Guilt : A short story by Judy Budnitz

Judy Budnitz: `Guilt' is in a collection of stories, Flying Leap, published by Flamingo

Judy Budnitz: `Guilt' is in a collection of stories, Flying Leap, published by Flamingo

"What kind of son are you?" asks Aunt Fran. Aunt Nina says, "Your own flesh and blood!" "What your mother wouldn't do for you. . ." Aunt Fran goes on. "She'd do anything for you, anything in the world."

"And now you won't give just a little back. For shame," says Aunt Nina.

"Now I'm glad I didn't have any children; it would hurt me too much if they grew up as hard and selfish as you!" Aunt Fran cries and shudders. The heat is stifling, but she pulls her sweater closer.


We're sitting in the hospital waiting room, Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina and I. My mother suffered a heart attack this morning. An hour ago we talked to the doctors. They told us her heart is in bad shape. It's tired, they said, and erratic - a senile old dancer lurching from a tango to a two-step, stumbling to a halt and starting again. We're waiting to see her, the aunts and I. The doctors told us her heart won't last much longer. Her old ticker is ticking its last, unless something is done. "What can be done!" the aunts cried.

"We can't fix it," the doctors said. "She needs a new one, a transplant."

"Then give her one!" the aunts cried.

"It's not that easy," said the doctors. "We need a donor."

The doctors went away. The aunts looked at me.

"Arnie," Nina said, "what about your heart?"

"My heart!" I shouted. "Are you crazy?"

That started them both off on what a bad son I was. It's impossible to argue with Nina, especially with Fran to back her up. They see no reason why I should not donate my heart to save my mother's life.

The doctors still won't let us see my mother. So we sit here waiting on the green vinyl chairs in the waiting room. It is empty, but we can see the ghosts of other bodies imprinted in the vinyl, others who sat waiting here for hours.

I sit in the middle. Aunt Fran clutches one arm, Aunt Nina the other. They wept at first, but now they sit grimly. A styrofoam cup of coffee steams next to my foot, but I can't reach for it. The aunts don't care; they are amazed that I bought it, amazed that I can even think of coffee at a time like this.

Aunt Fran wears a bally sweater and sensible shoes. Her lips are pressed tight. She taps her feet nervously. On my other side, Nina licks her lips again and again. She has high blood pressure, so when she's upset, she becomes flushed and overheated. Even now I can feel the creeping heat of her thigh touching mine.

I try to pretend it's Mandy sitting beside me, clutching my arm the way she does at horror movies.

"I saw it on Sixty Minutes," Aunt Fran announces. "They put the heart in a cooler, a regular Igloo cooler like we have at home, and they rush it in a helicopter to the hospital, and they put it in, connect up the pipes - it's just like plumbing."

"You must be your mother's tissue type, too. I'm sure you are," Aunt Nina puts in. "You're young. You're strong. You have a college education! Your heart is exactly what she needs."

"It looked like a fist - a blue fist," Aunt Fran goes on. "It wasn't heartshaped at all; I wonder why. . ."

"You shouldn't have started smoking, though," Aunt Nina says. "It's so bad for the heart. You should have thought of that when you started."

"But what about me?" I blurt out finally.

"That's what we're talking about - we're talking about your heart," Nina says.

"But what happens to me?" I say again.

"I can't believe he's thinking of himself at a time like this." Aunt Fran sniffs.

"I need my heart! You want me to die so my mother can live?"

"Of course we don't want that," says Aunt Fran. "Sylvie loves you so much, she'd want to die herself if you died."

"We can't both have my heart," I say.

"Of course not," says Nina. "You could get one of those monkey hearts, or that artificial heart they made such a fuss about on the news awhile back."

"Why can't Mother get one of those? Or a transplant from someone else?"

"Do you want your mother should have a stranger's heart? Or a monkey's heart? Your poor mother? Do you remember how she never used to take you to the zoo because she couldn't stand to see the filthy monkeys? And you want her to have a monkey's heart? It would kill her!" Fran cries.

