His wife Beverly was on the mailing list for every conceivable kind of cause, cleft palates and felled trees. He sat at the kitchen table, watching her sift through the appeals that had collected over the last months, as though they were letters from old friends. When he managed to intercept the mail, he threw them all away.
“It says here,” she said, tapping the yellow envelope with her nail, “that soldiers who would have died in all the previous wars because of their injuries are now living. Because of surgical advances.”
“And that’s a good thing?” he said. He had finished his coffee, and straightened the daisy placemat that hid the worn veneer and little divots in the table. It was their oldest piece of furniture, purchased for their first apartment, and they still found themselves sitting there like old dogs in a favored spot.
“Well,” she said, considering this. “I don’t think that’s for me to say.” She got up to refill his cup. “It’s a fact. So we have to do more to support them now.”
There was no point in arguing with her. He saw the flourish with which she signed her name on $25 checks, as if she were passing legislation into law.
For nearly a year, he had forgone all coffee in solidarity with his wife. On dialysis, she’d been permitted just twenty-four ounces of liquid a day, and it seemed wrong to drink it—to drink anything, in fact—in front of her.
The coffee was good that morning. By some talent he could not begin to contemplate, no matter how often she made it, the brew was different each time. When he’d remarked on this, years ago, she had told him he could make the coffee, that she was confident it would be precisely the same each day, and that that sounded like a thrilling way to live.
He was off guard then—at the old table with his good cup of coffee, on a day when the weather seemed promising—when, hidden amid the fundraising appeals, she produced another kind of letter. “Look at this,” she said. He could tell from the artificial brightness in her voice she’d staged this casual discovery. The letter inside announced the kidney reunion was in Chicago, in five weeks’ time.
“Who is being reunited?” he said. “We’ve never met any of these people.”
“It’s an expression,” she said. “Would you rather they call it a union? That sounds like a marriage.”
“Or is it the kidneys,” he said, “that are meant to be reunited with their former hosts?”
Formers owners, he would have said, but that wasn’t how doctors spoke of organs. He had merely been a sixty-five year host to his kidney—a kidney that now, like some foreign student on exchange, had been shipped off, only never to return. And someone else’s kidney—Beverly called it Blanche, because all they knew was that it had come from Tennessee—now resided in his wife. Their friends joked that if Beverly started sweetening her tea, he would know why. It reminded him of how certain people, uncomfortable with sex, would name their sexual parts, as though making things precious would strip them of their power.
“There’ll be a group photo,” she said, handing him the invitation. “And they’ve approached People magazine.” His wife loved the medical extremes of People—conjoined twins, progeria, shared psychosis—and now, as two links in a sixty-person kidney transplant chain, they apparently qualified for those ranks. He could imagine the schmaltzy paying-it-forward headline, a sidebar with the altruistic donor who had set the chain in motion.
“Do you think my kidney will remember me?” he said.
Beverly took off her reading glasses and stared at him. “Sheldon. Don’t you want to meet them?” she said. “I do. I need to meet them. I need to thank them in person.”
Oh, his wife. If only she were the kind of woman who roughed up the still moments of his Sundays with ill-timed requests for eggs, or ladies’ shaving cream, or canned tuna. If only she had asked for small things all of the time, in the way so many wives did, and kept her reserves dangerously depleted. But she had used the word need so judiciously in the last thirty-six years.
Now, five weeks later, he and Beverly were lined up in numerical boarding order at the airport gate. They did not have assigned seats.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked her. “Why did you choose this airline?”
“It’s more efficient,” she said. “They’ve done studies. The planes run on schedule this way.”
“You should have been Japanese,” he said.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, nudging him as the line began to move.
Inside the plane, it did not seem more efficient—there were passengers in window seats and aisle seats sandwiching middle seats no one wanted to claim. In the back, too close to the lavatory, they found a row where they could both sit together. Beverly took the middle so that he could have the aisle. There were crumbs in his seat and a foil wrapper was shining in the back pocket in front of him. He had watched the last set of passengers deplane when they arrived. Didn’t there used to be a turnaround period when the planes were cleaned between flights? That was what accounted for the so-called efficiency, in his view—not some novel method of boarding, but cutting corners. It was unsavory enough to be trapped in a shell with a hundred other people, breathing the same air for hours, without the residue of the last passengers coming to mind.
The world had become so garish, Sheldon thought. It wasn’t that he’d been a prude, exactly, but the world had been slyer in his youth. Women’s clothing had been suggestive, people spoke in euphemisms, and formality was maintained in public spaces. Now people changed genders and exchanged vital organs, and celebrated everything.
