Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene – Chapter One: Prehistory

NOTE: Sometime in mid- to late-April I’ll be publishing Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene in the Hillsborough River Press 1-Hour Read series. It is currently in the editing stage. But, since it’s mostly complete, I thought I’d post it here as a series. This blog version has all the bibliographic citations stripped out. The ebook will include references to all the resources I drew from to write this long essay/short book. I’ll publish a chapter every other day.

Another reason to publish it serially on this blog is that seeing it in a different format often allows me to see errors of grammar, spelling, and thought. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks, all. Hope you enjoy.

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CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY

Most of human existence isn’t recorded. The time before written records we call prehistory. Homo Sapiens showed up (probably) between 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. Writing showed up about 5,000 years ago. That means prehistory stretches over hundreds of thousands of years and covers too many people and leaves too little evidence for us to do more than take an educated guess on perianal cleaning methods. Nonetheless, here’s my best attempt at making that guess.

But, to do so, I want to start with some research done a half century ago.

In the mid-1960s, in the name of science, Dr. Richard Caplan asked people to allow him to spread their own feces back onto their perianal region. He wanted to measure their discomfort, or lack of discomfort. Medical science is awesome.

Forty-four percent experienced definite discomfort which they described as irritating, itchy, or burning, and they wanted to scratch or wash. The most rapid onset of irritation occurred with one subject immediately upon application. Another didn’t report any irritation until after twenty-four hours, and the rest fell somewhere in-between.

However, because he was a dedicated scientist in the pursuit of knowledge, he also applied the ‘material’ (as Caplan euphemistically referred to shit) to the subject’s arm and wrapped the arm with plastic wrap. Only one person exhibited irritation on their arm, and described it as minor. Shit didn’t irritate regular skin, but did irritate the sensitive skin at the end of the rectum. For some.

In another study a few years prior in swinging London, a public health services doctor, J. A. Cameron, noticed a non-trivial number of men indifferent to “frank mass faeces” in their underwear. Cameron’s job was to give health check-ups to a wide range of British men, and after noticing the condition of the underpants of so many men, decided to tabulate what he found in a survey. After the men disrobed for their exam he visually inspected their underpants in addition to evaluating their health and well-being. Over a two-year period he analyzed 940 undergarments, forty-three percent of which showed “faecal contamination in their underpants.” This was not a surprise inspection. These men knew they would be seeing a doctor and would disrobe.

Which suggests that many people do not find the residue of shit on their rectum irritating.

From these two bits of research we can gingerly speculate that shit bugs some people, but not everyone.

There’s not much beyond Caplan to confirm or deny the irritant qualities of poor anal hygiene. Some portion of humanity experiences itchy discomfort when fecal matter remains on their anus, and some do not. The irritation may fade with time, or be resolved with a quick scratch, which for some (at some places and times throughout history) is not a problem.

From this meager research I propose that sometimes throughout humanity’s existence people have cleaned and sometimes they have not. Those who cleaned probably used whatever was most convenient. But, let’s carry this thought experiment a little further.

First – the toilet hygiene habits of nomadic people and the toilet hygiene habits of city people will most likely differ. If you’re moving around with your nomad crew it’s easy to identify suitable areas for waste, use them, cover them up, and move on. In cities you have to start worrying about the accretion of excretion. 

Second – if you’re moving around you might use different methods at different locations. One place has good, smooth stones; another has broad thick leaves, etc. Sometimes you use dirt or sand and the river water. If you’re in a settled area with built structures, your variety of resources becomes limited.

Third – much of human existence, before writing and built structures, played out along rivers and near large bodies of water. Fresh water is necessary to live, and it attracts a variety of animals which can either be nourishment, or lead to nourishment. There’s also an abundance of food just under the water. Close association with water also probably meant close association with using it, perhaps even for cleanliness. And it is not outrageous to believe some people used water for cleanliness.

Fourth – we can presume that there were cultural norms about toilet hygiene passed down from generation to generation. (Though there seems to be little research in intergenerational transmission of toilet habits.) And if that’s the case, we can speculate that some of the earliest written directions were probably rooted in an oral history that stretched back for generations.

Now let’s combine the above speculative anthropology with some tales of non-European cultures recorded by Europeans encountering indigenous people in the western hemisphere. Many of these explorers noted the exceptional cleanliness of the people they met. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, describing a visit to New World at the end of the fifteenth century wrote about the indigenous he met that ‘theyr bodies are verye smothe and clene by reason of theyr often washinge.” In a different translation he notes that “when they empty the stomach they do everything so as not to be seen, and in this they are clean and decent.”

When the conquering conquistadors first saw Tenochtitlan in 1519 they marveled at the extraordinary architecture. Like the Romans, the Mexica were enamored with water technology, and the citizens bathed once or twice a day. There were even public baths, just as there were in Rome. Bernal Diaz del Castillo writes about communal steam baths, and, with some embarrassment, calls attention the Mexica method of dealing with human waste.

“boat loads of human ordure were on the borders of the adjoining canals for the purpose of tanning leather, which they said could not be done without it. Some may laugh at this, but I assert the fact is as I here state it, and moreover, upon all the public roads, places for passengers to resort to, were built of canes and thatched with straw or grass in order to collect this material [human excrement].”

