Sweet look there, the cardiologist liked to say, waving his hand toward something in the garden, the hydrangea, for example, and when pressed (Is it the silver Mopheads you like? the pale Oakleaf?) he would slip the question. I don’t care about that sort of shit, he’d say, and because he was a cardiologist and was paid in excess for his education and theories concerning the human body’s heart, most were inclined to overlook his crass colloquial speech and presume he knew something they did not, and, as such, his generic remarks and browless trivializations would go mostly uncontested.
But the gardeners were really troubled by the cardiologist. The man was frequently in their gardens, and he was repeatedly flippant and haughty and ignorant. They suggested he try another avocation, street hockey, for example.
A cardiologist cannot be cowed, not really. A cardiologist does not know how to behave having been reprimanded. A chastened cardiologist will go forward, come right at you. This cardiologist heard what the gardeners requested, and he did not like it. He heard them tell him to stay away from their garden, and he replied, Sure, sure, but one day, not right this minute, or anything, but some day I would like to dig a hole in your garden, plant some shit out here, who knows what, where are the spades again?
There was some uncertainty, at first, as to whether the cardiologist could possibly be serious. He was serious. He was told, then, to keep his prissy hands out of the garden. Never touch the garden, he was told. He could not be kept from planting his fat, impetuous brain there, no, but he could surely be stopped from a physical, material transgression. The garden was not for his pleasure any more. He could not meddle. You cannot half-ass an interest in the garden, he was told. He was told he would do harm with his stupidity.
The cardiologist, of course, pushed the matter. He reminded the gardeners that he could dissemble the human heart in his bare hands, break that fucking thing in two on a daily basis, if he’d wanted. But, he said with heavy pause, But, I would never do that, because I work instead with the finest of fine instruments—he waggled his fingers in front of the eyes of the gardeners—that help me probe with the lightness of feathers intricate and intimate spaces no larger than dust motes.
Stick with the heart, he was told, and stay the hell out of the garden. That is the way things go with this garden. He was told he was loved as a viable member of the functioning community, but stay the hell out, he wasn’t welcome to meddle in that space any longer.
The cardiologist shook his head. It was nonsense to him. He was not the kind of person to be told not to do something. He did not lie down, did not roll over. He was thirty-four years old at that time, exceptionally bald, exceptionally anxious. He was the head of something important in cardiothoracic surgery, internationally, and he had not gotten there by being told what to do by people who pretended to know something he could figure out by doing it himself. He was the spearhead, no shaft. There was very little he would not do, felt he could not do, but the gardeners had become silent, had turned their back on him, and he dropped the matter for the time being, curled up at his own home with a technological device for hours until his wife and children would get their shoes to leave him there by himself in silence—
Some night after this he would go to the garden when no one was around and begin digging with a trowel he’d brought with him in his back pocket. He had been on his hands and knees, digging at the root system of a patch of Forget-me-nots along a rock bed when he impaled himself, somehow, in the gut. He was just bleeding out there on the rocks when he was found. One of the gardeners found him just before dawn, and he was not at that point emitting noise, and the cardiologist was brought inside the green house, at his request, once he’d found consciousness in the eyes of his wife who stood over him, having been summoned by the gardener via the cardiologist’s cell phone, and he was, though hemorrhaging toward his death, to one degree or another, lucid and sober.
He saw his wife calling the hospital and he yelled from the floor, Hang up that fucking phone. He said he would not be going to the hospital. He said he had friends there. He knew a few people in the ER, nurses and whatnot. Christ, he said, even one of his lovers was there. His wife, who stood there with the phone in her hand, nodded. It was true, she confirmed. One of his three lovers did in fact work in the same hospital and could often be found in the ER. This is the kind of person the cardiologist is, and this is the world in which cardiologists live, generally.
Don’t be so damn proud, he was told by another gardener, who had just arrived. But the cardiologist shook his head. It had nothing to do with pride. He didn’t care what those people said about him. He said those people at the hospital did not know how to do anything worth ten pennies. He could not trust them with his impalement. No, it was better if he did it himself. There was disagreement, friction, but he held his hands up and wailed that he was dying. The blood was in fact a burbling Japanese fountain in his side. He could easily be dying. Anyone could see that. And so it was conceded that the extraction, bandaging and caregiving would occur right there on the floor of the green house, and that he would instruct it.
