It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d just come back from India, and had lost a lot of weight on account of a worm I’d picked up there. Ten, fifteen pounds, gone in a matter of weeks. I copied a bunch of signs and stuck them on telephone poles around the neighborhood: “Eat as much as you want; lose weight fast; new diet pill just in from the Orient.” I didn’t know whether India was in the Orient or not, but figured it didn’t matter.
My first customer was an extremely large woman hauling a baby carriage. She was wearing a bluish over-sized pants-suit thing that looked like it was made of a blend of polyester, Glad sandwich bags, and bubble wrap. All shiny, crinkly, and thick in a way that implied it could be used as a survival suit on Mars. Her infant was tucked away in an old-fashioned carriage, like what my little sister might have used to push around her baby-wet-her-pants doll in the 1980s. The customer sat down in the metal fold-out chair I’d placed in front of my desk, which I’d garbage-picked the day before.
“How can I help you?” I asked, trying to look concerned, but professional.
Her eyes darted around my apartment, checking out the stacks of old magazines, piles of dirty clothes, and “found art.” “Uh, well, I’m here for that diet pill you advertised? You know, on the telephone poles?”
For a minute I envisioned my tattered signs stapled to the shredded wood of creosote-soaked telephone poles, and thought, ‘what am I doing?” But I said, “Oh yeah, the new diet pills that I just picked up in the Orient. Sure, sure. Would you like to buy, ah, purchase some from me?” I nodded my head ‘yes,’ and she responded by doing the same.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s why I’m here.” She made it sound as if there couldn’t be any other possible explanation for her to be in my apartment. Her eyes wandered over to my collection of bottle caps – I had hundreds of Mr. Pibb, RC Cola, and rare regional brands – and then darted back to me. All the while she kept nodding. She flung her hands down on her ample lap. “I had a baby a few months ago, and can’t seem to lose the weight. I’ve tried everything; Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, vomiting. Nothing seems to work.”
“Uh huh,” I said, reaching into the back of a desk drawer where I’d hid a vial of weight-loss remedy. I brushed past old rubber dinosaurs, movie stubs, and campaign buttons. “Well, here we go.” I leaned towards her, my arm outstretched, a small caplet in my hand. “Take this, and call me in the morning.” I winked. She stared back at me without moving. I noticed that her eyes bulged, like the eyes on the rubber fish squeeze toy I bought at the aquarium. “Um, here.” I walked over, squatted, and put the pill in her hand. “Take this with some water. In a week or two you’ll lose the weight.” I jumped up and clapped my hands twice. “That’s it.” I nodded again. She nodded back.
“Are these things safe?” She squinted at me.
“How do you mean, safe?” I leaned against the front of the desk, trying to look like one of those doctors pitching prescription medicine on television.
“Safe. You know. Safe. For me to take.” She was still nodding, but her face jiggled a bit, as if for emphasis.
“Safe, sure. It’s made of all natural, all organic ingredients, imported from the Orient direct to your, um, my door.” I almost winked, but decided I’d better not.
“Okay.” She seemed satisfied with my answer, which was good, because it was the only one I had. “How much do I owe you?”
She bent over, rummaged through her Hefty-sized purse, and pulled out two crumpled bills. “I hope it works.” She grunted.
“It will, believe me, it will.” I licked my thumb, counted the tens, and stashed them in the desk drawer. “Now, call me in a month for a follow-up appointment; I like to make sure my customers are fully satisfied.” I sat down and smiled. She didn’t leave her seat. I nodded my head in the direction of the door, like my friend Fred’s imitation of a doll I’d picked up at free Bobblehead day at Oracle Park. She remained immobile. “Well, you’d better go clothes shopping; you’re going to need a whole new wardrobe!” She scowled at me, heaved herself up, stuck her purse under her arm, and wheeled her baby out the door.
Business was brisk for a couple of weeks. Three, already too-skinny teenage girls, giggling as if the air itself was funny; a business man with no chest and a stomach that jutted out like he’d swallowed a bean bag chair; two middle-aged women of typical dimensions; a thirty-something professional woman who reminded me of my sister; she had the same blond/brown hair, cut short. I told her she didn’t need to lose any weight; she looked great. But she just frowned, and handed over the money. All of them except one of the middle-aged women made purchases, after which I’d ask them to call me in a month. I made $120, and then the traffic stopped.