"She's so weak, she needs a heart that will agree with her," Aunt Nina adds. "Any heart but yours just wouldn't, wouldn't do. But you - you can handle anything. You're young. You're strong. You -"

"Have a college education," I finish for her.

Aunt Nina glares and says, "Your mother worked herself to the bone for you, so you could go to college. She nearly killed herself so you could go and study and make something of yourself. And now what do you do? Out of college four years already, and all you do is sit in front of a typewriter all day, call yourself a writer, smoke those cigarettes, never get a haircut -"

"And the first time your mother needs you, you turn your back on her!" Aunt Fran finishes. They both tighten their grips on my arms.

I don't remember ever wanting to go to college; it had seemed like my mother's idea all along. I went because I thought it would make her happy.

"I do things for Mother all the time -" I begin.

"Only half the things any normal son would do. And I thought you were raised to be better than an average son!" Aunt Fran huffs.

"Oh, Isaac must be just turning over in his grave right now," her sister moans. Isaac is my father. I never knew him.

"You're so lucky. I wish I'd had the chance to save my poor mother," Aunt Fran says.

One of the doctors appears at the end of the hall. As he approaches my aunts rise, pulling me with them. "Is she all right?" demands Fran when he is still 20 feet away.

"We've found a donor!" Nina announces.

The doctor greets us. He is a small man, completely bald. The eyes, behind thick glasses, are sad. He strokes his scalp as he talks, savouring the feel of it.

"She's all right. She's being monitored," he says. "We will look for a donor, but there's a long waiting list."

"We've got a donor. Sylvie's son. He's in the prime of health," Aunt Nina says.

"This is Arnie," Fran explains.

The doctor studies me carefully.

"Surely you don't do that sort of thing?" I say incredulously.

He gazes at me. "It's very rare, very rare indeed that a son will be so good as to donate his heart. In a few cases it has been done. But it's so rare to find such a son. A rare and beautiful thing." He takes off his glasses and polishes them on his sleeve. Without them, his eyes are small, piggish.

He puts them back on and his eyes are sad and soulful once more. "You must love your mother very much," he says, gripping my shoulder with a firm hand.

"Oh, he does," Fran says. I shift my feet and knock over the cup of coffee and it spills on the floor, a sudden ugly brownness spreading over the empty white.

A nurse leads us to the intensive care unit, where my mother is lying attached to machines and bags of fluid. The room has no outside windows. There is an inner window, through which I can see a nurses' station, where they are watching our every move.

Aunt Fran rushes to one side of the bed, Aunt Nina the other. I shuffle awkwardly at the foot of the bed. I touch my mother's feet.


"Are you all right?" the aunts cry. They are afraid to touch her because of the tubes snaking into her arms, the needles held by strips of tape.

My mother opens her eyes. There are purple circles around them. She looks pale, but not so different from usual. Hardly on the verge of death. "I'm fine," she says, gazing at them.

I look at them, the three sisters. To me, the aunts are just variations on my mother. Fran, the oldest, is like my mother, only stretched - tall, hair strained tightly back, thin drawn-on eyebrows, cheekbones jutting up under the skin, long front teeth resting on the lower lip. And Nina is my mother plus some extra - her cheeks are full, her chin sags, and her eyes are heavy-lidded.

My mother is just my mother. Not a young woman, but not an old one. Grey hair spread on the pillow. She's young for a heart attack, I suppose; she's still got many years to go. She smiles dully at her sisters. "Oh, Sylvie, you look wonderful! Just the same!" they say. Then she raises her eyes to me.

"Oh, Arnie, you look terrible," she says. "That jacket - I told you to throw it away. I'll find you another. There's no reason to go around looking like a mess."

"Arnie has some good news," Nina says.

"Then why does he look like a thundercloud?" says my mother. "Arnie, is something bothering you?"

Fran says, "Arnie wants to give you his heart."

"I never said that -" I cry.

There is a pause.

"Of course, Arnie, you shouldn't. You don't need to do that for me. Really you don't," my mother says. She looks terribly sad. The aunts' faces have gone stony.

"You have your whole life ahead of you, after all," my mother says. She looks down at her arms, at the branching veins that creep up them like tendrils of a vine. "I never expected anything from you, you know," she says. "Of course nothing like this."

