Mister Skinner - Part One

By Merle Harton, Jr.

The man sat on the edge of the padded table. His hands clutched the padding on either side of him, steadying him, as his legs dangled over the edge. He glanced around the small examining room and then at the closed door, and then leaned to the right and scratched some part of his chest with his left hand, which he quickly returned to the padded table; a moment later, he leaned to the left and scratched his chest with his right hand, which he also returned to its place on the edge of the table. Every few seconds he would repeat this maneuver. Later, during the middle of a quick scratch, the door opened.

"Doctor," said the man, "I tell you, this rash is really getting to me."

"Well, Mr. Skinner, I'm prescribing something for you that will control the itch. I see it quite a lot, especially in this kind of weather."

"That medicine isn't the jock itch medicine, is it? The kind that also removes corns and calluses?"

"Oh, no, no—it isn't. Hah, hah. Your rash isn't fungal. All indications say it's viral, but I can't be absolutely certain unless we run some more expensive—er, I mean, extensive—tests. I can schedule those, if you're concerned; otherwise, I'd just let it ride its course. I see this often enough in this climate. Do you have jock itch, too? You didn't say anything about that."

"No, I was just joking."

"Well, this prescription will give you some symptomatic relief?" Dr. Pearlman scribbled some words on his prescription pad and slipped it under the clip on Mr. Skinner's chart. "I'll have my nurse bring you to the front."

"Say, this isn't going to cost a lot is it?"

"You mean for the visit or the prescription?"


"How long have I been your doctor—ten years, twelve years?"

Yeah, uh huh. I see you once a year, and only then for a checkup. And I only do that because it's required by my health plan—and only because I get reimbursed. Other than that your always my last refuge. You bottom-feeding trash eater! You own two Mercedes and a Lexus. You're on your second wife, because the first one wouldn't fellate you. You're on your second wife now, and we have to pay for it. And a big three-story house uptown. Malpractice, medical school bills, office overhead, CME credits—liar! You greedy bastard. May your second wife suck you dry.

"My standard office visit hasn't changed since you first came to this office. As for the prescription, I don't think it's going to set you back much. Certainly not as much as a specialist—a dermatologist—might charge for this."

Oh, like you're somehow in a different moral class than those other bottom feeders?

"I didn't mean to sound cheap," Mr. Skinner said. "But things seem to be getting harder these days, and I've got to look out for number one, if you know what I mean."

"I understand," said Dr. Pearlman. "But don't let money give you a rash."

They smiled at each other.

"You don't think I need to see a dermatologist, do you?"

"Not at this point," said Dr. Pearlman as he left the room.

Just as Mr. Skinner finished tying his tie, the door opened and Dr. Pearlman's nurse stuck her head in and said: "All dressed? Good?" She opened the door further, keeping her hand on the knob, and stood waiting for Mr. Skinner. Mr. Skinner accompanied her to the front office, where he paid his bill and took away the prescription Dr. Pearlman had scribbled.

He left the building, stopped a moment to look again at the receipt the nurse had given him, and then walked down the street to the Walgreen's store. He handed the pharmacist his prescription and waited. About twenty minutes later the pharmacist called his name and handed him a small tube of salve in an amber-colored plastic bottle. The instructions were on the bottle, but the pharmacist made a point of telling him what to do with the salve anyway.

At home, Mr. Skinner hurried to the bathroom and disrobed. He followed the instructions and dabbed the salve on every eruption on his skin. When he had finished, he looked himself over in the bathroom mirror, twisting his head around to look at his back to see if he had any eruptions left to cover with the salve. Satisfied he looked again at the red coloration on his stomach.

"Strange bumps. Never had anything like it before. This salve better work. Cost enough. Damn doctors. Crooks. Swindlers. Crooks and swindlers."

Mr. Skinner looked himself up and down again and then put his clothes back on. As he finished this task, he felt a movement at his ankles.

"Is that you, Beaver?" He bent down and patted the large orange striped cat rubbing against his legs. "Good boy. I'm sorry I didn't greet you at the door, but I've got to take care of this rash. Sorry, Beaver."

