Story Excerpt Sunday: from Mad Science Cafe, Edited by Deborah J. Ross

Mad Science CafeMad Science Cafe

edited by Deborah J. Ross

Willie

by Madeleine E. Robins

The night is stormy. Each time the sky lightens, the air in the lab is filled with static. The Doctor did not intend to work so late, with the sky acting out a melodrama over the parking lot. But everything has come together at this time, and he and his assistant stand together in the lab, staring at the thing on the table. Finally the Doctor signals and the assistant throws a switch; a charge passes through coils of wire, elaborate structures, at last through the thing on the table. It quivers violently until the current is turned off. The lab is silent except for the breathing of the Doctor and his assistant. Then a beep. Another. As the EKG chitters, the Doctor and his assistant look at one another, awed.

“It’s alive,” the Doctor murmurs. Then, loudly, “It’s alive!” He is overwhelmed; the culmination of his years of work, vindication of his theories, is almost too much for him.

The thing on the table stirs slightly. It is a hodgepodge of spare parts, some acquired from organ banks, others cloned. It is not pretty; the Doctor’s skill is not in surgery, and there are scars and sutures, quite visible, all over its body.

The thing shudders and opens its mouth. The assistant looks nervously at the restraints, as if fearful the thing will break free. The bonds hold. From the mouth of the thing comes a noise, rusty and spasmodic, almost a bleating. The thing is crying.

“What?” the Doctor asks vaguely. In all his planning, he made no provision for this moment, and now the thing on the table is crying and he cannot think what to do.

“Hungry?” the assistant asks helpfully. The Doctor nods, and the assistant goes to the refrigerator, where he finds half of the sandwich the Doctor had for dinner. Gingerly he approaches the thing and, tearing off a small piece of corned beef on rye, nudges it between the things’ lips. It is immediately spat out, and the thing wails louder. Why? The Doctor wonders. It has teeth; it can chew. After another attempt, the assistant has an idea. He takes a rubber glove, fills it with tap water, pierces one finger, and prods the finger into the thing’s mouth. It sucks contentedly, making small grunting noises. When it finishes, it becomes quiet again.

“Now what, Doctor?” the assistant asks. He is longing for his bed, his fat wife warm beside him. “It’s as helpless as a baby.”

The Doctor frowns. A baby, that thing on the table that measures six and a half feet in length and weighs close to two hundred pounds? What does he do now? Thinking of the thing as a baby, as something helpless, almost formless, he must revise his initial plan to take the thing on a roadshow of scientific conferences. You bring a baby into the world, you must take care of it.

He sends the assistant out for baby bottles, cans of liquid nutritional supplement. As an afterthought he adds adult diapers to the list; already the thing has wet himself. So many things I did not think of, he realizes.

Over the next week he attempts to evaluate the thing’s status. His tests confirm: the thing has the musculature of an adult male, but its brain has no idea of how to manage the body. He will have to teach it to hold its head up, focus, learn its own physical boundaries, walk, talk. He spends two days in the medical library reading monographs on rehabilitative medicine before he understands that he is looking at the problem the wrong way. On the way back to the lab he stops at Waldenbooks and buys Spock, Leach, Brazelton; dozens of books with titles like What to Expect the First Year and Your Baby and You. He reads them at night, making copious notes, lists of things to buy, to do. The thing continues to lie on the table, crying when hungry or wet or cold, looking soberly at the patterns of light thrown by sunlight in the day, fluorescent lights by night. One eye is blue, the other brown; the Doctor made shift with what he could get.

The Doctor puts his work, his life on hold; he spends his days and nights at the lab, ministering to the thing, which he has named Willie, after his own father, whose name was Wilhelm. He sleeps as Willie’s erratic schedule permits; I must train him to a more reasonable schedule, the Doctor tells himself. His assistant, who has four children, is helpful during the day, but insists on going home to his own bed at night. Gradually Willie begins to sleep through the night, and the Doctor is able to catch five or six hours of sleep himself, on the daybed cater-corner to the lab door.