I look down at her feet, two motionless humps under the blanket. "I'm considering it, Mother. Really, I am. I want to find out more about it before I decide, that's all. It's not as simple as changing a car battery or something." I force out a laugh.

No one else laughs, but the aunts' faces melt a little. My heart is pounding. My mother closes her eyes. "You're a good boy, Arnie," she says. "Your father would be proud."

A nurse comes in and tells us we should let my mother rest for a while. Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina head back to the waiting room. They sit down in the same seats and look up expectantly, waiting for me to sit between them.

"I think I'm going to take a little walk. I need to stretch my legs," I say.

"He probably wants to go call one of those tarty women he runs around with," Nina whispers loudly. "Tart" and "run around" are as close as she gets to profanity.

I walk up and down halls of dull white where patients shuffle in slow motion, wheeling their IVs along beside them. I can feel in the floor the buzzing vibration of motors churning away somewhere in the heart of the building. I take the elevator and wander through more humming white halls until I find a pay phone.

I call up Mandy. She picks up on the first ring. "Hi," she says. "Where have you been?"

"My mother had a heart attack this morning," I say. "I'm at the hospital."

"Oh, I knew this would happen," Mandy says. "I burned my hand on the radiator this morning, and right away I thought, Uh-oh, an omen, something bad's going to happen. How old's your mother?"

"Fifty-seven," I say.

"Ooh, that's young for a heart attack. And she wasn't fat or anything. I feel like it's my fault; I should have warned you or something."

This is how I met Mandy: one day last spring she got some takeout Chinese for lunch, including a fortune cookie that told her that she would soon meet a mysterious stranger in a blue coat. That afternoon I happened to take my car to get fixed at the garage where she worked. Lucky thing: I was wearing the old blue jacket my mother hated. Mandy asked me out to dinner right then and there. That doesn't sound like a sound basis for a relationship, but for some people it is. Mandy believes in signs and predictions the way some people believe in religion. She's usually right about things. She sure did a lousy job on my car, though.

Mandy's asking me something, but I can't hear because the woman next to me is sobbing Spanish into the phone. Mandy says again, "Where did it happen?"

"At the bank. She was working," I tell her. "There was an ambulance, and her sisters are here, and I got here as soon as I could. Mandy, could I-"

The woman next to me is screaming. "I need to ask you something," I shout into the phone.

"What- what?" Mandy's voice calls.

Finally I tell her to come to the hospital and she says all right and hangs up. I don't need to tell her where to go; she always seems to be able to find me. She says she just follows my smell.

I wander down toward where I think the entrance of the hospital is. I stop some stretcher attendants and ask directions, but I can't understand their English. Mandy never gets lost. And she never has to wait in line. Strangers on the street talk to her. Jobs fall in her lap. She's nice-looking: freckles on her nose, good straight teeth. She keeps telling me that my signs indicate that my life will be on a big upswing soon and that I am just in a transition period right now. I hope she's right.

Lately she's been dropping hints about getting married. And Mandy drops hints like she's dropping a load of bricks on your foot. My mother hates Mandy. She doesn't put it that way; she says Mandy is "untidy", "irresponsible", and "has no future", but I get the message.

I finally reach the lobby, and just as I do, Mandy comes bursting through the doors, beaming at me. She doesn't smile; she beams. Not like sunlight. Like lasers. She has these eyes like headlights. "I knew I'd find you," she says. "How's your mother? Have you seen her?" Her breath in my face is like pine trees and toothpaste.

"Yeah, she's all right for now. Come on, let's go outside for a minute. I want to ask you something."

Outside, the afternoon is darkening to early evening. The hospital breathes and shudders behind us. We wander in the parking lot, among the cars, talking softly, like we're afraid we'll wake them. It's cold. The wind sends trash and dry leaves scuttling along the ground. I keep looking back to see if anyone's following us.

"They say my mother's heart is bad. She needs a new one. They want me to donate my heart. What do you think of that?"

