A Funny Story

Tracy Bealer

“Hey Miss, wanna hear a funny story?”

Pedro waved me over to his table in the stuffy classroom, practically falling out of his seat as he leaned forward to fill up my full range of vision, all eyes and a smile full of braces. Pedro was nineteen, though he looked and acted much younger, and wanted to be an actor. I had a soft spot for him because of it. He wanted to be an actor, in a sea of business and pre-law majors.

Did I want to hear a funny story? Indeed I did.

“When I was a little kid in my country,” Pedro began, “my brother got really sick.” Pedro had moved to New York from the Dominican Republic only four years before not knowing a word of English, though now he spoke with barely a trace of an accent, mostly from the braces. He had told me that he was afraid to speak in public for the first two years he was here because someone might make fun of him, and that he taught himself English by watching TV and repeating the words he heard. An actor. No wonder. He went on.

“My brother was dying, and my father came home one day with a pigeon in a cage. He told my mami to get my brother out of bed, and we all went into the kitchen. He pulled it out of the cage, and snapped its neck. Even my brother screamed. Then, like lightning, he grabbed a knife, slit the pigeon’s throat, and squeezed all of its blood into a glass. He brought it to my brother and poured it all down his throat before he could run away. My father said, ‘Now you will get better.’ And he did! My brother didn’t die. But the thing was, I was sick too. Not as sick as my brother, but I had the same thing. I was so afraid I was next, that I got better too.”

Pedro was still laughing, but I wasn’t in the room anymore. I was now hundreds of miles away and sixteen years earlier. It was 2003, and I was going to see my father teach a class for the first time. My father was, and still is, a professor of physiology. When we lived in Memphis, when I was in college, he taught at the medical school at the University of Tennessee. At 21, I was old enough to know I wanted to be a professor too, but too young to have taught my first class. I wanted to see my father in action.

I sit in the back of a huge, auditorium-style classroom, and watch my father perform. He is magnificent. My father is an expansive man—funny, opinionated, and loud. He makes nephrology entertaining, which is something I think impossible. The students lean forward, drawn towards him by his energy in a way I’ve only seen elsewhere in extremely successful plays. I, too, am dazzled by him.

After the lecture was finished, we are going to go out to lunch. But first, my dad needs to stop by his lab to finish an experiment. We walk into the room. It is crowded with machinery, and several of my father’s lab technicians are crouched over various instruments, but all I see, as if illuminated by spotlight, is a rat six feet away, cut open from tail to throat, pinned by all four paws to a stainless steel tray, its body jerking spasmodically with every beat of the heart that I could, horribly, see.

I had always known my father used animals in his experiments. In fact, for most of my early childhood I thought he was one of the scientists who taught the rodents to talk in the children’s movie The Secret of NIMH.  I must have heard him mention NIH, the National Institute of Health, which he did receive grants from, and translated it into NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health, in my girlish mind. The belief was so deep, and so upsetting, that in my teens I remembered the misconception and realized it wasn’t true, simultaneously.

My father had taken me to his lab to see the rats before, when part of me must have still thought he was teaching them to talk. I loved all animals feverishly, and as my mother wouldn’t let us have a dog or cat, I got my fix where I could. We would go to campus on a Saturday afternoon, when the lab was deserted, and seemed cavernous in its quietness and mystery. Dad would carefully remove one of the rats from its cage, saying “Want to let Tracy scritch your nose?” As he cradled the trembling creature in his hands, I would gently stroke the soft white fur on the animal’s head, right between the tiny pink ears.

At the time he was working on the connection between epilepsy and sudden death in humans. One of his proudest moments was receiving a phone call from the mother of a young man who had died of a heart attack in his 20s after a Grand Mal seizure, informing him that the Epilepsy Foundation had awarded him a prize for his research. He would give the rats the disease in order to understand what happened to their hearts after a seizure.

That’s what is happening to this rat. Dad pulls on his white lab coat in a brisk, business-like manner, and sits down on a stool in front of the vivisected creature. I watch, unable to look away, as he pokes and prods at the animal’s insides. I don’t know what he’s doing, but I do know it isn’t going well. The animal’s heartbeat is slowing—I can tell because the whole-body jerks become less frequent—and at one point my father squeezes superglue all over the delicate pink organs of the expiring rat. When mercifully the jerking stops, my Dad gets up from his stool carelessly, tossing his scalpel on the counter and smiling at me.

“Well, we’ll figure it out next time.”

I remember nothing else from that day. My memory stops seconds after the rat’s heart stopped beating. My father does not know that after that day, I stopped wearing cosmetics that were tested on animals, and I started donating to PETA. What he does know, is that I became a professor, just like him. Which is why I was in an airless classroom in Queens, almost twenty years and a thousand miles distant from that day.

“Pedro,” I said. “You should write that story down. Maybe make it into a play some day.”

And I hope he does. An animal dying. A father believing he could work a miracle. A kid learning what it means to be next. It really was a funny story.