You met a guy online. You have had four or five dates, and you haven’t so much as held hands. He is artistic. His expensive button-down shirts are decorated with bold, colorful patterns. He has two tickets to the Body Worlds Exhibition in Denver. A traveling display of human bodies and body parts that have been preserved using a process called plastination. His firm designed the banners. Yes, you say, you would like to go. The link he sends you says, “The presentation of the pure physical reminds visitors to Body Worlds of the intangible and the unfathomable.”
A little more than a year ago, your father died alone in a hospital in Ireland. You held his hand in the morgue at Mayo General Hospital. It was yellow and had a large sore above the knuckles. On top of his, your hand looked red. You were aware of your own blood pumping.
Plastination is the process by which a scientist removes all bodily fluids and replaces them with reactive resins and polymers. Blood, saliva, mucus, tears, pus, earwax, lymph. The nurses told you your father was septic. For years, his intestines had been leaking because he couldn’t stop drinking. He had destroyed couches and mattresses on Long Island, Manhattan, and an island off the west coast of Ireland where he had moved, alone, six months before.
You wait for your date in the lobby of the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. You have a cold, and you worry that your breath is bad. You duck into the cafeteria, hoping a bottle of water might help. When you come back to the lobby, there he is, wearing a crisp white button-down splashed with primary colors. You hug lightly and quickly and walk toward a crowded escalator that leads to the exhibit. At the entrance, a poster board explains that the process of plastination gives the specimens “rigidity and permanence.” You wonder how long does something have to exist in order to qualify as permanent? The poster board says you may not touch the plastinates, and cameras are not permitted at the exhibit. You wonder if flashes would damage the bodies. Would sunlight? Ocean waves? The touch of a hand?
It rained into your father’s open grave. At least a foot of water. Ireland in December. The gray-haired pallbearers strained and slid in the mud. You thought they might hurt themselves. Before they began to lower him, the men looked your way, seeming unsure of themselves. Maybe they thought it would upset you to see your father’s coffin submerged in water. But you realize you may be projecting. The manager of the cottage your father had been renting had told you stories of brides wearing wellies on Achill Island. This was probably not the first time these men had buried someone in water on land.
The exhibit is crowded, and you wait with a hundred other people behind a red velvet rope. The visitors ahead of you must be taking their time. You fidget and look at the program: “The plastinated post-mortal body illumines the soul by its very absence.”
“Do you want us to call a priest?” the ICU nurse asked your father when he was admitted to the hospital. “Don’t bother,” he evidently said. The nurses giggled when they told you the story. They handed you a plastic bag filled with the clothes your father had worn to the hospital. Khaki pants. Blue plaid pajama top. Gray tweed jacket. A stubborn old coot is perhaps how they wanted to see this sixty-three-year-old white-bearded American, and perhaps that is one way to look at him. But you can’t help but picture your father twenty years before, hands covering his face in church, praying for what—to be a better husband and father? Don’t bother. You wonder if he was trying to be funny. You wonder if he believed in God. You worry that he thought he was beyond redemption.
A museum employee unclips the red velvet rope, and you and your date walk into a room with hard, brightly lit cadavers. Most are in active and provocative poses. A runner midstride. A ballerina in a pirouette, naked but for one pink slipper. One body is a human mobile, sliced lengthwise into dozens of amber pieces, dangling side by side from clear strands of fishing line. If the wind blew, the slivers would clang together like chimes.
You and your date walk from body to body, rarely looking at each other. You move away as kids swerve through openings in the crowd, calling to their siblings. “Look! The nervous system!” a boy shrieks and points to a treelike network of nerves that has been removed from a cadaver, shot through with red plastic, and placed between two glass panels. You were around this boy’s age when you asked your mother to define the word alcoholic. You had heard the term applied not only to your father but to three of your grandparents. Your mother told you “an alcoholic is a very sensitive person.” At the time, you thought this was a ridiculous explanation, right up there with your mother’s story that her mother had died of fear. Now, you wonder, how much does sensitivity have to do with genetics and the mechanics of the nervous system. Would a trained eye, looking at this red-dyed neural network, be able to tell if this person is depressed? Alcoholic? Likely to die of fear?
Weeks before the Body Worlds Exhibition, you and your date went for a hike in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The trail became narrow. A sheer cliff on one side, a nearly vertical rock face on the other. A coiled rattlesnake sat on an eye-level ledge. You both froze and looked at it. Your date asked if you would stand between him and the snake so he would feel safe passing. You were surprised that he asked, but you did it anyway.
When you were ten, your father would announce, “It’s time for Toughness Drills.” You and your siblings would stand in a line facing him on the lawn. As hard and fast as he could, your father would kick and throw soccer balls at your torsos, faces, and shins. Your job was to run toward them and not flinch. Your job was to override your survival instinct. You soon learned that the harder you ran toward the balls, the less they hurt.
A basketball player midpivot. A soccer player about to strike. The plastinated bodies are the color of Utah mud. You think of creation myths. Genesis. The Koran. Prometheus sculpting people out of clay. There is an ice-skater just before a spin. Boots, blades, bones. You think of chicken, the wishbones your mother hung from the handles of the kitchen cabinets or left in the windowsills to dry. How your father said to hold your hand still and let the other person pull.
Ahead is a room filled with healthy and diseased organs. Along the wall, a woman in a wheelchair is crying. A man rubs her back. You have lost your date, and you look for him in the crowd. He stands in front of a case filled with stomachs and pieces of stomachs. That is what an ulcer looks like. You think of walking up to him and taking his hand. You want him to know that your mother had an ulcer. That her lungs were speckled with green-black tar. That like her mother she died, perhaps of fear, when she was fifty-four.
The next case contains a human heart. The nurses said your father’s was infected. It probably did not look like the remarkably red, remarkably heart-shaped muscle beneath the glass. You and your date stand looking down at it. You grip the side of the case. You don’t reach for his hand because you are afraid he might not want to hold yours.
Four years before, you went to see your father in a hospital on Long Island. He had had a heart attack. You stood in the doorway, and he glared at you from the hospital bed. A year before that, you told him you thought he was an alcoholic. He grabbed a candlestick from the table and shook it in your face: “My father drank more than I do and he was no alcoholic!” At the hospital, you walked to the side of his bed, leaned over, and kissed his cheek. Your father stared at the ceiling and pretended you weren’t there. Days later, you spoke to a nurse on the phone. She said your father was shaking and hallucinating from alcohol withdrawal. “These are not the DTs!” he had bellowed at the doctor. “I’m recovering from a heart attack, for God’s sake!”
You look toward the corner of the exhibit. A tai-chi master with a prosthetic hip. Your father had been a successful lawyer. When you were eleven, he pulled a knee bone from his brief case, then gave you and your siblings an anatomy lesson. You remember your father sitting at the wooden kitchen table, holding the knee in the air, straightening it, then bending, then straightening it again. You know he was good at convincing juries. You watched as he put the knee back in his leather case.
“If you recognize the body, leave the room immediately.” That is what they said to your friend before she conducted her first autopsy in medical school. You think of the Tollund Man, alive in the fourth century BC. In 1950, Danish farmers found him in a peat bog. There was a noose around his neck. The farmers thought he was a recent murder victim from their town. Bristles of stubble protruded from his chin. Later, scientists discovered hallucinogens in his stomach. Maybe they were part of a sacrifice. Maybe the man was an addict. If you recognize the body, leave the room immediately. You are having trouble breathing, but it does not occur to you to leave the room.
The mortician at Mayo General Hospital said he talked to your father’s body while he was waiting for you to arrive from Colorado. He had put soft, immaculate cotton socks on your father’s feet. You were touched by his tender attempt to make a dead man more comfortable. Soon, you learned your father’s cottage was a short walk from the Achill Head Pub. The pub owner told you that, even in November, your father would wander across the cold, rocky parking lot without any shoes. His feet must have been ravaged. You realize the mortician may have covered them to spare you.
A nearby plastinate draws a bow and arrow. His biceps are large and hard and remind you of beef jerky. Alcoholics are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves,” the big blue Alcoholics Anonymous book says. When your sister was thirteen, she beat your father in an arm wrestle. She was strong from shoveling horse manure and lifting bales of hay. He proclaimed she had won because he had had an arrow shot through his arm when he was her age. “The arrowhead on one side,” he said, demonstrating with his hand, “and the feather on the other.” You did not believe him because there was no scar. And your granduncle, who had been your father’s pediatrician, had no recollection that this ever happened. “I think I would remember if my nephew had an arrow shot through his arm,” he said.
You walk toward a case filled with livers. Your date has vanished into the crowd. A healthy liver is large and smooth and reminds you of a stingray. The alcoholic’s is a dried chunk of coral. You look up and see that someone has sneaked in a camera. He quickly snaps a picture of a plastinate hunched over a chessboard. The plastinate’s brain floats between two pieces of skull. It reminds you of a cauliflower or a mushroom cloud.
Your brothers and sisters did not go to Ireland when your father died. Before you left, your older sister asked you to take a picture of your father in the coffin. She thought it might give her closure. When you handed her the photo, she looked at it for a long time. Then, she lifted her head and asked, “Are you sure that’s Dad?” A year before, he had been blond and clean shaven. In the picture, he had a long white beard. The tension in his face was gone.
You stare at the grooves of the chess-playing brain. You think of what a therapist told you about neural pathways. How they become worn with the habits we develop. Being afraid. Acting tough when you are afraid. Choosing moody, distant men over those who are steady and kind. “Changing a habit is like trudging through waist-deep snow,” she said. “The brain’s response is ‘Why do that when I have already shoveled a path?’ ”
Since your father died, you have dated numerous men. A businessman folk artist who hardly said a word. A lawyer with a mood-altering head injury. An Irishman who would wake you up and tell you to go home after you slept with him. “Picture a very loving person standing with you at your father’s grave,” your therapist suggested when you told her you could not bear this story alone. But you are bearing this story alone. And you don’t know who to picture. You know your habits are killing you, but you are filled with grief, and you don’t yet have the strength or faith to trudge through waist-deep snow.
Gunther von Hagens, a German scientist, is the inventor of plastination and the founder of Body Worlds. There are pictures of him throughout the exhibit. In every one, he wears an Indiana Jones style hat. His face is thin and rubbery. He reminds you of a clown who has just taken off his makeup. Von Hagens’s best friend died of kidney failure. He plastinated the man shortly after. In an interview, von Hagens said, “It was like he stretched his hand across the barrier of death and I got at peace with him.”
Von Hagens says it is difficult to place a specimen in a desired pose. You wonder whose desire he is fulfilling. Was the ballerina even a dancer in real life? Would she have minded being a dancer for all foreseeable eternity?
You wonder how von Hagens would have posed your father. As a child, winding up to kick the door when his father left for World War II? Fist clenched, standing before you, your siblings, your mother? Midstride, demonstrating how not to run like a girl? Like the ice-skater, would von Hagens have given your father a prop? Would he let him wear his tweed Irish bucket hat, the one that used to embarrass you, the one he wore when he stood on the sidelines watching you and your siblings play soccer? Would there be an arrow sticking out of his arm? Would he sit your father in a wingback chair, glass of scotch in one hand?
And what if your father had a say? He could ask the scientist to pose him in a way that reflected not how his life turned out but how he wanted it to be. Seated at the table of his immigrant grandparents, a Holy Grail of singing and recitations and Sunday roasts? Maybe von Hagens would have posed him at a lectern. A history professor instead of a lawyer. “That’s what I really wanted to be,” your father always said. “But your grandfather was a lawyer and history professors don’t make enough money.”
Would more than one of his seven children and stepchildren be at his graveside? “Your father worked really hard to alienate himself from everyone,” a friend said after he died. “Maybe he wanted to die alone.” But it is hard for you to bear the thought of anyone wanting to die alone.
You are nearing the end of the exhibit. The crowd moves, and you catch a glimpse of the colorful splashes on your date’s shirt. He has stopped before a plastinate who is holding his skin as if it were a robe or a towel. You stare at the folds in the plastinate’s hand. You think of the terry cloth bathrobe your father wore for the years he was hung over and lying on the couch, his intestines leaking. You scan the room filled with plastinates. They stand like mannequins and dangle from the ceiling like marionettes. A rearing horse. A man with a torch. You want to run through the exhibit, pushing them over and slashing the fishing lines that hold them in midair. You want to hear them shatter as they hit the ground. Instead, you stand there motionless. You, your date, and this strange skinless man.
Kerry Reilly teaches writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her work has been published in the Gettysburg Review, the New York Times, Sentence, the Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir.
“Body Worlds” appears in our Autumn 2013 issue.