Saturday, June 01, 2013

The River of Recurrent Shame

I learned how to milk a virtual cow from a very young age.

There was an exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo that I used to frequent on field trips, across from the pettable beast pen, tucked away in a foul-smelling, unpasteurized little nook they called Dairy World. The only real reason for visiting Dairy World if you were a kid was this kind of prosthetic cow that resided there. You could always pop in and find the cow unattended - it was by far the lamest object in the zoo - and its udder compartment was usually full. You'd yank on the udders and a funky liquid that wasn't quite water but certainly wasn't milk would come spurting out, sometimes into the aluminum bucket provided, but more often than not all over the one kid in class who was even dorkier than you.

The problem with Georgian cows is that many of them happen to be alive, so they move around and stuff, and their udders aren't plastic and sanitized on a bimonthly basis, but are in fact made of flesh, are rather oddly shaped and floppy and slippery and bulbous and tumescent, among many other disgusting-sounding descriptors. Georgian cows tend to be particular about who is milking them, especially when your milking technique is something you've only ever practiced on yourself and a virtual cow somewhere in Omaha, Nebraska. Nothing in my years of training could have prepared me for the real thing. During my tenure as host son, I only milked the host cow once, and having milked everything there was to milk out of the experience, once was plenty enough for me.

It was part of my host mom's last-ditch propaganda campaign to keep me in the family. I'd kept deliberately mum to mom about my plans because I secretly wanted to put myself up for host adoption, to see another side of Georgia, to bear witness to another version of host familial dysfunction. But my host mom wanted to own me for another semester, another year, probably for the rest of my natural life. So, at her behest, the whole village was coming together to show me all the authentic, down-home, rural-type experiences that I could get in Jgali but nowhere else in Georgia, and certainly nowhere in the more civilized world. Milking Jurga, the family cow, was first on the bucket list. So to speak.

The extended host family had come out to watch. I plopped down on a stool and fumbled around Jurga's undercarriage. Her tail started swishing around, symptomatic of bovine anxiety disorder. She groaned and stomped a hoof. She mooed a deranged Transcaucasian moo. Panicking, I grabbed onto the nearest flap of flesh I could find and yanked. Nothing came out.

"She's not working," I said.
"You're pulling the wrong thing."
"Jesus," I said to myself in English, "how many things can there be?"
I brailled my way to another flap of flesh and started yanking anew.
"Nothing's happening," I said.
"You've got to pull very hard," said my host mom.
"I don't want to hurt Jurga."
"You can't hurt Jurga."

Yank and yank as I might, I came to the conclusion that Jurga was all tapped out for the day. I shrugged and threw up my hands. My host mom booted me out of the way and went to work. Torrents of milk blistered the inside of the bucket.

"See? Like that."
I scooted back in.
"Like this?"
"... no, not like that."

After dinner, I came down with strep throat and was laid up in bed for the rest of the week. My host mom made me wear a a damp hunk of cloth around my neck. By the end of the week, I still had strep throat and I also had a big red rash around my neck. I kept getting worse until I got better.

The twilight of summer. Time to brace ourselves for winter. I came home one evening and found the neighbor dude, Ruslani, chopping wood in the front lawn. He called me over.

"Gaumarjos Kitis," he said. "You want to put in some work?"

He handed me a cigarette. I thanked him and lit the cigarette and smoked it as I did some back stretches.  Then I lined myself up, raised the ax, and brought it down upon the log. Clunk. The log bounced off the chopping block and went rolling down the sidewalk.

"No," said Ruslani. "Not like that. Like this."

Effortlessly, he split a log in two and handed me back the ax.

"Like this?" I said.
Clunk. Roll, roll, roll.
"... no, not like that."

My host family's primary export was hazelnuts. Harvesting hazelnuts was a job a six-year-old could do, so it was also a job I could do. It involved grabbing a hazelnut tree by the neck and throttling it until nuts came raining down, then finger-skinning the nuts one by one and popping them into a bucket. I'd challenge my host brother to hazelnut harvesting competitions and he'd always kick my ass by a couple of buckets or so. But it was a job I could do.

There were weird little translucent spiders that lived in the hazelnut skins. They'd fly into a panic upon being outed and vanish imperceptibly into your pants. You'd wake up in the middle of the night itching all over, creepy bumps on your thighs.

We worked all summer long. By the end of the summer, I'd scratched my body raw, but we'd filled the entire guest room full of hazelnuts, a hundred kilos of the damned things piled across the floor.

"We're going to be rich," I said to my host mom.
"Twenty tetri a kilo," she nodded.
"Why that's ... twenty lari," I said. "Why that's ... twelve bucks."

One evening, my host mom knocked on my door and told me that we were going somewhere. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. We walked down the path between the hazelnut trees, past Jurga's barn and her thirty-foot leaning tower of shit, kept going until we'd reached the fence at the end of our backyard. My host mom opened the gate and we clambered down a steep hill. And there - still, I suppose, technically in our backyard - was a river.

"This is ours," she said.
"If you stay with us, you can swim here every day."
"Every day?"
"Until it gets cold. Then you can't swim anymore."
"Sounds good."
"All of this is ours," she said, sweeping her hand over the water.
"All of it?"
"All of it."
"So you will stay?"
"Maybe," I said.
"That's a yes, right?"
"That's a maybe."

It was a very Lion King moment. Everything the light touches, Simba, and so on.

"I'm so happy that you're going to stay," she said. "I hope you like swimming."
"Are you kidding? Who doesn't love swimming?"

I'd never learned how to swim. I've never once swum in my life.

It's not that I'm afraid of the water, more that I do not trust it. I feel the same way about water that I do about flying, or joining the military, or joining a cult, or getting a desk job, or going to church, or ingesting anonymous drugs handed to me by strangers at a Flaming Lips show. I suppose it's the thought of giving myself over to something so vast and powerful and beyond my control, something so potentially lethal or mind-destroying or just plain time-consuming and dull that frightens me, moreso than any specific fear of water per se.

Or perhaps it is something about the water, after all. I have buoyancy issues. The first step towards swimming is floating, or so I've been told, and I have never, ever - not even for an instant - been able to float. I have always sunk to the bottom of everything: of the pool, of the sea, of the hottub, of the bathtub. I am genuinely perplexed whenever I find myself sitting on the periphery of water - on the beach, on the dock of the bay, on a lawnchair sufficiently far removed from the Comfort Inn pool - and watching other human beings of all shapes and sizes gallivant around in the water like a pride of sea lions, so effortlessly that it's like breathing to them. I can't do that. I know full well from experience that, even with little orange inflatable floaties strapped to all four limbs, I'd be receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in no time. I don't know how people do it. Float.

In 7th grade, I remember how horrified I was to discover that there was a mandatory swimming component to my P.E. class. I tried to get out of it, citing the heart murmur that I no longer had, the one that had gotten me out of weightlifting. No such luck. Instead, while the rest of the kids swam laps, I ran them: I jogged through the water from one end of the pool to the other, which isn't as easy as it sounds. A "safety buddy" was appointed to swim alongside me and watch me run, to make sure I didn't drown in the shallow end of the pool, while all the other kids hung out at the deep end. Naturally, this did wonders for my popularity. And I was already ever-so-popular in 7th grade.

I don't know. Perhaps it does have something to do with fear, after all. Once upon a time, I very nearly drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. I must have been four or five years old, still a plump little butterbean, and like Melville, my hypos got the best of me and I decided that I'd see a little bit of the watery part of the world. I was not aware at that age of the phenomenon they call the undertow, and within seconds I had completely vanished. My parents - because they were and are good ones, after all - noticed immediately that I was gone. They were and are also very smart parents, well-versed in the classics, and they used Archimedes' principle to deduce - from the heaving waves that came rolling in after my fat ass had plummeted to the bottom of the sea - that I was buried somewhere in the Atlantic, probably drowning. My dad sifted through sea anemones and jellyfishes, discarded bags of Utz® brand crab cakes and crushed cans of Schlitz®, until he finally grabbed hold of a fat little cankle. He snatched me up "like a lobster" (his words) and smacked me instinctively across the ass - and so my ass was saved for the time being, one of many such fortunate little twists of fate that have conspired to keep me alive long enough to write the words I am currently writing. 

