Dis­sec­tions by Ja­son El­ford

Broken Pencil - - Table Of Contents - by Ja­son El­ford

TEACH­ERS AT Jen’s high school en­cour­age less par­tic­i­pa­tion in the hands-on part dur­ing sci­ence labs. “More of you will have the op­por­tu­nity to take notes,” which is another way of say­ing, “The bud­get bends us over.” Even with the gloves and scalpels locked away the school is ex­pected to con­sume less of ev­ery­thing.

Dirk wants the best marks. Spray-on colognes from gro­cery stores are his ar­mour against the gas sta­tion cigar­il­los. Brown hair styled into a faux hawk with plat­inum-frosted tips. He totes a pubescent set of side­burns, shaven in a thin line down ei­ther side of the face, run­ning along the jaw where they join with the soul patch un­der his lip. His lip is con­stantly puck­ered for­ward or side­ways from chew to­bacco. A wife beater, a dog chain around the neck. He’s got on those de­signer skinny jeans: the ones where you pay ex­tra to get a mal­nour­ished worker to bleach and tex­tur­ize. “Take a pic­ture,” he chal­lenges in­di­vid­u­als and crowds alike.

Jen is top of her grade-eleven-bi­ol­ogy class. She eats lunch in the bath­room. She doesn’t talk, and has no real friends or

en­e­mies, save for one piece of com­pe­ti­tion. Dirk is in grade thir­teen. There are sev­eral non-po­lit­i­cally cor­rect words Jen could have used to de­fine him be­fore, but not after she saved his life. It was noth­ing too heroic, all she did was reach into the pants and grab his phone and call 9-1-1.

After that day a new school pol­icy was im­ple­mented: teach­ers are now of­fi­cially re­spon­si­ble for the dis­posal of all or­ganic mat­ter. Dis­pos­ing of cow hearts and cow eye­balls and fe­tal pigs is no en­joy­able task. In this school, no jan­i­tor has ever been made to work days. There isn’t even a spot open. There was a night­time cus­to­dian crew con­sist­ing of an old man that no­body knew any­thing about other than the fact that he played jazz records through the school’s PA sys­tem while he went to work at night. He had been there for thirty years. Al­ways at night. Al­ways jazz. The PA sys­tem sounded like a drive-through speaker from the eight­ies. The old man sud­denly stopped com­ing to work one day and was re­placed by some­one with a de­gree in jan­i­to­rial ser­vices.

Dis­sec­tions would never be re­moved from the cur­ricu­lum. Not when there was a slaugh­ter­house only a few blocks away. Dis­sec­tions were part of the rea­son this school’s ad­min­is­tra­tion could get any­one to at­tend class, to even be a stu­dent. The cru­cial point here was that after this day, teach­ers had to dis­pose of the parts. After this day, a pro­lif­er­a­tion of short-term bi­ol­ogy teach­ers came with ev­ery few waves of hot gore. This school had seen mas­sive turnovers all the time through­out its his­tory: teach­ers were al­ways called “teacher.” They all wanted to know why fund­ing was be­ing at­ro­phied by the gov­ern­ment de­spite the in­creas­ing work­load. The dis­gust­ing work­load. Prin­ci­pal must have told them this story to re­solve the why. Make life as a temp a lit­tle eas­ier.

Pic­ture this. High school. Mid-fe­bru­ary. Bi­ol­ogy Lab.

To Dirk’s credit — how­ever low or high it may be with you after you know what he did — you should at least know that the only ex­cuse he has for be­ing in grade thir­teen is that his girl­friend broke up with him a year ago. It caused him stress and de­pres­sion, and he flunked a few cour­ses. No one took him se­ri­ously, so Dirk has to put in some ef­fort if he wants to grad­u­ate.

At this school, half of the work is just show­ing up. That way, even if you draw pic­tures all over your fi­nal exam, you can still get at least fifty per­cent. Teacher can’t fail you if you at­tend. It’s against the law.

Teacher is par­tially to blame for the an­tag­o­nism be­tween Jen and Dirk. This temp has a habit of glo­ri­fy­ing the stu­dents who get the best marks: “Go see Dirk or Jen if you need ex­tra help.” Dirk wouldn’t help you if your life de­pended on it, and if any­one wants Jen’s help it’s al­ways too late. The stu­dents that go to this school go to class for at­ten­dance, and then they dif­fuse through the halls. When they look at you in class, they lean over with baggy eyes, or eyes wide-open with white stuff un­der their nos­trils, ask­ing if they can cheat.

In this bi­ol­ogy class, in the lab, there’s this guy named Arnold who’s some­what autis­tic. He prob­a­bly eats a cup of candy for break­fast be­cause the energy clashes with his heavy breath­ing, his al­most mute­ness. Throw in the stale breath from all those bits of candy be­tween his teeth, and throw in that pu­trid odor from his over­all body (no bet­ter or worse than Dirk’s cologne), and you have Arnold at face value. He’s in Jen’s group.

