Amid the glitter and gleam of a modern science laboratory, two men sat conversing in quiet tones.
One of the men was black, about sixty years old, around six feet tall with a lean, muscular physique whose muscularity had clearly been enhanced by strenuous physical activity. If you saw him, in fact, you would not be surprised to learn that he spent two hours in the gym every weekday afternoon, and not just on the treadmill, either. He was proud of the fact that the young studs in the weight room regularly paid him homage for the rigor of his weight-training regimen and the results it produced. It would not be misleading to say he defined himself more by the strength of his physical carriage—his lean, hard, athletic body—than by the degrees conferred on him for all his strenuous academic labors. His hair was close cropped, and his face was somewhat long and pinched, including his nose, which was almost Semitic. He wore wire-framed glasses, and because of his pinched features his students, at least the undergraduates, often had trouble determining when he was being serious with them and when he was joking. They couldn’t tell whether his perpetually bemused expression was meant to convey good-natured teasing or genuine ridicule. It didn’t help that he had a low opinion of them, at least in general, often commenting on the superficiality of their ideas and their lack of intelligence. They were too entranced by their “electronic gizmos,” as he called them—their cell phones and ipods and handheld Web browsers and tiny cameras—to give the world of serious science its due attention. So he told them, scornfully, and he said it straight to their faces. He meant it when he said it, but they doubted that a man of such intellect and erudition would be so openly derisive toward them, and so they didn’t quite know how to take him. They should have taken him at his word.
The other man was white, about the same age, and even taller, but of a completely different physical and emotional disposition. He was neither muscular nor athletic, and he probably hadn’t set foot inside a gym since he left high school. He had the gangly physique of a terminal nerd, an egghead, whose devotion to his intellectual labors had always far outstripped his attention to his physical person. Nonetheless, he spent time outdoors, hiking, always in the interest of observing firsthand the flora of his environment; and so while the physical benefits of his avocation may have been entirely incidental, they had the cumulative effect of keeping him lean and relatively fit, save for a slight pot belly. The man had a round, doughy face, smiling eyes that belied a persistent and sometimes confounding skepticism (it sometimes compelled him to indecision when decisiveness was called for), and a careless tousle of brown hair. Like his colleague, he looked younger than his years, and also like his colleague he viewed students, at least undergraduate students, as a nettlesome but necessary burden on his time. His life was devoted to serious scientific study, and most students who crossed his path and sat in his classrooms were neither serious nor scientific nor studious. But he was less impatient with them than his colleague was, and he had a natural sympathy for them besides; and, perhaps most importantly, he was less demanding of them, more prone to take pity on them when grades were assigned, and so in general they tended to think well of him.
It was late of a spring afternoon, a mild, sunny Friday afternoon when the beach beckoned many students away from the university, and others, many others, disengaged themselves early from academic rigors to get a head start on the pleasures of the weekend. The science building was virtually empty as the time for going home approached. Life in earnest—the real life of relaxation and enjoyment—had already begun for most students, and for many faculty members as well. A few colleagues—a very few colleagues—and a few struggling graduate students as well, suffering the demands that they hoped and prayed would carry them to fruitful careers, still busied themselves in the building’s laboratories and offices. But the halls were quiet. The cleaning crew wouldn’t come in till nearly midnight, and the two scientists could have held their private conversation with the door of the laboratory open without fear of being overheard; but they weren’t sure of that, and so the door was closed. Sunlight found its way into the lab through three square windows in the outside wall, but the windows were small. They were also high, well above eye level—to provide more efficient workspace along the wall, but also to keep the attention of laboratory occupants focused on important matters within the laboratory rather than on aesthetic attractions outside it. Antiseptic, institutional fluorescent light overpowered the sunlight and dominated the room, as did an antiseptic odor that would assuredly, provided your mind was properly disposed, offset any thoughts of the wonderful and alluring smells of life outside the building.
“You worked with Garrett Willard, didn’t you, Arnold?” the white man asked his colleague.
“Is that what you’ve been angling at, Chad? You could’ve just come right out and asked me; I would have told you.”
They were sitting on adjacent stools between two of the four long, gleaming Formica-topped counters that spanned the room from just inside the hallway door to within a few feet of the opposite wall, the wall that separated the laboratory from the great outdoors. Arnold—Dr. Arnold Johns—sat with his back against one of the counters, feet sprawled on the floor in front of him, elbows behind him on the counter top. His colleague and friend, Chad Kinman, also a biologist by training, sat facing him, feet planted, knees slightly bent and spread, hunched forward, forearms on his inner thighs, hands loosely interlocked between them. It was the pose of a supplicant, and that, for all intents and purposes, is what he was.
“It isn’t like that,” he said. “And you know it. But the man is probably the foremost virologist in the country.”
“The whole world, maybe. Knew God’s own amount about genetics, too. Man was a regular storehouse of scientific knowledge. A regular encyclopedia.”
“I just wanted to know what you thought of him.”
Kinman had that sheepish smile on his face that Arnold Johns didn’t like very much. It was, in Johns’ estimation, a wheedling smile, the smile of a man who wanted a favor but didn’t have the backbone to come right out and ask for it. Johns always hated seeing that smile; and he saw it more often than he cared to from Chad Kinman. As a matter of fact, he saw it more often than he cared to from a number of his colleagues. The place where they worked seemed inordinately disposed to wheedling and other forms of conniving. That’s how Arnold Johns felt, anyway, and he realized that he no longer drew the satisfaction from his work that he once had drawn. He realized, in fact, that he was merely biding his time till retirement. He had not entirely lost his passion for science, but he had lost his passion for work of most any kind, and in particular any kind of work that involved groveling, self-abasement. And all work in the public sector, it now seemed to him after a long career in that sector, involved self-abasement. Most of all, though, he had lost his passion (if passion he’d ever felt) for the people he worked with. What he felt for them now was more like disdain. At the very least it was indifference. He simply did not think that well of people who showed, in his view, insufficient self-respect. Give him the rugged individualist, the self-made man. That was a timbre that he could both understand and respect. He had less respect, much less, for people who made their living by begging for endless handouts.