Arts & Culture

My Home Is My (Animal) Kingdom

Creepy vermin won’t leave Julia alone

photo: michael witte

First, a disclaimer: I know that we are in the midst of the most terrifying plague any of us have seen in our lifetimes (unless you are a hundred plus and good for you). I try hard not to stay perpetually mad as hell about our devastating lack of political leadership and the staggering stupidity of a great deal of my countrymen, both of which have cost this nation a whole lot of lives. I am in awe of those on the front lines, whether they be doctors and nurses or grocery store workers, people who fill essential jobs by putting themselves and their families at risk on public transportation, or scientists trying hard to make us see the light and bring us a vaccine. I am not struggling to put food on the table or wondering if I will still have a job. I know I am a lucky so-and-so, that I am in a position of pretty enormous privilege as I shelter in a swell new house in a place I love.

Mine, as they used to say, are first-world problems, white-people problems. Yes, indeed. However. Even in this cone of comparative luxury, some stuff still manages to penetrate, especially if it comes in waves of successive pestilence. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—we’re already living through the apocalypse. The white horse behind me in the pasture—the one I ply with apples and carrots and affection—could well be the Antichrist, bringer of said pestilence and infectious disease. I’m keeping careful watch. If the pale horse gets here, I’m gone. 

It started out a bit slowly. I have mentioned previously on these pages that spring brought an infestation of large, furry brown gnats that caused such enormous and infected welts I was practically bleeding to death on my sheets every night. So it was that I did not notice until far too late that my bed—and my bedroom rug and shades and more upholstered surfaces than I cared to count—was infested with bedbugs. Since the pandemic began, I had been forced to stay in exactly one hotel room for a mere two nights, during which I was so worried about COVID-19 that I double masked and gloved and continuously cleansed every possible surface with Clorox wipes. Instead of bringing home the deadly virus, I provided transportation for hundreds of bedbugs, those insidious reddish-brown parasites that bite the exposed skin of sleeping humans and feed on their blood. (Note to self: Quit bringing your own pillows, and pack in plastic bags.) Now, I have read about bedbugs, about how horrible they are and hard to get rid of, but let me tell you that nothing prepares you for them. The first night I noticed the little bastards, they were about the size of a quarter of a penny (i.e., full-grown) and the same color, marching across my pillow in a line. I’d had the doors open for much of the night—I blithely thought they were some kind of beetle I’d never seen, flicked them away, and went to sleep. The next night I woke up to find them on my nightgown. Hmmm, I thought, and started Googling away—in the next room. Within a half hour, I knew what I was up against, and it wasn’t pretty. 

I blame it on the gnats. If I hadn’t already been bleeding like crazy from their bites, I would have realized that most of the blood was coming from an even more evil source. The bedbugs start out tiny. I’d brush what seemed like thousands of minuscule brown specks off the bed and all that was left of them would be pinpoints of blood—mine. What to do? I called our local Orkin man. He is a very nice fellow but has little experience with this stuff. He came over in a white plastic suit, sprayed a bunch of chemicals everywhere, sold me a nylon mattress cover that turned out to be useless, told me to get out of the house for a few hours and leave the bedroom doors shut for three days. Okeydoke. Problem solved. I slept on the living room daybed, which I quickly discovered is good for the occasional guest too drunk to drive home but extremely bad for relatively sober people trying to get some actual sleep. At the end of the three days, I was delighted to climb between some newly laundered sheets and get what I hoped would be a restful night of slumber. The next morning it looked like a slasher had visited. Clearly, it was time to leave town, a move that required me to take a steaming hot shower, cover my feet in garbage bags, and walk out of the house completely naked, whereupon I put on a waiting set of brand-new clothes and shoes, got in the car, and left for New Orleans. It was, a website assured me, the only way not to take the bugs with me.

