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Shell Game with Organs

Jacob M. Appel

Winner of Boston Review's Sixth Annual Short Story Contest

Houdini urges me to disappear again. That's his panacea, his sovereign remedy. If he had his way, I'd vanish into thin air one night without a trace. On Lois, on mother, on him. And I suppose that would suit the old fellow just fine, too. The building crew would sniff him out eventually--find him belly-up on the carpet, caked in is own excrement, his kingdom lost for want of a saltine. Even then he'd be croaking "Disappear" through parched lips, I imagine, peddling spontaneous combustion to the Puerto Rican doorman and the one-armed super. Houdini squeezes shut his onyx eyes, raises his wings to his cheeks. His voice is urgent. "Disappear! Disappear!"

"Shut up!"

Three hours straight I've debated alternatives, judged and unjudged myself. I don't have to visit mother. I don't have to play the shell game with organs. After tonight's show I could stow my equipment in the back of the truck and relocate to New York. Or rural Mauritania. A magician pulling off a disappearing act. Nothing could be more natural.

"How would you feel about rural Mauritania?" I ask Houdini. "The Sahara? The Casbah?"

Already I despise myself for shouting at him and I feed him a chocolate-coated wafer. He clasps the treat in his beak, slides it down his gullet with a tilt of his head. At least I can please someone, I think. So what if the snacks cause parrot cancer.

"What do you say we ditch mother and Lois and head off to Africa--just the two of us?"

"Disappear," Houdini retorts ambiguously, "Disappear." His vocabulary--the product of a magic routine we once did together--is frozen in time like a dead language.

Lois interrupts our conversation, struts in through the open door. Her heels pummel the hardwood in the foyer. We've been dating for almost a month now--which at forty-one means we're serious, that we know each other well--and still her vigor astounds me afresh at every meeting. She's so put-together, so fast-paced. She bounces through life like a wired kangaroo. If you saw her behind the counter at the crafts shop, you'd think she had kidneys.

"Ready to roll?" asks Lois. She plucks the lit cigarette from my mouth, tamps it out in the ceramic ashtray. The ashtray was stolen on a dare, appropriated from a chic downtown restaurant. I slid it into my sleeve on our first date.

"I was smoking that," I say. "Stocking up on nicotine for the hospital."

"Have a wafer," suggests Lois, popping the parrot treats like pills. "You shouldn't go to a hospital smelling like smoke."

I shouldn't go to a hospital at all, I want to answer. I shouldn't have to listen to a grown woman bleat senseless strings of gibberish.

"Mother smoked," I argue indifferently. "She won't care."

"And look what happened to her," says Lois. "Now let's get a move on. I hate being late."

"Disappear!" chimes in Houdini. "Disappear!"

I toss him another wafer, then cover his cage with an aquamarine bath towel.

We don't discuss the organ shell game on the way to Mass General. It's like a marriage proposal; it demands a yes or a no. Yet with every glance at Lois--with each glimpse of her bare thighs splayed on the passenger seat--I can't help reliving last night's afterglow, can't suppress the feel of her soft hands curling my pubic hair and playing across my flanks.

"Your kidneys," she cooed, sliding her fingers between the bed sheets and the small of my back. "I can feel them."

"Do they feel good?" I instantly second-guessed my own question: The same guilt I once felt when I waved to the one-armed super.

"I wish I could borrow one," said Lois.

"I wish you could too."

The words reached my brain seconds after they left my lips. Before I could decide whether I meant them--abstractly, of course--Lois bombarded me with this "emotional donor" business. She revealed that, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, anyone who shares a blood type can share a kidney: Emotion is now thicker than blood.

"Body magic," she called it. "A shell game with organs." Three nights in the hospital and I'd have her off dialysis for life. Not to mention which, she added, the second kidney wasn't doing me any good where it was.

Lois made it sound as though she'd be doing me a favor: Relieving weight from my abdomen, giving my liver room to grow. She could have been a "Let's Make a Deal" contestant selecting Kidney #2. No emotional blackmail, no hang-dog looks. And that's probably why I like her. She's the only woman I've ever met who could compare invasive surgery to a sleight-of-hand.