He will say later that his life in this period was an endless round of changing and feeding, punctuated by naps. One night, when Willie refuses to be calmed with food or a fresh diaper, the Doctor thumbs frantically through his book, wondering if this is colic or something more serious. “‘Sometimes a child will cry because it is lonely. Comfort and cuddling are as necessary to human beings as to any other animal on the planet.’”

He drops the book into his lap and stares at the thing lying there, weeping with harsh, heartbroken sobs. It is difficult to overcome not simply his physical revulsion at being so close to the thing, but years of training in laboratory protocol, and his own strict and isolated upbringing. Finally the Doctor edges close to Willie and, with some difficulty, raises him to sitting so that the thing’s head can rest on his shoulder. Awkwardly, he strokes Willie’s coarse hair, murmuring, “Hush now, hush now; it’s all right, I’m here.”

Willie draws a few more shuddering breaths, then sighs, nestles closer to the Doctor’s shoulder, and sleeps. He has discovered his thumb.

o0o

Willie’s physical progress is more rapid than that of ordinary children; after all, his body is that of a man, however inexpertly he may use it. Early on, for example, he is able to chew his food quite vigorously, but cannot raise his cup to his lips to drink. By three months, however, he is able to eat finger foods, drink from a cup, and is beginning to take awkward steps, one and two at a time. The Doctor buys a video camera to record his subject’s development. With all Willie’s progress, the Doctor is in no way certain of his own ability to accomplish the task he has taken on. How, for example, to toilet train? How to handle the “Terrible Twos”? How to explain to Willie where he came from. He can only take each day as it comes.

o0o

The assistant comes less often now; the Doctor sometimes forgets to write out the checks, and there are other jobs available to a man with lab training, as the assistant hurries to point out. The Doctor apologizes; he has been absorbed in Willie’s progress. He decides to sublet his condominium and move into the lab, where there is enough room for both Willie and himself. With his own work on hold, the Doctor does not apply for new grants; for a time they live on his investments while the Doctor looks for some kind of work that he can do at night, after Willie is asleep. The waking hours are too precious, too vital to science. Willie said “Doctor” yesterday—at least the Doctor believes it was “Doctor;” the sound itself was more like “dohda,” but the Doctor feels the intent is clear.

o0o

Realizing that Willie will need more social input than he himself can provide, the Doctor starts to research preschool programs. The directors of several programs are sympathetic, but few feel they can accommodate a two-hundred-pound two-year-old who is not yet toilet trained. Finally, persevering, the Doctor finds a preschool, and Willie enters with the other two-year-olds. If anything he is shyer than most, and gentle. His association with the animals in the lab has made Willie careful not to hurt creatures smaller than himself. The other children accept Willie, and while he is subject to the normal politics of infant social groups, he is no different in that way than any other child. The teacher, who began by averting her eyes and shuddering when Willie arrived for school, writes at the end of the year, “Willie is extraordinarily generous and sensitive, with a real gift for making others feel at ease. He loves to finger-paint, and enjoys singing with the class.” In truth, Willie’s voice is hideously unmusical, but neither he nor his classmates appear to care.

Willie enters first grade a year late, not because he was unable to do the work, but because the Doctor was forced to go to court to make the local school district admit his protégé. To ensure that Willie will be well treated, and because he wishes to have some control over the educational process Willie will be subject to, the Doctor becomes an active and vocal member of the PTA. He even, for a time, is a Cub Scout leader. The laboratory, its equipment long shrouded in Holland covers, is filled with Willie’s stamp collection, his baseball cards, roller skates, his Lego blocks. When Willie brings home his first real report card his face, his ugly seamed face with the mismatched eyes and jutting brow, shines with pleasure. “Look, Papa, look! I got three As and two Bs!”

