I moved from Buffalo, New York all the way down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi right when I got out of college. Grad school brought me there, as well as the inclination to follow the footsteps of Faulkner and John Shooter. Oh, and of course the weather.
My dad drove the Penske truck while I had my little Nissan. It was stuffed to the ceiling with shit everyone in my extended family didn’t want but also couldn’t bring themselves to throw away. Like rice cookers. I had two of those. As if cooking rice was so toilsome it required a device to do so. Espresso makers, innumerable teacup platters, probably my Great Aunt Bernadette’s gravy boat. On top of this my pet cockatiel was riding shotgun and he could be a little shit when he was irritated. And he was for most of that two-day car ride.
The house down there came with cats. Three of them at first: one was friendly and the other two shy. I named the friendly one Stephen King, though I changed it to Stephanie when I discovered it was female.
I stepped out of the car into that brutal and boggy Mississippian heat and Steph was right at my legs swirling in figure eights. I petted her ragged fur, the dry patch of skin on her neck. The other two, Shirley Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft, sat sheepishly in the bushes.
My dad and I had three days to clean the place and get me settled in before he took a plane back to Buffalo. The outside of the house was quaint like an old woman’s cottage. The inside was fine save all the dead cockroaches on the floor showing their tummies to the world. I asked my dad, “Why do cockroaches always come out into the open to die?”
“They do don’t they,” he said.
We made the nettlesome mistake of packing all the cleaning supplies in the very back of the Penske. So we had to take everything out, place it, then clean around it thereafter. We had a house of oddly positioned furniture and mop puddles by the end of the first day. We let loose on the screen porch, listening to the cicadas. My dad sat on the rocking chair reading The Sound and the Fury and I sat on the steps with Steph on my lap. She was a very nice cat.
By the third day we had the house cleaned and put together. I drove my dad to the Hattiesburg airport which was about the size of a Burger King and shipped him back to Buffalo. After that it was just the cockatiel and me in the house, and he found a particular cupboard he liked to burrow in and spent most of the day there. The stray cats liked to sleep atop my car. When I’d drive anywhere I’d see their brown pawprints in a trail along my windshield. Each morning I’d bring my coffee onto the porch and Steph would come and lounge with me. I set up bowls of water and any food I could scrounge.
The roaches were still a problem though. I’d see them floating across the walls. One got stuck in the air conditioning hatch and was skittering across it, making a racket throughout the house. Thing sounded as heavy as a hamster. I opened the hatch with an antique sword so the little bastard wouldn’t fall on me. When it swung down the gnarly roach came with it and I heroically slew it with the sword. Rebirthing its legacy.
The next morning I called the exterminator.
He was all right, had a mustache, talked a lot. He was kind of plump and jolly until he saw the stray cats lying atop my car and suddenly he grew a look of worry. He swallowed then said, “Can I give you a word of advice?”
“Uh…yeah?” I said.
“Don’t feed them cats. Do not feed them cats.”
“Fleas. They stray and they got ‘em. All it’s ‘gon take is one of ‘em to rub against your leg, then you got two fleas in the house, breedin’. They’ll feed on you, as a blood source, they won’t feed on that bird but they will on you. And then I’m ‘gon be back here chargin’ you two-hundred dollars to get rid of ‘em.”
“Yep. I got the same problem at my house. There’s ten of ‘em, ten. It’s the same tomcat gettin’ ‘em pregnant. I wanna shoot it but my wife won’t let me. You feel bad for ‘em, but. I wanna shoot it. But ya can’t feed ‘em, or else they’ll never leave. Ya feel bad for ‘em, but.”
“Oh, yeah, well yeah, I uh, yeah I haven’t been feeding them or touching them or anything.”
“Oh good,” he said.
At that point I had caressed Stephanie like thirty-seven times.
The bug guy sprayed the place then headed out to his big red truck. I heard him through the window hollering at Stephanie. The thing was, I wasn’t positive that she was stray. She seemed well fed so I wondered if she was just somebody’s outside cat.
I was pretty ignorant when it came to fleas. I had to Google search what they even looked like. Along with that came links with picture guides for how to check your cat for fleas. I took a white sheet from the cupboard, as instructed, and the comb I used from my pomade phase. I went outside and lifted little Stephanie off my car then took her to the porch. I laid the white sheet on my lap, put Steph on top of it, and then started combing through her hair searching for fleas. She of course thought it was game and kept rolling around and pawing at the comb like it was toy. The fourth time she knocked it out of my hand I said, “God dammit, Stephanie, would you cut that out.” I did this for about three minutes with no sign of fleas. I kept on for maybe another minute and a half to make sure, but still—no flea. My suspicions were correct, Stephanie must have been somebody’s outside cat and was flea-treated. I placed her down then out of the corner of my eye saw a brown little speck squiggle into her fur. “What was that,” I said, deadpan.
I grabbed Steph again and rolled her on her back and started combing through her tummy hair. And there it was, the wee brown bug, nestled in the nest. I grabbed it with my fingers to confirm it was a flea. I crushed it between my index and thumb then brought it to my eye. Yep, flea—tan and creepy, indistinguishable with its athletic legs.
It stood upright, said, “Fuck you,” in its flea tongue then jumped directly into my bush of leg hair. I froze, blinked a few times, then felt a tickle run through the forest. I viciously dug through my leg in search of the little sanguisuge. It was hidden deep in there. I ran inside, crashing the door behind me and ripped off all my clothes. This was unlike me. An unknown fanatical fear of bloodsucking parasites which had been dormant since my birth was woken. I power-walked to my laptop with a bizarre strut, like my flea infected leg was made of wood. I typed: how do you get fleas off your leg with quavering fingers.
The first link said to bathe myself in a paste of water and baking soda. Luckily, we had a ton of baking soda. We were trying to get the fishy smell out of the fridge. I jogged to the kitchen, wiener-swinging naked, and tore one of the boxes open. The proportions were actually hard to get right. There was a fine threshold between too watery and too powdery when conjuring this paste. When I got it right I slopped it on my leg and spread it around nice and good. But it had been a while, I thought, the flea could have easily travelled all the way up to my hair by then. So I started to rub it all over me, every inch. I made a mess but I didn’t care, I wanted that flea dead as a doornail. It said you had to sit in the paste for ten minutes after applying it. So I did, slightly slouched with hands over my privates, that terrifically pathetic posture. Then the pasty water trickled down into my eyes and burned. I rubbed at my face but my hands were covered in it so I was just making it worse.
I tried to wait the ten minutes, feeling like somebody just put a cigar out with my cornea, but I couldn’t make it. I ran to the shower and hopped in, let the water splatter on my open eyes. Soon I felt better and the rocky paste was washed away, but the flea wasn’t. It couldn’t have been. It specifically said ten minutes and I only withstood three, tops, so it had to still be there. That horrible little vampire, enduring in my leg hair. So I did what anyone would do. I took the disposable razor from the shelf and started shaving my legs.
The prick-like feeling of a bug living on me overpowered all dignity. My leg hair was long, mind you. All the hairs who wouldn’t grow on my face slithered down and pushed themselves out of my legs.
So I was shaving, ripping at it with a repetitive scrap. I got my first nick pretty quickly. I winced and watched the blood build then start streaming down with the shower water.
But I was determined. The hair was coming off. I kept on scraping until the disposable razor was dull. I’d hardly made a dent. Disposable razors weren’t built for my Alaskan bush of leg hair. I stepped out of the shower getting water everywhere and took another one of the razors from the cupboard. There were four more.
After cutting myself many more times, I managed to work my way up to that tendon behind the knee. That was the worst. I sliced it open like a deli worker slices a black forest ham and I let out a, “Ah fuck!” I switched legs thereafter because I didn’t know what else to do. I had already gone so far. By the time the final razor was too dull to shave I was gushing blood like a haemophiliac.
I stepped out of the shower, lightheaded, legs yogurt white and shaven in weird patches. They were drizzled and decorated with splatters of blood. A Jackson Pollock. But the flea. The flea was still not dead.
I went back to the kitchen, spilling blood and water everywhere. I took out a second box of baking soda and now that I’d gotten the hang of the proportions, I glazed myself once again in the milky paste. I made sure to keep my eyes closed that time around, but now there was an extra sting when it went into my wounds.
All the windows were open. In the panic of it all I hadn’t taken the time to shut the blinds. That would’ve been a reasonable thing to do. Ha! The neighborhood was a wee bit sketchy but I was now certain that if any of my neighbors saw me lathered from head to toe in a bizarre paste, naked, blood pouring down my legs, they would certainly not mess with me for I appeared to be clinically out of my mind.
I managed to sit through the whole ten minutes then I showered again and pathetically bandaged my gored yogurt legs with Scotch tape and paper towels. It was only then I felt ninety-five percent certain that the flea was dead. I put on clothes for the first time in over an hour and walked back into the kitchen with a tight and crinkly step. I took a moment to observe the wreckage I created. White paste and powder spread across the sink and floor, puddles of water, blood, two empty boxes lying there. My bird came from his hideout and landed on his cage. He squawked, probably asking what the fuck was wrong with me.
I took out the mop and started cleaning the kitchen floor and the bathroom floor and the path in between. This gave me time to contemplate and repent. All so suddenly my bizarre actions had consequences, especially the blood stains on the shower curtain. That one got me quite paranoid.
The garbage was stuffed full with all the cleaning waste so I tied it up and went outside. And of course, Stephanie, the harbinger of parasites, was right there at the steps waiting for me. She went to push her head against my yogurt legs but I shooed her away saying, “No no no, you have fleas. Get away from me.” She gave me this confused look. Why does the nice boy suddenly kick? She followed me to the garbage cans. I dropped the sack in then looked at her looking at me. Her eyes poor and shameful. “God dammit,” I said.
I went online and looked up what I could do for her. Someone on Reddit said you can get flea medicine at the vet for a reasonable price. I called the local vet in that small Mississippian town and a girl answered and said, “Hattiesburg Veterinarian this is Tiffany how can I help y’all?”
“Hi, if I came in right now would you sell me flea meds?”
“Ummm,” she paused. “One second,” then proceeded to hang up on me.
I called right back.
“Hattiesburg Veterinarian this is Tiffany how can I help y’all?”
“Uh, hi. I just called, like two seconds ago. I think you hung up on me.”
“Um no sorry? I don’t think so, who’s calling?”
Who did Tiffany think she was fooling? As if acting like that didn’t happen was going to make me think otherwise.
“Joe, not that—regardless, can I buy some flea medicine off you right now?”
“Sure just come on in and we can fill out some paperwork. We close at six.”
It was probably around five-thirty. First I had to put on pants to hide my horrifying plain Greek yogurt with strawberry drizzle legs. Then of course, Stephanie, the inflicted, was lying atop my car. I rolled my sleeves up then delicately took her off and placed her on the grass. I checked my hands and forearms vigorously for them. I was clean. When I got in the car I said to Steph, “You’re a very lucky stray cat.”
She careened her tail.
The vet was packed and their air conditioner was broken. I stood in the line, sweatin’, while this mean-ass black German shepherd just endlessly glared at me. It was awkward honestly. I was on the verge of saying, “What?”
Finally it was my turn and I got to meet Tiffany in the flesh. She was quite flustered, clearly. The paperwork wasn’t really possible because I said I don’t know to all of it. She was asking things like weight, age, spayed or nay, what have you. Finally she said, “Does this cat have a name?”
“Stephanie. She lives outside my house.”
“Okay,” she said as she typed, “Stephanie.”
She explained that first I had to feed the cat this pill which would kill the fleas currently on her. Then I’d have to pour this oil along her neck to prevent fleas thereafter. All of this however, was not cheap, but in fact nearing seventy dollars. But I was already there, so I just paid it.
Tiffany explained that the pill would not be easy. She suggested I pry open the cat’s mouth, clamp it shut, rub her throat and blow on her nose. “It’ll be fun,” she said loudly and sarcastically.
“Can’t I just wrap it in ham or something?”
She paused. “Yeah you could do that.”
Outside in the parking lot I found a twenty dollar bill lying on the ground and I took it without thinking twice. My good deeds were rightfully being rewarded. But I was a little annoyed with God for it was only a twenty. If he hadn’t noticed, the bill was much closer to seventy, so.
Steph was still hanging around when I got home. She ate her pill wrapped in ham, no problemo. But there was a problemo: I had to monitor her for an hour to make sure she didn’t barf it up. I again delicately took her and locked her in the screen porch with me. She pushed her head against my legs again in hopes of a scratch but I had to push her away. After about five minutes she gave me this puzzled look like, “Why are you keeping me in here if you’re not gonna pet me?” Then H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson started dashing after a snake and Steph desperately wanted to tag along. She started scratching at the screens like a grounded eight-year-old.
“Okay, okay,” I said then let her go. She ran after her friends, and soon disappeared into the brush.
I was back inside and ready to wind down. I washed the couch cover and vacuumed the rug incase the flea escaped from my leg hair without me noticing. I took off my tight jeans, ripping the soaked bandages with it, exposing my cuts. I had to put a rag over my bed while I slept to catch the trickle.
In the morning I rebandaged myself then brewed coffee. The bird woke from his cupboard then flew onto his cage and squawked saying, “Good morning,” or, “Shut the fuck up.” I could never tell. I took a cup of coffee and the flea medicine onto the porch. In Mississippi, you could feel the dew on your skin. Soon Stephanie came along and sat outside the screen door. I let her in and gently grabbed hold of her. I placed the medicine along her back. She arched the way they do then purred, saying, “Thank you.”
And I said, “You bet.”