Dissections 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.