All day the snow had been falling. Snow muffled every store and church; drifts erased streets and sidewalks. The punks at the new Harvard Square T stop had tramped off, bright as winter cardinals with their purple tufted hair and orange Mohawks. The sober Vietnam vet on Mass Ave had retreated to Au Bon Pain for coffee. Harvard Yard was quiet with snow. The undergraduates camping there for Harvard's divestment from South Africa had packed up their cardboard boxes, tents, and sleeping bags and begun building snow people. Cambridge schools were closed, but the Philpott Institute was open as usual. In the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs were working.
Two to a bench, like cooks crammed into a restaurant kitchen, the postdocs were extracting DNA in solution, examining cells, washing cells with chemicals, bursting cells open, changing cells forever by inserting new genetic material. They were operating sinks with foot pedals, measuring and moving solutions milliliter by milliliter with pipettes, their exacting eyedroppers. They were preparing liquids, ices, gels.
There was scarcely an inch of counter space. Lab benches were covered with ruled notebooks and plastic trays, some blue, some green, some red, each holding dozens of test tubes. Glass beakers stood above on shelves, each beaker filled with red medium for growing cells. The glass beakers were foil topped, like milk bottles sealed for home delivery. Peeling walls and undercounter incubators were covered with postcards, yellowing Doonesbury cartoons, photographs from a long-ago lab picnic at Walden Pond. The laminar flow hood was shared, as was the good microscope. In 1985, the Philpott was famous, but it was full of old instruments. Dials and needle indicators looked like stereo components from the early sixties. The centrifuge, designed for spinning down cells in solution, was clunky as an ancient washing machine. There wasn't enough money to buy new equipment. There was scarcely enough to pay the postdocs.
On ordinary days, the researchers darted into and out of the lab to the common areas on the floor. The cold room, warm room, and stockroom were shared with the other third-floor labs, as was the small conference room with its cheap chrome and wood-grain furniture, good for meetings and naps. But this Friday no one left the lab, not even the lab techs, Aidan and Natalya. Gofers and factotums for the postdocs, these two belonged to a scientific service class, but no one dared treat them like servants. They were strong-willed and politically aware, attuned to every power struggle. They kept darting looks at each other, as if to say "It's time to go downstairs," but they delayed going to the animal facility for fear of missing something. The lab directors, Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass, were meeting in the office down the hall. They had been conferring for half an hour, and this did not bode well. One of the postdocs was in trouble.
How bad was it? No one spoke. Prithwish kept his head down over a tray of plastic tubes, eyes almost level with the avocado plant he'd grown from seed. "My most successful experiment," he often said ruefully. Robin ducked out to look up and down the hall, then brushed past Feng as she hurried back inside. The black and white clock on the wall was ticking past three, but like the clocks in grade school, this one was always slow. Natalya glared at Aidan, as if to say "I went downstairs last time; it's really your turn now," but Aidan turned airily away. It might have been funny, but no one joked at the techs' pantomime.
"Cliff." Suddenly, Marion Mendelssohn was standing in the doorway. She stood there, fearsome, implacable, dark eyes glowering. "Could we have a word with you?" Cliff smiled tightly and shrugged, a desperate little show of nonchalance.
The others looked everywhere else, as their lab director led Cliff away to the office she shared with Sandy Glass.
Cliff's cheeks were already burning as he followed Marion down the corridor. At six foot three, he was more than a foot taller than Marion. Still, he was entirely in her power, and he dreaded what she and Glass were about to say. For years he'd been developing a variant of Respiratory Syncytial Virus and had dreamed of using his modified RSV to transform cancer cells into normal cells. His experiments were not working; Sandy and Marion had ordered him to give them up, and he had disobeyed.
The door closed behind him, and Cliff was standing in the tight, cluttered office.
"Now, Cliff," said Glass, "did we or did we not have a discussion about your continuing trials with RSV?"
Cliff stood silent.
"Maybe you don't remember our conversation," said Glass, smiling.
Cliff did remember, and he knew better than to smile back. Always cheerful, brimming with the irrepressible joy of his own intelligence, Sandy Glass smiled most when he was angry.
"I said you had to stop using RSV," Sandy reminded Cliff. "You said you understood."
