Science and Humanity Story
Original characters from short stories: Together Again and Hope for the Human Race from the short story collection One Day at a Time and Other Stories.
In this Science and Humanity Story, a scientist discovers meaning in strange words, which only a student’s human kindness can reveal.
Herman, wearing his rumpled lab coat, stared at the broken flask in his hand and cursed under his breath. Being a mild-mannered man, his “curse” involved nothing more than odd expressions he had picked up from his grandmother: Flying fish and howling hoots!
The fleeting image of his grandmother with wild gray hair sprouting from her head, hunched shoulders, and a wicked smile almost knocked his annoyance into oblivion. But no. He must deal with this incompetence.
Last year’s robotic assistant fiasco had left enough blush on the administration’s face to force them to hire real flesh and blood human beings in the laboratory. The fact that they were earnest first-year grad students, earning a mere pittance while laboring under bio-chemistry protocol, didn’t alter strict adherence to the rules. Flasks were expensive after all. The student who broke it must pay for it.
Standing before the laboratory workbench in the colorless room under glaring lights, Herman rolled his shoulders. The question was, who would pay for this one? He pictured the newest addition to his laboratory, young Charles. A quiet lad with deep pools of sincerity in his eyes. Yet the young man appeared to have a weak wrist. This was the third broken flask in as many weeks. What was a tenured professor with an eye for making history to do? He could hardly ask for another robot! Everyone knew how that had ended.
Checking the wall clock, Herman realized that doom would soon be upon him. Charles was due at any moment. Yet, he considered, he need not deal with it now. Once the whole class filed in, there would be little time for chit-chat. Or reprimands, for that matter. He could make a general statement about carelessness and the duty of each student to pay for broken materials. Charles was an honest man. He would own up to his responsibility and pay without a direct confrontation. Surely.
That matter settled; Herman’s heart rate steadied. He grabbed a cloth and swept the mess into the trash bin. Then he went to review the day’s notes.
It wasn’t until the next day, that Herman recalled the broken flask. Enough cash, in crumpled tens and twenties, to cover the cost of the broken materials lay clipped together on his desk. A stab of childlike grief pricked Herman as he considered the real cost of those bills. What had poor Charles had to do to earn the extra money? He tapped the worn threads of commerce. Were these the pitiful profits that Charles had slaved for as an overworked busboy or a housekeeping guy at the local hotel?
No matter. What was done was done. Herman gathered up the bills and stuffed them into his lab coat. He’d drop them at the proper finance cubical this afternoon. In the meantime—
The door opened, and Charles slipped into the room. He was wearing an immaculate lab coat, though his well-pressed dress shirt and pants were revealed as he stepped forward. He offered a friendly wave and went directly to his workbench.
Frowning, Herman tried to remember if he had arranged for a special meeting.
As if reading his thoughts, Charles smiled as he set up his materials with a slow and steady hand. “You suggested that we practice our lab setup before next class, remember?”
Enlightened, relief flooded through Herman. This wasn’t some penitent’s need to confess and plead for forgiveness. He returned the smile. “Class is not till Friday but as you please.”
Charles gathered his materials with precise motions. “I’ve a family funeral to attend tomorrow. Promised to play my uncle’s favorite violin piece. Thought I’d better get everything prepared here ahead of time.”
Startled, Herman stepped away from his desk and adjusted his bifocals to see the young man more clearly. “I had no idea that you played the violin.”
A shrug. “Mom paid for lessons after Dad died. A form of healing, she said. Life must go on with every blessing we can give it.”
Uneasy, Herman took a step back and reached for his cold but comforting laptop. “She’s a religious type, eh?”
Charles tightened a particularly tricky piece of tubing, his head at eye level with the tiny knob. “She goes to Mass every week, but for her, it’s more than a religion. She loves God. And He loves her back.” With a satisfied nod, Charles straightened. He looked up and met Hermana’s gaze. “My sister died young…of cancer. It was hard on us all. But Mom and Dad believed that she was not gone forever, that she lives on in a way we can’t understand. I learned to appreciate their faith. It’s what led me to science. And to your lab in particular.”
Fighting a nervous impulse to change the topic, Herman retreated behind his desk. He hated rudeness, but he was a washout when it came to faith topics. It was like trying to decipher one of his grandmother’s curses. They never made sense even though they filled a very real need.
“I ignore death. It’s not my concern. Once someone is gone, they are gone. Enough said.” Prickled by Charles’ last words, he found himself asking a question he wasn’t sure he wanted answered. “Why my lab?”
Setting tubes in a holding rack just so, Charles kept his gaze on his work, but his strong voice clarified his interest in the conversation. “You’re delving into one of the greatest mysteries and tragedies of human experience—the breakdown of the brain during old age. You see hope in what many throughout the ages have considered a hopeless situation. I find that visionary faith very productive.”
Nettled, Herman strode across the room and stood before his student’s perfectly arranged workbench. “Faith had nothing to do with it. I see that humanity needs help, and I try to solve problems through logical thinking and proven experimentation.”
A mischievous twinkle entered Charles’ eyes.
Alarm raced over Herman. Suddenly he had a hankering for a robot.
“Wasn’t Robot Chuck perfectly logical with all sorts of experiments to prove his worth? Yet you were one of the first to accept student assistants again.”
Feeling very much like his dog on bath day, Herman steeled himself. “How do you know about Chuck?”
“Lacy—the one who had altercations with Chuck—is my cousin. She described the whole adventure. That’s when I first took notice of you and your lab. Mom said it was providential.”
In momentary madness, Herman turned vicious. “Well, you haven’t been very providential to this lab, I must say. Three broken flasks, after all!”
A long appraising stare and Charles seemed to be making up his mind. He tapped the last tube into place and stepped away from the bench. Then he strode over to the materials shelving unit on the back wall. He beckoned his professor over.
Wanting very much to object but having not the least reason in the world to do so, Herman paced over and glared at the specially designed metal structure as if demanding that it explain matters.
“These flasks were put in the wrong place. See this narrow ledge doesn’t have enough of a base, but for some reason, someone kept putting the wide bottoms here. So, whenever a student went to pick out their supplies, inevitably one of the big flasks would fall and break. It happened to two people before I made the same mistake. I realized the cause and reorganized them after class yesterday.”
A leaden sensation worked its way over Herman. “It wasn’t your mistake, but you paid for them?”
The deep-seeing eyes met his gaze. “No one meant to break them. Human error. Just like the person who placed them on the wrong shelf. Since we’re all in this together, I figured I could do my part.”
And then some. Herman shook his head. “You know perfectly well that I arranged the materials shelf.”
“I also know that you are wearing new bifocals.” Charles grinned. “You tilt your head just like my mom did right after she got hers.”
A snort that was really a laugh brought his grandmother’s face to mind again. Herman could almost hear her cackle. “Doonish get too smart for your own good, boyo. My curses do not a bit of harm, but my blessings might do a rare spat of good. Just have faith in kindness even when you don’t understand.” He shook his head and returned Charles’ grin. “You believe in blessings and curses?”
Charles nodded slowly. “I believe in willful intention.”
Herman patted the crumpled bills in his pocket, and warmth filled him as if his grandmother were standing there with him, smiling the biggest smile of all.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 18 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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