Who Will Free the Flesh Pets?

Chapter Nine — Between Two Worlds

When I first arrived in Louisville—after driving for two days, through Salt Lake City, Kansas City, St. Louis—I parked the General Lee in the driveway of Peter's home and waited. The road trip had done little to clear my mind, make me believe again in my vision, or in the task it provided me. I felt as if the entire journey was only a vision, and now that I'd arrived, it seemed as though I'd just snapped back into reality with no greater understanding, no finer ideas.

Fortunately, Peter heard the soft grumble of the car and wandered out of his house, wearing all of the parts of a suit except the pants.

"So this is the car?" He asked, as if he had pants.

"Yes."

"It's really, really beautiful. Just like I remember."

"You've seen it?"

"I've seen the show," he replied, smiling. "Why don't you come in while I continue my search for pants."

"Okay."

I turned off the car and followed Peter inside his house. Unlike the sprawling properties in which he would later dwell, Peter's first house was a modest, three bedroom dwelling just a few miles from the Hand Care Center where he worked. Considering Peter's amazing decorum and jovial demeanor, his house was astonishingly unkempt. Soiled clothing was slung over any suitable hanging spot, while flat spaces were home to haphazardly stacked piles of paper.

In his defense, at least there were no dishes piled in the sink; however, I believe this was due to their being plunked down all over the house! During my four month stay with Peter, I continued to find glasses with traces of wine and beer in them and plates growing different cultures. They were everywhere!

Of course, the most noticeable and unforgivable atrocity in Peter's house fumed from his heavy addiction to cigarettes. In person, you could barely detect on Peter any odor at all, but in his house, every stitch of fabric permeated with the old, musty, inverted fireplace smell of burned down cigarettes. Ashtrays overflowed with them. Near empty beer bottles were transformed into neglected aquariums, butts floating like corpses on the surface. To say it was shocking for Peter to live this way would too easily forgive the situation.

I summoned my years of therapy in an attempt to explain the state of Peter's domicile. One of the greatest medical minds of our generation, a pioneer in the field of human tissue transplantation, the subject of crushes from every female researcher not tied to a ring or lesbianism—Peter had it all, but in his house, it all exploded.

"Wow," I softly said, after initially surveying the inside of Peter's house.

"Wow's right," he returned, looking around the place. "It's a real pig pen, isn't it?"

"Well, I'm not sure if I…"

"It's okay, Charlie," he laughed. "I see the state of things. When I'm working, I sometimes let things go. I don't pay much attention to anything else."

"I can relate," I said.

"I bet you can!" Peter had observed me in the lab during a visit a few months prior to my graduation. No doubt he'd seen me click on and off as I surf in and out of my visionary states. "Here, let me show you your room."

He led me down a short hallway. We past what some might consider an office. If I could have detected a chair, or even a slice untainted desktop, I would have instantly recognized it as such, but whatever disarray I found in the living room and kitchen did not compare to the atrocity found in Peter's office. Stacks of files, magazines, newspapers, and anything else flat enough to wedge between two other semi-level things were piled everywhere.

"Jesus, Peter."

"I know where everything is in there. I swear." He was practically laughing as he made this proclamation.

He proceeded down the hall to the end, where two doors led in either direction. Both were closed, so Peter opened the one on the left and walked in.

"This is it. Sorry for the meager furniture. I don't have many guests."

It looked like my first dorm room at Stanford. A sturdy, used desk, a smallish, equally used dresser, a long, narrow bed, and a floor lamp were the only items. To compliment this assembly, one framed picture hung on the wall. The photo was of Peter, shaking hands with then President Bill Clinton.

"Nice picture."

"My palms were so sweaty when I met him, I saw him wipe his hand on his jacket after that photo was taken." He stood next to me, admiring the photo. "I put it in here for my mom, in case she comes. Don't worry, though, she never does."

"Did you seal this room off from the rest of the house?" I asked, acknowledging the tidiness of the bedroom.

"In a way. I've known you would be coming for a while, so I made a point to stay out of here. Plus, the maid was just here yesterday."

I looked at Peter in bewilderment.

"I'm kidding!" He said, slapping me on the back. "She hasn't been here for a week."

We both laughed and exited the room.

"Is that your room?" I asked, pointing to the door across the hall.

"Yep. I keep the door closed and run an air purifier inside. There's one in your closet. I suggest you do the same."