He doesn’t address their toilet hygiene, but they were bathing daily (at a minimum).

A few centuries later Olaudah Equiano recalls in his autobiography that the Ibo people, his people before being kidnapped into slavery, were fastidious about cleanliness.

“Ritual hand washing, including a purification before mealtime, was both a ‘necessary habit of decency,’ and ‘a part of religion’ among the Ibo, Equiano explained. ‘Before we taste food we always wash our hands,’ he noted, adding that ‘our cleanliness on all occasions is extreme; but on this it is an indispensable ceremony.’”

Again, not specifically about toilet hygiene, but we might presume what he means by “on all occasions.”

This attitude toward cleanliness isn’t universal. Modern reports on feral children like Lucien Malson’s book on “wolf children” found no disgust at human excrement.

Western Europe itself has flippantly been accused of not taking a bath for a thousand years (“mille ans sans bain” as French historian Jules Michelet wrote). Though some scholars, like Dr. Eleanor Janega, are not happy with this characterization. Soap and bathing were well known in medieval western Europe according to Professor Janega.

So, we are able to surmise that some, but not all, human cultures have felt it important to clean themselves after defecation.

From this I conjecture that nearly every natural element has been used to clean. The most likely candidates for cleaning away the filth are water, leaves, suitably shaped sticks, smooth stones, snow, handfuls of grass, hay, or moss, and a variety of fabrics. 

So, when we piece together —

  • a) the irritation of itchy discomfort,
  • b) the core human element of disgust,
  • c) the pattern recognition of seeing the connection between cleanliness and health, and
  • d) the availability of plentiful water supplies,

we can conjecture with some confidence that there are times and cultures where people avoided human excrement and cleaned themselves to avoid having shit on their bodies or hands. Perianal cleansing is not a modern development. While perhaps not universal, it is part of the human condition. To accomplish this, humans have used a broad variety of tools and methods.

However. And this is a big however, there is also a substantial part of the human experience which is indifferent to human waste and personal cleanliness.

We are left with the, perhaps not particularly satisfying, conclusion that at some places and times ass cleaning has been an important part of human culture, and other places and times it has not.

Future archeological research on human coprolites (fossilized human shit), and areas in which they are found, may shed light on some early methods, but there is little physical evidence so far.  With that in mind, there is one particular human characteristic that tilts the norm in favor of cleaning rather than indifference – the human emotion of disgust.

INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY
CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST
CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – 300 CE)
CHAPTER FOUR: CLEANLINESS AND FAITH
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BIDET
CHAPTER SIX: THE INVENTION OF TOILET PAPER
CHAPTER SEVEN: TOILET PAPER TODAY
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER INVENTIONS
CHAPTER NINE: THE FUTURE
CONCLUSION

Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene – Introduction

NOTE: Sometime in mid- to late-April I’ll be publishing Wipe: A Brief History of Toilet Hygiene in the Hillsborough River Press 1-Hour Read series. It is currently in the editing stage. But, since it’s mostly complete, I thought I’d post it here as a series. This blog version has all the bibliographic citations stripped out. The ebook will include references to all the resources I drew from to write this long essay/short book. I’ll publish a chapter every other day.

Another reason to publish it serially on this blog is that seeing it in a different format often allows me to see errors of grammar, spelling, and thought. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Thanks, all. Hope you enjoy.

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The idea for this project was sparked, like so many good ideas, at happy hour. The start of the conversation is lost, but the conclusion was that someone needs to write a history of toilet hygiene. It is likely that people have been cleaning their posteriors since Homo sapiens branched off the tree of humanity. But toilet paper and bidets are recent inventions (compared to how long humans have pooped on this earth), so what did people do before that?

When I got home that night, I made a note “write Wipe, a history of ass cleaning,” in my notebook, then promptly forgot about it.

Last summer I was fishing around for a new writing project and came across my Wipe note. The time had come.

Doing the research for this short book has been a blast. It also continues to resonate with people. Just as it sparked our curiosity that happy hour night, it strikes a chord with everyone I discuss it with. Most are also ready to offer their own tales of wiping woes. Or, sometimes washing woes. Rachel Lea’s excellent dissertation “The Performance of Control and the Control of Performance: Towards a Social Anthropology of Defecation,” really deserves to be published and stocked in libraries around the world. She stumbled across one of the peculiar dilemmas of researching the defecation experience in that “excretion is both talked about and not talked about.”  

Compare the amount of literature and research on eating to the amount of literature and research on the other end of the alimentary canal. We do them both, but only one is suitable to discuss in public.

However, among friends and acquaintances, scatological discussions are prevalent. Lea pointed out a rhetorical quirk I hadn’t noticed until reading her dissertation. She saw that people tend to ‘bracket’ their conversations about shit and shit-related matters. 

“During the course of my research I noticed that whenever themes of defecation arose at dinner parties or meal times (a surprisingly not infrequent occurrence) someone at the table made a censoring statement or apology, in reference to the juxtaposition of talking about excrement while eating (e. g. ‘this is a nice thing to be talking about while we’re eating!’, or ‘not while we’re eating!’), which did not stop the conversation but allowed it to continue.”

