Thursday, October 6, 2011

Us vs. Fleas

              The first thing I noticed was the debris that our cat, Taft, left when he vacated a spot. It looked like sand. How was he getting sand in his fur? He’s an indoor cat. Then Taft stopped sleeping in his usual hangs. He kept jumping on the bookshelves, seeming to want to be as high up as possible. He knocked over candlesticks and pencil holders in this pursuit.
            “Taft has fleas, Mom,” my eleven-year-old Spencer said.
            “He doesn’t have fleas,” I said. “He’s an indoor cat.”
            “Seriously,” Spencer persisted. “I see fleas jumping all over the place.”
            “Right,” I snorted. “This from the kid who freaked out every night for a week after we got back from camping because he was convinced he had ticks.”
            “Mom, the fleas are biting my feet at night.”
            “And did you have ticks?”
            “There you go.”
            Taft couldn’t have fleas, but something was definitely amiss. He would race to his food bowl like he was being pursued, eat fast, then jump on something tall, leaving those damn piles of sand everywhere. What could it be?
            One morning, Spencer was pulling on a sock, “See Mom. Look at all my flea bites.”
            I looked and saw a small constellation of red dots on the top of his foot.
            “Maybe it’s a rash from your feet sweating,” I said.
            “It’s fleas, Mom. One of them jumped on the book I was reading last night.”
            I sighed, “OK. I’ll check into it. Just to put an end to all of this.”
            That night, I went on the Internet and searched for information about fleas. I figured that I’d print out a couple pages to put Spencer’s fears to rest. There were too many things that didn’t add up for me. Why was Spencer the only one who noticed these so-called fleas? Why was he the only one with bites? Spencer had been wrong about the ticks and he was simply indulging another swath of panic about parasites that might take over our home. And what about the piles of sand? What connection could they possibly have to the fleas?
            Within seconds on the Internet, I had my answer.
            The piles of sand were piles of dead fleas and flea feces.
            Flea feces? Are you fucking kidding me? I jumped up from my chair at the computer inspected a dresser top that Taft had recently been sitting on. There was some of the sand. I grabbed a spray cleaner and a paper towel and spritzed. When I ran the towel over the dresser top, a whole smear of red/brown filth clung to it. I knew what I had. Flea Feces.
            Oh dear God. Really? Really? On top of our car falling apart, our computer on the fritz, no money in the bank, the boys going back to school with their crazy disparate schedules, and my mother-in-law driving cross-country to stay with us for two months, I had fleas? Everywhere? And worse, I had their feces all over everything.
            “Pat,” I said to my husband. “Taft has fleas. The whole house is infested.”
            “But Taft is an indoor cat, “ he said.
            “I don’t know how he got them, but they’re here and so are their feces.”
            I took Pat on a brief tour of the evidence. The smeared paper towel, the bites on Spencer’s foot, Taft perched on top of the television set like a sniper. Now, I realized, he was searching for ever higher roosts to avoid the army of fleas living in our carpets.
            “So what do you say, we flea bomb the whole damn house tomorrow?” I said to Pat, while Spencer was putting his sock back on.
            Pat rubbed his chin, “Mmmmm. Those bombs are so toxic.”
            “Yeah. I know. They are toxic to the fleas. That’s the point. Let’s bomb them out of existence.”
            Pat sighed, “I know you hate this, but I really don’t want all those chemicals. Let’s spray a little with Cedarcide.”
            Cedarcide was a natural spray that Pat had bought for our trip to India. On the road, he would spray all our beds with it, each time extolling its effectiveness. And when I begged for deet in hotel room with more mosquitoes than usual, Pat turned from his spraying to hiss, “You never believed in the Cedarcide. Never.”
            And he was right. When it comes to bugs, I’m a decisive first responder. Blow them up. Agent Orange the whole damn apartment. I don’t care if I get brain cancer twenty years from now. I can’t take any more flea feces on my furniture.
