Our processes were different. He was jazz, I was classical. It was obvious even in those first few hours of working together. Unquestionably smart, soundly trained, he was just one of those irrepressible, gentle spirits whose work was compromised because he couldn’t help being intoxicated by the sense of his own liberty. I knew so many like him in grad school. Nature is a code. Some immerse themselves in the code itself, learning and manipulating it. Others look beyond the code and see whatever it is they want to see. God, Substance, eternity, Oneness. Whatever. He liked the mystery of chemistry, the powerful intermingling of elements. Improvisation, imagination, experimentation. All the best virtues of the scientific method. But not on the job; not in a laboratory designed for a single purpose. You set those things aside as soon as you punch the clock, and he and I had a job to do.
Now, I can’t explain exactly what it was we were charged with making. Believe me, having been a high school science teacher for a few years, I’m familiar with the glazed look of bored incomprehension that comes over the faces of those who can’t grasp higher chemistry. “Layman’s terms” don’t apply here. What’s important to note is that, for me, the complicated manufacturing process I had utterly perfected yielded something I thought of as a brand. I sent it out into the world like a proud Dad, knowing I had a mark of quality to hit each and every time. You could say it was like Classic Coke. Heck, you might even say I wanted to be the New York Yankees of my profession!
He was hopelessly ill-prepared for the rigors of my method. Born too late for the groovy Sixties, he was a would-be hippie out of time and out of place. But a job’s a job. Nobody else was walking through the door to my lab. It was left to me to mold the clay I was given. Over time I eliminated the kinks in his method, reined in his casual sloppiness. Side by side, day in and day out, he came to respect the discipline, precision, and absolute systematic control with which I carried out my work. Respected, and then admired: I could see the change in his eyes. When we began he thought I was obsessively chasing results. Specific yields. Numbers on a scale. No. I was looking for purity. Chemistry was not a means to an end. I didn’t need chemistry to tell me anything about the world; my passion was for the world within chemistry. Achieving purity, or as close as I could get. He became a part of that world, eagerly and rapturously soaking up all I had to impart.
The better he got, the less I had to worry about his work. The less I had to worry, the more I began to appreciate him. I said his spirit was irrepressible, and so it proved. He allowed me to train him—gratefully, like an apprentice in the studio of a Rembrandt or a Michelangelo—and yet, during our lunch breaks, or our casual conversations changing at our lockers, I knew that on some level I wasn’t getting through to him at all. The quirkiness remained. He was always talking about his libertarian politics, whatever thriller he was reading, or the best scenic bike-rides in Albuquerque. He liked karaoke, I found out. And to my amusement I discovered that the apex of his scientific ambition was a new, high-precision process for brewing coffee. At first I thought his contraption was ridiculous, but I had to admit, I liked the results. He’d never change the world, but he made a mean cup of joe.
And so that was the bargain we struck. He did what I asked of him. Our work was flawless. In time I came to think of him almost as a colleague. Not merely my assistant, but an equal. Nothing made him prouder. One day he came to me with a gift. It was a book, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. He had remembered that I’d casually mentioned liking Whitman as an undergrad. I accepted the book with some bemusement, knowing that this was his way of encouraging me to rediscover my roots. He must have thought that if he could become a little more like me, I might be a little more like him. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. But the inscription caught my eye: “To my other favorite W.W. It’s an honor working with you.” (W.W. are my initials.) Did he honor my work as much as Whitman’s? Did he perceive the pure poetry in my chemistry? How could I not humbly accept this token of his esteem?
I’ve kept the book, revisiting it from time to time. It’s one of my favorites, always near at hand, migrating around the house from room to room, offering its beauty and its sage wisdom whenever I need it; I like to think that he would approve of how freely it moves from spot to spot, circulating like a loving spirit around my home, always popping up to delight. His admiration for my work means all the more after his untimely and tragic death. He was killed in a random murder—apparently a drug-related crime, said the police—right in his own living room. So much for his dreams of retiring to some tropical desert island. This free spirit, lover of Walt Whitman, reached his mortal limit sooner than he suspected. Death was the ultimate anomaly, the decisive variation. The book he gave me reminds me of the surprising connections that spring up between people, the odd places life takes you. I was his North Star; he was my pupil. We were colleagues, we were friends. Strange chemistry indeed.
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