Playing God in Lab #227

Tom Starita
Oct 28 · 7 min read

To the untrained eye, Bill, the Scientist, appeared to be intently reading the latest findings on his laptop. However, what he was really doing was mentally cycling through some harsh truths. His two-year grant was on the verge of expiring without anything of note accomplished. Anti-matter was as elusive to Bill as it had been to the countless other scientists exploring the exotic research.

What was a man to do?

He could go back to teaching chemistry to undergrads, and he supposed that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. He could teach and figure out his next steps. Buy some time until he had to make a decision. Bill ran fingers that could easily palm a basketball through his thinning sandy hair and let out a long sigh. This was not the way he intended to end his fifties. The goal was to enter his sixties with evidence, not anxiety.

Bill stood up from his workbench and crossed the white laboratory to grab the Coke Zero sitting on his desk. With nothing on the horizon, his thoughts turned to his fedora and catching a matinee. “Skyway to Madison County,” the sequel to, “Bridges of Madison County,” had come out to mediocre reviews. Bill wondered if Zac Efron could truly capture the intensity Meryl Streep initially brought to the role and if…

Wait a second.

Bill ran out the front door of Lab #225 and down the hallway to Lab #227, where his work neighbor Salvatore kept his lab animals. Salvatore had been exploring harvesting animal organs for nearly the same amount of time Bill had been investigating anti-matter, and neither had gotten the EUREKA moment.

But what if…

Bill knocked on Salvatore’s door and didn’t wait for a response. He charged into an empty room, save for Petunia the Pig sitting in her cage.

“Salvatore? You here?” His voice echoed off the high ceilings, and nary an Italian could be found. Bill walked over to the pigpen and placed his right hand on the wall.

“Hey, Petunia. How’s it going?” Petunia rolled to her side and kicked some mud with her back legs against the wall.

“That well, huh? Well, how would you like to be famous?” Petunia continued to kick, and Bill took that as a sign.

“All right, here’s what I’m thinking. What if I taught you to say the word “hippopotamus?” Petunia stopped kicking and rooted around in the mud for a hidden treat.

“I know it’s going to be difficult. I know you don’t have the proper vocal cords, but pigs are smart, right? You’re consciously aware of your life and your place in the world, right? Well, what better way to prove this than to teach you to say a word that could not be mistaken for anything else? Anyone can misinterpret you saying the word, “hi.” But “hippopotamus is a five-syllable word. If you were able to say it, you would change the world. What do you think?” Petunia stared at Bill in a way that made him think true comprehension was taking place.

“Here’s the deal. I have twenty-two days and a couple of hundred dollars left on my Grant. That means you have twenty-two days to learn the word. Since you’re not doing anything, and Salvatore is nowhere to be found, how about we start right now?” Petunia put her nose through the bars of the cage, and Bill scratched the top of her pink head. Petunia snorted in delight, and Bill continued to take these acts as signs of approval.

And so it began…

The first afternoon saw Bill merely saying the first syllable of the word over and over. “Hip.”

Hip.

Hip.

Hip.

Hip.

Hip.

He said, “hip” for the rest of the day. A treat was given any time Petunia made a sound after Bill spoke, which wasn’t that often. Salvatore returned a couple of hours later and agreed to Bill’s ridiculous request, simply to provide a diversion to his own failings. At the end of the first day, Bill noted he had given eight treats to Petunia. Whether or not that was progress remained to be seen. He scratched Petunia’s head and said he’d see her tomorrow.

Day after day, Bill came into Salvatore’s lab and spoke to Petunia. Every third day he added a syllable. “Hip,” turned into “Hip-po.” Which turned into “Hip-po-pot,” and then, “Hip-po-pot-a” before ending with the entire word, “Hippopotamus.” Every day for seven hours, broken up with breaks, Bill spoke to Petunia. Every day for seven hours, a camera sat over his right shoulder, filming every second. Every day for seven hours, Petunia would occasionally make noises to obtain a treat, and that was the extent of things.

Three weeks passed…

The afternoon before his last day, Bill spent an additional two hours speaking to Petunia. “Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus Hippopotamus.”