"You ready for the show tonight?"

"Mother still wants me to kill her."

We're plodding through Mass Pike traffic, inching between Saturday afternoon's city-bound tide. Through the rear-view mirror I can spy into other vehicles: Here's an elderly couple bickering under matching sun-visors, there's three generations of a dark-skinned family sandwiched together like coldcuts. How easy their lives look through shatterproof glass. I have seen them from the stage, admired their simple wonder. Yet tonight I fear I will view them only as kidney packaging and potential matricides.

"Did you hear me?" I ask Lois. "She keeps making that sign with her hands. Like she's trying to silence a stranger or slaughter a chicken."

"You don't know what she means by it," says Lois.

"She's my mother," I say irritably. "I can tell. How am I supposed to concentrate tonight with all this to think about--with mother slicing her throat with her finger?"

Lois doesn't add, "And with your girlfriend begging for an organ handout." Most women would do that. At least most of the women I've dated. Instead, Lois says, "That's your problem. You're the magician."

So we drive in silence, sensing that last night has changed us: She has broached the kidney question and now it hangs over our relationship like some kind of love test.

I feel the need to argue my case again: That the magician's life does not easily permit this sort of commitment. Implicit for me, if not for her, is that the kidney and commitment questions are bound together like the sleeves of a straight jacket. I have loved other women. At seventeen I would have traded a lung for a blow job, but at forty-one a kidney for love seems like a risky venture. After all, I have only one kidney to give.

"I want you to speak with Dr. Sandkirk," says Lois. We're in the pay parking garage at the hospital; each minute of protest will add to the meter.

"Dr. Sandkirk," is all I answer.

"Yes, Dr. Sandkirk. The nephrologist."

Then we part ways, the echo of Lois's steps reverberating against the concrete. Her dialysis treatments permit me four hours alone with my mother.

Mother greets me from bed with a salvo of, "Late trees under water and each one has his own." That's the retired English teacher poking through, her speech without content yet impeccably grammatical. It's hard to imagine that a month ago, before the stroke, she was organizing Grey Panthers for a library boycott.

"Hi, Mom," I say, dropping a dry kiss on her leather cheek. "Bet you didn't think I was coming. "

"Late, late trees under water and each one has his own," she retorts. Her voice is weary, reproving. Her face looks fractured down the center and glued back together like a broken vase. When she speaks, the words bend around the comer of her mouth. She frowns at me and adds, emphatically, "Or her own."

I intend to tell her about the victory in the library strike, about the thousands of large print books that Boston Public has purchased under pressure. Instead I find myself ready to shake her like an appliance on the blink. What right does she have to speak gibberish, to abandon me just when I've returned home for good? All those years on the road turning face cards into flowers, all those late night phone calls from Peoria and Yazoo City--and when I finally have a Boston gig, a sold-out debut in less than eight hours, the one person I thought I could depend on mutters, "Pills stock knowing that nurse, yes, yes," as though it were a schoolgirl's secret in need of release.

"Lois wants my kidneys," I finally say. "Well not both of them," I explain. "Only one."

In response, my mother slides her index finger across her jugular vein and closes her eyes. Her tongue falls from her mouth, her head sinks into the hospital pillows. There is no mistaking her meaning.

"I can't do that, Mother," I answer as I take her small hand in my large one. "Do you understand me? You know I can't do that. I can't. Besides, you'll be out on the picket lines in no time."

Mother opens her eyes, examines me with the wonder of a child. The doctors say the words go in with as little sense as they come out. My mother will never picket the library again, much less read a book. She is seventy-six years old. If we are lucky, chirps the underage rehabilitation therapist, she'll be able to count to ten and recite the days of the week within a year.

"Lois wants one of my kidneys," I say again. I produce a photograph from my wallet, point at Lois and then at my stomach. "Do you understand, Mother? Kid-ney. " To emphasize my claim, I draw a lima bean in the air with my finger.

