Stem Cell: at the beginning...

Stem Cell: at the beginning...

A Screenplay by Morde Cai

Chang-Yu Hong and Erik Amunsson met at the Medical School where Chang-Yu was a graduate student and Erik was a lab technician. One day Chang-Yu was invited to visit Erik...


One November Sunday afternoon Chang-Yu was invited to join Erik and Ilsa for a barbeque picnic. Chang-Yu checked the address that Erik had given him a few days ago. He was sure that the address was correct. Once he got out of his car and stepped onto the gravel driveway, he found himself standing in front of a very peculiar looking house. The house looked like a merger of two epochs. In the front stood a very small house that looked like it’s going to collapse anytime. Standing behind the little old house was a large house that didn’t really look like a house. The new big house didn’t have any window, at least not from his point of view. He was so flabbergasted by the two strange buildings that he didn’t see Erik approaching him in his lawn mower. 

“Hey Chang-Yu, you found us. Did the road give you a hard time?” Erik asked as he switched off his lawn mower.

Chang-Yu spun around to greet Erik. He walked up to Erik who was getting out of his lawn mower. “Good afternoon. This place is big; do you own it all?” Erik nodded, “Absolutely, 4.5 acres. Come on, let me show you around.” They got onto Erik’s old lawn mower, and Erik started the engine and they rolled off. “Gee, you grow a lot of grass here, what do you do with the cut grass?” Chang Yu asked. “What did you say, I can’t hear you; you have to shout.” Erik screamed over the noise of his lawn mower. After screaming back and forth for a while, Chang-Yu decided to just enjoy the ride. By the time they were back to the house, they finished mowing the whole lawn. “You like the ride?” Erik asked. “It’s cool; I haven’t ridden a lawn mower before. Do you just leave the cut grass on the lawn?” Erik frowned at Chang-Yu “What would you do?” Chang-Yu replied, “Don’t you bale the grass and sell the hay to cattle farmers? That’s easy money.” Erik shook his head, “No, I don’t have the time; I work five days a week; when I am home, I want to relax.” 

Chang-Yu used to grow up in an environment that he utilized every resource to earn money to support himself and his grandmother. He continued, “You have plenty of empty land on your lot, what are you going to do with all that land?” Erik amused himself by saying, “Open a truck museum, what do you think?” Chang-Yu was stunted by the question. “Do you really want to hear what I think?” Erik shrugged his shoulders, “Sure, tell me about it.” Chang-Yu asked, “Do you rent? I mean rent out the land for others to run a business of some kind?”

Erik gave Chang-Yu a questionable frown while raising his T-shirt to wipe the sweat on his forehead. Then he asked, “What kind of business you have in mind? A junk yard?” Erik had been a journeyman, working as farm hands while he was traveling from Minnesota to Texas. He knew some farmers deserted their farm, some sold the land to developers to build new houses, and some turned their farm into junk yards for auto insurance companies to dismantle totaled cars. When they were back near the house again, Chang-Yu saw a lopsided shed that could only be seen from the back of the big house. He asked,” Is that shack yours too?  What’s in there?” Erik shrugged, “It used to be a storage house for farm equipment and tools, and I think it is empty now.” Chang-Yu was curious, “Have you been there?” Erik shook his head, “No, not really, didn’t have the time. Do you want to see it? I can show you if you want?” They decided to venture into the shack. 

The door to the shack was using up its time, one push from Erik, the door collapsed and fell to the floor. The sound disturbed a school of crepuscular creatures that rushed out at their direction. Both Chang-Yu and Erik crouched to dodge the unexpected renters and almost tumbled over the lawn. While they were steadying themselves a white cat that had yellow blotches on one side of its face shrieked and lunged at them. They rolled over to avoid the disturbed creature. The cat landed beside a rusted old milk jug, raised its hind leg to do its business and then walked back a few steps toward Erik and Chang-Yu. It sat down on the grass, tilted its head and mewed, “Who are you fellow dare to wake me up?” After they recovered themselves and stood up, Chang-Yu commented, “At least you know there is no mouse in the shack. Look, that cat is well fed.” Erik nodded, “I haven’t seen that cat before. Do you still want to go in?”

There was no window in the shack but after the door was knocked down, the afternoon sun rushed in and drove out the darkness. Inside at one corner they could see rusted rakes and spades and the remnant of a wheelbarrow. At the other corner, they saw the vestige of a barrel, and later decided it was an instrument for churning butter. One of Erik’s boots was caught by something, and in a panic to yank free one of the walls fell and followed by the roof. Erik flew out the torn wall, while Chang-Yu spun around and lunged for the entrance. When they met again Erik asked, “Enough adventures for you?” Chang-Yu smiled, “That’s better than the haunted house in Halloween party. Hey, I know what business you should do, “A Halloween open house.”

Erik grinned, “Do you still want to stick around, or you are ready to go home now?” Chang-Yu shook his head, “Hey, would you rent this place? I mean, you can put up a new building to replace this shack, and make it into a laboratory.” Erik barely recovered from the shock of the collapsed shack was nonplus by Chang-Yu’s question.  He asked, “Excuse me? I am lost.” Chang-Yu replied, “I’ll tell you more after you show me the rest of your house.” Chang-Yu remembered the strange houses he saw earlier and asked, “How many rooms do you have in that big house? It looks like you have an old house and a new house next to each other; do you live in both houses?”

Erik gave Chang-Yu a funny look. “Well, it’s kind of hard to explain; well, come let me show you.”  Inside the big house, there were three bedrooms on the second floor, and one master bedroom on the first floor. There were spaces ear-marked for two bathrooms upstairs but only the studs for the plumbing was lay out. Erik explained, “Have you heard of a fixer-upper or handyman’s special house? Well, you are standing in one. You see, the owner bought this property and had big plan for it. Then his job was shipped to another city and he had to move.”

Chang-Yu immediately caught the idea, “And you only paid a fraction of the regular price for it, right?”

Erik raised his hand to scratch his chin, after a short silence he said, “It is still a very good price. You can’t get such a great deal in Dallas. There is a lot of work to be done before we can use the upper story, but we can use the down stair master bedroom. Since we only have the two of us right now, it works. But well, let me show you the old house.”

Both Erik and Chang-Yu have to stoop their heads to get through the door to the older house. Inside the house, on one side there was a very small living room and a kitchen separated between them by a load-bearing wall. On the other side there were two tiny rooms, each big enough for a regular sized bed. “Where is the bathroom?” Asked Chang-Yu. Erik grinned impishly, “How long have you been in the United States? You are spoiled. Don’t you have house like this in Taiwan? The bathroom is outside the house.”

Chang-Yu snapped, “Ah, that’s why it’s called an outhouse; I get it. But isn’t that inconvenience for you guys? I mean this is twentieth century America.”

“No, the outhouse is long gone. We use the bathroom in the new house. What do you think, we can rent this one to you; you think about it.” Erik said teasingly at Chang-Yu.

While they were walking out of the old house, Ilsa was coming back with her grocery.  Erik landed a kiss on her lips and offers to carry the grocery in for her. Ilsa’s gaze landed on Erik and Chang-Yu’s clothes, they were covered with cobwebs, grass trimmings, and dust. “What happened to you two?” Erik and Chang-Yu looked at each other and burst into laughter. Erik said, “Honey, we just escaped from the ‘last shack’.” Ilsa understood, “Do you mean you demolished the shed in the back of the house? Erik pointed at Chang-Yu and joked, “Absolutely, Chang-Yu has a magic power, as soon as he entered the shack, the whole thing collapsed.” Ilsa spun around to look at Chang-Yu, “Are you hurt? I’m sorry that happened. Do you want to take a shower? You can borrow a T-shirt from Erik?” Chang-Yu excused himself to get something out of his car, while Erik helped Ilsa unload the grocery. When he reappeared a few minutes later, he was wearing a fresh T-shirt. His hair was thoroughly combed and he had changed into a new pair of jeans. When Ilsa saw him come back, she said, “Hey, welcome to our abode; did Erik show you around?” 

“Hey, honey, do you want me to put the meat in the freezer or do you want me to marinate it now?” Erik screamed from the new house’s kitchen. Ilsa yelled back, “Aren’t we having a barbeque? In that case, marinate the meat now; three of each.” Then she returned her attention to Chang-Yu, “It’s kind of a strange house, isn’t it? But that’s what we can afford right now. Did Erik show you my vegetable garden?”

