Chapter 15: Thursday, Nov. 2

In which there's a managerial inspection of the erotic Ms. Tangent, and Norman suspects he's seen Dr. Penrood's back on video.

Published August 1, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

I feel like Job, stretched on a rack of torments, afflicted with the Seven Plagues, if I may be allowed to conflate a couple of tales from the Good Book. I sometimes think we invented God because we need someone to complain to.

The press simply has not let up on the Bert-Betti incident. Indeed it has drawn far more coverage, if that is the word, than the deaths of Professor Ossmann and Dr. Woodley. The tabloids are publishing outright lies, talking about "a new and deadly aphrodisiac" and "the Tristan and Isolde pill," and that sort of rot.

I have been besieged with calls from news shows for interviews and camera access to those parts of the Pavilion that still house chimpanzees. I did agree, under the prompting of Felix Skinnerman, to allow a camera crew in for a "pool" shoot, whatever that means. I have agreed to submit to taped interviews on the conditions that I be guaranteed final editorial approval with elaborate safeguards including a one-million dollar performance bond. That has gotten me much outrage over the telephone and no takers.

Felix also urged me to open the Pavilion and allow Dr. Simone to give a few "backgrounder" interviews. It appears some animal rights firebrand had filed a bill in the state legislature to set up a committee to investigate the Lab and its treatment of animals used in experiments. I explained to Felix that while we had to do something, I did not want to use the panoply of lobbyists the University keeps on staff to influence legislation in both Washington and the state capital.

He explained in his calming voice that we didn't have to. "We can use the same private firm they use when they really need help. It will cost a few bucks. I'll look into it and get back to you."

What, I wonder, would I do without that young man.

The fact is I haven't really had much to report to anyone in terms of news or "breaking" news. Lieutenant Tracy said Dr. Culter had phoned to tell him that the M&Ms ingested by Bert and Betti had been dipped in soy sauce. Soy sauce had also been present in significant amounts in the food eaten by Ossmann and Woodley not long before they tore into each other. "Soy sauce, it seems," the Lieutentant said, "is the vector of choice."

"An interesting little clue," I responded, "but for the moment it doesn't lead anywhere."

As though I didn't have enough on my hands, I received just after lunch a most noisome call from a gentleman named Custer or Castor representing a company called Urgent Productions. He chewed my ear for a full half-hour with one of those awful grasping voices, trying alternately to cajole me and to threaten me to let them use the Museum for filming parts of "A Taste of the Real," based on the book by the same name. It would drag the Museum into the grotesque hoopla surrounding Raul Brauer's account of the ritual cannibalizing of that young man on Loa Hoa.

Mr. Castor took it for granted, I think, that the Museum would accede with groveling gratitude to the request to "borrow the authenticity" of the Museum for a serious film that will "explore a profound human experience with an edgy but sensitive treatment."

When I demurred, implying that the Museum's authenticity derives in part from eschewing participation in such ventures, he said that the studio would be willing to pay a "site fee" in the form of a considerable contribution to the Museum. He mentioned a generous sum, and said that they would give the Museum "priceless, worldwide publicity."

I demurred again. Mr. Castor increased the amount of the "donation." I said no, thank you. He offered to hire me as a "consulting museum expert" and named a considerable sum.

When I said no again, he said, "Mr. de Ratour, I am a serious producer making you and your Museum a serious offer to have you help us make a serious film."

I told him I was a serious museum director who had just made a serious refusal. I told him I had read Professor Brauer's book and found it to be full of half-truths, gratuitous sensationalism, and self-promotion. I said I expected the movie to be no less exploitive of an event that involved the tragic death of a young, hapless man.

Mr. Castor's voice took on a tone that I presume he meant to be quietly threatening. "I'm going to give you a couple of days to reconsider our offer. If the answer is still no, then we are prepared to go over your head, big time."

I told him that, given most of the world was over my head, he was welcome to it.

On the pretext of a managerial inspection, but mostly to satisfy my curiosity about the apparently fabulous Celeste Tangent, I took a stroll through the Genetics Labs just around mid-afternoon, dropping by departments and introducing myself. I wasn't more than twenty minutes on my little excursion when Dr. Penrood came up rather breathlessly, a thin smile more revealing than concealing his annoyance, asking me if he could be of assistance.

By that time I had been into the area where Ms. Tangent works amid banks of complicated machines attached to computers that dice and splice bits of DNA from various sources. We were introduced, and I can still feel the unmistakable frisson of that women's erotic aura. Worried is right. She is a strikingly attractive woman and about as plausible as a laboratory assistant as I would be a sumo wrestler. And, though I could not swear to it, I am quite certain that she is the woman involved in the three-way sexual congress caught on video by the surveillance camera.

In fact, Dr. Penrood's agitation rather pleased me. Had he been just a little more officious, I might have thought he had nothing to hide except for a possible sexual peccadillo with by far his most attractive employee. Because Ms. Tangent has more than looks. She has the confidence of her sensuality: she is the kind of woman who can lead a man on, turn him down while sympathizing with him, and make him her slave. And I suspect now that the man in the three-way engagement with his back to the camera is indeed Dr. Penrood.

Moreover, given the incongruity, as I see it, of these three individuals involved in that kind of congress, I can't help but speculate that some sort of powerful aphrodisiac was involved. Professor Tromstromer's words come back to me: researchers are not above experimenting on themselves. This may be the break we're looking for. I'll have to push Worried on getting us that enhanced version of the surveillance tape.