"Definitely."

We walked back into the living room, and Peter gathered up all of the clothes piled on the couch and chairs. He lifted it all in a big bundle and flung the whole pile into the dining room.

"Have a seat. I'm going to find some pants."

I sat down and waited for Peter. Contact with another person after days driving alone had shaken me out of my reverie, but now that I was sitting again, and alone, I felt as if I was standing at the deepest point in an empty swimming pool, and someone had just thrown a dozen large fire hoses over the edge. Before even a drop fell, I could hear the water coming—the whooshing, whining sound of pressure being slightly reduced.

Thick jets of blood came pouring out of the hoses into the pool, filling it rapidly. Over my ankles, up my shins, past my knees, around my waist, up to my shoulders and neck. I took in a large breath of air and allowed myself to float in the blood as it lifted me from the bottom of the pool.

At once, the hoses stopped gushing and were dragged away from the pool. I dog-paddled over to the edge and put out my hand for support.

"Hey, Charlie," said Jeff, floating by on a giant lung that inflated and deflated. "Nice day for a swim."

He lit a cigarette with his old lighter and flicked it shut. He was wearing swimming trunks and sunglasses, a smudge of blue lotion on his nose. His chest was torn on the right side, revealing a rogue bronchial tube tethered to the massive lung.

"Who knew that these things would be the answer?" He asked, admiring the cigarette. He turned and grinned at me, exposing his black and shiny teeth. Blood trickled down his cheeks from under his sunglasses, and he began to laugh wickedly, the giant lung under him pulsating.

"You asleep?"

"What?" Peter stood over me, a pair of slacks draped over his arm.

"You must be wiped out from your trip. I was going to ask you to come to a lecture with me, but maybe another time."

"No, I can go. Let me just shower and change."

*****

I followed Peter like I followed Jeff, like I followed my mother, like I followed my father, like I followed my visions—a parasite so completely dependent on its host that it begins to wither and die when separated. We attended lectures, gave lectures, visited laboratories, and met with countless researchers and students. At first, people treated me as a visitor, a guest in their house, but very soon they began to realize that Peter and I planned to consolidate our efforts and open a lab, with or without university support.

During this time, Peter negotiated with research directors and university department heads, submitting our ever-changing research plan. We both knew that we would be applying my findings to live tissue regeneration and transplantation, but we did not want the traditional parameters placed on our work. It was vital that we be equipped and allowed to evolve with the project.

Soon, it became apparent to Peter that, while everyone wanted us under their roof, no one was willing to simply give us the space and resources without some sort of control, a set of constraints to gauge our success or failure. Not everyone is capable of having vision, it seems.

Three months after I arrived, Peter woke me up one morning pounding on my door. I got out of the small bed, rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock I had purchased and placed on the dresser. It was 5:45 in the morning.

"Coming," I warbled out. I pulled on a robe and opened the door. Peter was standing there, wearing only pants.

"Let's go to a party."

"What?"

"A party. In North Carolina. We need to go. Do you have a tuxedo?"

"No."

"Okay, then pack your best suit. We need to hit the road as soon as we can."

As I mentioned, Peter now held the same magnetic hold over me as my visions, so I made no objections. I dressed, packed a bag and climbed into Peter's Volvo. He was already in the car, waiting for me. He handed me a mug of coffee and indicated to a bag on the floor of the passenger side.

"There's a bunch of power bars in there, if you get hungry."

I took one out of the bag, opened it and chewed, still half asleep.

Peter smiled at me.

"Wha?" I asked, mouth full of sticky granola.

"You. You're an enigma, Charlie. You never ask any questions, but you seem to have all of the answers."

"It's a curse." I said, after swallowing the mouthful of bar.

Still smiling, Peter shook his head slightly and backed the car out onto the road. Several hours later, we pulled into a hotel parking lot in Raleigh.

*****

For those of you not familiar with Raleigh, it was named for the beheaded explorer, Sir Walter, and planned from the beginning to be a capital for the state of North Carolina. For all its historical importance, both as birthplace of Andrew Johnson and of many prestigious black universities, Raleigh leaned into the 21st century as the epicenter of technical research. Engineers flocked to the Research Triangle, followed soon after by medical researchers in independent and large commercial laboratories.

Raleigh is also in close proximity to several large tobacco operations.

