All Real and Plasticized
"Would you like to feel a real brain," Brenda says, stopping the man and the blond boy in his arm. The boy is pushing his face into the back of his father's shirt collar. The father hesitates, looking around at passing strangers for an answer.
"It's all plasticized," she says, offering it out. The father touches it with three fingers that are unwilling to accept its weight. He pinches at it, and the brain does not move. He laughs, relieved.
"Try it," he tells the boy, taking it from her hand and pushing it back behind his shoulder to the boy. "It feels just like plastic." The child will not touch it.
"It's plasticized, you see?" Brenda points at it with an upturned hand, trembling a bit. She wants to give the child a better reason, but it is plasticized, this is true. The boy pushes his nose beneath his father's shirt collar, rubbing his bangs side to side on the fabric until they splay out with static like yellow peacock feathers.
The father smiles an apology, returns the brain and they retreat. Brenda cups her hand around the brain, peering down at it. She runs her thumb along the swirls and whorls and snakiness of it. She bends her thumb so that the nail bumps down into a groove, and begins tracing it in all directions, as far as the nail can stretch. If it weren't plasticized, would it fall apart in her hands, she wonders? would it implode with a pllughhhhhhhhh sound, falling through her finger-gullies like so many strands of spaghetti? No, she decides. It would be whole. There would be a beginning, and there would be an end, and if she sucked one end up through a straw she would surely choke to death before reaching the other.
"You made a friend today, Tom," she whispers to the brain. People with cameras pass by without seeing her. "Next time, maybe the little boy, too."
A couple walks by, smiling and swinging hands clutched together. They stop at the wall and lean in, pressing their foreheads against each other. They can't stop smiling at each other long enough to kiss. Brenda feels her heart soften and curl; she knows what it's like to finally find a soulmate.
It is 4pm, and the Museum of Health and Medicine closes in an hour. They are always busier on Saturdays. On weekends, there is usually a person or two who will hold the brain. A woman with a straw bag and sunglasses wanders by. Her glasses are so dark that Brenda doesn't know if they are looking at each other or not.
"Would you like to feel a real brain." The sentence ends in a vacuum as the woman veers off toward the History of Dental Tools exhibit. Then, three teenage boys come toward her. They are modern knights, bold and proud in large dark pants hung with chains. Their hair is straight chin-length and parted in the middle, and they are laughing and bumping against each other.
"Would you like to feel a real brain." They collide away, the one on the left stumbling into a near fall. He flips his hair back as his body unfolds violently into the air. A small braided girl skitters through their wake, clutching crumpled pamphlets and squeezing her knees.
"Would you like to feel a real brain." The child taps at the hip of a volunteer, asks for the little girls room. Brenda peers again at the lump in her hand. Hercule Poirot called it grey cells, but this always looked brown.
"It's almost five, Tom, but tomorrow is still the weekend." Brenda sets the brain gently on the table beside her and trains her eyes on the passing crowd to be sure that no one tries to grab it and run.
"Hey, man, look what I got!" she can imagine one of the teenage boys telling the other two on Monday. "I stole it and they didn't catch me. I dare you to suck on it." Laughing, tossing it against loud lockers, letting it bump-roll away into the trample of the late bell.
"May I see your brain?" It is an old man, thin as a bone, bends toward her brain. He is wearing a blue-rimmed sticker on his brown plaid shirt that says "HELLO my name is GERALD." Brenda hates herself for a moment; he could have taken the brain and run away with it and she wouldn't have caught him.
He is waiting. She places it in his long hands which are laced together, the fingers thin and sharp enough that she fears they might poke out through the skin. He brings the brain close to his face, breathing hot air on it like a mirror he is trying to blear with fog.
"This is a poet's brain," he whispers. "A woman poet." Brenda feels herself growing warm. How could this man-- Gerald-- think he knew this?
"It is a brain, and it is all plasticized," she tells him firmly, hand quivering out toward him, reaching. "It should be grey, but it is brown."
"A poet's brain, a poet's brain," he sings quietly, and the words vibrate in their wake. "A poet who wrote of children in war, the depth of infinite numbers, the smell of toast."
"It is five o'clock, and you need to leave." Brenda shoves the words past a swallow, touching his cold wrist with her fingertips. He does not move for a moment, then turns his nest of finger-bones toward her, allowing her to take the brain from its curve.
"Shades of white and the feel of a tickle," he says, still staring into his upturned palms as he retreats on tiptoes, voice rippling away. The lights begin flicking to dim, one by one, until the only full light left is the one shining onto the glass box where the brain makes its nighttime home.
Someone calls out to Brenda, reminding her that tonight is her night to lock up, and then the heavy metal doors clank shut for the last time, leaving nothing in the silence but the sound of her breath and the jangly-scrape of the door chain swinging down to stillness.
She draws the real plasticized brain close to her face, peering into the depths of its hardness, wishing it clear like a rippling marble. She pictures it coming to life in her hands, a writhing snakepit of life and thought and being.
"That Gerald man was a fool, Tom," she says.