Illuminated by this passage I noticed the same behavior among my friends. My social circle doesn’t hesitate to discuss matters related to poop, anal cleansing, or anything scatological, but inevitably, once started, they or one of their listeners feel compelled to note the impropriety of the discussion.

I was born in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, and was trained to be a wiper. The world, I’ve learned, is divided into wipers and washers, each deeply disturbed by what they perceive as the other’s lack of personal hygiene. I’ve learned while writing this book that the happiest of the lot are those who have managed to incorporate a balance of both methods into their lives. 

Researching this book showed that the more scholarly the work the more anxious the authors were about language. W. I. Miller’s introduction to The Anatomy of Disgust is a particularly good example of this anxiety. “I have tried to maintain decorum without also becoming boring or silly, erring I think on the prissy side.”

Shit is so tightly bound up in human shame and disgust, and also so profoundly ubiquitous, that it plays a role unlike any other in the human experience. It’s a frequent synonym for elements of life, both good and bad. That shit is great, but that other shit ain’t. I want the good shit, don’t give me the bad shit. Given its prevalence, both as a term and as an experience, it’s nearly impossible to write a straight-forward account of human excreta without resorting to clinical and distancing language like excretion, defecation, and hygiene, or constantly looking over one’s shoulder in case some inadvertent pun has slipped through.

However, if you embrace the puns and the scatological humor then you’re not going to be taken seriously. This book, I hope, falls somewhere in-between. It’s not totally scholarly shit, but it’s also not all bathroom humor.

Let me clarify that this is not a work about sewers, sewage systems, toilets, the psychological and cultural meaning of poop, or whether squatting or sitting is superior. To keep the book short, I’ve focused on the history of anal cleansing, which I euphemistically refer to as toilet hygiene. Think of it as a brief romp through the history of wiping away the poop. That said, some excursions beyond the material history are unavoidable. Once learning about them how could I neglect writing about toilet demons? Exactly. I could not.

If you have any suggestions to make this work better; stuff I missed, mischaracterizations, errors of fact, or poorly considered opinions, please let me know. I’m looking forward to a much-improved second edition once I get feedback from you.

INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER ONE: PREHISTORY
CHAPTER TWO: DISGUST
CHAPTER THREE: CLASSICAL ERA (~3200 BCE – 300 CE)
CHAPTER FOUR: CLEANLINESS AND FAITH
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BIDET
CHAPTER SIX: THE INVENTION OF TOILET PAPER
CHAPTER SEVEN: TOILET PAPER TODAY
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER INVENTIONS
CHAPTER NINE: THE FUTURE
CONCLUSION

heroes

If every grocery store clerk were told – I’ll give you your exact same wage for staying home OR you can continue to work. How many would continue to work?

They aren’t heroes, they are workers working under threat. They are compelled to go to work. If they lose their job, they lose their paycheck. If they lose their paycheck, they can’t pay rent, or buy food, or look after the health of their family, or pay for school.

I mean, I’m glad they’re there, but let’s be realistic about what compels them to be on the ‘front line’.

About Those UTampa Students…

Let’s dial back the vitriol against those University of Tampa students to, like, maybe zero.

University of Tampa spring break was March 9 to March 13. On March 12 the CDC was still reporting no community-transmitted cases of COVID-19 in Florida.

If a responsible student wanted to make a responsible decision, she would probably be directed to the CDC, which said travel was safe, just be reasonably precautious. If they asked the University president, or the Governor, or the Mayor, they probably would have been told the same thing.

If they asked their professors they might have heard, “Well, I’m going to New Orleans,” or “I’m going to Barcelona,” or “I’m going on a cruise.” All things I heard professors say before UT’s spring break.

We also don’t know what those students were doing during ‘spring break’. Not everyone gets wasted at the beach. They might have been working together on their marine biology project. They might have been traveling back to the same home town. They might have gone camping in North Carolina. And, sure, they might have been swapping spit in a dance club.

What’s more upsetting is that a non-trivial number of UT’s outsourced labor force was laid off yesterday. Many those people who clean the buildings, take out the trash, and cook the food are now without a job; many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. That’s not on the students. And that’s getting no viral status or snarky comments. And what’s being done to those workers is far worse than anything any of those students did.

Smart is a euphemism for surveillance

I’m working on a new book for Hillsborough River Press and came across this article – Smart Toilets: The Jetpack of the Bathroom.

A couple of years ago I got into the habit of substituting the word surveillance everytime I saw the word ‘smart’ used as a modifier.

Smart cities are surveillance cities.

Smart toilets are surveillance toilets.

Smart phones are surveillance phones.

It’s a handy reminder of how much information about ourselves and our lives we are willing to share. And how that information is commodified.

A smart toilet can monitor your urine and share that information with your doctor. So healthy! But, you know, what if it’s also spying on you? That line of cocaine you did on New Year’s eve gets noticed and you’re now on a database shared among insurance providers as a high risk candidate.

Or, if you’re a military contractor, can the US government compel you to use a smart toilet as a condition of the contract? And if they’re monitoring you for drugs, do they have to tell you if any illness is detected?

Some of our futures are creepy, indeed.

