3. Lasers of the Evening
The work day at HAL starts at 8 a.m., ends at 5 p.m. But there are cars in the lot and lights in a few offices almost any time you care to look. And the first time I stayed past 7 p.m. I was surprised to learn what was going on.
It was a Friday in early May, hardly a month after I joined HAL. I was probably the junior employee in the whole place, barely knew my way around. Nevertheless, I couldn’t complain, I was getting introduced and hip-deep in my research. Which had to do with distributed software agents, but that has nothing to do with this story.
We scientists get pretty engrossed in our work. After all, we became researchers because science was a lot of fun – sometimes, more fun than people. We hate to tell the work goodbye at the end of a day, at least until there’s a good stopping point. So when late afternoon arrives at HAL, there’s a predictable pace for the exodus. Heading for the parking lot at 4 o’clock you’ll see the support staff who arrived at 7, such as machinists and maintenance people. At 5 there’s another group of departees, administators plus those few scientists who truly have a life, or whose family obligations override their lust for the job. During the next hour and some, researchers and managers reluctantly drift away and the building goes to sleep by 7 o’clock. Only a few hardy souls – security, maintenance, janitorial, an occasional geek – keep the heartbeat going till morning comes again.
Fridays are different. Even the nerdiest and most obsessive of researchers looks forward to the weekend. Although he may plan to spend two days fussing with his home computer, it’s a healthy break from routine. Therefore, people clear out pretty promptly on Fridays, and by 7 you could zing a bowling ball down the hallway without annoying anyone but the security guard, who would probably be very annoyed indeed.
Geek that I am, I’m pretty lucky for a single guy, because I grew up here in Pacific Palisades. My contact list contains plenty of date material, pleasant females who for one reason or another are currently single, so I usually have good reason to skedaddle at the end of the workweek. Except on this occasion.
Somehow my calendar was empty this particular Friday; I allowed myself the luxury of working late, getting some good research done in the hushed silence around. Finally, a bit past 7 o’clock, the work arrived at one of those sticking points that told me to put it aside, just as my stomach sent a message that it had not seen sustenance since 1 p.m., afternoon coffee not really counting for much. So I booted down the desktop and moseyed out of my office, a major objective being a beer and a burger at the Roadhouse.
True to pattern, the hallways were deserted. Overhead lighting, usually bright enough to grow illegal herbs, was muted to weekend mode. I strolled toward the stairway, eyes firmly fixed on my latest smartphone feed. In other words, I wasn’t looking where I was going.
“Ow!” Most of me rounded the corner, but my shoulder caught on something bolted to the wall, obstructing the hallway in a most unfriendly manner. It didn’t break the skin, but it hurt enough that I acquired a blue-and-black souvenir.
My attention to this problem was distracted by a keening wail of distress flowing from an open lab door down the hall. There was something nasty-looking attached to the doorframe, likely a cousin of the thing that had pummeled my shoulder.
I investigated, and who should I find in the lab but Noah, a guy who followed me at UCSB and then stayed on there for a PhD in double-E. He had hired on the year before, and I was glad to re-discover him when I joined HAL. Noah was fiddling with a big apparatus and since he was a laser guy, I was willing to bet that it had something to do with optics.
“Noah!” I said. “I heard an anguished cry, and here you are at work in the middle of the night! What’s on?”
Noah was a nice-looking chap, though always a bit overwrought. And wrought he was, practically blubbering to me. “Oh, hi, Evan. Damn it, I lost the signal again.” I moved through the doorway but he pulled my elbow to shift me to the side. “Oh, don’t stand there please. I’m routing a beam from the nonlinear optics lab. I’ve got mirrors everywhere, it’s hard to keep things lined up.”
I dimly realized that I was embedded in some Rube Goldberg setup having to do with the junk in the hallway. “Oops,” I said, “I bet I messed up your system. I wasn’t paying attention, my shoulder bumped your stuff.” This was a courteous fib, since in truth his metallic garbage had reached out and intentionally assaulted my rotator cuff while I was innocently in the neighborhood.
“Oh.” Noah seemed crestfallen. “Well, at least I understand what happened.” He sighed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Can I help you fix it?” So much for dinner.
That brightened him. “Sure, that would be a big help. Here, let me show you how the mirrors adjust.” He reached for something on the optical bench. “Loosen this, then turn that, then when it’s in position, tighten the first one again. And for God’s sake don’t sneeze on the reflecting surfaces, they’re front silvered and I cleaned them good.”
With this amount of instruction, I could sort of see what was happening. The junk in the hallways was a crude relay system, mirrors piping a yellowish beam of light out one lab door, down the hall a hundred feet, around the corner and into Noah’s space. Pretty low-tech if you ask me, which no one did.
