Transcript

51:

Animals Die, People Ponder
Transcript

Originally aired 01.24.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/51

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's delicate. It's beautiful. Sandy pulls out a handwritten page that's maybe three inches by five, tiny, black, perfect letters with brilliant orange and blue highlights on thin parchment.

Sandy Hindman

Look at how thin this is.

Ira Glass

This is a page from another book--

Sandy Hindman

This is a page from a 13th century Parisian Bible. And there are hundreds, thousands of these. It was the required book for the University of Paris. There were thousands and thousands of students and professors at the University of Paris over several centuries.

Ira Glass

And what's really amazing about it is that the writing is in two columns, and it looks too small to actually have been written by a human hand.

Sandy Hindman

They invented eyeglasses in the 13th century.

Ira Glass

Sandy is Sandy Hindman, director of an art gallery across from the Louvre that sells Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, head of the art history department at Northwestern University. The reason she knows so much about manuscripts, she tells me, is that she doesn't know anything about anything else.

Sandy Hindman

So they're written all-- like, all, 99.9% of the manuscripts of the Middle Ages are written on parchment. And parchment is animal skin.

Ira Glass

Animal skin. Cows, goats, cats. And in the case of the delicate perfect page that she showed me, probably--

Sandy Hindman

This would be, like, a rat. If you take a whole rat, like this big, sort of the size of what--

Ira Glass

You're holding your hands about a foot apart.

Sandy Hindman

--a foot apart, and you skin it, that makes a bifolium, which is two of these pages. So that's what you would get. And then you'd have to get 600 of those animals to get a book.

Ira Glass

So we're thinking 600 rats, 600 cats, maybe.

Sandy Hindman

Or squirrels or cats. The idea of cats has come up recently because they found all these cat bones, like a mound of cat bones, like a huge mound, like a burial site of cat bones right near the Seine where all the book-- where all the little book shops are now on the Seine, that's exactly where they were in the 15th century.

Ira Glass

Looking at these manuscripts with Sandy, I was really struck by just how complete our dominion is over the animal world, you know? That we could slaughter 300 cats or squirrels or rats or anything just to make this one little, little book.

Sandy Hindman

Now an eighth century book, like The Book of Kells, they say represented a herd of cattle. A Gutenberg Bible, like the first book ever printed is called the Gutenberg Bible, because he invented printing in 1452. So a Gutenberg Bible, each of those was a herd of cattle.

Ira Glass

I think, what would Norman Mailer do, you know? Or David Foster Wallace, what would they do if a couple paragraphs, four paragraphs maybe, you can fit on these tiny pages, if that required the death of, you know, a cow or a cat for every single copy of one of their books? You know, it's no wonder that most of the books back then were religious. What human writing could seem worth it?

Ira Glass

What do we know, if anything, about attitudes in the Middle Ages towards killing off that many animals?

Sandy Hindman

I mean, I don't know anything really. I mean, my guess would be that since there are tons of colophons, that is, little inscriptions in the back, saying "Oh, I'm so pleased to have done this for you, God. This was wonderful. It was worth all the time." So probably they thought that it was great for the animal too. The animal was serving God just like they were by being in a book.

Ira Glass

Faced with the fact of our sheer dominion over animals, there are only a few attitudes possible, really. Guilt, indifference, or piety. Which brings us to today's program. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, animals, people, death, and God.

Act One of our program today, I'm Ferdinand, I'm Glad to Be Your Steak Tonight.

Act Two, the 400 Pound CEO, which is this amazing and funny and-- this is a story I just love by George Saunders.

Act Three, Dead Animal Man.

Act Four, Redemption. Stay with us.

Act One. I'm Ferdinand. I'm Glad to be Your Steak Tonight.

Ira Glass

Act One. What do we choose to believe about the sacrifices that animals make for us? Well, Jay Allison came up with this answer to that question.

When they came off of the ark, before they would disperse, remember, he said, God said to him, "Every beast of the field and fowl of the air shall become food unto you from this day on."

Jay Allison

A friend of mine, a classical pianist I know, had a dream that he was sleeping in his own room when something woke him up. Gathering at the foot of his bed was every animal he had ever even. They were just looking at him, breathing quietly. They pushed in closer and closer around his bed as more kept coming. Then when the room was full, the ones that came first started to file out through the bathroom door. And for the rest of the dream, each animal in turn simply paused by my friend's bed, looked at him, and passed on by to make room for the next one.

Woman

I went to the slaughterhouses and I went out to the cattle ranches and places like that. And I talked to the animals, because I wanted to know if this was a really traumatic thing. It's like, I experience what the animal experiences. It's a vicarious experience. I feel their emotions. I think their thoughts. I literally become that animal. They show me what they look at, and what they see in life. And then I see it as they perceive it.

Slaughterhouse Man

That door slides up. They come in here, and we kill them here. We lift this gate here, then the animal rolls out down here, and we put a chain around her leg. We use this chain the, put it right around her leg, a hind leg and pick them up.

Woman

So when I was there and I asked them how they felt, and they said they didn't mind giving their life for a purpose. And I watched the ones that were lifted upside down, where they tie them up by the back legs and then they slit the throat and the animal dies.

Slaughterhouse Man

We roll them over here and cut their throat, let the blood out of them.

