Organ Diary – Michael McSweeney
September 19, 2023
Scrawled above this scratch-paper diary is a checklist of organs. I’ve returned from the restful defeat of rural Massachusetts to recover them. Stomach. Heart. Lungs. Twenty-four hours to chase the parts of me abandoned six months prior by a different me. Someone I wouldn’t recognize on the other side of a crosswalk brawl.
My train rattles through winter-bleached Brooklyn. I watch people pitch tents on bombed-out graffiti rooftops. Maybe they’ve rented their rooms out for food. I should write this down. Notebook snap, breath drawn, skin honeycombed by the locomotive air. Nostalgia is a hostile ex-girlfriend rippling in the skyline gleam. I feel glad to be back inside these paper cuts of time. Passengers tug their bags from the racks as the train shudders into a tunnel. Drain their water bottles. Raise masks to their noses.
My memories collect more flesh as I age. The mirrored station floor remembers the weight I’ve gained. Manhattan is a few walls away. I’m afraid I’ll see familiar faces in the terminal crowd.
Text tag with an old roommate leads to a phone call outside Penn. Every third word shouted through a soda can while the late-winter heat dries me out. I would drink a plastic ocean. A nearby manhole screams exhaust to heaven while workmen wonder what to do with their hands. Finger their phones as the pigeons peck their feet.
Sorry Z, my old roommate says. Something about the super, my number. It’s all they can do, they say.
Their reluctance is natural. I’m vague, indistinct, destined for the next sleep’s info dump. Our shared occupancy was meant to be forgotten.
But I need them. I cough into my shoulder and think about my stomach.
Thanks, I say.
I hide from the sun beneath an old phone booth’s bones. I once rode out a blizzard here, five winters back. Another time I took a piss while a cop’s glare cupped my cheek. Another time I pulverized my laptop when the startup cash ran dry, the death of a dreamt escape from cubicled somnolence, anger incarnate. Another time an old man unfurled his jeans and shat beneath the metro sun because every other door in the city told him no.
Lungs first. One train uptown. One of those co-work squats whose bankruptcy you croon about. Empty kegs on every floor. But now they charge you. The free-money echo boom still needs its tithes. Venture-cap madmen traded for the popes of private equity. My old ID welcomes me through plastic gates. My sweat dapples the elevator carpet. I am afraid of heights. Heard a story in college once. Guy rode the shafts in a twenty-floor library and jumped from car to car. Legs caught a crossbeam. Tore him open with the hate of a father.
I’m asked for proof that I worked here. I show the clips, the articles, the fact I existed. But I’m long beyond newsroom myth, so they hand me to HR. A claw-grip arm guides me to a windowless break room. I shake a vending machine to free some chips. Doesn’t work. Sip tap water while my gums tighten. Worry about my breath. Write some of this down, my record of ruin.
Fetched an hour later. Parked in a meeting room above the sedentary skyline. Sterilized Midtown. Commercial culture groping for clouds. An editor’s editor gawks. A function. A salaryman. Their tablet face remind me of high blood pressure. Their furrowed frustrations. The editor’s editor looks past me to the door.
Are you getting a signal up here? they ask.
I take my phone out. Screen lifeless to preserve the battery for the concrete sojourn. A crack-line ghost stares back.
Then I say, Yeah, I am.
Hold on, the editor’s editor says. They leave the room. The minutes dribble to the floor. The weak bladder of time. I wonder whether I’ve died.
The door. Some squeal-faced HR goon. I’m sorry, somebody should have told you, they say. Layoffs. A mix-up, really. They meant to do it this morning.
Through the open door, a yell, a primal mouth. Like someone punched the consonants out.
I’m just here for my lungs, I say. I emailed M.
The goon fingers their phone like you’d pick a scab. I scrape a few notebook curses. Like this one: fuck you, young me, for trading away my best decade of sun.
M left the company three days ago, the HR goon says.
I bet it’s in the editorial closet, I say. Where we used to keep the old laptops. I know somebody jammed my things in a box.
The HR goon leads me deeper into the office. Through a field of long tables, computer monitors beneath slow-bleed fans. Many of the screens are dark. Some people are packing up boxes. You can tell they’re writers because some of them are crying while some look proud about being let go. I wonder about the poems and stories under their skin, how much they itch, how many will bleed through the surface when the daylight ends.