The Second Edition of My Explainer on the Green New Deal is Here

I posted an ebook earlier this summer about the Green New Deal. I wrote it mostly to figure out if it was something I could support. (I can and do.)

To publish it I created Hillsborough River Press, thinking I might publish a few more works in the coming years. (And, yes, it’s fun and I’ll probably publish a few more things before the year is over.)

I don’t really expect sales for a nano-press like this, especially since I’m not interested in marketing, but it was selling a few issues a week until I received a drive-by 1-star review. Below is the post I made at the Hillsborough River Press website.

UPDATE: The Second Edition of Green New Deal is now available. I want to thank everyone who gave me feedback. The book is now much improved. Thank you!

However, despite their help and positive feedback, sales have dropped to zero. Why? Former Representative (R-PA) Phil English dropped a 1-star comment on the book in Amazon. English clearly never read the book, described it as dishonest, and mischaracterized the purpose of the book (and then whined it didn’t address the strawman arguments he conjured up).

Before English dropped by I was selling a couple of copies a week. Not much, but, you know, it was something. After his comment — zero.

In the conclusion I mention reasons I’m optimistic and reasons I’m pessimistic. Phil English’s disdain for civil discourse, and intellectual cowardice are part of my pessimism. Millions and millions of people see the world the same way he does. And they are going to let the world burn just to mock the liberals they loathe so much. They have neither science nor cogent argument on their side, so they resort to juvenile taunts and false accusations.

If you’re curious, note that this 1HR explainer has 41 endnotes pointing to the evidence I’m paraphrasing, and contains a references page containing (coincidentally) 41 resources that allow you to dig deeper into different aspects of the Green New Deal. If you have any questions or corrections, please let me know.

Hillsborough River Press is in it for the long-haul. This isn’t the only book we’ll publish, and I’m sure Phil English isn’t the only asshole I’ll ever have to deal with.



My Weekend Lament

This passage from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes pretty much runs through my mind every weekend as I look at the stack of books in my to-read pile, and the bookmarked articles in my browser.

    "I earn my living.
    I make enough to get by
    and it takes all my time.
    If I had more time
    I could do more for myself
    and maybe for others.
    I could read and study
    and talk things over
    and find out about things.
    It takes time.
    I wish I had the time."

Hillsborough River Press

I have a new hobby. I decided to start my own press and publish some ebooks.

You can find the first book here – The Green New Deal.

Some background — I write all the time. I also have a full-time job, and, you know, a spouse and friends and chores and various indolent indulgences. All of which means that writing is more of a life-long hobby than a compelling vocation. Nonetheless, I enjoy it and it brings me great satisfaction.

So, to create a new outlet for longer works I launched Hillsborough River Press. This is an ebook only press (for now) and is a home for short books I write. I want to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. I’m shooting for two of each per year. First up explains the Green New Deal, and the 2nd release in September will be a near-future thriller.

I hope this scratches my itch for writing and publishing. So far, setting it up and launching it has been fun. I hope you enjoy it!

I started with zines in the 1990s, and moved to blogging in the 2000s, and now have this micro-micropress. This is the latest iteration of what has been a hobby for over a quarter century now.

The conceit behind The Green New Deal is that it’s part of a series titled 1HR Reads. If you read 300 words a minute, then 15,000 words is about an hour of reading. If you want to be a beta reader and offer feedback, get in touch and I’ll send you a free copy. Feedback can be copy-editing, or looking for contradictions or vague passages, or asking questions to add to the next edition.

I fully expect this book to be updated in a couple of months, so any and all feedback will help with the next edition.

Thanks to everybody for reading, and sharing!

The Green New Deal is the 2016 DNC Platform

I’m near the end of writing a long explanation piece about the Green New Deal. With any luck I’ll be able to talk about it more this weekend!

But, one thing I just noticed while researching is the Green New Deal is almost exactly the 2016 DNC Platform. (This post from ThinkProgress in February noticed the same thing.)

The urgency for dealing with climate catastrophe is more pronounced in the GND, but that makes sense given the current inaction and the sobering analysis of the latest IPCC special report, released after the committee’s work. But, it’s also worth noting that Bill McKibben was part of the drafting committee. (You can find the drafting committee here.)

The platform addresses creating a green infrastructure, green manufacturing, supporting research in climate mitigation, being inclusive, developing resilient cities, building a clean energy economy, clean water, clean air, cleaning up pollution, universal health care, and more. The GND addresses the same topics.

What doesn’t make sense is the hesitancy of “centrist” democrats to support the GND. In 2016 it was their agenda.

The Last Supper Pill

(This is a work of fiction, and takes place in the imaginary town of Abdera, Florida.)

I’ve never met Cindy, but she’s probably my closest friend in Abdera. We speak over the phone first thing every weekday morning. She’s sweet and fun to talk to even if there’s rarely something I can use for the news site, and we sort of have a little flirty thing going on. My name is Gomez Goldenham and I work the police beat for the Abdera Intelligencer, which maybe sounds more impressive than it is.

When she picked up the phone she started with, “Here’s something weird.” Every morning I try to imagine what Cindy looks like and every morning I imagine her looking different than I imagined the day before.

