Monday, August 22, 2011

The Organ Symphony

The interpreter was leaning on the rail of a heavy metal pedestrian barrier, one foot up on a bale of straw.  He was watching a small pink pig wandering among the remaining visitors, snuffling in the dirt.  This was the annual Summer Petting Zoo, which was held at the park every year on a mid-August weekend.  A local farmer would arrive in what looked to be the world’s oldest UPS delivery truck, but what was, more or less, an ark on wheels containing a pig, two goats, two lambs, multiple rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and ducks, and a small Shetland pony.

The petting zoo was held within a circle of pedestrian barriers, which the interpreter had helped assemble and bolster with straw bales.  Inside the circle were smaller pens, one holding fowl, the other rabbits and guinea pigs.  That one had low sides.  Visitors were allowed to reach in and pick up a small mammal to cuddle. 

The interpreter didn’t think much of the petting zoo or the broader concept of petting zoos, but this one brought in a lot of paying customers (one dollar each) and the proceeds were split evenly between the farmer, who needed the money, and the budget for school program supplies, which perhaps needed it more.

Once the whole deal was up and running the interpreter’s remaining role was to stand near the exit and encourage visitors to take a spritz from the hand sanitizer station on the way out.  On the ground beside him was a box that contained two extra hand sanitizer cartridges.  He was in charge of installing them, should that be necessary.  He had spent most of the day half zoned-out in the heat, watching the pig interact with people.  He recalled the old saying, "Dogs look up to us, cats look down on us, but pigs is equal."

“Hey  there,” Stacey said, bumping her hip against his.  She had come by to see how things were going.

Without looking up he said, flatly, “Tell Haddad the pig died.”


“The pig always died.”

“You are talking about...exactly what?”

He looked at his watch.  “How much time do you have?  Do you want to hang around until this thing is over?”

“I’m done for the day.  I’m waiting for you.  I might as well wait here.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re most welcome.”
"It's a long story."
"All your stories are long."

He laughed, and then started, “Long, long ago, and far, far away, in a place called Toronto, there was a teaching hospital.”

“How long, long ago?”

“About eight years. It was at a time when an injured biologist returned to Canada from the United States, his money gone, his tail between his legs.”

“Injured how?”

“By a cow.”

The cow?”

“Yes. The cow.”

When he returned to Canada he rented a room from his former graduate supervisor, an animal ecologist from Tennessee named Crawford Atkins known to all as "Crawdad," who had recently separated from his wife.  Crawdad rented a large Victorian house near the university and he sublet rooms to graduate students and postdocs, creating an instant, chaotic, academic commune.  For a nominal fee he assigned a choice turret-room to his former student with the unspoken understanding that the former student be the one to sit up and drink with Crawdad on nights when sleep would not come.  This had been the basis of much of their supervisor-student relationship over those four years. As he always had Crawdad went to bat for the former student and sent out feelers looking for any suitable employment, short- or long-term.  Through a series of connections an inter-departmental notice appeared seeking a person with academic credentials in the natural or life sciences, and experience in publishing and editing.  The job placement was with a professor in the Faculty of Medicine, whose name was Nadim Haddad.

The interpreter said, “He was from a Middle Eastern country, either Syria or Jordan or Lebanon.  I was never sure which one.  He seemed to have lived in all of them at some time or other.  He spoke multiple languages, Middle Eastern and European, but was weakest in English.  He was about 50 years old, charming and handsome.  He looked like Omar Sharif.”  


“A famous actor.    Ladies swooned.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“Ask your mom.” 

He continued, “The job mostly entailed ghost-rewriting his numerous unfinished research manuscripts, all of which were co-authored by at least three other doctors, none of whom seemed to have any idea how to write a paper.  Medical doctors like to think they’re scientists.  Unless they have a strong background in research and a graduate degree, which most do not, they are not.  Most write papers at about the level of a third-year, B-minus undergrad.  It takes a lot of work to improve their work to a publishable state.”

“That was your job.”

“Next to impossible, but as long as I got them to a state at least fit for submission I got paid.  I had to re-run their stats, which were always weak, and fact-check their assertions and add appropriate citations. Then there was the painstaking formatting of the references and subtitles and so on, which was different for each target journal.  I did even more tedious secretarial stuff for Haddad himself--answering his phone, rewording his correspondence and so on.  I might even have gone on coffee runs for him a few times.”

“Was this at the university or in a hospital?”

“Toronto General Hospital, affiliated with the university, in a research wing east of University Avenue."

“So what’s this about dead pigs?”

