(from KINDLE edition)
Every minute of every day, a chemist, somewhere on Earth, lectures to hopeful students about chemistry. In spite of the library shelves containing endless rows of books and journals, in spite of ever increasing computing power and storage, in spite of sophisticated electronic instrumentation and modern high tech glassware, chemistry, ultimately, is still passed down from generation to generation, from mentor to protégé, by word-of-mouth, much like the stories and legends of pre-history.
Galen is but one of the voices in this ongoing chain. His words are based on those of his teachers and he can only call out with one voice, tempered with abiding faith, to those who will come after.
Those of us whose lives have been brightened by these enduring songs of molecules can find great hope that the voices that are the links in this inexorable chain are not likely to fall silent anytime soon.
-- 1 --
He was a teacher. My teacher.
He disappeared from campus before that semester ended and, because I was young, I guess I forgot him sooner than I should have. Only after I learned of his odd skirmish, and of the ruin which followed, did it become clear that his lessons held for me a special importance.
Several years after I graduated from the Whitman Institute I saw him again. I had taken my kids to a beach along Florida's Atlantic coast. The sun appeared over the horizon as I drove my car onto the gravel parking lot and stopped it in one of the faintly lined spaces. The dilapidated wooden pier, the one where the fishing had been rumored so good, reached from the end of my hood to the dark ocean. Children and cheap fishing gear cascaded from every car door.
"I'm hungry," Elaine, my youngest, said.
"Me too," Steven, my oldest, agreed.
"It's still before the bait store opens so we have time for breakfast." This came from Robert, my middle boy.
"I thought you guys already had breakfast." I stepped from behind the wheel into the already bright sunlight.
"We just had juice since we left so early."
With only a bit of fatherly aggravation, I scanned the surroundings for a solution.
At the far end of the parking area, a white building with large windows and flat roof bridged a thin strip of unkempt grass between the gravel parking lot and narrow beach. "We can try that place over there." I pointed toward the building's painted sign reading "Cafe and Grill" in peeling red letters.
My kid's eyes followed my finger. "Okay!" They dropped their fishing gear by the car and hurried off.
I lingered to examine the thin scattering of cars, low lying scrub and occasional palm tree surrounding the gravel parking area. When the closest stranger in my field of vision turned out to be a grizzled old man holding a rod to the ocean, he stood at the furthest limit of the weathered, sea worn pier, I judged the gear safe. I followed my kids at a pace befitting my years, the early hour and the absence of caffeine in my system. After only a few steps, my kids disappeared through the diner's screen door.
When I passed through the door, I saw a fiftyish man behind the counter hand to each of my children a glazed donut wrapped in wax paper. Slender, he wore a faded tee shirt and old jeans under a worn white apron and smiled under sad eyes while executing the early morning transaction. My kids saw me and walked back through the screen door.
Deciding it too late to complain about the less than wholesome breakfast, I stayed behind to settle with the man behind the counter.
Some poet once declared middle age the time when everyone you meet reminds you of someone else. When I looked into this counterman's scholarly eyes, I felt, for a moment, the memories of that engaging teacher. But, with aggravation toward my kids already on the rise, I pocketed my change and hurried to the screen door to chase after them.
I stopped. The old, yet strangely new feelings about my college days made me turn for a second look; to be sure. The counterman turned the page of his newspaper spread flat on the counter.
And then I knew.
It was how he supported his weight. How he rested it on the wrist of his left fist by locking his left arm straight. He did that so often. The stance left his right hand free, in this case to control newsprint, but at one time to manage the pages of a notebook he used as his lecture guide.
I stood there, my life experience silent on how to react to the chance meeting. My gut responded with fearful compassion; my heart, a surprising measure of contempt. A scientific colleague brought low, I judged. How ... inconsiderate. What did he do to deserve that?
The reality of my own life intruded. Technically, he enjoyed a superior status. He had a job. I sidled back to the counter.
The counterman looked up. As sad eyes betrayed his wise face, I knew it to be him.
"I was one of your students at The Whitman Institute. Jeffrey Carter?"
His face creased, but his hand came forward. I took it.
"I guess I don't remember."
"I took your honors class?"
"Ahhh," Mason Galen nodded his head too many times. "Of course."
