The Worm of the Heart

On a Saturday morning in late September, while waiting for her estranged husband Del to arrive with the payment for their daughter Natalie’s final semester of college tuition, Lily Manheim accidentally swallowed her giant Schnauzer’s heartworm pill.

In the Chestnut Hill house she had once shared with her husband and daughter, Lily worked on hacking it back up. But even without water, the beige bullet, taken in place of her daily vitamin tablet, had slipped down her esophagus into her digestive tract, bent on sending out evil dog worm killing enzymes.

Or whatever it was that a heartworm pill did.

Despite her 27-year marriage to a molecular biologist at Penn, Lily, with her masters in psychology and social work, had never been much for biology. The vitamins, which she often forgot to take at all, had been Del’s idea. Del, who spent his life studying zebra fish in the hopes of uncovering the cure for heart disease, embraced the many paths to post-twentieth-century immortality. Throughout their marriage, he had tried to stick to a diet of healthful greens and fruit and had encouraged Lily to join him on hikes, bikes, and mindfulness retreats

Despite his pleas, Lily often bowed out, content to watch Mother Nature’s plan for her thighs. Del told her she feared taking charge of her life.

“Your right hand never knows what your left is up to,” he said.

And here, in the swallowed heartworm pill, rested Del’s ultimate proof: Lily mistaking the multi-purpose vitamin in her left hand for the square, meat-colored dog lozenge in her right. Were these to be the final thoughts of her life? Clutching what might turn out to be her Final Vitamin, Lily located her cell phone on the downstairs table and punched up Poison Control.

“Heartworm pills? Aren’t those for dogs?”

“Hence my concern.”

Cell phone pressed to one ear, Lily unclenched her left fist to reveal the damp violet vitamin that clung to her lifeline. For a moment, she considered feeding the pill to Britney Spears, the Schnauzer, a karmic trade-inthat might stave off future bad luck, but then she dropped it into her own mouth and swallowed. Perhaps, she mused, the two might cancel one another out.

“Hmm,” Poison Control mused. Fingers clacked across computer keys. “A real stumper.”

“No one ever did this before?”

“I’m sure someone has. Can you hold?” A blast of Death Cab for Cutie, then the voice resurfaced. “You’re not one of those urban legends?” the voice asked.

“I swallowed it five minutes ago,” Lily said, trying not to panic. “Am I going to die?”

“Well,” said Poison Control. “Let’s not get dramatic. I’d anticipate a little nausea, maybe some itching, but I expect you’ll be with us for a while longer.”

“No licking in inappropriate spots?”


“We provide a very, very serious and important service to the community,” Poison Control lectured.

The flat sorrow of the dial tone filled Lily’s ear. Relief swamped her. She was not going to die, not today, maybe not ever. This was immediately followed by annoyance; In this new century, the entire country appeared to have lost its collective sense of humor. You couldn’t blame them, really. It had been a very long summer full of serious and important issues. People sitting in emergency rooms without insurance coverage, nut jobs carting automatic rifles at open air rallies, unemployment a persistent plague.  Her own job as a counselor at a clinic at Einstein Hospital was not exactly sound. And yet, here she was, toying with the idea of phoning back Poison Control to bark into the receiver.

The cell phone in her palm vibrated; perhaps it was Poison Control. She stared at it, determined that if she were given the chance, she’d take any proffered advice, elaborate on her specific symptoms, explain more carefully how recently she had been becoming more and more forgetful. Taking the heartworm pill was not an isolated case. Little things, like getting Britney Spears her heartworm pill on the first of the month (it was already the  15th, eating  regular meals, and arriving to work on time had become more optional than required. Not that she didn’t recognize in some back part of her brain that all of these activities were important, even vital. But,  since she had asked Del to leave the house three months ago, time had taken on a peculiar shape, shifting in a manner that left less and less space for what once passed as regular, normal, organized life. Hours slid by; but what filled them she could no longer precisely name.

It was not that she missed him, exactly.

Or maybe, it was. She punched in the numbers on the phone.

“Lily? Are you ill?”

Her mother Ruth. Lily swallowed, noting an oddly beefy taste in the back of her throat.

“Why would you think that?” Lily asked.

“Because you were supposed to drive me for my iron tests,” her mother said.

On the Art Museum calendar before her, Lily started at the boxes filled with scrawls beneath a very scary portrait of twin Frida Kahlo’s  holding onto a single bloody heart. What had possessed her to buy this calendar? Why not puppies? On the square marked for the fifteenth she read: Take M to tests. 8:15. Don’t forget. Important!

“I’m sorry,” she told her mother. “Del’s supposed to drop off Natalie’s tuition check this morning.” She shot a glance at the clock above the refrigerator. “He’s late.”

“In person?”

