In retrospect, the conversation should have lasted longer. Like previous mass extinctions, this one
would not be given a lot of forethought. Maybe it would be like the demise of the passenger
pigeon. When seemingly endless flocks darkened North American skies, did anyone foresee
hunting and deforestation would deal a fatal blow to an entire species? Perhaps the thought did
occur on the 1ˢᵗ of September in 1914, when the last one died at a zoo in Cincinnati.
Money talks and apparently spoke volumes to British settlers on the island of Tasmania. They placed a handsome bounty on strange creatures sporting huge, powerful jaws and dark stripes along their backs. About the size of a large dog, they were an improbable mix of carnivore and marsupial and bore no
relation to actual tigers. On September 7ᵗʰ, 1936, the last known Tasmanian tiger died in a
concrete cage at the Hobart Zoo.
The dodo should have been a foregone conclusion. Slow, plodding and fatalistically naïve, the fifty-pound flightless birds fell victim to the palates of Dutch sailors, prison convicts and the predators they brought with them to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. No one knows who or what killed the last one in 1681. Maybe it also happened in September.
It was fitting the events to set this extinction in motion occurred on the eleventh day of the
month nestled snugly between August and October.
“You have five minutes.” The old man rose slowly from behind the massive cherry desk and steadied
himself with one hand to confirm his balance and slowly began pacing the length of the room. The
cheap cell in his other hand cut in and out.
"Like I was saying, this was an accident. One your daughter may have anticipated but failed to
share. I’m in town and we need to meet.”
“We did meet. Many times, in fact.” He stopped at the ornate sideboard, his gnarled fingers
absently lifting the top from a crystal decanter and twirling it. The colors glinted, refracting
the afternoon sun into a kaleidoscope along the silver tray. Probably too early in the day for
Macallan single malt. “That was years ago. You were allocated ample funds and more than sufficient
time. You came up empty. You told me yourself the project was a failure. Your words, not mine.” He
replaced the stopper, allowing the 40-year-old scotch to continue aging.
“That was before we knew what we had. We needed more time.”
“Time is the one thing I don’t have. That, and additional money, for you. I assume that’s the
reason you’re calling? My term is up next year and I’m not likely to return. Or don’t you watch the
“I suppose Twitter doesn’t count?”
“Here it is, in a nutshell.”
“The idioms cost you time. Three and half.” The pacing was making him weary and he was running out of breath. He perched his bony hips on the side of the desk, facing the window. Owing to the dark ruby walls, the room was oppressive, even on this bright afternoon. The décor spoke old world
aesthetics and money. The only item seemingly out of place was mounted in a plain metal frame. If one looked closely at the border, the dull green background morphed into an aerial photo of a grassy field. A wrinkled piece of note paper was flattened beneath the glass. It had yellowed unevenly with age and one corner was tarnished with smeared fingerprints. The handwriting was in blue ink. Large, loopy and girlish: Sept. 11, Newark—United 91. Departs 9 a.m. Tuesday—Don’t forget!!
9 a.m. was underlined, twice, and Tuesday was both circled and underlined. As if the author did not
trust the reader to recall details. At this moment, the old man’s eyes were drawn to the note. He
could only look for seconds before he closed his eyes and looked away. As if either action, by
itself, was insufficient to block the image from his mind. No matter. Every word, every crease,
every particle of debris had long ago burned into his brain like a fresh brand smoking off cowhide.
He drew himself back to the present. “What’s changed?”
“Something we didn’t expect is happening.”
“You told me the experiment was a failure. Do I need to remind you what it cost me?”
“No, sir, you don’t.”
“You’re wasting my time. You’ve already wasted my money and your pet project may ultimately cost me my office.”
“Funny you should mention pets. Do you have one?"
“I do not. But I do have a hearing to attend.”
“I have three more minutes. Indulge me.”
“You’ve heard of penicillin?”
“It’s been done. Move on.”
“Yes, but do you know how it was discovered?”
“Certainly, moldy bread.” The conversation was causing him as much fatigue as his effort to remain
upright. He gave up and slid back to his leather desk chair. “Any student who passed biology knows
that. And, yes, I know that is not what the scientist was looking for.”
“The guy who discovered penicillin. He wasn’t too uptight about sterile technique and all those
pesky OSHA regs. He was in the middle of doing an experiment, took a two-week vacation and, viola’,
penicillin. Lucky bastard.”
The senator sighed. “Why are you using your limited time to give me a history lesson?”
“He did get knighted by the king. That’s noteworthy.”
“Truly, I don’t have time for this.”
“One more, no, two more questions. Ever heard of Revatio?”
“No, but may I assume he or she is Italian?” the senator asked, not caring about the reply.
“Not a who. A what.”
“I have not.”
“But you’ve heard of Viagra?”
“Yes, and may I conclude that this is why you are dicking around with me?” said the senator,
pulling up his cuff to expose the Roman numerals on his Cartier Tank Anglaise. He tried to
follow the annoying recommendation of his oncologist. Deep breaths, she’d told him. Hard to fathom
why such ineffectual advice required all those years of costly higher education.
“Good one. But, no. Revatio and Viagra are the same thing. Pfizer came up with this drug for
pulmonary arterial hypertension, which turned out to be only marginally effective. It wasn’t long
before new and better stuff came along for the same condition. But, when doctors told their
patients they were going to take them off Revatio to put them on this better medication, these
middle-aged fat guys not only said no, but Hell, no. Took a bit of prodding, but they soon fessed
up the reason for their resistance. It was like an underground Me Too movement.”
“Again, your point would be?”
“You, Senator, can consider yourself on par with Fleming and the guys at Pfizer who rebranded a
mediocre heart drug into a product worth billions.”
“I’ll put you through to my intern. She will set up a time.”
“That won’t work. I’m on the redline now. Get on at Judiciary Square and get off at the next stop,
Gallery Plaza. I’ll find you.”
“Ride the Metrorail? Are you serious?”
“Do you want us to be seen together? We’ll transfer to the yellowline, in case someone sees me on
the red and gets suspicious. We’ll ride the blue out to Eisenhower Avenue. We’ll find an empty
The old man was tired, too tired to fight. He cleared his throat but couldn’t find the energy to refuse.
“I don’t mean to be a bother. There are others I can contact, if you prefer.”
“I’ll be there. This better be worth my time.”
“You have no idea.”