Where I Got the Worms
I got the worms from my sister; the one with the baby-wet-her-pants doll. That is to say, she made getting the worms possible. My sister gave me enough frequent flyer miles to go just about anywhere in the world. I don’t know why; it wasn’t my birthday or anything. It was late one morning, and after my fourth or fifth call to her at work that day – I wanted to know where I could get some empty shoe boxes to store my bottle cap collection – she just gave the miles up. I said, “Whaddayamean, you’re giving me 180,000 miles? Why for?”
She sighed, like she had a headache, which she often complained about. “I just thought it might be good for you to take a trip, Phil, that’s all. You know, get out of town. It’s not as if you have that much going here.”
I could tell that any minute she was going to say something about all the money mom and dad had spent sending me to college, without me even getting a degree. “Whaddayamean, not that much going? I told you, I’m trying to get my bottle cap collection sorted out so I can sell it on eBay – it’s worth a mint, you know – and I’m working with my pal Fred on starting one of those ‘write your name on a grain of rice’ franchises. We’re thinking, if it works for rice, why not green beans, or radishes…”
“You want to start “a write your name on a green bean” franchise?” my sister asked, as if it was another one of my stupid ideas. She never let me forget about the money she loaned me for my failed Jello-shot business, that had a free toy in every shot. “Listen, I don’t want to hear about your vegetable naming plans. I’m going to call the airline and transfer the miles to you. Figure out something to do with it, okay, Phil? And don’t go selling the miles to someone, or giving them to Fred, or trading them for more bottle caps.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll take ‘em. Thanks, Sis.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, and hung up.
I thought, ‘cool, free miles.” Maybe Fred and I could go to Reno together. But that was stupid; I lived in San Francisco, and we could take a bus to Reno. Then I thought about those miniature liquor bottles you get on long airplane trips, and how well they would go with my bottle cap collection. I called the airline, and asked them to book me on the next available flight as far away as my sister’s miles would take me. The gal on the other side said, “Anywhere?” and I replied, “anywhere.” She said “anywhere?” Long story short, I ended up flying to New Delhi, India.
This guy on the plane – he gave me his empty liquor bottles before switching to another seat – told me about this place where they throw corpses into the river a few hours’ bus ride from Delhi. I’ve seen lots of road kill in my day, but never actual dead bodies, so I decided to go there. After a long, noisy, smelly and croded ride in a poorly ventilated bus, I found the cheapest hotel available. I was assigned a room with bars on its window, a cement floor, and a hole in the ground that served as a toilet. Actually, it was kind of creepy, and I didn’t get much sleep on account of all the snoring and hocking sounds in the rooms next door. Still, I only had a few hundred bucks, so it had to do.
I got up before sunrise, anxious to see the bodies. Sure enough, little fires were burning alongside the river, and inside the fires were bundles wrapped in white cloth. I hurried closer to get a better view, and saw skulls and rib cages poking out of the wood and flames. My mouth got watery, in that pre-vomiting way, but I couldn’t stop looking, like that time I ran over a stray kitten while I was parking my car, and it lay there, not moving, squished and dead.
I watched as two Indians put a bundle into a small canoe, paddled out to the middle of the river, and dumped it in. No priest, or speeches, or nothing. Stranger still, the body floated by a group of people who were in the water bathing themselves. The men were topless, while the women were fully clothed, but everybody was scrubbing away under their garments as if they were at home in the shower. Next to the bathers another group of women were slapping pieces of fabric against some rocks that looked like tombstones. Maybe they were the clothes of the dead, being cleaned for their final trip to heaven.
I was taking it all in, still feeling squeamish, when this American guy walks up to me and asks where I was from. He tells me he’s been living in India for over a year, and invites me to take a walk with him. I had nothing better to do, and was ready to leave anyway, so I said ‘sure, why not.’
The guy was really skinny, like maybe he’d missed too many meals. I offered to buy him breakfast, which fortunately didn’t cost much. It took him a New York minute to wolf down the rice and yogurt dish he’d ordered. I had a hard time finishing my vegetable plate – the potatoes and carrots tasted like they were soaked in sea water, they were so salty – so he ate that too.
