Fathom Mag
Short Story

Pure of Heart

A short story

Published on:
June 20, 2024
Read time:
14 min.
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Leanne married right out of high school, a boy she’d met in homeroom. He was nice at first, fixed her car and brought home dented canned fruit and vegetables from the grocery store where he worked stocking shelves, but then he changed, started showing another side. Crispin could get rough when drinking, and when he drank he’d slack off work. During their first three years of marriage, he held, off and on, eight different jobs. Each time he got fired he blamed the manager. Maybe it was the company Crispin kept, a couple of brothers who bragged about stripping stolen cars and selling off parts. 

One day she called him while on her lunch break only to discover he’d quit his job once again. He disappeared, which was nothing new. Often he’d be gone two or three days at a time. But this felt different. A police officer contacted her to let her know Crispin was being held without bond for a robbery. Crispin claimed he wasn’t the mastermind, but he was the one the 7-Eleven clerk remembered as holding the gun, later confirmed by video from security cameras.

The baby she was carrying at the time, a little girl, was born too early. Leanne woke up feeling fine and went to work at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels at the mall, but soon after taking dough out of the freezer, she started cramping up. She drove herself to the hospital where the doctors did a D&C. Leanne waited on a gurney in the hospital corridor for the all-clear from the discharge nurse. The bright lights overhead drilled into her. Inside she felt a yawning emptiness, scraped and raw. She turned toward the wall.

The Kenosha economy experienced a downturn. Factories all over were laying off. Leanne had a good job waiting tables at a small café, but when the Chrysler plant shut down the café went out of business. On her last day, she crossed the parking lot and struggled to get over a snowbank to the sidewalk on the other side where gray slush had filled in boot prints. She looked up at a patch of blue sky between mottled clouds. Leanne hadn’t heard from Crispin in about a month. Phone calls were hard as were visits. With her last few dollars, she hopped a bus and moved to Chicago to be closer to him at Cook County Jail as he awaited trial. She got a pay-by-the-week room at the Sovereign and set about looking for a job. 

On one of her visits to the prison, Leanne met Pastor Ted, a portly robust man with a sweat-beaded forehead. She shared with him the burden of keeping Crispin’s spirits up when she herself felt so depleted. More than physical exhaustion—though that played a part, juggling two part-time jobs and classes at the community college—it seemed that all around her lights were going off and the world was getting darker. On the way home one night on the L train, the car she was sitting in emptied out. A man got on at Clark and Division. She must have nodded off, lulled by the side-to-side swaying of the train. Suddenly he was on her. Leanne fled in terror, realizing only later that she had left her purse and take-out gyro sandwich on the seat. It would be weeks before she was able to replace her ID and checkbook; she spent hours trying to cut through red tape. All of this caused her to lose faith, not only in the human race but in herself. 

Pastor Ted sat and listened to the diminutive girl—he was surprised to learn she was twenty-five, she appeared so childlike. She reminded him of a shelter pet in need of a good home and a hearty meal. Pastor Ted made some calls and found Leanne a job that included room and board, working for a family from his church. 

The neighborhood tended to keep Leanne at arm’s length, figuring she wouldn’t be around long.

The Johnsons were professional people. Marquette was an educator and Roy was a supervisor at the post office. Though not well off, they were somewhere in the middle of the middle class. The Johnsons took Leanne in as a favor to Pastor Ted, and also because Marquette’s mother who had been watching the girls was at an age where getting back and forth in the mornings was becoming difficult. 

At first, Leanne was hesitant. She didn’t exactly know how to stop the girls from bickering with one another while eating breakfast or how to hurry them up to get out of the house on time. The bus came for Jordan, but the two littlest had to be walked to school. It was a bit jarring for the crossing guards and the other mothers to see a plain white woman, the whitest of white with pale limp hair and ghost skin offsetting shallow blue veins, escorting two Black children down the street. The Johnsons were well-known in the community, and people looked out for one another. The neighborhood tended to keep Leanne at arm’s length, figuring she wouldn’t be around long. The girls, too, tested their new sitter. 

As if possessed by prankster demons, Jordan, Alicia, and Cecilia collaborated on schemes meant to wear Leanne down. They salted her bed sheets, threw her toothbrush in the toilet, “accidentally” locked the door to her room, and told their mother stories that Leanne slapped them or pulled on their hair when re-braiding the ends in the morning. They complained loudly if their oatmeal wasn’t sweet enough, dawdled when they were supposed to be getting dressed, and forgot their homework. In all these cases Leanne responded with perfect patience. She cajoled them, calling them Baby Bears. She added vanilla to their milk in the mornings to make it more palpable. She went back to the apartment to fetch their forgotten homework. She stayed up at night pressing their clothes. After school she had a snack ready: a bulls-eye, an egg in the center of a slice of toasted bread. 

