Learning to Fail in the Cadaver Archipelago

By Robert P Kaye


You won’t let me down, will you Mr. Coopersmith?”


Dr. Rand Idyllwild, the world’s foremost authority on cryostasis, asked me this while racing a golf cart through a bewildering network of interlocking caves, the rock ceilings invisible above. The artificial twilight made his features appear chiseled from Carrera marble—soft and lifelike on the surface, but crystalline beneath.

“No sir,” I replied. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”  I meant it, having already let myself and everyone else down far enough and aware that this might be my last shot at cutting edge science—or science of any kind.


“Excellent,” he said.


That concluded our chit-chat. I didn’t want to distract him as he zipped around the dim outlines of industrial-sized pipes and valves, chilling units and empty body chambers. LED control panels bejeweled the surrounding darkness and the curious tang of ocean lingered in my nostrils where no seaweed had licked water for thirty million years.


We travelled deep beneath the world famous Ark, in a remote location I am contractually barred from disclosing to this day. I can say that above ground, the building lived up to its reputation as an architectural and scientific wonder: a soaring marble-clad edifice with Athenian colonnades, formal Islamic gardens, security surpassing the Pentagon’s, a vast array of solar cells, wells, air purifiers—and enough liquid nitrogen to freeze off every wart on the planet.


Dr. Idyllwild himself had signed the letter offering me a splendid career at Progress Foundation. I’d gained my appreciation for his pioneering work in cryonics from an intensive month-long training session in Salt Lake, but I’d met the great man only a few hours before, at the conclusion of an endless bus ride.


Dr. Idyllwild stopped the cart with a lurch on the outskirts of an island of light, in the center of which a tall scarecrow of a man danced backwards, white hair flailing in syncopation with the tails of his stained lab coat. He retreated before a rolling stainless steel cryostat, a cylinder 18 inches long and 14.25 inches in diameter—a relic from the early days of life extension, built to contain a human head.


The man imitated ground crew flashlighting a taxiing airliner into a gate.  He broke into a jitterbug of celebration as the canister scattered a chevron of empty yogurt cups arranged as bowling pins. “Yes!  It is a small world after ALL!”  The canister rolled to rest with the photograph of a familiar face gazing upward from behind its Plexiglas shield—the languid eyes and pencil grey moustache of Walt Disney.


Dr. Idyllwild cleared his throat. “Doctor Flennikan.  This does not comply with our standard of care.”


“I concur,” I said, sure Dr. Idyllwild would now fire this rogue employee.


Dr. Flennikan turned as if noticing us for the first time, the wrinkles around his eyes indicating an age at least several decades my senior.


“Lowell, this is Mr. Cleaver Coopersmith,” Dr. Idyllwild gestured to me. “Your new assistant.”


“You’re kidding,” Dr. Flennikan said.


Dr. Idyllwild remained silent as marble.


“Oh come on, Rand,” Dr. Flennikan said. “He’s just a guppy. No thanks. I’m throwing him back.”


“That won’t be necessary.” I stepped out of the cart into the light and straightened my tie, crushed by the realization that I would not be working under Dr. Idyllwild, but determined to demonstrate enthusiasm under any hardship.


“Think of it—a young mind, ready to shape?” Dr. Idyllwild remained seated in the cart—I knew he had trouble walking, but did not know why. “Besides, I insist.”


Dr. Flennikan inspected me like a package of steak in a cooler. “Did you say Mister Coopersmith?”


“Not a doctor,” Dr. Idyllwild replied. “Or ever likely to become one, since he’s been rejected from medical school in three successive application cycles.  But you’ll find him well motivated by some rather enormous student loans. HR has a new hiring strategy.”


So that was me—a hiring strategy. No matter: I deserved some humiliation.


Dr. Flennikan studied my face. “True?”


I hoped the spotty light prevented him from seeing me blush. “True.”


“Well,” he said. “I like a man with a crushing sense of purpose. I’ll give him a try.”


“Excellent.” Dr. Idyllwild turned to me from his seat in the cart. “Mr. Coopersmith?” He gestured to the canister on the floor.


