Joyland

Los Angeles |

The Heat of Human Bodies

by Colin Bassett

edited by Katya Apekina

The month Donny’s dialysis machine broke they both began to feel like their lives had settled somehow, like now the entire power grid could fail and only so much would change for them. Leanne used to spend evenings watching him prepare it and then they would both sleep twelve hours while it hummed and pumped warm sugar water into and out of his abdomen. In the daytime they were normal. Donny would sit with Jean in the kitchen and Leanne would think about how surrounding yourself with women seemed like a reasonable, appropriate kind of healing. They would drink small glasses of orange juice and eat lettuce and vegetables and different types of grilled meat and fish that Leanne shopped for every day. She would ride with Jean in her car and Donny would stay home reading medical journals online. At night Donny would summarize clinical trials and research studies done at universities. The studies would usually involve a kind of gene function and the way in which some species’ genetic make-up was strikingly similar to that of humans. It made Leanne feel like it meant somewhat less to be human than maybe everyone wanted to believe.

Jean had moved out a week before the dialysis machine broke and left them alone, living still in the small part of her house they had been renting from her. Leanne had immediately realized that there are people in the world who are better than others, who are more likable and more desirable, and that this was something true and objective in reality; they were the people who everyone else wanted to know and be around, the people you knew about and helplessly liked, but never were yourself. She felt the fact of this inside of her like an unanticipated but not fully surprising kind of bankruptcy, as if the energy she used every day had become exposed, unwrapped from some insular delusion of its own purpose and now uncaringly out in the open, as functional and dated as a telephone pole. She would dress or straighten the covers on the bed and it would feel like she had been designed to do just slightly less than this, like her body was good at standing or lying down but little else in between. She started just sitting and watching Donny while he showered. “You look like cement,” she would say to him. “Like you’re full of cement.”

When Jean was gone they began starting the dialysis earlier in the evening, then sleeping twelve hours or more each night and waking late in the morning, feeling like warm puddles in the bed. These mornings were easiest. They didn’t need to have things to say and could move around the house effortlessly, like a drowsy, comforting extension of sleep. There was a diet to pay attention to and medications to take and they both felt this, felt eased by its necessity. Leanne put together sandwiches with unsalted meats. They sat in the kitchen and looked out on the rest of the house like it was a short, crumpled shoreline. Donny needed the right amount of water and the right amount of salt inside of him as much as possible. He spent the daytime abstractly considering this balance, eating and drinking as little as possible until he could go back to sleep.

Donny was tall, in a way that was not the attractive kind of being tall. His skin looked liked cotton. He had headaches every day at the same time and had failed so far in his life at figuring out how to make bad things useful, though this was a concept he preferred over most others. Jean had moved into a house upstate that her grandparents left for her in their will. When she left she told Donny she had always liked the catheter in his belly. “It’s sort of bionic,” she had said. Her eyes were moist and sparkly. “You’re like a really boring cyborg.”

He kept this artificial part of him taped against his skin and then wrapped in a thin, spandex girdle he wore under his clothes. Since the surgery he seemed to stand up straighter than normal. Leanne thought it looked unnatural, like he had just now learned how to stand upright on his legs. They would take walks together around the neighborhood and it felt like the same kind of walk a patient would take around the hospital corridors.

The dialysis solution worked like a sponge. It filled up his abdomen and rested against the membrane of the peritoneal cavity. Blood on the other side of the membrane released into the solution whatever it had too much of. “It’s like the brain,” Donny said. “There’s a cellular barrier between your blood and the spinal fluid in your head. Proteins transfer whatever you need and the rest is kept out.” Leanne had started walking around Jean’s part of the house. Most of the furniture was left but everything else that could fit into her car she had taken. “It’s why your body gets sick but not your brain,” Donny said. They were standing in Jean’s living room looking back at the kitchen. Leanne was holding on to a cassette recorder Jean had used to send taped messages back and forth with an aunt. “If your brain can’t keep itself separate from your blood then your blood will try to clean it up like it does everything else,” Donny said. “Your immune system, the white blood cells, they can cross over into the spinal cord and start destroying it. They eat the myelin coating that makes your nerves work. It’s awful.”

“Do you think Jean wanted this?” Leanne said, holding the recorder.

Then Donny’s head started hurting. The machine was still working but it was too early to hook himself up. He drank a decaffeinated tea blend that was marketed to dialysis patients and closed himself in the bedroom. Leanne sat with the cassette recorder in the kitchen. Donny’s laptop was open and she scrolled down a page about research being done on Lyme disease. Leanne pushed her chest down on the counter in front of the computer. Her face was lifted up enough to keep reading but she just stared at the bright screen. It was afternoon but felt like night in the house.

