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Tribute: Part 2

From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 8 July 2007

www.lablit.com/article/277

They probably still hated his slave-driver intensity, blamed him for their youth lost in the bowels of graduate school

Editor's note: We are pleased to publish the concluding part of this two-part short story. (You can use the navigation buttons at the top right to catch up on Part 1.)

Tom Kefauver was waiting at the door, a look of professional concern on his face. They exchanged greeting formulas, Tom handing Jorge’s CD over to the projection technician, asking about his new place and perspectives. A year ago Carla had been rumored to be well on her way to replacing him as Department Chair. Now he was right back in the saddle, overseeing what was left of the Cardoso lab, its vast DVD legacy. And made sure everyone knew it by organizing the Tribute Symposium. Although he seemed to be relishing his role as undertaker a tad too much, Jorge had always enjoyed their interactions at seminars, his quiet authority contrasting with Carla’s explosive power. Somehow he could never follow the lab party line, and disregard Tom Kefauver as irrelevant (god, how many people were really relevant, what did that even mean?). He was sure that that was one of the reasons he, and not somebody else, had been asked to present this particular talk on behalf of the now defunct Team Cardoso.

And there it was, huddled at the very end, next to the podium. Below one of the three smiling faces of their former leader. How small it seemed, a tiny bunch floating in the immense Ballroom. Lita, Yukihiro, Françoise, Sampath, Ricardo, Kelley, Cesare, the ever-reluctant John. A few from the Schlatt team (Marc couldn’t make it), Shirley, others from Wiley’s group, but those didn’t really count. Jorge also noticed Lonnie and Xiaoting, keeping their distance, nodding politely. Two of the former graduate students, now postdocs somewhere (Jorge couldn’t remember where). They probably still hated his slave-driver intensity, blamed him for their youth lost in the bowels of graduate school; regretted having joined the lab in the first place (again, he didn’t know the half of it). Fine, they both had come away with great papers and job offers, let them go cry and complain elsewhere. Where in the Constitution did it say it had to be easy? Ricardo read his face, as he noticed everything else, and came stuttering over. Wouldn’t he say he-ee-llo to his f-f-f-f-f-riends? Yes, he would, to those who actually wanted to be said hello to.

Lita’s motherly hug opened up the floodgates, and, for once, Jorge was grateful for all the touching, cheek kissing, patting, laughter. The Cardoso lab had just “gone Portuguese”. Everyone seemed “dandy”, as Cesare used to say, when asked about anything. Ricardo and John had been hired by the Company that was putting out the vaccine, you could see the sudden prosperity on their clothes. Kelley had moved to a small, elite, college somewhere in Connecticut. Yukihiro, Françoise and Cesare wisely used DVD as leverage to obtain very good positions in their native Japan, Belgium, Italy. Sampath and Lita were the only ones shuffling their feet a bit, when asked about the many faces of the future. They were still in Carla’s place, keepers of the flame. Waiting for Kefauver and the Powers That Were to decide what to do with them.

Not that they didn’t have anything to do. The pictures of young Sara circulated around, her wide eyes trying to find some meaning in her four-month world. Everyone agreed with the parents, no more beautiful baby would be found anywhere. But, as Sampath pulled out a seemingly endless ribbon of photographs, Lita pulled Jorge aside, guilt in her whisper. She wouldn’t have approved, would she? A hush in a Ballroom converted to the Church of Carla, the nondescript fear that she may be eavesdropping. Approve of what? Relationships between co-workers, children? Both, said Lita. Probably not. Anything that affected work, and was not work, was inherently evil in the Cardoso World. Children, especially, Man’s ultimate tool of oppression. But she had changed a bit, who could tell how deep the changes were. Plus, it really didn’t matter now, did it? Jorge collected the pictures of her smiling baby and gave them back. Did Lita have any regrets? God no, only that she hadn’t done it sooner. Then, who cared who approved or not? Lita’s smile was odd, and Jorge could understand why; he couldn’t believe he had actually just said that either.