Woman

They bleed to death. Well, I stood there and watched it, because I had to know if this was cruel. And those animals felt a lot of pain, but it was only like 30 seconds. And then, because they were upside down, all the organs pushed towards it. They cut off the blood supply. And the animals, when they actually had their throats cut, they were numb.

Slaughterhouse Man

Roll them on across, lay them down in the cradles. Take their legs off, pick them up, and eviscerate them, split them down in the back then. Gives us two halves.

Woman

People say, "Oh, I couldn't see an animal die." Well, most of those animals wouldn't even live if it hadn't been for the fact that they were going to be raised for food. They wouldn't have even been born.

Slaughterhouse Man

And they're rolled out into the cutting room and cut up into steaks, roasts, ground beef, then wrapped. Each package is labeled, and then we put it in the freezer.

Woman

You know, the animals tell me, most of the ones that are raised for food are raised very humanely. They're given the best of food, they're given the best of care. But they told me, no, that they felt that this was a purpose in life they were fulfilling. And they understood it, and they accepted the role because they were not afraid to die.

Slaughterhouse Man

I don't believe that they know what's going on, really.

Ira Glass

Jay Allison, who did that story is the producer of Life Stories with his wife Christina Egloff.

Act Two. The 400 Pound CEO.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The 400 Pound CEO. Well, animals and the death of animals are not the main point of this next story, but they do help define the moral universe of the story. This is a story by George Saunders. A quick warning. There is nothing explicit, there's no nasty language, nothing like that in this story. But, but, but, some references and ideas might not be suitable for some children.

George Saunders

At noon, another load of raccoons comes in, and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron. Then he checks for vitals wearing protective gloves. Then he drags the cage across 209 and initiates burial by dumping the raccoons into the pit that's our little corporate secret. After burial comes prayer, a personal touch that never fails to irritate Tim, our ruthless CEO.

Before founding Humane Raccoon Alternatives, Tim purposely backed his car over a frat boy and got 10 to 12 for manslaughter. In jail, he earned his MBA by designing and marketing a line of light-up Halloween lapel broaches. Now he gives us the broaches as performance incentives and sporadically trashes a bookshelf or two to remind us of his awesome temper and of how ill-advised we'd be to cross him in any way whatsoever.

Post-burial, I write up the invoices and a paragraph or two on how overjoyed the raccoons were when we set them free. Sometimes I'll throw in something about spontaneous mating beneath the box elders. No one writes a better misleading letter than me. In the area of phone inquiries, I'm also unsurpassed. When a client calls to ask how their release went, everyone in the office falls all over themselves transferring the call to me. I'm reassuring and joyful. I laugh until tears run down my face at the stories I make up regarding the wacky things their raccoon did upon gaining its freedom.

Then, as per Tim, I ask if they'd mind sending back our promotional materials. The brochures don't come cheap. They show glossies of raccoons in the wild contrasted with glossies of poisoned raccoons in their death throes. You lay that on a housewife with perennially knocked-over trash cans and she breathes a sigh of relief. Then she hires you and you get a 10% commission.

These days, commissions are my main joy. I'm too large to attract female company. I weigh 400. I don't like it, but it's beyond my control. I've tried running and rowing the stationary canoe and Hatha yoga and belly staples and even a muzzle back in the dark days when I had it bad for Frieda, our document placement and retrieval specialist. When I was merely portly, it was easy to see myself as a kind of exuberant sportsman who overate out of lust for life. Now, no one could possibly mistake me for a sportsman.

When I've finished invoicing, I enjoy a pecan cluster. Two, actually. Claude comes in all dirty from the burial and sees me snacking and feels compelled to point out that even my sub-rolls have sub-rolls. He's right, but still it isn't nice to say. Tim asks did Claude make that observation after having wild sex with me all night? That's a comment I'm not fond of, but Tim's the boss. His T-shirt says, "I hold your purse strings in my hot, little hand."

"Haha, Tim," says Claude. "I'm no homo. But if I was one, I'd die before doing it with Mr. Lard."

"Haha," says Tim. "Good one. Isn't that a good one, Jeffrey?"

"That's a good one," I say glumly.

What a bitter little office. My colleagues leave hippo refrigerator magnets on my seat. They imply that I'm a despondent virgin, which I'm not. They might change their tune if they ever spoke with Ellen Burtomly regarding the beautiful night we spent at her brother Bob's cottage. I was by no means slim then but could at least buy pants off the rack and walk from the den to the kitchen without panting. I remember her nude at the window and the lovely seed helicopters blowing in as she turned and showed me her ample front on purpose.

That was my most romantic moment. Now for that kind of thing, it's the degradation of Larney's Consenting Adult Viewing Center. Before it started getting to me, I'd bring boot-loads of quarters and a special bottom cushion and watch hours and hours of Scandinavian women romping. It was shameful. Finally, last Christmas, I said enough is enough. I'd rather be sexless than evil. And since then, I have been. Sexless and good, but very, very tense.

Since then, I've tried to live above the fray. I've tried to minimize my physical aspects and be a selfless force for good. When mocked, which is nearly every day, I recall Christ covered with spittle. When filled with lust, I remember Gandhi purposely sleeping next to a sexy teen to test himself. After work, I go home, watch a little TV, maybe say a rosary or two. 30 more years of this and I'm out of it without hurting anybody or embarrassing myself.

