Discover more from a note to a friend
THE TOLERANCE WARS - 3
dummy enough to twitch
until it’s done
begin at the beginning—chapter 1
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the tolerance wars
dummy enough to twitch
wasn’t much to do the next couple of days but hustle work, either gigs or the dozen or so things you do to keep your head up. and that meant i’d find as much to do as i could in terms of diversions, anything but look for work. don’t get me wrong, i’m a trouper when i’m on a gig, i’ll dig trenches if i have to. it’s looking for gigs that boggles me. so i wasn’t hung up when tony buzzed and said she was gonna hook up with our new friend the scientist and did i wanna come? social call, but we were gonna meet at her office at the university. parking was godawful on campus, but it was chuckin’ it down rain, so i picked up tony in the wagon and we made it dry enough.
we found her space fairly easily from the number. wasn’t any particular signs would’ve helped, botany was around the hall, we passed through a philosophy section, and i learned how to spell kinesiology. i think. none of the rooms said scientist on them. the coffee was still warm by the time we got to the door, was open so i didn’t get to see what it said on the name plate. we sat three in that wicked small space. two chairs, i took the box.
“nice place you got here.” good the fluorescents were off, the grey afternoon sky was the light we had and it kinda improved things. about half of the size of the greenroom, ugly comes in all kinds of flavours. most of it was hidden. by paper. one space that what wasn’t shelves was filing cabinet, that and anything else horizontal was fair game for paper and folders. piles everywhere, each one angled slightly to mark the pile below it. it took a trained eye to notice, but i had a system exactly like it at home. i could always find things easier than whatever i’d filed nicely. one of these days i was gonna quit even trying and go exclusively with a piling system. and she’d only been here a little while. “this is impressive work.”
“thanks for the coffee. oh, the mess? i’m a bit of a natural it seems.”
“you didn’t just rent it this way so you’d look busy?”
“no, i’m a do it yourself type. every few days i shovel it out. it keeps me grounded.” she took a sip of coffee black.
“what is it in the beauty and order of science that makes this kind of chaos?”
“a frivolous mind. actually, what isn’t reports of various kinds is grant applications of various shapes, sizes and thicknesses, as well as reports for those. i have gradations of sheer volume represented as thicknesses ranging from the tiny to the mighty, all in various shades of white, even several of un-standard length or width, and all coming complete with hours and hours of assembly required. welcome to the paperless office. there’s very little science here, mostly accounting.”
“no need to be bitter.”
“i’m actually amused by it in a perverse way. i’ve taken to wondering how many words are on the average piece of paper crammed into how much cubic space. i can tell you the dimensions of the room. if i estimate the volume of the room occupied by paper as a ratio, i determine it’s time to take a walk.”
“are you good for now?”
“yes, i’m fine, thanks. friends are a nice distraction.”
“so what is it you’re doing here?” tony asked.
“you mean aside from the paper mine? well, more paper actually. although i’m glad to say that most of my work is wired, so as long as the data has a secure backup, much of the work is done without paper. i deal with experiments, or more correctly, the data they produce. i try to see if the data says anything useful, and then fold the results back into the body of knowledge we already have to see how they fit.”
“you experiment with animals?”
“only if they can sign a consent form. an opposable thumb is usually required. in my area animals are only good for a rough guide to what’s going on. and i tend towards thinking that what can’t be done with people i can likely do just as well in other ways. maybe just by sitting and thinking about it. although i’m not above using information from somebody else’s work who doesn’t agree with my standards if it’s going to help me understand what i’m trying to do.”
“so what are you trying to do?”
“how much of an explanation do you want?”
“i’m not the brightest bee on the bush, but you can try me.” i don’t know where tony came up with those. she was the only one of us who could say gosh and not sound like an ass.
“i’m trying to understand how we believe. or why.”
“you mean like, the actual way the body makes it happen?”
archer nodded, “i’d certainly settle for that. what i’m likely going to find is some small piece of a puzzle. and i’ll count myself lucky if i ever feel i have a real sense of what’s going on. it’s not very romantic. but it’s how science works.”
sounded familiar to me, “pretty much the same as music. grind it out while you put it together, if you’re lucky you get something catches. catching anything?”
