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Sunday Journal: Tiny fleas disrupt a household

My wife combs through my newborn daughter's hair and stops. "Is that a flea?" she asks.

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She points with her nail to a black dot roaming the roots.

"No," I say. "Impossible. How would she have gotten fleas? It's just a bug from outside."

With no pets and wall-to-wall hardwood floors, our house is flea-proof, I reassure her.

She flicks the bug off our daughter's scalp and looks at me. "That was a flea."

"Impossible," I repeat.

But a day later, sitting on the couch after having fed my daughter a bottle, I feel a twitch in my arm hair. The black speck, no bigger than a freckle, ambles nimbly toward my elbow. When I go to touch it, it springs from my arm to the arm of the couch faster than I can process the motion. It's the speed of sci-fi film starships jumping dimensions. It's the speed of Nolan Ryan's exploding fastball. Luckily, the couch cushion is white, so I find the flea again, pinch it between by thumb and finger, and rub until a red streak marks my skin. I feel vindicated by its death until I think about my daughter's scalp and the area rug below me. Is this blood mine, my wife's, my son's, my daughter's? I am crushed.

That night, I scour the Internet for solace and advice, making no discrimination between crackpot theories and hard-boiled science. At 2 in the morning, with my 2-month-old daughter swaddled in her cradle and my nearly 2-year-old son tucked in his crib, my wife gives me the go ahead to sprinkle the area rug with borax and table salt to desiccate and crack the exoskeleton of the fleas — a technique widely praised on DIY sites and just insane enough to seem true. I scatter the mixture until the white dust mutes the green-colored pattern gray. I wait for the cracking. Nothing. Two days later, I find a flea on my son's arm while he is eating a blueberry waffle.

"I thought they need a host," my sister-in-law says to me on speakerphone later in the week. She has called because once she, too, found a flea on her newborn son and then had to bomb the entire house. I can see my wife's face drift off as her sister talks, dreaming of the Enola Gay hovering above our house. I interrupt her and tap into my Internet-fueled knowledge of the parasite. Suddenly I am deep into an explanation of the flea life cycle and how they can live for a year without eating, if, that is, they find a suitable source of bloodmeal upon first entering into adulthood. I catch myself using the words "pupate" and "chitinous." I sound like an unhinged version of David Attenborough. "Only the newly born need the blood of a host," I narrate. "The others can just hang on and wait . . . in our carpet . . . for us."

My sister-in-law pauses. "Good thing I didn't have Google when my son was born."

• • •

My wife and I make an oral list of friends with pets who have visited recently. Betty's kids let their hamster run free in their front yard. Christian feeds stray cats. Fran's dog has had the runs lately — a symptom of flea-borne disease, I wonder? We commit no names of possible sources to paper. We simply stare at the phone.

"How do I say, 'Your kids can't come over for a playdate anymore because we think they have fleas'?" my wife asks. "That's like saying, 'Your kids are dirty.' "

"To be fair, the Johnson kids are a little dirty."

"But do you think they have fleas crawling on them?"

"Even if they did, how do they know it wasn't from us?"

For the moment, we leave blame aside. We know we are not the source. We slowly accept that we will have to cut ties with certain friends if we want to be flea-free. I feel something like Nixon in his final days, except he didn't have to call an exterminator and spend a night in a motel with two babies while the Oval Office got bug-bombed. We must flee.

In the meantime, we remain vigilant. Anytime either of the children cry, we check their hairlines first. In the shower, I find myself eyeing freckles with suspicion, touching them just to see if they move. I search for John Donne's poem The Flea and briefly recall being confused by it. It appears on my screen, and I read it once more and remain confused. I remember the flea is a conceit, a metaphor of sorts, for the mystery of the Holy Trinity. I am beginning to understand how such a small creature can bear the weight of such a large idea.

• • •

On a Saturday, my wife casually reveals our secret infestation to a friend with a dog, both of whom are not on our list.

"Just get your yard sprayed," she tells us. "They live in the yard. I know a guy. He'll spray inside your outlets and then in your yard and that's it. No more fleas. I have his number."

"Of course," my wife says. "The fleas are in our yard! Our friends are okay!"

We hug and scratch each other's backs. Whether it's a gesture of love or flea prevention, I'll never know. For a moment, we are both content to be the source of our own misery.

Patrick Crerand is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Saint Leo University. He has been published in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions and other literary magazines.

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Sunday Journal: Tiny fleas disrupt a household 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 3:30am]

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