While I was gone, an expert came in from Jackson, a steam cleaner cleaned all the furniture and rugs, every single piece of clothing from my closet and drawers was removed and laundered, far too many tote bags full of “important papers” I’d yet to go through were boxed up and taken away, and the expert came back to make sure the bugs had not returned. This was not an inexpensive enterprise, I assure you, but I swear I would have paid pretty much anything to get those critters out of there. I came home. It was lovely. My house was my haven again. And then, the bats came. 

Let me hasten to say, I’ve always liked bats. My friend Helen Bransford loves them so much, I once gave her an eighteenth-century print of one for Christmas. They eat mosquitoes, and they mostly keep to themselves. As a child, I loved watching them swoop over our backyard pool when the light was on. But you know, the pool was far away from the house and my affection for bats might really have been sort of a theory. Still, I was not all that traumatized on the first night, when I noticed something strange and brown under one of the dining table chairs. A friend was with me, and we shooed it out the door. I live in the country, in the Mississippi Delta, a place that really never should have been inhabited—all the areas outside my doors are sprinkled with some kind of snake-away powder, a version of the goofer dust of old. We figured the poor thing had flown in somehow, lost its way out, and that would be that. Two days later, I got up to brush my teeth and one was in the sink. I am not at my tip-top best early in the morning in the first place, but this pretty much did me in. First, I grabbed the nearest thing to hand, toilet paper, with the intention of grabbing him. Who was I kidding? I immediately flooded the sink with water, put a cookie sheet with a stack of books on top—but not before I saw a little hand reach up. I have to confess that got me. It also turns out that it’s illegal to kill a bat in Mississippi. One friend was so concerned about my bat karma she insisted I build a bat house. I actually considered this until the next bat turned up in the bathtub and another, grotesquely dried up and dead, in an empty cachepot.

The Chinese believe bats have such highly developed sensory parts that they can sniff out “auspicious chi” and that their presence heralds good fortune. But there’s also Dracula. So again, I fled the house (but just to my mother’s, down the road), and again, called in the experts. The same outfit with the bedbug department also has its own bat man. I’m not kidding. He informed me that bats need no more than a half-inch opening to slip into your house. Naturally, the mesh atop my chimney was a half inch rather than the specified quarter inch. The man spent a great deal of time with my carpenter identifying a dozen more possible entry points. We went to Lowe’s, got some stuff to fill them up, and another pest, I hoped, had been dispatched.

At this point, my friend Ellen asked me if I’d killed a bunch of little babies earlier in life. You might well wonder. Because next came the fleas. Henry, being the perfect beagle dog, has had fleas only once in his fourteen years, and that doesn’t count because we were in Florida. But there they were, hopping around like madmen in my bed, a.k.a. the Battleground. I checked Henry—not a flea on his precious belly. I checked my own arms and legs—red bites everywhere. I thought of giving up, of torching the freaking house (or at least burning the bed, à la Farrah Fawcett), of riding away on the white horse, exacting revenge on…whomever. Instead I poured a stiff drink and left a message for the Orkin man. 

After the fact, nothing is ever as awful as you think it is, but I could have used a little help, a breather, a place to blow off some steam and take the immediate edge off. Which brings me back to the lunacy of our great leaders and the legions of folks who were drawn to the words of a woman who warns against “demon sperm” and believes Big Tech is suppressing a cure and masks are unnecessary (though it’s sort of irresistible not to warm to her theory that reptiles are running the government). This is the kind of crap that is keeping the rest of us out of our beloved restaurants and bars, the places that have always provided solace, even joy, during times of trouble, or, yes, pestilence.

Had I been able to make the short drive downtown to the Grille, and had Don the Most Excellent Bartender set down before me a perfect martini with an olive and the faintest shards of ice floating in the stemmed glass, all would have been far better in my world—the daybed less uncomfortable, the bedbugs, etc. less pesky. You share a few tales of woe with your fellow men, and your own seem to fade. Cold gin, camaraderie—hope!—win the day.

So let us strive to fill these beacons of light and life soon and do anything we can to help keep them alive in the meantime. Until then, I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on the pasture.  

This article appears in the October/November 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.