Heart Rot

by Frances Howard-Snyder
Rain battered the siding and wind wailed in the trees, but the house was sturdily constructed, the nearby cedars had deep roots, and the wood stove would keep us warm if the power went out. We should have been safe.

I stood at the entrance to the workshop, inhaling scents of sawdust and resin and listening to the sound of a rasp. The two men in my life, bent together over an unfinished oak dresser, were a study in contrasts: my husband, Gideon, had grey-blond hair cut close to his skull and skin baked ruddy and packed tight as a pitbull's, while Aaron, our son, was loose-limbed with a thin veneer of muscle, floppy hair, and pale cheeks.

"The drawer must be parallel to the rails and the frame," Gideon said.

"What?" Aaron's head was somewhere else.

Gideon leaned in and removed Aaron's earphones. "Otherwise the drawer will collide with the frame and won't open or close. It… will … not… function." He enunciated each word as he would with a little child. Then he laughed to soften the effect.

"I know that, Dad."

"Then why can't you do it right?" Gideon sighed. "The parts have to slide together in the same direction, one against the other." He glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.

I smiled. "Dinner's almost ready. You two should wash up."

"Come on, Aaron. Do this right."

I heard an edge in his voice and wanted to tell him that was not the way to persuade the boy. They'd been working on this piece for three hours and Aaron was bored and frustrated. Just let him be, I wanted to say but I held my tongue.

"How are you ever going to join my business if you can't make a simple drawer?"

"I'm not going to join your business."

"Yes, you are."

At this point in other conversations, Aaron would usually concede the point. This time he straightened his spine and stood tall, an inch or two taller than his father but lighter, more pine than mahogany. "No. I'm going to college."

I held my breath.

Gideon laughed. "To study what?"

Aaron swallowed and glanced in my direction. "Philosophy."

Where did that come from, I wondered.

Gideon started slow and soft. "Philosophy?" Then louder. "Philosophy?" He looked towards me but I avoided his eyes. "What can you build with philosophy?"

"I don't want to build. I want to understand."

"Understand?" Gideon shook his head. "Understanding is a luxury. You have to give something back, pay your way." He moved around his workshop, touching large pieces and lifting small ones, carved chairs and boxes, their sides perfectly aligned, their moving parts sliding quietly, their wood still fragrant. "I've given you a chance to do this, this thing that I do and love, and you spit in my face." His cheeks were a deeper red than usual. "Get out," he said through clenched teeth.

Aaron glanced at me again. I nodded. He headed toward the stairs. I'd take him a plate later.

I returned to the kitchen and tossed garlic and rosemary in hot oil, filling the kitchen with their loud scents. Then I set a pot to boil and started chopping ham, all the while trying to think how to interpret Aaron's announcement and Gideon's reaction. I had to put myself between them, to blunt the force of Gideon's personality, but how?

"This was your idea," my husband said behind me.

I shook my head.

"Where did he get it, then?"

I shrugged. "Books, maybe."

"Books!" He opened the dishwasher and started rearranging plates and pans, making more room and more racket. "I need him. He owes me," he muttered.

"This is the twenty-first century," I said in my calmest voice. "Kids get to choose their own path now."

He straightened up. "What are you suggesting? That the rules change like the lengths of women's skirts?"

“No.”

"Loyalty is a virtue today, just as it was back then. It's like…" He moved his hands. "Like I was saying about the dresser. If a family is to function, its parts must move in parallel, all working towards the same goal. I can’t afford to pay an assistant. I need Aaron to take this apprenticeship, and I can't afford university fees. You know how hard we were hit last year with that load of oak blighted with heart rot. You'll back me up on this one, Martha." Not exactly a question but he wanted an answer.

I bit my lip. I hated fighting him, hated it enough that I would often compromise to keep the peace, but I couldn't compromise Aaron's future. Aaron, born after years of trying and three losses, Aaron, who I loved even when I couldn't love myself. I couldn't kill his dream. But I couldn't flat out refuse Gideon's request either. Not yet anyway. "Let me think about it."

His eyes narrowed. "Think about it? Jesus, Martha! I'm your husband. You're not supposed to have to think about it." He shook his head in disgust, and headed out the backdoor into the pouring rain.



After Gideon left early Saturday in our rusted pickup to fetch supplies, I asked Aaron to help me with some yardwork. The garden was green and brown, with just a touch of color here and there: a pink camellia, winter cabbages, and a blue jay watching us from the fence. I smiled at the rare sunlight that warmed our faces and lit up the green yellow grass, the sparkling spider webs, the brown and grey leaves. Aaron started raking, while I pulled on rubber gloves, lifted the heavy pruning shears, and set about tackling the apple trees.

"Mom," he said after the third wheelbarrow trip to the compost heap. "Will you help me get to college?" He gazed intently at my face. This was a test, a test I could easily fail.