Ben, one of his close friends from work, was a homosexual, and for most of their lives, it was unacknowledged at the office and at dinners when men brought their wives. Ben had a long-time partner, but no one had met him. And Sheldon had liked to imagine Ben’s life like he would imagine India or Morocco—places of dirt and vibrant color both—a kind of beauty and ugliness he could not inhabit. But now Ben and his partner came to parties in their Bermuda shorts and Sperry Top-Sider loafers, their sets of hairy legs crossed on the couch: the India Sheldon had imagined turned out to closely resemble Minneapolis. He’d been disappointed by it all in the same way he had been on the sole cruise his wife had arranged for them in Mexico. Sometimes he thought he suffered from too much imagination.
Once, he had asked Ben, “Don’t you miss it at times, being illicit?” Sheldon was sure there was a kind of gay man who would have admitted he did.
“Like you’d miss getting kicked in the nuts,” Ben had said.
Beverly reached below the seat in front of her to pull out her tote, where she had tucked in one of Sheldon’s thin gray scarves. She had spritzed it with a home scent of lavender and verbena.
“Here,” she said. “Wrap this around your neck.”
With his nose nuzzled into the scarf, he wouldn’t smell the cabin of the plane, an odor so distasteful to him he was forever trying and failing to describe it to other people (as though they had not experienced it themselves). It wasn’t that Beverly didn’t smell it, but flying didn’t make her nauseated, so it was no more offensive than the chemical tang of new-car smell. Before dialysis had kept her grounded, Beverly had flown frequently to see their daughters. Flying wasn’t comfortable, but whatever pains her body felt, her imagination stirred—in the way it did in bookstores and home décor stores—with possible worlds.
“I’ve got radio programs on my phone,” she told Sheldon, “if you’d like to listen.” If she’d said podcasts, she would have had to explain the distinction, and he would have thought it was something new and therefore objectionable, when it was really just something from his own youth delivered in a different way.
“I’ll put one on for you,” she said. “It’s about history.” She had brought real headphones instead of earbuds for his ears, and she gently placed them on him and put the program on. When the attendant came by, she ordered him a gin and tonic. The scented scarf and gin and deep voices of the podcast would soothe him into a kind of pre-slumber, away from his thoughts of germs and declining civilization. She had raised two children and knew how to calm a baby.
“Have you considered that our links could be anyone?” his wife had asked him the night before as they’d packed their bags. “Any age. Male or female. Any race. All sorts of religions or careers.”
She was rolling her clothes into snug little cocoons because she had read somewhere that was a better way to pack; another so-called innovation, when he knew she didn’t have the patience to properly fold.
“I know that,” he said.
“But have you considered it?”
“What does that mean?” he said.
“Really pictured it. Imagined the people in the flesh. So that you won’t be surprised.”
“What are you suggesting?” he said.
She was squeezing the air out of a space saver bag their daughters had bought them, as though they traveled with enough frequency and brought home so many world market treasures that they could not afford to pack air.
“I know this is hard for you,” she said.
“I’m fine,” he said.
He had not told her about his silly nightmare, in which a new kidney had grown back in the harvested one’s place. At first, it had been a good dream—the relief of regeneration—until the doctors made use of this medical miracle. They removed that kidney and another grew back, and another, until he was single-handedly crossing patient after patient off the transplant list.
“OK,” she said. “Let’s say I have the kidney of a black man.”
“That may be so,” he said. “How am I supposed to feel about that?”
“I feel it’s wonderful,” she said. She zipped up the left side of her case; she was finished already, and he had only gotten started.
“How is feeling it’s wonderful any better than feeling uncomfortable?” he said. “You want it to be a black man, in particular?”
“I want it to be someone different from me,” she said.
“You’ll be disappointed if it’s an older white woman?”
“A little,” she said.
“I don’t think I understand that,” he said, which was the kindest thing he could think to say.
“I didn’t expect you would,” she said.
