Behind the Scenes: The Darling I Killed
When I originally drafted “Denouement,” there were five characters in the house instead of four. The character who filled the role of the father figure was a man named Paul, an idealistic researcher who makes a technical mistake that renders an invention of his commercially unviable, which makes him so depressed that his drinking gets out of control and he alienates his son and wife before committing the act that all of the other characters commit to land themselves in an afterlife halfway house.
But Paul wasn’t necessary, as I explained in a previous post, if DDA could fill the same role. And DDA really needed to take on the patriarchal role so he could have some redeeming qualities, because he was so rotten that I couldn’t get him to make sense in the earlier forms of the story. I literally drew up a web of my characters on a giant piece of paper tacked to the wall and listed out all of their characteristics, and it became clear that Paul was really not serving to move the story forward and that his good qualities could be passed off to DDA. So Paul was the darling I had to kill, to quote the old Quiller-Couch adage.
What made me sad about cutting Paul out of the story was that he really was a darling. The inspiration for Paul came from a really engaging conversation I had with one Professor Jerry Keusch of Brown University when I interviewed him for an IEEE article on technology transfer back in 2009 or so. Keusch beautifully—and touchingly—explained the ethical straitjacket that can sometimes arise for researchers regarding intellectual property. Rendered in a passionate idealist like Paul, the frustrations and disappointments became, well, fatal. Finally, he was also a darling because I liked the breadth of voice I could practice while moving from Paul to S’mone to Thom, etc.
But he wasn’t to be.
Oh, but wait! Fraxtory has a blog. And the blog will accommodate Paul’s backstory. So the darling is given a little glimpse of life here, and all of you who maybe want to read something shorter can gobble down his backstory without investing more than another 10 minutes or so.
Readers, Paul; Paul, readers. Here’s the backstory he related to Elyse when he used to be part of the “Denouement” crew.
They said I shared too much.
It was a drug delivery device. Disposable, cheap to manufacture, easy to use, and capable of administering a crucial vaccine for adults and pediatric patients alike—it could help immunize children in Africa against the an epidemic that threatened tens of thousands of lives each year. It was my design. Weber, Sunagawa, Bonato, Neuman—the tenured scientists working for me—they had their own projects, but this was the one we were counting on.
Several years into the grant, I was invited to speak at a symposium in Florida, to talk about our lab and our work, so I did. In collegiate spirit, I shared science for the good of all. All of my colleagues do.
And then, the week after the symposium, sunburned and jazzed, I was back in my lab, preparing for a meeting with Dr. Amft, a pharmacologist over at the biosafety facility, when I got a call from Wilkins, who represented the university on IP matters. “O’Reilly, what were you thinking?” were the words that unraveled my life.
The device could no longer be patented. And even worse, now that anyone could manufacture it, no one would take the risk of doing so. It took me several phone calls and meetings over many weeks to grasp the magnitude of my mistake. Here was a device that could save the lives of thousands of helpless, hopeless people—children—and we were giving up over legal technicalities?
If it had been because of money, I would have understood. Neither I nor the university stood to profit all that much from the device, being that we were granted by the NSF. Perhaps my career would have had some extra security, sure, and we might have had the funds to build a better lab with which to attract more scientists and students, but none of the interested parties stood to lose a penny from my soliloquistic blunder in Florida.
And yet there they sat. Prototypes, already successfully tested in pigs and rats, ready for human trials. Ready to save the lives of thousands of yet-unborn children, who would, when they were born, enter a life of disease and despair.
Seven years of effort down the drain. I lost the grant for us. Weber, Sunagawa, Bonato, Neuman—they lost their jobs. Great scientists, the best colleagues I’d ever had, and among the best friends, at a time when finding new jobs, if even possible, would likely mean uprooting their spouses’ careers and their children’s schooling to go to labs or universities in other states or even other countries.
Forced into an unwanted sabbatical, I began drinking more than my habitual glass of wine with dinner. It became a cocktail before bed, then a cocktail at lunch, alone. Then Priscilla, who wasn’t even forty yet, would take the train home to Boston and find me passed out on the sofa with the 76ers game on and the house dark because I’d been asleep since afternoon.