Sadly, I find my feelings for Frieda returning. I must have a death wish. Clearly I repulse her. Sometimes I catch her looking at my gut overhangs with a screwed-up face. I see her licking her lips while typing and certain unholy thoughts go through my head. I hear her speaking tenderly on the phone to her little son Len and can't help picturing myself sitting on a specially reinforced porch swing while she fries up some chops and Len digs in the muck.

Today as we prepare a mailer, she says she's starting to want to be home with Len all the time. But there's the glaring problem of funds. She makes squat. I've seen her stub. There's the further problem that she suspects Mrs. Rasputin, Len's babysitter, is a lush. "I don't know what to do," Frieda says. I come home after work and she's sitting there tipsy in her bra, fanning herself with a racing form. Before I know what I'm saying, I suggest that perhaps we should go out for dinner and offer each other some measure of comfort.

In response, she spits her Tab out across her cubicle. She says now she's heard it all. She goes to fetch Tim and Claude so they can join her in guffawing at my nerve. She faxes a comical note about my arrogance to her girlfriend at the DMV. All afternoon, she keeps looking at me with her head cocked. Needless to say, it's a long day.

Then at 5:00, after everyone else is gone, she comes shyly by and says she'd love to go out with me. She says I've always been there for her. She says she likes a man with a little meat on his bones. She says pick her up at 8:00 and bring something for Len. I'm shocked. I'm overjoyed. My knees are nearly shaking my little desk apart.

I buy Len a football helmet and a baseball glove and an aquarium and a set of encyclopedias. I basically clean out my pitiful savings. Who cares? It's worth it to get a chance to observe her beautiful face from across a table without Claude et al. hooting at me.

When I ring her bell, someone screams, "Come in." Inside, I find Len behind the home entertainment center and Mrs. Rasputin drunkenly poring over her grade school yearbook with a highlighter.

She looks up and says, "Where's that kid?"

I feel like saying, "How should I know?" Instead I say, "He's behind the home entertainment center."

"He loves it back there," she says. "He likes eating the lint balls. They won't hurt him. They're like roughage."

"Come out, Len," I say. "I have gifts." He comes out. One tiny eyebrow cocks up at my physical appearance. Then he crawls into my lap holding his Mega Death Dealer by the cowl. What a sweet boy. The Dealer's got a severed human head in its hand. When you pull the string, the Dealer cries, "You're dead and I've killed you, Prince of Slime," and sticks its Day-Glo tongue out. I give Len my anti-violence spiel. I tell him only love can dispel hate. I tell him we were meant to live in harmony and give one another emotional support. He looks at me blankly then flings his Death Dealer at the cat.

Frieda comes down looking sweet and casts a baleful eye on Mrs. Rasputin and away we go. I take her to Ace's Volcano Island. Ace's is an old service station now done up Hawaiian. They've got a tape loop of surf sounds and some Barbies in grass skirts climbing a paper mache mountain. I purposely starve myself.

We talk about her life philosophy. We talk about her hair style and her treasured childhood memories and her paranormally gifted aunt. I fail to get a word in edgewise, and that's fine. I like listening. I like learning about her. I like putting myself in her shoes and seeing things her way.

I walk her home. Kids in doorways whistle at my width. I handle it with grace by shaking my rear. Frieda laughs. A kiss seems viable. It all feels too good to be true. Then on her porch, she shakes my hand and says great, she can now pay her phone bill, courtesy of Tim. She shows me the written agreement. It says, "In consideration of your consenting to be seen in public with Jeffrey, I, Tim, will pay you, Frieda, the sum of $50."

I take a weekend vacation and play Oilcan Man nonstop. I achieve level nine. At the end of night three, I step outside for some air. Up in the sky are wild clouds that make me think of Tahiti and courageous sailors on big sinking wooden ships. Meanwhile, here's me, a grown man with a joystick burn on his thumb.

So I throw the game cartridge in the trash and go back to work. I take the ribbing, I take the abuse. Someone snipped my head out of the office folder and mounted it on a bride's body. Tim says, what the heck, the thought of the visual incongruity of our pairing was worth the $50.

"Do you hate me?" Frieda asks.

"No," I say, "I truly enjoyed our evening together."

"God, I didn't," she says. "Everyone kept staring at us. It made me feel bad about myself that they thought I was actually with you. Do you know what I mean?" I can't think of anything to say so I nod. Then I retreat moist-eyed to my cubicle for some invoicing fun.

I'm not a bad guy. If only I could stop hoping. If only I could say to my heart, "Give up. Be alone forever. There's always opera. There's angel food cake and neighborhood children caroling and the look of autumn leaves on a wet roof." But no. My heart's some kind of idiotic fishing bobber. My invoices go very well. The sun sinks, the moon rises, brown and pale as my stupid face.

I minimize my office time by volunteering for the Carlisle entrapment. The Carlisles are rich. A poor guy has a raccoon problem, he sprinkles poison in his trash and calls it a day. Not the Carlisles. They dominate bread routes throughout the city. Carlisle supposedly strong-armed his way to the top of the bread heap, but in person, he's nice enough.

