Sunday, September 29, 2013

Poetic Genes

Nicholausbroussard (Wiki.)

By Louis Shalako, with a little help from Edmond Rostand.

There was an inseparable gulf between him and that other world.

The young man stood outside the club, waiting. Rain shimmered in the glare of the streetlights, but he was oblivious. There was a lineup but he had no hope of getting in. Wrong clothes. He had the wrong hair, the wrong look. He could never have faked it. Even money wasn’t enough to help with that. He’d learned that the hard way.

But there was another gaggle of fans, real fans, the ones that bought the recordings and paid the bills, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol.

He stood among them, on the far side of the street, clustered under a light-post, with giggles, coughs, shouts and voices all around. He had never felt so alone, but that was a lie, because he always felt alone. Ever since he could remember, he had been alone. It was his fate unless something happened to contradict it.

A limousine, big and black and long, pulled into the pool of light across the street. The curbside valet opened the far side door, and Zachary peered through the intervening gloom to see who it was.

The dark head of a man, a man with a neat beard and mustache, poked up above the roof first, as he turned and helped someone out. He had silvery, wire-rimmed glasses and an air of quiet assurance. The woman stood up. He saw wild blonde hair, and that was maddeningly all.

Was it her? Everyone else started shouting, yet he was still not sure.

“Lana! Lana!”

Voices cried all around him, and so he shouted too.

The sidewalk was roped off, but she had a crowd of people over there to contend with first. Finally she turned. It was her. She smiled and blew a kiss over the top of the car at the people on this side, with Zach, one of many, jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“I love you, Lana!” Was it just imagination, wishful thinking, or did their eyes lock for one brief second, with her mouth open in breathless poise, and did she not give an extra little wave and sparkling smile just for him?

Probably not, he conceded, but it could have been. It could have been.

“I love you Lana.” He turned and began threading his way out of the mob.

Late as it was, when he got home he had a cold beer and watched TV for a while. His mom could be heard puttering about up above. After a time, even that stopped. Munching stale pretzels from the bowl on the coffee table, he only thing in the guide that looked half-decent was Gerard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac. He lay on the couch, ignoring the TV. He liked Gerard Depardieu, partly for whatever reason and partly because there was an uncanny resemblance between them. Zach had the same barrel type torso, the same big head and jaw, and, he carelessly admitted, the same sort of dumb look on his face, a kind of serene innocence in a cold world. He identified with him a little too much, which was why he had turned off the movie. What was hilariously funny at first soon hit home in the emotional guts, and he quickly tired of the romance, which was just what he didn’t have in his life. No one loved him, and realistically, he loved no one but Lana—and there was just no way in hell that was ever going to happen. Of course he wondered if he even really loved her, really. Puppy-love, sick crush, it still felt the same, the same sweet pain of longing and hopeless desire. He’d felt it about other women, but those women were closer to him and had responded or encouraged him…at least at first. It’s not like there weren’t some lessons there for him, far from it. The lessons were all too obvious, but he didn’t care to dwell too long on them.

There was nothing among the infomercials that he particularly thought he needed or would ever need. That was a bleak enough thought. When would he ever have to cook? Or entertain friends?



Finally he spent some time on Facebook. A friend in Auckland, one of the Facebook friends that he had never actually met and was probably never going to meet, just some guy he’d clicked on, posted a link to a fellow who was looking for academic approval for a bizarre nano-poetry project. His friend worked at the university there, as far as he had gathered over the two or three years he had been following his posts.

Grinning, Zachary read up on it. Apparently the guy was going to write a poem for the occasion, and then encode it onto a strand of DNA, and then inject it into a bacterium. The reason for doing this seemed pointlessly obscure, but then Zachary didn’t understand poetry or art at all. He liked certain songs on the radio. That was about it. He liked pictures of pretty girls and after that mostly landscapes. He had a cowboy painting on the wall, it was just there and he hardly even acknowledged it.

At that point he shut the machine off, and took some melatonin to help him sleep, although the morning logy effect would be pronounced after only five, or if he was lucky, six hours sleep.

Then he brushed his teeth and went to bed.


Friday morning dawned bright and clear. It had the look of another brilliant summer day, hot as hell later, but that was okay. The main company lot was almost empty of vehicles. Security waved him through the gate, after a quick glance at the windshield sticker.