I wanted to be a good sport, and had no place I needed to go. More importantly, I was the immediate cause of Noah’s grief. So I was willing enough to stand in the hallway, talking with Noah by cellphone, obeying his instructions to move the beam up, down, left, right and then tiny increments until it was like Goldilocks’ third bear, being just right. Noah put me at one station, then moved downstream to the next one, coaching me till the beam hit his mirror squarely.
In this manner, we worked our way back into his lab, where the bright laser beam from far away lost itself in a sea of lenses and diffusers. By this time, Noah had calmed a good bit. “Thanks, Evan,” he said, “it’s faster with both of us doing it together.”
“What happened with your tech?” I asked, alluding to the research assistant who would normally keep Noah out of trouble in his own lab.
“Mm, Ed’s out this week. And this is, uh, sort of a personal project. I didn’t want to get him involved.”
I wondered what he was up to. “Hence the midnight experiment?”
“Well, yes. But also, I could never pipe the beams around during the day with everyone bustling the hallways, and the building vibrating.”
My curiosity was bugging me, but it would be unmannerly to linger. So I said, “Are you set now?”
“Yes, but …” A pause. “Would it be a lot of trouble for you to stick around a while?” Noah had apparently decided to induct me as co-conspirator.
My stomach rumbled its opinion, but I overrode it. What the heck, I thought, he’s a friend, and moreover I wanted to see what was up. “No problem, I’m wide open.”
That’s when I got my next surprise. “Evan, this is my fiancée Vicky. Vicky, here’s Evan.” For the first time I noticed a demure young woman sitting at one side, who looked up from her phone and gave a slight smile. I thought, non-employee visitor after hours? The plot was getting viscous.
Noah divulged, “Here’s the deal, Evan. Vicky’s a photographer, she has a studio in West LA. We’re getting married this summer, so of course we’re going to have video and still shots. But since I’m a laser guy with all this neat stuff, I thought we’d make a holographic portrait too. So I smuggled her in as a visitor, and she just ‘forgot’ to leave at five.”
I wasn’t sure how Noah would spin it when they finally left the premises, but that wasn’t my problem. At least, I could begin to see what crazy idea my buddy had in mind. I was vaguely aware that a hologram was a sort of window that showed a three-D picture. “Isn’t that pretty complicated?” I asked.
I had seen Noah’s expression on his face before. I think it was at the Santa Barbara Habit. He was ravenous, ordered a double char cheese with sweet potato fries and onion rings and a shake, and when presented with a pile of food bigger than his head, suddenly realized he had over-committed. I guess you’d call it the classic sheepish look.
In this case, he said, “Yes, it’s tricky. At least, to make a large full-color hologram, which is what we want. You see, the dye lasers that make the red and blue beams are in a tiny lab, not enough room for a portrait. So I have to get the beams down here, where the green laser is. Then I have to spread them with diffusers, so we can keep our eyes open for the portrait. As long as we sit on those two chairs, we won’t fry our eyeballs.” Behind the chairs I saw what must be a backdrop, a splotchy dark canvas.
Noah waved at a stack of flat metal boxes. “My uncle’s a radiologist, he gave me these film cassettes and I modified them. Managed to get some 14 by 17 glass plates coated with thick photoemulsion. Then I had to load the cassettes in a darkroom, somewhat tricky.”
“But …” and he looked at me, “the job just got easier, with you here!”
“You know, I’m not a laser jock.”
“No matter. It would be a big help if you can open the film and fire the lasers, once we get posed. I … mm … didn’t exactly plan this all the way through.” He glanced at Vicky, who kept her eyes down at her phone.
Noah continued, “You see, we need lights on to set our pose. Then we need lights off, with someone exposing the film. I can’t be in the shot and handle everything else, all in the dark. I would trip over something and kill myself and Vicky would never forgive me.” He glanced to the side, where the object of his affection cracked a smile.
Thus I temporarily became an expert assistant in handling film holders. Perhaps useful if R&D crashes and I apply for a job at an x-ray clinic. Fortunately, Noah had an extra film holder on which I could practice. I had to clamp each cassette into a frame, but that could be with the lights on. Then I had to switch off the lights and handle the more difficult part in total darkness, which was to slide out the film cover, feel for the switch to flash the lasers, then slide the cover exactly into place to seal out room light. Noah had two dozen cassettes loaded with plates and I didn’t want to waste his carefully prepared treasures.
“OK, Noah, now how do I keep from getting zapped?”
He grinned. Laser jocks are basically thrill seekers by nature. “Basically, close your eyes when you pulse the laser on. But we can do better, I’ll find you a safe area. Sit here, where you can reach everything.” He waved a power meter in front of my face. “Now close your eyes while I flash the lasers and check the intensity.”
