Bigger Catfish to Fry
Tawny hairs dangled from the razor like drips of menace.
“Quit your stalling and your bellyaching, and just do it.”
“Please,” she pleaded. “It just doesn’t seem right.”
“Look at me.” His orange bulk loomed over her. “This is already happening, but there’s that one spot on my back that I can’t reach, so take this razor and shave!”
She twitched her nose in the direction of the kitchen. “I, um, I think I smell noodles boiling.”
He paused, sniffed, glared at her. “Stop trying to distract me with lies about food.”
“How many times do I have to tell you—don’t call me Garf.”
“Sorry,” she mewed.
“How would you like it if I called you Nerm?”
She shrugged amiably. “I wouldn’t mind.”
“You’re impossible, in more ways than one! But I can call someone who is actually obedient.” He turned his soul-patched back on her. “Odie!”
Dr. Tedworth Gribblesby, Endowed Chair of Nutritional Epidemiology in the Gaston Enteriz School of Public Health, rolled back from his desk and sighed. A good day’s work. The refurbished design of his website had just been unveiled. He was especially pleased by the banner at the top—a collection of multi-ethnic, multi-species faces; the beating heart representing both literal, physical life and his own devotion; the succinct and newly impactful summary of the health issues that he studied academically but also tirelessly advocated to any policy official who would listen. Not just thousands of lives in the balance. Not just millions. A billion.
A knock sounded, and Erin Cuddyer presented herself at the door. As usual when crossing this threshold, she took in the far wall—how its expanse was covered with diplomas, certificates, stills of Ted’s appearances on 60 Minutes and other such programs, photos of him smiling and shaking hands with Health Ministers and even a few heads of state. The westerners wore sedate dark suits, whereas the developing countries that had been the recipients of his scholarly beneficence were marked by brightly colored garb, the occasional turban, and other such paraphernalia.
“I was just over in the front office,” she said, “and they told me there was some sort of difficulty with the conference funding. Something about the terms of my contract saying that you needed to approve it, but your sign-off wasn’t in yet. I told them that didn’t make sense, that I had already talked to you about presenting before I even submitted the abstract, but they insisted that I needed to check with you.”
“Why don’t you sit down?”
She did so, and he continued.
“It’s true that we discussed your submission, but that was before the latest round of results. It was a good study, and as you’ll recall, I urged you to start considering what journal to submit it to. But you insisted on these so-called robustness checks, and the new specifications…” He snorted softly. “All I can say is, if you present the new estimates, not just you, but this entire department, will be trotted out by the media as having let ourselves become pawns of the industry.”
“What do you mean—the media? This is an academic study, to be presented at an academic conference.”
“You don’t know these people the way I do. Big Salt is as bad as Big Sugar or Big Tobacco or Big Corn. Or the worst of them all—Big Wheat.”
They faced each other wordlessly for several moments before he spoke again. “I must say, I’m disappointed in how your postdoc is going thus far. We brought you on to continue your previous research agenda.”
She bit back the harshest thought in her mind. She had actually come to work with Benton, and if he hadn’t left all of a sudden, she wouldn’t be stuck with this guy, at least on paper, as her advisor. “But I am continuing it. It’s all been the same epi approach to assessing the effects of sodium intake.”
“Yes, but your previous papers showed that sodium is—to put it scientifically—bad.”
“Right, but sometimes when you study something like sodium, you find that it might have no effect on certain outcomes, or might even be good.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’ll have even less of my attention than usual over the next few weeks, so you’ve got to focus.” He enunciated each of the last three words with aggravating precision, but now he changed his tone. “Remember—” He made a circular motion with his hands. “A billion people.” He touched both index fingers to his chest. “One heart.”
Down the hall and many gnashings of teeth later, Erin dropped into her chair. She swiveled over to her computer and pulled up a browser. Her original intention in going online was forgotten when she spied, at the corner of the university’s starting page, a link featuring a surprising headline from the student newspaper. She clicked on it and read:
Garfield M. Arbuckle, a sophomore in the School of Communication Science and feline companion of local resident Jon, has been suspended from the university. Officials allege that the cat shaved off his fur in a scheme to fraudulently claim eligibility for the Deirdre Donatelli Memorial Scholarship, awarded annually to an enrolled student who is receiving, or has received in the past five years, treatment for cancer. An investigatory panel has been convened, in accordance with university bylaws.
Garfield, who has achieved some degree of fame due to an eponymous cartoon, is widely known for his love of food in general and lasagna in particular. Sources did not have any information on how he planned to reconcile claims of undergoing chemotherapy with his still-portly stature.
Fellow Arbuckle pets Odie and Nermal issued a joint statement expressing hope for a speedy resolution and requesting privacy, at least within the boundaries of their invisible fence, during this difficult time.
Garfield did not return The Masticator’s request for comment.
Erin closed the tab with a sigh. “Great,” she muttered. “Another icon from my ’80s childhood completely tarnished.”
“Talking to yourself again?” She jumped at the sound of Paloma Guzmán Naranjo’s voice. Paloma pushed the door, previously propped a few inches, fully open and entered the office. If Ted was Erin’s advisor according to officialdom, Paloma, an assistant professor over in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was her advisor in reality. Ted’s inviting himself in would have been an intrusion, but Paloma’s was a welcome break. “Hey, so I’ve got good news and bad news.”
Erin assured Paloma she was all ears.
“The good news is that I’ve been asked to present a seminar at Jaudubon College. The bad news is, I’ll be missing lecture on Friday to be there. So I was wondering, could you cover for me?”
“What class is it?”
“Stats 105—which is why I immediately thought of the most talented one-time statistics major I know.”
“I’ve got an offer for you,” Erin said. “I’ll cover this class if you agree to become my new advisor.”
Paloma checked that the door was closed. “We’ve had this conversation before. Your current advisor would take that as a slap in the face, and I’m not at the point in my career when I can afford to get on the bad side of Ted Gribblesby.”
“But he told me I wouldn’t have the privilege of his full attention and oversight for a while. I assume that means he’ll be off in Singapore or Zimbabwe or wherever. Maybe he’ll be too distracted to notice.”
Paloma laughed and said, “Yeah, okay. I can imagine that if he goes off and prevails over, say, Big ZimbabWheat, then he could be magnanimous in victory. In that case, you’d have a deal.”
Erin figured that that was as much chiseling away at Paloma’s resistance as she would get done for now, so she agreed to cover the stats lecture. “At least Ted won’t be here to observe me being a bad influence on the youth.”
An electric razor buzzed a few feet from where Erin sat waiting. If she would be playing professor soon, she figured a haircut was in order. Hers was yet to begin, but styling was in progress in the next chair over.
As she had left campus on her way to the salon, Erin had passed Hal Fumayashi, another of Benton’s castoffs. When she had waved at Hal, he had responded with a circle-then-point gesture that reminded Erin of Ted’s billion-lives-one-heart thing. Erin had never known Hal to be a jokester, but she chuckled at the memory; he was way too technically solid to take seriously their mutual advisor.
“Are you laughing at those pages you’ve got there, hon?” The hairdresser arrived with a black smock that she draped around Erin’s shoulders.
Erin pulled the paperwork under the smock. “No, this stuff is for a project I’m working on, over at the university.” She was following up on some offshoots of her salt study. The most promising new direction—cheese.
When Erin went on to say that her field was nutrition, the stylist’s chattiness went up a notch. “I have the worst allergies—shellfish, nuts. I’ve given up gluten, not only for me but my kids too, because I just know it’s going to be the next thing to kick off a bad allergic reaction.”
“I don’t think that’s how allergies work.”
“That’s exactly what Big Wheat wants you to think.”