Ilsa led Chang-Yu to a patch behind the remains of the lopsided shed. A little 10 ft by 10 ft plot is mixed planted with vegetables and herbs. “I have to use the shed to provide some shade for the plants. This is the best spot I can find for gardening.” Ilsa explained to Chang-Yu, who was not impressed. He was a farm boy when he was a teenager in Taiwan, and he knew how to farm. He suggested, “Why don’t you put a frame over the plot, you can get like a 2 by 4 and space them out like 6 inches apart, as a lattice roof, and support them with some 4 x 4’s. You can grow the beans and cucumbers along the outskirt, as they climb up the scaffolds they provide shade for the vegetables in the middle.”

Ilsa looked at Chang-Yu and thought, this graduate student is very interesting, and how did he know how to farm? She asked, “Have you grown a vegetable garden before?” Chang-Yu grinned, “I used to take care of my grandmother’s vegetable garden. She always plants squash and cucumber at the corner or the outskirt because they spread so fast and tall. She puts the leafy vegetables in the middle, about ten inches away from the squash so the spiraling tendrils of the squash will not reach the vegetables and choke them.”

Ilsa contemplated Chang-Yu’s word, “H’mmm, both me and Erik grew up as farmer’s kids, neither of us thought about that. Well, it’s good to know. What else did you do in Taiwan?”  Ilsa heard bits of information about Chang-Yu from Erik, but she was curious about this young man; partly because she herself is half Chinese that made her felt an instant bond with Chang-Yu, and partly because she missed her brothers back at Maui.

They walked back toward the house and met Erik at an open area next to the house. He had put on a fresh T-shirt and a pair of clean shorts. He was pushing a barbeque grill, when he saw Chang-Yu again, and he paused to give him a hug and asked, “Did you see Ilsa’s organic vegetable garden?” Ilsa answered for him. “Yes, honey; and Chang-Yu made some suggestions too.” Then turning to Chang-Yu she said, “Why don’t you tell Erik what you told me?” But Erik was in his barbeque mood and he said, “Tell me later, now help me set up the grill, will you?” As they opened the lid to the barbeque grill Erik asked, “Have you done barbeque before?” Chang-Yu glanced at the big grill that was wheeled on a cart and the big propane can sitting next to the grill; he replied, “My parents had a booth about this big in which they used to sell soup noodles before they passed away. It had a stove similar to that, where they put a large pot filled with boiling soup. Next to the big stove they had a smaller stove for boiling noodles. We never used a machine to grill. We just dug a pit in the dirt, threw in firewood, and after we set up the fire, we wrapped our food in large banana leaves and laid them over the fire. Is this how you grill in Texas?” Erik grinned, “Absolutely, I only use the Texas standard when it comes to barbeque.”

“Oh, I think I need to lie down, I feel so tired.” Ilsa said as she excused herself and headed back to the house.” Erik glanced from Ilsa to Chang-Yu and said, “Ilsa complains about getting tired a lot lately, what would you suggest, doctor?” Erik was teasing Chang-Yu because he just finished his two years’ classes in medicine at the medical school.

Chang-Yu shrugged, “May be she is tired; in Taiwan we usually take a siesta in the afternoon, particularly on Sunday.” He glanced at his watch which indicated ten past two. He turned to look at Ilsa, “Do you feel anything else other than tired? Do you feel better after you take a nap?”

Ilsa recalled her recent experience: she fell asleep on the couch at the Medical School a few times after she finished her lunch. But other than that she felt fine. She said, “I usually don’t have the habit of taking a nap after lunch, but just lately, I doze off on the couch after lunch.”

Chang-Yu glanced between Ilsa and Erik and grinned mischievously at Ilsa and asked, “Are you having regular menstruation?” It just dawn on Ilsa that she missed a couple of period lately. When she looked up and met Erik’s gaze, her face turned pink. “May be I should go see my doctor and check it out?” Erik lunged over and wrapped his arm around her and smacked a kiss on her lips, “You want an escort?” Then he spun to look at Chang-Yu, “Why don’t you take a second tour around the place, don’t be shy. I’ll be right back.” 

