Lab Notes*

Don Asher**



Experiments in chemistry and jazz

Had silicon been a gas I would have been a major general.
- James McNeill Whistler, looking back from the vantage of celebrity on his departure from West Point in 1854, after flunking chemistry

When I graduated from high school the Big Band era was in full swing. The pop tunes of the day were "Full Moon and Empty Arms," "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?" and the lovely "Stella by Starlight." The male members of my family - cousins and uncles included - had all gone (or were on their way) to college and prepared for suitable professions, so I was feeling that heat. But I had no mission and heard no suitable clarion calls. What I dearly wanted to be was a nightclub piano player, which hardly required a college degree. In the Forties the scions of middle-class Jewish families did not become ivory pushers. Lacking socially acceptable goals, we followed in designated footsteps. My father had an artistic soul but earned his living as a chemist with the Worcester (Mass.) Water Works. A brilliant, troubled, melancholic man, he committed suicide when I was three. Through childhood, close watch was kept on me for the malign strain; my mother considered me the more emotionally vulnerable of her two sons and, by extension, the more likely to inherit my father's fragile psyche. Older brother Herbie, a sturdy straight-arrow, had followed my father to Worcester Polytech and accepted a chemical engineering position with a plastics company in Framingham.

Dutiful son and kid brother, I enrolled at Cornell with a major in organic chemistry. The school's main campus was truly impressive, situated on a broad promontory overlooking Cayuga Lake and carved by roaring gorges, its ivied stone halls shaded by majestic elms. The chemistry department, housed in massive Baker Lab, was considered world-class, and I set out in an optimistic, even visionary mode, Einsteinian stars in my eyes, contemplating future major addresses before eminent scientific bodies. Gentlemen: I should like to propose a structure for the potassium salt of ribonucleic acid with a view toward explaining certain aspects of growing genetic interest...

Baker Lab was a museum, an exploratorium of exotic effluvia; scents clung like damp, like incense, slipping around doorjambs, seeding corridors. Sweetish perfume of unsaturated ester; head-snapping ethers and amines; the vinegary (and glacial) acetic acid; essence of almonds, cinnamon, camphor; fragrances redolent of fresh linoleum varnish, the sun-warm pinewoods of childhood; other scents more stringent, insidious - decaying-fruit exhalation of ketone, sting of aldehyde, the fuming and corrosive acids. Amid the cool, slippery soapstone counters, the gleaming glassware and furiously bubbling flasks, one could believe the choice wasn't all that bad; there were worse ways to spend one's life if one lacked the lineage and finesse for the diplomatic corps, the cold nerve of a surgeon, the chutzpah of a lawyer. Small magic shows daily: flocculent lavender-white-rose precipitates materialized from the mixture of two spring-clear liquids. Release a glittering pearl drop into a murky solution and sha-boom! all clear, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the dear little molecules reacting on cue with one another, punctiliously, according to law; acetone, all-purpose voodoo elixir, reagent, solvent, cleaner of delicate glassware; thin-lipped beakers, reflux condensers - proud erect sentinels clamped to their iron stands; the graduated burettes and androgynous one-, two-, and three-necked flasks .... A luxurious chromatograph of colors: white-on-white silver chloride, cool green of copper salts, the sable-black of certain sulfides. Pass a slender wire dipped in potassium salt solution through the spurting blue flame of a Bunsen burner and whooomm, violet-blue light flashed and crackled like lightning off a space-probe antenna. Formidable challenges loomed, exhilarating years ahead, probing the secrets of a staggering array of sinuous, branching, crook-back molecules. Gentlemen, I am pleased to inform you of my decision to accept the position of assistant research director at your Wilmington plant....

Occasionally experiments just plain didn't work out. Pristine fluffy-white precipitates would turn out to be worthless salt; cheerfully simmering ponds of liquid would grow inexplicably surly and bilious within their flasks, and without warning, goaded to a sudden boil-like sore ness, spew a stream of foaming liquid out the top of the condenser like a hot-spring geyser.