“i’m not sure exactly what i’ve got. and i’m not getting a lot of help in figuring it out. normal really.”
“not enough computer time on the brainiac?”
“something like that. i’ve got a large amount of data and i’m trying to get someone to help me understand why it doesn’t make any sense to me. scientific method being what it is i’d expect to have numerous offers of correction and instruction. i’m beginning to wonder if i’m so off base that no one wants to talk to me.”
tony smiled her gosh smile, “it can’t be that bad.”
archer smiled back, “you’re right, sweetheart. i’m far too nice to be ignored. cute too.” she dimpled, tony giggled. i couldn’t disagree. “no, it’s not that bad. it’s just an expression of the limited resources we all have. and i have a job, such as it is.” she waved her hand at the room. “i have food and a roof. things could be much harder.”
“and you’re working at something you believe in.”
“how do you mean?”
“do i believe in science? i don’t know that i’ve ever really asked myself that question. it’s a little like asking me whether i believe in people. i believe in some people. i believe in what good science can accomplish. does that mean i believe in science? i don’t know.”
“you got to believe in it or you wouldn’t be doing it.”
“there are days when i think i’m only doing it because it’s what i do. don’t ask me if i believe in it. although most of the time i would say i still find it interesting.”
“so what brought you here?” i flipped my head at the papers, “the view?”
“my background is as a computational biologist.” i blinked, tony just nodded, she’s way smarter than she lets on, you get used to it. “i was working on the genome project, but once they finished the basic shape they downsized most of us. i’ve been moving around and working on contracts ever since. the good thing about my own work is that so far it involves only data, so i don’t need a lot of space, just a healthy data connection. any decent university has that. and so here i am.”
“so what have you figured out about believing?”
“oddly enough, although i’ve been working on the mechanics at a very basic level, my own thoughts have been more about belief and how it operates as a system. i suspect belief involves many different functions, and that we may gain some insight into which parts of the brain are involved if we consider aspects of the human experience of belief.”
“as i said before, i suspect we are hard-wired to believe in something. i’ve also begun to muse on what i think of as belief moments, instances which confirm ideas and that become what we base our actions on, what shapes our decision-making, and forms the fabric of what we believe.”
“you figure if you could influence those moments somehow you could shape a lot of things.”
“i’m not sure you could do that. although there may be people who think otherwise. there was a time when i was working through parts of the brain function that have to do with a sense of the divine, trying to examine aspects of belief as expressed through faith. i mentioned to a colleague that one could see a reason why some people would want to experiment with that. he took up a position with some government shortly afterwards. i don’t know exactly what he’s doing, but he does show up at various symposia knowing most of the same researchers that i do. one has to work hard not to get paranoid in difficult times.”
“well, it ain’t luxurious, but the coffee’s not bad, and the company’s alright.”
“my work situation here is just a small part of things. i manipulate data from researchers in several different fields, on several different continents, each having something to do with aspects of my work. recently two of my data sources dried up. one seemed to leave a ‘gone fishing’ sign and hasn’t posted any data since, and another that was actually called a murder, although i haven’t heard any of the details. add to that the three other projects either coming to a close or having their funding cut as part of the government roulette agreement. nothing remarkable really. but…” she shrugged and finished her coffee, crushed the paper cup and pitched it into a receptacle under the metalform desk. “so perhaps i’m looking for a diversion, while still having something vaguely to do with my work.”
i guess the tunes was the diversion she was thinking about. we started talking about blues and r&b, drifted into the difference between stax and the early motown sound. i was feeling the call of another coffee so we decided to take it downtown. as i parked the car we were still free-associating our way through a pop musicology riff. the weather had cleared up enough to be dry walking, but the chairs out front of the club were still wet. as we cut inside tony leaned into me and said in a conversational tone but not too loud, “who’s the narc?”
i was dummy enough to twitch, but not stupid enough to turn and look. i held the door open for archer and tony and scanned the sidewalks once for likelies. bingo. paperbox across the way. has nothing in it, hasn’t for three days. raincoat, business-type, blond, a little too foursquare to be chasing a buck. didn’t look totally out of place, but if tony marked him.
not that anybody i knew was into anything they shouldn’t. the man is way too much of a hassle to invite into your life by doing anything stupid. so there was no sense of hiding anything, more of a professional curiosity. archer hit the ladies room, i ordered coffee black then grabbed a seat close enough to the front window that we could see outside across the street, but far enough back to be unseen from the outside. tony slid in beside me. i asked first, “who’s your friend?”
