One day when I was in the seventh grade, I came home to my father—Eduvigo Herrera III—cutting his heart out with a steak knife. He was sitting at the little kitchen table when I got home from school, his hand in a ragged chest wound the size of a plum.
“Mija, I need you to help me,” he said. “I need you to take it out. Your hands are small. Just the right size.”
“Take what out,” I asked, though I knew.
“No,” I said as I took off my backpack and sat down.
“Please do this for me. I never ask you for anything.” We both knew this wasn’t true. I was the one who took my brother on long walks on the weekends while my parents had their epic screaming matches. He expected me to get straight As, to never be in trouble. To be a good girl and he yelled at me when I didn’t measure up.
“Stick your hand inside. It’s okay. It’ll be a little squishy, but you won’t hurt me. I promise,” he said.
My father’s thick, long fingers were coated with blood. I slid my hand inside the hole and removed his heart. It was soft around the edges and firm in the center. Every so often it shuddered like it didn’t know it wasn’t being used anymore. It was a deep purple, so dark it looked black.
“Now cut it like you would meat when you and your mother make dinner.”
I picked up the knife and slid it into his heart. I hacked big sections off and chopped those sections into bite-sized bits. That’s when he passed me the empty tequila bottle. The label said Corzo.
“Put the pieces in there.”
“I want it to look nice,” he said.
I let each tiny piece plop to the bottom of the bottle. Over and over again, I slid the pieces through the bottle’s neck, struggling with the bigger, uneven chunks.
My mother came home and by that time there were even bits of heart in my hair. Her heels clicked on the floor as she walked over to the table and picked up the Corzo bottle.
“You’ve done it then,” she said.
“I told you I would,” my father said.
“You shouldn’t have made her do it.” She grabbed me by the hand and led me to the shower. “Scrub until your skin turns red.”
“It already is.”
Every day my father would proudly point to the tequila bottle that held his heart as if it were a science experiment for which I’d received an A. My mother became strange. At night before dinner she’d light some incense and her Virgin Mary candle and put them beside my father’s heart-bottle. Our dinner table would become a little altar for a time—I would cut the meat or the vegetables for dinner and my mother would kneel at the table, praying under her breath in Spanish. Sometimes my brother would come out to watch my mother pray. She refused to teach us Spanish, she said that people look at you different when you know it. I didn’t tell her that I’d started a beginning Spanish class that semester or that all of my Hispanic friends made fun of me. “How can you be Mexican and not speak Spanish?” they’d ask and laugh when I told them my family had been American for a long time.
I could only make out one word in my mother’s nightly prayers. She said it over and over: muerte. After a week of her mutterings, I was tempted to say something, but my brother beat me to it. I had helped my mother make ham and bean soup with little bits of fried bacon in it. We ate in silence for a while, just like we did every night, until my brother thought he had figured it all out.
“It’s cow meat in the bottle,” Freddie said.
“I told you, Eduvigo, that you shouldn’t have taken the label off. Now they can see it too well,” my mother said. “No Freddie, it’s not cow. Don’t worry about it.”
“What do you think it is, Sara?” he asked. He hadn’t lost all his baby fat yet, so his smile made his cheeks bulge.
“Don’t worry about it,” my mother said again as my father walked into their bedroom and shut the door.
“Muerte,” I said.
“I don’t know what that means,” Freddie said.
“Enough dinner, Freddie. Now go to your room,” my mother said. She wouldn’t even look at me until she was sure Freddie was gone.
“Why do you keep praying that Dad will die?” I asked.
“What? That’s not what I’m doing.”
“I know what muerte means, Mom.”
“I’m not praying he’ll die. I’m just saying the Hail Mary. Praying for his heart.”
“How is he even alive?”
“He is because he wants to be,” she said. “His grandfather showed him how to do this as a child. He’s punishing me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I told him he was an unfeeling bastard and now he is.”
