Years ago there was a town not far from here where nobody had their own heart. They shared one gigantic heart located in a former water purification plant near the center of town. When enlivened by physical activity, the heart beat more rapidly, sending its blood to the neighborhoods, rattling silverware on restaurant tables, shaking portraits off walls, tickling bare feet on cobblestones with its vibrations.
The townspeople were connected to the heart by a vast system of valves and pipes distributed throughout the town. The streets boasted five or six blood hydrants for every one fire hydrant. Every home came equipped with as many blood outlets as electrical outlets. Nobody could travel very far beyond the reach of these outlets and hydrants, as they were tethered to them by sturdy surgical tubing that came in a variety of fashion colors. These tubes snaked through alleys and parks, under doors, up ladders, and down stairwells. One never left the house without at least 20 feet of tubing and a portable placenta which they kept in purses, also in fashion colors. Children walking to school became adept at quickly refilling their placentas from one hydrant to the next. Some kids even developed elaborate games around the tube transferal process, choosing sides, cruelly leaving “captured” children tethered to hydrants with little hope of rescue. There was an etiquette to removing the tubes from one’s chest and replacing them with a new pair. To travel without a pair of clamps with which to momentarily cease the flow of blood while switching to new tubes was considered a faux pas. To drip blood on a table cloth or a friend’s shoes was also bad form, but tolerated. Everyone carried a travel-size packet of absorbent wipes and was an expert at removing blood stains from carpet.
The blood moved slower at the edges of town, where the senior citizens lived. One widower named Ike lived in a one bedroom place with a garden full of untended perennials that his wife had planted before she died five years previous. Every Sunday, Ike’s grandson Magnus visited to make him dinner and watch a video together. While they ate, Ike would tell Magnus stories about when he worked in the vast, subterranean plant where they maintained the heart. Ike had belonged to the department that monitored the left ventricle.
“We stuffed our ears with cotton down there cause of the thudding, but my hearing still went to hell,” Ike said, “Night shifts were the worst. We’d get a sudden increase of flow on account of everyone making love. I was there during the murmurs of ’03, the Great Aneurysm of ’08. The very life of this community was in our hands. I just thank God we never had to use the paddles to get that ticker started again.”
One Sunday night after a dinner of macaroni and cheese, salad, and bread, with coffee ice cream for dessert, Magnus set up the video, “Beverly Hills Cop,” and sat beside his grandfather on the sofa. The tubes snaked out from between the buttons of their shirts, one tube delivering blood to their bodies, the other one sending it into the wall and back to the center of town. The slow flow always made Magnus feel sleepy at his grandfather’s house, and it took some effort to stay awake during the video. During the part of the film where Eddie Murphy stuffs bananas into the tail pipe of a car, Magnus suddenly heard a loud hissing. Ike’s vein tube had come loose from his chest and was squirting bright red blood all over the lampshade and a paint-by-numbers portrait of Jesus that hung on the wall. It wasn’t the first time Ike’s tubes had come loose, and Magnus knew what to do. He quickly clamped the tubes, opened his grandfather’s stained shirt, and located the two hair-ringed orifices in his chest. After reinserting the tubes and making sure they were secure, Magnus wiped down the mess with bleach on a rag.
Frustrated that his movie had been interrupted by his grandfather’s incontinence, Magnus threw down his rag and said, “I hate this place! Why can’t we live somewhere like Beverly Hills? Why can’t we have palm trees and funny police officers? I want to be able to walk down the street without worrying about whether the next blood hydrant is already being used. Why can’t I walk freely wherever I want? How come I have to live in this stupid town with everyone sucking blood from the same stupid heart?”
Ike didn’t say anything for a moment and immediately Magnus feared that he had offended his grandfather. After all, the man had devoted himself to the heart for sixty years, had scraped fat from inside its chambers, had watched friends die in horrible diastolic accidents. As long as Magnus had been alive he had associated Ike so closely with the giant cardiac muscle that maligning the heart was akin to maligning his own family.