All of this is to say that, while it wasn't such a bad thing to discover a river in my own backyard, it certainly wasn't much of a selling point, either.

Ours was not a mighty river, but it was very easy on the eyes, beached as it was with the smooth, white stones peculiar to our part of Georgia. The water was pure and clear and full of fish. Our little elbow of the river was especially tame, tailor-made for human frolicking, with craggy outcroppings of sedimentary rock that served nicely as diving boards, and natural whirlpools that, I imagined, would be quite fun to wade around in with one's best girl. Strung across the river was the ricketiest footbridge I have ever seen in my life - built, perhaps, by the set designers of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom - a bridge that farmers and their cattle often used in their daily commute. In idle moments, I wondered what it was like to be crushed by a cow.

One hot afternoon, my host dad, host brother, and I went down to the river. It was crowded. We removed our shirts. I was pleasantly reminded of how skinny I had become. Those nearby laughed at how pale I was. My host brother kicked off his shoes and scaled up the nearest crag. He stood there, twenty feet up, nervously sucking in his breath. He glanced at me for reassurance and I gave him the double thumbs-up. He plugged his nose and dove. He splashed into the water and came up a few seconds later, giggling. He invited me to dive in, too. I quickly lit a cigarette and, smoking my cigarette, gestured that I was smoking a cigarette. He shrugged and swam over to meet his friends. 

Dato, my host dad, possessed a weird kind of aquatic grace. He raised one arm and rolled his portly little body into the river, swimming against the current with long, slow strokes. I found a nearby rock with a built-in ass groove and sat there at edge of the river and smoked. I knew that I would be outed soon enough.

The pretty girls from down the way swam over to flirt with me. I smiled and chatted with them without quite flirting back, because I never flirted back, because I was terrified of being tied down to the village forever. They invited me to come swim with them. I gestured at the cigarette, which had already extinguished itself by then. One of the girls plucked the cigarette away from me and flicked it across the rocks. Come swim, she said. I don't know how, I murmured.

"You don't know how to swim?" Disbelief. "Why?"
"Because," I said, "I am a moron."

This set them to giggling, but it wasn't the right sort of giggling. It was as though I had cuckolded myself somehow. They swam to the opposite side of the river, and before long, everyone in the village knew: the foreigner didn't know how to swim.

It was all Dato could do to get me into the water.

"Come in," he said. "I'll teach you!"
"I'm really bad," I said. "Really, very bad."
"It doesn't matter. I'll teach you!"

If there was anyone in the village I trusted, it was Dato. So I dipped my toes into the water, then tottered unevenly across the rocks at the bottom of the river, slipping every so often and splashing down on my ass, shuddering at how cold it was, already disturbed at the swallowing capacity of two feet of water.

"Come out here," called Dato. "It's not deep."

Depth is a very relative thing. There are people who think Dan Brown is deep. When it comes to water, I'm one of those people. I'm a little under six feet tall, so it stands to reason that it would take some effort for me to drown myself in the four feet of water I was stumble-wading my way into, but I knew myself well enough to know that it might not take any effort at all.

Dato explained that the first thing I had to do was float. And that is how I learned the Georgian word for float. Learning a verb, however, is not the same thing as knowing how to perform the action. I knew lots of Georgian verbs by then, and I wasn't very good at any of them: to milk a cow, to chop wood, to flirt ...

Already shaking, I summoned something like courage and allowed my feet to lose contact with the rocks beneath me. I began to sink. I panicked. I slipped my way back up to verticality. Dato laughed, but not cruelly. I tried again, and again, and again, and eventually, I did manage (by flailing all four limbs) to suspend myself midstream, with my head above water.

"Good," said Dato. "Very good. Now you have to stick your face underwater. Like this."

He plunged to the bottom and stayed there for several seconds, then bubbled back up to the surface. It looked easy enough. And it was.

But it was not. Not for me.

It was the strangest sensation I'd felt in a long time. I stared at the thin skin of the water, one foot under my nose, the tiny layer of atoms that divided water from air, and I knew that it was the easiest thing in the world to cross that barrier. But I could not do it. Physically. I could not bring myself to let go. I dipped slowly downward and my nostrils filled with water. I came back up coughing.

"It's water," said Dato. "You can't breathe down there."
"I know," I said. "Wait a minute. I've got this."

I plugged my nose and dipped. And this time, I somehow gulped the water into my mouth. I came back up and coughed violently and felt like crying.

"Try it like this," said Dato, slowing things down, showing me step by step.
"Like this?" I said, when he'd come back up.
I sunk below for a millisecond, came up hacking, very nearly puked.
"No," he said, "... not like that."

I made my way over to the grassy bank at the other side of the river and I held onto the weeds behind my back while I half-floated in the water. This, I realized, was as far as I was going to get with my life aquatic. A small grey fish flitted over and started eating the gunk between my toes. I'd paid twenty bucks for a cleaning fish pedicure, once upon a time in North Korea. True story.

I took no more swimming lessons after that. The men in my host family gave up on me, and I was relieved that they did. I often went down to the river and sat in three feet of water, wore my faux-Dylan shades and smoked cigarettes and let the fish clean my feet. But I did not swim.

One day, my host brother took me crab hunting. This, I thought, was something I could do, and something I would enjoy doing. Hunting. Killing. Cracking the hard outer shell of nature and feasting upon the meat. Like a man. We set off one evening in our flip-flops with a couple of white PVC buckets.

But when we found where they were hiding - under some muddy rocks along the shore of somebody else's creek - and it came time to kill them, I couldn't do that, either.

"What do we do?" I asked my host brother.
"Crush them with a rock!"
"Like this?" I said, and took aim with a pebble, hoping to snipe one from afar.
"No," he said, shaking his head, "not like that! Like this!"
He handed me a boulder and gestured for me to bring it down with all my might upon a single-parent crab family of five.
But I couldn't.

My host brother shook his head. Of all the embarrassing things I'd never been able to do, this was by far the most despicable. It put him in a foul mood, and he no longer cared about crab hunting. He picked one of the crabs up and it pinched him on the palm, so he chucked it into a bush and we went home with two empty PVC buckets between us.

One afternoon I woke up and wandered out to the living room and saw that nobody was home. I checked all the rooms of the house to make sure, then I went out to the backyard and snooped around: everyone was gone. Unprecedented. I popped over to Ruslani's house and asked him what the hell was going on.

"Your family is in Sachino for two days," he said.
"Two days?" I pondered.

I went back up to my room and removed my shirt and my pants. In my boxers, then, I went to the living room and locked the door, just in case. Then I cracked open the fridge to see what could be eaten. Somebody had bought a bunch of eggs. They'd been holding out on me. I hadn't had eggs in months. I cracked a couple in a pan and fried them sunny side up. When they were gone, I threw in four more and scrambled them. I sat around in my underwear watching Al-Jazeera, getting up every other Syrian bombing or so to fry up some more eggs. By mid-afternoon, I had devoured a full dozen. Cool Hand Keith.

Later on, I swiped a bunch of music from my computer, went back to the living room and pumped it up on the stereo. I sat there smoking cigarettes and drinking Nescafé and drumming on the bulge of my belly, feeling like the Lord of All Creation. It was the happiest I'd been in months. As evening came on, there was a knock on the living room door.

It was Dato.

"Gaumarjos Kitis," he said. Long live Keith.
"Gaumarjos," I said, shielding my bosom. "Aüüüfgh! It's hot today!"
"Yes," said Dato, not letting on that anything was out of the ordinary. "Very hot."

I went to my room and put on some clothes. I decided to lay low for a while, read a book. Then there was a knock at my bedroom door.

"Kiti," whispered Dato, "come out to the living room when you get a chance. It's important."

He was sitting at the table with a two-liter Pepsi bottle filled to the top with an ominously clear liquid.

