My mother said fish was brain food. She breaded it and fried it and told me to finish whatever she put on my plate, and for a while I expected my IQ to rise, maintaining the same belief in that promise as I had in the carrots she fed me to cure my nearsightedness.
Long after I lost my faith in both of those home remedies, right about the time I got my first pair of glasses, my father put two pans on the kitchen stove one Saturday morning and slid slimy-looking meat into them from two different packages. He saw me turn my head and barked, “Don’t be so squeamish.”
As usual, I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so all I had to do was take two steps back to turn the meat into fog. Whatever filled those pans where Crisco was melting into puddles was comfortably blurred. “What is it?” I asked, like I knew I was supposed to.
“Veal kidneys,” he said, pointing to one pan. “Calves brains,” he said, pointing to the other. “Wait until you try some,” he added, but I was stuck on the word “brains,” and he read my face. “You don’t know what’s good,” he said. “You want the real smart food, here’s your chance.”
When he relented, asking me to try one or the other, I chose the kidneys. They didn’t promise to make me better in any way, but they didn’t seem much different than the hearts and livers of chickens and turkeys, meat that I loved even as a nine year-old.
Once the smell of urine faded as they finished cooking, the kidneys were rich and greasy and delicious. My father was pleased. He ate all of the brains himself.
Despite not eating brains, I did well in school. Later that year, near the end of fourth grade, my teachers suggested I skip a grade, and a “readiness evaluator” tested me for an hour, asking, early on, for the quick recall of body parts, current events, and trivia. I loved showing off what I’d read. For science, I mentioned Ptolemy, the sun as God’s spotlight; I sequenced Copernicus, the Church, and Galileo. He smiled and read me puzzles like the one about Bill meeting his mother-in-law’s only daughter’s husband’s son. What relation, he questioned, is this person to Bill? His son, I blurted, not bothering with the proffered pencil, and I thought he’d be astonished because I could calculate, in seconds, the equal number of quarters, dimes, and nickels (twenty-four) to get nine dollars and sixty cents. I knew how many nines (twenty) I had to pass counting from one to one hundred, and how to slosh water back and forth from a five quart container to one that holds three quarts in order to finish with exactly four. I thought the expert loved my top-scale score and would show me off to every teacher in the district, but my parents voted no and no before he spoke.
In our yard that winter I built, after a snowstorm, a model of the solar system, rolling and shaping the huge ball of Jupiter, the extraordinary mound of the sun. I worked the planets to scale, measured circumference and the distance from sphere to sphere to sphere. I needed the neighbor’s yard for Pluto, and when the frost planets seemed plain, I gave them their moons to scale, snow berries and packed pebbles of ice. At the end of the street I snowballed another star. I stood, according to my imagined scale, a hundred million miles from it, thought of my house, and readied myself for ignition because surely, in all that snow, some life had formed and evolved to visit me.
That summer, when I had to spend afternoons at my father’s bakery because my mother had started working there to help make ends meet, the woman who owned Peluso’s, a nearby bar, introduced me to her son. “This is my boy Raymond,” she said, as if she expected us to become friends and play together. He was nearly twice my size, and I guessed that he was about twice my age. His face was round, and his eyes seemed glazed. When he spoke, he sounded the way my father’s records did when I changed the speed from seventy-eight to thirty-three, but Mrs. Peluso acted as if she understood every word.
“He loves his lime pop,” she said, pointing to the bottle he held in his hand. “I keep some in the cooler with the beer.”
Raymond slurred a few more words, pointing at one of the display cases where trays of cookies were laid out. “Such a sweet tooth,” Mrs. Peluso said while my mother retrieved one of the vanilla sugar cookies and handed it to her.
Raymond seemed agitated. He growled out another phrase or two, and Mrs. Peluso stepped toward the door, tugging him away from the case with a sort of leash that was attached to a harness he wore around his chest and back. “He’d eat it and ask for more if I let him,” she said, and then she led him into the street like a dog.
“Down Syndrome,” my mother said as soon as the door closed. “It’s her cross to bear.”
“He can’t even talk,” I said.
