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Monday, September 1, 2014


Pretty sure I'd rather have this guy in my house, over his namesake.
Around 1979, my mom started raising dogs. Not long after that, cats. Somewhere in there, I’m sure she began raising fleas. I don’t know how many times I went to the sink as a kid to see the post-catwash dish of soaped-and-tweezed fleas. And one time when I slept over at Chris DeLozier’s mom’s house in Branson, she had some cat-fed fleas… that was, I think, when I discovered that you can kill them not by squeezing them, but by pinching AND grinding them between the fingers, with concentrated hot friction that just about makes your fingertips raw.

Just twice in my life, I’ve encountered fleas of a different magnitude. Vengeful fleas, with demonic, leg-prickling zest and horror-movie impact (although they are still too small to be filmed, unless you count the impressive flea POV shot in City of Lost Children). Fleas in such obscene numbers that they go from being the least significant things in the room to being the only thing that matters.

The first time, I was probably around 14. My mom and sister dabbled briefly in the world of ferrets. Having hitched my wagon to one of my mom’s trips into town (likely hoping to set foot in a Wal-Mart or some other sampler of civilization), I ended up at the home of some old lady in Springfield. She may have had cats as well, but what she really had, to the dismay of whatever gods hold sway over decency, was a concrete basement full of caged ferrets. It must have been hot out, because I was wearing shorts, which I did not wear often. As we reached the basement floor, my pale legs took on a tickling, pepper-like sandstorm of fleas. I think for 30 seconds or so, I tried to keep my cool, but it was not to be endured. We got the hell out of there, but we never forgot.

The second time was last month. This August, I became the owner of pestilential fleas. I would like to say Biblical fleas, but the Bible foolishly overlooks fleas as a plagueworthy nuisance*, opting instead for frogs, lice, and child mortality. My old house, now my rental property, was vacated at July’s end. As I helped the renters move their last stuff out, I realized there were fleas. No big surprise—we had had fleas there several times over the decade we lived there with two cats—but I figured, now that the house was empty, I’d set off a fogger or two and be done with it. Two weeks and six foggers later (including two of the highly touted “Knockout” brand), along with powder, some other spray, and a bag of outdoor granules, I’d spent about 80 bucks and the fleas were only getting worse. I had what one seller of insecticide referred to as a “flea nest.”

Aside from having no carpet in the house, the scenario couldn’t have been engineered any better for fleas. Their cat had been allowed in and out of the house, providing the fleas a convenient shuttle service. Their dog had been mainly kept inside, so became flea HQ. Humans were non-essential bonus meals.
Going the extra mile for the blogosphere.
Every time I went back to do some work, all I would do was fight fleas and cuss the renters, calling for the death of their dog, their cat, etc. I wondered how they could stand to live there at all, but of course, they couldn’t—they left. Plus, it was better when their pets were there—the dog and cat had been the fleas’ main chuckwagon. Now, I was their only dining experience, and the buffet opened wide when I stepped in.

At the apex of fleas, before I finally called an exterminator, I walked over to a sunbeam from a window, knowing fleas love warmth. In that 20-inch square, I saw a couple of fleas per square inch of hardwood floor. I sprayed it all with windex and wiped about 500 into a paper towel. By that point, I already had richly peppered socks, and a ring of 15 or so already biting me around the top of each sock. I retreated to the porch, where I used strips of blue masking tape to trap them. The tape is only sticky enough to hold a flea for about 3 seconds tops, so you just have to pick a good spot, slap fresh tape over it, then fold it over for solid entombment. My better runs with the tape would grab at least a dozen in each 2-3 inch strip. Then I’d spend 10 minutes on the front step, letting the last ones climb my socks so I could take them out individually. The bonus comes when every part of your body starts sending false itch-sensations, but you must look, because every once in a while, a hot-shot flea manages to get above the knee level. Inevitably one or two would make it into the car with me—probably in the seams of my shoes, which were always good cover—and I’d catch those on the drive.

After several days of my own attempts, the situation was not only not better, it was increasingly foul, dismal and desperate. I was beginning to think I was at ground zero for the rise of a new strain of superflea. Their skeezy leaping already puts them on the verge of being nature’s teleporters; what the fudge do you do if they grow resistant to all chemicals? I called an exterminator, who came the following Monday morning. I actually left the front door unlocked for him all weekend, thinking there was nothing in there to steal, and if anyone went in to do any mischief, the fleas would make them sorry.

After the exterminator, the flea population took a big dive, and it became possible to work in the house again. I’d still catch and kill a dozen or more on arrival, followed by a few per hour. One week later, they were gradually declining but still worrisome. I called the exterminator to see if they ought to come again. Their phone lady said I could expect to see lingering fleas for at least another week, because the eggs would still be hatching, and only after they hatch will the chemical residue work on them. I guess I knew that from internet fleasearch… I would just have to wait, and refrain from mopping the poison off the floors. For the same reason of retaining chemicals, I also decided to leave the house closed up, despite my strong desire to air out the crappy stale mix of dog, pee, cigarettes and flea death.

One month into the challenge, the fleas are finally on the ropes. I killed fewer than 20 during a 3-hour tour today. According to the chemical literature, “no new populations will develop.” Pray on that shit, friend, for I say the flea is the worst of nature’s common parasites. No, I’ve never had bedbugs, intestinal worms, or any of that African horror-show crap like eyeball-drillers or waterborne butt noodles, catfish-heads-for-tits, etc. Let’s keep it that way, future renters. Quit scuzzing up the place, ya gross-asses!

*Just one more reason the Bible is a poor guide to living: One of the great plagues visited on Egypt is… FROGS? Who cares? Frogs never hurt anyone. Bring on the frogs, man. Frogs are cool, soft, clawless… I mean, wading through a roomful of poison dart frogs sounds pretty daunting, but I don’t think Egypt had those. What a lame threat. Here’s a plague for you: FLEAS. Fleas are the worst of creatures. Chiggers come close, mosquitoes suck but at least you can net them out, ticks are gross… but fleas, man, fucking FLEAS. Worst thing about the frog plague is that I’d feel bad killing them accidentally while walking.

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