"Do you want to drink with me?"
"Sure," I said.
"They are coming back tomorrow," he said, and I nodded.
"You can't tell my wife," he said. "I will get in trouble if I make you drink."
"I won't tell anyone."
I sat down. He poured me a shot, then poured himself one.
"Do you want to invite Hooha over?" I asked.
"No," said Dato, shaking his head, "because Hooha will talk."

We drank our first shot to family, the second one to friendship, the third one to women, and I lost track of all the ones after that.

Dato was never one to get sloppy and loose-lipped while drunk, and he was almost always drunk. So I was surprised, round about dusk, when a wistful crinkle formed under his eyes, adding a tinge of melancholy to his customarily impish grin, and he glanced around the living room and said, in a low voice, "I built all of this."

I took in the room, trying to see it the way I'd seen it the first time.

"All of it?"
"Everything," he said. "The floor, the ceiling, the walls. I put the tiles on the walls. I built the table we're drinking at and the chairs we're sitting on. I built this house."
"You're very talented," I said, lacking the vocabulary to say anything more meaningful.
"I built the whole thing with my hands. I built the bathroom. It's a very nice bathroom, I think."
I nodded. It was a nice bathroom, the kind of place you'd be happy to defecate in, even in the West.
"I did the plumbing, the electricity, the lighting," he said, "I did the painting and the carpentry and I built all the furniture. I built everything with my hands."
"Gaumarjos Datos," I said, and we drank another shot.

He stared into the bottom of his empty glass for a moment, then he poured us both a fresh one.

"And the farm in the backyard," he said, "the vegetables and the spices. The cucumbers and the beans and the hot peppers you like. I planted them myself and I harvest them. We do everything with our hands. I think it is not like this in America."

I shook my head.
"Not for most people," I said. "For most people, everything is done at the supermarket."

He nodded.

"Here, we must do everything with our hands," he said. "I do everything with my hands."
He held them up for me, to make sure that I had understood.

"You are different," he said.
"I know. My hands are stupid."
"No," he said. "Not stupid."
"I can't build, I can't farm, I can't cook," I said. "I can't swim, I can't chop wood, I can't hunt, I can't kill, and I can't do anything with my hands."
"That is okay," he said, "you are a different kind of person. You don't need your hands."
I laughed a bit.
"I'm serious," he said. "You work with your mind."
"Well, I don't know if I would say that my mind actually works - "
"You teach. You learn languages. You travel all over the world," he said. "You teach my son English. He hates English, but you teach him things. He learns from you. Now his English is better. He really admires you a lot."

At this point, I was blushing - blushing drunk, blushing flattered - and biting my lower lip.

"You teach my daughter English, and German, and Chinese," he said. "All these languages, and for this, she will have a much better life. We are very glad that you are here."
"Well," I said, "I'm glad to be here."
"And in your free time, you read and you write. And I don't know any English, but I think you are probably good at these things. I know that about you."
"Maybe," I said. "I don't know that about me yet."
"I work with my hands. You work with your mind," he said. "But we are men. And we are not so different, I think, you and me."

We stopped toasting after that and just drank. By the time ten o'clock rolled around, it was clear that I would have to use my hands to get Dato safely to bed. And there was nothing, at that point, that could save my mind from itself but sleep.

I went back to my room and floated over to the bed and pushed open the window and leaned over the ledge and looked up at the stars and the stars were bright and clear and Orion's Belt looked like the kind of belt a dude named Orion might wear and you could see why the estranged host parents of humanity's youth were so taken by the constellations and the stories they told and I thought to myself I've got to get out of here before it becomes impossible for me to get myself out of here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Third World Man


What follows is an excerpt from a forthcoming publication of such intellectual heft that it cannot be hefted or toted or otherwise lugged around, and all the more less so in hardcover: Third World Man, the long-awaited magnum opus of the recently late Dr. J. Edmund Postfrock - Untenured Professor Emeritus at Slippery Rock University - whose life's work laid the foundation for a vibrant new field of thought that has continued to flourish in the wake of his untimely passing: neoarchaeology (literally: the study of the newly ancient).

Not to be confused or conflated with neoclassicism, postmodernism, or antique collecting, neoarchaeology is the discipline that concerns itself with the analysis of structures, institutions, and individuals that have attained a kind of chintzy obsolescence in the very prime of their youth. Dr. Postfrock's concept of chintzy obsolescence - the essence of the neoarchaeological object - will be unfamiliar to the uninitiated, but happily (or perhaps otherwise) our hyper-attentive attention-deficit-disordered world is crammed to the margins with textbook examples.

Structurally, one might think of a 47-story apartment building that crumbles to dust just as the red, red ribbon is clipped in half by a short, unctuous man sporting a nasty combover and wielding a pair of novelty-sized plastic scissors. (I am told that such occurrences are commonplace in mainland China.)

Institutionally speaking, the United States Congress springs to mind.

When it comes to individuals - and here the reader must draw from his or her own Rolodex® - the neoarchaeological man (though not always a man, he does often tend to be a man) is a man who, through disorganized living or dissolute behavior, or by the repeated bungling of opportunities, or by the repeated bungling of romances, or at any rate by the repeated bungling of something or other, has so bungled his time on earth that his worldly possessions (up to and including his life) might reasonably be thought of as historical artifacts.

Dr. Postfrock was not, himself, a neoarchaeological man. It might be said that he was the very antithesis thereof. "One must be a living man and a posthumous artist," wrote Jean Cocteau - but if ever there was a man who disproved Cocteau's premise; if ever there was a man who reveled in the spoils of his own artistry prehumously, if that is a word; if ever there was such a man, that man was Postfrock. He lived long enough to see his work canonized and revered and photocopied without express written consent. He was a social amuse-bouche wherever he went, on campus or off. Fawned over by nubile doctoral candidates, beckoned by cleavage-bearing librarians, romanticized and mythologized in the press, Postfrock was painted into the stuff of legend, a "real live Indiana Jones," a rogue anthropologist and dogged hunter of rare and precious and unattainable (or maritally inconvenient) treasures.

As his editor and closest non-female companion, I can assure you that these popular caricatures of Dr. Postfrock are at best innocuous distortions, and at worst total slander.

Postfrock was not of an especially adventurous disposition. He was terrified of walking, never mind flying. He was no Indiana Jones, not even a North Dakota Jones. The artifacts he sought after were regular old "things" that nobody in their right mind would consider precious. His Rushmores were the mundane, the commonplace, the eminently replicable bric-à-brac of the modern world. He collected these objects, archived them, and studied them with the sort of intensity one finds only in mystics and the clinically insane, though he was most assuredly neither. Truth be told, he was a very bland man. Postfrock was, to deploy a couple of crudities, a collector of "junk," an historical "hoarder" - but it was the torrent of banal insights yielded by his decades of tedious research that gave rise to and nourished the then inchoate, now burgeoning field of neoarchaeology: a word that Postfrock never once used, in speech or in print, but one that has come to be tethered to his name, in much the same way that we think of Darwin as the father of evolution, even though the great naturalist much preferred the phrase "descent with modification."

Postfrock was infatuated with ears. "Fifty-one percent of discovery," he was fond of saying, "is keeping one's ears clean." To this end, his desk drawer was always filled to overflowing with Q-tips®. His office trash cans were filled to overflowing with rather grodier incarnations of same. Once swabbed, Postfrock believed in keeping his ears occupied. Among his many eccentricities, he had at any given time no fewer than five land lines in his office. He would conduct several conversations at once, not unlike the way you or I might mingle at a cocktail party. Except he did this sort of thing in his office. On multiple phones. Which was very weird to watch. And even weirder to listen to. But it was this aural openness that sustained Dr. Postfrock's long career and ultimately led him to excavate his greatest excavation, the Tomb of the Third World Man, and later to compose what I believe will be the work that preserves his legacy as a man of letters: Third World Man - the story of the sad, chintzily obsolete ghost whose chintzily obsolete life it was Postfrock's calling to comprehend.