“One of his research programs, which involved a number of his students, had something to do with organ transplants. Early in the morning he and his students would try one or another organ transplantation procedure on a pig to see if it would work.  Usually by the end of the day it became apparent that it wouldn’t.  I’m not sure what organs he was transplanting--kidneys? livers? lungs? hearts?  all of the above? --or from whom.  Another pig I suppose. The papers I worked on weren’t about pigs.  They were about clinical trials with various kinds of arterial stents.  Thankfully I’ve forgotten most of it.”

“Did you ever see the pigs?”

“Never.  I only went down to the operating suite once, to look for Haddad.  His wife had called.  I pushed the doors open and stepped into an operating room.  There were no pigs but an unconscious sheep was lying on its side on a table hooked up to a respirator and ECG.  It had a gauze dressing on its upper surface.  I remember how weird it was seeing sheep hooves hanging off the side of a human-sized operating table.”

“It sounds really weird.”

“The whole experience was weird and got weirder the more I worked with him.  I gradually started to see his true, less charming side.  He was quite a bully, perhaps even a sociopath.”

“You think lots of people are sociopaths.”

“Lots of people are.”  

“And he was one of them.”

The interpreter said, “I once saw him be cruel to a graduate student, a young Iranian woman named Farzana.  She was not his student but he was on her advisory committee.  She often came to Haddad’s office to use one of the microscopes.   Totally out of the blue he lay into her at a thesis progress meeting when her supervisor was away on sabbatical, not there to support her.”

The interpreter felt it necessary to describe her.  “Farzana was very sweet and pretty in an unusual, other-worldly way.”


“She was slender, I guess you would say ‘petite,’ with fine features and jet-black hair. She had a strange, pale yellow complexion, an olive-skinned person who apparently had never experienced direct sunlight.  And she wore a lot of mascara, which emphasized the unnatural paleness of her skin. Her clothes were peculiar too. She wore very tight knit skirts that went from her neck to mid-thigh and sleeves that went all the way down her wrists. I remember her dresses were either red or burgundy.  She wore black, non-sheer stockings and black high heels.  Even then she was scarcely over five feet tall.”

“You seem to have taken a good look at her.”

“Several,” he said.  “She was striking.  Totally covered, yet leaving little to the imagination.”

“You had the hots for her.”

“No,” he said.  “Too other-worldly. But we did go to the cafeteria for coffee once, at her insistence.  “I told her the cafeteria coffee was lousy, that we should go down the block to a better place, but she was adamant.”

As they entered the cafeteria people looked up.  They appeared an odd couple, her slender, exotic elegance, his field-biologist unkemptness—faded jeans, t-shirt, hoody and tennis shoes.  If not for his lanyard and photo-ID, hospital security would have frog-marched him out the door.

After they purchased coffee and found a table, she told him she could only be seen with him there, in the hospital cafeteria, where they were colleagues.  They could never go to a regular coffee place.  That would be improper.

“I see,” he said.

She asked the interpreter if he had a girlfriend and seemed disappointed when he told her he didn’t.  Eventually she got to the point.  She asked if he knew how to fix a leaky kitchen sink.  In addition, her stove didn’t work. 

He asked, “Doesn’t your building have a superintendent?”

“He cannot come in.  He is scary and he is unmarried.”

The interpreter offered to come by and change the washer in the faucet and check the fuses in the oven.  He explained where they were and how to take them out to check them, but he would need to see the sink to figure out how exactly to change the washer and determine what sized replacement washer was needed.

She asked, “Do you know someone who could pretend to be your girlfriend who could come over with you?  That would be acceptable.”

He didn’t.

The next day his mailbox in the department was plugged by a plastic shopping bag with the handles tied together.  It clinked when he extracted it and it was heavy, full of small, glass items.   He untied the handles to find six oven fuses, two of which were burned out.  During lunch hour he bought replacements at a discount store and placed them in the bag with the remaining good ones.  He deposited the bag in Farzana’s mailbox with a note.  He would let her know if he found a girlfriend, real or not, and then he would fix her faucet.

A few days later Haddad interrupted the interpreter’s editing and requested he accompany him to a conference room in a far-flung corner of the building.  He sat at a table with Haddad and a group of young men unknown to him.  Several wore lab coats. Were they grad students?  Lab techs?  Junior professors?  Medical residents?  The list of possible identities in a teaching hospital was long and diverse. The interpreter would note afterward that none looked the least bit Persian.  Then in walked Farzana, smiling nervously, carrying a laptop computer. She went to the front of the room, opened the laptop, turned it on, and ran a cable to a projector.  She clicked to the desired file, turned on the projector, and stood next to her computer, facing a screen.

