by Spencer T. Wilkins
The Einstein Museum
She keeps checking ‘em. Looking for a new shadow, something, just anything different. At a certain point, the doctor refuses to do the procedure so Jos’ goes to a new doctor.
Ayo, she been at this three years.
She moved places. She’s in a shoebox above a Mobil station. But she can’t stop getting these scans, like she’s damn near possessed. At this point she’s hitting everyone for money, like, even Eddy’s girl. That’s her niece.
Josie can’t drop this thought. She needs an answer.
In his last hours, Albert Einstein props a pillow to support his neck and rereads his speech commemorating the seventh anniversary of Israel. Not long after, he will utter his last words in German. The Princeton Hospital nurse will not understand them.
Before death, Einstein tidied his post-life life. He stipulated that his white colonial home on Mercer Street should not be turned into a museum. He specifically requested that his ashes be sprinkled so no one could make a pilgrimage to his body. Einstein spun away from fame. However, there was one item he chose to save. Albert Einstein allowed for his brain to be examined, privately. There is no dispute that Einstein explicitly forbid deification. Many have tried.
What luck places Dr. Thomas Harvey in that hospital, on that day, to perform Albert Einstein’s autopsy? He lifts the clump of gray material, imagining the infinity inside the brain, of his times’ greatest thinker. The answer for genius is in here, he thinks. Harvey plops the brain on a steel scale shaped like a hot-air balloon: 1,230 grams, slightly below the average weight.
In that towering room, air-conditioning swirling, physicians cycling, Dr. Thomas Harvey decides the brain is his.
In the twenty-four hours after Albert Einstein’s death, a New York Times headline labels Harvey a thief. A day after Harvey takes the brain, Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, agrees to let Harvey keep the brain on one specific condition.
Hans is furious about the Times piece. He shares his father’s desire to dismantle a cult of personality built around Einstein. Hans decides a study on the brain can only be published in a highly respected scientific journal, and there will be no media coverage of the study whatsoever. In agreement, Harvey becomes the gatekeeper, researcher, and possessor of Einstein’s brain, an organ he treats like a trophy. Harvey hacks the cashew-shaped hunk of matter into two-hundred forty cubes. The discovery begins.
Because we are called Iceland it is thought we are a cold and reserved and distant people who aren't creative, educated and interesting, that— taking the diplomat’s pause, letting donors lean in as flies fly around the half-chewed wagyu —is a misconception. They clap. They always clap.
Security ushers me along the arranged handshakes. Resisting an itch on the arch of my back where dignitaries kept patting me. At the row’s end were two brothers who introduced themselves as the Landaus of Princeton. Oh, the wool family. My daughter loves your pieces. The nickname jolts in them like mice in snakes. The story goes, the brothers took frí in Iceland and bought one of our traditional ponchos. They displayed the swooping garment in their shop window and sales leapt. Beautiful as their faux ponchos are, I would not wear them.
Robert and Henry Landau, practically kneeling, say Einstein was their all-time favorite client until today. They should build me a shrine like they have for the great scientist.
My forehead smears against the tinted motorcade window absently watching the blurred brownstones. My mind returns to the Landaus. The proprietors ran a family garment shop, a spacious storefront under a red awning. They buy 25 percent of all our country’s wool. Funny, I remember chitchat from the UN that Albert Einstein was allergic to wool. The driver yields to a line of schoolboys cutting through the road, and I recall the day I bought a Landau.
One morning, my Ástríður knocked gingerly on my office door. She had a People magazine in her hand, and flipped to a tabloid photo of Kerri Green in a Landau poncho. She asked in her small I-want-something-voice for the same piece. I explained every craftsman in our nation would double over to design her an authentic poncho. But she said it wasn’t what the American girls were wearing. I said I would tell our tailor to assemble American-style Icelandic ponchos. She rolled the magazine tight in her fist, groaned and stormed out.