I hunkered the heavy metal cylinder to the installation in the alcove, inserting it with some difficulty into the empty slot. Pictures and nameplates labeled the other tarnished steel units: sloe-eyed Elvis. Abraham Maslow. J. Edgar Hoover. Pablo Picasso—the drawing inside the Plexiglas a bald blue centaur with three eyes and two noses.  One anonymous unit stood at the end of the array and I wondered who might reside within.  A rusting metal sign overarched the installation proclaimed “WHATEVER DOES NOT KILL US MAKES US STRONGER.”


“Mr. Coopersmith,” Dr. Idyllwild said.


“Sir?” I almost snapped to attention.


“Your job is to ensure the integrity of this historic neighborhood containing our most illustrious pioneers. If Dr. Flennikan tries anything unseemly, such as bowling with human heads, put a stop to it immediately. Security has a Taser in the office reserved under your name, should you require persuasive assistance. Remember—whatever it takes.” His gaze had the intensity of a snake charmer. Or a cobra.


“Understood.” I appreciated that life extension represented both humanity’s future and a sizeable paycheck.


“Excellent.” Dr. Idyllwild cranked the wheel in a U-turn, narrowly missing my foot, and sped off. “Good luck, Mr. Coopersmith,” he called as darkness swallowed cart and driver.


“Such a prick,” Dr. Flennikan said. He turned his gaze to the stained equipment in the alcove. “’What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’  What a load of crap.”   Sadness appeared to encase him like a bug in amber.

And so began my season in the deep freeze of hell.


* * *


In the afternoon of that first day, well before five o’clock, I rode shotgun in Lowell’s filthy old sports car—he insisted I call him Lowell. We travelled on bumpy two-lane blacktop at breakneck speed for thirty minutes or so without passing another car and turned onto a dirt road disappearing into a barren high desert landscape. Lowell had explained that NV (Non-Vested) employees at Progress were not entitled to reside at the Ark, a privilege reserved for PFs (Progress Fellows), a detail I’d somehow missed.


The car staggered through potholes on worn shocks, forcing me to clench my jaws to avoid chipping teeth. Lowell talked non-stop, recapping highlights of the lectures he’d given while showing me the ropes of maintaining the neighborhoods, his favorite subject the obsolete practice of cranial suspension. “The vitrification process supposedly rendered brain tissue to a stable consistency, but so many crystals formed that it’s probably easier to build a new head from scratch,” he said for perhaps the fifth time. “That’s why they tucked the Hall of Suckers away in the sub-basement instead of being the featured stop on the VIP tour.”


We hit a particularly large pothole, bottoming out so hard that I worried about concussion. The compulsive student in me couldn’t resist a question. “So who’s in the unlabelled canister?”


“State secret, Beaver Cleaver, need to know only. My guess is Nixon. But you’re not allowed to touch, ever. Scout’s honor, right?”  He took both hands off the wheel to form the three-fingered scout sign with each hand.


“Jesus, yes, scout’s honor.” I’d made the mistake of telling him I’d been an Eagle Scout.


We lurched to a halt at last, but it wasn’t until Lowell unfolded himself from the car that I realized we’d reached a sort of town. “Welcome to Orion,” he said, ringmaster arms sweeping the panorama of squat gray buildings with boarded windows, paint long blasted off by wind and sand.  Orion, cobbled together during a uranium mining boom of the 1950s, had all the charm of an abandoned trailer park.


Lowell walked toward the only building with a second story, its false-front styled after a western saloon. “This used to be a mortuary—isn’t that a scream?” he said. “I own the whole town, so if Progress ever takes off like they plan, I’m a made guy.” He grinned one of those toothy smiles that made him look twenty years younger, but in a scary way.


Rolling hills stretched miles in every direction, dotted with scrub and backed by high mountains dusted white. Running was pointless.


We ascended the staircase of the saloon/mortuary and entered a set of rooms smelling of rotting vegetable matter and plagued by fruit flies. Inside a closet stood a hot water heater converted to a distillation assembly. Lowell picked up an apple juice jug positioned beneath the condensation coil and poured several ounces of clear liquid into a pockmarked enameled cup, which he thrust into my hand.  “Rent’s three hundred a month, on sale, limited time only. Cheers.”


