A Mind is a Terrible Thing
by Jim Knipfel
The father shrugged his shoulders at me as I glared at the back of that monstrous skull. "He does that," he said.
"No sir," I corrected, while waiting for some feeling to come back into my foot, "he did that." The doors closed, and I continued up to the next floor.
I can always expect a little something extra whenever I go to visit my neurologist.
The day had started out weird. As I was leaving my apartment that morning, struggling to flip the latch of the inside front door while carrying a overfull bag of empties, I heard a voice from the apartment behind me.
"Hey!" it said. It was an old woman's voice. At least three old women live in that apartment. None of them speak English. Mostly, when I see them, they just smile and nod. I do the same. But this sounded like trouble. I stopped and looked back at the door.
"Hey!" the voice repeated.
"Yeah?" I stood there a second listening. Now there was silence. I waited a bit more, shrugged, flipped the latch and headed out for the day, vaguely wondering what sort of trouble I'd left behind.
When I finally reached the neurology department's waiting room, it was packed. I signed in, grabbed the last empty chair, and listened to the voices around me, trying to get a fix on the situation. It turns out that most everyone there was scheduled to see my doctor, who was running about an hour behind schedule. He always was, but that's okay. Gives me a chance to relax a bit. I slipped a book out of my bag and nestled in for the wait.
It was perhaps no accident that the only thing I had brought along with me to read was a gift I had received the day before from my friend Waylon-a delightful, tattered novelization of The Brood, David Cronenberg's neurological horror film about rage made solid. Or, more specifically, simple human rage transformed into little monsters who kill people. Uncontrollable rage seizures had sent me to a neurologist in the first place.
This time, though, with various medications keeping the seizures mostly under control, I was there to see what he could tell me about blackouts and nosebleeds.
Every once in awhile, I'd look up from the book to see if anything funny was going on. I can always count on that waiting room for something. A doctor came in, picked up a patient file waiting for him on the receptionist's counter, flipped through it briefly, then called out to the crowd, "Carolyn Jones? Is Carolyn Jones here?"
That snapped my head around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Morticia Addams, there to get some sort of brain scan. Wasn't her, though (but there was some apparently famous writer there who did look just like Morticia Addams, so things sort of balanced out).
A child started screaming, and my guts clenched up. I was never good around screaming children. I shuddered quick against the squealing and went back to The Brood.
When two new people sat down across from me after awhile, I waited a minute before looking up. I don't like being too obvious about my morbid curiosity.
It was a mother and son team, and it took me a second to figure out who had the appointment. Just a second, though.
He was a big kid, barely fitting into the waiting room chair. He could've been anywhere between 15 and 25. And there was something about him that just wasn't right. I think it was the hair that threw me off at first. But checking out this kid's facial features and the pattern of the hair and the fact that there was almost no skull above his eyebrows made it all too clear what I was looking at. Most pinheads I've seen have the good sense to follow Zip's lead and shave their heads, leaving just a tiny tuft at the very crown of the skull to accentuate their pinheaddedness.
Worse, he was a sad pinhead. A dour pinhead. Most microcephalics I've encountered have been so damned happy, but this kid's face just sagged there off his skull, as if all the muscles had gone slack, all the tendons had been cut. His eyes reflected nothing. He didn't want to be there.
"How are you doing, dear?" his mother asked after a bit, looking up from her magazine.
"I got a big smile," he told her in a high-pitched, supra-nasal whine, the expression on his face unchanging, the eyes not moving, still looking as sad as life itself. "I got a BIG smile!"
I nearly grabbed my bag and ran screaming from the room, but I didn't. I stayed put, but found it impossible to focus my eyes on the pages of my book anymore. That's gonna stay with me awhile, I thought. I got a big smile.
When my doctor finally called me in, thank God, I was still a little shaky. As I left the waiting room, I took one last, brief glance back at him. He was still staring at the floor, making little meeping noises to himself, frown unchanged. I was tempted to ask my neurologist about him, but I'd made that mistake before. Doctors are worse than shrinks that way.
He didn't have much to tell me about my blackouts either.
"Might well be stress," he said. "But come back in three months, and if you're still having them, we'll run another MRI on you."
Great. Back to the Machine, that amusement park ride designed by Josef Mengele. Might as well run another MRI over me.
As he checked my blood pressure and listened to my heart, he said, "Well, you are looking better than you have in awhile."
"That's odd," I told him, "given that I've been living on virtually nothing but frozen pizzas, cigaretes and alcohol for the past three years."
He chuckled at that. He's a good guy, my neurologist, who's never once preached to me about the awful things I continue to do to myself. He figures they're my choices and that I'm smart enough to know what sort of horrors I'm getting myself into.
As a nurse sucked about a quart of blood out of me for testing, she asked, "How are you doing today?"
"I got a big smile," I told her.
"Well, that's good," she said, then sent me on my way.
I stopped off and got more beer on the way home, to replenish what I'd just lost.
When I got back to my building, the voices on the first floor were chattering away normally. I was glad to hear that I hadn't walked away from a heart attack or a stroke that morning.
In my mailbox, I found an envelope from my folks. They had forwarded the invitation to my 15th class reunion. Green Bay East High School, Class of 1983.
I cracked a beer and flipped through the pages of the invitation without the slightest interest. At least until I reached the page where they listed all the people from my graduating class who couldn't be tracked down. A lot of names for such a small class.
As I read down the list, I noticed something. Most everyone I ever talked to in high school was on that list. More importantly, most everyone I ever liked in high school was on that list. And now they were missing.
Knowing these folks, quite a few of them were probably criss-crossing the country these days, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. A few others might be hiding out in Bolivia. I can think of at least two who are probably in the Witness Protection Program.
Shit, those were the only folks I'd have any interest in talking to again.
I folded the pages up and slid them back into the envelope, trying to figure out how I might be able, some day soon, to make it onto that list of the missing.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Artwork copyright Bob Hires. All rights reserved.
Buy Jim Knipfel's books from Amazon.com with the links on the Slackjaw books page.
You can also send email to Jim Knipfel.