Mandy stops, her eyes and mouth open. Wind whips her frizzy hair around her face. She looks shocked. I breathe a sigh of relief: at last, someone who can see reason.

But then she says, "Oh, Arnie. How wonderful! Can they really do that? That's so wonderful - congratulations!"

"You mean you think I should do it?"

"Isn't technology incredible?" Mandy says. "These days doctors can do anything. Now you can share yourself, really give yourself to someone else in ways you never thought were possible before. Your mother must be thrilled."

"But it's crazy -"

She takes my hands in hers and looks up into my eyes. "Frankly, Arnie, I didn't think you had it in you. I'm really impressed. Really, I am."

"Mandy, I thought you could be realistic about this. What about me? Do you want me dead? What am I supposed to do without a heart?"

"Oh, I'm sure they could fix you up. The important thing right now is to help your mother." She unzips my jacket and presses her hands against my chest. My heart twitches, flutters like a baby bird in her hands.

"What about your heart? If I give my mother my heart, would you give me yours?"

She draws away from me suddenly. All the lights in the parking lot click on simultaneously and her face is flooded with white. She presses her knuckles to her mouth. "Now that's not fair," she says.

"There! Now you see! When it's your own heart in question, you change your mind, don't you?" I cry, waving my arms around.

"You're not being fair," she says again, her lower lip quivering. "You're the one who doesn't want a commitment. You're the one who can't even say the word marriage. A few months ago I would have given you my heart, and gladly, but you didn't want it. But now. . . well, if I gave it now, that wouldn't be fair to either of us, don't you see?"

"No, I don't. Maybe it's time we thought about getting married. You could come share the apartment; we could share things -"

"Oh, you're just saying that. You're just thinking about yourself, what you need; you don't care about me. I think I'd better go -"

"But Mandy! Wait! What am I supposed to do?"

"Arnie, you know what the right thing to do is. You should get back to your mother now. Give her my regards."

"You hate my mother."

"No, I just feel sorry for her. She has a bad aura. She's had a hard life, and it's not all her fault," Mandy says. She pats my arm. "You know what you should do. She's your mother."

I try to kiss her, but she turns away and I get a mouthful of hair. "Why don't you call me after you make a decision?" she says. "Then maybe we'll talk." I'm reaching after her, wanting to grab hold of her hair, the belt on her overcoat, anything, but she's too quick, a few steps away already.

I watch her go. Brisk, determined steps, like a schoolteacher. "But Mandy!" I bawl. "Mandy - this may be the last time you ever see me with my heart! Next time I could have a different heart! A different heart! What about that?"

She doesn't even stop, just calls over her shoulder, "Who knows, it might be better than the old one."

I find my way back to the waiting room. Someone has mopped up the coffee.

"Feel better?" Nina asks.

"Made a decision yet?" Fran says. "Yes. . . no. . . I don't know," I say.

They are both quiet.

Then Aunt Nina says, "She carried you for nine months. More than nine months! You were late. Do you remember it?"

"Of course he doesn't," Aunt Fran says.

"She didn't mind it, of course. She loved it. But it couldn't have been easy," Aunt Nina says. "She was a frail woman."

"What are you talking about?" I say, though I can guess.

"There was a time when her heart beat for both of you." She sniffs. "I don't see why you can't do the same for her."

"He said he's thinking about it," Aunt Fran reminds her. Fran turns to me. "Arnie, think about this: The heart's a little thing really. Less than a pound. It's just a muscle. You've got muscles all over the place. Can't you spare one?" She looks earnestly into my face. "Can't you spare a little bit of flesh?"

"Your mother's dying in there!" Nina blurts out. She heaves a shuddering sigh, then another. "Don't you care?" she says, and then they are crying, both of them, drops sliding down the wrinkles in their faces.

My mother's dying in there. Dying? She looked all right just a little while ago, I remind myself. But I have to sit down. A coldness sinks and spreads through my gut. I want to call someone, talk to someone. I want a drink badly.

Later we go visit my mother again. She looks worse, but perhaps it is the fluorescent lights draining colour from her face. I stand again at the foot of her bed. I can see the veins and tendons on her neck. So delicate, so close to the surface, you could snip them with scissors.

