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Adventures of a Botanist

by Bob Brill

Table of Contents
Chapter 9
part 1; part 2
appear in this issue.

Chapter 10: Project Namaste

The moment I got back to my quarters I sent Larry Avena an email telling him the news of the big change in plant strategy. Then I got on the next flight to New York and went straight to Larry’s office.

“I have news for you too,” he said. “First, Bart Comfrey has joined my lab as a post-doc. He only had one course in molecular biology at Rutabaga, so he asked me to train him. I know you don’t like him and I know why, but he’s brilliant and he’s already added some lustre to my lab.”

“So what makes you think I don’t like him?”

“It’s less to do with his role in blowing up the Kyvian lab, and much more to do with the fact that he married your dream girl.”

“Oh, is Belinda here?”

“Naturally. I tried to get her a position on my staff, but Columbia turned down her application, so for now she’s working as a waitress in that deli I took you to. But listen, that’s not the big news. Even before your email came I got the word from the plants. They asked me and Bart to approach the Rutabaga Foundation for a grant.”

“Things are moving quickly.”

“That’s not all. We’re working on a new project. Ever since our dream receptor paper appeared in Nature, we’ve been getting a lot of attention. Everyone is looking for receptors now, especially me. I’ve been thinking lately about the religious impulse in humans. It’s expressed one way or another in every culture. Could there be a receptor for religious feelings? We’re not there yet, but I think we’re onto something. Bart has been feeding me ideas like crazy and I think one of them is bound to click.”

Larry paced the floor, from time to time sweeping the hair out of his eyes. His mood was contagious. I sensed that momentous changes for humanity were in the wind. And mingled with that, as a kind of quivering subtheme, was the knowledge that Belinda was in town, just a few blocks away.

“Here’s the thing,” he said.

“The thing?”

“Yeah, the thing. What the plants are telling me is that a new ingredient has to be added to the Escapodium package. We don’t know what that is yet, but I suspect it’s going to be a peptide, the ligand that binds to the religious receptor. Those spores are in the air everywhere. We’re all getting a snoot full. Ha! If we can elevate the reverence for life, for the divine, for each other, we can turn this shit around.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. “Albert, you did a wonderful thing. You got the plants moving in the right direction. Now with their help we’re going to get the human race straightened out. Crazy? Sure, but that’s the program. The Rutabaga Foundation is right here in New York. Monday Bart and I are going down there and ask for ten million dollars. Me, because since the dream receptor work, I’m on the short list for the Nobel. Bart, because he’s an honors Ph.D. graduate of Rutabaga University. If you hadn’t been fired from Rutabaga I’d bring you along, but you’re not in such good odor there. We need a lab, preferably offshore, where receptor research can go forward simultaneously with Escapodium manipulation.”

“Thinking of Puerto Seguro?”

“Yep, that’s what the plants want. A place where the work can proceed without interference.”

“Think anyone would want to interfere?”

“Yes, the plants think so and so do I. Don’t you? We’re talking about putting something up everybody’s nose without their knowledge or permission. The authorities might put that in the same class with the wild schemes that made the rounds in the sixties of dumping LSD into the water supply.”

“Actually, Larry, the two ideas bear a striking resemblance.”

“You’re right about that, my friend. So we better be damn sure what we’re doing before this baby is launched. At this point it’s just a glimmer of a wisp of a hunch and there is a multitude of problems to solve.”

“Well, I asked the plants to put their biochemical genius to work for us and now it looks like they’re steaming ahead on it. Or, at least, you are.”

At that moment Bart and Belinda came through the door.

“Dr. Salsify!” they cried in unison.

“Well, hi there, you two. Sorry I couldn’t make the wedding. It’s great to see you. Pretty exciting times we’re living in, don’t you think? Great events we’re caught up in. What do you think?” I was running off at the mouth without considering my words, in order to keep myself detached from my feelings.

Bart approached and put out his hand. “Good to see you too, Professor.” Automatically, I put out my hand to meet his. He looked different, somehow more self-possessed, more mature. He had a powerful handshake.

Belinda piped up. “Yes, it’s good to see you too, Professor.” Almost the exact words her husband had just uttered, except that she did not offer her hand.

“You’re looking good, Bart. And you too, Belinda. You’re more beautiful than ever. Married life must agree with you two.” What a dumb thing to say, even though I felt it was true. The glow that came off them made me imagine they had just emerged from the bedroom.

