The Phrenologist Dream
That morning he rose at sunrise and stepped into trousers and brogues in the tea-colored light. The room had no washbasin, so he wiped his face on his shirttails and ran a finger along his gluey front teeth. On the side table lay a bottle of hair tonic, a pair of white satin gloves, and a scatter of coins that he counted by feel as he dropped them into his vest pocket: ten dollars, five and a half cents. Although the sum was considerable, Jeremiah felt a shade of disappointment: twenty-four examinations, half of them women, and not a single skull had quickened his heart.
He stepped out into a windless day barbed with cold. He nipped at a pint bottle of whiskey while a sleepy groom hitched his buggy, then he patted his horse's mane and climbed aboard, and with a shake of the reins started down the empty road. New Buffalo: two streets wide by six long, a flyspeck on the map. He rolled past a print shop and Methodist church and tinsmith's, and was nearing a squat brick bank when he saw the girl, standing on the sidewalk with a valise at her feet, waving at Jeremiah as though he should stop.
He reined the horse and watched the girl tramp across the muddy road. She stopped beside the buggy and looked up. "I'd like to ride with you. Please."
Her arms were folded brazenly across her chest, but her high forehead and watery blue eyes made her seem sweet and young, like a child dressed in a woman's clothes. Her brow was marked by a frayed white scar. Her hair hung in lusterless brown braids, flecked with sand and bits of thistle, as though they'd been dragged through weeds. He said, "My apologies, I don't believe I know you."
"You examined me yesterday," she said. "I have excellent veneration and friendship, and I'm endowed with superior intuition as to truth. You said my mental temperament is highly developed. My name's Sarah Bennet."
"Miss, I examined twenty-four people yesterday. I didn't invite any of them to travel with me."
The girl held his gaze but said nothing.
"You don't even know where I'm headed!"
"I need to get to Detroit, but anywhere north is fine." She frowned. "I can't pay anything. I had my bag stolen last week by a Negro."
A wheat-brown dog limped toward them along the gutter, then paused to nose through a knob of food scraps. "I'm sorry about your bag. Now, if you wouldn't mind."
Jeremiah nudged the horse forward a few paces. The girl didn't move. Now he remembered: the braids were a wig, which had shifted beneath his fingers during her examination. Besides having a hairless head, the girl had no eyebrows or eyelashes, no pale downy fuzz on her cheek. Her skin was smooth, glossy, like a newly glazed bowl. It was a shame: save for the missing hair, she was a fair-looking girl.
"My husband's sick with fever in Detroit," she shouted. "If you were a damn gentleman you'd offer me a ride. I'll say nothing more."
Her voice held a hint of despair, evoking for Jeremiah his previous night's ramble through New Buffalo's streets, drunk on apple brandy, searching for a reddish light glowing in an upstairs window. But there were only stray dogs and dark shopfronts and his own hollow footsteps. He'd slumped against a lamppost to stop the street's spinning. Some damn town, he thought, where a man can't buy a night's companionship. Then the walk back to the boardinghouse, fists stuffed in his pockets and greatcoat billowing in the chilly breeze. Laughter rose from shadows and doors slammed and music burst from open saloon windows, each sound the reflection of another person.
Jeremiah shivered, and licked his lips. He said, "Step up."
They drove north from New Buffalo on a rutted turnpike, Jeremiah working the reins with one hand while he listened to the girl talk: about her husband's skill as a squirrel hunter, about her unfailingly good health, about a sermon on the evils of Catholicism. The buggy rattled and jounced, its thoroughbraces creaking; it felt like they were riding on a pathway of ribs. Near noon they passed into a meadow ridged by maples, the trees' scarlet leaves blazing, and for a while the girl fell silent. Then she shifted in her seat and let out a loud sigh.
"This road might be pleasant if it had some gravel. I traveled once from Colson to Dayton. Feared my teeth would shake loose, the ride was so rough."
"At least the view is agreeable enough," Jeremiah said. "Most of Ohio is plain dull. Drive long enough with a miserable view, it works on your mind."
"My husband says the view in this country is everywhere the same: a horse's backside."
Jeremiah chuckled and glanced sideways at the girl to measure her seriousness. She was older than he'd first supposed: from the creases on her hands and faint weathering around her eyes, he guessed she might be twenty-five. She rode with her shawl unbuttoned in the September chill.
"Do you mind if I ask how you lost your hair?"
"Never had any. It's my unique burden to bear." She squinted at Jeremiah. "My head must be an open book to you, right? You needn't have bothered with touching, when you examined me. I should've just yanked off my wig."
"I've examined plenty of bald men," Jeremiah said. "The lack of hair gives me keener insight into their character."
She snorted. "You told me a load of bunkum. Said I was skilled with numbers, but I'm not. Said I had a strong predilection for poetry, but I don't care a damn."
"Watch your tongue. You shouldn't criticize what you don't understand."
The girl rolled her eyes, staring at the road ahead.
He thought back to her examination: her skull had showed well-formed veneration and wit, but feeble amativeness, adhesiveness, and conjugality; it was the skull of a barmaid or washwoman. No wonder she was unhappy with her assessment.
But Jeremiah had his own doubts about phrenology, which he probed and worried like loose teeth. If a man's skull were injured through accident, would his temperament necessarily change? If his skull showed a faculty for stealing or telling falsehoods, was he predestined to be a thief or liar? The questions troubled him, and though he'd pondered them for hours, he'd never reached a single satisfying conclusion. Jeremiah's own skull suggested skill in language and memory, strong benevolence and friendship—things he knew to be false—and mediocre intelligence. So who was he? The clever, reticent man he saw in himself, or the dense, generous man his skull claimed?