Mr. Skinner looked at his watch. It was 3:45 in the afternoon. "Well, too late to go in to work," he said to the large cat. "Oh, I think I'll go to the school anyway." He made a motion toward the door. "Hey," he said, "I'd better call Jack and let him know I'm coming?" He went to the phone and dialed.

"Hi. This is Mr. Skinner. Is Jack LaRue available?" He waited a moment. "Mr. LaRue? Mr. Skinner. Yes, sir, I'm finished at the doctors and thought maybe I might be needed at the office. I know it's late.... Okay, thank you. I'll be in in the morning. The itching isn't too bad. The doctor gave me a salve. It seems to work. No, sir, the rash isn't contagious. Okay, yes, sir, I'll see you tomorrow. Good bye?" He hung up the phone and walked slowly to the living room and sat down in his easy chair.

Mr. Skinner surveyed his small apartment. He started at the door. The door looked ridiculous to him—three locks, beginning with the doorknob, and then the chain, followed by the deadbolt. Beaver, the large orange cat, jumped into his lap. "So what I got to protect, Beaver? That ratty coat rack by the door? My pictures? It took me ten years to get all my prints framed—and what it set me back to do that! I've never been able to afford anything of any real value. Always a copy of something. Never the genuine article. Now, admittedly I've got good taste in prints, but if I had the money, Beaver, I tell you I'd have the best. I don't mean like the nouveau riche; no, I mean I would make my taste so striking that people will want to copy ME! Maybe that's too ostentatious and not like me at all. I don't need to put my stuff on display—what's the point of that anyway, except to show off? If I'm really rich, I don't need to show off. Okay, so I'll have a few objets d'art for investment purposes, and the rest of my abode will be muted elegance. Maybe I'll live on a boat—er, yacht—instead. Or outdoors, by a pond, in a small wood house, like Thoreau. The neat thing about being rich and living in the wild and enjoying it is that the rich can always change it if they like. The poor either acquiesce to what they receive by grace or move on.

"So if I'm not going to spend my millions on art—then on what? WOMEN! Of course. I'll have a veritable harem of blondes and redheads and a couple of hometown brunettes and some exotic jet-black-haired foxes. But that means I'll have to have stuff—and lots of it—to attract women like that. Art, that's a start, and then gadgets, stereo this and stereo that, and cars and clothes and trips to the stores for every member of my harem. What do you think of that, Beaver?"

The orange cat, lulled by his voice, was asleep in his lap. Mr. Skinner said nothing, then, but stroked his pet and enjoyed the light purr from his charge. He looked up and silently completed his survey. From the tattered maroon sofa beside his black vinyl easy chair to the worn throw rug beneath a 1950-ish wood and plastic coffee table. The survey tired him. He gingerly lifted the orange cat and placed the limp form beside him and got up. He went to the small kitchen and made a poached egg and toast and sat down with a glass of hot herbal tea. He watched a little television and then went to bed.

In the morning, Mr. Skinner looked at his rash. It was spreading all over his chest and his back. It had stopped itching, a feat he attributed to the salve Dr. Pearlman had prescribed. He touched the rash gently, like a blind man reading Braille. "Strange," he said aloud. "Very strange."

He dressed, made coffee, and ate a breakfast of cereal and milk. He stroked Beaver, and checked the cat's food and water. At 7:00 Mr. Skinner left his apartment and took his usual bus to the office. He walked into the office building, took the elevator to the third floor. He went through the door with 6-inch-high brushed chrome letters, "LaRue University."

"LaRue University. Where an education is just a correspondence away." Mr. Skinner said aloud as he passed the inscription beneath the sign.

And a big check is all it takes.

He looked at his watch. It was 7:48. Miss Liebfraumilch, the receptionist, was just settling into her desk at the front entrance and was putting on her telephone headset as Mr. Skinner walked through the front door. He caught the scent of her perfume and sighed. "Good morning, Deb," he said.

