Pentecost

(for a change of pace, a short story from Roy M. Griffis)

Pentecost

    “Lunatics on parade,” I hear a voice behind me utter distinctly. It’s a voice curiously flat, almost atonal.
    “Dr. Markham,” I say, turning away from the television to face her. I’m busted, no question, with no way to brazen it out. I was younger then, and hadn’t become the skilled liar that life would later encourage me to be. Not that watching television in the lab is expressly forbidden. It’s just that Dr. Markham doesn’t approve of a division in the attention of her lab assistants.
    She glances at the television. “Who is this idiot?” she asks, curious in spite of herself. Curiosity, on her, expresses itself with a straight line above her pale eyebrows and a further deepening of her gaunt cheeks.
    “I don’t know,” I tell her. “It was a toss-up between this guy and a Japanese movie about a radiation infected boy eighty five feet tall.”
    The small phosphor dot figure rants about the great pyramids, Atlantis, and the Divine Plan.
    Dr. Markham listens for a moment. “That kind,” she says shortly. “Relying on the writings of Herodotus and his ilk…that’s like using Aristotle to prove spontaneous regeneration is a fact.”
    Having thus dismissed my semi amusing television harangue, she focuses her attention upon me. Closely upon me.
    “How is the subject?”
    Beebee is the subject’s name. Really, her nameplate reads Betty, but one of the cleaning ladies could never get it straight, no matter how often she was corrected. “How is Betty the Baboon?” the woman would ask. Eventually, we started to log Betty’s responses under B.B. I know it’s not in keeping with the finest traditions of controlled scientific inquiry, but people do a lot of silly things when they’re bored. So Betty became Beebee.
    “She’s fine.” I try for a surreptitious glance at my log–not covert enough, as Dr. Markham with her long thin hands lifts the logbook off the counter. “She voided her bladder about 2300,” I add lamely.
    “Yes.”
    Why do I get the feeling my very existence is an affront to Dr. Markham? It’s not so much that she curls her lip when she speaks to me as the distance with which she seems to regard me. I imagine her holding me out at arm’s length, the way she would a parasitic fecal sample.
    But it’s not just me. It’s the way she treats everyone. Everyone around here at least.
    Lean, thin, gaunt, she crosses to the monitors. Her naked flanks must look like those of a wolf. From out of nowhere, I’m wondering what her ass would look like if she were nude, walking away from me. I suffer a vision of taut, white, spare, controlled flesh.
    I think I’ve been working nights too long.
    “Is that kitten still in there with her?”
    Oh, no. Oh shit. “Yes, ma’am.”
    Without turning to me, she says, “I don’t like the kitten being in there with the subject.”
    “Dr. Graham thought it was a good idea, a way to further her socialization.”
    “Yes, I know what Dr. Graham thinks,” Dr. Markham replies, atonal as ever, but degrees colder. Cold enough to burn. “I believe it distracts the subject, making our work here more difficult.”
    I don’t want to get in the middle of a pissing contest between two PhD’s, especially since I was the one who let the kitten into the viewing room, allowing Beebee to see her for the first time. Doing my best to project an aural impression of groveling, I reply, “Dr. Graham said that if the kitten came back, I should let Beebee go ahead and play with it.”
    Dr. Markham shifts the cameras which record Beebee’s actions day and night. “Turn that off,” she tells me quietly.
    I scoot across the false flooring in my desk chair and tap the switch on the TV. I can feel irritation building up. You’re tired, I warn myself. Don’t say anything stupid.
    Now she has the angle she wants. The view inside the cage is too dark, a mass of greys with a splash of dusty white. I reach over and hit the Starlight switch. It’s adapted from the Army nighttime rifle scopes of the same name.
    “Thank you,” Dr. Markham mutters perfunctorily.
    Beebee sleeps sprawled on her side, with her shoulders almost flat on her bed. The kitten sleeps, too, curled up in the space between Beebee’s thick forearm and heavy chest. It’s a touching sight, even “cute” as one of the interns put it. The kitten, a mash of whites and oranges and browns, mingles her soft downy fur with Beebee’s long black hair. A pastoral image, shaded a gentle Starlight scope green.
    The kitten a pet; the subject a lowland gorilla; and me on watch this evening. And because I am on watch with Dr. Markham’s spectral presence beside me, the tableau we view would not be described as trust, or “The Peaceable Kingdom.” It might be written up as an example of “mutually shared territoriality,” or if one listened to Dr. Graham’s arguments, a case of “higher primate need to establish a social order.”
    For a time, Dr. Markham watches the monitor. You would think she suspected me, or Beebee, of trying to pull a fast one. Turning away from the screen, Dr. Markham announces, “I’ll speak to Dr. Graham about this,” and walks swiftly from the room.
    “Good night,” I tell her back as she closes the door behind her. Damn. She’s working late tonight. And most nights.
    There’s a tap on the viewing window. It startles me, and I jump. “Jesus!”
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