"Personally, I consider myself an excellent judge of character," the girl continued. "I don't need to rub a man's head, I can gauge him a mile away."
"Do you mind if I ask how you gauge me?"
"Well, you've a streak of kindness, I know that firsthand, and it's plain that you're a smart fellow. Seems to me, though, that you possess an unhealthy amount of gloom."
A blush spread over Jeremiah's neck. "What about yourself? I hope you'll share your insights into your own character."
"It's just like you said: I have excellent veneration and friendship. All the best qualities." She laughed, a musical giggle. "My goodness, I'm just a silly woman. You should forget everything I've said."
Jeremiah said, "I already have."
A breeze rose as the buggy's shadow faded into dusk. He wrapped a scarf around his chin and flicked his horse to a trot, and just before the road disappeared in darkness they saw the inn: a two-story house beside a dozen rows of apple trees, anchoring the edge of a cornfield.
Jeremiah paid the proprietor sixty cents for two rooms, then followed the girl up a narrow stair, the oak planks creaking beneath their feet. In his room he dropped his trunk in the corner, then listened at the door: he heard the girl's tread soften then stop; then a door scraped open and shut.
He leaned close to the bureau's cracked mirror, the contours of his face discouragingly familiar. Jeremiah's skin was coated with dust, and when he rubbed his forehead it felt brittle and smooth, like parched clay. He opened his case and withdrew the pint bottle of whiskey. Just take a damn breath, he told himself. Open the damn door. He wished he had a bouquet of wildflowers.
He stood motionless for a long time, listening to the gusting wind, then paced down the hallway and tapped on the girl's door. It eased open. She was standing at the window, her bonnet untied and wig aslant, her valise open on the bed. "It's okay," she said. "You can come in."
Jeremiah's heart seemed to slow, as if it were pumping molasses. He moved behind the girl, and when he touched her shoulder, she flinched as if she'd been stung. "I'm nervous," she said, "I'm sorry. I'm not accustomed to travel. I think it's unbalanced my mood."
Jeremiah tilted the bottle toward her, but she shook her head. He swallowed a long gulp. "Great God in heaven," he gasped, "this is rough stuff." He took another pull.
"Tell me something about yourself," the girl said. "Anything. Tell me your mother's name."
"Tell me where your father was born."
"Albany, New York." Her dress had shifted, and an arc of skin glowed white at the base of her windburned neck. Jeremiah moved toward her, but she stepped to the door. She seemed both bold and frightened, like a cat confronting a strange animal.
He said, "You say your husband's in Detroit, then? Seems an unusual arrangement."
"My husband's an unusual man. He used to take my hair and pitch it onto the roof, when he got angry. I'd wait until he fell asleep, then fetch it with a ladder. Sometimes the crows got it first."
Jeremiah was silent for a moment. "What'll you do when you find him?"
"Kiss him to death or shoot him. I don't know which." She took the whiskey bottle and sipped, grimacing. "This isn't a regular occurrence for me. I want you to understand that." Then she slid the wig from her head and tossed it onto the bed.
A hot shock scalded Jeremiah. Sweat gleamed on the girl's bare scalp, the skin silky and pale, as if it had never seen sun. She smoothed her palms over her head, then unknotted her dress and rolled her shoulders back, letting the clothes slide to her ankles. The girl glanced at him, her cheeks flushed with shame. Jeremiah lowered his eyes. His stomach trembled near sickness. He heard a hush of settling underclothes, then the mattress' stiff rustle. She said, "All right, Mr. Simon. Now," and touched his fingers.
He whispered, "Great God in heaven."
He'd dreamed she would be beautiful, the girl with the perfect skull. In his dreams she wore a blue satin frock with a burgundy shawl, or a pink silk pelisse, or a white crinoline. Her hair fell in tight blonde ringlets or was swept into an auburn chignon. Her eyes were hazel or cornflower blue or gray. Some mornings Jeremiah woke in a sweat, stirred by an ache that nothing would calm except his own shameful hand; others he woke to a bitter tang that he understood to be the taste of loneliness. He was twenty-nine and had been on the road for seven years, and had come to hate the countryside and its gorgeous emptiness.
Albany, Franklin, Harrisburg, Clear Lake, Staunton, Sherwood Crossing, Morehead, Russell: he'd driven from New York all through Pennsylvania, down into Virginia and Kentucky, now up into the endless forest of Ohio. Every morning he donned white satin gloves with pearl buttons at the wrists, and by noon they were spotted with dirt and Macassar oil and crushed lice. In his vest pocket Jeremiah carried a leather-bound book; for each woman he examined, he penned three numbers: their amativeness, adhesiveness, and conjugality, rated from one to seven. At night in the hotel room, he wrung his gloves in the washbasin, then leafed through page after page of data, the figures as varied and perplexing as women themselves.
Nagle had shown that skull size was determined by race; Layfield had proven the relationship between combativeness and climate. Jeremiah had first read their monographs by the glow of a tallow stub, in his father's home in Albany. He was a boy of twenty-two—a man, supposedly—with awkward manners and long, dirty hair; he'd never courted a girl, never kissed a girl good night. He was thrilled by phrenology's brash wisdom—for what was science's greatest purpose, if not to explain man to himself? As he read, he gingerly touched his own skull, propping the book open with his elbows. Surely, he reasoned, a woman's capacity for love couldn't be random.
It must be related to her devoutness, Jeremiah thought, or education, or father's occupation—something. A notion coagulated in his mind, then one morning presented itself whole, like a fresh white egg: a woman's capacity for love must be revealed as the sum of her amativeness, adhesiveness, and conjugality. He'd jerked out of bed and struggled into clothes, then raced across the empty fields to the print shop. He'd purchased texts by Fowler and Gall, and a small leather-bound book, the pages as blank and clean as new snow.
