Chest Pains

Valerie Kinsey


        A conversation by the vending machine woke Holly Kirsh. She wiped the drool from the corner of her mouth. The emergency room stink filled her nostrils: antiseptic, B.O. 

        “Mama gave me fifty cents.” 

        “I got a dollar.” 

        “How’d you get a dollar?”


        “She’s my Mama too.”

        “She’s your Mama, but this is my dollar—”

        Two young black boys. They had sing-song voices, wore baggy jeans, had close, neat hair. Big eyes framed by wiry black lashes. She turned to Glenn, her husband, who was slumped forward in the next chair; his dark-brown hair was wild with stray grays, his arms crossed across his thick chest. He was snoring—just. 

        The boys discussed what was inside a Milky Way. Holly looked around to see who they belonged to. The triage nurse blinked absently over her paperwork and looked up at the big, industrial clock. Four o’clock in the morning. A Hispanic family huddled close together. The mother, in a hot-pink shirt, sat with her ankles crossed and an infant in her arms. Her husband wore a flannel work shirt; his hands were cupped, one inside the other. In the far corner a visibly pregnant teenager sat with her chin in her hand, watching a TV monitor. Holly sighed, remembering that things could be worse. She had messed up with Sadie Roo. She wished she could call Beth, but Beth was dying of cancer, maybe even dead. She’d been expecting the call any day.

        Twenty years ago, back in college, Beth and Holly went to Stickney’s with three dollars between them. It was May and they were juniors, both twenty-one. Beth, in her loudmouthed, bra-less way, managed to talk the other patrons into buying them drinks. The bartender wasn’t a Stanford student. He was in his late thirties, had a dark-brown handlebar moustache, a ruddy complexion, and he took care of his father, who’d had a stroke and couldn’t move one side of his body. 

        At that time Holly and Beth lived in a crummy apartment in Mountain View. Beth explained she didn’t have any money for a tip. He said that was okay, that having two pretty girls in the bar on a Tuesday was good for business. Beth said it wasn’t okay. Then Beth said she had an idea. “Close your eyes, Holly,” she said. “Or don’t,” she said with a wicked smile. She took off her yellow drinking shirt. Just pulled it over her head. He blushed. Beth’s breasts were white and smooth, like long, silver teardrops. 

        She’d only flashed a man the one time, but it shocked Holly into realizing there were a million things she, Holly, would never do—never even dream of doing. Beth had a knack for doing things Holly’d never dream of doing, like dying of cancer too young.   

        “You awake?” the taller of the two boys asked. He was holding a package of plain M&Ms and a Snickers bar.  

        Holly gripped the wooden armrests and readjusted herself. 

        “Mama said you’re waiting for your daughter.” 

        Carlos used to call her “Mama.” Sadie Roo always said “Mommy.” She nodded slowly. “That’s right.”

        “What’s wrong with her?” the taller one asked. His younger brother looked down at the linoleum floor.

        “She drank too much alcohol. Now she has to have her stomach pumped. Where’s your mom?”

        “In there. She had chest pains.”

        “I’m sorry. I hope she’s okay.” 

        The bigger boy shrugged. “She’s all right. We’re taking care of her. C’mon, Jayden.” They returned to their seats and took up their electronic games.

        Holly was Sadie Roo’s mother; she was also Carlos’s mother, although Carlos died when he was a toddler, before Sadie Roo was even born. Sadie Roo was going to be a senior in high school. Sadie Roo’s best friend was Ann’s daughter, Jesse. Jesse and Jesse’s father were in Brazil doing charity work for the summer, and Sadie Roo was pissed off that she couldn’t go, that she had to be in dreary old California instead of hot and sexy Rio de Janeiro. That explained last night—at least in part. A blonde girl with long hair and a doughy face rang the doorbell. A boy from the supermarket where Sadie Roo worked carried her to the door in his tenterhook-arms. There was a dribble of vomit on her shirt and she was shivering. The boy said, “I tried to keep my eye on her, but she must have had more than I thought.” Holly watched them drive away in a stupid, open-air Jeep Wrangler while Glenn carried Sadie Roo to the Cherokee. Holly remembered the license plate, although she didn’t know what good that would do. She gave them the finger but didn’t know what that would do either.    

        Glenn coughed, blinked, and wiped his face with his hand. At once he sat, remembered they were in the hospital, and gave Holly a reassuring squeeze. 

