Heat, Part I

From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 26 May 2008

How dare someone currently devoid of original research ideas think she was good enough to judge their wonderful projects, tell them how to spend their money?

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a three-part story about an ex-scientist who stumbles over her past in a very unexpected place.

Page twenty had been the final straw.

The first ten she had endured with the same sense of stately purpose brought to every official event. As the Institute’s new director leisurely proceeded through sheet after sheet of his prepared speech uneasiness grew and, once it took hold, soon molted into a painful despair that made Allison try everything. Putting weight on alternating legs, clasping knees together, willing the body with whatever yoga she had picked up, trying to talk herself into believing it was just her uneasiness with people kicking in, delayed. She tried to conjure thoughts of deserts, impossibly long droughts, cacti, forcefully reminding herself that the success of the new career could very well depend on keen instincts at long negotiating tables. And a reliable bladder.

Didn’t work.

Of course she shouldn’t have had that many cocktails at the reception. Of course she could have excused herself at any one of the impromptu conversations that had slowly led to the Auditorium. But Allison was aware of the role she played, and how long could a circumstantial inaugural speech take? At least twenty-one pages recapitulating the History of the Institute since the Big Bang, and predicting its Future into the next Millennium, in what seemed like single-spaced text of small type, no margins. Delivered in a monotonous drone that brought about images of waterfalls and rain.

But, after page ten, anything reminded Allison of falling water.

Her final rational thought in the Auditorium had to do with mapping an efficient exit strategy. Her next was in the corridor, designer shoes removed, running. Even as her brain was sinking into primitive satisfaction need mode, her body remembered, found its way through the maze of corridors.

As Allison stumbled to the stall the visions of wetness became concrete, warm. She hadn’t quite made it. Almost, but not quite. Sitting down in defeat she let herself calmly go though the various stages (disbelief, rage, despair). A younger her would have stayed in the bathroom forever, stuck on either one of those feelings, mourning a day, a career, in tatters. Now Allison immediately tried to control the damage, first shaking in mock belly dancing, then softly spraying water to conceal by misdirection and enlargement; luckily, and much like her retired lab coats, the dress took it all in stride.

The Institute had been remodeled, but this bathroom certainly hadn’t. There must have been another one, closer to the Auditorium. In her blind desire-slash-panic Allison had probably run past whatever new cleverly designed signs instructed men and women to segregate. Interesting though. During the day-long site visit Allison had the feeling her crew was being steered away from this particular wing. On purpose to avoid mold–stained walls, rusty pipes, chipped china? Certainly not the most modern sight a top-notch science research institute would like to offer visitors with the power to approve its funding. And especially not after the whole place had undergone an extreme makeover and was opening under new management, new research teams, new hypothesis, new funding, new ideas. This bathroom had clearly not been brought along for the ride.

Part of the strain Allison had felt all day seemed to melt away, so suddenly she almost laughed out loud. This was her first really big assignment, chairing the committee in charge of monitoring how the Institute had spent the millions it had been given, then coming back every year to check on the progress, see if they had stuck with the plan, if it had paid off, what adjustments were warranted. A few more hundreds of thousands at stake each time, dozens of jobs, and hopefully cutting-edge research that would help move the world forward. At first Allison had been a bit overwhelmed. This was not like explaining the intricacies of any one of the projects she had been involved with as a scientist. Producing a manuscript that might be read, with any luck, by a few hundred people in one field of research and, with ever more luck, fully understood by half, maybe cited by some of those. That limited knowledge had limited power. Now Allison felt she had real power; over this institute, over the institutes she would visit next; over its people, its science. Power reflected in the groveling of her hosts as they ferried her through the brand-new shining laboratories, had their star scientists give presentations, their department heads go through strategies of how more knowledge would be accrued if their desires were met. True, it wasn’t, would never be, Allison’s knowledge, and that was made clear by the barely concealed contempt behind the groveling. Allison had been on the other side of those gazes, knew what they meant. They meant she was not one of them anymore, and how dare someone currently devoid of original research ideas think she was good enough to judge their wonderful projects, tell them how to spend their money? It also meant she was thought of as little more than an unfortunately required provider of rubber stamps with a fancy dress, a posse of cronies, an attitude.

