‘Elegy for Organ in Ten Parts’, by Kate McIntyre

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Photo by Stijn Nieuwendijk. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The new Managing Editor of The Missouri Review, Kate McIntyre, recently gave us a big shout-out in a podcast conversation (embedded below). We’re mentioned around the fourteen-minute mark, but you should definitely listen to the whole thing – such an intelligent and wide-ranging conversation. Thanks, Kate!

And this is one not a tonne of people know about, though I think more and more people will – it’s a magazine that’s published out of Australia actually, called The Lifted Brow. Something I like about them very much is: for a long time it seemed as if it was a one-man operation, one editor with seemingly endless energy, who was putting this magazine out and getting these contributors which were just so impressive – people like Rick Moody, Brian Evenson, all sorts of folks, really, really cool stuff. And it’s a magazine that hasn’t been around very long but has evolved through several iterations – it was your more standard perfect-bound magazine for a while, and then they switched to a newspaper-ish format, and now they do really cool things with graphic design. And I think they’ve buddied up with McSweeney’s somehow, and just did a very successful redesign. And they also do a lot of work with graphic novels, short comics, that sort of thing. So I’m always really intrigued to see what they’re doing.

In addition to having kept her eye on us for many years, Kate has also been published in TLB – way back in 2010, in our seventh issue. As a gesture of thanks for her kind words and even kinder engagement with us for so long, we’ve republished her story ‘Elegy for Organ in Ten Parts’ below.


I.

Lately, Elizabeth drank a lot, so she worried about her liver. Cirrhosis. Scarring. Nodules. Lesions. Swelling. All invisible. How could she know what happened inside her while she ate (little) and slept (less), while she swilled vodka tonics and took home strange men? She did not usually worry about her health. Instead she compared three- and two-button blazers and skin-clarifying moisturisers. She wondered if the new cruise line campaign she spearheaded had the right balance of hip South End newness and staid Beacon Hill sameness, so the Beacon Hill folks (the target market) were seduced but not scared. Her masterstroke: buying the rights to ‘London Calling’ for the European Adventure theme song. Now that the project was winding down, she could relax after work, let her brain get flabby and happy for a couple weeks. But her mind revved up and refused to downshift, she would say, if she were trying to sell her brain to eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old men.

As long as her mind had to gnaw something, a bodily organ was good to chew. It showed Elizabeth’s burgeoning depth. Or at least her concern for deeper things from a literal, subcutaneous standpoint. Was this what maturity meant? She’d waited twenty-five years to feel the tug of womanly responsibility, ever since her little girl days, shuffling in her mother’s pink houndstooth pumps, tripping over long strands of pearls she’d twined around her neck, holding an imaginary cigarette to her mouth and puckering.

One Thursday evening, Elizabeth prepared a whole chicken for roasting in her postage stamp-sized oven in her business envelope-sized apartment. Her guests—friends from work—would arrive in an hour and a half. The chicken was necessary. She’d promised them a taste of Midwestern home cooking. Earlier, she had popped some wine to get warmed up, only to find herself drunk with an empty bottle, ready to perform hostess duties as long as her equilibrium held out. She felt as light and free as a paper ribbon whipping about on a county fair parade float.

The chicken’s pinky white epidermis, only mostly defrosted, matched her own. Elizabeth pondered what lurked beneath her smooth skin, which had the colour sucked out due to 15 years under SPF 15. As she dug into the bird’s frosty insides, she extricated crunchy kidneys, purplish residue and a mystery chunk. A giblet, perhaps? What was a giblet? Did she, herself, have a giblet? Chickens, if her arts education did not deceive her, were close relatives of man. Not so close as the pig, but still closer than, say, moss or lizards. Therefore, the lumps inside the chicken likely matched those within herself. A revelation. When she thought of her bodily composition before, if she ever thought of it, she imagined a loaf of French bread, albeit a toned, lithe, loaf. A smooth crust with a spongy centre. And some blood in there somewhere. The thought of such grim masses rising up beneath her rib cage terrified her.

