Lifetime Achievement Award
Bad news covered the hospital bed. Kenneth moved to a chair, but the story didn’t change. He didn’t want it to. He deserved it and he wanted to feel the full measure of his mistake. He didn’t know if this would produce agony or peace, but he wouldn’t die a coward. He could avoid that. And if the news destroyed him, he wouldn’t have to live with it for long.
“Turn the volume up,” he bellowed.
“It’s already as high as it goes,” replied his daughter, Agatha. She sighed and pressed the volume button on the remote. A dial on the screen jumped from ninety-seven to one hundred.
“You see,” said Kenneth, “it was not.”
“Yes, dad.” He always had to be right, even when he wasn’t. Especially when he wasn’t.
“If you’re going to be wrong, be as wrong as possible,” he said during his acceptance speech after winning the lifetime achievement award from the Global Committee Against Hunger and Malnutrition. That was four years ago. The boast was idle because he was finally right. He had the lives and the full bellies to prove it.
The gold statue bothered him, even at the time. He approved the recognition, however, because heroes need their pedestals. Otherwise no one would brave the climb. Now he loathed the statue, as well as the perch from which he’d fallen so hard. Agatha removed it from the hospital room after the news broke. He’d been battling cancer for years when he learned his life’s work had brought millions along for the ride. He hadn’t seen it coming.
“Health authorities are reporting a forty percent jump in stomach cancer in Southeast Asia during the past year,” said the news anchor. “That, after a sixty-three percent jump in the same region during the previous year alone. Local authorities have described the cancer outbreak as an epidemic, and while they are confident the worst is behind them, they fully expect the trend of heightened cancer diagnoses to continue for many years to come.”
“At least they didn’t starve,” Kenneth told himself. This was true, but it didn’t improve his state of mind. He hadn’t argued that his high-yield rice would buy twenty years of extra life at the cost of a cancerous finale. He had argued life and life alone. He predicted the end of famine altogether, not an asterisk at the end of an actuarial table. He was wrong.
His late wife never knew. She died before the story broke, not long after the lifetime achievement award. He lived on, a hero in her eyes. He was grateful for that, especially after a lifetime of professional stumbles that occasionally put a strain on their marriage. As a professor of agricultural biology, he was a popular lecturer among undergrads. Sadly, his research was not so successful. For decades he pushed grandiose theories of rice yield multiplication, arguing for techniques that could triple or even quadruple grain supply. To no avail. Peer review always slapped him down.
He could have altered his research or pared down his ambitions, but he took every failure as a spur to keep kicking. “If you’re going to be wrong, be as wrong as possible,” he insisted throughout his life, confident he’d either break through or inspire someone else through his idiosyncratic research projects.
As for the university, they tolerated his wayward interests so long as his skills as a teacher kept students in their seats. And if his crazier ideas ever worked out in the real world, they would be happy to take the gravy.
“Samuel!” cried Kenneth, when he saw the visitor at the door.
“Hello, Professor Taylor,” said Agatha, moving her coat and purse from a chair along the wall. “Have a seat. I was just going to get some coffee. Would you like anything?”
“No, Agatha, but that’s sweet of you to ask.”
“Dad, would you like anything?”
“No, dear, thank you.” He coughed violently. Professor Taylor grimaced. Agatha poured some water for her father and patted his shoulders.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“Okay, dad.” She left the room and closed the door behind her. This was against the rules, but it was a lesser infraction than the one that was about to take place. Professor Taylor sat down in the chair Agatha had cleared. He drew a flask from his pocket and opened the stopper. The smell of bourbon filled the room. He took a pull and handed the flask to Kenneth, who did the same.
“Thanks, old man.”
“You’re welcome. But not well-liked.”
“Certainly not now.”
“No. Certainly not now. But I was on to you years ago.”
“Yeah. You were. Give me that flask again.”
Professor Taylor taught classics at the university. He and his family had lived next door to Kenneth and his family for decades. They often met for a nightcap, either in Kenneth’s garage or in Professor Taylor’s study. They mostly drank bourbon. Each week they polished off a liter or so. Kenneth once did a back of the envelope calculation. Over the course of three and a half decades, that made for some twelve or thirteen bathtubs of booze. He wasn’t sure if that sounded like a lot or a little. Either way, it had been a good time.
“What’s the protester situation look like?” Kenneth asked.
“About the same. Maybe a little bit bigger.”
“You know, they moved me to this side of the building so I wouldn’t have to see them out there.”
“Well, that’s a nice gesture.”
“Yes, it is.”
They turned their attention to the television. A reporter was interviewing cancer victims somewhere in Indonesia. The interviews were short. The pain was too great to speak at length. Coverage flipped through footage of bonfires in Africa and Latin America. They weren’t getting sick, but they weren’t taking any chances.
“So, why is it that people in one part of the world got sick, while everyone else seems to be fine? It was the same grain everywhere, right?”
“Yes,” Kenneth replied. “It was exactly the same. It’s hard to say what happened. Maybe it was environmental, maybe genetic. I don’t know. It must have been something local, something parochial, something I couldn’t have foreseen. I’d hate to think the protesters have a point.”
Professor Taylor got up and took two plastic cups from the nightstand. He bumped into Kenneth’s IV on his way back, but Kenneth didn’t seem to notice. He emptied his flask into the cups and gave one to Kenneth. They drank in silence for a few minutes. Professor Taylor spoke first.
“You know, lately I’ve been thinking about how ridiculous my life has been.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Yes. It is. I’m okay with it, but I think it’s true.”
“Why is that?”
“I’ve never been wrong.”
“Well, that’s bullshit.”
“Yes, I know. What I mean is I’ve never been really, truly, monstrously wrong. We’re pretty confident about Latin grammar and Greek syntax. It’s not a great mystery.
“Oh, come on. You spent half your career pulling every rabbit out of every hat you could find, just to argue that that Homer was an actual person, the real life, flesh-and-blood man who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. You could be wrong about that.”
“But you could be.”
“I know. But there’s no Hephaestus in my case, there’s no way to take this idea, bang it against an anvil, and see what kind of sword it makes. It’s forever ore.”
“Perhaps,” Kenneth conceded, “but let me tell you, Hephaestus hammers the shit out of me, and that’s no picnic.”
“No. I don’t imagine it is.”
They drained their cups and looked up at the television, where they watched Kenneth burn in effigy around the world.
“Well, I’ve got to get going. Good to see you, old man.”
“You too. Thanks for stopping by.”
“You bet. Give my love to Agatha.”
Professor Taylor closed the door behind him as he left. Kenneth shut his eyes and rubbed his temples. When he opened his eyes, the television was off and the IV was no longer in his arm. The bouquets of flowers that dotted the room had exploded with new blooms. Their scent covered the bourbon that lingered in the air. Kenneth looked over at the far table, where photos of his family kept vigil. He heard a knock on the door. A faceless woman in a postwar nurse’s uniform wheeled in a small cart. She left immediately. Kenneth saw his last name on a tag. Something in the cart began to cry. It was a beautiful baby girl. Kenneth teared up. His throat shot up to the top of his mouth. He placed his index finger in the infant’s tiny hand, and the crying stopped. Agatha found him twenty minutes later with a photo of her clutched in his hands. The television was still on.
About the Author: Frankie Sturm’s writing has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, Tweed’s, and other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.