Mapping the Brain by Teresa Milbrodt
Mapping the Brain
You know you have to reorganize your brain, change the way you go about thinking of things, because if you can’t you’ll probably lose your job. Or at the very least your remaining sanity. You need to keep paying rent and putting ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches on the table. Employment is important. Processing health insurance claims has never been the most fun thing in the world, and it is not your goal to make it the most fun thing in the world, just less crappy.
First, things you hate about your job:
The buzzing overhead lights in your office.
Your bland cream-colored cubicle with the squeaky chair.
The guy one cubicle over who wears too much cologne.
The whiny lady who breaks the copy machine every other day and complains that the repair person never comes quickly enough.
The way it doesn’t matter whether you know the name of anyone else in the office, and the way they don’t care if they know yours.
How you put fifteen dollars in the office pool for coffee every month and it always tastes terrible. How you are not allowed to touch the coffee maker and make coffee. That’s the administrative assistant’s job.
* * *
You need an attitude adjustment or you’re going to brain someone with your stapler. You’ve been testing its weight, and it feels like an effective blunt instrument. Too effective. You don’t want to get arrested, and you’re not sure how easy it will be to get another job. You’re woefully expendable. The lady who used to work three cubicles over—you think her name was Nicole–used to go on and on about how the office would never be able to function without her. Six months ago some of the higher-ups decided to test her theory. Not much has changed, aside from a new woman sitting in her old swivel chair.
By six at night you’re sick of people. You don’t want to go out for a drink or to a coffee shop, but you hate going home. The living room and kitchen of your apartment are robin’s egg blue, a color you despise even more than bad coffee. The guy in the apartment next to yours smokes cigars at three in the morning. He knows this is a non-smoking facility, so he has to do it on the sly when everyone is too tired to call the cops. You wake up in the middle of the night twice a week, gasping for breath. You have alerted management. They said they would take care of it. They haven’t done squat.
Seven years ago you’d planned on staying in this complex for twelve months, tops. You’re in a rut. Sometimes you despair. Sometimes you feel too dead to mourn. That makes you feel worse. You should care about these things.
At three o’clock this morning you were jolted awake by your own coughing. The cigar-smoker again. Your bedroom felt hazy. You were really going to kill him this time, but instead you lunged out of bed and made your escape, told yourself you needed the comfort of greasy food. You went to an all-night diner just off the interstate where truckers leered as you ate sausage and hash browns and toast glistening with butter. You tested the weight of a napkin dispenser and considered braining them all, but the waitress patted your hand and smirked at you affectionately.
She was an older woman with a cotton puffball of hair who looked completely Zen and had probably been working there since the diner opened. She told you to pay the truckers no mind.
“And if that doesn’t work, here’s some ammunition. You look like you have good aim.” She smiled and handed you an empty coffee mug. You smiled back.
She reminded you of your grandma (referred to in casual family conversation as “your crazy grandma”) who had sworn by hypnosis therapy. Everyone else in the family said it was a load of bunk, but your grandma was the only one who refused seconds at Thanksgiving in a family of otherwise pleasantly plump individuals, and she seemed to enjoy doing things like dishes and laundry. She said it was thanks to her hypnotist. Everyone laughed and snorted and went off to watch football, but you helped your crazy grandma in the kitchen because she gave you extra cookies and you were curious if maybe there was something to this hypnosis thing.
You went to an appointment with her once. She said you could come as long as you didn’t tell your mother. You promised not to. The hypnotist was a nice quiet man with a nice quiet smile who wore nice quiet attire: a white shirt, black pants, and tastefully violet tie. He told your grandma to sit down and close her eyes, then he spoke in a gentle monotone and asked her to visualize different things. You forget what, exactly, but you were surprised at the lack of weirdness. It was nothing like the swinging pendulums in cartoons that made character’s eyes turn into swirly things.
When your uncle was arrested for check fraud and your aunt had triple bypass surgery and your teenage cousin announced her pregnancy all in the same month, your grandma calmly called a lawyer, made daily visits to the hospital, and attended weekly Lamaze classes as a coach.
Maybe she was a little less crazy than everyone thought.
Whenever you turn on the TV, you hear talk show psychologists say that people are prone to suggestion, and the mind can be as powerful as any medicine. It stands to reason this could work for you.
* * *
You picture roads signs in your brain, bright red arrows pointing to Happy, except for a few that point to Not Sad (because you need to be realistic about this). According to the TV talk show psychologists, if you do something long enough–like knitting or riding a bike or driving a car–your brain builds new roads and makes those tasks automatic. You no longer have to think about them. They just happen. It seems like your path to Happy could be found the same way.
