Things had been going well for Nick, Kayla, and their friends since the summer. Kayla was about to start her second year teaching 3rd grade at Sandcrab Elementary. Nick, Christian, and Steven fell into a bit of money. After Dr. Brown’s tragic, unexpected, and completely 100% accidental death in a plane crash which Nick knew nothing about until the bad news was broken to him, she left no will. Hence, her mansion atop Palos Verdes defaulted to the ownership of Los Angeles County. The three purchased it really cheap. Nick took all of the cool, deadly chemicals for proper storage in a box in his bedroom closet, and the three sold the estate to Donald Trump. Dr. Brown’s estate butted up against the Trump National Golf Club, which the eponymous mogul was looking to expand. Christian used his share to start his event planning company… weddings, graduations, Quinceañeras, Bar Mitzvahs, and the like. Steven used his share to finance his campaign for Redondo Beach City Council. Municipal elections would be coming up in a few weeks. Nick bought several ungodly expensive wines from Bordeaux, Rioja, and Napa, and put the rest in his savings account.
“Oh, did you go to Lucky Seven?” Nick asked.
“Yeah. It was either that, or China Harbor. Or China Dragon. Or Hunan Dragon Harbor Palace. Or whatever the hell the other one is called. But anyway, Lucky Seven is a couple blocks closer so I just went to that one.”
“Yeah. Have you ever noticed how all the Chinese places in the US have the same food? And how the menus look exactly the same?”
“I know what you mean, Nick. I think they’re all secretly run by the Chinese government.”
“Makes sense. They make all this money operating takeout restaurants in the US, then they can funnel all that money into sweat shops where they manufacture all the goods we can’t live without.”
“Yeah, and we’re the capitalist pigs!”
“So what’s your campaign strategy, Steven? How are you going to unseat Moonbeam Raindropblossom?” Nick asked, referring to the incumbent councilman, an older gentleman who never quite left the 60’s. “You realize, Steven, that out of the two of you, he’s more to the left than you are, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, technically,” grumbled Steven, with a disgusted look on his face. “While I’m also in favor of marijuana legalization, I am not in favor of government subsidies of VW vans with surfboards on top and a zoning ordinance that all doors be replaced with strings of colorful beads.”
“That platform won’t get you far here. Could a pro-gun control candidate win a rural county in Texas? Could someone who wants to ban pineapples win in Hawaii? Would a Budweiser executive win the craft beer vote?”
“Well what angers you as a voter, Nick?”
“The Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They awarded it to some douchebag med school professors at UNC and Duke.”
“Sound you don’t like those two schools.”
Nick suddenly got very animated. “That’s not even it. They’re not even chemists, they’re medical doctors, and they get the Nobel Prize in Chemistry!? They have a Nobel Prize in Medicine! Why didn’t they win that!? Just because you put the word ‘mechanism’ in your research doesn’t make it chemistry! And a few years ago two Duke professors got it for studying protein receptors. That’s biology!” Nick calmed down, then continued, “But anyway UNC is a snobbish liberal arts school that hands out A’s to its athletes like cheap hookers hand out chlamydia, and if you’re at Duke it just means you’re either good at basketball or have rich parents.”
“Well I’m not sure how the Redondo Beach City Council can solve those problems. Take care.”
Nick continued on his way to Yarbrough Hall, the home of the chemistry department. He ran into his new friend, Laurent, who was also on his way to turn in his form.
“Oh, I see you are going to turn in your advisor form, Nick. Who have you put down?”
“Dr. Dabney. I pretty much knew I would do research with him since I came here for recruitment weekend.”
“Ah, yes, me too. Ever since I was sitting in a café in Paris backdropped by the Eiffel Tower, wearing my horizontal striped shirt and beret, eating my croissant and drinking my coffee next to my Vespa, you know, like all of us Frenchmen always do, I though to myself, ‘This Dr. Dabney guys is cool.’” Laurent said. “So I enrolled in the graduate school here, and voilà!”
“Shit! I forgot to get him to sign it, and I heard he isn’t going to be here today!” Nick suddenly exclaimed.
“Ah, well, just write his signature where you need it,” Laurent suggested.
“No! I could never forge someone’s signature!” Nick protested. “It’s really hard, I’ve tried!”
“Did Walter White break the rules to get done what he needed to get done?”
“Yes, and ended up dying in the end.”
Laurent looked at him speechless. “Damnit, Nick! You’ve ruined the series for me! I was only at Season 3!”
“Well…come on, that ended years ago, I think the spoiler sensitivity period is over.”
“Anyway, how are classes going for you so far?”
“Dude, they’re so tough. One is just memorization, another I have no clue what’s going on. The only one I like is Dabney’s because it’s the most concept-based and he gives you the chance to show what you know. I know I could get an A in it if I had more time to study, but I’m busy memorizing shit I could just look up, and telling undergrads that ‘flammable solvents’ does not mean the same thing as ‘bring shit that could start a fire close to here.’ I want to do research but I’m just worried I won’t do well and get kicked out over stupid shit.”
At Sandcrab Elementary, Kayla was gearing up for her first day of the school year, and a new hoard of 3rd graders. Leo, the class lizard, sat in his terrarium with his head half sideways, one eye facing the kids shuffling in, and another eye on the large insect crawling on the outside of the glass. If only the bug would crawl up to the top and come down through one of the air holes, he thought.
“What’s that!?” one boy demanded to know, pointing to Leo.
