From the Archive: "Donor Organs," by Joyce Carol Oates

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Donor Organs,” short fiction by Joyce Carol Oates, appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of MQR. The story later appeared in Sourland.

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Must’ve been a time of contagion somehow he’d picked up like hepatitis C this morbid fear of dying young and his “organs” being “harvested”    ribcage opened up, pried open with giant jaws    you’d hear the cracking of the bones    deftly with surgical instruments the organs spooned out blood vessels, nerves “snipped” and “tied”    your organs packed in dry ice, in waterproof containers to be carried by messenger to the “donor recipient”    this sick-slipping-helpless sensation in his gut like skidding his car, his parents’ new Audi they’d trusted him with, on black ice approaching the Tappan Zee bridge    deep in the gut, a knowledge of the futility of all human wishes, volition    This is it, you are fucked    Only twenty-three years old    not old    no reason to worry about the future, his mom can worry for him    moms are experts at worrying, moms are most useful at worrying    yet moms should be shielded from knowing too much about their sons    moms should be protected otherwise you feel guilt    sick-guilt, like sick-worry about dying young    he wasn’t worried really, it’s just his mind    maybe there’s a tapeworm burrowed into his brain    it’s not normal to be aware of your “organs”    wakened in the night when he finally gets to sleep by the rude thump! thump! of his heart    dazed thinking someone was in bed with him?    was it B., she’d just slipped from bed to use the bathroom and would be back stumbling in the dark, giggling and collapsing on top of him    the narrow sunk-mattress bed with smelly sheets of his college dorm room in Mackie Hall but no, can’t be, Jason has graduated, all that’s gone    once his brain is fully awake he has no trouble comprehending    he’s in his own bed, in his own home    he’s safe here    Only twenty-three yet he has become obsessed    knows people his age who’ve already died    that is, already he knows people his age who’ve died    “head-on collision”    “by his own hand” (gun)    “mountain-hiking fall” (Ecuador)    “drug overdose”    it is morbid to dwell on such things but really he’s kind of anxious    so much time to think    naturally, you become anxious    maybe there is a tapeworm in his brain    (can’t suggest this to mom, mom would freak)    at the same time he’s capable of discussing the issue openly and easily with people, with friends, as he’d done in his ethics class, saying what you’d expect an intelligent person to say    Sure I’d want to donate my organs    my eyes    to some other person in need    Greater love than this hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends    he believes this, kind of    he is a Christian, kind of    being an “organ donor” doesn’t mean that you die for that purpose but that after you die your “organs” are “harvested”    this is a crucial distinction    this makes him anxious    you start off in a car, never return alive and your organs shunted off to be planted in strangers, your eyes inserted in the eye sockets of a stranger, no wonder he can’t sleep    she’d twined her thin arms around his neck, mashed her hot yearning face in his neck    half the time he hadn’t known what the hell was she serious? was she joking? it was some other guy she loved, not him? or was it him?    he doesn’t sleep with any of them now    it’s been seven, eight months    living in his mom’s family house in Rye, Connecticut    avoid people    easier to avoid    in August, they’ll be on Nantucket    yet he’s eager to contact his friends    each morning waking frantic to make contact with as many of his friends as he can    as if in the night might’ve lost someone    has been lost to someone    checks his e-mail immediately before even rinsing his putrid mouth, washing his face that’s a clay mask dried and shrunken    his cell phone he’s frantic to call his friends    mostly guys from his eating club, and a scattering of girls    not so much to talk with them, within a few seconds of starting a conversation he’s ready to break it off, just to see are they there    are they still there as he is still here    it makes him laugh to think how there’s a final message that will be enshrined, sort of Jason’s last e-mail! next thing I hear he’s dead    his friends calling one another, excited    flurry of e-mails and attachments, text-messages    his friends thrilled, breathless    he will be pried out of the wreckage by the “jaws of life”    he will feel his chest being pried open    the ribcage must be cracked like breaking apart a roasted chicken    the first organ to be “harvested” is the heart    only a few hours after brain death this organ begins to deteriorate    dry ice, an airtight container    sometimes by messenger carried on airplanes    eyes without lids, very carefully wrapped in sleep mode, unseeing    optic nerves and blood vessels snipped, tied    this is microsurgery    he’s laughing    this is truly so weird    nobody seems to acknowledge how weird    how alone he is, in this knowledge    can’t say to mom you are so fucking afraid of dying, it might be better to die and get it over with    senior year he’d had lots of friends    B. was not Jason’s closest friend    B. belonged to Jason’s eating club, they’d taken a popular bioethics course together    he’d hooked up with B. a few times during their senior year haphazard and casual    by mutual consent (he was certain!) casual    after graduation drifted apart    B. went to Bangkok to teach in the university’s extension program there    B.A., Ivy League university, tuition somewhere beyond forty thousand dollars a year, you’re qualified to teach English “as a foreign language”    recently B. has e-mailed Jason out of nowhere    out of cyberspace    must’ve gotten his address from a mutual friend    Hi Jason thinking of you & missing you it’s challenging here but kind of lonely turns out Bangkok is the Sex Capital of the world & a buyer’s market (Germans, American, Japanese males the primary buyers) & at one hundred fifteen pounds I am thirty pounds too heavy & at age twenty-three way too old. Sucks, huh?    