During preadolescence - I was a loopy kid, a nebbish, afraid of shadows (relatives attributed this to fallout from my father's early death, the shock of abandonment and absence of a paternal rudder, though I can't say I felt abandoned; I scarcely remembered him) - I habitually kicked the houses of neighborhood kids I was mad at and cravenly avoided fistfights, protecting the hands that were just beginning to explore the keyboard's mysteries. These impulses attenuated over the years but never completely vanished, and I'd now find myself kicking the foundation of the soapstone counter as if to jolt the balky molecules, visions of scientific eminence gone glimmering, so much dry-ice smoke. But just when I'd grow really disheartened, the future as murky as a mill-town sky, an experiment would work out with undeserved felicity, the vile and noxious sulfides suddenly smelling like night-blooming jasmine. Joy!

"Very neat, Mr. Asher." Gangly Dr. Rodman, my patient mentor, leaning over my shoulder.

"When you're hot you're hot, Professor," I murmured modestly.

I joined a fraternity. One of my brothers was a jazz-freak amateur drummer. We spent our weekend nights hanging out at the Green Lantern, a funky cellar dive by the railroad tracks in downtown Ithaca that featured a gutty trumpet-sax-piano-drums combo and a beanpole stripper, Cherry Picker (six feet two in spike heels and silver tiara), who strutted and peeled her way across the board floor to medium-tempo Fats Waller and an obbligato of pounding beer mugs and crazed rebel yells from polluted locals. The band let us sit in one at a time during dance sets, allowing me to expand the fledgling improvisational skills I'd picked up in Worcester's lakeside saloons on the sly during high school. I loved that fragrant joint, mingled aromas of spilt lager, sawdust, and cigarettes, the slow-drag dancers and statuesque stripper gliding through smoky gin-mill light. Seduced by the good vibes and down-and-dirty music, I began to drink a fair amount: draft brew, an occasional boilermaker, and an evil concoction of my own design - Southern Comfort and root beer.

Furthering my education in this regard was good-time Charlie Solinsky, a doctoral candidate in physical chemistry. Charlie had his own private lab on the top floor of Baker and presided over biweekly cocktail parties for favored grad and undergrad students. We chipped in for munchies and took turns double-distilling C2H5OH (ethyl alcohol) straight from the reagent shelf, then mixing it with cranberry or grapefruit juice. These libations, iced and sipped sweetly from 250-cc. beakers, could be hairy indeed, depending on who was in charge of the distillery.

It was on a morning following one of these crapulous sessions that I first began to question my career choice. In the small lab I shared with a classmate I'll call Eunice, an ingenious, built-from-scratch apparatus burst at the seams, liberally spattering Eunice's open lab coat and cotton dress with sulfuric acid. I saw her totter backward, walleyed, and freeze. I ran around the counter, pushed her into the open shower stall - a provision of most labs - and pulled the link chain. Through the tumultuous downpour I watched her smoking garments dissolve. Spluttering, face crumpled, she stood sopping wet but unscathed in tattered dress, slip, and brassiere, arms crossed over her meager chest, beseeching me with her eyes to leave her a shred of privacy.

Two weeks later, I found myself falling to the concrete floor as if poleaxed - I can still hear the distant library-tower chimes peeling ten as I dropped - and lay there thrashing and gasping like a fish in a skiff. I knew instantly why I was down. I had mindlessly stuck my nose in a flask collecting distillate - a treacherous, highly volatile, low-molecular-weight amine - which closed off my oxygen supply as efficiently as a down pillow. No one else was around; Eunice had left a half hour earlier for the building's library. Although physically incapacitated, my oxygen-deprived brain still whirred. The culprit molecule was a base; what I desperately needed in order to survive was a quick whiff of a mild acid to neutralize it. The antidote and my passport to life, a glass-stoppered bottle of glacial acetic acid, sat on the reagent shelf above my head. Arms flailing, sucking what I felt were my final breaths, I could neither rise nor cry out. What unreeled before my eyes now was not a swift synopsis of my nineteen years of life but Cherry Picker shimmying across the boards, naked but for tiara and spike heels. A shadow loomed in the lab doorway. Oxygen-starved, I hallucinated the Angel of Death. My sights were too high: it was Eunice, resurfacing like a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Her mouth gaped as I flopped, blue-faced, on the floor. With my penultimate breath I pointed soundlessly to the reagent shelf. She grabbed a bottle of acetone. No, no. One hand clawing my throat, I pointed left, one over. She moved tentatively for the acetic acid - I nodded violently yes. Dear intelligent Eunice unstoppered the bottle and brought it to my nose. Extract of the gods, elixir vita. Sinuses and contiguous passages magically cleared. I grasped the counter and feebly pulled myself to ray knees. Wheezing, I clasped diminutive, homely, lab-coated Eunice to me as if she were Veronica Lake in a polka-dot bikini.

