The feral man grows anxious. Unearthed from the wilderness like some uprooted turnip, he has been transferred to a major metropolis. The feral man has been washed, shaved, shorn, and clothed. He always feels slightly cold, as if all the doors and windows in his house have been left open. Except that the feral man has never lived in a house. He now lives in a condo on the west side where all the corporate coffee shops have proliferated in excess like a spate of wild mushrooms. The real estate developer, who discovered the feral man when he razed and cleared his former wooded zip code, has generously donated an apartment in one of his buildings. For the real estate developer, the feral man is a tax write-off. Or so the legend goes.
“So what’s your story, bub?” asks the job interviewer, assessing the feral man. The feral man reaches into his back pocket and proffers a crumpled newspaper clipping explaining the story. The job interviewer bobs his head up and down. He examines the news article, looks to the feral man, and grows dreamy-eyed with possibilities. “I think we could use a guy like you.” The feral man gives a thumbs-up sign. He just learned how to do this.
On his first day of work, the feral man shows up in a suit and tie. The other workers change his business jacket to a blue vest with a boldly printed nametag. The feral man stands at the entrance to the mechanical sliding doors and gives thumbs-up signs to customers wheeling wire carts. After the first fifteen minutes, someone pulls him aside and tells him to smile. The feral man doesn’t know how to smile. He bares his fangs, first ferociously and then mildly. His mouth looks awkward and distorted, as if it’s learning to grasp loose dentures. They tell him to go back to giving the thumbs-up sign.
The feral man looks for love in all the wrong places. First, he goes into bars. Some bars are so loud that his back teeth ache with the booming noise. Some bars are deathly quiet. He enters, sits down, and finds that everyone is lying face down on the counter, collectively asleep like in a fairy tale. He kisses a woman on the forehead to wake her up, and her old man hits him over the head with a beer bottle. The feral man is stunned. Lonely and dejected, he wanders the streets of the city in a thoughtless, drifting haze. Romantic travails are as random and spontaneous as mold spores.
The feral man has joined the rat race. He works himself into the ground. He does grunt work, busy work, dirty work. He works around the clock but all in a day’s work. He makes hard work into light work, but this is never short work. Often it’s a nasty piece of work. He works up a sweat. He hopes to God he doesn’t gum up the works. So he works his fingers to the bone. He works his ass off. It never works both ways although sometimes it works like a charm. Sometimes it works wonders. He has his work cut out for him. It’s still nice work if you can get it.
The feral man is waiting in line for coffee. He’s nervous about running late. He shifts his balance from his right foot to his left, his patent leather shoes squeaking with compressed air. He flicks the glass face of his watch with his pointer finger, hoping to shake a few minutes off, like an up-ended sugar packet. When it’s his turn to order he asks for a medium decaf as someone snorts derisively behind him. He hears, “Decaf? What’s the point?” The feral man thinks about that for the rest of the day.
The myth of the feral man has disappeared from the collective consciousness like yesterday’s crossword answers. He’s not the feral man anymore, and now he has to pick a new name. Someone suggests Harold Crumbley, and he issues this person a withering stare. He’s always harbored a fondness for trees, and he tries out the name, Branch Redwood. He says, “Hi, I’m Branch Redwood,” and his coworkers erupt into raucous laughter. The feral man learns to roll his eyes. Like the rest of us, he begins to wonder who he really is.
Today the feral man applies for a social security number. When he gets to the front of the line, he pulls down his pants and points to the crook behind his right knee. This is where he’d like the number inked or the microchip inserted. The feral man has been watching a lot of television lately, and he still identifies with his canine counterparts. He was surprised to learn that humans catalog themselves with numbers, but who is he to question how things are done? The government employee doesn’t understand, and the feral man is escorted outside by security to await sex offender registration. Once the misunderstanding is cleared up, the government employee apologizes and presents him with a tiny blue card. She is a nice young woman from Ohio, and she warns him not to lose it. She tells him that people die, dehydrated and soaking, on inner tubes while braving stormy seas for a chance to some day own one of these tiny blue cards. He must be very careful with his. The feral man considers this. He considers how he got there. After being shot in the leg with a tranq gun, he woke up hairless and cold in a hospital. They shined bright lights into his eyes, wheeled him in and out of the bellies of metal tubes, and hit both his knees with rubber hammers. The feral man has paid his dues, and he pockets his new blue card.
The feral man grows nauseous while sitting on the bus. It rocks him from side to side. It stops and starts like nothing he’s ever experienced before. Just when it feels like he isn’t getting anywhere, he arrives at his destination. One day he looks down and finds the tiniest spider crawling across the buttoned gap of his shirt. It is smaller than his smallest fingernail. It is smaller than the small buttons on the cuffs of his sleeves. On a bus ambling down a busy city boulevard, the spider has arrived at the same moving corner of the universe where the feral man finds himself now. When he is sure no one is looking, he pops it into his mouth and chews.
