Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 11, part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 11: Operation Cleanup
part 1 of 2
A botanist whose career has stalled is enlisted by the plants of the world to help them escape Earth before the human race totally trashes the place. But at the same time he tries to stop the plants from manufacturing the pernicious drug, KR22. He also gets involved in a scheme to raise humanity’s level of spirituality by biochemical means. And, oh yes, he falls in love. Do any of these bizarre projects succeed? Does he get the girl?
The next day I received an email from Norman Hordeum. He had been managing quite well to fill orders for NoGo, but he alerted me that the volume of orders had picked up and that soon I’d be needed to manufacture more of the stuff. I made my farewells and headed back to Puerto Seguro.
I slipped quickly back into my routine, taking care of lab operations a few days a week, giving my guided tours of the rain forest, collecting plant specimens, and in the evenings, working on my projected Flora of Puerto Seguro. It was a relief to be far from the troublesome spectacle of Bart and Belinda, whose lascivious public displays of affection were matched by their disregard for the feelings of those around them. But I have no right to speak for others. Possibly I was the only one disturbed by them.
Larry Avena sent me frequent emails with the latest news of Project Namaste. There was a lot of activity, new developments almost daily, but I was not convinced that any of this bubbling ferment could be construed as progress.
Living on a remote island suited me. My focus narrowed to my own petty concerns. Keeping busy fortified me against loneliness. I learned a lot of botany, the old-fashioned woodsy lore kind of botany that involved collecting plant specimens and studying their gross morphological characters. I pretty much stopped thinking in biochemical terms. Likewise, the future of humanity ceased to interest me.
Then came the email from Larry Avena that changed all that.
Hi ho Alberto,
Did you know that the Rutabaga Foundation has a medical research facility in Puerto Seguro? That delightful little isle is a tax haven for all hip billionaires. The Rutabaga Foundation supports the local economy and the local banks return the favor. Nice little arrangement, don’t you think?
You may have already known that, but what for sure you don’t know is that Bart and I have got our grubby hands on major grant money and a go-ahead to take over a wing of the medical facility while new quarters are built for us.
So, amigo, you can expect me and Bart to show up Friday for a look-see at the property. You’ll find us at the Caribe Hilton some time after 5 pm. See ya then, pal.
Don’t take any lemon ginger tea.
My first thought was, Oh my god, without further embellishment. Then I thought, Why couldn’t he bring Belinda instead of Bart? And then go back to New York without her. And then I thought, They’ll all be coming sooner or later, the whole crazy crew. And then, rising from some deep well of feeling, I’ll be damn glad for their company, bless ’em all.
When I got to the Caribe Hilton on Friday there was a message for me that they could be found in the bar. And there they were, asippin’ and ayakkin’, giving me the impression that they were still in New York. I suppose the Caribe Hilton would feel like a southern outpost of New York, if you had just stepped off a plane and taxied straight to the Caribe Hilton bar.
“Albert, good to see you, mahn.” He gave the word man the broad a of the islands. “You look like you’ve gone native.”
“Hi, Larry. You’ll take your tie off too when you’ve been here awhile. Hi, Bart. I see you’ve acquired a comfortable outfit for the tropics.”
Bart was wearing what the well-dressed tourist would wear if he shopped at Tommy Bahama’s in Miami. No doubt he would soon be the target of all the beggars, hookers and con artists in town.
“Let’s go get some dinner,” said Larry. “Take us someplace expensive. I’ve got all this Rutabaga money that wants to jump out of my pocket and get spent.”
I took them to the Banyan Tree, which was supposed to have the best seafood on the island. I couldn’t vouch for this personally, since I couldn’t afford to go there. It did turn out to be good, especially after a couple of drinks, but I knew a place on the other side of town that was just as good, if you didn’t mind formica tables.
“Here’s the deal,” said Larry. “The plant leaders engineered this grant proposal perfectly. There are some beautiful potted Alocasias in the Rutabaga Foundation’s boardroom, so they knew what was being discussed there. The Rutabagas were keen to cash in on the latest medical miracles and were unhappy with the slow progress in their Puerto Seguro facility. I stepped in at just the right moment, fresh from the splash made by my dream receptor research. We got them stirred up with talk of new ideas, bold plans, innovative research strategies and similar unsupportable bullshit, all seemingly backed up in the written proposal with its polished, optimistic style, ending with three pages of published citations. These citations proved nothing, except that we had read the literature and written some of it.
“I could see dollar signs swimming in their eyes. My own eyes, I admit, were somewhat afflicted in the same way.
“Naturally we didn’t pitch Project Namaste, as such. That would surely have jinxed it. But we talked of targeted intervention meds, specifically tailored to attack rogue cells. You get what I’m saying? I got them thinking cancer without saying the word. When one of them asked if this line of research could lead to cancer treatments, I very modestly said that there was still a lot to learn before we could predict such an outcome, but yes, that was the direction of our thinking.
“Well, they bought it. They’ve cut down the staff here, some of the boys and girls who didn’t luck out on their projects, and we’re getting their lab space. Later, if we can keep them mesmerized, they’ll be breaking ground on a new building for us.”
“And guess what,” said Bart. “Larry has carte blanche on the hiring and firing, so Belinda’s on the staff now. Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah, that’s great,” I responded. Great for you. “She won’t have to wait tables at the Banyan Tree.”