My mother examines the photograph carefully and frowns in confusion. She stuffs imaginary food into her mouth, shrugs her shoulders to convey a question, and then rocks a make-believe child in her arms. This is a rare breakthrough: I understand her. She wants to know whether Lois is obese or pregnant.

"Dammit, Mom," I say, "Don't do this."

I might as well threaten to punish her: "Do as you're told or your father will take off his belt. " It is no use. I know the whole goddamn situation is untenable. Cruel, even. She has lost her vocabulary, her memories. And she has lived too hard, too earnestly, to squander her final years distinguishing Mondays from Wednesdays.

"I have to go now, Mom. I have a show tonight. My Boston debut. I'm going to escape from chains and a straight jacket in an underwater tank."

"Either nurse or trees," she retorts vehemently. "Neither nurse nor trees."

Somehow this means that she's angry I will not kill her. Angry she doesn't have the strength, the means, to do it herself.

My cheek is wet when I press it against hers. Then I draw back her hair, brush the purple-grey strands into place, plant my lips on her forehead.

"Hang in there," I say. "Hang in there, Mom."

My mother leans forward in her bed, reaches out toward me with ghost-walk arms. I retreat rapidly to the lobby, to the small alcove of vending machines and pay telephones. The wall clock reminds me that I still have three hours to kill, so I collapse into a vinyl chair, my mind blank, and absorb the soothing murmur of the electronic ice maker.

"Rip Van Winkle returns," says Lois, startling me from my slumber. "Your twenty years are up, Rip. Time to find out who's dead and who's alive."

"Five more minutes," I say, twisting onto my stomach. I can feel the wooden arms of the chair jabbing my side.

"I'm going to have to get the cold water," Lois threatens. "Dr. Sandkirk doesn't have all day."

I vaguely recall this name, Sandkirk, so I blink the world into focus and rub the purple snow from my eyes. I find myself looking up into the bland, rosy face of the middle-aged physician.

Sandkirk defies my expectations. He has small round eyes, matching small round glasses. His head slopes from a broad brow to a narrow, almost inverted chin. All in all, he resembles a giant radish. So this is the celebrated nephrologist! I'd anticipated a full, glowing figure in a giant kidney costume, a man not unlike the human peach in the Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials.

"Dr. Sandkirk," Lois introduces us. "My boyfriend, Bill Sternberg, a.k.a. The Sleepy Santini. "

I grumble, "The Splendid Santini," as I shake his hand.

We follow Sandkirk along a maze of corridors, pass through a series of fire proof doors. The doctor appears to know everybody. He bestows his papal wave on emaciated old women stranded in forgotten lounges and legless veterans who wheel together in packs. All the while he shares his wisdom on the topics of the day: The college selection process, the Red Sox's prospects for the pennant. When we arrive at his office, we've somehow jumped from the twelfth story to the fourteenth without switching floors. Medical magic. As yet, no mention of kidneys.

Sandkirk steers me to another vinyl chair. The office smells mildly from mildew and damp paper. The nephrologist smells pungently of aftershave lotion or raw bananas. His wall biography tells me everything I need to know. He's a Princeton graduate, a champion Little League coach, a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. All of this indicates a man with connections: One whose absence would be noted if I made him disappear.

Sandkirk says, "So, you're thinking about donating a kidney."

I answer, "That sounds like the title of a self-help book."

The doctor smiles; Lois crosses her legs.

"Thinking about it," I say. "Only thinking."

"That's good, Mr. Sternberg. I'd be the first to warn you against a hasty decision. Because there are risks, you understand. Of course, they're relatively minor risks. Yet they are risks. Like driving a car or flying in an airplane. You don't think about the risk every time you drive to work, but it exists nonetheless. Am I making myself clear?"

"Risks are bad," I say. That's one of the few things I know for certain.

