sidebrow

EEG

Grandpa had his funny EEG machine hooked up. On its green screen, my mind was several colored lines. “I’m going to ask you a few questions,” he began. “The questions are as follows: What is your name, how old are you, and what is your earliest memory.”

Grandpa was a psychoanalyst. Then he got equipment and could watch brains flicker on a little green screen, so he switched from being a psychoanalyst to being oddball, Grandma said, but lucky for him, by then he was retired. Sometimes also he would go out and take pictures. He had a dark room where he would show me what he’d been.

“This is my first wife,” he said. The photo hung above his and Grandma’s bed. Grandma was in the kitchen, picking up knives. For a flat woman, the first wife still occupied the house.

What I’d been trying to do then was to collapse everything onto a single, flat surface. I wanted to see what would happen if the people who stood behind me occupied the face I did.

Another time I was trying to work from within objects. If there was movement, I wanted to show the molecules around that movement. If Grandpa stood near me while I painted, I would paint the awkward distance between us. This is why my faces kept cracking open. I was interested in observing what happens at the surface when one is under extreme pressure.

That winter, the lake was frozen October until June. On the green screen, I saw how my brain behaved like shattering glass. Each time I blinked sent a spike to my brain stem. This was what was missing from all my portraits, then: all the interruptions caused by blinking. “Each time you blink there’s a small fit of activity in your brain,” Grandpa said, “Like a table cloth being pulled from under set dishes.” He always liked to explain. Anything, he would try to explain it. His EEG was portable so he could bring it to the kitchen. Grandma didn’t like it. “You want to see what my brain looks like when I’m sharpening knives?” Grandma had her privacies. When a window frosted over, she’d shave the fuzz off with a butter knife.

I tried to show the blinking and all those interruptions. I put the paint on so thick it had to crack to dry. All those cracks would look back at me, reflecting light at different angles. Those are the kinds of faces I wanted to see.

At night, I walked out onto the frozen lake. I wanted to go under and see a flash of something. When that happened to a person, their life couldn’t escape from that moment. Everything collapsed to a point. It happened like a tic. It had happened to Grandpa after the crash. When he looked over at his first wife, she didn’t look back. The highway had crumpled up their car like it was a first draft. His face began to tic, only on one side. He got the EEG machine to try to see the disruption. But all the lines on that side spiked and sputtered like normal. The disruption was somewhere else. Maybe it would always be where he wasn’t looking. Still, he kept her photo above the bed and looked from time to time.


“Look at that!” He was pointing out the window to the darkening sky. A bird or something above the lake. I hadn’t seen it. When I painted his portrait, I painted Grandma’s meat cleaver inside his forehead.

“Wish I’d had the camera,” he said.

Grandma had all the knives sharpened by breakfast, so I painted the knives during the dull hour after. I showed them in a line on the counter, with Grandpa’s hand on the counter too, and the lines of the EEG machine running beneath it all.


“Electrical activity gets more regular when you close your eyes, unless you’re imagining something gruesome,” he told me the first time he hooked me up to the EEG. I wanted to paint the insides of my eyelids the same way I’d painted the knives, from inside. But I hadn’t painted the knives yet.

When we all sat at the table, we sat on opposite sides of the same brown line.

“Things in your world can’t hold anything or be held by anyone,” Grandpa said. “You give them such flat, bright light. But my world includes shadows,” he explained later in the dark room, “So it’s easier to inhabit, because there are places to hide. See? Where are my hands in this picture?”


Grandma wanted to cook venison for dinner. The knives were sharp. But Grandpa was missing. She needed him to bring her the venison from the deep freezer, so she could start it thawing in a bucket of water. The deep freezer was the shed down by the lake. I told her I’d go and get it.

When I got to the shed, I saw the shape of Grandpa by the edge of the lake. I called out to him. Maybe he’d decided to wait for the flash of something he’d seen earlier over the lake. Well, except he wasn’t moving when I called him.


“Think of something bad, think of someone slowly climbing the stairs, with a knife behind his back,” he told me. “Who is he?” I tried to think of what he told me to while I watched the green screen. It was difficult to think of something beside the lines that told me I was thinking. The light blue line was my brain stem and the red line was the front of my brain and the brown line was for tying my little boat to the dock. I thought of those lines flattening out, or becoming twisted into a braid. How would I get them untwisted? When I spoke, the lines got twisted, but they untwisted as soon as words were off my tongue.

“You’re still young,” Grandpa said, “Your mind is nimble and quick.”

Then he said, “Is it me? Did you think of me with a knife behind my back?”


When I called him and he didn’t look up, I felt the lines twisting into a hard knot, a thought.

He’d dropped through the ice up to his knees. Shock stopped his heart. I couldn’t haul Grandpa all the way up to the house to Grandma when she was expecting venison.

“When you’re in a relaxed state of expectation, the waves in your brain are quick and rhythmic. It’s rare for the parts of your brain to be this willing to cooperate with one another. But as soon as something happens, they will be divided. One part will help you immediately react, and one part will be working out an intelligent explanation for it all…” I don’t remember the rest of all Grandpa told me. I broke up the ice around him with my hands. I got him to go down.

This is my earliest memory: when I later sat beside Grandma with nothing in my hands, I braided the fringe of her shawl. This was Grandma’s shawl from all the way back; it never belonged to the first wife. When it’s mine, I’ll undo what I’ve done. But I have lots of time until that happens.