed, what remained of the Douglas fir tree leaned against the corner, brittle brown needles and orphaned Christmas ornaments lying beneath it.
Denise’s birthday had long since passed. Now it was April. They’d met in grade school. He’d been a shy dark-skinned boy, teased by his classmates for having a head too large for his small body. Denise, light-skinned, with bangs and a braid of thick black hair that trailed to the middle of her back, was naturally pretty. Like Louis, she was also something of an outcast. She was blind. Though navigating life sightless was natural to Denise, the other children thought it strange. They were afraid of her blindness, and avoided her as if it might be contagious. When the big red rubber playground ball struck Louis in the face, tears had streamed from his eyes. Mrs. Crane, their teacher, had led him from the gym room floor to the sidelines. As he struggled not to cry, Denise had scooted over to him.
“It’s OK,” she’d said, her fingertips tracing his tears to his lips where they lingered like a gentle kiss.
That simple act of kindness touched something inside him. Louis’ behavior toward her changed. He stopped avoiding her and discovered her sweet gentleness made him feel safe, not awkward and uncomfortable like he always did with other people.
Throughout middle school and high school, while the other boys focused on athletics, Louis devoted himself to the saxophone. With Denise’s encouragement, he discovered a universal language in music that helped him express things he’d never been able to put into words. Sometimes, what he felt seemed overwhelming. That had led him to ask Denise if her blindness ever made her feel isolated or afraid. She’d responded, “I can see everything I need to see.”
As time passed, Louis and Denise’s friendship turned into love. When they reached adulthood, they married. With Denise’s unwavering support, Louis continued pursuing his dream of being a full-time musician. But his goal continued to elude him, so he convinced her they should move and try their luck in Boston.
At first, their relocation did not result in success. But after almost a year of struggle, Louis secured full-time employment playing sax. While he played gigs and partied into the early morning hours with his new friends, Denise remained home waiting for him, regardless of when he showed up smelling of cigarette smoke and liquor.
One morning, after months of separate existences, Denise asked him if he was happy. He replied that the band had been getting lots of gigs and was making fast, easy money.
“But are you happy here with me? With us?” she asked.
“Of course, honey,” he responded. “You’re the best. Why?”
“Well, I haven’t met your friends. And you never invite me to your gigs.”
“Honey,” he said, “the clubs we’re playing in are dark sweaty smoke filled caves. It’s loud and crazy. Half the people in them end up totally wasted.”
“But I always accompanied you to your gigs before we moved.”
“Honey,” he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “This is Boston, not that hick town we grew up in. Trust me. You’re not missing a thing except having your shoes stick to the floor and a bunch of people desperate to escape their real lives for a couple of hours.”
“I guess I miss hearing you play music,” she said, nestling her head against his shoulder. “You know that I love you, Louis.”
She turned, and facing him, she touched his lips with her fingertips, and said, “I LOVE YOU.”
Louis got up from his bed. He didn’t know or care what time it was. He no longer owned a clock or a watch. Time had ceased being of any importance to him. After dressing, he knelt beside the bed and stuck his left hand beneath it. His fingers groped air before finding and settling on the rectangular shaped case. As he slid it from under the bed, clumps of gray-white dust trailed it into the room. Louis straightened up. All he could see was a blanketing veil of floating black and silver specs. He dropped the case and plopped down on the bed.
The now familiar dizziness, light-headedness, and pinprick numbness filled his brain. He closed his eyes and breathed in through his nose. Then he exhaled through his mouth.
When the veil faded away, Louis lifted the case to his lap. He unfastened its clasps, raised the lid, and ran his fingers over the word engraved in filigree on the saxophone’s curved bell. Denise.
He closed the case and stood up. He tucked Denise’s small Ouroboros medallion inside his shirt where it came to rest over his heart. Then he pulled on his wrinkled sports coat and tweed cap.
Outside, on Huntington Avenue, daredevil bicyclists darted between the minute spaces between cars. Motorists blasted car horns. A prelude to exchanging rude hand gestures with each other, the cyclists, and pedestrians.
