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Implanted Devices

by Gabriel Brownstein


The ICD, they called it, for Implanted Cardiac Device, but Warshauer stuck with his first mistake, IED, what the Mahdis buried in the sands around Baghdad. When he’d gotten up off the gurney in post-op the thing had flopped around in there like a policeman’s badge on a string. It was about the size of a small child’s fist, and made of metal, and as he walked West End Avenue on the way to Junie Hamel’s party it absorbed the cold like a pocketful of quarters, except the pocket was Warshauer’s flesh.

God, he hated the Upper West Side. All day long he had walked the old neighborhood—same coffee beans at Zabar’s, same loser on the sidewalk out front with the same taped-up card table, peddling the same signed Philip Roth. And on Amsterdam, Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King: it was like a museum in there, with the same shuffling black waiter and the fatso at the cash register. But everything’s changed, the customers cried over their bialys, the old neighborhood has changed, oh, how the crackheads have bloomed and faded. They all lived on mortgages now, not rent control. They ate dinners with people they had fucked in college. But Junie, he thought. Wow. Junie Hamel. In 1974 she’d had more dirty tricks than H. R. Haldeman. Of course he’d go to her party.

Revivification, Act One: Show her what a man could do, chest scarred, shaved, and stubbled. Problem was, the device was set to fire anytime he got too excited. The machine couldn’t tell the difference between exercise and disease, and when his heart rate got above 155 beats per minute, the thing would shock him. Zap! Sixty-five joules. Like a horse kicking your chest, said the resident with the cowlick and the acne and the bedside manner that was scared to shit by Philip Warshauer. Or a brick popping through your ribcage, some patients had described it that way. As a precaution, Warshauer had wanked off this morning, gingerly, and everything had gone swell. Still, defibrillation before climax, this was a concern.

Just stay calm, he told himself as he rounded the corner of West Eighty-Ninth Street, a bottle of chardonnay in his hand, two condoms in his wallet, and sewn under his skin, the device.

He was an idiot to have come where he wouldn’t know a soul. A drink, a bar, that would have been easier, but he had played her voicemail three times on his BlackBerry and when he called her back she had said party, and Warshauer, uncharacteristically, had said okay.

~

ANGOLA. Black and white. The gunman strolls a road barefooted in a T-shirt and loose-fitting pants, his Kalashnikov slung casually like a purse. In the background, a one-story building and telephone poles, also trees, two of them with leaves. The boy in the foreground is curled, the tendons of his neck stretched tight. His foot looks fatter than his thigh is round, and his back is a set of shadowed ridges. A figure stands beside him, cropped at the waist, her feet in sandals, her skirt windblown.

~

He said her name to the doorman, and as he waited for the elevator, it was Junie in his mind, climbing the rocks at Folly Cove, her toes long, her thighs young, her curls. He couldn’t quite see her face but he remembered the pink tip of her nose, like she had a cold, it was always pinkish.

He sucked his teeth, and when the elevator stopped at seven, checked his fly and ran a hand across his enormous forehead.

7C. The door ajar. Lousy kid music from within. He touched the bulge under his shirt, there under the Steri-Strips. Did he have the wrong apartment?

And this guy comes barreling out, the guy runs at him, face-to-face. And they pull their heads back and Warshauer’s hand goes (like an old geezer’s) to his chest. He was blocking the big guy’s way out of the apartment, and the guy was blocking his way in.

“Ivan!” a shrill woman called.

The guy, big as Warshauer, had a beard and a bunch of books under his arm. Bald. Some kind of professor?

“Ivan!” A pink-nosed old woman.

Warshauer stepped left to let the guy go. The guy stepped right with Warshauer. Warshauer stepped to his right, the guy’s left, and the guy stepped that way too.

“Philip?” She put her fingers to her throat, a gesture that brought it all back to him. Her hair was white, absolutely white. “Oh, Philip!” The woman had put on a Junie Hamel mask underneath her skin. “Ivan, I’d like you to meet Philip Warshauer.”

On the cover of one book was Batman. Paperbacks, comic books, Japanese-style. No professor, no, and not half as old as the beard and the baldness—

“Philip, I’d like you to meet my son.”

Her son! His eyes were still adjusting. Her lips were thin with bright red lipstick, and she wore a long white blouse and tights that showed off her legs and her dancer’s slippers. She had a hand on baldy’s blue coat. Warshauer reached out to clutch the young man’s shoulder, but the kid broke free and ducked, and Warshauer was left clawing air.