One afternoon Jordan ran into the house in a panic to report that a man had followed her home from school. Leanne called the police and then grabbed a broom. She ran out the door looking in all directions, finally spotting a figure crouched behind a dumpster in the alley across from their building. By the time a squad car arrived, she’d whacked him several times across the back and head. The middle girl, Cecilia, was deathly afraid of spiders. On the few occasions Leanne spied one, she’d squish it with her open palm before Cecilia saw it. Alicia had bad asthma and used an inhaler. Leanne brightened the small canisters using colored electrical tape, also making them easier to find when lost in the girls’ messy room. Soon the girls came to love their Lee Lee.

Not that Mrs. Johnson didn’t have to repeat herself when leaving instructions for Lee Lee; there were just some things she didn’t “get”—like leaving the iron or oven on or forgetting that on Tuesdays Jordan had gymnastics. Or ruining the carpet in the living room because she over-watered the plants—that is until Leanne catapulted Marquette’s African violet, the one she’d had since college, to the sidewalk below when opening the window.  

Her husband was sentenced to eight years. Meanwhile, Leanne became part of the family, was remembered at Christmas and on her birthday, and even hung out with the girls on weekends even though she didn’t have to. On date night, when Marquette and Roy went out, Leanne would pop a big bowl of popcorn and she and the girls would curl up in front of the TV with a video. One time after putting the girls to bed, Leanne checked on them and found Alicia struggling for breath, the child was turning blue. Leanne quickly called 911 and Marquette’s mother came over to stay with the other two while Lee Lee went with Alicia in the ambulance. Marquette and Roy rushed to the hospital to find doctors arguing with Leanne. After that, they left tacked to a bulletin board next to the refrigerator a notarized statement giving Leanne permission to seek medical attention for any of the girls whenever necessary. 

At first, the neighbor didn’t want to open the door, but finally, through her sobs, she talked them into calling the law.

Crispin did his time. Because of overcrowding at the jail and mitigating circumstances, the parole board saw fit to release him early. As much as she loved the Johnsons, Leanne’s place was with her husband. They had friends back in Kenosha who promised to help them out the first couple of months with housing and Pastor Ted gave Crispin the name of a storm door manufacturer looking to hire. Leanne cried and kissed her Baby Bears goodbye, saying she’d come back soon to visit them. 

Crispin was only out two months before he came home drunk, kicked in their bedroom door that Leanne had locked to keep him out, and held a gun to her head. He screamed at her to shut the fuck up as she tried to control the terror rising up, tightening her throat. At one point he dozed off so she slipped out of the house and ran next door, through stinging rain, her hair loose down her back, her clothes torn. At first, the neighbor didn’t want to open the door, but finally, through her sobs, she talked them into calling the law. The cops led Crispin away. Though they never divorced, Leanne was through with him forever.

The only thing left to do was to go home and be nice to each other.

She returned to Roy and Marquette and her girls. 

In the fall, exactly one week after the new school year had started, Leanne was fixing to do a load of laundry and was stripping the beds when the TV morning show was interrupted with news—a plane had rammed into a tall New York City building. She stopped frozen as the station replayed the bizarre footage over and over. Even before a second plane hit the other tower, she was out the door and down the street. She hurried to the high school wearing only her work duster and a pair of scuffs on her feet. All she wanted was to make sure the girls were all right because suddenly everything seemed upside down. Leanne was prepared: for them to roll their eyes, to demand she leave the schoolyard before any of their friends saw her, to have the girls ignore her. The strip of sidewalk in front of the building was already crowded with parents and caregivers, some dressed casually as well, their eyes all glued to the windows to catch a glimpse of their sons or daughters. Before an hour had passed, students began to pour out of the doors for early dismissal. Jordan, Alicia, and Cecilia found Leanne; their faces confused, not quite sure. Together they huddled in one embrace, no one talking because there were no words for the fear and the unknowing. The only thing left to do was to go home and be nice to each other.

As the girls got older, Lee Lee continued to care for them. She took Jordan to the fabric store and helped her pick out a pattern for Home Ec. Leanne stayed up all night sewing the dress for her after Jordan complained that the machine kept jamming. For a time, Alicia’s asthma got worse. She missed so much school that it was feared she might have to repeat sixth grade. Lee Lee tutored her and caught her up; Alicia graduated from grade school with a B average. Cecelia never lost her baby fat. In high school she’d come home crying that the boys in her class called her names, they made fart noises when she sat down next to them. Lee Lee took Cecelia in her arms and told her she was the prettiest and best girl in the whole world. She could be whoever she wanted to be. It took much convincing, but eventually, Cecilia began to own those words. As a sophomore in high school, she ran for class office and was surprised when she won a seat on student council—but not Lee Lee, she smoothed Cecilia’s hair back and kissed the clean greased part in the center. When Cecilia was allotted only two tickets for graduation, she begged school officials for a third. Lee Lee got to hear Cecilia deliver the valedictorian speech. 

