“Tell them I am going to show them what they are,” said my mother while dropping me off at primary school.
She’d agreed to come to Parent Show and Tell Day, and we had to report to the teacher what our visiting parents would be talking about. I leaned forward to hug her, and she kissed me on the forehead. I always looked up at her, reluctant to go.
“Go on now,” she’d say after a moment.
But once I was out of the car, I always turned around and waved, as if the hug and the kiss hadn’t been enough. She would smile a warm, slow smile and then shoo me on with a flick of her wrist.
I’d walk away slowly so long as I could still feel her eyes on my back, but when I sensed them move and heard the car pull away, I’d stop and walk back, watching as she pulled onto the road in front of the school. Her car was very loud and rumbled like a faraway storm. Unless a teacher made me move, I waited, listening until it reached the place half a mile away where the speed limit changed from 25 to 55. Then I would hear the sudden burst of sound that came when Mama stomped the floor. She didn’t know it, but that was her real daily goodbye to me.
“Go, Mama!” I would say in my mind and wonder if she heard me.
Her car was an old Mercury Cougar she’d bought years ago, before she quit her job. It had an engine called a V8, like the drink I liked.
“It’s getting old, like me,” she’d say sometimes, “but it’s still got plenty of power. More than 300 horses’ worth.”
After lunch, the teacher went around the room, asking who had parents coming and what they would be showing or telling.
“My mom’s a secretary,” said the girl sitting next to me. “She’s going to show how fast she can type and then give us our words to take home.”
Then it was my turn. “My mom is going to show you what you are.”
The teacher frowned. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s what she told me to say.”
The class snickered, and a slow blush filled my face.
The teacher asked again, “What does your mother do?”
“She can do a lot of things, but she almost always stays at home.”
“So your mother is a homemaker.”
“Maybe. I don’t know what that word means. I’ve never heard it before.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a homemaker, but you should ask your mother if there is anything special about what she does before she shows and tells,” the teacher said. “A lot of what homemakers do is unremarkable and the same. We don’t want all the visiting mothers to say the same things.”
I cried sometimes during naptime because I missed Mama so much. To help with this, she had given me a toy version of her car that was exactly like it in every way. I would lie on my mat and run the car over my chest, then up and down my arms, making a soft, low sound like faraway thunder.
But in my mind, I could see Mama at home and tell she was unhappy. My head began to throb, and I would cry, softly and quietly, hot tears running over my temples and curving round my ears. It hurt my heart to know she was all by herself and unhappy. I wished I could be there with her. When the teacher grew angry and told me to stop crying, I always felt bad and apologized to her.
I wanted to stop crying, but I couldn’t.
By the time my mother completed her doctorate at the Medical College of Virginia in the late 1960s, her research had made her one of the world’s experts on the pineal gland, and so she received the rare professional privilege of a job offer from the school that had granted her terminal degree. She was the only woman in her graduating class and, when she accepted the job, the only woman faculty member.
The first course she ever taught was in a large, sloping, concrete-floored lecture hall. One entered at the back and made a long descent to the stage, where two long chalkboards and a lab table stood.
Mama nearly always ran late so that when she entered the auditorium at the rear on the first day of class, her arms full of books and lecture notes, the students, more than a hundred of them, all men, were assembled and waiting for her. Her lab coat distinguished her as a professor, but as they turned to consider her, the expressions on their faces—disappointment, anxiety, dismissal—told the tale of their collective shock.
Whispers begin as she makes the slow descent to the stage, heels clicking steadily on the concrete. About halfway down, someone launches a brief, piercing whistle—ancient trumpet of male admiration—applauded by laughs from his fellows.
Mama keeps walking.
At the bottom, she mounts the two steps to the stage and walks to the lab table, where she sets down her books before looking up and around the lecture hall, squinting slightly in the lights, taking in the sea of male faces.
She takes off her coat.
“That’s right! Take it off!” cries an anonymous voice somewhere to the left.
“Take it all off!” exclaims another on the opposite side of the room.
Laughter bursts from all sides.