"Arnie," she says softly, "you should go home and get some sleep. And shave. You look terrible. So tired. Go. I'll be here tomorrow, I'm not going anywhere."

"You see?" Fran hisses at me. "Sick in the hospital with a bad heart, and all she can think about is you!"

Nina strokes my mother's head and tells her she'll be fine. I look at my mother lying there and I try to think of her as organs, blood, cogs and springs and machinery. I remember a time when I was small and she hugged my head to her. My ear pressed into her stomach and I could hear the churning, gurgling workings within.

"Go on, now. Get some sleep. I'll be fine," my mother says weakly, and closes her eyes. We shuffle out.

Fran and Nina say they will stay awhile longer, in case anything happens. I leave, but promise to come back soon.

I drive home in the dark. I go up to my apartment and turn on the lights. I take a shower and try to shave, but my body does not want to work properly. I stub my toes, jab my elbow, and poke a toothbrush in my eye. When I look down, my body looks strange and alien, hairier than I remembered, and larger. Looking in the mirror gives me a chill; as I shave I have the feeling the face in the mirror will start to do something different from what I am doing.

I go into the kitchen and put a frying pan on the stove. I put in a dab of margarine and watch it slide around, leaving a sizzling trail. I think of eggs. Scrambled? No - fried, sunny-side up, half-raw and runny. I get two eggs out of the refrigerator. I crack one into the pan. There's a blob of blood mixed in among the yellow.

I dump everything in the sink and run the garbage disposal, trying not to look at it too closely.

I want to call Mandy. Then I realise I don't want to call her at all. Usually my mother calls in the evenings to tell me about TV programmes and weather changes.

I turn off the lights and sit in the dark. I look at the ceiling, at the smoke detector. It has a blue light that pulses and flickers with a regular beat like the blip on a cardiograph.

Early the next morning, at the hospital, I tell the doctor, "I want to do it. Give her my heart."

He gives me a long, steady look, eyes huge behind the glasses. "I think you've made the right decision. I do," he says. His eyes drop to my chest. "We can get started right away."

"But what about a transplant for me?" I say. "Don't you need to arrange that first?"

"Oh, we'll take care of that when the time comes. I want to get your heart into your mother right away, before. . . before -"

"Before I change my mind," I say.

He hardly hears; he's already deep in his plans. His scalp is shiny with sweat.

"Is it a complicated kind of operation?" I ask.

"Not really," he says. "Making the decision is the hardest part. The incision is easy." He claps me on the back. "Have you told your mother yet? Well, go tell her, and then we'll get your chest shaved and get started."

This is what I've realised: all along I thought I'd publish a book. Lots of books. Get recognition, earn lots of money, support my mother in style in her old age. Give her gorgeous grandchildren. I thought that was the way to pay her back everything I owe her.

But now it looks like I have to pay my debts with my heart instead. Under these circumstances, I don't have a choice. I'm almost glad; it seems easier this way. I'll just give her a piece of muscle and then I'll be free of her forever, all my debts paid. One quick operation will be so much easier than struggling for the rest of my life to do back to her all the things she thinks she's done for me.

It seems like a good bargain.

When I tell my mother the news, she cries a little, and smiles, and says, "Oh, I didn't expect it. Oh, not for a minute. I wouldn't expect such a sacrifice from you, Arnie, I wouldn't dare even to mention such a thing. It's more than any mother could expect of her son. I'm so proud of you. I guess I did a good job raising you after all. You've turned into such a fine, good person. I worried that I may have made mistakes when I was bringing you up, but now I know I didn't."

On and on she goes.

And the aunts. They cry, and clutch my arms, not so tightly as before. They say they doubted me but they never will again. "What a good son," they keep saying. Looking at them now, they seem smaller than they did before, shrivelled.

I call Mandy, and she dashes over to the hospital. She kisses all over my face with her cherry-flavoured Chapstick, and she hugs me and presses her ear against my chest. She tells me she knew I'd do the right thing. I'm feeling pretty good now; I light up a cigarette. She takes it away from me and mashes it beneath her heel. "That belongs to your mother now," she says.