The Doctor puts his arm around Willie’s shoulders, although he must stand on tiptoe to do so. “I am proud,” he says quietly.

o0o

Little League is another battle. Parents and coach argue that there is a real hazard to their children in playing baseball with a two-hundred-pound nine-year-old. Again they go to court, and the judge speaks to Willie in his chambers. Willie’s face shines with longing as he speaks of playing ball like the other kids. The Doctor speaks, too: “I want my boy to have all the things any other child would have. What he is, I made him—quite literally. It is not his fault that he is different from other children, and it is not fair that he should be penalized for his very being.” The judge rules that, if accommodations can be made to safeguard the players of the opposite team, Willie may play in Little League. After the judgment the Doctor takes Willie out for hot fudge sundaes. Willie’s face is a beatific smear of chocolate, whipped cream, and joy.

There is no puberty per se: Willie was created an adult male. But as his schoolmates begin to go through the tremors of adolescence, Willie feels his own stirrings and confusion. The Doctor again turns to books, trying to find ways to safeguard his boy against what he knows will be the inevitable disappointments. No cheerleader or beauty queen will go out with Willie. For the first time in his life, Willie looks at himself in the mirror and really sees the traces of suturing, the scars, the mismatched eyes, the haphazard arrangement of limbs. When he was building Willie, the Doctor reflects, he did so without regard to the cosmetics of the situation. Were he doing it again today, he would be more careful.

Willie begins to mope, spending his afternoons feeding the few remaining lab animals, doing his homework. His friends call for him, but Willie is listless, cannot be cajoled out to the mall or drive-in. The Doctor talks to a few of Willie’s friends and learns that the two girls Willie had asked to the prom had turned him down, one gently, one without tact. The Doctor is surprised at the rage that fills him; he must remind himself that rage is unproductive. Instead, he and several of Willie’s friends concoct a plan whereby the youngsters will go to the prom together. Whether Willie understands the purpose of the tactic or not, he goes to the prom and has a wonderful time. The Doctor waits up to hear the stories when the boy returns.

o0o

Willie begins to talk about college. The Doctor is not quite easy with the idea that the boy will be so far away, but feels he must support Willie’s choice. For a time the table in the laboratory is covered with college catalogs and application forms. They wait together, the Doctor and Willie, and as each envelope comes, they open it with delicious anticipation. Willie is accepted everywhere he applies; his grades are good, his SATs excellent, and the universities are probably too mindful of the potential for a lawsuit to reject the boy on the grounds that he is a golem. After some discussion, Willie chooses to attend the state university, only half an hour’s drive away. The Doctor hides his pleasure, not wishing Willie to feel confined. Willie decides to live on campus, but most weekends he comes home, and he and the Doctor discuss what he is learning. His freshman year, Willie takes English theory, freshman composition, advanced French, and biology. He is gifted in languages, and his French accent is particularly good.

o0o

The subject of girls arises again, more than once. Willie has girl friends, but no girlfriend. Privately, the Doctor feels some anger: stupid females, can’t they see past Willie’s physical defects to the loving and worthwhile person his boy has become? Willie does not blame the girls, but he is lonely. Finally, one weekend, he sits with the Doctor after dinner and begins to talk seriously.

“Father, make a girl for me.”

The Doctor shakes his head. “No, Willie, I cannot.” He explains that even if he were to assemble the parts, disinter the lab equipment, and duplicate his feat of twenty years before, Willie would still have to wait until the girl grew up. “That was my error, not realizing that you would need to be raised like any other child, my boy. If I built a wife for you, who would raise her?” He holds up his hands to the light: paper thin and bony, with the raised veins and wrinkled flesh of age. “I’m not a young man, Willie. I could not do it again.”

Willie doesn’t hear. He rises from his chair and says, “If you loved me, you’d do it,” and storms out.

o0o

They are estranged for some time afterward. At night, alone on the daybed in the laboratory, the Doctor wonders, Should I have said yes? Was he asking such a little thing that I should have said yes? But he knows he is right; lately he has taken to monitoring the sinus rhythms of his heart, and knows he could not undertake to raise another child. It is lonely at the laboratory without Willie’s phone calls and Willie’s weekend visits. The Doctor’s heart is heavy, but his pride will not let him call the boy. Willie’s graduation comes and goes; the Doctor has to call the university to learn that the boy was graduated with high honors and distinction in his major field, French literature. He sends Willie a Mont Blanc pen with a note, and tells himself not to mind too much if he hears nothing back.

Willie calls, his voice tentative and cautious. The Doctor invites him for dinner and Willie accepts. Over dinner, “I want to hear how you’ve been doing,” the Doctor says heartily, and Willie tells him about playing football, about finishing his thesis, about graduate school in the fall. “The university has offered me a teaching assistantship,” he says proudly.

“Another scholar in the family!” The Doctor is delighted, slightly drunk, and filled with German sentimentality. He throws his arm around Willie’s shoulders and says, “I am proud of you, my son.” He does not notice that Willie stoops to permit the embrace; the Doctor is indeed getting old.

o0o

They fall again into the old pattern of phone calls and weekend visits. Willie gets his masters’ degree and, while working toward a Ph.D., is offered an instructorship in the French department. He becomes a popular teacher. The word on campus, he tells the Doctor, is that “I’m gross to look at, but I really understand Racine.” Willie chuckles as he quotes.

The Doctor, regarding his son, does not quite understand the reference. Gross to look at? Do students now require that their teachers be Adonises? he wonders.

Willie calls at midweek to say that he’ll be coming down on Friday this week. And bringing someone. His tone, to the Doctor’s sensitive ears, is resonant with excitement. A girl, the Doctor thinks. At last.

On Friday Willie’s car pulls into the parking lot in midafternoon. The Doctor watches from his office upstairs as Willie parks, goes around to the passenger-side door, and opens it for his companion. Such manners, he thinks. The girl stands and takes Willie’s arm in a way both firm and affectionate. She has shoulder-length red hair and stands only as high as Willie’s breast pocket. The Doctor takes pleasure in the warmth of the smile she gives his son. Still smiling himself, he leaves his office and goes downstairs to greet the arrivals. Only when they are face-to-face does the Doctor realize that the girl is blind.

o0o

It is a good weekend. The girl, Gwen, knows all about Willie’s background and is not troubled by it. For his part, Willie seems to enjoy taking care of Gwen in little ways. Is she good enough for Willie? The Doctor reminds himself that he would have misgivings about any match his son made; Gwen is a fine girl, and Willie loves her. When Willie tells him they want to marry, the Doctor is prepared. He puts a hand on each of their shoulders and gives them his blessing.

The wedding takes place in the university arboretum and is attended by friends and colleagues of Willie’s and Gwen’s. Willie still keeps up his friendships from grade school, Scouts, and high school, as well as with his co-workers and friends from college days. After the ceremony, when the bride and groom are making their way around the crowd collecting good wishes, the Doctor chats with this person, then that. Everyone says what a fine man Willie is, and the Doctor agrees. He talks animatedly with members of the science faculty who are there; several of them profess to have read his monographs from years before. It is only as he walks away that he hears the associate professor of anatomy say to his colleague, “So that’s what’s become of him? A brilliant mind, despite his crackpot theories, and then he just dropped out of the scientific community.”

The colleague nods. “Just couldn’t keep up with the field, I suppose.” They walk away to get more punch.

o0o

Willie and Gwen live in faculty housing on campus. Twice a month they visit the Doctor, bringing the baby with them. Watching his son with the baby, the Doctor thinks sentimentally, Were you ever so tiny? then feels foolish, remembering the effort with which, long ago, he gathered his massive son into a similar embrace. He finds in time that handling little Alice is no more difficult. Sometimes the Doctor watches over her so her parents can go hear a concert or take a walk alone together. When she is fed and changed, the Doctor raises her into the crook of his arm—so very tiny, he thinks—and hums rustily to her. Sometimes he strokes her silky hair and murmurs, “Hush now, hush now; it’s all right. I’m here.”

The baby watches him with trusting eyes and falls asleep.

********

From the age of steam and the heirs of Dr. Frankenstein to the asteroid belt to the halls of Miskatonic University, the writers at Book View Café have concocted a beakerful of quaint, dangerous, sexy, clueless, genius, insane scientists, their assistants (sometimes equally if not even more deranged, not to mention bizarre), friends, test subjects, and adversaries.

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