We fan out based on interest and strength of stomach.
A full cabinet of scrubbed skulls listing names, ages, occupations,
and dates of death seems harmless enough but around the corner
a gangrenous hand, a cabinet of bones ravaged by syphilis,
and the Soap Lady – whose body fat turned to a mottled wax now lying
in a clear glass coffin like a Madame Tussaud’s heat casualty –
reveal the real scope of the operation. It gets worse downstairs
Will says as he retreats to the lobby. What am I doing here?
It’s a dead people freak show. How different
from reality TV with “little people” chocolatiers or houses full
of anorexics clawing each other for the modeling jackpot or even
the jiggling of American Idol’s early rounds? I wince,
hating the voyeur in me. We should be at Betsy Ross’s
or the Barnes’ Museum or some nouveau-something bar
on the Philadelphia harbor instead of here
gawking at the bones of a seven-foot-six Kentucky giant
next to a skeleton of a three-foot-six female dwarf.
But something pulls me forward. Erin, Zak and I linger
at the mass murderer’s brain and the victim’s skull with an ax-size gap
until I’m brought to a halt at the cast of the original Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng across from their preserved livers. Their plaster selves
stand behind glass, the two of them turned at 90° angles
and all these preserved parts sharpen into a human focus.
As Erin studies row upon row of eyeballs afflicted
by everything from conjunctivitis to a cancer that protrudes
like a ping pong ball from its strained lids and Zak shudders
at an enormous clogged human colon, I stare into the smooth eyes
of Chang and Eng. After death, doctors found only cartilage
held them together. Even the surgeons of their time could have split them.
But when Eng woke to find Chang dead beside him, he said No
to the doctor summoned to separate them, leaving the world
three hours after his still conjoined companion. And now
the carefully sliced human brains, the ossified ear bones
and the yellow, rubberish malformed babies perfectly preserved
in cloudy jars drive me upstairs. How did you last that long? Anne asks
as I stumble into the front lecture hall and begin to prattle on
about Chang and Eng. My kids, wife, niece Allie
all squeeze onto a dark wooden bench and listen distractedly.
Before us in the large room, rows of folding chairs
face a microphone and lectern prepared for a talk
about the tell tale signs of fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva
to real doctors who might be able to do something about it,
but hunger overcomes disgust and we go. I want to look again
into the calm, plaster eyes of Chang and Eng and say goodbye,
but I’m pulled out the door by the same string that pulled me in
and as I hit the Philadelphia streets once walked by Rocky
and Springsteen and Ben Franklin, all I can think of is Chang and Eng
in a famous photo wearing a one-piece double tuxedo top
holding their suit coats open to show off their black satin vests.
Later in a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant savoring my duck Bao Buns
and lump crab empanadas, the children debate the grossest exhibit
(The woman with the forehead horn and the 40-pound colon lose
to the two-headed baby in a jar) and I pull my shoulders back like Chang
and Eng, push my chest forward and look straight into the camera’s eye.
Previously published in The Fiddleback December, 2011