Scott Carpenter

Posted on January 16, 2012

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The Parasite

I’d been surly for weeks. “What’s eating him?” my friends would say.

All I felt was a black mood, filled with anxiety and remorse, scratching inside of me.

Then, one day, I discovered a hard fleck on the sole of my foot, stuck under the skin like a splinter of wood, the kind of thing the doctors want you to examine before it gets infected. So I fetched the tweezers, then a needle and rubbing alcohol. The light wasn’t good, and the harder I dug the more it seemed to pull away. After a while I finally caught an edge.

The sliver was longer than I thought, and thicker, too—a little crescent of horn painted pink. Then came a finger, and attached to it, a hand. It struggled of course, but I wasn’t about to let this one get away. A delicate elbow, a smooth shoulder, and before long I’d extracted a whole person from my foot, a beautiful slip of a woman a little shorter than myself, blond hair and naked, looking a touch embarrassed, trying to stay in the shadows.

“How’d you get inside of me?” I demanded, as if it might have been an accident, like taking a wrong turn on the highway.

She didn’t want to talk at first, but I jabbed the needle in her direction.

“I’m inside everyone,” she confessed. “At least at the start.”

“Is that so?” I wasn’t going to let her pull the wool over my eyes. “That seems a tad—” I searched for the word “—indiscreet.”

She shrugged, said it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t make up the rules.

“And what the hell do you do in there?” I asked.

“Not much, to tell the truth.”

I pressed for details.

“Well, I know how to give people a little shiver. And sometimes they feel less alone. But that’s about it.”

“What do you live on?”

“Oh, the usual. Promises. Fables. The odd ceremony now and then, when I can get one.” She pushed out a timid smile.

“And can you go back in?”

She wagged her head from side to side, a bit dispirited. “No can do,” she replied. “Toothpaste and the tube, you know.”

“That’s good,” I said, “The last thing I need is someone devouring me from the inside.”

She looked puzzled, then her eyes grew large and she burst out laughing, doubling over and slapping her bare thigh.

“Oh my!” she tittered. “Is that what you thought?” Then she stepped out of the shadows and showed me her legs, red with the marks of teeth. “What do you suppose chased me to the surface?”

We lapsed into silence, like a host and a guest who have run out of conversation. Finally she disappeared through the front door.

I never saw her again after that. But she was right. The gnawing was still there, deep inside me, hungrier than ever, with nothing left to blunt its bite.

 

 

***

Thursday

So here I sit at the table, minding nobody’s business but my own, when the damnedest thing happens: I look down and what do I see but a cat rubbing against my ankles. You heard me—a cat. Maybe not so strange for some people, but here? In this room? How such an animal found its way into our house is beyond me. Did Kathryn leave a window open? I certainly didn’t usher this varmint in. Still, what are you going to do? This such an odd time—so many strange things taking place all around us.

Never cared for them, myself. Mostly a dog man. But this one, all gray with white boots, it skulks around, paws at my leg like she’s thinking about jumping onto my lap.

I want nothing to do with it.

But now, just looking past my knees, it comes to me that I’m still in my pajamas! There should be a clock here in this kitchen, high on the wall, but I’ll be damned if I know where it’s gotten to. Don’t even have my glasses on, but just by the light you can tell it’s late. The store opens at nine o’clock sharp, and as I always say, it’s not going to open itself. And, in fact, what day is it? Thursday, isn’t it? Busiest day of the week. Jonas will arrive early with the delivery truck, backing up to the loading dock, and we’ll need to roll out the palettes. Billy could handle it, along with Clarence, but they don’t even have the keys. The keys are the thing. They’ll be waiting. I’d like to sit, but no, I need to move along. Pull on my clothes and head out. Before it gets too late. I’ll catch some breakfast later.

“Shoo!” I say to this cat that’s come up, and it draws back into a crouch. She or he, it studies me, then slinks away. Just as well.

My sleeves flop as I fumble. There’s a belt to be undone, but my fingers can’t manage it.

“Kathryn?” I call out, but she’s not in the room, so I call again, louder. She’ll have my clothes. The twill shirt with my name embroidered over the pocket. The navy pants. She’ll come in—and then give me heck for yelling like this.

I chuckle. I’ve not been an easy old coot, that much is for sure, and she’s put up with me over the years. Still, there’s some men’ll pretend they’re God’s gift, but I know better than that. I’ve tried to do my part, and that’s all I can claim. Made an honest living. Never gone astray. Raised two boys. Yes, those boys. Should get them working in the store, that might be the thing.

Which reminds me: Thursday, a bear of a day, always the worst because of the deliveries and stocking, and I’m running late. I almost forgot.

“Kathryn?” I call out again. There’s no damn reason why I shouldn’t be able to handle this by myself. Roll myself forward, push, get myself up. But my legs are so weak. I’ve lost my touch. Still groggy. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. A cup of coffee would do me good. Or maybe a little bite to eat. And then I can get off to the store. Not just anyone can run a business like that. You have to know people, that’s how it works. Greet ’em by name. The women, especially, they like it. That extra bit of attention. Then you help them find their washtubs and their cleaners and their lightbulbs. You solve their little problems. A bit of harmless chat. Just keep your eyes where they should be, that’s the main thing. That’s how I built that business. Out of nothing, I built it. Now’s not the time to let it go to pot.

“Kathryn!” I holler. Where has she gotten to? I’m not an impatient man, but still, here I am, left with my own foolishness. Where are my glasses? Time’s a-wasting, and I need to pull on my shoes. Have a bit of breakfast. There are people waiting for me.

A gray and white blur races by. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was a cat.

And then, finally, Kathryn arrives. I feel her hand on my shoulder, her breath on the back of my neck, her hair brushing against mine.

“What seems to be the problem, Carl?” she whispers into my ear in a strange voice, a wonderful voice. “You’re making a ruckus.”

“It’s the keys,” I explain.

“What keys are you talking about?”

“I need to get the keys to them.”

“To who? Where do you need to get the keys?”

What a ridiculous question! “To the store,” I snap. “Where do you think?” And this gives her pause.

But then she comes out with the darnedest thing of all. “The store’s not open today,” is what she says.

Not open? Seven days a week the store is open, Sunday mornings included. I tell her so.

“No. You don’t need to worry.”

“But Billy and Clarence, they’re waiting.”

“No, not today.” And as she says it, I feel the touch of her fingers on my scalp, in my hair.

“But it’s Thursday,” I say, not so loud now. It’s the busiest day of the week, but I can calm for a bit. I’d sit here for hours as long as she is stroking my hair.

“There are no more Thursdays, Carl,” she breathes. “It’s all right.”

What a load of nonsense! But still I luxuriate in Kathryn’s caress, and I decide to think it over.

It’s not so urgent. In any case, not today. And maybe not tomorrow. I’m not late. I don’t need to rush. Kathryn has offered me a bite to eat. And somehow I find it a relief, just imagining how maybe, imponderably, we have finally run out of Thursdays.

***

When not burnishing his own prose, Scott Carpenter is up to his elbows in that of others, mostly in courses at Carleton College (MN), where he teaches literature and literary theory. A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, he has published a score of essays (not to mention a volume on literary hoaxes), and his short stories have appeared in such venues as Ducts, Every Writer Resource, Les Amis de George Sand, and Lit-Cast.

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