She gave him a quick glance. "Oh, Martin, you're back," she said cooly. How's the rash? Never mind—ick, don't tell me—I don't want to know. Just don't scratch in my direction."

"Fine," he said, looking down. "Just fine." Turning away, he walked to his office and entered the small, doorless, windowless room. In the center, against the back wall, about four feet from the entrance, was a workstation setup with a long two-foot deep formica desktop stretching from one end of the small room to the other. A chair and a trashcan completed the ensemble. He looked with dismay at the tower of files on the desktop. At that moment he heard a familiar voice.

"Skinner! You're back. Good." It was Jack LaRue, his boss. He joined him in the small work room. "Sorry about the paper—hope you don't mind. That stack right there is the new applications; that one over there is, um, the processed apps. This one"—LaRue patted a tall pile—"is the correspondence file. What we need is, one, for you to get right to work on the exemptions and, two, we need you to grade papers. The other instructor, Cindy, quit yesterday. I didn't tell you? Sorry. Your assignment bucket is full. Things are piling up fast. We're interviewing a new instructor this morning. Keep your fingers crossed. Listen, if you need anything, let me know." With that he was out the doorway and gone.

Mr. Skinner plopped down in his modular chair and dangled his briefcase over the side. "Man," he said, "look at this mess. I've gotta get a life." He sighed, and as he did he felt the peculiar itch of his rash again. He sat forward and put his briefcase on the last remaining bare area of the desktop. Opening the case, he pulled a pencil the inside pocket and with two fingers on the top he dangled it down his back and used it to scratch a couple of places near his shoulders and right below his neck.

"Man, dude. How's that rash?"

Mr. Skinner turned in his chair. It was Tony Flanders, with one arm stretched across the doorway, until he looked like a model in a pose in a frame. The abundance of stomach ruined the scene, as it hid the belt that was too tight, causing his red face to swell through the wild growth of black beard.

"So are you here to gloat?" Mr. Skinner asked his friend.

"Hey, man, no way. I'm worried about that rash of yours."

"You should worry about paper."

"I'm not worried about paper. Hey, I'm getting caught up. You're the one with the problem. Look at that pile." He waved his hand over the desk like a game-show model. "Besides, your bucket's full in the mailroom and you've got a drawer full of exemptions to work. I'm the one with the problem? I don't think so, guy."

Mr. Skinner looked crestfallen. "Okay. I understand. I'm away from here for one day—one day!—and I come back to this. Why are you giving me a hard time about it?"

"Come on. I'm just toying with you. Look, Skinner-guy, I'm your friend—okay?"

"I'm sorry, Tony. I just don't need this right now."

"Let's go out for lunch."

"I don't know. We'll see. I've got to get this pile whittled down."

"Okay. Check with you later. I'm working right next door." With that he was gone.

Mr. Skinner pulled his chair closer to the desk and plowed into the pile of paper on his desk. He started on the first large stack of papers and had just begun to examine them when there was a knock on the wall behind him.

"Are you Mr. Skinner?"

Mr. Skinner turned to see a short man with a large oily nose and large glasses that had moved toward the tip, giving the impression of oversized bifocal lenses.

"Actually it's DOCTOR Skinner, but our tradition here at LaRue University has everybody degree-less. It makes it easier to keep track of instructors without doctorates." Including instructors without any credentials at all. "Can I help you?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," said the man apologetically. "I'm Harry Carlyle. I'm a new instructor—only part-time—for English and education."

"Really? Well welcome aboard. I know we need you. So, is anybody showing you the ropes?"

"Oh, I thought you were—Mr. LaRue said ..."

"—Let me guess. I'm to show you where to get started, right?"

"Looks like it."

"Oh, man, okay. Let's get a chair for you. We'll start with exemptions; that's get you going."

Mr. Skinner went to the room next to his, a vacant room with exactly the same workstation setup, and borrowed a chair for his visitor. They sat together and Mr. Skinner began showing him how to proceed.

"Mister Skinner - Part One"
Copyright © 2011 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved