The students and faculty at Woodburn High School could not stop talking about Dr. Strawberry. Prior to my senior year, nobody talked about him. He owned a couple of cats, loved playing with chemicals, and enjoyed making statements that he thought were profound.
“Let’s shed some light on the subject,” he said. Then he turned on the classroom lights.
About the only exciting thing he ever did was to ignite a bottle filled with methane gas. The explosion blew-out the ceiling tiles.
Apart from that, nobody liked him, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. He loved his subject more than people, and didn’t worry about the car he drove or the clothes he wore. He dressed in a cardigan and green cords every day. His leather shoes were at least five years old. The best way to describe him was absent minded and sleepy. He was approximately 45 years, unmarried, and balding, leaving a white shiny spot where his hair used to be. Maybe the chemicals disagreed with him. There was a hint of pipe tobacco that lingered wherever he went and the smell of alcohol on his breath.
I was interested in chemistry, but didn’t think I had the aptitude. I wasn’t the only one; the entire class failed the semester exam, so I was glad I had signed on to be his TA and not his student. It also gave me the chance to study Dr. Strawberry while I cleaned his test tubes and watched the students having headaches.
“It’s a physics problem,” Dr. Strawberry said. “How can you discover the mass of the object to determine how far it will roll?” The students wrote their hieroglyphics, and Dr. Strawberry paced his classroom saying the same thing over and over. “Wrong…wrong…wrong…wrong.” It would’ve broken my spirit, but his students were overachievers, mostly Asian, with the occasional White kid who wanted to be a dentist.
When they left, I spent the last period of the day doing homework.
“Drew, you really need to clean the test tubes more carefully. If the chemicals mix, anything might happen,” Dr. Strawberry said.
I don’t know why, but I liked him. Maybe I felt sorry for him, but he was too strange to pity. He was like an alien, without a home planet.
I was the first to notice the changes.
“Here, grade these,” he said.
“But I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Use the master key. I’ve got an important experiment I’m working on, and I need my evenings free.”
“Oh, for what?” I asked. “Do you have a date?”
“I probably shouldn’t say, but seeing as you’re my TA, I guess I could let you in; you must promise not to tell anyone.”
“I promise,” I said. He excitedly handed me a book. It was in a different language.
“Latin,” Dr. Strawberry said. “I picked it up when I was in Rome last summer. Found it in the back of a bookshop. I’ve been teaching myself to read Latin and this one concerns the subject of Alchemy.”
“Isn’t that the discipline of turning worthless metals into gold?” I asked.
“You know something.” He said this like he was surprised. “I may have found a way to turn mercury into gold, but it’s proving devilishly tricky, and I might’ve poisoned myself last night.”
“Well, be careful,” I said. “You don’t want to become mad as a hatter.”
Dr. Strawberry stopped and stared at me. “You’re smarter than you look.”
I took it as a complement. We went into the back room. Dr. Strawberry kept the mercury in what looked like an enormous thermometer. It was a giant beaker resting over a Bunsen burner.
“I haven’t been able to get the titration just right, but when I do, liquid gold should pour out of the other end. We can shape it into whatever we like and sell it to those places that buy back gold. This is pure gold, which means it should fetch the highest price. It hasn’t been diluted by governments; sometimes they mix a gold bar with ten percent nickel.”
“What are you going to do with your money?” I asked.
“Maybe I’ll buy the presidency,” Dr. Strawberry laughed.
Theoretically, it was possible. It was a limitless supply of precious metal in the hands of a man eccentric enough to believe he could win. Occasionally, the world is ruled by these types, and the outcome is always outrageous.
“Scientists have figured-out how to turn gold into mercury, but that’s kinda like blowing something up. Anyone can be a loser, but it takes a winner to put something back together.” Dr. Strawberry said this while checking a couple math problems in his lab book—it might as well have been in Greek.
Soon, the mercury was boiling and Dr. Strawberry handed me a gas mask. The mercury went through some green liquid and then into some blue liquid, and then it turned silver, melting into some purple liquid, and then excreted gold like a goose laying a golden egg. The mold looked like a pencil, a gold pencil.
“This should give Ticonderoga a run for their money,” Dr. Strawberry laughed.
The crazy SOB had done it.
“So, what are you really going to do with your money?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve always wanted a Porsche 911, but wealth is only the first step,” Dr. Strawberry said.