Walking past the statue of the Sioux Chief on his horse, arms outstretched, his face toward the sky, Louis wondered what he was appealing for. He crossed Forsyth Street, and entered Au Bon Pain.“What would you like?” asked the young girl behind the counter.
“I’ll have this here banana and a chocolate croissant,” he replied, pointing. As he reached into his pocket to get his money a phlegm-filled cough erupted, wracking his paper-thin lungs. He gasped for breath and his eyes fill with tears.
“Are you OK?” asked the girl, taking the money from his shaking palm.
Another round of staccato coughs burst forth from deep within him. He raised his hand, palm toward her as if he was surrendering. Unable to speak, he grabbed the banana and croissant off the counter and stumbled over to a nearby booth. There, he placed Denise on the seat across from him.
A few tables away, he noticed a woman and a college-aged girl.
“As usual, you arrived late,” said the woman. “That shows a total lack of consideration for other people.”
“Not this O.C.D. shit again, Mom” replied the girl, flipping the end of her hair.
Louis shifted his attention to the man sitting to his left. He was the stereotype of a college professor, long graying hair, full beard, and wire-frame glasses. Without diverting his attention from that morning’s Herald, he snagged his cup of coffee and took a sip.
Louis took a bite of banana, chewed it, then swallowed. He tore off a piece of the chocolate croissant and placed it in his mouth. He imagined his Doctor reprimanding him for straying from his low sugar diet.
When Denise had begun losing weight, she’d attributed it to growing older and having a reduced appetite. But as the pain in her abdomen intensified, it wore her down. She gave in and told Louis she felt something was wrong. After a long series of complicated tests, the pronounced diagnosis was stage III pancreatic cancer.
Since the cancer was discovered late, Denise’s treatment options were limited. Still, she resolved to live out what remained of her life with as much dignity as possible. Months passed during which the cancer attacked her mercilessly. As her body abandoned her, the cost of her care soared, destroying their meager savings. Financially strapped, Louis gave up their apartment and rented a small single room.
One evening, in mid-December, Denise told him that this would be her last Christmas and birthday. He’d tried to tell her otherwise, but she refused to let him deny what they both knew to be true. So, at her urging, he’d bought the Douglas fir tree and decorated it with mementos of their life together.
Late on Christmas Eve, he turned to her and asked, “Doesn’t any of this anger you?”
She paused, gathering her thoughts, then said, “I don’t have the strength to be angry, Louis. And it wouldn’t change anything. This is how my life is supposed to be.
”She lifted the chain with the Ouroboros medallion from her neck and placed it around his. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I’ll always be with you.”
As snowflakes fell, Louis pulled out his saxophone and played “Silent Night.” When he finished, he saw she was asleep. So, he swaddled her in a blanket and held her in his arms until it was morning.
Less than a week after New Year, Denise had to be hospitalized. Louis kept vigil at her bedside alone. His friends had abandoned him once the good times and fun had ended.
Holding her hand, he sat watching the tear drops of morphine fall and trickle into her veins. Without warning, she’d grit her teeth and squeeze his hand so hard his fingers felt as if they would break. Louis couldn’t understand what she’d done to deserve to suffer so. Feeling helpless, anger swelled inside him. He wanted to smash something, anything, until his hands were broken and bleeding.
The cancer continued consuming her as the machines monitoring her body’s functions maintained their metronomic beat. Her body withered. Its flesh stripped away until her skin was translucent, revealing little more than a birdlike skeletal frame. She stopped eating. Then drinking. One night in February, overcome by exhaustion, he closed his eyes. When he awakened, she’d left. After her death, the reoccurring dream started. It always began with him hearing the sound of her heart. Then she’d appear. He’d look into her eyes and they’d look back at him with a penetrating clarity they’d never possessed in life. She’d take him in her arms, kiss him, and tell him she’d always loved him. He’d try to hold onto her, keep her with him, but she always disappeared, leaving behind only the sound of her heart beating.
Having finished eating, the mother and daughter got up and left their table. Going out the door, the mother said, “please try to be on time next week.”
Overhearing her, the man chuckled. He folded his newspaper, glimpsing his wrist watch. “Oh shit.”