Junie snapped up the bottle of wine, chasing her son to the elevator bank. “One minute and the charming hostess returns.” They didn’t even peck cheeks. As the door was closing behind her she called over her shoulder, telling him where to put his coat. And there was that smile: a garden in winter, the sacked city he had once loved, but what the fuck, thought Warshauer, because the Visigoths had got him too.

She was still pretty. She remained very, very pretty.

~

The party was thick and surprisingly young—right, right, she had told him she was throwing a party for a kid or something. Junie had high ceilings and a long narrow hall and lots of rooms, and bookshelves everywhere. On the wall behind the bed where everyone had piled their coats, she had hung pillowy marionettes. Junie: the poet, the potter, the puppeteer. A long-eared cat. A manta ray. A shark. A boy dressed like a gondolier. And then a naked old guy who looked uncomfortably like—the frown, the belly, the dick—no, this was just generic old fart. Warshauer touched the soft puppet penis. He didn’t think he could make it with her here, in this bed, not after a couple drinks and with the Atenolol, what with the anxiety about the device and the healing wound, and the little doppelgänger dangling by its strings. Should he put the coat back on and disappear? He touched the little guy’s pillow puppet chest. No scar, not a thing. Behind the puppet strings there were stickers on the wall, some painted over—Looney Tunes figures. A skull, the one with the lightning bolt. The outline of a marijuana leaf. The lights were dim, but he could see the shelf of records, the J. R. R. Tolkien, The Bloody Crown of Conan. This was the son’s room (not still sleeping here, God no, but the room maintained as if in memoriam), with a new carpet (a guest room? a museum of adolescence?) and everything spic-and-span. Junie Hamel and, Jesus, a son. No husband, he hoped. No. She wouldn’t have called if—a drink. He should have done a drink with her and not this party.

All those years while he was lying under trucks and trying to keep his lenses clean, here she had been, changing diapers, packing lunches, confiscating hallucinogens. Not a boyfriend, God forbid. He had to take a piss.

~

BEIRUT. Black and white. She is all in white and the ruins of the buildings around her loom, one gaping gray carcass after another. Rubble hides the sidewalks, and rubble rolls to the avenue, and she walks this trench dug in the center, not a human being in sight, and not a solid house either, as the wrecks recede, wall after ruined wall, all the way to the picture’s vanishing point.

~

Her john was extremely decorative: old washboards on the walls, one of them small with glass ridges and old-time script reading for delicate items—three sweet soaps on the tub, a washcloth plush and dry and smelling fresh, and decorative laundry pins laid out on the bullnose top of the tiled wainscoting, and then miniature dollhouse clothespins on the sink, each pin as long as Warshauer’s fingernail. No, she had no man, no. This was not a place where a guy could take his morning dump. In the mirror Warshauer tapped the spot where the terrorist cardiologists had buried their bomb.

“Oh my God, Philip Warshauer!”

He was adjusting his belt and looking down the hall for Junie, then this one, six feet tall and skinny as an acrobat.

“Portia?” She spread her fingers, her hands pressing down. Like she was going to sing. “Portia Veinrobb?”

He couldn’t see Junie anywhere. Just kids, kids, kids. Twenty, thirty, forty years old? Too old for comic books and this one’s dress and pigtails.

“Portia!” she insisted.

Apparently, this was her party—and he remembered her parents, Lester Veinrobb, their host all those years ago in Folly Cove, a wiry monkey of a man with a mustache and glasses, and wonderful marijuana, and his wife, an enormous, dignified, Oxonian wife, and they had had a kid, a fat one . . .

“Kites,” she was saying, “you brought kites . . .”

He had no memory of kites, but the rest of it—Junie Hamel! Folly Cove!—would he have to do this (the Veinrobbs), shake hands, exchange kisses? Why the fuck had he not arranged to meet in a bar? But Lester. Was Lester Veinrobb here? Lester, whose wife and comedy had spawned in Warshauer that summer in Massachusetts idle fantasies that he’d marry Junie and teach art somewhere and spend his August idylls like the Veinrobbs did, spend them loving Junie and photographing lobstermen and watching her in the black and shiny water breaststroking toward him across the cove.