It is worth noting that Postfrock - who passed away of an unspecified illness at the age of 73 - was very much a product of his generation, and of his nationality. He was a proud Briton, of the imperialist sort. I do not know for certain, but I have reason to assume that Postfrock voted for Margaret Thatcher at least a decade after the Iron Lady had retired from politics. Though Postfrock was undeniably open of ear, he was on occasion somewhat closed of mind. Certain dubious remarks with regard to race and gender may charitably be said to "abound" in his writing, but it is my sincere hope that his readers - scholars, students, and laymen alike - will entertain the late Dr. Postfrock's more germane ideas with as clean a pair of ear canals as those which Postfrock so obsessively-compulsively swabbed.

Dr. Lanny M. Mueller
Associate Professor of Neoarchaeology, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Third World Man

Loomings: The Third World Man Makes Himself Known

I was juggling three phone calls already - The One With My Wife, The One With My Boss, and The One With AT&T® - when destiny reached me on line four. 

Destiny wouldn't shut up. It is not my wont to be curt with fate, but bear in mind that I have very delicate ear drums. I told the man on line four to shut up. Then I encouraged him to shout more softly. He shouted sweet somethings in my ear. Before long, I had lost all interest in the state of my wife's biweekly meatloaf and the woeful constipated status of my tenure application; I no longer shared AT&T®'s anxieties concerning my five-line telephone setup. I deftly disposed of lines one through three. Click, clack, clock. Then I urged the man on line four to speak more slowly, and then to speak even more slowly than that, and then to speak in isolated phonemes. I swabbed out both ears, and listened.

He was a Mr. K, a high-ranking public official from a well-known country whose cuisine I had oft enjoyed, but whose language I had yet to master and whose borders I had never knowingly trespassed. Mr. K was all in a tizzy because his homeland, after a grueling five-decade slog up the ladder of human progress, had taken a rather dramatic and cartoonish tumble back down. The Republic of Mr. K had gone from Australia to Zimbabwe in less than a month! I apologized for his misfortune, and politely suggested that he look into a less politically culpable line of work. Then I asked the esteemed Mr. K what any of this had to do with me. 

Lo, it was not internecine strife that had laid his proud nation so low, nor could the blame be foisted upon any of the usual culprits: famine, plague, drought, corruption, regime change, climate change, the free press, rampant homosexuality - not even the Jews. No, what had tarnished his country's newfound good standing was something that was "right up my pipe," as Mr. K said, or "right down my alley," as I suspected he meant. His beloved but besmirched motherland had gone from a first world posthistorical darling to a third world failed state in the blink of an eye, all because of an archaeological dig.

It buggered my mind to imagine the sort of find that could reduce an entire country's standard of living by .657 Human Development Index points. Outside of mass graves (and we're talking some massive mass graves, here) or thousands of kilotons of improperly disposed-of radioactive waste, I could think of nothing. 

I heard a click-clacking of keys on the other end of the line as Mr. K ran my query through Google Translate. 
"No no graves," he said. "No no nuclear waste. Indubitably most not." 
Then he added: "But something most akin to the waste."
"Do tell."
"We are find dead man in apartment," said Mr. K. "United Nation examine the apartment. Examine the dead man. Now we a third world country. This reason we call him - the Third World Man."

He uttered the appellation with a kind of mystic reverence, then he grunted and spat and (from the sounds of things) shook his jowls from side to side like a cartoon dog until he had sufficiently recovered from his own mixed admiration and disgust.

"Mr. K," I said, "with all due respect," I said, "perhaps even with some respect that is not quite due," I said, "what the devil is it that you expect me to do about any of this?"
"You are neo ... arcologist," he said, halfway between a statement and a question.
"I suppose that I am - though if you'd've bothered to read any of my work prior to placing this call, you would know that I much prefer the term - "
"Come. Dig. Look. Learn," said Mr. K. "Then make him go away."
"Third World Man."

I sighed but otherwise said nothing. My interest was piqued, but I was busy and I was hungry and I was untenured and tired. I began to worry about the biweekly meatloaf.

"You not intrigue."
"No, Mr. K. Believe me, I am. Quite so. But - "
"We pay money. Many money."
"I resent the implication. If you think that I'm the sort of academic who can be - "

After I'd successfully hung up, still shaking, I picked up the big red phone and collect called my wife. She accepted the call. I told her to hold off on the biweekly meatloaf.

"Honey darling. Cataract of my eye. Girdle of my loins. Love of my life. Get dressed," I said. "I'm taking you to Cracker Barrel®."

The Tomb of the Third World Man

I have always traveled lightly and this trip was to be no exception. I brought with me one (1) EASTPAK® brand backpack containing three (3) changes of clean, brief-cut Fruit of the Loom® brand underpants, fifteen (15) 50-ct. cases of Twinings® English Breakfast, twenty-two (22) 170-ct. packs of Q-tip® brand q-tips, and one (1) teaching assistant (not in the backpack (eminently portable though he was)) named Tattoo. 

Of Polynesian stock, Tattoo stood in stark contrast to the Brobdingnagian inhabitants of those scattered isles; he stood, in fact, no higher than my belt buckle, and that only when on tippy-toes. Other than the tea and the Q-tips® and the underpants and the backpack itself, Tattoo was to prove himself the most invaluable of carry-on luggage.

I have never enjoyed flying, least of all by aeroplane, so I swallowed one (1) fistful of Ativan® tablets, as prescribed by my family physician. Though there must have been several layovers, I do not remember any of them. Tattoo revived me with smelling salts as we were taxiing towards the gate of our final destination. Deplane, he cried, deplane! Upon deplaning ourselves, Tattoo and I were ushered onto a chopper by a phalanx of Master's students who gun-barrel-prodded one's abdomen rather too forcefully for one's liking. The chopper choppered us over countless clicks of Nam-green canopy until we landed in a clearing. After we'd dechoppered ourselves, we were escorted by several heavily armed interns to a Jeep® and we rode in the Jeep® for close to twelve hours before we arrived at a nameless drool of a river where me and Tattoo and our luggage were deJeep®ed and loaded onto a canoe. We were canoed by canoeists - as part of some kind of academic work study - to the site of the excavation site. 

En route, while Tattoo snoozed, I tried to make chit-chat with the head intern. 

"What is your major, young man?" I asked him.
"What?" he said.
"Your major?" 
"No," he said, "only lieutenant." 

Having broken the ice, I inquired as to the whereabouts of the esteemed Mr. K, our tour guide and supposed benefactor. This seemed to amuse the interns. The head intern shrugged and replied with a monosyllable. I duly punched the monosyllable into my Lingo® Voyager 6 translating device. "To liquidate," it said. I pressed the "text-to-speech" button just to make sure. LIQUIDATE. LIQUIDATE. LIQUIDATE. The robot voice had spoken. I asked no further questions.

We arrived. I smelling salted Tattoo. He squealed his way into wakefulness. We decanoed and set off on foot. Tattoo and I were handed a pair of government-issue Hello Kitty® respiratory masks - an unnecessary precaution, I thought, as our interns were merely shielding their faces with shirt sleeves and handkerchiefs. What was good enough for my AK-47 wielding interns, I proclaimed, was good enough for me. But before we had even caught our first glimpse of the condemned apartment complex on the hill, my legs turned to rubber. I grew suddenly very queasy and my mucous membranes told me that the Hello Kitty® respiratory masks were rather too skimpy for our purposes. I availed myself of the M40 Field Protective Gas Mask that I still do not remember purchasing at the duty free shop during our layover in Houston. In my drug-induced fugue state, I had not thought to procure a child-sized GP-5 for poor little Tattoo.

The interns would go no further than the kerb at the edge of the parking lot. I glanced back over my shoulder to see them grinning at me as they retched into their handkerchiefs. Tattoo and I lurched across the parking lot like a couple of drunk crabs. I kicked open the front door. We entered the building. No sign of a lift. Taking the stairs, then, we shuddered our way up to the second floor, where we were confronted with an iron door criss-crossed in yellow caution tape: the modern bureaucratic analog of "abandon all hope ye who enter here." 

Tattoo glanced up at me. I glanced down at Tattoo. I nodded. He sighed and sucked in his breath and waddled towards the door. He could not reach the doorknob. I walked over and hoisted him up by the britches. He grabbed the knob and dangled there. I retreated to the opposite end of the hallway to watch. The door clicked open. Tattoo dropped down to his feet and stepped inside.

