Love and Pestilence

by Nabeela M. Rehman


part 1

It won’t let go of me. Over and over again these thoughts are on perpetual repeat. Are you thinking of me? Are you dreaming of me? Will you call? Do you think of me as much as I think of you? What if you don’t care? What if I mean nothing to you? What if this is all made up in my head? What if there is someone else? The thought of you creeps through my skin, etches my nerve endings. The promise of you shreds my concentration, reworks my consciousness into a tangle of inertia and despair.

Leonard had just turned on the computer in the patch-clamping room when he heard a woman’s piercing scream. He ran out of the room and heard another more muffled cry. He wasn’t sure exactly where it was coming from, but he guessed it was near the elevators.

He turned the corner, and there in the hall he saw Priya, a biology undergraduate, leaning against the wall outside the break room. Her head was bowed and strands of her long dark hair hid her face. She was crossing her arms and shivering. Alice was patting her shoulder and trying to comfort her.

“What happened?” asked Leonard.

Alice spoke first. “When Priya turned on the lights to the break room, she saw the countertop covered with cockroaches.”

“The whole counter was moving,” gasped Priya. She clapped her hand over her mouth and bolted to the women’s restroom.

“Did she kill any?” asked Leonard.

Alice glared at him, and growled, “Men!” She raced after Priya.

The women’s restroom was off limits; the best thing for Leonard to do would be to make himself useful and assess the situation. Lab meeting was supposed to start in an hour.

Leonard strode into the break room where meetings were held. In the center of the windowless room, two large tables were pushed together and surrounded by metal chairs. No cockroaches on the table. The walls were bare white cinderblocks, although two walls were covered with huge white ink boards. No cockroaches on the walls, ink boards, or the metal trays under the ink boards, just markers and erasers.

Along another wall, there was a sink and a long countertop, the alleged cockroach gathering zone. Arrayed on the countertop were a microwave, a cheap electric kettle, a veteran coffeemaker, and a tray which held a metal canister of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, sugar packets, a bottle of non-dairy creamer, and eroding “pregnancy health” tea bags left over from another era.

The moveable countertop of cockroaches was nowhere in sight. He shook the tray and peered into the sugar packets. He opened the coffee canister and shook it. No insects emerged. Everything was normal.

Robin, the senior post-doc, was bent over the mini-fridge under the sink. She suddenly slammed the door to the fridge and stood up, a look of disgust on her face. She crossed her arms and was shaking. “Bastards!” she hissed.

Leonard grabbed the glass coffee carafe and started to fill it with water from the sink. He knew Robin wouldn’t bother making coffee. The post-docs prided themselves on their designer lattes from the hip university coffee house. Their boss relished cheap coffee and he consistently provided the lab with large tins of Chock Full O’Nuts.

True, if Connor wanted to impress a potential recruit or outside speaker, he would treat them to the university bookstore café. When it came to the weekly lab meetings or an afternoon pick-me-up, it was the cheap stuff he drank in copious amounts.

Leonard concentrated on making the coffee, filling up the machine with water, putting the scoops of ground coffee into the filter. He turned on the coffeemaker and waited for the gurgling, burping sound which cued him to the status of the heating coils.

“What’s up?” Leonard asked Robin, his attention still focused on the coffeemaker. If he only gave Robin half an ear, she might not be able build up the necessary momentum for drama. Robin worked very hard at convincing everyone she was the smartest person in the lab, but her search for a faculty job combined with a recent batch of experimental failures had made her particularly edgy.

She slowly turned around and squared her shoulders. “There were five big cockroaches in the mini-fridge!” she said angrily. She tried to compose herself but could not maintain an even tone, “This is where we keep our food, our lunches. This is not acceptable.”

Where was this petite, sandy-haired woman going on her emotional rollercoaster today? With her small squinty eyes, thin lips, and long, pointed nose, she seemed rodent-like to Leonard. She was far too aggressive to be a mouse, perhaps a rat. The problem was those long, thin lips could twist into a beatific, serene smile. That smile could fool you into thinking Robin was a scientific or spiritual mentor, when in fact she just wanted to see your data, or be put as an author on your paper, or worse yet, steal your hot project for herself.

Robin was queen of the lab, but this crown did not rest easy. The past month she had been spending long, grueling hours in the lab. This schedule reinforced an aura of dedication, although Leonard surmised the actual motivation was either lack of boyfriend or anxiety about the future.

“You heard what happened to Priya just now?” The fury in Robin’s voice was barely contained, and the edges of her words were starting to take on a Southern twang. Robin only showed her Tennessee roots when she was exceptionally angry or tired.

Leonard nodded. “I guess Connor will have to do something, but” — he hesitated — a bug bomb would kill the fish.”

“No,” she snapped back. “There are other ways to get rid of cockroaches, you don’t need a bug bomb. They have all kinds of technology and poisons. There must be ways of dealing with this without having to tent the whole lab, I’m sure of it. We need to pay a professional to deal with this problem.”

They heard the door to the washroom open and Leonard and Robin went into the hall. Alice and Priya stood in front of the elevator. Priya was dabbing her eyes with a tissue and Alice kept poking the “down” button. The two women spoke in low tones. When the elevator arrived, Alice gave her a quick hug and the girl disappeared into the elevator.

The door closed, Alice turned to them and said, “I think she’s had enough for today.”

Robin pointed a finger at her accusingly. “Alice, the cockroaches are in the break room. They are in the fridge. This situation is out of control.”

“Connor refuses to budge,” said Alice defensively. “You know how he can be when it comes to money. He just wants me to set traps.”

Leonard said, “Aren’t you catching insects with the traps?”

“I’ve seen the traps,” interrupted Robin. “They are full. The cockroach population is outpacing the traps. Every time I enter the tank room I can hear them.”

Alice said calmly, “The traps aren’t doing it. At first they were full, but I think the cockroaches have figured it out. I see plenty of bugs in the fish room, but in the past few days, when I check the traps, they are empty.”

Alice didn’t tell them that she also felt the insects were getting bolder. The chubby, black cockroaches would only run away if she stood directly in front of them. Alice had taken to wearing her heaviest hiking boots to work so she could stomp on as many cockroaches as possible.

Robin said thoughtfully, “You know the university bent a lot of rules to lure Connor here. Most researchers can’t keep their experimental animals so close by. Most animals are housed 24/7 in the animal facility.”

Leonard sighed. Everyone knew animal facilities with their labyrinthine corridors, automatic locking doors, and never-ending security codes were a pain in the neck. Connor’s lab occupied the entire sixth floor of the old biology building. While the rooms on the edges with the windows had offices and laboratories, in the middle of the floor, in the rooms that lacked windows, were four huge tank rooms. All their experimental fish, from the breeders to the fish recovering from surgery, were housed in the 500 tanks that occupied the bulk of the sixth floor.

“Come on, Robin! We are talking about zebra fish here. Minus the fancy genetic pedigree, these are the same fish you buy at Wal-Mart,” said Leonard. “It’s not like we are on the PETA hit list!”

Robin retorted, “How are we going to explain to the animal protocol committee that the fish are competing with cockroaches for their food? There is no way this infestation is up to code. And this is serious, Leonard. I’ve seen grants get shot down when the animal forms are not in order.”

She turned to Alice and pointed at her, “You are the fish room manager. You have got to get Connor to shell out the money and get rid of these roaches!”

Alice had taken this job assuming it would be easy money while she applied to medical schools. A strong letter of recommendation from Connor would also be helpful in getting that elusive slot at a major medical institution. With the exception of a small research project Connor had given her, the job basically consisted of simple housekeeping.

Before the cockroaches, the tank rooms had even been a pleasant retreat. The tanks were on sturdy metal shelves, four tanks high. The rooms were always quiet with a tranquil bubbling from the filtering systems. The florescent lighting was bright, and the rooms were maintained at constant warm temperature corresponding to late afternoon in subequatorial Africa. It was an excellent place to warm up on a cold morning.

The repose of the tank rooms was in sharp contrast to the satellite laboratories with the counters crammed with bottles and chemicals, post-docs and graduate students arguing about experiments, and undergraduates trolling about. Occasionally someone would come into the tank room to collect fish, and once there were a few undergrads making meticulous notes on fish behavior, but they were a quiet bunch. The sanctuary of the tank rooms seemed to calm and pacify the most squirrely undergraduate or ambitious post-doc.

Everything started to change the day she had walked into the tank room and saw a black bug scuttle under the rubber matting. She pulled up the mat as far as she could, but she didn’t see the bug. Maybe it had crawled up from one of the drains? She didn’t think about it too much, until more members of the lab started reporting on the black bugs in the fish room. She quickly identified them as cockroaches.

The scabrous insects soon destroyed her quiet retreat. She had to steel herself to walk into the room, to prepare for the sound of scuttling insect bodies on the concrete floor. Up until this morning, the cockroaches were confined to the tank rooms. Now they had started to migrate.

Robin continued, her voice getting more shrill, “We have to get professional help. What happens when they make it into the lab where the chemicals are? Are we going to find roach bodies in the HCL? What if they contaminate the PCR machine?”

Leonard shrugged. He sensed Robin’s hostility was a thinly veiled attack on his doctoral advisor. Connor was doing his best in a highly competitive environment of diminished research funding and chronically emotionally-needy students. Leonard said to Robin, “If this were such a big problem then wouldn’t Mrs. Kim have seen something? They store all the rice and food in her room. Wouldn’t the cooks have seen something?”

Although Connor and his people occupied the majority of sixth floor, there were two small storage rooms under the direction of Mrs. Kim. Mrs. Kim, the wife of perennial Nobel-prize contender Dr. Young-Jae Kim, had managed to carve out space for her food business. This was not an easy task in a world where square footage was a mark of academic prestige.

The small kitchen for Mrs. Kim’s Chinese food business was on the sixth floor. Each morning, Mexican men would cook the food, at eleven-thirty they would take the elevators down to the first floor where the food was sold. Mrs. Kim manned the cash register, and gave a generous discount to everyone in Connor’s lab. The only problem was, once she got to know you, she would only serve you what she thought you ought to eat. Under Mrs. Kim’s watchful eye, every Thursday was fried tofu with turnip greens for Leonard.

Alice replied, “I talked to her and she said they had a cockroach problem, but they fixed it. They put out traps and they sealed all the cracks in the room with steel wool and boric acid. I saw Dr. Kim with a caulking gun a few weeks ago. They aren’t having problems anymore, but that room reeks of boric acid.”

This was the ammunition Robin needed to launch her war campaign. “Mrs. Kim can have her room sealed off hermetically, but it’s only two small rooms.” Robin said sarcastically, “She doesn’t have to worry about a constant supply of undergrads slopping fish pellets all over!”

Fish-feeding duty on the weekend rotated among different lab members. Hung-over undergraduates were expected to fill a measuring cup of fish pellets from a main feeder, and then go to each tank and feed the fish. After a typical weekend, there were pellets slopped on the ground, on the tops of the tanks, and on the shelves between the tanks. Leonard was certain this is where the bugs had first started feeding.

Robin was unrelenting, “We have created the perfect environment for the cockroaches. It’s warm, there is a constant supply of food, and there are no effective predators. It is cockroach heaven, and they are never going to leave.”

It suddenly dawned on Leonard that the cockroach problem was turning into an experiment in evolutionary biology. Could a cockroach survive in the water? Could the cockroaches learn to swim? Leonard pulled out his iPhone and typed “cockroaches” in the Wikipedia search box.

Robin’s face looked hard and determined, as though she was preparing to amass her troops. “I’m going to tell Connor he has to pay for a professional exterminator!“

Alice snorted, “He’s too cheap for that.”

Robin snapped back, “I’m going to tell him that the roaches are in the fish food supply. How are we going to explain to the reviewers on our papers that ‘the fish were fed fish chow that had been contaminated with cockroach dander, feces, and body parts. We don’t know how much, but we are fairly certain that the fish limb regeneration was not affected by the cockroach remains.’ How is that going to look? The paper will get rejected right away.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Nabeela M. Rehman

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