Slice of Mind
"Have you ever really thought, I mean really thought, about thinking, Schultz?" Crawford asked me. The question took me utterly by surprise, seeing as how the time was somewhen way beyond my normal bedtime and my thought processes were, to say the least, somewhat different than normal. Crawford and I had sought refuge in a back corner of the small, dimly-lit, smoke-filled apartment. The mindless drum machine-thumping of one of those awful candy-rock groups with the pouty- voiced, pre-pubescent female lead singer blaring on the stereo wasn't helping my ability to think much either.
"Sure, I've thought about it," I said. "The whole concept is kind of mind-boggling, if you get my drift." One side of Dr. Nathan Crawford's lip curled up in a half-smile, half-smirk at my half-assed attempt at a joke. I took a pull on a light beer that was, by now, much too warm to be drinking.
"That's good, Schultz," he said, "but I'm serious. Tell me, if you can, what exactly is a thought? Where do ideas come from? The human brain is only another organ like a liver or a pancreas, after all. Why don't we have a better understanding of it?"
I shrugged. This sounded like a good discussion topic, the kind you could get your teeth into. "Can we get out of here, Doc? This party is about to break up anyway." He looked around the hazy room, noticing that most of those still present were paired up and oblivious to us anyway. He nodded and got up. I left the rest of my wretched beer on the end table. We headed for the little all-night coffee shop on the corner, a couple blocks away, just off campus.
Crawford was one of those young profs who liked to spend time with the students, after hours, away from the classroom atmosphere. A few drinks -- on rare occasions a toke or two -- a little music and everyone tended to let their hair down. Crawford really got into that kind of stuff. The discussions often got real interesting. He hated the comparison, but I always thought he looked like a slightly taller version of Richard Dreyfuss. He even had the animated gestures, the intense facial expressions and the Van Dyke beard.
I was a Ph.D. student in Zoology, the same department as Crawford, but I hadn't gone to the party seeking esoteric conversation. I was looking for something more basic: female companionship. As usual, having gone looking for it, I hadn't found it. Not for lack of trying, mind you. But then, I'm sort of a Maynard G. Krebs look-alike so I've gotten used to it. I settled for the next best thing: the esoteric conversation -- at least it was with somebody smarter than I was.
We settled into a well-worn red vinyl booth and ordered some onion rings and coffee -- a couple of things that the little restaurant was famous for. The coffee came right away. Crawford blew gently across the surface of the hot, dark liquid and took an exploratory sip. It was like that was all he needed to get back in gear. He picked up the thread of our previous conversation just about where we left off.
"What this thing we call 'the mind' anyway?" he asked rhetorically. "When you see something or hear something or touch or taste or smell something, the brain reacts in some way. Thoughts are the result. How do they happen?" I shrugged. He paused for long enough to take another sip of hot brew. "I'm not sure, either, but think of this: it all goes on inside your head, inside a space about the size of a softball. It may not sound too romantic, Schultz, but tonight when you were trying to make time with that buxom little junior, it was ultimately her brain you had to communicate with, wasn't it. One rough-surfaced softball-sized organ to another!"
"I don't know, Doc," I said, smirking, "I'm pretty sure it wasn't her brain I was interested in!"
"There will come a time when your thought processes are free from the influence of your hormones, Schultz. I pray, for your sake, that the day isn't too far off!"
I decided to get a little more serious. The short walk in the cool night air and a cup of black coffee had done wonders for my head. My mind had cleared. Besides, grad students just love to cross wits with profs. What the hell, I thought, I might even learn something!
"So how would you go about studying the mind and thoughts and brain function, Doc? Like, where would you start?" I asked, sensing that he was really into the subject and only a little priming was needed to set him off. I was right.
"Naturally, there would be real value in comparing abnormal brains with normal ones." Our onion rings came. The air was filled with the wonderful, sinful aroma of golden-brown breading crisp-fried in oil.
"You mean like comparing college students with insurance salesmen?" I asked, as I handed him the catsup. He chuckled, took the offered bottle and poured a large, red dollop on his plate.
"Yes, Brian, but don't forget that there's another end of the spectrum. One could probably learn more by studying the very intelligent. Of course, some of that work has already been done. Broca's brain is preserved in a jar. So is Einstein's."
"Broca?" I asked.
"Paul Broca. He was a French scientist who did the pioneer work on human brain function. The speech area of the brain is named for him. I'm surprised you haven't heard of him." I shrugged, Crawford continued. "Believe it or not, the scientists who studied those very special brains found little to no difference between them and that of a 'normal' human." He paused and selected the largest onion ring from the basket, dipped it in catsup and then held it suspended above the plate between his thumb and forefinger while he made his next point.
"Perhaps the strangest case of all is that of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet politician and leader. After taking Lenin's brain out of his skull, his doctors used standard tissue techniques to preserve it and then proceeded to slice it up into sections, some 30,000 of them." He smiled, and bit into the crisp golden circle. He watched me for my reaction.
"Wow!" I said, around a mouthful of the succulent fried food. "What did they find?"
"Absolutely nothing," he replied, eyeing the basket.
"Jesus, what a waste!" I said, shaking my head.
"Perhaps not," said Crawford, as he selected the largest of the two remaining onion rings. "Perhaps they didn't know what to look for."
"What do you mean by that, Doc?"
"Could be there's more to the thought process than just simple Biology and Chemistry."
"Like what?" I said as I grabbed the last tidbit out of the basket.
"Well, like Physics, for instance. There have been some remarkable discoveries recently. The discoverers don't know it yet, but some of their findings have immediate applications for my research."
And it went on from there. I was hooked. Dr. Nathan Crawford spun an incredible tale of new and absurd theories. Only, as he explained them they didn't sound so absurd. They sounded exciting, even plausible, and I hung on to every word. After an hour that seemed like about five minutes, I snapped out of an intense concentration to find that our coffee was stone cold and there was nothing but a few congealed crumbs in the onion basket. It was like we had been alone in the little restaurant.
Suddenly, sadly, it was time to go. You can only sustain that kind of intensity for so long. My head was still reeling with all the new wave brain theories that had been crammed into it.
"Stop by my lab tomorrow afternoon, Schultz. I'll show you some of my results," he said, as we parted company in the parking lot of the little coffee shop.
"Sure, Doc, you bet!" I said enthusiastically. I walked back to my one-room apartment to a bed that I knew wouldn't see much sleeping that evening.
All the next day, my mind was filled with thoughts about thinking. (Read that last sentence again. It will give you some idea of my state of mind that day.) All the next day my classes seemed to take forever. To make matters worse, I also had to T.A. the afternoon lab session. That went quickly too -- kind of like a snail in an ultrafreezer. Finally, some twenty minutes late, I managed to herd the last of the sophomores out of the Vertebrate Zoology lab. As quickly as I could, I de-prepped the teaching room, shed my lab coat and washed the formaldehyde off my hands. Two minutes later I was up on the fourth floor getting ready to enter Crawford's lab.
I stopped myself right by the corner of the door. Something odd was going on. Some poor son of a bitch was in the middle of a real, old- fashioned ass-chewing. It only took a moment to figure out that someone was Dr. Nathan Crawford. The one doing the chewing was none other than W. Oscar McBride, Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics! This had to be heavy duty stuff! I was glad I wasn't in the room but I couldn't help myself as I eavesdropped with a sort of horrified fascination.
Old Oscar was practically shouting.
"... the most hare-brained idea I have ever heard of!"
"I believe I can explain..." began Crawford softly.
"Explain! Christ, Nate, how could you be so god-damned stupid? You can't give controlled substances to students even if they are volunteers and I don't care if they each signed ten waivers! You simply cannot do that! As if that weren't enough, I have it on good authority that you've been at student residences where marijuana was used and minors were consuming alcohol! On numerous occasions! What were you thinking? Have you no sense of propriety, Nate?"
"As I started to say, Dr. McBride, I believe I can explain..." Crawford began, quietly, reasonably, only to be cut off again.
"Not this time, Nate. I can't do anything to help you. Even if you had tenure, which you don't, I'm not sure we could beat this one! There are people in high places who want your head! You'd better start packing."
McBride almost ran me over as he stormed out of the lab. I pretended like I had just arrived and was none the wiser. He looked at me with his reddened face and shook his head before steaming off down the hall and around the corner.
I peeked around the doorjamb. Crawford was looking in my direction but didn't appear to see me. I waved and said: "Hey, Doc, is everything all right? He started, recognized me and motioned me inside. He was shook but, hey, I guess that's understandable, given the circumstances.