When he was a boy—a young pup raised in the wilderness by a pack of wild dogs—he would circle and sniff and pace. He would relax on his haunches and dig his fingernails into the soft, black earth. He would feel a westerly wind, taste the salt in the air, and know it was about to rain. Now he waits in line at the bank in order to deposit his paycheck. The feral man doesn’t trust ATMs. He thinks his paycheck will get lost somehow. It might get stuck between a gear and a sprocket.
In order for the feral man to qualify for medical disability, the doctors have to prove that he has brain damage. Living in the wilderness deprived of human contact for the entirety of his life has robbed him of important developmental stages. An MRI of his brain shows dark shadows of retarded neural activity while other parts are as bright and buzzing as the city lights. The feral man has excellent night vision but gets intense migraines from bad fluorescent lighting. One doctor wants to write an academic paper about him. Another has an idea for a screenplay. The feral man composes a haiku:
Wearing paper dress
A soft breeze gently beckons
Where have my pants gone?
The feral man is afraid of something, but he doesn’t know what. Most nights his dreams are filled with wild sleeping dogs. They sleep on top of each other, and when the wind blows through their fur, it looks like a rippling meadow of uncut black grass. The individual odors composing each dog’s identity overlap and ricochet and absorb. Similar to the way you or I might count sheep in order to fall asleep, the dogs try to differentiate each other through smell alone until they grow weary and confused and slip into leg-twitching dreams. The feral man sleeps alone in an apartment that forbids pets. He lies on expensive cotton bed sheets and curls into the fetal position.
The feral man attempts to paint a self-portrait, but he doesn’t get very far. He has set up an easel in front of a full-length mirror. Reds have been mixed with blues, which have been mixed with yellows, until an anemic shade of gray is splattered on his palette like pigeon droppings. His perspective grows hazy, and angular lines never properly converge. He looks out his window and considers the moon. Sometimes on long walks around the city, it follows him as if tied to a string stuck to the bottom of his shoe. The moon stares senselessly like a blind eye. The feral man turns a corner, and the moon hangs back, having lost interest. The feral man looks at his work-in-progress and wonders how to paint the whites of his eyes so that they’re not so white. He wants a white that naturally occurs in nature, and he wonders how one goes about getting that.
The feral man floats in and out of broken English. He weaves between American brand names and guttural Germanic grunts like he’s maneuvering a high-speed chase on the autobahn. Often he mixes up pronouns, using the feminine to refer to men or combining both forms into a hermaphroditic “he-she.” Some people think he’s doing this on purpose. Some people think he’s commenting on the patriarchal construct of society and that by dismantling English, he is dismantling man’s fabricated identity. Nevertheless, gender roles remain as level as a bookcase. He opens doors for strange women, and on the rare occasions that he wears a hat, he removes it in polite greeting. Everything he learned about being a man he learned from watching old black-and-white movies.
Somehow, by bureaucratic mix-up or the crooked finger of fate, the feral man is handed an assistant professorship at the local college. He exchanges his business jacket for a tweed sports coat with leather patches on the elbows. The feral man teaches women’s studies by way of a clerical error.
The feral man never walks at a restrained pace. Instead he hurries forward, rocking from side to side like a cross-country skier, in order to gain more distance. He leans forward slightly, dissecting atmospheric pressure with the pate of his head. He parts air with the part in his hair. He barrels down the center of the quad as students lie on the grass, tanning their hides and propelling plastic discs. The Frisbees hover in the air like UFOs. Someone starts a rumor that the feral man caught one in his teeth like a trained dog. The feral man begins to get a reputation.
The feral man watches as the students maneuver strange two-wheeled mechanical contraptions. He does a little research and leafs through the moldy, waterlogged encyclopedia he found in a cardboard box in the hallway outside his office. The thing is called a velocipede. He wants to learn more and makes a trip to the local velocipede store. The feral man explains what he wants to the tattooed, scruffy worker who reminds him of a wild dog he used to know. “So you want a bicycle,” says the worker. The feral man purchases a used ten-speed, metallic gray with a red stripe stretched over the crossbar. With the help of a teaching assistant named Ben, the feral man learns to ride a bike. Ben holds the back of the bike seat as the feral man wobbles down the pavement of the faculty parking lot. The feral man’s grimace turns into a genuine smile as the fear of maintaining balance dissipates against the surging enthusiasm of cycling. The feral man turns his head to tell Ben to let go of the seat, only to find that Ben is standing ten feet behind him. The feral man crashes to the ground and yells at Ben for letting go before he was told.
The feral man has no sense of private property. At dinner parties he likes to quote Karl Marx. Sometimes he even smokes a pipe. The feral man says, “Capitalism makes human exploitation economically viable.” He thinks America is the House of Plenty and that it’s time to burn it down and collect the insurance. “Whatever the hell that means,” someone loudly whispers. The feral man can smell human discomfort. The cheap wine makes him maudlin, and he grows nostalgic for a hunter-gatherer society. In the dimly lit hallway outside the bathroom, he hits on the dean’s wife.
