THE MAN did not offer to buy Mitchell a coffee. He described the job as a sales position but managed to avoid saying exactly what Michell would sell. Mitchell found he could not get a word in, and after a while he quit trying. The man looked like he'd been to prison. His business suit was like a disguise. He made several allusions to a payment of $300 and Mitchell finally understood the man wanted him to pay $300. The man made wisecracks about some starving-artist types that were haunting the coffee shop, making fun of their lives and also their clothes. Mitchell’s mind went to the gas he’d wasted driving into Albuquerque and to the fact that to buy himself an espresso drink would be, at this point, an extravagant expenditure. His mind went to all the things he was expert at—the history of Paris, North American hummingbirds. He knew the entire book of Psalms by heart. The man was holding a laminated graph. It showed a steep increase in something.
Mitchell had spent six years with Bet. Bet fancied herself a writer and she moved every few months, on whims Mitchell had met her when she’d passed through. Chattanooga and he’d agreed to tag along with her. This last move they’d wound up in some bright, dusty town out east of Albuquerque, and after only two days. Bet had said she wanted to pack up and move again. She said she didn’t have to explain herself. She said if she had complaints, they weren’t about New Mexico. There’d been a fight and Bet had left and Mitchell had stayed put. He was worn out—tired of the road, of packing and unpacking, of learning new streets and new restaurants and new neighbors and new weather and suffering new allergies and not knowing the name of the county he lived in, of having no friends.
The upshot: Mitchell had a two-bedroom condo all to himself, the first time he’d had his own place in ages, and the first month and security deposit were paid. He was a bachelor again. He had nothing to put in the second bedroom but a folding chair and a lamp. He had $4,100.
He ate twice a day, all his meals working out to $8. Sandwich and potato salad and a Coke. Burritos and a Coke. Three stiff slices of pizza and a Coke. Even the imported six-pack he sometimes splurged on in the evenings set him back $8.
He had a TV but he never watched it. The TV was one of his few possessions, an item he’d owned since before he’d started traveling.
Mitchell felt that the desert might be the right place for him because it was empty. There was scarcely anything in his condo and if he looked out the window there was scarcely anything out there.
Before Mitchell and Bet had driven to New Mexico, they had planned a number of desert outings, and now Mitchell couldn’t find the gusto to undertake any of the outings alone. One of the places they’d planned to visit was a farm of gargantuan satellite dishes that monitored the webby corners of the galaxy for sonic anomalies. The government kept this place running based on the cheery notion that if extraterrestrials were out there they would attempt to greet us rather than instantly destroying us without a second thought.
Mitchell bought a package of heavy paper and drove to a small library the color of tired earth. He obtained a library card and sat down at a computer and typed in his work history. He put his fancy paper in the library printer and came away with a purposeful stack of resumes. It was eerie to look at the resumes, to see all the places he’d been with Bet, all the things he’d done for money, to think of all the warehouses and mills and factories and machine shops, all these places he hadn’t been suited for and that had already forgotten him.
Mitchell looked at job listings on the Internet, ads for general labor Some wanted his resume emailed to them. Some jumped Mitchell to other sites, seemingly unrelated, where he was supposed to fill in questionnaires and compose statements about diversity. Mitchell’s time on the computer ran out and he logged off and wrote his name on the sheet again. He waited a half-hour reading a science fiction novel and then looked up numbers for every temp agency in Albuquerque and called them all and made appointments to come in and drop off his resume and do whatever else they had people do. He called three different numbers advertising “environmental jobs” and got no answer. He went and sat in a cushy chair and scanned the want ads in the newspaper, mostly people needing technicians or exotic dancers.
Historically, people in Mitchell’s predicament turned to hard drink, but Mitchell couldn’t find the energy to drive into town and locate liquor. He didn’t remember what kind of drunk he was. He sipped at his beers and they had no effect. The hours dragged but the days slipped away.