Carla had changed. Lita had changed. Jorge must have changed. They all had changed. While remaining basically the same, that’s how it always was. As if to agree, Fernando Gouveia came out of nowhere and shook Jorge’s hand with the vigorous determination of a nutcracker. The same gigantic, dignified frame, gray suit, black tie (Jorge chastised himself for not thinking of that). Just a visible sag in the shoulders, grief in watery blue eyes. A touch of hesitation in his voice, as he asked what one asks in these cases. In Portuguese, scaring Lita away. Jorge was never more grateful to hear that beautiful language, his resentment, the origins of which he did not even want to think about, melting away with sounds no other people in that Ballroom could pronounce correctly. Fernando wanted to take counsel. He had been asked to give a short speech, as Carla’s companion, fiancé. But was unsure. Of English, of emotions. He was not certain it would help her, Carla, her memory. Would it help him? That, said Jorge, wondering whom on earth he was channeling for advice, was the question. Fernando tortured his right hand again with a killer shake and a sad smile. It had taken him years to wrestle his divorce from the clutches of the Catholic Church, that’s why it had to be so hush-hush. They found out it had come through after the Aquarium party, couldn’t stop making plans on the plane. And then... Jorge patted him hesitantly on the back, ashamed for another man’s tears, for his own. Water and salt, that’s all it was, like the Atlantic. Lita slid over, as Fernando disappeared into the growing crowd. Yeah, she said not needing to know Portuguese. People obviously change. In mysterious ways.

**********

Tom Kefauver found him talking to Cesare about the virtues of the upcoming soccer year in Europe (the only real reason Jorge surfed the web for European news). It was four-oh-two, the room was full, the Reception followed. The show should hit the road. Jorge looked around. What about Petersson? It was obvious he wasn’t here yet, you can tell when rock stars enter the building. Kefauver chastised him for his unkindness, but chuckled along. Since Carla had vacated the stage, Alexander Petersson had become a traveling media show, this Meeting being a typical example. He should have arrived by now, incoming from Madrid, jumped into a waiting limo. He would “enter the building”, give his talk, jump right back in the limo, and be on his way to Hong-Kong or Stockholm, or Toronto, by suppertime. But the airport was far, it could take a while. Start. Now.

As Bud Wiley and Tom Kefauver took the stage, Jorge sat down in the middle of the front row, breaking his two cardinal rules at once (always in the back, always an aisle – made escapes easier). But the front row is the only one guaranteed to have seats, even in the most crowded of Auditoriums, and this was no exception. He felt Shirley’s hands on his back, loosening his neck. Right place, perfect timing, maybe the front row wasn’t so bad after all.

As co-chairs, Bud and Tom gave their five-minute introductory remarks. Why everyone was here, why it was sad, why it was important. Bud, the emotion of a friend; Tom, the respect of a colleague. Bud then introduced Fernando, and the doctor who had, unknowingly, started it all, came up to help finish.

Later, many people would ask Jorge about those brief minutes that seemed to last forever. What had that big guy said? Was it all in Portuguese? What was the deal, who was he anyway? Jorge would just shake his head, shrug. Some things you don’t explain. You listen to pure love mingle with pure sorrow, tears thanking the happiness that was, while trying not to think of the joy that could of been. While trying not to look back (at the past, at the screens that kept her face). There were mentions of hanging linen curtains in a freshly painted window, loving in the dunes. Waiting for the perfect Atlantic blue to surrender what it had stolen. But who cares what the words were, in what language? How dare anyone even ask? Even if Fernando only touched a mere ten people in the packed room, his speech was the best of all. Because it didn’t care about the Science that was Carla, only about her. Sometimes the majority just doesn’t get it.

That was clear from the looks Tom and Bud exchanged, from the hesitant applause as Fernando left the podium and almost ran out of the room. Tom barely thanked the speaker, trying to remember who had talked him into sending the invitation (it had been Lita). He just introduced Bud Wiley as quickly as he could, and the “show” was on track again. As further evidence that this was so, a low rumble turned to a loud commotion, as one of the heavy doors swung open, and Petersson marched triumphantly in, all six feet four and three hundred pounds of him. The crowd, stupid as ever, started an impromptu cheer. Good grief, Jorge thought, at least have a reason to clap, had he just won the Nobel? No, not yet, maybe soon. Would they have the gall of handing it to him alone, now that Carla was gone? It was a topic Jorge didn’t want to discuss.