He still didn't remember me.
"So where did you end up? Were you one of the pre-meds?" He spoke as if it might still be office hours.
"At the time." I tried not to sound as adrift as I now often felt. "I changed my major to physics. I was just down-sized ..." I told him from which company. "My family and I are staying with my wife's parents for a while. My kids and I are going fishing." I gestured toward the pier.
Mason Galen smiled and nodded.
Awkward silence followed. Since his teaching once guided my life, I had assigned to him a more generous fate. "How's business?"
Galen looked around at the vinyl upholstered booths and large glass windows lining the room. "It keeps my ends met."
"If I remember, your replacement instructor, what was his name, Dr. Grenger. He said you went back to your research job at Bane Chemical in Suttlerville. He mentioned a promotion."
Mason Galen focused on my face. "No." His body shuddered slightly as he forced himself to draw a breath that might have seared his lungs. "I sold cars afterward as a matter of fact. I seemed to have a knack for it."
"Dad, we're waiting."
I turned. Steven stood behind the screen door. "I'll catch up."
My rejected son vanished toward the pier. I ignored my now guilty conscience and turned back to Mason Galen. I tried to remember more from back then.
Dr. Galen filled the ensuing silence. "You're wondering how I ended up here."
"Well ... " My memory blossomed with Grenger's other comments about this man. Their inconsistency at last became obvious. How could Mason Galen return to Bane Chemical if he committed murder? "I was thinking about Grenger's final exam."
"How did it go?"
"I got a ninety five; the average was eighty seven. I remember because Grenger accused everyone of cheating. He tried to make us all take it again."
Dr. Galen's face turned distant. "Could you handle the math?"
I couldn't resist a conspiratorial grin. "Well, we'd been working the problems that whole semester even though you'd de-emphasized them. On our own." I nodded. "We were ready."
Galen's face displayed the awkward smile of a proud teacher.
Real sympathy surged through me. "We all thought your lectures were ... great. A little bit ... fun."
Galen shrugged. "Nothing special." He examined the inside of an unused coffee pot.
"You know, some people blamed you for what later happened to the department. To me that always seemed ... crazy."
"It was a long time ago."
I lowered myself onto one of the stools.
"Dad, the bait store is opening."
Distracted, I turned again toward the doorway and my eldest son. My other two children stared from behind him.
I glanced through the large window facing the pier and saw young families spreading out belongings for a casual day. "Steven, remember how you said fourteen is old enough to be on your own once in a while?"
Steven nodded, his eyes wide.
"How about if we try that out this morning? You have some money to lay out, don't you?
Three faces lit up and moved away from the door.
"I'll be right here if you need me. Just be careful who you talk to and watch your sister and brother." I made my voice grow louder to keep up with the three excited kids as they receded from my field of vision. "And be careful!" The children had almost certainly passed out of earshot.
Regretting my decision, I turned back to Mason Galen. I followed his distracted gaze through the large window and watched my kids queue up to buy one of the small white boxes the old man I saw earlier sell out of a small shed.
"I only figured everything out at the end," Galen said. "Each individual event just seemed to mean something else. I'd just wanted to teach chemistry. I hadn't done it in so long."
He leaned again on his left fist and looked toward the ocean.
-- 2 --
Students filed noisily into the small lecture hall of the Davidson Chemistry Building at The Whitman Institute of Technology and Engineering. Dr. Mason Galen, new instructor for the honors general chemistry class, stood in front of the room and supported his weight on his left fist and straight left arm. He wore casual slacks and a shirt with a tie.
Beneath his hand a laboratory demonstration benchtop, it held a working sink and a louver covered exhaust fan, ran parallel to the room's amphitheater of ascending rows of chairs. Notated yellow tablet sheets and an empty notebook lay in front of him. Behind, a wall of chalk boards faced the students.
As his anticipation grew, Galen wondered about his readiness for the job. He had considered himself accustomed to once-familiar actions stirring up the painful memories. Not so. Was the pain proportional to the joy he once felt? He didn't know, but he felt the pain now, beneath everything.
While the students settled in, Mason Galen looked at the markings left behind on the blackboard. A professor's name, office number and times when students could visit filled part of one board. A square box enclosed a curved line in another and an equation, "PV=nRT", the Ideal Gas Law, filled a third.
He picked up an eraser from the chalk tray and rubbed it over the markings. The words turned to dust. He returned the eraser to the tray and brushed his hands together as he stepped back to his notes.
Each student had made paper and pen ready. They each looked at Galen with a quiet, open-minded irreverence. The room grew quiet.
Weakness swept over Galen's body. "There is ... a parallel ... universe, beside which we all live, day after day, all of our lives."
"It exists in everything we touch and everything we see. Yet, this world is invisible, so the only means we have to see it is our mind. It is the universe of the very small.
"Since it is all around us, to get to it we must use, not a device of motion, but a device of comprehension. This device is called science. A component of it is called chemistry. The device we are to learn here, in this room, this semester.
"But why must it be a 'parallel' universe?" Galen stepped away from the benchtop. "Why isn't it the same universe?
"In fact there is only the one universe. But there are rules in the universe, physical laws, that are significant, meaningful, only for small things. The rules apply to everything, but are noticeable, measurable, of consequence, only for things that are very small. Since manipulating the universe helps us live better lives, then manipulating the universe of small things helps us to live better lives as well. That is what chemists do."
With blank faces, the students watched Galen.
"But any journey to the universe of the very small will be, ultimately, incomplete. Unlike the exploration of the Nile, there are no headwaters to find, no final answer. As you cross each mountain or valley, there will be only another mountain or valley while in between there will be cliffs and falls and dangerous whirlpools and rapids.
"So the road is not easy. But, as in any exploration, with enough effort, the traveler will glimpse a beauty unknown to those who stayed home.
"Many come to treasure this 'beauty' of small things as someone might enjoy the sight of a rose or the smell of a forest after a spring rain. Because that beauty, even though we perceive it through the mind, is no different from what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, feel with our fingers or smell with our noses."
Galen stepped back to the benchtop. He searched the faces of several students.
A hand appeared at the rear of the hall.
"Question." Galen pointed to the hand.
"Do you grade on the curve?" The question echoed in the large hall.
Galen's mind still focused on chemistry. "Ahhh ... I ... I guess I haven't decided ... ummm ... but I suppose I'll grade the same way as the other instructors."
Closer to the front, another hand appeared. Galen pointed to it. "Can we drop one exam out of the three or half of the final? They're doing that in the other classes."
"Ummm ... this is an honors class. Shouldn't you be held to a higher standard?"
"That's not fair!" In the large room, Galen could not identify the speaker. "If it's an honors class, the material should be harder, but the grading should be the same."
A small commotion erupted. "I have to get a good grade in this class!"
Galen still couldn't identify the speaker. He scratched the back of his neck while other students made similar comments. They came from a small minority of students. "This will all be worked out," he argued. "I'd just like you to think about chemistry, at least for a few minutes, to get us started."
"What does this Nile River stuff mean?" A slip of a girl whispered this too loudly to an oriental woman seated on her right. "I thought this was a chemistry class."
"I need to know how many tests there are right now!"
Galen's discomfort transformed into astonishment as he watched the students come alive with their personal needs and concerns. His heart sank. "I apologize for the oversight. Why don't we talk chemistry for a little while and by the next class, I'll have a syllabus."
"First things first!"
Galen absorbed the blow. He tried to think of some way to regain control of the class. He looked down at the yellow tablet pages and saw his sketchy notes on the subject of molarity. They didn't seem appropriate any more.
"Okay, let's break up early today." Galen used as much formality and authority as he could muster. "Next time I'll have a syllabus and ... and the other stuff. That's all for today."
A small cacophony arose as the students gathered up their belongings, walked along the rows of chairs to the sides of the room and filed up the shallow stairs to the ground floor exits. Various comments of discontent and exasperation accompanied them.
Galen stood alone. He stepped to the shallow stairs and sat in one of the lecture desks in the second row. He stared for a time at the empty demonstration benchtop and still clean blackboards.
"How did it go?" Professor Alan Pruitt, Chemistry Department Chairman, stepped into Galen's field of vision.
A bachelor in his sixties, Alan Pruitt's full head of white hair and diminutive size belied a massive creative energy Galen first learned about as an undergraduate at the same Whitman Institute. With a single glance, Galen knew this energy to be undiminished, maybe even stronger, now than years ago.
"It seems you got grilled worse than normal."
"You saw what happened?"
Galen supposed Pruitt could have been standing in the shadows behind the audio/visual room at the rear of the hall. "I wanted the first class to be special."
"Give them time." Pruitt shrugged. "They'll come around. You'll come around, too. They stayed quiet for most of what you said."
Galen leaned forward in the small chair and felt the encouragement to which, at one time, he had grown so accustomed. "Maybe. But I'd better wise up fast."
"That's the spirit."
-- 3 --
Galen stepped into the crowded reception area of the chemistry department's front office. He stepped around the unattended front counter and stopped.
He stood to one side so a man, walking in the opposite direction, could pass. Tall, he looked a bit older than Galen. His gangly and thin frame controlled powerful hands and his dark hair covered only part of his head. He wore an expensive shirt and tie and his pants appeared part of a suit whose jacket certainly lay somewhere nearby.
Galen nodded a smile of greeting, but the man, his eyes searched the carpet, didn't notice. The man passed through the door and disappeared into the hallway filled with free flowing bodies.
Galen turned and crossed the room to Professor Alan Pruitt's office door and secretary. He smiled at Gretchen Hurd as she looked up from papers filled with Alan Pruitt's bold, clear handwriting. She smiled back and gestured Galen into Pruitt's office.
The high ceilinged room could have been stark and forbidding but exuded casual comfort instead. Pruitt's desk, while off to the left, faced the center of the room. Two modest chairs stared back. A small sofa, situated below a blackboard, seemed out of place against the wall by the door. A large window covered by mini-blinds filled the wall opposite the doorway.
Pruitt looked up from notes spread out on his desk. "Mason! Come in. Good of you to stop by." He put down his fountain pen and stood up. "Could I get you some coffee?" Pruitt moved toward a pot resting on a wooden table next to his credenza.
"I don't touch the stuff. I thought you would remember." Galen struggled to find a jocular tone.
With a fresh Styrofoam cup already in hand, Pruitt turned. "Really?" A moment passed. "Oh, I do remember. I guess I thought Bane would have cured you of that 'vice'." He smiled as he returned the soft white cup to its nested stack and re-filled his own, added a stream of sugar and moved it to his desk. He gestured to Galen to the two opposite chairs.
"So, are you getting settled?" Desk papers distracted Pruitt.
"I moved into the Whitman Gardens. It seems like a quiet place."
"Good. I'm glad to hear it." Steaming cup in hand, Pruitt sat in his high backed leather chair and crossed his legs. "We found a desk for you on the third floor. It's only temporary. Rodney Harrison had a no-show graduate student so he has some extra space. It's not what you're used to but it'll work out for a time anyway."
"I feel lucky to have any office space at all." Unexpected relief filtered through Galen's chest.
"Now don't go putting yourself down. You're the same scientist with all those patents and papers under your belt. Events, even terrible ones, don't change that."
Galen, choked by the kind words, nodded.
Pruitt sipped his coffee. "It was such a tragedy." His head shook.
"Sharon was a dear sweet lady. Intelligent. Beautiful, too."
"No, no, I'm not saying that to be polite." Pruitt's hand wandered in the air. "She was bright and ... and ... well ... She was a biochemist?"
"Biologist. But she had a strong background in chemistry. She gave it up when our first kid came along." Galen looked past Pruitt. "She was good at what she did."
A moment passed.
"How are your kids?" Pruitt asked.
"I haven't seen them in a while, but they're safe and sound with Sharon's parents. The Wexlers even enrolled them in a private school. I get letters from ... them, every once in a while." Galen looked between the narrow slats of the window blinds. "It's amazing what kids can adjust to."
"Well," Pruitt said, "regardless of the past, regardless of where you have been and what has happened, you are among friends here. I hope, I expect, you will remember that." Pruitt's attentive stare emphasized his encouraging words.
"Thank you." Galen nodded again.
"Two good semesters of teaching with a good performance rating is all you'll need to put your career back on track. That'll be a cinch for you, I know it. The research you're going to do with Chris will help even more."