"We established RSV has some effect in vitro
," Glass said. "Congratulations. You're on your way to curing cancer in a petri dish. But what have we established when we try injecting RSV into living mice?"
Cliff looked away.
"You've established nothing
. You injected fifty-six mice with RSV, with no effect on tumors whatsoever. Therefore, Marion and I asked you to stop. We asked you nicely to move on. What did you do next?"
"I tried again," Cliff said, staring down at the floor.
"Yes, you did. You tried again."
Sandy ignored this. "We told you to stop wasting resources on RSV."
"I didn't want to give up," Cliff said.
"Look, I realize RSV was your baby," Sandy said. "I realize this was two years' work developing the virus."
Two and a half years, Cliff amended silently.
"We understand you put your heart and soul into this project." Sandy glanced at Marion, who looked anything but understanding. "The point is, RSV does not work. And now, yet another set of experiments--against all advice, against our specific instructions. What were you thinking, Cliff? Don't say anything. Perseverance can be a valuable trait, particularly when you're right
. But we see now that this third trial is showing every sign of failing spectacularly. No, don't apologize. Just tell us what you were thinking. Tell us your thoughts, because we really want to know."
Why had he tried twice more with the virus after it had failed? They were expecting an answer, but Cliff could not speak. The truth shamed him; it was so simple: he could not bear to jettison work that had taken so much time. The hours, the thousands of hours he'd spent, sickened him. How could he confess to that? The scientific method was precise and calibrated. A scientist was, by definition, impassive. He cut his losses and moved on to something else; he was exhausted, perhaps, but never defiant with exhaustion. A scientist did not allow emotion to govern his experiments.
And yet Cliff had been emotional and unrealistic about his work. He had behaved unprofessionally, taking his long shot again, and yet again. How could he explain that? There was only one reasonable explanation: he was not a scientist. This was what Mendelssohn and Glass were driving at.
"Did we or did we not agree," said Glass, "that you would end the wholesale extermination of our lab animals?"
"We don't have the money," said Mendelssohn, and she didn't mean funds for the mice themselves, which cost about fifteen dollars each, but the money for the infinite care the delicate animals required. "You'll recall we asked you to work with Robin."
"She could still use another pair of hands," Glass said, and Cliff hated him for that, and for the patronizing, slightly prurient tone in Glass's voice.
"I deserve my own project," Cliff said, raising his eyes.
"There is no such thing as your own project in this lab," Mendelssohn declared.
"Look, this is a team," Glass said, "and you need to pull your weight, not drag everyone else down with your personal flights of fancy."
Down the hall, in the lab, the others gathered like near relations at a funeral.
"They wouldn't fire him," Prithwish said loyally. He was Cliff's roommate, after all.
"They will not fire him," Feng agreed.
Natalya thought about this. "My feeling is Mendelssohn would not, but Glass would." She was Russian and had been a doctor herself, before coming to America. Natalya had never taken to Glass.
"They'll be arguing, then," said Prithwish.
"They'll let him stay," Aidan predicted, "and make him so miserable he'll leave by himself."
"He was miserable before," Prithwish pointed out, but the others hushed him. Cliff was coming back down the corridor.
Instantly his friends scattered, vanishing into the clutter of glassware and instruments like rabbits in the brush. All but Robin, who pulled at Cliff's sleeve. Silently they slipped into the adjoining stockroom, the lab's poisonous pharmacological pantry.
She closed the door behind her. "Are you all right?"
His cheeks were flushed, his eyes unusually bright. "I'm fine."
She drew closer, but he turned away.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," he said. "They've already tried to pawn me off on you."
"They suggested that you work with me?"
"Six months ago, but I said no."
She was surprised, and hurt. "You never told me that."
"What was the point? I didn't want to work on your stuff."
She folded her arms. "What's wrong with my stuff?"
"Nothing!" he lied.
She had spent five years working on what had once been considered a dazzling project, an analysis of frozen samples of blood, collected over the years from cancer patients who had died of various forms of the disease. Sandy Glass had been convinced that somewhere in these samples was a common marker, a significant tag that would suddenly reveal a unifying syndrome underlying his patients' tragic and diverse conditions. Glass had presented the project to Robin in her first year with a flourish, as if he were bestowing upon her a great gift. He'd told Robin he was convinced there was a Nobel Prize in this work; that this above all was the research he himself had hoped to do if his clinical duties had allowed. Then, having bestowed his blood collection along with a great deal of disorganized documentation about each donor's illness and death, he'd left her to work alone.
He'd chosen her for her fierce intelligence, her passion for discovery, her ambition--and, of course, Glass had always liked a beautiful postdoc. Robin's eyes were a warm brown, brilliant under pale lashes, her blond hair silken, although she tied it back unceremoniously with any old rubber band she happened to find. Her features were delicate and easily flushed, her teeth were small and almost, but not quite, straight. On the upper right side, one tooth overlapped another slightly, like a page turned down in a book. With her fine eyes and shining hair, she'd always seemed to Cliff like a girl out of a fairy tale. Still, even she could not spin Glass's dross into gold.
"So there's nothing wrong with my work, but it's not good enough for you," she challenged Cliff.
"No, I didn't say that."
"That's what you were thinking."
"Look, if I ever thought that, I'm sorry. Just, please . . ."
Gravely, she turned on him. "But you aren't sorry."
"I just thought . . ." she began.
"Don't think anything. Just leave me alone."
He strode back through the lab and out into the hall. How could Robin expect him to talk to her? What did she want from him? To beg her to let him work on her dismal black hole of a project? To break down sobbing on her shoulder so she could comfort him? He still heard the humorous disdain in Glass's voice. He saw the hard disappointment in Mendelssohn's eyes. They had not ordered him to leave; they'd even allowed that he might stay, but they had made him suffer. They had held up the evidence of his disobedience and failure, then tossed whatever scrap of a scientist he'd been upon the garbage heap and all but called out "Next!" There was Prithwish coming after him down the corridor. Cliff was not going to suffer his condolences. He escaped into the stairwell and bolted down the stairs.
Outside the institute, the snow had stopped. The December sun was setting, and the world was strangely still. He'd run down four flights of stairs, and stood for a moment, breathing hard. Then he caught his breath and his anger flared again. He kicked his way through the snow, mouthing retorts. Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?
He walked without noticing distance or direction. Startled, he saw a red neon sign, LIBBY'S IQUORS, and realized he was in Central Square. A bus swept past, but there were scarcely any cars on the road. Stores were closed, and clean snow blew over the empty taxi stands. All alone, Cliff walked on.
He walked over a mile, as far as MIT, and then turned around and started back again past shuttered Victorian factories converted into warehouses, redbrick ramparts lowering in the shadows of taller office buildings. He thought about calling his parents, but what could they say to him? They owned a stationery store in West Los Angeles. They'd always encouraged Cliff. He'd attended University High School, gone to science camp in summers, practiced triangulation on sunbaked tennis courts, built his own weather station, cooked homemade versions of Silly Putty, toothpaste, and glue. His parents had paid for chemistry sets, and student microscopes, and even Stanford. They were well educated; both had gone to college, but Cliff was the first person in his family to earn a PhD. His parents knew nothing about bench work or lab politics. He thought of his thesis advisor, now dead. What would Professor Oppenheimer have said? He'd have laughed, of course, showing off his yellow teeth. He'd say, "What do you expect? You don't listen to the lab director, you get busted. You screw around with someone in the lab; of course you're gonna end up fighting later. You get what you deserve. How many times do I have to tell you? Don't shit where you eat."
His hands were cold, even in his pockets. He walked and walked up Mass Ave, and then along the Charles River, and his heart began to calm. The cold air began to smooth and smother his angry pride; numb despair overtook indignation.
He imagined he would keep walking forever in ever-widening circles, but as the river curved, he came upon the Weeks Footbridge, and there on the bridge he stopped. The Charles stretched out in the dark; pure, white, frosted with snow, like an ancient road now forgotten.
Cliff was overcome with a profound idea. He would walk across the river. Invisibly he would walk across the invisible river and leave his own footprints in the white snow on the frozen water. In the middle of the city, he would wander alone as if in the country, the slight crunch of the ice under his feet. He would walk to the other side.