We fan out based on interest and strength of stomach.
A full cabinet of scrubbed skulls listing names, ages
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 mottled wax now lying
in a clear glass coffin like a Madame Tussaud 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 chocolatier dwarfs or anorexics
clawing for the modeling jackpot or even the jiggling neediness
of American Idol’s early rounds? I wince,
embarrassed, hating the voyeur in me. Why aren’t we
at Betsy Ross’s 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 in front of a cast of the original Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng across from their preserved livers. Their plaster selves
stand inside glass, the two of them turned at a 90° angle
and all these odd, 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 plaster eyes
of Chang and Eng. After death, doctors find 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 oddly ossified ear bones
and the yellow, rubbery malformed babies preserved
in cloudy jars drive me upstairs. How did you last that long? Anne asks
as I arrive in the front lecture hall and begin to prattle on
about Chang and Eng. My kids, my wife, my niece Allie
all squeeze onto a long dark wooden bench and listen distractedly.
Hunger gradually overcomes their disgust and it’s time to 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 all I can think of is Chang and Eng in that famous photo
wearing a one-piece double tuxedo top holding their suit coats open
to show off their shiny 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). I wrap my arms around the neighboring chairs
pull my shoulders back, push my chest forward and look straight into the camera.