The editorial closet. The spare one in the old days. Paper gushes through the door as it opens. Our failure to organize is generational. The HR goon leaves to find some bags and I step inside. The paper craters around my feet like dry mud. At least a dozen trees, murdered and processed beneath me. I hear the HR goon coax paper into a trash bag.
Does B still run the tech team? I ask.
I think of the howling triumphs down Madison Avenue. Articles forged in lightning panic. Cigarettes snuck in fire escapes. The high, the goddamn high of breaking news. The heads of our enemies on verbal pikes. Twenty-dollar nigiri expense-accounted at noon. Armchair races down the uneven hallway. Frenzied make-out session behind the busted printer.
Who? the HR goon asks.
I find my lungs in the rear-most box. The HR goon clears a path for my escape. Old memos and performance assessments beg us for a lift. I want to warn the HR goon. To protect, to assure there’s a world out there, that they are wanted. But I don’t work here anymore.
I carry the box to the bathroom by the elevator. The one with the lock. I unfold the diaper station, rest the box, and tear its flaps apart. Someone put my lungs in a plastic bag. Still moist. I flip my diary open to burn a final testimony should I not survive: I tried to love as much as possible.
Fingernails, dirtied by these city hours, drill through my flesh. Blood blurs on corporation tiles. My chest comes apart at the seam. Still tender from when I first fled New York. My legs rear like frightened carriage horses. I fail against the sink, another body, this office body. My muscles churn. I distance the pain, transfigure to another me, melt through memory, through the sad and tragic witnessed here. An early-summer concert, the one of too much LSD, the venue’s schizo-palpitations, the sidewalk’s undead throng. Remember residential towers, rows of windows, fire and teeth. A car halts just past the crosswalk. A woman exits. Screams about a baby. Please. Hand me the baby. The baby. The car door cracks like a busted arm, the growl, its monstrous rev. The car’s hate-red rear lights thrust around the corner. The woman begs her phone, her hands, the high-wind heatwave sky. Two minutes pass and the vehicle returns. The baby, the baby! she cries. Someone grabs my arm and pleads for fire. Just one last cigarette before it’s time to turn their life around. They really really mean it this time. I give them half my smokes, look back. The car, the mother, the baby, gone. The reborn smoker’s eyes dissolve into their lips. An accursed whirl of suction and relief.
I use shoelaces from the spare pair in my backpack to close my chest. Grip the porcelain. First new breaths from dormant lungs. I feel a swell, the nourishment of blood, me, first lost and now returned. But then nausea coils like a dying cat. My eyes expand to bubbles. Float beside my head. I wish I could stay here. Be as I was before I smelt regret and decay.
Out on the street again. A spasmodic mess abandoned. No matter. Each second pangs like the last. I keep writing I’m sorry in this diary. I pay a buck for water, drain it. Buy another. My smartphone shudders. Come by for your shit, says the screen. My old roommate. There’s a number to call.
I live through the journey to Brooklyn. Above ground, I find echoes of a fight in the diary. Tasers brandished. Scuffles between subway cars. A preacher pleads madness while a guzheng murmurs by the stairs. Connection, connection, connection. Track-rattles like toneless pianos. One line stands out: I might live down here forever.
My old building rises near the subway maw. I send a text and lean against the brick. Feel sunlight drunk. Remember rooftop parties. Standing near the edge. Wonder how it might have felt if plunging were allowed. Kisses shared and stolen in that twilight, so far behind in time, how young and beautiful it was.
A grunt. Behind me: a man gray-skinned, dressed for a summer before my time. I follow them inside and through a hallway that resurrects my smile, the most nostalgic stumble yet, then down to a basement I never got to see. Doors numbered 0A, 0B, 0C. Along the wall writhes a bleach-white water line, the jagged height a storm surge made. Handprints mar the water line’s pace, its purity. We don’t need language here, not before this grotesque, graffiti truth: few escape our life alive.
I find my stomach, forlorn husk, long exposed to ferocious stagnancy. It falls to pieces in my hands. I’m sick, but not as sick as I should be. If I’d made it in time. I mourn the meals it digested here. Bags of rice by the twenty-five-pound. Peppers grown in the garden rear. Chicken from that good market down the street, a market sundered by finance. Now a flinty bar for gin.
One last tongue to pull. A ticket to a show in Queens. An independent opera. Abandoned factory acoustics, the kind that cash can’t buy. J’s directing. In my diary, I write the one who got away but then cross it out. I don’t think I have the words to explain what existed between us. But for a few months, I knew the pure taste of gravity.
I spend my dinner money on a cab. Bathe in manmade heat. Trace my smartphone’s glaze, read a thousand arguments, fights about art and religion and abortion and why contempt is the latest vibe. I drift until the driver shakes me loose.
Smokers dot the factory door. Planes gnaw the orange sky. New York is one great coming and going. I trickle inside with the others. Metal chairs in a half-moon smile. A violinist rosins their bow. Pallets frame a makeshift stage. Graffiti blooms the walls, the countless testimonies of all who sought a canvas in this place. I think about the stories I never wrote, how this diary is a crutch, how I lack the discipline to say what I really think.
The opera begins as the final sunbeams fade through broken-window jaws. Voices bathe in a river of string. A black-cad quarter on the Stygian shore. The opera follows twin couples in a catacombs home. Too poor to rent anything else. The life they grow. Plants, lights, infants. Jokes about stained-glass toys. The couples blend. Polyamory where life and death forge art. In the audience, programs drift to the floor, the darkness too serene to read.
I linger outside when it ends. Hands numb from the applause. I practice sentiment in my mind: the piece was great, J. I don’t know why I need to rehearse. I peek inside. The singers and players stack chairs in the dust.
Zack, comes a voice. J. I forget my own name.
Glad you got the ticket, they say.
I was beautiful.
Really. I meant every clap.
I thought you said you were finished with this place.
I came back for a few things.
It’s better to let a few strings hang loose. Keeps the future interesting.
Maybe for you.
People graze J, press their hands and shoulders, whisper congratulations as they leave.
We’re doing drinks at a bar down the street, says J. Final show. Want to join?
I thought we might get a bite to eat. Talk a bit.
Their fingers bend. Knuckle pops. It’s how J thinks.
Sure, they say.
A mousey diner by the freeway. One of those joints you build New York stories around. Maroon-cushioned booths. Greasy trade-winds. Bible-thick menus. J orders a smoothie and some fries. I draw water and crunch the ice.
You know, if you want it, it’s yours, says J, fry dissolved to mush inside their mouth. It always was.
There’s a lot that could mean, I say.
You’re the one who always complicates things.
I sip some water. Then I ask, Did you bring it?
Well, can I have it back?
I feel the anxious pinch and pull. Imagine another me as he flees the diner for the Port Authority and a bus back north.
I don’t think it’s as simple as that, says J.
I tear small strips from a napkin, watch J as they devour fry after fry. There’s a constant wash of noise from the freeway. A man unfurls a newspaper in the booth beside us.
Then I ask, Why opera?
J raises a ruby-leather purse to the table. Unclasps the buckle. Opens the mouth.
It’s a total work of art, they say. The music. The dance. Singing. Acting. A circle.
J lifts my heart from the purse. It quivers as they set it on the plate.
If your art contains everything about you, there’s no fear of leaving something unsaid, says J. Even if it’s a total fucking mess. The pieces are all there. Everything you need to be understood. Everything you ever wanted to say.
I reach for the heart. A thing too large, fat-patched, its dance uneven. But it’s alive, and I’m afraid of it. Afraid for it. My hand retreats.
Can’t do it? asks J.
I don’t know.
People like you and me, we don’t let go of things. Of the past. We’re incapable. We’d rather chew until we die.
Like an inescapable nostalgia.
J takes a fork and knife and cuts two slices from the heart. They slip a heart-piece past their lips. Then J seizes my wrist and hands me the fork.
Eat, they say.
I spear some heart. I think of swimming when that nor’easter fanged Far Rockaway, J and I nude, souls beyond the sand, our mad dissolving rip-tide love inside the fury of the sea.
J eats another piece with their fingers. Blood worms down the edge of their mouth.
That farmer’s market where we used to shop, they say. The one with fresh chicken. I loved that market.
Those Vermonters. Good people. We talked about moving there once, remember?
Us. Chickens in the yard. Days determined by the sun. Trading trees for towers. Imagine that.
We could’ve done it.
Zero chance of survival.
I’m there now. Well, close enough.
Was it worth it? Leaving New York, I mean.
I think so.
Maybe I’ll follow you one day.
J laughs, reveals a crimson grin. You’re right, I won’t, they say.
We eat my heart and say nothing for a while.
I’m glad you’re here, says J. I’m glad we could eat together again.
Me too, I say, and my fingers soften against theirs as I take the fork again.