Bartlett Aubrey skated down Lansdowne street with Fenway’s left field wall, the Green Monster, on one side, and a row of silent nightclubs on the other. The streets were clear of ice, but the air was cold. It was the dead of winter, and Fenway Park was quiet in the fading sun of the late afternoon. She had gotten off to a late start today; she needed to hustle. Boston drivers lived up to their reputation, and rollerblading in the dark was a suicidal gambit.
It was just as well that there was no baseball to distract her. Her work and her workouts were all she needed. She had no time or energy for anything else. Work and workout. Period, full stop. No entanglements, no distractions. Not even baseball. She had no desire to become a well-rounded Cosmo Girl. She was a scientist, and science was all she needed in her life. In particular, she needed to find a cure for Fitzgibbon’s Disease. If she didn’t need marriage she certainly didn’t need hobbies.
It had been fifty-five minutes since Dr. Bartlett McGovern Aubrey, Ph.D. had taken off her lab coat, blouse and blue jeans, and slipped into her skating outfit— baggy green shorts with a faded Kirkland College logo worn over orange and black Bruins sweatpants and topped with faded but still eye-catchingly purple “Purple Aces” sweatshirt from the University of Evansville. As usual, she had followed no pre-set route. Starting out from the exit on Kneeland street she had skated through Chinatown to Downtown Crossing. Pedestrians had been thick on the mall in front of Jordan Marsh and Filene’s, and that had slowed her down.
From Downtown Crossing she improvised her own version of the Freedom Trail: she made her way along Tremont, cut down the hill at Government center, skirted the crowds at Fanneul Hall and went by the back of Haymarket, under the tunnel beneath the Central Artery to the North End, through narrow streets thick with the smells of bread, garlic and tomato sauce, back to Mass General, up Beacon Hill (for this she took off her skates, slipped on some black canvas Chinese shoes stored in her waistbelt pack and walked), down Beacon Hill past the State House and into the Common. From the Common she had taken a long detour out to Fenway, trying to force herself not to go by the Public Garden.
It hadn’t worked. Like the drunk making a U-turn to go to the roadhouse, she doubled back from Fenway to Kenmore Square and from there went down Commonwealth to the place she couldn’t avoid. Now she stood on the little suspension bridge in the Public Garden looking down to the little pond where, come spring, the Swan Boats would swim. She knew better than to come here, but she still did it once a week or so. Inevitably, she remembered that day in the spring of ’91. Every person in the Public Garden that day had carried a radio tuned to the Celtics. The team was playing poorly that year, at least by the standards of the mid-eighties teams, but every true Bostonian was drinking up those last games of the Big Three—Parish, McHale, Bird. She had been seated on a Swan Boat bench with Jackson on her lap; Nick stood on the bridge with his camera, his silly camera. He never remembered to take any pictures, unable to imagine a day when photographs might be all they had left.
Jackson had just been discharged from Children’s, and the doctors thought they might have had the infection finally beaten. He looked healthy, laughing with the college girl who paddled the boat. If his arms hadn’t been so black and blue from the IV needles, if the back of his hands hadn’t been so covered with little scabs, he would have looked like any other child in the park that April morning. Just another child come to visit Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. To make way for their ducklings. Make way! Make way!
That’s what Jackson had been after all: just another child. Just some kid, a ward of the state, with an orphan disease that nobody much cared about—no movie stars had died of Fitzgibbon’s Disease, no fashion designers. He was just some kid, a subject in a clinical investigation, an orphan kid with an orphan disease, somebody Bartlett never even would have met if she had followed proper scientific protocol. He was just some damn kid, who died.
She could feel her throat tensing, the sensation at the tip of her nostrils as if she were about to sneeze, the tears beginning to well up in her eyes. Oh hell she thought, stop coming by these imaginary boats! She resumed skating, heading back to the molecular genetics lab at medical center and the tiny shower in the ladies’ room. Night had come. It was fully dark as she skated down Kneeland.
She knew she would be here again next week.
She was going to have to get some new basketball shorts. Despite the safety pins, despite the bulky sweatshirt tucked into the waistband, these shorts were just too big. Three and a half months had done the trick. Three and a half months of walking two miles to work, an hour of rollerblading every lunchtime followed by a lunch of raw vegetables blended up each morning in her Waring blender. Three and a half months of orange juice, dry toast, and boring cereal with skim milk for breakfast. Three and a half months of nine-mile walks along the Charles every Sunday, rain or shine. Three and a half months of boiled brown rice and steamed fish for dinner. Three and a half months of sit-ups. She had lost thirty-three pounds, and only had four to go.
Robert DeNiro had put on fifty pounds for Raging Bull, then promptly taken them off and had made it look as easy as taking off an overcoat. Be like Robert DeNiro, she had told herself that Thursday in November, and stopped unpacking in mid-box to walk down Commonwealth Avenue in search of a sporting goods store. Get back, Girl, she had admonished herself. Get back to where you once belonged.