He'd set off that next Monday, stopping first in Buffalo, then following the turnpike south, his book pages filling with numbers. He grew whiskers, to appear more mature, but his appearance in the mirror was that of a grim stranger. He shaved his chin clean. That December, in Scranton, he began a monograph entitled The Amorous Organs of Respectable American Women. He wrote ten pages, then tore them into strips.
His sentences were knots. His data were as formless as soup. His examination method was correct, surely, but perhaps his judgment of organ size was inconsistent, or he was misinterpreting the results? The only noteworthy measurements, for some reason, seemed to come from the skulls of prostitutes. At night Jeremiah lay awake, in rooms whose shabbiness never ceased to dishearten him. A scientist's life, he thought miserably, was like a midnight walk across an unfamiliar field, without a lantern, without even the moon's faint glow for guidance.
A year passed and then another. In Hopewell he rewrote the monograph's introduction, and though he pored over ninety pages of data, he couldn't prove a single hypothesis. One morning in Louisville he woke with a start. It was his birthday—the realization struck him as a cold joke. For what had he accomplished in the past years, besides touring small, worthless towns? He was no longer young but wasn't yet wise; he'd developed a theory of love but had never been loved; he'd read much but understood, it seemed, very little. And lately those dreams of beautiful women, which felt like a taunt from his sleeping self. They left him lonely but with an ember of hope: in his dreams he found the girl with the perfect skull, courted her, and made her his wife.
He woke to a rap on the door and a flood of sunlight that caused his forehead to twinge in pain. The rap repeated, followed by a woman's muffled voice: "Open up, please. Need to tidy the room."
Jeremiah rolled onto his elbow, feeling a familiar dull confusion. Then he realized: he was in the girl's room, Sarah Bennet's. Sunlight poured through filmy curtains and showed the baseboards and floor to be speckled brown with tobacco juice. He pulled on his trousers and patted the pockets: coins, watch, a fold of bank notes. On the floor beside the bed stood a half-empty bottle of whiskey. The girl's valise was nowhere to be seen.
He hurried down the hallway to his own room: the bed was undisturbed, and in the corner near the window sat his closed trunk. His skull case was gone. Jeremiah circled the bed, then lifted the quilt and peered beneath the frame. His felt-lined case, with his Fowler and Gall texts, his handbills, his porcelain demonstration skulls—he strode back to the girl's room and looked beneath the bed. The case was gone.
"Damn it to hell," he hissed, and kicked the doorframe. His forehead felt squeezed, as though his perceptive organs were constricting, and Jeremiah rubbed his temples, but that only sharpened the pain. Downstairs, the proprietor sat in a rocker beside a cold fireplace, reading a newspaper. "Excuse me, sir: the bald girl I was with, did she leave?"
The proprietor was a tall, weary-looking man with threadworn trousers and a shabby chin beard. He stared at Jeremiah over his newspaper. "She wasn't bald at all."
"She was, she wore a wig. I believe she stole my skulls." Jeremiah's voice had risen to a strained pitch. "Did a stage pass here?"
The man nodded. "Came last night, but didn't stop long. Toward Mentonville."
Jeremiah tried to focus his thoughts, but his head felt as if it were filled with fog. The proprietor said, "How is it she stole your skull?"
"Skulls. They're scientific articles," Jeremiah said. "They're valuable. I'm a phrenologist."
The proprietor set the newspaper in his lap and scrutinized Jeremiah. With his sleep-creased shirt and tousled hair, Jeremiah reckoned he was a pitiful sight. "I'd like to hear my future," the man said. "I'll pay ten cents."
"I don't have time, I'm sorry." Jeremiah took up his coat and trunk, then stopped at the door. "And even if I did, I wouldn't work for a damn dime."
Outside, he hitched his buggy while the proprietor watched from the doorway. "To Mentonville," the man said, pointing with his newspaper along the only road in sight. "Straight as a loon's leg."
Jeremiah snapped the reins, and the buggy jolted forward. He felt vaguely ashamed, as though he'd misunderstood some simple fact. He tried to clear his mind, but every stray thought led to the previous night's clouded moon, the gossipy whisper of cornstalks, the girl's taut voice. Her pliant skin, the tight clench of her fist. The smooth scar on her brow.
He glanced back and saw the proprietor in the distance, standing in the road. The man raised a hand, but Jeremiah didn't return the farewell. I'd like to hear my future, he'd said, but Jeremiah knew he could no more tell the man his future than he could tell his own.
In October Jeremiah traded his buggy for a worn mud wagon and seventy dollars coin. He was broke: in Mentonville and Carlow he'd examined only a dozen people. On the morning of his departure from Carlow he'd learned that a Baptist circuit rider had spoken out against phrenology, calling it quackery and an enemy of Christian religion. Jeremiah earned only enough money to pay for his meals.
He drove to Essex, where he examined a printer and his daughters in exchange for a run of simple handbills: Mr. J. Simon, Practical Phrenologist. In his own hand he added, "will be examining Men, Women, and Children at the Wayne Hotel until Thursday, October 12." He meandered along the town's streets, posting bills and knocking at every boardinghouse door, to ask if they'd seen a chestnut-haired girl with no eyebrows. Always the answer was no.