Mitchell awoke on the couch in the living room, where he’d been sleeping since Bet left, and he could sense that something had occurred. It felt like he’d been robbed, except nothing was missing. There was nothing to rob. The TV maybe, but there it was in front of him. He shuffled into the kitchen, then over to the bathroom. He peeked in the shower. He came out into the hall and pushed back the door to the spare room and something in his mind clenched. He saw what he saw. On the floor were six or seven living brains. Seven. They looked like brains and that’s what they were—sleek lobes that appeared firm yet fragile. They were flat on the bottoms, neat-looking, each composed of those two perfect hemispheres. They were still, but Mitchell could tell they were alive. If they were dead he’d have known it, the way you know anything is dead. The blinds were closed against the morning but the room wasn’t dim. The light hitting each brain seemed to hide it rather than illuminate it. Mitchell felt like a child who’d walked in on something. He felt like a child and he also felt like an old man who’d been proven wrong, who’d been debunked on his deathbed. There was no humor in the room, no humor in Mitchell.
He retreated to the kitchen, using his hand against the wall, and sat on his stool at the high, round kitchen table. He tapped his fingers rather than doing nothing at all with them. Mitchell felt rushed, his lungs pinched. He tried to detect shock in himself, aware that his shock was irrelevant. His eyes felt like they could drop out of his head so he tried to stare at something. He gazed at the calendar and it seemed like the wrong year, like it was marking time that had already happened.
Mitchell smoothed his T-shirt and made his way back across the condo to the spare room. He went inside the room this time, careful where he stepped. He sat down in the chair and clicked on the lamp, and in the artificial light the brains were almost invisible. Mitchell turned the lamp off and unscrewed the bulb and held it in his palm. The brains were not veiny. They were not in distress. He was already wondering how long they would stay and he already knew that was the wrong way to think. He shouldn’t want them here. He shouldn’t even believe in them.
Until lunchtime, Mitchell sat. His back hurt but he ignored it. He was thinking a hundred miles an hour, and he ignored most of that too. The brains moved almost imperceptibly. He had to close his eyes for several minutes in order to mark their advancement. They didn’t leave a slimy trail behind them, didn’t shine the hardwood. Mitchell gathered the courage to crouch down and touch one, and it didn’t seem to bother the brain. The brain felt like a snake, smooth and muscled and dense. The brains smelled like peanut shells. They produced a dull hum that sometimes he noticed and sometimes he didn’t. They were an animal fact. The desert was littered loosely with aimless people and sharp plants, and now it had another aspect—it had these brains.
Mitchell ate something, then he stayed in the spare room until past dark. No one knew about the brains but him—not one other soul. He fetched a quilt from the sofa and folded it under him in the chair. He was afraid the brains would disappear at midnight and he knew this was a silly thought. Midnight wasn’t even real. Midnight was a contrivance. He was tired and he wasn’t having any correct thoughts. He kept dozing, and he’d dream he was calling museums and universities and zoos and blabbing about the brains, and each time he awoke and realized he hadn’t called anyone, that his secret was intact, he felt a pungent relief.
The next day Mitchell forced himself to leave the spare room for longer stretches, not just to go to the bathroom or get water. He stayed away ten minutes, fifteen, timing himself on the kitchen clock. He wanted to give the brains privacy, wanted them to know they’d chosen the right person. He wanted not to seem awestruck. He began to trust that the brains would be there when he returned, and he enjoyed walking into their close scent again once he’d been away from it.
He scrubbed the shelves of his refrigerator. He wiped down the windowsills. Disinfected the sink. Everything was clean already and he made it cleaner. He sat in the living room and stared at his TV without turning it on.
It crossed his mind to tell the lady who managed the condo building about the brains. An almost-old lady with red hair named Ruby. It crossed Mitchell’s mind to go over and inform Ruby of the brains as if he were reporting ants in his kitchen and be done with the whole affair before it went further, before the brains were in his blood or wherever they wanted to get. He could tell Ruby there was an infestation and she’d better have something done about it. The brains were a privilege but they were also a problem and Mitchell was in his right mind enough to realize that.
Mitchell began reading a novel to the brains, an endless Russian novel in which everyone has a philosophy of life but no one’s philosophy ever prevails. Reading a novel was better than sitting and trying not to stare.
He recited psalms to the brains, and this felt even better than reading. The psalms were a lullaby that would never quite put anyone to sleep.
