CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN
Emma brought home a bad batch of baby carrots. You could tell just by looking in the bag. Gnarled things, really. Like fat fingers, their pudgy knuckles pressing against the clear plastic. I had volunteered to help her unpack the groceries, as a peace offering, finding them nestled in between the OJ and eggs. Over a dozen whittled digits pointed up at me—J’accuse!
I grabbed the bag and tossed it in the air, feeling those baby carrots slap and settle into my palm. Think these might’ve gone beyond their sell-by date, hon…
Look fine to me, Emma replied without actually looking, leaning into the fridge. She hadn’t made eye-contact with me for over fourteen hours. This was the New World Order now: stilted dinners and passive-aggressive conversations. But it was too late to turn back now. I’d told her how I felt and there was no taking it back. The estrangement train has left the station, ladies and gentlemen. First stop, Splitsville…
Most times they’re moist. Plump and crisp. But I don’t know—these baby carrots looked downright desiccated to me. They’re supposed to be smooth, sanded down to a perfect rotund tube. But these ugly buggers must’ve slipped right past the carrot-inspector while they rumbled along the assembly line. They were segmented. Crooked. A few were tumorous, bubbling over with cysts. Warts on a witch’s finger. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were pointing at me.
This is all your fault! Your fault!
I brought the bag up for a closer peek. They looked more like grubs to me. Orange larva. Gravity dragged the carrots down my wrist, slithering against the clear plastic along my skin.
I could’ve sworn I felt them wriggle.
Sean loves baby carrots. It’s just about the only vegetable Emma can ever get him to eat. Our crisper is always stocked with a bag or two. They never last long. The turnover for taproots is pretty swift in this house. For lunch, Emma packs him a Ziplock full of them, a whole handful, to crunch on at school. It’s the only snack he ever asks for—Mommy, I want baby carrots, mommy, mommy, I want baby carrots, pleeeeeease... I’m surprised his skin hasn’t turned orange yet, to be honest. Isn’t that a thing? Too much carotene flushes your flesh into this gingery hue, as if you’ve spent a few too many hours in the tanning bed? All that excess beta-carotene enters your bloodstream, stored in your skin, giving your fingers a yellowish tint?
I’ve got nothing against baby carrots. But you do realize they aren’t really babies—right? It’s a lie. One big capitalist fib. It’s all about the rebranding. They’re just the ugly-nubs of adult carrots, sliced and sanded down to yummier-looking stubs. They’ve been bathed in chlorine, bleaching out the foodborne bacteria, rinsing away any e. coli still clinging to your carrot. The same solution that obliterates poo in the community pool is soaking in my son’s favorite snack.
Emma would suggest I get over myself. They’re just baby carrots, she’d say. I can even hear the shard in her voice. Does everything have to be a consumerist conspiracy with you?
I’m not a card-carrying member of the anti-baby carrot lobby, here. I just find it a little off-putting that certain people in our household prefer to eat some selectively bred, fabricated brand of trademarked “baby” carrots instead of the real organic deal. Just because they’re cute.
Because they’re babies.
Emma grabbed the bag out of my hand and lobbed it into the fridge, as if I’d been holding the baby carrots for her to take the whole time. Can you pass me the cold cuts, please?
We weren’t sleeping in separate beds. We probably should’ve, but we wanted to be adults about this. Emma and I still curled up under the covers next to each other. Usually, we took turns spooning, our bodies shifting beneath the bedsheets until settling into that perfect fit. Emma had already assumed a facing-out position. Facing away. From me. I didn’t know if this was a statement in of itself, that I shouldn’t swoop in for a spoon. Romance was never really out of the question in these final breaths before falling asleep, but we’d have to act fast, dragging the other out of the quicksand of our drowsiness with a little romantic overture.
Like a kiss that extends beyond the pleasant goodnight peck.
A nuzzle in the neck.
A wandering hand.
That sort of thing.
I felt Emma’s finger. More like her thumb. Well, this is a pleasant surprise, I thought. Emma was probing. Exploring. Her skin felt cool against my lower back as she wormed her way toward the base of my spine. This was totally unlike her. Emma never went back there. I wasn’t sure where she was heading, but she seemed determined to delve into the crevice of my ass.
Whoa—hey, now. Where are you heading, tiger?
Emma’s breath purled in her throat. Her body had slackened against the mattress, facing away. How could her arms bend backwards, like that?
That’s when I felt her thumb take the plunge.
No—not her thumb.
Not Emma at all.
My back arched as this wriggling digit poked at my prostate. The finger forged ahead with a determined fury I’d never felt with any of Emma’s fingers before. Even then, when I knew it couldn’t possibly have been her, seeing her fast asleep, I still thought of it as my wife’s disembodied thumb. I reached back to swat her hand away, only I found nothing. No one was there. Not a wrist or an arm or anything. And yet, the finger kept at it. Squirming forward.
I clenched. Just to keep it from diving any deeper. I rolled over on my back, taking most of the sheets with me, elevating my pelvis into the air like I was in some sort of frenzied yoga-pose. The Timid Oyster. The Puckering Tortoise. Nothing was getting in there. I put whatever muscle mass I had in my ass, batting down the hatches long enough for me to take my fingers and pluck out this marauding member. There was nothing at the end. Nothing attached.
Just a nub.
My grip kept slipping. Greasy little bugger. Most of it had already burrowed into my butt. I had to dig in. Literally dig my nails in to pinch it. Flecks of its brittle flesh clumped under my fingernails as I extracted this phantom finger from my ass.
But of course, it wasn’t a finger. Of course.
It was a carrot.
A baby carrot.
It squirmed in my grip, writhing between my fingers like a panicking maggot. If I let go, I was pretty sure it would roll right off the bed and crawl away and I’d never see it again.
What’re you doing? Emma mumbled. Even when she was half asleep, I could still hear the icepick in her voice.
I’d already leapt out of bed, rushing for the kitchen. Just getting some water, I said. Tossing the baby carrot into the sink, I watched it loll about the basin. I don’t know how long I stared at it, watching it worm over the dirty dishes, attempting to scale the marble and escape.
I turned the faucet on. The rush of water sent the baby carrot tumbling down the drain.
Into the garbage disposal.
I flicked the switch and the garburator chewed through with a gargled drone. I left it on for longer than I needed to, just in case, the high-pitched whine and whir of the disposal’s blades humming up from the drain. Just to be sure. Just to know nothing came crawling out.
The bag had been torn open.
Ripped from the inside out.
Totally empty. What remained of the plastic was still resting at the crisper’s bottom, flaccid, as if somebody had eaten all the baby carrots and forgotten to throw the bag away.
Where did all those baby carrots go?
This wasn’t something I could share with Emma. Or Sean. Obviously. I was supposed to have The Talk with him today, after school—but my mind was elsewhere. On other things.
Such as most bags hold up to forty-eight baby carrots.
Give or take.
All morning, if I saw a flash of orange from the corner of my eye, I’d stop and turn. Wait and see if anything wriggled.
But nothing was there. Nothing was ever there.
I called in sick as soon as Emma left. I had the house all to myself. I spent the day peeling back the carpet. Pushing back the couch. Flipping the cushions over. Rummaging through the pantry. Digging into the freezer. Pulling out the canned vegetables in the pantry. Sifting through the sock drawer. The closets. The bathroom cabinet. Under the bed.
I couldn’t find them.
Any of them.
I found a few AA batteries. Plenty of pocket change. A picture Sean had drawn of the fam. Just the three of us, holding hands. Smiling with our crooked Crayola lips.
No peach crayons for Sean. No, he colored our skin orange.
It was my turn to pick him up from school. Now’s my chance. Time for The Talk. But from the moment he hopped in the car, he kept saying he was hungry. That he wanted a snack.
In a little while, sport. Promise. But first, I was hoping you and I could have a little chat.
My tummy’s grumbling…
I hear you, pal, but—please. There’s something I wanna talk to you about.
Can I please have some baby carrots, pleeeeease?
No, I snapped. We’re all out of baby carrots! I’ll get you some goddamn Doritos, okay?
I’m not saying I’ve been the best father. The best husband.
Or even the best human being.
All I’m saying is: feelings change. People change. People grow apart. They want different things. Need different things in their lives. Sometimes, you find those things in other people.
That’s nobody’s fault. It happens. Shit happens. The most we can hope for, if it happens—when it happens—is to understand that no one’s to blame for feeling the way we do.
Not Sean. Not Emma.
I didn’t mean for this to happen.
It just did.
Dinner was stilted. Sean wouldn’t look up from his plate. Emma kept grating her knife through her food, mangling her meal. Dissecting it rather than eating it.
Lord knows where my head was at. I had drifted off into my own thoughts. I couldn’t even clock in what was two inches in front of me, let alone what I was eating.
Until I noticed something orange under my nose.
There. On my plate. To the side. Nestled next to the spare ribs. A steaming heap of baby carrots. Soaked in olive oil, all soft and soggy. Flecks of diced parsley clung to their charred skin.
I pushed my chair back, wood grinding against wood as its legs scraped over the floor. What the hell’s that?
Butter-roasted carrots, Emma spoke slowly. Very measured, I might add.
Those are baby carrots.
Yes, they are.
Where did you get them?
From the fridge?
Where? Where in the fridge?
In the drawer. She sounded nervous now. Where I put them. Where they always are. The recipe says you can use baby carrots.
Sean speared one on his fork. He hesitated before biting, realizing I was staring at him.
At his fork.
He looked frightened. Yes, yes, he should be frightened. Look! Look at the carrot, the baby carrot, that squirming auburn worm, writhing about the tines, only inches away.
I turned to Emma. Can’t you see it? Can’t you see?
I slept on the couch.
Normally, I don’t rest on my back—but tonight, I stared at the ceiling.
Waiting for them.
I had asked—begged—Emma to take me back. To forgive me. I’d gotten down on my knees and took her hands. I think I actually started crying. She only stared down at my hands, unable to take in the whole of me, looking as if she couldn’t recognize my fingers anymore.
What’s happening to you?
I know, I know. I fucked up. I did. But—please. Let’s forget about the last two days. Pretend like they never happened.
She huffed. That ship has sailed, hon.
Then—please. Please. Just take them back.
Take what back? I hadn’t realized she was trying to pull her hands away. I didn’t realize I hadn’t let go.
The carrots, I pleaded. The baby carrots. Please. Make them stop.
We agreed that I’d check into a hotel in the morning as long as I could stay the night. The living room was still. Nothing was moving at this hour. I couldn’t hear anything.
I eventually drifted off into a dream. A dream about carrots.
The first carrots.
Its roots stem from Persia. Cultivated for its aromatic leaves and seeds. It would take centuries before its woody core would become the focal point of its majesty. The original taproot was bitter. Arboreal. It had medicinal properties. Aspects of magic. For fertility rites.
Its fleshy cortex reaches deep into the earth.
The ideal soil is soft.
It needs space to grow.
For its roots to reach down deep.
I woke up choking. Drowning on the couch. I couldn’t breathe. Someone had poured cement over my face, sealing off my nostrils. My mouth. I could even feel it working its way into my ears. I sat up, gagging. I hocked and hocked until I dislodged the obstruction in my throat.
The baby carrot landed at my feet. It glistened in saliva as it wrapped around my toe. I kicked, flinging it through the air. It landed on the living room wall and rolled over the floor.
I could feel them. All of them. The baby carrots. They were worming their way into every orifice. Massaging and flexing and tensing with their desiccated skin.
They wanted to come in. They wouldn’t stop. Not until they found a way inside.
To take root.
I stumbled into the bathroom, shaking as many of them off as I could. The pitter-pat of baby carrots thumped along the floor. When I flicked on the bathroom light and found my reflection in the mirror, I still gasped, even though it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. My left nostril had distended itself. It looked as if I’d been punched right in the face, the flesh bruised and bloated to abnormal proportions, wadded up with something or other.
Another wriggled in my ear. Its tail coiled about the air while the rest of its orange body burrowed into my ear canal. Already, I could feel the nub nuzzling at my ear drum. About to punch through. I swatted at the side of my head until I dislodged it.
The baby carrot in my nose had forced its way up my septum. Even then, I had to take a moment to look, to marvel at my reflection as the baby carrot continued to crawl up. Up. Up.
Then it was gone.
There was nothing for me to grab hold of. Nothing to stop it from creeping into my nasal cavity and into my cranium. All I could do was pinch the bridge of my nose in hopes of halting it.
I took Emma’s tweezers from the cabinet and dug them in. I ended up accidentally pushing the baby carrot in deeper at first, sending a crunching surge in my skull. My eyes were stinging. I couldn’t see. I felt it wriggle, forcing its way up up up, each fleshy segment undulating like an inchworm. I could feel its pulse pounding against my nasal cavity, a low-wattage throb.
It had a heartbeat. It had a heart.
It was alive.
My best option, my only option now, was to stab the baby carrot. The tweezers’ fangs sank into its cortex. It was just a matter of me easing the taproot out from my nasal cavity at an angle. I couldn’t just yank it. I needed to keep pressing down, pinning it against the inner canal of my nostril and sliding the baby carrot out. Slowly. Slowly. If I lost my grip, that baby carrot would simply worm its way back in, aiming for the soft tissues on the other side of my septum.
There was blood. A sheen of mucous slickened up the baby carrot, like flecks of placenta and afterbirth still coating a newborn baby. My blood had seeped into its furrowed skin, filling in its wrinkles so that it looked like a latticework of red veins tethered against its orange body.
I sank my teeth in. It was still crisp. I felt that satisfying crunch that you get at the very back of your molars, my teeth singing in its mastication.
My tongue worked over its crinkles. It had a bitter taste, rusty, unwashed.
This was a woody-textured taproot. An ancient thing. Uprooted right from the earth.
I chewed and chewed. God help me, I swallowed.
I let it take root.