“I’ve been through enough hell over that thing,” she called up to me one night as I grasped the banister to haul myself up the stairs.
“What thing?” I slurred, wagging my head around so I could see her.
“Your damned device. I left Philly for it. I don’t want to lose my husband over it, too.”
“Pris,” I started, but she stalked past me. By the time I got to the stop of the stairs, I’d lost the thread of the conversation, but I followed her into the bedroom anyway. She changed into sweats, and I smiled at her in her bra, but she ignored me and I fell onto the bed when she left the room.
Then there was what happened with my son. If I hadn’t had my brain so pickled, maybe I could have made myself clearer.
Jeff had been hemming and hawing over whether to go into orthopedics or emergency medicine, and called me from Austin for advice. “I don’t care,” I said, which was true, but not in the way he understood me. “You should do something that…you know…whatever compels you.” I had just drunk down a few fingers of scotch before the ice cubes had even melted, and rotated the clinking glass against my bent leg, which was propped up against the coffee table while I watched us lose to the Celtics. The liquor cabinet seemed very far away, and I felt torn and distracted as Jeff continued talking in my ear.
“What do you mean, you don’t care?” he asked.
Getting more scotch won out, of course. I mustered some waning mental strength and willed myself up from the couch. “Yeah,” I muttered, shuffling down the hall to the kitchen liquor cabinet and digging around in it. I switched the phone to speaker so holding it would be easier. “Whatever…is going to be, for you, the thing…that you want. To be the thing for you. Because I don’t care.” I found the bottle, wrenched the lid off, poured the glass full, and started to replace the bottle, then thought better of it and brought it with me back to the den.
“Dad, what is wrong with you?”
“Why, does my voice sound funny?” I asked, blinking, trying to achieve a non-drunken level of alertness. “Prob’ly I have…one of those things.”
“Cold,” I said, falling into the couch.
“You have a cold.”
“Yep.” I took a long swallow. That spruced reality up for a second.
“Are you on something?” Jeff asked, suspicion in his voice.
“Let me talk to Priscilla,” he demanded.
I frowned. Had I seen her that day? Or the day before? “Wait a sec,” I said, trying to remember where I’d last seen her. “I d’know where she is.”
“What’s going on?”
“Work stuff,” I said, waving my hand. “There was this int-intextual popperty thing.”
“They’re paging me. I have to go.”
He called again the next morning, waking me up at about 10:00 despite the fact that the TV was still on, with yet another Celtics game being broadcast, and asked me if I cared if he went into orthopedics or emergency medicine, and I said I didn’t. He became snide and hung up, and I looked around briefly for Pris before bumping into the scotch during my search. It took me three more days to notice the letter from her with her wedding ring folded inside it, sitting on top of my dresser.
Jeff called one more time to tell me he couldn’t believe I cared more about patients I’d never met than my own son or wife, and that I needed to get my head out of my ass, call Priscilla—he must have spoken with her—and then dry myself out, make some apologies, and go invent something new. Move on.
But I knew there wasn’t another invention like that one in me.
The lab was empty that night, but I still had the keys. Against all odds, my car careened up to its icy parking space late that night without hitting anything, and I lurched across the salt-crunch sidewalk and down the gravel path in my slippers. Inside, the computer monitors were dark, the whiteboards, covered with diagrams and notes scribbled in bygone moments of optimism, glowing an eerie blue.
There were plenty of the vials Amft had left us still in the refrigerator. I took two of them and one of the prototypes, stumbled back to my office, and sank into the cracked leather chair. I rummaged through my desk until I found a pair of pliers to pry open the device with, then filled it from the vials, my hands shaking. Whoever had to clean this up would need to be careful.
What Jeff didn’t understand was that I did care more about him than about patients I’d never met. Of course I did. All I meant was that he ought to follow his heart and do whatever called him, and that what, specifically, that would be was unimportant to me. And whatever called him, I hoped, would be however he saw best to help others, a task at which I myself had failed miserably.
Not for lack of design, though. It was perfect. Even in the dark, and drunk, it was just as easy to use as I had hoped, though in the end, it only helped one poor, disillusioned fool.