Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
appear in this issue.
Chapter 8: Larry Avena
My executioners were perturbed by my request. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to ask for and they felt honor-bound to grant it, yet it was not easy for them to obtain lemon ginger tea. I was taken back to my cell and several days passed, while I fretted over my fate. Finally, I was awakened one morning by the guard, who said, “Here’s your lousy lemon ginger tea. We had a devil of a time procuring it. I hope you enjoy it because then we’re going to take you out and hang you.”
I inhaled the spicy fragrance of lemon ginger tea and took a large swallow. It had the desired effect. I found myself back on the airplane heading for the States. The beautiful flight attendant had moved one row back and was serving the people behind me. Almost no time had elapsed since I had taken a sip of what was supposed to be a vodka martini. I still held it in my hand and when I inhaled its aroma it still smelled like lemon ginger tea. I set it down carefully on the tray table and considered my situation.
Apparently I had become addicted to KR22, having only consumed it once, albeit a tremendous dose, and now I was subject to plunging into episodes of totally believable alternate realities without any further doses of the drug. According to Sidney Purslane, or rather, my mental construct of him, I may still be experiencing my first and only trip and have yet to return to my primary reality.
I had lived through three separate events between the moment I drank the beverage and the moment of setting it down. These experiences were convincingly engendered by the protean creative ingenuity of my sensorium, accompanied by my running thoughts and a sense of time passing. Also, there was a back history attached to them, such as the fact that the moment I found myself in prison, I knew I had been languishing there for six weeks. Such is the power of the mind when unlocked by KR22.
The full textured richness of these encounters lent them authenticity, or perhaps a better term would be verisimilitude. Lovely word, verisimilitude. It has all the grace, rhythm and emotional depth of a whole poem. A one-word poem entitled KR22.
There remained then only the fact that some of these realities were more acceptable to me than others. I had a tool at my disposal. I looked at the glass of lemon ginger tea before me. If I were careful to check the aroma of every liquid refreshment before I drank it, I could avoid drinking lemon ginger tea when my circumstances suited me, or conversely, I could imbibe it when desperate to change the course of events. The woman I loved was about to marry someone else, but I preferred the current state of affairs so much more than being hanged. For now I was content to sit back in my seat and let the plane carry me on to my next adventure.
Once I arrived in New York I checked into a hotel and spent several days enjoying the amenities of civilization, such as the novelty of having hot water come straight from the tap. I treated myself to some superb meals, a brilliant new book on the evolution of the gymnosperms, and a Broadway show with fresh melodic songs, clever lyrics and scores of beautiful female dancers. The plot was stupid, but hey, no reality is perfect.
I decided what to do next. I went up to the Bronx Botanical Garden and sat before a fine specimen of the Traveler’s Palm, Ravenala madagascariensis, to which I directed my thoughts.
I need a job. My resume is not in good shape. I was fired from my post at Rutabaga University. Since then I worked at Project Exodus at the Kyvian Botanical Research Laboratory. But if I put that on my resume, it will be assumed that I was working on KR22, which is all the world knows of that place since the destruction of the lab hit the papers. I appeal to the Papaya Contingent to find me meaningful work to do.
I did not have to wait long for a response.
Dr. Salsify, we do indeed have meaningful work for you. If you call on Dr. Larry Avena of the Biochemistry Department at Columbia University, he will brief you. I’ll tell you this much. We have developed a simple one-dose cure for KR22 addiction.
I wasted no time contacting Larry Avena. I had read with interest his illuminating papers on bacterial transduction. He was considered to be one of the brilliant rising talents in the biology game. We belonged to the same generation, but there the resemblance ended. His star was shining far more brightly than mine. I was thrilled to learn that the Papaya Contingent had recruited him.
When I entered his office he was sitting back in a swivel chair with his feet up on a lab table and chewing a stick of sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum. When he saw me he jumped to his feet and came forward with hand extended. “Dr. Salsify, welcome, welcome. The Papaya folks have briefed me on your work in Kyvia and given you their full seal of approval.”
He pumped my hand enthusiastically. “I’m so glad you’re joining our team.”
