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Fiction

Suit: Part I

From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 28 September 2008

www.lablit.com/article/419

How much would the technicians and graduate students actually listen to his wisdom if Daniel wasn’t there, metaphorically securing his back?

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a two-part story about a scientist's unusual purchase.

As he was ushered in Jackson felt little bundles of nerve and muscle pulsating beneath the skin of his upper back. It was unexpected, no logical reason whatsoever. Just another impromptu meeting called by his boss, a man who genuinely loved meetings. And who would congratulate Jackson for his “fabulous” work. Except by now Jackson was well aware that his work was equally “fabulous” whether he had just finished a great experiment, or cleaned the coffee maker. This almost traditional greeting was used as a prelude for more work-related demands. Jackson was so fabulous that he, and only he, could work out this incredibly difficult idea his boss had just dreamed up. But as Jackson sat down, Daniel seemed unable to avoid a deep sigh. No praise, not a word. That was when Jackson’s back pain took on a totally new meaning. He knew this mood as well. It meant Daniel wanted to give him a task even he thought was hard.

Tugging at an immaculate lab coat, which now served merely a decorative purpose, Daniel stared hard at his wiry top researcher. Informing him that there was a meeting in Prague. Czech Republic, July 22. On that particular day Daniel would be in Kyoto. The lab had recently published a great scientific paper on aging; they had found a new function for an old protein. Keeping it active meant mice sort of refused to die. Not that anyone in the field thought the same would be valid for humans (Daniel himself had doubts), but invitations had started to pour in regardless. Well aware that fame in science rarely strikes once, let alone twice, Daniel had been more than happy to oblige. But even he couldn’t be in two places simultaneously. Someone else had to go to Prague, while he was in Kyoto. And having Jackson on a podium was as close as Daniel could come to actually cloning himself.

Well, maybe that talk was a bit premature. At the last informal-bring-families gathering Deirdre, noting the effect of success in Daniel’s girth, casually mentioned it seemed as if he were sucking the life marrow straight out of Jackson. Who had thought, but not said, that Daniel might have made the same comment regarding her. But that wasn’t the point, and, if nothing else, Daniel was excellent in staying on message. The point was Prague.

Prague was a huge medical congress. Where all big pharmaceutical company representatives hunting for more prescriptions, and most attendants willing to write them, gathered for elaborate mating rituals. Science is about experiments; medicine is about results, but also about appearances. It had started with inspiring the trust a patient needed to have, but self-importance, and too much money, had made it spiral out of control. Daniel had been aware of this since before medical school. Which was why he had given Jackson’s name to the organizers: the Kyoto affair was far more important – real science, all that.

Someone else might have been a tad more than annoyed on finding their name printed in a program, next to a title of a talk they certainly hadn’t been asked to agree upon, to be given at a meeting they hadn’t the slightest interest in, in a place they had barely heard of. At a date when they could very well have had other plans. But not Jackson; it was part of his job description, which rewarded him handsomely for stuff like this. What worried him was that Daniel was clearly worried about something. And, for the first time in a very long while, Jackson had no clue at all about what it could possibly be.

Jackson was late picking up Deirdre, and still had to change out of the old T-shirt and Birkenstock sandals, while hearing her moan about his unshaven face, poorly shaven skull. An hour later the meeting with the apartment complex manager (she had stopped being mere “Alice” once it had all started) was underway. But Jackson had already seen this movie, same actresses, slightly different wardrobes. Deidre started out smoothly, just the basic facts regarding the lease. Alice reacted mildly, with changing circumstances. Deidre countered with the law that governed such leases, Alice parried with neighbor complaints; Deidre pulled up special state-wide statutes for families with certain characteristics, Alice casually mentioned police reports.

The first encounter had been fun (if that was the right word), in that the tenants had surprised Alice with their grasp of legal matters. She was no match, but quickly sensed she didn’t need to be; she merely had to hold on. In apartment complexes that looked and felt like continuous mirror images of the same model buildings, you either fit in perfectly, and no questions were asked; or you didn’t, and too many answers were needed. The only thing Alice never really could figure out was why Deirdre and Jackson seemed to cling so much to Hazel Grove. Maybe they were just stubborn. That’s exactly what Deirdre and Jackson thought as they left the office in silence, although each bequeathed that characteristic upon the other. It was all moot though, a performance. Alice knew the police reports she did have would have been laughed out of court; Jackson and Deirdre knew they were leaving anyway.

As Deidre took the bus to church, on yet another quest for answers, Jackson tried to dig out his things from under the tidiness Mrs. Hernandez always left behind on Thursdays. A firm believer in the power of appearances, the housekeeper professed the philosophy of essentially shoving stuff out of sight. He would have been at it well into Friday if not for the doorbell. Jackson rarely answered at home, but the repeated buzz told him two things: that whoever it was knew he was there; and that the ringing itself would quickly become more annoying than confronting the visitor.

It was the nicest of the neighbors from the block. Sandy? Shelly? Sally? Jackson could only hope she would use her own name in a phrase (“So I said to myself, ‘Sally, you just have to go and visit that nice couple in 34F’ ”) before he made a social faux pas. Which happened anyway, as he was too worried about name etiquette to invite the visitor in, and just stood there, a lanky dangling frame defending the entrance. What he couldn’t possibly know was that the plate of freshly baked cookies the neighbor had brought as an offering, and that had barely registered with him, was getting hotter by the second. Sally (that was her name) was a true missionary. For about a week she had thoughtfully prepared a plan, a speech. Now one seemed snagged by awkwardness, and the other was quickly being forgotten. So she did the worst possible thing, and blurted it all out in one breath.