We unloaded ourselves from the Volvo, wrappers and crumbs spilling out with us. An attendant swept in, unloaded our meager luggage, placed it on a cart and drove the car away from us. Another man moved into position behind the cart and began rolling it towards the hotel.

"This way, gentlemen," announced a third attendant. He possessed a demeanor of someone who believed that they knew infinitely more about the world than you, but would never say so. He escorted us directly to the registration guest.

"Hello, gentlemen," said a very pretty girl behind the desk. Everything about her was immaculately contrived, yet she possessed a natural, imperfect beauty that I immediately desired. I say this only because today, it is unlikely you would meet a woman such as this, one who is made beautiful by right of birth, precise care of body and soul, and nothing else.

"Reservations for Peter Parsons and Charles Fleischman."

"Drs. Parsons and Fleischman, we have been expecting you. No need to check in, Simon will take you directly to your suite." A man appeared on our right, his gold name badge proclaiming him as Simon.

"Will either of you be requiring a tuxedo tonight?" The young woman inquired without a hint of condescension.

Peter tilted his head towards me and raised his eyebrows.

"Well, I believe that one of us could use a tuxedo. My associate, Dr. Fleischmann, has left his at his estate."

I smiled and nodded at the woman. My face was surely flush, both with embarrassment for not having a tuxedo, and because I believe that she could see the scars on my face through my beard.

"I'll have Raphael meet you in the suite. We have several lovely tuxedos to choose from." She was looking at me directly, so I averted my eyes.

"Thank you," I muttered.

"Excellent," replied Peter. "Lead the way, Simon."

We followed the young man who was every bit as polished and elegant as the registration clerk. I felt very much out of my league in their presence, and I was the guest! Peter seemed to fit right in with them, one of his hands slipped casually into his pocket, his sport coat hanging over his arm. I was in jeans and a sweatshirt with several crumbs still attached.

If Simon noticed my lack of class, he made no acknowledgement of it. Instead, he engaged us polite conversation on the way up to our room, suggesting which restaurants in the area mustn't be missed, what the weather would be like for the coming days, and how much he and staff were looking forward to meeting our every need.

We arrived at the room, and it was hardly a room at all. The hotel boasted four top suites and a penthouse, Simon informed us, the latter serving as a residence in waiting for the hotel owners, a tobacco-growing family with a large operation outside of Winston-Salem. The Northeast top suite, our room, was five times the size of Peter's house.

Two walls of windows met at the far corner of the room, past the massive couches, dining table and grand bar. Off to each side of the large parlor were bedrooms, "each with its own Roman bath and living room," Simon relayed.

He also showed us the fully stocked bar, all complimentary, and the lavish cheese and fruit basket on the counter. Our bags had already arrived in the room and were placed by the entrances to the rooms.

"Very impressive, Simon," said Peter. "It'll do just fine, don't you think, Charlie?"

"Yes," I answered, still in awe of the room.

Peter handed Simon a roll of money, the amount I could not detect, but it was not just a couple of dollars. Simon bowed slightly and began backing out of the room.

"If you require anything at all, please let us know. Raphael will be up shortly to measure and attire Dr. Fleischman. A car will arrive at 7:00 tonight to take you both to the party."

"Thank you," Peter replied. Simon gently shut the door as he exited the suite.

"Well, Charlie, I wonder if I can smoke in here?" Peter asked, removing a cigarette from his case. He tapped it on the end and placed it in his mouth.

I picked up a crystal ashtray the size of a dinner plate.

"Looks like it's okay to smoke in this hotel," I answered, holding it up. In the center, inscribed in gold, was the name Livingston.

*****

At 7:00, Peter and I piled into the car, a long black limousine, and the driver shut the door behind us. Inside, a young woman wearing a bow-tie begged us to allow her to prepare a cocktail for each of us.

"Any chance you can make a Manhattan?" Peter asked.

"Absolutely. And for you Dr. Fleischman?"

"Same," I replied with confidence, even though I'd never tasted one. Although my consumption of alcohol resumed under Peter's care, I clung to beer, and kept the number of drinks low to maintain my composure.

The car rolled away from the hotel, slowly gathering speed in a manner meant to keep our comfort completely in tact. The limousine hostess handed Peter and I our drinks and returned to her seat, informing us that we were to let her know if we needed anything, anything at all.