"No, Brian, it most certainly is not. I just got fired. Hard to believe, really."
"Uh... I know," I confessed, "I couldn't help it. I overheard the last couple minutes out in the hall."
"I thought that this University was different... but, of course they're all the same."
Amazingly, Crawford sort of shrugged and seemed to shake off the mood. Suddenly he became a man of action.
"No doubt they'll send security over to search my office." He looked at me. "I want you to keep something safe for me. This is very important, can you do it?"
"Uh ... sure, Doc," I said, praying it wasn't a kilo of grass or an ounce of coke or something. I was really a pretty straight guy. I mean, like, drugs had never appealed to me much. Sex and Rock n' Roll, fine. Drugs, no. I swallowed, "What is it?"
"You remember my trip to Moscow last July?"
"Yeah, you took some great slides. Wish I could've been with you."
"Those weren't the only slides I brought back with me." I gave him a puzzled look. He smiled without humor. "It was frightfully expensive, Brian, but I managed to get a few of those 30,000 sections of Lenin's brain and smuggle them back here. Five, to be exact."
"No shit, Doc?"
"No shit, Schultz!" he replied.
I shook my head in disbelief.
"They have proven invaluable for testing certain aspects of my theories."
"Yeah, I'll take them. When do you want them back?"
"I'm not sure. I'll call for them when I get settled. In few weeks, a month at most."
I left the lab before security got there. I didn't see Crawford again for a month and a half.
But man, did some shit happen!
The weekend after Crawford got fired was the long Thanksgiving one, a four-day extravaganza. When we got back from break, Crawford was long gone. I remember the scene when I got back to the Zoo department on Monday after the Holiday. The place was all aflurry with campus security, real downtown cops, and high-level administrators.
"What's goin' down?" I asked one of the campus guards, a real large, badly overweight type who was even then eating a jelly donut. He shook his head in disgust.
"That Crawford guy ripped off some stuff outta the lab las' weekend," he said around a mouthful of donut. "The Dean's pretty torqued about it! Guess he's got good reason, I hear there was a lot of e'spensive stuff in there!"
I looked into the lab, over the yellow tape of the police barrier. Crawford had moved out. And I do mean out. McBride almost had the big one when he found out about it. Believe me, if they ever catch Crawford they'll put him away for good. You see, the halls had been all but empty with everyone out for the holiday and campus security had been its usual (that is to say: incompetent) self. Crawford hired himself a couple of brawny football-player types and backed a large U-haul truck up to the lab.
He took everything.
It was at least a million bucks worth of stuff! Good stuff. Big stuff like the ultracentrifuge, the gas chromatograph, the HPLC, the growth chambers, little stuff like pH meters and electronic balances, and all the weird, one-of-a-kind (and expensive) stuff that he'd made to test his pet theories. As Dr. Seuss would've said: "He stole the roast beast! Why, he even stole the last can of Who Hash!" Heck, the ol' grinch himself couldn't have done a better job of stripping that lab then Nate Crawford had!
Yeah, it was all gone and so was Crawford. I had to hand it to him, he sure had a knack for getting his way. Two weeks after that I saw an obscure notice in the daily paper stating that someone had stolen the brain of the famous French scientist, Paul Broca, out of the museum where it had been kept for so many years. There were no suspects.
No suspects? I think they'd better step up the security on Einstein's brain unless they want to lose it too.
Crawford came for his Lenin slides one day with about 20 minutes warning. I got them for them out of the hiding place I'd used and we talked for a few minutes. He spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder. Guess I couldn't blame him. Weird. It was like a scene out of a bad "B" sci-fi movie or something except that he wasn't wearing a cape and I'm not a hunchback. He asked if I wanted to come and work with him at a clandestine, but well-equipped lab he'd set up. He was pretty sure he was on the verge of some big breakthroughs and allowed as how he could use some competent help. I don't know if he liked my answer or not.
I told him I'd think about it.
Phillip Nolte was one of the founding editors of InterText.
InterText stories written by Phillip Nolte: "Direct Connection" (v1n1), "Slice of Mind" (v1n4), "Cannibals Shrink Elvis' Head" (v2n2), "Neuterality" (v2n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Phillip Nolte.