CHAPTER 2: PANDOLF
Pandolf Medical Center, California
Garcia held his breath, turning his head to the sound of running footsteps.
“Dr. Garcia! Are you OK?.”
Shelly. Shame that so many doctors must do time in a lab.
He sat up.
She often slowed his work by interrupting a complicated algorithm or simply a time-sensitive experiment, requiring that he backtrack on his stream of thought. Then he would stare at the screen and murmur brief responses— nudging her to return to her goggles and pipette.
“What are you doing?” she asked now.
“Just checking patterns!” he said. No, I’m deleting unauthorized experiments from the Drukker’s memory.
He found his glasses and stood up. “The company rep told me they have eight new orders. So it’ll be awhile before he comes to finish our updates. I had to do a minor patch.”
To distract her, he walked to his desk, leaving cables and tools still under the printer. “Come, I want to show you something.”
He opened a case with the Drukker sun logo, then placed a faceted piece of glass on a metal plate in the base.
“For laser testing,” he said. He moved a light cable over the refracting crystal.
Across the room, the printer hummed.
“Wait here,” he said.
He walked back over to the printer, which showed that the destruction of his files was complete.
Then he returned with a printout — Drukker logo in 3D paper glowing a kaleidoscope of colors.
“See these patterns..,” he said.
“Well, I will go finish my experiment,” she interrupted him, “Sorry, we discussed it yesterday, remember?”
How could she not be interested in chaos analysis?
He quickly gathered his things to leave. Halfway to her bench, she turned around.
“Where are you going now?”
“Errands. Oh, I forgot.”
She looked at him expectantly.
“Have you organized the backup data drives?”
Her face fell.
“Come look,” she said, now walking to a storage cabinet. “All lined up and labeled.
“Sorry I was late,” she added. “My schedules are crazy because I’m working on the Pandolf fundraiser with Dr. Nepski. We can go over my questions about my new project another time? ”
“Oh, Dr. Garcia, we had on our green armbands. There were posters and ads and announcements everywhere! See.” She pointed to a flyer on the wall.
He remembered waiting for people to show up for their regular morning lab meeting that morning. To get into the building, he had to plow through a green-clad crowd starting a 5K run, cameras, banners and the distant thud of music.
“Oh, yes, the Martian Microbe-athon,” he muttered.
“What’d you say?” Shelly asked.
He shook his head.
“Shelly, you know what I think. Pandolf is part of this grand medical-academic-pharmaceutical-government industry: a system that needs to feed itself.
“Medical centers like this don’t even pay taxes. Nonprofits, they can call themselves, but you know how much our CEO was paid last year?”
She excused herself, “I’ll be right back with the keys for the cabinet.”
At least the kids at the Dock enjoy my rants.
To the sales rep, he had said, “They see me as an old ’60s type guy.”
It was his idea, the vegan option — instead of leather — for all the computer’s seat coverings in its cockpit-like chamber.
It was only after he found out that Pandolf was going to buy the Drukker that he had accepted this lab position. His oncology experiments required its multidimensional modeling and big data analysis. Now he would load an experiment file and sit at the control board, forgetting even to eat or drink.
Over hours, data spewed onto his monitors as endless as the dust in the universe. Like a composer, he needed the right tunes to turn noise into music. His avatar lounged on one screen, “The Frog Den,” the nerve center of a make-believe galaxy.
On the Toccata Touch keyboard, he clicked a “TEST” red dot that opened windows of theories and flashing algorithms. Pursuing them through dense woods of numbers and patterns, minutes and years, disease and disaster, he ordered the chaos of information in a patient’s file by biochemical motifs across an entire sequence of medical metamorphoses.
Garcia had led the Pandolf team in setting up their first Drukker. Shared by many labs, different teams worked simultaneously on the powerful machine. But the scientists were only just beginning to learn its capabilities. They quickly discovered that the greater the number of users at any time, the slower the processing of their experiments.
After one of them “accidentally” terminated Garcia’s experiment, perhaps to speed up their own, Garcia now sat in the console for hours, vigilant for interruptions, while the computer worked on his projects. When he briefly left, it was just for a quick meal from the vending machine or oatmeal in hot water, mixed with dry milk from his research supplies. For a dash to the restroom, he threw his backpack, coat, and papers onto the seat to prevent anyone else from occupying it — and disrupting his work.
Reeling him back into pedestrian reality, Shelly now returned with a key. Without a word, she clanged open the steel cabinet door with its archives.
I get it! You’re mad that we are not discussing your project.