He would instruct the careful removal of the trowel from his abdomen, and he would provide scathing criticisms about the way in which people were holding their fingers on the instruments and the angle of their wrists, and he would yell at them to relax, relax this isn’t a jammed key we’re fumbling with. He would ask one of the gardeners’ children to hold his fingers here, and another child to press her fingers there, because their hands were small enough to fit inside the wound. And when one of them began to cry he told the child to stop crying. This did not help the child, and he would simply take the sowing yarn from the hand of one of the gardeners—just yank it away from her—and push the child aside and do the stitching himself, for Christsake. As such, he sowed up his injured internal organs and his exterior flesh, and everyone watched and was made sick, and he said, Don’t you dare pass out on me.
He then asked for tequila, and it was produced. He poured it all up and down his chest and stomach, and he bent and twisted and flexed his abdomen musculature, and then he drank the rest of the bottle and commanded someone strike him over the head with a cooking skillet, cast-iron if it was handy. The fourteen inch cast-iron skillet was carried forward and the crack of the blow across the cardiologist’s face and head was a most wonderful sound, everyone agreed.
The following summer the cardiologist would one day rush to find one of the gardeners in the alpine ring, and the look on his face was uncharacteristic. He looked flushed, a little winded. The gardener could see over the shoulder of the cardiologist the flames of a gasoline fire licking the roof of the essentially brand-new alpine chalet. The cardiologist requested a glass of water from the gardener.
When pressed, during the fire department’s investigation, the cardiologist confessed that he could not find a way to kill down the oppressive hollyhocks. Those fucking things, he said, they need a missile attack to keep off the verbena. The gardeners lifted their eyes to hear the cardiologist mention the hollyhocks and verbena by their English names. They thought, Maybe. Maybe he had learned something about gardens at last.
Very early on, everyone felt it was novel and perfect and very, very promising that a cardiologist had married into the community. In those early days, when he was largely unknown, he was consulted on everything from banking to parenting. Everyone agreed that it was nice to have a cardiologist in the area to consult on matters. Everyone enjoyed consulting him, generally. He could be very reassuring, the way he could talk to a person without looking at them. He never seemed to care about what a person was saying to him, and everyone liked that, because he never seemed alarmed. He was entirely disinvested, and yet he always had an answer, and this felt very comforting. And his salary base didn’t hurt, either. Everyone felt that anyone paid the sum of money he received annually must have something worth tapping, no matter the topic.
Then one night shortly after the fire the cardiologist ignited in the garden, one of the oldest gardeners left her bed, took a knife from the kitchen, went into the living room, and thrust it into her own chest, extracted it, and then, gasping, slid the blade across her own throat. The dull thud of the dropped knife on carpeting woke the cardiologist and no one else. He was already in scrubs before he hit the stairwell. He fled his house, drove seven miles in his gorgeous foreign vehicle and burst through the woman’s locked front door before the she had collapsed from her knees to her stomach and face: he caught her about a half inch from the floor and spun her, loose torso and lolling head, onto her back. There, he studied her treachery.
He spoke, though no one was there to hear him, and the gardener was by all measurements of western medicine already dead. He requested tools no one handed him. And he swore as he rose to run and grab from around the house the instruments he required, or an approximation of those instruments, things that would work. For example, he stemmed the blood at the throat with a wine cork in the thorax, damming it with his tongue as he sutured the rupture through the throbbing. He slit his own vein and, with a series of scotch-taped drinking straws, siphoned his own blood into her (He had known all of their blood types for as long as had known them, something he had never talked about, but cardiologists know these things the way animals know seismography). And then he went to work on the deep laceration to her lung and, as it happened, her heart.
He worked through the rest of the night and early morning. Many times her heart would stop, and he’d be holding it in his hands, his fingertips, and he’d press it gently and coax it back to beating, until a slight breathing again filled her mouth. The sun came into the room and, several hours later, the cardiologist’s wife and the rest of the family members came into the room to see the cardiologist kneeling among the human viscera.
Generally, everyone was confused and disoriented. They had arrived sensing something was awry, but they knew nothing. They had not expected to see the cardiologist there. They had not expected to be touched by his heroics.