She deposited the chicken into her garbage can and served shrimp instead. When she opened the door to her guests, her first words were: “I hope you’ve brought wine.” They had. That night she drank a whole bottle of champagne. She awoke on the couch, a shrimp tail caught in her hair and the knees of her fishnets ripped. She remembered laughing and laughing, gravity falling away.


II.

Elizabeth set aside the day after her drinking binge for virtue. She did all the household tasks she’d been putting off. She drank gallons of water and ate pounds of fruits and vegetables, so many that they filled her stomach and piled up into her throat. And she vacuumed. The swoosh of the machine over the rugs, its uneven grumble, the flex of her skinny arm as she pushed, the even stripes left in the carpet, all pleased her.

She wished she could take a peek at her liver and see how it was doing. Scarred black and brittle like the lungs of a sixty-five-year-old who had smoked three packs of Marlboro Reds a day since age twelve, or healthy, gooey purple? She’d never know. A coroner performing a post-mortem might, removing the organ from the T-shaped incision in her belly and dropping it on a counterbalance, recording its weight in grams on a spreadsheet. The question then, of course, would be cause of death. Had she expired in a car crash, or caught a heel in a crack and pitched into a manhole? Had her heart failed at the age of eighty-seven, or had she lost her way on a tarmac and stumbled into a jet engine? Maybe the way she had died destroyed her liver, making it impossible to determine its relative health. Evisceration. Crushing. Conflagration. Only time would tell, and she, very sadly, could never.

Elizabeth did not have a doctor in the city. So she called her old doctor in Temperance, Michigan, her hometown. A paediatrician, he had been there since she was born, through chicken pox, stitches in her ankle, hypoglycaemia, and her first birth control prescription. She visualised the old man at home in his favourite chair by a snapping fire, puffing an imaginary pipe. He’d given up the real one years ago, but the muscle memory, the crooked fingers raised hopefully up to his drooping mouth then falling back to the edge of his overstuffed armchair, remained. He spoke deliberately, as always, and he did not sound surprised to hear from her. “Short of going in for a biopsy, which I couldn’t see my way clear to authorise in this case, there is no way to be absolutely certain. Of course, blood tests could be given to determine how well your cat’s liver is processing the material that enters it. But when there are no overt indications of liver sickness, such as jaundice visible at the ears, there really is no sense in worrying, or, worse, undergoing an invasive procedure. So you stop it now, Lizzy. Your kitty’s fine. Promise that you’ll find her a vet there in Boston, though. We sure are proud of you here.”

Home was a place of wheat fields and quicksand that stymied her volition. Visiting meant danger, the first step toward meeting a nice man named Timothy who worked the land, whom she’d have to stand beside with gritty teeth in times of drought and locust clouds, who’d impregnate her over and over and over again, til she’d wear formless shift dresses and shout out to the front yard where her babies played on a dirt pile, tossing clods, that dinner was ready. It would always be beef.

She’d never come home. She would visit once a year, at Christmas, packing oddities to Midwestern eyes: yerba mate, pear brandy, smoked fish, and, yes, the most expensive-looking clothing she owned. Between black ballerina flats and magenta croco-embossed pumps, of course the pumps would win out. Obviously. They were like Ferraris for her feet. They said, “Hello there, I’ve been successful in a big city back east. And you?”

What was she doing calling this medical professional, disturbing his evening? She was just trying to take care of herself. Same thing as the self-breast exams and mole inspections. She’d heard that high-powered executives with lots of money to redistribute got yearly ultra-physicals, which tested for every possible bodily complaint, from colitis to ketosis to cancer, and took two full days to complete. Lucky.

She washed her windows and did all the dishes by hand because they got cleaner that way, waiting for telltale twinges and aches in her midsection.


III.

Friday again, and Elizabeth, drunk, itched for a shower. She’d been at a party in a loft downtown hosted by a band, and they all smoked, and her hair stunk. Someone called Sly who drove a big-ass SUV with custom leather seating had dropped her off back at her place, and she immediately shook up a martini in a highball glass and topped it with five fat green olives.“Baby, one more, just one more. I don’t want the night to end,” she murmured as she fished them one at a time from the jar, her lips heavy and lush on her mouth. Sly had said something similar when he’d tried to invite himself up. She shucked off her dress, turned some knobs and stepped into the warm mist of the shower, her drink in one hand, loofah in another.

