Get Them OFF!

Fredrick Hudgin

© Copyright 2022 by Fredrick Hudgin

Photo by Manjari Singh on Pexels.
Photo by Manjari Singh on Pexels.

The car drove by slowly, an elderly female driver staring at me as she negotiated the turn in front of my parentsí house. I realized I was stark naked, standing outside in a Princeton suburb, taking a shower from the end of a garden hose.

Let me explain.

I grew up with a German Shepherd dog named Thunder. He tolerated my excesses, and I tolerated his. By the time I came home from Vietnam, he had grown old.

When Mom and Dad moved into this house, Dad built a pen for Thunder adjoining the house, complete with rounded river rock for Thunderís old feet. He also made a doggie door that went from the pen into the crawl space under the house so Thunder could stay warm and dry in the damp New Jersey winters. Then, as Thunder aged, Dad added a ramp outside and steps inside so Thunder could climb in and out more easily on his failing rear legs.

Our vet put Thunder to sleep one Christmas season while we held his paws and watched his eyes go wide. We buried him that afternoon. I dug his grave through the frozen New Jersey soil, and Mom planted a dogwood tree in the hole as we filled it in. Mom always liked puns. Dadís never wanted another dog. I guess it hurt too much to bury his old friend.

On a hot day the following summer, I had to get into Mom and Dadís house. Both my parents were at work, and the doors were locked. Being a young man then, still skinny from the Army, I crawled into the crawl space through Thunderís doggie door. Sunlight passing through the plastic doggie door gave scant illumination to the area. After a few moments, my eyes adjusted. In one corner, a worn pad lay where Thunder used to sleep. Dirty grit and hair that Thunder had tracked in and shed covered the floor. Thunderís area was about eight feet square with a four-foot ceiling. Cool air filled the crawl space, which felt great since I had worked up a sweat wriggling through the doggie door.

Dad had built a partition between Thunderís area and the rest of the crawl space. The other end of the crawl space, about ten feet away, opened into the main basement area, which had access to the rest of the house. Dad had framed the partition with two-by-foursóhe made everything out of two-by-fours. Onto the frame, he had attached the same dog fencing he used to encircle Thunderís pen. At one end of the partition, he had fabricated an access door. He used it to enter Thunderís area from the crawl space to clean it several times a year with his shop-vac. It had hinges and a latchóboth on the other side of the partition from where I kneeled. I could see them, but I couldnít quite reach either one.

By stretching the wire of the rectangular holes in the fencing, I worked my fingers around the two-by-fours and released the latch, then crawled into the basement side of the crawl space and made my way through Motherís gardening pots, rolls of carpet remnants, and boxes of her treasured junk.

Just before I jumped down into the peopleís part of the basement, I heard a soft hiss. I looked around for the source but couldnít see anything in the basementís darkness. So after another pause to examine the area again, I climbed into the basement proper, then went up the stairs to the kitchen.

I glanced down at my arms, and ... I looked again. My arms were black, and the skin was moving. My arms were covered entirely with fleasónot a single bit of the skin visible, just my pink fingernails sticking through the black mass. The hiss I had heard was the sound of hundreds of thousands of ravenous fleas leaping onto the sweating, hairless arms of the animal crawling through their midst. It had been six months since Thunder died. I must have looked like a hot buffet to the starving insects.

For a moment, I had no idea what to do; then autopilot took over: GET THEM OFF! The command might as well have been shouted.

I ran out to the garage, where Mom and Dad had a hot water spigot with a hose. They used it when they washed Thunder. I grabbed the end of the hose, turned the faucet on full hot, and ran outside, pulling my clothes off as I went. I washed the fleas off, then grabbed the half-full bottle of flea shampoo next to the sink and washed again, from head to toe. Thank God Mom never threw anything out!

As I rinsed the soap off, the car with its elderly driver passed by. I picked up my soaking wet clothes and carried them down to the basement to the washing machine, where I deposited the dripping mess, added the rest of the bottle of flea shampoo, and started a wash cycle on HOT. I dressed in a pair of Dadís tennis shorts and one of his T-shirts, then went back outside to spray insecticide where I had washed.

Mom never did figure out the identity of the woman in the car. She was too embarrassed to go knocking on her neighborsí doors and explain the reason for her visit. She did make me a deal, though: ďPromise never to do that again, and I will get the house bombed for fleas.Ē The following weekend became Demise Day for the insects.

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