"Here's to the future, Charlie," Peter said, holding his glass out to me.

"The future," I repeated, and clinked his glass with my own.

"It seems very appropriate to be drinking Manhattans in a tuxedo, don't you think?" He asked me.

"Definitely. I feel like I'm getting married, though."

"In a way, Charlie, that might be true. You haven't asked a single question about this party we're going to, but it could change our lives, yours especially."

"Okay, you got me. Where are we going?"

"That's more like it! I knew if I teased you enough, you come around!" Peter laughed and guzzled his drink, handing the empty glass to the hostess.

"Another, sir?"

"Absolutely," Peter answered. "Charlie, we're going to a very exclusive party hosted by the Livingston family. They own the hotel."

"I see."

"They want to meet with us."

"Okay."

Peter snickered and shook his head at me.

"It was a momentary lapse, I see. Now we're back to the Charlie I know and love."

The hostess handed Peter a fresh drink. He drained half of it in one gulp.

"Mind if I smoke in here?" He asked.

"Not at all. Would you like to sample from our cigar collection?"

She fished a box from below the bar and opened it for us. Inside were six sections of cigars, all with different bands around them.

"Well, now this is a treat," Peter exclaimed. "Cigar, Charlie?"

I'd never smoked a cigar, either, but I nodded yes to the hostess.

"Which one do you recommend?" Peter inquired. He never broke eye contact with the hostess when he spoke or listened to her. I sensed that she enjoyed this quality, as she smiled warmly whenever he spoke.

"I've heard very good things about the Bolivar Royal Corona. They're Cuban."

"Perfecto. Y tu, Carlos?"

"Bueno for me." Peter and the hostess giggled at my attempt to participate.

The hostess precisely snipped the ends of the cigars and handed them to us. She produced a torch, but I already had Thorn out and ready.

"Lighting tobacco is kind of his thing," Peter relayed to her. "He lights all my cigarettes for me."

"That's very kind of you," she acknowledged.

I lit the two cigars and we smoked. As I mentioned, I had not smoked cigars previously, so I had not appreciation for its quality, nor did I know how to smoke one. I instantly inhaled and choked.

Peter patted my back as I hacked, and the hostess provided me a glass of chilled water to calm the irritation in my throat.

"You'll be okay, Charlie. I probably should have told you not to inhale. You want to smoke a cigar like you would eat a fine meal, savoring each bite for as long as possible. Like this." Peter slowly pulled a mouthful of smoke from the cigar, and let it linger and float out of his mouth on its own. I did the same.

We drove on this way for what seemed like an eternity. The cabin of the limousine was equipped with an air purifier, and it silently removed the cigar smoke from around us. The combined effect of the strong drink and the cigar relaxed me into a putty. I slouched back in the seat and listened to Peter charm the hostess with his knowledge of Raleigh history. I had not felt this loose since the days when Jeff and I would get stoned and hang out.

Peter pulled repeatedly on his cigar, burning the tip into an orange jewel. He turned to me, grimaced, and shoved the ember into his cheek.

"You should try this, Charlie," he hissed, pulling the cigar from his cheek.

"No," I replied.

"Why not, your face is a mess. You should do it." He heated the cigar again and jammed it into his other cheek. The hostess laughed at Peter, the skin on her face, stretched and dangling, jiggled as she roared.

"Look at me, Charlie. I'm being cheeky, aren't I?" He fired up the cigar once again, and aimed the ember at his eye. "I'll see you soon!"

He jammed it into his eye.

"Charlie, you okay?"

"Yes."

"Well, do you want to get out? We're here."

"Yes."

I said goodbye to the hostess and climbed out of the car. We had arrived at a large home, ablaze with light coming from every window. The modern mansion was built to reflect the history of North Carolina, but also boasted the oversized quality popular in the late 20th century. Easily the grandest house I had ever been invited into, I counted a dozen windows, all framed in richly carved wood. It seemed that everyone exposed a view to a golden room equipped with a sparkling chandelier. The downstairs windows and garden doors exposed the guests inside, each stylishly dressed, socializing with one another. Some had spilled out onto the garden patio, where cigars and cigarettes puffed purple-gray clouds into the night air.

"It looks like a picture," I said.

"Impressed?" Peter asked, softly, placing a hand on my shoulder. "You should see their main house!"

