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The Toad

From the LabLit short story series

Stefani Nellen 14 October 2006

How does it feel to have equations wash over you, drip into your brain and light up memories?

My lantern throws a flickering light at the cave's wall. In the bright oval, I recognize the classic black-and-white portrait of Watson and Crick with their first model of the double helix. Francis Crick ogles the model from the corner of his eyes, and points his ruler at a random chemical bond. James D. Watson sits like an angel in rapture, hair wild and dark, lips half-open, and fixates on the tip of Crick's ruler.

In the dripping dark, the lantern's handle a cold, narrow wire cutting my palm, I'm separated from them by a barrier no thicker than a sheet of cellophane. Life and warmth rise from their lips and eyes, daring me to come and touch.

When I came to Mirko's office to tell him I'd had the dream again, he closed the door with one hand, and pushed me against the wall with the other. A trace of sweat lurked under his after-shave. His bristly chin scratched my jaw as he nuzzled my neck. Over his shoulder, I could make out equations and graphs on his blackboard. His own handwriting and someone else's toiled towards the QED.

"You look gorgeous," Mirko murmured.

I carried two bags with food for the colloquium, and shoved one of them into his hand.

He pecked me on the nose. "Shall we?"


When we arrived at the colloquium room, it was already crowded. As soon as we had spread the bowls of salad, couscous and melon cubes on the table, students and faculty grabbed and devoured the food. My advisor, Dr. Setzler, a translucent professor of Psychology, grinned at me, and called, "Great food, Tina. You're our nutrition mistress."

I was Setzler's grad student, but many day-to-day tasks had landed in my lap. I scheduled experiments, kept track of grant money, and provided food for both Dr. Setzler's lab meeting (Fridays at five), and the interdisciplinary colloquium (Mondays at noon).

My research revolved around Setzler's lifetime obsession of lexical decision making, i.e. the burning question of how long it takes people to decide whether a string of letters is a word or a non-word. My enthusiasm for it was subdued, but continuing in Setzler's lab had been the obvious move after my mediocre B.S.

However, it provided me with some degree of pride to have replaced the usual lab-fare of nachos and brownies with fresh food. A large bowl of salad – lettuce, radishes, peppers, and orange slices. Tomato-pesto-pie. Feta-spinach triangles warm from the microwave. Strawberries with whipped cream and a sprinkle of pepper.

The Toad was the first attendee who didn't touch my food. Of course, I didn't know he was the Toad then. He was a small heap of a man sitting at a front end of the U-shaped table. Between his big red hands lay a bag of chips. While the speaker set up his laptop, the small man tore open the bag, and munched one potato crisp after the other without any sign of pleasure. His thin hair and beard were white, his eyes a watery blue. He almost burst out of his brown cord jacket.

"Who's this?" I asked Mirko.

Mirko whispered a name that sounded glamorous, even androgynous, and added "but everyone calls him The Toad."

The small man wheezed and looked at the empty bag in sorrow.

"He's a legend," Mirko continued. "Decision Making, Statistics, Psychology, you name it. He does everything. Just returned from a sabbatical in Stockholm. He should've been back weeks ago, but there were problems with his son, I heard."


The speaker, Francois Mueller-Dubois, announced his topic, "Quantum Physics As A Model of Human Decision-Making," and unleashed a stream of equations, verbal pyrotechnics, false modesty, and bad jokes. He sported a bracelet made of wooden beads that shifted up and down his arm with each grand gesture. The audience was mesmerized, except for the Toad. The Toad slept. My face burned with vicarious shame. Poor Toad! Couldn't someone prod him?

When Francois rushed through the Summary, bracelet dangling and teeth shining, the Toad stirred. With stray potato crumbs in his white beard, he resurfaced from the depths of his pond.

After Francois had soaked up the applause, the Toad was the first to ask a question. “Thanks, Francois." His voice was coarse. "I'm wondering about the data you cited in support of your model. The Hershey & Allen study, right? If I remember correctly, the participants in their experiment had additional information. Formally speaking, the perceived probability of the target event was much higher than you said. Their data are irrelevant for your model."