"Let's sit," I said. "Tell me everything.” I wiped the dew off the bench, and we sat side by side.

"I've been accepted at the UW."

"Oh!" I said, a small purr of joy. I'd known that he was applying and even found the cost of application fees out of my grocery money, but I hadn't dared to believe he could do it. "And you want to study… philosophy?" The word sounded strange in my mouth.

He nodded eagerly. "I want to study a lot of things – math, science, psychology, but I want to focus on philosophy."

I wondered if Gideon would have been more agreeable if Aaron had said physics. You can build things with physics. And then, once at university, well, I've heard that students change their majors as easily as they change their underwear. "Why philosophy?" I asked.

Aaron rubbed his nose and pushed the hair out of his eyes. I wondered – for the thousandth time – how Gideon and I could have made such a perfect child.

“I believe it will help me make sense, of myself and the world, right and wrong, freedom, identity, everything.”

Conscious of the dense, foggy marsh of my own mind, I thought how grand it would be to make sense.

"This is a fine dream, Darling, but I don't see how we can afford it."

Aaron said, "There's the money from the sale of Grandpa's house. I know it won't cover the full cost of tuition, but I can work and maybe get a loan. You said the money would be for my education, and that that was what Grandpa would have wanted."

This was true. My father had died a couple of years earlier and left me his home. We'd managed to sell it for a decent profit. After Gideon had used five thousand of the proceeds on tools, I'd resisted the pressure to spend the rest on other things, new equipment or home improvements and the like. But recently we'd been cheated by a supplier. Our debts were mounting, putting the family business in danger.

"Dad plans to use that money to pay our debts," I started.

Aaron turned quickly, shaking his head, a shadow of his father in the motion. "I'm your son, Mom," he said. "It's your money. This should be an easy choice."

What did he know? He'd just turned eighteen. How could he understand the forces pulling in opposite directions threatening to tear me apart? "It's not easy, Aaron. Let me do some investigating and get back to you."

He nodded and then lent against my shoulder. I picked a leaf out of his hair and pressed my face against his damp head.

"Maybe I could do it on my own," he murmured.

"No!" I said quickly. I'd tried that myself and look where it got me. Dropped out after three semesters with no degree and a load of debt. I could do better for Aaron.



The next Saturday early afternoon, I leaned against the wall of a hallway in the Tacoma public library, scanning the flyers advertising chess lessons and bagpipes and a farmers' market and 'cleansing through crystals'. To my right I could see the children's section – posters of talking animals and rows of dog-eared picture books and beanbags where mothers could hold toddlers on their laps while reading aloud.

The line ahead of me shuffled forward every ten or twenty minutes. I watched the lucky few who had already made it to the front of the line talking with local lawyers who volunteered at the free law clinic. I'd thought of paying for the privilege of privacy but $300 an hour had seemed absurdly extravagant.

Eventually the tired looking young woman stood up, hefted her baby onto her hip, said something inaudible, and moved away. My turn.

The lawyer was somewhere between forty and fifty, slender in a chic burgundy suit, with black piping, accentuated by black pearls, with the soft, blond bob that floated improbably around her smooth, oval face. I must have looked a sight to her, with my low heels, jeans and anorak, my hair wet and tousled from the wind and rain.

After a brief introduction, she opened a fountain pen and set a yellow pad in front of her. "Well?" she said in a way that suggested that I shouldn't waste her time. "Tell me about your marriage."

"I..." I stammered. "I'm not sure that's relevant." My mouth was sticky. All the moisture from my body had drained into my wet armpits and my racing heart.

She peered at me over her glasses and then glanced at the sign above her station that said "divorce law." Had I come to the wrong station? Could I read? This was worse than a mammogram. I looked towards the exit with longing. But escaping now wouldn't get me back the two and a half hours I'd spent driving and waiting or get me answers to my questions.

"Would you like a glass of water?" she asked in a gentler tone.

I nodded. She stood and walked to the water cooler in the corner and returned with a plastic cup.

After several sips, I started. "We've been married for twenty six years and have one child." I smiled. "Aaron, his name is. He's eighteen. My husband has worked as a carpenter all his adult life. He started his own business about ten years ago."

I paused, realizing I hadn't answered her question.
"And you?" she asked.

The question I'd always dreaded, especially when asked by professional women. "Oh, I'm just a homemaker."

Elizabeth Cox clenched her fist almost imperceptibly. Maybe "just" was a bad word in this context. I was supposed to feel bad about my feelings of inadequacy.

"Why do you want a divorce?"

"I… I'm not sure I do."

"Well, what does he do that bothers you?"

I hadn't intended to go into this, but since she asked, I started and kept talking for a long time. Forgetting to be nervous, not caring if the folks at the next table heard me, I talked and talked, raising my voice, moving my hands. It felt like a dam breaking.

She smiled as she listened. Perhaps she liked me or perhaps it was just pity.

"So why have you stayed married so long?" she asked.

