The Smoking Poet - Summer 2008

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- Ed Rode

 Second Place Winner: Martha Clarkson


Brittle Complications of Love


My wife needs open heart surgery, they’ve decided. She’s only thirty years old but with a deviant mitral valve. And me only thirty years old, too, and supposed to be able to stand the thought of them cutting her open. They tell her sooner or later, you pick. No emergency, but no choice. Second Opinion turned out to be Same Opinion; a line-up of white-coated cardiologists with one message.

They call it a prolapse, which means slipping out of place, but sounds more like a conscious lack of judgment. Like you’re somehow at fault. One leaflet of the mitral valve grows thick, it just happens sometimes. A leaflet gone bad. So thick it no longer closes tight, it lets more blood into the heart than it should. The heart has to work too hard and eventually will outgrow the space in her chest. They’re going to cut her open and show that little leaflet what’s what. Shave off that thick piece, like plastic surgery, the way it sounds. Make it pretty again.

It is May when she agrees. A special surgeon is recommended to us. He is overweight with a round, trustworthy face. Lena schedules the surgery for August, so we can finish remodeling our kitchen. I worry but try to be normal, maybe to the point of being too jolly. Like a cartoon of myself. I’m scared of this surgery, this big event we never expected. When I lay my head on her chest at night, I can hear the murmur. Instead of a beat, her heart sounds like a waterfall. Like something you can’t control.

We gut the kitchen in June. Four friends we know from college come over with crowbars. The week before, we took the fragile goblets and plates from the cupboards and packed them in old newspaper. It was like moving ― all that black newsprint on your palms. Stacks of old boxes with words like “garage” and “den” crossed out and new ones like “yellow fondue set” and “Hakasi dessert plates” scrawled on the side. I like specifics.

We drink dark beer and eat Fritos and wrench the brunette oak cabinets from the wall with the crowbars. The cabinets screech as they come loose and the cat jumps on top of the fridge. It is okay for Lena to use the crowbar and do heavy stuff ― she’s had no symptoms, just a murmur heard through a stethoscope and investigated.

Lena drives away in our old Mazda to pick up pizzas and after she’s out of the driveway, my friend Josh says, “What a monkey on your back, man.” He looks at me across a pile of sheared wood scraps. Now I’m switched over from simple tools to the thing I try not to think about.

“Yeah,” I say, “it is that.”

He downs the last of his beer. “She’ll be fine,” he says, slapping my upper arm with his palm. Then he burps.

Lena decides to spend her summer vacation week at a fused glass workshop in Oregon. The rest of the time she manages curriculum for the city kindergartens. I drive her from our south Seattle house to a largely unpopulated area east of Portland. A series of cabins in a state park. She and thirty other people are assigned bunks and handed towels. Who could predict the popularity of fused glass? She calls me every night from her cell phone, sitting on top of the jungle gym, the only place her phone picks up a signal.

The kitchen remodel rolls ahead in her absence. I am doing the work, as we agreed when I was laid off at the hardware store. I’m not a genius at construction, but I try to figure things out. When my mother heard this was our plan, she mailed me Plumbing for Dummies and Wiring for Dummies, from the Maui condo she shares with her boyfriend. Didn’t even ask what areas I needed help in. She was right about the wiring, though. I have to call up my cousin Bing for anything electrical. I could set the place on fire.

On the phone, Lena tells me her class is about the heating, fusing, and coloring of glass. “In my case, it’s really about the projects breaking and having to start over,” she says. A mock groan.

“But how do you feel?” I say. “Any symptoms? Any shortness of breath?”

“Shhh, you know I don’t. Now I have to go and break some more glass.” She laughs and smacks her lips in a quick good-night kiss before the dial tone.

On Thursday I figure out that the sink we bought is too big for the place it’s supposed to go. I drive around town trying to trade it in for a smaller one. When I arrive home with the correct size sink, Bing has installed the bank of five fancy light switches in baffling order so I have to turn all of them on just to get the one light I want. I look for intuitive methodology I can memorize but find none. I’m always guessing wrong.

When Lena calls next it’s about her new glass friend Kellie. They’re staying extra days, making a list of glass shops to visit, maybe do some hiking.

“I’ve got the days off from work,” she says to me on the phone, the last time she’ll call from the jungle gym.

I hold the phone away from my ear, as if the words burn. “But what if you overdo?” I say. “You should rest, take care of yourself. You know what’s coming.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she says, like I’ve made a joke. “I’m fine. I’m always fine.”

The man delivers and installs the gas cooktop, which has a silver label that reads Chef’s Edition. He’s not in the door five minutes and drops a wrench on the new hardwood floor. First gouge. He doesn’t think I’ve seen it, thinks I’m too enthralled with stainless steel and the fancy knobs with their orange cooking indicators. I want to scream at him but I don’t. That night I cook my first dinner on it. Pancakes and bacon. It’s a good time to do this, because Lena doesn’t understand having breakfast for dinner. The flame is so hot that the bacon grease showers left, right, up, down. More and farther than grease should, or anyone would want it to. I wonder if one of our boxes is marked “spatter screen.” The phone rings and it’s a survey company asking about sandwich bread. The bacon burns while I expound on the merits of caraway. I drive to IHOP for dinner.

Lena takes the train home. She loves the train and reads books and counts how many people on the track sides wave to the train. Twenty-seven is the average for the Portland to Seattle run, but one time she counted sixty-two.

I meet her at the station. I always stand back at the doorway and wait until I see her. Then I run up through the people, parallel with the train. I like to pretend we’re old lovers reunited. That we’ve been released from some horror after our countries have been ransacked by frivolous war deaths. She always goes along with it.

When I drive around alone and a song comes on the radio that reminds me of something like our first kiss or a full-moon night at Moclips Beach, I imagine Lena lying on the operating table. Those rooms in my head are always liquor-store green tile and shiny with silver tools and wall trim. I see her naked on her back and think of the masked and sterilized doctor poised with a knife ready to split her open. Another doctor hangs near with a saw like the handsaw hanging on my workbench, ready to sever her sternum. These are the times I can start to tear up right there in the car, on the overpass or at a red light.

Once I told her, “I just don’t think I can let them cut into you.” We were lying in bed and I had the covers over me but she had her half of the sheet at her ankles. I didn’t mean that I would stop them from fixing her valve, or that I’d call the doctor in secret and say she’d moved to Nairobi, I just meant I suffocate under the idea.

“Don’t worry,” she said, palming my thigh but still reading, “it will be fine. I think it’s worse for you than me.”

She returned to her Glass Monthly magazine like I’d just told her the temperature outside or that a fly was on the ceiling. I put my head on her breast and listened to the waterfall of her heart.

A lot of transformation happened to the kitchen while Lena was gone fusing glass. I hold onto her so long at the train station, she starts to wriggle out of my embrace, like a child smothered by a perfumed aunt. We drive home and she jabbers about glass. I pull into the driveway and I’ve barely stopped and she’s out of the car. No special glad-you’re-back-moment for me to take advantage of. She walks in our entry hall and covers her eyes.

“Do I want to see?” She says this laughing because I have given no bad reports to her as she sat on that jungle gym calling me from glass camp. “But wait. First.” She reaches into her pocket, then holds out a closed fist. I cup my palm under it, knowing she’s brought me something from the trip, because this is what we do when we travel apart. A floating pen, an accordion of scenic view postcards, a bronze Golden Gate bridge.

A small shape drops in my hand. It’s a piece of bright green glass, shaped, sort of, like a four-leaf clover. The curves are not symmetrical, and the yellow dots she’s tried to decorate it with are different thicknesses. I’m reminded of a papier-mâché penguin I brought home to my mother in second grade. I’d thought it was perfect but later I realized his orange beak was almost over on the side of his head. Still, I like the idea that Lena remembered to bring me something from her trip. That she remembered we need good luck.

“It’s the one thing I made that didn’t break,” she says, laughing. I tell her thanks, I love it, because I do. I put it in my pants pocket and hear it click against the quarters.

I pick her up and carry her across the kitchen’s threshold. I sit her on the edge of the stone counter, breathing hard from the lifting, reminded of the fifteen pounds I should lose. She jumps off because the granite is cold on her legs bare in khaki shorts. I tell a white lie and say I haven’t cooked in the new kitchen yet, that I’m waiting for her. It isn’t really a lie, I’ve only burnt in it.

She touches everything. Turns knobs and gas flames go up and down. Pushes microwave buttons to hear their plinking sounds, which are really just the same as our old microwave. She even puts her hand in the ice the freezer makes, like she can’t believe she won’t have to twist blue trays anymore. Lena loves all the new things like she loved them in the catalogs and showrooms.

I put my hand on her elbow. “See this?” I say, pointing to the floor in front of the dishwasher where the gouge is.

She looks down. “What?” she says.

“The gouge, first one. It’s terrible, for Christ’s sake, the guy was an idiot!”

She pats my cheek. “Oh come on, I can’t even see it,” she says. She turns the new faucet sprayer on and off.

We climb up and christen the counter by taking off our shorts and making love. I see her tan, smooth skin in the V of her partially unbuttoned blouse. Think of the bumpy pink scar that will divide her upper chest. We have to trade who is on top halfway through because it’s so cold being on the bottom. Cold back, inferno between us. I wonder how long after the surgery until we can do this again.

The night before the operation, her sister invites us over for dinner. We like this invitation, as staying home circling each other does not appeal.

Her sister is older ― thirty-eight ― and fixes a moist pink beef roast. We drink vintage wine she brought from her last trip to France. With the bread she gives us, we sop up the red juice of the beef. A second bottle of wine is opened. Later, over white cupcakes, her sister says to Lena, “Are you nervous?”

Lena strips the pleated paper from her cake. “No.” She looks out the window instead of at us. “It’s just one of those things.” A whisper-like voice she never uses. She coughs like a noise-filler rather than a scratchy throat. She focuses on the cupcake, but tilts her head towards me. “This guy, though, he’s a wreck. Jittery as all get out,” she says.

I feel my face redden. Why does she have to expose me? Isn’t she just a little worried? I put my hand over hers. I think I see her smile, maybe just a little, and then her sister says something dumb about begonias because the silence is ours and not hers.


At the pre-op appointment the week before, I asked the surgeon for sleeping pills. I don’t want to be awake every hour in the weeks before, pondering outcomes. When we get home from Lena’s sister’s I set one out on the counter in the bathroom. It is purple and oval and by now a familiar friend.

I pack my suitcase because I’m staying in a hotel across from the hospital. What will I need? My father’s old collection of Hemingway stories sounds like a candidate, my latest copy of Maximum Sudoku, and the tiny photo of Lena on the Ferris wheel in Chicago that I take on all my trips. Then the constructive things like the sleeping pills, toothbrush, cell phone charger, computer. My bag is big and on wheels, the kind you take on vacation. Lena’s is little and red.

She’s in bed before I am. I have to think through logistics, along with The Big Thing. She just has The Big Thing, if she’s even thinking about that, looking so casual sitting up in bed with a copy of Vanity Fair, as if it’s a regular night. I zip my bag and swallow the purple pill. I lie down next to her then remember that I forgot to leave a note for the floor finishers, who come to sand and stain the new maple floors while we’re gone. I have things to say about getting it right, about hiding the imperfections.

The early morning is dark and full of rain. Lena showers and dresses in jeans and a tee shirt. I put on black pants and my Pearl Jam sweatshirt. It could be any early morning but it’s not. I take the glass clover leaf from the bathroom counter and put it in my pocket. We load the car – my big bag and her small red bag. We are quiet on the drive into Seattle.

In the hospital’s garage, Lena hands me her medical insurance cards. “You might need these, who knows,” she says.

I take the two cards and turn off the engine, then open my door. I walk around the back of the car to the trunk and Lena meets me. I lift the trunk up all the way, but before I can reach in for a bag, she puts her hand on my wrist. “Wait,” she says.

I am slow to turn my head because it might burn to look at her right now. I do, though, and her eyes are clear. Mine are too; this heavy wet morning is too startling for tears. She holds her wedding ring up between two fingers. My chest clenches. I open my mouth to make audible some serious words I feel materializing, but she beats me to the punch.

Pushing it into my palm, she says, “I’ll get it from you later, when I’m done.” I think I heard her voice break on ‘later.’ Then she turns away, walking in the direction of the hospital. Me left behind, trunk still open.

“I’ll protect it,” I say, but not loud enough for her to turn. I lift our bags out and shut the trunk hard for punctuation.

It’s before six and nurses and admitting clerks yawn like we do. Lena is put into a blue gown with a pink robe. A nurse leads her away from me for blood tests, an EKG. A small boy is in the alcove next to us, wearing a Snoopy robe. His knees are up, his arms around them. His glasses are thick and his parents hover like bees.

Lena’s returned to me on a gurney, a nurse pushing her into one of the alcoves. Plugs her into an IV. Fluffs the pillow under her head.

“Wow, already?” I say, nodding to the IV tube. I’m not ready for her to sail away on feel-good drugs.