Mitchell got called into an agency run by two gay men who needed to make a copy of his social security card and his driver’s license. It was the first time he’d left the condo since the brains arrived. The men were clean-shaven and wore polo shirts and boots. While Mitchell waited in the lobby, contemplating having a monetary value again assigned to the hours of his life and also contemplating the idea of being away from the brains for eight of those hours at a time, he heard the gay men responding to phone call after phone call from friends of theirs. It was Friday afternoon and apparently the men were throwing a party that evening. Their agency specialized in seasonal retail help, but even with the holidays approaching, they finally came out and informed Mitchell, they had no work to offer. Not a thing. Mitchell hurried back home then, straining his little car’s engine, knowing the brains would still be in his condo but knowing, all the same, that he would feel more of that same thick relief when he laid eyes on them.
Mitchell got down with his quilt in the middle of the spare room floor, wanting to see what would happen, and the brains were unbothered. They altered their circuit and went around Mitchell. He put his eye close to one of them. He thought he ought to be able to see into it, see through it, because the brains sometimes seemed to be made of something translucent. But he couldn’t see anything in there. It was like trying to see the bottom of a muddy pond. He wasn’t one of them, and he’d known that. He went back out to the couch and fell asleep wondering how old the brains were, wondering if they were aware of each other, what languages they were fluent in, wondering if they were immortal or if, like all other creatures, they were in the process of dying.
Mitchell started leaving the door to the spare room wide open day and night and the brains made no move to escape. They did not acknowledge Mitchell’s voice, did not slow down or speed up for anything.
Mitchell did not photograph the brains. He did not take a Polaroid and carry it in his wallet to make him feel important, nor did he snap off a roll of 35mm and stash the film in a safe-deposit box. He knew how to be respectful and that’s why the brains had chosen him.
Mitchell stood at the threshold of the spare room and observed, imitating a rich man watching his exotic pets. There was absolutely no way to tell them apart. He wondered what would happen if two brains collided, whether information would be exchanged. He wondered if the brains all knew the same things or if their knowledge was complementary. They weren’t accruing new information, Mitchell could sense that. They were working with what they had.
Mitchell confided in the brains. He spoke of his travels. He told the brains how Bet always rented their places site-unseen because she liked to be surprised, liked to be forced to adapt. In Colorado they’d lived in what amounted to a shantytown, their neighbors all Mexican illegals. In Oregon they’d enjoyed a luxurious studio overlooking the bay. In Florida they’d dwelled in the villa of a deceased old woman, hastily rented out by her children, the place packed to the gills with figurines and generic canned goods and crowding fake trees. They’d driven through Kansas, the sunflowers leaning to face them. In California they’d rolled around in a vineyard. Mitchell could still see the clusters of heavy late- harvest fruit silhouetted against the sun, barely hanging on.
Mitchell told the brains about the letter he’d recently received from Bet. It didn’t have a return address but the postmark said Tucson. Mitchell had never been to Tucson. The envelope was crisp and Bet’s handwriting on it betrayed nothing. It was one of those security envelopes you couldn’t hold up to the light. He had left the letter on his kitchen table like junk mail and had been glancing at it each time he passed. He tried not to handle the envelope, so it would stay bright white. It was sitting on the tabletop at a haphazard angle, out of the way of the spot where Mitchell ate dinner, where he set down his sandwich in its wrapper or his pizza in its stained box.
Bet might’ve had a change of heart, Mitchell told the brains. People had them. Bet could’ve begun to miss old Mitch. She could be moving again and could want Mitchell to rejoin her. She could be heading on to Flagstaff and wanting someone to pal around with for ski season. Maybe she was regretting the way she’d left, acting like it was so obvious she and Mitchell were bad for each other and were holding each other back and if he didn’t recognize that there was something wrong with him. Everyone bickered. Bickering didn’t mean anything. Bet had put Mitchell in the position of begging her to stay, and maybe now she saw how low that had been, how degrading to them both. Mitchell had made the mistake of being honest, of admitting that even though he didn’t want to move again so soon, if moving was what he had to do to stay with Bet then move is what he would do. He’d lost track of himself and told her he loved her. Bet had seemed frightened. She’d packed up as hastily as she could and had driven off. She’d abandoned him, Mitchell proclaimed into the thick air of the spare room. She’d abandoned the only person in the world who truly cared about her, but maybe now she’d come to her senses. Maybe she was prepared to apologize.
Mitchell was not ready to open the letter yet, and the brains, if they could’ve, would’ve agreed that it was best to wait, best to exercise caution.
Nestor employment called. This was an outfit in the middle of Albuquerque where Mitchell had filled out a cursory application and left it with a man who had acted like Mitchell was interrupting his day by looking for work, like Mitchell’s lack of a job was highly inconvenient for the man. The man was calling because Nestor was switching to an all-electronic system. The man was entering Mitchell’s information and couldn’t read his handwriting. For a moment, Mitchell could not think of his address. When he finally came up with it, the man said, “You sure?” This guy thought he was the greatest thing ever because he had a job to go to. Mitchell wanted to tell him that anyone could do his job, that anyone who walked into that office could switch sides of the desk with him and no one would notice. Mitchell wanted to tell the man that he had no skills and no knowledge and that the universe had simply granted him the pity he was worthy of.
“I congratulate you on your lack of failure,” Mitchell told him. “Bad luck is everywhere, and you seem to be evading it.”
A knock came at Mitchell’s front door and he flinched. He padded quietly to the front of the condo. What he could see through the peephole was a tall figure, possibly in uniform, cradling something. Mitchell looked back toward the spare room. He dragged a breath into his nostrils and pulled the door open enough to stick his head out. It was a delivery guy holding a box. The delivery guy recited Bet’s name and held out a clipboard and a pen and then Mitchell was alone again and now he was holding the box. The box had once been white. It was dead weight. It had been battered in a way that didn’t seem like ordinary shipping wear and tear and the return address was worn off. VA, Mitchell could make out.
Now he had something from Bet and something to Bet. He had something else to not open.
Mitchell knew that anyone else would be figuring the best way to make money off the brains, and he hoped the brains were aware of that. No one would blame Mitchell. They would blame him for not exploiting the brains. He hoped the brains appreciated his discretion. He hoped they understood how decent he was. He was doing what no one else could’ve: going about his business and leaving the brains to theirs.
He wasn’t going to disturb them but he believed he deserved to know more about them, to know something. He got down flat in the hallway and looked through the crack under the spare room door. He wanted to catch the brains doing something private, but of course he discovered nothing. He wanted to catch them piling onto one another affectionately or huddling under the window and looking up at the sky.
Mitchell went into Anchor and hung up his coat and a friendly woman in a blouse began giving him instructions. The woman stayed behind her desk, which was as big as a barge. She told him all the skills he was going to be asked to exhibit and then pointed to a room where he could be by himself.
First Mitchell had to type. He had to read paragraphs out of a booklet and punch them into the computer as quickly as he could. He did this a minute at a time, sweating freely under his clothes, no idea if he was typing fast, no idea if he was supposed to go back and correct his mistakes. He had to read a series of eighty statements and next to each he had to mark either STRONGLY AGREE, AGREE, DISAGREE, or STRONGLY DISAGREE. The questions were concerned with work ethic and morality and being punctual, and most were meant to be strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with. There was a skills checklist, full of tasks Mitchell had never had occasion to perform but was sure he could if someone showed him how. There were math problems. There was a stack of policy statements Mitchell had to sign, about not doing drugs or harassing people.
Mitchell slid the box that had come for Bet onto the kitchen table,
slit the tape, and began pulling everything
out—papers and notebooks
and folded letters and clipped documents. He set the empty box aside and began putting like with like, and then organizing chronologically. While he was poring over the contents of the box it became evening. They were the papers of a writer named Tom Spelher—only a fraction
of his papers, it seemed. Vast stretches of time were missing in his correspondence. Contracts were unsigned, notebooks unrelated.
Bet had mentioned this guy. She’d talked about writing his biography. The box hadn’t been sent by a university or an auction house, but instead, Mitchell gathered, by the guy’s sister. Tom Spelher was dead now. There were letters of recommendation in the box, for various grants Spelher had applied for and never gotten.
Mitchell went out behind his building and gathered a bunch of spiny dead shrubs and started them on fire. He arranged withered cactus paddles in a pyramid over the flames. He ran inside and grabbed a lawn chair that had been in the condo when he and Bet had moved in, and he grabbed the box and shoved all of Tom Spelher’s papers back into it. He went out and sat in the lawn chair and burned the papers one by one. Tom Spelher, he decided, would remain a dignified unknown. Mitchell would do Tom Spelher that favor. He stood and looked around occasionally, but no one was going to say anything to Mitchell about his fire. Nobody was watching him except the stars.
Sometimes Mitchell could not justify his loyalty to the brains. He’d spent so many serene yet demanding hours with them. He’d reached the part of the Russian novel where people were starting to get what they deserved, about 800 pages in. He was going to finish the thing, he saw. Pretty soon he was going to look up at the brains and say, “The end.” He didn’t know if he was trying to impress the brains or trying to impress himself, and didn’t know which was worse. He imagined millionaires buying the brains. One brain would go to a Chinese mobster, one to a Saudi prince, one to a famous chef Imagining the riches made him disgusted because he knew he’d never betray the brains. He was neither cowardly nor brave enough.
Sometimes Mitchell thought it would help him to break something but there was nothing in the condo to break. There was nothing in the condo but furniture and the TV and twice he picked the TV up to hurl it against the floorboards but was able to stop himself. He had no mugs or remote controls.
He avoided the brains for three full days. He wasn’t supposed to love them and he didn’t. They’d given nothing. Mitchell had nothing else to tell them as they did those same numbing laps. It was entirely
possible that the brains had chosen him not for any of his good qualities but because he had a safe, empty room and was too foolish
to expose them. He felt taken advantage of. He was a good person and
was once again being taken advantage of for it. If the brains had chosen him it was because he was alone, because he needed them, because he could be bullied. That’s what they thought, that he was a sucker, but they were wrong—he didn’t need anybody. He didn’t have to do what anybody said or look out for anybody. That was the beauty of having nothing. He didn’t have a boss or a girlfriend, and the last thing he was going to do, he decided, was continue being held hostage by seven mute little organs that weren’t even supposed
to exist and that apparently had no plan or purpose or compassion or even manners.
Mitchell had a plan. He had purpose. He ate some dry cereal and swept his kitchen and then shut the door to the spare room and sat in the living room with his phone in his hand. His tongue tasted like paper and his eyes were damp. He dialed the number of the woman who ran the condo complex, Ruby, and when she didn’t answer he left a calm, clear message saying he wanted to switch units as soon as possible. He said at her nearest convenience he wanted her to get him into another condo and he thanked her. He would move into a unit at the other end of the complex, maybe one with a balcony, and then Ruby would do the walk-through on his old unit and, what? Would she tell him she was charging his deposit because he’d left living brains in the condo? Was there something in the rental agreement about leaving living brains? It would take Mitchell less than an hour to fully move out of this condo. He wanted the brains to be someone else’s problem. He wanted a fresh start in New Mexico.
When the call came back, though, Mitchell couldn’t coerce himself to answer. He stared at the phone and swallowed hard and suffered a lack of courage. He saw RUBY REYNOLDS on the caller ID and listened to each hoarse ring until there wasn’t a ring, until the silence in between drew out and drew out and no ring ever came. Ruby called back every few hours for the next couple days and to escape the ringing Mitchell would go into the bedroom and shut the door behind him, knowing that every time he didn’t answer the phone he was blowing it and that he’d been blowing it for years.
Mitchell didn’t pick up Bet’s letter but he shifted
it here and there into different
positions on the little high table in the kitchen.
Mitchell had brought home another meatball sub and had sat at his table and gotten down as much of it as he could. He folded the whole mess up in its wrapping and, raising off the stool, saw something near his foot that caused him to lurch and almost crash backward into the wall. He didn’t know what the hell it was until he realized it was one of the brains. Mitchell had made a noise, a squelp he’d call it, like an old woman in a play who’d seen a mouse. The noise was echoing in his ears. One of the brains. Out of the spare room. Mitchell set the sub down in its balled paper. His heart was thumping itself sideways. None of the brains had ever ventured out. The first thing he did was go and check on the rest of them, and there they were, doing their thing, that hovering.
Mitchell returned to the kitchen and closed the blinds. He stood there with the plastic staff in his hand, twisting it, his vision diffuse at the edges. He wondered how long it had taken the brain to travel here from the spare room. He flipped the overhead light off and put the stove light on. He gathered up the meatball sub again, shoved it down into the trashcan, and sat on the floor, his back against the cabinet, getting down on the brain’s level. He’d lost faith in the brains but it seemed now they did have a plan. They could act Mitchell’s patience had been insufficient. His head took on a certain weight and he leaned it back against the cabinet. He felt a pleasant pressure in his spine. The brain on the floor was communicating with his brain. He had to let it happen, had to make himself a third party to the one brain floating above a white square of ceramic and the other floating in fluid inside his skull.
The minutes wouldn’t stop. They were setting forth in small groups It took five groups to make an hour, and that’s how long Mitchell waited before his head became light again and his own again and the pains in his back returned. He stood, wobbly, his legs asleep. The brain looked the same. There was no such thing as effort for the brains. Mitchell could smell it now. The brain’s peanut musk had drowned out the smell of the meatball sub.
Mitchell’s own brain briefed him. It told Mitchell that tonight the brains of the spare room were leaving. He was not supposed to know this, but the brains trusted him to stay out of their way. They did not wish to have their departure witnessed. He was being told of the impending exodus as a courtesy, so in the morning he would not succumb to shock. The brains wanted him to know they were pleased with him. They apologized for any inconvenience and offered their gratitude. They would not forget him.
Mitchell heard the tick of the clock again, now soft and even, calmly moving the world forward. It was up to him to walk away. He excused himself and went to his bedroom and raised open the window. The temperature was dropping outside. Mitchell stuck his head out. He felt like he was on the right planet. He felt like he could look into the night sky and see proper moons and friendly stars. He had been caught in a pernicious orbit but it was about to break apart. Mitchell’s hands were shaking, and he did not believe it was because of the chill pouring in the window. It was his blood, too alive.
After a while he eased the bedroom door open and saw out into the condo and the brain had made it halfway across the living room. It was near the TV. Mitchell shut the door soundlessly and made his bed. He hadn’t slept in it once since Bet had left. He tugged the blanket here and there to make it even. Mitchell was going to have to face his life again, and he looked forward to it. He felt like a person who could handle circumstances that were less than ideal. He felt like a realist.
He lay down on the bed and dozed a few minutes and then he knew he was up for good. His excitement wasn’t waning. He felt like he could do it again, like he could convince people he was like them. He was going to iron his shirts and shine his shoes. He thought of the letter, still sitting out there on the kitchen table, as crisp as if it had arrived yesterday. It could say anything at all. Mitchell felt now that he could throw the letter out. It had always been the right thing to do, and now he was capable of it. He didn’t need to imagine good news in it anymore. No good news could come from Bet. She’d been right; they’d been poisoning each other. Mitchell needed to make his own good news.
He kept his money under his bed, paper-clipped. He got it out and counted it. He counted it again, and a third time. It would be enough. It wasn’t a lot but it was enough for another month. He was going to double his efforts to find a job. The brains would be gone soon, and Mitchell was going to catch a break and find employment, and he was going to cook dinners and exercise. Maybe he would ask a girl out on a date, if he could find one, a girl as different from Bet as possible, a girl who stayed in one place and knew who she was. He could get a job and a girlfriend and a dog from the pound. He could keep a healthy little cactus on his table. This was the United States. If you wanted to get with the program, they had to let you. Maybe Mitchell wasn’t all that old. He could turn the spare room into a study. He could get a haircut, get his car waxed.
When the world outside Mitchell’s window was no longer a nighttime world he opened the bedroom door and stepped out and the condo looked different. The clay-colored dawn was everywhere, in every cranny. He unlocked the front door and went outside and stood with a hand on his hip, looking up and down the road that wound through the complex. The air was brisk. He wished someone were around to say good morning to. He got in his car and zipped down to the corner store and bought a sleeve of bagels and some cream cheese and a jug of orange juice. He spoke to the clerk. She asked if he had the day off and he said he did and she told him everyone deserved to relax once in a while. Mitchell stopped on his way back into the complex at a bank of newspaper boxes. There wasn’t a real paper, the one from Albuquerque that would contain Business and Sports and would have a page that told you what you were expected to do for fun that weekend. That was okay. These papers were free. One was full of trucks for sale and one was meant for Indians. Mitchell grabbed one of each and went home and toasted a bagel in the oven and spread the papers on the table. He made a shopping list and he put radio on it, thinking he ought to have another voice in the condo. He carried the TV out to the dumpster and tossed it in and heard its tumbling echo. He’d wanted to do that for a long time. He had a steamy shower ahead of him. Maybe he’d jog. Maybe he would take a nap in the afternoon and then attend a Happy Hour in the city.