It wasn't all fume and doom. As an upperclassman I lured many a house-party date to my top-floor room at Alpha Epsilon Pi with a promise of simulated atomic fission - a kind of pyrotechnic showbiz foreplay - making good my commitment by raising the window and dropping a punctured can packed with metallic sodium into the boiling waters of Cascadilla Gorge 150 feet below. Have you ever watched metallic sodium hit water? Kaboom. Krakatau revisited, shades of Los Alamos in upstate New York. A hard act to follow. As much as a school could swing during the Truman years, Cornell swung. Nearly a hundred fraternities and sororities held an endless succession of week end blasts, campus wetter than Cayuga's waters thanks to enlightened New York legislators. I have fervent memories of pounding many a parlor grand into submission in the wee hours (they were painted peach, pink, and powder blue in the tonier sororities), fueled by orange blossoms and daiquiris. Skoal! Halycon days, Cornell!

My brother Herbie had recently changed jobs and was now working at the famed Corning Glass Works, an hour's drive from Cornell. On a Saturday morning in May, near the close of my junior year, he came to check on me. He'd had a fiat tire on the way and arrived at my room flushed and sweaty, a dark greasy stain on one knee of his wide tan slacks.

"I've got just the stuff to clean that," I told him. "Take 'em off."

"Hold your horses, let's try rubbing alcohol first. If that doesn't - "

"Herbie, I've got the right stuff, trust me. Gimme the pants and I'll be right back." I left him sitting plumply in his jockey shorts and hurried down the hall to the can, where I had stored in my comer of the communal cabinet a bottle of acetone appropriated from Baker Lab. I'd become enamored of this super solvent: dump 100 cc. in a gunk-caked flask, swirl it around, and shazaam! - clear as a swami's crystal ball. Using a rough-textured hand towel, I ministered to bro's pants, returned to the room, and hung them on the inside hook of the closet door.

"This stuff in quantity could've dissolved the La Brea tarpits. It'll dry in no time. Then I'll show you the campus."

"Are you eating okay? You're skinny as a nail."

"Always have been." I glanced at his thighs bursting from the jockey shorts.

"If you're tight for money just say the word."

"I'm straight. I've been making extra loot playing two nights a week at a town bar." I'd temporarily replaced the Green Lantern's pianist, who'd sprained a couple of fingers in an after-hours brawl with an excitable patron.

"I hope it's safer than some of the Worcester joints you - "

Herbie's attention had been drawn to his pants, visible in the open closet door. Now he abruptly pushed out of the chair and walked over to inspect them.

"For Christ sake, kid..."

"What?" I came up behind him.

"What'd you use, fuming hydrofluoric acid?" Where I had applied the solvent was a moldering threadbare patch the size of a drink coaster. The fabric was disintegrating before our eyes.

"Acetone," I said weakly.

Herbie squeezed his eyes shut and blew out his breath. "You dumb bunny, those slacks are a soluble acetate rayon?

"Ah."

"Jesus, kid, where's your head? Couldn't you see what the fabric was? A clerk in a clothing store with rudimentary knowledge of synthetic materials knows you don't use - I mean this doesn't bode great for your future." He lifted the savaged pants tenderly between thumb and forefinger.

"You can use a pair of mine."

"How do you propose I squeeze into them - with scissors and a shoehorn?"

I furtively kicked the base of the wall. "Listen, I'll pay for the pants."