I went to pick up the heart-bottle and my mother stepped in front of me. I’d never seen her look that old. She didn’t have any makeup on and I hadn’t seen her without it in a long time. Tiny splotches she called sun spots dotted her cheeks. She told me about them every time I watched her put on her makeup. She said I was still too young for it since I didn’t have any spots.
“Don’t touch it. He shouldn’t have made you do it. It’s not natural for a man to live without a heart. He told me he’d cut it out, but he shouldn’t have made you help.”
“He couldn’t have finished by himself,” I said.
“He should’ve asked me. I’m his wife.”
After that we washed the dishes in silence. My mother rinsed and I dried everything with a thick cotton towel. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. What woman wants to help her husband cut up his heart?
My mother handed me a tall water glass, but I didn’t grab it in time. It shattered against the floor. We looked at each other and before my mother could say anything, I walked into my bedroom and slammed the door. She could pick up her own mess.
By the next week my mother was very cranky with all of us, but my father didn’t seem to feel a thing. He’d gotten in trouble at the hospital where he worked in the maintenance department. He kept bleeding through his blue work shirt. He had tried to stitch up the wound, but did a poor job, so we took him to the doctor.
Everyone at the hospital called my father “Ed.” My mother hated it. She said it made him sound common and boring. The doctor was only a little surprised to hear about his heart. He said he saw this kind of thing every once in a while, but most people didn’t talk about it. Then he cleaned and properly sewed up the wound on my father’s chest. The doctor made jokes the whole time. Apparently, my dad liked to laugh with people at work. He was never like that at home. My father didn’t laugh with the doctor that time. He just stared at the wall.
My mother, still angry with me for helping my father, gave me even more chores than normal. Dishes had to be done after supper and breakfast; I had to start picking Freddie up from daycare; I had to wash all the clothes every other day instead of once a week. At night before bed, I had to iron my father’s shirt and put it out for him. Ironing was the one chore I enjoyed, mostly because my entire family left me alone while I did it. I always ironed when my mother was giving Freddie a bath. I’d pour just a little water in, plug in the iron, and stand out on our apartment’s little balcony while it warmed up. Sometimes there’d be a breeze. Sometimes it would be windy and leaves would hurl by in a dust storm. Usually my father would stay in the bedroom, but one night, he sat at the kitchen table smoking his Marlboro 101s while I ironed. My mother hated the smell, but I kind of liked it. It hurt my chest a little and made me want to cough, but the smell was interesting.
My dad had smoked three cigarettes in a row. I pushed the iron down and listened to it gasp. “Why’d you make me help you?” I asked. “Mom’s pissed.”
“I couldn’t do it myself. Your hands are smaller and I was too tired to cut it up.”
“Why not wait for her?”
“She would have tried to stop me,” he said, blowing yet more smoke into the air. It mixed with the smell of chorizo from dinner.
“Why’d you do it?”
“You aren’t old enough to understand.”
I imagined pressing the hot iron into the side of his face and just watching it burn. Would he even feel it?
“Whatever, Dad,” I said. I didn’t want to be around him. I unplugged the iron and set his pressed shirt on the couch. I went into my room and tried to focus on my homework. I fell asleep instead, but the yelling woke me up.
“Why would you make your daughter do that?” my mother asked. “How do you think that made her feel?”
“She’s fine,” my father said. “She’s a good girl and she did what needed to be done.”
It was strange—my father wasn’t yelling. On nights when they’d fought in the past I was surprised no one called the police. His screaming was so loud that even if I took Freddie for a walk, we could hear them a block away. Now, without his heart, he didn’t have any fight left in him. But my mother sure did.
“I didn’t want you to be the way you were,” she said.
“Now, it’s like you’re nothing. You don’t smile, you don’t yell, you don’t cry.”
“You don’t like that?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said.
My mother tried to have this fight, and several others, every night for the next week. She would rage and my father would speak quietly or say nothing at all. I could imagine him pouring a glass of Jack Daniel’s and just staring at her while Freddie and I hid in our room. I imagined him trying not to give her the satisfaction of getting angry, but he couldn’t have gotten angry now even if he wanted to.
Freddie would climb down from the top bunk into my bed when my mother screamed. He never cried, though. He just asked lots of questions about why he had to go to daycare and couldn’t come with me to school or why our parents were the way they were. Sometimes he’d ask about the heart-bottle and I’d just pretend I didn’t hear him. Then one night he asked again and I couldn’t help myself.
“It’s Dad’s heart. That’s what’s in the bottle.”
“Cool,” Freddie said. “I mean, that’s gross.” He looked at me and when I didn’t say anything he asked, “How did it get there?”
“Dad cut a hole in his chest and made me pull his heart out. He made me cut it up for him and then stuff it in there.”
“I don’t know.”
“Sara, can Dad live without a heart?” He put his hand on mine as our mother continued her tirade in the other room.
“I think so.”
“Then why is Mama so sad?”
“I’m not sure if she’s sad or mad or both.”
“Why’d you help him?”
“If Dad asked you to do something, you know you’d do it.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said.
Freddie slept in my bed that night. He said he didn’t want to be alone.
I couldn’t concentrate the next day at school. In every class I asked for a pass to go to the bathroom. I’d just sit in there for a while, on a toilet where I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone or I’d wander by the lockers and duck down as I passed classrooms so the teachers wouldn’t see me through the windows. During Spanish, I went by the art room. It was empty so I walked around, looking at everyone’s projects. They were working with clay so lots of lopsided pots were spread out around the room. James, one of the annoying white boys who laughed when my friends made fun of me for not speaking Spanish, came through the door.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
James walked over to me and looked into my eyes. For a second I thought he was going to kiss me, but instead he slid his hands over the front of my green dress. I felt embarrassed. Suddenly my boobs seemed so small and I wished that I had waited to let someone touch them. I looked into his face to try and see what he was thinking, but he left without looking at me again. I’d always imagined that when this finally happened, when a boy noticed me, he’d kiss me too. I tried not to think about it as I went back to class because I didn’t know where else to go.
After school, I tried not to make eye contact with any of James’ friends as I walked to the daycare center a few blocks away to pick up Freddie. It was windy again. The yellow leaves rushed along the sidewalk. Pamela, Freddie’s favorite helper, pulled me aside right before I went in. Pamela was old and her boobs were way bigger than mine.
“Have you and Freddie been watching a lot of horror movies lately?”
“What? Why?” I asked, looking up from her chest into her face.
“Well, he was asking about zombies and said something about your father keeping his heart on the kitchen table? He really frightened some of the smaller children,” she said as she pulled her sweater closer to her body. The sun wasn’t setting yet but the air was becoming chillier. We’d have to walk home fast.
“Oh, right. We did watch a zombie movie the other day. That’s completely my fault. I’ll talk to him,” I said.
As we walked home, Freddie grabbed my hand. I wanted to shake him off, wanted to say: You’re going to have to learn how to take care of yourself someday. But I didn’t.
“Dude, you can’t tell people about Dad, okay?”
“Well, it’s nobody else’s business and they won’t understand anyway,” I said.
“Because Dad’s a zombie.”
“Seriously? No, Dad is not a zombie.”
“Then what is he?”
“He’s just Dad. He cut his heart out because he’s weird and sad.”
“I think he did it so he won’t be mean, anymore.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But if he can’t be mean, then he can’t be nice either, Freddie. He can’t really be anything.”
We turned onto our street and walked toward the apartment complex. We could hear yelling. It was definitely Mom, which didn’t make sense. Neither of my parents should have been home from work yet. My mom worked at the hair salon until six every night except Sundays. Did they come home just to fight or did something happen? Freddie tightened his grip on my hand.
“Sara, let’s not go home.”