Jean had watered the lawn and the other plants in the yard every day. Leanne would sit on the back patio and watch her watering the shrubs along the fence. Jean would have her hair wrapped beneath a broad fabric headband. She told Leanne the entire yard had died once, that it had taken years to fully replenish. Jean would spend part of a morning or afternoon at the house with them, but otherwise was often gone. Leanne was aware there were a lot of other people Jean knew and spent time with.

*

She went to look at Donny in the bedroom. He was awake and standing above the dialysis machine. There was a bag of the dextrose solution warming on top of it. His shirt was off and he slipped the spandex down and untaped the catheter tubing. He had told her once that it felt like being hungry, right before. The solution was full of calories and he had stopped eating more than once a day.

“I can go to the store tomorrow,” Leanne said. They hadn’t shopped for anything since Jean left. Donny was smiling and being careful. It was important for him to keep everything as sterile as possible.

“Do you feel hungry?” Leanne said. “Do you know you’re not really eating?”

Donny’s face was bloated around his eyes. The machine clicked and started spinning the little cassette that held the tubing and regulated the movement of the fluid. The room was warm and shut off from the rest of the house. There was a dim lamp on in the corner that made the space glow orange, like the inside of a womb. Donny was stretching his arms up and then gently bending forward. Leanne thought they should figure out a way for him to exercise while he was hooked up to the machine. Donny rubbed his hands on the warm bag and then lifted back his spandex.

*

In the morning she sat with him in the kitchen, then took the bus to the store and brought back orange juice and a bag of food. They spent the rest of the day in Jean’s part of the house, but separately so that sometimes they would be in the same room and smiling at each other and sometimes they would be alone in rooms, staring and feeling the furniture with their palms. They sat in the kitchen together and the sunlight felt flawless, like the surface of an ancient, volcanic lake. Donny said that deep sea creatures survive by eating bits of organic matter that drift down from the ocean above them. “It’s like a snowstorm,” he said. “Everything decays and ends up down there like a grave.”

He was sick to his stomach and couldn’t eat. Leanne dampened a towel with warm water and told him to hold it against his forehead.

“And it’s a long process,” he said. “Stuff can drift around in the ocean for millions of years, like outer space.” He put his head on the counter and rested the towel over his face. His laptop was open next to him. There was a picture of the molecular make-up of some drug. “They found creatures eating bits of whale bone from a species that went extinct in the Pliocene era,” he said. “It’s like the bottom of the ocean is lightyears away.”

Then it was afternoon and his head hurt and they both went to sleep when it was still light. The next night the machine quit working. They looked at it and Donny took apart the connections and put them back together and still nothing. The bags hadn’t warmed and the little display was blank, not off but just a kind of dull gray. He unplugged it and plugged it back in. It felt like trying to put fallen branches back on a tree.

“It’s okay,” Donny said. He moved things around, putting the solution bags in different places and stacking up the sterilized tubing. “I don’t really need it,” he said.

Then he ran hot water into the bottom of the bathtub and set a few of the dialysis bags gently inside it. The bags warmed in the tub until they were close to body temperature and then he pulled one out and dried it off.

“I can just do it manually,” he said. He was smiling. He felt good, like he wanted to work on this all night. Leanne sat on the toilet and watched him sterilize everything and then lift up his shirt to pull out his catheter. “It’s not as fancy this way,” he said.

The machine would take more than half an hour to prepare for the procedure, and it would indicate when it was ready for which step of the process. Now he just looked at Leanne and slipped out his catheter. There was no mechanism, no machine, just one bag hoisted onto his shoulder that could slowly drain into his abdomen, and another empty bag on the floor where the used fluid could drain out.

 “I can just leave the fluid in for a few hours,” he said. “Then drain it and put in a new bag.” It took forty minutes for the bag on his shoulder to empty and that was it.

“No machine,” he said.

The lamp was on in their bedroom. Donny didn’t want to lie down. Instead he went to the kitchen and then took a medical journal with him into one of Jean’s rooms. Leanne stood in the bedroom and felt unweighted, unconnected. There was a clear note of emptiness. She felt like an animal with a different set of senses for receiving the world. She went to the kitchen and saw where Donny had flipped on lights in the other part of the house. She took Jean’s cassette recorder back to the bedroom and flipped it over in her hands. Beneath a piece of plastic casing it had a row of four batteries. She closed the casing and clicked down one of the buttons. The tape rewound some and she clicked another button and it played Jean’s voice. The broken dialysis machine and stray equipment made the room feel gruesome, but she slept for a long time with the tape playing Jean’s messages to her aunt and her aunt’s messages back.