They all give me flowers. I feel like a hero. I kiss my mother's cheek. I hop on a stretcher. They wheel me out. They sedate me slightly, strip me, shave me.

And then they put the mask on and knock me out good; it's like I'm falling, falling down a deep well, and the circle of daylight above me grows smaller and smaller and smaller, until it is a tiny white bird swooping and fluttering against a vast night sky.

How does it feel to have no heart? It feels light, hollow, rattly. Something huge is missing; it leaves an ache, like the ghost of a severed limb. I'm so light inside, but so heavy on the outside. Like gravity increased a hundredfold. Gravity holding me to the bed like the ropes and pegs of a thousand Lilliputians.

I lie at the bottom of a pool. Up above I see the light on the surface. It wavers, ripples, breaks, and comes together again. I can see the people moving about, far above, in the light. I am down here in the dark, cradled in the algae. Curious fish nibble my eyelashes.

After a while I see a smooth pink face above me. The doctor? "Arnie," he says. "The operation went very well. Your mother is doing wonderfully. She loves the new heart." His words begin far away and drift closer, growing louder and louder, until they plunk down next to me like pebbles.

"Arnie," he calls. The pool's surface shivers. His face balloons, shrinks to a dot, then unfolds itself. "Arnie, about you - we're having a little trouble. There's a shortage of spare hearts in this country right now. We're looking for some kind of replacement. But don't worry, you'll be fine."

Later I see Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina. They lean close; they're huge. Their faces bleed and run together like wet watercolors. "Your mother's doing so well!" they call. "She loves you. Oh, she's so excited. She'll be in to see you soon!"

And later it's my mother gliding in, her face pink, her hair curled. "Arnie. . . Arnie. . . you good boy. . ." she calls, and then they wheel her out.

They leave me alone for a long time. I lie in the deep. It sways me like a hammock. There is a deep, low humming all around, like whale moaning. My mother does not visit again. When do I get to go out and play?

Alone in the dark, no footsteps, no click of the light switch. Then the doctor looms above me. "Your mother," he says, "is not doing well. The heart does not fit as well as we thought. It's a bit too small." He turns away, then leans over again. "As for you, we're working on it. There's nothing available at the moment. But don't worry."

And then Fran and Nina are back. "How could you?" they scream, their voices shattering the surface into fragments. "Giving your mother a bad heart. How could you? What kind of son are you? She's dying - your mother's dying, all because of you." They weep together.

For a long time no one comes. I know without anyone telling me that my mother is dead. It is my heart. When it ceases to beat, I know. A high keening rises from the depths.

The doctor comes to tell me how sorry he is. "She was doing so well at first. But then it turned out the heart just wasn't enough. I tell you, though, she was thinking of you when she died. She asked for you." He sits quietly for a moment. "We haven't managed to find a heart for you. But you'll be fine. We've shot you up full of preservatives. You'll stay fresh for a while yet." He goes away.

Aunt Fran and Aunt Nina no longer visit.

Mandy? Gone.

I lie listening to the emptiness in my chest, like wind wailing through canyons.

These days the doctor comes in often to chat with me.

One day he tells me a story: "You know, when your mother died, we managed to save your heart. It was still healthy. We thought about giving it back to you. But there was a little girl here, about eight years old, and she needed a new heart, too. Cute little blond girl. One time a basketball star came here to visit her and there were TV cameras and photographers and everything. She was in the papers a lot. Kids were always sending her cards. Anyway, we decided to give her your heart. She's only a kid, after all; she's got a whole life ahead of her. Why should we deny her that? I'm sure your mother would have wanted it that way. She was such a caring, selfless woman. I'm sure deep down you want her to have it, too, don't you?"

Of course I do.


Judy Budnitz was born in 1973 and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia in the US. She graduated from Harvard in 1995, and received an MFA in creative writing from New York University in 1998. Her novel, If I Told You Once, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize earlier this year. `Guilt' is taken from a collection of stories entitled Flying Leap, published by Flamingo last month at £6.99 in UK. Flying Leap has already been published in the US where it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.