Blue Baby

Fiction
Joseph LoGuidice


I Feel Like A Freight Train Almost Ran Me Over
Photo Credit: Thomas Ott

Arthur Muro liked the sound of trains. He rarely took a train, and had never had a train set, but he liked the sound of trains. Especially one blowing its whistle in the night while he was lying in bed. It comforted him, the mysterious train moving away, speeding. Possibly it was an association with youth; there is innocence with kids and trains. Whatever it was, it would require some thinking. But Artie lay in his bed preferring not to ruin things with too much thinking. It was better to let the sound of the train remain a pleasurable mystery, not another thing exhausted by overanalyzing. That was a habit Artie possessed dormant like a virus resting at the tips of his nerves.

Even during the winter months he would keep his window cracked so as to hear the train, and let it carry him to a place beyond Artie Jr. and sick Madeline, or Maddy, and the manic-depressive ex-wife who had left him and the kids ten years earlier. He was in the rural New York of his youth and near the tracks that crossed the towns. His father stopped in front of the railway arm that dropped as the bell rang ding ding ding ding ding ding ding while the freight cars rumbled past. Arthur watched the last car trail off while holding his baseball glove. The jays shrieked once again within the humidity and still weeds. The crossing arm raised and his father drove over the tracks. This was the image given by the train in Artie’s distance.

Cutting out paper hearts in school for Valentine’s Day was Maddy’s earliest grasp of what it meant for a person to have a heart. She traded with her classmates the little sugary candy hearts of pink, lavender, and yellow that said, “I LOVE YOU,” and “BE MINE.” Every heart cut out by her classmates was as simple as it was beautiful: two fully rounded tops connected and curving down to a pointed bottom. Surely, no matter what the doctors said, her heart must look that way, too, the one inside her chest. Maddy grew with this thought, but the doctors wouldn’t let her forget that it wasn’t that way for her. A real heart was made of flesh and muscle, not a construction paper cut-out.

Maddy had a bad heart. It was a giving heart, a loving heart, even at times a broken heart, but it was a bad heart, too. The first of three operations to create new blood flow came only days after being born because Maddy had turned blue. Cardiologists diagnosed her with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition where the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. It’s almost like being born with half a heart. There was a second operation five months later, and a third at two years. They had cut into Maddy’s young flesh and cracked her chest bones as if she’d been designed only to be taken apart.

After a fourth operation at thirteen, Maddy, Artie Sr., and Artie Jr. learned that all arrows were pointing to a heart transplant. But Maddy wasn’t sick enough to be put on the list. She would have to get sicker first.

Two weeks before Maddy’s Sweet Sixteen, she lost her breath in a way even she had not experienced. It happened after climbing the first of two flights of stairs at school.

Sarah, her best friend and neighbor two houses down, placed her hand on Maddy’s back when they reached the landing. “Okay?” she said.

Maddy leaned back against the wall while a rush of students passed. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m okay.” Maddy ran her hand through the newly-styled bob that sat on her head like a black olive. Her forehead was sweating, and Sarah wiped it with a tissue. Maddy dumped her books and vomited on the second flight of stairs. Boys yelled and girls screamed. Sarah braced Maddy from behind while everyone else cleared out—more in deference to the vomit than respect for Maddy.

Artie Jr. overheard the fresh rumor blazing through the halls. He threw open the stairwell door and sent it smacking against the wall. “Maddy,” he screamed. Sarah called out to him and he raced up the stairs. Artie tossed two ogling freshmen aside and knelt before his younger sister who was collapsed on the stairs with her back against the wall and her legs splayed out.

“Shit, she’s blue.” Artie grabbed Sarah’s shoulder. “Get the nurse to call an ambulance, now, go.”

Artie Jr. put his hand to Maddy’s face and forehead. “God dammit, Maddy, you’re freaking blue.”

Maddy rolled her head. “What?” she said in a disoriented voice.

Artie Jr. was a toddler when Maddy was born sick, and he knew the story of the blue baby. The vision he carried wakened an eeriness of blue babies floating in his dreams, reaching for him and for each other but never touching. The bell rang, and Artie Jr. shielded his sister from the last straggling kids. The stairwell door closed like a vault and all was quiet. Sicker had come for Maddy.

 

There was a time when Arthur Muro was a hungry insurance salesman with a young, attractive wife, a new condo, and a Corvette that raced with the winning thoughts in his mind. He and Sandy would get pregnant, twice, and buy a house. The kids would be winners, too. Athletic like him, deep and thoughtful like Sandy, and individualistic enough to test them both, but not so much that they wouldn’t be perfect. Something went wrong. Many things went wrong. The petals of Arthur Muro’s life seemed to unfold beneath a crooked sun.