They closed off parts of the house and opened others. Donny stopped sleeping. His laptop was on the floor beneath the coffee table in Jean’s living room, and when there was nothing left in the refrigerator they decided to unplug it and use it to store his dialysis bags. Leanne found an older man in the neighborhood who sold food from his garden. She would go to his house sometimes in the morning for vegetables. Donny ate sliced up tomatoes dipped in balsamic vinegar. His headaches went away and he told Leanne it was from having the fluid in him all the time, instead of cycling in and out. “It’s a consistent pressure now,” he said. “Before it was always changing.”  He was standing up in the back patio holding a fresh bag on his shoulder and resting the discard bag on his foot. He liked to walk around the house with the bags while they were draining. And he started taking walks outside. Sometimes he would be gone from the house for long periods during the day.

Once Leanne had seen him at the old man’s house. Donny was talking with the man, and he hadn’t said anything to Leanne when she walked in. Donny and the man finished their conversation and then Donny left. She saw him again when she came back with her bag of vegetables. He was standing in the driveway with a few bags of solution laid out on the concrete. He had started warming them there on days it was sunny enough for them to heat up. Sometimes he would lie next to them and close his eyes like it was the beach.

“I’ve been talking to some people,” he said. He was standing in front of her. She adjusted the bag in her hand but didn’t want to set it down. “Thinking about having a car fixed up for us,” he said. He put his arms out, indicating that this was the space where it would go. “We can go visit Jean.”

They walked around to the back of the house. “You aren’t eating enough,” she said. “You’re just full of sugar all the time.” She saw that someone was sitting inside at the table in the kitchen. His face looked loose on his skull but sharply focused, like some poorly disguised robot.

“That’s Morgan,” Donny said. “He’s the mechanic.”

She sat with Morgan at the table while Donny went to bring in one of the bags from the driveway. “See?” Donny said. He held it up to her neck to feel how warm it had gotten in the sun. “It’s good for doing one in the afternoon, at least.”

The skin on Morgan’s face looked whipped, like someone had tried to sculpt it out of cake batter. It seemed to sag some from his head and his eyes moved around inside of it, seeking out everything that was missing from their house. He seemed thoughtful and elegant, like a deer.

Donny talked about building a solar hot water system but converting it for his dialysis fluid. “Like an outdoor shower,” he said. “Solar-heated, where you fill up a bag with water and then hang it in the sun.” Then they talked about the car again and how the cheapest thing to do was to get something completely broken down and have Morgan fix it. Donny told Leanne that Morgan could provide the car for almost nothing and give them a large discount on the labor. She realized they had already come to this agreement and had just been going over it for her benefit.

“It’ll have everything but just need some repairs,” Donny said. “It takes longer is the only thing.” He looked at Morgan who nodded and moved his hands from the table to his lap. Leanne got up to put the groceries away in the pantry.

When she came back she saw Donny standing outside and Morgan walking down the street toward a truck that said HALE’S AUTO beneath a pair of checkered racing flags on the door. She looked at Donny standing there. He was still holding the warmed bag on his shoulder but went to switch it with one of the others still in the driveway. He came back in and asked if she had noticed Morgan’s face.

 “He apparently had a lot of plastic surgery when he was a teenager,” Donny said. He hooked up the bag and then propped it around the back of his neck, like he was working out. “Medical,” Donny said. “Not cosmetic.They did one for some skin disorder and it didn’t work. Ruined his face.” He put his hand up against his nose and moved it back and forth. “They had to do almost ten more surgeries. He said it took years.”

*

Donny had been having trouble sleeping and had begun moving some of his things into Jean’s part of the house. He said he liked how Leanne slept, that it was thermal and consuming, and that he didn’t want to bother her. They sat together in Jean’s living room. The table was scattered with Donny’s magazines. He told Leanne a person’s heart is capable of almost completely reconstructing itself over a lifetime. “It regenerates as you get older,” he said. “By the time you die it’s almost an entirely new thing.”

It was afternoon and Leanne felt tired. She wanted to be in her bed under covers. “What about in the morning?” she said. “How have you been warming up your bags in the morning?”

“Here,” he said. He slipped one out from beneath a couch cushion. “If I lie here they get a little warm,” he said. “Not enough.”