“But I’d have to buy a car,” I said, desperate to avoid becoming marooned with a man of questionable mental stability in the middle of nowhere. As far as I knew, past assistants were buried in the basement.


“Transport is covered when you room with me, Sancho Panza.” He made a tippling motion, pinkie extended.


“Car pool.”


“Alcohol kills brain cells,” I said, sure that a sip of this liquid would vitrify my future into something resembling his.


“Bull pucky—what the hell do they teach you kids in cell biology these days?  Besides, the human brain contains far too many neurons. Out here, the fewer the better. Bottom’s up.”


“Let me think about it,” I said.


“Think about it?  All right, two hundred a month.” He sounded like a prospector left out on his own too long who knows his loneliness is off putting, but can’t help himself. “But you have to feed the still.”


Yes, price mattered. The reality of my new life had begun to dawn on me, the opulence of the Ark a distant goal that I would need to pay my dues to attain. “A hundred,” I said. “I’ll do the house cleaning.” Too late, I glanced around and saw every surface felted with a quarter inch of gray dust.


“You’ve got yourself a deal,” he said.  “But stay on the second floor. Slight radiation problem.”


To help with my sinking feeling, I took the smallest sip possible from the cup. The burning started at my lips and descended the esophagus, mapping my respiratory, gastric and circulatory systems with radiant pain and triggering convulsive coughing.


“Smooth finish; dry but drinkable,” Lowell said. “Vodka, I think.”


“You could go blind,” I spat between coughs. “It’s illegal.”


“Nonsense.  My lab technique is impeccable and we have an extensive human testing program.” He pointed to himself. “And in these parts, you can marry eight women, including your sister, and nobody gives a hootenanny. Here, you can remove somebody’s head and no big whoop, but they have the gall to make it a dry county.” He snatched the cup away and pointed at me, in what I already recognized as full lecture mode.


“Life is poisonous, Beaver Cleaver. No antidote, no escape—” he drained the cup in one swallow as if it were water—“and no mercy, though this comes awfully damned close. Now do me a favor and take off that ridiculous tie.”


* * *


Even the monastic existence of graduate school failed to prepare me for the isolation of Progress Foundation. My first weeks consisted of on-the-job training accompanied by non-stop narrative from Lowell on cryogenics, cell biology, anatomy and various medical procedures, reproduced in detail from his photographic memory. I listened. My dream of a career in medicine had evaporated, but after seven years of college learning had become a habit.


I will admit to breaking faith with my promise to Dr. Idyllwild. Lowell insisted on recreation: bowling with empty cryostats (emptiness a hard-won concession); karaoke with Elvis; blindfolded trashcan basketball with Pablo Picasso, drag show dress up with J. Edgar Hoover and a pyramid game with Abraham Maslow that I never understood. The surface world remained remote as another continent, our elevator emptying to a parking lot containing no other cars. Progress was gearing up for full operation at that time, aiming for mass appeal. At some point, I made the mistake of asking about the rest of the staff.


“You want to meet the Fellows?” Lowell said. “Why not?” He shook his head in apparent disgust and glanced at his watch. “Let’s do lunch.”


We journeyed through the maze of ladders and tunnels to a freight elevator, arriving at the employee cafeteria through a spider web of corridors. I discovered my one perk to be something that wasn’t meant to exist: a free lunch.


An extended academic career taught me to survive on basic nutrition—rice and beans, lentils, canned herring purchased by the case, cheap ground beef and potatoes.  So many potatoes. The dining room buffet looked like heaven.  Although Thanksgiving remained months away, I loaded my plate with turkey, stuffing, gravy, green beans and cranberry sauce, leaving the mashed potatoes.


Plate full, I registered a dozen or so men in white lab coats seated at two tables in the center of the room and flashed back to high school, with the cool kids holding court and the nerds seated as far away as possible. I took a seat with Lowell near the far wall.


“Hey Lowell,” said a small bald man with a smudge of hair at the crown like a giant’s thumbprint. His nametag identified him as Dr. Steven Leonard. “How’s the deep freeze?”