I let him observe me laying out the rotten fruit. I show him how the cage door coming down couldn't hurt a flea. Then he goes inside and I wait patiently in my car. Just after midnight, I trip the wire. I fetch the Carlisles and encourage them to squat down and relate to the captured raccoon. Then I recite our canned speech congratulating them for their advance thinking. I describe the wilderness where the release will take place, the streams and fertile valleys, the romp in the raccoon's stride when it catches its first whiff of pristine air.

Mr. Carlisle says thanks for letting him sleep at night sans guilt. I tell him that's my job. Just then, the raccoon's huge mate bolts out of the woods and tears into my calf. I struggle to my car and kick the mate repeated against my wheel well until it dies with my leg in its mouth. The Carlisles stand aghast in the carport. I stand aghast in the driveway, sick at heart. I've trapped my share of raccoons and helped Claude with more burials than I care to remember, but I've never actually killed anything before.

I throw both coons in the trunk and drive myself to the emergency room, where I'm given the first of a series of extremely painful shots. I doze off on a bench post-treatment and dream of a den of pathetic baby raccoons in V-neck sweaters yelping for food. When I wake up, I call in. Tim asks if I'm crazy kicking a raccoon to death in front of clients. Couldn't I have gently lifted it off, he asks, or offered it some rotting fruit? Am I proud of my ability to screw up one-car funerals?

I tell Tim I'm truly sorry I didn't handle the situation more effectively. He says the raccoon must've had a said last couple of minutes once it realized it had given up its life for the privilege of gnawing on a shank of pure fat. That hurts. Why I continue to expect decent treatment from someone who's installed a torture chamber in the corporate basement is beyond me. Down there, he's got a Hide-A-Bed and a whip collection and an executioner's mask with a built-in Walkman. Sometimes when I'm invoicing late, he'll bring in one of his willing victims. Usually, they're both wasto.

I get as much of me under my desk as I can. Talk about the fall of man. Talk about some father somewhere being crestfallen if he knew what his daughter was up to. Once I peeked out as they left and saw a blonde with a black eye going wherever Tim pointed and picking up his coat whenever he purposely dropped it. How do people get like this? I thought. Can they change back? Can they learn again to love and be gentle? How can they look at themselves in the mirror or hang Christmas ornaments without overflowing with self-loathing?

Then I thought, I may be obese, but at least I'm not cruel to the point of being satanic. The next day, Tim was inducted into Rotary and we all went to the luncheon. He spoke on turning one's life around. He spoke on the bitter lessons of incarceration. He sang the praises of America and joked with balding, sweetheart ophthalmologists and after lunch hung his Rotary plaque in the torture chamber stairwell and ordered me to Windex it daily or face extremely grim consequences.

Tuesday, a car pulls up as Claude and I approach the burial pit with the Carlisle raccoons. We drag the cage into a shrub and squat, panting. Claude whispers that I smell. He whispers that if he weighed 400, he'd take into account that people around him and go on a diet. A pale girl in a sari gets out of the car and walks to the lip of the pit. She paces off the circumference and scribbles in a notebook. She takes photos. She slides down on her rear and comes back up with some coon bones in a baggy. After she leaves, we rush back to the office.

Tim's livid and starts baby-oiling his trademark blackjack. He says no more coons in the pit until further notice. He says we're hereby in crisis mode and will keep the coons on blue ice in our cubicles and if need be, wear nose clips. He says the next time she shows up, he may have to teach her a lesson about jeopardizing our meal ticket. He says animal rights are all well and good, but there's a big difference between a cute bunny or cat and a disgusting raccoon that thrives on carrion and trash and creates significant sanitation problems with its inquisitiveness.

"Oh, get off it," Claude says, affection for Tim shining from his dull eyes. "You'd eliminate your own mother if there was a buck in it for you."

"Undeniably," Tim says, "especially if she knocked over a client trash can or turned rabid. Then he hands me the corporate Visa and sends me to Hardware Niche for coolers.

When I get back to the office, everyone's gone for the night. The Muzak's off for a change and loud wax and harsh words are floating up from the basement via the heat ducts. Before long, Tim tromps up the stairs swearing. I hide pronto. He shouts thanks for nothing and says he could have had more rough and tumble fun dangling a cat over a banister, that there's nothing duller than a clerk with the sexual imagination of a grape.

"Document placement and retrieval specialist," Frieda says in a hurt tone.

"Whatever," Tim says and speeds off in his Porsche.

I emerge overwhelmed from my cubicle. Over her shoulder and through the plate glass is a shocked autumnal moon. Frieda's cheek is badly bruised. Otherwise, she's radiant with love. My mouth hangs open. "What can I say?" she says. "I can't get enough of the man."

"Good night," I say and forget about my car and walked the nine miles home in a daze.

All day Wednesday, I prepare to tell Tim off, but I'm too scared. Plus he could rightly say she's a consenting adult. Instead, I drop a few snots in his coffee cup and use my network access privileges to cancel his print jobs. He asks can I work late, and in spite of myself, I fawningly say sure. I hate him. I hate myself.

Everybody else goes home. Big clouds roll in. I invoice like mad. Birds light on the dumpster and feed on substances caked on the lid. What a degraded cosmos. What a case of something starting out nice and going bad.

