Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Vessel

Washington writer Rita Kempley, a former Washington Post film critic, takes us into the world of an eerie future in “The Vessel.” After hurricane Adolph turns New York City into Big Apple Sauce, the good life goes on and on and on for 1-percenters like Margaret Hughes. Margaret looks like she’s 22, but she’s really more than a hundred years old thanks to the life-extension technology she and her father developed in the 20th century. As the chief neurosurgeon of the Hughes Renewal Center, she “youthanizes” wealthy clientele. But she’s kind of bored until Chase Lyman saunters into her life. Chase comes from the wrong side of the tracks – or would if there were any tracks left. The infrastructure crumbled decades ago. He is a rollerblading medical courier, swiftly transporting organs from donor to recipient. Life is good for him until he begins a steamy affair with Margaret. In this excerpt, Chase makes one of his routine calls on the body parts center. “The Vessel” can be purchased here.

 LEON GROSS and Irv Capaldini supervised Vessel2webthe Department of Reclamation located in the crypt-like space beneath the Hughes Renewal Center. Giant refrigerators and empty black body bags lined the walls and battered Styrofoam coolers were neatly stacked in the entryway.

Jars of eyeballs, trays of teeth and a thermos of chicory sat on Capaldini’s antique mahogany desk. His partner’s smart rat, Mr. Pebbles, stuck his head from a drawer and seeing all was well, scurried across the wooden surface. Capaldini slipped it a crust from his pigeon salad sandwich.

If there were any good guys in the renewal industry, then Capaldini and Gross were good guys. And they made a splendid team: Capaldini was a people person and Gross was a dead people person: Your typical, lovable odd couple.

When Chase arrived, he found the affable Capaldini, a squat cigar between his fingers, on the holo-phone pitching a repeat customer. The man’s ghostly image emanated from the HP, its screen coated with greasy fingerprints and dust from the bone saw.

Capaldini nodded at Chase, gestured that he’d be right with him.

“Yeah, sure you will,” mumbled Chase over Capaldini’s inquiries into the health of Burt’s family.

“Born with twelve toes. You don’t say,” Capaldini bellowed.

Dr. Gross, eyes looming behind thick glasses, labored over a middle-aged woman’s corpse. From Chase’s vantage point, she appeared to be perfectly made-up. Weird, but he’d seen it before. Rich bitches didn’t go anywhere without their faces on – not even inside a black bag.

Chase once made a crack about their vanity to Gross, who chided the grinder for his “stab at humor.” Capaldini confided that Gross was under the impression the ladies were dolling up for him. As a bachelor, he had never learned that women wore make-up to please themselves. Chase nodded knowingly.

As was his habit, Gross wore a heavy black rubber apron over a tatty, acid-spotted mink coat. The fur had belonged to his late mother and in this way he kept her memory alive.

“I could have arranged her renewal,” he once told Chase, “Only ma never wanted one. ’Eighty years was enough already,’ she’d tell us kids. ‘If I had a chance to do it all over again, which I do, I wouldn’t either. Wait till you’re sixty-five, bucko. You’ll see.’”

Gross took out a scalpel and cut into the body. Chase watched the steam rise from the still warm cadaver as the doctor, now engrossed, began to harvest vital organs from her midriff.  Gross was happy in his work. When he was cutting corpses, it was like he was the one who had died and gone to heaven.

Not the perfect metaphor, Chase knew, because the body donors weren’t exactly  dead and according to the fundies, they hadn’t gone to heaven. He or she had merely moved from one body to the next – a practice that drove the shrill, seemingly eternal debate on the ethics of neural transfer and body replication.  A bunch of hooey about playing God.

Chase cleared his throat, then cleared it again, louder this time. Gross continued to poke about inside the cadaver. Chase was about to give Capaldini a piece of his mind when Gross shouted, “Eureka,” and proudly held up his grisly find.

“Got a damn, fine pancreas here,” he crowed. “Irv, take a look-see.”

“That’s a beaut all right, Leon,” Capaldini said, taking a quick gander.

“Need a pancreas, Burt?” Capaldini asked the blurry image on the HP.

“Nah, man. You know we’re overstocked. Not much call for ‘em.”

“Well, we got a beaut. A quality piece. I’ll make you a good price.”

“Pass. If you come across a decent spleen though–”

“You will be the first to know.”

Chase cleared his throat.

“My best to the wife.”

Capaldini finally clicked off and turned his attention to Chase. “Sorry. Old customer. So howzitgoin’ chief?”

“If you really want to know,” Chase snapped. “I’m pissed off and I’m staying pissed off. I’m late and you’re making me later. You may not give a crap–”

“Sure I do. Of course, I do.”

“Bullshit, you do.”

Capaldini turned to his partner. “Leon, stop playing with that pancreas and get the boy his liver. We don’t want to keep our young friend waiting.”

Gross reluctantly returned the pancreas to the body, took a baggie from the fridge and checked the contents. “Slightly damaged,” he apologized to Chase for the sclerotic organ.

“That’s nothing new. Right, pal?” Capaldini took the baggie and placed it in a Styrofoam backpack he filled with ice.

“Are you sure there’s enough ice?” Chase asked. “Last time I had to buy another bag at the 24-7. I can’t afford–”

“Not to worry, son,” Gross assured him. “I used to pack giblets in a chicken-plucking factory. It’s how I paid my way through medical school.”

“That would be reassuring, Mr. G, if this liver had originally belonged to a chicken,” said Chase, hoisting the cooler on his back while Capaldini readjusted the harness. Gross opened the door. Chase put on his helmet and headed for the tunnel.

“Godspeed,” chorused the partners.

–Rita Kempley

Excerpted from “The Vessel” by Rita Kempley. Published by Birthright Publishing. © Copyright 2012 by Rita Kempley.

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