            I knew better than to say any of this because Pat would insist on the non-toxic route first.  And with kids and cat, I knew that he was mostly right. So we sprayed with Cedarcide until the apartment smelled like a hope chest. When that didn’t work (which I knew it wouldn’t) we got a flea collar and flea powder from the grocery store.
            Pat was leaving the evening he came home with our grocery store arsenal of flea killers. He helped me fasten the flea collar around Taft’s neck before skipping out to play poker. The next day we planned on powdering the carpets.
            “Mom!” Spencer screamed from his room. “Come in here now! Taft is dying!”
            I ran into the boys’ room to find them standing around Taft who was gasping, his tongue hanging out of his mouth like a Labrador retriever’s. His eyes were watery and I could hear him wheezing.
            “Do something!” Spencer screamed.
            The only thing I could think was that Taft must be allergic to the collar. So I raced into the living room, grabbed scissors, raced back, snipped the collar, and threw it to the ground.
            Taft lay on his side and panted.
            “Mommy!” yelled Murphy. “He’s still sick!”
            “Give it some time,” I said, in what I hoped was a calm tone. “Just watch him for a bit. I’m going to call Daddy.”
            I took the phone into the bathroom so I could close the door.
            “Pat, it’s me.  Taft is panting and I think it was the collar but I’m not sure and the kids are frantic and I can’t let the cat die in front of them. They’ll never forgive me for ignoring the fleas. It’ll be all my fault. I’ve got to save the cat. What do I do?”
            On the other end of the line, I heard Pat say to his poker buddies, “I’ll take two.”
            “Pat!  What do I do?!!!”
            “Yeah. It’s probably the collar, “ he said to me, now that he had his damn cards. “I told you that stuff is toxic.”
            “I took the collar off but he’s still panting.”
            “The only other thing I can think of is dumping him in the bath.”
            “Oh God,” I said, “I really don’t want to do that. He’ll fight me on it.”
            “Well, that’s all I can think of. Give him a bath and then spray him with Cedarcide.”
            Minutes later I was standing in the bath tub, my jeans wet up to my knees, holding a squirming, yowling cat under the faucet, while the kids held the towels and cried hysterically. After Taft was completely soaked I handed him to the children who swathed him in towels and tried to talk him down, “It’s OK, Tafty.” “You’re going to be fine.” “Mommy should have gotten the fleas off you sooner.”
            The next day, Pat decided to powder each room’s carpet individually, then close the door so that toxins wouldn’t get to us. The children’s room was the most affected so we stripped the bedding and got everything off of the floor.
            “We don’t have any facemasks do we?” said Pat, walking into our bedroom as I lay on the bed, exhausted.
            “Facemasks?” I lifted my head up to look at him. He was wearing yellow rubber gloves and surgical scrubs that he took from the hospital when I gave birth. He had tucked the mint green pants into his athletic socks and wound silver electrical tape around the tops of the socks and his waistband. He was wearing crocs on his feet and he had pulled a knit cap down over his ears. He was holding the canister of flea powder. I responded with all the love I could muster, “Facemasks are probably with the rest of our riot gear.”
            “Right,” he said, “I’ll just tie a bandana over my nose and mouth.”
            That night, the children slept on our bedroom floor while the powder worked it’s fatal magic. And in the following nights we powdered and vacated the other rooms, each time moving to another overnight encampment like Bedouins.
            And still the fleas thrived, jumping on Spencer like he was their personal conveyance. Taft took near permanent refuge in his litter box so we moved his food and water into the bathroom. And on a Saturday morning, I woke to find Spencer sitting in our desk chair in the living room, his knees pulled up to his chin, clutching a canister of Cedarcide, while he read a book.
            “This is the only flea free spot in the house,” he said, then sprayed a spot on the floor close by.
            I had had enough. Pat agreed. Damn the expense. We needed a professional. We lined a cardboard box with towel, gently lowered our embattled cat into it, and took him to the vet. I didn’t even care what the vet would infer from the label on the outside of the box.
Charles Shaw.
Vintner to bohemians and the underclass.