Made in Malaysia

by Robert Balcomb

George was sitting up in bed reading, propped against the headboard with a hard, thick rectangular pillow. In time he began to drowse off. Time to turn in, I guess, he thought, and swung both legs together off the bed, put his feet on the floor, and helped raise his body upright with his right arm in an effort to save straining the lower part of his back. He had injured it long ago carelessly lifting a heavy bag of bird seed, with the pain recurring occasionally with even slight effort.

He took off the soft, hooded robe he was wearing to keep his shoulders warm while reading and, while carefully arranging it to lay it on a chair for the night, glanced at the label on the inside of the collar. He had never bothered reading labels. They were not of interest to him. He just wore the clothes without thought to what the labels said. But this time, since he was there with the robe in his hands and the label was staring up at him, he decided to read it, for no reason in particular.


Uh-oh, wait a minute! Did I wash it first? No, I didn’t! Now what?

George was a civil engineer, graduated from MIT and trained at one of the most respected engineering companies in the country. He had worked on the largest projects the company ever had: the Brownsake Building complex in Texas; and entire campus for the new addition to the University of Stangrove in the southern part of the state; several bridges in various parts of the world—all receiving prestigious awards for excellence of design and innovative concepts. His habits consisted of things such as saying, “This is true” while crossing his arms with one hand cupping his chin and the other holding his pipe.

So here was an educated man, handling complicated matters and solving complex mathematical problems with ease, but completely thrown by simple everyday situations that more simple folk took in stride: Did he wash the robe or not? If so, OK, but if not, what should he do? What was in the material that demanded—no, demanded—washing before wearing? He had never married any entity other than his profession figuring, with his totally organized mind, that married life, with all its supposed built-in complications, would stand in his orderly way.

Next morning after a nearly sleepless night tossing and turning, George called a chemist friend for advice. “The material probably had formaldehyde in it to set the color, but it should wash out OK,” the friend said, but could not say what effect it might have other than being very user-unfriendly.

George did not want to go to his doctor for advice, fearing that he might lose a degree of credibility with the man—George being a well-known professional fully in control of himself. He was reminded of seeing on TV a story about a suspect being questioned as to his guilt regarding a burglary. The perpetrator had gained entry through a window. The detective told him that just outside the window was a large patch of poison ivy, which showed signs of being trampled during the entry. The suspect denied any part of the crime, so the doubting detective put him in a cell to think about it. Soon, the suspect started screaming for a doctor— “My skin’s on fire, help me!” The detective said, “As soon as you tell me if you went into the house.” “Yes, yes,” cried the suspect, “I did it!” and signed a confession. Later, the detective chuckled and said, “I made that up. The idiot fell for it.”

Within hours, George felt his own skin starting to burn.

© 2002 Robert Balcomb


Robert Balcomb wears many hats, and fits them all beautifully. He is a much-sought-after portrait photographer, and is retired as a technical illustrator and a college English teacher. As a former student of Master Photographer William Mortensen, he is currently writing a book called Me and Mortensen. Mr. Balcomb can be reached at rsbalcombATwavecableDOTcom.


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