We ended up back at his place. It was pretty much the same as my hotel room, except he’d decorated his cell with colorful fabric, and there were stacks of books tilting all over. He asked me a lot of questions about where were the cheapest cities to live back in the states, but they had to have good libraries. I guess he wanted to go home, which I couldn’t blame him. I was very thirsty on account of the salty breakfast, and kept licking my lips, hoping he’d offer me something to drink, which he didn’t. After a while he asked me if I wanted to see something, and I said ‘sure.’
He pulled out a glass beaker, pointed at it, and said, “these are my pets.” I couldn’t see anything at first, but I leaned forward and peered inside and there were these little black wormy things. Truthfully, they grossed me out, but I was a guest in his house, and I knew how to behave. “Uh, what are they?” I asked.
“I call them girth worms.” He smiled at the beaker.
“Uh, huh.” I said. He kept smiling, his eyes fixed on the worms. I was starting to feel nervous, uncomfortable. “What do they eat?”
“Me,” he said, and made a sound like a squeak, except I guess it was a laugh.
“Whaddaya mean, you?”
“Well,” he turned and stared at me as if he was seeing past my skin, into my organs and the bones around them, “these ones I feed post-digested food. The others live with me.” He patted his stomach.
I know I should have been polite – his house and all – but I was getting that clammy feeling I get when I dissect my cat’s hair balls, or take too long cleaning out the dogs’ cages at the animal shelter where I sometimes work for movie money. “Well,” I said, trying not to look at him, “I guess I gotta go.”
“Oh, so soon?” His face looked like Jello slowly sliding off a tilted plate, which made me feel bad. Then, much quicker, his Jello-face bounced back. “Would you like to take a few with you?”
“A few what?”
“You know, pets.” He held the beaker up and shook it at me.
“Uh, I don’t know. I already have a cat…” His face started to slide again. “But, what the hey, why not. Give me some of those bad boys.”
His eyes popped like the snap of an old-fashion flash bulb, and he started fishing in the beaker with his hands. “Great. I usually take them with water, but maybe you’d like some juice, or something else.”
It didn’t take me long to realize he wanted me to eat those things. I had to think fast. “Wait, wait, wait, can’t I have them ‘to go’?”
“To go? You want them to go? Sure. Alright. Let me get a container for you.” He rummaged around his books, and came up with an old peanut can that had a plastic lid, tipping it over to toss out some metal pieces that rattled around in it. He slid some of the worms inside, and handed the cannister to me, smiling the whole while. I took the can with one hand, and slapped my thigh with the other.
“Okay, then, I guess I better be going. If you ever get out to San Francisco look me up.”
“I will. I will. And remember to feed them.” He nodded toward the peanut can.
“Cross my heart.” I crossed my heart, and got up.
“Uh, before you go, it’s my, um, practice to drink a toast in honor of my departing pets. Would that be alright?” He gave me a puppy dog look. I didn’t want to stay a minute longer, but I was thirsty.
I licked my lips. “Oh, alright.”
He went over to the corner of the room, where there was small table with what looked like empty peanut butter, pickle, and mayonnaise jars on it. While he got the water together I looked around the room. It wasn’t that shabby. There was a rusted bottle cap lying next to my foot, so I bent down, picked it up, and thrust it into my pocket. I jerked my hand out of my jeans just as he turned around.
“Here we go.” He handed me a jar full of water. “Drink up.”
We stood looking at each other, neither of us drinking. I thought about the worms, and peered down into the glass. The water looked clear. “Uh, you didn’t put anything in here, did you?”
“Of course not,” he grinned. “Now drink up!”
I felt a cramp in my leg and shifted my weight. “Uhm, the toast?”
“Oh, of course, the toast! To the girth worms, and their new master!” We clinked glasses, and I drank.
About a week after I got home I called my buddy Fred to tell him about the trip. I had already described the little motorized jitneys that buzzed all over the place, the dead bodies, and meeting the worm guy. “Things were going really well. I was having a great time. But I must have eaten something bad. First, I got really sick, and then I started losing weight.”