He worked three days in Essex, but the fourth morning he walked from the Wayne Hotel and took a seat in the back corner of John Sullivan's saloon. He drank glass after glass of flip, until he'd achieved a superb, shimmering calm. "My dear little whore of a wife has run off with Indian fighters," he repeated to a man drinking at the next table, until the barkeep rapped his knuckles against the wall. Jeremiah dropped a dollar on the floor and staggered into the street, and started toward a lit-up house with piano music trickling from an open window.
A squat, rouged woman with rotten front teeth opened the door. "You must be here for a dance," she said, ushering Jeremiah inside. In the corner of the parlor, an old black woman played "Oh! Susanna" on a battered upright.
The upstairs bedroom smelled of lavender and urine and sour tobacco juice. "Regular is one dollar," the woman said. "Anything else costs extra." She shucked her black dress and pantalettes into a heap. Her chest and waist and hips were a single fleshy trunk, her breasts like a pair of stones dropped in silk stockings.
"Regular is fine," Jeremiah said. "I thank you, miss."
"My name's Constance." She scooted onto the bed and let her legs fall open. "Please try not to muss my hair."
Jeremiah unbuttoned his trousers and climbed atop the woman, in his drunken state feeling like a passenger on a gently rolling barge. The bedframe groaned. A hot urge burned in his stomach, as if he'd swallowed a shovelful of embers; he shut his eyes and grasped the woman's head, his fingers tracing her sentiments then falling to her propensities. She could make a decent mother, he thought, or nursemaid. A decent wife. Good lord.
"Quit." She yanked his hands down to her shoulders. "My hair."
He woke the next morning with a rheumy cough. He drove to Andrew and stepped out to post handbills, then returned to the hotel and sank into bed. That night he lay in a feverish sweat, paging through Fowler's Life, Its Factors and Improvement:
Man, know thyself! In this work is contained a study of the mental fountains from which all feelings and actions emanate, being an unequalled personal benefaction none can afford to ignore.
The passage's haughty assurance raised a prickle of annoyance in Jeremiah. He opened his leather-bound book, for the first time in months, and read a neatly penned paragraph:
All men are desirous of attracting a devoted, affectionate, and amorous woman, as decreed by Nature's supreme law. Not all women, however, are equally capable of providing suitable affection, due to poorly developed organs of amativeness, adhesiveness, and conjugality. From observations made by the Author during his extensive travels, we can draw several conclusions, first regarding
The sentence ended as an empty page. He leafed forward, and before him were data from New Buffalo, Ohio. Somewhere in the swarm of numbers was his appraisal of the girl.
He'd seen her often in the past weeks: in the morning as he stropped his razor, in the evening as he wrung dingy water from his satin gloves. Sarah Bennet: the name roused him, like a curse. He tried to push his feelings toward anger, but instead his mind lingered on her musical giggle, her whiskey-scented breath, her downcast eyes as her dress crumpled to the floor. Her scarred, delicate brow, her hairless scalp. The memories were obscene, thrilling. She's no one, Jeremiah told himself, just a strumpet and damn thief, with a skull as ordinary as a peddler's. But when he thought about her, his loneliness disappeared, like hunger after a rich meal.
The next morning he sat in his wagon at the northern edge of Andrew. Blue fingerboards pointed toward Carrier and Gultin's Prairie, both names dimly familiar, as though he might've passed through a month or year ago. A porter lazed on the sidewalk, spitting tobacco juice at a flat stone. Jeremiah waved to him and pointed toward the northwest road. "Can you tell me where it leads?"
"Carrier, then on to Rose." He wiped his moist lips. "Farther along it forks toward Detroit, I believe."
"You don't know for certain?"
The man shrugged. "Never been north of Rose. Never had reason."
Clouds had gathered in a gray raft, and now a few snowflakes settled with a sting on Jeremiah's freshly shaved cheeks. He turned up his collar and nodded at the porter, and with a shake of the reins started slowly northwest.
He drove into Carrier in late afternoon, the sun a low yolk and a crisp breeze feathering the roadside sedge. Gigs and spring wagons rattled past; a boy ambled down the sidewalk, amid a bustle of men and women, shouting, "Apples! Fresh apples here!" Windows caught the sun and glowed orange, like the eyes of nighttime animals. Jeremiah stopped his wagon outside a hotel and stepped down, his legs wobbly and sore, as if he'd been in rough seas. He was hoisting his trunk onto the sidewalk when he saw the handbill, tacked to an announcement board: Mr. J. Simon, Practical Phrenologist
He let the trunk topple onto its side. "The Public is respectfully informed of the presence of Mr. J. Simon, Phrenologist and Physiognomist, at the Three Flags Hotel, from October 24—27." He didn't read farther; he'd composed the words himself and could recite them from memory. The location and dates were penned in a cramped, childish script. He pulled the notice from the board and held it in both hands. "See also the Living Phrenological Diagram, an Extraordinary and Wonderful Curiosity." Jeremiah slipped the handbill into his vest pocket, then stopped a news vendor and asked directions to the Three Flags Hotel.
A note was tacked beside the hotel door: "Mr. J. Simon is ill and not available for examinations. See the Living Phrenological Diagram, Admn. 25 cents." He stepped into an open foyer and a loose knot of men and women. Across the room, standing behind a low table, was Sarah Bennet.
She was wearing a black cotton dress and black satin gloves, and no bonnet or wig: her scalp looked like a spider's web or an old, cracked mirror. Jeremiah froze. Her head was crisscrossed with thin black lines that divided her skull into its thirty-five organs, combativeness and wonder and acquisitiveness and wit sectioned into neat parcels. Jeremiah's porcelain skulls sat before her on the table—a white laborer, a Chippewa Indian, and an African—and she looked like one of the skulls come to life, something from a dream or nightmare. Beside Jeremiah, a boy clutched his mother's skirts, crying, his eyes fixed on the girl's painted scalp.
Jeremiah jostled through the crowd. The girl was talking to a man in a dirty pea jacket, gesturing toward his perceptive organs. Her gaze flicked to Jeremiah. She smiled at the man; then a scarlet flush spread over her face. She turned to Jeremiah and attempted a smile. "Please don't cause a fuss," she whispered. "I apologize sincerely."
"I can't decide whether to get the police," Jeremiah said, "or whip you myself. Or both."
Sweat glazed her painted forehead, but she maintained a fierce grin. "I'll pay for the skulls and handbills, I promise. Please, keep your voice low. I beg of you."
"You rob me, then tell me to keep quiet?" Jeremiah's voice rose to a shout. "And your skull—you painted the organs wrong, do you know that? Do you know your head frightens children?"
"I was ill that night," she said quickly. "My stomach. I woke and thought—I feared my insides were falling out. Like someone was shoving a hot poker into me, then twisting it back out. There was some blood. I needed a doctor." Her voice was hoarse with fear and what sounded like sincerity.
"Then you should have woken me. I would have brought you to a doctor."
She motioned to the crown of Jeremiah's skull, his organ of veneration, as though she were responding to a polite question. "I was angry at you, for making me feel so terrible. So I left."
"But first you took my case. Why didn't you steal my damn buggy while you were at it?"
She stared at Jeremiah, her mouth set in a thin line.
"And what about your dear sick husband? Have you been to Detroit and back?"
"That was no lie. I'm headed to Detroit." She pressed her satin-gloved fingers against Jeremiah's temples. "Let me finish with these people, please. They paid twenty-five cents apiece."
Her touch brought a rush of angry heat and a deep, liquid tugging. He jerked his head away. "And you, pretending to understand phrenology, for land's sake. Taking money from these poor people, giving them nothing but a spectacle and some lies. It's an offense against science." He turned to the hushed crowd. "This woman's a charlatan and a damn fraud!"
"I know you, Mr. Simon." She took his hand, and when he tried to pull away she gripped it urgently. "You're patient and thoughtful. You possess profound compassion."
"You should pray that I do," Jeremiah said.
He found a saloon across the street from the hotel and drank brandy at the front window as the afternoon darkened. The girl appeared on the sidewalk at dusk, hugging the skull case to her chest. She wore a black bonnet to match her dress and gloves; to Jeremiah she looked like an engraving he'd once seen of a restless soul in limbo. He watched her with inebriated patience.
You possess an unhealthy amount of gloom, she'd told him, that morning on the road from New Buffalo. Jeremiah knew she was right: even now he felt shadowed in melancholy, as though any effort he might make would end in failure. Science, he knew, was full of failure—failed hypotheses, failed experiments, failed theories—and the thought occurred to him that he should quit phrenology. I could sell my books, he thought, become a printer or carpenter, something simple. How could he ever predict a woman's capacity for love? The question was too immense; better to leave it to true scientists, like Wells and Fowler. He watched the girl step inside a shabby hotel, then Jeremiah licked the last drops from his glass and hauled himself to his feet.
He listened outside her door: silence; a muffled cough. He turned the knob, and the door swung inward. She was standing at the basin, wiping black smudges from her scalp. Jeremiah's skull case lay beneath the window.
He said, "How'd you enjoy pretending to be my assistant?"
She chuckled, without looking at him. "Wasn't much of a prize. Lousy beds and too many miles in those damn coaches. Felt like my jaw would rattle off its hinges."
"That's rich. You rob a man, then complain about the comfort of your escape." He watched her scrutinize her reflection in a hand mirror. "You sound like a woman who doesn't have many worries."
"If you meant to do something, I reckon you'd have done it already." She took her wig from the bedpost and settled it on her head. She stared evenly at Jeremiah.
"You're a fool girl. You should be worried I'm going to have you in jail, or run out of town. I could do either of those things in a moment."
She clasped her hands but said nothing.
Jeremiah stuffed his fists in his pockets to hide their trembling. He wished he had a glass of whiskey. "This entire situation is crazy. Can't those poor coots see that you don't know two cents about phrenology?"
"I read the silly books; I invent what I can't remember. I don't give a fart in a whirlwind for phrenology."
"Well," Jeremiah said, "this entire situation is crazy."
The girl's wig had been brushed to a gloss, and her cheeks were daubed reddish brown; as Jeremiah stared, a faint grin grew on her lips. The sight pushed the breath from him.
"I must admit," she said, "I enjoy the dramatics—it makes me feel like a theater actress. I'll pay for the skulls."
"I'm planning to take them back, thank you."
"You don't seem to want them. If you did, you'd have replaced them by now."
She's right, Jeremiah thought. I could have bought plaster skulls in Andrew. "Two hundred dollars. They're porcelain, from London."
She tried unsuccessfully to hide her surprise. "I'll give you forty dollars."
"I reckoned as much." He hefted the skull case.
The girl's gaze followed the case, then rose anxiously to Jeremiah. A notion that had been lingering on the margins of his mind suddenly presented itself. "Maybe I will let you buy them." He set the case down and rubbed his jaw, feigning indifference. "Maybe I'll keep you in reach until you can pay the two hundred."
"How do you plan to keep me in reach?"
He paced to the dresser and took up the room key, then locked the door with a soft click.
Her expression moved from confusion to mild amusement. "Oh, Mr. Simon," she said, giggling, "I hope you're not serious."
"I am." He dropped the key into his trouser pocket. "Two hundred dollars."
She held Jeremiah's gaze until he looked away. "And here I thought you meant to run me out of town."
"I still may. You watch and see."
She moved beside Jeremiah and slipped her hand into his pocket. His body stiffened; he fought an urge to grab her shoulders and shake her, to crush his mouth against her painted lips. She said, "You're a strange man," and took the key from his pocket.
He yanked her wrist against his chest. The key clattered against the floorboards.
"My goodness." The girl's smile faded into an uneasy grin. "I never dreamed I'd be indebted to such a strange man."
Jeremiah walked to the general store the next morning and purchased a horsehair brush and a tin of boot blacking. Back in the hotel, the girl knelt before the window and closed her eyes. He touched her chin to steady himself, then drew the brush across her naked scalp, each line a subtle thrill, as if he were mapping an undiscovered country. When he'd finished, he presented the hand mirror to the girl: she grinned her approval.
That afternoon, Jeremiah stood behind the examiner's chair as the girl wove through the crowded salon. "The knowledge we humbly disseminate is of incalculable value to all men, women, and children," she proclaimed, "for what knowledge, may I ask, is a tithe as valuable as self-knowledge?" She'd claimed to have studied his texts, but Jeremiah figured she'd read only fifty pages; her explanations began as fact, then strayed into half-truth or pure fancy. He wondered if he should correct her, but the townspeople didn't seem to care. Jeremiah let her flutish voice occupy his mind. Twice he finished examinations to find he had no knowledge of the skull before him, so he created tales flattering enough to please a bitter widow.
That evening in the hotel room Jeremiah locked the door and dumped the day's take onto the bed: fourteen dollars, sixty cents.
She threw her head back and barked in laughter. The lines on her skull had smeared into a black blur. "What's your best day's sum, before today?"
"My God, it's gorgeous." She grabbed a handful of coins and let them trickle through her fingers. "Listen to that. Sweeter music I never heard."
And that was how it went in Carrier: four days in a crowded salon at the Three Flags Hotel, the girl's voice growing hoarse from shouting above the din. After dinner they would walk a circuit of the frigid town, Jeremiah sipping from a flask of brandy while the girl peered into dark shop windows and marveled at the broad, empty streets. Back in the hotel room, he watched her undress in the corner. He felt a frustrating pang of indecision—as though she might scorn him, or remind him that they were strangers—then he moved toward the girl.
When he touched her, she gasped at the coldness of his fingers. Jeremiah held his breath, even as she wrenched his head down to her white throat. He couldn't tell if she was in pain. A low, miraculous thrum rose from her chest, like a cat's purr, and Jeremiah felt a shiver of nervous joy. He ran his lips along her smooth scar. He wanted to move inside the girl, to wear her as a second skin.
Their last night in Carrier, as they lay beneath the sweat-dampened sheet, he touched her wrist and asked about her husband: who he was, and where, and why.
"You're wondering what goat of a man would have me?"
"I'm wondering how he came to be in Detroit, with you in Ohio. It's an unusual arrangement."
She was quiet for a moment, then her voice rose from the darkness: her husband was not a good man. She'd married young, to a cordwainer's apprentice with a clubfoot and jittery laugh, named Ephraim Bennet. He was a layabout and an amateur boxer, a no-luck faro player with a temper when he lost. They were happy for a month, then a slow revulsion seemed to grow in him: when he'd finished working her with a hickory switch, he'd shove her outside and lock the cabin door. She'd hidden a straw tick in the shed, and a crock of chilled butter for her welts.
They lived in Yearman, in southern Ohio, until they had nothing to barter and couldn't get credit for a twist of tobacco. Then Ephraim woke her at midnight, loaded their mud wagon, and drove from town with the lanterns shuttered. He sang "Old Rosin the Beau" and hugged the girl like she was his new bride. Three miles outside town he halted the buggy at a crossroad and pissed on the fingerboard pointing toward Yearman.
They'd been in Colson five months when she woke in an empty bed. Ephraim's pistol and Sunday hat were gone; she felt a sudden, startling impulse toward happiness. A week passed, then a month, the girl taking in sewing, which she didn't mind if it meant being free of welts. She sold her husband's Winchester rifle, which he'd left behind, then she sold her pewter. Seven months later she received a grimy letter:
I am in Detroit and Sick as a horse. This Town is hard. Come to 153 Beaubien Street, Mrs. Lasaux's.
So she went. She took a stage to Aurora, her first time in a Concord wagon, and there was something exciting about being in motion, about entering strange towns at sunset without knowing a soul. She felt wonderfully inconspicuous, like she could do anything she pleased. She'd been traveling two weeks when she saw Jeremiah's handbill outside the hotel in New Buffalo.
"I have to disagree," Jeremiah said, "about solitude being anyway good."
"Queer thing for a man of your profession to say. Is that why you walk around like a dejected coroner? Because you're lonely?"
Jeremiah responded by squeezing her bare shoulder. He said, "Tell me: Did you go by stage all the way to New Buffalo? Or did you find rides the way you did with me?"
Her shoulders tensed. "That was a singular occurrence. You looked so handsome in the hotel, with your beautiful hair, and your white gloves. I wondered what kind of man would wear white gloves for that job. I wanted to find out who you were."
She gripped his hand, and for a moment Jeremiah felt thrillingly unmoored, as if he were drifting through an endless sky. Then, like cold fog rolling over him, the understanding dawned that his presence was accidental: he was just a man with a buggy headed north. A fool with a dream about a woman who didn't exist, lying beside a girl with an ordinary skull.
Damn all this, he thought. Bless it and damn it. He shut his eyes and pulled the girl closer, and let her hoarse breathing lull him to sleep.