"What're you talking, they're cheapo - ten, twelve bucks. The point is - " He blew out his breath again, slowly. "Your chem department here is supposed to be topnotch. I mean, isn't anything rubbing off? Ah... never mind, let it go." He lightly patted my shoulder. "Come on, show me your campus. So I'll look like a slob, won't be the first time." He sat down and pulled on the disintegrating slacks, shaking his head. "But if I were you, kid" - his tongue had popped into his cheek; I could hear the soft laughter huffing in his throat - "I'd keep right on practicing the piano."

Graduation day (not a bad tune). Corporate interviewers by the dozens infiltrated the various campuses. It was a seller's market; I entertained unreasonably high hopes. Gentlemen: This is to inform you of my decision to accept the challenging offer of a directorship at the High-Polymer Laboratory of your Vancouver facility....

Eunice, savior and soul buddy, after juggling several offers chose Du Pont. Other classmates went to Monsanto, Geigy, Dow, Upjohn, American Cyanamid. I was tendered a single offer from Rohm & Margulies - industrial detergents and wetting agents (read soap factory) - in Cranston, R.I. With the job went a 2-A deferment, no mean consideration. The Korean War was unfolding, not one of America's best or wisest adventures. Tales of corpses rotting on stark baking hillsides were circulating stateside.

"You'll start out making aryl sulfonates from benzyl mercaptan," said research director Melvin Franks. "I assume you're acquainted with the mercaptan family?"

My stomach hollowed out. "Just in passing ... not intimately." Dr. Franks looked at me hard and long. The blaze of black eyes and gleam of copper skin against the open-neck khaki shirt conveyed the aspect of a stereotype player in an old Jeff Chandler movie: an indomitable but minor kibbutz character in the shadow of the Golan Heights. The mercaptans - Jesus God, I remembered those sulfur-based mothers from Advanced Organic Synthesis: oily, tenacious, singularly foul liquids.

Over the next four weeks I would become increasingly, reluctantly tight with the mercaptan family - a nasty, unrelenting brood, penetrating the pores, clinging to the skin like cat hair to crinoline. Despite nightly scouring with the harshest of yellow laundry soaps, followed by an expensive pine-scented cake, the funky fragrance trailed after me like the cloud of gloom following Joe Btfsplk, the Al Capp cartoon character with the unpronounceable surname. Empty seats materialized beside me at lunch counters, on buses; half rows became vacant fore and aft in movie theaters. Karen, a freckled blonde from Analytical, a recent Brown graduate, fled my pad on our second date, trampling the amenities: "Sorry, and please don't take it personally, but it'd be like sleeping with a dead mouse." I was beginning to understand why I'd had no competition for this gig.

Dr. Franks called me in for a conference. "I'd like to see more results on the sulfonates. Margulies will be back this weekend, and all I'll have to show him is a month's salary expended on the synthesis and identification of a couple of molecules that a high school senior with no particular scientific bent could have accomplished with a Woolworth set in a basement washtub." The kibbutz veteran had a variety of smiles to go with the sardonic hyperbole, but the smiles were growing less genial of late.

Christ almighty, all this hassle over a system of molecules whose concerted odors would rout a covey of skunks from a garbage dump, whose main functions included the emulsification of insecticides and the cleaning of diapers. My mistake had been panicking in the face of a few rejections, grabbing the first farm-club cracker outfit that vouchsafed an overture. Should have held out for one of the giant impersonal combines, a billet deep in the bowels of Monsanto or Geigy; at least I'd be a member of a team: less emphasis on immediate results, moratorium on anxiety and swamp-water reactants; the prospect of working on something with a shade more social relevance. Yet from Franks's perspective I had to admit that the success rate of my experiments was abysmally low, and whether it was my basic unsuitability for the field or the frigging molecules balking for no logical reason was anybody's guess.
"I think I know where the bottleneck is. I'll - "

"Let me look at your experimental procedures before you leave tonight. From what I read in your reports you're not seeing your analysis through, just whacking off and coming quick."