“You know, Philly-boy, that guy slipped you a mickey.” Fred had a cold, so he sounded all nasally.
“Waddayamean, a mickey?”
“Alright not a mickey, cheese steak man, a worm, he slipped you one of those worms.” He coughed at the other end of the line. It was always like that with him, making fun of my name; Philly, Mr. Cream Cheese Head, or Feely, the horny guy who’s always trying to cop something on crowded Muni lines. I didn’t like it much.
“Okay, Friiieed, how’d he do that? I was with him the entire time,” I countered. But I knew he was right.
“Simple, hill-boy, he put a worm in your drink while you weren’t looking.” It sounded like he was rubbing his very congested nose. It made a wet, smacking sound. “You weren’t always looking right at him, Feel-face, were you?”
The water had seemed clear, but the worms were pretty small. “I guess he could have done it when I was picking up that bottle cap.” A cap that’d turned out to be from a bottle of Kingfisher, completely worthless.
“Right-e-o. Anyway, I’ve got to go drain my nose in the sink. See ya around.”
“Not if I see you first,” I mumbled, but he was already gone.
As soon as I hung up the phone I started getting that creepy feeling, like hairballs, the insides of dog cages, and the worm guy’s room. He must have slipped me a worm. That’s why I was queasy so much, and my pants were so loose. I sat there, thinking it over, idly playing with a small pile of paper clips – I collect them too; you’d be surprised at the variety of paper clips available – and an idea took hold of me. I got up and rummaged through my travel bag, still packed from the trip, and found the peanut can, plastic cap tightly clamped on. I peeled off the top, and there, inside, were maybe a couple dozen little black blobs. They must have multiplied, or divided, or something. I unwound a paper clip, and poked at one of them. His wormy flesh shrank back, and he kind of curled up, though he was pretty curled already. I was in business.
The rest was easy. I went to Walgreens and bought an off-brand box of cold remedy, the plastic caplet type that has tiny medical jimmies inside. I set a few of the pills aside for Fred, and emptied the insides of the rest into a plastic baggy, in case I needed the medicine sometime. Then, I put the worms into the caplets. In addition to the one I’d poked, only one or two of them showed much signs of life. Still, I figured they’d do the trick.
The End of the Story
I’d been back from India almost three months. But no matter how much I ate, I kept losing weight. I’d eat huge stacks of pancakes, saturated with syrup and butter; Pop Tarts three times a day; surgery cereals. I wasn’t even that hungry, I was just disappearing.
I went to a doctor. I told him about my trip to India, and my weight loss, and how I thought I might’ve eaten a worm. I described the worms; black, blobby, small. He went over to his shelf and pulled out a fat book filled with slick paper and photographs and leafed through it.
“Did it look like this?” he asked. He showed me a black and white snapshot of a worm lying next to a dime. The dime was bigger. The page opposite had a color photograph of someone’s arm with what looked like red worm tracks gouged from the wrist to the elbow.
“Yeah, that’s it. That’s the worm.” I said.
He gave me a bunch of pills, and told me to take them twice a day with food for ten days. In not too long, he said, I should see the worm coming out in my ‘fecal matter.’ He told me it was a good thing I came when I did, because the worm probably wasn’t getting any smaller, and, given enough time, would eventually wrap around my insides and kill me.
I took the pills, and began to gain weight. In fact, since I still ate piles of pre-packaged waffles, boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese, and large scoops of ice cream, I fattened up way past my pre-India poundage. I must’ve eaten so much to compensate for my worries. I was thinking about my customers: the fat lady with the baby; the teenagers; the guy who swallowed a bean bag chair. Even though I’d told each one of them to call, I’d only heard from the businessman, who’d come by with a smile on his face about a month after buying the remedy. He looked about the same to me, but insisted he’d lost ten pounds. I gave him some of the pills I’d picked up from the doctor, and told him they were even more effective than the last batch.
I couldn’t sleep at night, and when I did I’d dream about the burning bones and floating bodies I’d seen in India, and wake up sweaty and scared. Maybe my worms were sitting in my customers’ stomachs getting bigger and bigger, until finally they’d fill everything inside, and come bursting out of their stomachs, like Alien, or oozing out of their ears and noses, like that episode of The X Files.
