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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The House’s Beating Heart
We discovered the house’s beating heart when Margaret poured the dregs of her papier mâché project down the kitchen drain. The three of us were in our second floor bedrooms, slogging lonesomely through graduate coursework, when the thumping began. With each beat, the floorboards throbbed. The thin walls trembled, dry paint sloughing off in broad flakes.
We traced the beat to a locked closet in the kitchen. The house contained dozens of locked closets and cabinets. We had assumed the landlord was storing his stuff and the rent was too cheap for us to complain. The landlord wasn’t around to be complained to, anyway. We mailed our rent checks to a P.O. Box in Greece.
We called a plumber. He knelt before the sink and began unscrewing things, shimmying his pipe snake, clearing newspaper slurry from the house’s arteries. As he worked, the sound faded until we could only perceive the heartbeat by placing our palms and ears against the yellowed wallpaper of the closet’s exterior. We didn’t open the closet. We didn’t want to disturb the heart. Another increase in pressure, the plumber warned us, could burst the pipes.
We would have been okay if it had just been the heart. Just the heart would have been kind of charming.
A week later, Kelly baked cookies. She baked to distract herself from writing her thesis proposal on the metalinguistics of “out of order” signs. She went upstairs and distracted herself with the internet and forgot the cookies until the smoke alarm went off. I opened the oven; smoke billowed out. The house began coughing, spasms like quick, violent earthquakes. The floor rippled, the house cleaved from its foundations. We clung to door frames, shooing smoke with our hands.
When the smoke cleared, we located the lungs. Thin purplish bladders, like delicate tropical fish, stretched behind the north and south walls.
I didn’t feel like planning interviews for my ethnography on a group of Mennonite women who made politically subversive quilts, so I went to the attic to look for the brain. I pried up a dusty floorboard, exposing a patch of twitching pink-gray tissue. I poked it with the tip of my crowbar and received a mild electric shock. It was a fuzzy, pleasant sensation. I poked the brain four more times, then stumbled, drooling, back down the stairs.
Margaret had reached an impasse in her dissertation about sentient kitchen appliances in twentieth century film and literature as a corollary of gender theory. She found the liver in the crawlspace under the stairs, and went in there to nap, her body stretched against the liver’s leathery brown-red side. She would emerge hours later smelling sweetly, sourly of blood and bile.
Kelly found the esophagus at the end of the upstairs hallway, behind a cabinet door sealed with many layers of white paint. She made a sandwich, a triple-decker ham and turkey with everything. She dropped the sandwich down the dark, slippery tube. We found the sandwich in the backyard a few hours later, partially digested, the tomato slice perfectly intact.
We wondered where the house’s mouth was. We wondered where were its stomach, bowels, eyes, and other things.
The house suffered under our curiosity. One by one the upstairs bedrooms turned gangrenous. First the affected room would grow cold as a meat locker. Then the walls would become gray and crumbly. The smell, that distinctive battlefield stench, was unbearable.
We sealed the rotting rooms. We slept together on the living room floor, close to the house’s beating heart.
In November we were all put on academic probation. We blamed the house. No wonder we couldn’t focus, with these gigantic organs throbbing around us day and night.
We hacked off a piece of the liver and fried it with onions. It was tough as shoes, bitter as dandelion stems. We dumped nails down the esophagus. We sank our arms elbows-deep in the brain and churned it like a vat of scrambled eggs. The lights failed, the heat failed, the skeleton of the house lurched as if it would splinter apart.
We broke down the door of the heart closet and attacked the mound of red tissue with steak knives. The heart kept beating, hemorrhaging gallons of blood. We were covered in blood, slippery with blood. The linoleum sagged under the weight of the blood. The floor collapsed, we fell into the basement, straight into the stomach, which sealed itself around us, pinched itself shut like a dumpling.
The stomach acid burned our skin. We tried to claw our way out, but the acid worked quickly. It wore off our skin, our skin was soon gone, we were raw uncovered things. As the acid ate our muscles, we peered through the membrane at the basement’s repository of organs: kidneys the size of steamer trunks, the long rippled colon, a single blue unblinking eye.
Though we’d left it tumbling from the closet in ragged chunks, the heart beat on. The heart kept beating after our bones were pulverized and excreted into the abandoned yard. The heart kept beating after the ground thawed and our bone meal fertilized the soil, nourishing weeds that grew to the height of a man’s shoulder. Slowly the house healed itself, and by August, just in time for fall semester, was ready for new tenants.
Kate Folk‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like Jersey Devil Press, Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, and Gigantic Sequins. She lives in San Francisco. See more at www.katefolk.com.