Lily imagined her mother’s face, her slightly Oriental looking eyes crinkling at the corners with unconcealed hope. Like everyone who met him, her mother had loved Del from first sight of his curly hair and dimpled chin. She knew what had transpired with Joy, but she had all her chips placed on an eventual reconciliation. Everyone deserves a second chance, she preached.

“Are you eating?” her mother asked.

“Britney Spears and I take excellent care of ourselves,” Lily said. She caught her reflection in the toaster oven; a little lipstick wouldn’t hurt.  She headed to dig it out of her purse. “We’re stocked up on kibble and fruit.”

“A dog is not a husband, Lily,” her mother said.

Lily hesitated. “But a husband can be a dog.” Immediately she was sorry, but it was too late.

“Lily, Lily, Lily,” her mother said. “Stop.” And then she clicked off the phone.

Lily stared at her cell. The second frustrated hang-up of the day, and it was not yet noon. How could she stop? She wanted to cry. Wasn’t she the injured party here? Who said that everyone deserved a second chance? She started to dial back her mother, ready to argue or apologize, but before she finished punching in her number the patter of footsteps sounded up the brick steps to the back door.

At once, Britney Spears’ ears perked up and her tail transformed into a giddy metronome.

“Is a doggy in there?” Del sang. “I come bearing doggy gifts.”

Lily swabbed on the lipstick and dropped it into a utensil drawer.

“Use your key.”

“That seems a bit formal.” A moment later she heard the scratch of the familiar key. She had consulted with a lawyer friend about Del’s refusal to give up the house key, but until the separation was formalized Del apparently had his rights. “Some people are easier than others,” instructed the lawyer. “This one not so much.”

“Britney!” called Del as he bumped the door closed with his hip, his traditional bag of peace offering onion bagels in one hand, a rubber chicken dog toy in the other.  Dr. Delmore Swann, the love of her life, sauntered into the kitchen.Britney Spears, who spent most of her time indoors inert, nose pressed to the tile, staring at the back of the self-same door, possibly praying continuously for this very celestial revelation, rushed forward at once, trampling over Lily’s bare feet and straight into her beloved’s embrace.

“Baby!” yelled Del. “Oh, how I’ve missed you!”

An unexpected pang rose in Lily’s chest, but it was Britney Spears who made the leap into Del’s tender embrace, Britney’s pink tongue that freely swiped Del’s freshly shaven face. Del dropped the bag of bagels and the dog immediately went for the warm circles of dough, nosing into the bag, splitting the paper and sending them spiraling. Del bent to grab them, but before he reached a single one, Britney Spears sprang to grab the bouncy rubber chicken and knocked Del to the floor.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Del swore. “Britney, calm  down. Calm the fuck down.” He waved  his arms to ward her off.  “What’s wrong with this animal?” Lily swallowed.

“She misses you?”

Del pushed to standing. As usual, he looked good—casual and rumpled.  That was Del—rumpled casual. A pale blue button-down shirt that matched his eyes, straight-legged jeans that advertised his 33-inch waist, bare feet in penny loafers that held their shine.  Britney followed him as he retrieved the bagels. Strictly speaking, Britney Spears belonged to Del. Del had rescued her from a suburban SPCA the tail end of their marriage, in part, Lily suspected, because his then-girl-pal Joy lived within dog-walking distance of their house and perambulating Britney Spears gave Del the perfect forty-five minute cover to escape from the house for a quickie with minimal suspicion. The dog, to put it bluntly, had served as Del’s beard. Del and the dog ran a mutual adoration society, but when Lily kicked him out—he had chosen a no pet/no kid apartment to share with Joy (who  had—oh, the delicious irony!—abandoned ship after six weeks) and unmanageable, half-trained Britney became de facto hers.

Bagels gathered and regrouped across the kitchen counter. Del knelt back on the floor.

“Britney, my darlink.” Del talked to the dog in the voice of Natasha from old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. “How do I live vithout you?”

Months ago, pre-Joy, Lily might have provided the companion voice for Britney Spears: “Darlink, do not vorry. You are my one and only lurve.” In those days, lured by Del’s love of the dog, and her love of Del, this dog and master act might have served as a kind of foreplay. Lily would lean over to rub Britney’s taut belly, her own sloping hip accidentally hitting Del’s roaming hand. At such a moment, the two hands stroking the dog might have found their way to somewhere decidedly more interesting, and Britney Spears, sent to follow a bouncy tennis ball cast by Del into a faraway room, would have been all but forgotten as the two of them dropped to the floor.

Now, elbows perched on the counter top, watching Del make goo-goo eyes at the dog he had so easily deserted, Lily’s eyes welled. She knew that as long as Del focused on Britney Spears he didn’t have to deal with anything else, such as their broken-heasrted daughter Natalie, who didn’t understand why he couldn’t come home. Or his infidelity. Or Lily.

She straightened.