“Yes, he can. You heard him. A mother lives long enough with that, she learns what it means.” My mother closed the display case and leaned on the counter as if she needed to get closer to where I sat by the space heater that wasn’t turned on until November. “You know,” she said, “he’s not the only one. It’s not rare.”
I looked out the front window as if I expected Mrs. Peluso to be listening, but the street was empty. “I never saw anybody like that,” I said. “Where are they?”
“They’re put away mostly. There are places for that.”
“Where bad luck lives,” she said. “Where, God willing, you’ll never be.”
In health class, eighth grade, we learned the descending categories for results on the Stanford-Binet IQ Test that all of us had taken in first and fourth grade.
You couldn’t do worse, if you made a mark, than idiot. I thought of Raymond, who still loved lime soda and slurred his private language at the end of a leash near my father’s bakery. That year there were imbeciles bused in and out for half-days in the resource rooms, and like other eighth graders, I told “little moron” jokes: The little moron was playing with matches and burned the house down. “Your daddy’s going to kill you when he gets home,” his mother said. But the little moron laughed and laughed because he knew his daddy was asleep on the couch.
My friends and I laughed and laughed at everything the little moron did. Why would he take his ruler to bed? He wanted to see how long he slept. And we wanted, joke by joke, to bring the dead metaphors to life—time, butter, and fire flying out his busy window.
“That will do,” Miss Hutchinson, our health teacher said, sick of those jokes one afternoon.
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1927, supporting the Eugenics Record Office, which wanted to sterilize everyone deemed unfit. Harry Laughlin, Superintendant, hoped, in two generations, to eliminate what he considered the submerged tenth of our population. He meant the blind, the deaf, the orphans, and the homeless. He meant the poor and the stupid, and the Supreme Court backed him up, finding a “clear and present danger” embedded in the family tree of the Bucks, who were illegitimate and poor; who were Emma, Carrie, and finally Vivian, who made more than enough of those morons and was declared deficient at seven months after someone gave this expert testimony: “There is a look about the baby that is not quite normal, but what it is I can’t quite tell.”
None of the Bucks, it turned out, was a moron like the one who took his ladder to church for High Mass, but like Emma and Carrie, Vivian was sterilized, too, for good measure.
In college, an English major, I took a course called “Swift and Pope.” One afternoon the professor, to give us context, delivered a lecture on The Great Chain of Being, how angels move above us while brutes make do below. Edward Tyson, the professor said, was a comparative anatomist in the later seventeenth century, and he believed that he’d verified the thinking approved by the church. He studied a chimpanzee, expecting a link that placed it close behind man. Tyson needed that chimp to walk upright, something snug between the large apes and us for the Great Chain. But in one of Tyson’s old plates, the chimp uses a walking stick; in another, it ambles away, holding a rope stretched overhead like a commuter’s hand rail.
At the time, the professor went on, those chimps were as exotic as the humans from Africa, who were placed one step above them and several steps below the British in the writings of Charles White, biologist, who championed, a century later, the Great Chain of the Upright by defining intelligence through the shapes of jaws and foreheads. The American Savage was next in his chain; the Oriental its neighbor. Charles White worked his way, by facial features, to Europe, and, by extrapolation, to the Greek ideal in antiquity. And as for intelligence? In the Golden Age of assigned place, the white man bound to God, form followed function.
During the next class, we were asked to recall Pope’s heroic couplets, passages chosen from “Essay on Man.” The Great Chain of Being jangled and clanked while we remembered how the bored superior beings “Show’d a Newton as we show an ape,” another theory taken to heart. The professor explained how Immanuel Kant, in the Charles White years, believed Jupiter was the planet of sufficient size to support all of God’s higher beings, the ones who were links between us and the angels.
One summer afternoon five years after I graduated from college, my cousin and I sat our year-old sons on her living room carpet, and I counted the handicaps in her first-born until I felt her stare and had to turn away. An accident, she said her doctor had told her. Too little air. Unfortunate.
I nodded like someone saving his job in an office of lies. My son pulled himself up on a chair and staggered until he fell. Her son crawled as if he’d lighted on the huge, invisible web of God. “My sister’s boy has a problem, too,” she murmured. “Both of us are moving closer to cities so this never happens again.”