Whew. Choice rhetoric from a research head and Princeton Ph.D. My options were limited. To jump ship so soon would create problems of professional references, generate a possible fatal interim of unemployment during which my 2-A occupational deferment would evaporate like a beaker of ether on a steam bath. Two decades later kids would dodge the draft, flee the country, or desert the field of battle and be applauded in some quarters. Corporate executives would drop out, choose to deflect coronaries and colitis by driving hacks or teaching at community colleges; M.D.'s would join communes, Ph.D.'s become carpenters or hog farmers in East Dandelion, and they'd be respected for their transgressions. But I was walled into Truman-Eisenhower country, and the ramparts were sturdy.

I badly needed a haven and found it at Club Trocadero, a lively cellar dive on the outskirts of Providence (to which Cranston attaches like a tick to a mangy Great Dane). I hung out there a couple of nights a week, sitting in with a very decent piano-guitar-bass trio playing old gold from the Ellington-Arlen-Gershwin songbooks. I had found an industrial-strength cologne to mask the pungent mercaptans and now reeked of mint. Ladies passing the piano smiled and fanned themselves ("Puh-leeze") and the bartender told me I smelled like "a goddamn fruit." (It's mill-town New England, folks, 1951; I didn't take it personally.) But I was making music in lieu of soap, and the joint was jumping!

Two grinding hours spent trying to replace one infinitesimal, intractable, invisible hydrogen atom with an ethyl group, consoling myself with reveries of struggles on a grander scale: polio vaccine, Manhattan Project (as Oppenheimer's indispensable assistant and trusted confidant). If only I could see the connective carbon-carbon bonds, some manner of optical device clamped to the face like a scuba diver's mask, which would render the vital ligaments visible.... Undigested reactants sat in the three-necked flask like a revolting bowl of week-old bean soup, various unseemly components layering out. Miserable no-count molecules just lying there, crapped out, like winos in the library shade. I felt the immemorial urge, as elemental as hunger: a couple of swift kicks to the counter, loosen the gears - unh! unh! An icy tingle at the back of my neck, a half-sensed shadow in the doorway. Who lurks?

"What gives?" Over the shoulder I glimpsed Franks smiling one of his indecipherable smiles, staring at the scuffed shoe encasing the foot assaulting the base of the counter.

I faced full around, thoughts whirling, formulating hopeless, untenable explanations. A nervous elbow jarred the dropping funnel feeding alkylating agent through the flask's middle neck. The turncock loosened, fell, smashed on the counter, simultaneously releasing a stinking stream of ethyl bromide.

"Shoot .... Sorry, Doctor."

"In again, out again, Hooligan."

Grabbing a beaker and a scrap of cheesecloth, I attempted to collect the abominable liquid dripping off the soapstone, watching coolly (with scientific detachment, if you will) the hand holding the beaker tremble like an old man's. With so many people loathing or laboring vainly in their chosen professions you'd think there'd be thousands running amok in the corridors, tearing at one another's throat.

"The stuff goes for two eighty-nine a liter. And it shouldn't smell that rank if you've been double distilling." Gnawing a corner of his lip, uncharacteristically contemplative, deep-black eyes gleaming like pitchstone. "One of the: plant workmen said he saw you tinkling the piano at a saloon on Broad Street the other night. Beer bottles were lined up on top like clay ducks, he said."

I set the stinking beaker carefully on the counter, the arrow at my heart. "The working day was over. The beer bottles weren't all mine."

"If I've got the right joint it's crawling with two-dollar whores. Maybe that's why you've been dragging your ass around here like a zombie."

A lot of things drifted through my mind. Bivouacking in Pusan, my proud mama and hard-toiling brother, my fragile father in his grave. Classmates and cousins preparing for medicine, law, engineering. Not a whorehouse piano player in the lot.

Taped high on the far wall of the lab was a sign presumably appropriated from a roadside dump, the whimsical handiwork of a previous tenant: DO NOT DUMP GARBAGE, REFUSE. (The scintilla of humor resides in pronouncing the last word as a verb.) In the waning gray afternoon light of this reeking lab in Hellhole, R.I., under the anthracite gaze of my superior, the sign seemed to resonate, to send me an irresistible message. With an audible sigh I peeled off my grungy lab coat of many colors and tossed it on the counter.

There's a shock that comes with the recognition that your talent in a field you've spent four years preparing for is irremediably minor, and with the shock comes the impulse to deflect it with whatever antic or frivolous weapon is at hand.