As Ike’s circulation picked back up, he sighed and made his mouth into an expression that in better light might have been a smile. “Of course, if you want to get out of this town, you’ll have to create your own heart.”
Magnus laughed. The suggestion was absurd. But quickly he saw that his grandfather was not joking; in fact he had adopted an expression of the utmost gravity.
“There is a man who can help you,” Ike said, “His name is Gatton. You can find him in the tumor farm deep beneath the plant. Tell him that you come to claim my payment for what happened during the blood poisoning of ’99. He’ll know what you’re talking about. He can supply you with a hand-made heart and you will be able to get out of town.”
“But they’ll know I don’t belong there as soon as I get to the plant. How will I even make it to the tumor farm?”
“You’ll wear my old uniform, and have my key card. It should still work. They never deactivated it when I left.”
The rest of the movie passed unmemorably through Magnus’ eyes. He tried to imagine the tumor farm, where the polyp trees grew, where they sent the convicts to work. He’d heard horrible things about the place, workers inadvertently fused to tumors, unable to escape, eventually becoming one with the cancerous cells, packs of rats who feasted on the growths and cysts, developing mutations that gave them five sets of legs, horns, wings.
Nonetheless, Magnus took the cake box that contained his grandfather’s uniform and badge home with him and spent the next few weeks avoiding making a decision about whether he was going to pursue acquiring his own heart. One afternoon on his way home from school Magnus became entangled in the tubes of a girl named Carly, with whom he shared a fifth period AP Calculus class. They had never spoken to each other in school, but here on an elm-lined lane, trapped in a knot of surgical tubing, they had no way to avoid each other. As they slowly moved their bodies in such a way as to disentangle the tubes without disconnecting them, they started talking about their plans for the following year.
“After graduation I think I’m going to spend a week fishing, then look for a job,” Magnus said, “What about you?”
“I hate this place,” Carly said, “I want to go to a big college thousands of miles away from here.”
“But you’ll have to be connected to your placenta the whole time, and get regular blood transfusions, and those aren’t reliable for more than a few days at a time,” Magnus said.
“That’s what they tell us anyway,” Carly said, “I don’t care. If I die out there it’ll be better than staying in this place where people think you’re crazy for liking plaid pants.”
“I might know another way,” Magnus said, then revealed to Carly everything his grandfather had told him about the tumor farm and portable hearts.
“Magnus, you have to go! This could be your chance out of this place.”
“I’m afraid to go down there,” Magnus said sheepishly.
Carly’s cell phone rang. It was one of those new phones with the camera attached, and over Carly’s shoulder Magnus could see the scrunched up face of Carly’s mother, inquiring as to when she planned to come home for dinner.
Carly and Magnus parted ways, with Magnus continuing toward the center of town. With every tube transfer he felt the flow grow stronger, as though he were wandering upstream into the tumultuous rapids of a river. Every fourth house or so was replaced by a coffee shop or book store, then the houses began inching closer together, blocks interrupted by restaurants, then apartment buildings, and finally no place to live at all, just businesses with lit-up signs and wares on display. Men and women conducted conversations on hands-free phones, speaking into buds dangling from their ears, weaving from hydrant to hydrant, intersections turning into cats cradles of tubing that miraculously resolved with every light change.
Magnus rarely made it this far into town, and he couldn’t tell if it was his own excitement or his proximity to the gigantic, energy-giving organ that made him feel as though he was being hit in the chest with a fire hose. He stopped and leaned against the front of a bagel shop. When the owner told him to get lost, he turned into an alley, hurrying past a couple junkies shooting up directly into their vein tubes. Luckily, the detoxification department would scrub the drugs from the blood when it returned to the plant.