"Woman poet," she hears, followed by a sigh. "It's been a long day." Brenda places the plasticized brain gently into the glass case and adjusts its square lid. She goes out to the front desk to pull her handbag out from under the main desk, and carries it to the ladies' room.
Inside the ladies room, she flips on the overhead light and is startled by the brightness; perhaps the janitor installed a higher wattage bulb. She pulls out her makeup bag, a dusty flowered half-circle with a catching zipper.
The windows inside the museum are few, and today is dark and rainy: she decides on the dark brown eyeliner instead of the khaki. She strokes the blush twice on each side and pats her cheeks lightly with a tissue. The lipliner wedged along the bottom of the bag is new, and she has to rip at the sleeve of cellophane with her front teeth before she can tear it away in strips. The wobble of her hand leaves a wiggle in the line, but she fills it in fast with red lipstick and remembers that it's rainy and dark outside. She puts the makeup back in her bag and looks into the mirror.
Brenda has a special way of looking at herself in a mirror; she does it in parts. This way, she can tell herself "those are nice clear eyes" or "that is a fine-shaped mouth" or "what an even chin" and be telling the truth. The whole package brings messy complications; things are made simpler by parts.
The lipstick is heavy. She folds a tissue in half, pulling it tight and thin as a wafer, then slides it between her lips and presses down gently. She opens the tissue and holds it up to the light like a bullfighter's cape awaiting puncture. On the sheer cotton, an upper lip and a lower lip are abnormally asunder, a faceless mouth stretched tall like The Scream. A rage-red wax mouth that wants to talk but can't, that wants to shriek and scream and make itself real but can't. Brenda folds the mouth onto itself and places it in the side pocket of her black pants.
Back out in the museum, she begins her visits on the far left. The first case holds the wartime amputation knives and accompanying typed notecards describing each. There is a row of bones that have amputated from the legs and arms of men who fought wars and were treated by surgeons for whom amputation was the only option. She moves in close to the window, focusing on each bone individually before shifting her eyes to the next one.
"It was a busy day, don't you think?" Brenda says politely. She is always polite to the amputation collection.
"Too many hands pawing at the glass," she hears a steely chorus say.
"Yes," she agrees, looking at each bone in response, the jerking movement drying her eyes. She smiles, nods, and moves on.
The next case holds the bullet that killed Lincoln, fragments of his skull, and a cuff with the splutter of his last blood. She murmurs sympathy and shuffles to the right.
The largest Mason jar Brenda has ever seen holds the leg-log that was stricken with elephantitis. It is a thigh, the knee and a little below? The distortion of largeness makes it difficult to know this for sure. Before the new museum director came and moved things around for the sake of moving things around, the jar was butted right up to the front of the case, and appeared larger. She hasn't counted, but she is certain that there are less gasps now, less stepping back.
"How are you feeling, Roger?" she asks.
"Oh," she hears a sad voice say, "a little bloated." They laugh together at the joke, as they do every night. "You look pretty tonight."
"Hm-m," she short-laughs, twisting at the chain on her museum ID necklace. "It's dark outside today, with the rain. You can barely see in the dimness."
"I'm used to looking at water," she hears. "I can tell."
"I heard a riddle today," she says. "A little girl told it to another little girl."
"What is it?"
"Here it is: knock knock."
"The interrupting cow."
"The interrupting cow wh-"
"MOO!" She laughs over the groan that is rumbling through the giant Mason jar and taps a see-you-later on the glass.
The next case holds two jars, slightly smaller than the one for the elephantitis leg. Each jar has a pair of Siamese twins in it. The ones on the left, Rodney and Rafael, are attached at the shoulder. The other twins share a head, a head that is wide enough for one-and-a-half babies, but only has two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth. The broad neck breaks off into two full bodies, one male and one female, floating away from each other to bump against the rounded glass sides. Sometimes, it is difficult for Brenda to remember that the one-faced child is two people: Virgil and Vivian.
"Hello, Rodney and Rafael and Virgil and Vivian," she says, trying her hardest to give each individual an eye-contact greeting.
"Hello, Brenda!" she hears three young voices say in a single pitch.
"How is everyone?" she asks, leaning her forehead against the glass and breathing a hot tiny cloud onto its surface.
A jumble of "okay!", "good," and "I saw a funny-looking guy today" meets her ears.
"That's good," she says. "What was funny-looking about the man, Rafael?"
"He, uh, uh, uh," the stutter knocks against the glass. "He had on a funny looking hat, like long and striped. And glasses, big glasses."
"Oh, I remember him," Brenda laughs. "It's too warm in here for a hat."
"Yeah!" they all cry. "Too warm for a hat!" The water in the jars gurgles with their laughter.
"Um," Vivian and Virgil says. "UM."
"Yes?" Brenda responds, tracing her initials into the breath haze, which is beginning to peel off into the air.
"There was another weird guy," they say.
"Two weird guys?" Brenda asks.
"Oh, the other guy was just funny," they clarify. "This one was weird."
"Weird how?" she says.