Francois attempted to shrug it off. “I read that paper a long while ago, it is entirely possible–"

“Well," replied the Toad, “I reviewed that paper, and actually recommended a follow-up along the lines of your research, but it never happened." Francois played with his beads. The Toad said, "And your model assumes a consensual definition of information gain, too. In environments without such consensus, you're sunk."

Francois nodded and took the next question.


How does it feel to have equations wash over you, drip into your brain and light up memories of a paper published twenty years ago? With a sleek snake like Mueller-Dubois twisting in front of you, how do you expose the substance of his words?

After the talk, I followed the Toad. One of his feet bent sideways. He was a slow shuffling lump in the stream of students.

"Excuse me," I said.

He turned around. "Yes?"

"I just wanted to tell you that I liked what you said. At the talk, I mean."

He smiled a boyish smile, revealing the few yellow teeth sticking in his pink gums.

"Francois is a nice guy. He and I argue about the same issues all the time. I wanted to write a reply to his recent paper in Economica, right. But no time, no time." His watery eyes took hold of me. "Are you working with Dean Wasserman by any chance?"

A warm hand stroked the spot between my shoulder blades. Through the blouse, I recognized Mirko's touch. He and the Toad said hello, and while Mirko opened my coat for me, the two of them conversed.

"Did you end up using the beta function for analyzing those data?" the Toad asked.

Mirko replied that they had, and tugged at my sleeve. I dove back into the Toad's eyes. He said, "If you want to follow up on this, you should contact Deanne, my secretary. Well, the department's secretary, to be honest. She'll schedule an appointment."


"So, you want to work with the Toad on a paper?" Mirko poured me more water.

My mouth throbbed from the spicy beef he had cooked for us. "It's silly, I know." The words were stale in my mouth, overused, like the braces I had as a girl.

"Silly, why? It sounds like a good opportunity. You’ve thought about changing projects for some time now. You hate what you’re doing for Seltzer. And The Toad’s stuff kind of phases over into Psychology. Didn't he do stuff on Decision Making in Groups? The limits of Tit-for-tat, that kind of thing?"

How would I know? All I knew is he stood up to an imposter who'd had the entire audience enthralled. "He interests me."

Mirko folded his arms on the table and leaned forward. He grinned.

"Let's see whether he'll live up to this interest. Shall we listen to some music?"

His face and neck glowed from the hot food. I raised my clouded glass of water, ice cubes clunking against its walls, and pressed it against his cheek. He clasped my hand, and kissed it.


I found the Toad in his pond at our first formal meeting. Behind a cluttered desk he sat, hands resting in front of him. I knocked at the door frame. He looked up at me as if I had disturbed him in something important.

"Ah, it's you," he said, "sit, sit." He began to sharpen a pencil. Thin slices of wood rained on his belly. This seemed to fascinate him, and he kept turning the pencil in the pencil sharpener as if he wanted nothing of it to remain.

In his office, the light was different from outside. The dusty windows took the edge off the morning glare. In the silence, the specks of dust could be heard dancing around each other. Was there a spider crawling behind a drawer? The books almost spilled from the shelves. A rubber arm, presumably taken from a mannequin, stuck between them and reached into the room. A narrow bed stood in the corner.

"In Stockholm, they didn't let me into the university building on weekends," he said, catching my look. "I had to apply for my own key. Took me almost all the sabbatical." He coughed. "You're Tina, right?"

I nodded.

"And you're interested in issues of Decision Making, Rationality...?"

I was interested in him – in the ability to know and say the right thing at the right time. My brain was a wet mass. Small incidents could numb it up, render it useless. A loud argument behind me in the bus, the drool of the retarded man bagging the groceries at the supermarket. Words in small print. If I'd had a brain like the Toad's, I would have cuddled up to it before falling asleep, used it as a shield, as a field to grow inside.

He told me he had some papers I might find interesting. With shaking hands, he unlocked a file cabinet to his right, and pried out yellowed pre-prints. As I leafed through them, I spotted the Toad's and Francois's names heading author's lists that changed over the years. Replying to and modifying each other's arguments.