The glass tumbled and shattered on the bathroom tile. Gin ran down her shaved legs. It stung. She cussed and teetered out, sitting on the floor while she picked up the chunks of glass. She nicked her left pointer finger – a flesh wound. At least the gin had sterilised the glass. The blood welled up, and she staunched it with toilet paper. Very sharp glass.

What was to prevent her from making a little slice in her side so that she could take a gander at that liver of hers? Just to knock-knock and say hello neighbour. In ancient times… When, exactly? The past. She didn’t know. The online encyclopaedia didn’t say. Folks who were long dead now thought the liver was the seat of greed and desire, the part in her, for example, that yearned for a well-cut silk tunic, a queen-size leather handbag with heavy brass hardware.

More importantly, though, the liver told your fortune. Bloated with blood, its meanings were opaque. But maybe if she shed some light on the organ she could read the toxins’ etching, the smudged messages in the lobes.

From her recent studies of anatomical maps, done during downtimes at work, she knew right where her liver should be. It was hard to miss, the largest organ in the body, aside from the skin, which most people never would suspect. Any cut in the neighbourhood of her right thoracic cavity should hit paydirt. The protective shroud of peritoneum would need to be shrugged aside, but her body felt numb, pre-anaesthetised.

Well? She raised the shard to her belly and pressed the point into her flesh. Lifted away, it left a small red indentation, a pressure mark rather than a perforation. She would have to push much harder.

She passed out with her left leg twisted under her. It took ten minutes to get the blood flowing back to that foot in the morning.


IV.

At a New Year’s party at a club called Privilege, which was done up like an English manor house and filled with staff dressed like Jeeves or naughty French maids, while picking up her Brandy Alexander at the bar, Elizabeth had met this man, Chef Dave. He owned, he told her, a fusion bistro on Newbury St and seemed poised to be the next Boston chef celebrity. The chef rocked back and forth and tapped his foot, as though to his own personal hip hop soundtrack. Elizabeth stood stock-still to make a point. Encircling his wrist were a yellow cancer awareness bracelet and a magnetic one that, she supposed, he wore for its healing powers. A man-jewel of the silver and turquoise variety ate up his right index finger. Higher up on his arm, he had a tattoo: a worried ham hopping down the street, pursued by a carving knife and fork. He had a bit of a belly, and Elizabeth imagined the flames from the gas stoves at his restaurant tickling it as he stretched to stir a roux on a back burner. She wondered what his flesh might smell like as it burned. When he found out she was a fellow Midwesterner, he invited her to dinner at his place. Elizabeth accepted his offer. He reminded her of a boy she’d dated in high school, who had sweaty palms and a six-pack, who stared at her naked body and told her, guile-free, that it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. There seemed to be a goodness there, a realness to him. And she did value a home-cooked meal.


V.

Lately, Elizabeth wore men’s cologne. Maybe she was lonely. She’d spent an afternoon at the fragrance counter frustrating a sharply-dressed saleswoman with her indecisiveness. Her brother, the ostensible recipient of this ostensible gift of scent, was picky about his personal fragrances. He needed something really masculine, with no sweet or citrusy notes. She decided on a blocky bottle of Gucci, which contained notes of pepper, ginger, amber, and woods, and the relieved clerk rang up her sale in record time, lest Elizabeth change her mind again. The scent surprised Elizabeth. She had thought that amber was a gemstone from which one could also extract recombinant DNA. Also: “woods”? What sort of woods? Conifer? Parquet flooring? Golf club? Number two pencil?

She enjoyed being wrapped up in a veil of the woods, though. She would breathe in and out, and as she exhaled, the air caught in her throat like suede drawn over a hacksaw. She was so rough and delicious, so pure in her sureness.

The problem was that she was so far away from anything real. Sometimes, especially when the sun reflected sharply off the pavement and the city sky was awash in pure, white light, Elizabeth yearned for something else, coarse and homelike. This was the same impulse that lured investment bankers to shovelling horseshit on dude ranches. She knew that there was a uniquely American experience somewhere that she was missing. She had grown up in a small town in the middle of the country and moved to a large American city on the east coast, and she could only guess at the geography that lay between the two. She’d never been interested before.

She pictured how things would be in this nowhere place, this American treasure. She would drive an old car, a convertible, one with a big, skinny steering wheel with finger grips. It was twilight, and the sinking sun tinged everything—the scrubby trees she whizzed past, the road, her hands on the wheel—violet. She wore a clean plaid shirt, a bit frayed at the sleeves. Her destination: a roadside honky-tonk, tin-sided and encrusted with thousands of Christmas lights, where she had never been before, where men and women with sleek muscles arm-wrestled for drinks and she was welcomed as an old friend. She was always young, always single – not shiftless, but free, and always one shot away from stumbling across the point of things, sharp as a dart tip, familiar as the scent of old bedding. She felt this place deep down.


VI.

Still in the black dress and purple tights she’d worn to work, Elizabeth blacked out in her leather armchair. Her head hung forward heavily, bobbing up and down with each breath, her earrings brushing her bare shoulders. She perked up periodically and slid back into smooth, drunken slumber. But the twitches wouldn’t pass, so she unfolded her legs and got some orange juice. It washed away the taste of mouldering gin and left instead a tang that crinkled her nose. She smoothed the skin with her thumb. She tried to avoid unnecessary facial expressions because she’d read that it took only a thousand creasings of the skin, a thousand smiles or inquisitive eyebrow twitches, before the dark lines of age marked her.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep unless she determined the source of her uneasiness. The trick was to pluck the worry out and slop it on a page, her pen a trowel, her insides a barrow of wet cement. The angst had to be spread before it dried and hardened. She found a pen and notebook in her purse, crawled back under the table and, sprawling between sleek wooden legs, wrote.


VII.

When Elizabeth tried to raise her face from her wood floor the next morning, it stuck. Her cheek had landed in a puddle of orange juice, and she had to peel it free like the price tag from the sole of a new shoe. The scene that greeted her was not one of simple abundance, which was a shame, because that was what she hoped her dining room would evoke. The orange juice carton lay overturned on a side table, dripping sticky sweetness onto her favourite rug. She had a bad bruise on her calf.

She picked up her notebook and read:

  • New Campaign: Giovanni’s table wine
  • Sweeter than others = more calories
  • Spin this: bottle in print ad looks like big lollipop or peppermint candy? Bottle carried by girl in candy striper outfit? Giovanni’s in the IV bags? Alcohol as medicine? Is this offensive?
  • Tag line: How Sweet!
  • Commercial, use tag line to mean a thoughtful gift: hot good samaritan (shirtless?) helps old lady cross street. When they get to other side, he hands her a mini-bottle, like airline size. Close-up on her wrinkled face. She says: “How sweet!” Bottle or Samaritan? Both. Works both ways.

VIII.

Chef Dave sliced up foie gras for the two of them. Fancy little crackers stood at the ready, and a bottle of white wine perspired on his granite countertop. Elizabeth wanted that wine. Chef Dave told her a funny story about custard as he whisked the knife over the lobed grey hunks, which fell in perfect tablets before her. As he set the knife down, she changed her mind. She wanted the knife.

Chef Dave glided like a sleek waiter, the wine bottle clutched proudly in his hands. For a moment, he was dashing, but then he tripped. He grabbed for the counter with the hand that held the wine bottle. Thick drops ran down the granite.

Elizabeth inhaled a little sharply at his approach. She thought that perhaps he’d spill again, this time on her favourite pumps, and she worried that perhaps he had seen her lift the foie gras knife from the cutting board and hide it in her lap. “Good thing you didn’t spill it all. That wine’s the only reason I’m sticking around,” she said. Her voice sounded shrill, bleating. She held the knife against the bottom of the counter so Chef Dave couldn’t see. She bounced her pinky finger against the blade in a rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat rhythm. The top of her hand pressed the granite. Which was cooler, smoother? It was hard to say. She knew which was sharper.