The novel Beverly was reading on the plane was a historical fantasy about a girl sold as a slave to the king of another kingdom, who uses her charms to become queen. Beverly loved stories of reversal-of-fortune. As a girl, she read books about orphans and their fates, and imagined her real parents would claim her one day, not because her own parents were unkind or poor, but just unexceptional. But even as she went on to live her own unexceptional life, marrying Sheldon, raising two sturdy, bright girls, the feeling never entirely left her, as though the second act were just about to begin. In the early years of marriage, she had pinned these hopes on Sheldon, convinced his tinkering in the garage would lead to a notable invention. And then she had felt horrible resenting him for being a perfectly good mechanical engineer and provider to his family, his obsessive-compulsive tendencies not a harbinger of hidden genius. She did the same thing with her daughters, too, who had managed to inherit their father’s methodical mind and her own intellectual curiosity: Thisbe was an environmental attorney and Laurel a vice president of marketing for a software company and a mother of two herself. They had exceeded all parental hopes and dreams, her girls, but it didn’t seem they would do something where Beverly, as their mother, would end up a footnote in history. Her problem, she sometimes thought, was that she suffered from too much imagination. What she had not told Sheldon—or anyone, really—was that the kidney chain was the footnote she had been waiting for. It felt foolish, admitting this; illness was hardly an achievement. Her body had failed her slowly, through no fault of her own. She had no more reason for pride than for shame. And yet. She had printed the story from the Washington Post about the historic chain and now kept it in the folder where she had Thisbe and Laurel’s locks of baby hair.
The radio episode his wife put on was from one of the world war programs she often played for him at home. He relished the inexhaustibility of the subject. Sheldon had been six of seven children, and they had little in the way of toys and amusements, but they would fashion guns out of old mop handles and march out to the forest behind their house, where the wet, mossy ridges served as trenches.
It was only Hubert, the youngest, who ever had things of his own, because when he was born the doctor had warned their parents that this would be their last child. Their father had spent thirteen years hedging his bets by having one child after another, and then with Hubert, it had occurred to him and their mother that they might try to enjoy a child before their parenting had come to an end.
At the dining table, Sheldon was second shift, eating after the older kids handed over their used plates and silverware, and he got the bathwater when it was cold and gray. His father had been terrified of germs, but family germs did not count.
When their father would come to call the children in for supper and found them playing war games in the forest, he always told them, “The flu killed more than the war. That’s the real enemy.”
He had said it so many times that when one of them sneezed, someone else would say, “You’re the real enemy.”
“What would you have us play, Father?” Elton, the eldest, had once asked. “Sanatorium? Are we all supposed to act at lying on cots and dying of the flu?”
Sheldon had laughed and their father grabbed him by the ear. “There wasn’t a funny thing about it,” he said.
The Chicago restaurant their daughter Thisbe had recommended was called Forage & Fauna and looked like one Beverly had seen in a food and wine magazine. Beverly had always found a consumptive, irreducible joy in magazines, but during dialysis they had become talismans. The pages never failed to restore the world order, filling her with both longing and satisfaction: a yearning, on the one hand, for places she would not visit; and yet a comfort in knowing that no place would be as perfect in the flesh as the lit and cropped version, that the thing she longed to possess could only be possessed with her eyes on the page. And now here she was, having walked straight into the pages, like one of those blurry young people they shot in the photographs, in motion when the restaurant around them stood still.
She texted Thisbe to let her know that they’d arrived. Thisbe, who had traveled to eighteen countries, humored her mother’s enthusiasm for small excursions. She had even bought her a sky-blue passport holder when they had taken the disastrous cruise to Mexico for Sheldon’s sixtieth birthday. Up until that point, he’d managed to go their entire married life without fully acknowledging his claustrophobia.
Please make Dad go to a musical, Thisbe texted back. Or better yet, a Sam Shepard play.
Beverly had heard of Sam Shepard, but couldn’t recall what plays he’d written. Thisbe was making a joke, only Beverly couldn’t be sure what kind of joke. She was about to put Sam Shepard into Google—she kept up with her daughters through research—when she felt Sheldon watching her.
He had been tense in the cab (“this isn’t what I’d call the middle of the country,” he said) and tense in the hotel registration lobby (“can you please not do that—engage people prematurely?”) when she’d asked a pretty young woman if she were there for the kidney chain reunion. The woman had blinked, uncomprehending, before explaining she was there for a film festival. Beverly had been about to enlighten her about the reunion before Sheldon had hissed in her ear.
While he enjoyed his alcohol, she drank her water. He teased her at the way she still ordered it—water!, with gusto—but the fact of being able to drink unlimited amounts cool, clear water had not lost its pleasure. Before, she would suck on peppermints and frozen grapes—temporary salves against the thirst—but they had been feeble replacements. Now, when she opened her mail appeals about water wells and hunger and thirst in the developing world, she felt a greater responsibility to help.
With Sheldon on his second drink, Beverly could see the beaches of his little island of self were beginning to erode, that he was holding himself less tightly against the rest of the room. In the absence of any diagnostic certainty, she had come to just think of it as the problem of Sheldon, a problem that had drawn perimeters around her life just as severely as kidney failure had. As a young woman, she had met Sheldon’s father, and should have looked—in the way men sometimes did at a woman’s mother—for signs of future corpulence, the ways his own traits might swell and distort over time. He was concave, with one collapsed lung, which gave the impression of a man imploded. The house was scrubbed but too worn down to ever look clean, and they lived like poor mountain people, without adornment. She’d sensed a stockpile of cash somewhere in a back shed, because he didn’t believe in bankers any more than he believed in doctors.