“I can hear your stomach rumbling. We’re both hungry. Maybe if we go home they’ll stop fighting.”
“That never works,” he said.
I thought about maybe taking him to the park, but as we got closer I could hear my mom.
“I should have been the one to help you! You shouldn’t have made one of our children do it.”
“I needed help. I didn’t want you to do it. I couldn’t give you the satisfaction, Izzy. Now you’ll always feel this and I won’t feel anything, just like you said.”
My mother’s voice became high-pitched, and we could barely make out what she said even as we got closer.
“Let’s not go in,” Freddie said.
I opened the door and my mother turned to look at us. She had rubbed most of her makeup off, but she wasn’t crying anymore. My father just sat on the couch, smoking.
“This is how it had to be, Izzy. You said you wanted a better man. Now I am one.”
I dragged Freddie past my parents into our room.
“Stay in here, okay? Just color or something and I’ll make you a sandwich.”
“Sara, don’t leave me in here.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I didn’t look at my parents as I walked into the kitchen. My mother kept yelling about everything. How was she supposed to spend the rest of her life with a man who had no feeling? Now he didn’t love her. My father kept saying he was sorry, repeating it like a chant. My mother screamed that he didn’t mean it.
I got a paper plate out as fast as I could. I slapped some bologna and American cheese on bread, added a squirt of mayo and mustard. I headed for our room and left the kitchen just in time to see Freddie walking to the balcony with the heart-bottle.
“I want you to still be my dad,” he said.
Freddie threw the bottle off the edge of the balcony. It landed with a crash as it split open. Jagged glass and black meat were scattered everywhere, dark purple oozing and pooling in the cracks on the sidewalk. I grabbed Freddie’s hand in my own as my parents came to stare off the edge of the balcony at the leftovers of my father’s heart.
“Go get the pieces,” my mother said.
Freddie put the pieces in a bowl and carried them back upstairs. I got on my hands and knees and scrubbed at the dark stain with bleach. It started to rain and still the stain wouldn’t come up. Even though I was freezing, I must have scrubbed for at least an hour. I dreaded going back inside, but when I did, everyone had gone to their rooms.
The bologna sandwich I made sat on the living room table. I went into our bedroom and Freddie was already in bed. He rolled over and threw the blanket off as soon as I shut the door.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“Dad, didn’t even get mad and nothing happened to him. He’s like invincible.”
“Damn it, Freddie! Just eat your dinner,” I said. “You’re going to be in so much trouble when Mom finally comes to deal with you.”
“But nothing happened,” he shouted.
“That’s never stopped Mom from yelling at us before.”
Freddie climbed down from his bunk to get his sandwich, and I got under the covers in my bed. I pulled them right up over my head. I was so angry. We were lucky Dad didn’t have a heart anymore. Lucky he couldn’t have felt mad or done anything to us. Who knew what Mom would do. But she never came in our room.
I woke up after midnight shivering—I’d fallen asleep still in my wet clothes. The door to our bedroom was ajar. Freddie wasn’t in his bed. I flicked the bathroom light on. He wasn’t in there. I ran to the kitchen and turned the light on. Not there. That’s when I saw my mom sitting on the couch in the living room.
“Where’s Freddie?” I asked.
My mother said nothing, but looked at the kitchen table. I followed her gaze and felt as if my whole body was tumbling through space. A second bottle—less full and containing smaller chunks—had joined the bowl of my father’s shattered heart-bottle pieces on the table.
“Your father asked me to help him this time,” my mother said. Her hand shook as she lifted a glass of whiskey to her lips.
“I guess you got what you wanted,” I said, sitting next to her on the couch. I hated myself for saying this, but I had to. I squeezed her bloody hand. Did we do this? Was this our fault? I tried not to think about what would happen to us now that we were two women alone in a house with men who weren’t really men anymore.
Originally published in Prairie Schooner, Volume 91, Number 1, Spring 2017.