Hands trembling slightly, Mama takes hold of her lecture notes and turns to write on one of the chalkboards.
“Nice ass!” a voice calls.
Then a hollow, slightly grating sound of motion and muffled laughter. Turning from the board, Mama spies an empty jar rolling down the central aisle. Students seated to the far sides of the auditorium half-rise from their seats so as to follow it with their heads. Picking up speed, the jar hits the bottom stage step and careens to one side. More muffled laughter.
Mama turns back to the board and keeps writing, listing her key terms for the day.
A minute passes, marked by the sounds of ideas etched into symbols.
Then, again: the rolling sound—closer, louder, varied in texture—as the jar rolls over the boards of the lecture stage. Mama turns just as it glances off her shoe. Loud laughter this time.
As the sound dies, Mama walks to the lab table and sets her chalk down. Then she takes off her glasses and sets them down, too. As she looks back up and around the indistinct audience, a smile forms on her face—the easy, natural smile of a cheerleader or prom court princess, both of which she had been. She looks to one side of the auditorium and then to the other, hands on hips, smiling.
“Cutie!” calls a voice.
“Hottie!” says another.
Smile still intact, unwavering, Mama strides across the stage to where the jar lies. Hands still on hips in an attitude of sensual affectation, she lifts her right foot, arches an eyebrow at her audience, then brings down her shoe, suddenly, heavily, piercing the air of the room as glass shatters and echoes, and jagged irregular pieces slide across the stage in various directions.
Silence, then the lonely sound of Mama’s heels as she walks back to the table, puts on her glasses and looks around the lecture hall.
“Let’s get to work, gentlemen.”
Another time, in the lab, with the merged smell of chemical preservatives and disinfectant heavy in the air, students are about to begin dissecting cadavers. Mama circulates about the room, prepping the class.
A tall student raises his hand, beckoning her toward his group’s examination table. “Professor, our specimen here seems to have a problem.”
Smirks from the others in the group and the nearby tables as Mama peers down at the cadaver to discover that someone has placed a condom on the body’s forever-limp penis. She glances at the student who has announced the anomaly then looks around the table, noting the clenched jaws of his fellows. Then she smiles at them—her slow, warm, cheerleader smile—as if she, too, shares in the jest.
Leaning forward, she reaches across the table to take hold of the cadaver’s penis.
Then Mama’s other hand, bearing her scalpel, swings into motion. There is a sudden, deft flash of metal in the fluorescent light.
There is a sharp, collective intake of air from multiple mouths and a couple of audible groans.
“This little thing isn’t relevant or useful for this lab practical or even the semester’s curriculum,” she announces in her lecture voice, shaking for emphasis the hand that holds the penis. “It’s just not useful.”
With that, she tosses it in the tableside bio-waste container and moves on to inspect the cadaver on the next table, students falling back from her, two of them stumbling over each other, almost falling, as if some new invisible force surrounds this woman’s body and emanates from all sides.
When she quit, she took everything her grant money had purchased: microscopes, vials, Petri dishes, burners, hamster cages, protein formulae, a cross-sectional composite of a fetal pig and even a human skeleton.
“Surely,” said the department chair, “you are not taking the skeleton. It will be of little use beyond the academic community.”
“He goes with me,” my mother said. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t be too sure of anything.”
* * *
“There is … a class of monsters who might live, but which would always remain freaks.”
—Charles Sumner Bacon, “A Symposium on Obstetrical Abnormalities” (1916)
Sitting on a shelf in a little windowless supply room just off one of the dissection labs was the Medical College’s collection of genetic mutations: a dozen infants and fetuses afloat in large, clear glass containers of formaldehyde. I used to dream about them when I was younger.
The variations in these beings were both obvious and subtle, shocking and secretive. Several were possessed of different degrees of encephaloceles, the meninges protruding in a number of different shapes and geometric designs. I wondered: What would that feel like? One was visited with holoprosencephaly, its nostrils displaced and its optical qualities all fused together into a great single orb. What might such an eye have seen? And balancing this cyclopean collapse, there was also an instance of doubling: an infant possessed of one body and two heads, the result of the duplication of the neural tube. What would these heads have said to each other? What would they have thought?