When he was uncomfortable, Sheldon’s father had a way of looking confused and disdainful all at once, and she had seen that face in Sheldon’s when the transplant coordinator had explained to him the concept of the kidney chain. Sheldon had repeated her own words back to her, as though they might develop greater coherence in his own mouth. “Because we’re incompatible, my kidney would go to another person,” he said. “And in exchange my wife would receive someone else’s kidney. A stranger.” The coordinator and Beverly had nodded in tandem. The coordinator explained that they had software to make these matches and that his recipient would have another willing but incompatible cousin or parent or co-worker and then that person’s kidney would go to yet another stranger, and so on, passing it down the chain.
“Like an infection,” he had said.
Exactly when, Sheldon thought, had banquettes become passé? Fine dining used to come with expensive chairs, wide and well-upholstered. This restaurant was little more than a medieval dining hall, communal tables flanked by hard wooden benches, naked light bulbs dangling as though they couldn’t afford proper shades.
The menu was a slim sheet of cardstock. Pork cheek, nettle chimichurri, pea tendril, lacto fermented hot sauce. Barramundi, salmoriglio, kohlrabi, oro blanco. The list format suggested nothing about the composition of the dish, in the way some languages omitted vowels in their printed form, knowing the reader was well-versed enough to supply the missing sounds.
Beverly brought out her reading glasses and ran her finger along the lines, as though that might improve their decipherability. She’d be tempted to ask the server about the ingredients, he knew, but she understood he hated it when she asked a server to explain things; no matter how obscure, it always made him feel like a rube.
“What do you recommend?” Beverly asked the server when he came around, and then she selected only those recommendations. “Does something have chicken?” she said, pointing to Sheldon. “For him?”
Then she turned to him and began speaking, but he could only make out every third word. “What?” Sheldon asked, leaning halfway across the table.
“I’m sure everything here is good,” she said.
It was so like Beverly to say that. What could possibly have made her sure of this? But he could see it was the adventure of it, of not knowing what they would eat that made her smile. Their lives had been confined to ever-smaller circles as her kidney failure had progressed, their time defined by dialysis, their activity by the vagaries of her stamina, her thirst. But the truth was that he had felt safest and happiest in the smallest of those circles, when nothing more was required of him than to take care of his wife. There had been little thought of going out, of trying new things.
It was too loud to talk in the restaurant, so he watched her. It was odd to him, having been married for thirty-six years, how she did not look the same to him, day to day. There were moments he found her face disagreeable, the eyes too deeply set, and the top lip too thin. As a young man, he had thought this meant he had been falling out of love, only to find her beautiful again the next week. Now there was a sheen on her cheeks that made her look youthful, and the crepiness around her eyes that she hated looked sweet and soft.
“Do you feel invaded, in a way?” Sheldon had asked her once, a few months after the transplant surgery.
“Dear,” she had said, putting her hand on his shoulder, in the way she did when she had to educate him on subtleties. “That’s a question only a man would ask. Women give birth to children. Foreign invasion is part of the job description.”
He had never thought of it that way, even when his wife had been pregnant. The next time they had made love, he had found her revelation distracting. Now, with the soft look on her face during dinner, he was afraid she would want to make love at the hotel and he was feeling too anxious about the next day.
But when they returned to the room she had indigestion from the food and spent a good hour in the bathroom. He felt a hint of vindication—experiments were not without cost—but sad. “Are you all right?” he asked, lingering outside the door.
Alone in the hotel room, he finally did what his wife had asked: he considered who Beverly’s donor would be and who his own recipient would be, and pictured how he would interact with them, what he would reveal in his face. If it were a black man, as his wife had suggested, it would heighten the strangeness, for the same reason it heightened the miraculousness. It created visual drama, a reminder of how extraordinary the entire experiment was. What he was afraid Beverly was suggesting was that it heightened his sense of uncleanliness, if that was the word, the queasiness the exchange evoked in him. As though black germs were worse than white germs. That had nothing to do with it. Did it? Once, he had been seated on a plane next to a dark-skinned man—Pakistani, maybe—whose body odor was so intense he thought he might be sick. It was true that the man’s very foreignness brought disease to Sheldon’s mind. Perhaps he was xenophobic. Or racist. Or both. But then, he also viewed every toddler with suspicion, their splayed hands like biological weapons ready to transmit disease. The only person whose germs did not count were Beverly’s, since, after many years of marriage, it was hard not to see her as an extension of himself. That was one of the paradoxes of marriage. After all these years, he understood that his wife’s inner workings were essentially unknowable to him. And yet her body, having lived in tandem with his own, he believed to be a part of him. The two really did become one. So his kidney, had it gone to Beverly, would not have been entirely lost; it would still have been there, residing beside him.