Perhaps I should be excited. Perhaps I should call Lieutenant Tracy and tell him there's been a "development." But frankly, this all pales to insignificance when I think on my dear wonderful Elsbeth, who grows more wan and weak with each passing day. My unrelieved impulse is to get her help, to take her to hospital. But there is no help. And she doesn't want to go to hospital. She wants to die here, in our home, surrounded by family and friends.

At least she doesn't object to my having help brought in for her. I've never been very good with bedpans and that sort of thing. We have a couple of unobtrusive ladies from a hospice outreach program. Estelle is the thin one, and Mildred is the plump one. They've been coming only a week and they already dote on Elsbeth, who spoils them.

Elsbeth did have a very good meeting yesterday with Father O'Gould. Though she is anything but Catholic, she told me afterwards that what he said to her made her feel doubly that her life had not been in vain, that there was a purpose. "He made me feel that I and every living creature is part of a larger, ultimately beautiful scheme in which we each have a role to play. He made me believe that everything we do has meaning."

I nodded, having heard the good priest expatiate on the moral implications of evolution, how it fits in and accounts for everyone and everything in the universe, even those who think they have gotten only scraps from life's feast.

She was telling me about it this evening as we sat in the more formal living room, each of us with a glass of wine. Elsbeth was holding my hand, reading my eyes, comforting me, saying "I used to look at old family pictures, not just mine, but those of other people, and I would have to fight a sense of desolation. They are all dead, I would tell myself, and how sad, how futile it all seems. But I was forgetting that they and countless others had lived, had loved, had gotten joy and satisfaction out of life. And so have I, even married to poor Winslow and pining endlessly for you, dear Norman."

Then I tried to comfort her, holding her hand in both of mine, bringing it to my lips, blinking back tears at the sight of hers.

But I must confess that beneath my pity and pain and concern for Elsbeth, I feel a strange, familiar anger. Elsbeth is leaving me again, as she left me so many years ago for Winslow Lowe. Now she is leaving me for God, and how can I be jealous of God, who, truth be told, I feel has gone on sabbatical. It doesn't matter. My Elsbeth is going away again, going somewhere beyond my reach.

At the same time, these petty resentments leave me with nothing but shame. And worse. My dreams are full of Elsbeth and Diantha, each merging into the other as they recede smiling beyond my reach. Then I find, upon awakening, that I am being left stranded by creeping death and by this bumptious, oblivious creature who daily consorts with Diantha in a way that I, in my darkest heart, yearn to do.

And I swear, I will use my father's revolver if I hear once more, "Yo, Mr. Dude Man, you got your groove slidin'?" It's bad enough to hear the endless thumping in the cellar and the seemingly endless thumping down the hallway upstairs with the unrestrained sound effects and the smell of what I am sure is marijuana wafting from under the door. What makes it worse is that young man doesn't seem to have a mean bone in his body. "Oh, Norman, he adores you," Diantha tells me. "He thinks you are one classic dude, you know, like one of those worldly men you see in old movies who knows all about culture and wine and stuff like that."

Indeed, I am so well in the young man's good graces that he deigned last night to play me a new "song" he is working on. I was taken down into the basement where he has, in a section paneled back in the thirties, if I'm not mistaken, set up what he calls his synthesizer. He had me read the lyrics from something titled "Gettin Rough in You Muff" that he had scrawled while he fingered away on a keyboard-like contraption hooked up to Nuremberg-sized loudspeakers. Then, in a kind of stylized chant, he sang,

I'm gettin' rough
I'm gettin' rough in you muff
I'm gettin' tough
I'm gettin' tough in you fluff
I'm gettin' down
I'm gettin' brown
I'm getting down where you brown
'Cause you
'Cause you got the butt
You got the butt
You got the butt of no joke
When it comes to a poke
I ain't tryin' a be droll
'Cause I'm talkin' jelly roll
Where you beaver goes split
I'm gettin' down into it
I'm gettin' rough
I'm gettin' rough in you muff

And over and over.

I repeat these "lyrics," in the hope my good reader might make more sense of them than I can. Indeed, I have not the slightest idea what the words mean. Perhaps, I thought, as I nodded my appreciation, they weren't supposed to mean anything. Or they were avant-garde, like a lot of modern poetry, which reads, or used to read, like something written for academics to write about, the verbal equivalent of abstract art. I did mention, as an attempt to make polite conversation, that the cadence of his "music" bore some resemblance to rhythm patterns in early English verse. I cited "Beowulf" as an example.

"Yeah, cool, man. 'Beowulf.' I dig where you're coming from. They're one grooving group, man. Punky funk with some real heavy tunes."

It would be so much easier if we simply despised each other.

The fact is that I have larger concerns than accommodating Sixpak Shakur or placating people like the importuning Mr. Castor. And it's not only Ossmann and Woodley, Bert and Betti, Elsbeth and Diantha. I have as well a gnawing unease about the fate of Korky Kummerbund. It's simply not in Korky's character to go away for this long a time without telling Elsbeth and his other friends.

At the same time, as though at another remove, I wonder what's happened to Corny Chard. People joke that he's probably been eaten by the tribe in whose purity and cannibalism he puts such faith, but it's scarcely a laughing matter.

By Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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