The feral man’s fingers are abnormally dexterous. He could work part-time as a magician. He could set up shop in a subway tunnel dealing three-card Monte on a foldout table. He’d say, “Show me the queen,” before shuffling the three cards furiously, alternating the order into impossible possibilities like some deranged macramé braid. You’d point and say, “The middle one! The middle one!” You’d be positive that you bested him, but you never would. He would be too fast for that. The dean’s wife coos about the feral man’s “magic hands.” The feral man’s reputation grows like that single black hair sprouting from the back of the dean’s neck.
The feral man has receding gum lines. Like a fading shoreline eroding as the elements gnaw away the perimeter, his gums retract and disappear millimeter by millimeter. Gums are a natural resource. While fingernails are an accumulation of cells, elongating toward infinity, the gums push backward against gravity and time. They devolve into nonexistence. They are as waning and impermanent as the rain forest or the ozone layer. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and there’s no operation or skin graft extracted from the inner thigh that will bring them back. After gagging on a single swallow of orange juice, the feral man makes his first dental appointment. The dentist forgot to take his antidepressants that morning and explains that if the feral man is ever burnt alive inside his apartment, the only way the officials can identify him is from his dental records. This remark along with several painful trips to the dental office leaves quite an impression on the feral man. He implements a new dental regimen with militaristic gusto. First, he vigorously brushes his teeth for fifteen minutes until his mouth overflows with toothpaste foam. Then he flosses his teeth in as thorough and painstaking a technique as the diffusing of a nuclear bomb. He’s religious about using unwaxed floss, and the “scritch, scritch, scritch” of nylon against bicuspid sounds like a heartbroken cicada sounding off its suicide. Old habits die hard though, and on certain restless nights he gnaws on a twig in order to fall asleep.
The feral man keeps losing track of his cell phone. One time he found it in the freezer under a pile of frozen steaks. Another time it was shoved through his mail slot with a note attached saying, “Keep track of your objects!!!” Cell phones give him hives. Whenever he talks on one for more than an hour, his neck erupts into an itchy, red Braille of allergic bumps. He runs his finger over them, back and forth, up and down, but he cannot decipher the message. He claws and scratches as if digging out a bloodthirsty tick. The bumps dry out, and the skin flakes off like scales. Sometimes the feral man thinks he’s changing shape, growing gills and returning to the sea from which we all came, all of us.
Sometimes the feral man thinks about shedding his necktie and returning to the woods, if there are any woods left to be lived in. Someone explains recycling to the feral man. He looks up the terms ozone and greenhouse effect in his pregnant collegiate dictionary. The feral man adds two and two together. The feral man silently mouths, “Fuck,” before going off to find the dean’s wife.
The feral man breaks it off with the dean’s wife as she drunkenly threatens to kill herself. He supplicates her with clichés like: “Dammit, Irene, pull yourself together!” Or: “For the love of God, woman, I’m only a man.” The feral man decides he doesn’t know what he’s talking about anymore, and more than Irene’s vomit staining the front of his favorite cashmere sweater, this makes him sad. It’s not that the feral man doesn’t recognize himself anymore. Now more than ever, he knows exactly who he is. He’s never felt as formed and congealed as he does in this moment, holding back Irene’s auburn hair as she dry heaves into the toilet. He’s like a rubber ice cube with a fake bug trapped inside slipped into someone’s cocktail. Existence reveals itself as a humorless, harmless joke.
For the last time, the feral man will make headlines. He dons a rubber wet suit, shiny and new like a baby seal, intending to swim across the English Channel. First he must practice. He stands at one end of the community pool, his toes gripping the concrete edge. A touch of smoke on the open air provokes a memory, and the feral man recalls the only other time in his life he went swimming. A forest fire had chased him and his native pack to the edge of a river, and through sheer will and vigorous paddling, they kept their heads above the rushing current and crossed safely to the other side. But that had been a long time ago. That had been a life-and-death situation. He’s banking on something old and familiar, that primal instinct buried deep within the brain. Fear stirs the hairs on his arms, and the pool’s chlorine throws him off. He spots the teenage lifeguard shifting and fidgeting by the side of the pool. The feral man can smell his thoughts. The boy wants to close early, meet up with some friends in the parking lot, and smoke cigarettes until his voice grows low.
The feral man grits his teeth and focuses on the task at hand. He read somewhere that Plato considered a man who lacked the ability to swim to be uneducated. The feral man attempts a logic problem.
There are two types of men in this world: the educated and the ignorant. If a man can swim, then he is educated. If a man cannot swim, then he is ignorant. If the feral man is educated, then he can swim. Except that when the feral man had been ignorant, he was also able to swim. What are the feral man’s chances of drowning?
Really, there is only one thing left to do. The feral man’s dive into the water is a graceful, balletic plunge, as swift and smooth as a warm knife sinking into softened butter.