The paramedics were called because the cardiologist, exhausted, at last conceded that even what he felt would be subordinate medical assistance would be better than no assistance at all, as he could not continue his work any longer, physically. So, the cardiologist handed the oldest gardener over to the paramedics. He refused treatment for his injuries and fatigue, and he rested at his own home for several days while everyone agreed that the cardiologist could meddle in the garden whenever and in whatever way he pleased. The vote went 6-4.
Throughout the spring, as the oldest gardener convalesced in her bedroom, sizeable disagreements emerged over the garden. Specifically, the matter of a lilac bush overhang and its proximity to newly planted Coral Bells had reached an impasse.
The oldest gardener was consulted. She had an opinion, yes, of course, but she felt a phone call should be placed to the cardiologist about it.
And this was the crescendo of the cardiologist’s esteem among the gardeners, among the family, and his descent was rapid. I don’t care about any of that sort of shit, he answered into the telephone to the gardener that had called. What the hell is wrong with you people? It’s three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. Do you fucking people have jobs?
O cardiologists! O fickle human!
The cardiologist took a deep breath. He collected himself. More sensitive than his peers in science and money, our cardiologist paused to reflect upon what he’d just done. When he opened a person’s chest, he mused, love and beauty did not pour forth. Impure and polluted blood, tissue and fat came forth. It was putrid, all of it, anyone could see that, but he went in just the same and cut with small blades and driven attention through all of these impurities to find the heart to fix it. Why must he be the only one to overlook grievance? Why must he work alone in this world?
I apologize, he said. I am finishing a Medicare processing document, he explained to the gardener. They’re very intense.
Hearing nothing in reply, he did not say goodbye. He simply handed the phone back to the assistant who had fielded the call originally.
The cardiologist then began to bite his fingernails in his office. He swallowed his fingernails. He rubbed his bald head. He shook it. He stood up and walked around his office. He looked out the window at the parking lot. He looked down at his pants and produced his technological device. He fingered it. He studied and pondered it. He stood there for hours meddling with his technological device. Eventually, he fell asleep standing there, the device in his hand still thrumming in the darkness.
At dinner later that week, the dining room in the oldest gardeners house overlooking the garden in the fading sun of the August afternoon, the cardiologist did not speak until he was addressed. The cardiologist’s wife’s brother asked him what he’d learned, most recently, about the human heart. The cardiologist, wise to the brother-in-law’s condescension, said he had learned that if you cannot do something yourself it is best to pay for it to be done correctly.
The cardiologist put down his fork. He cleared his throat. He wiped the edges of his mouth with his napkin. He waited for the laughter to end. Then he said had been planning to wait until dinner was completed to make this announcement, but since the matter was at hand he felt he could share with his family the gift he’d intended to offer them. He stood up. He cleared his throat again. He pressed his hands into the back of his chair. His wife looked up at him, the very portrait of modern domestic terror. The violent angle of her neck, and the way in which she held her mouth, made her look as though she’d been in a tragic car accident. Her husband said he could make this long or short, which did they want.
No one spoke. They just shook their heads. I’ll do the fast version, here it is: I plan to raze this house and have a garden built in its place.
Silence, at first, and then at length he was asked what would happen to the grandmother, if he took away her home? He answered that he would build a new house for her right beside his very own. Our very own, he clarified, looking down at his wife.
The order is already in, he said. The trucks will be pulling up out back within—he pulled from his pants pocket his technological device—about twenty minutes.
One of the children said, Grandma’s moving? The cardiologist nodded and told the child not to speak anymore. Resist redundancy, he said.
A second brother to the cardiologist’s wife said, But you have neighbors on both sides of your house. The cardiologist waved his hand. Small and inconsequential hurdles, he said. The challenge is always reparation. That’s where I come in. That’s what I do. That’s my thing.
No one spoke, but they were each pondering the strength of their unified protest to this one man’s plan. It seemed like it would require an awful lot of energy to muster to fight the cardiologist. The older brother to the wife of the cardiologist said, But this is madness! But he did not seem to really mean it.
No one, after this, said anything. That’s the power of the cardiologist in our world. This is the world the cardiologist creates when he fixes hearts. A feeling that the cardiologist must be doing the right thing overcame them all at the table, because he must have the right idea, know something they did not, for a cardiologist holds the human heart in his hands on a daily basis, and this man caressed the grandmother’s heart in his fine fingers for hours, and a person like this could not, there’s just no way, be corrupt.
And of course there is also that matter that the man is paid so much money! Could a man who works and receives payment for his work at that rate—often sixteen, seventeen, twenty times the rate of most other workers—be capable of work that was ethically shoddy? It all seemed so improbable the cardiologist’s idea would be ill-conceived.
The bulldozers burst through the back door of the house in dramatic theatre. The cardiologist laughed; he had not been seen laughing in years. Everyone smiled. And then everyone self-consciously began grabbing things from around the house—and ran them out the front door. Behind them, as they hurried out the front, they heard the sustained collapse of wood, brick and glass.
Of course the cardiologist would need permits and evaluations for this destruction, but he would purchase and secure these in his own time. This is another thing about cardiologists: no one feels like holding them against standards everyone else must face. A cardiologist was good for his money, good for his intentions, every visiting official, bank and government agency seemed to agree.
The house beside his own came down as easily as his wife’s grandmother’s house, and the family that had lived there—good people, teachers, with two children no more than five years old—were asked to depart, and they did not fuss with the cardiologist, either. They just packed up and vacated their house, because he’d advised it.
Up went a new house in about seventy two hours, with a team of approximately eight thousand workers, the cardiologist said. The cardiologist worked what he called a double that weekend, though he was home for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and he paid the entire team of workers in cash.
Whenever he came into his home for a meal, he discovered all the gardeners sitting there waiting for him to get home. Sweet work they did on that house, he’d say. But no one responded verbally. Everyone just nodded. Everyone watched him while he ate his dinner. Everyone wanted to ask him about the garden. When would the gardeners get their gardens back? They missed the grandmother’s back yard.
Well, the garden waited several years. The cardiologist had a fence built around the empty lot where the grandmother’s former house and gardens once stood. The redwood fence stood fourteen feet high. You could pop out little holes through knots in the redwood to see the pit. It was hoped that, at some point in the night, unbeknownst to everyone, work was being completed on the garden and that the cardiologist was staging a surprise and grand reveal of the new garden. Peering through the holes at the pit squelched this hope, of course.
Periodically, the question about the garden did return to conversation: the cardiologist would nod and tell everyone not to worry about that sort of shit.
But, one evening, one of the brother-in-law’s pressed the cardiologist. He told the cardiologist he was going to worry about that sort of shit. He was tired of being told what he should and should not worry about. My grandmother lives in a stranger’s house and has no garden. She is very depressed. We are all very depressed. You are keeping us from our gardens, and we are made to eat here with you every weekend, and you are punishing us with your power and wealth. It’s time to produce the garden, he said, and give us a small fraction of our pleasure back.
The cardiologist nodded. He bit into an apple and pretended he could not speak because his mouth was full with apple. He chewed slowly. Then he took another bite. Chewing, he walked over to the brother-in-law’s wife and touched her abdomen. She tried to move, but she could not. She seemed to be under the impression that she was not permitted to move from his hand. She closed her eyes. I would talk about the garden with you, the cardiologist said, kneeling at the woman’s knees, were your wife not minutes away from giving birth.
The woman suddenly moaned, and her face flushed. She sat back and moaned again. The cardiologist told her to lean all the way back on the sofa. The children had to stand up to give her space. Out, the cardiologist said to them.
She began breathing loudly. The cardiologist looked at the woman and said, May I? She looked at her husband. He shook his head. No! We are not pregnant, he said. We are not pregnant, the woman repeated. Oh, the cardiologist said, you are now. And I need to study your dilation.
The woman looked at the cardiologist’s wife. She also shook her head. She had a phone in her hand. She was dialing. We are calling you an ambulance, she said. But the cardiologist placed his hand on the woman’s stomach, and the woman winced and bellowed. Get in there, she shouted.
The cardiologist did not pause. He yanked the woman’s blue jeans to her ankles. He tugged them off and handed them to his wife. He tugged her underpants down to her ankles and tore them apart, whipping them to the carpet behind him. He spread the woman’s legs at her knees, and he studied her dilation while she sobbed.
He sat back suddenly, then, and stood up. He faced his wife. He ordered his wife to collect towels, hand soap, and the Acacia wood salad tongs.