Magnus changed into his grandfather’s uniform behind a dumpster. It was clearly too big for him. How would anyone be fooled? He’d be found out, tossed into jail, left to die of lethal disattachment on death row. Then he imagined the swaying palms of Beverly Hills, the witty people in turtlenecks, and it was enough to propel him forward, onto the sidewalk, toward the decrepit former cathedral that served as the plant’s main point of entrance.
The cathedral’s exterior was all sooty stone and busted stained glass windows. One of its spires had crumbled long after the god worshipped here had been forgotten. Workers in uniforms like Ike’s hurried in and out of the opening where the doors used to be, trailing tubes, great red ropes of speeding blood. Magnus fell into a mass of workers on their way to their shifts. Inside the cathedral, the workers branched off toward various banks of escalators marked with different departments: Aorta, Left ventricle, Right ventricle, Pulmonary Vessels, Mitrial Valve. There didn’t appear to be any sign for the tumor farm, so Magnus headed toward the elevator leading to the Left Ventricle, where his grandfather had worked.
“Hey, hold it a minute there, son.”
A security officer of some sort grabbed Magnus by the shoulder. He had a big, blond mustache and wore the heart-shaped insignia of the plant on his chest, with all the chambers highlighted in green to indicate he had full access. “You’re obviously new here. You can’t go in with these wimpy surgical tubes, they can’t stand the pressure. You’ll need to go to the Bypass office and get some new ones. And whoever issued you this uniform, they must have been in a real retro mood. Let them know you’re going to need new duds.”
“Where is the Bypass office?” Magnus said.
“Man, you are green. Up there.” The officer pointed to a point high above the floor, a kind of balcony just out of reach of the pipe organ. Magnus took the appropriately labeled elevator and exited into an office overlooking the throng of workers below. Administrative types wearing shirts and ties hurried about, making photocopies, faxing spreadsheets. A woman at a broad, ebony desk motioned for Magnus to have a seat, telling him she’d be with him after she completed an email. A minute or two later she turned and said, “So. First day. We’re glad you’re here, Magnus. We’ve been looking forward to your arrival since your grandfather retired. You’ll find that around here he’s a real legend. You’ll need new tubes, a new uniform, a real ID card.”
Magnus plugged into a nearby outlet that sent blood coursing so powerfully into his body that he felt he could climb a mountain, and filled out some paperwork.
That day Magnus was put to work in the outskirts of the vast underground operation, monitoring flow to and from the poorer neighborhoods. Someday, his shift supervisor, Jim, told him, he could work his way up from these dank, subterranean passages to work on an actual valve, maybe even the Purkinje fibers. His grandfather had started out at the bottom of the totem pole, repairing capilaries. Through hard work he had become one of the most respected valvemen this operation had ever had the honor of employing.
For the first weeks of his employment, Magnus walked for miles under the city, pressing his stethoscope against the pipes through which oxygenated blood flowed, noting changes in pressure in his palm computer, and calling in the repair crew whenever he detected a leak. Magnus learned to locate leaks by following rats and other misshapen vermin who could smell the blood before any human. One morning Magnus followed a gaggle of rats down several flights of stairs and came upon an entrance to the tumor farm. The space was as big as a stadium, the floor, walls, and ceiling high overhead covered in strange fleshy forms that almost resembled trees. The floor was rubbery down here, and occasionally viscous fluids squirted up from un underfoot like clams spitting on a beach. While the handbook had assured Magnus that nothing in the tumor farm was contagious, the place still put him ill at ease. He swept his mag light across the trembling mounds of flesh, each grotesque growth fueled by the same blood that beat quickly in his own body.
“You lost, kid?” said a man perched on a tumor in the vague shape of a couch. He wore the insignia of his department on his dirty jumpsuit next to his name, Kyle, and a cap drawn low over his eyes. He picked his fingernails with a knife. Magnus hurriedly introduced himself and explained he had come here following rats, but this didn’t provoke any change in the bored expression fixed on Kyle’s face.
“I’m looking for someone named Gatton, who worked with my grandfather Ike. My grandfather said Gatton could help me.”
