By David Kirby
Featured Art by Gustave Caillebotte
They’re so meticulous, aren’t they? They take such care
that I am ashamed for my country, that impatient farm boy,
that factory hand with the sausage fingers. First there’s
the fragile object itself—vase, jewel, ornament—then tissue,
stiff paper, bubble wrap, tissue again, tape, a beautiful bag
made from something more like gift wrap than the stern brown
stuff we use here in the States, then the actual carry bag
that has a little string handle but which is, in many ways,
the loveliest part of the package except for the object
you can barely remember, it’s been so long since
you’ve seen it. In America, we just drop your trinket
in a sack and hand it to you. Oh, that’s right. We have cars
in this country: whereas Stefano or Nathalie has to elbow his
or her way down a crowded street and take the bus or subway,
you get in the car, put the bag on the seat next to you,
and off you go, back to your bungalow in Centralia or Eau Claire.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re culturally inferior
to Jacques or Magdalena just because, as Henry James
said in his book-length essay on Hawthorne, we have no sovereign
in our country, no court, no aristocracy, no high church,
no palaces or castles or manors, no thatched cottages,
no ivied ruins. No, we just do things differently here:
whereas Pedro and Ilsa take the tram or trolley,
you have your car, and now you’re on your way home
to Sheboygan or Dearborn, probably daydreaming
as you turn the wheel, no more aware of your surroundings
than 53-year-old Michael Stepien was in 2006 when
he was walking home after work in Pittsburgh, which
is when a teenager robbed him and shot him in the head,
and as Mr. Stepien lay dying, his family decided
“to accept the inevitable,” said his daughter Jeni,
and donate his heart to one Arthur Thomas
of Lawrenceville, NJ, who was within days of dying.
That’s one thing you can say about life in the U.S.:
we have great medicine. Mr. Thomas recovered nicely
after the transplant, and he and the Stepiens
kept in touch, swapping holiday cards and flowers
on birthdays. And then Jeni Stepien gets engaged to be
married and then thinks, Who will walk me down the aisle?
No cathedrals in America, says Henry James,
no abbeys, no little Norman churches, no Oxford nor Eton
nor Harrow, no sporting class, no Epsom nor Ascot.
“Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent
things in American life,” says James, “the effect of which,
upon an English or a French imagination, would probably
as a general thing be appalling.” It gets worse: James then
says, “The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such
an indictment, would be that if these things are left out,
everything is left out,” but then “the American knows that
a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is
his secret.” As the wedding approaches, Jeni Stepien
thinks, book the venue? Check. Order the cake? Got it.
And then she thinks that it would be incredible to have
her father there one way or another, so she writes Mr. Thomas,
who says yes, of course, he’ll be happy to walk her down
the aisle, though when he says he’s afraid his emotions
might get the better of him, Jeni tells him hers might, too,
but not to worry, because “I’ll be right there with you.”
When they finally meet, Arthur Thomas suggests
that Jeni grip his wrist, where the pulse is strongest:
“I thought that would be the best way for her to feel close
to her dad,” he says. “That’s her father’s heart beating.”
At the wedding, Jeni is photographed with her hand
on Arthur’s chest. They dance together, the guests mingle,
the two families vow to meet up somewhere down the road,
Jeni and her fiancé start their new life together,
and Arthur Thomas returns to his home in Lawrenceville.
“I felt wonderful about bringing her dad’s heart to Pittsburgh
that day,” he says. “If I’d had to, I would’ve walked.”
Talk about a knickknack. What must it be like
to have someone else’s heart in your chest,
taken from his body years earlier and placed in yours,
beating there now as it beat for its owner. You were days
from death, and now you can do anything you want.
In your new life, you are a citizen of no country
but of the world. It’s your heart. Your secret.
Most days you don’t even know it’s there.
David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a nalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll, which The Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” Kirby’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His latest poetry collection is Get Up, Please.