        She rested her head on his shoulder. “What a mess.”


        Sadie Roo slept or pretended to sleep the rest of the following day. 

        Then Ann called. Beth had died. Beth’s baby, Sean, was twenty, and he needed help packing up the house. Ann asked Holly if she and Sadie Roo would come. 

        “I have to pick up Darwin from the airport tomorrow anyway, so we can swing by SFO and then head up to Beth’s,” Ann said. Beth lived north of the City, in Marin County. 

        Holly pressed the phone to her sweatshirt and approached Sadie Roo’s room. She knocked and then stood in the hall outside her door and explained Ann’s proposal. “Do you want to see Sean?”   

        Holly lifted the phone to her face. “Ann, I’ll be at your place by ten. I don’t know about Sadie Roo.” 

        After she hung up, she stood on the old shag carpet in the hall for a useless half-minute or so and then walked to the window in the master bedroom. Carlos had died two houses down and across the street on the driveway in front of 411 Ivy. The batty old Sobols moved less than a year after the accident, and the New Neighbors had stayed for seven years, until the husband was transferred to Atlanta. Holly had made a point of meeting the New Neighbors the day after they moved in. 

        “My son,” she’d said, “was hit by a car right here,” and had walked over to the spot and pointed, heat from the still-warm plate of blueberry muffins tickling her left palm. 

        “What did they say to that?” Beth wanted to know. 

        “Nothing,” Holly said. “I didn’t really tell them. I said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’” 

        Whenever Holly thought of Carlos’s death, she was interrupted by Beth’s voice, her wicked tongue, her perverse sense of humor. Beth made life after Carlos tolerable—almost. If Beth was her relief, Sadie Roo was her redemption. No, she told herself, not her redemption. But what? What?

        The next morning, when Holly got up, Sadie Roo was already dressed in a man’s V-neck tee, jeans, and a bandana, and was eating her Frosted Mini-Wheats with soymilk. When she finished eating, she rinsed her bowl and made two cups of green tea.  

        Holly accepted the cup. “How are you feeling?” 

        “Fine. Thank you.” Sadie Roo’s big, sleepy doe-eyes blinked in slow, baleful resentment. She still looked ill. Her skin had a dull, lilac cast. She sipped and rifled through a week’s worth of sloppily stacked mail. She’d received a solicitation letter from PETA, a brochure from a Christian university in Texas, and a postcard from Jesse. The card featured a photo of a bronzed, hairless male torso wearing nothing but a neon-yellow banana sling. Holly first congratulated herself for not reading the postcard, then sometime around 11 a.m. decided to read it, and then felt guilty. 

        Holly picked up her worn, leather purse and photo key ring: Sadie Roo, age four, petting a sheep on one side; her seventh grade school photo—braces, denim jacket, minor hair mishap—on the other.     

        “What did Jesse say in the postcard?” Holly handed Sadie Roo the keys.

        Sadie Roo shrugged, opened the driver’s side door, and sat down. “I’m sure you read it.”

        Holly did her seatbelt. “Are you angry that we didn’t let you go to Rio? Is that what the other night’s episode was about?”  

        “It wasn’t ‘about’ anything.” Sadie Roo maneuvered the old Volvo past the boxes of Christmas decorations, the broken vacuum cleaner, the bike with the pink streamers. 

        “I know you’re mad at me for not letting you go. We just didn’t think it was safe.”

        “Forget it. I’m having a much better time here. Jesse’s saving lives and I’m dismembering dead animals.” Sadie Roo was an outspoken advocate for animal rights, and prior to last night the only time she had been in any real trouble was for participating in a protest outside the entrance to Neiman’s at Stanford Shopping Center—Holly did not believe that throwing paint on a sable coat was correct behavior, but she couldn’t muster any convincing display of “moral outrage” either. Now Sadie Roo was spending her summer doing “research” for the cause in a high-end grocer’s butcher shop. And even though Holly didn’t completely “get” the why of it, she supported her. Holly had thought—rather optimistically, it now seemed—that the job might help focus Sadie Roo’s anger. A month had passed. Sadie Roo was still furious, withdrawn, and oozing cynicism, and she’d befriended a group of older, apprentice butchers.   

        “Sadie Roo,” Holly asked carefully, “why did you get drunk?”

        “I don’t know.”

        “You’re usually so careful about what you put in your body. Was it for attention?”

        Sadie Roo rolled her eyes. “That’s, like, such a cliché.”

