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Neuro Death Squad

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 5

Laura Otis 8 April 2007

We could put a hit on him for less than the price of a good centrifuge

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Laura Otis. Set in the mid-1990s when e-mail was just becoming mainstream, The Tantalus Letters is an epistolary tale of four academics – two scientists and two English professors – caught in a virtual net of love, lust, science and literature.

Chapter 5

19:35 - 16 July 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

Hey, congrats on MIT! Do you know yet if you’re going to take it? Sorry to have taken so long to get back to you on unused connections. I’m in a rush to the finish here, plus some idiot is stalking my postdoc, the kind of idiot who could trash a lab. Is this the kind of thing a father has to deal with?

Is it hard to do work when you’re a Dad? I would never work, I think, just want to play with my kids all the time. I also imagine being a parent as me in my office trying to get an idea with somebody coming in every five minutes with a new problem for me to solve. How do you write good books and be a good Dad at the same time?

Anyway, unused connections: you have a talent for picking out the questions everyone wants to know the answers to and no one does. You could be a scientist if you wanted to, so I’ll assume you want to hear the truth: nobody knows. It looks as though unused connections cease to be connections if nothing ever gets routed through them. The key is plasticity – all of it can change any time, not just at early stages. You can form new ones, and even “established” connections can disengage at any point. There may be some determination as to what connections can be formed, but we know almost nothing about this. As far as I’m concerned, in the brain, anything comes, and anything goes, never say never. I’m sorry not to be able to give a more definite answer. Try reading Allan Berg’s paper on changes in monkeys’ mental maps, Brain Research 371 (1986): 131-52.

10:07 - 17 July 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Management

This sounds bad, bigfoot. Have you notified security? Can they post someone there? Shit, can’t they just get the guy? Be sure she takes out an order of protection.

Yeah, this is Dad stuff. I find that a direct frontal attack on the attacker is usually the quickest and least painless policy. Step on ‘im, bigfoot, stomp the lowlife out.

You got me in one of these moods again – love reading you on the brain, excites me cause you always say just what I wanna hear. Victorian novels are all about trying to hide unwanted connections – declassé relatives, income from sweatshops, shady ex-lovers – and failing. Am in the middle of a chapter on this right now.

Don’t know if I’m a good Dad or write good books, just try to. Secret is to be a fascist – block out a few hours a day when absolutely no one, absolutely nothing, can get to you; a few in which you’re semi-permeable, do some work, nothing too crucial, and are semi-accessible; and some in which you deal with the little guys and are impermeable to work. It only collapses if you’re semi-permeable all the time.

So unused connections really can fade away? This would be the Victorians’ dream. I’m encouraged. Now I just have to find out what they knew about this, if anything.

I’m here till mid-August, mercifully far from all the dendrites reaching out to me, tingling with suggestions about things for me to do.

20:49 - 17 July 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

This is getting scary. I’ve seen the guy now, because we never let Dawn go out alone, and we take turns walking with her if she goes across the street to the union. He generally hangs out in the hospital lobby, waiting to glare at her and taunt her, because he knows he can stay there and it’s the main way in and out. He follows us across the street, then goes back to the neutral zone.

I’ve never seen such rage, hatred, disgust in anybody’s eyes. It’s really frightening. I get her to translate what he’s saying, even though she doesn’t want to: “Why won’t you talk to me? Who are these people with you? You don’t need protection from me,” he says. “You need protection from your own conscience. You know what kind of woman you are. You pledge your life to a man, and you just throw him away. You spend your time killing baby cats, and you think you’re too good to make a baby.” She won’t translate the last word, but she doesn’t have to. “Puta.”

God, why can’t we just kill the guy? We call security every day, and they say that as long as he stays in the public areas, there’s nothing they can do. I remember this Star Trek episode where in an alternate universe Kirk had this alien machine that could make his enemies disappear just with the touch of a button. If only we could do that.

For the first time I understand a little how Killington feels, going through life haunted by cast-off lovers. I don’t glare at him, though, and I haven’t shorted out his fish yet. I wonder if there’s any double-standard here, like it’s forgivable for a woman to ditch a guy, but not for a man to ditch a woman. Nah. I think the woman gets screwed whether she’s the dumper or the dumpee.

How are we going to get rid of this guy? Unbeknownst to Dawn, I’m thinking of sponsoring a contest, best way to get rid of Pablo. We could put a hit on him for less than the price of a good centrifuge. I would feel a lot safer if Becky were back. It’s hard to concentrate on work with this going on, and she’s going to be pissed if I don’t have the figures ready for this article.

17:15 - 18 July 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

How soon will you be back? From what Marcia is saying, you need to be back in a big way. Me, I’m reading and writing like a maniac. The Fatal Attraction chapter, the real guts of the book, is close to done. You can do this in the humanities, write the conclusion first and then go back and trace the roots. You always end up changing the conclusion, though.

My quandary is this: what do I show to Josh? I can’t show him this, for God’s sake. It’s napalm, guaranteed to send any man with a liaison and an iota of guilt running for cover, except it will exfoliate the cover and turn the air to fire. I’m not really sure whether I can show him any of it. The Crucible chapter will be no better, nor will the Liaisons chapter. The safest bet would be the theory chapter, the introduction on what desire and anger ARE, but he’s so smart he’ll know from the first sentence what I’m really writing about.