After Erik and Ilsa entered their house, Chang-Yu took his time to walk around the immense lawn again. Then he walked back to his car and took out his map to study. As Chang-Yu was returning from his car, he saw Erik, who had changed into a white shirt and a pair of black khaki pants, dashing out of his house with a thick ‘Yellow pages’ in his hand. At about a foot from Chang-Yu he asked, “Do you know any church or pastor in the area?” Chang-Yu was dumbfounded, “Why, do you want to go to a church?” “Yes, but I must run out to do an errand right now. Here, do me a favor, there is a phone in the house, call the churches in the area and find a pastor. Tell the pastor we need him to perform a wedding ceremony this very afternoon, preferably in an hour or so. Can you do that?” Before Chang-Yu could answer him, Erik had turned to lunge toward his Ford pickup. Chang-Yu shook his head and proceeded to open the Yellow pages. Then he entered the house, found the phone and began to make phone calls.

“Honey, you don’t have to do it today, do you think this will work?” Ilsa turned to ask Erik after they all got into Erik’s pickup. Erik had made up his mind and he replied, “Chinese or America, what’s the difference? There is one wedding oath only, right?” Then he turned to Chang-Yu and asked, “What did you say to them? Are you sure the pastor will wait for us?” Chang-Yu nodded, “I told them why we are coming, and the man said he understood.” About fifteen minutes later, they were standing in front of a building that looked like an elementary school. On the lawn next to the entrance, a stand up sign said, “Denton Baptist Church, and underneath a smaller sign said, “Denton Chinese Fellowship Church.” 

As they were heading toward the church entrance, a man dressed in black suit, white shirt, and a tie was hurrying toward them. He smiled and said in Chinese, “Are you the bridegroom and the bride?” Chang-Yu shook his head and gestured at Erik and Ilsa, “Oh, no, this is the bridegroom and this is his bride. They are the one who are getting married today.” The man apologized and switched back to speak in English, “We can do that too. I need to get your names to write down on the document.” He looked at Erik and Ilsa and said, “Why don’t you follow me to my office, we need to have a little chat before the ceremony.”

They followed the man into the church. The man led them to a room that led to a smaller room. Inside there was a desk that faced the entrance. He gestured Erik and Ilsa to sit down on two chairs that are placed in front of his desk. He spun around and spoke in Chinese to Chang-Yu and gestured him to sit down on a chair leaning against the wall and facing the side of his desk. He switched back in English to ask for Erik and Ilsa’s name. He was not sure that he got it right so he took out a piece of paper and asked them to write down their names. Afterward, he asked solemnly, “You know we are going to give you a wedding license endorsed by the Southern Baptist Alliance recognizing your marriage. Are you sure you are ready to take your wedding vow?” He asked Erik and Ilsa. Erik nodded, “Yes, we want the license and we are ready for the wedding vow.” The man spun around to look at Chang-Yu and asked in Chinese, “Are these two people friends of yours? Why are they in such a hurry to get marrying?” Chang-Yu assured him that Erik and Ilsa are both somber and they are not insane.

The pastor nodded and introduced himself, “I am Rev. Peter Fong, pastor of the Denton Chinese Fellowship Church. I usually request the man and woman to attend pre-marriage counseling for two weeks prior to the wedding... After he gave them the whole nine-yard of sermon, Pastor Fong concluded, “But just the same let us rejoice now for the coming together of a man and a woman to become one. Do you have the rings ready?” Erik pulled out from his pants pocket a tiny box, which held his ring that he just bought from Sears. He gave it to Ilsa. Then Ilsa pulled out the engagement ring from her hand and gave it to Erik. Pastor Fong nodded, “That will do.” Then he turned to Chang-Yu, “Would you mind giving the bride away?” Chang-Yu shrugged, “Sure; what do I need to do?” Pastor Fong gave Chang-Yu the instruction and then looked directly at Erik, “You come with me, and let’s be off now.”