You draw maps of your brain, roughing out the different regions with the help of encyclopedias at the library (because you don’t have enough money to afford Internet). You sketch the cerebral cortex and the frontal and occipital and temporal lobes, the limbic system and hypothalamus. You wish you had paid better attention in anatomy, but that was the year your best friend stuck a cigarette in the mouth of your decapitated rabbit’s head and got both of you kicked out of class for giggling so hard.
You do some more reading about the brain and discover there isn’t just one pleasure center, but many. It’s all very complicated. The brain’s road map is a twisted and turning four-lane highway with overpasses and sudden turn-offs, not the simple two-lane path you’d hoped to duplicate on a piece of paper.
You read about chemicals and hormones. Dopamine makes people happy and relaxed–that sounds familiar–and adrenalin is released when people are scared or think they’ll be punished for something. It seems pretty easy, you just need to bypass the bad stuff and go directly to Happy. This seems too simplistic and a little stupid, even to you, but you’re ready to try anything.
On your lunch break, you draw new maps of your brain on the back of a fast-food receipt. Your thumbnail diagrams are piss poor, but you surround them with little arrows pointing to different brain centers, and the words Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy.
You don’t know if data entry will ever give you pleasure—frankly you don’t know if you want it to give you pleasure—you just want to not hate it. You twirl a fry in ketchup and wonder what else you could change. Could you swap your love of chocolate for brussel sprouts or apples? Could you switch to green tea from soda? Could you stop wanting to kill your nameless co-workers who can’t make good coffee?
That evening you try something easy, an experiment designed to help you stop hating the paint in your apartment. You spend an hour staring at your kitchen wall and eating dark chocolate. Dark chocolate (supposedly) makes people happy. You imagine your brain is like Pavlov’s dog. You have to reward it until the response become automatic.
Your wall is like chocolate. Your wall makes you happy.
You think this over and over. At first you feel stupid, but then the chocolate makes you giggly, then you feel giggly and stupid and decide you need more chocolate.
The next day at lunch, you draw more diagrams on the back of your fast-food receipt. You write the word “Wall,” then draw an arrow to the word “Chocolate,” and another arrow from “Chocolate” to “Happy.” You sketch some happy dancing brains and wonder if you should start a comic strip. You drink your chocolate milkshake until you’re happy again and plan to buy more chocolate at the store that evening on your way home from work. Chocolate is expensive but cheaper than a shrink, and a shrink would only tell you things you already know, like you’re not happy.
Back in your apartment, you sit down in the kitchen and stare at the wall for three minutes. You don’t love robin’s egg blue, but you don’t want to vomit when you see it. You’re not eating chocolate. This is progress.
You buy a huge bag of dark chocolate kisses and take them to work and put some in a bowl on your desk and tell people to help themselves. Nobody at work has ever offered free candy before. Some people take you up on it. Others look suspicious, like you have a motive. You think to yourself This office is so fucked up, but smile as you’re doing it. That makes the people who wouldn’t take your chocolate look at you uncomfortably, which is amusing.
The shy guy from three cubicles down walks by your desk every fifteen minutes to grab another Kiss. You time him, counting the minutes between candy-snitching episodes, then you see how many games you can invent to do at work. It helps to pass the time and break up the monotony of insurance claim processing.
You use rubber bands to shoot paper clips across your desk.
You make origami cranes and tack them around your cubicle.
You try to balance pens on your finger.
You make wagers with yourself on the kinds of claims you’ll have to catalog today, keep tallies on a pad of scratch paper and announce things like “Flu shots are beating out pap smears.”
You count how many times a minute the lady in the cubicle next to yours cracks her gum, and calculate the number of times she cracks her gum per hour. In a day. A week. A year. Her lifetime of roughly seventy-four years (she’s kind of overweight and you’re sure she smokes, so this is a little generous on your part).
The shy man who works three cubicles down introduces himself as Bob after he takes an eighth candy kiss. He’s cute and reminds you of a hedgehog, ready to curl up into a little ball at the first sign of danger. Bob invites you out for a drink. It turns out that he gets more talkative at night, so you assume that, like a hedgehog, he is nocturnal. You go back to his apartment, wind up in his bed, and assume you should feel more regret than you do. This probably shouldn’t happen with anyone else from the office, though Bob is a very nice man.
You get lunch with Bob the next day, and are happy he likes dipping his fries in his chocolate milkshake, too. You buy more dark chocolate kisses at the store that evening, along with a stuffed dragon to sit on your desk. You name the dragon Errol.
Bob takes you out for pizza or coffee every day after work. He has a nice smile and tells you he has been working at the insurance company for ten years. You go to his place to watch movies and cuddle on the couch. His hedgehog curl around your body is comfortable.
You buy a book on origami and make more animals to pin around your cubicle, a whole paper zoo. You realize that your co-workers are looking at you askance. You don’t care, because you’re still getting your work done and having a reasonably good time. You were looking for the path to happy, but perhaps you found the path to not giving a shit. This makes you happy.
Everyone at the office loves or hates you now that you have new brain roads. Before they didn’t know you existed. This is progress. You take over the coffee-making duties and discover the administrative assistant doesn’t mind. No one ever asked her if they could make the coffee, and she’s ready to give up the responsibility. Some people are mad at you and say it should be her job. She’s always made the coffee. You smile and reply that it’s time for a detour.
You continue playing with paper clips and rubber bands and realize your productivity has gone up. You buy finger puppets of birds and zebras and lions and cats and put them on pens in the mug on your desk. You have the finger puppets talk to each other when you take a coffee break and create soap opera dramas and love triangles and murder plots between them.
You watch slapstick comedies with Bob at your place. You never liked them before, but with Bob chuckling next to you on the couch, you think they’re funny. You don’t exactly look forward to work, but you look forward to seeing Bob, folding more origami dragons, and making decent coffee. The data entry part of your job isn’t horrible.
* * *
Two weeks later, you are fired. Your productivity has increased by ten percent in the past several days, but your bosses don’t care. You clean out your desk of chocolate kisses and finger puppets and swear a few times because it feels good and you’ve already been fired and there’s not much else they can do to you. You carve plots to set the building on fire as Bob gazes at you from his helpless cubicle. You wasted all this time making yourself happy and not giving a shit, but now you are without a paycheck and you have a lot of shit you’d like to give someone else.
You can fall back on waitressing—you did that for six years before finding this job—but you’d thought you were moving up in the world. Other people in the company have more seniority than you, so they’re being shuffled from their shit jobs into your shit job.
You return to the diner because greasy food helps you think, or so you tell yourself. The waitress who reminds you of your grandma is still there, of course. You tell her about your recent job loss. She tells you her name is Vera, then she laments with you and makes sure the cook gives you extra bacon and hash browns.
You sip your coffee, build towers with creamer buckets on the counter, and consider a career as a trucker. You would have to learn how to swear even more than you do now, but that could be kind of fun. Vera says they need night staff, both servers and cooks. You nod and fill out an application. You could either hate the job or stay here for the rest of your life, wearing too much makeup and going to bed at eight in the morning and getting up at four in the afternoon. What would your brain say to becoming nocturnal? Would it create a new pathway for that? You eat your hash browns contemplatively. You know third-shift workers are their own world, their own clan, and develop an odd family of sorts among the likewise nocturnal.
* * *
You’ve worked at family restaurant before and decide you don’t mind waitressing so much when it doesn’t involve small crying children, just lonely truckers. You are a surrogate friend, wife, and child to them, so your brain must find a new balance, weave itself between identities. The sweet men give you tired smiles of thanks. The bawdy ones try to slap your ass, and jokingly call you a bitch when you don’t hold still.
You tell them to fuck off. They laugh. It’s an odd game, sparring with crude language, another road your brain must pave. Vera is a master of the verbal joust. Clearly she rules the diner and knows the social order. She can point out all the guys by name from the kind ones to the crusty ones to the occasional honest-to-goodness bastard. You give the nice ones inconsequential kisses on the tops of their heads. That earns you a bigger tip. You skirt away from the ones who try to grab your ass.
You miss Bob. He comes in for breakfast sometimes, but by then all you can give him is a tired smile. You take your fifteen minutes for coffee when you bring his eggs and bacon and hash browns. He says work isn’t the same without you. No one is flinging paper clips across her desk. He pats your hand in his hedgehog way and kisses your fingers.
Your feet hurt. Your hands hurt. You are reasonably happy. You’re under the protection of Vera, the queen mother of the diner, and you have a distinct feeling that she has appointed you to be her successor and assigned your life plan: You will never marry, but have fleeting flings with truckers. You will see five line cooks named Bud come and go, but they will all be able to make a decent burger and fries, and that’s what matters. You will get the hell out of your apartment even though the walls are not offensive. There’s a duplex you can afford after six more months of forehead kisses and good tips. You will learn more swear words and draw new brain maps.
Yet, despite Vera’s well-meaning hopes, you don’t know if you will stay in the diner. Someday you may drive out on eighteen wheels and ask Bob to come along. Either him or a good dog. You’ve heard from the truckers that you need company to be happy on the road. You’re inclined to believe them.
Teresa Milbrodt's short-story collection, Bearded Women: Stories, was published in 2011 by ChiZine Publications. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Nimrod, North American Review, Crazyhorse, The Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, CutBank, and Sycamore Review, among other literary magazines. She is a professor of creative writing at Western State College.