Kyle nodded and motioned for Magnus to follow him. They wound their way through a forest of abnormal growths. “We keep this tumor farm for a reason, case you hadn’t figured out by now,” Kyle said, “For years we been trying to develop individual hearts for folks to carry around in they own chests, not bein’ dependent on the big thumper up there in the cave. Down here’s where the cardiac scientists cultivate materials and toss their failed experiments. When the breakthrough comes we’ll be turning this place into a giant factory of hearts, with the people coming in one end empty-chested and leaving the other with independent tickers allowing them to not have to hook up to the blood hydrants every goddamn day. Then we can destroy that big muscle that keeps us all enslaved to the ebb and flow.”
They found a slippery staircase and made their way down deep enough for Magnus to have to pop his ears. Finally the stairs opened into an echoing chamber more vast than the tumor farm, and reeking of blood. As Magnus’s eyes adjusted he came to understand that he was standing on the bank of an underground river of blood, too wide to see across to the other shore.
“They’ll come soon enough,” Kyle said, taking off his hat, wiping his brow. As if lying in wait, the sounds of a vessel came across the flowing plasma, ringing with percussion and horns. From the dark emerged a craft about forty feet long. At first Magnus thought the people crowded on its deck were men in armored suits, but slowly they revealed themselves to be birds the size of humans, standing upright, some of them wearing jeweled clothes or helmets, squawking hideously with their long beaks.
“I wasn’t supposed to see this place yet,” Magnus said, though the words seemed as foreign in his mouth as the creatures manifest before him. He couldn’t help feeling that some sealed repository of knowledge had been opened within his mind, some place that had existed prior to his birth, now revealed on the path his curiosity had so dangerously compelled him to follow. The bird beings in their craft raised a great squawking din of horns and drums upon seeing him standing petrified on the shore, a sound panicked and angry, and this was enough to frighten Magnus back up the stairs to the tumor farm, into the labyrinth of vessel-lined halls, and out an exit into the night of a town he no longer understood.
Magnus tried to cleanse himself of the disturbing scene he had witnessed by throwing himself into his routines. That night was movie night with his grandfather. He chose a video at the video store and walked across the park in the middle of town with it tucked under his arm, a bag of burritos from his favorite taqueria in the other. He decided the only way to relieve his fear of the bird creatures on the river of blood was to convince himself that they had been a hallucination. By the time he reached his grandfather’s house he decided that he must have been working too hard these past few weeks and suffered a fatigue-related mental lapse. This idea comforted him, more so than the possibility that there existed beneath his feet an underground blood river navigated by alien forms.
If he had peeked in the windows when he arrived at his grandfather’s the house, Magnus would have certainly noticed something awfully wrong about the place. But instead he instinctively grabbed the doorknob and entered without knocking as was his habit. Instead of being met with Ike’s friendly hello, a wall of blood swept Magnus off the porch, depositing him in the gnarled rose bushes in the front lawn. He’d heard of this problem before but never seen it. A leak that slowly fills an entire house. Waves of the red stuff rolled out to the street. Inside he found the entire place awash in blood, covering every surface, saturating every permeable material. He rushed to his grandfather’s bedroom, where he found the drowned body still in bed, unrecognizable, covered in all this mess. Crying, he carried the body from the house.
After the ambulance arrived, leisurely, with its sirens off, Magnus sat in the blood-soaked front lawn watching nightcrawlers emerge from the tunnels hidden beneath the grass. Some police officers may have spoken to him, he couldn’t be sure. As the light faded and the seizure crew exited the house, Magnus felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Carly in her plaid pants, holding a suitcase.
“It’s time to leave this place,” Carly said.
“I think there’s only one way to leave this place,” Magnus said, “And it’s underground. At least until they start manufacturing individual hearts.”
Carly opened her suitcase, moved aside some shirts and showed him the two mechanical hearts inside. They were made of bright yellow plastic, like waterproof electronic equipment.