To Erik’s surprise, when they entered the sanctuary, the pews were filled with Chinese and a handful of Caucasians. Erik’s original request was to get a pastor to perform the wedding oath between him and Ilsa; he was not expecting the witness of a full church. The audience changed their chatting into rattling when they saw Pastor Fong entered, followed by Erik. Pastor Fong walked up to the stage and the audience stood up while Pastor Fong uttered a short prayer. Then he explained to the audience about the wedding. He introduced Erik to the congregation. After the audience sat down, Pastor Fong signaled Chang-Yu to escort Ilsa to the stage of the sanctuary, and began the wedding ceremony. First he asked Erik to repeat the wedding vow after him and next he asked Ilsa to repeat after him. After both Erik and Ilsa pledged the vow and exchanged rings, Pastor Fong signaled his congregation to stand up and announces, “We hereby pronounce in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that Erik Amunsson and Ilsa Tsong are now husband and wife. Church, may you concur and say Amen.” After his congregation echoed the “Amen”, he raised his hands to the ceiling and said, “And angels in Heaven, rejoice.” He closed his eyes, muttered some phrases and ended with Amen. Then to Erik and Ilsa’s surprise, a group of people dressed in white robes entered from behind the stage and arrayed themselves in two rows and began to sing a song for them. Though neither Erik nor Ilsa understand the song because the lyrics are in Chinese, they guessed that it must be an affectionate song because the audience turned very emotional, and they clapped with gusto when the song ended. 

 Afterward Pastor Fong announced, “Thank you very much brothers and sisters for staying for the ceremony. Now you can change back to your casual clothes and proceeds to your regular sports activity at the gym.”

After they came out from the church Ilsa expressed a sigh of relieve, “Pew, that’s quite a ceremony; I didn’t expect them to give us the whole gamut of a formal wedding ceremony.” Then turning to Chang-Yu she said, “That’s very nice of you to find this church for us Chang-Yu; do you know these people?” Chang-Yu grinned mischievously, “No, I just called them and told them it was an emergency---death or wedding.” Suddenly they heard someone calling after them. They spun around and saw a lady in polo shirt and shorts running after them. She said, “Hi, I am Pastor Fong’s wife. I took a picture for you at the wedding. I wanted to give it to you but I had to help my daughters to change; when I came back to the sanctuary, you were gone.  Here you are and congratulation.”

They studied the picture and Chang-Yu commented, “Nice couple, that’s a very good wedding picture.” Ilsa’s gaze switched from the picture to her feet and realized that she was bare-footed; and Erik was wearing his work boots which were stained with splotches of grass trimmings and cobwebs. Pastor Fong’s wife also realized that and her face turned red. She began to apologize, “Oh, I am so sorry, I should have noticed that. I have spare shoes in the car.” Ilsa consoled her, “Oh no, that’s perfectly fine. I am from Hawaii and I don’t care that much about shoes.” Erik chimed in, “And I am a farmer boy from Minnesota, work boots are perfectly acceptable for a wedding, I am sure.”

After they got back to Erik and Ilsa’ place, they felt really hungry. “Erik,” Ilsa said, “Why don’t you and Chang-Yu get the grill ready, and I’ll go get the salad.” When Ilsa entered the house, Chang-Yu broke his silence, “Hey, are you serious about renting to me?”

Erik was busy brushing the grill with a metal brush. He barely looked up at Chang-Yu, “We only have one bathroom; I wouldn’t have mind to let you use the bathroom in the big house, but now Ilsa is pregnant; by the way, we are going to have a baby.” He raised his head to look at Chang-Yu and grinned. Chang-Yu shrugged, “Oh, is that why you are in such a hurry to get marry?” “Absolutely, I can’t let my child be a b*****d you know. I really love Ilsa. I mean when I saw her the first time, I know she’s the woman I should marry.” Chang-Yu frowned, “Why don’t you two just get marry before, you know, before you have baby?” 

Erik raised his free hand to pat Chang-Yu, “Money, my friend; neither of us earn big money. After we bought the house, we are both broke.” Chang-Yu frowned again, “So what are you going to do now? Is Ilsa still going to work after the baby is born? Who is going to take care of your baby?” Erik shrugged, “Send it back to my parents in Minnesota, they love grandchildren.” He stole a glance at Chang-Yu who did not approve the idea. Then Erik said, “Just kidding; find a second job, like what everybody does, I guess.” His metal brush made “Gk, gk, gk “sound as the it glided across the grill top. Suddenly, Chung-Yu beamed, “Hey, Ilsa knows how to grow bacteria, doesn’t she?” Erik stopped abruptly from his scratching to look at Chang-Yu, “Of course she does, she clones genes. What are you thinking?”

