A bad thing to step on

Looking for the brains of the outfit

I would say, overall, that a brain is a bad thing to step on. And until yesterday I could say I never stepped on one before — while barefoot, that is — and I need to qualify the barefoot part, because it's possible I stepped on a few brains while wearing boots back in my days as an illegal alien in Europe. Not that they pave the streets with brains in Zurich, but they take their meat seriously over there. They don't deliver it frozen, prepackaged and injected with polypropylene like they do here. They have real butchers over there, and in the farmer's market located near the apartment where I lived with my mother — who was legally employed by the Swiss government while I, her grown daughter with the expired tourist visa, mooched off her — there often hung, in the open, what looked like hunks of meat that hadn't been skinned yet. I used to stare in fascination at the display of cow tongues. Each was as big as a sailor's arm covered in taste buds the size of thumb tacks. So I would not be surprised if I stepped on a few pieces of brain back then. You never knew what you were stepping on back then.

Regarding the squirrel brain I found between my toes yesterday; I'd found the squirrel head itself a few days prior, neatly sitting on the '70s rya rug I keep at the base of my bed. I love this rug. I've sold things on eBay before, things that were featured in photographs near this rug, only to be inundated with requests to buy the rug and not the item. My cat, Petal, a feline Hannibal Lecter lately, must know this is my favorite, as she constantly leaves me these little presents — a squirrel head here, a dead bird there, a lizard torso — right where she knows I'll find them. I can't freak out or anything, as I know they're left with love. After all, to a cat a squirrel brain is a delicacy.

Just like fish cheeks are to my sister Cheryl. She told me this adamantly one night when I was visiting her in Nicaragua last year, when she adamantly insisted I order the local seafood. "Eat the cheeks! Eat the cheeks!" she said, adamantly. "Are you talking about the gills?" I asked, because who would eat fish gills? That's like eating nostrils.

Cheryl kept insisting, but it would be awhile before I could test her proclamation. There were 10 of us in our party, and we were dining at the nicest restaurant in Granada, the only customers in the joint, and our meals came out one by one, as evidently Nicaraguans don't multitask. In the third hour since we'd ordered, I received my fish. It came fried and sitting upright on a colorful ceramic plate, and it was the ugliest fish I had ever seen. I think it even had teeth and hair.

"Taste it," Cher growled when she saw me hesitate. She was almost using her scary voice, and, Lord, I did not want to be stuck in a Third World country with that woman when she is using her scary voice. I hear the hospitals in Nicaragua are pretty understaffed, and I knew for certain that the airline wouldn't let me back on the plane oozing with untreated wounds. So I poked at the fish and took a tiny taste.

Years earlier, when I was living with my mother in Switzerland, Cheryl could have been living there with her instead, but I don't know if my mother even invited her. At the time Cheryl was shacking up with her third progressively worse boyfriend, as far as my mother was concerned, and she refused to support Cheryl financially if Cheryl was supporting someone else financially, and Cheryl always seemed to be supporting someone else financially. She was, after all, my mother's daughter.

So when my mother got the job in Switzerland, she chose me to take with her. I was working as a part-time receptionist at a real-estate brokerage and had set a pattern of forsaking personal relationships in favor of adventure and other pursuits, like college. In fact, I'd just gotten my degree in writing from an expensive private university ("This will come in handy when you get that job selling Xerox copiers," the professor had told me as he handed me my diploma), and my mother wanted to make sure I didn't shit it away. "Live with me for a year and you can write and get published," she implored, so I did, and I did. Today I am a syndicated columnist and about to have my third book published, and Cheryl is the dubiously thrilled proprietor of a Central American bar she runs with her husband, a man I have not seen sober since they moved to Nicaragua almost five years ago. The fish, by the way, was the best thing I ever tasted. "I knew it," Cheryl said, her scary voice subsiding.

Sometimes I wonder how it would have turned out if Cheryl had gone to Switzerland with my mother instead of me, how she might have fared if she'd been able to utilize the lesson I'd been bestowed during that time, the gift — really it was gift — of learning that a brain is a bad thing to step on.

Hollis Gillespie is founder of the Shocking Real Life Writing Academy. For more information, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.

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