The nurse looks at me and says, “Nothing good in there yet.” She walks to the head of the gurney and pushes it out from the wall, the IV pole with it so they both roll. I follow them out into a white hall, thinking about not being in this white hall. At home the men will have arrived to sand the floor. Dust will be everywhere and for a second I try to remember if I’ve sheeted all the right pieces of furniture. Closed up all things valuable and thrown my denim jacket over my box of quarters. I can’t trust the simple-minded sander, in my house day after day while our lives are cut open, filling the air with toxins.

We intrude through oversized doors to a room marked Surgery Zone. The nurse steers the gurney to a slot along the right-hand wall. A young, good-looking male appears at the bedside. He introduces himself as the anesthesiologist. I can tell his is good-looking even with the green scrub hat. We don’t need a male model, all I want is reassurance.

He leans over Lena and says his name, which I miss. “What kind of cocktail do you like?” he says.

Lena smiles. “Gin,” she says, “something with gin.” She giggles like she’s already had gin, like we’re at a party and she’s doing what she calls “harmless flirting.” A nurse pushes Lena’s blonde hair up into a scrub hat, just like the one Dr. Stud is wearing. Needles on trays seem to pull up magically to the gurney sides; in his hand, the nurse’s hand.

“Okay then,” the doctor says, “I’m going to fill you full of gin and you’re going to be so happy.” I don’t want this good-looking doctor making Lena happy. I make Lena happy.

The surgeon walks to the bedside from a place where we haven’t seen him. He raises his hand to the people with the needles to hold off. He looks at Lena, his jaw slack, which feels kind, at least to me.

The ear claw of his stethoscope is around the front of his neck, the beat-disc down his backside. “Good morning Lena. We’re going to repair the valve, is that what you understand?” He is graying and still overweight same as the other times we’ve seen him. Somehow his fat is reassuring. This is what I want ― to see him before she disappears. To have our collective agreement.

Lena nods and then he nods to the stud doctor and they fill her full of happy hour. She’s giggling right away, her eyes doing circles around the room instead of back and forth.

The nurse appears again and says to me, “This is it.”

I feel my hands start to shake. “Right now?” I say. The nurse nods. I lean over and kiss Lena on the lips. A tear falls on her nose even though I’ve been straining not to cry. If I look as desperate as I feel, I hope she’s too high to remember this later.

I leave because that’s all there is to do. Lena is being taken from the room and no one else in there wants me to sit by their gurney, say goodbye but not goodbye. I’ve been dismissed.

The door out of the Surgery Zone is heavy. I get lost trying to find the waiting area. It’s a long large room at the entrance to the hospital. This could be a hotel lobby where you meet a business associate. But it’s not. Only one other person waits, in a blue chair with red stripes.

An old man comes over to me. He is short like you don’t see this kind of short much. He wears a bright green sport coat and right away I think leprechaun. On the breast pocket is a gold bar printed Volunteer. “Hello,” he says, his head tilted up to see my face. His smell is spearmint. “You’re the Macon party, right?”

Party is not a word I would have used for me today. I feel like I’ll be taken to a room with a cake and given a pointed hat to wear.

“Okay,” I say.

“You have a long wait ahead of you, son. I can give you a private room, if you have others coming.”

I think of Lena’s sister, my brother, her mother, my best friend. No one is coming. It’s just me today. But I want that private room. “Yeah, sure. The whole family.”

He looks me in the eye, maybe thinking of all the wrought-up liars before me. He’s close enough I can count three nose hairs spearing forward.

I step back, look from side to side as if others will suddenly appear. “Well, in and out, you know. All morning.” I look down at my shoes, to further my effect.

He puts his hand under my elbow like I’m a patient and leads me to one of the special rooms. Inside the light is low like a moon behind a lace cloud and the couch is long and I imagine this is heaven. The best part is the phone on the table ― the thing that will ring with news from the operating room. That green-tiled room where they’re saving Lena.

He leaves me and the door shuts on its automatic closer. An airlock sealing out the world. I lie on the blue couch and know I will not sleep. Not while the surgical team is reshaping Lena’s valve. Not while men I don’t know are sanding our floor. I’m taking them at their word, they’re making things smooth.



Martha Clarkson:





i am a poet.


a commercial designer of interior workplaces.


fiction writer.


tennis player.






poems: monkeybicycle print:seattle review:portland review:elimae:alice blue:rattle: and on

fiction:  pindeldyboz:hobart:armchair aesthete:portland review:forthcoming slice: and on




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