Angelica’s Heart: Part 1
By Dan McClenaghan
The heart of a pig beats deep in my chest. It is a strong muscle, one that should allow me to live out a normal lifespan. Or so they say. I’m hoping they’re telling the truth, and I’m hoping I can get out of here soon, back to something that resembles a normal life.
The pig’s pulse, now mine, is strong. Dr. Mahanthappa said I’d picked up several decades of living with this transplant. The pig lost all the rest of her years, and then suffered the indignity of having her remaining flesh eaten—pork chops, smoked ham, loin roasts, carnitas—by the patients and staff here in the Rosarita Life Extension Facility, nestled in the winter-green hills of the foggy coast of Baja California.
“Maybe forty years.” The good doctor smiled, leaning back and pulling the ear pieces of her stethoscope off. “She was a healthy girl, robust.” She was referring to my donor.
I took a deep breath, rolled my butt on the starchy white paper that covered the exam table. The paper crackled. I ran three fingertips along the vertical scar on my sternum. It was purple, and looked like a fossil impression of a centipede.
“I have dreams,” I said.
“Dreams?” the doctor said.
“This scar splits open,” I tapped the centipede, ”and my heart shoots out, squealing as it squirts across the room.”
Dr Mahanthappa threw her head back and laughed. Her long hair, crow’s feather black, bounced on the shoulders of her white lab coat. She met my eyes. Her smile sparkled with a perfect alignment of dazzlingly white teeth. She, though twenty years my junior, had the air of a wise adult talking to a foolish and fearful child. ”You’re still worried about rejection?”
“It was a pig.” I said. “How can that—”
She thrust the palm of her hand my way to command silence. “Frank Phillips, we’ve discussed this before. Just remember three things, will you?” I slid off the exam table, rustling the white paper. My feet thumped to the floor. Dr. Mahanthappa reached out and touched my shoulder. “Genetic engineering. Nanotech. Cloning.” It was like she was saying a prayer.
I repeated the words, my shoulders slumping.
“Angelica, your cross-species benefactress, was the culmination of ten years of a scientific journey of discovery, Frank.” The doctors coal black eyes gleamed. “The rejection gene was engineered to a minimum; then the nano guys vacuumed up what was left.”
“You trust the nano guys?”
Reflected florescent lighting twinkled on her teeth. Her eyes gleamed like obsidian. “I do.”
“And then you cloned her,” I sighed, repeating what I’d been told.
The doctor slid her hand down my bare arm and took my hand in both of hers, a gesture that seemed oddly intimate in this patient-doctor setting, but comforting. “We can’t leave reproduction in the hands of God, Frank. Too many random things can happen.” She gave her head a little shake, peeved, it seemed, about having to explain the obvious. “There are currently thirty-one Angelica’s in our custody, Frank, each genetically identical, each brimming with uniformly healthy organs.”
“And one of them,” I said, “beats in my chest.”
“You’re a pioneer, Frank, the first. Your name will go into a thousand textbooks. Your face could show up on the cover of Time Magazine.”
“With a cartoon thought bubble over my head,” I said, “with the word ‘oink’ inside it.”
• • •
“I don’t understand this gloomy mood of yours, Frank. You should be happy. Overjoyed. You’re alive,” said Dr. Mahanthappa.
I forked up glob of refried beans. A string of cheese stretched from the plate. I slid the goop into my mouth and fingered the strand of cheese in behind it, then rolled the creamy paste over my tongue. I felt my spirits lifting “It’s a mortality thing, Doc,” I said, picking up my fish taco.
Once a week I am allowed to leave the Rosarita Life Extension Research Facility for a meal at Jose y Maria’s, a ramshackle hut painted gaudy hot pink, sitting in the long grass on the high bluff top, overlooking the cold blue Pacific, just off the toll road that snakes down the coast. I am usually accompanied by one of the security guys. I am a valuable man. They can’t afford to let me walk away. This is the first time that Dr. Mahanthappa has joined me.
The doctor picked her margarita up, sipped it, made a face that said “sour,” set the glass back down. The thin winter sunlight—we had a table on the patio out back—flashed on her hair as she raked it behind her ear with slim brown fingers. “Mortality, I don’t understand that. You could live forever.”