"Well, I tried. Soap was never my bag. I'm awful tired of the mercaptan family and tired of stinking up the whole state of Rhode Island, so I'm going to split. But I'm no jack-off artist."

"If that's your decision, I can live with it," Franks said. "Meshuggener."

The following afternoon, in one of the cubbyhole ,offices of the Paramount Agency for Professional Personnel in Boston - the third such agency visited that day - I faced a sallow red-haired man in a short-sleeve white shirt and rep tie; the brass-on-wood nameplate read, WM. MARIGOLD, JR.

"B.A. Organic chemistry, Cornell. Shouldn't be too hard to place." He flipped over the application. "You've put down 2-A for marital status."

"Marital..."

"Not martial."

"Ah - Single. MacArthur slip." The chills were beginning to take over.

"Rohm and Margulies... work not suited .... What kind of work was this?"

"Synthetic detergents and wetting agents. Basically we made soap."

"Doesn't sound terribly stimulating."

"Dull as dishwater." A wry drop of levity wrung from a shriveled heart.

Oblivious, Marigold riffled through a card file; his narrow wedge-shaped face made me think of an arrowhead I had uncovered as a kid on the muddy bank of Lake Quinsigamond. "American Cyanamid has two openings for recent graduates - involves a six-month training program. They're in Providence."

The fetid aroma of mercaptan hung in the heated air. "I'd prefer not to return so soon to that locale."

"Union Carbide - two years' experience. Would you be interested in something in New Bedford?"

"New Bedford..."

"Seacol Company. They make various agents from sea plants. Involves some knowledge of polymers and hydrocolloids, experience unnecessary. Pay is quite good - four hundred and fifty to four seventy-five, depending on qualifications."

I ransacked my muddled memory. "I did take a course in colloid chemistry. And a senior-year seminar in polymers..."

"Are you interested?"

"Would this, ah, involve a 2-A deferment?"

"That depends on the individual employer and community conditions. In this line of work it's always a likelihood. If you're interested I'll get right on it."

"Interested."

Marigold lifted the phone, dialing without taking his eyes from the file card, and remarked flatly while waiting out the connection, "I have a son at Fort Ord shipping out next week."

He spoke for a minute or two, mostly reading from my application, then covered the mouthpiece. "Can you go to New Bedford for an interview tomorrow afternoon?"

New Bedford. Not too bad a haul, a lot closer than Pusan. I nodded, the activity of least resistance.

I departed Paramount in a woolly funk. Sea plants, the man said. Was that the same as seaweed? Kelp, algae, the polysaccharides - I began to remember. Nothing about this gig felt right, not my forte at all, as they say in the music biz. New Bedford: all that came to mind was Down to the Sea in Ships, Richard Widmark; mudflats, gulls, tall masts in the mist. I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening in the Boston Public Library wading through Natural Plant Hydrocolloids, Polysaccharide Chemistry, and Seaweed at Ebb Tide.

Sleepless, sweat-bathed on an iron-frame bed in a fleabag hotel, I thought of phoning Herbie in Coming, getting his take on the situation. I hadn't yet told him (or my mother) about the fiasco in Cranston. I thought I knew what he'd say. His breath would kind of explode on the phone the way it does when he's stressed or thinking of a next move: "I don't see that you have any choice, kid. You don't want to be futzing around looking for work with the draft board breathing on your neck. The last I heard they weren't passing out 2-A's to saloon ivory tinklers, so bite the bullet, bozo. Welcome to the big bad world." Of seaweed? I watched traffic lights drift across the fissured ceiling, thoughts tangling in windrows of kelp and its gelatinous extracts: algin, agar, carrageenin, fioridean starch .... Suddenly I knew I'd pass that interview tomorrow (contingent on Franks, if contacted for a reference, having the heretofore unobserved decency and compassion to remain noncommittal). Two-A status secured, I'd accept the offer, find a room in a shingled weather-beaten house facing the waterfront, which would smell of decaying bivalves and gull guano. The prospect of a return session with Marigold or counterpart, more phone calls, interviews, libraries, fleabags, filled me with dread. I was being transported willy-nilly to the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, boneless, unresisting, will paralyzed by chloral hydrate or one of the more insidious psychic drugs.

