Saturday, January 1, 2011

Short Story Saturday: Sean Ferrell

           The Phrenologist's Collection

                     by Sean Ferrell

   "Classes ended today." I wait a moment for Alan to finish serving the other patrons. He has been busy tonight, the bar smells of smoke and his shirt sleeves are rolled up to the elbow and soaked with alcohol and sweat. "My lecture was somewhat pointless, since most students can only think of getting away from school at this point. I was somewhat startled to see young Mister Cleary in my 9:30 am class. I told you about him?"

   "Yes, I think you did."

   "I'm sure I did. He gave me quite a few headaches." I don't even have to say what I want, Alan knows and puts the whiskey before me without question. "After our difficulties this semester I would have thought that he would avoid my last Basic Phrenology class. He only took it as part of the humanities requirement, and so many other student's just skip the last day."

   "But he was back for more, huh?" Several people around me leave. Alan thanks them for their business and collects their glasses and tip from the bar. I decipher his thick hands and large eyebrow ridge as indicative of a long lineage of service work. He is shaped like a silverback gorilla, his back strong and too wide for his height. His arms sway a little when he walks. He looks like he should be brutish, but he has a simple grace like those apes that live between mountain trees.

   "It didn't take long for him to start again. Not far into my lecture he brought up that obscure little 19th century Jew from Vienna. Cleary had been reading some of his papers over the winter break. Where he finds them is beyond me." I tap my foot on the brass rail that runs the length of the bar. My briefcase, which I emptied at the house hours earlier, sits next to the stool. "As he did all semester, he began by promoting the absurd notion of the unconscious. I asked him, 'How is it possible for consciousness, which brings with it the meaning awareness, to be rooted in that which is un-aware? If it is unaware, what would it know of thoughts, dislikes, loves, etceteras? And what of the evidence of these having clear regions, localized on the surface of the human brain?' That was my main point: what did he make of the evidence which Phrenology handed us?"

   "What did he say?"

   "He made some rash statement that perhaps brain size, shape and contour depth had nothing to do with intelligence, emotion, intuition. With the aid of another student I pointed out, not for Mister Cleary who I suspect hides thin ridges beneath his moppish hair, the regions of the skull which indicate contrivance and susceptibility to conjecture and deceptiveness. Then, as there are no Jews in the class, I used a Jewish skull from my collection to show just how those regions of the Jewish brain are most prominent. I felt satisfied that the rest of the class was able to note how clearly this deflates the arguments of one so-called 'doctor.”

   "You're getting a little worked up about it, Doc." Alan laughs and refills my glass. I can feel my heart is beating and my ears are hot. I look at myself in the mirror that runs the length of the bar. My face is red, the color running up my face and along my high forehead, chasing my receding hairline. I have the deep lines and loose flesh that comes with age and devotion to study. My eyes squint back at themselves as I measure myself, attempt to understand my disturbance.

   Our conversation is quiet for a moment.

   "How long have I been coming here, Alan?"

   After a moment of thought. "I think it's about three years now."

   Now it's my moment for thought. "Have I told you that my wife left me?"

   "No, Doc, you didn't. I'm sorry."

   No need to be. "Do you know what the hardest part is? It's not her being gone. That's nearly a blessing. The hard part is the work it takes to make my life, my situation in the home, appear normal. I must do this so that none of my neighbors will bother me. Neither Anne or I were close to any of our neighbors, so why start now? Since Anne left six months ago--her shallow attempts at explaining her unhappiness as part of my behavior continues through letters and phone messages from her immediately after sessions with her new phrenologist, who, she claims, 'Sees in my head the sort of patience found in the skull of a saint'--I have tried to avoid contact with the neighbors, lest they realize that Anne is no longer in the house. Some of them would worry about me, drop by unexpected, and worst of all offer unwanted and useless advice. The work it takes to keep everything looking normal is exhausting. It takes time away from my other duties, my lesson plans or grading. I have to pull both cars in and out of the garage, and sometimes take hers and park it around the block. I leave lights on in the kitchen and her room when I leave for the store or school, or here. I tend her gardens. Weeds are pulled and tulip bulbs were planted last week that should have gone in last fall, when the rains were coming. All I can do is wait and hope that something comes out of the ground. I do this late at night of course, so that no one sees me. The neighbors should see no change in the house's habits. They see nothing but the exterior signs, of course, but those are the most important in many cases. Like body language, my neighbors would read the changes in my home like an alteration in the inner workings and take that as a sign that they should interfere." My foot taps continually on the brass rail, its tempo matches the beat of my heart and both slow considerably as I share with Alan the shape of my evenings. From the look on your face I can see that you think this is quite a bit of work to go through, just to avoid conversation with the neighbors. Well, if you had met my wife you would know that this is preferable to her company. If you had met my neighbors you would see me as the little boy trying to plug the leak in the dike. And if you had met both, you would be driven to heavy drinking in a small bar."

   Laughter and a head shake. Alan goes to work at the other end of the bar for some time while I work on my drink. The last bit of daylight has finally died outside. I grow more depressed as the days grow longer, since I feel like I waste more time in the summer. Now that the sun is down my spirits are lifted.

   Alan returns. "I've been watching you Doc, since you started coming here. You come in, and like some, you stare at your drink. But the others, they weren't looking at the drink, they're looking at their problems. But you, you're looking at the drink."

   Surprised that he could make such an astute observation, my foot stops its rhythmic tap on the brass. "Granted, I have not given you any sort of examination, but I can clearly see the general shape of your skull and, despite warnings to my students about making a diagnosis on a generalized shape, I would have thought your personality should have been more pedestrian and surface oriented. I suspect that at the back of your skull there is a knot of bone, that ridge denoting intuition." Animal, cagey intuition. "You, Alan, are full of surprises. Also, you stand as proof against making rash judgments. And, you are correct.

   "Yes. Quite true. I have been appreciating the perfection of the glass." The glass is held up for him to see. He has viewed it and a hundred like it in his lifetime spent filling and washing them. "Its smooth surface and crystalline appearance aside, look at the shape of its mouth. The perfect circle of it. Every point of that circle expressed in the perfection of the formula pi. It doesn't matter what is placed in it, for it bestows upon its contents a perfect shape." My companion cleans glasses with a cotton rag. "Oh, if only the human head were of such perfection. What a human this would be."

   Alan finishes one glass. It is placed, open mouth down, on a white towel covered with six identical glasses. From a sink he pulls another, rinses it, and begins to dry. "I don't know about that. Ever hear of a glass jaw?"

   "You only think that because you haven't seen the studies, the research." He nods.

   "I have a student, who is much like this glass. She is a young woman in her early twenties, and she often comes to my office. She never lacks anything in her papers or exams, but she arrives early to class and stays after. She is like a beacon in the dark. She is like this glass, waiting for herself to be filled."

   Alan rests his elbows on the bar. "Sounds like you've got a little thing for this student of yours." A wicked grin. My foot taps again on the brass rail.



   Alan returns to his glasses.

   "No, I merely appreciate her as a student."

   "Well, you said she was like that glass, and you practically make love to that glass every night." Smile like a Doberman snarl. I don't respond. My glass is near empty and I think I should go. Alan stops his cleaning and leans on the bar again. "Listen, Doc, I don't mean anything by it. You've been coming here for three years, we know each other, right? So I teased you a little. Sorry." Despite my hand's signal to the contrary, my glass is refilled. "On me. Now, tell me about this girl."

   I smile. I sip. "The first time she came to my office, at the beginning of the semester, she wore her hair back, in a pony tail. It was pulled so tight that I could see the signs of intelligence in her skull, its perfection. As she sat in my office, discussing various terms she claimed to have difficulty with, I found my mind wandering back to the shape of her head." I use my glass as a stand in for Miss Miller. It is posed on the bar before me, between Alan and me. In my mind it is her, perched on the edge of my office chair. I mentioned to her that often the easiest way to learn about the forms and shapes I was teaching was to view them first hand. I stood. Before I could even conceive of what I would do, her head was in my hands." I gently touch both sides of my glass, lift in into the air, cradle it in my palms. Alan is silent. "I stood behind her, I placed one hand across her forehead, as if checking for fever. The other I ran down the side of her temple, past the occipital lobe, down Drayden's ridge behind the ear. I recited their names and traced shapes and ridges across her head. She didn't move, not even a quiver. After I had checked her skull, and had discovered in her a tendency to intellect--despite her sex--and an unusually developed sense of empathy, I asked her if she would feel comfortable in running through the same exercise with me as her model. I took her place in the chair and she mine, behind me. Her cool hands wrapped around my forehead and ran along the crest of my balding crown. Her right hand shook, as did her voice, as she recited the regions of my skull from front to back, right side then left. I took her hand and said, to reassure her, 'Miss Miller, you have the attributes of a person who shall go far in the field. No need to be nervous.' She thanked me quickly. Before she left I suggested she might come again, for another tutorial session. She demurred at first, then smiled and said, 'I would like that.' Since then we have met several times a week. She complained that other students teased her about our sessions, but I console her. They are jealous. I can see it in class. No one sits near her, at least two empty seats surround her on all sides. She sits alone, like a jewel hidden among stones. The other students chatter like crows to one another when she is called on, even during role call. I never speak to her in a familiar manner when we are in the classroom, yet the others circle and gawk at us both. I have told her time and again that brilliance is a burden, like deformity. In some ways it is worse, because deformity can never truly conceptualize itself as outcast. But brilliance can feel that sting."

   A short silence. The smoke in the bar has thinned. No one else is here.

   Alan pulls a clean towel from a drawer. He swipes at the bar, soaks up pools of spilled drinks, melted ice. His motions are quick and aggressive. Again I am reminded of the gorilla. Something in me tells me that Alan is much like that rare beast. He holds so much of its strength and charm. "So, she's like your glass. She's perfect."

   Again, a silence. My thoughts come slowly because of liquor, but they don't stop completely. "In my days as a student, in conjunction with my studies of phrenology, I did some work in logic, most notably the positivist school led by Boole. Boole's contribution to modern thought, the breakthrough he had concerning the relation between man and the greater scheme, centered in an understanding of language. Our ability to make a statement and be understood. He worked with statements reduced to symbols, the simplest elements representing anything said. Through a long series of proofs and truth tables, his T's and F's lined up properly, he closed in on a unifying symbol, a single vertical line, through which all statements could be made. He proved that both conjunction and difference could be defined in terms of the statements relations to the one function of his line. In my own life, I have sought that sort of clarity. Such a line with which to define all relations. I had thought, quietly as my life passed and I became the man I now am, that such a clarity would evade me. As I sat with Miss Miller for the last time today, as I ran my hands across her head, felt the contours and emotional range of her being, I began to sense between her soft skin and my rough hands, just such a line. A principle through which all that could be said, all that had ever been said, all of this was held in the most tender of gaps between the surfaces of my hand and her head. I realized that this was the simple element, the line that I had sought for over thirty years. All relations are exterior, the interior being vague and shifting. All connections between people, everything that can be said or felt between two people, is dependent upon this line, this invisible barrier that stands between them. Anne's dislike of me grew over thirty years. I didn't have any control over her as she began to fester, like a cancer in our house. She began to complain of loneliness and I mentioned her friends. She complained of depression and I suggested trips abroad, which she took, and which cost me a small fortune each time. Finally, after she returned from the Riviera and told me a divorce was necessary, that at least we didn't have any children who could be hurt from our separation, and that she had fallen for a man on her trip who did some sort of spiritual work within, not a church, but an "organization," I realized that I had ignored a fundamental principle at work. Within our relationship, her slow change over thirty years of marriage was the perfect example of this exterior function. Our position in one another's lives, on the outside, never changed. But, the wide range of emotion from love to hate had been covered within the simple boundaries of our life together. Between us ran that invisible barrier. The same with my students, who hold a position in relation to me that is identical from year to year. Yet there is such difference between them emotionally that one refuses all that I say, and another hangs upon my every word."

   Despite Alan's nod I think he doesn't follow my reasoning.

   "The point is this," I lay both hands, palm down on the bar and collect my thoughts. "Even though there are elements on the interior of the people around you, your relations with them are actually all exterior, defined by the invisible barrier, like Boole's function, between you and them. And given enough time, you will experience the full range of interior possibilities even though the outside doesn't change. It doesn't matter what one does, this barrier stands as a function between all relations."

   Alan looks at me with cool eyes. He doesn't understand what I say, and he never will. It doesn't matter. I smile at him and close my eyes. With my palms still on the rough bar I ask him to pour one last drink, even though I can hear the clock chiming and I know he wants to go home.

   After Alan refills my drink I make some other observance of the time. It is as superficial as everything else I have said to him. He mentions the back door lock, and asks if I would watch the front while he closes. We go through this whenever I come to his bar. When he turns his back I down my drink and place this empty glass quickly into the open briefcase at my feet.

   After Alan has locked the backdoor, and I am out the front while he locks it behind us, I decide that I should walk home. I leave the car parked in front of Alan's bar, and follow the sidewalk for the three miles back to my house. It is cool, and there is no traffic. As I pass Anne's flower bed I check for weeds in the moonlight. A quick glance is all I give.

   Inside the home I open my briefcase and remove the glass. I take it into the kitchen, where I wash it in warm, soapy water. I rinse it and then dry it with a soft, cotton towel as I walk to the living room. Anne has left me with no furniture. She sued for half and the half she won was the half inside my half. I have the house and two cars, but there is nothing in them. I make a mental note to myself to remember to pull her car from the garage in the morning. I stand in the living room and run the towel over the glass for I don't know how long.

   I finish polishing the glass and place it carefully on the mantle, over the cold and dark fireplace. I put it there next to the other almost two dozen glasses that I've taken from the bar as the semester progressed. One on each day that Miss Miller visited my office.

    Before I turn out the light and go upstairs to rest my head on a pillow and let the alcohol put me to sleep, I gently touch the perfect rim of the newest glass, then I kiss its side, barely touching its surface with my lips. Between my lips and the glass I can feel the simplest of barriers. As I leave I cast one last glance over my shoulder to steal another look at the grown collection of empty vessels. Then I turn away, and shut off the light and go to my empty bed.

© Sean Ferrell