By the evening’s starshine, I knocked on Ástríður’s locked door. She opened, headphones resting on her collarbone. I took her to the stofa where twenty wool ponchos awaited judgment. Ástríður rolled her eyes. After my insistence, she pulled each garment over her head. Geometric prints zagged along wool torsos. Colors of canary, olive, and burgundy were all tossed and crumpled on the floor. No matter the piece, Ástríður was not assuaged.
I relented and shipped in an assortment of ponchos from Landau. Ástríður unboxed the parcel, tearing at the floral tissue paper. I felt a pain like swallowing a fish bone. I was meant to be the symbol of Iceland and here I was importing American mimics of our creations. But Ástríður came before the country.
She wears that piece incessantly. I remind the staff she needs to wash the poncho. Even in July, Ástríður kayaks in shallow water teaming with milky flatfish, sweat on her chest, water soaking the cuffs on her sleeves. But her desire is insatiable. She must wear it.
Dr. Harvey doesn’t go by “Doctor” these days. Bending to the outrage at his behavior, Princeton Hospital fired Thomas Harvey. He moved 1,400 miles to find work. The sun has beaten all buoyancy out of his face. Harvey avoids jars of jam and marinara sauce because of his Rheumatoid arthritis. The Einstein study is still ongoing.
He spends his working hours as a medical supervisor at a bio testing laboratory in Wichita, Kansas. He has a corner office and a desk full of unfulfilled tasks. Harvey shows no interest in running an efficient office. His preoccupation is singular.
In a cardboard box, stacked below two decoys, awaits his dormant obsession. When Thomas Harvey closes his office door, he reaches into the discarded Costa Cider box, rustling through old newspapers, to pull out a sealed container. Floating in a clear solution are stringy materials like jellyfish tentacles and one grayish floating mass shaped like a tart plum, Albert Einstein’s cerebral cortex and aortic vessels.
He leans down his microscope, twenty-three years of looking through the same slides, no matter his tinkering, the results repeat; Einstein’s brain falls within every normal range.
The only constant in this business is change— now you remember that, boys. Evelyn twists her torso to talk to her two jostling sons. Her husband listens—one arm out the window—on their drive from Brooklyn, New York to Princeton, New Jersey. Robert and Henry fog up the rear window, drawing dogs and women in triangle dresses. The Landau family is heading south to open a garment store selling nursing uniforms.
That Evelyn is right, you know. Nice figure for a woman with two big-headed boys. Delightful just zesty she is, but the truth is I worry about that David she married.
He foams at the mouth over his newest idea, spreading it to those boys of his copying daddy. Gwen, a light? Marvelous. No, that David is a ripe bastard. Too want for money, there’s no nice way to say it. He loves it, simply. Every time I see him, he’s on some bigger fish, some new account. And their family shop with the red awning, whenever I go in, I swear to you it’s become something new. First, they sold uniforms, and oh, sure, the hospital was grateful for them. Then Landau’s was filled with aprons. David jabbered about the waitstaff needing a new uniform and gosh they sold a lot of ‘em. Oh, you remember those aprons with the suspender straps and the brass buckles? Yes, the Landaus sold those.
And Gwen, you would not believe it but just last Tuesday I went to Landau’s. I had to return a clam brooch that sweet Evelyn lent me for the McCarter Theater fundraiser, and wouldn’t you know it, David’s in the office yammering about some new market. Before I can poke around for Evelyn, he’s motor-mouthing about his father, the original Landau, back in Brooklyn. You know that’s where he gets it from? That’s always where these broken boys get it from. That father told him the new craze is jeans. I know, Gwen it’s true, why would I lie? Ash tray? Now David wants to sell jeans at Landau’s. This nosebleed’s so excited, he’s chewing down his fingernails. Meanwhile, little Robert and Henry are glued to his legs listening to every mad happening of his mind. That David, he should be in a lunatic asylum, honest as autumn.
Oh Gwen, did you hear that Albert Einstein died? So awful, isn’t it? David told me. Said he’s putting together a memorial for Einstein there in his store but who knows what he’s up to. What I wouldn’t give to think Albert Einstein’s thoughts.