“Really? What else is there?” I asked.
“You can help me Monday after school. Until then, it must be a surprise,” Dr. Strawberry laughed. How could the students and staff not find him interesting? And then I started to realize what Dr. Strawberry had done. His boring demeanor and dry sense of humor were an act. Most people want to be liked, but Dr. Strawberry existed beyond the constraints of approval.
On Monday, he pulled up to Woodburn in a Porsche, but not just any Porsche; It was a 911 Carrera GT, priced at over 500,000 dollars. Dr. Strawberry entered the building with black shades and a white lab coat.
“Did you see what Kevin drove to work?” An English teacher asked. She had blonde hair and always wore red lipstick. She reminded me of a canary trapped in a cage. She was married and desperately wanted to escape.
I could hardly focus because I couldn’t wait to get to the end of the day so I could spend time with Dr. Strawberry. In English class, Mrs. Harrington entered and talked to Mrs. Swanson. I heard Dr. Strawberry’s name mentioned several times in whispers.
In Chemistry, he was more excited than yesterday.
“Boys and girls, if you don’t mind, I’d like to turn-on the football game. It’s Seattle versus the New England Patriots.”
“We didn’t know you watched sports, Dr. Strawberry?”
“Oh, well in this case, it’s more of an experiment than a love of pig skin,” Dr. Strawberry said.
His students rolled their eyes. As class progressed, he kept glancing at the screen.
“There’s not much to watch,” the aspiring dental student said. “New England wins this game out right.”
“My money is on Seattle,” Dr. Strawberry said with confidence.
“Your money? How much did you bet?”
“100,000 dollars; I would’ve bet more, but it was all I had in the bank.”
“The jaws of his students dropped. Now everyone was watching the game, while Dr. Strawberry lectured with his monotone. He was speaking to the chalkboard, like it might whisper back, and he didn’t want to miss anything.
“Seattle just scored a touchdown!” One of the Asian students said.
“Intercepted! They just scored again!”
“It’ll be Seattle in the over,” Dr. Strawberry said like he was god offering a perfect prophesy. And that’s what happened. All of his students left the class and the only thing on their minds was to tell as many people as possible. If there is an alchemy for envy, Dr. Strawberry discovered it. He won over a million dollars on that game, and the chatter of teachers could’ve killed, “Why does he still work here? He thinks he’s better than us.”
It was the last period, and I finally had the chance to talk to him. “How did you do it?” I asked.
“Liquid luck!” Dr. Strawberry said. It’s the next recipe. You’re taking your SATs soon, perhaps you’d like some?”
“Sure, I would!” I said.
“Well, too bad. SATs are about merit and academic achievement. There should be rules for when a person uses liquid luck.”
He was a turd, I thought, but I put that behind me because my curiosity wanted to know more. “How does one create luck?”
“What many don’t realize is that philosophy and chemistry are intertwined. The Arabs were star gazers and invented the science of chemistry. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression ‘wish upon a star’? Well, based on this recipe, that’s exactly what you do.”
“Sounds more like magic than math,” I said.
“Precisely!” Dr. Strawberry shouted. If you get the ingredients right and you say the right words, the universe responds. It’s kinda like the big bang, when the universe was spoken into existence. ‘Let there be light.'”
“Well, what are the right words and the right chemicals?” I asked.
“That depends… What do you want to get lucky with?”
“Women,” I said.
“Oh, for sure; just any woman?”
“She needs to be hot.”
“Okay, I think we can do that.” Dr. Strawberry turned up the heat on his Bunsen burner, and the purple liquid turned bright red. He pulled some white feathers and chocolate out of his pockets and added the ingredients. The elixir secreted into a coffee cup, while Dr. Strawberry said some words; I couldn’t understand them because they were in Latin.
“Now drink it,” Dr. Strawberry said.
“You didn’t use the same beaker for mixing the mercury, did you?” I asked.
“Oh, yes; but you cleaned them.”
I was afraid I would go insane, but I really wanted to be lucky, even if it made me crazy, so, I drank the liquid luck.
The next day, the hot girls were attracted to me like a magnet; they just wouldn’t leave me alone, and I soon realized the benefits of being ignored. Perhaps, Dr. Strawberry was on to something. He had better things to do than be bombarded by hungry girls. It left me feeling like a piece of meat. On Tuesday, I couldn’t wait to talk to Dr. Strawberry. By this time, the faculty found out that he had placed a bet and won over a million dollars. They were trying to figure-out how to fire him. Gambling was against school policy, but he had done it off campus. However, he had been watching the football game during school hours which was a strike against him.
“Can you believe this?” Dr. Strawberry said. “I’ve been summoned to an administrative hearing; it’s a disciplinary tribunal to determine if I can keep my job.”
“Well, you don’t need a job,” I said.
“I’ve never needed one, but it gives me something to do.”
“What else is in your book?” I asked.
“Things I shouldn’t read,” Dr. Strawberry said. “Especially, in light of the current circumstances.”
“Well, the next chapter considers curses. When the black magicians were being burned at the stake, they had to enact revenge. There are three to choose from: Boils, Diarrhea, or untimely Death. It’s just too much power. I can’t play god; it’s too much responsibility; that’s why I didn’t get married.”
“They’re going to fire you; don’t you want some insurance? What about Boils?”
“What about them?”
“Most adolescents get acne; I don’t see the big deal.”
“Okay, I guess you’re right,” Dr. Strawberry said. “But first we need to make the curse, and it can be tricky and very disgusting.”
“I need you to find the kid in school with the worst pimples and swab it.” He held up a Q-tip. The next day, I waited for Ethan in the boy’s restroom. He was popping his zits on the mirror like infectious missiles. The yellow puss and white cores looked like a Jackson Pollock painting, some sick rendition of modern art. When he was gone, I swabbed the mirror.
In Chemistry class, one of the students spoke up. “Dr. Strawberry, we’ll put in a good word for you. We heard about the hearing, and we’re sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Dr. Strawberry said with good cheer. I’m sure the outcome will be favorable.”
I went to get a snack before the last period and when I returned, I heard laughing.
“Are you okay?” I asked Dr. Strawberry.
“Let me guess… laughing gas?”
“No; it’s a sitcom. Laughter is more valuable than luck or gold, and anybody can do it!”
“What about the hearing?”
“It’s this evening. Did you get the swab swabbed?”
“Here it is.” I gave him the puss-covered Q-tip.”
“Excellent! Now let’s put that to good use.” He mixed it with the green liquid and it immediately turned brown. It passed through some tubes and ran-out into a cookie sheet. “Brownies!” Dr. Strawberry said. “Now we just pop it into the oven for 20 minutes and wha-lah!”
Dr. Strawberry knew what he was doing. Disciplinary tribunals loved brownies or anything with sugar in it. I made a mental note never to sneak donuts from the teacher’s lounge again.
That evening, I accompanied Dr. Strawberry to the Central Office to testify of his impeccable character and hidden genius. The council was made-up of neurotic obese women between the ages of 50 and 60. They all looked like toads waiting to swallow a particularly juicy fly. Their three chins and toad-like mouths were hungry for revenge. Besides, they thought themselves the queens of education, which meant that anyone who beat the system, needed to be buried under the system.
“Dr. Strawberry, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“Only that I brought these brownies for you to enjoy.” He revealed the cookie trays filled with brownies. “Would you like some?”
“Pass the trays around,” the heaviest woman said. “It will not get you into our good graces though!”
“Of course not…of course not,” Dr. Strawberry said.
“To the issue of gambling; it’s strictly against school policy,” the superintendent said through brownie covered lips.
“May I call my expert witness?” Dr. Strawberry asked.
“Go ahead and call him,” the board said in unison.
I took the stand. “I was an underachiever, until Dr. Strawberry took me under his wing. He showed me the value of chemistry, and I plan on making it a life-long ambition.”
“Do you now?” They asked.
“Yes; you must let this brilliant man keep his position! Otherwise, young minds will suffer in the Humanities.”
“I majored in the Humanities, young man!”
“And look where it got you!” Playing to their vanity was my strategy, even if I injected sarcasm.
Their smiles showed their toady teeth. “Young man, we will give you a pass because you are young. Dr. Strawberry on the other hand must face the consequences. You are terminated at the end of the quarter. That gives you 90 days.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t go well,” I told Dr. Strawberry afterward.
“Nonsense dear boy! Each one of them should have acne vulgaris by the end of the week, untreatable by a dermatologist; I alone have the cure! They call that leverage!”