If you look closely - there, halfway to the domed white ceiling of the cavernous, shuddering plant - you can spot a forlorn figure, the former apprentice pants cleaner and Rohm & Margulies screw-up bizarrely attired in rubber boots and long flapping khaki coat. Climbing a slender metal ladder affixed to the side of a cylindrical extraction tank the size of a Great Plains water tower. Carrying up with him stopwatch, clipboard, tubes of litmus paper, and three-foot-long thermometer. At this dizzying height the biosphere is heavy with a wild rank odor of marshland and rotting fish, and for the second time in three months he begins to understand why there has been little competition for the gig. Other figures are perched on scaffolding surrounding similar tanks, the great dank enclosure vibrating with the din of rotary dryers, pressure filters, centrifuges. (He senses the plant director, stationed somewhere below in the wet bowels of the building, watching him.) His eyes have a haunted look - he has slept very little, wading through swampy and arcane texts into the wee hours - and his limbs feel as if they are attached to invisible wires as he mechanically plunges the thermometer into the roiling tank awash with ungainly skeins of scarlet seaweed, tests with litmus, and jots down figures on the clipboard. Brackish steam rises in his face, but his hands are raw with cold. If the Loch Ness monster had reared its slithery head from the seaweed he would not have been startled; nor would the creature's emergent thrashing have had any effect on his data.

When the boxes on the clipboard sheet are all filled he descends the ladder. The cement floor, fairgrounds-broad and sloping toward numerous drains, still manages to collect sizable pools of brine. He has noticed that no one bothers to circumvent the pools; all take the direct transatlantic route, sloshing straight through in their boots (though without any visible attendant childhood pleasure), as does the plant manager now, looking up from consultation at the base of a sedimentation tank to catch him standing idle and lost at the foot of the ladder. The director's soft uninflected voice advises, as he scans the clipboard, "I'm afraid these figures won't be very useful. Your time intervals are too erratic." He deigns no answer; a response could only be obtuse or jocular. Cockamamie tank might as well have been stocked with sea horses and bluepoint oysters. The machinery's throbbing grows distant now, as if beachhouse storm windows have been closed on a pounding surf. He feels the director's hand on his shoulder. "... bound to be confusing the first week or so. We'll let this ride for now. I suggest you spend the rest of the day in the library reacquainting yourself with the packet of materials you have. Give particular focus to the thixotropic flow charts."

Thixotropic flow? That one wasn't in the Boston stacks.

Gentle monarch of the sea still touching his shoulder (it is in part the gentleness that will undo him), regarding him with a slight frown; thick lenses lend his eyes a distorted, silverish, fishy cast. "Do you remember where the library is?"

"Not really."

"Second landing behind centrifuge D-4, southwest corner."

"Can I borrow your compass?" In-again, out-again Hooligan turning tail with a cunning smile that breaks into introspective laughter as he heads straight for the first magnum-size pool and splashes on through, savoring the frolicking spray, shedding all burden and responsibility. Hey, this is fun ....

Every family, it has been said, is entitled to one nervous breakdown. All indicators pointed this way. I didn't disappoint; the psychological chickens of a loopy childhood and later bad choices came home to roost. Supine and mostly mute day in, day out (not a bad tune) through endless indistinguishable weeks, blankets pulled up to a white tip of nose. Anxious mama peering down, trying to wheedle an explanation from a post, doubtless contemplating the malign paternal legacy - manifest in the trembling smile, dark-circled eyes flooded with apprehension and rue; you could drown in those eyes. Even in his detached state the kid could tell you something about collapse, deserting the field, whatever name you care to put on it. It's unrelieved stupor, vile brass coating the tongue, an infant's involuntarily clenched fingers and toes; the least goddamn thing irritates. It's night sweats; it's sodium's cemetery light at dawn that ices the bones, plants invisible spiders on the skin, sleet in the heart.

"What the hell's going on?" Dark-suited big bro, summoned reluctantly from Corning, filling the doorway like a fireplug.