"Weird like he was whispering to us," they tell her. "He said, 'you would have been great.'"
"He did?" Brenda says.
"Yeah!" they say, encouraged. "He said that one of us would have been a famous scientist, and one of us would have been President!"
"He did?" Brenda says.
"His name was Gerald," they tell her. "He was weird." Brenda runs her tongue through her mouth, realizing that she's chewed off all her lipstick. Now, her teeth feel all gluey.
"He must have been crazy," she tells them, tracing a circle on the glass, outlining their single head. "He couldn't have known that!"
"Is it true?" they demand of her.
"No!" she cries. "He couldn't know anything." They tell her they love her, and she waves as she walks away, feeling choked-up.
"He said he'd be back tomorrow," she hears one twin tell another.
The next exhibit is the baby skeletons; there are twelve that range in age from one month up to one year. They alternate in gender, Brenda decided long ago, and their names are alphabetic.
She greets Anna, Bertrand, Callie, Donald, Effie, Franklin, Georgette, Henry, Isobel and Jebediah each by name. They say hello back, in order, overlapping and increasing in bass like the strum of a xylophone. They make smalltalk for a few minutes, telling jokes and stories. Franklin mentions a man called Gerald who stared at them for a long time that day, talking to them as if he knew them.
"He was so skinny he looked like a skeleton," Callie tells her.
"His fingers were this long-- as long as my leg!" Bertand says. "And he kept telling us about stuff I didn't even understand."
"Don't you worry about that man," Brenda says, wishing she could hug them each one by one. "He won't bother you again."
Things quiet down, and she returns to her post where Tom is waiting.
"I'm back," she says, pulling the real plasticized brain from its glass house. She sits in the chair behind the table, tucks it into her lap. The rain is dripping at the window, tappity-tapping on the aluminum siding outside and pounding on the museum roof, but inside, things are quiet. Brenda tilts her head back, closes her eyes and strokes the side of the brain with the pad of her hand.
"I feel sad today," she says softly. "A little bit."
"You don't need to be sad," she feels the brain say. "We're together now, and you don't have to think about anything else."
As always, the hours pass much faster at night. They pass like a dream, the sleeping times sucking into awake times, blending together like eggs folding into batter, parts and wholes slipping and swapping and moving in waves. The night is spent wrapped in a quilt made of mismatched squares-- squares of open-mouthed laughter and sentence fragments, overflow and understanding, truth and substance and marriage that will last forever. Sometimes she pulls the quilt up tight over herself, sometimes she coils it to cover an awkward elbow, or chilly toe. Sometimes she crumples it all around her so that the squares aren't even discernible.
The first heat of the morning sun begins to warm her eyelids as she runs the rugged edge of the brain down over the curve of her cheek, past the gentle ridge of her jaw and over the yielding skin of her neck. With her eyes closed, it almost feels like the rough, stroking touch of a male hand.
It is morning, so the quilt must be folded into perfect quarters and the real plasticized brain must be returned to the glass case with the square top. Then, Brenda must go home to shower and prepare for the day.
It is a month before the man returns to the museum. He is wearing no name tag, but she recognizes the hands, sharp and tenacious.
"Excuse me, sir." He is talking to the syphilis display and does not reply. She says it again, louder. This time, he walks toward her, looking her in the eyes.
"I just wanted you to know some things about the museum."
"Go ahead," he says in a flat tone.
"The twins," she pauses, "they aren't scientists, and they aren't presidents. They're just babies. Just babies, just little twins!"
"Yes," he says in a rising tone, and she isn't sure if this is agreement or a provocation.
"The brain," she continues. "The brain is not a woman poet. It is the brain of a man, a man named Tom." He is still standing there, listening to her. She has twisted the chain on her I.D. so much that her fingers are caught, and it hurts to pull them free.
"Tom is a man whose voice won't let him tell a lie. He loves movies that have real endings, whether they're happy endings or not. He likes pickles and ham salad, but never at the same time." She can hear her voice rising. "Tom has this incredible way of relating to children, and a talent for choosing just the right song for the moment." All the Saturday people are walking by, but no one is stopping; it is just Gerald and her. Gerald and Tom and her. "He believes in God and in democracy and in the basic good of people." She pauses to choke down some air. "And if he were alive-- if he were alive--" her voice strangles for a moment. "Well-- he would never, ever be a woman poet."
"You're wrong," he says simply, "but believe what you like." He gives a short laugh and walks away.
The rest of the day passes, and no one takes her up on the offer to touch a real, plasticized brain. At five o'clock, she pulls the I.D. from around her neck; she will need to turn it in when she resigns. It is chillier than usual in the museum, but Brenda's sweater is large and thick. The people peering into cameras see nothing when she picks up the brain and slips it down into her pocket. They are blinded still as she flicks off the light that would have shone directly into the glass box.
About the author:
Vanessa Weibler Paris lives, works and writes in Erie, Pennsylvania, where there's four days of summer per year. She's been known to perform with a local comedy improv group, eat seven pounds of crab legs in one sitting, and own an accordian she never learned to play.