Mr. Tsao and His Skull


People sometimes talk about Mr. Tsao and his skull.  They see the ridge along the top of his head (it shows clearly through the hair) and they hear stories about when he was young.  Many people wonder if these stories are true.  In fact some of them are true and some aren't.

     If I've finally decided to write this brief account it is mainly in order to clear up these questions about Mr. Tsao and his skull.  I think what I say can be accepted because I've been a witness to much of what's happened.  I was there and I remember much of it.  I'm Mr. Tsao's neighbor, after all, and have known the family for many years.



Mr. Tsao first learned how to take out his skull when he was seven.  His uncle taught him to do it.

     "If you want to keep ahead of the rest," his uncle told him one day, "you've got to keep a good clean skull."

     The uncle took out his own skull and showed Mr. Tsao how properly to scrub and clean it.  Then the uncle put the skull back in.

      "There.  Nothing to it," the uncle said.  "Now you try."

     Mr. Tsao had some trouble at first, but soon he got the hang of it.

     "Keep that skull clean and you'll get places in life," his uncle told him.

     Mr. Tsao took his skull out every night before bed and carefully scrubbed it clean, then put it back in.  Soon he noticed it was more comfortable to lie with his head on the pillow if his skull was out, so he got in the habit of leaving his skull on the nightstand next to his bed while he slept.  This habit sometimes annoyed his mother.

     "Time for breakfast," his mother would say, coming into his room.

     "Okay, Mom."

     Then: "How many times have I told you not to sleep like that?"


     "Put your skull in right this minute!  It's not healthy!"

     "But I like it like this," Mr. Tsao would say.  "I sleep better."

     As for Mr. Tsao's father, he had no opinion about whether it was healthy or unhealthy to sleep with one's skull on the nightstand.



Soon Mr. Tsao started taking out his skull at school.  The first time he did it was when he saw one of his classmates folding up his eyelids and making a funny face.  Some of the boys could fold up their eyelids and some couldn't.

     "Watch this," Mr. Tsao said.

     "Wow, cool!" the boys said. 

     Some of the other boys tried to take their skulls out, but most of them didn't even get close.  One boy, however, almost did get his skull out but he hurt himself.  The teacher had to go to the hospital with him in a taxi and he had to have three shots to make the swelling go down on the left side of his head.

     The principal called Mr. Tsao's parents and Mr. Tsao's mother scolded him that night.

     "Imagine taking out your skull in front of other people at school," she said.  "It's disgusting.  How did you ever get such an idea?"

     "It's no big deal," Mr. Tsao said.

     "Don't talk back to your mother," Mr. Tsao's father said.  "She'd do anything in the world for you.  You should show her some respect."



But Mr. Tsao continued to take his skull out at school.  Sometimes he did it just because he was bored and sometimes he did it when the other kids offered him some of their lunch.

     "I'll do it for the candy bar," Mr. Tsao said, "but I won't do it for the chips."

     One time he took a dare and rode all the way home on the bus with his skull out and sitting on his lap.  His friends tried to get the girls to look at Mr. Tsao and his skull, but the girls all covered their eyes and sat in seats far away.

     "You're all sick!" Tracy said.  "I hate you all."

     "You're disgusting creeps!" Michelle said, sitting down next to Tracy.



It was a cool November day.  Mr. Tsao and his friends were on the school playground and some of the older boys were around too.  One of the older boys was taking occasional puffs from a cigarette, then hiding it under a baseball cap.  Mr. Tsao decided to make a show of taking out his skull.  He pretended not to pay attention to the older boys, but loudly said to his friends: "Today I'll just do it for free.  Just because I feel like it.  You don't have to pay me."

     He took out his skull and set it on his shoulder, then pretended to limp like Captain Hook while muttering menaces to the others.

     "I'll make ya walk the plank, ya dirty bugger!"

     One of the older boys stood up and stepped over to Mr. Tsao.

     "Give me that," he said.

     He grabbed the skull and started to walk back to where the other older boys were sitting.  Mr. Tsao followed him.

     "Hey, you can't take that!" Mr. Tsao said, pulling on the older boy's sleeve.  "Hey!  It's not yours!"

     "Look what I found," the older boy said to the other older boys. 

     One of the others stood up.

     "Throw it here," he called out.

