"BRAIN RETAINER" - Stephen Wack
Home. This is the place that Mom and Greg call home.
Squeezed between the identical one hundred and seventy-something stucco clones inhabiting this suburb, each family identifies their home by the same intrinsic knack possessed by new mothers who can enter a hospital’s nursery and pick out their offspring from a cribbed line-up of standardized, paper white, slippery, blank-eyed babies solely by the sound of their cry or the smell of their shit. I identify ours by starting at the third STOP sign and counting down twenty-six houses on the right, and when we pull into the driveway suddenly I remember why I’m here:
Home is where I go when my brain goes bad. Sour. Acidic.
I dared Mom. I dared her to open up my head, to take a tentative whiff and see if I don’t smell exactly like that shoebox of old, leaking batteries left forgotten on the top shelf in the garage.
And she did. So here I am.
I want to say I’m used to it. I want to carry on this faulty analogy and say that my bad brain reeks of black pepper and vinegar in the same way my balls do after a therapeutic, eight-mile run. A smell I’ve grown okay with, more or less habituated to over time, because it’s mine:
“It’s my bitter odor. It’s my sour-milk farts.”
And so the true bitterness of it all doesn’t really become apparent until someone else comes in contact with your headspace, cups their mouth and grows teary-eyed, tells you in the politest way possible:
“You need fucking help.”
Mom has been smelling my foul attitude for the whole car-ride home. She advises me to take a hot shower to clear my head. I use their guest bathroom because to use any other bathroom doesn’t feel right.
Beneath the bathroom sink I find enough complimentary hotel soaps, lotions, shampoos, conditioners stashed away to trade out in exchange for another one-night’s stay at a Holiday Inn., one with an indoor pool and continental breakfast buffet of powdered eggs and sausage disks reminiscent of what I was once served in a Cobb County holding cell among thirty other men, young and drunk and still of a brain fresh enough to consider myself as someone above jail food because I am a level-headed, college-educated, white kid from the suburbs, judging this older black dude who’s just shamelessly pissed all over the toilet seat in the same cramped room that everyone else is eating, this dude who points to this plastic cafeteria tray at my feet and asks me if I’m through with that, my smart ass wanting nothing more than to ask him if he’s going to wash his hands first, but instead I just smile a toothy, white-guilt smile and can’t resist the subconscious, self-righteous pat on the back as I slide my tray of mandarin oranges and simulation eggs across the concrete floor over to him, wondering whether this right here might constitute as some yearly tax write-off under an act of charity...
Likewise beneath the sink stuffed in the back corner, I find my old retainer. Black, plastic, jagged as alligator skin. And, for whatever reason, I decide to press it back up into my mouth, force it in just to see how fucked up over these past few years my once-perfect teeth have become, and it’s bad. Really, really bad.
When I unhinge its grip, the roof of my mouth is so bruised I can taste its bloody skin caving in like a waterlogged tent, wondering if the roof might then spring a leak to drip down little drops of bitter brain onto my tongue, wondering what sort of person I might be now if, back when I was still young, I’d been given a retainer for my brain--something to preserve that innocent, pre-adolescent headspace I possessed back when I still thought the world was big and the mall was cool and Applebee’s chicken fingers were good, back before I learned that every food is a poison and every store is a sweatshop and every person is simultaneously hurting and suburban adults don’t really watch reality T.V. and drink beer because they like the taste, they do this to self-medicate, to systemically detach themselves from the dreads of day-to-day living, otherwise Mom and Greg would still eat and talk at the dinner table and the mini fridge in their garage would be stocked with malted milkshakes and pouches of Capri Sun...
The showerhead starts to scream after I’ve been in here for too long, which I have no excuse for. Ever since my last psychotic episode when I awoke at 2 A.M. and shaved my body down, head-to-toe, there’s really no more hair left to lather, rinse, repeat. But I’ve been in here for about twenty minutes now, and while an alternative me--one insightful enough to have worn his brain retainer since before hitting puberty knocked loose all former sanity--might still be lingering in the shower amongst the most vile and vivid of all childish imaginations, seated on the shower floor, crisscross applesauce, extracting out viscous globules of sticky, forsaken progeny that refuse to float nor circle the drain, there is now the paranoid-parent prospect that this bad brain of mine has gone worse, and has macgyvered that curled metal wire of my retainer into some janky weapon of self-destruction as Mom and Greg stand outside the bathroom door in quite the conundrum of whether or not to pick the lock and risk coming in to find their son either naked and depraved or otherwise dead...
But I haven’t jerked off in months.
When I turn the shower off, water droplets bead along my hairless body like I’m made entirely of wax. I skirt a towel around my waist and move into the guestroom where the evidence of my last intimate one-on-one affair, way back in December, still exists as an inscrutable stain atop the wood finish of the guest dresser, its origins on Christmas morning when my brain aroused me in the dead of holy night and refused to fall back asleep, prompting me to eventually get out of bed and stand barefoot amongst boxes and Scotch tape and rolls of gift wrap shining in moonlight to jerk off before this dresser onto a Kohl’s receipt for a crockpot that Mom would later have to return for store credit, only to wake up hours later to find the receipt paper and my jizz now fused to the dresser’s wood, picking off with my nails as much as I could, my fingers stinking of sour, rotting progeny all throughout unwrapping presents...
And even now, however many months later, this receipt is still visible. Preserved like a fossil beneath a yellow, hardened tar pit of cum, it exhibits a barcode that you might scan to learn the price to pay for having a bad brain you’ll most likely pass onto your future children, and the price scanner reads:
“Not fucking worth it.”