A beat. Then there came a deafening scream, a murderous bellow so deep in the lower register that I feared Tattoo had sonically exploded himself on the spot. "Tattoo!" I cried, and ran in after him. Glancing around the living room, I was convinced that Tattoo had indeed exploded after all, until he tapped me on the thigh, looked up at me with a shrug and said, "It like this when I got here."

I have visited warzones. I have changed diapers. I have driven past Greyhound® bus stations at night. Nothing could have prepared me for this. 

The floor was covered in Mead® brand notebook paper, Nescafé
® stained and cigarette burned and graffitoed with the blue-black ink of no earthly script I ever hope to become acquainted with. Rotten banana peels were stationed at intervals, like a crash course for a clown. Cigarette butts blossomed mycologically from cups, Thermos®es, Mason jars, soda cans, every sort of container imaginable but an ashtray; the gnarled orange filters pointed accusingly at the heavens like the smokestacks of a Dickensian dystopia written in an alternate universe where the bad kind of LSD was synthesized in the early 19th century. Pools of blood, or bile, or worse accentuated the wall-to-wall college-ruled carpet of filth. Dust and dirt and dinge seemed to have chemically bonded with oxygen, forming monster molecules that were perfectly visible with the naked eye, the electrons shuddering in their orbits with audible disgust. The only air that was even remotely breathable came with several tildes of pubic hair attached, like the CV of Satan himself.

The stench had a character all its own: a high-pitched, almost whiny stench. For reasons unknown, the German word peinlich sprang to my mind, though it does not mean "whiny," nor can it be properly used to describe any sort of stench. Except for, perhaps, this one. 

I dry heaved, but kept it dry. Cringing my way through the haze, I could make out a television in the distance, perched off-kilter atop a high fructose corn syrup-encrusted DVD player. Reaching downward and stifling an uppity slug of vomit, I pressed the EJECT button. Season 6 of LOST popped out. I vomited. Tattoo, meanwhile, had flown into a panic.

De plague, he cried, de plague!

He was pointing across the room. I followed his abridged index finger to the object of his horror: there, seated in his boxer shorts, in a swivel chair, across from a Dell® Inspiron™ 1525 laptop with a Pentium® Dual Core 1.73 GHz processor, was the Third World Man.

He was smoking a cigarette.

"Back, Tattoo!" I cried. "Let daddy take care of this."

Tattoo raised a brow, never mind which one. I thighed him aside and approached the man slowly, cougarlike. With fingers like tweezers, I snatched the cigarette from the man's empurpled lips. I lifted up my gas mask and took a good long drag.

"American Spirit®," I said. "Organic Full-Bodied. Maroon pack. Slow burners."
"He dead?" asked Tattoo.
"Very much so," I said.
"How long?"
"Years. At least three of them, I'd guess."
"But he still smoking!"
"No," I said. "He just quit."
I sucked the cigarette between my lips. 
"You ever smoked an American Spirit®, Tattoo?"
Tattoo shook his head.
"Would you like to?"
Tattoo shook his head again, more vigorously this time.

Purging myself had effected a marked decrease in nausea, and the carcinogens supplied by the American Spirit® helped my nervous system acclimate itself to the oppressive atmosphere of the Third World Man's tomb. To Tattoo, too, two minutes or so was sufficient for him to regain his wits and breathe more easily. He adjusted quickly, perhaps owing to his undersized lungs, which may have filtered out some of the larger stink particles - or more probably because he was accustomed to such squalor, given the profoundly unhygienic cultural milieu of his native Polynesia.

"Tattoo," I said, "hand me a Q-tip® brand q-tip."
Unzipping and rummaging through my EASTPAK® brand backpack, the pygmy placed the double-swabbed cotton swab in my hand. I swabbed. 
"What we do now, boss man?" asked Tattoo.
"Now," I said, "we snoop."

I pressed the space bar of the Third World Man's laptop and found that it was password protected.

"Tattoo," I said, chasing a hunch, "be a dear and dust off the Third World Man's t-shirt, will you?"

It was just as I had suspected: the Third World Man was a Radiohead fan. I guessed his password on the third try.

Selected Google Searches of the Third World Man

what happens when two identical twins have a baby?
what happens when the babies of identical twins have babies?
how many fireflies in a mason jar are enough to light up a room?
can you breathe through your belly button?
can you eat your own flesh?
can I eat my own flesh?
what time is it?
where are my keys?
LOST season 7
who is lady gogo?
who is lady gaga?
what is this rash on my leg?
what is this rash on my face?
how to clean
maid services
slave services
arson odds of getting caught
what is a 3d printer?
how much is a 3d printer?
where can I buy a 3d printer?
can you use a 3d printer to print out food?
nearest 24 hour McDonald's®
what is sideboob?
sideboob pictures

Excavating the Tomb of the Third World Man

Over the weeks that followed, the erstwhile abandoned parking lot of the Tomb of the Third World Man came alive with the staccato ping-pong catcalls of coolies and the seismological shuddering of cargo trucks rumbling to and fro. Wherever Mr. K was or wasn't, his people had come through. There were whole fleets of specially modified garbage trucks - hermetically resealable, boasting three times the carrying capacity of your garden variety Bruder Scania® R-Series - and likewise tricked-out battalions of tanker trucks, outfitted with fire hoses and 3,800 liters of highly pressurized Febreze® SPORT Laundry Odor Elimination Boost™. We were simultaneously deconstructing and reconstructing the Tomb of the Third World Man.

Tattoo, uniquely possessed of a photographic memory (Polynesians are notorious among evolutionary phrenologists for their low-capacity RAMpacks), internalized the exact disarray of the Tomb, later to recreate it in a floating shipping container stationed in international waters, some 250 nautical miles off the east coast of our host country to remain nameless. There, Tattoo and I availed ourselves of a virtually unlimited amount of time to "snoop around" the Third World Man's tattered and mouldy possessions, and to slowly piece together the life that he had so diligently rent asunder. (His original tomb, duly Febreze®d, was rented out to a family of six the following weekend. We did not receive any sort of commission.)

We went to work. Most informative for our purposes were the piles of documents recovered from the original excavation site: journals, diaries, doodles, Google Chat transcripts, cybersex transcripts, bowel movement logs, and half-completed job applications. Tattoo - commanding his army of coolies with perhaps (if it is possible) a little too much zeal - ensured that every crumpled grad school application, every unanswered missive, every self-obsessed journal entry was archived, transcribed, then re-crumpled and carefully scattered to its original place of displacement. One afternoon, Tattoo, squinting at an especially puzzling printed page, held it up for my inspection and asked, "What speaky-speaky this?"

I read a sentence or two. Then I fell asleep standing up. Tattoo revived me with the smelling salts. 

"Wakey wakey boss." 
I vomited.
"Thanks, Tattoo. Now what were you saying?"
"What speaky-speaky this?"
"What language does it look like, Tattoo?"
"Might could be fuckin' Japanese for all Tattoo know," he scoffed. 
"No, Tattoo," I chuckled. "It is neither Japanese nor Chinese nor Portuguese. It's the worst ese there is."
"... disease?"
"It's legalese."
Tattoo shook his head, unable to comprehend my drift.
"Our Third World Man," I explained, "was a Peace Corps volunteer."

An Excerpt from the Diary of the Third World Man

I sleep in squalor. I awake in same. My apartment is big enough for a family of six, provided at least one of them lived like an actual human being. But I am one man, and I have not. 

The floorspace is subdivided into autonomous zones of garbage. They no longer belong to me, are outside my jurisdiction, have fallen siege to the muttering hordes of entropy. All that remains of my crumbling empire is the deflated air mattress that I can no longer sleep on (for reasons I mentioned earlier, dear Diary) and the heap of musty blankets on the floor under the AC unit that I curl up into these days. All else is lost. 