“i was gonna ask you the same thing.” both of us studied the hanging blackboard menus in the back corner of the club, as if we were eyeing the specials. “he was at the university today, and i think i saw him at the club saturday night.”
the night we met our new scientist friend. “i wonder if she’s marked him?” i spotted her coming towards us from the far end of the room, she paused halfway down at the cash to order.
“doesn’t strike me as a cloak and dagger type.” tony looked at me, “although i could be wrong. shall we tell her?”
“no reason not to. we’d tell a friend, right? no big deal.” i shrugged.
archer joined us with a redjuice. “so where were we?”
“actually, tony and me got sidetracked a little. we were wondering if you knew anything about,” i half-turned in my seat and eyeballed him. there, on the opposite side of the street, couple of doors up. got a paper, looking for a place to read it. i turned back to archer, “that blond dude with the paper on the opposite side of the road.”
she gave him a good look. i didn’t see a twitch. then she looked me straight in the eye. “no. is he someone you know?”
i shook my head, “no, he’s definitely not from around here. and he’s been around a little bit. and so tony and me were wondering if you knew the guy.”
she flicked at him as if to be sure, “no, not someone i recognize.”
“any particular reason why someone like that’d be hanging around our little town?”
tony scored another peek, “he’s a little too clean to be a drug dealer.”
there, the scientist lady blanched. scored something. hadn’t seen it coming, neither.
“oh my.” she looked up at tony, then at me. “that hadn’t occurred to me.” she thought about something for a moment, then shook her head. “no, it’s not possible.”
“um, something you wanna share with us?” wasn’t sure i really wanted to know, but it seemed the thing to say.
“i can’t really. there’s a part of my work history that’s ringed with non-disclosure agreements, big ones, with sharp teeth. it wouldn’t make any sense though, i haven’t done anything to warrant any attention after the fact.”
“well, if it’s you, then i’d say it’s attention. if it’s someone else, i’d say it’ll blow over and we’ll either hear about it or we won’t. meantime, nothing to do but mark the man and see what he has to tell us. i’m for one more hit.” i waved my empty mug at the coffee urns behind the counter. “when i come back, tony, i want you to tell me what you were saying about jefferson airplane, you really think any of that stuff would’ve happened without the drugs?”
i didn’t think too much more about the blond dude, figured it’d either make sense or not soon enough. it was sparechange who hit me the next night. we were doing the usual smoke in the alley, jawing about nothing in particular. it occurred to me to ask. “hey, you scope out the man checking it out?”
“too much man. curiosity’s a bad thing, man.”
“i was checking him out, man. like, he’d been around for a chunk, and i was figuring i’d spot him, see?”
“so, i ease on by at the same time as some sister’s got his attention, figure i’d snap some id and check it out.”
“man, you are too much.”
“was a stupid idea.”
“buddy’s hot. and what he’s carrying, i wouldn’t wanna be in front of when it goes off.”
“serious?” he nodded. professional then. “not scoping a gig?” sparechange shook his head, nothing around here worth knocking off. all the big business was out of downtown now. wouldn’t be hired insurance or divorce neither, they didn’t usually run armed. “well, don’t do anything else stupid, eh?”