“Tuition check?” she interrupted.

Outside, someone started a leaf blower. Lily remembered the punch line to one of Del’s favorite jokes: “Sorry, I must be leafing.”  But she could no longer recall the joke.  With a natural grace, Del delivered a final pat to Britney’s head and then jumped to his feet, pulling a green check from the back pocket of his jeans. But when Lily stretched over the counter to reach for it, he leaned back, keeping it from her reach.

“No games,” Lily said.

“But I like games.”

Lily made a second stretch for the check; Del again evaded her grasp. More than once she had asked him to mail the check rather than carry it over, but he refused.

“It’s more haimish this way,” he said. “Down to earth.”

“Idiot,” she said. But for some reason she smiled.

Del grinned back. For the first time since he had entered the room, Lily’s spine loosened. The truth was that no matter how much he had hurt her—and he had truly hurt her—she wasn’t totally sorry to see him. She  had her own job and her friends and her life, but in many ways Del had been her life’s work. As he waved the check in the air, she thought about all she knew about the man.  How he had held Natalie in the steamy shower when she had the croup, the surprise 40th birthday trip to Peru.   Where he bought his ironic argyle socks. The time that this doctor who regularly dissected miniscule zebra fish hearts had sliced open his own finger parting salty oysters in Cape May. The origin of the tiny white scar on his right temple where Natalie, two years old and perhaps alert to future betrayals, had pinched him.

“ Del.” Lily leaned towards him, her voice softening. “This morning I swallowed the dog’s heartworm pill.”

“Jesus.” The check dipped in his hand. “How pathetic can you get?”

Lily’s head snapped up. “You don’t mean that.”

“What would you call it?” he asked. “Reasonable behavior? Rational activity? The sign of a well-functioning, organized brain?”

“I don’t know what I’d call it,” she said. Everyone deserves a second chance. “Maybe it doesn’t have a name.”

“Sweetheart.” Del stepped towards her and set a hand on her shoulder. “Face it. You’re a wreck.” He smiled and massaged her upper arm. “You’re lucky I’m here.”

For the first time since Poison Control had suggested it, the tiniest rise of nausea clogged Lily’s throat. But before she could swallow, before Del had time to say another word, Lily leaned in. She drew in a deep lungful of his familiar smell: a blend of Crest mouthwash, spicy aftershave, and an indefinable medicinal odor that  he’d carried from the lab for all of their 27 years of marriage. Beyond her lips stretched his smooth collarbone, his pinkish nostrils, and his delicate earlobe, pale and juicy as a kumquat.

Closing her eyes, she considered her options. And then, with a quick snatch of breath, she parted her lips, bared her teeth and settled them into the curve of Dr. Del Swann’s neck.

“Fuck!” Del tried to jump back, but nothing budged. She held firm. Britney Spears stared, interested but strangely impassive.

“Lily!” Del cried.  “What the fuck!”

Teeth locked, she stilled, unwilling to give up her place. She didn’t release him until the check, dangling in his loosened fingers, dropped to the floor.

Del sprang away, his face contorted, one hand clamped over his neck to staunch the pain.

“You’re certifiable,” Del told her. “You should be committed.” A dark bruise had blossomed beneath his fingers. From the floor, Britney Spears whined for his attention, but Del paid her no mind.

“Don’t think you’re going to get away with this,” he said. He stumbled to the doorway.

“Drop the key.”

Del turned. From here, her handiwork resembled a love bite, a high school hickey. Her incisors tingled; her lips burned. The meaty taste had fled, replaced by the damp sweetness of her estranged husband’s flesh. The metal key hit the tile. For the first time in weeks, maybe months, as she watched Del ignore Britney Spears to push his way through the door and out of the house, she believed that for a second she had tasted the center of things, wormed her way into the very heart.

The slam of the door echoed. Britney ran to the door and started to bark.

Lily studied the back of the door, her thoughts in a whirling.  How could a man who studied molecules, who parsed strands of DNA, who published papers on the magical regeneration of the hearts of tiny fish that no one except those who published such papers might ever have a hope of understanding, be such a goddamn fool? Fool enough to throw away a good marriage, a solid marriage that she believed had been built on trust and love? All those songs about why fools fall in love had it backwards. The question was why do smart people fall in love?  Why don’t they know any better. Why do they refuse to see what inevitably comes next?  “He’s so not worth it,” she told the dog. For some reason she was crying. “He’s not,” she said again.

The dog didn’t pay her any mind. She kept barking and barking, bereft and alone.

Lily didn’t move. She went through everything she needed to do: catch up on her billing, give the dog a bath, and clean the kitchen, living room, and bathrooms. Think about her future. Get over Del. The dog howled and howled.

Ilene Raymond Rush’s fiction, nonfiction, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of national publications. Her short fiction has been awarded an O. Henry Prize and a James Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa.