Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: This Angel on My Chest

“Someone in Nebraska” comes from Leslie Petrzyk’s new book of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest. Each story concerns a different woman whose husband has died young–as indeed Pietrzyk’s husband, Robb, had almost 15 years earlier, when he was 37 and she 35. The collection, which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 2015, awarded by the University of Pittsburgh Press, is fiction nonetheless, with each woman experiencing her own loss in her own way. You can purchase it here or at major booksellers.


Author photo by Susan Hale Thomas.

YOU HAVE FINALLY MET someone—live and in person—who has seen the white light at the end of the tunnel. She’s a bartender in a small town in Nebraska who had a heart attack when she was forty. “They run in my family,” she says, as if that might be an obvious thing to understand about her. She knows everyone in the bar, everyone except you. You’re the stranger. You must like being the stranger wherever you go. That’s why you go to so many different places.

“I was clinically dead for twenty-five minutes,” she tells you. Others in the bar listen, but clearly they’ve heard the story, the minute by minute. Only you don’t know, although you know the end: there she is, standing in front of you, bringing you a Bud whenever you ask for one.

She’s forty-two now, but the kind of forty-two that’s surprising, as if she should be younger. There’s a bottle of Lubriderm hand lotion on the bar, next to the Jack Daniels. Maybe you should try that brand on your own skin.

It still surprises you, what all can be learned about people in the short bursts of conversation that punctuate a bar. “So, are you from around here?” (knowing you’re not) is enough to start. You always let them ask first. You don’t want to push your way in. You
were taught not to push. Dallas, the bartender, has told you she was named for the city though she’s never been there. “Someday, maybe,” she says, but it sounds like she doesn’t care anymore about getting to Dallas or not, not the way she once used to. You think about telling her it’s not such a great city—sweaty, sprawling, excessive—but you keep your trap shut. “Those cheerleaders are pretty enough,” she says, “but I’m suspecting they’re kinda dumb, kinda pathetic.” She shakes her head. Those poor, dumb, pathetic Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. The way she talks, the way she conveys an opinion convinces you also to feel sorry for them.

“Damn helicopter ride to Omaha was seventy thousand bucks,” she says. “Not that I remember a lick of it.”

How did she know, you ask, that it was a heart attack? You’ve seen the public service announcement ads scroll by during whatever heart health month is; women often don’t recognize the signs. Women are trained for pain. (This is something Dallas announced
earlier, during a quick skirmish of the sexes sparked by some men who didn’t properly push in their barstools as they stood up to leave.)

“You know,” she says, conspiratorially. “For real, I’d rather give birth again, take on that torture than feel another heart attack. It was squeezing and pushing all up through my back, and my hands crunched up like devil claws.” She demonstrates, palms up, fingers  locked in a gnarly, arthritic pose, then shakes them loose. “I yelled at my dad—he was living with me at the time—I screamed up the stairs, ‘I think I’m having a fucking heart attack, goddamn it,’ and he jumped on the phone quick. My mother had her first when she
was thirty-two, so I got that it was borrowed time for me, especially since I smoked back then. At the hospital here, there was my doctor, the one I took my kids to, and I looked up at him and told him there was a booger in his nose and then said, ‘Don’t let me die,’
and I was out. Out and clinically dead for twenty-five minutes they told me. They saved my life, waiting for the helicopter. And all that pounding they did on me, not one of my ribs cracked, which was cool. They knew their CPR shit for real.”

Someone wants a stack of lottery poppers. Someone else needs a refill on Jack and ginger. Someone yells that the john needs more t.p. and the whole bar finds that hilarious. Dallas handles all these situations. You sip your beer. Your hand shakes the tiniest bit, not so anyone would notice but you.

You guess that Dallas wouldn’t lie about this. To the cops, maybe, about a joint in the car not being hers, but not about something of this magnitude. Anyway, she doesn’t know about your husband and his heart attack. You don’t go around telling people because it
only confuses them. Thirty-seven-year-olds aren’t supposed to die, especially not from heart attacks. You’re too young to be who you are: a widow.

