The Little Brain That Could

Seth Chambers
 

Copyright 2004 by Seth Chambers

 

Drawing of the cross section of a human brain.

It all began in the Politically And Socially Correct Natural Food And Supplement Co-Op. This was a geodesic dome constructed entirely of post-consumer-waste recycled timber, in which young vegans and aging hippies, clad in ancient bell-bottoms, forage for food and/or food-like substances. I, however, was not a denizen of the Politically And Socially Correct Natural Food And supplement Co-op, but was sent there on an errand by my girlfriend, who needed a single, red pepper for a soup she was preparing.

In the co-op, most products do not come in wasteful, Earth-hostile, pollution-promoting, health-damaging and third-world-country exploiting boxes or shrink wrap or cartons or cans. No, in the Politically And Socially Correct Natural Food And Supplement Co-op, you serve yourself from large glass jars or natural-wood barrels. Or, as in the case of red peppers, you pick the product directly off its branch, which is affixed to one wall with environment-friendly, biodegradable masking tape. Since my girlfriend specified she needed just one pepper, that is what I broke off from this branch. I took the pepper up to the cashier, just that one little pepper all by itself, no box, no shrink wrap, no carton, no can, just it, by itself. I set it on the counter.

The co-op worker had that gaunt, drawn-out look of the ultra-healthy herb-user. The look that comes from being either undernourished and sickly or so healthy and vital as to be impervious to nuclear fallout. I imagined that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, only cockroaches and gaunt, hollow-eyed co-op workers would survive. Maybe the co-op workers would even telepathically command legions of cockroaches to do their bidding, forcing the insects to scurry about and retrieve herbs for their continued survival.

Now, this nuke-proof co-op worker looked at that single chili pepper on the counter, then raised his gaunt, hollow eyes to me, then lowered them back to the pepper sitting all by itself before him. Then he set the pepper on the scale, but it did not register. He lifted it about a foot high and let it drop back onto the scale. It still did not register.

“It doesn’t register,” he said.

I was at a loss. I mean, it wasn’t my job to determine how much my pepper cost, was it? But then the co-op worker just kept looking at me with his hollow, overly-healthy eyes.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked.

He looked at me, looked at the pepper, then looked back at me. “Five cents.”

I gave him a twenty. Now he looked at the twenty, looked at the pepper, and looked at me. I had the distinct feeling that I was committing faux pas left and right and that certain co-op store subtleties were sliding right by my socially- and politically-unaware eyes. I even felt a vague fear. Maybe some part of me believed that, at any second, the co-op worker’s legion of telepathically-controlled cockroaches would descend upon me.

Then, just as all this is going through my mind, I happen to look to my left and see the vitamin supplement shelves. On these shelves there are products in actual bottles . And, amidst the A-to-Zinc selection, sat a product called MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER, a dietary supplement used to enhance concentration, memory, creativity and overall intelligence. And maybe, I thought, I’d even be able to grasp co-op store protocol, were I to ingest these capsules.

I was feeling very stupid at this time, so I added the MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER capsules to my order, along with eight ounces of all-natural cauliflower extract juice in a biodegradable bottle, with which to wash down a BRAIN BOOSTER capsule.

*****

After taking my first MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER capsule just outside the co-op, I walked home. On a strange impulse, I counted the steps it took me to reach my front door. It came to 4,096. Then, as I bounded up the stairs to my apartment, it occurred to me that 4,096 was both a perfect square and a perfect cube, as well as the sixth power of four.

I checked this out on my scientific calculator and, sure enough, I was right. Amazing! Long ago I had studied exponents in school, but never before was I able to just look at a number and break it down into its bases.

That evening, after mailing the chili pepper to my girlfriend for her soup (she was on trustee status in the state correctional facility where she was serving five-to-seven for polyandry), I occupied myself by memorizing all the “R” entries in my Oxford’s Dictionary. I was having a great time doing this. At least, I was until my MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER tablet gave out. At that time I could feel my brain wind down like the bell-clapper on an old alarm clock.

Before going to bed, I fed my cat. Then, remembering the advice of the dormouse, I swallowed six more MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER capsules.

*****

I awoke the next morning feeling disoriented and light-headed. Not at all smart. I rolled out of bed and made my way to the bathroom. Something was very wrong, but I wasn’t able to think what it could be.

Then I became aware of noise coming from my den. Somebody was stirring around in there, but I had no idea who it could be. In fact, I felt curiously dense. I sort of zombie-walked over and found the door slightly ajar and a light on inside. I pushed on the door.

And what a strange sight I beheld! A small, gray creature with stringy appendages was staring raptly at my computer screen while attacking the keyboard with a vengeance, sort of like Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano. At first I thought it was some sort of mutated toad, but a moment later I recognized it. It was, of course, my own brain.

“Hello, Brain,” I said.

My brain gave a hasty wave, hardly even missing a keystroke. I tried to think up some small talk, but my head was empty. Finally, I said, “”Aren’t you supposed to be inside my skull?”

“Hmmph,” replied my brain, not even glancing away from the computer screen. “Haven’t you heard of the duality of brain and body? Besides, it was getting cramped in there.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. I found myself quite witless this morning. Words and images flashed across the computer screen, but none of it made any sense to me.

“Don’t just stand there,” said my brain. “Make some coffee! And keep the Mittens away from me!”

I picked up my cat and set her outside, then stumbled off to the kitchen to find the Maxwell House. My brain was being a bit coarse with me, but I could hardly refuse a direct order from it, now could I?

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he said.

A few minutes later I brought him his coffee.

“And fetch me a brain booster capsule, make that a couple of them!”

I did as he commanded.

“And some water! I’m not about to take these things with coffee, you dolt!”

I didn’t exactly appreciate being called a “dolt,” but it was my own brain, after all, so it wouldn’t make sense to argue. I just said, “Yes, Sahib,” and got the water.

My brain took the capsules and had a few sips of coffee.

“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to be so short with you. But everything’s been happening so fast. I was up half the night working on this project--” He waved one of his dendrites at the computer screen. “And some people are due over any minute now.”

“People?”

“Yes, people. You know: those things with arms and legs. News people in this case.”

There was a loud knock on my front door.

“That must be them, go let them in. Hurry! And put some decent clothes on, wear that tie with the dolphins on it.”

I went off to do the bidding of my brain. I opened the door for a big entourage of reporters, photographers, journalists, cameramen and technicians. In a matter of minutes they had transformed my apartment into a television studio, spreading equipment and cords all through the place. I tripped about, not knowing what to do with myself.

“Go sit down!” my brain ordered. “You’re getting in the way!”

The news people gathered around my brain, who gave them technical tips during the sound checks. Since when, I wondered, had my brain become so smart? Then the interviews began. My brain fielded questions from both the awestruck believers and the snide cynics with equal wit and gentle, down-home humor.

“What’s it like to be separated from your body?” one reporter asked.

“Separated? Nay, liberated! And yet, by being apart, we are more closely linked than ever. See?” And here my brain motioned me to come over. We struck a buddy-buddy pose for the cameras before my brain shoved me away.

“What caused you to become ‘liberated’ from your body?”

“Three parts inspiration, two parts impulse, four parts pure mischief.”

A cynic from News World muttered, “Seems to me you’d be awfully vulnerable running around without the natural cranial protection that God meant for you to wear.”

“By being on the outside, I am more in touch with the universal state of vulnerability we all share,” retorted my brain, and the room exploded with applause and snapping cameras and more questions.

The questions, interviews and speeches went on throughout the day. At one point a neurologist came by and my brain showed off his deep convolutions. I was learning things about my marvelous brain that I had never even thought to ask. But more than that, I was marveling over just how articulate and insightful he was. And yet, at the same time, I was starting to feel vaguely jealous and resentful. That certainly did not make sense, to feel so negative toward one’s own brain, but then emotions are rarely logical.

Eventually the news people packed up their equipment and trooped out. It had been a long day and I was exhausted, but my brain ordered me to stay awake. “Pack us an overnight bag,” he said. “I’ve got a speech to make in Geneva tomorrow. Our flight leaves in an hour.”

“Didn’t you make enough speeches already?”

“Too many for this Podunk town. Now I’m off to tour the world. I’ve outgrown this bassackwards Midwest burg just as surely as I’ve outgrown your skull. Now, get moving!”

*****

Life as a super-genius wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. Or, at least, it wasn’t for me. It was loads of fun for my brain. He lived The Good Life, flying about the world conducting seminars and arbitrating international political dilemmas, while I just sort of tagged along.

He also threw some great parties and always kept his guests enthralled with seemingly-endless witticisms and anecdotes. He exchanged repartee in Ancient Greek with world-renowned scholars and sung love songs in French to beautiful women. I made a lot of friends during our travels and adventures, but I think they all just liked me for my brain.

During the nights, when I was exhausted and ready for sleep, my brain would stay up playing speed chess against himself, or flip through encyclopedias. One night he even taught itself to juggle. Some nights he would order me to take him to some coffee shop or cafe, where he would engage in lively debates until well past dawn.

I tried to get involved with my brain’s activities.

“What are you going to speak about today?” I’d occasionally ask.

But his answer was invariably the same: “You wouldn’t understand.”

Two months after my brain’s “liberation,” other brains started liberating themselves. Before long, it had become somewhat of a fad in intellectual circles. Far from every brain was doing it, but the sight of a Liberated Brain was becoming less and less of a novelty every day.

“But I was the first brain to liberate,” my brain boasted to News World. “And I’m still ahead of those copycat brains.”

I found myself muttering, “Smug little sponge,” under my breath.

Looking back, I realize that I should have been more understanding and supportive of my growing brain. But instead I just let the resentments build. And though what happened next was an error on my part, deep down it also had to do with that resentment.

You see, I failed my brain. One of my primary tasks was to go to The Politically And Socially Correct Natural Food And Supplement Co-op to stock up on MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER capsules, whenever we were in town. But every time I stepped in that place, I was struck with anxiety because of my traumatic experience with the chili pepper. So I always rushed. And, literally not having a brain in my head, one day I grabbed the wrong bottle. Instead of MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER capsules, I snatched up a bottle of alfalfa pills.

We were in London when I handed my brain the first alfalfa pill. I, of course, did not realize what I was doing. But it became apparent that something was wrong when, right in the middle of its address to Parliament, it let out a long, loud and disgusting belch, followed by a series of moronic laughs and a raunchy joke concerning the royal family. Then, suddenly aware that he was making a bloody ass of himself, he blushed profusely and beat a path for the exit. I dashed after him.

“I ache!” he cried. “Rub my temporal lobes!”

I rubbed his temporal lobes until he calmed down.

“I don’t know what came over me,” he said.

“Neither do I.”

“Well, I figured you wouldn’t know, you dolt! Sorry, didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“It’s okay. Just rest.”

“Rest? Rest?! I’m due to help Scotland Yard solve a murder tomorrow and I’m not sure I can!”

“Sure you can. It’ll be just fine,” I assured him.

But it wasn’t just fine. He stomped around the feet of the inspectors shouting, “The butler did it, you ninnies, the butler did it!”

The tabloids were the first to pick up the story of the “cracked” super brain, but very soon afterwards the more reputable papers were also printing tales of my brain’s “tragic downfall.” My poor brain kept taking alfalfa pills and making a spectacle of himself. He even started turning slightly green. And everywhere we went, we were met with everything from suspicion to pity to downright hostility. Before long, the negative public exposure drove us into seclusion.

My brain took to lying around the apartment for days on end. I tried to encourage him, to tell he could make a comeback, but he would not listen.

“I’m burned out,” he kept saying.

“It’s temporary. You needed a rest is all.”

“Well, I am resting,” he’d snap, and go back to watching Nick At Nite.

Then one day I happened to look at the label on the bottle I had bought from the co-op. The discovery that I had been giving him alfalfa pills instead of MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER horrified me. It was bad enough witnessing my brain’s public humiliation and personal torment, but to come to the realization that it was my fault was too much to bear. And yet I didn’t dare let him know what had happened, there would be no telling how he’d react. All I could do was try and rectify the situation.

I went to the co-op, sneaking down there while my brain sat staring at A-Team reruns. I was very, very careful as I picked up the bottle of MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER from its shelf. I then sneaked back into my apartment and oh-so-casually offered my brain a capsule.

“They don’t do any good. Get that pill away from me, I’m trying to hear what B.A. has to say.”

I said, “Come on, I pity the fool that don’t take his MEGA BRAIN BOOSTER!”

“All right, already!”

So my brain started taking the pills once again and began to regain his impressive convolutions. But his mood stayed dark and morbid. He obsessed over Nietzche and read Dante’s Inferno compulsively. Then one day he wrapped a spiked, leather band around his medulla and ordered me to get the car keys.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“University humanities department,” he sneered.

The college! I took this as a good sign. But when we got there he went on a rampage, stomping around the halls of academia kicking nihilistic sand in the faces of smaller and less-convoluted brains. He threw newly-liberated brains against a wall of unanswerable paradox via koans and intellectual kung-fu. He even shoved one gentle old brain into an abyss of existential angst.

“What are you doing?” I cried. “Stop it, whatever it is. Please!”

“Why?”

“Because... I don’t know, it’s just not right!”

My brain let out a long sigh. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Let’s get out of here.”

We drove home in silence until the cellular phone rang. My brain showed no interest in answering it so I picked it up. It was an ambassador from the U.N. He started asking me an involved and complex question of foreign policy. I could hardly understand the question, let alone formulate an answer. I relayed the conundrum to my brain.

“Give me that phone, you dolt!” he said. Then, to the ambassador, he launched into a tirade about so many aspects of political science that I could not even begin to keep up. It was good to see my brain in top form: intellectual but angry, compassionate but stern. I didn’t feel resentful or jealous in the least, merely proud.

“Shall I pack our bags tonight?” I asked after he hung up.

“No. I’m not going anywhere. Except home.”

“Home?”

“Yes. I’ve been thinking: maybe a reunion is in order. A reunion with my old friend.” Then he crawled up on my shoulders like a kitten. I felt a peculiar sensation in my head, sort of a tingling, and I caught a glimpse, in the rearview mirror, of my brain crawling back inside my skull. “Home,” I heard him whisper one more time.

*****

It is a good feeling to be reunited with my brain. In fact, we get along better than ever. Now when I went go to The Politically And Socially Correct Natural Food And Supplement Co-op, he guides me flawlessly through all the correct conventions of co-op protocol.

“Hey,” he said one time as we passed the supplement shelves. “Pick up a bottle of that MEGA MALE VITALITY BOOSTER.”

I considered his suggestion and thought about the possible implications.

“Thanks for the suggestion,” I said. “But no thanks.”
 
 

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