He was thin, but muscular, with straight, sandy blond hair that fell over one eye. Periodically, he swept the hair aside with a toss of his head, but it soon returned to plague him, so that he spent a lot of energy futilely trying to correct this problem. But then energy seemed to be his chief characteristic. He was constantly in motion, which, of course, made the hair fall over his eye.
“Come on, I’m going to take you to lunch. I know a nice quiet place over on Columbus Avenue. You like Jewish deli?”
When we were seated in a booth in a dark corner waiting for our sandwiches, he noticed that I poured my Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic into a glass and inhaled deeply its aroma. “Long time,” he asked, “since you had Cel-Ray Tonic? This is one of the few places in New York that still serves it.”
“It has been a long time,” I answered, “but I have to tell you that I’m addicted to KR22 and I have to sniff test any beverage before I drink it.”
“I understand,” he said. “Some drink is the trigger that sets you off.”
“Exactly. Lemon ginger tea. Sometimes I think I’ve been served champagne or coffee or a vodka martini and it turns out to be lemon ginger tea and off I go into a new reality.”
“I had a different trigger, but the same problem. Thanks to our Papaya buddies, I’m cured of my addiction now. I’ve popped the Papaya pill.”
“Oh, tell me about that.”
“Here’s the deal. During the last few months my colleagues and I discovered the human dream receptor and the ligand that binds to it. During sleep a peptide is released. We call it hypnosine, after Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. It attaches to the dream receptor and this activates a complex set of reactions, which we still don’t understand, but the result is that the mind’s ability to distinguish between dream and reality is blurred, sometimes extinguished. This is how we accept dreams as real, however absurd they may be to the waking mind. On awakening, another peptide is released, called eosine, after Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, It deactivates hypnosine. This reverses the action and you wake up thinking, man, that dream was so weird.”
The sandwiches arrived and I took a bite of my corned beef on rye, another flavor I had not tasted in years. I took a slug of my Cel-Ray Tonic. It was just as strong as lemon ginger tea, but it did not transport me to another scene.
“That’s when the Papaya gang contacted me through their agent, your ex-student, Bart Comfrey.”
“Bart Comfrey is a loose cannon,” I said.
“Maybe so, maybe not. I was totally skeptical of his story. But he convinced me in an interesting way. He asked me to step over to the window. ‘When I count to ten,’ he said, ‘that maple out there will start dropping its leaves.’ First one leaf fell, then another, then a few more. Then a veritable shower of leaves.”
He made fluttering leaf falling gestures with both hands, even though one hand held his pastrami sandwich and the other a pickle.
“I told Bart to make it stop. It stopped. This was late summer. Presumably the tree had already made the necessary changes to its abscission layers in preparation for autumn, but leaf fall had not yet begun. I must say that I was impressed. Then he showed me a sealed flask containing ... well you know what that was. The same slimy concoction you and Bart imbibed at Rutabaga University that put you in telepathic communication with the plant world.”
“And you ate it.”
“I did. Not without some resistance. I asked him for another sign that he was in touch with the plants. Immediately the maple began shedding more leaves. I watched till the tree was bare. Then I ate the horrible fungus and from that moment on I’ve been a member of the club. Can you imagine how freaked I was, being told by a plant how its buddies were following my work? Our paper on the dream receptor was still being refereed at Nature, but somehow they managed to read our preprint. I’m still reeling from the sheer mind-boggling implications of the unsuspected powers of the plant kingdom.”
I took a bite of my sandwich and listened to Larry Avena continue.
“They explained that KR22 competes with hypnosine and attaches to the dream receptor. Waking, sleeping, makes no difference. The great dream fabricator, that genius in charge of direction, casting, costumes, scenery, story, the works, churns out its brilliant productions and the mind accepts it all as real. Eosine is unable to deactivate KR22, so the trip goes on and on. Eventually, the drug loosens its grip on the dream receptor and you come down.”
This news electrified me. It explained so much, but I was bursting with questions. Avena tossed his head to clear the mop of hair off his forehead and went on talking.
“The Papaya bunch was able to formulate a molecule that can destroy KR22 during the docking maneuver with the dream receptor. At that moment KR22’s electrical properties are modified by the proximity of the dream receptor and some of its critical bonds are momentarily weakened.”