        “Well, was it?”

        Holly did not know whether to laugh or cry. They crossed the 280 freeway and drove north, past bucolic horse farms and palatial homes set back in the dense-wooded hills. Ann and her husband were doctors who lived in an enormous, ill-kept, country French style house by the Woodside Bakery. 

        Ann’s Golden Retrievers bounded down the long, gravel driveway to meet the wagon. Sadie Roo pulled up in the circular driveway in front of the house and threw open her arms to Bubble and Sumi. Her face relaxed, her sullen look disappeared. Holly’d heard a story on N.P.R. about prison inmates who were rehabilitated by taking care of retired greyhounds. “You still want a dog?” 

        “I wanted a puppy a million years ago.” Sadie Roo wrestled a bald tennis ball from Bubble. “Besides, I can’t take a dog to college.” 

        At least Sadie Roo was still planning on college. Holly knew better than to take anything for granted. 

        Ann talked nearly the entire way to the airport. Holly was anticipating a great deal of gushing about the work that Jeremy and Jesse were doing in Brazil for the “cleft-palate kids.” Instead Ann talked about how Beth died. Much of what Ann said, Holly already heard. Over the last two years, Beth divulged details about what had grossed her out—the scars from the double mastectomy were nothing compared to the colostomy bag, for example, the paper-thinness of her skin—but she’d slowly become accustomed to even these things. “Life is a sick business,” she’d said. 

        They arrived at San Francisco Airport. The sky was overcast and they were late—Darwin’s flight from Wyoming had landed fifty-five minutes before. He was waiting at the curb with his overstuffed backpack. He’d gotten in trouble at school and was sent to Grand Teton National Park for “survival” camp. Ann had made a point of telling Holly that she wasn’t mad at Darwin for using pot—after all, that would be hypocritical—but for selling it to other kids. Ann got out of the car and opened the back for his bag. They exchanged a brief, awkward hug, and he got in back beside Sadie Roo. 

        Holly turned around to face Darwin.  

        “Hey,” he said and pushed his thick, stick-straight brown hair out of his eyes. “I ate squirrel. I stuck a stick in through its head cavity all the way through its asshole and spit-roasted it.” 

        “That’s revolting,” Sadie Roo said. 

        “I haven’t showered in ten days. And we weren’t allowed to bring toilet paper. Well, we were, but then we had to burn it, so it got to be too much trouble. So instead we just used leaves. Or nothing.” 

        “Beth died,” Ann said, as though apologizing for their lack of interest in Darwin’s wilderness experience. “We’re going to see Sean. Have to delay that shower a few more hours.”

        “Oh.” He pushed his hair out of his face and looked straight ahead, out the windshield. They drove toward the soupy, gray city, the silver buildings enshrouded in fog. The car emerged from the thick, dense grove of trees in the Presidio and climbed the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bright-orange buttresses cut a severe pattern against the misty, gray sky. 

        “More people killed themselves jumping off this bridge than any other bridge in the world,” Darwin said.  

        “That’s really sad.” Sadie Roo sounded like she was going to cry. 

        Beth lived in Tiburon. She and her ex-husband bought a teardown fifty yards from the San Francisco Bay. They’d designed and built a house that cascaded down the hillside toward the water.

        Sean answered the door, wearing blue swim trunks and flip-flops. He had a wiry frame, was tanned pink-brown, and covered with freckles and a film of sweat. His straw-yellow hair was matted and damp in places. He had blue eyes and looked like Beth.  

        “Hey,” he said and accepted Ann’s crushing hug. He gestured for the party to enter. They followed him downstairs into the living room, already crammed with packed boxes. The wall facing the bay was made of paneled, tinted windows. Outside was a balcony.

        Holly and Sadie Roo followed Sean outside and down the graying wooden stairs to a lower deck that stretched out over the sloping hillside below. Three chaise lounges with marine-blue cushions faced the ocean. Sean’s was the room closest to the stairs. It was long and rectangular and looked out on the bay below. The deck above blocked out a swath of early afternoon’s direct sunlight.

        There were no chairs so Holly sat on his rumpled bedspread. Sadie Roo wandered over to his bookshelf, picked up a sand dollar. Sean looked around as though he’d never been in this place before, as though he was seeing it for the first time. “Mom died in here.” 

        This explained why the room was nearly empty. He had made a spot for a bed or a cot or a couch and, perhaps, a table and chair for the hospice nurse. Holly now noticed furniture impressions on the Berber carpet. She looked around the room again, more closely. A drafting table pushed against the wall. A closet with sliding doors. The near-empty bookshelf at the foot of the bed. A rumpled, white t-shirt was on the floor. A paperback copy of The Way of the Peaceful Warrior was folded open on the beside table—definitely Sean’s—beside a box of Kleenex, a digital alarm clock, a diver’s watch, a bottle of Visine. Outside was the glimmering blue water.

        Sean wiped his face with his hand. “She told me to give you this.” He handed Holly a note written on the back of a grocery receipt. Beth had used a ballpoint pen, and the script appeared labored and messy, but it was definitely hers. Beth was not one for pomp and circumstance: A smart person once said, “The only thing worth dying for is living,” so don’t boo-hoo too much for me. And another thing, Holly: Blame me already. I’m dead.

        Holly almost laughed. Beth was speaking of Carlos’s death, of course. She could still hear Beth’s high, lilting voice as she opened and shut the freezer, twisted the plastic ice cube tray, and cracked the ice free. The slight, temperate breeze on her neck. A car door closed and Michelle Marquart, who lived next door, yelled something about finding the tennis key, the Sobols’ Mercedes’ diesel engine jumped to life in their driveway, and jays squabbled in a clear, resonant pitch. The summer day was so clear and bright and loud—she was holding a spoon, scraping lemon pulp from her hand juicer, when she realized the front door was wide open. Her toddling son had toddled—

        Holly blinked rapidly and returned to the present moment.

        Sadie Roo was tall and lanky like Holly and didn’t seem to know what to do with her arms and legs. She put down a conch shell and went outside. 

        Holly sighed and forced her attention to Sean. “I’m so sorry, Sean. Your mother was—” 

        Sean sat down beside her and buried his head in his hands. She felt the heat coming off his body, the smell of his sweat—sweet and salty and boyish. She wrapped her arm around his back and squeezed him to her side. 

        The air-conditioning switched on. Holly hugged him closer and shivered under the blast of cool air. “She was so…” and Holly searched for the right Beth-ism, “…radical.”

        He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, stood, picked up the old, white t-shirt at the foot of the bed, and slipped it over his head. He looked at her as though trying to discern the truth of what she said. 

        An hour later Ann came clomping down the steps onto the balcony in front of Sean’s room. Sean was going through his closet, making three piles: pack in a box, pack in a suitcase, and give away. Holly was folding and packing. “What happened to Darwin and Sadie Roo?”   

        “I don’t know. They’re not up there?” Holly asked. 

        Holly and Ann found their children sitting on the driveway, backs to the garage door. Darwin was holding a cigarette—a cigarette that smelled of marijuana. Sadie Roo’s face twisted into an expression of grim victory. 

        “You have got to be kidding.” Ann crossed her arms. “You realize you will never—ever—drive.” 

        “Look, Mom, I promised to stop selling drugs. I’m sharing.” 

        “Where’d you get it?” 

        “I found it in there.” Darwin nodded over his shoulder toward the front door.

        “You took Beth’s medical marijuana?” Ann asked. 

        Holly looked up at the wispy, white clouds. Her chest was tight. She was having difficulty breathing. 

        “There was all kinds of good stuff in there. I only took this.” Darwin brushed his hair out of his eyes. “What? She doesn’t need it anymore.” 

        Holly opened her mouth but no sound came out. 


        On the return trip down the Peninsula, the tightness in Holly’s chest didn’t abate. She thought in circles about how to approach Sadie Roo. Talking maturely with her daughter didn’t seem to work; the conversations they’d had were repetitive, boring, terrifying. But she was too old to be sent to her room. If only she could scare her into obedience. 

        Sadie Roo fell asleep and woke up only briefly when they reached Ann’s house. Holly took the keys. She drove past the turn-off for their house, down Sand Hill Road and the hospital where first Carlos and then Sadie Roo were born and where Sadie Roo had her stomach pumped just two nights before, down El Camino, past the Stanford intramural fields and eucalyptus grove, past the luminous Hoover Tower, “a giant red-tipped penis in the sky,” Beth called it. She hung a U-turn and drove to Town & Country Village. Stickney’s, the anchor restaurant in the complex of shops, had closed long ago. Several other restaurants had rented the spot. It was now a fish place. Holly drove around the parking lot in a circle, trying to figure what came next. 