At the registration table, there were lanyards with plastic tags that announced their names, cities of origin, and numbers in the chain, with a large green D for donor, or orange R for recipient. Sheldon was D 35; Beverly was R 34.
The number thrilled her. “I’m R 34,” she said without hesitation to the next person who approached the table. Like she was a robot.
The hotel was one of the monoliths from the 1980s, with a main atrium several stories high. In its dated way, it evoked science fiction, and Beverly felt it sufficiently grand. So many things, like sixth-grade graduations, were needlessly ceremonious these days (a complaint of Sheldon’s that she had come to appreciate). But with the transplant there had only been the long wait to see if the kidney would be accepted or rejected, waiting for her energy to return, which she had expected to arrive like a wave, and not like the slow, imperceptible drip it had been. There had never been a moment for a toast—a moment when someone said, go forth.
Soon she had met D 13, a young private stationed at Fort Bragg; R 44, a professor of economics from the University of Michigan; D 25, a war correspondent from Philadelphia; and then R 8, who, with her faint brows and smoker’s lines, bore an uncomfortable resemblance to her son-in-law’s mother. Beverly had so looked forward to meeting her daughter Laurel’s future in-laws. Her son-in-law James was an exceptional young man, scientific and solid, a perfect foil to her energetic daughter; the more she knew him, the more his sly humor, his exacting taste emerged. She imagined the parents who must have produced such a young man, and pictured new built-in friends, perhaps even a couple with whom they might travel. But the father was a ne’er-do-well, disabled (by what, no one said), who bred German Shepherds and rode a skateboard around town; the mother was a humorless school receptionist. Sheldon had not understood Beverly’s disappointment; they lived in Sacramento, he pointed out, and they would scarcely have to see them. “But can you believe they produced James?” she had asked.
“Can you believe we produced Laurel?” Sheldon offered. “Perhaps we’d be considered a disappointment as well.”
By the breakfast buffet, the kidney chain attendees exchanged handshakes and rousing good mornings, the kind heard in church when the parishioners turned to say peace be with you; and also with you. Sheldon took his coffee and an anemic-looking muffin to an isolated corner. In church, he always wanted to sit in the back where he could reflect, but Beverly was more interested in the social than the contemplative. The people are the church, she said; otherwise, you can stay at home and read your Bible.
A few months before they had told anyone that Beverly would need dialysis, a new pastor had given a sermon on the kidney. His sermons were often prescient that way, a quality Sheldon found mildly annoying. What he liked about the pastor, once he had gotten over his youth—he looked the part of the choirboy, complete with teenaged acne—was that he was a scholar, and not afraid to give a subject the historical treatment. Sheldon learned from the sermon that kidneys were mentioned more than thirty times in the Bible and that the ancients, positing a reason for the presence of two organs, believed that one functioned to give good advice and the other, bad. They were among the organs God would examine to judge the individual’s life. Sheldon had never pictured Judgment Day as a kind of grand autopsy.
“Let’s hope they take out the bad one,” Beverly had giggled in his ear.
He had thought of the joke the day of the actual surgery, when he had woken up foggy and dehydrated. By the time they were prepping, his veins had been so collapsed the nurse had had trouble putting his IV in. The hospital had placed him and Beverly in the same pre-operative room with matching blue shower caps. She kept laughing at the sight of him and Sheldon asked the anesthesiologist if he had given her drugs already. She talked incessantly—trying, he understood—to distract him. He kept looking for a place to focus his eyes, but there was no safe spot. He could see black scuff marks on the mauve wall, a red sharps box, presumably filled with dirty needles, and a crooked fire extinguisher with laminated instructions nearby that were smeared with something yellow. Beverly knew he hated going to the doctor, and had probably assumed this reluctance was out of a stubborn self-reliance. The truth was too embarrassing. How to explain how an everyday thing like a cotton ball—a little piece of spun sunlight—could evoke such horror when pressed against the crook of his arm? He didn’t become faint, exactly, in a medical setting, but he couldn’t find the strength to form a fist. Like a single prick of the skin could deflate him, as though he were made of air.
Reclining there, trying not to look at the IV or move his hand that held it, he kept going back to a story his father liked to tell about how Germans had been caught posing as doctors in a medical camp, intentionally infecting the American patients with influenza. He would trot the story out any time a doctor’s visit were mentioned, as though the Germans might be lurking still. And then Hubert, the favorite, had almost died at twelve from appendicitis. If his mother hadn’t gone to the next door neighbor in the night and asked him to take them to town in his truck, the family might have lost him. His father hadn’t visited Hubert in the hospital; he never even acknowledged that Hubert had nearly died, and it had not been from influenza.
The altruistic donor was heavyset and wore black stretch pants and a tunic embroidered with wooden beads. The podium came up to her shoulders. A photographer stood just to the right, taking her photo from several angles.
Beverly took umbrage with the fact that the medical community called this single donor—the one who had initiated the chain with no intended recipient—the altruistic donor, as though altruism had not been involved for all the others. In the woman’s remarks, Beverly listened for the story of an aunt or a best friend who had died from kidney disease, some latent self-interest that had inspired the donor, but it never came. She had always wanted to work for a nonprofit doing international aid, the woman said, but an internship in college had led to a successful career in film production. “Then I turned for-ty,” she said, dragging out the word for dramatic effect. “And all my friends were doing marathons and I thought, um, no. Running shorts still give me gym class flashbacks. I shudder to think.”
Everyone laughed at the altruistic donor. She had saved all their lives and now was being funny, too. Without the altruistic donor, there could be no chain, there would only be a little swap—two incompatible couples exchanging kidneys. Beverly wanted to be the one at the podium, the one who had set the dominoes in motion.
It was true, what Scripture said: it was better to give than receive. She had never, even in the worst of her illness, wished her mantle on anyone else—better her than Sheldon or her daughters; she, Beverly, could handle it. But now she was suddenly jealous of Sheldon, sitting erect and dumb beside her, unaware of the gift he had been given. For the first time, she wished their situations had been reversed, that she’d been allowed to be the donor. In church, she had never cared for sermons about grace; forgiveness, righteousness, and prudence: those she could do. But grace was forced upon you, you didn’t earn it, you didn’t deserve it; it was your job to receive it, whether you wanted to or not. It was the hardest part of being a Christian, their pastor had often said, and now she wanted to grab Sheldon by the shoulders and shake him, to ask him if he understood how hard it was to receive?
Everyone started clapping, and Beverly clapped too, and then they stood, pushing back their chairs, and the clapping seemed to shake the notion out of her. She wondered where she’d been, where she had gone to just then. She was hungry, she decided. Her stomach was upset from the night before and she was only hungry.
The woman before Sheldon had golden eyes; there was the rest of a face, to be sure, but it was hard to observe it under the force of those eyes. A curl of dark hair stippled with gray had come loose and hung over one eye, obscuring it, and it was the only other thing he noticed. Her name was Amrita, and he found her too young to bear a kidney as old and worn as his own. He feared she would begin to feel tired just seeing the source of the organ. After all, he had been right at the cut off. A few months older, and his kidney would not have qualified. His daughters Thisbe and Laurel had both offered more than once to donate their own kidneys instead, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Amrita took his hand in both of hers. The palms had a polished quality, like river rocks.
She motioned for them to sit, and he followed her. “Is that your wife, there?” she said, nodding with her head.
He had forgotten Beverly. He turned to see his wife speaking with a woman who bore a strong resemblance to her.
“That’s my brother,” Amrita said, pointing out a striking young man in a camel sports coat.
They were from New Jersey, but worked in the city. She had twins, a boy and a girl, and produced a photograph of them. They were darker than their mother, but had the same golden eyes, and wore what looked like Easter garments. “Do you have children?” she asked, and he managed to find himself again.
He had pictures. Of course he did. He pulled out his wallet instead of his phone. She murmured with approval when he told her what his daughters did; it was something he never would have expected, but these days people judged a man by what his daughters did for a living. “Entirely my wife’s doing,” he assured her.
She had a surprisingly deep voice. He thought she might be a social worker or a therapist.
“This is strange, isn’t it?” she said.
“So very,” he said, feeling flush with gratitude that she had said it.
“Like arranged marriage,” she said.
He wanted to ask her if she had an arranged marriage—she was Indian, he was fairly certain—but was afraid to say the wrong thing. He had often offended people, without intent, and this woman had to live with his kidney; he could not afford to have her associate it with anything unpleasant.
“I don’t want to frighten you with gratitude,” she said. “I am sometimes on the receiving end with my patients,” she said. “And I know how overwhelming that can feel. But still,” she said. “I must say it. I must tell you how grateful I am.”
He shook his head. “Your patients?” he said.
“I’m a physician,” she said.
“Infectious disease,” she said. “You’re smiling. What is it?”
Josie was from Jonesborough, Tennessee, the oldest town in the state, home to the Chester Inn built in 1797, where no fewer than three presidents had stayed. Her eldest daughter worked for the National Storytelling Festival; her son was a forest ranger; and her youngest worked at the Cum-n-Go, but that was only temporary on account of her still getting her education. As for herself, she used to work at the Sewing Bee on weekends, mostly catering to the quilters, before her husband’s diabetes—type 1, no fault of his own—had gotten so bad she couldn’t go in. He had already put in his twenty years in the force, so now they could both retire early.
All of this Beverly learned in the first thirty seconds of meeting Josie. She was ten years younger than Beverly, but had sunspots across her cheeks and jowls that aged her. Like Beverly, she had short hair, dyed a champagne blonde that barely covered the grey, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. The shirt she was wearing looked like a poster project—all glitter and applique. Over the yoke was a tremendous dragonfly, positioned so that it was flying straight for Josie’s jugular. As though this embellishment weren’t enough, the entire background of the shirt was a blue swirl, a pattern somewhere between tie-dye and camouflage. It wasn’t that Beverly hadn’t seen this kind of shirt before; she saw them on older women all the time, but had never felt so confronted by one.
Josie was still talking and when she stopped, Beverly realized to her alarm it was because she’d asked a question.
“This is really something,” Beverly said.
Josie and her husband Rick had bought themselves a thirty-five foot 2009 Itasca Suncruiser (they had considered the Keystone, but had splurged for the Itasca in the end) with just 25,000 miles on it with a jackknife sofa and stainless steel appliances. They’d be gone for at least six months, and though she wasn’t sure what her youngest would do if she had to make her own meals, she thought it might be best for her to learn to manage.
“Where are y’all going to go?” she asked Beverly.
“We don’t have an RV,” she said.
“I used to read all these books when I was kid,” Josie said. “Like my eldest, Jennifer. You could not get my nose out of a book. And I always thought I would go places and now I’ve barely made it out of Tennessee. But Jen went to college up north and went on a European tour and seeing her do all that made me feel silly for not doing it. Now with Rick and his new kidney, I guess I’m fresh out of excuses.”
Beverly searched the room for Sheldon. She had been keeping him in sight as she had made her way over to Josie, but she had lost him.
“You should really see it,” Josie said. “It’s a beaut.”
“Mm-hmm,” Beverly muttered.
“It’s right here in the parking lot,” she said. “Go get your husband. That who you looking for?”
“People love it.” Josie was standing now, grabbing Beverly by the arm. “Go get your husband, and I’ll go get mine with the keys. I won’t take no for an answer.”
Was this like a timeshare opportunity? Beverly thought. Josie could have been a paid representative of Itasca recreational vehicles.
Beverly hoped she and Sheldon might retreat to their room for a few minutes, but by the time she found him by the coffee bar, Josie was right behind her.
“How is Blanche?” he said, grinning in an irritating way.
“Blanche is a Josie,” she said. “Here they come.”
Sheldon put his hand out, but when Josie reached to take it, he pulled her to him and embraced her, crushing the dragonfly against his chest, while her husband Rick and Beverly looked on. Then he hugged Rick, too, and Rick patted him so hard on the back Beverly thought he would burp.
It was hot in the parking lot and even hotter with the four of them in the Suncruiser, which did not dampen Josie’s enthusiasm for its features: the flat-screen TV, the queen-sized bed, the shower that looked like a cryogenic chamber.
Beverly watched Sheldon wipe his brow—whether from the heat or from his claustrophobia, she wasn’t sure.
Josie directed them to sit on the main cabin couch while she and Rick sat in the front seats, like they were about to turn the RV on. “Just the two of you, anywhere in the country. I tell you,” Josie said, looking out the windshield as though she could see a landscape there. She and Rick swiveled to face them.
“Josie likes to keep a journal of every grocery store chain or convenience store we’ve never heard of before. Those little things. It’s a big country.”
“Press that button,” Josie said to Sheldon, pointing to the side of the couch. “Just press it.”
The couch purred and began to tip back.
“Keep going. You two can go all the way back like that,” she said. “An extra bed for our guests.”
Now they were on their backs, facing the underside of Josie’s oak cabinetry, their legs resting awkwardly, like they were injured and forced to keep their feet elevated above their hearts. Beverly strained her neck to sit up properly.
“Can you make us upright again, please?” Beverly asked Sheldon.
“You two the cruising types, instead?” Rick asked.
Were those the two types into which people of their age were divided? Beverly thought.
“Sheldon. Can you make us upright again?”
“It’s stuck,” he said.
“Let me help with that,” Rick said, but his help proved unhelpful. “It does this sometimes,” he said. He knelt down on Sheldon’s side.
“We bought it used and we think the former owners had kids in here,” Josie said. “For the first few months we found hidden sticky spots.”
When the couch proved intractable, Beverly and Sheldon had no choice but to wiggle themselves over the bump and off the sides, where they stood looking back at it, not unlike the way they had looked at the cruise ship when they’d disembarked, as though it had unexpectedly harmed them.
“We went on a cruise once,” Sheldon said.
“We are not the cruising types,” Beverly admitted. Sheldon looked at her.
Up until then, she had only told people Sheldon was not the cruising type. In truth, she had not enjoyed the cruise any more than he had, a fact she had not shared with her daughters. She had displayed a woven basket on the living room wall, as a world traveler might do, but she had been bloated and queasy the entire time, and found the ports dirtier and more hectic than she imagined. There were beggars and trash and the smell of rot, and the cheapness of so many painted wooden magnets and toys made her want to scream. She was afraid she was not as adventurous as she imagined.
Beverly’s phone buzzed in her handbag. It was Laurel.
Mom, photos? I want to see the donor. Has Dad passed out yet?
Beverly had forgotten that she was with her donor. If Beverly could get a word in, she was obligated to thank Josie. But the gratitude had left her just then. Standing in the stagnant air of the Suncrusier, twenty more years of life—which had always seemed impossibly short—now seemed long, too difficult to fill. There had been the children and grandchildren, and Beverly’s illness, and any imperative to do something with herself had been easily deferred. The problem of Sheldon had become interchangeable with the problem of Beverly, because she had never really had to know what kind of woman she would be unencumbered by Sheldon, and she was no longer sure she wanted to know.
“I’m thirsty,” Beverly said, and Josie and Rick and Sheldon all stepped into action to move her back into the hotel, because once you’d had kidney failure, the word thirst became encoded with a deeper, unquenchable need.
“Excuse me,” Beverly said to the only woman in the purple Donate Life T-shirt she could find in the hotel. “I haven’t seen People magazine. They were supposed to be here.”
“I know,” the girl said, looking at her phone. “We were upstaged by the Pope.”
“An unexpected medical procedure.”
“He’s only one person,” Beverly said, and the woman laughed and touched Beverly’s shoulder, like that had been a good joke.
“Who else is here?” Beverly said.
“The photographer is excellent,” the woman said. “You’re going to love the photos. And they’ll be up on the Donate Life website.”
“The website?” she repeated back, wanting her tone to be strident, even shrill. “The website?” But it had come out so matter-of-fact. Why was her voice so incapable of displeasure?
She pulled her compact out of her purse and pressed powder on her cheeks. Then she snapped the compact shut in a disapproving way.
Now they were to line up, just as they had at the airport gate, by letter and number. Rick was R 32, Josie D 33, Beverly R 34, Sheldon D 35, Amrita R 36 and her brother, D 37. Sheldon introduced Beverly to Amrita and the brother, whose name was Neil, in the moments before the picture was taken. Beverly wanted to ask them questions, but they were beautiful in a way that made her feel chastened.
The last time she had seen the blissed-out look on Sheldon’s face was at Laurel’s undergraduate commencement, when she had been summa cum laude.
“You’ve always had a weakness for a good-looking face,” she whispered to him, looking over at Amrita.
“Nonsense,” he said. “I married you for your legs.”
Then the photographer swept across them in one great panorama, like they were a wonder of the world too wide for the lens. Beverly had wanted a commencement and this was it. But to commence, as she had heard at every child graduation she’d ever endured, was not to end, but to begin.
Beverly did not know what she would do with this feeling, this imperative to commence, but already she feared that the execution of it would be small. She would go to one of those paint and drink studios, where everyone in the class had too much Sauvignon Blanc while attempting to produce the exact same painting with the same techniques. She would come home with a blue pond set against purpled mountains, and a little house in the distance with one lit window. And she would hang her canvas up in the den and think that hers had been better than most. Perhaps she had missed her calling.
When the group photo arrived in the mail, it would be Sheldon who took it to the framer to get a custom frame and put it up in the hallway. Beverly would catch him stopping at it. She thought he was imagining his ennobled kidney off fighting disease in its upgraded owner. Living vicariously through an organ. But for weeks after, when they were sitting at the kitchen table, Sheldon would say “Good old Josie,” and wonder where the RV was headed off to now.