Surprised by B.’s tone, disturbed and not knowing what B. wants, he’d replied a few times    briefly he’d replied    wary of too much confiding, that can happen too quickly in e-mail anyway not much news at Jason’s end, job interviews in the city fizzled out    summer internship in Hartford a fucking disappointment, not what he’d been promised    he’d quit and returned home    at Princeton he’d taken economics courses, did O.K. until the math got too complicated    courses in environmental studies, ecology    played some tennis, soccer    like a dream now, it has faded so swiftly    the guy he’d been, Jason T., faded so swiftly    his friends, too, seem to have changed    scattered across the country    Mike who’d died (it’s said) in a suspicious hiking-trail accident in Ecuador at twelve thousand feet    B. who’s in Bangkok, Thailand    feels sorry for B., but God damn wishes she’d cease writing to him    sends him all kinds of weird attachments maybe meant to be jokes    he’s deleting most of these without reading them    it’s like B. is stalking him    Christ he’s lonely, too    he has his own sick thoughts    quick death, that’s the best death, skidding on black ice approaching the
mammoth bridge in November sleet S K I D D I N G as if floating, airborne    delicious weightlessness    This is it, man you are fucked    he’d been smiling    in fact he’d been paralyzed    panicked    black ice is invisible in headlights    hadn’t died, though    only just the passenger’s side of the elegant silver Audi smashed    mild bruising from the damned airbag none of this he’d share with B.    never share anything with anybody you get naked with    any guy knows that    like a dream now, the girls Jason had slept with    hopes they remember him better than he remembers them    smashed out of his mind, some nights    it’s O.K., you won’t remember    in bioethics they’d discussed cloning / euthanasia / “selective breeding” / “selective abortion” / “organ donors” / “harvesting organs”    in certain countries lacking human rights laws like China, organs can be ordered by the wealthy and specimens selected from the prison population and their organs “harvested” logical development of science their professor said    what science can do, science will eventually do    always, science will do    moral reasons will be found for what brings profit to the market    “greatest good for the greatest number” there is no code of ethics intrinsic in humankind there is only codified law    without law, no civilization    without civilization, no ethics    thinking of this he’s feeling his heart prepare to thump!    sweat breaking out in his underarms, crotch    his mom has warned him not to “stress” himself    he’s got plenty of time to reapply to law schools    that sick-slipping-sensation in the gut at the prospect of returning to school    any kind of school    a (secret) sensation he can’t tell his mom    anxious that Jason will “stress” himself as his father did    minor heart attacks then cardiac arrest, aged forty-nine    Jason can’t envision himself beyond forty    even beyond thirty, he feels very tired    the crucial question is who’d want to live that long    yet, once you get started, you don’t seem to want to stop    freaks him out totally, the prospect of somebody else looking through his eyes    for wouldn’t Jason be there, too? somehow, still? in his eyes?    wakened in the morning checks his e-mail    anxious to see if he has new messages    always he hopes for new messages    yet anxious to see if B. has written    B.’s tone has become openly mocking, cruel    B. had not been like this at Princeton    Hello Jason it seems that you must be very busy, don’t have time to write to me, what’s it require, 20 seconds of your precious time about 20 seconds is as long as youre good for you self-important white-boy prick      shocked, Jason deletes this message    stung, ashamed    furious    nothing you can do for a disturbed bitter person on the far side of the earth    looks up Thailand on a world atlas    surprised how close it is to Vietnam, Cambodia not far from the Philippines    a Filipina woman named Maria had worked for Jason’s family when Jason had been a boy    very quiet, reserved Maria who’d been like one of the family    Jason’s mom had adored Maria so much more reliable than the Hispanic women she’s had to hire in recent years    Jason’s mom is concerned about her son    you’d think the university would be doing more for its graduates everybody can’t be summa cum laude Rhodes scholars    Jason sleeps sometimes until noon    heavy dreamless sleep like a stupor    Jason isn’t seeing his friends from school    his girl friend, if that’s what she’d been, he’d been seeing in New York for a while, that seems to be over    Jason’s mom understands Jason’s anxiety, she thinks    Jason’s mom is sympathetic    can’t explain to his mom he can’t be involved, getting naked is repulsive to him    no he is not “doing” drugs    maybe some weekends in New York but now, no    God damn B. continues to send him her vicious messages    should delete without reading yet can’t seem to resist in revulsed fascination    suicidal hints, Jason isn’t going to fall for    when i am not who will you be?    where i am going will you follow?    