“Finally! You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to hear that.” Usually when I’m talking to Cindy I’m eating a breakfast burrito and drinking a giant iced coffee. This morning was no different. A black rhino everything burrito from the Ghostfood Food Truck is my go-to choice.

“Well, the weirdness is a personal thing,” she said. “I feel happy because I finally have a crime to tell you about. Then I thought that it’s really macabre to be happy, because what happened is super sad. Isn’t that weird? To have these different places in your brain so that you can be happy about something at the same time you’re sad about it?”

“I get it. Like you said, it’s two different parts of your brain. Sorry to prompt the conflict. What happened?”

“Oh, it’s not your fault. At least it better not be! Sorry. Bad joke. Jean Ferrybridge is dead.”

I realized I should be taking notes. I rooted through the remains of take-out and not-quite-finished coffees until I found a pen in an aging donut box (I would throw these things in my trash, but the wastebasket is full and I’m too lazy to take it to the dumpster). I pulled a piece of paper from the printer sitting on the corner of my desk. “Tell me again what happened.”

“We got a 911 just after midnight. Someone driving by Jean’s house saw the door was open and called us. Roger answered the call. She was already dead when he got there.”

“What was the cause of death?”

Cindy paused. “You know what? I’m not sure what I can say about this. I should probably check with Pollux.”

Pollux is James Pollux, chief of police of Abdera, Florida. “I understand. How about off the record?”

“And you won’t report it? I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Promise. Not until we get official word from Captain Pollux.”

“Somebody beat her to death, Go. Roger said it was bad.”

“That’s horrible. Was it a robbery?”

“It didn’t look like it as far as Roger could tell. But, they’re out at the crime scene now.”

“Thanks, Cindy. Do you think it’d be OK if I head out there?” That may sound like I’m asking permission to do my job, but I’m really making sure I don’t get her in trouble. I like Cindy.

“I suppose so. Just tell the Captain that I didn’t tell you nothin’.”

I asked for the address and she gave it to me.

“Thanks, Go. Like I said, I’m happy I had something for you this morning, but I’m also sad I had something for you this morning.”

“I appreciate it Cindy. I might call later if I have any follow up questions.”

I couldn’t remember how I knew the name Jean Ferrybridge so I googled her.

Lambert, the editor, publisher, and lead reporter for the Abdera Intelligencer walked into the office two minutes after I started my search. Lambert was my boss and hired me right out of J-school. She was a weird combination of cynical and sincere, and oversaw everything printed in the paper and on the website.

“What are you doing here?”

I was a little thrown by her comment. I was always at work on time, and today wasn’t my day off. “Working. Guess what?”

“They found Jean Ferrybridge dead last night.” She dropped her bag on her chair. Lambert has her own office, but mostly we all worked in the large central space. Not that there were many of us.

“That’s right. How did you know?”

“I’m a fucking reporter, Gomez. Shouldn’t you be at the crime scene?” Lambert was texting someone on her phone while talking to me.

“I was looking up Jean on the internet.”

“Let me rephrase that – get out to the crime scene. Talk to the captain, the deputy, then talk to the neighbors to see if anybody heard or saw anything last night. The internet will still be here when you get back.” She shot me a look that asked ‘are you still here?’

“Got it.” I hesitated. There was something I had to ask. “Lambert, do you want to take this? It’s probably a pretty big story.” My few minutes of googling revealed that the Ferrybridges had been influential in Abdera for generations.

“I do not. You have the police beat. This is your story. We all have to start somewhere, Gomez. If you have any questions, or need anything, give me a call. Actually, check in with me in about an hour and let me know how it’s going.”

“Thanks, Lambert.”

“Don’t thank me. Get the fuck out of here and get to work.”

#

“Hey, hey, it’s Hambone. How’s the reporting, Goldie?” My first week on the job Lambert took me to the police station to introduce me as the new police beat reporter. Cindy was out picking up lunch that day, something I learned later she was expected to do every day. Roger couldn’t stop laughing when he learned my last name was Goldenham and started making fun of my name immediately. He thinks he’s funny, but he’s an asshole.

“Hi, Roger. I heard about Jean Ferrybridge. I’m here to report on it. Find out what happened.” Jean’s house was on a small man-made bluff overlooking the bay in a cluster of fancy old-for-Florida homes.

“That’s Deputy Tiger to you and right now this is an ongoing investigation. We have no comment for the press. Why don’t you go grab yourself a couple of burritos, Hamhock. We’ll call you when we have something to say.”

I pulled out my phone and turned on the audio record.

“Can you tell me what happened to Jean Ferrybridge?”

Roger chuckled. “No comment, Goldenboy.” I felt my face turning red. I’d been bullied all my life because of my weight, and I still didn’t know how to deal with it. My go-to solution was to avoid people, but I couldn’t avoid Roger Tiger if I wanted to do my job.

“Gomez Goldenham! I thought we’d see you soon.” Chief Pollux walked out the front door and across the lawn. Pollux I could deal with. If he wasn’t interested in politics and running for office, he was missing out. He was easily the most charismatic person I’ve ever met.

“Hi Chief. I heard what happened to Jean. I came to see what you’ve learned so far.”

Roger smirked at me. “I’m going to finish up inside, Chief. Adios, Hammyham.”