“Erik, the three of us should set up a biotechnology service business, and provide basic research tools for DNA cloning and tissue culture.” Erik stopped short at his brushing again and stared at Chang-Yu, “You know how much it costs to purchase the equipment? That’s an expensive investment.” “No, we don’t have to start with the delicate equipment; we can start with something like growing Thermo thermophilus that are used to produce DNA polymerase.  Almost every lab in the Medical School uses a modicum amount of DNA polymerase, and we both know how expensive they are. All three of us know how to purify enzyme; we just culture the bacteria, purify the enzyme and sell them to the Medical School.” Chang-Yu explained his idea.

Erik gave Chang-Yu a quizzical look. “Where do you get the equipment? And who would buy from us?” Chang-Yu was unrelenting, “All it needs to get the business started is a handful of Erlenmeyer flasks, a handful of columns and simple things we can order from the scientific suppliers. The most we need to invest now is an incubator.”  Erik was skeptical, “And how do we market the enzyme?” Chang-Yu was still exuberant with his idea, “Our laboratory, Dr. Spencer’s, Dr. Agnelli’s......, any laboratory that works with genes. The key is to produce the pure enzyme keep its consistency. The market will follow.”

            “I’ll need to talk to Ilsa about it, she is the co-owner of the house too, and she has her say.” Erik replied. “Well, she is here now, you ask her.” As soon as Ilsa put down the salad on the picnic table, Erik said, “Ilsa, Chang-Yu wants to ask you something. I’ll go fetch the meat.”

After Erik was gone, Ilsa gazed at Chang-Yu expectantly. “Well, what do you need to know?” “Ilsa, I wonder if you would consider renting part of your land to me? I am going to put up a make shift laboratory.” Chang-Yu blurted.

Ilsa appraised silently at the young man in front of her. His black hair is cut very short, he has a pair of very intelligent eyes behind his wire-framed spectacles, a triangular nose, two dimples on his cheeks when he smiles, a lean strong jaw, and plump lips; everything confirms his sincerity. She asks, “What are you going to do, manufacture illegal drugs?”

Ilsa was trying to be funny but her question turned into an incendiary to Chang-Yu, and he stared hard at Ilsa, “Of course not!”  He stood up and held his fists tight. He paced hard on the fresh cut grass, “I thought you and Erik are open-minded people; why do you people always archetype people? Do I look like a drug dealer to you? You...” Chang-Yu was so enraged that he almost lost his word.

Ilsa was equally shocked. She was just joking but that is not a good joke to Chang-Yu. She stood up and apologized. “Look, it is just a joke. Calm down and please tell me your plan; please. I am all ears.”

Chang-Yu stared at Ilsa and made an effort to swallow his wrath. “I told Erik that I want to set up a laboratory to produce enzymes for the Medical School.” Ilsa stared at Chang-Yu with even more astonishment. “But why here?” Chang Yu explained, “Your location is ideal: thirty minutes from the Medical School, the population is low, there is no house in half mile radius. No busy body neighbors to sneak around and complains. 

Ilsa gazed at the fresh salad she has just put together, and remembered her days as a young ambitious scientist herself who wanted to produce natural plant defensins to spray plants to prevent pest intrusion. And, she always liked Chang-Yu, polite, bright, and astute. “Ok, tell me some more, have a seat, help yourself with the salad.”

Erik came back with the meat and he went directly to the grill. After they dug into the salad, they continued to discuss more on Chang-Yu’s plan. “Put up a shack is easy, you can just buy one; but there is no water, no electricity, how are you going to conduct your experiment?”  Erik raised a stream of questions, followed by more objections from Ilsa, “And, there is no bathroom, how are you going to take showers, cook, wash, etc.?” 

”I understand that you can get permit from the county office to build an extension house, put in pumping, electricity and gas. Of course, it is your house, so you have to submit the application.” Chang-Yu replied. Ilsa interrupted him, “Chang-Yu, how much land do you need?”  To which Chang-Yu replied, “750 square ft.” 

“Give us some time to discuss about it; we’ll get back to you by next Saturday.” Ilsa suggested. They all agreed to that; and they spent the rest of the Sunday afternoon savoring the barbeque meat, new friendship and Erik’s truck collection.

© 2014 Morde Cai

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Added on September 5, 2014
Last Updated on September 5, 2014
Tags: stem cells, skin graft, human dignity, campfire, community, dallas