Monday, July 14, 2008

Vermin, Part 1

Each summer, we’ve been afflicted by a new form of vermin. There were tiny roaches, and then there were ants, and then there were mice. A bird made its way into the room beside mine, spattering the wooden floor with its droppings. The white shit mixed in with the white powder of crumbled sheetrock. A squirrel skittered around our kitchen for a weekend before being swept into a garbage can. He hunched in the corner of the counter, every muscle tensed, every hair standing on end. When the broom made its foray into the crevice, he uncoiled in a show of impotent fury, flurrying his clawed fingers. In accordance with his intention, he looked momentarily bigger than he was, and more dangerous. He was putting all of himself into this charade, and he really did scare me. I could scarcely look at him. With a blind flick of the handle, he was whisked downward to darkness.

They come and go, and then they return. This summer, it’s fleas. They are curiously indolent. They gather on your ankles, and you can catch them with your thumb; they make the most perfunctory efforts to elude it, and usually fail. They are incredibly hardy. Even after pressing down on them with the full weight of your thumb, often they recover, and jump away to some other part of your body, only to be caught again. Sometimes, you get them just right, and you squeeze; they are helpless beneath your peremptory digit. With a slightly indecent relish, you leave behind a smear of blood. Eventually you get the ones that you notice, though a dozen escape detection for every one that you catch.

I’ve lost my squeamishness about vermin. Perhaps I never really had any. Some things that have never really frightened me: night, black people, Catholic priests, death. I’m not saying that they should have scared me, or that they shouldn’t have scared me: just that they scare others, but not me. My ankles are stippled with red perforations where the fleas have gnawed and sucked, but I remain where I have been: supine in my bedroom, though I know it crawls with these tiny bloodsuckers. To my credit, I haven’t done much to exacerbate the damage by scratching. I did my scratching in youth, and all through my teenage years. By now my skin is practically impervious to adversity: all of its sensitivity has been torn out of it. I used to tear off the skin that covered the underside of my thighs, and sometimes the tops of my thighs too: the slot on the underside of my knee, the notch where the kneecap protrudes into the shin, the shins themselves. I liked to leave white streaks and to look at them, and then the white streaks would become flecked with red on my flayed skin.

This is what I remember of the house on Manchester Lane, where I was born, and where I lived for four years: vanilla wafer cookies, Sesame Street, inflamed skin, torn skin, that grisly feeling beneath my nails, compound of dust, flaked skin, oil, and traces of blood, the cold rapture that came when you surrendered to an illicit urge, all the way to satiation. There were other things too – a child’s pain, a child’s sadness, a child’s discomfort – so much larger and more intransigent for being new. The first picture of me shows a baby on a flourishing lawn frosted with sun. I was dressed in a white diaper and a cream-colored bib. I was pear shaped and wore a world historical scowl – V.I. Lenin could scarcely have mustered the same attitude of disdain. It’s perhaps my earliest memory: the chafing of the grass against my skin, the heat that welled up around the plastic openings where my legs protruded from my diaper. I’m too sensitive for this world, I thought: I knew it even then, in the midst of those hot fits. Once I had drawn blood, the itch would recede. The open wound would cool in the air. Those were my first intimations of heaven.

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