“Marriage is wonderful,” said Bart. “But it’s more than that. Working here with Larry ... that’s changed my status, given me some direction, and now with this new project ... well, the big change for me is that the plant bosses have finally relented and accepted me as a member of the team.”

Belinda looked wistful. “My career is not exactly on track,” she said, “but my love life couldn’t be better.” She smiled up at Bart. That stung me, but I kept my mouth shut. “I’ve got to go to work now. Bart Honey, come on over to the deli when my shift is done. We’ll have some supper.”

“Right, Honey.” They kissed. Not the old married peck on the cheek, but the newlywed hot hot full hug and kiss. Belinda turned and left.

I calculated they had been married about three months. It would be years before I had a chance. Why was I even thinking such thoughts? I had no chance at all. Not since the days when she sat in the front row and listened to me rhapsodize on the wonders of botany and Bart Comfrey was just another harried grad student working for his doctorate.

Bart flung his body into a chair and put his feet up on Larry’s lab table. “Here’s what I’ve been thinking.”

Larry dropped into another chair and put his feet up on the table too. “Let me hear it, Bart.”

I took another chair, but did not put my feet up.

“The idea of a religious receptor. It’s too simple. So much more is going on. There’s some built-in predilection in the human race for anger and violence. Most wars seem to be religious wars. Boosting the religious receptor alone is likely to lead to more of that behavior. Then there’s love.”

“Ah, love,” said Larry. “Eros and Agape. Sexual love and spiritual love. It won’t be easy to disentangle those two themes.”

“And don’t forget greed and fear and jealousy.”

“And humor and altruism.”

“The human psyche,” Bart went on, “is a bundle of contradictions. There are the genetic components, leading to the sprouting of receptors and ligands, and the cultural components leading to the great variety of expression of all this mixed up stuff. We have our work cut out for us.”

I stayed out of the discussion. The more they babbled, the more intractable the whole project struck me. What I was thinking about was Bart’s powerful handshake.

How different the western greeting of the handshake was from the Hindu namaste. Somewhere I had read that the handshake developed from the practice of showing the open hand to demonstrate to the other party that you were not holding a weapon. How political the handshake can be. It can be used to intimidate, which was how I interpreted Bart’s powerful grip. It can be used to dismiss, as when the grip is indifferent and the attention focused elsewhere. It can be used to express or arouse sexual interest, which is why orthodox Jewish law forbids men and women from shaking hands.

Whereas the message of namaste was unequivocal. If namaste were to be adopted as the standard greeting all over the globe, it would be a much sweeter world. But the more I heard about peptides and ligands and receptors, the more depressed I became, till finally I fell to brooding about Belinda.

A few days later Larry introduced me to Clara Clover, one of his research assistants. He said, “Tonight we’re going to Harlem on a data collecting mission. I’d like you to join us. Be here at 8 o’clock if you want to come.” I found Clara Clover attractive. She was young, tall, willowy, with smooth light chocolate skin and dark wavy hair. When we were introduced she gave me an appealing smile.

I asked Larry for a briefing. “I’ll explain it as it happens. All I’ll say is that we’re going to church.”

Later, when we stepped out of a taxi on a busy street corner in Harlem, I didn’t see any church. Larry steered us to a narrow doorway. We entered and climbed a flight of stairs. I heard music from above. I was mystified, but that didn’t deter me from watching Clara Clover’s hips as she climbed the stairs in front of me.

There were about fifty people in the room we entered. Larry and I were the only whites. On one side a three-piece band was playing a lively hymn. On the other side behind a long table sat a group of men in suits, church elders they seemed to be. Some were smiling and tapping their feet to the music. Some were whispering to each other. Five middle-aged women were dancing, others were clapping and shouting. Behind them were more, both men and women, seated on folding chairs, tapping their feet, or fanning themselves with paper fans. Three women were seated near the dancers, dressed in white and wearing caps with red crosses on them.

On the table where the elders presided, lay a large box with a slot in the top. From the way the sides of the box were dented it appeared to be made of cardboard, but it was hard to say for sure, as the box was completely papered in dollar bills. Or were they just photographs of dollar bills? From time to time someone would come over to the table and stuff some bills into the slot. I couldn’t see the denominations on the bills, but the way one stylishly dressed man was ostentatiously pushing bill after bill into the box, I guessed they were ones.

A polite young man escorted us to some empty folding chairs. A few people looked in our direction as we made our way to the seats, but our disturbance of the action was momentary and we were soon ignored, except for the hostile glare of one ancient crone who continued to stare in our direction. Her gaze I realized was fixed on the beauteous Clara.

