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Vol. 5, No. 3

Anything For Money
by Karen E. Bender

 

~

When Aurora had stabilized a week later, the doctor called him into his office. The office was filled with diplomas and drab orange chairs. Lenny perched on the edge of the chair like a child. The doctor read the chart that Aurora’s pediatrician had sent him: “She was in Thailand two years ago,” he said.
    “Her mother took her there,” Lenny said.
    The doctor read the name of a disease Lenny did not know. “She wasn’t properly treated. Her heart was damaged. This flu did more harm.”
    Lenny remembered a postcard Charlene had sent from Bangkok: Having a super time. Aurora loves curry. River rafting next week. He felt faint and a little sick.
    “The news is bad,” said the doctor. “She needs a new heart.”
    Lenny could not breathe. A sharp pain went through him, immense and shocking because its source was wholly emotional; it came entirely from his love.
    “We’ll put her on the transplant list,” said the doctor.
    “List?”
    “She has to wait her turn.”
    He had not waited on any list for over thirty years. Lenny stood up. His hair was uncombed and his face gray with exhaustion, but he felt the large, powerful weight of his body in his expensive suit. “What’s your job here, doctor?”
    “I am the head of pediatric cardiology.” He was a slim man, slightly balding. His eyelashes were long and curling. His desk glimmered with crystal paperweights.
    Lenny turned away from the man’s desk. He was talking fast. “Let me ask you. What do you need in your wing?” Lenny asked.
    “Excuse me?”
    “Let me tell you how I see the new wing of the hospital,” said Lenny, glancing at the doctor’s name-tag. “The Alfred J. Johnson wing. Twenty million dollars. A children’s playroom. Top equipment. A research lab. Endowed chairs.” He listened to the hoarse, meaty sound of his voice. “I am the producer of Anything for Money. Look at me.”
    
    

 

~

The hospital sent Aurora home with vague instructions: take it easy; no strenuous exercise. She felt weak, but she did not know how ill she was, and Lenny did not tell her. He did not allow himself to think about her weakened state. Instead, he indulged in feelings of pride at his wealth and ability to bend the rules. When he received the official letter, a few days later, he wanted to frame it, for it seemed to reflect some magnificence in his soul. The letter said: Aurora Weiss is number one on the list for available heart transplants. Please remain at this address.
    Lenny called the doctor every day. He gave Lenny ghoulish harvest reports: a young boy killed in a car accident, a murdered teen. But none of these hearts had the right antigens that would match Aurora’s; they had to wait for the correct heart.
    Waiting was what fools did; he decided to take things into his own hands. He stayed up all night, making calls. He spoke into a phone that did automatic translating to doctors in Germany, Sweden, France. His price soared. Thirty million dollars to be number one on the list. New wings. Top equipment. Huge salaries. High-tech playrooms. He shouted these offers into the phone at 2 a.m., imagining Aurora and Charlene’s gratitude that he had saved Aurora, how they would tell everyone that Lenny had saved his granddaughter by calling every doctor in the world. When sweetness did not work, he tried threats: sending investigators in to check on their records, lawsuits. He shouted his grandiose offers into the dark.
    

 

~

Aurora came into the room one night when Lenny was making his calls. She stood in her pajamas, staring, as he shouted into a phone.
    “What’s wrong?” she asked.
    He put down the phone.
    When he told her that her heart was not well and how he was going to help her, she went still; she seemed to have been waiting for years for someone to tell her that she was damaged. “I’m going to find one,” he said. “You know me. People know me and they want to help—”
    She went pale, for she saw through this immediately. “I’m sorry!” she cried out. “Sorry, sorry—”
    He saw, at once, how his daughter had behaved as a mother.
    “Aurora. I’ll save you,” he said. “I swear it.”
    But she did not let him touch her—she backed away from him with a dim expression, as though she were already disappearing, and believed this was what people had truly wanted from her all along.
    

 

~

He skipped work. He was sleepless. The right heart was not appearing for her. He tried to think about who would give up their heart for millions of dollars. Drug addicts, the terminally ill—but their hearts would not be in good enough shape. He sat behind the dark glass of his limo, grimly watching girls play soccer, wishing one of them would trip. He imagined taking his Mercedes sports car out and plowing it into a group of teenage boys running on the sidewalk, killing enough of them to give Aurora more of a chance.
    He proposed to his staff a special episode: “Who Will Die for Money?” They would audition people willing to give up their hearts for a staggering pot of $5 million. His staff thought it was a PR stunt and called an audition. The holding room filled with an assortment of the homeless, individuals not in the best of health, and well-dressed, shifty types who seemed to think there was some way to obtain the money without dying.
    They were all busily filling out their names and addresses when he got a call from Rosita.
    “A heart has arrived on the doorstep,” she said.
    He rushed home.
    A man identified himself as a cardiac surgeon and a purveyor of black-market hearts. He was from the Ukraine. Dr. Stoly Michavcezek sat in Lenny’s living room, an ice chest on his lap.
    “Whose heart was this?” asked Lenny.
    “A man. Olympic-quality gymnast. Fell on mat and dead.”
    “And you could operate? How long has he been dead?”
    “Few hours. Payment up front.”
    They transferred the heart to Lenny’s enormous SubZero freezer; then Lenny brought in a specialist from Cedars Sinai to look at the heart.
    “This isn’t a human heart,” the doctor said. “This is the heart of a chimp.”
    When he returned to the studio, the prospective contestants had all been dismissed and black-suited men from the Legal Department were waiting in his office.
    “Lenny,” said one. “This has got to stop.”
    

 

~

Aurora worked on her movie obsessively; she spent much of her time in her room. When they had a meal together, he did most of the talking; he lied about how close he was coming to saving her. “There’s a doctor in Mexico,” he’d say, “a small hospital. International laws, they’re all we have to get around—” She ate very little and watched him like a child who had disbelieved adults her whole life.
    One night, she burst out of her room and ran to her seat at the table. “My plot has changed,” she said. “Listen. There are seventeen aliens from the planet of Eyahoo. They have legs in the shape of wheels and heads like potatoes. Their planet is very slippery and they move very fast on their wheels. Often they bump into each other. Their heads are getting sore.”
    He listened.
    “They need a new cousin who can make their planet less slippery. Their cousin is named Yabonda and she lives on a neighboring planet. She has long legs with huge feet that are very absorbent, like paper towels. They want to learn how to have feet like her. Now. Do you think they should maybe invite her to Eyahoo for dinner or just come and kidnap her?”
    She leaned back in her chair, clasped her hands tightly, and watched him.
    “What would happen with each?” he asked.
    “If they asked her to dinner, she would be transported in a glamorous carriage made of starlight.”
    “Uh-huh.”
    “If they kidnapped her, it would hurt.” She stretched her fingers wide, as though trying to hold everything. “Tell me,” she said sharply.
    

 

~

When Aurora had learned about her condition, she stopped stealing. Lenny began leaving things out for her—his cell phone and toothbrush and car keys—in the hope that she would take them, but in the morning they remained where he had put them. He longed for her midnight rambling through the mansion, waking up to see which objects of his she would find precious.
    One night, he heard her footsteps padding down the hall.
    Lenny jumped out of bed and followed her. This time, Aurora seemed to have no particular direction, but went around the foyer like a floating, circling bird. Then she saw Lenny. They stared at each other in the dusk of the hallway, and the shocked quiet around them made Lenny feel that they were meeting for the first time.
    “Something’s going to happen to me,” said Aurora, and she began to cry. “I don’t know what to take.”
    It sounded as though the house were made of her cries. They echoed through the empty hallways. The girl knelt to the floor and threw up. The child’s distress made Lenny feel as though he himself were dissolving. Lenny lowered himself beside her and put his hand on the girl’s back.
    “Take me,” said Lenny.
    The girl stared at him.
    “I’ll go with you,” said Lenny.
    “Where?”
    “Wherever. I’ll go, too.”
    “How can you go?”
    “I can find a way to do it.”
    He did not know how to stop these words; they were simply pouring out of him. “Please. I’m telling you. Take me.”
    “I don’t want to be by myself,” said Aurora.
    “You won’t be,” said Lenny. “I’ll be there, too.”
    

 

~

When the dawn came, he was sleeping on the floor beside Aurora’s bed. He woke up, his promise only a vague cold sensation—then he remembered what he had said.
    He got up quietly, and left the room.
    

 

~

It was just six in the morning. Lenny walked to his garage and got into his red Ferrari convertible. He shot up the Pacific Coast Highway, feeling the engine’s force vibrate through his body. The highway stretched, a ribbon reaching through the blue haze to the rest of the world. He felt poisoned by the girl’s presence in himself and wanted to get her out. He kept going north, the early sun melting the haze.
    By eight, he had hit Santa Barbara. The main street was filled with a lustrous golden light, and the people strolling the sidewalks looked so contented and purposeful he wished they were all dead. He thought of the way Aurora stood on half-toe when she wanted something, the sweet, terrible optimism in the girl’s walk when she headed down the hallway, ready to go about her day. He wanted to get out of his car and rush out among the strangers and find a woman and have sex with her in an alley. He wanted to strip naked and run, singing, into the ocean. He wanted to slam his car into a restaurant and be put in jail. He drove back and forth down the main street for a while, hands trembling on the steering wheel.
    He turned the car and roared toward where people knew him best: the studio. At 10 a.m., he walked through the doors and stood in the shadows, watching. Eight contestants were white-lit, hitting buzzers, shouting out answers to questions, and the producers and crew were scrambling noisily in the dark around the stage.
    Lenny stared at the brilliant stage set. On this stage, he had seen a man auction off his wife’s bra for thousands of dollars; he had seen children thrust their parents’ faces into vats of whipped cream for five hundred bucks. He had stood in this brightness, watching others dimly fall around him.
    “Lenny,” he heard. “Hey, Lenny—”
    He stood in the corridor. The strangers in the glare gibbered like monkeys. Lenny shivered because he knew, at once, what would be unbearable; he could not be here alone.
    Lenny had to turn around several times before he saw where the exit was. Pushing through the metal doors, he ran into the parking lot, jumped into his car, and drove home.
    