"Looks like it's time for the two of you to resolve this," I said.

"Let's get started," the Toad said, grasping the now needle-sharp pencil. "Here's my take. Francois' model makes certain predictions about the perceived value of information before the decision, right?" He drew a vertical line and labeled it 'val info.' "Now, in every environment, there is a point of maximum uncertainty." He drew a horizontal line, labelled it 'prob', and a jotted an inverted U-shape. "In the simple case, the information is binary, and we deal with the variance of a binomial, which is maximal at .5." He grinned. "When the odds are fifty-fifty, right."

"Right," I said. My palms were wet – I had no idea what he was talking about.

"In order to use this idea for a model of information search, we need to map the probability," he tapped on the horizontal line, "onto time. Identify a point of maximum uncertainty in people. A straightforward Bayesian model. We don't need the quantum stuff." He looked up at me as if he expected my opinion.

"Straightforward so far," I managed.

He pierced the air with his pencil. "Exactly. I oversimplified, okay. We're talking about humans. I'd argue that any formal model of information search, including Francois's, will break down at predicting the search for useless information."

"Curiosity for it's own sake, you mean?" I asked.

He beamed "Exactly."

While he scribbled more graphs, the rubber hand hovered above us, ready to snatch him or me or his pencil.


After the meeting, I floated to the library to look at the papers he had given me. “Predictors of Co-operation in the Prisoner's Dilemma: More than an Anomaly”. “The Psychology of Curiosity'. 'The Information Gain Model revisited”.

Halfway into the first paper, my eyeballs retreated into their sockets. My brain was a fishing net too fine to let in the chunks of knowledge.

I fetched some books authored by the Toad.

He'd had a big, black beard when he wrote his first book.

From the blurbs on the flap jackets and the anecdotes in his introductory chapters, he emerged as a defender of the proper use of statistics, an authority on true and false conclusions. He had designed tutorials to teach medical students the proper interpretation of medical results. He had spoken out against interrogating children in sexual abuse trials, arguing "not from the heart, but from a standard of reliability and validity."

I imagined him standing in front of committees, wild-bearded, armed with nothing but equations and guts. The thoughts hatched in his brain had grown legs, walked out in the world and righted some of its affairs, and some of them were laid out in yellowing sheets in front of me. If fantasizing about the Toad's life and courage could make my heart beat faster, why not his original thoughts? I delved into the abstract of "Cooperation" and slid down a sheet of ice. Nothing stuck, nothing to cling to. The paper smelled old, almost moldy. I folded the sheets, switched off the light in my cubicle, and went back to my office.


When my fingers hurt from typing and the buzz in my forehead focused on that one point over my left eye, Mirko came to bring me a snack.

He sat on the edge of my desk and held a blue tupperware bowl with baby carrots under my chin. "You look like you could use the sustenance. What are you doing?"

I popped a carrot into my mouth. Its cool taste revived my tongue. This was good. I chewed and chewed. "Scheduling rooms for the experiments this semester. They have a new person in the memory lab, and she has taken over the entire space. I tried to get hold of her all afternoon. Setzler's going ballistic."

He started to massage my skull. His massage lured out the headache, but I appreciated the gesture.

"How was your meeting with the Toad?" he said.

I related what I'd found out about him in the library, his brains and his guts.

Mirko picked up the last carrot. "He's surely well respected for his integrity."

"I'm so glad people like him exist," I said.

Mirko's chewing slowed down. He pressed the plastic lid onto the empty bowl. "Time to start the final –", a glance at his wristwatch – "two hours of work. Yes." Leaning over, he gave me a peck on the cheek. The imprint of his lips stayed on my skin as he walked to the door. He let his fingers glide along the door before leaving, two on my side, two and thumb outside.

"You're too good at admiring people," he said.

"And you're too afraid of it."

His shadow scurried past the frosted glass next to my door. A last bit of carrot hid in the back of my mouth. I swallowed it and turned to my computer.