Later, in college, reading on my own, I would come across a poem about a baby who was half-child, half-lamb. “ … in a museum in Atlanta,” it reads, “Way back in a corner somewhere / There’s this thing that’s only half / Sheep like a woolly baby / Pickled in alcohol. …” I thought so much of the poem that I resolved to study writing under the man who had created it, hoping, perhaps, to develop the powers to commit my own real and imagined monsters to paper, to afford them a kind of immortality through my rendering, which might also, in turn—I hoped—provide me with something from them at last. “Are we,” asked my old literary master, “Because we remember, remembered / In the terrible dust of museums?”
When I dreamed of them, they would move, though they never left their containers. Their meninges would pulsate, throb, with life. The mouths of the two heads would take turns opening and closing, bubbles emerging into the vat’s closed liquid world, traveling upward. Then, very, very slowly, as if awakening even as I slept, the lid of the great single eye would draw back, and the enormous orb would regard me—neither warmly nor coldly, but watching with some vague aspect of feeling.
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
I suppose the specimens did look monstrous and terrible, but I was never afraid of them. They were my friends.
If they could have smiled at me, they would have. And I would have smiled back.
The pineal gland is situated in the center of the brain, in a tiny cave-like enclosure beyond and above the pituitary gland and directly behind the eyes—to which it is attached by the third ventricle.
It controls the biorhythms of the body; it is typically triggered by changes in light and works in harmony with the hypothalamus gland to direct our emotions, thirst, hunger, sexual desire and the biological clock that determines aging. Head injuries may also activate it.
The Greeks considered the pineal gland our site of connection to the Realms of Thought. Descartes thought it the seat of the soul—the place where the interaction between the intellect and the body takes place. Myth and legend from a time before science? Even now, there are those who refer to it as “The Third Eye.”
We sit together in a pasture meadow, patched quilt spread beneath us, Mama’s arm resting across my shoulders.
A blue bird lands less than a foot from my foot, chirps and turns its tiny head sideways to regard me. Then he hops—three short, plump, quick hops—to the end of my shoe and bends forward, craning his neck to examine it.
I whisper something, and he searches my face before hopping onto my shoe, glancing at me again, then launching himself, soaring up and then back behind us, toward the trees that cast shadows.
I turn back to discover Mama watching me intently. I lean my head against her, and as I do, she draws back her arm then lets it fall, trailing her forefinger down my back, tapping each ridge of my spine as if marking a paper. Then the hand comes back up, fingers absently playing about my hair like butterflies.
“You are very nearly perfect,” she says. “Just how I imagined you would be.” She draws me to her. “My precious creation.”
After a while, I pull away and look at her. “Mama, I can tell about you. You’re sad.”
“I’m not sad, honey. I was only thinking.”
“Does thinking make you sad?”
Short laugh. “It can, I suppose, but I’m not sad. You’re here with me, and when we’re together, I can never be sad.” Silence from me, and she smiles. “Now, what are you thinking about?”
“I was thinking about the little bird. Do you think he’ll be OK when it gets dark? I wish I could help him.”
“I think he’ll be OK, but it’s good you want to help him. You must always help creatures and people if they need help and deserve it.”
“Why do I have to help people? Who’s going to help me?”
“When you get bigger, you aren’t going to need help, but because you will have a powerful ability to help people, you must always do so.”
“What if I don’t know what to do?”
“It is part of a being’s existence to make mistakes, but you have to be brave and try. Even when there are many people against you. That is what is called courage. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Then promise me you’ll do it.”
“I will, Mama. I promise.”
Mama was always running behind, usually because she had stayed up too late reading or had, perhaps, lingered too long in bed in the morning with her books and coffee. Sometimes if I was upstairs in my room, she would call to me and tell me to go get her a refill to spare her having to get up.
She claimed she hated going anywhere, but she loved to drive. Rushing to town, hopelessly late, well over the speed limit, she was happy.
“Always go into a curve slow and come out of it fast,” she would say, stabbing the accelerator as the road broke straight.
And I, next to her, was equally happy, standing on the floorboard, hands on the dashboard, peering over it, wide-eyed, smiling. “Come out fast, Mama! Come out fast!”
Sometimes, if the road curved to the left, I would fall against the door. If the curve was a hard right, I would tumble into her lap and lie there, laughing, peering into her face until she laughed, too.
She kept the skeleton in a corner of the upstairs cedar closet. A big steel rod rose out of a metal base resting on rollers and ran upward through the spinal column before terminating in the skull. The feet dangled three or four inches above the floor, creating the illusion of a body somehow hovering in the air. Despite the novelty of the thing’s presence though, the skeleton was simply another item in storage—something put away, half-forgotten. It was easy to miss on account of the various things clinging to it: A pile of winter caps stacked on its smooth head leaned slightly to one side, affording the skull a jaunty aspect, and heavy old shirts and frayed coats drooped from the shoulders, not unlike rock-hewn prehistoric furs from some distant cold-climate predecessor of us. A child-sized basketball resting in the pelvis suggested an impossible pregnancy, and an assortment of Christmas ornaments hanging from the lower ribs could not help but appear festive, speaking, it seemed to me, of some secret, grisly truth yet to be celebrated.
Sometimes when I was helping Mama in the closet, she would address the occupant: “How are we today, my good man?” or “Excuse us, sir” or “Don’t mind us, old friend.” She always seemed happy to see him—an acquaintance from another time, a fondly remembered ally from a war long over.
At other times, I would visit him when I was upstairs alone. A rush of cedar met me as I swung open the door and flipped on the light. I would carefully place my little hand against his, studying the contrast, then press each of my fingers against a corresponding fleshless digit.
Even at that age, I did not need my mother to tell me this was what I would be some day, this was what lay in store. I have no recollection that the truth of this fundamental situation ever troubled me. It was comforting in a way, a privilege almost, to have this visual testament available day or night, close at hand and always the same.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he did not seem to mind it so much himself. He was always smiling.
On Parent Show and Tell Day, Mama was running even later than usual; the time for heading to school came and went with her propped against her pillows, briskly flipping pages while sipping at her coffee.
“I’ll just take you when it gets to be time for my visit,” she said when I checked on her. “We’ll visit school together. Now go and get me another cup.”
Lunchtime passed, and I was out in front of the house, feeding butterflies, the tips of my fingers all sticky with sugar water, when I finally heard her calling me. I blew gently on my forefinger to dismiss my guest—upward patchwork flutter—before turning to run around to the back of the house.
At first, I did not think the woman standing next to the car was Mama. The figure in the sleeveless white spring dress and black heels and sunglasses appeared more like someone out of one of the women’s magazines I had seen in doctors’ offices. I hesitated, gawking. Then she smiled and waved for me to come on, and I knew it was her.
“Let’s go,” she called. “We’re late!”
Rocks sprayed, and panicked chickens scattered as we plowed up the driveway, the windows all the way down and Mama humming softly to herself a song I did not know while, behind us, on the back seat, a third passenger lay sprawled.
Faster than ever, we went around the curves and over the straightaways, with an occasional dry click of bone from the back when the swaying of the car forced an arm or leg to adjust. Our trio of bodies reacted in unison—dead or alive, no matter—moving as commanded by the laws of physics. Smiles on all our faces.
Then, a glare of blue lights in the rearview mirror and the blast of a siren.
I pivot, knees on the seat, chin atop the headrest, peering backward. “The police, Mama! The police!”
Silently, we slow and drift onto the shoulder to the tune of crunched gravel, the engine relaxing into a low, steady growl.
I stare back at the man in the hat and sunglasses as he considers our car. Then, opening his door, he rises from his vehicle, removes his sunglasses: a tall, gangly fellow; polished black belt and holster set in relief against brown and tan garb.