I posted another set of signs around the neighborhood. I didn’t want to admit liability or anything, so I wrote, “Fresh from the Orient – even better weight loss remedy. If you liked the last batch, you’ll love this one. Free to all previous customers.” I figured once I got them in the door I’d give them some of the anti-worm pills the doctor gave me, and, viola, good-bye worms.
Over the next few weeks all but two of my customers reappeared. The skinny teenagers complained that they hadn’t lost any weight, and wanted their money back. I gave it to them. The middle-aged woman told me her weight hadn’t changed, but thought it was because she’d been eating more, and didn’t ask for a refund.
Neither the fat woman with the baby or the woman who looked like my sister showed. I didn’t leave the house, in case one of them dropped by. I watched a lot of The Office, Friends, and Two and a Half Men re-runs, ate, and got fatter and fatter. Maybe the worms had already killed my remaining two customers. I scanned the Internet for notices of news bits about premature, worm-induced, deaths, but there weren’t any, or at least they weren’t web-worthy. Fred came over now and again, but he bugged me with his “Phil, the size of Philadelphia” jokes. I tried calling my sister, but her work told me that she was on assignment somewhere, and she’d changed her home telephone to an unlisted number. I guess she must have been getting a lot of crank calls. I didn’t talk to anybody for days, and weeks passed during which the only human contact I had was with the guy at the corner grocery store.
The rainy season came. I’d sit by the window, and bet on which rain drop would slide down to the bottom of the glass first, a game my sister and I played when we were little. I was re-sorting my miniature liquor bottle collection, trying to match the color of the labels to the color of my bottle caps, when there was a knock on the door, and in came the lady with the baby. She was wearing a huge rain coat, shining with tiny drops, that seemed to be made out of the same Glad bag-bubble wrap material she wore the first time I met her, but with a slightly different shade of blue. I couldn’t believe it was her. I jumped up, grabbed her, and gave her a hug. “You’re still fat! You’re still fat!” I yelped. “So are you.” She pushed me away and looked me up and down, like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing, and what she was seeing wasn’t good. I’d gotten wet when I hugged her, so I wiped off my shirt, unfolded the metal chair, and indicated she should sit down.
“It’s great to see you,” I said. I bent over her baby carriage, which was damp. “And here’s the little one.” I pulled back the blanket. Still, beady eyes stared up at me. I jolted away, still clutching the blanket. “That’s not a baby. That’s, that’s one of those baby-wet-her-pants dolls, from the 1980s.”
She grunted. “Yeah, well those weren’t weight loss pills you gave me, neither, were they?” She shook her head sideways. I did the same.
“But, why do you push around a doll in a carriage, and tell people it’s your baby?”
“Why do you sell ‘Oriental medicines’ that don’t do a damn bit of good?” She sighed, heavily. “You try being fat, single, and in your forties.” She eyed me over. “On second thought, maybe you already have. Now give me my money back.” She snatched the blanket out of my hands, and tucked it back over her baby.
I went to the desk and pulled out the same crumpled notes she’d originally given me; I’d kept them because they were the first dollars I’d made during my short-lived weight loss business. “Here.” She took the money, and heaved herself out of the chair.
“Hmmuph.” she said, and gave me one last look. Then she turned around, and pushed the baby carriage out of my apartment.
I sat at the edge of the desk. Almost all of my clients were now accounted for, and none of them had experienced the kind of weight loss I imagined a “killer worm” would cause. But I hadn’t heard from the woman who looked like my sister. Maybe she was sick, or even dead, which would mean I killed her. I fished the rest of the worm caplets from the desk drawer and opened them up. Inside each one was a dried-out black thing resembling a tiny raisin. Except the last one. It contained a curled-up blob that, when I poked it with a paper clip, curled up even tighter. I poured myself a glass of water, and drank it down.
I walked over to the window. It’d started to rain again, and I watched two drops as they raced to the bottom. If my drop won, I bet to myself, my sister would call. Keeping my eyes on each bead of water, I leaned against the windowsill, and silently urged my drop to go faster.