Ira Glass

More of George Saunders' story, "The 400 Pound CEO" in a minute when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers, documentary producers, and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, Animals Die, People Ponder Morality. We are in the middle or Act Two, George Saunders' story, "The 400 Pound CEO" continues. At this point in the story, it's late, our narrator has just discovered that Frieda loves his boss Tim. He hates Tim, but he works late for him that day anyway. Tim stays late too.

George Saunders

Just after 7:00, I hear him shout, "You, darling, will rot in hell with the help of a swift push to the grave from me." At first, I think he's pillow talking with Frieda by phone. Then I look out the window and see the animal rights girl at the lip of our pit with a camcorder. Tim runs out the door with his blackjack unsheathed.

What to do? Clearly, he means her harm. I follow him, leaving behind my loafers to minimize noise. I keep to the shadows and scurry in my socks from tiny berm to tiny berm. I heave in an unattractive manner. My heart rate's in the ionosphere. To my credit, I'm able to keep up with him. Meanwhile, she's struggling up the slope with her hair in sweet disarray, backlit by a moon the color of honey, camcorder on her head like some kind of Kenyan water jug.

"Harlot," Tim hisses, "attempted defiler of my dream," and whips his blackjack down. Am I quick? I am so quick. I lunge up and take it on the wrist. My arm bone goes to mush and my head starts to spin and I wrap Tim up in a hug the size of Tulsa.

"Run," I gasp to the girl and see in the moonlight the affluent white souls of her fleeing boat-type shoes. I hug hard. I tell him drop the jack, and to my surprise, he does. Do I then release him? To my shame, no. So much sick rage is stored up in me. I never knew. And out it comes in one mondo squeeze and something breaks and he goes limp and I lay him gently down in the dirt.

I CPR like anything. I beg him to rise up and thrash me. I do a crazy little dance of grief. But it's no good. I've killed Tim.

I sprint across 209 and ineffectually drag my bulk around Industrial Grotto, weeping and banging on locked corporate doors. United Knee Wrap's having a gala. Their top brass are drunkenly lip-synching hits of the '50s en masse and their foot soldiers are laughing like subservient fools, so no one hears my frantic knocking. I prepare to heave a fake boulder through the plate glass.

But then I stop. By now, Tim's beyond help. What do I gain by turning myself in? Did I or did I not save an innocent girl's life? Was he or was he not a cruel monster? And standing there outside the gala, I learned something vital about myself. When push comes to shove, I could care less about lofty ideals. It's me I love. It's me I want to protect. Me.

I hustle back to the office for the burial gear. I roll Tim into the pit. I sprinkle on lime and cover him with dirt. I forge a letter in which he claims to be going to Mexico to clarify his relationship with God via silent meditation and a rugged desert setting. "My friends," I write through tears in his childish scrawl, "you slave away for minimal rewards. Freedom can be yours if you open yourself to the eternal. Good health and happiness to you all. I'm truly sorry for any offense I may have given. Also, I have thought long and hard on this and have decided to turn over the reins to Jeffrey whom I have always wrongly maligned. I see now that he is a man of considerable gifts and ask you all to defer to him as you would to me."

I leave the letter on Claude's chair and go out to sleep in my car. I dream of Tim wearing a white robe in a Mexican cantina. A mangy dog sits on his lap explaining the rules of the dead. No weeping, no pushing the other dead, don't bore everyone with tales of how great you were. Tim smiles sweetly and rubs the dog behind the ears. He sees me and says no hard feelings and thanks for speeding him onto the realm of bliss.

I wake with a start. The sun comes up driving sparrows before it, turning the corporate reflective windows wild with orange. I roll out of my car and brush my teeth with my finger. My first day as a killer.

I walk to the pit in the light of fresh day hoping it was all a dream, but no. There's our scuffling footprints. There's the mound of fresh dirt, under which lies Tim. I sit on a paint can in a patch of waving weeds and watch my colleagues arrive. I weep. I think sadly of the kindly bumbler I used to be, bleary-eyed in the morning, guiltless and looking forward to coffee.

When I finally go in, everyone's gathered stunned around the microwave. "El Presidente," Claude says, disgustedly.

"Sorry?" I say. I make a big show of shaking my head in shock as I read and reread the note I wrote. I ask if this means I'm in charge. Claude says with that kind of conceptual grasp, we're not exactly in for salad days. He asks Frieda if she had an inkling. She says she always knew Tim had certain unplumbed depths, but this is ridiculous. Claude says he smells a rat. He says Tim never had a religious bone in his body and didn't speak a word of Spanish. My face gets red. Thank God Blamphin, that toady, pipes up.

"I say in terms of giving Jeffrey a chance, we should give Jeffrey a chance. In as much as Tim was a good manager but a kind of a mean guy," he says.

"Well put," Claude says cynically. "And I say this fatty knows something he's not telling." I praise Tim to the skies and admit I could never fill his shoes. I demean my organizational skills and leadership abilities but vow to work hard for the good of all. Then I humbly propose a vote. Do I assume leadership or not? Claude says he'll honor a quorum, and then via show of hands, I achieve a nice one. I move my things into Tim's office.