“‘Big Wheat’—where did you hear that phrase?” Erin asked.
“Oh, it’s all over Today, Good Morning, America, shows like that.”
The snip of her scissors punctuated the statement and coalesced with the crescendo of buzzing nearby. An ensemble of menace.
Ted Gribblesby was in his office the next day, clearing some space on his desk. The university administration had wanted a prestigious name at the head of the Garfield investigation, so naturally they turned to Ted. These days, the panel’s activities were taking up more and more of his time—not to mention his desk space.
Picking up a stack of papers, he glanced at the schematic diagram that sat atop the pile. The wheat breathalyzer would be a vital innovation, no doubt, but his collaborators from the engineering school would just have to wait. Unless, perhaps, Hal Fumayashi—already on track to be Ted’s star graduate student—could step up his involvement.
There was a knock on the door.
“Professor Gribblesby? Um, hi. Sorry to disturb you.”
He lowered the stack of papers back to the desk. “How may I help you?”
“My name is Kaci, and I’m the student editor at The Masticator.”
“Ah, I see.” His immediate thought was a profile. He could be indulgent with this sweetly naïve youngster, thinking that the university’s own paper belonged in the annals of his media appearances. His mind fast-forwarded to the inspirational quote that would no doubt be sought at the end of the interview. Unconsciously, his hands moved in a circle and then formed a point. A billion people, one heart.
“Anyway, there’s something I need to tell you about the panel you’re chairing.” The young lady was fidgeting. “You see, we’re about to print a retraction of the most recent Garfield story. My co-editor is over at the administration building, telling—”
“You’re notifying the administration over one retraction? I thought there had been several stories?”
“But this was the biggest one. Big enough that there might be ripple effects on your investigation. Like I said, my co-editor is in a meeting with the deans now, and he just texted me to say that at least some of them think the most likely outcome is that you’ll have to de-convene the panel.”
“Wait just a second. We’re not there by a long shot. There’s still the fact that this Garfield shaved himself, that he—.”
“Yeah, one of our staff writers noticed that and also saw him stuffing his face in the dining hall. That’s part of why he was so motivated to write the story. The only problem is that he might have cut a few corners in his reporting.”
Ted squinted at her. He wasn’t sure he believed it. Then again, did disbelief matter? No need to look a potential gift horse in the mouth—especially when he knew that what he’d find there would be lasagna. “No, I don’t buy it. What’s the real reason for this retraction?”
“Who put you up to this? Let me guess…” He began moving around his desk. “Big Wheat?”
“No one put us up to it.”
He reached the door and opened it. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
After her Stats 105 guest lecture, Erin was approached by several students with questions. When she saw how many of them there were, she was glad she hadn’t skipped lunch as usual. Forget carbo-loading for a footrace—here was the real marathon.
One of the students seemed to be hanging back, and when he was the only one remaining, he began by mentioning his interest in the Garfield allegations, and how it had led him down some rabbit holes online. Erin almost chuckled at the mental image of an orangutan—for that’s what the student was—squeezing into a rabbit hole, but she suppressed the urge; she didn’t want to be insensitive.
“One of the things I found was this working paper .” The student held a printout, and Erin could see notes jotted in the margins. “It’s about causes of poor judgment or, uh, actions that show poor judgment. They have data—I think it’s called a time series—”
“The time series shows gluten consumption per capita decreasing and all these bad judgment activities decreasing too, so that’s how they get this massive main estimate.” He blew a wisp of hair out of his face. “But we talked about this thing in Wednesday’s class—causation versus correlation—and I’m thinking maybe they’re saying this is causation when it’s really correlation.”
“You might be right.”
“One thing I wanted to ask, though, is about how they seem to worry about that same thing, so they do these checks where they have, like, prevalence of the South Beach Diet or Atkins Diet or other ‘Small Wheat’—”
A worm of suspicion began wriggling in Erin’s carbohydrate-filled stomach.
“What I was wondering was, does using these other things actually solve the problem?”
“Do you mind if I take a look at that?” Erin half-snatched the printout from the student’s hairy hand and flipped to the front page. It was no surprise to see the name T. Gribblesby, but elsewhere in the list of authors, a fresh shock: H. Fumayashi.
After extracting herself as quickly as possible from the Stats 105 student, Erin hurried back to the public health school, skipping her own office in favor of Hal’s. She wasn’t sure what she expected to hear from him. That his listing as a co-author had been in error? That the paper was a stepping stone to a project of actual scientific integrity—a lose-the-battle-win-the-war type of thing?
She still hadn’t decided, or said much more than hello, when he greeted her eagerly. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I heard that you were making good progress on a lactose analysis.”
Her cheese study? “Yeah, I had some issues with the data, but they seem to have been resolved.”
“Great. I was thinking we could merge our data set with yours. Ted and I have some thoughts about wheat-cheese interaction—that its deleterious impact on judgment may be even worse than wheat’s on its own.” He flicked his hands quickly in front of his chest—circle, then point.
“So that working paper that was just released—it wasn’t some sort of mistake?” Erin asked.
He didn’t seem to notice her question. “If the preliminary results from this extension work out right, then we’ll post them on Ted’s website ASAP. The fact that you’ve already cleaned up the data means we have a much better shot of having a result in time to use in the Garfield case.”
Erin tried to protest that that wasn’t at all what she meant, that she didn’t want any part of this, but Hal’s interpretation of her reaction kept getting farther off the mark.
“Don’t worry, we’ll add you to the list of authors when we eventually get it published. Assuming, that is, we manage to nail Big Cheese.”
Paloma was back on campus, and her first order of business would be to follow up on the many e-mails and phone calls she’d exchanged with Erin Cuddyer during her absence. Paloma had heard all the concerns before, but never with the same urgency, and not mixed in with ravings about malnourished salon worker families and the downfall of some guy named Hal. She was eager to reach her office as quickly as possible.
However, there was some sort of protest rally being held in the quad. Hand-painted signs touted slogans such as HERBIVORE RIGHTS, INTEGRITY ≠ INTERROGATION, and SAVE THE GRILLING FOR EGGPLANT. Volunteers passed out vegetarian starter kits. A model airplane buzzed, over to Paloma’s right. Something was painted on it that looked vaguely like the school mascot. As it swooped in for a faux attack, she noticed its opponent was Garfield himself. In addition to the stubble of fur, he sported aviator goggles and a crimson scarf draped dashingly about his neck. A cheer went up as he fended off a volley.
Paloma tilted her head quizzically. “I thought it was Snoopy who imagined himself as the Red Baron.”
A microphone feedbacked shrilly, and two students—one in a PETA shirt, one dreadlocked—took turns addressing the crowd.
“Are we gonna stand for this university administration telling us that a student is a second-class citizen just because he’s a cat?”
“No, no, no,” roared the crowd.
“Are we gonna stand for their refusal to immediately cease investigating allegations that are clearly false?”
“Are we gonna play dumb about the panel chair’s abuse of power?”
“Are we gonna let earning a B.S. be an exercise in b.s.?”
“No, no, no!”
Once again, Erin was facing the multitude of Tedworth faces, one in person and many framed on the wall. Her glance lingered a moment on a photo of him bestride a camel. She felt for the animal. Had there been a last straw to break its back—presumably a straw of wheat or even, perhaps, of cheese?
“I’m here to tell you that I’m transferring my postdoc over to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.”
“I beg your pardon?” He was paying attention now. “Hold on. Let me show you something.” He turned his computer screen so Erin could see it, called up his C.V., and scrolled through the lengthy publication list. “Chew on that, Cuddyer. I know editors at journal after journal, and founded one myself of course, but I can only use these things to help you if you stay here. No one in Liberal Arts has a C.V. this long. Believe me—I’ve looked.”
Ted’s mind raced. If Erin transferred, she would almost certainly take her cheese data with her. Although the wheat-cheese interaction analysis was a bit of a tangent, never the main priority, it was still a blow to face giving up on it.
“My goals are, I guess, in a different direction,” Erin said.
“I can’t hear that without worrying about you.”
“I’m sure it’ll pass.”
“Please don’t try to dodge. An error in judgment of this magnitude is very serious.” He glanced again at his C.V. “What’s your gluten intake been recently?”
All the paperwork was complete, all the details were in the system, and Erin was in Paloma’s office, celebrating her official transfer. New school, new department, new advisor.
“Ted said some crazy things the last time I talked to him.”
“Crazier than that crazy-man beard he has in those pictures so conveniently provided on his beloved website?” Paloma asked. In this case, it was the lack of a razor that was the menace.
“I was seriously tempted to go all stats major on him,” Erin said. “Offer up a few reminders about causation versus correlation, not cherry-picking results, the chronology of hypothesis testing — but when I don’t respect someone, I just can’t feel like it’s worth it.”
“Maybe it’s best for both of us that you didn’t get on his bad side any more than you did. Don’t underestimate the power of Ted Gribblesby.”
A high stage had been set up in the quad. Garfield was there, but his Red Baron costume had been replaced by a funeral black suit. Several university officials milled around for a few minutes, Ted among them, before most sat down and one approached the microphone to call the crowd to attention.
“We know there has been substantial interest in our university community surrounding the allegations and investigation related to potentially fraudulent activity for the Donatelli scholarship. The official panel has reached a conclusion, and it is the intention of the student at the center of the situation to address what has unfolded. It is my understanding that he will be delivering a prepared statement.”
He stepped back toward his chair, and Garfield stood up. Ted stood as well, and kept his hand on Garfield’s shoulder as he stepped to the microphone. He lowered his hand, but did not step away, as the cat spoke.
“Fellow students, faculty members, administrators, and all friends of the university—today I offer a confession. The allegation, that I shaved my fur in an attempt to defraud a scholarship intended for students with cancer, is accurate.”
A murmur arose in the crowd, and Garfield paused until it faded somewhat.
“I offer my sincere apologies for this entirely unacceptable behavior. Although nothing can excuse my actions, it may be possible to explain them. As you can see, I am a feline, and with the exception of occasional grass consumption for the sake of aiding gastrointestinal distress, I am and should be a carnivore. I deviated from my true nature, and I firmly believe the overconsumption of carbohydrates and wheat gluten had a detrimental impact on my critical thinking skills. From now on, I am committing to dietary changes that I hope will nourish both body and brain. Although biochemistries differ across species, I believe there is a lesson in my story for humans, who still make up the overwhelming majority of the university community.
“Thank you for your attention.”
In the first few rows of seats, Masticator reporters scribbled notes. Nearby, Paloma nudged Erin with her elbow. From throughout the audience, there arose anxious mutterings both human and non-human.
Garfield stepped away from the microphone, and everyone on stage who had been sitting now stood. Ted handed each of them a packet, and they broke the seals, reached in, and began tossing the contents in the air. Several bright flashes flitted around the stage as songbirds were drawn by the seed. Garfield made a little leap and turned back to the crowd, pulling back his lips to reveal a yellow canary fluttering in his mouth and pulsing slightly.
Erin leaned toward Paloma, her hands making a circle and then a point. She whispered, “A billion bits of seed, one terrified heart?”
Up on stage, the feline eyes turned to Ted, who nodded just perceptibly. With a gulp, a lump slid down the stubbly orange throat.
Garfield swallowed the canary. Tedworth Gribblesby grinned.
Mae Ashley is a former Midwesterner, now based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Charleston Anvil and Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and the further adventures of Professor Tedworth Gribblesby are forthcoming in Potato Soup Journal.