Boxing of Parts — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The summer of my crush on Muffy was a summer of disparate parts (I had read a poem by Henry Reed). There were no centers to hold (we did Yeats in 20th-century lit class). I had just finished my junior year at Duke University and I was part of a quaternity (I had read Jung’s memoir in a course on intellectual history). There were four of us, Lorie, Muffy, me, and then Andy. Or maybe it was me, Muffy, Andy, and then Lorie. Or Lorie, Muffy, Andy, and then me. There were four of us and the connections were unclear.

What I mean is that Lorie was the odd one out because she was the team leader. Or I was the shadow because I was the Jew. Later Andy was the dark one. But who knows, there were so many ghosts among us.

photograph by George Foster
I am in what was once the parlor of a tumbledown and drafty wood-slat house on a hill above Campus Drive. The soft summer drizzle feels like a fine bead curtain. We have the boxing of parts. The parts are in thick-walled plastic bags but the bags have holes. We know this because the scent of formaldehyde pervades this house where a family once lived, perhaps with two pigtailed girls in sundresses fighting over a jump rope and a big brother laughing at them from a window. Father is off teaching chemistry at the women’s college and Mother is receiving Reverend Caruthers in the parlor while our nearsighted Lucy kneads biscuits next to the hot oven. Now the parlor is full of parts. The parts are in plastic bags and the plastic bags are in large rectangular Tupperware boxes and the boxes are on metal shelving that runs along the parlor walls and down the middle and they are covered in dust and ratshit. Muffy is over in the next aisle with Andy and I am in love with Muffy and outside the drizzle feels like a bead curtain and I am wearing plastic surgical gloves and cradling a chunk of pickled human liver in my hand. There is a Jewish girl who likes me but if she likes me there must be something wrong with her. I am a Jew and the parts do not fit together.

It began this way. It was the end of junior year and I was sick of the well-paying but deadly civil service summer jobs that were the doom of students from the District of Columbia and environs. I wanted something different, wanted to experience a North Carolina July, wanted to seek out new friends and adventures. So I told my parents I was staying south and I signed up for the Student Labor Pool. I reported on the first day with the required steel-toed boots and was assigned to the Special Projects Team. Lorie was tall, skinny, and responsible. Andy was a dark-haired guy with an easy laugh and eyes that were, while bright, shallow. Muffy was a lithe preppie field-hockey player who draped a lock of her dirty-blonde hair over her upper lip to do a rendition of Jimmy Buffet’s “Pencil Thin Mustache.” Lorie checked our shoes and herded us into the back of a blue work van. A guy from the Duke Hospital staff sat beside her up front. Lorie drove us down Campus Drive that connected West Campus to East and then, at its center point, turned off onto a quiet and wooded country lane. She came to a stop before a row of five dilapidated houses. We piled out of the van and, like the miller’s daughter in the footsteps of the gold-crazed king, we followed the hospital guy into the parlor where Reverend Caruthers had once sipped tea with Mother.

“Livers,” he said, “are here.” He pointed out the window at the house to the west. “Kidneys there. Spleens, pancreas, and miscellaneous glands next one over.” He pointed to the east. “On this side skin and sensory tissues. Beyond that, at the end of the street, we have lungs hanging from the ceiling in garment bags. Fifty years of the Duke University Hospital’s biopsies are kept in these houses and are now to be moved to our modern facility. You’ve got a month to pack them up, label them, and haul them to the new building.”

Did I mention that I was already in love with Muffy? And that my mind was as divided about it as the lobes of the livers in the bags before me? Concerned about the future of the Jewish people and unable to imagine intimacy with a Passoverless person, I had long kept my vow not to go out with non-Jewish girls. This was not as hard a vow to keep as you might have thought had you seen the multitudes of shiksas on campus dressed for the heat of the southern piedmont. Because most of them would not have gone out with me even if I had asked them. Most of the Jewish girls I asked didn’t want to, either. Except the one who liked me but something was thus wrong with her. But then I didn’t ask all that many because I was too busy reading Henry Reed, William Butler Yeats, and Carl Gustav Jung and listening to Jimmy Buffet. But in this summer of the parts I was seeking adventure and I began convincing myself that the Jewish people might, after all, survive even if I had a fling with this not stunningly beautiful but certainly spirited woman who, as soon as the hospital guy left, had us singing “Rubber Duckie” at the top of our voices as we packed organ parts into new, clean medically-approved plastic containers and loaded them onto our van.

We had so many laughs there among the pieces of the long-gone. Me, Muffy, and Andy, under Lorie’s stern but tolerant gaze. How could one be serious amidst such carnage, how could one not fill the formaldehyde vapors with song, how could one not daydream of love walking among the quiet, tall trees of this undead neighborhood in blue jumpsuits and steel-toed boots through the drizzling beads? For I was a Jew for whom text is prior to the physical world, and a poet, meaning that love had first to be dreamed, then put into words, and only then acted on. I had long talks with Muffy, though seldom alone, and became convinced that I had found a kindred spirit. That it was not a Jewish spirit irked me and seemed like a flaw in God’s universe, but then we were spending our days in polluted places that lay outside that universe, absorbing odorous impurities that only the ashes of a long-gone red heifer could purge.

I finally resolved to ask her out but then a phone call came from Washington. The Education Department office where I’d worked the previous summer had an opening they were holding just for me, and the hourly pay was nearly twice my Student Labor Pool wage. I had senior-year tuition bills to pay. I would, I decided, put the romance on hold. I’d write to Muffy over the summer and tell her how I felt at the end of August, on my first day back in Durham.

When that day came I set out on my mission. I ran into the Jewish girl. She walked alongside me. She asked where I was going. It turned out that she knew Muffy.

“But you’re wasting your time,” she said. “Everyone knows that she’s hot with Andy.”

“Andy?” I said. “Since when?”

“Since the very beginning of the summer,” she told me.

The soft summer drizzle feels like a fine bead curtain. At the center point between the two campuses we have the boxing of parts. The parts are in thick-walled plastic bags but the bags have holes. The parts once belonged to people who came for healing here. They were once parts of whole people but now they are just pickled parts in plastic bags in sealed containers in a new facility where they can be easy catalogued and found if a trial lawyer or researcher needs to investigate the mysterious death of a long-gone professor of chemistry or what might have been seen by the corneas of our nearsighted Lucy who worked so patiently over so many years for the family in the house at the top of the hill. Perhaps Reverend Caruthers’ heart is in one box and Mother’s is in another. I was the Jew. There were four of us, and the connections were unclear.


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