Be­fore scalpel meets heart, teacher takes Jen by the shoul­der and says, “Help them” — these mis­fit oth­ers — ”dis­sect the cow heart,” and he hands her a pair of gloves. Arnold won’t let go of the scalpel. He moves it through the air so fast it’s like he’s try­ing to be a pest. Jen looks around. The teacher has al­ready seen the con­flict and has his eye­brows raised as if to say, Get along.

Arnold cuts where and how he wants. The bi-lat­eral in­ci­sion ends up crooked, wonky-look­ing, like the rim of the Stan­ley Cup. Every­one else in the group stands around, on their phones, lean­ing on walls, drift­ing in and out the door. The cham­bers of the cow heart are tight. Gloved fin­ger inside left pul­monary artery: warm, soft. The chor­dae tendineae are the web-like ten­dons, mostly made up of col­la­gen, they con­nect the pap­il­lary mus­cles to the tri­cus­pid valve and the mi­tral valve: with­out them, the cow wouldn’t ex­ist be­cause it wouldn’t have a heart that works.

Dirk does all the dis­sect­ing for his group and teacher says it’s a per­fect job. Jen’s ears hear atro­cious com­ments such as: “Smart young man;” “nice hair­cut;” “grade thir­teen? Would have never guessed.” Jen’s clench­ing her jaw, ges­tur­ing with clean gloves, wav­ing this way and that way at where and what to cut, try­ing to be calm, avoid­ing Arnold’s hack and slash.

When­ever a group fin­ishes they wrap their cow heart in cel­lo­phane and place it in the black garbage bag on top of the cart that Dirk of­fers to trans­port to the dump­sters. He’s pick­ing through the col­lec­tion, prob­a­bly com­par­ing each to his own, rel­ish­ing the vic­tory and the brownie points for dis­pos­ing the waste. Jen’s group is the last to fin­ish. Every­one ex­cept Arnold is at a ta­ble do­ing some­thing else. He digs around with the scalpel for a few more min­utes, stops, takes the gloves off, sits alone in a cor­ner. She wraps the des­e­crated or­gan, places it on the cart. Dirk shoots a smirk and wheels it out the door to the dump­sters. No one from her group helps clean up.

Jen no­tices the scalpel with­out its blade. And then she re­al­izes that it’s not even a scalpel. It’s a piece of metal with wire wrapped around it. That’s how cheap this school is. She thinks maybe Arnold mis­placed the blade some­where. She looks around the work­sta­tion, the sinks, the floor. Noth­ing. Dirk has been gone a while. Prob­a­bly ten min­utes over the time that it takes to get to the dump­sters and back. When you’re top of the class, you get to know your ri­vals. You see pat­terns that al­ways end up in­form­ing your in­tu­ition. This is one of those times.

Jen slips out of the lab, through the halls, towards the tar­mac ad­ja­cent to the school park­ing lot where the dump­sters are. It’s not that cold out­side. She sees the tracks from the cart in the snow. One set from the door to the dump­sters, and be­tween the tracks are im­prints from Dirk’s ex­pen­sive shoes. She closes the door, care­ful to be quiet. The snow in the im­me­di­ate prox­im­ity of the dump­sters is com­pact from all the home­less peo­ple who scav­enge for re­cy­clables. Her foot­steps aren’t au­di­ble as she ap­proaches. When she smells the gro­cery store cologne she knows it’s time to be mega covert.

What’s that? Watery, squelchy,

suck­ing, slurp­ing. She smirks. There’s some­thing taboo, yet ap­peal­ing at the thought of Dirk get­ting a blowjob be­hind the dump­sters from a younger stu­dent. Jen wants a peek. One quick look, that’s all. She smells cologne, stronger now, and with an un­der­tone of salti­ness. Dirk is work­ing up a sweat. She looks around the cor­ner.

His back is to the wall of the school, jeans pulled down just past his knees, legs spread apart. The open zip­per and fab­ric are stretched around his legs. She can’t see his un­der­wear be­cause they’re cov­ered be­neath sev­eral lay­ers of pa­per towel that ab­sorb the blood and slime com­ing from the cow heart in his hands that he’s pump­ing up and down over his erect pe­nis, thrust­ing with his hips. Be­side his foot is a crusty bot­tle of lube. Bits of hair stuck to the sticker rem­nants, dirt all over. From her van­tage point, Jen can­not tell if there’s a con­dom in­volved, but Dirk cer­tainly isn’t wear­ing gloves. His head is tilted back, eyes closed as he works his hips and arms, be­ing as quiet and as force­ful as pos­si­ble. Put on a metronome: 120 beats per minute (or two per sec­ond): each beat is a thrust into or through the bi­cus­pid valve, aorta, some cham­ber or another of this cow heart. He’s thor­oughly en­joy­ing it, pick­ing up speed, squeez­ing tighter. He opens his eyes, snorts loose mu­cus to the back of his nos­trils, hacks phlegm and snot into his mouth, and spits a long trail of to­bacco-slime into an ori­fice. He’s too lazy to reach for the lube.

The pump­ing gets faster and faster, and then he lurches. His voice is very much an­i­mal: “Euaaah!” reach­ing the alto end; it’s al­most like he’s in pain as he squeezes, wig­gling, thrust­ing. Dirk wig­gles his face from side-to-side with eyes closed, mouth open, lips flut­ter­ing with bits of spit­tle flick­er­ing ev­ery­where. The spasm sub­sides. A trickle of se­men comes out of the left pul­monary artery, mixes with the blood-lube-pus-snot­to­bacco con­glom­er­a­tion on the pa­per towel over his pants. Looks like he forewent the con­dom. For no rea­son what­so­ever the end of An­i­mal Farm comes to mind.

Jen turns around, mind­ful not to make any noise. Takes one step, two, three. Makes a solemn oath to never come near this spot again. To go home after school and erase those images: down a bot­tle of spir­its and take bong hits un­til she passes out. On her fourth fas­tid­i­ous step she hears another sound. Curs­ing her­self, she walks back, looks again.

Dirk is in un­mis­tak­able agony. A line of sweat is trick­ling from his fore­head, down the side­burns. He’s peel­ing pieces of cow heart away from his crotch, drop­ping them to the snow be­side the bot­tle. She doesn’t un­der­stand why he doesn’t pull out. More blood comes from inside the cow heart, drips from the ven­tri­cles. Piece by piece Dirk takes it apart un­til he’s stand­ing there with his pants down, the bot­tom-front of his wife beater stained like the pa­per towel, al­beit less sat­u­rated.

The mys­tery of the miss­ing scalpel blade has been solved. Un­til a minute ago it was em­bed­ded some­where in that cow heart. It’s never a smart idea to dis­pose of any­thing with a sharp metal edge any­where ex­cept in a used sharps con­tainer. Arnold might not have no­ticed or cared like most peo­ple would who aren’t dis­abled and wouldn’t ever think this could hap­pen. Jen can’t de­cide if Dirk is men­tally ill, or if he smoked crack be­fore drop­ping his draw­ers, or if he was just horny as hell, or if he felt the need to trump her so strongly that he had to en­gage in some sym­bol­ism to rel­ish the vic­tory—some kind of mor­bid self-af­fir­ma­tion, or maybe a bit of all, some, or none of the above. It doesn’t mat­ter. Se­man­tics are ir­rel­e­vant be­cause Dirk has a ra­zor blade em­bed­ded in his erect pe­nis at about a forty-five-de­gree an­gle, about an inch be­low the head. He must have clutched that cow heart as hard as a foot­ball in those fi­nal mo­ments be­fore, dur­ing, and after the cli­max when the blade moved through dead flesh into the liv­ing.

There’s blood and bits of or­gan ev­ery­where. Dirk is in shock. Jen knows if he re­moves the blade he might bleed to death. She walks into his per­sonal space. She pulls the pa­per towel away, sticks her hand in his jeans, grabs his phone, di­als 9-1-1. With the speak­er­phone on, she places it on the ground, steps back two paces, looks over her shoul­der, think­ing, I don’t want to be caught here right now! She wipes the resid­ual blood from her hand onto fresh snow. Dirk snaps out of his fugue state when he hears the op­er­a­tor go­ing “Hello? Hello?” Jen leaves. Every­one hears the am­bu­lance come into the park­ing lot. No one ever knew that Jen saved Dirk. She never heard a thank-you, but then again, she doesn’t even know if he was con­scious of her pres­ence, or if he even knew who she was. The teach­ers felt rel­a­tively safe dis­cussing the in­ci­dent in sub­tle terms and soft voices, know­ing that stu­dents would never guess the sub­ject. “Do you think it was pre­med­i­tated?” “Where else did the bot­tle come from?” “He was lucky?” “De­pends on what you mean by lucky.” “Talk about a bro­ken heart.” It’s an in­ci­dent that es­capes lan­guage be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to be se­ri­ous about it with­out laugh­ing, with­out caus­ing se­ri­ous dam­age to your tongue in the pres­ence of the par­ents of the “vic­tim.” Dirk re­fused to talk about it. It should be noted that sev­eral temps lost their jobs for un­sched­uled vis­its to the doc­tor for oral in­juries. It wasn’t un­til the bot­tle of lube was dis­cov­ered that peo­ple started to have sus­pi­cions of some­thing un­cat­e­go­riz­able. All the cow parts and the blade made no sense to the paramedics.

Pro­lif­er­a­tions of teach­ers were or­dered by threat of ter­mi­na­tion to try their best to some­how ex­plain to Dirk’s par­ents what their son could not. Even if it was all just spec­u­la­tion. That ra­zor blade had to get in there some­how. You have to bite your tongue pretty hard some­times when you spec­u­late. Jen was al­ready un­pop­u­lar so she didn’t care that she was the only one in the class that laughed aside from the guy trip­ping on mush­rooms. As for Dirk, he grad­u­ated grade thir­teen in a hos­pi­tal bed. No pic­tures, please.

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