SHORT STORY AS MODERNIST WITH HUMAN BRAIN by John Milas

for Marianne

My classmates and I were waiting in line to hold a human cadaver’s brain. I took it with both hands when it was my turn. It was gray and smelled like tequila because we’d pulled it from a bucket of brains soaking in alcohol. It was heavy as if a generation of memories had accumulated within its rubbery noodles like a pile of dust. I thought if I dropped the brain on the floor by accident it would probably bounce like a spare tire. 

My professor brought our class to the cadaver lab on campus because she told us it would be a uniquely human experience and it would change our lives. This was for a graduate-level course on modernism that my advisor told me to take. This was supposed to make us feel less alone in the world, but I thought it was pointless and I didn’t know why I had to be there. I had told my professor as much in her office, but attendance was mandatory because the field trip was listed on the syllabus. 

I thought we’d end up in some dark cellar with concrete slabs displaying dead bodies that looked like they might come back to life at any moment. Instead, we walked into a bright classroom with about six cadavers laid out on stainless steel tables. The cadavers were so dead they looked fake. They were so dead they looked like they had always been dead. 

My professor had been to a cadaver lab before, so when we first strolled in as a posse of modernists she walked right up to the nearest cadaver after putting on some blue gloves. She started picking things up, such as this dead person’s heart and liver. A med student in a white coat told me the brain I was holding belonged to the same man whose heart my professor was practically kneading like dough, as if she were massaging the rhythm back into it. I was close enough to see that the third finger on the dead man’s left hand was constricted by the ghost of a wedding ring. Each of his organs looked as dry as a gourd. 

“This one died of leukemia,” one of the med students said to my professor.

“Right,” my professor said and pointed at the body. “That’s why his liver is so enlarged.” She knew things about leukemia and livers already. She knew something about everything it seemed. She impressed a lot of people. Her med student was impressed and they both started poking around together, inspecting the cadaver’s scalp, which the med student pulled off like a hat. The two of them looked closely at the dead man’s shriveled up eyes from inside the top of his skull and I felt bad for him with all that pink residue in his hollow head. 

Here was this man who had elected to become an organ donor when he signed up for a driver’s license. He was lying politely on the table and he looked like he was made of plastic. His brain was cold as hell and soggy like a wet basketball. The two halves of it moved independently as I twisted each of them around. I wondered if I could tear the halves apart by twisting far enough, if I could take the logic part of the brain and separate it from the passion part of the brain so easily. Then I would have two separate brains and each half would be less complicated on its own. Someone cleared their throat behind me. I remembered my classmates were still waiting in line to take their turn. I handed the brain to the next person. My gloves dripped alcohol. I did not tear them off or toss them into the nearby wastebasket. I tried to play it cool like I was bored and wanted to be somewhere else, but I had nowhere to hide. I knew my professor was across the room watching me as I stared at my empty blue hands.


John Milas grew up in Illinois and studied creative writing at UIUC and Purdue. His work appears in The Southampton Review, Superstition Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. Learn more at johnmilas.com.
 

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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