"This way, gentlemen," instructed a man by the main entrance to the house, a double-door affair no less than ten feet tall. The beauty and elegance of the outside continued inside the house where we strolled through a hall of gilded mirrors, the gleaming marble floors reflecting the intricately carved legs of antique tables. The man guided us through the hall and into the main parlor, where the bulk of the guests gathered in clusters. Waitresses weaved through the guests like snakes swimming up a rocky stream, smoothly moving their trays of unidentifiable foods in front of people when possible.

I wanted to pick up one of the trays and move like those waitresses, silent and poised, an unseen atom floating around a room of molecules. Looking back, I believe I felt this way because I could not relate to the guests. They seemed eager to engage, communicate and socially maneuver. A touch of a sleeve here, an arm around the shoulder there—they looked like life and death inexplicably bound. I wanted to move fast like the waitress, supplying my fare to the guests, free of my insecurity in social situations and the embarrassment I felt when people noticed my face.

"Please, gentlemen," announced the man, using his arms to present the room to us. "Enjoy a glass of champagne and some hors d'œuvres. I'll let the hosts know that you have arrived."

"Thank you," answered Peter.

After the man slid away, Peter leaned in close to me and whispered, "you okay, Charlie?"

"Not really," I replied. "I feel out place, like I should be working here instead of attending."

"Ha! Imagine that, the most sought-after biotech researcher in the world working this party."

"I already did imagine it, Peter," I said with a smile. "I was a waiter, and you, well, I'm not sure what you were doing."

"Most likely getting drunk on unbelievable champagne and filling my stomach with the delicious food you were serving!"

"Sounds right."

"Most of these waitresses are fairly attractive," he said, nodding to a blonde server coming towards us from the other side of the room. "Wouldn't mind a taste from her tray."

I was not used to Peter speaking this way, but something about the party, the fancy hotel, the cigar and cocktails—he was transformed into a looser man, a more confident and suave gentleman than I thought possible. While noting the change, it did not impact on my feelings toward him. Even with some success and experience, at the time I still felt as if I played a part created by my visions. If someone else wanted to play a different part, to act out against expectations or within them, who was I to judge?

"Foie Gras, gentlemen?" The blonde waitress presented us her tray, first to Peter, who smiled warmly.

"Absolutely, darling," he answered, smoothly.

"And you, sir?" She asked, barely breaking eye contact with Peter.

"Thank you," I responded, offloading three crackers of paste from her platter.

"You're welcome," she said to Peter and walked away from us, taking a path to insure he had a nice long look at the rest of her. He made no attempt to hide his inspection.

"My goodness," he whispered when she was out of audible range. "Even lovelier up close."

Peter shoved his cracker into his mouth and grabbed my arm.

"Come on," he said, pulling me with him.

We made our way through the bundles of guests, Peter toting me along like a limp child. After several nods and hellos and meager introductions, he established us in front of a group of two men and a woman near the massive marble fireplace in the center of the room. The men looked like brothers, identically clad in shiny tuxedos. From a distance, the woman appeared elegant and beautiful. Up close, her numerous appointments with cosmetic surgeons announced themselves. Back at the turn of the century, most minor procedures like rhytidectomies and mammoplasties went undetected to the untrained eye, but certain cases, like extreme rhinoplasties, chin augmentations and collagen injections had the opposite effect of the patient's intention. Rather than making them beautiful, it made them other worldly, like a victim of a fire, only they were only burned by the flames of vanity. This woman had repeatedly set fire to her face, and her taut skin pulled her stiffened mouth so tightly that she gave off the appearance of amusement at all times. I pictured her in an argument, her accusations met with only laughter and disgust at her ridiculous grin. Though she would end up receiving a brand new face from one of the first batch of Sacks we produce, at the time, my future mother-in-law looked like a monster in make-up.

"Dr. Parsons!" Exclaimed one of the men as we approached. "Back in Raleigh again! This time to stay, I hope."

"Dr. King, Dr. Vollmann," Peter said to the two men. "And it is always a pleasure to see you, Mrs. Livingston."

"Peter, the pleasure is mine," she returned, her voice smoky and rough, no doubt from years of smoking. She held out her hand, fingers cluttered with sparkle. Peter accepted it in his own and laid a slow, soft kiss on the top. Her mouth slit grinned ever so slightly.

"I'd like you to meet Dr. Charles Fleischman," Peter announced, giving me a gentle push forward.

"Well, now it is my turn to say the pleasure is mine," said Dr. King, grabbing my hand and shaking it excitedly. "I believe I speak for us all when I say we look forward to what you accomplish with your research!"

"Indeed," joined Dr. Vollmann. "It's been too long since a young researcher came out of nowhere and shook the fucking pillars, if you'll excuse my language. Too long! I can't wait to see the old damned goats herded and pressed single file into the rendering factory."

"Now, Bill," Dr. King interjected. "Let's leave the boy free from our jaded politics. The longer he can live in the vacuum, the better."

"True, true," Dr. Vollmann acquiesced. "We should all be able to return to the bubble."

"Thank you, both," I said. "I appreciate your enthusiasm."

"It's wonderful to finally meet you," Mrs. Livingston said, extending her hand to me. I shook it, and then remembered Peter and awkwardly kissed the top—a hard, fast kiss, about as poetic as a stamp being placed on an envelope. Mrs. Livingston did not give any indication that she noticed my inexperience.

"Peter tells me that you're looking for a home," she continued.

"I'm sure Peter's getting tired of me taking up space at his house."

"If you didn't, I just find something else to put in there," Peter interrupted, giving me a wink.

"I'm not sure where I'm going to land just yet. We're, I mean, Peter mostly, is looking for a lab for us."

"I'm sure you've got offers lined up for a mile," said Dr. King.

"We do," answered Peter. "We just want certain conditions met. We're close with U of L. They'll give us all the support and space we need, but they're holding onto to full rights."

"Bastards!" Shouted Dr. Vollmann. "It's never enough for them, just to be part of the process; they insist on owning you, like you're a damned slave."

The man who initially greeted us returned and stood behind Dr. King, waiting for us to acknowledge him.

"Well, doctors, Mrs. Livingston," Peter announced, bowing slightly. "I believe our names are being called into the office. Wish us luck."

"You don't need luck, Peter!" Dr. King laughed. "Just keep one hand on this boy's collar, or Bill and I are going to swoop in and nab him up!"

"Good luck to you, Dr. Fleischman," Mrs. Livingston added. "I hope you enjoy your new home, wherever it may be."

"Thank you all. Really, thank you," I said as Peter put his hand on my collar in an exaggerated manner and led me away with the man.

*****

If you were asked, would you be able to reproduce the most important conversations of your life? Could you even identify them? If you can, and if they are worth a damn, you should consider writing them down. Create the time machine in your mind and zip around, like Wells' traveler. It is a wondrous journey! Take care, though, that you do not stay too long, or your story may go unfinished.

Then again, who really cares if it does? Suppose I stopped right at this moment, wrote the last word and walked away, never to return to the endeavor. Would you really care? Of course, it is unlikely you would ever read a half-finished memoir, but for the sake of my argument, I insist you answer! Would it matter? For a moment, maybe, but ultimately it would not. No doubt you could fill in the blanks with tabloid news reports and urban myths, but I believe that no one story is great enough to require a conclusion.

It seems that I have contradicted myself. I really rather like when this occurs, like I suddenly find myself running in opposite directions, and I must choose the one that requires the least amount of apology!

The night of the party, I found myself suddenly floating between two worlds, and realized that I had been moving in two directions. Although my momentum seemed to be paused while lounging about with Peter in Kentucky, I had unwittingly been moving forward to this very party, to a meeting with two men who would change my life, and subsequently change your life as well.

Another half of me was retreating, and had somewhat given up on my visions. This aspect of me lived with Peter because I only knew I could not go home. Too many people wanted me to work for them, so it seemed obscurity would be initially difficult. Even I on my long drive to Louisville, I dreamed of that spindly young man floating next to a dock on the American River as the sun set. His clothes were filthy from a day's labor, his hair long, tied up in a loose pony-tail, his beard fully concealing his face. The stereo rhythmically pulsed from inside the houseboat, and the man gently nodded his head to the sound.

This was no vision. I concocted the dream manually, and I played it over and over in my mind. Two chairs, a packed bowl of marijuana sitting on a table in between. Any moment the man's friend would arrive with burritos and beer, and the evening would settle as the stars appeared and reflected themselves on the placid water.

The only thing stopping me from taking this course was also the thing that repulsed me from my other task. The man's friend would never appear, never be saved. Both dreams were fundamentally flawed, and no amount of willpower or vision could correct them.