     Then the boy who'd taken Mr. Tsao's skull tossed it to his friend.  The friend caught it with a loud smack.

     "Let's play some hoops," one of the boys still seated said.

     Mr. Tsao cried out "Nooo! You can't!" and tears began to fill his eyes.  But already four of the older boys were running across the playground toward where the baskets were, tossing the skull back and forth between them.  Only the boy with the cigarette remained seated, watching his colleagues with a cool smirk.

     Mr. Tsao chased the group over to the baskets as they taunted him with his skull, tossing it back and forth between them.  One shot it toward the basket but missed, another catching it on the rebound.  Mr. Tsao was too short to get it back from them.  Finally one boy made a basket with it.

     "Shaquille!" he said.

     "You'll break it!" Mr. Tsao cried out.  "Give it back to me!"

     In fact at the next attempt at a basket the skull cracked as it hit the backboard.

     "Here," said one of the boys, handing the cracked skull back to Mr. Tsao.  "Next time you shouldn't take it out."

     The four players ran back to where their smoking friend was and soon all five of them had left the playground.



"What can I do?" said Mr. Tsao to his friends, crying.  "My mother's gonna kill me!"

     "Let's tell the teacher," one of the friends said.

     "No, we can't!" Mr.Tsao said.  "My mother will find out.  I have to fix it somehow."

     "But only a doctor can fix it!" a classmate said.  "How can you fix it?"

     "I need to fix it!" Mr. Tsao said.  "I can't let my mother find out.  She'll kill me!"

      Mr. Tsao finally decided some kind of crazy glue might be able to fix the cracked skull.  Putting the skull carefully in his book bag, he slipped out the school's back entryway and walked straight to a 7-11.  Although he didn't have quite enough money on him to pay for the crazy glue, when he cried and showed the cashier the reason he needed the glue the cashier just told him to steal it and he would pretend not to see.

     "It's an emergency," the cashier said. "I can understand that.  Just don't tell anyone I let you steal it."

     Back on the school grounds Mr. Tsao seated himself in a corner of the playground. He carefully applied the glue between the two cracked lobes of the skull and held it together tightly while it dried.  After ten minutes or so he tested the bind and it seemed to hold.  He slipped the skull back in his head.

     When he finally entered the classroom his friends asked him in a hush: "How is it?  Did it work?"

     "No problem," Mr. Tsao said. 



Mr. Tsao returned home after school and everything seemed normal.  But that night when he went to bed he decided to sleep with his skull in his head.  For the first time he felt afraid to take it out.



It was around four in the morning.  Mr. Tsao woke with a terrible feeling in his stomach.  He felt he had a bad fever.  He rushed to the bathroom and began vomiting into the toilet.  Soon his mother came into the bathroom to see what was wrong.  She noticed his fever and also noticed a swelling along the top of his head.  There were red streaks in his skin.

     "What happened to your head?" she said.  "Did you hit your head yesterday?"

     Mr. Tsao began to cry and told his mother about the boys who played basketball with his skull.  But he didn't dare tell her his skull had cracked and of course he didn't tell her about the crazy glue.

     "We've got to get you to the hospital," his mother said, rushing out of the bathroom to wake her husband.




Later at the hospital the whole truth came out when Mr. Tsao talked with the doctor.  The doctor said he'd gotten an infection, compounded by an allergic reaction to the glue. 

     Mr. Tsao was put on antibiotics and his skull was taken out.  The crazy glue was removed with a sander and the crack in the skull was repaired with special steel pins.  After two or three days in the hospital he was released.  His mother grounded him for two weeks--"No TV and no computer games!"--and the boys who'd played basketball with his skull were suspended for two days from school.  There was even a report on TVBS about the incident and two doctors were interviewed.



Mr. Tsao no longer takes out his skull, not even to clean it.  The doctor solemnly warned him of the dangers of infection, especially now that there were steel pins in the skull. 

     Though Mr. Tsao's mother blamed his uncle for teaching her son to take out his skull in the first place, the uncle denied responsibility and insisted that keeping a clean skull and playing skull basketball were two very different things.

     "I've been scrubbing my skull for almost thirty years now and I've never once gotten an infection," the uncle said.  



Taipei, 2003


This story is dedicated to Johnny Lin, whose perverse homework gave me the initial idea.








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