Too little air in Pennsylvania where we lived. Too little air in Georgia where her sister lived. Too little air in the living room where we stared from one boy to the other, so quiet, so long, we might have been practicing conservation, as if that room had been sealed by a landslide and we were finding the essential, slow rhythms of survival.
Without knowing what I offered, that son of mine, a few years later, sampled the veal kidneys I occasionally made for breakfast before I walked to the nearby high school to teach. He asked for more. I told him what he’d eaten,but it didn’t slow him down. He was four years old and wouldn’t have been able to point out where his kidneys were located if some pre-school expert had asked in order to determine his school readiness.
For that whole school year he asked me to wake him on the days I cooked kidneys. One morning I asked him if he’d try brains, and he looked horrified. I told him the story of his grandfather, and he said, “Grand Pap eats brains” as if he was revealing a secret kept for centuries.
By the time my daughter and another son had been born, I learned that some mornings chimpanzees are known to skip breakfast and hike in a group to where the Aspilia grows. They gibber in a way that shows reluctance, chatter in a manner that sounds as if they’re complaining, but all of them gulp the plant’s bitter leaves, each cleaning a branch like children frightened by the taste of medicine.
Aspilia, it turns out, is a purgative in the rain forest, a home remedy to fend off parasites and fungi. The chimpanzees have been filmed by scientists, who also have learned that the oil of the Aspilia destroys the malignant cells of certain tumors. Likewise, we can be instructed by the pharmacy of the primates if we watch the sick chimp who drags herself to the foul bush of Vernonia to chew its leaves and swallow its juice. We can witness her next day recovery, how she grooms herself again and forages for food.
It turns out that in the natural selection of medicinal plants, the ignorant and stupid will swallow poisonous leaves and end their faulty genes with an incorrect prescription. Pay attention, survivors lecture, to pattern, color, texture, scent. Eat these stems during the rainy season. Take two of these petals for climate change. And here are the aids for fertility, their counterparts for prevention. There are howling monkeys who follow a diet that helps produce daughters or sons, who eat acidic or alkaline to shift conception odds for the x or the y of sperm. And if we observe the howlers who feel betrayed or trapped by conception, we discover that they grind the leaves for induced abortion, take care of themselves without consulting doctors, lawyers, politicians, or priests.
Ten years after we watched our first-born sons on that living room carpet, my cousin told me about Fragile X Syndrome, how her son made progress through care and love. Her husband was tossing a ball to our eleven-year-olds, casually and carefully by turns. Two steps closer, two steps back, handicapping the distance and the arc of the ball. My son, later, listed all of Fragile X’s unlucky signs of awful coordination and speech, the long face and big floppy ears of the donkey.
I was told that my cousin’s son knew the name of every bird at the feeder near the back patio, and I agreed to say “What’s that?” each time one settled. He shouted “House wren,” waved his hands, bit his fingers, and screamed “House wren” for the next and the next, laughing and laughing at my ignorance. And whether it was the same bird, three different ones from the same species, or he was bluffing like a parrot, I asked again, looking to where my son was throwing horseshoes for the first time, already bored with ringer and leaner, the simple language for play.
When my cousins hosted a party for their parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, I had a chance to spend a few hours with their three Fragile X sons, all, by then, in their late teens. My older son was in college; the boy who had shared that carpet with him worked clean-up at McDonald’s.
The two brothers from Georgia bumped butts and squealed, “Hammer time!”
“Can’t touch this!” I shouted back, giving solidarity a shot.
“Hammer time!” they shouted, ecstatic, slamming again before they tumbled to the carpet of the reception hall.
Their mother gave me a smile that was part grimace. “They each have a Walkman,” she said. “It kept them busy on the drive from Georgia. They listen to the same thing over and over.”
“It looks as if they love M. C. Hammer,” I said.
“They’re sedated,” she said, and when I couldn’t think of anything to say in answer to that, she added, “Just this once. Just for today. I can’t have them spoiling this.”
Later that afternoon, she told me about the tests I could have my daughter take to find out whether she was a carrier. “For your peace of mind,” she said. “So you know for sure.”