Allison could understand all that; she just had a few clarifications. First of all, it was not their own money the researchers would be spending, and the knowledge they would eventually produce would not be solely theirs either; it was a bit bigger than that. Corny, but true, and something worth reminding everyone of once in a while. Secondly, Allison worked hard at what she did, always came prepared. When she criticized the layout of the culture rooms, exposed a department as an artificial collage of independent groups with no focus, or classified one particular project as nothing more than a megalomaniac’s insult to her intelligence, she knew she was right. Worse for the Institute, she also knew what appropriate fixes would be, and refused to rubber stamp anything until they were implemented. So there. It was interesting to see her hosts’ snickers turn to worrisome fear. But, after her first visits as a junior, and very silent, committee member, Allison started to understand science was not just about experiments. There were all sorts of important jobs in research, and, after initial misgivings, she truly believed she now held one of them. And she was so good at it not even an abandoned bathroom could be hidden from her merciless gaze!

Not that it mattered much in the grand scheme of things, she thought, looking around for the dryer as she washed her hands. Despite some hiccups, the Institute had a solid plan and, anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, not a terrible amount of credible research went on in stalls. A derelict bathroom wouldn’t change anything. Even one with no dryer. Just a towel, gingerly hanging on a makeshift plastic hook, attached to a big blue rusty box, clearly out of place, shoved into a corner, waiting for a disposal crew to come.

At first Allison thought she was having a mystical experience, brought upon by intense bodily release.

She knew that box.

She remembered when it had arrived, shiny with promise three months after the original due date. Three months during which her Masters work had consisted of reading about the box, helping prepare the room that would lodge it, dreaming up exciting experiments only it could do. And waiting. For deliverance. For delivery.

Of a LKB BioActivity Monitor. A Micro-calorimeter. Something that, in essence, measured heat. Resembling one of the more stylish robots from a bad sci-fi show. Bluey, Blue Bolt, Big Blue. Blue.

Until that very moment the remodeled Institute had meant very little to Allison, except what her current job implied that it mean. Other people would probably assume that it should mean a little bit more than that. Which was why she had spent the day either nodding or, worse, having conversations with people she should remember, but didn’t. The old building outline, her long-gone supervisors, Blue. Those were burnt into the back of her mind. The real ghosts from the past, hissing around through a generally miserable two-year Masters, then haunting her away in muted screams to a different country, ultimately to another career. The anonymous heads she now pretended to recognize had been minor players in the drama, not really ghosts, rather fading shadowy backdrops against which the real ghosts danced through her nightmares. Then again, she had been as minor a character in their grand schemes, as they had been in hers. A lab mate, a cafeteria partner, a library fellow, a seminar acquaintance. Someone from the old Institute who had come back as, of all things, chair of the steering and evaluation committee for the new one. The thundering irony Allison could feel in her inner ear was mute to them.

It probably wouldn’t have been to her former supervisors but, as she had realized with a twinge of regret, both had moved on. To smaller and darker things, one hoped. But unable to witness the return of the prodigal slave. Truthfully Allison felt more than a mere twinge. Even though she had analyzed the Institute’s roster in search of those two familiar names (and found neither), she couldn’t avoid asking everyone she talked to about their whereabouts. And at every stop in the tour her neck darted back and forth, in a reflex attempt to catch a glimpse of either one of them, shifting through the shadows, as only they could. Allison had seen that the stuffy labs were now appropriately spotless, eagerly awaiting fresh minds to tackle new questions. That was the main issue, her job. She was there to make sure money had been well spent, not reminisce. And the memories of the former her awkwardly patrolling those corridors in mismatched outfits and low self-confidence was not something Allison wanted to face.

Blue forced her to.

[Continued next week]

Related information

© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Cristina Pereira da Silva.

Read other stories by the author on

The Experiment


The Reunion