“But how come,” I broke in, “I got launched on another trip without taking more of the drug?”
“Good question. The answer is this: we don’t know. KR22 persists in the body, we think associated with a freely circulating lipid vesicle, but we’re not sure. When conditions are ripe, whatever that means, the drug kicks loose from its hiding place and heads for the dream receptors. What we do know is that the Papaya gang’s antidote molecule is there to prevent reconnection. Hence the cure is permanent, even if additional doses of the drug are taken. How the antidote remains active in the body we don’t know, but it does. At least so far in my case and the few unofficial tests we’ve made.”
I couldn’t restrain myself. My next question came bursting forth. “So if this is just a vivid dream, where is the dreaming person when he’s tripping?”
“Have you ever seen another person on KR22?”
“No, but we fed the drug to a rat, which went catatonic.”
“Exactly the same for humans. The tripper may be dancing on the Moon without a spacesuit, but his body is still here on Earth, locked in a rigid, catatonic stupor. You can see why KR22 addiction is a really serious social problem. I read in the paper yesterday about a guy, when he saw the traffic light turn amber he went off on a trip and sailed into a busy intersection against the light. When he came down he was in the hospital. He explained that the amber light was the trigger for his addiction.”
“Then what about lemon ginger tea, I mean, all these triggers that shift the scene?”
“Oh, yes, different for each person. How these are selected no one knows, but clearly there must be some personal significance for the addict. I’ll tell you about my trigger.”
He paused. Took a bite of his pastrami sandwich. I sensed this was not going to be easy for him to talk about. He leaned closer and said, “Have you ever heard the singer, Lee Wiley?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Not a he. Lee Wiley is a she, the quintessential she, the most seductive, sensual ...” He broke off for a moment, took a sip of his drink. “When I was twelve years old I first heard one of her recordings. From that moment to this, I have had a lifelong crush on Lee Wiley. Her husky throaty vibrato fills me with love-longing. Her recording of How Deep is the Ocean is my trigger. With the opening notes of the piano introduction a shiver of anticipation crosses my skin. At that point the trigger hasn’t yet fired, but it’s too late. I cannot tear myself away from the compelling loveliness of her voice. Certain words she sings with a downward flutter of her voice, like a bird descending on a broken wing, and toward the end when she reaches the line ‘and if I ever lost you, how much would I cry?’, on the word cry, well, if I’m not already gone, then there I go.”
I said nothing, just waited for him to go on.
“In real life I never met her. She was way older than me. I went to her funeral and discovered that I was not her only fan. The men who were enchanted by her voice could have populated a small city. On KR22 we were lovers, of course, except when she sang that song, and then I’d be whisked away to somewhere else, some place ungraced by her music, her feminine magic. One time I found myself in some scorching Sahara of the psyche, where I wandered for days until I stumbled into an oasis where a grizzled oldtimer sat listening to an old-fashioned gramophone playing How Deep is the Ocean. That grizzled oldtimer was my alter ego, the lost wayfarer in thrall to the siren’s voice.” 5
Larry Avena fascinated me. He was a brilliant scientist, a captivating speaker, and in our first encounter he opened his heart to me.
“It wasn’t easy,” he continued, “to take the cure, but I did. My addiction was not KR22, so much as it was Lee Wiley. If I had refused the cure, I could expect more ecstasy and more suffering. It was not the suffering that deterred me. It was worth it for the moments we had. But in the end I knew that I had become dysfunctional, too much time locked in catatonic stupor, when I had a life, a career, waiting for me. My reward: I still play her records and once in a long while I still dream about her.”
His story resonated with me deeply. I knew I’d be offered the cure and I thought how tempting it would be to refuse it. I remembered telling Marguerite that I’d take another dose of KR22 if it would put me on the beach at Topolobampo with Belinda. I realized then why so many people take the drug and why working with Larry Avena on antidote production was important. The question was: how many people would take the cure? I wondered if I would take it myself.
5. Lee Wiley’s recording of “How Deep is the Ocean” can be found on her album Night in Manhattan, Columbia LP JCL 656.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill