Dan the neuropsychologist
wants to test Nona’s personality. Nona
is Dan’s research assistant. They work together in a large university hospital.
Every day he asks her to talk about her boyfriend. This, she resists. She feels
it would be untoward, like presenting a case at Grand Rounds. The neuropsychologist
wants details and supporting arguments, some factual account. She hasn’t
the energy for it.
Nona observes Dan’s pale green eyes widen whenever he speaks to their
boss, the department chair. His speech becomes formal and direct. The department
closes his eyes as if he’s listening through headphones. Nona is not
personally qualified to speak to the department chair.
She’s in the conference room reading a paperback when Dan enters. His
face resembles a self-portrait of Van Gogh. He gives her the personality inventory
and a #2 pencil and sits on the rug like a kindergartner. He laughs
and hangs his head in his hands and sighs deeply.
He says, “Nona, my daughters—do you know how much I love them?”
“A lot. What are their names again?”
“Thomas and Greg. We chose not to burden them with societal norms and expectations.”
Nona knew this, she just wanted to hear it again. Later, she’ll climb
under the quilts with Bill, her boyfriend, and whisper this into his ear, hoping
make him laugh.
* * *
This afternoon, she’s scheduled to test Patient RD. She sees him over
a period of three days every six months. His actual name is Ray Dripps, but
the textbooks he’s referred to as RD. In neuropsychology circles, RD
is considered a celebrity. He got sick after riding the Screaming Terror at
Gardens when he was fifteen. He vomited all over his friend’s Camaro,
then went home and slept for twenty-four hours. He woke up with a spectacular
RD’s chief problem is that he perseverates. He’s incapable of changing
mental sets. He carries a flashlight and flicks it on and off. When Nona administers
the neuropsychological exams, she asks him a number of questions, to which he
answers, “I don’t give a rat’s ass.” His photo, in the
medical journals, shows a man with a mild, expressionless face and one hand raised,
palm out, as if he’s taking an oath.
She plays a card-sorting game with him in which the rules constantly change.
RD has a genius IQ yet this game confounds him. She tells him, “It’s
OK, really. This game is tough. It’s exactly like life, my man.”
“Yes, thank you,” he says and bursts into tears. He leans over and
kisses her knee. In his chart, she writes emotionally labile.
The exam room is roughly the size of a walk-in closet. There are no windows.
Nona is not allowed to dress it up. Bill gave her one of those glass sipping
birds when she got the job, but she can’t have it in here. It sits next
to the coffee maker in the conference room. It swings forward and sips from
a mug. The sipping bird wears a top hat and a bow tie. Nora thinks the patients
might enjoy it.
She feels boxy inside her clothes today. She feels unwieldy and outsized, like
a hedgehog, in her lab coat. In reality, she’s very thin. She’s a
minnow. RD is peevish and uncooperative. She finishes the game and forgoes the
other standardized tests, the memory tests, the language batteries. She needs
to run out her time with him, so instead she writes out her grocery list. Her
boyfriend’s needs are simple: chicken pot pies and baking potatoes and
Quaker Oat Squares. Gold’s medicated powder. Minted dental floss. Also,
he drinks one whole gallon of milk per day. She writes it all down. Out of
the corner of her eye, she notices that RD is rubbing his crotch, looking at
legs. They really need the sipping bird in here.
* * *
After work, Nona takes the Ride-On bus to Hy-Vee and buys the food and walks
home with two bags in each hand and her purse slung across her chest. She wears
a pea coat and a stocking cap. She and Bill live in a log cabin duplex at the
top of Dodge Street behind Home Town Dairy. A line of refrigerator trucks are
parked, motors running, all night, but she’s never seen them go anywhere.
Also, shes never seen any cows. Where are the cows? Ahead, the side of the duplex
that she and Bill share is dark like an eye with a patch.
She lets herself in and turns on the lights. The bookcase in the center separates
the living room and the bedroom. Bill’s a lump on the waterbed, which
takes up every last inch of the room. She has to crawl along the edge of it
to the bathroom door. Bill rises and falls on a wave.
“I’m unwell,” she says, turning on the fluorescent light over
the bathroom sink. She splashes her face with water, scoops some into her mouth.
Bill shifts under the quilts. “I read today,” he says. “The
Biophysics of Archery and the Archer.”
Nona crawls onto the bed and pulls the quilts away from his face. “Liar.”
“It was fascinating.”
The man who lives on the other side of the duplex nailed a target to the cottonwood
tree and practices archery every day. Even in December, he’s out there
practicing. For awhile, they referred to him as William Tell. This was when
every morning Nona and Bill left the log duplex together to get coffee, to
go to their
jobs, when they rode in the rusted Vega together and laughed about their neighbor.
When Bill was himself.
“Do you know,” Nona says, “there’s a bucket beside the
secretary’s desk full of formaldehyde? Do you know what’s inside
it, floating around in all that preservative?” She runs her fingers along
Bill’s brow to his cheekbone. “Can you guess?”
“I hate guessing.”
“This will amuse you. Guaranteed.”
Bill groans and rolls over, away from her.
“Hey. Come on, we were talking.”
On the other side of the duplex, she hears music. Something old and familiar
that her brother used to play. Three Dog Night. She smells onions and tomatoes
cooking. The neighbor man belts out, “Joy to the world,” then, “shit.”
Nona rolls off the bed. “I’ll fix you something.”
She pierces a potato and the frozen crust of a pot pie with a fork and puts them
both in the tiny oven. She pulls the personality inventory from her bag and sits
in front of the oven with a blanket over her legs.
I like to torture small animals. T or F?
It’s entirely too easy to guess what they’re after. Nona considers
answering the questions to make Dan the neuropsychologist think she’s a
paranoid schizophrenic. Or suffering from some rare, yet elegant psychosexual
disorder. Dan has a wife named Chris. Thomas and Greg are very little. Dan put
his hand on Nona’s shoulder once, in the exam room. He rubbed her collarbone
with his thumb.
The wall clock sounds like raindrops on tin and on the other side of the duplex,
the archer whoops and says, “God damn.” Bill struggles out of the
bed. Nona hears him peeing.
Sometimes I feel I am the Christ. True.
Bill comes and warms his palms by the oven.
Nona says, “Hey, this is weird. Everything’s amplified. Even my own
voice, right now. I think I’m running a fever, but I’m so cold.”
“Have you guessed?”
“In the bucket. OK, I’ll tell you. It’s a human brain.” She
nods. “There’s a brain in a bucket by the secretary’s desk.
A mop bucket.”
“Oh Christ, that’s awful.” Bill crumples onto the sofa. His belly is a drum on his lap. “That’s
horrific. Why on earth did you tell me that?”
Six months ago, she hurt him by sleeping with another man. But Bill’s
funk had been in place long before she had drinks with the graduate student
and ended up not coming home that night. Nona tells herself this, but she is
not absolutely sure it is the case.
So every night she tries to fix this one horrible mistake. To show him. See?
She’s not going anywhere! See how she makes dinner and tells interesting
* * *
Everything in the town before the first snow is colored an expectant silver-gray.
The hospitals and clinics, the lecture halls and dormitories huddle, watchful
like old men. Nona sold the Vega and now she takes the Ride-On bus with the
college students. When the bus passes over the bridge, she closes her eyes.
churns beneath her, the color of nickels. Every morning, there is the collective
breath of the students, fermented and sweet. And the blind man who sits directly
behind the driver, who runs his fingers through his hair and licks them.
At the office, Dan and the secretary are leaning in, looking at the brain.
The bucket sits on the secretary’s desk. The reception area smells like Nona’s
high school science lab.
“It’s smaller than I expected,” the secretary says.
“Everybody says that,” Dan tells her. “The seat of consciousness
is not much bigger than a grapefruit. Nona—wow. Did you sleep at all last
“How’d she die?” the secretary asks.
“Hanged herself.” Dan touches the brain with his index finger.
The secretary nods. “It’s kind of cheerful the way it bobs around
like that. It reminds me of Christmas. I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
Nona pulls off her pea coat and replaces it with her lab coat. She’d
tested this patient over a period of twelve months. The woman had a stroke
from word deafness. She believed everyone around her had begun to speak in
code. She presented with generalized anxiety disorder and paranoia. Nona thought
was a pretty reasonable response. In testing sessions, she passed the woman
notes: Trust me. I am your friend.
“Here,” Nona says. She gives Dan the personality test. “Finished.”
“Why didn’t you stay home this morning? You didn’t want to
stay home? You should see yourself. We’re not supposed to bring germs
into this place.”
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
“No, you should go.”
There’s a stain on Dan’s white shirt. Nona wonders if it’s
the same one he wore yesterday.
“Let Bob take care of you. You know, for a change.”
The secretary lifts the handle of the bucket. Some of the formaldehyde splashes
over the edge onto her skirt. She sets the bucket on the floor and covers it
with a towel. “Probably the smell is what’s making you sick,” she
says. “It’s getting to me, too.”
“I thought someone from neurobiology would have picked it up by now.
Why do we still have it?” Nona asks.
The secretary shrugs. Dan walks off, waving the personality test. “I’ll
have your results this afternoon. Oh, the mysteries of Nona!”
* * *
RD’s bored with the memory tests. He aces them anyway. Nona says, “Remember
those six words I gave you earlier? Do you remember them? RD, what were those
“I don’t give a rat’s ass.”
“Wrong,” she says.
In a pocket in the back of RD’s chart are copies of his brain scans. CAT
scans, MRIs, and PET scans. Nona takes them out. She doesn’t usually. She’s
not supposed to.
“You want to see these?” She holds them up to the light. He takes
them from her.
“Those look like flowers,” RD says. “Like blooms.”
Dan and the department chair are talking right outside the door. The department
chair is from Lisbon. He presents with authority at Grand Rounds. He shows the
scans on an overhead projector and points to the focal lesions that explain everything.
Much can be learned about brain function from those who are damaged. They are
our expeditionary guides. If Dan and the department chair come in now Nona will
probably get in trouble.
“Are you giving them your brain, RD? You know, when you die?”
“Peonies. Maybe they look like peony blooms. No. Chrysanthemums.”
RD examines the scans. He lifts them to his face, one by one. “Chrysanthemums
are the favored flower for homecoming corsages. Chrysanthemums are an autumn-blooming
flower, that’s why. Of course, peonies are always covered with
“You shouldn’t. They cut your head open with a saw. It’s horrific.”
Outside the door, Dan stops talking when the department chair sneezes, then sneezes
“I’d better put these away now,” Nona says. RD’s looking
at his PET scan, tracing the fluted edges of his cortex. He won’t give
it to her.
“Gray blooms,” he says.
“You can change your mind. Even if you signed something. It’s OK to change your mind.” But this is not his strong point.
He’s about to cry. He’s shoving the scans into the pocket of his chart
and his hands are trembling. It’s gone quiet outside the examination
“Hey now,” Nona says. “Don’t, don’t.” She
means to pat RD’s hand, but raises her fingertips to touch his broad,
shining forehead, the skin that covers his skull.
* * *
Bill calls at lunchtime.
“I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“You’ve had a rough morning?”
“Yeah.” He starts to say something else, but he doesn’t. He
doesn’t love her. Why does he stay? She experiences a sudden, blinding
desire to go home and kick his ass. The Home Town Dairy cows live quite placidly
on a farm, of course. Many miles away.
* * *
Dan’s passing out flyers to the staff as they leave for the day. He and
his band are playing tonight at The Mill. Mostly covers of John Prine. It is
their first gig, but he’s acting confident. The Mill specializes in spaghetti
with a choice of sauces. It’s very cheap.
“You have to come,” he tells Nona.
“Who’s John Prine?”
Dan stares at her. “OK, that’s it. You really have to come.”
He pulls Nona into the conference room, pours coffee.
“Shouldn’t you be going?”
He looks at his watch. “I have some time. Anyway,” he says. “This?” He’s
got a printout of her test results. They sit down.
“I’m weary, Dan. I’m not kidding.”
“It’s bogus anyway. Somebody did a little horsing around.”
“Just get to know people the normal way, why don’t you.”
The secretary pops in to unplug the coffee maker and say good-bye. “You
don’t look a bit better,” she says to Nona. “In case you didn’t
know, it’s snowing.”
They hear her go around flicking off the lights. On the white board, the department
chair has drawn a crude representation of a diseased amygdala. It looks like
Dan’s tapping his pencil on the table. “Come and hear us play tonight.”
Nona’s whole body aches. “I just want to go home.”
* * *
On their first date, Bill took Nona to hear a string quartet in the music department.
They were both still students. After, they bought hot dogs from a street vendor
and sat eating them on the stone wall surrounding her dormitory, swinging their
legs like children. She asked him if he was having a good time. You’re
the best thing I know, he said. You’re the best thing I’ll ever know.
She laughed, loving the wide open admiration in Bill’s eyes and said,
well, maybe wait and see first.
Nona takes her Tupperware bowl out of the mini fridge in the conference room.
It is a good-sized bowl. The leftover salad inside is covered in fur. The bowl
takes some scrubbing before it’s clean. She runs the water until it’s
scalding and rinses the bowl four times. She lifts it to her nose and smells
it, then dries it with a paper towel.
The hallway is dim. She has to feel around for the light switch in the reception
area. She kneels down and pulls the towel away from the bucket and winces from
the smell. Carefully, she dips the Tupperware bowl into the formaldehyde. The
brain bobs away slightly at first, then swims in with the liquid streaming into
* * *
The Ride-On bus arrives late and empty. Nona takes a seat and places the
bowl on her lap. The contents slosh around like soup. She wraps her
arms around the
bowl and holds it to her chest. She is shivering.
The driver looks at her in the rearview mirror and says, “Long day,
Nona looks out at the steady, slow-falling snow. She wishes the bus weren’t
lit inside. It lumbers across the bridge and past the university buildings.
A couple of students are pelting each other with snowballs outside a bar. Nona
hears a thin stream of Christmas carols from the driver’s radio.
She grips the bowl tighter. The bus continues up Dodge Street to the
The duplex is bright on both sides tonight. She can see it through the
snow. She’s sure Bill is there, right now, awake and smiling and ready to receive
her. As the bus draws nearer to the stop, Nona believes she can make out Bill’s
form through the snow and clouds of exhaust from the Home Town Dairy trucks.
He is standing out there without a coat. It is as if he knows. Nona stands up.
The motion of the bus sends her forward. She has to grab onto a seat back, catch
her balance. But he’s there, she’s certain that’s him,
standing under the light.
The bus stops.
“OK, miss, you take it easy now,” the driver says. But she is already
down the steps and out, ankle deep in snow.
The bus pulls away from the curb. Nona wants to run, but she might slip.
That must be Bill waiting for her. She calls out to him, but the snow
voice. She is breathless to tell him. I have quit my job. I have stolen
the brain. And together, we can bury it.