Across the room, staring into my soul, is the big black bag that contains all the stuff I didn't throw away the last time I tried to clean my room six months ago. I'd like not to think or talk about The Bag. The bookshelf now doubles as a cupboard for unwashed and orphaned tableware. Untouchables. That's what I call them, in my mind. What used to be spacious, human-appropriate rooms are now clogged and uninhabitable cells, unworthy of a trash panda (TWM's personal slang for "raccoon" - JEP). Innumerable islands of dirty clothes and Assorted Shit dot the floor like a Micronesia of Filth. 

The lone silver lining in all of this is that last week I finally summoned the courage to dispose of the lime green nylon mesh tube where I used to stash my dirty clothes. I don't know where I got the damned thing, or why it ever seemed like a good idea to get it. It used to dangle from a Chinese lantern that itself dangled from the ceiling and the fusion of light and stink attracted the flies in kamikaze droves ...

The Innovative Third World Man

There is a peculiar sort of genius that arises out of extreme idiocy. It is a two-steps-forward, fifteen-steps-back sort of genius, but a sort of genius nonetheless. Stupidity can sometimes breed innovation, the kind of innovation necessary to cover up stupidity and allow for more stupidity, which breeds still more innovation, and stupidity, and so on. In this way, the late Third World Man was a kind of slob savant.

After several months camped out with Tattoo in our odorous catacomb on the sea, I began to see the world as the Third World Man had once seen it. His crusty microcosm started to make sense to me. I quit bathing, unquit smoking. For hours at a time, I would speak to myself with his tongue. It was in one of these strange, trancelike existential proxy states that I came across perhaps the most astounding of the Third World Man's inventions.

Tattoo, playing Grand Theft Auto® on an especially torrid afternoon, discovered that the Third World Man's laptop tended to overheat and shut down before he (Tattoo) could amass two stars (indicative of a mild-to-moderate police deployment). This put him in an especially foul mood; Polynesians, as a people, are insufferable without the regular catharsis afforded by virtual road rage. To counter this ill effect, Tattoo (with my assistance) plugged in the air conditioning unit mounted to the wall above the computer and, utilizing the remote control I'd found wrapped in a pair of soiled boxer briefs, I switched it on. Eventually, the computer room cooled down and this sustained GTA well enough, but within minutes, a foul-smelling, ominously clear liquid began oozing down from the AC unit and spreading across the floor. And within seconds, a downstairs neighbor was knocking on the wall of our container. I took a step towards the knocking, then I froze. Clearly, this didn't make any sense: there was no downstairs, thus there could be no downstairs neighbor. Tattoo, grokking the absurdity, held out both hands palm-upward and shook them around: the traditional Polynesian gesture of incredulity. Shrugging, I walked across the living room and cracked open the hatch. It would have been impolite to do otherwise.

"Hello," I said.

The downstairs neighbor was not pleased. I was able to pluck the words "water" and "ceiling" and "foreign devil-buffoon" from his diatribe. I apologized, and felt somewhat guilty, but I was far more troubled by the appearance of a downstairs neighbor where there was no corresponding downstairs apartment.

"I'm terribly sorry," I said, "but we are in a shipping container in the middle of the ocean. It is rather impossible that you are here right now."

He did not understand this, so I had Tattoo punch the message into my trusty Lingo® Voyager 6. He toggled the "robotic voice" feature and pressed "speak." The downstairs neighbor listened to the robot. He nodded grimly. He waved goodbye. Then he evaporated.

This discontinuity did not exactly put us in a comfortable place. Tattoo and I spent that night huddled together in a single sleeping bag and surrounded by flashlights. I have not yet lived out my time on this planet, but the incident I just described may turn out to be the lone inexplicable occurrence of my life, the one moment I happened to catch a glimpse of the Pilot of the Universe asleep at the wheel - but as it is tangential to our excavation of the Tomb, I will have to remain satisfied to explore the mystery in a book to be written much, much later.

Back to the Third World Man and his genius. Pieces of his junk puzzle were falling into place. The next day, in the computer room, I called Tattoo's attention to a seemingly worthless configuration of plastic doohickeys, electrical cables, clothespins, and coathangers that dangled from a Chinese lantern that itself dangled from the ceiling.

"What do you reckon this is?" I asked Tattoo.
"Look like a bunch of crap to me, boss."
"Laptop overheats," I murmured to myself, channeling TWM, my eyeballs rolling back into my head. "Laptop overheats, thus air conditioning. But air conditioning emits foul-smelling liquid. Thus flooding. Thus irate sixth-dimensional downstairs neighbor. But laptop overheats. Grand Theft Auto® is on laptop. Porn is on laptop. Impossible! Unsustainable!"

Guided by forces beyond my understanding, I ran my fingertips along the hunk of dangling junk until I found what appeared to be a rotten potato mounted to its hindquarters.

"Please not eat, boss," said Tattoo.
"Why," I cried, "this potato is not for eating! This potato is for power!"

I pressed the potato down onto a pair of metal prongs and twisted it. Then, through some minor electrochemical miracle, a robotic arm protruded from the hitherto meaningless device, deploying a small plastic fan that, once it had come to rest at its optimum angle, whirled to life and began to inundate the silicon innards of the laptop with porn-sustaining zephyrs of cool, disgusting air.

"Wow," muttered Tattoo, "that stupid."
"No, little Tattoo," I said, patting him on the head. "That's brilliant."

He shrugged and fired up the computer. I took a shower - my first in months - and then I settled into the Third World Man's deflated inflatable mattress. And while I lay awake marveling at the mind of the exquisite corpse rotting in the next room, the night cricketed and sang, alive with the music of squealing tires and chirruping prostitutes begging for mercy.

Noteworthy Artifacts of the Third World Man

One (1) TROJAN® Pleasure Pack™ Lubricated Condoms - 36 ct. - unopened
Sixteen (16) clovis point arrowheads
Three (3) bludgeoning tools - flint - ostensibly for the crushing and mashing of grains
One (1) necklace of human ears
Six (6) seasons of LOST - DVD, bootleg, several key episodes missing
One (1) Wendy's® Big Bacon Classic - of indeterminate age (results of carbon date pending) - half-eaten - no outward sign of putrefaction
One-thousand nine-hundred and twenty-two (1,922) pogs bearing designs ranging from the highest of the highbrow - a limited-edition Michel Foucault slammer - to the lowest of the lowbrow - "Have A Nice Trip," depicting a "doobie" smoking skateboarder plummeting headfirst down a stairwell
One (1) pistachio nut cookie - cellophane-wrapped - autographed by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg - Ms. Ginsburg's desk did not return our phone calls re: why the Third World Man owned an autographed cookie of hers, though the autograph has since been verified as authentic
Eight (8) bottles of Elmer's® Glue-All - tainted with infusions of variously coloured ink 
Five-hundred and seventy-one (571) off-brand disposable lighters
$9,371.52 (USD) in loose change
One (1) copy of First World Man by Yours Truly - Penguin Press, 2005 - the story of the world's tidiest man, Janus Magnussen of Denmark - while I am flattered that the Third World Man was acquainted with my work, it does not appear that he read any of it - my book was perhaps the cleanest object he owned
One (1) copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - First Paperback Edition - Back Bay Books, 2006 - heavily and pretentiously annotated by the owner - fair condition; knife wound to solar plexus of book; wound persists until page 639; cover is missing; otherwise eminently readable - $10.99 OBO

A Second Excerpt from the Journal of the Third World Man

There is a frameless mirror slouched up against the wall, like a portal to another, equally disgusting dimension where all the crap on the floor is reversed. There is everywhere a constant droning, as though someone is drilling into cement. It assails me at all hours, from all sides. Impossible to tell whether it is a winged insect infestation, or if the drone is coming from inside my own skull. 

There is a long hardwood desk where I do my paperwork. The desk is cluttered with triple-folded applications, expired US passports, torn out notebook pages bearing the crossed-out names and phone numbers of people who might be able to bail me out of jams. There are half-eaten foil-wrapped bricks of rotten HERSHEY'S® chocolate, stray Jolly Rancher®s that have chemically bonded with the table, scattered bits of plastic that once belonged to expensive technological equipment that I have destroyed ...