“Why, that’s our class pet, Leo the Lizard,” Kayla gleefully responded.
“Oh, I can’t have that near me, I’m allergicked to lizards.”
“Then don’t touch him.”
“No, I can’t even be in the same room as it.” Leo did not like being called an it, and turned his attention away from the bug.
“And I’m allergicked to wooden pencils, so there can’t be any in the room. It’s a medical condition!” chimed in another kid.
Kayla was getting stressed. “No, cancer is a medical condition. Diabetes. Alzheimer’s. There’s a difference between a serious medical issue, and ‘I don’t like something so I’m going to say I’m allergic’ … the correct word is allergic by the way. And anyway, if you were allergic, just avoid touching it or breathing right next to it. Looking at it does not trigger an allergic reaction, only a psychological one. And half of these allergies you didn’t hear about twenty years ago, and now everyone’s allergic to everything.”
“Are you calling us nuts!?” one student demanded.
“I’m allergicked to nuts,” a second added.
Kayla let out a huge sigh. “Half of these so-called medical conditions are made up by pharmaceutical companies and promoted by doctors and advertising companies. Did you ever hear of restless leg syndrome before you saw the commercial for the pill for it?”
“I like to run. I want to do track,” a student who just came in said. “Does that mean I have reslest leg syndrome?”
The conversation began to bore Leo, who turned his attention back to the insect. Just as he hoped, it found its way into the terrarium via an air hole. It was about the size of a dime, had little needle-thin legs and a brown-red exoskeleton. Leo preferred ones with brown-orange exoskeletons, but the size of this one more than made up for this. He shot his tongue out and nabbed the creature. In a flash and a crunching sound, Leo had breakfast. The girls all screamed, “Ewwwww!” while the boys all screamed, “Cool!”
Then, the boy supposedly allergic to lizards jumped up to the terrarium and pressed his face against it to see Leo.
“There…what’s your name?” Kayla asked.
“There, Darrel. You’re allergic to lizards supposedly, yet you’re still alive after coming into such close distance to the lizard.”
“Oh,” Darrel said. “Oh yeah, it’s salamanders I’m allergicked to, and last year we learned that salamanders are amphibians and lizards are reptiles.”
“And last year we learned Darrel better stay off the basketball court!” one student called out, and the whole class went, “Oooooohhhhh!”
Kayla rolled here eyes, thinking about how some chemist with a PhD somewhere gets paid a ton of money to create drugs for all these outlandish ailments.
Back on campus, Nick asked Laurent, “So where is Dr. Dabney today?”
“Group meeting. All of his grad students meet, summon the spirit of Professor Richard Heck, and then discuss how their research has gone. It usually takes all day, I hear.”
“So that’s on campus somewhere? Maybe I can just pop in and get him to sign my form.”
“No, they’re way off campus. Here, I have it in my phone. Let’s get in your car and it’ll give you directions.”
On the way, they discussed the stress of juggling seemingly impossible classes, teaching the undergrads, and starting to think about their research projects. Nick kept following the directions east, not noticing the city receding behind them, shopping centers replaced by dirt fields, mansions replaced by the isolated shack or mobile home, and soccer moms’ minivans replaced by pickups with Mexican license plates.
After three hours in the car they were in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park.
“Why the hell are his meetings way out here!?” Nick demanded.
“If I had any idea I would tell you.”
“Okay, well here they are.” Nick pulled over and approached Dr. Dabney and his students, who were sitting cross-legged among some of the large rock formation in the park.
Nick could see the mountains 20 miles away across the desert floor. Nick was surprised to see so much vegetation out here – the strange-looking Joshua trees of course, along with yucca, mesquite, and cacti. The wind swirled around and shook the yucca so that they sounded like rattlesnakes. A few wrens were perched on a cactus. They took off with a sudden flutter as Nick and Laurent approached. The sun shined on the mountains in the distance, a cathedral of various shades of brown and red. Dr. Dabney signed Nick’s form, but since Nick and Laurent hadn’t started research in the lab yet, they had nothing to share at the meeting, so they didn’t need to stay.
They decided to hike along a nearby trail for a while. It was a moderately strenuous hike…no special gear required beyond a good pair of hiking boots (which Nick always kept in his car’s trunk because in California you never know when the occasion to go hiking will spontaneously arise), but there were plenty of hills to go up and down and rocks and gorges to step around. The air was mild and dry, a respite from the murderous heat that would befall them if it had been summer. After an hour they came across an abandoned gold mine shaft. A park sign said it was from 1895.
“Being out here, how open it is, and how quiet and natural it is, really clears your mind,” Nick remarked.
“I suppose,” sneered Laurent, who wasn’t too impressed with the landscape. “I think it’s kind of ugly.”
Nick sat on a rock and stared into the expanse. Laurent joined him, producing a flask and taking some swigs. After almost an hour in silence, Nick stood up.
“Brown is the natural color out here, which causes some people to scoff and say the desert is a barren, ugly wasteland. But beauty is found in the shades of brown, sometimes red, sometimes almost white. Beauty is found in the crazy rock formations. Beauty is found in the spiny, bizarre-shaped plants and the hearty little animals that despite all odds eek out their existence here. I don’t think you can truly appreciate nature until you appreciate one of its harshest and most despised environments,” Nick said.
Nick knew his grad school existence would be Joshua Tree. A strenuous hike through an environment that will at once conspire to kill you and reward you with awe and beauty. He would need to be the cactus wren or the lizard.