NONFICTION ISSUE #32

"Ezekiel's Chariot" by Jim Blythe
*Image: “Ezekiel’s Chariot” by Jim Blythe

 

 

Bugs

By Naomi Ulsted

 

 

I was watching television when my dad barreled into the living room in his boxers. He twisted and shimmied and slapped wildly at himself, his hands clapping sharply against his pale skin. My mother was at Grandma’s house, helping to give Grandpa a bath. His recent stroke had left him paralyzed from the neck down, and no matter how hard I tried to rub his petrified shoulder muscles, he felt nothing. My brother and sisters were asleep, and the house had been in a rare quiet moment with only the sound of Love Boat on television, but now here was my dad, doing a wild dance in his shorts. I tried to see what was happening on the cruise, but he was hard to ignore. I pressed back into the rough material of the sofa.

“Get off me!” my dad shouted.

He told me he’d lain down to sleep and just minutes later, felt thousands of tiny feet crawling, exploring all over his skin. He told me this, although I didn’t care to know. He went back to bed, or not to bed, or whatever. I didn’t want to think about it, so I pretended it hadn’t happened and went back to Love Boat. I lay down in my own bed that night, my skin alive, waiting for the feel of tiny feet. I didn’t feel any. I used to hear mice crawling behind the fake wood panel walls. I would listen to their tiny scratching as they crawled up the wall near my head. They kept me awake with their nocturnal responsibilities. Frustrated one night, I slammed my fist into the scratching noise. I heard a sliding sound and then a thud.

The next morning, while curling my hair at my vanity table, I heard my parents discussing the bugs. The vanity was a dark chestnut, intricately carved with delicate designs that encircled the mirror, which now stubbornly reflected back to me my own uncooperative hair. I could only ever get one side of the hair to feather back into place. I worked at the other side with vigilance while I listened to my mother agree to get rid of the bed.

The bed was new to them. It had come from Mr. and Mrs. Coleman, who gave us the mattress and box-spring if we could arrange to transport it. This was before Mr. Coleman went crazy, tried to kill his wife, and was committed to a mental institution. Had that happened before this event, perhaps my parents wouldn’t have wanted the bed. But as it was, they’d been sleeping on a hide-a-way bed, so this was a step up. Except that it was infested with bugs.

I quit trying to fix the left side of my head and darted for the door. I’d be twenty minutes early for the bus, but it would be quiet, crisp and clean outside. Mom stopped me before I made it to the door with a sharp directive. “Let me check you for bugs.”

“No, Mom,” I protested. She examined the skin on my arm with business-like hands, pulling up my shirt to see my belly, as if like a dog, I’d have fleas hidden in the fur there. My dad stood by, watching and scratching.

“Let me see your hair,” Mom said, and lifted up a section of hair just like they did in elementary school when checking for lice. Right in the middle of class. They’d line us up and check us one by one, using what looked like a large popsicle stick, to check for the nits. If a child was sent outside to the hall following the exam, then we knew they were infested. I prayed to Jesus every time that I would not be sent to the hall. Whenever that happened, the remaining classmates would exchange looks and scoot their desks away from the empty child’s desk. I was never sent home, and I was sometimes surprised. I knew it was the kids who lived in trailers like me or who had lots of brothers and sisters were the ones who got sent out.

“Mom,” I complained. “Quit it! I don’t have them, okay?” I burst out the door into the sharp chill and walked away from my home as fast as I could. As I passed the trimmed lawn of Mrs. Greene’s house, I noticed clean frost painting it a shimmering white. My thoughts ran a mental check on my body for any unidentified itching. Legs? No. Belly? No. Arms? No. Head? No. Satisfied, I let my thoughts wander to school.

My day at school was long, the way I preferred it. Choir, Geometry, Advanced English, Typing, U.S. History, play rehearsal. I spent most of the day with Theresa, but I didn’t mention anything about the bugs. When Theresa and I first met we were in second grade. I invited her over to play, but since we were living in a tent at the time on the property we’d just bought, Theresa’s mom politely declined. She had been wary of her only daughter’s choice of a best friend ever since, and I didn’t think this latest issue with my family was going to help. My mom, along with my all three of my sisters, picked me up at school at eight that night.

“We threw the bed out,” my mom stated. “Took it to the dump.”