One might think that Leanne would move on after the girls were gone, out of the house and off to university, but about then Marquette discovered a lump in her breast. Luckily they caught it in time. Marquette decided on aggressive treatment. Leanne tended to Marquette after her surgery and was there for her during chemo. There were days when Marquette couldn’t keep anything down, days she didn’t come out of her room. She longed for what had been lopped off, regretting—oh so much. One morning Leanne crept into her dark bedroom with a box. She’d had a wig styled especially for Marquette. They went together to Fields to have Marquette measured for a special bra. Roy said she looked like his foxy lady, and quietly thanked God for Lee Lee, for helping to restore some of his wife’s former confidence. 

At Christmas the girls couldn’t make it home—Jordan had been offered a new job working at Amnesty International in New York City, and Alicia had a boyfriend, a Jewish boy, who had invited her home to meet his family in Texas, and Cecilia was doing graduate studies abroad in Senegal. Marquette retreated back into her room, her wig on a mannequin head beside her bed. Leanne got on the phone and berated the girls, Get yourselves back on home; your mother needs you. Cecilia caught a plane and the other two sent their apologies—to beau and boss. They were all together that Christmas. 

After getting the morning dishes over with and tidying up the living room (Roy liked to shell pistachios while watching the 10 o’clock news), Lee Lee often napped, dozing off on the couch for a few minutes with the TV on. She was startled when the phone rang. She sat up immediately and furtively began to search for her glasses until she realized she didn’t need them to pick up the phone. 


“Lee Lee?” It must’ve been one of the girls. No one else called her that. “Is Mama home?” 

“She’s at work.” She waited for Alicia to say something. “How is that Urban Psychology class? Is it as hard as it sounds?” Alicia attended the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. 

“Can you come with me?”

“I’m pregnant.” 

Leanne found her glasses. 

Like those things at the bottom of the screen on the TV news—she once heard Roy call them crawlers—that say Take Cover, or No School for the following districts, or Three Taken Hostage, a string of questions crawled across her mind. How could this happen? What were they going to do? How old was Alicia—twenty-one or twenty-two? 

“I’m late. I love Leo, but . . . I can’t—”

For some reason Leanne thought about her little girl, the one she’d named Haley. Where did she go? Heaven, yes, of course, but where is that? Is it the sky overhead, the air she breathed? Leanne liked to think that Haley wasn’t gone, but that she inhabited the dust particles dancing in the morning sunlight, or the static electricity that sparked when Leanne touched the TV, or those weightless moments when she felt safe and full, more than happy; when her heart smiled. 

“I’m early enough along. I’m not going to have this baby.”

Leanne spotted a red shell fragment rooted into the stiff threads of the carpet. Not easily vacuumed up. 

“Lee Lee?”


“Can you come with me?”


The walls in the waiting area were covered with textured wallpaper, pastel colors of salmon and puce. Leanne flipped through a number of magazines and, at one point, tried to decide on which thin celebrity did a particular dress look better. When Alicia appeared she was weak and groggy. Alicia was in no state to drive and Leanne hadn’t driven since leaving Wisconsin for good, yet she took Alicia’s keys and got behind the wheel. As they waited at an intersection for pedestrians to clear a crosswalk, Alicia burst into tears. Lee Lee pulled over and wrapped her arms around Alicia and let her cry. She understood. 

One morning Leanne woke up with a cramp in her side. At first, she thought it might be gallstones—they’d bothered her before. She ate Cream of Wheat for a week, but still the pain didn’t go away. She made an appointment with Marquette’s internist who then referred her to another specialist. After a battery of tests, it was revealed that it wasn’t her gallbladder but pancreatic cancer. 

Roy and Marquette wanted to take Leanne on a cruise before her quality of life was compromised. They invited the girls, even offered to pay their way, but they couldn’t get out of prior commitments, it was just too short of notice. While lounging on deck beside the pool, Leanne grew nostalgic listening to the gleeful shouts of children. She closed her eyes, preferring to shut out the busy shipboard atmosphere and dwell in the past. It had been years since she last thought about Crispin. Leanne tried to picture Haley. She’d be a grown girl by now. Lee Lee’s life had been fairly average, dog-eared by specific big events, with highlights scattered here and there. But now she was running out of time, there were fewer and fewer pages left to turn. Soon, she reckoned, her story would be over. It saddened her to think she wouldn’t be there for her Baby Bears and for what the future held for them. 

Once back home in Chicago, Marquette arranged for hospice. During what turned out to be her final weeks, Leanne shuffled around the house in furry slippers. She liked to lie on the couch and watch Marquette cook or else gaze out the window. The autumn leaves were just turning. Leanne took in the reds and varying golds, her eyes huge in her sunken face. She remembered raking leaves with the girls and building a massive pile for jumping. She had had to talk them into it, the task at first too much like work. “Watch me,” she shouted and made a flying leap. They clambered on top of her, and together they rolled around, collecting bits and pieces of leaves like colored confetti in their hair. 

Marquette busied about, plumping up a half dozen pillows under Lee Lee’s weak and emaciated frame and mashing up a boiled sweet potato, feeding it to her, spoonful by spoonful. A week later Lee Lee refused all solid food, and after that, she stopped speaking altogether. She communicated with her eyes when they were open. Her skin took on a sheen, the look and color of wax. By now she was on an endless stream of morphine. 

It was on a quiet afternoon, sodden and overcast, when Marquette marked a subtle change. Leanne slept most of the time. Not quite unconscious, she was only barely alert. Yet she had a smile on her lips which led Marquette to believe Lee Lee was seeing angels. Marquette called Pastor Ted and then after hanging up quickly phoned the girls. Pastor Ted sat on one side of Leanne and Marquette on the other holding her hand. Roy stood back against the wall, his arms hugged his chest as if his heart were about to rupture. Pastor Ted prayed, not so much for Leanne—she was going to a far better place—but for himself and the Johnsons and all those left behind.

The memorial service was planned for a few days later. It had been Leanne’s wish that she be cremated, as she didn’t want to be a financial burden to anyone. It was a small service in a side chapel of the funeral home. Outside of the family and her church, there was really no one to notify. Leanne’s parents had died in a car crash when she was fifteen and she finished high school while living with her aunt and uncle in Kenosha. She had a sister out in Nevada, but Marquette didn’t know how to get a hold of her. Marquette personally wrote Leanne’s obituary. After twenty-five years of service, she was surprised how little she knew about her. At the end, she named Jordan, Alicia, and Cecilia, as bereaved loved ones, as well as mentioning Haley, the tragic story of her miscarriage only recently disclosed by Lee Lee. 

When informed of the day and hour of the viewing, each of the girls begged off. Jordan’s little girl had a head cold, Alicia needed to accompany her husband to a political dinner that same evening, and Cecilia said she couldn’t afford to fly as she had just been there. One by one they sent their condolences. 

A disturbance out in the foyer caused them to look up. Suddenly Jordan and Cecilia rushed into the room, the cold air still clinging to their coats.

Marquette presided over the wake. A few members from the church came to pay their respects. They signed the guest book, chatted for a while, and then left. Pastor Ted had several funerals that same weekend and stopped by to say a few words. Quiet minutes ticked by. Roy and Marquette sat alone on folding chairs in the first row in front of the coffin, raised up on what looked like scaffolding. At ten till four in the afternoon the director popped his head in to say they would need the space for an evening service. Marquette nodded and whispered yes. 

After she and Roy left, the staff came in to prepare for the next viewing. They hauled in enormous flower arrangements and added another row of folding chairs. A disturbance out in the foyer caused them to look up. Suddenly Jordan and Cecilia rushed into the room, the cold air still clinging to their coats. Alicia arrived not more than five minutes later dressed for the evening in heels and a black spaghetti-strapped dress draped with a cashmere wrap. Together the girls stood before the coffin weeping. “Who’s Haley?” Alicia asked between sobs. She had to use her puffer she cried so hard. Her immaculately applied makeup was streaked with tears. Cecilia buried her face in her hands, her grief was palpable, seeping between her fingers and dripping onto the lacquered wood floor. 

Meanwhile, the cleaning staff out in the hallway couldn’t figure out the connection. What did this Black family have to do with the white dead lady? They speculated aloud: “Do you think she’s half Black?”  It made no sense. The director allowed the girls several minutes and then apologized; he would have to move them to the back rooms if they needed more time. 

The Johnson girls left shortly afterward and two of the attendants reentered the parlor to vacuum the carpet now littered with crushed wet leaves. They released the brake on the rolling wheels. Looking down upon Lee Lee one of them said she sensed something. “Back home in Ghana, people would say the dead woman was pure of heart.” 

“Stop your bullshitting,” the other said and closed the lid. 

As if setting a skiff out to sea, they pushed the casket out of the room. 

Jane Hertenstein
Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 90 published stories both macro and micro: fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre. In addition she has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. Jane is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times. She teaches a workshop on Flash Memoir and can be found blogging at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/

Cover Image by Chungkuk Bae.