Someone has claimed the dinosaurs forgot everything but the drugs of flowering plants in the centuries they first flourished. Those lizards gorged and got high; they overdosed and died in an apocalypse of the giants. We’ve laughed and laughed at their idiot ways, more foolishness in the great chain of brutes who rattle the links of their life spans—the sestina of dog years, the sonnet of the hamster, the haiku of the mayfly.
And we believe so much in the epic of our lives, the photographs, the slides, and the long pauses for our stories that enlarge the past until our memories are edited to accept the anthropic principle, how the purpose of everything has been to lead to our ascendancy.
My uncle keeps a chart of ancestors that he shares with my mother, the men’s occupations in parentheses beneath their life-spanned names. Tailor, tailor, tailor, it says, fading like an echo through the nineteenth century and stopping, 1782, in Germany, five generations fixed in one village before the coming to America.
The great chain of a construct. All but one of them died from lung disease; I use an inhaler for cats, pine trees, and the dust from his redundant flow charts, checking for myself in my mother’s weaknesses and my sons in mine. When the meal is served, my cousins, the mothers of imbeciles, watch their husbands tend their boys’ plates, buttering corn before they carefully cut ham to prevent their teenage sons from choking.
Thirty years after that health class and fifteen years after watching those babies with my cousin, I could repeat the rosary of heredity, say Fragile X, the syndrome that claimed my cousins, their three imbecile boys, one generation enough, in this case, to confirm a chromosome passed down like a family job. If that flaw had been handed down through my uncle, I’d beaten the odds by being something other than stupid. And my sister was a carrier unverified because she had no children.
Vivian Buck? She managed to make the honor roll in grade school the year before she died. My sons? Both of them were gifted enough to take, like their father, skip-a-grade intelligence tests.
A few weeks ago, in a city I was visiting in order to talk with college students about stories I’ve written, there was a fair going on. My student escorts, happy to show me local color before we were due at the college, pointed out the longest line at any of the food booths. “Guess what’s sold there,” one of the young women said.
We were in Southern Indiana. I figured maybe beef or pork slathered in some sort of special sauce. “Close,” she said, pausing for effect before saying, “Brain sandwiches.”
“Really?” was all I could come up with.
“Pigs’ brains this year,” she said, “because mad cow scares off customers.” She was twenty-one, and she and her friend had sampled those brains as freshmen. “They say it’s a week’s worth of cholesterol on a bun,” she said, “but there’s a whole wheat option for those who think healthy. And plenty of onions,” reminding me how my father eventually added those to the brains I’d refused fifty years ago.
Loitering among a crowd of Hoosiers who were swallowing something like a heart attack, I thought of how my father had tried to teach me the body, how each soft part of animals could be eaten for pleasure while we imagined it healing its namesake within us.
There’s the Internet now, information readily accessible, and Fragile X has become more widely known. I never had my daughter tested, but my cousins finally told me it was their mother’s side of the family that carried the gene, that it was their brother who had beaten the odds.
Their father is dead now, and for the first time since that fiftieth anniversary, we all gather together for the funeral. The three boys are men now, nearly thirty like my sons. The two boys from Georgia have been placed in a home by their mother; the one from Pennsylvania, no longer working, lives at home.
Hammer Time has been over for years, the parachute pants a staple for laughter, Hammer himself in public financial difficulty. But neither boy has a Walkman today, and their sister (gifted, it’s turned out) sits between them.
My cousins’ mother knows the news about bloodlines. They’ve trusted her heart not to break. Until she dies there is little chance we’ll all be together again. She smiles grimly. “He went peacefully,” she says about her husband’s death. “In his sleep the way we’d all like to go.”
After the funeral, the extended family assembles in one huge, rented room to face the camera of each parent. The light is weak and varied near the north window. The children of younger relatives are sullen or self-conscious or bored with the afternoon’s focus on the past. My two sons and my daughter, none of them touched by Fragile X, pull themselves up straight. “Ok,” I say, “ok,” finding the three imbeciles who are gripped on the shoulders, two-handed, by grandmother, mother, and carrier sister, each of those wild boys smiling and still, momentarily, for my flash.
Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of The Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.