He pulled his brand-new Focus into a vacant slot up near the doors for a change. Getting out, he locked it silently as was his way, no extroverted beep-beep for him, and headed into the research labs of Gentech International. Off to the right and behind was their sprawling Los Angeles plant, specializing in pharmaceuticals, agricultural products, and gene therapies targeting various aspects of immunodeficiency.

Zach unlocked the door and hung up his coat. He was just tending to the coffeemaker, putting in a fresh filter and six scoops of Maxwell House when Doctor Morrow came in.

Hands shaking slightly, he ignored Gus’s nasal breathing and concentrated on filling up the tank with hot water without spilling any. He put the lid down and hit the switch.

“Isn’t this Happy Friday?”

Technically, with the thirty-seven and a half-hour work week, this was true.

“Ah, yes, but.”

Gus nodded knowledgeably. As a senior researcher, he was on salary, while the lab technician Zach was on hourly.

“It’s just that—”

Gus slapped him on the back, assuming that Zach was swapping hours as next weekend was the long weekend and maybe he could get four days off in a row.

“It’s not like I care.” Then he winked in a conspiratorial manner. “Keep up the good work.”

Then he took the morning papers and headed for the john.


Normally Zach was looking for certain indicator proteins, doing the simple test on wide racks with hundreds of small glass tubes, putting in the chemicals with a multi-pronged syringe, and keeping careful and accurate records.

He understood what they were doing. The telomere was on the end of every strand of DNA, and it shrunk over the course of a person’s life. They prevented a person’s chromosomes from fusing or rearrangement, which led to cancer. This of course was the initial attraction of the research, to find a cure for cancer. Cancer was caused by immortal cells which somehow bypassed or subverted the telomere process. The whole immortality thing was an outlier of the original premise. When they got down to about twenty-five percent of the former length, the person’s immune system and glandular systems began to accelerate the aging process and break down in innumerable ways. Nature, intent on evolution and a strong gene pool, had essentially ensured a natural life span for each organism which ensured the vitality of the species.

Of course no one wanted to die. Not normal people anyway. People would pay anything not to die. His own father had been so confused, so resentful. Yet he’d had a long life, and suffered for so many years…the thing in the paper, ‘passed away peacefully,’ was pure bullshit.

No one ever went peacefully. Zach had that much figured out. He was still troubled by vague feelings of guilt and the inescapable images of his father’s last breath.

All they had to do was to either slow the rate down or stop it, and human lifespan would take a great leap forward in terms of longevity. While it was believed that human physical immortality was unlikely, even another fifty or a hundred years of life would be something—something special in terms of pharmaceuticals, with other potential applications in a hundred other fields.

Not the least of which was in cancer research.

That’s what he told himself as he went looking for the samples from Cyrano de Bergerac, whose remains had been allegedly dug up and were waiting to be compared with some other samples, all allegedly direct descendents, and all from the same region in Gascony, in the hopes of proving to a rather large cable TV audience that the body dug up was indeed him. Or something like that. He hadn’t actually watched the show, only seen a commercial for it.

Taken on its own, it was interesting and challenging work. The trouble was when his mind went off on a tangent and started thinking of Lana.

It was a crazy idea, but it was all he had.


Gus came back in. It smelled like he’d splashed on just a ton of aftershave.

“So, I’ve got a meeting, and then lunch, and then it’s a one-o’clock tee-off at Briarwood Oaks.”


“So you’re on your own then.”

“Ah, right. Okay. Well, I’ve got plenty of work to do, so—”

Since Gus was always going to be Gus, naturally that wasn’t the end of it.

“Well, make sure you do those samples I asked you for.” By the look on his face, he had a list.

Zach indicated the trays in front of him.

“Already on it, chief.” His breezy tone was all the reassurance Gus needed.

Face brightening at the thought of all that work being done for him by Monday morning, he took off this lab coat and went looking for his jacket.

He came out of his small office again, thrusting arms awkwardly through the tight sleeves.

“Where’s Busby?”

“Off. It’s Happy Friday.”

“Oh. Right.” Gus stood there for a moment looking lost. “Oh. Yeah. Thanks for coming in.”

Without another word, he nodded decisively and headed for the door.


With no one around to plague him, he soon had his work all caught up insofar as Monday morning was concerned. Zach understood that the money was good and the work they did here was important. But sometimes the job could be boring as hell. Some chemists were involved with tests that were so painstaking and irritating that he would get home with a crick in his neck and a dull, throbbing headache that three aspirins just wouldn’t kill. None of them guys seemed to be around today, and that was good.

Testing takes time, and a lab technician can’t walk away. With all the A-type personalities stalking these labs, sitting around with your thumb up your ass wasn’t an option. Zach had learned to look busy, which included reading all the company memos, which arrived on a daily basis. He cudgeled his brain, trying to think exactly when he had seen it. Much of the memo traffic was proprietary information, top secret, yet relevant documents would be available across company departments…and even samples, if the supply was large enough, could be requested by other departments.

The knowledge was shared for the benefit of all.

His chair was angled away, and his feet were up on the corner of the desk, and he had one ear cocked for anyone coming down the hallway.

He thought it was last year, six or eight months ago. He started in June and worked his way through until he hit it, a memo from mid-July. He read it over three or four times, thinking.

Finally he closed the file of memos.

He sat there staring off into nowhere.

Then he swung his feet down off the desk. Grabbing a pen and a big piece of paper, be began to map out an expression system that would allow an identifiable trait—hopefully a DNA sequence for artistic expression and linguistics, to be inserted into a host organism’s own cell structure. As for whether Cyrano had left any good samples or how much degradation they might have suffered over the centuries, he just didn’t know.

He’d ask Busby, but that would have to wait for Monday morning.


Putting a sheaf of papers into a liitle-used soft-sided briefcase, Zach headed for home about four-thirty in the afternoon.

The usual forty-minute commute seemed longer and hotter than usual, but his frustration was held at bay by the thoughts in his head. He needed time to think it through, although the plan was simple enough. The house was an oasis of cool, clean serenity.

“Hi, mom.” It always surprised him when he saw the lines around her eyes, what sort of bothered him even more was her habit of dressing up all the time.

No stretchy pink pants with sagging knees and bottoms for Hazel, yet she hadn’t really gone out in years and if the extensive daily preparation period was in hopes of finding another love in her life, it hadn’t worked so far.

“Hi, honey.” The kitchen smelled marvelous and he was reminded that he’d only had a couple of doughnuts and a coffee for lunch. “How did your day go?”

“Uh, fine.”

“Sit down, you’re just in time.”

Zach rented the granny suite in the basement. As the story went, he was saving up for a big down payment on a nice house somewhere. Privately he acknowledged it was just a story.

His mom had a habit of cooking just a little too much for one person, and Zach always parked on the street and entered through the front door. His timing paid off in a quick helping of lasagna and some leftover salad. That finished, he took the briefcase downstairs and headed for the shower.

Unusually for the weekend, he had no major plans, no clubs, no bars, no meeting up with friends on the immediate horizon.

With no urgent need to go out or anything like that, although the grass would have to be cut sooner or later, he pulled out the sheets with the expression system and began studying it with care, mind far, far away, on a sunny desert island. His mind was somewhere in the South Pacific with the pop singer known as Lana.


Zach and Busby argued for three days, back and forth, back and forth, abruptly catching themselves in the middle of a heated argument when Morrow or one of the other chemists walked in.

Finally the pair just shut up about it. Busby didn’t approve, that was the one thing. Lana meant nothing to him, she was just another unnaturally talented teenager—he was shocked when he found that out, he had thought her in her early twenties—but she dressed differently from some of the other acts. Busby figured the country music scene was just different. Not like that one pop singer, he forgot her name, always wearing her underwear on the outside.

Friday rolled around again and Zach gave it one more shot.

“Come on. I need you to document this. It’s like you say, what if something goes wrong. I might be very ill, I might not be able to talk.”

“Argh. You are just fuckin’ nuts. That is the problem. You’re going to risk your own life and your health for sure. Over some chick who has no idea of your very existence, and no doubt she could care less when she finds out, which, incidentally, I must assume to mean that you have a plan for that too! Argh. It’s too nuts.” His buddy had a point, but Zach pressed on.

“Look.” He tried to inject a note of calm into his voice, even a fake resignation. “Just read the expression system. See if I’ve missed anything. Just give me an opinion.”