"And yet sometimes risks are necessary," says Sandkirk. I fear he will launch into a sermon on Alexander Fleming and the history of modern medicine. Instead, he outlines the advantages and drawbacks of the emotional donor. Lois listens attentively, glances at me periodically through the corners of her eyes. Sandirk narrates my recovery from post-op stitching to outpatient check-ups. After fifteen minutes, he has me feeling as though the entire procedure is as easy as a card trick. Nothing more than a shell game with organs. It's the non-givers, Sandkirk's "reluctant potentials," whose ignorance gives transplant a bad name. I feel guilty. As though I haven't signed the cornea release on the back of my driver's license.

"Of course I'll need some blood," the nephrologist concludes. "We need to confirm blood types and check for antibodies. Lois says you're both O-positives. Now roll up your sleeve."

He's rummaging through his filing cabinet for a needle when I stand up to excuse myself "I'll think about it, Sandkirk," I offer. "But no blood. Not now. I have a show tonight."

"He does, doctor," Lois repeats apologetically.

"Oh," says Sandkirk. "Well good luck then. I'll see you soon."

We retreat into the corridor.

"What was that about'?" I demand as soon as we've escaped.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that guy's knife-happy. I'm lucky he didn't do it right there on his desk with a scissors. "

Lois laughs. A short, sharp laugh. She asks, "So is that your answer?"

"I'm thinking," I say. "Still thinking."

"Well don't think too hard," she answers--and it's impossible to tell whether she's joking or sincere. "You might rupture your brain."

Then she kisses me on the lips, feels my crotch through my jeans. A nurse passes and throws me a "This is a hospital" look over a stack of hand-crocheted sweaters.

I kiss Lois harder and disappear into the warmth of her body. I suppress the urge to shout at the departed nurse, to tell her what she can do with her hospital. So what if it's a hospital! It's not a morgue. I'm ready to give the legless vets a thrill.

Lois pushes me back. "Down Big Boy," she says. "Time to go home."

I lean in for another kiss.

"Home," she says. "Later. You have a show tonight. Remember?"

"What show?"

"Magic," she answers.

I'm tired of doctors, tired of hospitals. I find myself wishing that mother would die and give Lois the kidney--and then I despise myself for the thought. That's not a solution. Not a realistic solution, at least. Vanishing, on the other hand, has a lot to be said for it. Almost too much to be said for it. Who'd miss me? I don't coach little league; I didn't go to Princeton. My alma mater, the exalted Garfield School of the Arts, went bust in the early 80s. The only two people who'd notice, who'd really notice, are Lois and mother--and with mother I don't really know. So there's only Lois. Lois. And, of course, Houdini. But Houdini's actively urging me to disappear.

"Disappear!" I call into the empty apartment. I pause at the kitchen table to sort through the afternoon's mail. "Isn't that right, Houdini? Disappear!"

But it's Houdini who's taken his own advice and gone belly-up on the floor of his cage. I stare at him in disbelief, but there is no disbelieving: Circles of blood ring his onyx eyes.

"Dammit!" I shout at him. "I warned you about those parrot treats. A thousand times I warned you. Just because you have a brain the size of a pea doesn't give you a right to have a parrot aneurysm on the night of my debut. Dammit!"

Twenty-five years I've had Houdini. Loved Houdini. Twenty-five years. He was my best friend, my brother.

"You stupid, stupid bird," I repeat as I cradle his lifeless body in my arms. I can still feel his warmth through the feathers. "Stupid, stupid bird."

I nuzzle his beak against my neck until his wings are slick with tears. "Stupid, stupid bird."

It's two hours later when I ring the one-armed super for a cardboard box. I wrap Houdini in his aquamarine towel and plant one final kiss on his tufted head. Good bye, old fellow. Good bye, old bird.

After phoning the theater to inform them that there's been a death in the family, I carry Houdini's coffin to the car. Then I drive out to Mass General, to be with my mother. Not to kill her, but to be with her. Tomorrow, I know, I must end things with Lois. But tonight, a middle-aged escape artist on the way to bury my closest friend, I feel the need to listen to my mother's gibberish. I want to hear her count Mondays and Wednesdays in the brief interval before she's gone.

Originally published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Boston Review

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