It took a while for the room to settle down. Surrounding Petersson was his usual army of assistants, complemented by conspicuous bodyguards. When people working in sensitive areas die there are always rumors. The word among conspiracy nuts was that Carla had really been assassinated, by unnamed foes that wanted to preserve the DVD virus for whatever dark purpose. It was stupid, of course. The Atlantic is known for its false moods and undercurrents, and the DVD vaccine had been cleared to go weeks before. So, either the hit men were incompetent, or they didn’t exist. Petersson, however, wasn’t taking any chances. Jorge was sure he enjoyed it.Finally, the masses calmed, Bud Wiley creaked his way to the podium. Jorge felt a sudden deep fear overcoming him, the sensation of impending catastrophe. There was something he wanted to remember, what was it? As Bud tested the laser pointer, a technology that forever escaped him, he remembered. Couldn’t the old warrior only talk for twenty minutes at a time? Hadn’t he used up five during the introduction? How was he going to summarize DVD vaccine development, in forty-five minutes of nonstop data? As the room again went dark, and the first slide replaced Carla on the screen, Jorge had his answer. Hidden somewhere around the room several loudspeakers crackled into activity. A muffled, metallic, voice started explaining the first days of the vaccine project. Barely perceivable above what sounded like radio static. It took Jorge a few seconds to even recognize the speaker, and a few more to understand that the Bud on the podium was silently pointing out on the slide what the other Bud was talking about. The other Bud. A recording, a very bad one. Probably made in two twenty minute takes, with his old Dictaphone. Some words came out crystal clear, others were too soft, others too shrill. Jorge could see the hotel technician struggle to equalize, then give up. Useless. Nobody who didn’t already know what Bud was talking about would get anything out of it. It was even hard to read the slides, you had to try and block out the annoying drone.

After the first few minutes the room emptied, fugitives not even bothering to conceal their escape and coughs of disbelief. Jorge could see that Bud understood that no one was understanding. Using whatever reserve breath was available he tried desperately to clarify what the recording was saying. And ended up interrupting himself, disagreeing with his metallic counterpart, wanting it to shut up. It took Jorge a while to muster the courage to turn around. He found Shirley, a look of panicked puzzlement on his face, hoping his eyes were asking the right questions. Who had come up with this? When, if ever, had it seemed like a good, even reasonable, idea? Why wasn’t Shirley presenting? Why had nobody talked Bud out of it? At the very least, how come the recording came across as having been made during a thunderstorm? Whatever the questions, Shirley’s answers were crystal clear. We tried, he was stubborn, he pulled rank. She shrugged sadly as if to say: let's hope we can make better judgments, when our time comes.

The longest forty minutes of Jorge’s scientific career were spent looking intently at the flower arrangement on stage. He knew it was over when the lights came up, the room didn’t even bother to pretend to applaud. He could see Bud’s ashen face, as he sat down, to the left of the flower arrangement. Tom Kefauver (on the right) wasted no time in introducing Alexander Petersson, and his announcement coincided with a rumble at the back, the crowd returning.

His Lordship took his time, thanked Professor Wiley for a touching presentation, not even a twinge of irony in the Cambridge accent. He lauded Carla Cardoso, hoped aloud that such as distinguished audience would have patience for a tale of his modest contributions towards DVD understanding. In the meantime he was probably thinking Fate did indeed smile down on him, following that debacle he could be nothing short of brilliant, without even trying. Petersson started out mildly enough, briefly outlining what he was going to talk about. Starting with the invention of the (not that great) viral detection kits, ending with the development of effective DVD vaccines (well, at least one of them was). But Jorge was absolutely sure he would artfully present himself as the real force behind the effort to solve this terrible viral threat, while admitting to generously share the gold medal with Professor Cardoso, whose untimely passing had shocked the community. The hidden message being: he was only doing it out of respect for the dead, nothing to do with merit. Not that Jorge was terribly clairvoyant, Petersson was a globetrotter, the world small. Yukihiro had already confronted him in Sendai, Françoise had emailed similar reports from across Europe. This would just be the cherry on the cake, a performance for the ages, in Carla’s own back yard. Then Petersson asked for the first slide, and the same gods of digital presentation that had hounded Bud made sure everyone knew they were not to be treated lightly.

Apparently His Lordship had not yet converted to the newest technologies, and favored good old 35-mm slides. Unfortunately, the Meeting organizers had warned all presenters not to give in to long-held habits, and were not prepared for such quaint demands. So the slides had to be placed manually in the master digital projector, through a slot hastily prepared by one of the Cambridge assistants (not surprisingly, this problem had surfaced before). Of course, the late arrival meant the system could not be checked, control experiments could not be run. And you should always have controls.

The first slides had only text, in big block letters. Although blurry, the message was understandable. Slide number three started it all. Facing his audience with all the confidence in the world, Sir Petersson urged them to compare two columns on the screen, one red, one yellow. But all that anyone could see were two orangey rectangles, topped by writing too vague to make out. The next slides posed similar challenges, resulting in a crystal clear speech being boycotted by ghost images and transfigured colors. Jorge could hear the crowd think: Did the speaker really have the data to back up his words, or was he just clumsy and unprepared? Petersson must have been so used to giving the same spiel over and over again that he only noticed there was a problem when the hum from the audience became too obvious. Flushed, he turned to the screen, used the laser pointer, tried to talk about what could be seen, instead of what he knew should have been there. Although cumbersome, the strategy worked for a couple of minutes, before the digital gods spoke again. Petersson was talking his way through a slide representing the structure of DVD (eerily similar to one of Jorge’s), when the virus melted away. Literally. One second it was there, the next a white patch appeared in the middle of the image, instantly spread. And there was nothing. Unfazed, Petersson asked for the next slide. Which vanished into oblivion even before he had started describing it. As did the one that followed. When Jorge (together with everyone else) instinctively turned around to stare at the projector, a pained howl coming from that direction gave him all the explanation needed. The projector must have heated up, and was proving no match for its venerable predecessors, merrily burning through them. Chastising any hand that attempted a last second rescue.

To his credit, Petersson, old school that he was, pulled out all available tricks, to the bitter end. He tried talking miles a minute. He tried explaining the image in advance, before the audience was given a split second to view it. Heck, he even tried squeezing his way through without any pretty pictures. But enough was enough, and famous Alexander Petersson or no, the Ballroom exodus began anew. So, with tacit agreement from Kefauver, Bud Wiley stood up, and made the most of whatever minutes of air he had left. Thanking Professor Petersson for his valiant performance, Bud announced that, given the circumstances, the chairs had decided it best to move on to the final presentation. Just as Petersson was about to protest, Bud, not needing any words, signaled the podium microphone be turned off. Defeated, the speaker stepped down, disappeared into the masses. He would try again. In Hong-Kong, or Stockholm, or Toronto. But not today, under Carla’s smiling face.

Jorge had no time to savor this unlikely victory, Tom was already calling his name, with a morose tone that seemed to ask itself what else could possibly go awry. Jorge took care not to trip on the steps (the ultimate nightmare), saw Shirley’s crossed fingers, Ricardo and Lita straighten themselves in anticipation, sensed Fernando creeping back into the room. And began. And froze. He could hear himself, but was sure no one else could. For a flashing moment total disaster seemed imminent. Until the technician remembered to turn the podium mike back on.

As the humming noise became clearer, Jorge made the obvious jokes about hoping his voice (sorry Bud) and presentation held up. He was just about to go into an over-rehearsed speech when the first slide kicked in, replacing Carla’s face on the wall behind him. No, he said, not yet. Go back. Carla returned, in triplicate, and Jorge finally turned to face her.

This, he said, was the most important slide of them all. True, it contained no data whatsoever. It certainly didn’t tell anybody anything about how the Durban Viral Dysfunction was characterized, solved. Jorge had a few slides he could show to that effect, if they would bear with him. That part was pretty straightforward, once you thought about it. Unfortunately, what he didn’t have were graphs and schematics that clearly explained who this person was, how she had lived, worked, loved; why she had been important to so many people in the Auditorium. He didn’t even have the right words, really. As all who were willing to listen heard from Doctor Fernando Gouveia, talking about what you know is not always an easy thing. Jorge would only try to give his own short testimony.

Carla Cardoso had been good. Good at many things. Yes, she had also been a good pain in the ass, most people are. But she was good. He had no proof of this, at least none his audience, as scientists, would validate. They would just have to take his word for it. And that was the take-home message of the day.

To his left, Jorge heard Tom Kefauver twitch uncomfortably. Feeling the warmth on his face, almost “going Portuguese” and not giving a damn who knew it, Jorge leaned forward, his voice turning to solid rock. The tribute was over. He knew nobody had come to see the sentimental side of scientists, that’s not what Science is about. So he uttered the phrase that had been on his mind ever since he had received the invitation to come.

If I could have the first slide, please.

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© 2007 João Ramalho-Santos