"As you can plainly see, not a blessed thing." Herbie's solid, comforting presence spurring him to arch articulation.

"Pull the blanket off your face, I can't hear."

"They wanted me to dump garbage. I refused."

"I take off from work, fly five hundred miles, and you talk gibberish to me."

"What basically happened - I got drowned in a vat of seaweed."

"Will you for Christ sake get out of bed? You're scaring Ma and making me sick."

"Up yours."

"Great. This I fly across two states for."

Dr. Harry Fine, old-line house-call family sawbones arrives, is brought up to date and makes a cursory physical examination.

"What I believe we're looking at here is a temporary failing of courage shading into a mild breakdown. Which can occur with sensitive individuals" - sensitive accorded a disdainful equal stressing of all syllables - "when we cut too severely against the grain or batter our heads too often against an unforgiving wall."

"You're sure it's nothing more? He just lies there day after day. Whatever I do seems - Harry, I can't get through to him." Stricken mama clutching her hands, the fear in her eyes tearing at him.

"Sophie, I know this one from way back. I delivered him, remember? What's going on here has nothing to do with his father's problems, so put that out of your head."

They're talking about him as if he's not there at all - and it's true, he's not all there but is experiencing the first flush of shame and restlessness that will eventually uncurl the baby toes and fingers, brush the daddy longlegs from the skin. Later will come self-revulsion and remorse for putting Sophie and Herbie through this ringer.

"He might be faking it, the draft board's after him," Herbie puts in, recounting the substance of a recent bureaucratic communique - According to our information your employment with Seacol Company terminated on October 21. You are required by law to notify your local draft board within ten days of any change of employment. Please contact this board immediately to schedule a pre-introduction physical examination - leaving the beleaguered kid, as if he hasn't enough crap to contend with, envisioning his corpse exposed on a frozen hillside in a dumb war 10,000 miles from home that no one in his right mind gives a good goddamn about.

"Draft board," Dr. Harry snorts. "Your brother's temporarily a basket case. He'd be as much use to Uncle Sam as a fly swatter against a panzer division."

The next morning, perceiving his usefulness at an end, Herbie prepared to depart. "Enough's enough, okay?" He hung in the doorway, ill at ease. "Get up and make your bed, give Ma a break. I'll be in touch, you know, if you need me."

"Tubbo." A way-back nickname unused for fifteen years. Half out the door, he turned warily. "What the hell is thixotropic flow?"

Tubbo started to reply and broke off, staring in consternation at the tears swarming in kid brother's eyes.

A month later, having predictably failed my pre-induction physical (Kind of shaky there, aren't you, son? What's this about? Fear or something else?), I took off like a singed cat for the Lake Quinsigamond dives on the Worcester-Shrewsbury line and found refuge at the Jolly Roger. It was a dump, but a convivial dump: the piano a jangling drink-stained relic, the decor bare-bones nautical (tattered fish netting slung from ceiling beams, hurricane lamps and seashell ashtrays, bogus portholes), the pay sweatshop ($4/night), the clientele working-class in-your-face ("When my chick gets back from the toilet, start 'You Are My Sunshine' and keep playin' it till I signal you"). The family didn't begrudge me the lowlife gig. They were happy to see me back on my feet, however unsteadily, pulling it together. The shame was still fresh; they'd seen me raw and mewling, helpless as an infant. The interim employment, they felt, would be no more permanent than an Ace bandage. They were wrong.

From my lakeside sanctuary I cranked out the tunes of the day - "Autumn Leaves," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "While We're Young" - breathing hungrily the healing balm of smoke, cheap rye, and spilled brew (displacing the fading reek of kelp and rotting fish); swinging like a creaky garden gate but going with the grain, willing myself to forgetfulness. The dinky ruins of a scientific career that barely got off the ground strewn like seaweed at ebb tide seventy miles south in a barnacle-encrusted whaling port. Let us say Kaddish.

 

**  05/01/99 Harper's Magazine.

*Don Asher is a pianist and the author, most recently, of Notes from a Battered Grand. His last piece for Harper's Magazine, "Confessions of a Name Dropper," appeared in the August 1994 issue.

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