I’m finally writing a mirror book, one as good as his, I think, and of course his reflection is all over it. How is he doing? What is he writing to you? I want him so badly I can hardly think about anything at all. Funny how desire keeps you from analyzing desire. I guess you can either have a thing, or talk and write and think about it, but not both. Please tell me what’s happening with him, anything he says.

12:30 - 18 July 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I love your plan. I would love any plan, I think, that would let me see you. It’s a date. August 1, 3 PM, O’Hare, just send me the coordinates. God, to see you, actually touch you! You’re right that there’s something about being there that’s incontrovertible. We can be together and drink coffee for 1.75 a cup, and I can hold your hand for a little while.

I go to the lab just to use the computer now, and try to ignore the looks of pity and contempt. I’m trying to put it to good use, actually, assembling a bunch of resumes, each of which presents a different identity: physics teacher, programmer, accelerator technician. I wonder how many different identities I could invent here on the screen without abandoning reality altogether.

Trish has been silent, or rather my lawyer has told me firmly to communicate with her only through the double-buffer of the two lawyers. I don’t know whether I’d be committing some sort of violation by calling her up or whether they’re just parasites who make their living by intervening in people’s communications. But I guess if we could really communicate we wouldn’t have ended up this way in the first place. I don’t even know what I could have communicated, really, that I haven’t and didn’t. I think I’m getting divorced because I communicated too much. That must be what the lawyers are for, to keep you from communicating too much.

19:46 - 19 July 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

OK, it’s a date! Gee, I haven’t been on a date in about fifteen years, I think. Lufthansa, flight 703, arrives at O’Hare at 2:50, August 1. See you at the gate!

19:03 - 24 July 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I have a minute here and thought I’d do the satellite thing. This is fun – should I charge for this?

Your man (in German that would make him your husband) is in work mode. I know it because I’m so often in this mode myself – he just wants everyone to go away. You shouldn’t take it personally – he would tell anyone to go away right now. I think he’s onto something really hot. When the biochemists get this way, they go at it all night, get in at noon or so, start work at two, and work until four or five in the morning. If you say hi to them in the hall, they don’t answer. Same deal with Josh. He’s just spacing in cyberspace. I am becoming rather fond of him. Manic, isn’t he? Just leave him alone, let him write his book, and jump on him when he gets back – but careful, he spooks easily, won’t be part of anyone’s plan but his own.

21:08 - 31 July 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

Just a brief report on some of the entries to the Waste Pablo Sweepstakes. Tony says to call La Migra. Lily, his quiet girlfriend, surprised us all by saying forget La Migra, man, call ARENA, call the death squads. Everyone is into it, the whole department. Allan Berg has offered to organize a Neuro Death Squad. Tim Brady’s group wants his cerebellum, and Nakamura’s wants his liver. So far the winner is this Australian postdoc in Killington’s lab, who says put him in a T-shirt that says “Tootsie” and send him to Rwanda. This is the suggestion to beat.

Seriously, though, it is getting worse. He comes to the door of the lab now and stares in at us. He yells at us that he wants to ask us questions about our research. We call security every time, but he never stays more than a few seconds, and he’s always gone when they get here. They say they’re too short-handed to post somebody here permanently, given that he’s not dangerous, only annoying, and they don’t have the right to hunt him down systematically. They’re actually getting pissed off at us, calling them every day to chase away a phantom. Well, Becky’s due back tomorrow. She’ll get rid of him somehow.

1:32 - 2 August 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

Agony, Becky. I don’t know any other word for it. I know I’ve been through a lot lately, but nothing like this. Life is really a long series of kicks in the face. I waited eight hours, staring at screens most of the time. After awhile the letters and numbers dissolved and danced – I had no idea whether I could believe what my eyes were telling me. The place was in chaos. You had to wait in a line of angry, yelling, elbowing people to get that 1.75 cup of coffee, or, worse, some of their non-information.

Every now and then I would do a reality-check, seek out a glass panel that showed the world outside, black, wet, and wild. Tornado watch! How the hell could there be a tornado in Chicago today? I did what they tell the pilots to do, go by your instruments, trust only your instruments, and I fixed myself like a pillar before one of those screens. 703 was delayed, first 30 minutes, then an hour, then two. And then that terrifying word started springing up all over the right-hand side of that screen like shoots out of a rhizoid: canceled, canceled, canceled. I traveled around and around, accelerating in a circuit of hopelessness, from the black, rain-beaten window, to the madhouse Lufthansa counter, to that terrible screen, and none of them told me anything.

Finally, about six, they told me you’d been rerouted to St. Louis. I stayed at my post. Maybe they could fly you back here somehow. I mean, what about all the people who really had to go to Chicago and weren’t just changing planes? I guess they were out of luck. Christ, a tornado! At midnight they kicked me out. No more flights in here till six tomorrow morning, they said, everybody out.

So I went to my terminal, the closest I could get to you. You’ll find this when you get home, I guess – that’s the best I can do for now. Where did they take you, what did they do with you? Are you in St. Louis, in the air, or back home by now? This was a whole new kind of torture for me, pain I never knew existed. Well, I shouldn’t complain, it happened to you, too. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have you back on my screen.