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Note to Readers: this was first published here at Lit.org, then at "The House of Pain" zine. It's finished its run there, so I thought I'd put it back up here. It's always been one of my favorite stories, so here's a chance for anyone who didn't read it the first time to do so now if they wish. Oh, and you are forewarned that you may be thoroughly disgusted.
Harold was born a true picker. It began when he was a toddler, and the mysterious allure of his nostrils became too much to bear. After many stern warnings and several trips to the emergency ward, his mother strapped mittens over his hands to stem the tide of blood that his probing explorations induced. But even after he began biting his fingernails to half-moon nubs and learned to hide from his mother, the picking did not end. Rather, he learned that his nostrils were not the only orifices that could provide him with hours of fun.
The openings to his elephantine ears were cavernous, ripe for inspection. With a smart pop! That could be heard in the next room, his chubby finger often returned with a maroon treasure that was either wiped upon the seat or sniffed introspectively. His mother had unusually keen eyes and ears, and often caught Harold just before the waxy deposits made their way into his mouth, which was larger than his ears andwhen he was not tasting the morsels that his body providedoften plugged with sweets. The yelling that ensued could be heard far down their cobbled street. Yet by the time Harold was ten, and like a roly-poly waddling seal, no amount of yelling or punishment could keep him from his favorite pastime.
Besides the treasures of his ears and nose, the salty scent of his armpits, the grey jelly between his toes, and the little pre-breakfast nuggets that awaited him in his eyes when he awoke in the morning, he discovered that the natural scrapes of childhood also brought about plenty of enjoyment. Sitting under the massive boughs of the oak tree in his backyard, he would poke and prod with the tip of his finger at whatever had violated his body on that daya scratch from the branch of a bush that had scraped him as he'd passed by; welted mosquito bites covering his beefy arms; a scab from a fresh fall. Although he liked to pull apart the skin as it tried to mend together, delighting in the way it resembled moving lips, his favorite were the scabs, and the way they peeled away easily like a sticker off a smooth piece of wood. After devouring the dried crust, he would poke and prod some more, watching the blood in the old wound well up, his warped mind already anticipating the next fall off the wobbly skateboardkept in disrepair just for that purposeor the next shove onto the concrete playground by the school bully.
His addiction grew as he aged, the years passing by in a lovely blended haze of blood and boogers and earwax, and his mother finally gave up trying to keep her only son from becoming a full-blown self-cannibal. Perhaps it was because at age thirteen Harold stretched in height, lessening the baby fat that had haunted him out of the womb, and became a marginally handsome young man. More likely, it was because the sane part of Harold learned to contain himself. It wasn't as if he sat in geometry class with his finger socked up his nose, or sang in the church choir while snacking on eye crunchies. When the urge became too strong, and he could no longer stand the calling of his orifices, he ran to the restroom, locked himself into a stall, and commenced his private activities.
At age twenty-five, after receiving a bachelor's degree in business administration and a doctorate in picking, and three years as a sales representative for a toilet paper company, Harold's dear old mother passed away. On her deathbed, with a smell of diseased mucus hanging over her so strongly that Harold found it hard to ignore, she whispered, Harold
He bent forward, her old withered hand in his, and asked, What, Mom?
she croaked, and passed on. Her son stared at her, horrified by more than her death.
He found that her last wish was harder to disregard than a particularly knobby incrustation, but Harold made a pact with himself that he would do it. For the woman that had allowed him so many years of pleasure, he would try. He did not disturb the shaving nicks on his chin. Scabs were covered securely with several layers of bandages until the skin pruned white underneath and the cut carefully healed. Even when he married, and his wife asked him to perform a certain favor, he refused. It was an orifice, a hole, and he did not let on to her why he couldn't even look at it.
It was not an easy time for the former picker. Oftentimes he wished that there was a Picker's Anonymous group; a small circle of people gathered in a dark, smoky room, standing in turn and guiltily announcing how wonderful the crunch of a scab felt between their teeth, or how stringy boogers were the best. Whenever his children, tubby and pale like he'd been, came to him with a boo-boo, he sent them to their mother with a shout and a point, afraid that the sliced skin or small gouges would send him into a cannibalistic frenzy. Day by day, year-by-year, he dealt with these private feelings, his mother's last request echoing in his mind like a shout in a cave, until his hair had begun to grey, his belly pouted out like a sullen child, and he'd entered his fourth decade. And picked up a toothpick.
He was watching the game, the Patriots against the Titans, sprawled in his easy chair on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The children were off on their bikes, well protected with pants, knee and elbow pads, and helmets, and his wife Mildred was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. His own belly was already full of beer and chips, but there was some chewy pulp stuck between two of his lower front teeth. Reaching around to the ceramic frog on the end table, he plucked out a toothpick and began to perform a safe, acceptable form of picking. Things were progressing well, the chip was working itself out, until the Pats made a touchdown and Harold nearly leapt out of his chair.
All rightOWWW! In his excitement, the toothpick had slipped, and poked a particularly nasty hole his gum right above the little tag that connected his lip to his gums. Sitting upright in his chair, Harold took the toothpick from his mouth and slowly probed his gum. His fingers came away smeared with saliva and thin blood.