“Waiting for you, Steve,” Lowell said. “Got a pink polka dot cryostat all picked out.”


“Funny,” Dr. Leonard snickered to his colleagues, who smiled wanly and lowered their heads in hushed conversation, occasionally glancing in our direction.


“You wanted to meet the Fellows?” Lowell said. “That’s them. Hurry up and eat.”


Once a week or so, I ventured up to the dining room to stuff myself, but otherwise avoided the place. Food wasn’t that important to me after all.


* * *


Six months later, on the lees of a bleak desert winter, the telephone rang in the sub-basement and I jumped—I hadn’t known the phone even worked. The voice on the other end was barely audible until I switched off the CD player, terminating Lowell’s “Jailhouse Rock” duet with the King, whose cryostat perched on my cart.


“Dr. Idyllwild wishes to have a word with Dr. Flennikan and –?” said the disembodied female voice on the phone.


“Coopersmith,” I said. Except for the two-hundred and fifty pound lunch lady in the hairnet, I had no idea that any female worked at Progress.


“The board room. Ten sharp.”  Click.


I pushed and pulled Lowell up into the unfamiliar territory of the Ark’s executive offices, somehow sure we’d served our time in purgatory and were on the way to a plum assignment above ground in reward for our arduous and lonely work. The boardroom featured two huge oak doors, a cathedral ceiling and a bird’s eye maple table the size of a destroyer.  We waited thirty minutes before Dr. Idyllwild’s halting steps became audible in the corridor.  The official story had him losing toes after climbing K-2, but Lowell claimed the frostbite came from a self-administered suspension experiment gone wrong.  I listened to the distinctive foot-dragging gait and glimpsed something in Lowell that I’d never seen before—terror.


Idyllwild emerged through one side of the door. “Dr. Leonard is dead,” he said, as if reporting the weather and daring us to change it.  “I thought you should know, Lowell, since you were once such good friends.”


“Steve Leonard? Dead?” Lowell’s smile took on the appearance of a knife wound awaiting sutures. “I thought we never used that word around here?”


“Only when medically appropriate. The police found Dr. Leonard this morning, asphyxiated in a contraption designed to deprive him of oxygen, which worked a bit too well after an alleged miscommunication with a prostitute.”


“Well I’ll be a horse’s ass,” Lowell said. “Is he in the ice bath?”


Dr. Idyllwild micro-adjusted the slope of his eyebrows.  “Dr. Leonard’s brain has been stagnant for approximately sixteen hours. As you know, well outside the protocol. Plus there’s the question of suicide, which voids our obligation.”


“Bullshit and you know it,” Lowell said. “It’s sloppy technique, not suicide. Those head-in-a-can types downstairs have more crystals than Morton’s salt, and you won’t give Steve his shot at eternal misery? Where is he? I’ll ice him myself.”


Dr. Idyllwild’s head cocked a sixteenth of an inch and I thought of a shark detecting the first molecules of blood. “You know the policy. Dr. Leonard’s remains will be shipped to his parents in New Jersey tomorrow.”

“Unless?” Lowell said.


“If you were willing to return to Intake, we might make an arrangement,” Idyllwild said.  “Steve never really filled your shoes.  That’s why I called you up here—to offer you the job. You can bring your assistant—Mr.?”

I fumbled for my nametag and realized I’d lost track of it shortly after giving up on ties. “Coopersmith,” I said, holding my breath. We would rise from the sub basement at last, phoenix-like, into the plush facilities and clean lab coats of the Ark.


“No thanks, Rand,” Lowell said. “I promised Alice.”


“Alice?” I said, desperate. “Who the hell is Alice?”


They examined me like a talking monkey, then turned back to each other.


“Don’t be absurd.” Idyllwild put a hand on Lowell’s shoulder. “Those were the dark ages. You can’t hold onto—”


Lowell stepped back, causing Idyllwild’s arm to swing free, setting him to wobble, a domino about to tip.


“Is that all?” Lowell said.


Dr. Idyllwild looked ready to spit on the parquet floor. ““Very well. Back to the basement.”


