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Online Feature: “One More Artificial Organ” by Kate Birch

I

On a bookshelf next to my mother’s bed there was a prototype of the Jarvik 7 artificial heart. Sometimes when she was downstairs fixing dinner or folding laundry I would sit on her carpeted floor and tear that heart apart with a defiant rip of Velcro, balancing the meshy chambers in my upturned palms before I pieced them back together. Afterwards, I’d place the heart back inside its dusty outline and move on, shuffling through her dresser drawers, hungry for secrets.

In the bedside table there was a pack of Trojan condoms covered by a drawing that my father sketched of my mother’s “lovely foot” and under that was the perpetual calendar whose thin metal wheel I could spin like a fortune teller, predicting the future.

The Playboy magazine was buried under my mother’s sweaters on the second shelf in her closet, the April issue, 1986. On the cover, the model wore a blue body suit that reminded me of Superman’s, apart from the cleavage, and like him, she seemed possessed of superhuman power.

My mom’s closet still held some of my father’s clothes, an odd assortment of things he’d left behind. There was a hanger draped with wide ties from the seventies, a few button-down shirts. On a high shelf there was an old felt cowboy hat that my dad wore when we visited the dude ranch in Jackson Hole and next to it was the Tinkerbell costume he’d worn the Halloween when I was two. He’d wired the glittery pink wings to a nine-volt battery pack that tucked into the back of his pink leotard. They still buzzed back and forth when I flipped the switch.

And of course there was the Playboy. Somewhere near the middle of the magazine I knew there was an article about my dad, but I always skimmed past its dense tangle of words, and turned instead to the bright, lurid pictures. In addition to the heady thrill came a gnawing in my stomach that told me I’d seen something I shouldn’t have. The lure was not merely in the women’s bodies, erotic as they were, but in the idea of being one of them, adult and sexual. Desired. Afterward I would close the magazine and smooth the cover before I put it back on the shelf.

Years passed.

I got pregnant at seventeen, married, and had three children: girl, boy, girl. I saw my husband shuffle through mundane jobs making bagels, cleaning carpets, selling funeral insurance. I went back to college and studied art, finally graduating when I was 28. By then I’d long forgotten about the Playboy magazine and the story of my father cradled between those pages.

II

And then one day I Googled my maiden name, curious to see what remained of the old me, the person I left behind almost thirteen years earlier when I’d gotten married. I scrolled through the mish-mash of information that Google had retrieved. Inevitably, the search brought back biographies of my father, the same stock photos, the same bare facts. There was no real mention of the girl that I’d been, only a brief reference connecting me to my father by a few fragile words, “At the ballpark, Jarvik sat in the bleachers thinking, while Elaine and their daughter, Kate, hollered encouragement at Tyler.” It was a line from Playboy, the thinnest slice of my past strung across the screen.

All at once I was beside him. His daughter again.

For years I’ve fantasized about running into my dad at an airport or an art museum. Six years ago, while our family was on vacation in Italy, I imagined meeting him in Venice. At the Piazza San Marco, I looked around the square at the groups of sightseers and lovers, hoping to spot him.

As the pigeons swirled around my son, landing on his arms and head, I took pictures, half expecting to see my father materialize in the background. There were other pictures like these in an old scrapbook from my childhood; the backdrop of the Piazza has stayed same, only the names of the people are different.

Through the corner of my eye I’m always on the lookout for my father. Even so, I wasn’t expecting to see him hawking Lipitor on TV. That first ad, the one with a body double rowing across the cold mountain lake, seemed like any other advertisement for big pharmaceuticals, the kind of commercial I’m used to ignoring. It wasn’t until the smooth voice of the narrator introduced the spokesman, Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart, that I realized it was my father on TV. I hadn’t seen him in nearly twenty years, but there he was, in my living room.

My husband and I looked at each other, both a little stunned. We’d been married thirteen years, but he’d never met my dad. Neither had our children. Not one of us recognized my father’s tired face and sallow skin, the white wisps of hair receding from his brow. His eyelids drooped, and his mouth, the one I thought I knew, seemed stiff and robotic.

For months it seemed that there was a new commercial airing every few weeks. With each one I felt the same surprise at seeing my father: throwing a stick to a golden retriever or walking down a glass corridor in an oversized suit and bright purple tie.

And then one day a new ad panned in on a pair of running shoes. Propped next to them was a photograph of my dad and my grandfather. As the camera zoomed in on the picture, my dad’s voice told how his father died of a heart attack; this was the reason that he chose to study medicine; the reason he created the artificial heart; the reason he chose Lipitor.