what’s this supposed to mean, some kind of crap Zen wisdom he isn’t going to print it out, maybe it’s evidence that B. is cracking up, needs psychiatric help fuck he isn’t going to get involved    in their bioethics class when suicide was discussed B. was vehement saying suicide is wrong    their professor (a world-famous philosopher, a really cool guy they all admired) pointed out that “wrong” is a subjective moral claim and whose claim? by whose authority such a claim over the individual?    in the discussion, Jason said he thought that suicide was O.K. in certain circumstances    he was a Christian, kind of    not a Muslim! you were pegged as a Christian    his mom’s family was Roman Catholic, but not his mom not him    in bioethics you could see that most of the students were really getting off on it    suicide’s a favorite topic    an alternative to graduation (joke)    morbid/compulsive thinking of such things when you’re twenty now twenty-three makes him feel dazed and light-headed, the prospect of living to forty    which you sort of have to do (don’t you?) if you get married, have kids    never make forty-nine    hopes his mom is gone by that time, a mother should not outlive her son    secretly Jason has felt it’s good, dad being gone    he hadn’t been living with Jason’s mom at that time, temporary separation (mom said) so when dad died it was in another city    out-of-state kind of like dad to get the last word, bad sport playing tennis when his teenaged son was starting to beat him    make the old guy run around the court lunging and panting and cursing under his breath, Jason had laughed seeing his father’s flushed-red face thinking Go for it, dad! Cardiac arrest     this morning there’s a new message from B.    God damn that bitch, ruining Jason’s peace of mind    deletes the message without reading    seven e-mails in a row from B. he has deleted without reading since last Friday    so pissed maybe this a mistake but Jason decides to reply    one final time    Sorry I don’t have time for games, I don’t like games, I have my own life, get a life of your own    on TV that night there’s an interview with Jason’s grandfather    Jason has switched on the TV in his room bored and restless surfing channels    and there on public TV (which Jason never watches)    his grandfather being interviewed by Charlie Rose    it has been a while since grandpa has been on TV, Jason realizes mom’s elderly father the only individual among Jason’s relatives to have achieved what you’d call prominence    some notoriety, but “renown”    grandpa had been a fierce critic of liberal political and social agendas in the 1960s and 1970s    nobody at Princeton in Jason’s circle had heard of him well maybe the name     something to do with politics? books?    Jason himself hasn’t read more than a few pages of his grandpa’s numerous books    In a close-up the elegant white-haired old gentleman is peering into the camera    that look of disdain    handsome ruin of a face a mask of fine wrinkles    but the pale blue eyes still alert, combative    Jason’s famous grandpa enunciating his words with such care, the most slow-witted in the TV audience can’t mishear    I am eighty-two years
old
    I am not in especially poor health    I don’t see much reason to continue to live    it’s a debased era but no more debased than previous eras I have lived through    but I would not commit suicide    I am a Roman Catholic and the sacraments are sacred to me
    so calmly speaking, Jason isn’t certain he’s heard what he has heard    his “famous” grandpa on national TV saying such things!    Jason listens to the remainder of the interview in a daze    as soon as the TV program is over, Jason’s mom enters his room    tears glittering in her eyes, she’s upset asking if Jason has happened to see his grandfather interviewed on Charlie Rose just now    Jason is embarrassed saying he saw just the end of the interview    his mom asks what did he hear    he shrugs saying grandpa was being funny as usual, I guess    funny! his mom says uncertainly oh yes I suppose so    my father is known for his dry sense of humor    Jason says, wishing she’d leave, sure mom    that’s about all that anybody knows about grandpa isn’t it?    next morning Jason does an unexpected thing, calls his grandpa    hasn’t been on easy terms with the old man for years but Jason says to him why’d you say what you did last night on Charlie Rose, grandpa!    you kind of hurt our feelings, grandpa    especially mom    the old man is quiet for a moment as if he’s surprised by this then laughs saying Jason you must know that I was just joking    my God everybody in the family has been calling me chiding me    just joking for God’s sake    wouldn’t have thought my own family lacked a sense of humor    Jason isn’t going to let the old man off so easily    he’s remembering fishing for blue fish off grandpa’s boat, in Nantucket Sound    he’s remembering grandpa hugging him, when his dad died    saying God damn grandpa you expect grandparents to say things like Life is precious, and this is the happiest time of your life while you’re young    you don’t expect your grandparents to say life is shit    grandpa is protesting now    remorseful-sounding    dear Jason, dear boy it’s my pride, I abhor clichés    Jason says you had a happy life, grandpa    you have money, you’re a famous man    all my friends have heard of you, ask about you    grandpa is quiet again for a moment then says Jason you are correct    my life has been pretty damned good    and I like being famous it’s like seeing yourself in a room of mirrors    if you’re good-looking especially    still if I had to live my life over again, I’d swallow poison    grandpa bursts into laughter    terrifying old-man laughter    Jason is stunned gripping the phone receiver    stammering grandpa what? grandpa you’re joking are you? grandpa why?    grandpa manages to control his laughter saying    why son, you tell me

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