Over and over and over again. The word had ceased to have meaning, then doubled back upon itself and had meaning before turning into a nonsensical word, turning back into English and then again into an elusive sound only humans can produce. The equivalent to watching a brilliant, “Kids in the Hall” sketch.

Still, it had been all for naught. Petunia hadn’t spoken and never would because she was a pig. Bill did his familiar scratch to the top of her head and said goodbye. He felt like a failure. A ridiculous failure, and there was nothing worse than failing ridiculously. He thanked Salvatore, and they commiserated over what might have been before going their separate ways. Bill to a probably teaching career. Salvatore back to pizza-related endeavors.

And that was that.

Several hours later, when the building was devoid of life, Carl, the janitor, came into the lab to do his customary mop job. Carl had lived a hard life and for the first time, had a stable, if not low paying job. Respectable work. He wasn’t rich, but he wasn’t in trouble, and if that was the trade-off to normalcy well, then by God hand him that mop! All he really needed was a roof over his head, a job to keep him busy, and the BLT he packed every day as his late dinner.

Oh — and his pistol.

Carl lived in a tough neighborhood and kept an unregistered luger hidden on his ankle. In all his years of pain, he had only drawn the weapon once and thankfully did not have to pull the trigger.

Carl mopped the off white tiled floor near Petunia, who had a habit of sharing her mud with the rest of the room and whistled in time. At one point, Carl wanted to be a singer, and music was in his blood. His uncle had been the drummer to the band, “Spacehog,” and if things had gone differently, perhaps he could have one day replaced Max Weinberg in the E-Street Band. Those dreams were dead, but the mop was real, and that was the bottom line.

“Hippopotamus.”

Carl whistled and mopped.

“Hippopotamus.”

Carl continued to whistle to mop.

“Hippopotamus.”

Carl stopped whistling and mopping. He looked around in fright. There shouldn’t be anyone here. Where was that strange high pitch sound coming from?

“Who’s there?” Years of hard living allowed his voice to remain steady.

“Hippopotamus.” The voice sounded like a little girl, and Carl felt pissed at the thought that a girl had a laugh at his expense.

“Who the fuck is Hippopotamus?” The sound came from behind him, and Carl wheeled around to stare at Petunia. That wasn’t her. It couldn’t be her. She was a pig. Pigs didn’t talk. Petunia looked Carl dead in the eye and said,

“Hippopotamus.”

What the fuck?

Carl took two steps closer to Petunia’s cage and bent down, so his face was practically inside the bars. There had to be a speaker or something broadcasting the sound. Carl’s eyes followed every bar and ridge, looking for hidden wires. After several minutes he settled back on Petunia. They were nose to snout.

“Did you say something?”

“Hippopotamus.” There was no emotion attached to the word. Just a pig saying, “hippopotamus” over and over and over again. Carl felt the blood drain from his face. Was he going insane? Had he finally cracked? Carl rubbed his eyes with grimey hands and jammed index fingers into his ears to clear out the wax. He would not break now. He couldn’t break now. He had come too far.

“Hippopotamus.”

That’s it. There was no mistaking anything anymore. The pig was talking. He literally saw her mouth move when he heard the word. There could be no mistaking the noise for a snort or any other possible pig projection. Carl looked at Petunia and then looked around the lab. What kind of place was this anyway?

He had watched the Frankenstein and the Wolfman growing up, so he knew a little bit about mad scientists. Well, he would bet his paycheck this was clearly a lab run by mad scientists, intent on corrupting the natural world. For if a pig could talk, why that would change everything. If a pig could talk, that would mean rights and equality and…

No more BLTs.

Carl’s eyes went wide, and he quickly grabbed the pistol off his right ankle, emptying the chamber into the conscious animal on the other side of those bars.

Carl had lived a hard life and gone through enough hardship without breaking. A world without bacon was one step too far.

A man has his limits.

The Haven

A Place to Be Funny Without Being a Jerk

Tom Starita

Written by

Tom Starita wrote two novels, “Two Ways to Sunday” and “Growth & Change Are Highly Overrated” — you should read them

The Haven

The Haven

A Place to Be Funny Without Being a Jerk

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