The first time I saw that commercial I was so startled to see the picture of my grandpa that I didn’t focus on the rest of it. The picture must have been taken a couple years before I was born. In it, my dad and his father are caught in profile, standing side by side on the tarmac, both smiling and happy. My grandpa was the kind of man who wore bowties and a mustache, the kind of man you couldn’t help but love and I wondered what he’d think of his son and the man that he’d become?

It wasn’t until the next time the commercial aired that I realized I’d missed the brunt of it.

My dad continues talking as he laces up the running shoes.

“As a doctor, and a father,” he says, “I take Lipitor.”

“Are you ready, Dad?” a man in running shorts asks him, and the two of them jog through the park, while the rest of us are told not to take Lipitor if we are pregnant or nursing.

As a father?

I rewound the commercial and pushed pause, stilling the two men mid-stride. I couldn’t be sure, but the man in the running shorts looked a lot like my step-brother Denny. I recognized the pronounced nose, the compact build. I only met Denny and his older sister, Mary, a couple of times after my dad married their mother when I was ten. Denny was nineteen years old at the time, not really interested in me, or my thirteen year old brother. Now he looked middle aged. I wondered if my brother had seen this commercial, if he felt the same tug of jealousy inside his chest, hearing this man address our father by that name: Dad.

Yet, oddly, I relished the commercials. Sure, they were scripted. I read in the paper that he’d been paid 1.3 million dollars to sell those little white pills, but still, I felt like I’d been given a gift, a glimpse of my father. I watched the way his mouth moved when he spoke, heard the roughness in his voice, the gravely sound that the vowels made. I savored that sound, thinking how strange it was that a body could change, a personality, a life, but the voice remained the same.

And I felt like I’d pulled one over on him. See, I wanted to say, you haven’t hidden yourself from me. The television signal can carry you across the country, back into my life. You forgot that I’m still out here, that I’m still looking.

III

When the Playboy article was written, my dad hadn’t really left us yet. He and my mom were separated but still friends, and even though he’d moved out and rented his own apartment, he was still ours. There were phone calls and visits, trips to Jackson Hole and Hawaii. He hadn’t yet met the woman he would marry, the one with the “Guinness Book of Records” highest IQ.

Every once in a while I drive past that apartment of his and my eyes immediately climb to the top floor balcony, remembering what it felt like inside those rooms: the sleek glass top table, the balcony covered in bright green Astroturf. Near the doorway there was an old trophy full of spare change, emptied from my dad’s pockets at night. He hid the coins for us like Easter eggs and we got to keep whatever money we found, enough to buy a stuffed animal or a new model horse.

I was a girl smitten with animals, horses in particular, so in the early 80s when my dad took me to the lab at the University of Utah to visit the baby cows that his artificial hearts were first implanted in, I fell in love. In my memory the place is zoo-like, friendly. I overlooked the urine on the floor, the loud hissing and clicking of the machines. I only remember the calves, with their knobby knees and large square heads. The dark globes of their eyes.

There’s a picture of me holding a handful of hay out to one of them. I’m not very old, maybe four or five. I stand a few feet from the brown and white calf, clutching the hay with two tiny hands, hoping with all my might that my dad will let me take it home to keep. I didn’t understand that this calf wouldn’t live much longer. His life was expendable. After proving that he could survive, he simply wouldn’t be needed any longer.

IV

There was a creature, molded out of white Polyform clay and later carved into ivory that sat on the glass-top table in my dad’s apartment. It was beautiful. The head of an antelope that I assumed was an homage to my love of animals. The horn twisted in soft relief, an art deco-like swirl that reminded me of the animation from “The Last Unicorn”. There was something sleek and elegant about the way the head tapered down into a smooth point; something you could hold in your hand, feel the cool weight in your palm. This sculpture held its own weight in my mind, one of a handful of authentic memories that I have of my dad.

You could only find Polyform at the high end art stores, almost ten dollars for a small box of clay about the size of a pencil case. It was inviting, oily and dense, and came stacked in small snaky coils that you could knead against the tabletop until it became warm and supple in your hands. We kept our Polyform under the center island in our kitchen, along with the other art supplies. Most of the time, I’d sculpt the clay into small animals or miniature bowls of fruit.

As I read the Playboy article, I felt validated seeing the Polyform mentioned there. It was another little piece of my life wound into the details of my dad’s story. In the article, the journalist’s four-year-old daughter sat next to my dad at the kitchen table where he modeled the Polyform. “They both worked all afternoon, side by side, heads down, muttering now and then, conferring with each other, commiserating, concentrating on their work, smearing the clay around.” I savored that image, imagining the little girl to be a version of myself.

And then I read on, “He massaged the white Polyform into a long, thick roll… By the time dinner was ready, it was clear that he wasn’t making a scientific breakthrough… No doubt about it: It was a unicorn dildo.”

A unicorn dildo? Had I misunderstood? I reread that line. Read it again.

No part of me had known that my dad’s sculpture was a dildo. I had no tingling suspicion, no uneasy feeling in my gut. The statue that I’d relished for most of my life as an icon of my childhood, a relic of my father, was not a unicorn, or an antelope, but just one more artificial organ.

My mom remembers the dildo. So does my brother, and they were both amused that I’d only found out about it by reading it in Playboy. Tyler remembers my dad telling him that it was a dildo at the time, and when that word meant nothing to him, my dad explained that it was an artificial penis. Tyler was only twelve and took my dad for his word, never wondering what one might do with such a prosthetic. I don’t know why my dad didn’t tell me what it was. I like to think he was protecting me, embarrassed to tell his little girl that there were fake penises in the world.

V

I was twelve the last time I heard from my dad.

He sent a card.

On the front there might have been a painting from the Met or a Chinese ink drawing of horses. Surely, I would have paid more attention if I’d known it was the last.

Now I wish I could reread his words, figure out what he really meant to tell me when he said that he thought of my brother and me as his old friends, not really as his children anymore. What had he written in the lines before that grand revelation, before whiting out our relationship to him? He must have said something light-hearted, told me about a recent trip to Paris or a ride on the Concord. But I can only remember rereading that one sentence. I can almost see the tilt of my dad’s handwriting, the space where the words sat on the page. Even then, I knew that they were important. I just didn’t realize that they were his parting words, the sleight of hand he used to let us go.

In 1987, when I was ten, my dad married Marilyn vos Savant. He was smitten by her porcelain beauty, her jet black hair and most certainly seduced by the celebrity of her behemoth mind.

And of course I was star struck too. We had a soft-back copy of the Guinness Book of World Records that we kept on the bookshelf in our family room. Inside I liked to look up Marilyn’s name listed under the highest IQ on page 29. On the opposite page was a photograph of the woman with the “world’s smallest waist”. I was often distracted from reading through the entire paragraph about intelligence quotients, mesmerized as I was by the woman’s 13 inch midsection. There was also an entry on “longest fingernails” and “lightest girl”— Lucia Zarate, who only weighed 4.7 pounds at age 17. Her tiny, doll-like features were both frightening and intoxicating. And somehow, seeing Marilyn’s name beside those other anomalies made her brilliance seem more legitimate, more exotic.

At first my dad and Marilyn allowed my brother and me to drift in and out of their tight orbit. They invited us to the wedding in New York at the Plaza Hotel, where I wore a white dress and small white pumps. I was enchanted by Marilyn in her sequined gown. The turquoise iridescence reminded me of the peacocks who lost their feathers in our yard at home. Their wild, woman-like screams echoed through the woods at dusk.

My brother and I floated around the fringes of the event. We had our pictures taken beside the bride and groom with our new step brother and sister, as happy as a family. At the end of the evening I ended up with the bouquet of white roses that I would keep for years on a shelf in our basement, long after they’d lost their plump moisture, long after they became brown and brittle.

That summer, my brother and I visited my dad in Manhattan. I remember standing on the balcony of my dad’s 39th floor apartment feeling lightheaded and queasy from the view. It was still daytime, but I was already nervous about the night, afraid that I might suddenly begin sleepwalking and end up jumping off of the balcony. I envisioned myself climbing over the railing and falling, like the airplanes my brother and I launched over the balcony’s edge. My planes always plummeted towards the ground, landing on the tops of the smaller buildings below us, a scuff of white against the gravel roof.

I don’t know if it was that same night or a few nights later that my brother and my dad had their fight. I’d fallen asleep to the sound of sirens, a foreign noise, almost romantic, like the sound of a train in the distance; yet underneath there was an element of disaster that unsettled me. I woke with my brother’s pale head above me. He was leaving, he said. He and Dad had a fight. Dad wanted him out. Mom was coming to get him. Tyler and I weren’t close, but this was his attempt at affection. He didn’t want to leave without letting me know that he’d be all right.

I may have moaned acknowledgement and rolled back over, pressing my face deep into the pillow, but more likely I stayed awake, staring at the dark wall in front of me while the light of the city crept between the cracks in the blinds.

I didn’t find out the story behind my brother leaving until later. Tyler had a sensibility a lot like my dad’s, rebellious and self-righteous. And of course, he was mad, as many 13-year-old boys are, when one of their parents remarries. He’d written a short story entitled “Idiot Savant”, a pun too perfect to pass up. But my dad didn’t see the humor in this play on words, only an insult and a choice placed before him.

The next morning my dad took me to the Museum of Natural History. We sat side by side on the cold marble benches in one of the exhibition rooms and he asked me if I wanted to stay the rest of the week the way we’d planned. It wasn’t my fault that Tyler had left, he told me.

I chose to stay. He took me to see Les Miserables on Broadway, to the Empire State building, and the Statue of Liberty, but I was still preoccupied with a sense of worry and homesickness. My stomach ached, especially during the evening when the sky began to darken and I thought about going to bed. One night I snuck into my dad’s dark bedroom and nudged his arm. I couldn’t sleep, I said. I was sick. He got out of bed, still naked, and led me into the guest bathroom, where he handed me a huge white capsule. You have to put it in rectally, he explained, pantomiming how I would go about inserting it.

VI

“You shouldn’t let one article change how you feel about your dad,” my mom says.

“I know,” I tell her, “But it feels like I’m seeing the real dad for the first time. Like I could kind of understand how he left us.”

“How?”

“Well, like he got all caught up in his fame, like it seduced him away from us.”

“That was just one side of your dad that Playboy thought it could sell to its readers,” my mom says. “That doesn’t mean it was the only side of him.”

I know she’s right. There are plenty of stories. That one just happened to be best fit for Playboy. And even though I know that the things that weren’t written about him should carry as much weight as the things that were, it doesn’t work out that way. Of all the versions of my father, the Playboy story is the one that I’m left with, obscuring everything else?

“Why is this so important to you?” My mom asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. I’ve begun to cry. This didn’t used to happen to me and I’m annoyed by my emotions. I have to stop mid-sentence and breathe, trying to force my voice down from the high octave it’s climbed to.

My mom waits.

The problem is that I can’t make things add up. I have a few trivial facts, a magazine article and a jumble of half-baked memories. But I can’t mold a complete person out of these bits of information; and I’ve started doubting the memories I do have. If I didn’t know the truth about the antelope sculpture, then what else have I gotten wrong?

“I just want to know him,” I finally say, realizing that this isn’t quite true either. What I want is to hear that he really loved me, that he thought about me, that maybe he still does.

“It was like one day he was my dad, and the next he wasn’t.”

“Part of it’s my fault,” my mom says. She’s never said this to me before. “I should have talked about him. I should have told you stories about him. But I was sort of happy, you know, to be done with it. I didn’t have to worry about you going to visit him anymore,” she paused, “I always just thought, oh well, who needs him? I’m sorry.”

VII

My favorite memory of my dad is a quiet one. I can’t be too old, maybe four or five. My dad sings to me as I fall asleep, staring up at the moon outside my skylight. He sings a story about a mouse in a hot air balloon and the image in my imagination of the small gray mouse being lifted into the air by a colorful striped balloon is clear, so much clearer than the picture of the man’s face beside my bed.

VIII

The closest I’ve come to a phone call with my dad was eleven years ago at my grandma’s eighty-fifth birthday party. She’d planned a beautiful party in the ballroom of a hotel in downtown Stamford. My family flew out from Salt Lake City: my husband and our two kids, my brother, his wife and little boy, my mom.

A few hours before the party we sat next to my grandma on the small bed in her room. She held the phone in her tiny lap, her chin dropped to her chest. I’d never seen her cry before. It frightened me to see her proud and optimistic face distorted. She’d just gotten through speaking to my dad. He wasn’t coming to the party. He knew that my grandma had invited us, and in doing so, had made it impossible for him to come. She’d made her decision.

A few summers ago my grandma moved two thousand miles from Connecticut to Utah, to live across the street from to me. My mom and I spent a week unpacking the boxes, so that it would be ready for her when she arrived. It was a little like setting up a dollhouse, rearranging her items to mimic the feeling of the old house where she’d lived for more than fifty years.

We unpacked four sets of china, stacked dozens of pink towels in the closet. We set up her bedroom furniture and carried ten different dressers down to the basement. Finally we unpacked a box of photographs. We scattered the framed pictures throughout the house; on nightstands and end tables. Last of all, we filled the mantle over the fireplace with pictures of ourselves, a few snapshots of my aunt and uncle, an old photograph of my grandma’s parents and siblings taken around 1920. When we were done, we realized that we hadn’t included any pictures of my dad. In the box I found two photos of him and cleared a space on the left side of the mantle.