“Thank you, Deputy.” The Chief turned his full attention to me. He was impossibly handsome and had a way of making you feel special. “Right now we have nothing to report. I can confirm that Jean Ferrybridge is dead. I can tell you that we are treating this like a murder, and we have no motive.”

“How did you find out about it?”

“We received an anonymous tip sometime after midnight.”

“Do you know when you’ll have a more complete statement?”

“Right after lunch. I’ll call you personally. Right now, though, I need to get back inside and wrap up this part of the investigation.”

“Will you be bringing in any outside resources? I mean, are you contacting the FBI?”

Pollux smiled and held out his hand to halt my questioning. “I’ll be in touch.”

I shook his hand and walked back to my aging Hyundai. Roger’s comment about burritos had me craving another breakfast burrito from the Ghostfood Food Truck. I promised myself I could stop by Ghostfood for at least a coffee once I’d talked to the neighbors.

None of the neighbors I spoke with admitted to seeing anything the night before, or to being the person who called 911. They all agreed it was horrible and everybody presumed it was a robbery gone wrong. Jean was well-known in the community, and while not precisely well-loved, no one hated her enough to kill her, and no one could imagine she had any enemies that would resort to this kind of violence.

After walking up and down the block and knocking on doors I squeezed into my rattletrap Hyundai and drove to the Ghostfood Food Truck.

#

Marco runs the Ghostfood Food Truck which is usually parked in the Gaspar Business Park parking lot outside of downtown. He tries to recreate foods and recipes that have been lost. For example, it’s the only place in town you can get hardtack. He sprinkles it on his chicken chili, which he calls the Dodo Delight. The truck is covered with info about animals and plants that have gone extinct, or about to go extinct, and he features pretend extinct dishes, like Dodo Delight (chicken chili) or Sabretooth sandwiches (pulled pork). Maybe not the greatest marketing idea, but he makes up for it by having the best coffee in town.

If Cindy was the closest of my nonexistent friends, Marco was a close second. I saw him almost every day and we usually chatted for a couple of minutes when I ordered my coffee or breakfast burrito.

“What’s up, Primo?” I fought the temptation to get a mid-morning snack and ordered a large coffee.

“Jean Ferrybridge was killed last night, and I’ve been talking to neighbors.” I don’t know how he managed to make his coffee so good, but I wanted it to rest on my tongue for eternity.

“No shit? Fuck. I knew Jean.” Marco handed me my coffee.

Instantly my mind was off the coffee and on Marco.

“Really? I’m sorry man. I would have been more sensitive if I’d known. I didn’t mean to blurt it out like that.”

“No, that’s alright. I mean, it sucks. I mean… I don’t know what I mean. I need to take a minute.”

“Sure.”

Marco came out from the truck and sat at one of the nearby picnic tables. He pulled out his vape and took a drag. I sat across from him, blowing on my coffee and taking tiny sips.

“I’m real sorry. How did you know Jean?”

“She comes… used to come to the food truck. She loved it. She was always telling me about exotic recipes I could make if we really had extinct animals. She was crazy about food. In fact, we belonged to a supper club together.”

“A supper club? What’s that?”

“Weird shit. She thought I’d fit in because of the truck, y’know?”

“What kind of weird shit?”

“Well, like one time we all went and got fecal implants.” Marco grinned at the memory.

“What. The. Actual. Fuck? How does that have anything to do with food? That’s like the opposite of food.”

Marco nodded, still smiling. “Yeah. I told you it was weird shit. Ha! I guess in that case literally. She said it was a way to feed our microbiome. That it would give us a whole new outlook on what it meant to nourish ourselves.”

“Did it?”

“Yeah. I guess so. I didn’t even know what a microbiome was before that. You know we’re mostly not us? We’re mostly microscopic organisms like bacteria. More than half of us is not human.”

“I had no idea. That IS some weird shit. Anything else?” I had about a thousand questions about fecal implants, but it felt inappropriate to grill him at that moment.

“Sometimes it was exotic meals. One time she had Seema Surly from Drinkwater Labs bring us some glow-in-the-dark chile peppers she had gene-spliced together from some bioluminescent fish. One time we had a meal with the recipes completely created by an AI, but then a person cooked it. That was crazy. Most of that shit was inedible. There’d be like a pound of salt and a teaspoon of chicken.”

A beat-up burgundy Impala drove up into the lot and two guys who looked like carnival workers got out.

“It looks like I got customers.” Marco put his vape away. “Oh yeah,” he pulled a pill from his pocket where he kept his vape. “Jean just sent these out. They are supposed to be a part of our next supper party.”

“Can I see it?”

“Sure.” Marco handed me the pill and went inside the truck.

Then things moved really fast. The two men did not move to the order window. One of them walked up to me, moving quickly. The other followed Marco into the truck, pushing him through the door.

I’ve never been hit in my life. My mom didn’t believe in corporal punishment, so I’ve never even been spanked. Bullies taunted me mercilessly, but no one has ever hit me. As long as you don’t count getting your ears flicked or the occasionally slap across the head by a high school bully. This was nothing compared to that. This was a full-on punch in the face. It hurt really bad and I started to cry. I could hear Marco scuffling in the truck. I tried to stand up, but the man pushed me down by the shoulders.