The June sun smiles down into the car upon Mama, pretty in her sleeveless dress, slender arms rigidly extended, hands on the steering wheel, knuckles white, daring the road ahead with a fixed stare, teeth set, eyes shifting to the rearview mirror as the man approaches.
I watch as he comes over with a slight sway to his stride, his careless gaze resting on the back of Mama’s head, ignoring me altogether. I watch as he reaches the tail end of the car and leans forward, his easy look drifting into the back seat—where something catches it, knocks it askew, then empties it of itself. His eyes jerk from the prone form to the back of Mama’s head before discerning her eyes in the rearview mirror, sunglasses removed, boring into his, fixing him in place. He stands there frozen.
“We are late for our school presentation, officer,” she calls back to him without turning.
The man, stammering, takes a few tentative steps toward the front of the car.
“It is a matter of vital importance,” she continues, as if lecturing. “We cannot afford further delay. Much is at stake which cannot be made evident to you, and I do not have time to explain.”
The officer draws even with her window, making his best effort to recover himself. “Are you some kind of doctor?”
Mama places her forearm on the door, smiling up at him. “I am indeed a kind of doctor,” she says, “insofar as I am a woman concerned with restoring or manipulating human health through the highly detailed study, diagnosis and treatment of the human body.” She glances over at me and smiles her true smile before turning back to him. “Beneath your clothes and your flesh, you are not very different from that fellow in the back seat. Have you ever thought about that? I mean really thought about it? Such is the nature of most all people on this earth: So few come to realize or even bother to think about the fundamental nature of themselves.” Her smile hardens, then lapses into a line and she stares up at the officer. “We are going to show them what they are.”
The deputy, still very pale, nods slowly and agreeably, wholly acquiescent even though he comprehends nothing. “Ma’am,” he says at last, “I think you know what your business is, and I do believe I am going to let you get about it right now.” With that, he turns quickly and walks briskly back to his car, hand slipping slightly on the door handle as he seeks to jerk it open—to get inside, away, anywhere else.
Mama, back on the road before the deputy is even in his seat, drives as fast as before, faster even, the dials on the dash a confusion of vibrating needles, and grins at the long white highway lines devoured beneath us.
We slide to a stop between two buses in the circular school parking lot, not far from the main entrance. With the car doors open and the front seats leaned forward, Mama motions me to climb into the back.
She gestures at the skeleton’s base. “Help me lift him, son.”
Curiously strong for a child my age, I grasp him by the rollers and heave upward and forward, slipping a bit as I step out onto the gravel, banging a femur against the door.
“Careful now,” says Mama, her steady hands clenched about his collarbone.
Then I let down the base, and together—me pushing and Mama pulling—we bring him upright. He sways slightly before leveling out between us, blinding white bone and flashing metal in the end-of-school-year sun.
We roll him slowly, haltingly, over the gravel lot toward the entrance, me pushing while bracing the backs of his legs and Mama steadying him, arm about his waist in the attitude a nurse adopts while guiding a frail elderly patient.
Through the heavy school doors, we discover emptiness; an industrial fan nearly as tall as our companion blows at the far end of a dim, forlorn hallway, caressing our damp foreheads with warm air. We roll the skeleton down the corridor, past shut crayon-colored doors of classrooms on either side, the going much easier on the polished smooth floor though a wheel squeaks slightly, occasionally piercing the droning refrain of mechanically pushed air.
As we turn a corner, a janitor steps from his closet then, noting us, retreats wide-eyed back into it, drawing the door shut—lapsing into a motionless silhouette behind beveled glass.
We arrive, at last, to the door of my classroom. On it hangs a student roster with stars of different colors attending each name. There are only a few next to mine, all of a lesser hue.
Mama absorbs this data in a glance then moves me out of the way, hand on my shoulder, gentle and firm. “Stand aside, son.”
She flings open the door, and in rolls the skeleton, Mama pushing him from behind, teacher and students frozen in their places, mouths rounded and agape, eyes nearly as large. The skeleton, coming forward, passes between the main center rows of desks to the head of the room. He stops before the teacher, and Mama steps from behind, appraising the woman with a frank stare, looking her up and down. The teacher has always seemed to me very big and frightening, but next to Mama—so tall and pretty and smart in her heels and spring dress—she looks small and old and plain. I feel sorry for her. The teacher’s throat moves, and she shudders suddenly—whether at Mama or the skeleton I can’t tell.
When Mama turns to address the class, she rolls the skeleton about with her so that they turn together, gracefully, in unison, like dancers or skaters, the teacher falling back away from them like a lesser actress abandoning the stage.
Then Mama begins speaking to the students, and as she does, a strange glow comes over her, which I have never seen before. “I am sorry we are late today for show and tell,” she says, “but real learning never runs on time, and for us, I hope you will make an exception.” She shoots a quick glance at the teacher, who nods uncertainly, before continuing. “I believe my son informed you that I would show you what you are.”
Heads swivel briefly to the back of the class where I am standing.
“Well,” she continues, “here you are. Here is what you all are beneath your clothes and your skin. Look at your arm. Look at your hand. Then think about that for a minute. Think about it.”
Students extend their arms, holding out their palms before them.
“Your human skeleton, this thing inside you, is very strong and very hard, yet it is relatively light. I bet your mothers weigh you sometimes. We like to know how big you are getting. In a man like this one, who weighed maybe 160 pounds, the skeleton is only 30 pounds.
“And it is perfectly adapted for locomotion and manipulation,” she continues, lifting the skeleton’s forearm so that its elbow joint flexes. “See?”
Eyes widen at this.
“Now, it is our spines that are responsible for our upright posture,” she says, running her hand down the skeleton’s back. “Because we stand upright, we are able to use our hands in order to manipulate our environment. We reach out, and we change things.
“An adult human skeleton consists of 206 bones altogether, which are divided into two principal divisions: the axial skeleton and the appendicular skeleton. The axial forms the long axis of the body, and it includes the bones of the skull, vertebral column, breastbone and rib cage. The appendicular consists of the bones of the upper and lower extremities, the shoulder girdle and the hip girdle.”
As Mama points to each bone grouping in succession, naming each again, the students watch her finger then look down at the corresponding places on their bodies.
“I could show and tell about this forever,” Mama says, “but the best showers and tellers care about what other people want to know. I am interested in you all. What do you want to know?”
Stunned silence, then a lethargic stirring as if my classmates are awakening from the same powerful dream.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” a boy asks.
“He was a man,” says Mama, “a very old man. You can tell he was old a lot of different ways, but all of you can see that he’s missing some teeth and the ones that are left are all ground down from use.”
“Why is that?” another boys asks. “Where did he come from?”
“Southeast Asia,” replies Mama. “I can tell because of his bone structure and cranial development.”
A girl asks, “Where is that?”
“On the other side of the world,” says Mama. “The people there are much poorer than you and I and don’t always get to eat their meals. Think about that for a minute. What if you missed your dinner for a whole week? Just imagine how hungry you would be. This fellow was hungry a lot of the time. His bones say so.”
The teacher stands off to the side, rigid and frowning.
Another girl: “How did he come all the way here?”
“Sometimes when people die, their bodies get sent to scientists so they can be studied. That is what I used to be: a scientist, a woman scientist. I studied bodies so that I could learn how to work on the ones that are alive and make them better.”
Students stare at Mama in wonder; a pair of girls peer uncertainly across the aisle at each other, possessed suddenly of new eyes.
“I like talking to you all,” Mama says, smiling her warm, slow smile, and they all smile back at her. “Now for the real fun. Who wants to touch him?”
An eruption of hands and a piping chorus of “Me! Me! Me!” Bodies abandon their desks, pressing forward as one. My little classmates weave around the skeleton in a frenzy of fascination, giving quick touches from small forefingers. One girl reaches up to grab a bottom rib then lifts her shirt to poke at her own.
And I, apart from the others, have eyes only for my mother: towering above the swirl of motion, commanding the classroom, beaming down upon the children, showing them themselves.