“Let it go.” Busby, looking forward to a long summer weekend with the wife and kids, was running out of patience.

These off the books, private projects were definitely frowned upon and probably grounds for instant dismissal. He wished Zach had never told him.

The man wanted something he just couldn’t have, and didn’t have the sense or quite frankly, the maturity, to admit it. Busby marveled at this display of narcissistic angst. He’d never seen anything like it in anything so closely resembling a grown man…Zach stood almost hugging himself with frustration, firmly convinced that this all could work. Did he know what he looked like? Obviously not.

What was he expecting to do? Lie in wait somewhere? Recite poetry as she strode past down Rodeo Drive? Send her love letters? That would creep her out for sure, and who could blame her. Was he going to write songs for her, then? Busby’s face hung slack at this mental picture of his friend.

It seemed awfully far-fetched. He regarded his sheepish young friend with mild disapproval, laced with a hint of astonishment.

“Seriously. You’re out of your mind.” There was just no way.

“Please.” Such humble eloquence was unusual for Zach. “Please?”

“You must admit that destroying every opportunity that comes your way is a little extreme!”

Busby had set Zach up more than once with a sure thing, well a pretty sure thing a time or two, but his young buddy hadn’t seen the light. One of the girls in the front office, the lovely Rebecca, had hot eyes for him so bad it was downright embarrassing. The only saving grace there was that Zach was totally oblivious.

“Yes, I admit it. I am sometimes extreme.” Zach sighed, deeply.


“But to take a stand, or to defend a principle, sometimes requires one to act in extreme ways.”

That was one way to describe a crush on some millionaire rock star who graced the cover of a new magazine every other week.

“Oh, God damn it, forget your childish lust for a moment. You have too much to live for, Zach.”

“Oh, yes? But what would you have me do? Be like the wretched ivy that clings around a big tree and creeps upward not by its own strength but by trickery? No, thank you! Dedicate poems to bankers, like other poets have done? Act like a cringing fool just for the hope of seeing a condescending smile on a patron's lips? Thank you, but no! Learn to swallow insults every day? Scrape my knees raw from kneeling and bend my back till it breaks from bowing? No, thank you! Or be two-faced and sly, running with the hare while at the same time hunting with the hounds? Learn the cheap art of flattering people so that they may praise me? Step on people to make my way ahead? Navigate the sea of life with madrigals for sails, blown gently windward by old ladies’ sighs? Thank you, but no! Bribe kindly editors to print my poetry? Aspire to be elected pope of tavern councils held by drunken idiots? Work my whole life to bank my reputation on one famous sonnet instead of writing hundreds? Be terrorized by all the papers, thinking such things as, ‘Oh, if only the Mercury would give me a kind review!’ Grow pale and fearful and scheming? Prefer to make visits instead of poems? Seek introductions to the right people, sign the right petitions? No! No! And no again! But sing? And dream and laugh? Yes! Go freely, wherever I please, with eyes that look straight forward and with a fearless voice! To wear my hat just the way I choose! To decide for myself in any situation whether to fight a duel or to recite a poem! To work without one thought of fortune or fame, and to realize that journey to the moon! Never to write a line that has not sprung straight from my heart. To be modest. To be content with every flower, fruit or even leaf—but pluck them from my own garden and no one else's! And then, if glory ever does by chance come my way, I’ll pay no tribute to Caesar, because the merit will be my own. In short, I will never be like that wretched ivy. Whether I rise very high or not, I am content because I climb alone.”

Busby wandered over and dropped into a chair. He held his head in his hands.

“Oh, boy. Boy, oh, boy.” Busby was beginning to develop a real sick feeling in his guts. “Oh, you stupid son of a bitch—you’ve really gone and done it now!”

And in spite of all his best efforts, he had managed to suck Busby into it as well.

There was a long silence, but then Busby looked up. It was clear that Zach had already injected himself. This was just his way of announcing it.

“You speak so very loud and proud to the world. But can you whisper the truth into my ear—she does not love you, does she?”


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Edmond Rostand (who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac.)

Editor’s Note: only those parts written by Monsieur Shalako are copyright 2013; all other parts are public domain. If Edmond Rostand were alive today, he’d be a very old man, and most likely pretty cranky.

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