The Toad and I met twice a week. He was enthused about our progress. That was the word he used: enthused.

One morning, Dr. Setzler flashed me a smile when he came to work.

"I heard you are working with the Toad."

"Yes," I said.

"Good for you! The three of us should get together and talk." He peeled himself out of his trenchcoat and disappeared into his office.

I switched on the coffeemaker. Dr. Seltzer liked it sweet and milky.


"I still think you should try to really work with him," Mirko said, feeding me ice cream after we had made love. "Read the papers, jot down your thoughts, see what he says. You just need to get into it."

The spoon was cold in my mouth. Mirko tapped it against my teeth.

"My academic edge's too blunt," I said past the metallic clang.

He put the spoon and the bucket of ice cream aside and pulled me close. "Nonsense."

"Meeting with him is about more than science." I glanced up at his satiated smile, his eyelids drooping towards sleep. In the semi-darkness, I told him about the trapeze school I'd seen in New York. A troupe of flying trapeze artists taught their skill to ordinary people. Overweight women, clumsy children, stiff men – they all climbed the rope ladder, swayed on the platform, grabbed the trapeze, and, after exchanging nods with the graceful flyer next to them, swung forward, legs flailing, trapeze lopsided in their ill-balanced hands...

It should have been a disaster, and aesthetically it was, but no one was hurt, the lesson flowed uninterrupted. The trapeze artists' routine was so flawless that they picked up the squirming child, the fat woman, the inert man, as if they were part their act.

"Being with him is like that," I said. "You should fall, but at the right moment, your hands slap into his, and he lifts you again." Mirko's breath was steady. He stroked my shoulder. "You swing together for a bit, and he lets you go again. But he's already waiting on the other side as well."

Intertwined, we drifted into sleep.


Within a few weeks, I became used to the smell of coffee, dust, and old paper in the Toad's room, the grasping hand, the hard chair creaking underneath me whenever I moved.

"I have something for you," he announced, and reached me another paper. I accepted it with a smile, relying on the fact that he would elevate my simple comments on whatever small part of them I could comprehend to the status of worthwhile contributions.

He took off his glasses and wiped them with a cloth as big as a dishtowel. "You've been to conferences before?"

"No. Well, I had a poster of my undergraduate research at the "Meeting of the Minds" Symposium, but that doesn't count..."

He shrugged. "It's as good a beginning as any. Right, I've been asked to give the keynote address for this year's Meeting of the Decision Society."

"Congratulations!" It was the most important conference in his field.

"Ah, never mind," he said. "See, Francois is getting some big award this year. So I thought why not present our thoughts on his quantum model?" He nodded at the paper in my hand. "That's a rough draft. If you could go over it, I'd appreciate it." It stung: Setzler liked to use me as a copy editor. On the other hand, it would feel good to help the Toad for a change.

A shattering metallic ring startled me so much I almost tore his paper. The Toad's phone. "Excuse me, I need to take that," the Toad said, and then, "Hello...Yes, I know...Now, don't panic...I love you, but you have to make that decision yourself...No, you can...I will. Tonight, after dinner...You do that. Take care." He placed the receiver down and contemplated the phone.

"My son," he said. I remembered Mirko telling me about him – the problematic son who had required the Toad's attention after the sabbatical, delaying his return to the department. "He lives on his own now." A pause. Then, as if jumping on a new train of thought: "My son's the most rational man I know. You know these decision dilemmas in which you can only win if you are perfectly capable of calculating utilities? In other words, if you have a rational strategy?" He smiled. "Humans fail at them, and this is what our research is about, among other things, right. But my son, he beats the computer every time. Everything that colors human decisions, e.g. the need to be loved, wanting to be a good person, or expecting some future payoff, they don't touch him at all. He just makes the best decisions."

"But he couldn't live on his own," I said.

"Real life is a problem. He doesn't understand the etiquette of living together, the conventions of our society. He replies to junk mail and throws away letters from the IRS." Now his eyes twinkled, as if part of him approved. "When he's really confused, he calls me."

"The decision expert."

"I wish. Often, I don't even remotely grasp his problem."