Larry jumped in. “And naturally, Albert, I hope you’ll want to come aboard. Although I’m the principal investigator under the terms of the grant, I don’t want to take on the administrative load. I want to spend most of my time directing the research. How would you like to be the administrative director of the lab?”
Just then a new round of drinks arrived and I took the time to think of my response as I sniffed my drink for signs of lemon ginger tea.
“Larry, I appreciate your confidence in me, but I have no talent whatsoever for administration. No leadership skills at all. But I know the perfect candidate. Sidney Purslane. And he’s a solid researcher too.”
“Of course,” said Larry. “He directed the lab in Kyvia, didn’t he? And he’s worked with plants before too. You know what I mean. Not as research material, but as colleagues.”
“Both,” I said. “But they’re more like bosses than colleagues.”
“Yes, on Project Exodus that was true, but here they’re more like senior researchers. They know so much more than we do, but we’re sharing our knowledge and our ideas.”
“So, have they come up with anything substantial yet? Or have you?”
“We’re all learning a lot.” He paused. “But no, the answer is no, nothing substantial.”
“Then, if you don’t satisfy the Rutabaga Foundation in a timely way, yours could be the next Rutabaga team to get the axe.”
“How true you speak, oh great oracle. It’s going to be a wild ride, since we have no intention of satisfying the Rutabagas. But if we can spread the holy Escapodium before the Rutabaga bean counters lose patience, then we’ve won and it doesn’t matter if we get axed. If we don’t make it, well, it will be a hell of a lot of fun spending their money.
“I do hope,” he added, “that you’ll come along for the ride in one capacity or another. I know you’ll find something to do that will prove indispensable for Project Namaste. It was you, after all, who got this whole crazy idea started.”
“Sure, I’ll play. I’ll be the team mascot.”
“No, mahn, you’ll be the team conscience. All this rutabaga in my pocket is corrupting me. I feel it. You’ll keep us honest.”
It was then that we began referring to money as rutabaga, lower case, as in, ‘How much rutabaga does it cost to rent a car here?’
After the taxi let Larry and Bart off at their hotel, and we parted, I dismissed the cab and walked around the port for a couple of hours.
Maybe it was the drinks talking, maybe it was all that rutabaga, but Larry Avena had changed. He was not the same man who, on the day he met me, confessed his hopeless crush on the singer, Lee Wiley. At the Banyan Tree he sounded like such a cynical opportunist, but maybe, I began to think, he needed to mask the fact that underneath, he was the same brilliant, romantic fool he’d always been.
At the height of his fame, poised as he was for greater triumphs, he left his tenured position at Columbia University, to hoodwink a major philanthropic organization. For the money? Partly, perhaps. But the greater goal, certainly, was to finance a wild and highly unlikely scheme to improve the state of the world, a scheme (or was it a scam?) he knew very well would probably fail and with it his career. A romantic, a Quixote even, who with Lee Wiley’s token pinned to his tunic, (I pictured this as a brightly shining CD), was ready to do battle with the fractious, intractable, deeply perverse being that was man. And he a man himself, with the same hormones, enzymes, peptides, and cunning as any other.
Was I fated then to be his Sancho Panza?
Next day we rented a car and drove to the southern tip of the island, where we found the secluded Rutabaga Advanced Medical Research Center, beautifully nestled in a high mountain valley surrounded by rain forest. We were given a guided tour of the lab space that was being vacated for us.
Larry and Bart volubly sketched out plans for how the space could be apportioned, what new equipment would be needed, how soon we could take occupancy. Some of the dispossessed scientists were still packing up their gear and they looked at us with what felt to me like resentment.
I lagged behind Larry and Bart, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to distance myself from their claim-staking behavior, which to me bordered on gloating. One of the outgoing crew came over to me and said, “You should be aware that this is not a research facility. It’s all about politics and profit. If you guys don’t show profit potential inside a year, you’re going to be the next ones packing up. Take my advice. Don’t put a down payment on a house. You’ll be better off renting.”
I had another month of perfect peace and solitude before the Larry Avena squad invaded the island in force. I was given an office with a beautiful view of the valley and this inspired me to explore this lovely isolated region that I had not previously reached in my botanical rambles. I soon added several new species to my Flora project.
One day as I was examining the floral structure of a new unnamed Aroid under the microscope, Sidney Purslane walked into my office. He looked suntanned and healthy.
“What you got there, my friend?”
“A new species of Spathiphyllum,” I replied. “Would you like me to name it for you? I’ve already named several new plants for myself.”
“Doing taxonomy, are you?”
“Yes, and not ashamed of it, though it has nothing to do with Project Namaste. You’re here to direct the lab?”
“So I’m told. My first impression is that this is a richly funded bit of madness. I’m here because Marguerite and I got quite tired of starving in a dry climate. So the change is welcome, but it would be even nicer if there were a chance that this project might achieve something of value. Albert, I’d like to get your take on the situation here.”
“Richly funded madness. That says it quite well.”
Sidney took up a floral stalk of my Spathiphyllum and twirled it in his fingers. “I don’t know if there’s anything to this project or not, but I do know this. We’ll never solve this problem without major help from our veggie friends.”
At that moment, as though on cue, the potted begonia on my lab table, which served as my telephone with the plant kingdom, started speaking in our heads. Its message had nothing to do with our conversation.
Proceed to Chapter 11, part 2...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill