Brian Kirkpatrick






I was in sitting in the dark in the monthly departmental research meeting when Tommy leaned over and whispered, “This guy is full of crap.”

I shrugged. Tommy settled back in his chair. I had no idea what the research fellow had been saying; I hadn’t been paying attention. It was hard to hear him over the noise of the slide projector, and I was thinking about Dolores. She’d been unusually quiet, not just in that meeting, but in all of our meetings of late. It occurred to me that she might be depressed.

I tried to focus on the fellow’s presentation. He was talking about magnetic resonance imaging. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that what he wanted to do was show that people with schizophrenia have a slightly smaller brain volume than normal. We already knew that; I decided I hadn’t missed much.

Finally he finished and the lights came on. Dolores smiled and said, “Thank you. Now who would like to comment?”

David Hogarty, the chairman emeritus, leaned forward to speak. Dolores put her hand on his arm and, smiling at me, said, “Let’s hear from the junior faculty first.”

Tommy leaned forward. “Why do you want to do this work?”

The fellow blinked. He probably had the same goofy idea all of our fellows and residents seemed to have: anything involving imaging has to be wonderful. “To show that it’s smaller.”

Bob, the postdoc in Tommy’s lab, glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.

“Why?” Tommy asked. “We already know schizophrenia is a brain disease, so it won’t accomplish much in that regard. And we won’t learn anything about where specific symptoms come from, so I don’t get it. Why bother?”

The corner of Dolores’ mouth folded down, and she peered over her glasses at Tommy. I wondered what she wanted when she raised an eyebrow at me. Tommy was right, and Dolores couldn’t like the idea of spending so much money for no good purpose.

I decided that if the kid had been bitten by the imaging bug, we should try to turn him into a useful citizen. “You might want to talk to Dr. Paterakis about doing some neuropsych tests,” I said. “Then, if you measure the volume of specific brain regions, you could look at correlations between function and anatomy.”

Now that there was a decent project on the table, Tommy was frowning. I had ruined his fun. I thought what I’d said seemed pretty obvious, but Dolores was nodding enthusiastically.

The group talked for a while about cognitive testing, then the meeting broke up. Dolores called to me as people filed out of the room, and I worked my way toward her. As I passed Bob, he nudged me and muttered, “That guy doesn’t realize he just had a close brush with death.”

When I got to Dolores, she put her hand on my arm. “I need to talk to you.”

Once everyone else had left she closed the door and we sat at the conference table. “I told the dean he needs to start looking for a new chair,” she said.

“What? No more breakfast meetings with the hospital administrators?”

She laughed. “They aren’t as cute at seven in the morning as you might think.”

“This is good. You’ll have more time for research.” And, I thought, more time for us to work together.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m retiring.”

“You’re leaving the department?” I hoped she hadn’t noticed that my voice had almost cracked.

“I’m retiring—as in, I’m not going to work any more.”

“You can’t do that,” I almost yelled, and regretting that I’d said it, I covered my face.

Dolores laughed, and I did, too. For the first time, I realized her hair was completely white. Until that moment, if someone had asked, I would have said it was salt and pepper.

“Natalie wants to home school her kids. I’m going to be their teacher. I can’t imagine a better way to have an impact on my grandchildren’s lives.”

Of course you’d find someone to teach, I thought. Not trusting my expression, I looked away.

“I’ve always been close to Natalie’s girls,” she said. “Plus, I’ve been thinking for years about building a greenhouse and growing fruit trees. If I don’t do it now, I never will. It’ll be hard to leave my friends, but I am so ready for this.”

I never wanted to be your friend, I thought. You were better than a friend.

I said, “Natalie lives in Atlanta, right?”

She nodded. “I’ll be moving in about six months.”

“When will you step down as chair?”

“I told the Dean the end of August.”

“That’s just two months.”

“I suggested the Dean name Vijay acting chair,” she said briskly, “and I think he will. I thought about suggesting you, but you need to concentrate on getting papers out.” She leaned back. “This is going to be good for you, too.”

“No way.”

“You don’t need me any more,” she said. “You just think you do. It’s time for you to find that out.”

“You must not remember all the time you spent reading my last grant,” I said.

“I had to make up something to criticize so you’d know I’d read it.” She shook her head.

“It’s time for you to take your place as one of the leaders of the department. You’re already the best scientist—”


“You really need me to leave,” she sighed. “I’m starting to get in your way. Once I’m gone, you’re going to take some steps that I would delay for years if I stayed.”

“That’s a very clever rationale for leaving us in the lurch.”

She smiled. “I like it. Plus, it’s true.”

“Have you told anyone else?”

She shook her head. “I wanted to tell you first.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled. I stood up. There was an awkward moment as I thought about hugging her, but I knew that if I did, I would cry. For the first time, Dolores looked frail to me. I retreated to my office, where I spent the rest of the afternoon with the door closed.

* * *

When I told my wife the news that night, she looked as sad as I felt.

“I thought she was over Jim’s death,” my wife said.

“She’d say this is getting over it. It’s starting a new life.”

“Don’t let her do it.”

“Tell me how to stop her.”

She grimaced. “Grandkids outrank proteges.”

“Don’t rub it in.”

* * *

In the morning, I ran into Bob as he came out of Tommy’s lab. “Are you keeping my money warm?” I asked.

He gave me an indignant look. “I’ve still got a shot. They’ve started hitting, and if Ponson ever gets his head on straight—”

“And pigs fly...”


He smiled. “Okay, I know I’m going to lose on Ponson’s win-loss record, but they’re just six games under five hundred. If they make that up, our two bets would cancel each other out.”

“In your dreams, pal,” I said. “How’s the work going?”

The smile left Bob’s face. “Okay, I guess.” He hesitated. “How well do you know Dr. Hogarty?”

“Pretty well.”

“Is he difficult, or is it just me?” he asked.

I wondered when Dolores would plant her first fruit tree. “He’s difficult.”

“He has a technique I want to learn,” Bob said. “There’s a question I can’t answer any other way.”

“What does your boss say?” I asked, nodding toward Tommy’s office.

“He says it’s not worth dealing with the guy.”

“Pessimism works fine for Tommy, but it’s not for everybody. I had a project with Hogarty a few years ago. He’s not much fun, but the project came out all right.”

Bob frowned at me, unconvinced.

“Tell you what,” I said. “We’ll go to lunch some time. We can talk about how to deal with Hogarty.”

“Sure. When?”

I thought, Six months? The end of August? “How about today?”


Copyright © 2004 Brian Kirkpatrick.  All Rights Reserved.


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