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The Essay
Show #505
Tuber Animato
David Gunn

"Hola! and welcome to Tamale Joe's. Today's special is the gringoburger with las fritas. May I take your order?" After repeating the same phrase over and over hundreds of times a day, Jerome could no longer muster even a hint of on-the-job enthusiasm. When his break on one especially demoralizing Saturday afternoon finally came, he made a beeline for the lounge where he'd left the newspaper. He'd brought it with him that morning, but hadn't yet had time to read past the geyser forecast. As he turned to the classifieds section, Fate, who had a penchant for fiddling with a person's best intentions, intervened. Even before Jerome could focus on the first employmental opportunity, she allowed a grocery circular to slip out from amongst the other pages and float ambagiously to the floor. Jerome stooped down, picked it up and glanced at it. A banner headline across the top of the front page declared that "February is potato lovers month." And instantly, Jerome was reminded of his brief but torrid affair with a potato patty, the product of a bizarre series of experiments at the School for Tubers at the University of Hummock-on-Smythe in southwesternmost Lincolnshire.

At the time, Jerome had been a research fellow--and a jolly good one, too--in the Geology Department, where he was on track to graduate magma cum laude. But one day, he received unbidden in the mail a fossilized potato. Tubers were all the rage in the contemporary geological arena, due to a recently proposed theory that they made up eighty percent of the earth's core. So Jerome gazed at the small oblong object with more than casual interest. And was startled to discern that the potato gazed back. In fact, its eyes glared relentlessly at him, compelling him to carbon-date it. The spudometer pegged the potato at three billion years, coincident with the oldest rocks on earth. Well, that was unusual, all right, but was it sufficient reason for Jerome to forthwith transfer out of the Geology Department and into the Division of Paleotaters? It's a rhetorical question because, within an hour, that's precisely what Jerome had done.

Due to a regrettable outbreak of tuberculosis among every one of his superiors, Jerome was heading the Division within a week. No cause was ever established for the suspiciously selective epidemic, but no one ever examined Jerome's fossilized potato, either.

Immediately upon his promotion, Jerome had a state-of-the-art laboratory built on the edge of the campus to his very exacting specifications. The university trustees were of course eager to tour it and see what their funding had wrought, but Jerome convinced them to wait till it was finished. And then one day, a wizened old taterdemalion showed up with nine hundred pounds of the oddest looking potatoes imaginable. Straightaway, Jerome grabbed from his office library a paring knife, a deep-fat fryer, his three billion-year old mentor and a book on reanimation. Then he locked himself up with the potatoes in the laboratory for two weeks.

Reanimation is the process of giving something new life. In humans--dead ones, that is--it's called "transmortem mutagenesis," and is typically frowned on by the scientific community. Jerome had nothing so grandiose in mind. Still, creating the world's first tuber animato was no small potatoes.

As a youth, Jerome had read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein," and had been impressed by the scientific merit of its subject matter. For years thereafter, he methodically tried to "reanimate" all sorts of things--from finger puppets to asparagus spears to toilet paper tubes to suspenders. As an undergraduate geology student a decade later, he tried to infuse new life into clastic sedimentary rocks--the shales, sandstones and breccias--without even a hint of success. And then, he found the fossilized potato.

In truth, the potato found him.

Much as it found him, after two intense weeks in the laboratory, hunched over a worktable strewn with scores of lenticles, eyes and beakers of Plant Gro, putting the finishing touches on what would prove to be the important tubercular innovation of the year. It was a living, breathing potato. A giant one, fully sixty-three inches high. Named Patty. Perhaps he was too close to his creation, but Jerome felt more than a little affection for it. For her.

There was no doubt in his mind that it, Patty, was sentient, even intelligent. She wasn't much of a conversationalist--all he could ever get out of her was a series of 20 megahertz beeps, reminiscent of the Soviet Union's spudnik carrier signal--but she certainly knew what to do with a dollop of sour cream! And he found her gritty integument tinged with silver scurf utterly alluring. One thing led to another, and then he led her to his cot in the rear of the laboratory.

Jerome was abruptly roused from his reverie as the Tamale Joe's shift commander stuck his head into the lounge to announce that his break was over. Jerome shook his head ruefully, recalling how the end of his association with the School for Tubers had come just as unexpectedly. When he finally emerged exultantly from the laboratory, the university trustees ignored his claims of tuber reanimation and instead fired him. In his absence, they had determined that the Division of Paleotaters did just fine without anyone at the helm and had voted unanimously to eliminate the position of Division Head and replace it with a ficus plant. Then they seized his potato, Patty, and shipped it off to the University's Ore-Ida Remediation Plant, where it was never heard from again.

Jerome folded up his newspaper, noting again that massive geyser eruptions were predicted for later that afternoon. Then he traipsed back across the kitchen floor sticky with gringoburger grease to take his place behind the counter. Adjusting his cap, he stared dully into the eyes of the approaching patron and cleared his throat. It was time to "Hola!" again.

Or it would have been, had not la patata fosilizada stepped in at that moment in the form of a Mr. Potato Head distributor to once more alter his destiny.

But that destiny, dear listener, must postpone elucidation for another day. For today's 505th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar has been given clearance and is now awaiting final take-off instructions from our on-air traffic controller, Kalvos.