Mitchell strode down the hall toward the spare room, trying to imagine what the room would be like empty of the brains, a man rightfully reclaiming a portion of his home. He was not going to resist a moment of measured sadness at the leaving of significant acquaintances, but only a moment. He was prepared to have his spare room back and prepared to have back the room in his mind that the brains had been occupying. He pushed the door open and stood inside the moment, his body blocking the light from the hall. First the smell hit him, the odor of protein. The hum was in his ears, but the world was full of such sounds— water in pipes, electricity in wires, the tunneling of insects. Mitchell could keep himself from looking down for only so long and when he did he saw them. The moment took its shape. The brains were without luster and almost still and very much alive, like always. Mitchell heard himself snort. He squeezed the doorknob until pain shot through his elbow It felt like his heart was falling into a canyon. His eyes didn’t feel right, or his sinuses. He knew by now he could expect no explanation. He couldn’t even tell which one of them had come to the kitchen. They weren’t playing fair with him. He thought he might vomit up his bagel. He thought he might stomp one of the brains into a puddle. For now he could do nothing but stand stiff with his fingernails cutting his palms, his mind squinting at itself from miles away.
Mitchell staggered back to the kitchen and gathered all the newspapers against him and shoved them down in the trash. The letter from Bet was still sitting there on the table, now with a smug air. Mitchell ripped it open and pulled out what was inside. There were two items, neither a letter. One was a photograph and one was a goddamn invoice Bet had printed up that showed Mitchell owed her half the first month’s rent and security deposit she’d paid for the condo he was living in. It wasn’t from a lawyer, wasn’t anything official. She knew he’d never pay her; she just wanted to make him feel small, just wanted to needle him, get the last word. Mitchell wouldn’t have paid her if he had a gun to his head. He truly wouldn’t have. And that’s probably what Bet wanted him to realize, that he’d rather die than do a lot of different things at this point. And then the photograph. It was a picture Bet had taken of Mitchell way back when they’d first met, back in Chattanooga that first weekend. Mitchell was hanging over the balcony railing of a downtown bistro, trying to pluck a flower off a pear tree to give to Bet. Mitchell knew the picture. The entire time they’d traveled together Bet had used it as a bookmark. His hair was thick in the picture. His back was straight. He was trying his best to win a woman but he knew it was okay if he didn’t. He had the general look, in the photo, of a person in possession of a reserve of charm, a person who believed that if he was patient and alert he would get everything he needed out of life.
Mitchell was called into another temp agency and a very old lady who should’ve been retired told him there might be something for him at a paper processing plant but that she couldn’t guarantee anything. The old lady had to run his background check and he had to sign some forms.
“Where are you from originally?” she asked him.
“Tennessee,” he said.
“Why don’t you have an accent? I can tell people by their accents.”
“I don’t know.”
“What part of Tennessee?”
“You ought to have an accent ”
“I used to,” Mitchell said. “I remember it.”
The lady looked at him pointedly. “That’s bad news, losing your accent. That’s an important part of a person.”
Mitchell tried to sit up straight in his chair. He smiled at the woman, wanting to care what she thought of him, wanting her to assume that his hard time was the same hard time hordes of folks throughout history had gone through. The light filling the windows was white and incurious. The sun was somewhere above, unaware of Mitchell, flinging the earth around and around itself.
JOHN BRANDON's novels are Arkansas, Citrus County, and the forthcoming A Million Heavens. During football season, he writes for Grantland.com. He has been the Grisham Fellow in Creative Writing at University of Mississippi and the Tickner Writing Fellow at Gilman School, in Baltimore. He teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.