Both men were shouting something, asking questions, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. There was too much confusion. Too much pain.

Finally I understood the man in the truck as he shouted out “He doesn’t have it. He said he gave it to fatty there.”

“Where’s the fucking pill?” Through bleary eyes I could see the man with his fist cocked back. He was short and burly, bald with a long thin black ponytail, and a pockmarked deeply tanned face. For some reason it seemed weird to me in that moment that he was wearing flip-flops and cargo shorts. He also scared the shit out of me.

The pill was in my hand. Without thinking I put it in my mouth and bit down.

“You dumb fuck.” He tried to get his hand in my mouth, but I bit him, then I kept chewing the pill. As we wrestled I fell off the picnic table and onto the pitted blacktop.

This isn’t actually much of a surprise if you knew me. I’m a compulsive eater. During one of the last conversations I ever had with my mom while I lived at home she said “Do you have to put every goddamn thing into your mouth?” That was the day I knew it was time to move out. We’ve talked since, but not much. What WAS surprising was the pill. It sort of exploded in my mouth. Not exploded in a fizzy way like an effervescent candy, but exploded with flavor like it was filling my mouth with food. It was shocking and disconcerting and I might have spit it out, it was so unexpected, except for the guy trying to stick his fingers in my mouth to scoop it out.

I couldn’t tell if I was really eating food, or if it was just some sort of flavor explosion. My mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening  in my mouth. It was like I was eating a whole meal. Literally. First was a strong taste of bibb lettuce with a raspberry and balsamic vinegar dressing. I kept chewing and swallowing, keeping my face away from the guy poking at my mouth. Next was the taste of steak, then buttery potatoes, then steak and potatoes. It was amazing, and amazingly delicious.

“Goddamn it! He ate it.”

At the very end I could taste Key Lime pie. I burped.

“You stupid son-of-a-bitch.” It happened in slow motion, but I was frozen, like I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about moving. He punched me again. This time I felt my nose shift and heard a crunch.

Weirdly, the breaking of my nose didn’t hurt as much as the earlier punch. My guess is because my body flooded with endorphins and other pain killers to keep me from going completely mad. Instead I felt really itchy on the inside of my face, like a swarm of ants were trying to make their way out.

The two men got in their car and drove away. Marco knelt beside me and turned me on my right shoulder.

“Spit out the blood. We don’t want you choking.”

I spat. “The pill. They wanted the pill.” It was hard to breathe and I kept spitting blood, letting it drool out of the side of my mouth.

“Did they get it?”

I spat some more. The blood in my mouth was starting to make me feel sick. I wondered if I vomited if I’d see meat and potatoes and key lime pie. It crossed my mind that I should vomit just as an experiment to test my taste experience against the contents of my stomach.

“I ate it.”

“You what?”

“I didn’t mean too. When I get nervous I eat things. I put it in my mouth without even thinking.”

“Do you feel alright?”

My head ached and my face hurt a lot, but my nausea was settling down and the bleeding seemed to be bothering me less, though it was still flowing profusely and I was still spitting. But, I knew he was asking about the pill.

“It was like eating a whole meal.”

“You mean because of all the blood you swallowed?” Marco looked confused and a little worried. I could see he was thinking that punch knocked me loopy.

“No. The pill. It was like a meal in a pill.”

His eyes opened wide like he understood something. “I bet that’s exactly what it was. Jean sent it to us for the next supper club meeting. I bet that was going to be our meal.”

“It was intense. I didn’t know something like that was possible. It’s like a pill out of Willie Wonka.” The blacktop was starting to feel uncomfortable and I wondered if I should move.

“Yeah. Pretty wild. I wonder where she got them. Hey, do you think those guys maybe killed Jean?”

“Yeah. Maybe.” I needed to call Lambert. I also probably needed to call Chief Pollux. “Can you help me up?”

“You just lie there. You might be concussed. Let me get you some towels and put some pressure on that nose. It looks like he broke it. You look fucked up, Primo.” Marco left to get some towels and I idly wondered where my phone was.

Then I puked up what felt like a bucket of blood. There was some breakfast burrito in there, but no steak and potatoes. And, no key lime pie.

He came back with towels. I wiped my face, spit, and he handed me a towel full of ice I put on my forehead as close as I could get to my nose. The coolness felt good, but I couldn’t touch my nose or my cheeks.

“Wait a minute. You said us. You said Jean sent it to us.”

“Yeah, for the next supper club.”

“How did those guys know to come to you? How did they know you had the pill? Do you think they know who Jean sent the pills to?”

“I don’t see how.”

“Did she send an email about it? Maybe she had an address list at her home.”

“No, dude, she totally sent us an email. I bet you’re right. I need to let everybody know.”

“I need to call too. Do you see my phone?”

“Yeah. It’s here on the table.” Marco handed me my phone. “I’ll be right back.” He went to his food truck, I assume to start making calls. I wondered if I might be bleeding to death. There was a lot of blood still flowing from my face.

I didn’t know whether to call Lambert or the police first. I called Lambert.

“Start calling those people immediately. Text me the names. I’ll contact Captain Pollux and let him know about the assault.”