She started speaking.  She had a quiet voice and a slight British accent due to her earlier overseas schooling.  She got five or six frames into a Powerpoint presentation, something to do with the surface structure of a particular protein, when Haddad interrupted. He asked, “And on what data do you base your assumptions?”

“Oh,” she said.  She clicked back a frame to a list of references.  “The assumptions are backed by the results of these twelve studies. As I mentioned.”

He asked, “Well, do you trust the results of those studies?”

She answered, uncertainly, “I read them.  They corroborate each other.”

“But you yourself did not replicate the experiments.”

“There was no need to.”

“Then how do you explain the discrepancy found in another study.”  Haddad looked down at a stack of photocopied sheets in front of him and read the title of a paper, and the names of its authors.  The paper was almost ten years old and written in German.

She paused.  “Ah, I’m not familiar with that paper. Could you tell me what they found that was different?

“Come here, take it.  Have a look.”

Farzana said, “If that paper were significant the issues in it would have been addressed by these more recent papers here.”  She moved the mouse arrow over the list.

“Your background reading is incomplete,” said Haddad.  “I don’t think we need to progress any further.”

She was startled and said, “Please, I’ll check on that afterward.  Please allow me to finish what I have prepared.  You’ll see I’ve made significant progress this past year.”

He raised his voice, saying, “Whatever you have found is of doubtful credibility because you ignored this paper.”  He slammed it onto the table and then switching to Farsi, began shouting.  Farzana’s face fell.  She yanked the cable from her laptop, snapped the computer shut, and fled the room in tears.

The others around the table, including the interpreter, were shocked and looked at their hands.

Haddad sneered, “Little girl.”

“Holy crap,” said Stacey.  “That is pure abuse.”

“See?  Sociopath,” said the interpreter.

Early the next day Farzana came to Haddad’s office and knocked timidly.   The interpreter called for her to come in.  She was relieved that Haddad had not yet arrived, and placed an envelope on his desk.

She said, “I was up all night translating and reading that paper.  It is barely relevant at all and the recent papers disprove the small parts that are.  So I updated my presentation to include this information.”  She indicated the envelope.

He looked over his shoulder.  “You sure you want to include that? You’re saying Haddad’s wrong.”

“I also included a note thanking him for pointing out that I missed an important reference and have read and included it in the reading list.”  She then approached the interpreter, stood a few feet away, and asked why he didn’t stand up for her at the progress review.  She asked, “Didn’t you agree that my assumptions were supported?  Didn’t you think that what Dr. Haddad was saying was out of line?”

He turned his chair fully around to face her and said, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand much of what was going on.  I have almost no knowledge whatsoever of protein structure and surface chemistry.  The reason I’m here is to edit his papers and his letters.  Anatomy I understand, but your level of organic chemistry and molecular biology is way over my head.  By the time I figured out he was being unreasonable, it was too late.”  He added, “I’m really sorry.  That was unfair.”

She blinked her eyes.  “So then why were you there?”

“Haddad asked me to go.”

“To just sit there?”

The interpreter shrugged. “I guess so.”

“So you’re like what, a decoration?  A voiceless member of his entourage?”

At that instant he understood. He had been summoned to help humiliate this student, which, in his silence, he had done.

Standing in front of him, she burst into tears, enormous, mascara-melting tears.  He stood up and looked around for a Kleenex box.  All he saw were Kimwipes, flimsy tissue squares useful for little more than polishing the eyepiece of a microscope.  He plucked half a dozen from the box and handed them to her in a clump.

She said, “I hate my life.  I’m 24 years old and have never had a date with a boy.  I have never been kissed by a boy!  I feel so trapped, I have no real life.”  She stepped close to him.  He raised his hand to touch her arm, as much to keep her away as to provide a comforting touch.

“No!” She scolded. “You do not touch me.  Just please, stand very still.”

He did and she came closer, sobbing, until her breath warmed the hollow of his neck.  Her hair was almost brushing his nose.  It was as close as you could get to another human without physically touching. Her perfume was strong and bitter.

“Umm,” he said. He wanted to jump back.

“Do not move,” she said. “Please.”  He didn’t move.  He froze. Less than a millimetre separated the mis-matched toes of their shoes.  The phone rang.

He exhaled and stepped away to answer.

It was Errol, the chief technician on the Experimental Organ Transplant Team. He asked for Dr. Haddad.

“Sorry, he’s not here,” said the interpreter.

“Oh, well, tell Haddad the pig died.”

“Sure,” said the interpreter.

He turned around to find Farzana gone. She was a ghost in a dream. He looked at the toe of his right shoe, at a spatter-mark that resembled soot splashed from a fire pit.  A teardrop.

Stacey  asked, “Why did she want you to stand there like that?”

“I think it was her version of a hug, a hug without touching.  What I don’t know was if it was supposed to be me hugging her for comfort, or her hugging me in forgiveness.”

“That’s messed up,” said Stacey, “in a lot of ways.”

“And then there was the thing with Mike.”

Mike was one of Dr. Haddad’s graduate students, clearly his favourite.  He was on the Experimental Organ Transplant Team.  Mike was tall and good-looking and affable.   Haddad fawned over him, would invite him to the pub for a beer after work.  Mike couldn’t have been happier.  He was the only student who would drop by just to shoot the breeze.  He was totally unprepared for how Haddad would react to his new girlfriend, whom he proudly presented one day.

Stacey asked, “Are you telling me Haddad had the hots for Mikey?”

The interpreter paused and considered.  “I hadn’t thought of that before.  I read it as something else.” 

Mike’s new girlfriend was a first-year medical student named Nicole Koyama. She was attractive and professional-looking in her lab coat, stethoscope and ponytail.  Her smile filled the office.

Haddad was warm and gracious to her, shook her hand and beamed at her.  After she and Mike left together, the interpreter saw Haddad shake his head and say something in one of his other languages, something disapproving.   A few minutes later Mike returned, happy as a clam.  Haddad signalled him over and pointed to an empty chair.  Mike sat down, puzzled.

Haddad said, “Mike, really?  A Japanese girl?  You think that’s wise?”

Mike was taken aback.  “She’s not really Japanese, except genetically.”  He explained that Nicole was a third generation Canadian on her mother’s side and fourth on her father’s.  “A multiple generation Japanese Canadian is about as Canadian as you get. She’s more Canadian than I am.”  Mike’s parents had immigrated from South Africa.

Haddad said, “I will tell you a word.  An English word.  It is this:  ‘Miscegenation.’  Do you know what it means?”

The interpreter was surprised that Mike didn’t know.

Haddad brought his hands together in front of his chest and interwove his fingers.  “The mixing of the races.”

“It happens all the time,” said Mike.

“Maybe so.  That does not make it a good thing.”

Mike asked, “Are you serious?”

Haddad became quasi-scientific, saying, “Your genome and that young lady’s genome are very different.  The development of a child of such far apart parents of very old streams, which have diverged, cannot come back together for a favourable result.  The DNA will not mingle correctly and the results can be a disaster.”

Mike said, correctly, “That’s not true at all.”

“It is not natural,” said Haddad.  “I cannot approve.”

“She’s my girlfriend, not my fiancé,” Mike explained. “There is no talk of children.” He was scared.

“It’s wiser to stop now, before you go too far.”

The interpreter said to Stacey, “Mike stared at Haddad as if trying to figure out if he really meant what he was saying.  Then he turned to me for support.  I should have said something, but I didn’t.”

Mike shook his head and said, “I cannot believe this.”

Haddad said, “You may go.  Check with Errol how today’s procedure is turning out.”

Shortly after Mike left the phone rang.  Haddad answered and was immediately charming and chummy with whoever was on the other end.

“Don’t worry, Errol,” he said.  “There is always another pig.

The interpreter walked out. He found Mike in a stairwell, his hands spread on the railing, looking shocked as if his own parents had violently rejected his girlfriend.

The interpreter told him not to worry, that his parents would have no problem falling in love with Nicole, although truly he had his doubts.

Mike said, “They’ve already met her.  They think she’s great.”

“That’s all that matters,” said the interpreter.

“No.  I need him to accept her.  Otherwise I have to sneak around behind his back.  You know how he likes to control everything.  If he finds out he’ll believe I have betrayed him and then he’ll manufacture a way to get rid of me.”

Stacey said, “Again, that is totally messed up.  Why didn’t you say anything?  Why didn’t you back Mikey up?”

The interpreter said, “Just like with Farzana I couldn’t believe what I was watching.  I was stuck in an incredulous fly-on-the–wall mode.  It’s how I react to sociopaths.” 

“You should have quit, right then.”

He told her, “I hated being in that guy’s world but it was all I had.  I needed the money to escape so I buried my nose in those papers, trying to get at least two or three ready for submission by the end of the term.  I tried to ignore everything else going on around me.”  He added, “But at least once a week the phone would ring and it would be that same terse, discouraging conversation.”

“It’s  Errol.  Tell Haddad the pig died.”

Stacey asked, “How did this wonderful experience finally end?”

It ended a day after Haddad demanded that the interpreter meet him in his office the following morning at 8 AM.  It was a day that the interpreter had planned to spend entirely in the medical library, chasing down a wealth of critical loose ends.

Nevertheless the following morning he arrived at 8 AM, switched on the lights, and sat down.  He waited, watching the clock--9 AM, 10 AM, 11 AM... He phoned the operating suite, Haddad’s pager, even Haddad’s home, leaving messages, getting no reply.  He spent the entire day in Haddad’s office, waiting, not even stepping out for a quick lunch.

Finally the phone rang.  He leapt for it.  It wasn’t Dr. Haddad.  It was Errol, down in Post Op. 

“I have no idea where he is,” said the interpreter. “I’ve been waiting for him all day.”

“Oh, well, tell him...”

“Yeah, I know,” said the interpreter.

“Yup,” said Errol.  “Thanks.”

The interpreter wrote the words on a post-it and stuck the post-it on Haddad’s monitor.  He switched off the lights, stepped from the office, and locked the door.

He walked to the high-sided counter where the departmental assistant lurked and said, “If Haddad ever shows up tell him I’m gone.  Tell him I was waiting since 8 AM.”

She was an older woman, soon to retire, and had long ago stopped taking sides in intra-departmental politics.  She said, “He’ll be unhappy you’re gone if he’s expecting you to be there.”

“He thinks he can do or say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?  He can waste another person’s entire day and not even feel the need to apologize.”

She smiled. “A peacock likes to strut.” 

He said, “The peacock can go @#$% himself.”

The woman said, “You’re quitting?”

“Tell him I’m not coming back.”

“You lasted longer than the previous two, but not as long as the one before that.  Please return your key.”  She reached her hand over the counter.

He took his keychain from his pocket and fussed with it.  He had clipped his fingernails that morning and was not able to force an edge between the spiralled rings.   “To hell with it,” he said, and walked out the door, spinning the keys on his finger.

“That was when I decided to leave Toronto. That crummy man was the last straw, proving there was no place for me in that city.  I sold everything except my books and moved out here.”

Stacey nudged him and said, “I will have to send that crummy man a thank you card.”

He turned to look at her.  He cupped her face in his hands, smiled, and said, “In a land of endless rain...”

She finished his sentence, “I am sunshine.”

He kissed her forehead.

“Hey, careful, you’re in uniform," she said, laughing and pushing his hands away.

He unfastened his nametag and dropped it into his breast pocket.  “I’m just a visitor, here to see a pig.”   

He took Stacey by the hand, handed a toonie to the farmer’s daughter, who, contrary to archetype, was downcast and dumpy in a softball jacket, stained grey sweat pants, and gumboots.

As they entered the corral Stacey paused at the pony.  The interpreter headed straight to the pig, who was being spoken to by a mother and young daughter.  He waited for them to leave and then stepped forward and crouched down.  He and the pig eyed each other in what the interpreter read as a mutually admiring way.  Neither said anything.

After a minute or two Stacey spoke from behind.  She said, “This little piggie stirred up a lot of memories.”

The interpreter scratched the pig’s bristly crown and said, “Hello, Babe.” 

“Not all petting zoo pigs are called ‘Babe’,” Stacey said. “Some are probably still called ‘Wilbur’.”

“Have you seen the movie?”  The pig nudged the interpreter’s knee with its snout. Keep scratching.

 “Babe?  Yeah.  It was cute.”

The interpreter started humming, a happy, triumphant melody, interspersed with answering brass, “Baa-da-da-da, baa-da-da-da.”  He had an orchestra in his head.

She asked, “What’s that tune?”

“It’s from the movie.  They repeatedly used the major themes from Saint-Saën’s Symphony Number 3.”

“I don’t know it.”

Among the interpreter’s CD collection was a small assortment of classical disks.  One, by chance, was Saint-Saën’s third symphony, the Organ Symphony.

“I shall play it for you when we get home,” he said.  “At least the final movement, with the organ.”


Roxie said...

Wow! You can WRITE!

A pleasure to read. Thanks.

Hugh said...

Thanks, Roxie. I had thought from the general lack of response that this one didn't work very well. Or that it was too long.

Anonymous said...

It's lovely.

Susannah (Wanderin' Weeta) said...

It worked too well for me. I read it again, just now, and I'm just as mad as I was the first time.

I've known people like that professor, too well. Your story rings true.