IX.

“I’ve got to show you my artefacts!” Chef Dave told her as he approached from behind. He wore only a pair of boxer shorts with lobsters on them. “Better than crabs,” he’d joked earlier, as they’d undressed each other.

He pulled her up and led her out the door of the bedroom, across the mellow wood floors, past the kitchen and the low living room furniture to a door she had not noticed before.

“I don’t show this room very often,” Chef Dave said. “Most people would never understand something like this.”

She expected a sex dungeon, but instead, he threw open the door to an ideal Midwestern den. The walls were covered in dark panelling, and the floor with shaggy green carpeting. Dead, preserved animals eyed her. Flat surfaces were encrusted with puzzling ancient objects like barnacles on sea rocks. The fireplace screen was handcrafted out of barbed wire. “My dad had a room just like this. It reminds me of him. I got a lot of this stuff from him when he died. He worked up in Alaska, as a fisherman, for a lot of years before I was born.”

Eye to eye with a duck decoy on a shelf, Elizabeth told him, “It’s lovely.” She was not merely polite. The rawness of the room awakened something deep in her gut, some rumbling she could not hush.


X.

Back in the grey bedroom, Chef Dave had already fallen asleep. Elizabeth set her feet down delicately and followed the path back to the den.

She put her hand to the doorknob and pushed. Once inside, she reached for the light switch, but her hand grazed bare wall. Panic gripped her, in this strange room in the dark, so unlike the rest of the apartment, and she turned to the tables, searching for a lamp. Her fingers closed around a remote control. She mashed some buttons, and the fireplace illuminated the room.

She gasped. Before, there had been too much to take in, so that all that registered was metal and fur. But now, the fire threw bobbing shadows on the walls and made the room cave-like, cozily primitive. A bear stood fully erect in a corner, his black glass eyes glinting in the moonlight. Trophies with leaping fish on golden lines rose from the coffee table. The air smelled of tanned leather. A glassed-in gun rack was filled to capacity, and ammo belts flanked it. And there were other weapons everywhere. She took the foie gras knife from her purse and laid it beside the objects on a velvet display table: the hatchet, the bow and arrow, the hammer, the flint knife points. Hackers, scrapers, piercers, saws, they were not made for the delicate work her knife was – a trim modern marvel.

She thought in a loopy, warm, way now. Wine saturated her system. That knife, this room, were part of her, as was her new male friend, whose face she’d caressed and patted as if it had been her own. She could imagine this room thousands of years ago; she just one in a chain of its dwellers. Drumbeats would have mingled with the crackling fire, and men would sit around that fire, coaxing flames to blister the flesh of their kills. The meat would sear their tongues. They would wipe their hands on their loins, then go out and hunt some more. If they had been worried about their livers, they would not have been chickenshits about it. They’d have gotten down to business and investigated for themselves. Her liver pulsed. Elizabeth inhaled deeply, grabbed up the stolen knife, and held the blade in the fire to sanitise it. With her other hand, she raised up her dress and tucked it into her bra so that she could see where she needed to cut. She lifted the knife an inch away from the flames and stared at it. It dazzled her like it had absorbed all the light of the fire.

Her right hand was no longer hers so much as an extension of the knife. The knife guided her hand to her side. Her left hand stroked the skin over the organ. It didn’t feel like her hand. It felt like many hairy-knuckled hands that smelled of trail dust and animal blood.

The palm passed over the flesh, and then the knife followed behind, easing through the membrane, severing capillaries and digging into the thin layer of adipose tissue, the heat cauterising as it cut. Blood dripped down to the line of her lacy panties, where it joined a seam’s path to her hip. The hot fluid slid from the point of her hipbone to the carpet, where it burrowed into the fibres. Her fingers closed over her side and blood rose through the cracks between them. She moved her hand to take a look.


This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #7 — there are still a handful of copies left, so grab yourself a slice of Brow history!

Kate McIntyre is Managing Editor of The Missouri Review. Her fiction has appeared recently in Copper Nickel, the Cimarron Review, Denver Quarterly and elsewhere.