Galen's face tightened. "It's a pretty modest way to start over."
"Look, I know the scientific world is not the bastion for second chances, but you have friends and colleagues who respect your achievements and, with a recent work history, they'll have no trouble selling you to their managers."
"You just have to be your usual productive self this one year. Everyone knows how well you teach. Then I'll be able to pull a few strings."
Galen looked again to the narrow slats of the window blinds. "I suppose ..."
A quiet, urgent, knocking interrupted.
"Yes?" Pruitt said.
Galen turned. The man Galen saw by the outer door appeared. He grasped papers much too tightly in his right hand.
"Professor Pruitt, I have the class lists." The man spoke as if asking a question. "The computer people must have had some breakdown because no students are listed for three of the general chemistry sections while seven of the others are overfilled."
"I've seen that before. Mason, have you met Alto yet?" Pruitt rose from his chair.
"Just in passing. I'm Mason Galen." Galen stood and extended his hand.
"Alto Grenger," the man said. He moved the papers into his left hand and clasped Galen's. "I've heard quite a bit about you already."
"Don't believe a word of it." Galen tried to make a joke.
Pruitt strode around his desk. "Mason, Alto started in the department last week. He's going to be the new administrator of the lower level undergraduate classes. He'll be handling the paper work for your class as well."
He turned to Grenger, "Mason will be teaching that honors class I told you about. We wanted to give him a little wider latitude to explore some new ideas he has for teaching the class."
"I see." A timid smile pass over Grenger's lips.
"I'd like to learn more about your new ideas."
"I'd like that, too. After I get settled, I'll stop by your office."
"Well, gentlemen," Pruitt had glanced at his watch, "I have yet another meeting in the Dean's office and if I run at full speed, I may be only 10 minutes late. Alto, could you leave those class lists on my desk?"
Pruitt disappeared through the door.
Galen and Grenger faced each other in awkward silence. Galen, still a bit moved by his talk with Pruitt, had no voice.
"You know, we already have something in common." Grenger filled the silence.
"Our last names. Galen - Grenger, they're actually quite similar."
Galen nodded slowly as he registered the concept.
He saw no such similarity.
After meandering past the undergraduate teaching labs, Galen climbed two flights of stairs to find his desk on the floor of graduate student laboratories and offices.
The third floor space surrounded, and comforted, him with its familiar laboratory setting. The brightly lit, odorless space could have passed for any office building except for the low but cacophonous sounds of gurgling and whining mixed with a low-pitched hum. There seemed to be a slight breeze and the walls displayed a variety of cartoons, posters and decals. Tall gas cylinders painted a variety of colors stood chained against some of the walls. People wearing street clothes of the most casual kind, no lab coats in sight, moved from room to room through wide open doors.
Galen stepped into a laboratory. What looked like dusty junk filled the spaces around sophisticated pieces of electronic equipment. Wall cabinets held their limit of squat brown bottles while dirty glassware of every shape and size covered the horizontal surfaces at both counter and coffee table height.
The lower benches held what looked like jailhouse bars that supported complex tangles of glass tubing. A fat orange tank, covered in places with snowy frost, stood near a second doorway to the lab. A chaise lounge cradling a crumpled newspaper occupied the center aisle. A derelict sign stolen from some restaurant hung from a light fixture. "WE NEVER CLOSE."
Galen re-oriented his thinking to this space and others like it. A room where the so-called "original" research happened: a place where both the people and the science felt awkward and uncomfortable. Invigoration surged through his body.
A strip of computer paper stretched along the back wall. "HARRY'S PLACE".
Galen judged his new home nearby. Back in the hallway, around the corner, he found a smaller room with two desks. One overflowed with papers and journals and its nearby shelf held a carelessly arranged load of books and fat binders. The other held a flat vacant surface. Its nearby shelf displayed a hardback catalog from the Fisher Company and a piece of glass tubing shaped to look like a duck.
Galen rolled an old swivel office chair out from the empty desk's kneehole. Gray duct tape covered its thick seat cushion.
Another strategic use for duct tape, Galen noted as he sat in the chair and walked it under the desk. He placed his briefcase on the desktop to claim it as his own.