Brain in a Jar
written by: Anthony Doyle
Take your gloves off, let’s see who you are, he said, chin out, shoulders rolling, pecs puffing, Take ’em off. Let’s see if you can take it raw—all fuel for the fire. I always was a strutting fool. I knew it was dumb, I knew it. Walk away, the only thing you gotta hit right now is the shower. I didn’t need this. I wore belts, I held titles. I was posing in posters on dirty walls and fire-doors, I was legit. Who was he? A street scuffler, a cage fighter. I knew it, and yet I took them off, I unwrapped the straps, I bit the leather and pulled them right off. The light is autumn steel today, bolted to the ceiling. In summer it was a yellow balm, a hot wet kiss. I knew it was dumb, and she keeps whistling that same song, Nurse Mercedes, the same catchy dance tune. Hell, it could even make me dance, if I wasn’t paraplegic. Must be two weeks now, the same four notes, over and over, but what do I know about time? Correction, I know all about the depth of time; I’m just a bit hazy on the measure of it. I was a king of time in my ring days, I mastered time, time in the snap of a jab, the curve of a hook, the acceleration of a killer cross. I had time in the shoulders, time in the soles of my feet. Mercedes has time on her lips, a clock of four-note repetitions, one eye on the bed chart, the other on the end of her shift. In spring, the light shivers. It repaints the ceiling, upgraded from abalone grey to palish peach, I think that’s what they used to call it back in my house-painting days. I hear everything they say, though I almost never see their faces. Paralyzed from the eyes down, I can’t communicate, but I can think fine. Locked-in syndrome, that’s what the doctor calls it. I’m in here, they’re out there, and the only bridge between us is the “smooth pursuit” movements of my eyes—that’s the neurologist’s term. Makes me sound like a wolf, or a hunching cat. I outboxed that chump for the first three rounds, six minutes of humiliation. He was slow, inelegant, unthinking. I whacked and walloped, cut and pummeled, I sent his chin in all the cardinal directions, I made his ribs thwack like a double bass, and then he got behind me. And now it’s all behind me, and around me, even though I can’t see much. Zack came to visit the other day, and spoke in baritone. Now when did that happen? How? It’s like he lost an octave on his way up in the elevator. And then he got behind me and bang, haymaker, roundhouse, straight to the cerebellum—that’s the moon to the brain’s bright sun, the orb that controls the body’s movements like la Luna does the ocean’s tides. He landed that haymaker, and threw up a tsunami that flooded the skull and pushed down hard on the brain. I sank deep into the canvas, into the floodwater, into the shaft of a three-week coma. They say the cerebellum is butterfly-shaped. It wraps its brittle wings around the brainstem. Dr. Rogers has a long nose. I see it when he leans over me and shines his torch in my eyes. Dr. Rogers has some grey in his eyebrows that wasn’t there before. Between you and me, he’s had the same hairstyle for as long as I’ve been here. And he’s gonna have to rethink that, because he’s thinning. Sometimes Mercedes leans over me and I can see her butterfly tattoo, but I don’t know about her hair. Can’t say. She never flashes lights in my eyes. Sheryl comes to read to me twice a week. Don’t think this was what she signed up for when she agreed to be my wife, but she does it. She reads the news, but there’s never anything ‘new’ about any of it. Same four whistled notes. Same creep of changing light along the ceiling. Every now and then, a storm. Every now and then, some birdsong. Every now and then, a haymaker, an asteroid whose trajectory Nasa can plot decades in advance. It’ll graze the earth in 2068. Graze, my ass! I saw it coming, and I was ducking it, I was sure I had it timed. Might ruffle my earlobe, that was all, then bang! Mass extinction of movements and a light-blocking blanket falls across the earth. Let’s see who you are, well I’m not in my gloves anymore, that’s for sure. Take your gloves off, well I’d love to oblige, but I’m kinda stuck right now. Take off your cerebellum, show me who you are. Take off your moon, take off your tides, take off your mouth, and your cock, and your hands…Like I said, I love to oblige. I’m steely light in October, and a dead weight on bath day, and I’m an unresponsive audience on Sheryl’s reading day, and a ghost in a bed to my son. I’m a wandering mind, I’m a brain in a bottle, I’m a dent in a mattress. Put on those gloves, boy, and show us who you wanna be. Who d’you wanna be, son?, that’s what old Joel said, a long time ago in a dive gym. I still had paint flecks in my hair and I stank of paint remover and sweat. I could have knocked any opponent out with the stink alone, no violence required. Show us who you gonna be, boy… I remember the fear in Shane’s eyes. Not fear of getting hurt, that was all he ever knew, I saw fear of getting beat. Fear of taking the hand wraps off his wrists and seeing who he was. Who you gonna be, boy? Oh I could never have known. Never. Me? I’m gonna be paralyzed from the eyes down; the message in the ever-floating bottle; the sea in the seashell.
- Brain in a Jar - April 12, 2023