His wife left, returned. The woman on the sofa was murmuring, trembling and sweating; her husband had called 911. Is there a cardiologist there, the operator had asked. He held the phone above his head, as though he were going to spike it on the floor.
The cardiologist took the woman’s legs in his hands and situated them, one on the backing of the sofa, one low on the floor. Then he watched the cardiologist slip his hands between the woman’s legs. The cardiologist asked his wife to drape a towel over his head and the woman’s abdomen, to protect the child from infection. You don’t know what you are doing, she said. Towel, he answered. And lock that door.
The woman on the sofa yelled and swore terribly. His wife had draped the towel over his head. In this way, the birthing was concealed. It must have been dark in there. No one knew how the cardiologist could see anything. The only thing they could see was the cardiologist’s back and the woman’s torso and her face as she cried and yelled.
There were no moments of suffering recess; her birthing was one sustained terse contraction. She screamed even as the child emerged, the infant itself screaming in the cardiologist’s hands, suddenly. The cardiologist bobbed up and down with the infant on his shoulder. Have you cut the cord? his wife asked.
He had no reply. He handed the child to its mother and returned to her legs to receive the afterbirth. The entire undertaking took seven minutes.
Mother and child spoke to one another for about two minutes, and then both lost consciousness. The cardiologist stood up. He looked at his family. It’s going to be touch and go for a while, he said. We are not out of this, yet. Then he went and unlocked the door and let the paramedics take the woman and the child to the hospital.
That night the cardiologist had ordered the family away from the hospital. They were told they must stay off the premises of the hospital. The brother-in-law called lawyers, but the lawyers said they were too busy to take this on. Anyway, they admitted, the cardiologist had already called them, and they owed him a favor. So, everyone remained at the cardiologist’s home. I did not know we were pregnant, the brother-in-law repeated, and the cardiologist’s wife rolled her eyes at her brother.
It was four in the morning when the cardiologist was spotted standing at the edge of his driveway. He was reported to be looking downcast, shuffling and perhaps stumbling toward the house. He was seen wiping his face. When he neared the house, he stood before the door and was unable to insert the key into the door lock. He just stood there. He inhaled. He exhaled. And, at length, one of the children opened the door.
It was his wife who met him as he came in. She was already crying. He took her in his arms, and then he released her. He went to the sofa where the child had been birthed. He sat. Please, he said to her, offering her the place beside him. Please sit.
She sat beside him. She said, Tell us!
He shook his head. He said, I’m sorry. There was nothing more we could do.
The cardiologist put his hand on her shoulder. She recoiled. No, she said.
We have to stay focused on what we have, he said, not what we’ve lost.
Everyone studied the cardiologist.
He shook his head. Mother and child are fine, he said. We have that.
The cardiologist’s wife shook her head. Everyone else took a long breath. The room fell into laughter. The cardiologist told them how mother and child had nearly been lost but were brought back to life when he himself performed open heart surgery on both of them in quick succession, a triple-bypass for the mother and a relatively intricate stint in the underdeveloped newborn. He said they should turn on the news later that morning to see his interview. Unfortunately, he added, quietly, we did lose the garden.
The house went silent. The grandmother looked at the cardiologist as though she had never seen him before. What did you say, she asked. The garden? The wife of the cardiologist said. The cardiologist folded his arms to hold himself. I know it pains you. The garden? his wife said again. It sold last night. I got the text while I was in surgery. The house was silent. He shook his head. It was a good run, he said. We have to focus on that. You are being moronic, the brother-in-law said. I’ll buy it back myself.
The cardiologist shook his head. That’s not possible, he said. That’s against the law now. I’m sorry. Then he tried again to put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. She pulled away. The cardiologist cleared his throat. I do this for a living, he reminded them. I don’t know how else to explain this to you. My job asks me to keep the living alive. I make diagnoses. I assess the living. I fix what needs to be fixed. He cleared his throat again and wiped his face. In matters of living and dying, the grieving have to stay focused on the living. The living are going to be fine, now.
It’s going to be missed, the cardiologist continued, wiping off his technological device. I know it will be missed. But it will be admired. I will. I will admire it. I’ve always admired that garden, he said. He nodded. He looked off toward some distant place that he seemed to remember fondly. In my business we always tell people that we have to stay focused on the living even at the most difficult hours when who and what we admire most are all the dead.