Because he'd always perceived me as a hefty milquetoast with no personal aspirations, he trusted me implicitly. So I'm able to access the corporate safe. I'm able to cater in prime rib and a trio of mustachioed violinists who stroll from cubicle to cubicle hoping for tips.

Claude's outraged. Standing on his chair, he demands to know what ever happened to the profit motive. He says one can't run a corporation on good intentions and blatant naivete. He pleads that the staff fire me and appoint him CEO. Finally, Blamphin proposes I can him. Torson from Personnel seconds the motion. I shrug my shoulders and we vote and Claude's axed. He kicks the water cooler, he gives me the finger, but out he goes, leaving us to our chocolate mousse and cocktails.

By nightfall, the party's kicked into high gear. I bring in jugglers and a comedian and drinks, drinks, drinks. My staff swears their undying loyalty. We make drunken toasts to my health and theirs. I tell them we'll kill no more. I tell them we'll come clean with the appropriate agencies and pay all relevant fines. Henceforth, we'll relocate the captured raccoons as we've always claimed to be doing. The company will be owned by us, the employees, who will come and go as we please. Day care will be available on site. Frieda brightens and sits on the arm of my chair.

Muzak will give way to personal stereos in each cubicle. We will support righteous charities, take troubled children under our collective wing, enjoy afternoons off when the sun is high and the air sweet with the smell of mown grass. And when one of us finally has to die, we will have the consolation of knowing that, aided by corporate largess, our departed colleague has known his or her full measure of power, love, and beauty. And arm in arm, we will all march to the graveyard singing sad hymns.

Just then, the cops break in led by Claude, who's holding one of Tim's shoes. "If you went to Mexico," he shouts triumphantly, "wouldn't you take your Porsche? Would you be so stupid as to turn your life's work over to this tub of lard? Things started to add up. I did some literal digging. And there I found my friend Tim with a crushed rib cage that broke my heart and a look of total surprise on his face."

"My Timmy," Frieda says, rising from my chair. "This disgusting pig killed my beautiful boy." They cuff me and lead me away.

In court, I tell the truth. The animal rights girl comes out of the woodwork and corroborates my story. The judge says he appreciates my honesty and the fact that I saved a life. He wonders why having saved a life, I didn't simply release Tim and reap the laurels of my courage. I tell him I lost control. I tell him a lifetime of scorn boiled over. He says he empathizes completely and says he had a weight problem himself when a lad. Then he gives me 50 as opposed to life without parole.

So now I know misery. I know the acute discomfort of a gray jail suit pieced together from two garments of normal size. I know the body odor of Vic, a Chicago kingpin who's claimed me for his own and compels me to wear a feminine hat with fruit on the brim for nightly interludes. Do my ex-colleagues write? No. Does Frieda? Ha. Have I achieved serenity? No. Do I have a meaningful hobby that makes the days fly by like minutes? No.

I have a wild desire to smell the ocean. I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health. This is how I feel. These things seem to be true. But what's there to do but behave with dignity, keep a nice cell, be polite but firm when Vic asks me to shimmy while wearing a hat, join in at the top of my lungs when the geriatric murderer from Baton Rouge begins his nightly spiritual?

Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots is merely a sub-god. Maybe there's a God above this sub-god who's busy for a few God minutes with something else and will be right back and when he gets back will take the sub-god by the ear and say, "Now look, look at that fat man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn't he humble enough? Didn't he endure enough abuse for 1,000 men? Weren't the simplest tasks hard? Didn't you sense him craving affection? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?"

And maybe as this sub-god slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying, "My sincere apologies. A mistake has been made. Accept a new birth as token of my esteem." And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.

Ira Glass

"The 400 Pound CEO" is in George Saunders' book of short stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

Act Three. Dead Animal Man.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Dead Animal Man. It's our program on dead animals and on human thoughts. This next story is a story recorded during the summer, years ago, in Washington DC. Society has a deal with people in certain unpleasant jobs. It pays them money, and they handle disgusting smelling stuff so nobody else has to. Well, meet Clarence Hicks.

Clarence Hicks

I pick up dead animals. I'm a dead animal man. I pick up dead animals. Dead dogs, dead cats, whatever. That's just my job.

Ira Glass

Washington DC has three dead animal catchers in the Department of Sanitation. This week, I went out with Clarence Hicks.

Ira Glass

What highway are we on here?

Clarence Hicks

295, southbound. It should down by Overlook.

Ira Glass

So you've just picked up that--

Clarence Hicks

Bird.

Ira Glass

--bird. How long do you think that was there?

Clarence Hicks

That's probably been there a couple days. It's body's going sucked all in, see. The worms and stuff ate him up.

Ira Glass

OK, we're running across the highway now.

Clarence Hicks

It's a cat.

Ira Glass

What is it?

Clarence Hicks

It's a cat. This is a cat. It's been here for a little while. Dried up, see?

Ira Glass

It's all flat on one side.

Clarence Hicks

Yep.

Ira Glass

The cat's head was still normal, but the body was blackened and dissolving. Mr. hicks slid a pitchfork under the poor thing and carried it back to his truck, where he dropped it into a metal trash can in the back. It was hot. Summer is the busy season for dead animal catchers. More animals are outside so more are dead on the road. And then there's the smell to deal with. In the hot sun, the animals decompose fast.