I did not realize this until that night, as I followed Peter and the butler through the living room, through a large, open and meticulously set dining room, and finally through a heavy wood door into the grandest home library I had ever seen. As I crossed the threshold between the rooms, my mind revealed its two directions to me, and I paused.

"Hey, Charlie, you okay?" Peter whispered to me, leaning in close.

"No," I softly answered. "I mean, yes. I am okay. Sorry."

I collected my two selves and followed him into the library.

The room was stunning, crafted from recently oiled wood and releasing the sweet, lemony scent of both knowledge and old money. The volumes collected ranged from the literary to the scientific and covered centuries of thought.

Two men sat at a reading table perched atop a raised portion of the room. They rose as we entered.

"Hello Dr. Fleischman," said the youngest one who was dressed in a very modern, New York style suit. His hair was clipped short and bleached pure white. Not the sort of man I expected to find at this party. The other, however, was exactly the type. His tuxedo was traditional and very expensive. And he possessed the established sort of face that one seems perpetually on the walls of corporate boardrooms.

"Hello Dr. Fleischman," he said. "How are you doing this evening?"

"Fine, thank you," I answered. "Have we met?"

Peter crossed over to them and placed his hand on the shoulder of the second man who spoke to me.

"Sam, I'd like you to meet Dick Livingston and his son Steve," Peter announced with a smile. "You met them briefly at the conference. You were a little wiped out, so you may not remember."

Although I knew the name of the party's host, and that name was also plastered all over our hotel suite, I still felt a bit surprised by the introduction. As a doctor and scientist, it was impossible not to know them. I had just met Elaine Livingston, wife of Richard, and I had not been present enough to note it! I suddenly felt very warm as they approached me. I shook each of their hands and followed them to the table.

"Please sit," demanded Steve with a grin.

I sat down and dried my sweaty hands on my pants.

"A drink?" Steve asked.

"Definitely," I replied. The father and son laughed at my response.

Dick looked directly into my eyes with an intensity afforded only to those men who typically get what they want.

"I'll bet you're wondering why we wanted to see you," he said.

"Of course not," I lied. "I frequently attend private meetings with the biggest names in the tobacco industry."

I shocked myself with this reply. It was as if my former self, the one who ran with Jeff years ago, had reawakened. Even Peter looked surprised.

Dick and Steve, having no experience with my character, laughed at the response. Steve crossed to the rear of the library, where a glittering collection of crystal decanters held a myriad of liquids, all shades of brown. He poured two glasses full and brought them to us.

"This is whiskey I picked up in Japan. It's very light and aromatic. Tell me what you think."

I sipped the drink and felt my initial warmth multiply. It was smooth, and I could taste the mild toasted oak in the finish.

"Oh, that is wonderful!" Proclaimed Peter, raising his glass to Steve. "To what's next!"

"To what's next!" Added Steve and Dick, lifting their glasses.

"What's next?" I half toasted, half asked. The three men chuckled.

*****

Long ago the tobacco industry owned the persona of an evil drug cartel; soulless men and women from the south that made fortunes from the addictions of millions. Personally, the tobacco magnates I have met have been articulate, educated, well-mannered people, the kind that you find in old movies and rich families.

Although I greatly misunderstood the situation I found myself in, Steve and Dick Livingston possessed a degree of refinement that I found impressive. I admit that my middle class roots and education ingrained in me an unconscious desire for dignity and sophistication. Maturing in a time when teachers and parents suffered from 60s withdrawal, items like 'potentials' and 'creativity' were pounded into us, even if none existed in the raw vessel. I was an immediate individual and should be proud of it. But when the teachers are left behind and children become adults, the world is not at all prepared to accept so many individuals.

I deduced later in life that an individual must be made, that one isn't an individual by reason of birth. We must conduct our lives in a manner that makes us unique and contribute to the world in a way that makes us necessary to command such identification. Then people will treat you as an individual. When people tell you that you are an individual before you have made any impact as one, then they are gossiping to you, spreading hearsay only to fulfill some emptiness in them.