 

~

When the Ferrari floated up to the mansion, Aurora was sitting on the stairs. The girl was still, as though she had been sitting there for a hundred years. Her blue eyes were fixed on Lenny as he began to walk up the stairs.
    “I thought you weren’t coming back,” said Aurora.
    “I had to do an errand,” Lenny said.
    He sat beside Aurora on the stair.
    “We could have a house together,” the girl said. Her fingers dug into Lenny’s hand. “It could be just like your house. We could sleep beside each other, so you always know that the other’s there.”
    Lenny looked out at the yard. Stars seemed to have fallen into the lawn. It was dark and wet from the morning rain and the brightness of the sky seemed to be caught in the grass. He looked over his yard to the hazy brown air over the city, to the people eating sandwiches or telling jokes or cursing or waiting at stoplights or saying goodbye. They seemed to live in another universe. He did not know what any of them were made of, what his daughter was doing, how much money he had.
    “I have a new plot idea,” she said. “To help Yabonda.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Her paper-towel feet have dried out,” she said. “Whenever she lifts her feet, they make a weird crackling sound. Everyone on her planet wants her to go away. They can’t stand the noise her feet make. It keeps them all awake. There is mayhem and murder.” She jumped up and put her hands on her hips; she was trembling. “She meets Glungluck, a kindly alien who was kicked off her planet because her ears, which resemble long straws, suck up everything around them, and people were losing their purses and keys.”
    “Go on,” he said.
    “They make a neighborhood,” she said. “They add other sad aliens, Kogo and Zarooom. They build big walls around their neighborhood, made of glass roses. The only aliens who can move in are other losers. They all have had bad luck. In their neighborhood, they can talk to each other. They make up songs and have contests. Nobody wins. When the good-luck aliens try to see through the wall of roses, they are jealous and lonely.”
    He looked at her face. Her forehead was gray and creased, like an old person’s.
    “I’ll produce,” he said.
    

 

~

He did not stop looking. He had kept the audition slips of the people who had been willing to give up their hearts for $5 million and he was meeting one, Wayne Olden, secretly, for lunch at a Fatburger in Hollywood to check him out. He was planning to take him in for a full medical exam; after that he would hand over organ-donation forms. Lenny had not figured out how he would kill the man, particularly to maintain the integrity of his organs. They were finishing up a hot dog when he received a call.
    “I’m not feeling so well,” said Aurora.
    “What’s wrong?”
    “I don’t know.”
    Lenny jumped up.
    “I have to go,” he said to the man.
    “You’re kidding,” said the man.
    “Here,” said Lenny, throwing him a thousand-dollar bill. “That’s for lunch.”
    The man looked disappointed. “I thought I was going to get five million bucks!”
    

 

~

Lenny’s Mercedes raced home. It was late afternoon, the shadows long and dark against the grass. She was sitting in a T-shirt and shorts by the pool. The late sun made her face look gold.
    “What’s wrong?” he asked.
    “I don’t know. I just wanted to see you,” Aurora said.
    He sat beside her.
    “I don’t know what to have for dinner,” she said.
    An expression of surprise crossed her face. It was as though she were witnessing a private, obscene act. Her arm jerked once and she fell out of her chair. She lay still on the grass, her eyes staring, empty, quiet, at the sky.
    He said the child’s name. Again. Again. Aurora. Pink geraniums heaved in the warm wind. Aurora. He had not been able to answer Aurora’s question. The answer pressed out of him like a knife inside his gut. He wanted to tell her that they could have hamburgers for dinner.
    He picked Aurora’s body up and carried her through the green exuberance of the garden.
    Now Lenny was saying another word: Wait. He was in a great hurry. Wait. His voice felt like a shout, but it was almost a whisper. The world around him had become silent. It seemed the sky had lowered. He could not stand too tall.
    He carried Aurora to his car and put her in the front seat. He seat-belted the girl in and covered her with a jacket. He did not want the child to get cold. He got into the driver’s seat and started the car. Wait. He had to belt the girl in more tightly so that she would not slide. His hands were trembling so hard he could not hold the wheel.
    

 

~

The police found them later, a man in his sixties and a girl. They were slumped in the car that had driven suddenly off the cliff in Malibu and crashed on the Pacific Coast Highway. The car had landed in the center of the highway, straddling the center divider, and traffic was slowed in both directions. The white and red lights from the cars made two rivers of brightness as the drivers glided north and south along the coast. Now the cars appeared to be following each other, stopping and starting, stopping and starting, as the drivers passed the wreckage and peered into the darkening night.

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