I laughed a little at the intrusive question. "Oh, it's not so bad."

Her face was blank.

"And I didn't have many other options."
Still impassive.

"And for Aaron's sake."

She raised her chin. That last answer make the most sense -- as I'd only just realized.

"So, if you don't want a divorce, what brings you in here, Mrs. Peterson?"

I delivered the statement I'd prepared on the drive over. "I have questions. I want to know what my legal options are. If I were to divorce my husband -- not saying I want to, mind -- but if I did, what would happen to our assets?"

She turned to a new sheet of yellow paper. "Tell me what assets you have, and what debts."

I described the property, the business, the inheritance, and the money we owed. And the lawyer answered my questions in detail.



When I finally reached home around six o' clock, I entered our kitchen, removed my boots and shook out my wet hair. Raised voices reached me from the workshop. My two men arguing. This was new for Aaron. Trembling, I walked towards the voices.

"After everything I've given you, this is how you repay me?" I heard Gideon say.

A letter lay on the workbench between them. I couldn’t read the words but I could see a fancy letterhead.

"I'm an adult, Dad. You can't stop me." Aaron's voice was strained but firm.

"And how do you plan to pay for tuition, not to mention food, shelter, car?"

Aaron's Adam's apple moved up and down his thin neck. "I can work."

"Oh, right. And who's going to hire you?"

I set my groceries down with a thump. Both turned to look at me, expecting something.

"Mom will help me."

"No, she won't." Gideon was confident, sure that twenty six years of obedience would be a hard habit to break.

"I forgot to buy the chicken breasts for dinner," I said. "Would you mind, Aaron." I held up my keys. When he nodded, I tossed them to him.  

As he moved past me, I reached up to fix his collar. He briefly squeezed my hand between his cheek and shoulder.

Gideon followed me into the kitchen and started helping with the groceries and dishwasher. "He'll come around, you'll see. Just a few months of living on his own will change his mind."

"Not if I help him," I said, so softly I wasn't sure Gideon heard.

He moved some cutlery and then raised himself to a standing position. He gestured towards the kitchen table. "Sit!"

I obeyed.

"Sounds like you're going to have to choose between us. Him… " He jerked his thumb in the direction of Aaron's retreat. "And me."

I lifted my face and looked into his ice blue eyes. Am I really going to do this, I wondered, this thing I'd been rehearsing all the way home?

Finally I spoke. "I'm going to have to choose?" I held his gaze. "I carried him in my womb for nine months; they had to cut him out of me."

Gideon rolled his eyes. "Spare me the melodrama."

"I nursed him. I taught him to read," I continued. "I've already chosen. I've always chosen."

Gideon breathed deeply, filling his cheeks and puffing a little. "We'll see how the two of you manage without me."

I took a deep breath and took another leap. "I spoke to a divorce lawyer today."

His eyes widened. "You're not thinking of leaving me, are you?"

Odd that. Hadn't he just threatened to leave me? I reached out and touched his arm. "No, but I wanted to know what my options were."

He pulled away. "What did he say, this lawyer?"

"She said that if we divorced, I could keep my dad's money. Inheritances are exempt from the community property laws."

"And I'd get everything else."

I shook my head. "She said… Apparently the law says that we built everything else together and so it will be divided equally between us."

He laughed, a harsh, wretched laugh that went on and on, and then held up his calloused hands. "You built nothing."

I didn't respond. I didn't need to answer him, but I reminded myself of the lawyer's words. You worked by his side, cooking, laundering, cleaning, accounting, gardening. You deserve every penny. The remembered words bolstered me as I kept staring at him.

Gideon swallowed. "Splitting up would ruin us."

"Yes," I said. "But it might save Aaron." Then I added, "Now, it's your turn to choose, Gideon."

His eyes darkened, his jaw clenched. He lifted the steak knife he was holding. I thought he would drive it into the wood on the kitchen table, but he stopped, perhaps held in check by respect for wood and craftsmanship. He let the knife fall with a clatter and let out a little puff of air, opened and closed his mouth two or three times, stood and moved to the window and stared out at the cold green yard.

Then he took off – out through the back door. I expected to hear the truck, but instead I heard a chainsaw, not an unfamiliar sound but an unnerving one here and now. I stood at the counter, unsure whether to start dinner. Would I have a family to serve dinner to in an hour? I found an onion and started chopping. I could afford to waste an onion.

"He could still work for me over weekends and in the summer, right?" Gideon's gruff voice asked behind me.

I turned. "You'd have to discuss that with him. He'll need some sort of job—one way or the other. I guess working for you would be as good as any. But you'll need to ask him."

"I dunno," he said. "This idea'll take some getting used to. You don't think it would be beneath him?"

He was asking my advice or my permission. A new season.
Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University but prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has published several stories at Halfway Down the Stairs, The Magnolia Review, Oxford Magazine and other places.

© 2017, Frances Howard-Snyder