He bolted from his stool, knocking the dregs in his coffee cup onto his pants leg. “Dammit,” he muttered, brushing the muddy stain with his hand as he raced toward the door.
Louis finished chewing the last of his croissant and left the shop. He crossed Huntington Avenue to the inbound side of the Green Line’s trolley car tracks. There, a group of Northeastern students tossed a Frisbee back and forth between the passenger platform and school’s lawn. As the trolley came into view, Louis heard a voice calling, “Mr… Mr…”
Dashing across the tracks, the counter girl from Au Bon Pain reached him as the trolley’s lead car squealed to a halt.
“You forgot this,” she said, handing him the saxophone case.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
“No worries,” she responded, turning and heading back across the tracks.
“Ah…, have a nice day,” he called after her.
“You too,” she replied, before disappearing back inside the shop.
Louis grabbed the trolley car’s handrail, hauled himself up its steps, and through its bi-fold doors.
“Would you like a seat?” asked a tall thin young man with curly brown hair.
“Thanks,” said Louis. He squeezed past the young man and lowered himself onto the firm seat. He sat Denise on his lap and wrapped his arms around her.
“Sax?” asked the young man, holding on to a pole as the trolley car lurched and swayed.
“Yeah, she is that,” responded Louis rubbing the case with his hand.
“I always wanted to play,” said the young man.
“You should,” replied Louis. “No regrets.”
“My stop,” said the young man as the train reached Boylston and the doors opened. “You take care,” he said, shuffling past the other passengers clogging the aisle.
Louis nodded. Then, he bolted to his feet and stumbled toward the doors. “Young man!”
With one foot on the platform, the curly haired man stopped and turned. Louis shoved the saxophone case into his chest, it almost slipped through his hands as the trolley’s doors closed.
At the next stop, Park Street, Louis exited the trolley. He slowly made his way up the narrowly spaced steps that led to the Boston Common. In the Common, he turned left, walking along a tree-lined crushed stone path. Moving diagonally, he left the path. He passed dog owners playing fetch with their pets, balloon vendors selling their twisted creations, tourists in shorts baring their pale white legs, strollers, couples, ice cream vendors, hot dog vendors, skateboarders, people reading and others laying on the grass enjoying the sunshine.
At the top of the small hill, he could see the granite and marble Parkman Bandstand at the hub of the Common’s spoke like paths. He felt that curtain of blackness descending on him. So he stood still, closed his eyes, and inhaled and exhaled until it lifted.
After arriving in Boston, Denise and Louis’ financial problems had continued. Believing being a full-time musician would remain a dream never realized, Louis decided to pawn his saxophone. As he and Denise had wandered lost among the city’s maze-like streets, they’d come upon the bandstand. It was there that Denise had convinced him not to give up hope and to see his dream through.
As he reached the bandstand, Louis heard a familiar sound. The sound of Denise’s heart. He looked. And there she was, in the center of the gazebo’s pavilion.
“I’ve been waiting,” she called as he hurried toward her.
He grasped the gazebo’s black iron handrail, climbed its stairs, and joined her in the pavilion.
She smiled at him and said, “won’t you play for me?”
He began to speak, but she placed her fingertips on his lips, silencing him. He hadn’t played a single note since she’d died. All his music had left with her. But here, with her cross resting on his heart, he played. Music poured from him like a river bursting through a dam. For once, he held nothing back from her.
With sweat falling from his face, Louis opened his eyes. He turned in a full circle. He was alone. Hanging his head, he walked over to the stairs. He hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward, losing his balance. Just before pitching down the steps head first, he grabbed the handrail. With his legs quivering and a shroud of blackness creeping over him, he slumped to the steps. He closed his eyes and reached inside his shirt. His fingers closed around Denise’s small Ouroboros for the last time, as he heard the sound of her heart.
J. L. HIGGS
Banker + Writer
J.L. Higgs is a former Financial Services employee. His short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America. Having retired in late 2015, he is now fulfilling a lifelong interest in the arts by devoting his time to drawing, writing, and traveling abroad. He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, and Literally Stories. He and his wife currently reside outside of Boston, as do their son and daughter.