        Holly pulled the Volvo into a slot and climbed out of the car. The glass doors to the restaurant were locked. The walls were painted bright white and decorated with vivid, stylized underwater posters. The place had dining room chairs, bright-blue vinyl booths, frosted-glass partitions. Nothing of Stickney’s brown wood-yellow glass décor remained. A man wearing jeans and a gray, hooded sweatshirt was vacuuming the floor. The vacuum moved to and fro over the teal carpet.  

        While Sadie Roo slept, Holly stood underneath the loggia of the store block. Next to the restaurant was a travel agency. Come Away to Ireland! a poster read in white script against a background of rolling green hills. There was another poster on the far window featuring three photographs of Brazil: the beach at Ipanema, swirling dancers at Carnival, and “Jesus the Redeemer” statue, arms outstretched atop Corcovado Mountain. 

        Holly tried to force the old memory, “Beth’s story,” to play in her mind, as if the physical spot—transformed, nearly unrecognizable, really—could conjure the past, superimpose itself onto the present. She stood, thwarted, irritated at her inability to control even her thoughts, and as a knee-jerk reaction to the travel agency advertisements, her mind wandered to the prospect of a Hawaiian vacation. Maybe they’d do one of those packages, although Mexico would be cheaper, and while they didn’t have the money, Lord knows, they’d all benefit from a literal escape, since it seemed impossible they’d ever escape this mental hell. And, unbidden, Beth’s living room appeared in her mind. It was dazzling in the late afternoon light, and unlike Beth’s real living room, it was empty of furniture and boxes and floating like a ship on the water. In this vision stood Sean and Sadie Roo—Sadie Roo was different, older, fuller than she was now—their lean, tanned arms draped around each other, their strong, young bodies framed by the window. Waves crashed against the glass. Wave after wave crashed over their heads. Each wave was a great, bellowing yawn of ocean; each one was taller and broader than their ship. The crystalline blue of the sky was blocked by the azure of the water. Sean and Sadie Roo remained still, enamored of the light piercing the waves, the curling turquoise crests that hung suspended for a fraction of a second before exploding against the fragile, translucent surface. Holly did not know whether the glass would hold. The waves seemed powerful and strong—stronger than anything man could manufacture. Yet wasn’t this life measuring the splendor of the waves against the possibility that the glass would crack? 

        Her heart, she realized, was racing, and yet, when she pressed her keys into her hand and felt the cool night air on her face and just-moist lips, what she experienced was a kind of serenity. She took a deep breath and drank the deep, rich air.  

        She got back in the car and started the engine. Sadie Roo was awake but kept her eyes closed. 

        Holly slowed the Volvo and came to an idling stop in front of 411 Ivy. Water from the sprinkler ran down the sloping, asphalt drive. “I ran out of the house when I realized the door was open and Carlos was outside. I ran but I was too late.”

        Sadie Roo opened her eyes and hugged her knees to her chest. “What did Beth’s note say?”

        I’m not through with you yet—this was the exact phrase that came to mind, but it didn’t quite make sense. For a crazy moment Holly believed that she was thinking Beth’s thoughts and not her own. She smoothed her daughter’s shiny hair. 

        “The door was open when it should have been closed. But now it’s closed when it should be open. I’m going to open the door. Beth told me to open the door.” 

        Sadie Roo stole a glance at her mother. She said that it didn’t make any sense, but her expression showed a strange mixture of fear and confidence. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

        “I’ve been so worried about you,” Holly said, tears forming.

        “About Beth. I’m sorry about Beth. I know you loved her.”

        Holly could still feel the tightness in her chest but noticed that the pain came, aptly enough, in waves, and that the inhale hurt worse than the exhale, but overall it hurt less and less all the time.


Valerie Kinsey’s story “Life and Death of Mary Percy Stone” won the D.H. Lawrence Prize for Fiction at the University of New Mexico, and her story “Forever Blue: A Tribute to Chris Isaak” was published in Penmen Review. Her love of books and writing has led her from coast to coast, and back again. After graduating from Stanford University, she moved to New York and worked for an international book scout. Later, she decamped to Los Angeles to read screenplays and books for film studios, including New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, and DreamWorks. In 2003, she moved to New Mexico to begin an MFA in prose fiction, and ended up with a PhD in English, as well. Since then, she’s lived all over the country, reading, writing, and teaching. Now she finds herself back at Stanford, teaching in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

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