This test was apparently ‘go’, and Noah warned me to stay in my assigned spot. These were powerful lasers, there were odd reflections everywhere which could blind me in one or more eyes. Damn these optical guys, I thought.
All this build-up had me more than a little nervous that I could pull it off. However, by now I was in pretty deep, I didn’t see bailing out. So I manfully said, “Great, let’s capture you in your youthful prime for all your descendants.”
At this point Vicky, as resident photographic pro, came to life and took charge. “Evan,” she said, “everything is guesswork till we develop the film. So I’m going to pose us both, then ask you to take a test shot with a digital camera. I’ll adjust the pose, then you do the high tech part.”
She had pre-planned three poses, which I guess were standard wedding fare. She first had the two of them side by side, then a half embrace, then a pose where they stared into each other’s eyes, reminding me of a TV soap opera. But who am I to criticize an MFA in Photography?
Noah said apologetically, “We need four shots with each pose. It’s possible to copy a white-light hologram, but I’d rather have four originals, for both our parents, for us, and one as a spare.” No problem, I thought, I was greased for the routine now. And I was fascinated to see photography rubbing up against technology, so to speak.
Things went pretty well, after a dozen shots we had a stockpile of ammunition that would pretty well document this attractive young couple. I hoped their marriage would last long enough to make the venture worth their trouble. But when we had finished the program there was still a stack of cassettes on the lab bench, pregnant with film, itching for fulfillment. What would happen with this bounty of technology?
The presence of so much unexposed emulsion must have tweaked Vicky as well, but I was not prepared for what happened next.
She grabbed Noah’s ear and said something that raised his eyebrows. “Evan, hold on a second, would you?” he said, and they repaired to the other side of the room for a huddle. I didn’t know what was going on, but I stayed in my safe location, still nervous that these pesky lasers might fire themselves off without warning.
After a minute Noah returned and said in a soft serious voice, “Evan, we’d like to ask a big favor.” He glanced at his sweetie, who gave an encouraging nod. “Vicky thinks we should capture ourselves in our young glory, now while we have all this set up. We might not be able to pull it off again, here at HAL. So would you please take our photos in the nude?”
I smothered a gasp and tried to figure out what to say. I had never seen Noah in the buff, but he was a bud, I could tolerate it. However, his inamorata was another matter. I had barely met her, she was engaged to this guy, it seemed intrusive to say the least. “Mm … gee,” I said, “I shouldn’t be a voyeur, that isn’t polite.”
“Evan,” said Vicky in a businesslike voice, “photography is an art form. You wouldn’t cover your eyes in front of the Venus de Milo. So just pretend you’re in life drawing class, working on a masterpiece for later generations.”
“Well…” I said. Uneasiness was rising in my throat.
“Besides,” she continued, “if we don’t mind, you shouldn’t. And the lights will be out most of the time.”
Now I’m not exactly a prude. In fact, I’m fond of the opposite sex, and quite ready to emulate the Garden of Eden in the right circumstances. But somehow this felt like one of those dreams where I’m in Times Square and my clothes suddenly disappear. I was more embarrassed for them than they were for themselves. And I was truly amazed that my nervous friend Noah was so smitten by this woman that he was following her program wherever it took him.
I also became aware that here we were with the lab door wide open. What if the security guard moseyed in while making his rounds? I could not think of a convincing story that would get us all out of the deep fryer.
I later concluded that Vicky must have taken more than wedding photos in the past, and perhaps had modeled herself. Because once again she seemed to know what she wanted. Noah was hyperventilating a bit, but he was ready to do his part, so I guess I was too.
“Noah,” she said, “we’ll start with the two chairs facing each other. Let’s try it with clothes on first, just to get the idea.” She fussed with the chairs, Noah making sure they were within the boundary he had marked on the floor. “Now put your feet on my chair, I’ll put mine on yours, and we put our arms out to embrace. No, not that close. Elbows a bit lower, we want to show breasts but no nipples. Not yet. OK, Evan, take a test shot with the camera.”
Vicky studied the digital image with satisfaction and gave it her imprimatur. “OK, this will work. Noah, clothes over there by the wall.”
I tactfully busied myself by putting a film holder into the mount while they both, so help me, stripped off every stitch and reassumed the pose.
“OK, Evan, take a shot.” I complied. Off with the lights. Uncover the film, flash the lasers, cover the film. On with the lights.
Vicky beamed at me, the harsh lights glistening on her smooth skin. “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” I think she was saying it as much to Noah as to me.
“Er, I guess I could learn to like it,” I said. Then I added quickly, “I mean, it’s OK, whatever you want.”
Vicky appeared to be a pro at this stuff. Some people spout stanzas of poetry, some people take off their clothes, I guess one’s specialty is never embarrassing.
“Good,” she said. “Then we’ll just keep our clothes off from here on. Noah, let’s have the chairs face the film now, we’ll embrace like we were doing before, but in a more natural state.”
“Uh,” said Noah, “did you want your breasts to show?”
“Of course, silly. They’re as nice now as they will ever be. Let’s make them a monument to this moment.”
So we proceeded with a few variations of the frontal embrace, until Vicky seemed satisfied with the results. She then studied my face for a moment, while I tried not to look at her nipples. “Evan, I want to take this a bit further, if you don’t mind.”
“Um, I’m not sure what else you could take off,” I said.
She laughed, a brief tinkle. “No, just something a little more sensual.” She saw my face and continued, “Nothing hard core. Just suggestive.”
And that was how I became an unwitting porn photographer, late in the evening at HAL. I tried to adopt a professional mindset, paying attention to how Vicky set up the shots, just how much and what she wanted to show.
Some of the poses were practically simulated sex, private parts visible as a fringe of hair. This stoked my anxiety, I imagined that someone could wander through the open door and give us a serious workplace problem. But what must Noah be thinking? Here he was in his birthday suit, cavorting – I don’t know another word – with a bare chickie who didn’t even belong on the premises. He might be visualizing the Director herself, bursting into the room with a couple of security officers and the entire City of Los Angeles Vice Squad.
The poses kept getting steamier, but fortunately we only had so many film cassettes. So just as we were approaching seriously prosecutable fare, our supplies were exhausted and Vicky reluctantly called it a day. I tactfully stared at the laser equipment while this freewheeling couple re-donned their clothes.
“Evan, you did a fine job!” announced Vicky. As an afterthought, she added, “And you too, Noah.”
“Happy to assist,” I said gallantly. “Hopefully this will give you enough holograms to satisfy your parents.”
“Well, some of them are just for us, Evan,” she said. “Until the world is a bit more broad-minded about photographic art.”
Noah had not had much to say for quite a while. But now he said, “Oh, Evan, don’t mention this at work please. HAL might get a little stuffy about it. Even though it’s my own film and stuff.”
“Um, how are you going to get her out of here?” I asked.
He relaxed, obviously this part had been planned. “I’ll tell them that Vicky took a nap in my office, I was busy in the lab and didn’t realize that she hadn’t left at five. I might get a small scolding, but that’s all.”
“And what about that stuff?” I said, motioning to the immense stack of film holders.
“They’ll stay here for now. I’ll walk them out during the day next week, a few at a time. They’ll fit in my briefcase, and because they’re my property, they don’t have HAL inventory tags.”
My head was spinning, maybe due to this little adventure, perhaps because it was past 8:30 and I still hadn’t had dinner. So I congratulated them both and excused myself, their thanks bubbling in my ears.
Sure enough, the wedding came according to schedule, on a sunny Saturday in August. Vicky and Noah had rented the Malibu Lagoon Museum and corralled a high-end caterer. I felt privileged to be invited, having acquired a vested interest in their togetherness.
A stunning full-color hologram was on hand, direct sunlight being ideal for its display. Naturally, it was one of the fully clothed poses. I was even accorded a credit in the printed program, for ‘photographic assistance’.
The marriage was photo-worthy, set on a lush lawn framed by a rippling Pacific. A self-composed ceremony, commitments studded like currants in a muffin of poetry. Afterward the guests drifted to the courtyard for refreshments.
I waited my turn and eventually was able to corner the honored groom. After congratulating him, I said, “The portrait looks great. I haven’t seen many holograms, but this one is very realistic.”
Noah smiled. “I practiced on still lifes before bringing Vicky in. But she deserves the credit for making the shots such a success.” He looked proudly at his bride a dozen feet away.
“I, er, what did you do with the other holograms?” I asked.
“We showed them to my uncle.” He waved at a fortyish man poking the hors d’oeuvres. “After all, he contributed the film cassettes. He got all excited, thinks that 3-D portraits would be great business. So he wants to invest in Vicky’s studio. Buy some used laser gear, offer color holograms as a high-end product.”
“An unexpected bonus,” I replied.
“For now, I’ll keep my day job at HAL, but eventually I might join the business. Anyway, thanks to your help, we have plenty of samples to show to clients.”
“Even the nude ones?” I wondered.
“Well, not usually. But that’s up to Vicky, it’s her business. You know she considers it an art form, there’s no telling what she’ll do with them.”
At this point the woman of the hour arrived and I offered my best wishes. She gave a glowing smile and said, “You get to kiss the bride, you know.” I gave her a chaste buss on the cheek – as much as I could manage, considering the circumstances.
Vicky beamed, it was her glory day. “Evan, after we start holography in my business, bring your girl around. We’ll do a free session for you. Your choice of poses!” And she winked.
– o –