The musicians caught my attention. An elderly woman sat at a battered upright piano, pounding out the melody. She played without style, without nuance, thumping heavily on the downbeats, playing the notes exactly as written. If there were any flyspecks on her sheet music, she would have played them. At each downbeat the artificial flowers on her hat jiggled. The bass player was an elderly gentleman with hollow cheeks and a thin mustache. He stared off into space as he played, as though his mind were on vacation somewhere, with the result that he occasionally lost his place in the music. The drummer favored the cymbals, so that in addition to his booming bass drum, hitting the downbeats just a bit late, the constant hissing of cymbals cast a shimmer of confusion over the whole performance.

In spite of the atrocious music, the dancers were cavorting and whirling in glory. The preacher stood up behind the table, right behind the money box, with his arms outstretched, exhorting the dancers. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Praise be the Lord, Jesus Christ, from whom all blessings flow. O you brides of Christ, dance before the Lord.” And so on.

Two of the dancers had clearly passed into a trance state, their eyes glazed over, their movements loose, uncontrolled. One of them fell to the floor and rolled, moaning, “O Jesus, sweet Jesus.”

The second one, not to be outdone, collapsed and writhed on the floor. “O my Lord, Jesus. I feel Jesus inside me. Jesus is with me. O my Lord.”

The ladies with the red cross caps moved into action. It seemed their job was to keep the entranced women from hurting themselves. Our own Clara Clover rushed over with a small case like a doctor’s bag. While the red cross ladies held the writhing women, she administered a needle. At first I thought she was giving an injection, and perhaps this was how it was intended to appear, but then I saw that she was very deftly taking blood samples.

“Larry, she’s drawing blood. Are they going to stand for that?”

“It’s okay,” Larry replied. “We’ve made a deal. Stuffed the money box.”

Clara returned and sat down. Cool she was, unruffled. “Done,” she said.

Shortly after, we left.

The next day Larry set up gas chromatography analysis of the blood samples and discovered that there was an elevated level of some substance in the blood that appeared at much lower levels in blood samples taken of persons at rest. He set to work at once to determine the molecular structure of this substance.

Bart predicted that this line of attack would not lead to a ligand for a so-called religious receptor. He suggested that similar blood samples be taken at a boxing match.

Three days later I found myself at Madison Square Garden with Larry, Clara, Bart and Belinda. Among the contests staged for the evening’s entertainment was one hard-fought battle that aroused the enthusiasm of the crowd. After seven rounds of brutal pummeling on both sides, I felt queasy. Clara appeared cool and collected. Larry was mildly aroused by the spectacle, but remained calmly seated as he occasionally offered vocal support for his favorite. Bart and Belinda were on their feet shouting encouragement to their champion and insults to his opponent. I was appalled to hear Belinda shout, “Kill him! Kill him! Knock the bum down! Knock the bum out!”

Knock him out he did. With the sweat dripping off his body the victor walked about the ring receiving the adulation of the crowd. At that moment Clara took blood from Bart and Belinda, and shortly after in the dressing rooms, from the victor and the vanquished both.

All four blood samples showed the elevated presence of the same molecule that showed up in the Harlem church samples.

“See what I mean?” said Bart triumphantly.

A further result of this experiment was that I looked at Belinda with new eyes. I had seen a side of her that I never suspected and it made me wonder how I could possibly be in love with her. The hardest part was admitting that, although I had lost some respect for her, I was still just as much in love as ever. And that as attractive as Clara Clover was, I had no special feelings for her whatever.

“And to round out the experiment,” Bart said, “we should test the blood of someone having sex. I’d be willing to give odds that you’ll find the same molecule.”

Larry smiled. “And who do you suppose would volunteer for that exercise?”

“In the interest of science,” said Bart, “I think, should Belinda be willing, that she and I could be the guinea pigs. Provided, of course, that Ms. Clover took the samples post coitus and not in flagrante delicto.”

“Very well,” said Larry. “Go for it.”

So it came to pass. Bart was right. Elevated levels of the same molecule showed up. Bart’s theory: there is no religious receptor, no violence receptor, no sex receptor. The molecule in question was a product of excitement or perhaps even a precursor of excitement, but the specific source of the excitement was irrelevant.

What Bart did not expect was that Belinda’s blood level was twice as high as his. Ha, thought I. Serves you right, you puffed up little monkey. Oh, my Belinda, I knew you were a hot one.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill

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