“Shelly,” he said, “I was thinking about your fundraiser. Do you really think that if a cure for cancer came along, these folks at Pandolf would be any better than the Romans with Jesus or the Church that almost burned Galileo on the stake?
“What would happen to their careers, money, buildings, the porphyry marble, their fountains..?”
He looked behind him to make sure no hidden colleague had jumped into “his” machine.
Then he inhaled, bringing shoulder blades together and arching his back like a cat,then exhaling and raising arms.
“All that sitting in the Drukker, hard on the body. I’m getting old, not young like you.
“P1456, P1457, Q2954, Q2955…,” he counted plastic cases. “Good job, Shelly.
“Shelly, sorry, I have to go to the airport right now to pick up my son. Let’s set up a time next week to go over your experiment … just text me?”
Now she smiled. “I didn’t know you had a son.”
Embarrassed, he looked away. People saw he spent most of his time in the lab, and when he came to social events, he was alone. What did they think: divorced, single, gay, lone wolf..?
“Yes, my wife’s name was Pia. She’s passed. Jorge is 15 now. But now he wants to be called George.
“Because my work situation wasn’t stable,” he continued, “George was living in Argentina, then France and now with my sister in Chicago.
“But now that my job is stable, George can move here.”
“Well,” she said. “my original name was Sushila. But I go by Shelly. Maybe your son likes the name George because it makes him feel more at home in the United States, instead of …Jorge.”
She mispronounced Jorge.
“My father’s an immigrant too,” she continued. “He sometimes reminisces about India. Like you, Papa did not come to the United States until he was an adult. He shortened his name when he moved to Texas so people could actually pronounce it.
“Mom is from the States. When we were growing up, my father worked very hard as a country doctor. So it is a treat when he tells us stories about his childhood.
“Like when we sit around the dinner table. I remember once how he explained that the word for the color blue, in English, resonates sad and jazzy. But in Hindi, his native language, the same word makes one think of the bright blue of a peacock feather or a pretty woman’s sari.”
His wife’s young face drifted before him, her warm smile, kiss, embrace and their son’s birth. He willed away her aura — and the sadness that would follow.
Distantly he heard Shelly say, “Or my dad said about the color pink. In American English, it is hot pink, cotton candy or a pop star’s lipstick. But in Hindi, it’s the color of desserts you share with your family or festive powder that you toss at friends in Holi, an Indian spring celebration.
“I think he missed India a lot, especially living in rural Texas. We go back for visits. He’s always very cheerful then, chattering with all his relatives in Hindi and revisiting all his old haunts.
“Have you been back to Argentina?” she asked in a soft monotone.
Breaking the silence that followed, she said gently, “OK, fine, Dr. Garcia, you better go so you’re not late. I’ll text you a couple of times that we could meet.”
He nodded. “Shelly, so earlier today, I thought we had a Nepski lab team meeting, all of us lab rats, the foreign postdocs. I looked out the window and yes, I did see a bunch of people, runners, crowds and lots of green masks. I thought it was some Irish celebration.”
“Yes, that was our fundraiser.” Shelly shook her head. “Dr. Garcia I guess it would be more exciting to have your own lab?”
“Yes, but people like me have no futures in our own countries.” He sighed. “Still, I am really grateful, yes, for the best technology here.
“As for Dr. Nepksi, Shelly, I think his ideas are recycled. You know I still call it toxemia. But you need to learn the new names, eclampsia, gestational hypertension, XYZ? It will be the next trick question on your endless tests.
“Youth should be about igniting a fire, about burning the old and creating the new. But you doctors memorize and regurgitate and pass marathon tests. So they bully you, keep you on our toes, not allowing you to stop long enough to wonder. Or to question. Just another generation of robots well-trained to work their machine: ‘never the captain of your soul or the master of your fate.'”
“My father likes that poem.”
“How deep in debt are you? More pressure to do what you are told.”
“Enough,” she said, “you’re depressing this Zombie MD.”
“Bye Shelly,” he said and walked out. Shadowed glass doors which slid open into the dark corridor. His back bowed with the weight of the faded backpack.
Walking quickly outside, he wondered how it was night already. He had just seen the blurred sun out of a lab window as it set over the tall buildings of the medical center.
His phone beeped that he was on schedule with that inscrutable god, time, which had taken away his wife and morphed his baby Jorge into a hairy adolescent named George.
He recalled his last discussion about Shelly’s project over dinner at the Palatine, a campus Italian restaurant. After taking notes about her experiment, she had put her phone away.
Next, she had rolled her fingertips on the table, back and forth, intensely looking at the scratches in the lower crescent of his glasses where the fine cracks formed a pattern.
That evening, he had removed the Drukker prototype glasses, wiped his eyes and smiled at her. She was blurry now, looking puzzled, perhaps wondering if she had been watching too many surgery videos.
She had the sharp eyes of a surgeon. Surgeons, originally butchers in the history of medicine, they see but don’t understand. He admired her. Training to perform operations, she had the self-discipline and attention to detail that her path required. She had stamina and even ran marathons.
Working with delicate lab equipment beside him, Shelly’s long fingers had the dexterity that good surgeons possess. Why could he not recall the actual day they had dinner but remember so well the length of her fingers and how they moved?
It had been a long time since Pia, and he was still a man. That evening, when their eyes met, hers liquid brown with the candlelight flickering in their lucid centers, he had to remind himself that he was also her mentor, a duty that precluded romance — even if the god of love didn’t care about duty or trust.
Any romantic spark within him — pleasant and tempting — was a distraction right now. As for Shelly, the gap in their ages, pasts — and futures — put a thick pane between them.
A brisk wind rose up to greet him from around the tall buildings of Pandolf Medical Center. He found a surprising number of people — for a Saturday night — on the sidewalk around the hospital complex. They strolled ahead or sat at restaurant tables, or were shadows among the glows of cigarettes and phone screens between sculptures and trees.
Many still wore masks, prepared for the next global pandemic and many carried arms after all the outbreaks of violence. Even if he had wanted to, as an alien he could not conceal-carry in California.
He too had purchased a gun eight years ago after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. In Bethesda, he took classes in its use and safety. Voice weak with illness, back in Argentina, Pia had pointed out that gun ownership was “problematic” for their shared pacifist political beliefs.
“It’s for self-defense,” he had said as his range instructor advised him to reassure her.
“Most people are a pestilence on our planet,” he had added. “But don’t worry, you won’t see me in a crazy Internet crime story to sell advertising on their news.”
Dark and grizzled, his driver’s license picture would be perfect to parade on their online streets — for hawking politics, chips and booze.
Leaving behind the chill of the spring air, Garcia entered one tall lighted building into the hospital’s main lobby. The floors were marble, and the fountain glittered many colors. The gift store beckoned through its glass walls. On its shelves, crystal dreamed and porcelain gleamed, among silk flowers, stuffed animals, and a dazzling palette of face coverings on mannequin heads, many of them shades of green from the recent fundraiser.
Medical fundraisers, he thought, are a feeding trough for the healthcare establishment — while since his excited arrival at the NIH nine years ago, all his own hopes, dreams and plans had dissolved, his wife had died from cancer and their only child was growing up with relatives.
If there are no medical breakthroughs, Shelly, maybe it’s because public funding keeps going to crooks and cronies at palaces like Pandolf Medical Center. Then there’s the media, telling sensational stories about so-called cures to sell their advertising.
Garcia opened his notepad to a hospital campus map that marked the route to his destination. At Nepski lab meetings, Garcia often doodled in it — often his own ideas for research, embedded in Drukker patterns that he was working on.
Moving into more remote areas of the hospital building, he clipped his ID badge onto his jacket. His paper map — let them try to hack that — led him through endless corridors, on bridges over streets and past the last signs of a cafeteria, the Pediatric Emergency Room, the patient floors and further back into the oldest sections of the complex, dingy and under renovation.
Finally, he slipped past construction signs and carefully placed his laptop and drives into a scratched steel locker, one of several rows against a dingy wall. On its door, he pasted a browned name sticker (he had used a gas flame in the lab to darken it): “Dr. Arjun Jagdishwar Bhattacharya.” After he tore a corner off and scratched the label with a steel key, it looked as old as the others around it, just as faded by time.
He still had to drop off the map for Campbell, to guide him to this old resident doctors’ dorm to pick up the laptop and drives. He tore the paper out of the pad, folded it, and stuck it in his jean pocket — and felt his phone.
On the phone, several text messages from George were streaming: “Landed,” “OK waiting,” “Still waiting,”…”DAAA…AAD!!!” Shelly had also messaged him about times to meet.
Garcia texted George to let him know he was OMW– on my way. He would return to the lab early the next morning, put away the tools and then hide the map for Campbell.
Mist wetting his hair, he walked quickly to his car. The parking lot was set against dark woods that encircled part of the campus. Clouds hid the moon.
Pandolf really needed to clean up the gang activity behind the hospital complex apartments. Hospital complexes leak opioids, attracting gangs.
The sidewalk here was deserted– until red and blue flashes glowed over his right shoulder.
Why don’t I hear ambulance sirens?
He turned around. Someone grabbed his elbow.
“ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Please come with me, Dr. Garcia.”