“On replacement parts,” I said around a mouthful of battered snapper, chopped cabbage, tangy salsa. “The heart’s new, but I’ve got a fifty-three-year-old liver, fifty-three-year-old kidneys.”
The doctor’s mouth pinched itself into a tight line; her eyes narrowed. “You should be thankful for those what you call ‘replacement parts,’ Frank, that will be available to you as you need them. Without your Angelica heart, you’d be dead now.”
I paused in my chewing of the mash I’d made of the taco. I’d never seen her without that lab coat, without the stethoscope hanging from her neck. She wore a gray sweater with a modest v-neck. She’d applied some lipstick and darkened her eyelids to match the sweater. She looked younger. “You think you could transplant a prostate gland from one of those girls?” I said. “I was up four times last night.”
She tried not to laugh. Her amusement at my dumbness and/or irreverence (she seemed unsure as to which was at play), in conjunction with this distancing from her antiseptic exam room, made her seem more human, more attractive, more a woman, less an android, though I’d been essentially asexual since my wife had died.
“You’re serious?” she asked, eyes twinkling.
“You can give me a new heart. A prostate outta be a piece of cake.”
Her laugh tinkled like a wind chime. “Do you really need a refresher on male and female anatomy. The name Angelica, and the cloning aspect of our brood of donors should give you some insight as to prostate availability.”
I took a long, gurgling pull of my bottle of Modelo Negra. “You know, you talk real smart.”
“I am real smart.”
She sucked a generous sip from her margarita. The alcohol hitting her system sent a blush to her cheeks, giving a brief, healthy darkening, with red undertones, to her chocolate-colored skin. She set her glass down and burped, the polite chirp of a tree frog. She giggled and placed three fingers to her lips and blushed deeper.
“I believe you are smart,” I said. “And you’re quite beautiful, too.”
She stiffened. The professional guard went back up. “Do you really think so, Mr. Phillips?” Her tone detached, clinical. She needed more margarita.
I picked up the remnants of my fish taco, a slice of avocado slid out and fell back to the plate. Arturo, the security guy who’d driven us down here, looked over from his table by the back entrance. Down below us on the shore, a wave crashed against the rocks, and a sea gull hovered in the updraft off the bluff top, eying the food on my plate. “Of course,” I said.
It was my turn to use the tone of talking to a naive child. She seemed embarrassed, so I tried to lighten things. “Although, you’re the only women I’ve seen for four months, except for Rosa.” Rosalinda Morales was the clinic’s two hundred and eighty pound cook. “And even she’s startin ‘ to look good.” The doctor tried not to smile. “I mean, you’ve got me locked me up down here, no phone, no computer. Bunch of guy nurses. I’ve kind of forgotten what women look like.”
“It’s necessary, the sequestering, Mr. Phillips.” She pushed her margarita glass away from her, to the middle of the table. ”But very soon we’ll be traveling to Los Angeles, to meet the man who has financed this journey into interspecies transplantation.”
The financier. A secretive guy. A rich guy. A guy who—I’m guessing—needed a replacement organ or two of his own. I’m his guinea pig. Dr. M has made no secret of that. But this new heart, even if it was from a pig, was a chance to live, so I took it.
“You should be thankful, Frank.” Ah, I’m Frank again. Mr. Phillips has left the patio. Good. She pulled a lipstick out of her purse, along with a small compact mirror. She applied a maroon sheen to her lips. I shoved the last bite of taco into my mouth. The sea gull dipped down, cocked an eye my way then rose on a gust of updraft.
“For my lack of peripheral artery disease?” The blood vessels, apart from my original human heart, were clean. That’s why I’d been chosen. A spanking new heart sewn into a body with clogged vessels in the legs, blocked carotid arteries, would have been a waste of money, a waste of an Angelica’s life.
The doctor dropped her make-up tools back into her purse, fixed me with a forthright gaze. “Of course, Frank. And you should be thankful for your financier. He made the extension of your life possible.”
• • •
Arturo drove us back to the facility, climbing in the black Ford SUV up the gravel road that wound into the rolling hills east of the north-south toll road. A cold mist rose from the lime green grasses and the shoulder-high mustard plants with their bright yellow flowers. A coyote, a gray ghost, trotted from behind a stand of cactus and crossed in front of us as Arturo turned on the headlights against the coming of the twilight.
“Tell me something, Frank.”
We rode in the back seat, the doctor leaning against the passenger side door, sleepy-eyed after two margaritas.
“When you said I was beautiful…” She turned and gazed out at the bristling agave plants, a gnarled little manzanita bush writhing along an up-slope. “When you said I was beautiful—I think your exact words were ‘quite beautiful’—were you speaking in purely esthetic terms or was there an element of sexual attraction in the declaration.”
I turned to look at her profile in the dim interior of the SUV. “Man, the way you talk: ‘an element of sexual attraction in the declaration?’ Why don’t you just ask me if I got the hots for you?”
Her profile turned to face me. Her eyes were black pools, pupil-less. “I am speaking as a professional, Frank. Asking, as you so eloquently put it, if you have the hots for me would be unseemly, and unprofessional.”
“Well let me tell you somethin’, Doc. You’re an attractive woman, and every man who meets you who isn’t gay feels a little bit of the horny hots.”
“Shut up, Frank.”
Arturo turned into the narrow dirt gravel drive that would up to the clinic, wheels crunching on a river of small rocks.
“’Shut up’ is it? How professional, Dr. Mahanthappa.” I crossed my arms over my chest and turned back to look at Arturo’s head rest. “Shut up, Frank,” I falsetto-ed. ”They teach you that in bedside manner 101?”
She huffed in exasperation. “You are missing the point, Frank.”
The SUV’s wheel spun on a section of steep incline, then caught traction and lunged upward to the mesa crest, bringing into view the clinic’s boxy, low building jutting up from the wild grasses going gray with the gathering night.
“What’s with the limo?” I wanted to know. Long and black, it sat at the clinic entrance. A man in a red vest and an honest-to-god chauffeur’s cap stood outside it, by the front fender.
“Fuck the limo, Frank.” She punched my thigh with the heel of her fist. “The point is, your benefactor is very interested in the continuation, or lack thereof, of libido after the transplant.”
Arturo pulled up behind the limo. The chauffeur looked at us, then stepped to the back door of the long black Cadillac and opened it.
“Why’s he want to know that, Doc?”
“Frank, you’re the guinea pig.” She unsnapped her shoulder belt.
“So I’ve heard.”
She turned and looked deeply into my eyes. “He’s interested in a pig’s heart, Frank. His own is worn out, as yours was, but he is very concerned about his post transplant ability to …”
“Screw?” I said.
She nodded. “Eloquent, once again, Frank.”
I considered this. “I haven’t really given it much thought, Doc. When Jolene died—” I’d never said those actual words. Jolene died. “Maybe I been talkin’ a little line of shit with you today, but after my wife died, that sort of thing seemed to die, too. I don’t think it’ll ever come back, transplant or no.”
She reached across the seat and took my hand for the second time this day. “It’s time you did think about it, Frank. She’s been gone what? Two years?”
She nodded, as if her point was proven. “Our program depends on it. Your benefactor has been financing not just you, you know. He pays all the clinic’s expenses. We are depending on your …” Again, she hesitated, searching for the right words.
“Dependin’ upon my gettin’ frisky?”
She fought a battle against her smile and lost. “Yes, Frank,” She grinned, eyes twinkling, the limo’s dome light reflected in her dark irises. “And you’re going to be tested on your ‘gettin’ frisky’ ability very soon now,” she said, nodding at the limousine.
About Dan McClenaghan
I write stuff. I began with my Ruth and Ellis/Clete and Juanita stories in the early 1980s. At the beginning of the new millennium I started writing reviews of jazz CDs, first at American Reporter, and then (and now) at All About Jazz. I’ve tried my hand at novels, without success.
I’ve been published in a bunch of small presses, most notably the now defunct Wormwood Review. This was in the pre-computer age, when we whomped up our stories on typewriters, then rolled down to Kinkos to make copies, which we stuck in manila envelopes, along with a return envelope with return postage attached. Times have changed.
Aside from the writing, I am married to the lovely Denise. We have three wonderful children and four (soon to be five) beautiful grandchildren; and I am a two-time winner—1970 and 1971—of the Oceanside Bodysurfing Contest. Kowabunga!
Photo credit: BBC