Josh stood in the lab at Wright State University with the culmination of several years of research nestled in his right hand. The contents of the Petri dish burgeoned with the replicating bacteria Salmonella serotype Paratyphi B. These Salmonella cells had been altered to excrete a unique enzyme, named Composter by his fellow lab workers. If the professor reached success with this experiment, the Composter exuding cells would help wipe out entire landfills. This would be one of the largest ecological advances of our time.
Josh dialed Dad from the landline. He wanted to please his father, but he hoped Dad was right. They wouldn’t go to jail.
“We finally did it,” Josh said looking from side to side. At nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, Josh worked alone, as planned. Unaccompanied, he was in charge of testing their ability to replicate. But a handful of people had access to this particular lab. If he were going to help his father fell a giant company, he had to go soon.
“It worked?” Dad asked. Josh could hear the excitement in the tremor of his voice.
“Yeah. Just like you thought, they weren’t surviving because they needed more complex nutrients. I brought in some grain.” He smelled the earthiness of the wheat from the open plastic bag. With shaking hands Josh said, “Hold on.”
The bacterium was dangerous; it could cause Typhoid fever. As soon as he placed a few grains in the Petri dish, the Composter enzyme digested the wheat. Its appetite was hardy. Josh could hear Dad calling from the receiver he’d laid by the test tubes.
With his left wrist, he adjusted the disposable mask he wore, and then picked up the receiver. Dad was still talking. “Careful. They’re dangerous, you know,” he said, using his coaches’ voice.
Josh knew. “Dad, I’m not sure we should do this.” Inside his hiking boots, Josh’s feet felt like lead, heavy and weak. His feet seemed to vote, “No, don’t go.”
“Josh, son,” his dad said evenly. “I know about professor’s intended use, but our need for the bacterium is more immediate.”
“Dad, it’s stealing, and what if we spread Typhoid fever? We’ll get caught if they don’t eat fast enough. They might infect the f—”
“You’ll do as we planned, won’t you, son? You’ll help me? I know people think I’m just a blue collar nobody. It’s why I have access. Keep feeding them. See you in two hours.” Josh heard the phone click.
Josh carefully swiped the Petri dish with a Q-tip, and checked for a bacterium presence on the cotton under the microscope. Pulling another Petri dish from a drawer, he added grain and the Q-tip to the dish, and placed it in the refrigerator. The Salmonella could survive in the cold; it could decompose waste during the greatest part of the year in Ohio. Salmonella had been chosen for its hardiness.
Wiping perspiration from his brow, Josh thought of his friend, Brad, the senior lab assistant. Josh thought—No one wanted this break-through more than Brad, the patient friend who would be named in the research. He’d put up with the grouchy old professor for years, hoping for this moment.
He sent Brad a text: I left grain in the fridge. Hurry before someone takes it.
Josh had told Brad he’d credit Brad for any success. Brad would realize the bacterium needed immediate nutrients, and he wanted praise for this discovery more than life itself. Josh knew what Brad would do.
Josh headed toward the car. He pulled to the side of the road several times. Each time he checked the seat next to him, and every time, the grain in the original Petri dish had been decomposed. Success never presented more ethical concerns. Not since the atomic bomb, he thought.
At home, Dad met him in the rear drive. Father and son said nothing to one another until they had trudged through the kitchen and downstairs into the basement.
Dad sat at his desk. “How many pieces of grain have they decomposed in two hours?” he asked.
“A 2 pound bag,” Josh answered.
“Wow. Fantastic,” Dad murmured as he tapped numbers out on the old adding machine. “Tomorrow. It’ll be enough by tomorrow.”
“You’re sure?” Josh asked. “Should we refrigerate them?”
“The Typhoid buggers thrive in cooler temperatures.”
Josh flinched at the word “Typhoid.”
“You know how many microscopic organisms fit in a Petri dish, Josh. You know a teaspoon of typical garden soil holds 100 million to 1 billion bacteria. Under our feet, a galaxy exists, and we are gods.” Dad took more dishes out of his desk drawer, and stacked them around like a little city under his command. “Everything is perfect, even tomorrow’s weather. They decided to replicate at the perfect time. The universe pushes us forward.”
Dad chuckled, and Josh’s feet burned inside his socks, desiring to be back in school.
The next day Josh listened to his dad follow his morning routine. The old man sang in the shower, and Josh heard the buzz of the electric razor. During breakfast, Josh inhaled the scents of Old Spice along with bacon and eggs. His father sported coveralls with “Howard” embroidered on his name tag. Only one thing seemed to have changed since Josh’s childhood. On the sleeve of his dad’s uniform, the embroidery thread heralded, “Desanto, the grain of the future.”
Dad ate breakfast with a grin on his face and said, “Today we send a message. Food shouldn’t be trademarked and monopolized for their profit. You are what you eat, so be careful what they feed you.”
Josh nodded good-bye to his father. He spent the rest of the day glued to the television in the kitchen. Toward evening, the CNN reporters focused on Josh’s item of interest. At Wright State, Brad looked baffled as the authorities led him away in handcuffs. Josh knew his friend would be absolved, but hopefully not at his or his father’s expense.
In an interview at the university, and obviously unaware of Brad’s arrest, the professor told reporters he realized the bacteria needed to be fed right away. Josh had to smile, watching the professor enjoy the media blitz. He was soon to be dubbed Dr. Plantenstein. As if the cameramen knew someone approached, the cameras focused on the door of the meeting room. Four Dayton policemen approached and read the professor his rights. The officers’ countenance all shone with pride at their staged bust.
Watching the gotcha attitude of the policemen and reporters, Josh reflected on his dad’s words. Most people want to be seen as a hero at least once in a lifetime. Real heroes know they must hide their actions, hoping for another opportunity.
To explain the arrests, the second breaking news story told of the entire shipment of genetically modified alfalfa—several truckloads headed different directions all across the country— and how it seemed to literally degrade in transit. Numerous farmers stood with useless stacks of pesticides, good for one thing—to work in conjunction with the Desanto alfalfa. Across the country, the seedless men ranted about lawsuits they’d leverage against Desanto.
Josh heard his father enter the house through a door leading to the basement.
Josh thought—The farmers should have known someone wouldn’t allow viable genetically modified seeds to be delivered. If the farmers had grown the seed, the genetically modified seed would have cross-bred with the natural grain, forever wiping out natural alfalfa. They should have known someone couldn’t let that happen.
In the rear drive off the alley, Josh heard the screech of brakes. Through the glass-paned kitchen door, Josh could see uniformed police officers hurry from cars as another black van parked across the side street. The authorities had made the connection just like father and son suspected they would.
“They’re here,” Josh yelled into the basement, a little too excited, a little too loud.
“Okay. Remain calm,” Dad said, again smelling freshly showered, heavy on the Old Spice. They both stood by the kitchen island, and watched the officers talk to the FBI agents, both sides taking sporadic breaks to report into radios.
Dad asked, “You remember our story?”
“Yes,” Josh answered, but he wanted to say it aloud again, like he had practiced it in front of the mirror. “Yesterday morning, I awoke early, and went to the Community Food Organization to help grind the corn for the farmers to take to the market. By 9:00, I went to the lab to take the strain of bacteria out of the incubator. I had a plastic baggie of cracked wheat from the community folks. They pay me in food.
The bag broke open while I was working with the bacteria. Grain fell into dish #1, but I didn’t want to admit it. The professor did not stand for deviations in his experiments from mere students, no matter what the outcome. I fished out the grain that fell in the dish with a Q-tip, and put it in another dish in my pants pocket.
I looked under the microscope at the original Petri dish I intended to leave behind, and I recognized the Salmonella was replicating for the first time, forming a cell line. Realizing introduction of the organic material may have caused a reaction; I sent a text to Brad, the professor’s right-hand man. He would find and cover my mistake, and if the outcome were positive, the professor would be pleased with him. I closed the original Petri dish in the refrigerator, and left.
Shaken, I drove home without packing an overnight bag. I didn’t tell Dad what had happened, and after I showered last night he gave me one of his work uniforms. I put the Petri dish with the grain in the uniform pocket. Before bed, I realized Petri dish had come open in the same pocket as the broken grain bag. I notice some of the grain was missing, but I thought it had fallen between the sofa cushions.
This morning when I woke up, Dad had left a note with my washed clothes at the end of my bed. The note said he needed his uniform for work today. He wore the Salmonella infected uniform to the loading dock on the very day they were loading the genetically modified alfalfa for the entire country.”
“They’re knocking, and I need to let them in,” Dad said.
Dad stood where they could see him and smiled an easy smile. “In the dryer. No evidence one way or the other. Our story can’t be proven or disproven.”
“No chance of Typhoid fever,” Josh added. “It wasn’t spread in the fields.”
“No growing concern; now, we just need to grow natural food.” Dad said.