What sort of person does this kind of work? Clarence Hicks is 51 with a gray goatee. He has kids and grandkids, but no pets. Before taking this job a year and a half ago, he worked in other divisions in the Department of Sanitation, cleaning alleys, working at the city incinerator. He says this job is definitely a step up.

Clarence Hicks

I'm my own boss. I'm by myself. All they do is give me the work to do, I go get it. I don't have nobody bothering me all the time.

Ira Glass

Driving around alone.

Clarence Hicks

And I'll be driving around. Yeah. Driving by myself. And I like that.

Ira Glass

It's not very strenuous. Mostly Mr. Hicks stops by people's houses, picks up their dead pets, or dead animals in the neighborhood. Maybe a dozen a day. Few enough so he doesn't have to rush. A dispatcher gives him a list of animals and addresses over the radio.

Clarence Hicks

OK, 2262 High Street SE. I took care of that, 10-4?

Dispatch

10-4.

Clarence Hicks

Hey, buddy, do you see a dead cat laying around anywhere?

Man

A cat?

Clarence Hicks

Yeah.

Ira Glass

At one house, we were supposed to find a cat. But after looking in the street, in the backyard, everywhere, we only found a fish, 10 inches long, silver blue, in perfect condition, but dead.

Ira Glass

Maybe they got confused.

Clarence Hicks

Maybe so.

Ira Glass

We had other stops. A cat under a tree, a dog covered with maggots. Over on 30th Place, we were called out for a squirrel.

Ira Glass

There it is.

Clarence Hicks

There it is, right there.

Ira Glass

It took less than a minute.

Clarence Hicks

Then I take him and put him in the truck here. After we get two put in the truck, we put it down. Then we go to the next stop. Pick up just--

Ira Glass

People have strong personal reactions to dead animals. A stranger wearing a white cap and a beeper just walked up to us and started talking.

Man 2

I'd have given half my life for that squirrel at one time. I was a prisoner during the Korean War. And I used to sit up off that Han River and watch seagulls fly over. I'd be laying there thinking I could fry one, that's how hungry I was. What, are you just riding around?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Man 2

You know, animals got a right. We're killing most of them because we forced them off their land. I think they have as much right on Earth as man has, or human beings. And we forced them off. In fact, they were here first.

Ira Glass

Are you the person who called it in to the Department of Sanitation to pick this up?

Man 2

I saw it. Yeah. They'll be here in a short period of time. They'll pick up that before they pick up most human beings.

Ira Glass

Back in the truck, Mr. Hicks said that in his job, you can't just throw the animals around. People will complain. You have to respect people's feelings about animals, be more funeral director than garbage man. Like yesterday, he said, when he picked up a woman's dog.

Clarence Hicks

Yeah, she was really, really crying. It's a sad thing to see people really crying. And you'll be surprised about the animals. People are really crazy about animals.

Ira Glass

What was this animal yesterday?

Clarence Hicks

It was a great big dog. A German Shepherd. And she really got attached to it.

Ira Glass

So what did you do? What did you say?

Clarence Hicks

I just said, well, I'm sorry you lost your dog. She just cried. So I asked her were you going to get another one? She said, I don't know. I might. I might get a dog. I don't know. So that's about the size of what you could do. So I just put him on the truck, onto the next stop.

Ira Glass

This is a big black dog.

Clarence Hicks

A big dog. A big black dog.

Ira Glass

The next stop for us was the animal shelter, where ordinary people bring their animals to be put to sleep, as they say. Mr. Hicks and another animal man, William Daniels, put on aprons and gloves and carried five big, gray, plastic barrels of animals into the truck, 50 or 60 animals in all.

Ira Glass

And that garbage bucket had a couple of dogs, a couple cats.

Clarence Hicks

Cats, dogs--

William Daniels

Dogs, cats, rats, squirrels, possums, all that.

Ira Glass

And now another dog.

Clarence Hicks

Another big dog.

William Daniels

Big German Shepherd here.

Ira Glass

All the animals are taken to what Mr. Hicks calls "The Box," a walk-in freezer near the city incinerator. There, the animals are lifted into metal oil barrels and left.

Ira Glass

Has this job changed the way that you see animals?

Clarence Hicks

To me? No. To me, they're dead, they're dead. There's no change in--

Ira Glass

Come on. I don't believe you. I feel like I see animals differently just from seeing those dogs in one of those gray, plastic--

Clarence Hicks

How do you see them dead? Are you seeing them decomposed? You know they're dead, right?

Ira Glass

Well, that's a new point of view.

Clarence Hicks

OK, they'll be decomposed, you know they ain't alive, because if they were alive they'd be still running around here.

Ira Glass

I'll tell you, the next time I see a dog on the street, I'm going to think to myself-- I'm just going to remember what those dogs in the back of your truck looked like.

Clarence Hicks

Well, they looked dead, right?

Ira Glass

They looked dead, yeah.

Clarence Hicks

OK. You know they are not alive. Because if they were alive, they'd be running around. If you see a live dog, you say, well, you be careful now, because one day, you may be back in the back there.

Ira Glass

Did you ever see those pictures of-- I guess it's the angel of death? You know, big black hood and a sickle, a guy holding a sickle? The Grim Reaper.