Visions notwithstanding, I presume that many of my achievements spawned from a need to progress, an insatiable desire to create, recreate and see what could be. Of course, only when you have strived to meet your potential do you realize how ridiculous the notion is. It is unfortunate that educators do not understand that very few children can mentally withstand the awesome uncertainty of potential. As unseen and enigmatic as any god, potential rests in our hearts as a sleeping wizard that might awaken and save the world if we only work hard enough. We are taught that our lives truly begin once the potential is recognized. It is regrettable that so many people do not consider what happens to the children who did not have the ability, for whatever reason, to reach this potential. Once again, my unique psychology shielded me from a lack in personal fulfillment. I never asked why I was not better or stronger or smarter. I simply did what I needed to do when my visions requested it.

The men at the table the night of the party were both villains and pharmacists, depending on your slate of addictions. I felt inclined to consider them neither. Rather, I felt the weight of their culture and a sudden, strong need to be a part of it.

"Dr. Fleischman," Dick began, "It is no secret that our industry would be greatly served by an improvement in medical science, one that would make it possible for people to feel more comfortable enjoying our products."

"We have been following your research closely," Steve continued for his father. "If you succeed, it would be very good for us, good for everyone."

He paused and held up his hand as if to beg our pardon.

"I said if," he resumed. "I'm sorry, Doctor. We have a great faith in your work, and we are interested in giving you the lab you need. There would be no strings attached. We own a large cluster of buildings in the heart of the Research Triangle. They can be outfitted in any way you require. More importantly, you own the work, you own the rights, you manage the lab anyway you and Peter feel it needs to be. Our only involvement would be to sign the checks and benefit from your research, along with everyone else."

"Dr. Fleischman," Dick interjected, "we understand if you are concerned about being connected to our industry. We are not unaware of the potential for controversy. Our family, not one of our corporations, will fund the entire operation. My father was taken by the illness. My grandfather, too. Please know that we are double served here. Once as an industry but primarily as human beings. It is the human beings who would like to be able to say that we did our best to show you how much your work means to us."

"Did you know about this, Peter?" I asked, not looking away from Dick.

"Sure did, Charlie."

"What do you think?"

"Well, I'm here. Does that answer your question?"

"Yes."

I took a deep breath and drank deeply from my glass of whiskey.

"When I walked through that door," I pointed to the entrance to the library, "I realized that I had arrived at the place where I would decide my future. I had no idea why Peter brought me here; I assumed he wanted to meet with another university. As I sit here, I feel like there is no decision to be made. You will fund our lab because it is the right thing for you to do, and it is time for me to continue my work because it is also the right thing to do. I have no care for controversy, as it will follow us no matter who paves the way. I also have no interest in who owns what, only that we be allowed to see our vision through to the end."

"Here, here!" Peter exclaimed, rising from his chair.

"Fantastic!" Steve replied, also standing.

Dick and I stayed in our seats, never losing eye contact.

"It is right," he solemnly said. "I have never felt so right about something in my life."

"Then it is settled," I returned, rising simultaneously with Dick. "I guess we will be moving to Raleigh."

"This is good news," replied Steve.

"One other thing," Dick added. "My wife would like to present you with a gift, something to celebrate your acceptance of our offer. Excuse me for a moment."

"Certainly," I answered.

While Dick was out of the library, Steve and Peter discussed dates and preparations for the new lab. Steve would handle all arrangements out of his office, as he would now be heading up the Livingston Endowment for Health and Wellness.

"This is my baby," he said, "and I intend to spend as much of my family's money as possible."

Peter and Steve laughed often as they spoke. It was clear to me that they had been friendly for some time, so easy their conversation and tone.

Dick and Elaine returned to the library, a handful of guests in tow, including Drs. King and Vollmann.

"I'm delighted to learn that you will be coming to work here in Raleigh, and that you've agreed to let us be part of your future success. We've all been affected by loss of one kind or another, due to illness or accidents. We believe in you both, and we hope you come to think of us as family."

"Thank you, Mrs. Livingston," Peter said.

"Now, I have a little something for both of you. A gift of goodwill, from our family to the families that you have and will create."

She held out both of her hands, one to me and one to Peter. In each lay a set of keys.

"These are keys to homes. One set is for the home we stand in now, and the other is for the home next door. Now you both have a place to live, a place suitable for men of your talent and stature!"

I accepted a set of keys as did Peter. The applause of the guests gathered like a hurricane, circling around us, filling the room with a roar. Standing in the center of the storm, I held my breath and waited for it to subside.

Posted November 28, 2014 Continue