Leanne took the bag and crossed her arms around it. She wanted to hold on to it, to take it to bed with her. “I can sleep with one,” she said. “Then you can take it in the morning. It should be as warm as me.”

Donny smiled but had his eyes closed. He had been switching the dialysis bags only twice a day. They didn’t know if it was enough but he felt better this way and didn’t have as many headaches. Leanne squeezed the bag in her arms then got up and found a box full of them and pulled it into her bedroom. Donny woke her up when it was evening and smiled at her. She had the bag pushed down near her thighs. There was an extra blanket on the bed and she reached down and spooned herself against the bag before pulling it out and handing it to him.

“There’s a car cemetery,” Donny said. “Morgan’s taking me.” She picked up another bag from the box and got back under the covers. “It’s like a car lot,” he said.

“Except they’re just out in this field. A man takes you around in this tow truck and pulls whichever car you want.”

When she woke again later the bag was still next to her. She pushed on it with her arm and felt it roll, like a belly. In the morning she carried the bag out with her to the kitchen. She wrapped a blanket over it and held it crossed inside her arms while she peeled an orange. Donny showed up later with an IV pole he said was for the driveway.

Leanne slept again for part of the day, then read articles and looked for more tapes from Jean’s aunt. Donny had hung two bags of solution from the IV pole and left it standing, the bags suspended high in the sunlight. When she came outside he stood next to it and then showed her how he could wheel it around to follow the arc of the sun through the day.

He looked exhausted. His skin was patchy and bloated. Leanne had pressed her fingers on it when he told her it was hurting. He said it was like a dull ache but on the outside. It hurt to shower or to wear heavy clothes. When Morgan came later Leanne went inside. There was an article about thermal regulation in humans clipped to the refrigerator that Donny had torn from one of his magazines. It said THE HEAT OF HUMAN BODIES across the top of the page and had an illustration of a man resting on a bed of orange flames. She looked outside where Morgan and Donny were sitting in the driveway. Donny stood up and pulled one of the bags down from the top of the IV pole. He held it up to Morgan, like they were trying to guess its weight.

In the morning Leanne woke with a bag of solution cradled next to her belly.  Donny was standing beside her and when he took the bag he leaned his body over it, like a kind of miserable affection.

Morgan started spending the days with them. He built a type of metal frame to help Donny sleep and they installed it into one of Jean’s beds. It was like a low, flat tent that propped the blankets up away from his skin but kept them close enough to keep him warm. The two would stand outside together with the solution warming or when Donny hooked himself up to a new bag. They talked about the car. Donny was serious now about visiting Jean. It was agreed that they would leave when the car was ready and that Morgan would come with them.

Leanne watched the two of them out in the yard. They would leave for long parts of the day and then come back to check on the bags they had left hanging. Morgan had started helping Donny when he needed to connect his catheter. They came back to the house one day carrying clear plastic bags full of meat. The meat was raw and fatty. It looked like marble in the plastic. Morgan cooked it for a long time on a small charcoal grill on the patio. Donny had become sensitive to noise and light and had started having headaches again. He wore sunglasses constantly. The two would sit in the kitchen together and Morgan would go out from time to time to check on the bags and bring one in if it was ready. Eventually they moved all the remaining solution bags into the kitchen.

When the car was ready Morgan and Donny loaded as many of the bags into the trunk as they could. They woke up Leanne and Donny took in the bag she had warmed. And then they left. They drove for hours, Leanne sitting in the back with a bag of fluid in her lap and one behind her head like a pillow. At rest stops they would stop and switch so that Donny could sit in the backseat with a bag hanging above him and Morgan would drive. By afternoon they were off the highway and following roads surrounded by forest and stretches of countryside. At the house they parked and felt weighted in the car. Their minds had flattened into a kind of linear trajectory and for a moment they felt frozen and powerless in that momentum. Then Jean stepped out onto the porch. She mouthed something toward the car they couldn’t hear. It felt briefly like there was some prolonged delay between them, like some ancient light arriving finally from the universe.

She brought Donny into the house and showed them a room where Morgan could put their things. There were other people living there. They saw some of them in other rooms and Jean said they were friends. Then she reached down for Leanne’s hand and hugged herself against her arm. Her hair was wrapped together near the back of her neck in a piece of broad, flowery fabric. It rested gently at her back like a swaddle and she guided Leanne through the house to the back porch. They stepped down a few wooden planks and into a field. Jean said it was the garden, that it was just tall grass now but that it was the garden. In the sunlight it shimmered around them like waves, shining like the surface of a lake.