Clarence Hicks

I've seen a picture of that guy. [INAUDIBLE] Why should I let that bother me?

Ira Glass

Well, it shouldn't bother you because that's who you are for these dogs.

Clarence Hicks

That's right.

Ira Glass

That's you.

Clarence Hicks

Well, no, I'm the angel. See, when they die, I'm going to take them to heaven. I'm the undertaker. I'm the undertaker. Keep them from laying on the streets, smelling, let birds pick on them and all that kind eat him or something like that. I take them off the street.

Ira Glass

Give them a decent disposal.

Clarence Hicks

There you go.

Ira Glass

A few times a week, a rendering company comes down from Baltimore to pick up the animals that Mr. Hicks has gathered and left in The Box. In Baltimore, these smelly creatures that nobody wants are changed into smelly things that people sell to each other, ingredients for perfume, fertilizer, stuff that ordinary folks can handle themselves.

Act Four. Redemption.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Redemption. So what if you took it as your mission to keep the animals from dying? Well, the hardest cases, the most abused, the sickest animals in trouble are Leo Brillo's purpose in life.

Leo Brillo

I guess I can't stand the suffering of an animal. An animal looks up at you, and to me, I can feel what he's feeling as a human little thing. Or there's something going on. I don't just see a furry thing. I see the eyes and I get right into the feelings of the animal. And something affects me and I have to do something about it. I don't have that empathy, maybe, with people. Or maybe I don't allow it, to have that with people. Because somehow people can take care of themselves. These guys can't. These animals can't. So I see that and I have to do something about it. But I won't draw the line.

See, I can't go to the pound. I have meetings with the director, the whole set up out here. I can't go to the pound. He has to meet me in a coffee shop. Because if I go to the pound, I'm going to walk through, look at every animal, take every dog that's ready to be killed that day and bring them to the shelter. I can't do that. But I will. So for me, I know the weakness. The weakness is don't communicate. Don't be there. Just be removed. I can't go over the next hill if I don't have the room.

Still, there's just this thing inside of me that pulls me and I go into the next hill. And I find things all the time. I always find somebody when I do that. And this is my code. And this is the way I live. My one message to animals is if you're hungry or if you're hurt, cross my path. That's my message. And since the day I said that, I was in Hollywood, I told you, and I'm walking down the street and cats are jumping out in front of me ever since then.

I mean, my friends, nobody has this problem. I go down the street and they pop out of everywhere. And they're limping or they're hungry or whatever. And that makes me feel OK that I don't have to worry about did I miss one. Because I'll say, no, he's OK because he didn't cross my path.

And it is the same way, it's the same thing when you have one that's very sick, making the same decision. You tell me, what am I supposed to do? I don't want you to suffer, but if you can make it, and do you want to make it, and all these other things being considered. And still, even then, it has to be suffering with absolutely no prognosis.

I have a dog at home that I got and it had distemper. It ended up this dog lost the use of its rear legs. The vet said put her down. No way, she lost the front legs. Now I'm carrying her in and out five times, six times a day. At night, I'm waking up twice to flip her over because she can't move. She had a heating pad on. She couldn't regulate her heat.

Everybody except my wife that heard about it said it's insane. We just stopped letting people know. The vet said, "How'd that dog do?" I said, "Oh, we put her down." I didn't tell them. Six weeks, I did this, back and forth. Because she wanted to make it. There was just something about her. One day, when I'm bouncing her up and down on her feet so she can get muscle tone, I'm bouncing her, and she's just limp. And all of a sudden, a foot goes out to get her balance.

And it was the best thing-- Bailey put a foot out. Two weeks later, she could walk. Now she's running, tearing up. We've had her a year and a half now of tearing up everything. I mean, she's just-- she always remembers that she was appealing to live. And she just needed somebody to give her the chance. I give them everything I can if they want to make it. If they want to live, there's something about it, they fight. I fight with them.

I have a cat at home. He had leukemia. He got cancer, he got lymphosarcoma. He has tumors and he's building up with fluid. And we did a special new surgery. We put a tube inside him. And twice a day, I use that tube to pull fluid out of him. He's in no pain and he purrs constantly. He just purrs and purrs and purrs, and he eats. And the most important thing is to make him well. And even then, it's only for a few months. I mean, you know he's going to get it eventually. And I said, it's amazing, but we only really pay that kind of attention and that kind of devotion to them when they're in that kind of trouble.

That could be it. My wife has another answer. She says when they're that close to death, they become perfect. And that's the attraction. I don't know. They're becoming-- they know more. All of a sudden, they know. They know what's going on. They know here and beyond and they know what the hell we're doing caught up in the middle of the two. And they know something. And whatever it is, it changes them. And they become worth more if that's possible. I don't know. Just give them every shot. And let me see what's going on out there.

[DOGS BARKING]

Ira Glass

That story from producer Jay Allison.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Peter Clowney and Alix Spiegel. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Music help today by John Conners.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you would like a copy of this program, it only costs $10. You can call us at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who does not want to be referred to as--

George Saunders

Sexless and good, but very, very tense.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

George Saunders

Talk about the fall of man. Talk about some father somewhere being crestfallen if he knew what his daughter was up to.