It occurred to me that the Toad was ancient, and that his son was probably old enough to be my father. I asked, "Why is he that way, if you don't mind –"

"Not at all. He had a car accident while I was traveling. He was five. His brain was damaged. He's lucky to be alive."

"You really think so?" The question had slipped out before I could stop myself.

"You seem surprised."

"Not surprised, I said. “Relieved. My father used to say that nothing's as pathetic as an adult who needs help thinking. He referred to them as having a second-rate intellect. I hated him for it."

The Toad laughed out loud.

"And I suppose he had a real watertight definition of ‘second-rate’, too. The two bottom quartiles of the bell-curve? On which scale? No offense..." His lips twitched in amusement.

I had to smile at his comment.

He asked, "What's your father doing?"

"He was a teacher," I said, "But he's dead." I had to look away. He groped for his pencil and pretended to work something out for a minute.

"About the keynote address," he called after me when I left the office, "the conference is in Berlin, Germany. You speak German, right? You have to come. Talk to Deanne about travel reimbursement. I'm out of touch with procedures."

"Will do." Walking down the waxed aisle, I leafed through the paper he had given me – the first draft of the keynote address. The title, "Bayesian Alternatives to Dubois's Quantum Model," was lovely, every letter of it.

Then, I nearly tripped. Underneath the Toad's glamorous, androgynous name, in the second author's slot, was my own. Tina Kreptka, Department of Psychology, Dumbell University. The aisle, the building, the campus around me disappeared. He had made me his co-author. He had caught me a final time and let me go with a mighty push. As if I'd grown wings I soared towards the brightness of the white-golden sun.


Mirko came with our afternoon snack. I showed him the paper.

His lips were narrow, his eyes half closed. It was the face he made when reasoning out a hard problem. I loved this face, but now the hard problem was me.

"Don't you feel like an imposter?" he said. "I'm proud of you, and I think you'd be more than capable of deserving this co-authorship. But you told me yourself that what you two do together is some sort of mutual bonding, where he does the thinking and you flash him a smile –"

"We think together. It's hard to describe."

He sat on the table and pushed the salad bowl and a set of cutlery toward me.

"Come one, have a bite."

We picked celery and apple from the bowl. His skin was pallid.

"You look stressed out," I said.

Chewing with stubbly cheeks, he nodded.

"Graded exams all day."

Still glowing from my meeting with the Toad, I said, "You know, you should also find someone to work with. Someone with your skill and grace on the trapeze."

His smile showed me he remembered the flying trapeze school. He nodded at the photo of Watson and Crick stuck to my monitor. The two of them taking a stroll in Cambridge and looking quite satisfied with life. "Something in that style, huh?"

"I always dreamt of it," I said. "As you should know."

He took my hand in his warm one, and looked down at me with dark eyes. His voice was flat. "There's nothing romantic about science. It can be good fun, but it all comes down to hard work and sound reasoning. Teaching "Theory of Computation" might not be as glamorous as shmoozing with that fly snatcher, but it's part of my job. That's what being a scientist is. A job."

"I don't want to believe that."

A gap opened between us. So many words in me wanted out. He should work with the Toad, or someone like the Toad. He should use this wonderful shining brain swimming in his skull for something more than TA office hours. But the fine lines on his face, and his tired brow told me to be still.

He let go of my hand and got up. "You might enjoy the rest of the salad."

My hand felt cold.

Before he was out of the door, he turned around. "If the Toad really liked you, he would make sure you profit from your collaboration." Then he left. His steps weren't out of earshot yet when Deanne called with the travel information.


Mirko and I saw less of each other in the weeks before the conference. After work, I studied to gain at least a superficial understanding of the Toad's argument. In the first week, digging through the equations made me feel like being stuck in a dysfunctional elevator, I pushed all my brain's buttons, nothing moved. In the second week, I focused on the introduction, peeled meaning from his prose, rephrased it again and again until it became warm and solid, like clay. Mirko and I didn't talk about the Toad anymore. The topic had become a black hole we both avoided, at the expense of being truly close.