“Wait,” I said. “Who’s Alice?”


Dr. Idyllwild was already shuffling his way back through the massive door.  “I’ll leave it to Lowell to explain.”

Lowell fell silent, remaining that way for the rest of the day. Just as well, since I might have tried to strangle him had said anything.


* * *


On the following Sunday afternoon, I drove Lowell back from R_ _ _, a plastic bag of convenience store ice perched on his head.  We ascended and descended rolling hills, compressing the shot suspension in the troughs and approaching weightlessness at the crests, motion sickness a few more rollers away.


On the preceding Friday, Lowell announced he needed to blow off steam, promising to pay for everything. Still sulking, I refused, but he threatened to endanger the public by driving.


It had been a hell of a weekend.


“So what’s the deal with the MCAT, Beaver?” His first words in twenty miles. “I thought you must be thick as a brick to end up in the Cadaver Archipelago. But that’s not it.”


My head hurt from lack of sleep, alcohol, Lowell’s inescapable stale breath and the absence of a reason to live. “Test anxiety. I fold under pressure. Freeze up.”


“Freeze up?”


I found comfort in the perception that his laughter hurt him almost as much as it did me.


“Other than that—what’s your worst crash-and-burn?  Biggest life-crushing failure?”


“I don’t know.” Simple existence seemed the obvious answer. “Camp Forrester, I guess.  I was fifteen, a new Counselor in Training.  I reported the senior guy over some stupid hazing nonsense and they packed me off home.”


“That’s all you’ve got?” Lowell laughed again. “No drug busts?  Never caught with the junior fry cook doing it on the potato sacks? No drunken debauches ending in a jail cell?”


“No. I was a good kid.”


“I’ll say. You earned your As, made it into the right schools, blew a few tests, borrowed a lot of money and—what?—mailed yourself to Siberia?  No wonder you freeze up. You never learned how to fail.”


The horizon filled with cumulonimbus, hills and telephone poles.  “Okay,” I said, in no mood for a lecture on failure when ten hours before I’d intervened before a Brazilian hooker Lowell had been dancing the tango with could take him up on his marriage proposal.  The remains of my shirt pocket flapped loose and the scratches on my neck hurt like new bee stings. “What’s your biggest failure?”


“Well, it goes something like this.” He told me about the glory days of cryonics, before Progress attracted the funding to move west and build the Ark, when they were naïve enough to believe a severed head could be reattached to some spare corpus maybe a hundred years down the road. How he’d been introduced to an old woman named Alice, who turned out to be Idyllwild’s mother and how Lowell had performed the procedure separating Alice’s head at the C4 vertebra, perhaps in advance of her natural last breaths from cervical cancer. How the local New Jersey authorities chose to investigate, bring a murder charge and ultimately separate him from his medical license.


“You might say the whole thing placed severe limitations on my career options,” he said, laughing.


I could tell that laugh hurt him worse than it hurt me. “So—the unlabelled cryostat?”


“Alice Idyllwild. I promised I’d take care of her. It was the last thing she heard.” Lowell looked out the window.


We came to the top of another rolling hill, slightly higher than the rest, exposing the rise and fall of so many other hills. I envisioned myself working year after year, rising from the sub-basement through hard work, perhaps becoming a Progress Fellow and eventually paying off my loans.


And then what?


Suddenly, a lab job, teaching high school science or slinging the contents of trash cans into the maw of a garbage truck didn’t seem so bad. I knew then I would leave Progress. To the surprise of everyone, I earned my MD. I credit the endless lectures between bowling and basketball in the sub basement as much as Lowell’s recommendation to the dean of admissions, although it is true I killed the MCAT without breaking a sweat.


But back then, at that moment, the phone poles clicked past and we seemed to move no closer to our destination, our debts infinite and everlasting.




Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in MonkeybicyclePer Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains ReviewdecomP, Cicada, Danse Macabre, Snake Nation ReviewPindeldyboz and others, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. His novel Taking Candy from the Devil, about coffee, Bigfoot and trebuchets, is published online. Links appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with a blog about mankind’s bipolar relationship with technology. He writes, works and juggles in the Emerald City.

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