The place is so sloppy that I can no longer tell if it's getting better or worse, whether I am having a positive or negative impact upon the overall level of entropy. It is not thermodynamically impossible, not exactly, that the apartment might spontaneously clean itself one day. The kitchen floor seems to be getting progressively stickier; I mopped it once, but that only made things worse. It is impossible to ignore the fruit flies. Maybe they followed me over from America. Or probably they lived somewhere outdoors and mass migrated into my kitchen when I arrived. I didn't really notice them until now. Fruit flies become more noticeable as you go along. The Stink works the opposite way. You notice The Stink the first time you enter a room and notice it less and less every day after that, until the only people who notice The Stink are those unfortunate souls who come over to visit, or the people who are buying your drinks, because by then, The Stink is on you ... 

The Generous Third World Man

Our research kept us occupied for the better part of three years. We remained offshore, contained in our container, rummaging and ruminating. During this time, Tattoo and I held a peculiar place in the hearts of the natives. We were friendly guests who should have been hailed as heroes, but we were regarded as intruders, as a kind of superfluous, potentially malignant growth on the hide of the body politic.

Yes, we should have been hailed as heroes. As a direct result of our research, the country to remain nameless leapfrogged back to international respectability. With the Third World Man and his Tomb safely disposed of - or at least removed to an environmentally kosher distance - the national HDI had shot up a full .627 points, very nearly back to its original place of first world good standing. Meanwhile, the GDP had more than doubled. Formerly dependent upon its vast reserves of slave labor and synthetic cannabinoids, the country to remain nameless was now making a veritable mint in recycled liquor bottles, beer cans, used clothing, and bootleg DVDs. We were in no way rewarded for our contributions to national prosperity, but rather grudgingly allowed to do our mysterious and arcane scholarly work in abject solitude. Every so often, a stray shell from a passing gunship reminded us that our work visas were set to expire.

Mother Academia was rather more appreciative of our efforts. No fewer than 500 new species - some 237 new microorganisms, 99 fungi, 43 arthropods, six reptiles, four rodents, two avians, and an unknown variety of feral cat (later returned to its rightful owner, a shopkeeper down the road) - were classified from the samples we sent home. All of these creatures are unprecedented discoveries, given their habitat: they are the most extreme of extremophiles, each one a testament to the resourcefulness of life. Many of them have since proven medicinally (or otherwise) intriguing.

Take - to name but one example -
 tholoma kasemium, popularly known as the AM/FM radiolarian. This rare beast - unique among all life forms, save for my wife (who has a metal plate in her skull (installed after an Original Frisbee® Disc accident in the late 1970s)) - can transmit radio waves, albeit over a fairly limited range (.6 mm). None of the stations it gets are very good, and the little bugger seems to have a distinct fondness for Rush Limbaugh, but this is a minor and rectifiable flaw. With a few slight genetic tweaks, we might one day introduce the world of microfauna to the soporific pleasures of the John Tesh Radio Show.

Consider the wheeled paramecium, the only microorganism that doubles as an all-terrain vehicle. Or
 leptotrichia autophagia, the bacteria that eats itself and, just before the last bite, spawns a clone: this means that at any given time, there is exactly only one of these creatures in existence, so we were very lucky to have found it. Consider desulfurobacterium orbisonium, the bacteria that subsists on human tears. Or the rakish amoeba, a charmingly nondescript blob that ambulates not with flagella but with a cane, can doff its pseudopod and wink at you with its vacuole.

I even named one of my discoveries - unofficially the world's smallest bacteria - after little Tattoo!
 Mycoplasma tattooium, only .07 µm in length! I am told that it is one of the most worthless microorganisms known to science. There remains some small debate as to whether it is even alive. One unfortunate population of laboratory rats injected with mini-Tattoos did succumb to a fatal illness some hours later, but my colleague Dr. Lohman at the University of Rutgers has since pointed out that those same rats had ransacked his lab assistant's Long John Silver's® Whitefish Basket™ earlier in the afternoon. In any case, Tattoo did not share my enthusiasm for his being immortalized in the Big Book of Linnaeus. He possesses a modesty commensurate with the size of his island. 

One species of bacteria in particular - whose proper name I am not at liberty to disclose - seems to have attracted the attention of the people at The Pentagon. It was found that even small intravenous doses of said bacteria, without fail, triggered the rapid onset of a never-before-seen type of cancer: carcicarcinoma, or "cancer of the cancer." One-hundred percent of the inoculated rats developed tumors that developed tumors. Strangely, this did not kill them, merely rendered them lumpy and irritable. Oncology is not my bag, so I will not speculate as to the potential long-term benefits or consequences of meta-metastasis, or as to whether our little unicellular friend will be used to beneficent or nefarious ends. Suffice it to say that I do not expect to be compensated in any way by the people at The Pentagon.

Among the new avians: the sweet and sour chicken, which stands to revolutionize the American food service industry.

Among the new insects, a peculiar breed of fruit fly
 (drosophila drosophoba) the fruit fly who is afraid of fruit. Healthy eating is an acquired taste, but this puzzling creature, having acquired that taste over the course of several billion years, managed to lose his appetite in a matter of months - and having wallowed in the Sty of the Third World Man for just over three years, I can't really say that I blame the guy. 

A Song Composed by the Third World Man

♪ = 126
Andante grazioso, con repugnanza
(to the tune of "Blue Skies," comp. 1926 by Irving Berlin, though the 1935 Benny Goodman arrangement is very much preferred)

fruit flies
smilin' at me
nothin' but fruit flies
do I see

Reflections on the Third World Man

Given his remarkable Pigpen-like capacity for carrying his cloud of filth wherever he went, even past the surly customs officials of the many countries he lived and died in, it should not come as too surprising that many of the Third World Man's documents predated his Peace Corps service. Parking tickets from his rocky, civic duty-neglecting adolescence; principal's office summonses from the prepubescent dark ages of his public education; love letters from girls who still dotted their i's with hearts. But most revealing of all were the records the Third World Man kept of his elementary school humiliations. The Third World Child was indeed the father of the Third World Man. A prolific writer - though a predictably illegible handwriter - the Third World Child, in ever-narrowing notebook ruling, chronicled the development of the quirk that was to become his lifelong bugaboo. (In the entries below, the "backwards lowercase e" has been represented with an italicized uppercase E.)

2nd Grade - MissE[sic] Lovanos [sic] Class
Today MissEs Lovano found the trash in my desk and got angry and kickEd it over. It went all ovEr. EvEry body laugfEd [sic]. I cryEd [sic]. She made me so I pickEd up the trash.

3rd Grade - Mrs. Bigby's Class
Stu and me were mixeing [sic] the glue with the blue ink from the pen when Mrs. Bigby asked me what we were doing. I didnt [sic] say a thing and she saw my face is red and then she saw in my desk and got angry and kicked it over. The trash went all over the floor. Everybody laughed at me. I had to get on the floor to pick up the trash and it took a very long time.

4th Grade Ms. McDowell's Class
Weird thing happened today. But I guess it's kind of normal. I was sitting in the back minding my own business when Ms. McDowell came up shreeking [sic] like Godzilla and went crazy and told me to clean my desk. I looked into my desk and I knew it would take a long time to clean. I said OK anyway and took out the glue bottle and then a bunch of paper came out like a [sic] avelanche [sic] but not all of it. So Ms. McDowell went even crazyer [sic] and kicked my desk over. Trash went flying all over the place. Everyone laughed at me, even Stu. I got down on the floor and picked up the pieces of my life and looked up to Heaven and asked, Why me?

5th Grade Mrs. Lancaster's Class
For the fifth time in as many weeks, havoc was reeked [sic] upon my desk by none other than Mrs. L. It used to be like a running joke but now it is like a running joke that has gotten tired of running. Paper balls rolling like tumbleweed all over the floor. Something like six Elmer's Glue Bottles came flying out. I even found a sock in there but I swear it isn't mine. Everyone turned around to stare and my face turned bright red as usual and Mrs. L just waited and tapped her foot and even Jeb Staple (the kid I told you about who asked the dentist when he came for National Dental Hygene [sic] Month if you could die by choking on your own tooth) was getting angry because I was "disrepressing him from learnding." Anyway, Journal, I don't know why I brought this up. I guess I just wanted to say that sometimes I feel like the universe is ploting [sic] against me.