What puts Lawrence on the map is that it was wiped off the map. When the fake mushroom cloud fades to a black television, William S. Burroughs turns to his listener, Professor Sugimoto. The professor wears gold sunglasses, a burgundy suit, and a pinky ring bigger than his watch. Sugimoto flew all the way from Tokyo looking for Thomas Harvey, lured by a chance to see his corporeal artifact of Einstein. Burroughs instructs him,
Go along the river there. And you’ll come to where the ol’ cemetery used to be. And that was dug up and converted into a trailer court. The trailer court was destroyed by the ‘81 tornado. Some said it was judgment of the dead being disturbed. But there you’ll turn left and come to Stranger’s Creek. Dr. Harvey’s house is just on the other side of the creek.
In Harvey’s home, speaking practiced English, Professor Sugimoto gushes about Einstein’s extraordinary brain: Sugimoto’s first time reading “General Relativity” and the way Einstein illuminated photoelectric effects mystic to the naked eye. Sugimoto even confesses he had the poster of Einstein sticking out his tongue, mounted in his university dorm room. Thomas Harvey nods politely. After the outburst of praise, Professor Sugimoto tells Harvey what brought him from Japan to Lawrence, Kansas. He asks to see the brain. After some apprehension, Harvey sort of shrugs and retrieves Einstein’s brain.
Thomas Harvey sets a container preserving the brain on a cloth table. The brain matter looks yellower, a shade duller than saffron rice. It needs fluid, he thinks, and leaves Sugimoto to gaze. Sugimoto takes off his rectangular glasses and puts his eyes millimeters away from the container’s glass surface.
After Harvey feeds the brain, he reminisces aloud how lucky he was to be there when Einstein died. Professor Sugimoto barely listens. His ears ring in excitement. Surfing his high at seeing the brain, Professor Sugimoto pushes further. If possible, if possible, give me one piece of Einstein’s brain. And they both laugh at the request before Thomas Harvey obliges and the researcher squeals with joy.
Harvey waddles to the kitchen, shoulders parallel to his ears; he grabs the big knife still fragrant from yesterday’s onions, brushes breadcrumbs off his cutting board and goes back to Professor Sugimoto. Harvey chops a wedge of cerebellum, packs it, and gifts it to Sugimoto.
That night at an open mic, Sugimoto gets drunk on corn whiskey and improvises a song about Einstein’s brain, spinning in obsessive ecstasy.
Harvey puts on protective headphones and lets his body repeat. He stands in the middle of an endless assembly line making plastics. Thomas Harvey wonders if he’s still the same man consumed by the mind of Albert Einstein.
Harvey has a heavy sleep, naturally waking four minutes before his alarm. He lays on his pillow and listens to calls of northern cardinals; swoop, swoop, we-we-we-we, they flap their tail feathers to the rhythm of their fast morning songs. Thomas Harvey has tranquil dreams after giving away a piece of Einstein’s brain. Sugimoto was not the first, Harvey estimated that he had about half the original brain matter. He didn’t think he would feel better with less of Einstein’s brain, lord knew how meticulously he kept it hidden for all those early years of hope and testing, but he did, as if his burden lifted with each piece of Einstein he let go of.
Thomas Harvey blitzes stale coffee grounds, drinking the bitter brew with hazelnut syrup. He reads Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, he likes his novels, all that depravity and violence, it made his life feel peaceful. He sips and reads, wondering what Sugimoto was doing with his piece of Einstein, then wondering what all the fanatical people were doing with their relics of Einstein, euphoric off that empty excitement he knew like a divorced partner. Harvey barely conceals Einstein’s brain. It rests on his kitchen counter between a box of instant oatmeal and a stack of expired coupons.
Spencer T. Wilkins
Iowa City, IA, USA
Spencer Wilkins is a multi-media writer. He attends the University of Iowa, Nonfiction Writing Program (MFA) where he’s creating a thesis project. Wilkins’ work has appeared in Southeast Review, Essay Daily, Puerto del Sol, and GCUFF (Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival), among others. He has been awarded the Bowdoin Nonfiction Prize and an Iowa Arts Fellowship.
"This story is an attempt to stitch a polyphony of voices and thicken the variety of American folktales."