They crossed into Michigan on a rainy Monday, the horizon a pearl-white mist and the road a slurry of mud and dung. Jeremiah uncorked a bottle of Black Aces whiskey to soften the ride, and they rolled into Keller shouting drunk.
Fronds of frost lay on the windows when they woke. They worked four days in Keller, then drove north to Grosse Vert, then on to Paulston, the girl singing half-remembered minstrel songs as she drove, while Jeremiah lay on the back bench, chuckling at her invented refrains. A calm pleasure had grown in him, balanced by unease: he found himself watching her, for evidence of her skull's predictions—the strong veneration and wit, the poor adhesiveness and benevolence, the absent ideality. But the girl was as spirited and unpredictable as the weather. Jeremiah wasn't sure if this made him happy or miserable.
Their last night in Paulston, Jeremiah took a room at the Imperial Hotel, and when he opened the door, Sarah collapsed onto the feather bed. "I'll die here," she said, "and heaven won't be nearly as comfortable, I swear." He locked the door and slipped the key into his stocking. It was no more than a gesture, he knew, but the cold key against his ankle had begun to feel routine, and this lent the room a hint of permanence.
She said, "I apologize for stealing your case. I saw you touching those people's heads and taking their money, and I thought, well, anybody can do that. So."
Jeremiah was stunned, silent. Outside, sleet tapped against the windowpane.
"I thought about you afterward. I knew you'd search for me."
"How'd you know that?"
"You were lonely. You looked at each woman like you were starving."
"I was doing research," he said, reddening. "I'm studying women's phrenological characteristics. I'm writing a book."
"You're a kind man." She nodded, her lips pursed. "You treat me very well. Far better than I deserve, I know."
Jeremiah said, "Listen, now," but Sarah shushed him and pulled him down to the bed.
That night he dreamed. He dreamed of himself and Sarah strolling down Keller's main street, hand in hand. It was summer; Jeremiah wore a black suit that was layered with dust, and Sarah wore a crinoline that remained pure white. They were attending a lecture by Dr. Spurzheim on "Nature's Sexual Laws," and Jeremiah was suffused with joy. It's so simple, he thought, the way a woman's desires can be foretold and understood, and returned. The street ended in a marble pavilion, and a bodiless, booming voice rose from the ground. Where is the organ of amativeness located? Jeremiah shouted, "At the base of the skull, the outer portion being animal while the inner is platonic!" The voice asked, Why do men instinctively adore the female form? Jeremiah looked at Sarah: her face was grave, as though she were standing at the altar. In which ways does phrenological analysis of the amorous organs succeed? the voice thundered. In which ways does it fail?
They drove into Detroit on the first day of December, the city beginning as sparse clapboard homes then thickening to brown brick row houses and bright storefronts and stone buildings with slender columns. Buggies and omnibuses swarmed the street, filling it with the clop of hooves and creak of wheels and thick, sharp smell of dung. Snow lay in gray streaks on rooftops and shutters and sidewalk edges. Jeremiah drove slowly down Woodward Avenue, as Sarah leaned out the side of the wagon.
"It's so loud," she shouted. "Must be impossible to have decent manners in this city."
"Then you'll feel at home." Jeremiah attempted a chuckle. A tightness had gripped him when they'd glimpsed the city's first gestures, and now his mood was mired in regret. I should have kept west, he thought, pretended I was lost. Or refused to come here at all.
"Stop here," Sarah shouted, and Jeremiah guided the horse to the avenue's margin. He watched her cross the street to a yellow building: the Bank of St. Clair. A clock on the bank's pediment read ten minutes to five.
At five-fifteen she emerged, clutching her capuchin to her chest. "Eagles and slugs, no bank notes." She offered Jeremiah her clenched fists. "Take it. Two hundred dollars."
The coins' weight seemed to fall into the pit of Jeremiah's chest. "You can keep this. You long ago made up your debt."
"I didn't intend any of that to be payment."
"No, goodness, I didn't mean that." He pressed the coins into her hands. "We don't have to stay here. Do you see? We can go by boat down the lake, back to Ohio. To Cleveland, then over to Buffalo." He thought, I could publish a study of her, make us both famous. Make us rich, so we won't have to work, just the two of us alone, in a house with a good field, a porch in front.
"I take sick on boats."
"Then we'll go north, visit the Indians." He grinned stiffly. "You don't have to worry about being scalped. That's some comfort."
"Jeremiah." She squeezed his hands, her mouth set in a pained smile. "There's a hotel beside the bank. Can we stop? I'm so tired."
That night Jeremiah sat on the bank's steps, watching snow slant through a gas lamp's white halo. He'd bought a half-pint of rum, and though the bottle was empty, he wasn't drunk enough: he wanted his thoughts to be effaced, obliterated. He huddled into his greatcoat, feeling the stiff spine of his leather-bound book, then drew it out and turned page after page, until the numbers appeared as tiny smudges. Too many numbers, he thought, a thousand too many. A hundred thousand too many. He knelt and laid the book and rum bottle in the gutter, then heaped slush over them until he'd formed a mound like a fresh grave. The sight satisfied him but did nothing to raise his spirits.
He walked up Woodward until finally he felt the rum's muddling effects, then asked a passerby directions to Beaubien Street. Jeremiah hurried up Grand River then along Mechanic Street, passing lit-up saloons and dark churches and a huge, shadowy ironworks. The snow had thickened, but Jeremiah was sweating; he unbuttoned his greatcoat and let wind tunnel against his chest.
He stopped outside number 153: a clapboard house with crooked shutters and a railing that was smashed flat, as if it'd been struck by a runaway dray. Jeremiah knocked. A few moments later the door edged open, and a thin, wrinkled woman peered out.
"It ain't a decent hour to call."
"I apologize. I'd like to speak with Ephraim Bennet if I could."
The woman squinted at him.
"He arrived a few months ago," Jeremiah offered. "I believe he's a cordwainer."
"He owed me twelve dollars." She opened the door another inch. "Are you kin?"
Jeremiah dug into his pocket, then counted twelve dollars coin into the woman's knobby hand. "I'm his cousin," he said. "Do you have any idea where he went?"
"He's dead," she said. "Died of ague, in his room. Wouldn't have known it, but he smelled dreadful bad."
Jeremiah's heart jumped, then was instantly smothered by shame. I'm glad for another man's death, he thought. God forgive me.
"Had to bang down the door to get him out," she said, opening the door wider. "Cost me ten dollars to mend the lock."
His hand trembled as he offered the woman a bank note. "I'm very sorry for your trouble," he said, backing down the steps. "I hope you'll pray for Ephraim's soul."
"He left some things," she called, but Jeremiah was already crossing the street. He broke into a jog, the frigid air needling his lungs. He ran down Mechanic Street until his chest burned, then staggered to a halt and shouted, a wordless howl. His voice gathered as a frosty cloud then vanished in the black sky.
At the hotel room he stood at the door until his heart settled. Sarah was asleep, her breathing like a slow tide. Her skull lay naked on the pillow, and Jeremiah felt an urge to touch it, and memorize her talents and fears, her desires and instincts and flaws. Instead he knelt beside the bed, watching her eyes dart beneath their lids. He prayed he knew her better than any touch could reveal.
He woke alone the next morning. He'd slept late, a drunken, dreamless sleep, and rose in a cold, bright room that smelled of coffee and fried pork. A soft pang prodded Jeremiah; he dressed and combed his hair, then pushed aside the curtain: snow swirled down Woodward Avenue, painting buggies and street vendors and pedestrians in a scene of merry confusion. On the windowsill Jeremiah's white gloves lay splayed beside Sarah's black.
He grabbed his hat and greatcoat and rushed down to the frozen street. He found a grocer and bought a dozen smoked oysters, a wedge of mild cheese, a bottle of champagne, and a gleaming red apple, then tucked the bundle inside his coat and hurried back to the hotel. He spread the food on the side table. The room's chamber set had no cup, so Jeremiah sipped the champagne straight from the bottle.
He was finishing the cheese when Sarah opened the door, her capuchin dusted with snow. "You didn't wait long to celebrate," she said. "I'm not even gone, and you've made a banquet."
Jeremiah wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve. Oyster shells lay scattered at his feet. "Did you see him?"
"I went to Mrs. Lasaux's house on Beaubien Street. I
suppose I shouldn't have expected Ephraim to be staying somewhere respectable." She tugged loose her bonnet. "He's very sick. I thought at first it was cholera but his face has a yellowness, like he has the fever. He couldn't get up when I entered his room, he just lay on the bed, moaning. I fed him beef soup. It was the first nourishment he'd had in four days."
Jeremiah heard her as if from a great distance. He couldn't force his lips to form a word.
"He called me 'sweetest.' He can be gentle when he's in need-I'd nearly forgotten that." She took her satin gloves from the windowsill and slipped them into her pocket. "Lucky we didn't arrive a week later. I'd never have forgiven myself."
"You don't have to go to him."
"Of course I do."
"You don't," Jeremiah said. "I know you don't! Trust me, now—you're just a silly girl."
She seemed to stiffen. Jeremiah tried to meet her eye, but she wouldn't look up from her clasped hands.
"I went to Beaubien Street, last night. He's dead, Sarah! I paid his debt, twelve dollars. I talked with Mrs. Lasaux."
A flush bloomed on her cheeks. "You can't keep me. I won't let you." Her voice was thick with stubbornness. "If you keep me, I won't stay. I know it in my heart."
Jeremiah hugged her around the waist, but she twisted against him, her fingernails gouging his wrists. He yanked her hands down and buried his face in her hair, and Sarah shrieked, like a knife scraped against steel. Jeremiah's stomach seemed to fall away. He loosed his grip, and she spun to the room's corner, her eyes shining with fear.
"Forgive me," Jeremiah said. "Please. I'm sorry."
She nodded fiercely, her chest heaving. Then she shoved her bonnet on her head and took up her valise.
On the sidewalk they stood beneath the hotel's awning as snow fell all around them. Jeremiah offered her the skull case. "You can keep these or sell them. I don't care which."
She took the case without looking at him. "I'm nervous, of all things. My goodness, I'm shaking."
Jeremiah said nothing.
"You'll stay here, then?"
He glanced past her, at the blur of carriages, the clamorous rush of people. The city seemed vast and teeming, limitless. "Maybe I'll find some work."
"Then I may see you around town." She kissed him, her lips like cold stones against his cheek, then turned and started down the sidewalk. After a few paces she turned back. "I hope I do see you," she shouted. Then she disappeared in the jostling crowd.
Jeremiah wandered down Woodward Avenue until he reached the riverbank, then sat watching whitecaps flash and chop in the coal-black water. When his knees were stiff with cold, he stepped into a saloon and drank a glass of whiskey, then at a general store purchased a pair of scissors. Back in the hotel room he clipped a long column of hair from his head and watched it fall like a sheaf of wheat into the white basin. When his head was shorn, he lathered his tufted skull and stropped his razor. Gleaming lanes of scalp appeared, his skull's ridges and grooves as familiar as his father's fields. This is you, he thought. This is who you are.
When he'd finished he stood before the window, in the light, staring at his reflection in the cloudy mirror.
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