Arthur knew Sandy had problems before he married her, but she was merciful to strays, a phenomenal sketch artist, and indisputably gorgeous. Her silky black mane and icy blue eyes were enough to make him forget her warnings about the bouts of depression that had begun when she was in college. After Artie Jr. was born, Sandy couldn’t feed him, clean him, or find enough energy to love him. When a daytime nurse was needed for his wife and child, Arthur absorbed the ugliness of mental illness and its ability to incapacitate. It would be three months until Sandy could care for her son on a regular basis, and much longer before Arthur felt safe in her doing so.

Short memories can plague young couples. Artie Jr. had just begun stringing sentences together when Sandy became pregnant with Madeline. Arthur and Sandy knew the possibilities, planned for the worst Sandy’s depression might deal them, and prayed their heads off. They prayed so hard for Sandy that they forgot about Madeline, and there didn’t seem enough prayers in heaven to keep Sandy from cracking after her baby turned blue and went under an emergency knife.

But the prayers did work for almost three years, and it wasn’t until Maddy was safe from the operating table that Sandy came apart. She had held much back during Maddy’s treacherous run, but her dam was giving way. There was the normal crack of fear about her child’s health—that one was always spraying. But there was another crack, one with a torturous drip of dark water. Sandy had an obsessive thought that she would harm her blue baby in some way, that the blue was a sign of suffocation and that maybe she, Sandy Muro, the one who could and did save a bug and an old dog in one day, might somehow harm her own sick child. It was part of the mania. It wasn’t real, but it was sad. Sandy left. She moved to a low-income apartment complex and found a part-time job in an art school while Arthur and the State of New York helped her with the rest. It was the best Sandy could do with her irrational demons.

Arthur’s office was on the third floor of a corporate building in White Plains, New York. His view was a parking lot with Interstate 287 beyond, affording him the ability to estimate his short trip home to Sleepy Hollow. If the I-287 main artery was clogged, there were other, smaller ones to shoot through. Either way, Arthur spent much of his time gazing at the flow of traffic, faithless by the amount of people in motion. Like a powerless, apathetic god, he wondered if it all mattered when everything from afar seemed more like the movements of ants, only much less organized.

His only office appointment of the day came about an hour before Maddy got sick in the stairwell. Arthur greeted a young man named Terry Collins and they sat down to talk about life insurance. Arthur had known Terry for six years and had sold him auto, renters, health, and even personal liability for his electrician business.

“So, you’re engaged,” Arthur said. Remembering to make the effort, he leaned across his desk and shook Terry’s hand. “Congratulations. Sure you want to do it?”

“Everyone keeps saying that,” Terry answered. “The married guys, anyway. Still married I hope.”

Arthur leaned back with a smile. “Was,” he said.

“Oh, wow, so you really mean it,” Terry said.

Arthur broke eye contact with Terry and reached into his desk. “No, absolutely not. Marriage can be a wonderful thing,” he said while thumbing through a manila folder. “What we’re doing here is talking about reality,” Arthur said. “Because so much of everything else is fiction.”

“What do you mean?” Terry said.

“So you’ve got these great plans, right? And you should, you should have these plans, but you need some backup because shit can happen. Trust me.” Arthur didn’t want to scare the kid, but bluntness had become his way with the younger clients. He wanted to smack them, not for being young, but because they barely had the sense to creep over the threshold and consider the possibilities, and even their considerations were wrong. Worst of all, it wasn’t their fault.

“Yeah, like maybe I’ll cross the wrong wires one day and fry my ass to death,” Terry said.

Arthur closed the folder and sat back in his chair again. “You want the truth,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“All this,” Arthur said, and tossed the folder at Terry. “What does it guarantee? Nothing. It just makes you feel better when things are going well because you’re doing the right thing for the people you love, but even so, God can have other plans, and He doesn’t give a shit about your money. Peace of mind has its own price, and money can’t buy it and… ah hell, forget me.”

Terry locked his hands behind his head and exhaled. “If I didn’t know you I might have walked out mid-sermon. So what are you saying, this doesn’t matter.”

Arthur stared at the folder. His killer sales instinct was gone, along with the Corvette, the beautiful wife, and the perfect, healthy kids. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“Well, I’m buying this damn death insurance let’s call it, regardless.” Terry reached across the desk and made Arthur take his hand. “My man I’m no shrink, but you need a cold beer. Maybe several,” he said, rose and went for the door.

“You’ll need a blood test,” Arthur said.

Terry stopped. “What?”

“A blood test. No big deal, they just want to make sure you’re healthy before initiating the policy. They’ll send someone to you. You’ll get a call for set up this week.”

“All right,” Terry said. He opened the door then stopped. “Oh, and Arthur?” Terry held up the folder. “This matters. Everything matters.”

Terry closed the door behind him, and Arthur swiveled his chair toward I-287. His cell phone went off. He let it ring six times before answering.

 

A meek but friendly pulmonary specialist introduced a new word beside Maddy’s hospital bed to explain what was happening as a result of her ill-formed but intrepid heart working doubly hard for sixteen years. It was cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle, which made it difficult for blood to reach deep within the place that pumped life to Maddy’s soul.

“Cool, a new word,” she said. “It’s been a while.”

The doctor smiled at Maddy’s sarcasm, but the news that the new word carried with it only intensified the jaded misgivings Arthur had vented on Terry at the office. He stared at his daughter, sick all her young life, and absorbed the news that the dominant organ in the Muro household was dying, and a green light would be given for more pills, anti-rejection types this time, possible infections, and a new litany of mortal uncertainties that came with the next operation. Maddy was going on the list for people who needed another person’s heart.

Arthur closed the door when the doctor left, and slid a chair alongside Maddy. Artie Jr. was there, too, sitting elbows on knees.

“Well. This is the part we always talked about,” he said. “What do you think, kid?”

“I think I like my new word. Cardiomyopathy. Weird. I now have thick heart muscle. Almost sounds like it should be stronger, huh,” she said.

“Yeah, that is weird,” Artie Jr. said. “All you ever hear is doing double the work is a good thing.”

“Yeah,” Maddy said. “Like when you lift weights doubly hard and never get any bigger.”

“Yeah, right,” Artie Jr. said.

“I mean you,” she said, looking at her brother.

He took his cap off and repositioned it. “Yeah, I know what you meant… ass.”

“Anyone call Mom?” Maddy said.

“I got a message to her,” Arthur said. “She’s down at some art convention in Baltimore. I’m sure you’ll see her tomorrow.”

Maddy stared at a print on the opposite wall. It was of a faded, somewhat dilapidated barn under a mass of descending swallows before an orange horizon. “Will I be home tomorrow?” she said.

Arthur leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Yes, you will be home tomorrow.”

“I like barns,” she said.

“Hmm?”

“Barns,” she said. “I like them.”

“Since when?” Artie Jr. said.

“Since now.”

They followed Maddy’s eyes to the wall, and for a few moments stared at the barn, the swallows, and the orange horizon.

 

Arthur lay in his bed thinking of Maddy’s barn. It wasn’t unlike the ones he knew upstate as a child. They all felt the same, smelled the same if you worked in enough of them, but it seemed strange that a generic painting hung on a wall not for its merit, but so that the wall wasn’t bare, was enough to strike Maddy. Surely he never exposed the kids to his rural childhood. They were children of Westchester who liked to romp in New York City and go to ball games of every sort. They would have thought it boring to experience the simple things he loved as a child, the things he revisited when his train passed somewhere in the night. Those were his times, the times of promises that wouldn’t break, and every dream would be seen through because life was fair and dreams were to be lived and never mourned over. That was Arthur’s time, protected. It wouldn’t have mattered to them.

The hours that had passed since his meeting with Terry Collins seemed instead like many days. He rolled his head to see the digital clock that read 11:35 PM. The train would be coming within minutes, and he wondered if maybe he had jumped the gun on Artie Jr. and Maddy for the good part of a decade. Maybe through his bitterness he had assumed too much. He closed his eyes and prayed for his blue baby to be home.

Maddy did come home the following day. Her heart had stabilized, but the deteriorating condition had moved her up on the candidate depth chart. Arthur helped her off with her coat after stepping inside.

“Wow, thank you. Car doors and now jackets. See, chivalry could help you with your social life. You should pretend every woman has a bad heart.”

Arthur smiled and hung Maddy’s jacket on a hook. “I’d be better off lining their paths with greenbacks, I think,” he said.

“Tsk tsk, so bitter,” Maddy answered. “And you, are you paying attention?” Artie Jr. had walked in from the kitchen chewing a bologna sandwich.

“To what?” he said with a mouth full of food.

“Useless, just useless,” she said, and waved him off.

 

Maddy sat on her bed and pulled her damp socks off. Her feet had been sweating inside her boots, and the effort caused her heart rate to jump. She rested her clammy feet on the warm carpet, closed her eyes, and took shallow breaths until her heart quieted. This was it, now. There were no improvements left for this heart. They would be parting ways, and she could not give her heart to anyone because no one would want it. Instead, Maddy needed the most beautiful of gestures gained through misfortune.

Sunny Saturdays were Maddy’s favorite times when the winter months came. Sunny Sundays were nice, too, but Saturdays were between realities, after last week, and not yet next week. She liked the way the afternoon sun beamed through her bedroom window and hit the floor, giving her a chance to sit on the warm carpet with a book. While other kids were always trying out for the stuff of racing hearts, Maddy was reading. Her favorite escape was with Ponyboy in The Outsiders. That’s where Maddy turned when her chips were down, and she sat on the floor with her feet in the sun and opened her book. Maddy liked to finish The Outsiders before the sun was gone, and never once think about her heart.

 

It was a small, wiry boy named Henry that some called Crazy Hank; he answered the dark dream of the Muros. Henry had lived an hour south in Jersey, and liked to race his vintage 1979 BMW 3 series on Saturday nights. He had worked that car over in his high school shop class and in his parents’ garage since before his driving status was legalized. The public streets had been his proving ground, and the darker and more desolate the better. But Henry’s Saturday nights layered one on top of another until a curve too sharp made his fate too heavy. Henry had the donor symbol on his license as if he’d always known. It was 6:30 AM when the phone rang at the Muro house. The suitcase had been by the front door for almost a month.

Maddy, like a bullpen ace, was entering the biggest game of her life without much time to warm up. They drove in silence knowing only that an accident had happened and the heart of a young boy, a match for Maddy, was put on ice and would be waiting for her. Arthur and Maddy were caught somewhere between the mystery of a death, and the excited nervousness of Maddy’s potential life. She clutched her copy of The Outsiders as the car raced under the rising sun.

A panic attack hit Arthur. His face turned white and his fingers began to tingle as the blood rushed from head and limb, and he had all he could do to breathe and keep the car straight. Somehow, someway, his apathy began to disintegrate. A boy had been killed. Arthur knew that. Along the boy’s way something had happened, a bad decision maybe, and it made the difference. The tremendous ripple effect blew Arthur away. Families, friends, doctors, science, and yes, even insurance companies like the ones Arthur used to hawk with devotion would be affected.

Everything was set, from the surgeons who were called in to the iced heart awaiting Maddy’s chest. All that was needed was the girl who would once again assume a familiar position under bright lights, masks and hairnets, and sterilized instruments that moved centimeters while dancing on the tightrope of life and death. They gave Maddy a room with a window while she waited to be brought down for surgery.

“Dad, you look exhausted,” Maddy said. She was still holding The Outsiders.

“I’m fine,” he said turning from the window. He was exhausted. The panic attack he had endured and restrained from Maddy had left him drained.

“You look like you’re going to drop,” she said. “Go get some coffee or something. I’ve still got some time here.”

“Maybe I will.”

“I demand that you do.”

“I wish I could bring you a hot chocolate,” he said.

“Hold that thought for me,” she answered.

As Arthur turned for the door he saw Sandy. She was standing with Artie Jr. who had met his mother at her apartment because she didn’t want to go to the hospital alone. Sandy hugged Arthur and went to her daughter’s bedside and took her hand. She was shaking a little, but smiling into Maddy’s eyes. Regardless of how sick Maddy was, Arthur knew how hard it was for Sandy to be near a hospital let alone be in one. Sandy was sick, too, but in a different way. Showing up for Maddy was huge, and if Sandy had to leave during the surgery, then so be it. It was the best she could do.

The panic attack in the car was not the end of Arthur’s epiphany that day. A voice called his name as he carried his coffee past the lobby towards the elevator. It was Terry Collins.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur said.

Terry was with his fiancé in tow. She was a petite redhead except for the distended stomach. Arthur hadn’t known about any babies.

“I meant to call you, but I’m glad I can thank you in person,” he said. “Oh, this is Michelle.”

Arthur shook her hand. “Thank me. For what, being an old cynic?” he said.

“Well, no. For all the times you used to tell me to think about life insurance. My white blood cell count was way up. Come to find out I’ve got Hodgkin’s.”

Arthur squinted in disbelief. “Holy Jesus, I’m sorry.”

“It’s early, though,” Michelle said. “Stage one.”

“Yeah, doctors say my chances are favorable,” Terry added. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

There was no panic in Arthur this time. “It’s Maddy. She’s getting a new heart today.”

“No kidding,” Terry said.

The bell rang and the elevator door opened. Terry stepped forward and hugged Arthur. Michelle gave him a kiss on the cheek and took his arm. “Thank you. Good luck,” she said.

Artie stared out the window in Maddy’s room. At the entrance below a teenager was being wheeled out to a waiting car. His leg was in a full, blue cast. People coming in stopped as he was helped from his chair, and then continued on.

“What are you thinking about?” Maddy said.

Artie stared into the sunshine. “Trains and barns… and you.”

An ambulance raced from the left side of Artie’s view, its sirens fading into a busy world. The boy with the broken leg was driven away, probably toward home and a meal and the things that would help him pass the healing.
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Joseph LoGuidice’s writing credits include non-fiction pieces in True Story and ADAA (Anxiety Disorders Association of America), and an Honorable Mention for fantasy/horror in Writer’s Journal Magazine. He put aside short story writing to complete his first novel, Little Gods, and is currently pursuing representation for that book. Email: jloguidice[at]gmail.com