I often stand and study those pictures when I come to visit. One of them must have been taken only a few years after I last saw my dad. In it he looks quite dashing, his dark hair blown a little by the wind as he stands in front of a bridge somewhere in Europe. In the other picture he has the same pasty look from the Lipitor ads. His hair is gray and balding as he stands with Marilyn in front of a backdrop that reminds me of junior prom. They’re costumed in a tuxedo and ball gown, posing with stiff, artificial smiles. I finally opened up the back of the picture frame to see if there was a hint as to when it was taken. Viennese Ball, it said, 1995. There couldn’t have been more than six or seven years between the two photos, but he’d become a different man in that space of time.

One day while I was over at my grandmother’s house helping her sort through her bills, I found a Mother’s Day card from my dad and Marilyn. Inside there was a picture of them holding two little girls. The children seemed a bit stiff, but I could see that they were beautiful. The one on the right reminded me a little of my youngest daughter, Rebecca. “P.S.” the card said “These are our little granddaughters, Valerie and Michelle”.

I slipped the card into a stack of papers and took it home with me.

IX

The Playboy article left me dissatisfied. The bits I’d found weren’t enough to satiate me, as if these words could fill the empty space my dad had left behind.

Online I found an article about my dad and Marilyn, “In the Kingdom of the Brain: How Love Changed the Smartest Couple in New York”, published only a year and a half after they were married. I could order a copy from the archives of New York magazine, twenty dollars plus shipping. I clicked on the “buy now” button, entered my credit card information, my mailing address.

The magazine came a couple of weeks later, sticking up out of my mailbox, wrapped in a padded manila envelope. My kids lunged for it. “What is it,” they wanted to know. I ripped it open on the front porch and pulled out the magazine, showing it to them. “It’s just a magazine with a story about my dad,” I said.

“That’s your dad?” my six year old, Rebecca asked, incredulous.

I sat down in my living room with the copy of my magazine. My dad and Marilyn were on the cover, dark haired and young. This was their prime. Almost twenty years ago. This was it.

I read eagerly, looking for an estimation of who my dad had been during the year that he started his long departure away from me. It didn’t occur to me that while the Playboy article had been a bit disturbing, this article might be painful. The glossy pictures inside the magazine looked like the dad I remembered: A full head of black hair, his jaw slightly shaded with the rough stubble that couldn’t disappear even after a good shave. He was very handsome.

But the man inside that shell had changed. His new personality seemed rigid, plastic. In less than two years my dad had zipped on a new persona, one that matched Marilyn’s. Together they were one person; his heart, her brain.

“Marilyn vos Savant and Robert Jarvik met two years ago when they were about 40, after other lives and children,” I read. “They are both desperately anxious to leave their pasts, to wipe them off the record, as though their lives and work only began when they found each other and set out on their real life’s work—his new heart.”

I always imagined a gradual decline, the fog of forgetfulness slowly descending over my dad’s mind, blurring out any image of my brother and me. I never dreamed that it had happened so immediately, a decision that he’d made, not the consequence of time and distance.

“For fun, vos Savant ‘deprograms’ Jarvik of the residue of his past to improve his intellectual capacity.” I imagined the residue of memories that I’d left in my dad’s mind: images of horses and princess dresses. I could almost see those thoughts swirling out from his head in a funnel of smoke and steam, replaced with more important thoughts of quantum physics, axial pumps, the theory of relativity.

Twenty years later, my dad and Marilyn still sequester themselves in their apartment high above Manhattan, thinking lofty thoughts. Far below them, our lives go on. We do the dishes; separate the darks from the lights; start the wash; water the brand new orchid, whose fleshy leaves have already begun to shrivel and yellow. We feed the dogs; put toothpaste on the toothbrushes; tell our kids that tomorrow they need to do this chore themselves. And after our children lie down, Noah upside down on his bed, Rebecca’s lips finally stalled and parted in the same triangle they used to form when she was an infant, Morgan downstairs reading with the glow of her lamp lighting the dark stairway, I sit down and turn on the TV, hoping that someday I might see him again. And regardless of whether or not he can create a Jarvik heart that works, mine keeps pumping; that messy, pulsing muscle that has nothing to do with love.

*bio15-001

Kate Jarvik Birch is a visual artist and author living in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and three kids. Her essays and short stories have been published in Isotope, Saint Ann’s Review, Scissor’s and Spackle and Indiana Review. She is also the author of three young adult novels: Perfected, Tarnished and Deliver Me.

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