6th Grade - Miss Grud's Class
I'm not exactly the tidiest kid on earth. I'll admit that. But I'm a good student. I do my homework. I get straight A's, except for math, which I always get a B-plus in, and handwriting, which I have never done better than a C-minus in, but that's neither here or [sic] there. (Who needs handwriting anyway, am I write? Ha ha ha.) Anyway, all I'm saying is that I'm a pretty good kid and I do my work and I never talk in class. If I have a messy desk, so what? Who cares? It's not a big deal. So I'm a little disorganized. But if you give me recess time and a flashlight, I can find any piece of homework from the past six months of school. And who else in class can say that? I don't see what the big deal is. But to make a long story short: Miss "Crud" kicked my desk over today, with her annoying high-heels (who is she trying to impress? her boyfriend? ha ha ha) and all heck broke loose. D.J. Mothbach called me a sloppy buttmunch (but nobody heard it except for me) and even The Omnivore and Beluga Boy were laughing at me, which was embarassing [sic] to say the least. I don't know why I do this to myself. Maybe I'll just get a maid one day. Or maybe everyone should just eat my shorts. Ha ha ha.

Over these five years, we observe a refinement in writing technique and a maturation in abstract thought, but no approach whatsoever to the resolution of what seems a rather basic problem: the messy desk; the messy life. Instead, like a bonzai bush or an ingrown toenail, the Third World Child's blossoming intellect turned inward and applied itself to the problem of how best to ignore the problem. This neat trick was achieved in the usual Freudian ways: an inferiority/superiority complex cocktail - blushing, scrabbling around on the floor after scattered garbage, gracefully absorbing the opprobrium of his teacher and classmates while acting the martyr in private - followed by projection - first upon the divine and then, having outgrown God, upon the universe and then, having accepted the universe as the ultimately unimpeachable void that it is, upon society as a whole - and in the end, by the development of a kind of pun-riddled humour about the problem that amounted to a flat-out denial that there was a problem. It was not the Third World Child's problem, after all, but his classmates' inability to comprehend "how he works" that was the problem.

Alas, for as smart as he grew, and for as worldly as he became, it was this childhood hangup - the inability to clean up after himself - that would one day lead to his ignominious demise.

It is not my intention to oversimplify the Third World Man, or to spell out his thought processes line by line like a BASIC program, but having slept in his filth for over three years, I daresay that I understand him better than anyone else ever will.

Those acquainted with computer programming will be familiar with the idea of recursion: the act of applying an equation or a program to itself. If the initial output of a program is the number 12, then the number 12 is fed back into the program, which yields a second result, which is fed back into the program, and so on, ad infinitum. It is not difficult to imagine why recursive programs have a tendency of getting out of hand.

The Third World Man was just such a program. While he was certainly a slob - perhaps the greatest slob who has ever lived - he was also rather genteel. (He wrote, in a 7th grade journal entry, that his English teacher had called him "a gentile" during class; though the Third World Teen was very much a goy, he had never been called one before, and it confused him deeply; what did it matter that he wasn't Jewish? I believe it is safe to assume that the Third World Teen looked up the wrong word in the dictionary.) 

I invite you to imagine the genteel, delicate Third World Man, freshly arrived in a new country and a new apartment, everything clean as a whistle. As will happen in a chaotic universe, within a day or two, a bit of clutter would accumulate. "I should clean this up," the Third World Man would think to himself, "but I do so hate getting my hands dirty. Maybe tomorrow." And so he would neglect cleaning, for the purpose of keeping himself clean. Before long, after a week or two, his living quarters would have become truly vile, borderline unlivable. But by then, the filth was several orders of magnitude filthier, and thus much more disgusting to the genteel Third World Man, and thus much less cleanable, and thus more worthy of being put off until the next day, or week, or month. And so on exponentially. In this way - and not out of sheer laziness - did the Third World Man die of squalor, succumbing to his own desire for personal cleanliness.

There was, too, the matter of having people over. The more often he had people over, the more often he would have to clean. Having people over was, perhaps, the one means he had of tricking himself into cleaning. But the messier his apartment grew, the less possible it was to clean, the less possible it was to have people over, the less possible it was to get motivated to clean, and so on. Past a certain threshold of sloppiness, he simply gave up on having people over, which allowed the apartment to truly go to seed. Towards the end, he never let anyone in at all. He received visitors in the hallway, with a harried look on his face, as though there were a corpse rotting in the room just over his shoulder, a suspicion that many of his companions entertained. When Tattoo and I crashed his pad, I believe we were the first visitors he'd had in years - and by then, the corpse was his own.            

Parting Ways with the Third World Man, and Autopsy

With our work winding down, I began to piece together a lecture series while Tattoo succumbed to distractions of a rather less pedagogical nature. I had known (or rather, assumed beforehand) that he was addicted to gambling. I was unaware, however, that he was not as shrewd as his islandmates, which is to say that he was a very bad gambler. When gambling wasn't going well he resorted to drinking and when drinking wasn't going well he resorted to whoring and when whoring wasn't going well he resorted to fighting. And fighting, for poor little Tattoo, never went well. Our departure, then, was accelerated, for reasons I can only allude to. We had worn out our welcome on the mainland and our safety in international waters was precarious at best - so we prepared for our return to America. 

Seven oil tankers were retrofitted to carry the toxic archaeological waste that was our express cargo. Flanked by two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, they set off on a three-week journey over the ocean. The terminus of that voyage was the Patapsco Terminal in Baltimore, Maryland.

I insisted, to Tattoo's undisguised annoyance, that the Third World Man was to be kept on or near our persons until we were completely finished with him. Fortunately, empurpled lips aside, his corpse was remarkably well-preserved and exhibited very few signs of putrefaction: a minor forensic miracle that I attribute to the high formaldehyde content of the potent liquors so beloved by the people of the nation in which he so squalorously served out his final years. 

We were able to smuggle the Third World Man aboard an Emirates Air flight to Chicago, and none of our fellow passengers in coach were the wiser, though Tattoo aired some misgivings about having to sit next to him for the duration. My colleagues back home, upon learning of this escapade, made frequent allusions to the classic American novella Weekend at Bernie's, but I am not familiar with the text and, at my age, do not expect to find the time or the patience necessary to become acquainted with it.

After tossing down a few celebratory cocktails at the Chicago O'Hare VIP lounge, our slightly necrotic charge was boxed and shipped out to the Public Archaeology Laboratory in Pawtucket, Massachusetts, where a full forensic autopsy was administered over the course of two years. Certain findings were surprising to me, while others were not. I wasn't exactly gobsmacked to discover, for instance, that the Third World Man had died of exposure in his apartment, or that his diet had consisted almost exclusively of Pringles® brand potato chips (of the Salt & Vinegar persuasion). It was, however, somewhat flummoxing when the Third World Man's age was variously reported as "twelve" (frontal cortex), "57" (amygdala, basal ganglia), "239" (skin, nerve tissue), and a whopping "3.7 × 1012" (liver, lungs, genitals), pending the results of a more conclusive round of radiocarbon dating.

As for me, I yet remain among the living, 73 years old and fighting hard to preserve that age - though I am not likely to indulge in the sort of liquid taxidermy practiced by the self-medicating Third World Man. I am kept busy by my research, by my students and my phone calls, by my graduate assistants and my wife's biweekly meatloaf (dread it though I do) and my freshly minted third grandchild (adore her as I must). I have not heard from Tattoo in a long time, and feel somewhat guilty for not having kept in touch, but I must console myself with a platitude of my own coinage: men of such stature are easily lost.

Having exhausted my research, and having worn out my fascination, one month ago I signed over the remains of the Third World Man - his corpse, his tomb, his world - to the proper authorities: Waste Management®, Ltd., the Omaha, Nebraska branch. I am not familiar with Nebraska and very much hope never to go there, but I am given to understand that its Human Development Index has not been impacted one way or the other by this sudden influx of existential detritus: I am told that said Index remains very, very low, indeed.

- J.E. Postfrock, 2012