Dallas returns to her spot behind the bar and jumps back into her story: “So I was out. And I swear to you I saw the bright white light, just like they say, glowing at the end of a tunnel, shining like a Christmas tree. Right in the middle, there was my big sister surrounded by that white light, her face whole and peaceful, looking like she did before the car crash, just beautiful. Like an angel. I couldn’t stop staring. She was the one out of us lucky enough to
take like Mom and her side—everyone else, including me, got Dad all the way, and he’s a pit bull. Not Janie. She held four red roses across one arm, like she was prom queen, and the sweetest little smile on her face, like that painting, whatsit, you know the one:
mysterious but calm. You’d never see a smile like that in real life. I’m walking right for her, aching to hug her, but she straight-arms those roses, like to stop me, like a wall, and says, ‘You gotta go back. It’s not your time, Cookie,’ which was what they called me when I
was just little, and I was all, ‘No,’ not that arguing at her when she was alive did any good, so why think I could because she was dead? ‘They need you back home,’ she says, and that’s for sure, those three boys of mine are hell-raisers, and God knows I gotta yank their
chains every day. But my sister looked so still and so damn pretty. The light was bright, but not like sunlight—it was soft—and the smell . . . that’s how I knew it was real. Every drug I ever did, every hallucination or whatever under the influence of everything (and I do mean everything), out of all that, nothing ever smelled. But this did, heaven did: it smelled fresh, like cement after a good summer rain. It just was . . . the most amazing smell I’ve ever smelled. I can’t describe it really.”

She pauses, twists at the waist, putting her shoulder and triceps in view, so you see a tattoo of four roses twining up the back of her arm. “We each got the same one on my birthday,” Dallas says. “On our arms. Three days before that wreck on 29. I would’ve stayed to be with her. But she said to go back. Then there was my kid going, ‘Mom? I love you.’ ”

You’re supposed to say something, but nothing you’ve seen or read or thought in your life prepared you for this moment of hearing this story. You’ve heard on TV variations of the “white light” before, but a story is more believable when someone stands in front of you in a bar in Nebraska, and when you want—desperately—to believe it. When you want it to be true. Wow, you say, feeling stupid, and to complete the stupid feeling you repeat the single, stupid word: Wow.

She gives her head a quick shake, shattering the mood. “It’s just something that happened to me,” she says. “Two years ago already.”

“Two years?” someone down the bar leans forward to ask.

Dallas nods. “And eight years since Janie passed,” she says. “Time sure fucking flies.”

“Now that you’re back to life,” someone else says, “grab me another Bud Light. Or is that a Bud White Light?”

But no one laughs. Indeed, bars are never actually quiet, but this one is for the spare moment where Dallas leans against the counter, tilts her head so she’s gazing up at the pressed tin ceiling, a tiny grimace fluttering her lips. You know that look. The lost sister, the
one who wasn’t sent back, the one who was, the one who sits here. The, why, why? You never stop pretending that question might get answered, but by who? Your brain insists there is no answer.

And yet. Things align. Surely things align.

This place isn’t Brooklyn, her story isn’t on a cable talk show, it’s not her night off; you are sitting here alone, it is beer and not scotch, the carved graffiti in the wooden bar does misspell “asshole.” It’s not two years ago, or eight years ago, or ten years ago that morning you found him on the kitchen floor, it’s now.

You want to thank her for the story. You want to tell her about your dead husband and his heart attack and how there wasn’t a happy ending, unless this, right now, is a happy ending of sorts, ten years later: that maybe you will believe the picture in your mind.
Him seeing that white light. His grandmother, his childhood busia, reaching out, enfolding him in a hug. Her whisper in Polish, “I’ve been waiting for you,” and he understands exactly though he never spoke Polish. You want Dallas to know how much it means to know—to know—that someone flesh and blood, someone in Nebraska, has seen heaven and believes in it and that heaven smells nice. You hope that’s true. You hope heaven smells like pizza.

You don’t say any of these things, or any of the things you wish you knew how to say, and there are many of those. Dallas lets her fingers rest lightly on the beer tap, eyes snapping to the door as it whooshes open. “Another?” she asks.

But it’s time to go. You push over a twenty, a big tip on a five-dollar tab. Maybe now she’ll remember you, too.

–Leslie Pietrzyk

“Someone in Nebraska” from This Angel on My Chest, by Leslie Pietrzyk, © 2015. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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