“i am not dressed for dancin’, man. no way.”
the rain continued on and off for the rest of the week. we had one more gig at the club on friday. the morning came up bright and stayed that way, most of the wet was going to be burned out of the air by late morning. archer joined us at the tables for our ritual end of the week coffee. mostly freelance, some just out of work, a bunch of us had been doing this for a while. sometimes we riffed off the papers, sometimes we did the weather. funny, the one thing we never did was gossip.
this morning the papers were selling ads in between news about the war. we got talking about how everybody was saying this was a war about faith. “as if that’s different from any other war.” penny was a graphic artist who joined us most weeks. “by the time you get to war, things pretty much have to be shaped into broad us and them ideas. and ‘them’ have to be so nasty that war is all you can do.”
“i think it’s convenient to both sides to make everyone think it’s about faith.” two coffees and politics, i should never do that. “me, i think it’s a bunch of very angry people who figure the only way out is to fight. and once that fighting starts, both sides need lots of strong believers. got to crank up the faith, whip up that righteous indignation. wouldn’t both sides love to be able to manufacture belief like they build planes and tanks.” i was on a good line, so nobody stopped me. “i bet they’re both working on a machine to do that right now.” a little conspiracy theory never hurt these sessions.
except it hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be just a riff. our scientist friend didn’t look amused. “i don’t think so.” but she didn’t sound convinced. i must’ve put her in a bad mood, when we found ourselves alone for a minute she let drift something about her disclosures. just a couple of things, sounded to me like she’d been working in some kind of healthcare. i wasn’t getting it all straight, but i caught that these were very big players, and a sense that you didn’t want to tick them off. i thought about the blond goon. armed, too.
by about ten-thirty we’d pretty much wound down, those who were working went off to one last weekday, those who had the time off headed out into the day. we were gigging tonight, so i figured i’d spend the day sorting out gear and resting it out. ended up pretty much like i planned, sun just coming down as i was making my way to the club for a bite before setup. archer was meeting tony to do the same, i hooked up with her about a block down from the club. they were hauling kegs in at the front door, so archer and i hit the side entrance off the alley. sparechange came by and did the same move, following up behind me.
somedays you just get all the luck. walk into a twilight alley you know a hundred times, nothing happens. just once. man. some kid’s doing glue. i must’ve spooked him. he hauls on me. sparechange grabs on an arm and reefs on it until the kid rolls. i’m looking at the kid and sparechange and archer, and suddenly there’s the goon, he’s standing between me and the lady. kid takes one look at the goon and runs, the dude makes no move to stop him. sparechange is behind me, the goon is in front of me, looking in my direction. he’s big, and this is very serious, and i’m not liking where this might be going.
then the dude says something. i don’t catch it. “what?” like he’s gonna answer me.
“he wasn’t talking to you.” i hear sparechange from over my shoulder. i chuck a look back there, sparechange is looking at the goon like this is way too serious. “he was asking if my father knows where i am.”
okay, now i’m freaked. the blond speaks a language i don’t recognize asking about sparechange’s family. hell, i didn’t even know he had a family. man, i am not ready for this.
“it’s what folks spoke in the variety store we owned, my folks, eh? i don’t use it a lot around here. no call for it. no crime in knowing it though, eh?” he jerked his head at the goon. “last i checked.”
“no crime in a lot of things.” the goon spoke english too, no accent.
“you here to help?”
“depends on who needs help.” funny, he hadn’t even glanced at the scientist yet. his eyes were all over sparechange and nothing but.
“i’m thinking that my friends and i are going to go inside and grab a bite to eat. now that we’ve scared the snot out of that poor kid, i’m thinking maybe this part of the city is safe for another day. you gonna join your fellow superheroes, or you gonna make it back to the bat cave and hangout for a bit?” i probably should’ve stayed freaked, but it was feeling way too early in the evening for anything really dramatic to happen. besides if i’m gonna get shot for no good reason, i really don’t wanna do it on an empty stomach. i think maybe he was unsettled by my charm and good nature. or maybe he just thought i was a whacko he didn’t want to have to deal with right now.
in any case the goon made appropriate growling noises and wandered back out into the night, i ushered archer in through the side door. sparechange next, i came in last. we ordered and grabbed seats with tony. i wasn’t real sure what had just happened, but needed to say something. anything. “so what language was the dude spouting anyway? some kinda arabic?”
“nah, man. it’s portuguese.”
shows how much i know.
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