It was Ajax, of course.

Trying desperately to be nice, Sally made her best impression of a caring, compassionate woman, but, hands burning and plate quivering, she couldn’t quite help herself. Not that there was anything terribly wrong with Jackson’s son, of course. They all had kids (well, actually Sally herself didn’t), and of course they were a joyful load of troubles, all different. But different does not always mean good; indeed, although everyone will deny it, in practical terms it probably never does. Nothing wrong with Ajax. The whole complex just preferred it if there were nothing wrong with him somewhere else.

Jackson had very little hatred in him. But he found ways of concentrating whatever he could find into a raving tirade on hypocritical charity that dispatched Sally in tears, regretting her kind and understanding nature, as cookies rained down in sickly slow motion.

He knew what would follow before the last crumb hit the concrete.

**********

A couple of hours later Jackson was signing a statement at the Beaverboro Police Station, hoping he’d make it in time to pick up Ajax.

So, the officer paused, you work at the University Hospital? A tone that tried to be as noncommittal as possible.

Jackson sighed an assent.

You are… – the officer went suddenly illiterate – a Pro-fe-ssor.

Technically this was true. Assistant Research Professor was Jackson’s title, although that was all it really was, more of a non-autonomous Senior Researcher position that went by a different name. It looked good for Daniel to have Professors under him. But Jackson wasn’t about to explain these subtleties. He was a Professor, oh yes indeed.

With a kinder tone the officer repeated the same questions he had barked earlier. But Jackson knew his ground. He had been in the doorway, Sally had tried invade his space. The wild plate-slaying gesture a mere protective reflex the Constitution entitled him to. So, asked the officer ready to move on to his next thrilling case, what kind of cookies were they?

Oatmeal and peanut butter, Jackson guessed.

The cop winced: Can’t say I blame you.

**********

Jackson arrived just before Jodie made one of her stern calls to Deirdre, chastising his tardiness. Not that it would prevent her from further commenting on his poor parenting skills. Which was fine, Jackson admired people with missions, understood that part of Jodie’s job was to make him and Deirdre feel bad about theirs. On that particular day they had tried out a variation of the box-yoga combo that Ajax and his buddies seemed to enjoy. There was also progress to be noted in what Jodie kindly labeled his “academic” work.

But, Jackson ventured, at home Ajax was still very hard to control, so perhaps, just maybe, they could also possibly consider other means of…?

Jackson’s voice trickled off just as Jodie’s scowl skipped into the tense reply with which she ended all discussions on that particular topic.

Do you believe in free will? She weighed each word carefully.

A rhetorical question and, Jackson thought, thank god for that. He wrote the check for the week, thinking of Doctor Klein, rattling eager vials of magic pills. Unfortunately, in their last consultation the good doc had gone too far in his little physician-as-wisest-entity-in-the-room speech, and Deirdre, fresh from researching kids like Ajax on the internet, now couldn’t even hear his name without squirming. Jackson would have to try to find another person with magic pills.

They ate while getting Ajax to describe his day. It had been a good day; Jackson didn’t even feel the need to resort to the TV as a non-pharmaceutical version of Dr Klein’s pills. Ajax was just tired, and so was his father. Taking off the shirt designed to impress Alice, Jackson wondered why he had bothered to put it on in the first place. Apartment managers, neighbors, police officers, educators; the bankers and real estate agents for the new house he had never even met because Deirdre had decided it would be easier if she did it all herself. What did they see? Jackson had a pretty good idea. At least, he mused, in science it was different: truth would be true whoever said it, and in the Institute Jackson’s even-keeled word was law for all. Except, he argued with himself, not quite. First of all, wasn’t the white lab coat he did wear the ultimate uniform? And how much would the technicians and graduate students actually listen to his wisdom if Daniel wasn’t there, metaphorically securing his back?

It had been a day for rhetorical questions, the ones he wouldn’t be able to answer in the following months. And then came the crackling phone call.

It was Daniel, already in Kyoto. How was everything? How were the new experiments progressing? Was Jackson ready for the meeting in Prague? And, oh by the way, a slight twinge of panic in Daniel’s voice, what was Jackson going to wear?

Jackson had considered himself a lifer in Daniel’s lab. What outsiders never seemed to realize was that he hadn’t been born into this. Once upon a time he was a struggling scientist wondering if he could ever land a job he really liked, and failing miserably. He got it, and kept it, because he had the right survival instincts. The ones that help you realize exactly what to utter, when. So Jackson waited a beat and said he would take the Suit. Less than a second later he could feel the line relax. Indeed, his mind half obliterated by saké, Daniel almost yipped with glee. He had bought a Suit? Jackson? The world does indeed move in mysterious ways. Jackson breathed deeply and hung up, feeling he earned his keep.

An hour later, while bowing deeply before his hosts amid shouts of kampai, Daniel was hit with sudden doubt. He hadn’t gotten to where he was by believing everything he was told, a useful tool he thought of as a survival instinct, not ultimate cynicism. He called back. Where had this suit been bought? With whom (please, Daniel prayed, not Deirdre)? What brand was it? What style, what color? But Jackson had turned off his cell, and there was no one to be found in the lab.

Exactly twelve minutes after Daniel called, every single available member of his lab followed Jackson to the parking lot. Where, carpooling as much as possible, they started their engines. The lab was on a mission.

They were going shopping.

{Concludes next week}

Related information

© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Luis Gabriel Sánchez-Partida

Read other stories by the author on LabLit.com:

Heat

The Experiment

Limbo

The Reunion

Tribute

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