I did exactly as Lambert suggested. Marco and I didn’t reach everybody, but he at least left a message, or texted everyone in the supper club and managed to speak to two members.

I wanted to race to warn someone, but Marco closed up the food truck and drove me to the emergency room in his pick-up truck. I laid down in back, bleeding all over the bed of his truck. I was quite dizzy from all the blood loss, and my headache kept getting more and more intense.

#

As I was getting checked for a concussion Lambert texted me to let me know the police arrested the attackers.

#

The next day I was coping with a profound headache. Lambert took over the story. It turned out that a research scientist named Seema Surly had been killed at Drinkwater Labs the same night as Jean Ferrybridge, though no one discovered her body until the next night; the night I was hanging out in the hospital.

Surly’s killer was Drinkwater’s attorney. She was trying to steal the recipe for the meal-in-a-pill invention Surly created. Surly shared a batch of prototype pills with Ferrybridge and Ferrybridge’s supper club. That was the pill I ate when attacked at Ghostfood.

A few days later I was back at work with a healing nose and two glorious shiners. I was feeling really down about myself because the first big story I had to break I instead broke my nose. Lambert was the best, but I still felt gloomy.

As I brooded about what a loser I was I got a text from Marco: Meet me at the food truck when you get off work. I have a surprise.

After work I drove to Ghostfood thinking maybe he made me a special treat. Marco told me he was taking me somewhere and directed me to his truck. I sat in the front this time. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I wondered if Marco and I might be on our way to being friends. That would be nice. I’d never had many friends, but I’d never felt lonely until I moved to Abdera and away from Mom.

Eventually I realized we were driving to the Drinkwater estate. I realized it as we passed the open gates with DRINK on one gate and WATER on the other. My journalistic powers of super deduction at work.

“Why are we going to Drinkwater’s?”

“You’ll find out.”

I followed Marco through the front door and into a huge dining room. A group of people holding an assortment of wine and cocktail glasses mingled near a bar at one end of the room.

“Here he is! The man of the hour.” Harlen Drinkwater separated from the group and came to me and shook my hand. “Let me get you a drink.” I recognized Harlen from the news website. We wrote a lot about his charitable work, which always included pictures of him toasting or drinking.

I blushed, but it was probably impossible to tell given the state of my face.

“Thanks, but I didn’t really do anything.” I felt a little embarrassed to have all this attention on me.

“Nonsense. You broke the case wide open.” Like my nose, I thought. “If you hadn’t been at the food truck, only God knows what those creeps might have done to Marco. And, if you hadn’t eaten the pill, they might have stolen it and made their getaway. And, the two of you managed to contact everyone and get the police to understand the seriousness of the situation.”

“Okay. Thank you. Still, I feel like I was just doing my job.”

“Here’s to doing your job. Cheers!” Everyone lifted their glass and we drank a toast.

Drinkwater’s face turned serious. “This isn’t all a celebration, however. We lost two wonderful amazing people a few days ago. Both were important to me, but one especially was important to this group. Here’s to Jean.” We drank another toast.

Drinkwater gestured for us all to sit down at the dining room table at the other end of the room, and I took a seat next to Marco. Each of us had a silver service set in front of us with a gleaming lid covering a silver plate.

“Tonight’s dinner is in Jean’s memory. And tonight we also welcome, if he will have us, a new member to the supper club.” Drinkwater focused his attention on me. “Gomez Goldenham, on behalf of the supper club I’d like to ask you to join us as our newest member. I think you will find it a rewarding experience.”

I felt awkward and flattered. “Yes. That would be nice. I’d like that a lot.”

“Then welcome!” We drank another toast. “And now, tonight’s dinner.” Drinkwater gestured and we removed the silver covers from our plates. Sitting on the gleaming silver was a single pill. A pill like the one I ate at Ghostfood.

“What you see before you is the last batch of the Drinkwater Meal-in-a-Pill invented by Seema Surly. Seema was a brilliant scientist and a dear friend and I miss her deeply. Unfortunately when Seema died the secret of their production died with her. She wrote many notes, but she kept a few secrets locked away in her head. I don’t know yet if I’ll keep the labs working on unlocking those secrets, but even if I do there’s no guarantee anyone will ever match Seema’s singular genius. I admit I don’t know what we’re eating tonight. The pills have been distributed randomly. Please describe your sensations as we eat.

“Gomez, as our newest member and tonight’s guest of honor will you do us the honor of eating the first pill?”

I nodded silently and awkwardly popped the meal-in-a-pill in my mouth. This time I chewed slowly and enjoyed the strange sensation. I described everything I tasted to my new friends.

END

Tampa, FL

May 2019

AFTERWORD: As I started the current iteration of this blog at the beginning of 2019, I posted some fictional entries as if from a young man newly arrived in Abdera. Regular posting, as has been the case for nearly a decade now, became untenable as the semester got underway and sucked up all my time. However, I kept writing notes and ideas about that character, and he eventually became Gomez Goldenham, the protagonist of this story.

Initially this story had a lot more future food stuff. It was more of a quest/mystery where the protagonist had to go from person to person, place to place and getting his clue card stamped until he solved the mystery. In the end I ditched the mystery-solving and decided to write a story about meeting new friends.