Are you okay? Mildred asked from the doorway, a spatula in hand.
Harold jerked and looked up. The game was just returning from commercial. How long had he been sitting there, his mind returned to the pleasures of childhood? He lifted his fingers and showed her.
I poked myself in the mouth with a toothpick, he answered. Mildred clucked sympathetically.
Be careful, she told him, and returned to the roast beef and rutabagas.
When he was sure she was gone, Harold stuck his fingers in his mouth again and rubbed. The wound was insignificant, a barely detectable hole denting his gum, but it no longer hurt. He pushed a little harder, taking all but his index finger out of his mouth and trying to worm its tip into the hole. Along with losing his fat, he'd also quit biting his fingernails years ago, and the edge of the nail bit sharply into the tender flesh, sending an acute but manageable flash of agony through his lower jaw. Harold shuddered, and then cast a furtive glance around. Sitting in the living room, out in the open, would do no good. Too many prying eyes. For the first time in fifteen years, Harold ran to the bathroom and locked himself inside.
Over the next few days, he kept at the hole in his mouth, using both finger and tongue. Lying in bed, his wife snoring gently by his side, he worked it with his finger until fresh blood oozed out and his saliva was tart and tangy. Driving to work, his tongue pressed in and out, like a dog panting, back and forth, until his chin was stippled with blood. Consciously and not, he kept at the wound until it was the size of a quarter, squashy and mushy, like a stomped, rotting tomato.
Luckily, the nasty wound was hidden behind his lower lip, but Harold awoke a week-and-a-half later and smelled something strange. Checking to make sure Mildred was still sleeping, he snuck his hands into his armpits and investigated, even licking his fingers afterward. No, not those. He opened his mouth and breathed into his cupped palm, and a slightly spoiled odor wafted into his nostrils. He got out of bed, went to the bathroom, and once again locked the knob. Peering into the mirror, he pulled down his lip and looked at the wound. The size of a silver dollar, its edges were tinged with a whitish-green substance. He wondered if it was gangrenous, if that could even happen in a mouth, and adrenaline and anticipation squirted through him. Rot, decay, nastiness
that had been an overwhelming part of the appeal of his obsession.
He stared, and waited as the feelingsthe old, wonderful, homey feelingsgrew within him, and knew that he would have to break his silent promise to his mother. He could never go back to his longing of the past fifteen years. He could no longer deny his true self. Harold was a born picker, and he could not hide it any longer from the world.
For enlarging a wound, he'd long ago determined that the thumb was the best handy tool. Making a cocked fist, he inserted the top of his thumb into the wound and pressed so hard that tears sprang up in his eyes and he cried out. But the pain was not a deterrent. No, if anything, it spurred him on, beckoning him to play with an almost audible voice, and he pressed again.
Harold? Mildred asked, her voice muffled behind the door. What're you doing in there?
He stabbed at his gum with his thumb again, but the mushiness, the spurting blood, the growing coppery and rotted stench was not enough to satiate, and a panting Harold finally dropped his hand and looked around the white room. The razor on the soap dish in the tub caught his eye, and he grabbed it, breathing heavily as he slid the blade from the holder and held it between his fingers. It was so slender, so sharp
so appropriate for exploring and widening holes.
Harold? Mildred's concern was turning to fear, for she could hear her husband's labored breathing.
Ust a eenite! he called, his lower lip pulled out, the razor blade an inch from his gum. In the mirror, his reflection watched with wide, lustful eyes as the razor moved forward
and then plunged into his gum. The pain was excruciating and violent, whitely bright, as the sliver of razor tore into the last bit of gum that covered the bone of his jaw. As a gout of blood gushed from his mouth and the razor attempted to score into his bone, Harold screamed. It was not entirely without pleasure.
Harold! Mildred shrieked, banging on the door, begging with her fists to be let inside.
So funny, Harold thought, as his hand dropped, the razor fell from his slackened fingers, and the world began to grow dim. Just like a fire hydrant.
A month later, a bandaged and mostly mute Harold sat in a psychiatrist's office. The furnishings and walls were stereotypically paneled and leather, and Dr. Jackson was nothing more than a little bespectacled gnome who might have been sitting on a stack of books in his too-large swivel chair. As Harold sat quietly in front of the desk, the doctor pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up his hawkish nose, cleared his throat, and asked, Harold
how are you today?
Harold stared, trying to formulate an answer that would appease his frightened wife, his embarrassed children, and the shrink, when Dr. Jackson again cleared his throat. The sound, and the images that accompanied them, gave Harold more than pausehe stared so intently and hard that Dr. Jackson frowned.
Problem, Harold? he inquired.
open your mouth? Harold asked. After a moment, Dr. Jackson's miniature mouth opened.
Do you have a cold?
After closing his mouth, the doctor nodded. Why, yes. Just a little bit of phlegm I can't seem to get rid of.
nasal passages clogged?
why do you ask?
It was no use. He was a born picker. With a roar, Harold lunged over the desk.