I dreamed about the Toad and myself on an empty dance floor. He wore a tuxedo, and I a green dress. We danced to a heartbeat, a dull thud-thud increasing in volume. His arm around my waist became cold, amphibian. All of a sudden, my world turned a warm, choking black. A digestive guzzle and a sour smell – the Toad had swallowed me.


Mirko wanted to drive me to Pittsburgh International, but I didn't let him. "You have too much to do."

He played with a strand of my hair, drew me close. I had almost forgotten his scent. "Have a good time at the conference."

"I will," I said, and, to my surprise, "I'll miss you."

He smiled, lightly stroking my ear. "I was thinking about what you said a while ago. About working with someone, doing more research. You made a good point."

So we kissed goodbye after all.


At the airport and in the plane, the Toad prepared his presentation. Amazingly, he still used transparencies, on which he wrote with big markers, red, yellow, and green.

"Yellow might not be such a good color," I said.

He scratched his beard. "I reserve yellow for the parts I'd rather not discuss."


We landed in Frankfurt at six a.m. on an overcast day. The Toad was a sad bundle next to me, buried under his woolen sweater and a heavy black coat. My skeleton throbbed with jetlag. We both needed a bed, but got feeble sunshine and a crowded terminal instead. In five hours, the Toad was scheduled to give his talk. He looked sick, and very toad-like. Deep blue signs, familiar to me from previous travels to Germany, lured us towards the car park, taxis, the SkyLine, local and long-distance trains. Foul orange juice and a greasy cinnamon bun fought for dominance of my stomach. I craved more coffee. The details of the spark-clean terminal seeped into my perception through a cotton wall. Oh, to sleep...a bed...was there a sign with a bed?

"I depend on you," the Toad said next to me. "You know how to get to Berlin, don't you?"


On the train to Berlin, it happened. The train slid towards Zoo Station, the Toad and I were alone in the compartment, and that single ray of sunlight warmed us. For an instance, I forgot we were headed for a conference, and instead felt nothing but the sensation of traveling with the Toad, our luggage intermingled on the free seats around us, both of us suspended in a sunlit moment.

He said, "You'll give the keynote address. You brought us this far, you deserve it."


By the time we entered the Max Planck Institute for Mathematical Modeling, a cubist atrocity designed and built in the Sixties, he had fallen in love with the idea. His gesture didn't surprise me – he was famously eager to let his students shine, even his undergraduate students – but the thought of his cryptic transparencies made me queasy.

As soon as we entered the lobby, people poured toward us, greeting the Toad, who announced I would be giving his keynote address. People shook my hand, told me they were happy to meet me, that they had been wondering about the Toad's new collaborator. Badges dangling around their necks revealed them as famous scientists, people whose papers had bored me, I admitted to myself now, but about whose lives I had daydreamed. The current of the conference swept us first to the breakfast buffet and then to the registration desk. An old-fashioned science-fiction charm permeated the building. The undulating stairs brimmed with great minds. In a corner, Dr. Setzler chatted with Francois Mueller-Dubois. The lucky ones had managed to snatch seats on the earlier plane.

As a keynote speaker, the Toad stayed in one of the guestrooms in the basement. Luckily for me, the luxury extended to his co-author.

A small cell with a narrow stripe for a window. The noon sunlight cut into the dark. Two parallel beds, clean and decent, wrapped in small-flowered sheets. We were flaccid and flatulent, the Toad and I, and even after we used the shower cell, we yawned.

In an attempt to release the tension, I arranged my personal belongings on my nightstand. "This is your last chance. Give the talk yourself. Please."

He chuckled and handed me the transparencies. "You're nervous. You know what? I'm nervous, too. Hate speaking in public. Got something that helps, though." He rummaged around his shoulder bag, and produced a small thermos. Liquor? "Herbal tea. My wife's secret recipe." He caressed the metal cylinder, and, five minutes before what surely would be my extinction, confessed how helpless he felt without her. Blushing, he admitted how many souvenirs he had promised her, and that he'd have to sneak out of some of the talks in order to deliver. He poured me her tea like a precious elixir, and made sure some was left for him by swirling the bottle next to his ear. The warm tea tasted like grass and earth, with a hint of anise.

"What does your wife do?" I asked.

With his grumpy, toad-like face he croaked that she was the sweetest woman in the whole wide world.

If the sweat hadn't glued them to my palms, the transparencies would have fallen out of my hands.

We walked to the seminar room. He loves someone else, I thought with each step. Someone else, someone else...

Of course he did. Didn't I, too?


The seminar room was crowded. Men and women in suits, coffee cups at their feet, some of them opening the conference proceedings and making notes in the Toad’s (and my) paper. A German introduced the Toad, who leaned against the wall and rubbed his hands. He closed his intro with "graciously, he decided to leave the limelight to his student today, the young and brilliant Tina Kreptka." The audience clapped, and I made my way to the overhead projector to place the first slide on its trembling hot surface. The Toad's meandering equations appeared on the screen behind me, the power of the formal argument uncontaminated by comments or explanations. The longer I stared at them, the less sense they made, until the symbols disentangled themselves and danced across the screen. The ground lurched underneath me. My fingers dripped cold sweat. How many coffees had I drunk?

In the front row, Francois Mueller-Dubois played with his bead bracelet. The Toad grinned and took a sip from his wife's potion.

"Well", I said. “Professor Mueller-Dubois has recently proposed that certain ideas from Quantum Physics might constitute an appropriate analogy for human Decision Making." Exhale. “In this keynote address, we want to challenge this important, provocative theory by means of rigorous mathematical analysis." That I can't decipher. "Without further ado, let me orient you towards the terminology we are using, and familiarize you with the definitions we will use as instruments in our proof.”

The first letter was a capital U. The wiggle next to it might have been an alpha. Or was it a gamma? Someone in the audience coughed. There was a giggle. I felt the equations rearrange into a pattern. Maybe the transparency was melting on the projector. Mueller-Dubois kept playing with his beads as if they belonged to a rosary. He burst into a snicker. "That's what I'd call a second-rate intellect!"

He changed into a chimpanzee and hurtled his bead bracelet at me. I looked at the other scientists for help, but a flock of vultures had taken their place, eyeing me with their stony pupils, beaks worn and crusted with blood. Where was the Toad? He would rescue me – a croak behind my back made me turn around. The Toad towered over me, bloated, covered with warts, eyes resting on his flat head. He swallowed. A bubble of air traveled through his chest, into his slick belly. I shriveled, my vision fractured, the wet slab of his tongue darted at me –


When I woke up, our guestroom was still dark. The Toad looked down at me, his big eyes shining in the dark. He didn't smile.

"You fainted," he said. "All that coffee, and no food."

I sat up. To my surprise, nausea and weakness had disappeared. My body was functional again, nursed by the refreshment only deep sleep can provide.

"What happened?" he asked.

I didn't know where to begin.

For a while, we sat opposite each other, he on the chair, me on the bed. From up close, the pores in his nose gaped at me. He had delicate pink earlobes, smooth and child-like among his skin's stubble and parchment.

He picked up the Norton Edition of The Double Helix from my nightstand. It contained the original text along with its reviews. The Toad stroked the cover's Watson-Crick portrait with a tender smile, as if it was a door, and he only had to open it to join them.

"Do you know the book?" I asked him.

"How could I not? I haven't read any of the reviews, though."

"You should read the one in there called ‘Notes of a Not-Watson’."

"What would that be?"

"A not-Watson," I quoted from the book, "is a perfectly distinct binomial notation meaning a normally endowed member of the species among or betwixt the billions of electro-chemical hook-ups of whose brain no manifold re-connection has occurred, no quantum jump of genuinely new model building." A not-Watson, I thought, is me.

He looked at his hands. In my mouth, my spit became salty. He was very toad-like in his silence, as if he was sinking back beneath the surface of his pond. Before the water could close over him, I touched his chin and kissed his lips. He accepted the kiss without moving. His lips tasted of grass and earth, with a hint of anise.