“We’ve got bugs!” said Leah, grinning. Just under five years old now, she had big pudgy cheeks and a tendency to throw screaming fits in public places. She pulled up her shirt to display a rash of little bumps on her belly.

“We’ve all got them,” said Mom, and I heard, rather than saw, the furrow between her eyebrows deepening.

“Yeah, see?!” said Ila cheerfully from the back seat, pulling up her shirt to show me. Only seven, she wasn’t embarrassed to display her entire chest area, which was, indeed, covered in red bumps. “Even Tanya’s got them.” She grabbed Tanya’s shirt and pulled it up to reveal more red bumps.

“Me got bugs,” said Tanya sadly, sticking out her lower lip.

“Put your shirt down Ila,” I replied. I pressed my head against the cool window.

“Do you have them yet?” asked Mom.

“No,” I said, resenting the “yet” in her sentence.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we’re going to the doctor tomorrow to get some medication.”

I looked out and tried to count the dark shadows of the trees rushing by.

The next day, I checked myself continuously. In choir, I checked out the back of my legs as I sang the scales. “Quit looking at my feet,” said Kevin Winston, who sang right behind me.

“Like I’d want to look at your feet,” I snapped.

In Geometry, I watched Patrick Casey spit chew on the floor of the class. I examined the sticky saliva puddle and felt for itchy bumps on the back of my neck. In typing, I speed-raced Jeff for the best words per minute score, but my game was off and I lost. He cackled with triumph and lapped the room, while I snuck a look at my forearms.

When I got home, my mother looked at me with deep circles under her eyes. As she hauled a large bundle of laundry from the dryer she said, “Good, you’re home. We still need to do the couch cushion covers. I wonder if we should do the drapes.” As we both eyed the heavy drapes with reluctance, Ila and Leah ran into the room, Leah first with Ila chasing after her. I startled. They were both stark white and looked as if they were in costume. Their faces, arms, bellies, chest, and legs were covered in white cream. They were wearing only underpants and white cream – thick like the diaper cream we used to smear on their bottoms. “I’m a ghost!” shouted Ila. “I’m gonna get you!”

“No, it’s MY turn to be a ghost!” cried Leah. “I’m gonna get YOU!”

Baby Tanya toddled in looking like a tiny Pillsbury Dough Boy. She waggled her fingers and shrieked with laughter.

“Girls!” shouted my mother. “Quit arguing and quit running into the walls.” Grabbing an old cloth diaper, she wiped a big streak of white off the wall where Leah had brushed her arm. Baby Tanya did one of her favorite things and threw herself into the fluffy, soft pile of warm sheets.

“Dammit!” my mom barked and jerked Tanya up out of the laundry basket, her white face a mask of surprise. She handed Tanya to me, and I tried to hold the sticky, wailing blob of my sister away from me, then gave up and embraced her, white goo and all. She stopped wailing, and my mom inspected the laundry to see if it now required a re-wash to be rid of the sticky goo.

“I guess it’s okay,” she muttered. “Do you have the bugs?”

“No,” I said. I stooped over to send the squirming baby Tanya after her sisters and began to transfer the wet laundry to the dryer. “Where’s Dad?”

“He’s in the bathroom. Again.”

I heard the shower running. “Should I wash the cushion covers in hot water?”

“Yes,” she replied, “but there’s probably none left. Your father’s been in there for forty-five minutes.”

She walked down the hall with the sheets. Ila and Leah stood and blinked at me, their eyes staring from white faces.

“Oooh! A couple scary ghosts!” I said. “I’m so scared!” They broke into smiles, then held up their white arms and waggled their fingers at me, which was, apparently, a ghost impression. “Where’s Adrian?” I asked. “You’d better go scare him.”

“Naomi!” I heard my mom from the living room. I brought the load of laundry in. “The medicine’s in the bathroom,” she said. “You’d better put it on, just to be sure.”

“I’m fine, Mom. I don’t need it.”

“Put it on,” she snapped. “Or you won’t be. It’s preventative.”

I put it on. I smeared the white cream over my arms, on my shoulders. I pretended I was one of the women in commercials, erotically stroking sun-tanning lotion over their bodies. It wasn’t the same at all. I changed into shorts so I could do the backs of my legs.

When I stepped out of the bathroom, I came face to face with my dad. He was wearing nothing but his boxer shorts again, and the rest of him was stark white. His beady eyes looked out from his white face. He really did look ghostly. His eyes looked over my legs, white torso, arms. I fidgeted, but he was in the doorway, so I couldn’t get around him. “You look like a little powdered donut,” he said, stepping toward me. “Maybe you need a little tickling.”

“No Dad,” I said, stepping back. His ticklings went on and on, and I would be gasping, laughing through the misery of being pinned to the kitchen floor, trying with full strength to get away, but always being pushed harder back down, his fingers into my ribs, his face flushed, panting next to mine. Luckily, my mom rounded the corner just then.

“Chuck!” she said, exasperated. “Is there any of that medicine left?” He mumbled something unintelligible, head down, eyes avoiding her glance like our dog did when Dad hit him. “Quit putting it all over if you’re just going to shower again,” she said. I slipped out of the bathroom and headed for my room. “That costs fifteen dollars a tube!” For the millionth time, I thanked Jesus that he was my stepdad, not my real dad, so I didn’t have whatever genes made him this way.

After working with my mom to wash the couch cushions, drapes, and comforters, I spent the evening hiding in my room, trying not to muck up my homework with the pasty, white cream. Ila and Leah visited a couple times, going through my jewelry. As they sat at my vanity, they examined each glittering piece, holding the necklaces up to their creamy, white necks, before replacing them in the jewelry box.

My dad was reading, no doubt. That was what he usually did. Except for tonight, when he might have been taking a fifth shower. “Isn’t it time for your bath?” I asked my sisters, wishing they’d find somewhere else to be, since I couldn’t figure out why I was not getting the right circumference measurement in the equation.

“Mommy said we didn’t have to, since there’s no hot water.”

“Yeah, cause Daddy’s got bugs!” said Leah.

“We all have bugs,” said Ila.

“I don’t,” I said. “Now, you guys go play somewhere else.”

The next morning, Mom made me put on the cream before I left for school. I brought a dry washcloth in my backpack and wiped the medicine off on my walk to the bus. But my day was better. I raced Jeff on our vocabulary quiz and won. Theresa and I put a Twinkie in my locker and wrote the date in black marker on the inside wall. We planned to check it at the end of the year to gauge its indestructible properties. My voice soared, or at least it felt to me like it did, in choir. At home, my mother seemed relieved that none of us were itching. Dad was, though. He said he could feel their tiny feet. He stayed in his room, and the six of us left watched Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. We kept the cream on for good measure, but it seemed as though we were almost done with the bugs.

It was the next day, in geometry, that I saw the spots. Mr. Woodruff had been showing us ratio and proportion, using a photo of a seasnail that had a shell that curled over and over into itself. The inside of the shell was a soft pink, like the inside of a person’s mouth. I followed the curve of it with my eyes and imagined being inside. Crawling through the smooth pink insides and around and around. It was a self-contained being, with a home on its back, self-reliant and possessing the golden ratio. I was envious. I glanced down and saw the red spots on my arm. I surreptitiously checked the other, and it was the same. I pulled my sleeves down over my hands and felt my face grow hot. The room was stifling. I closed my eyes against a tinge of nausea, wondering if I had the spots on my face. My eyes pricked with sharp tears while I tried to think of something else. For a second, I felt tiny feet crawling on the back of my neck. I felt an itch on the back of my leg. Todd Darnell poked my arm and I jumped. I looked over, knowing he was going to ask what was the matter with my face, which was probably covered in spots, and then the whole class would stop and stare at how filthy I was, covered in bugs. I was crying though, so as he reached out to hand me a note to pass, he sat back, startled. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I grabbed my duffel bag and left the room.

My mother picked me up from the school nurse’s office. I could see Adrian, Ila, Leah and Tanya in the backseat of the car. Ila leaned out the window as I walked up to the car. “We don’t have bugs!” she yelled.

Adrian’s face appeared as he pushed her out of the way. “It’s a side effect,” he announced proudly, as if he’d diagnosed the situation himself.

“Bugs all gone!” Tanya grinned at me through a slimy mess on her face of what looked to be a chocolate chip cookie. Leah sat with her arms crossed, scowling. I figured she missed the bugs. I realized this was the first time in three days I’d seen their actual faces. No white cream. But spots – red splotches all over.

On the way home, I learned that we were indeed bug free. The medicine had treated the bugs we had gotten from the bed, but one of the side effects of the cream was red spots.

“Might have been helpful to know,” I stated drily.

“That goddamned doctor,” my mother said, slapping her hand hard against the steering wheel. Adrian and my sisters were quiet in the backseat. “Couldn’t he just have mentioned it to me? Jerk. Fifteen dollars a tube.” I double-checked my face in the vanity mirror and saw no spots. Probably because I’d refused to keep the cream on. I only had spots on my arms, legs, and torso, and they’d be gone in a day or so. I felt clean. When I’d called from the school, my mom had ripped all the bedsheets off again and called the doctor to set up another appointment. That’s when he’d thought to mention the side effects.

“Does Dad know we’re okay?” I asked.

“I told him,” she said. “He was in the shower again. I had to yell it through the door. Maybe he’ll go back to work now.” My dad had called in sick all week. We stopped at Dairy Queen for a cone on the way home, a rare extravagance for all of us.

But when we got home, there was a mountain of laundry in the washer. I saw it through the window from outside the house, since Dad had removed the heavy drapes. The couch covers were off again.

“What are you doing?” Mom asked. “Didn’t you hear me? We don’t have bugs anymore.”

“Fuck that,” muttered Dad. When he turned around I could see he was covered in the cream again. He’d gotten streaks of it in his hair. His chest hair stuck out through the cream. “I can feel the little fuckers crawling on me.” His eyes bugged out wildly as he looked at us. “They’re all over me.”

Tanya started to cry. I picked her up and took Leah’s hand. “Come on, guys,” I said. “Let’s go play in my room.” The four of them trailed after me, and we shut the door behind us. I wished I had a lock, but Mom wouldn’t let me have one. I’d asked her twice. I tried to wipe the cookie off Tanya’s pudgy cheek with a nightgown I pulled from my laundry basket. I needed a wet washcloth but didn’t want to venture from my room. I gave the girls my jewelry to look at and let Adrian choose a station on the radio. He tuned it to a hard rock station. Over the clashing guitar, I could hear the argument. Their voices rose in pitch and then decreased, and the door slammed. I peeked outside. My dad threw a bucket of water into the car.

“What’s Daddy doing?” asked Ila.

“Why is he throwing water into the car?” asked Adrian, a small quiver in his voice.

“Stay here,” I commanded with as much authority as I could muster. I went down the hall, noticing more thick white streaks along the paneling. I came up behind my mother outside.

“Stop it!” she screamed at my dad. Another bucket splashed into the inside of the car. I could see rivulets of water running down the dashboard and dripping off the frame. There was a sharp odor.

“I can see them!” said Dad grimly. “I can see them crawling in there.”

“There’s nothing there!” my mother was pleading now. She started to cry.

He grabbed a gallon bleach container, and then the acrid smell made sense. He poured it directly onto the upholstery in the car. “I’m going to get those little fuckers.”

“There’s nothing there,” my mother whispered.

“Mom.” I tried to reach out to her, but she jumped at my touch, and I only grazed the cotton of her blouse. She straightened and looked at me sharply.

“Go call your grandmother. We’ll stay there tonight until your dad feels better.”

My dad didn’t look like he was going to feel better. He was still in his shorts, his bare feet stumbling on the gravel of the driveway. He staggered under the weight of another bucket of hose water and bleach. His hair stuck up where it was covered with cream. His skinny arms dangled like spiders’ legs.

I turned to see four faces peeking out from my bedroom window. Inside, I called my grandma to come pick us up. Then I closed the curtain in my room, and we waited. While we waited, a tiny ant crawled along the carpet in the room and then up the wall. Tanya, who was putting on my makeup, saw it crawling on the wall beside my vanity mirror. “Fucking bug,” she said, and squashed it flat.

Naomi Ulsted

Naomi Ulsted is a memoir and fiction writer. Her work can be found in Salon, Full Grown People, and Narratively, among other publications. She was selected to attend The Writers Hotel conference and writing program this past summer and was also the recipient of a partial fellowship to attend The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. She lives with her two sons and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she also directs a Job Corps training program for under-privileged youth.

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