That had been her mantra whenever she had felt like giving up and driving to work instead of walking, or when she was on the verge of succumbing to a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, or taking a cab back to the lab from the North End—exhausted, out of breath, too tired to skate another step. Get back. In the early days, when she had been obese, uncoordinated, catching stares and the occasional jeer as she made her ungainly way down Washington Street: Get back. Two months into the program, when she was starting to get compliments from co-workers in the lab, when she could have told herself that she had done enough for a woman of her age, a woman who would never again see her girlish figure. But she had kept on, and now she had her figure back.
Passing Jakob Wirth’s pub she remembered, as she had not done for nearly half a decade, her so-called job interview. Some interview. All she had had to do was show up and verify that she was the same Bartlett so glowingly recommended by her doctoral advisor Eddie Fessman. She had been almost disappointed that she had not been asked to explain her research on overlapping gene products of the T4 bacteriophage, or her breakthrough work on the Trojan gene. That she had been recommended by Eddie was all that Irwin Goldberg needed to know. Eddie (orthodox) and Irwin (reform) had grown up in adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods, and had been classmates at Bronx Science. But it wasn’t allegiance to neighborhood, school or tribe that mattered to Irwin as he staffed his laboratory. If the person was from Pluto, he should care? No. But if Eddie Fessman said she was a scientist? Eddie Fessman, who as everybody knows, the Nobel committee, they ask his opinion? She got the job. Neat trick for a white-bread shiksa from Carbondale, Illinois.
On her way to the interview, with her hair in a bun and wearing her most conservative suit, twenty-five years old, two weeks a Ph.D. and one week married, she had literally stopped traffic. The lout in the Boston Gas truck had leaned on his horn and yelped, and the Boston Edison bozo had answered. It had caught on, and she had run across the intersection clutching a copy of her dissertation to her chest to a chorus of wolf yells and whistles. Welcome to stately, dignified Boston, the Hub of the universe.
Out of the shower now, she ran a comb vaguely through her hair and thought about her work—as usual, she would be working late tonight. Her team at the Medical Center was attacking the problem of Fitzgibbon’s Disease from three sides—Bartlett was studying the molecular biology of the organism that caused the disease; anatomists were studying physiological evidence of disease in the brain; and neurobiologists were experimenting with approaches to brain-cell regeneration. Tomorrow Bartlett would be meeting with a pathologist to go over some results from stained slides to see how they correlated to PET results from before the patient died. Tonight she would study the patient’s history. What a delightful prospect.
She walked down the hall past open door of Irwin’s office; he saw her and motioned to her to come in. He was sitting at his cluttered desk, just finishing his nightly tunafish salad. Papers, journals, notebooks were everywhere. There were even bench apparatus: flasks, beakers. Bartlett had to disguise her shudder. How could such a serious scientist be such a slob?
“Come on in, Bartlett,” he said, after swallowing. “Take the seat of honor.”
“Gee, thanks,” she said, sitting on the broken-back swivel chair.
“An article in the New York Times today that I thought you would find interesting.”
“There’s a couple of researchers over at MIT who’re doing work on that Gulf War stuff. Very bizarre. They say their funding was cut off and they were harassed and that their tenure was even threatened because they were investigating an unorthodox line of research that evidently somebody didn’t want them to investigate.”
“People with unorthodox ideas sometimes say things like that when they lose their funding,” she said.
“Sure. But here’s why I thought you might be interested. Number one, they’re investigating bacteriophage as the cause of the disease. And two, they used to work in Eddie’s lab. I thought you might know them.”
“How could they think bacteriophage caused Gulf War illness? Trying to make a biological weapon from phage would be like trying to make a broadsword from a stick of butter. Who would think of such a thing? Some crackpot maybe. Not a real virologist.”
“I only know what I read. Did you know Chris and Janine Garbougian, husband and wife?”
She grabbed the paper out of his hand with more violence than she had meant to.
“I know them quite well. I haven’t seen them in years, but I know them.”
“No. They’re real scientists, not crackpots.”
Sure enough, there were Chris and Janine on page one of the science section, posing in a laboratory, looking very serious and much older than Bartlett remembered them.
“What does the article say?” she asked. “Why do they think it’s phage?”
“They say they found markers from some industrial phage sold by a Swiss pharmaceutical company. But nobody’s been able to replicate their work, and all their remaining blood samples were ruined when a freezer failed. They say it’s sabotage.”
“How very odd,” Bartlett said. “Very odd.”
“Give them a call.”
“I think I will.”
“Keep the newspaper. Are you ready to get back to work?”
“Sure,” she said, forgetting that she had not yet eaten her meager vegetable delight dinner.
The next hours were typical, as far as research on incurable diseases went: the patient records reconfirmed things she already knew; she read an article with a promising title that turned out to be far off the subject, and she helped a post-doctoral fellow tune her gel. Another quarter inch of progress on a million-mile journey.
At nine in the evening she decided to call her friends.
©1999-2010 John Sundman.