“Your father had a lovely place up there.”

“I saw the documentary. I can’t believe they made a movie about you. I’m sure Junie’s thrilled you came. But there are real concerns. I don’t know if Ivan is at all ready to—”

“Ivan?” Right, the kid with the comic books. “So you’re a friend of Ivan’s?”

“You’ve got to understand, I’m not blaming. It’s just his life hasn’t been the easiest. He’s dear to me, you know?”

Something of a big sister, he imagined. Maybe Junie left this girl to watch the boy when she went to Lincoln Center to hear Rampal play the flute, Ivan and Portia on the couch watching Cosby and eating pizza.

“Portia.” He put a hand on her shoulder to make it a kindly leave-taking. “Good luck with what you’re . . .” Was it to study history, was that why she was moving?

Actually: Chinese herbal healing.

Fuck me, Warshauer thought.

“It’s a great program. I feel so lucky for the opportunity. Actually, they combine several traditions . . . ” Again he lost the thread. And then she was asking, “So the big thing. So have you really met Ivan?”

Met might be an exaggeration. He was on his way out.”

“He left?” Her face got long.

“Why hang around? Who wants to be at a party with his mother?”

She looked like she’d been slapped. Oh, crap, Warshauer thought.

“Portia, kid. It’s great to see you. Great to meet. But I gotta, I gotta get a drink.”

She did her best to smile. If he didn’t get a scotch, God help him. He stepped away. Eunuchs in glasses crowded around the drinks table.

“It’s on account of the radiation, so his power is totally independent of desire.”

“I mean, absolutely—I mean, no offense to Chabon, but as Kirby and Lee conceived it—”

“But did you see the supervillains? Thomas Haden Church? That’s the Lizard, the setup for the third movie.”

He glanced back once. The Veinrobb girl was still looking at him, and in her face he could see Lester and also her mother and the pink house and the lawn—her mother, Mirella Veinrobb, who at thirty-eight had not been wearing little baby-doll dresses and dabbling in Eastern religions, no. In 1974, she was the closest thing in life that Warshauer had met to Margaret Dumont—and she certainly could not be this humped old crone standing between him and a cocktail.

“Philip Warshauer.” She had a cane and dyed hair and her left face was broken. Red flesh was visible below her eye, her lower eyelid loose as a bloodhound’s. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Gallantly, and against his will, he leaned and kissed the powdered skin of her puffy paralyzed cheek.

“Likewise,” he said. “You’re looking lovely.”

“Bullshit.”

That made him laugh. “Lester here?” He’d do better, better than he had done with the daughter.

“Lester is two years dead. There was an obituary in the Times, Philip.”

~

AFGHANISTAN. Black and white. A full two-thirds of the photograph is blackness. At the top left, a quadrilateral of white, a hole in concrete. The light projects downward at a diagonal along an interior foundation wall, through the center of the frame, toward a figure that emerges out of darkness in profile, his hair and shoulder fading into the dark: an ageless grimacing gunman.

~

“Wardrobe malfunction!”

“No. Just trying to rip his shirt off. I want everyone to see Jeff ’s nipples.”

Warshauer put ice in a plastic cup and broke the seal on the Jack Daniel’s. He’d fucked it with the kid at the door and the surviving Veinrobbs (Lester’s memory and Lester’s death both derealized to him now, just like the party all around and the weird percussion on the stereo), and now he was trapped. Mirella and her daughter were just ten feet away, down the narrow hall. Just beyond them, he swore, he could hear Junie’s laughter. Warshauer downed one and poured himself a second.

“Anyway, I think it’s official now. Brady is Brady. The best QB in the league. Who’s gonna argue with the rings, right?”

The eunuchs wouldn’t stop gassing, three moonfaced boys in goggle glasses, all of them wearing checked shirts.

“Hey, you’re Philip Warshauer, aren’t you?”

He had lingered too long. One of them had seen the movie and ginned up the courage to approach.

“Did you ever do sports?” asked the one with pink cheeks and girlish curls. “Ever take pictures of, like, the Super Bowl?”

“The Super Bowl?” Warshauer frowned. “For me, that shit is insufficiently violent.”

He slugged down his drink and poured a third. He glanced back at the tall girl and the humped horrid back of Mother Veinrobb. He heard her cough. He was going to fuck no one.

“Editors tell you they don’t like crying kids,” he explained. “But pretty women are their weakness, or pretty eight-year-old girls. Get a pretty girl in the center of the shot. You don’t want the limbless, not the bleeding, that usually won’t do Page One. But a handsome Bosnian teenaged girl, a raped refugee.” The schtick wasn’t working. “I gotta piss.”

He left. The kids began to giggle.

~

Young women with legs. A blonde with a Jean Seberg hairdo. The bathroom door opened and closed. Out came a gondolier and in went a prostitute, a heavy girl with too much makeup and the shortest skirt in town. He wanted another drink. He wanted to leave. He looked over the spines of Junie’s books. Across the hall from the bathroom, he could see Portia helping Mirella Veinrobb into her coat, and the ghost of Lester was in there too, smoking a joint, clambering over the bed, charcoal and pad in hand, egging them toward him. All these self-help books with their soothing-colored bindings. Open to Desire. Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. The Bliss of Unknowing. In the old days it was the Kama Sutra or Tom Robbins or Mr. Goodbar. The bathroom door opened and closed, and only one idiot stood between Warshauer’s bladder and relief. But the old woman’s cane was making its way toward him. He could hear it.

By the pastel paperbacks he saw the picture, a photograph of a half-familiar boy, it must have been what’s-his-name, Ivan, when the kid was nine or ten or eleven years old. What, twenty years ago or so? 1984? Was he in Nicaragua? Was he in El Salvador? He’d stepped in something wet and only after he lowered the camera did he see it was some poor fuck’s intestines. The tip of Mirella’s cane made it over the threshold and into the hall.

“Philip Warshauer,” she said, as if the name were synonymous with an obscenity.

“That’s me.”

“I didn’t want you here. I thought it a terrible idea.”

“Here am I.”

Her tongue was half dead and slippery. “I never forgave—”

“Well I was invited. So I came.”

“Portia, who doesn’t know you, thought it a fine idea. Ivan, obviously, thought differently.”

What did they have, a meeting? The three of them discussing whom Junie could and could not fuck?

“Mother.” Portia put her hands on the hump.

“You’re a son of a bitch,” said Mirella. “You left them high and dry. You never once—”

The bathroom door opened.

“Ta-ta,” he told the Veinrobbs.

~

He sat to piss and did what the paramedics had recommended when they’d come and rescued him. He strained. He wished he were in Kandahar. The papery hospital gown tied so his ass hung in the breeze. Around the wound and the wide clear tape and the heavy gauze pads the skin had been yellow and had smelled of iodine. The boy in the photograph, you know why he looks so familiar, Phil? He put his fingers to his wrist. Six beats in five seconds. He subtracted decades from his life. He was on an airplane, a sack of film overhead, Lester’s dope in one of the canisters. Add nine months and it would have been April. Saigon? Writing her letters and getting letters back and Junie saying—was it possible? She was breastfeeding and meanwhile sending bullshit observations about McLuhan? Kissing goodbye in the clover and sea grass. Hadn’t she been on the pill? He looked at his watch. Someone knocked on the door.

“A minute!” he bellowed.

He had the condoms in his wallet, which was the right thing even (he supposed) with post-menopausal women these days, who wouldn’t go anywhere without one, not with a guy who’d been six times through Bangkok. What would he have done if, making plans for a bus to the Mekong, he had gotten the note from the delivery room, the birth announcement—if he had known, if she had let him know, what would he have done? He had to sit again, with his pants up and the lid down and those stupid washboards and the cutesy clothespins. Mirella hadn’t said it precisely, had she, nor had that ridiculous Portia, who acted like she had known him all her life when really she was nine years old when he had driven six hours to Massachusetts to fuck her mother’s friend, but it was horrifying that she would know and he wouldn’t, her sitting on Junie’s couch with this Ivan (his Ivan?), watching Dr. Huxtable dance and dispense morals. What would he have done? He would have done everything.

But he was panicking, and who was Mirella Veinrobb anyway to play his superego when Junie herself had said not a thing, had not ever said a thing (that bitch! the temerity!), and the stewardess made an announcement and the sign turned off and Warshauer moved the cigarette from his ear to his mouth and he could see the eastern seaboard, and somewhere down there was the zygote splitting in her womb. He’d change planes first in London and then in Istanbul. Junie had painted white (or had it been gray?) over the decal of the marijuana leaf. Had she invited him to the party to tell him, or just to let him be seen by a son who had disdained even his touch through the winter coat on his shoulder, who when Warshauer reached out, had ducked away . . . He saw the puppet Phil Warshauer with its puppet-animating pacemaker-defibrillator, its bottle of chardonnay, and there was puppet Mirella Veinrobb to whack him with her cane. The knocking on the door kept up. The boy at twelve scoring dope on Riverside Drive or maybe at a bodega on Amsterdam Avenue, while he, Warshauer, had known nothing (he could have imparted wisdom, at least, how to sort the leaf from the seed). Leaping the KLM desk in San Salvador to beat the crap out of the ticket salesman, and meanwhile Ivan graduating sixth grade. Whether or not he was Phil’s boy, he was Junie’s, and they could keep knocking as long as they wanted, they could crap in their pants. They had conspired. Junie and Mirella and Portia and probably old Lester, too, everyone knowing the score but dumb-old. He imagined chasing after the boy, running through the park, the bald boy with the comic books scattering on the asphalt tile as he bolted, Riverside Park at night, and the old-style lights with their crowns and yellow globes of mist in winter, and the headlights of cars zipping toward them as he and the boy ran—155 beats a minute and then kaboom! And Warshauer getting up and chasing after the boy, and the distance between them growing, and Warshauer blown apart once again as his heart rate rose. Shock! Awe! The old brick-through-the-ribcage! And the boy disappearing into the gloom, and his heart enduring, but here comes the heavy weapons fire . . .

~

The knocking at the door had ceased. He stood. He splashed water on his face. The music was finished and he could hear the shuffling farewells in the hall, the gathering of coats and bags. He checked his watch. Plan A, make it with Junie Hamel, well, he wasn’t quite feeling up to that. Plan B, get your coat and flee, was a plan. Plan C, confrontation, if only he had some dope before going into that one. Probably, it was nothing. Maybe the kid was someone else’s love child, the son of some husband or boyfriend Phil had never met. He smoothed the stray hairs of his eyebrows. He readjusted his shirt.

Warshauer stepped out of the bathroom and into the narrow hallway. The girl with the Jean Seberg haircut gave him the Hope-it-don’t-stink. The hallway with fewer people seemed diminished in size. Only a few strides from the front door (where two eunuchs stood, coordinating electronic communication devices) to the drinks table (where an old lady with a sponge was stooping), to the bathroom door (where Philip Warshauer checked his fly), to the bedroom with the marionettes (where the other eunuch gathered up his coat). The old woman with the sponge stood, holding the remains of her party, an empty bottle and a bowl of lukewarm water that once had been ice. Warshauer advanced toward her, and she must have seen something in his approach. Her face, small-featured and roundly childish, looked to him not so much beautiful as unformed, as if it had gone straight from innocent to infirm.

“Philip Warshauer,” she said. “Finally, Philip Warshauer.”

The last eunuch left the bedroom. One of the two by the doorway raised his phone high. Warshauer looked at Junie. A camera flashed.

~

My buddy Jeff Hornuk had taken a quick snap. In a cab to a party in Brooklyn, Hornuk passed the phone to David Marplant, who had come up close behind Warshauer and had his tongue out and was giving Warshauer the two-fingered rabbit ears. I saw that up on Facebook. The Pulitzer Prize–winner is tagged, his name in white on a flickering black rectangle. His mouth is open. He doesn’t look like he did in the documentary. He looks like he just pissed in his pants. I closed that window right away. I linked to someone else’s page, to see the real party pictures. Jonah Veek’s, actually.

~

INDONESIA. Ektachrome print. The man at the center of the photograph is shot from above, foreshortened, so his handsome head is almost as long as his torso. His dark hair is wet, his eyes downturned. His right arm is skewed by the camera angle, so his hand seems enormous as he reaches out to touch the boy’s hair. The boy’s back is to the photographer. The father is thin and well-muscled; in place of a left arm he has a stub. His begging cup sits next to his groin, where his right leg ought to be. In the dull water beside father and son there’s a reflection, faintly, of buildings in a city we cannot see.

 

Gabriel Brownstein won the PEN/Hemingway Award for his book of stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co., 2002), and is the author of a novel, The Man from Beyond (Norton, 2005). He teaches English at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. (10/2011)


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