By Alan Nicoll
Copyright (text only) 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All rights reserved
Frank pulled hairs out of his ears as he sat in his recliner chair, watching the evening news. He briefly examined the tiny white hairs, then cast them away with a flick of his fingers.
His wife, Shirl, set next to him in her recliner, crocheting a baby something in purple yarn for her second granddaughter. “What are those things?” she said to Frank.
He peered at her through the thick glasses that made his eyes look huge. She was gazing into space, vaguely in the direction of the TV across the room.
“There,” she continued.” Just there in the sunlight.” Light from the late afternoon sun streamed through the west window of their mobile home and puddled on the “champagne” carpet.
Frank looked at the sunlight. “Dust,” he said in a voice of knuckles and sandpaper.
“No, I can see it’s not dust. Little flying things.”
He looked at her fat face with a sour expression.
“Bugs,” she concluded.
“Nuts,” he replied, flicking a tiny white hair towards the television, where George W. Bush was stammering something about cutting taxes.
The next day, walking home from the bus stop after his shift at Ising’s only meatpacking plant, he saw Shirl on their front porch, shaking a rag over the railing. She smiled at him as he clumped heavily up the front steps.
“Hi, Honeybunch. How was work?”
“What’s for dinner?”
He grumbled as he kissed her cheek, damp with perspiration.
After dinner he sat watching the news as Shirl washed dishes. He felt with a finger in his left nostril, tugged at a hair. It popped free. He examined the tiny white hair, then flicked it away.
Shirl came into the living room. The afternoon sun streamed through the west window.
“I dusted the whole living room today,” she said. She sat down in her recliner.
George W. Bush stammered something about terrorists.
“I’ll be darned,” Shirl said. “There they are again.”
Frank looked at her. She was staring toward the space by the window where the sunlight streamed in. He couldn’t see anything there, not even dust. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, wondering if he was getting a hemorrhoid.
“I feel itchy,” she said, scratching her forearm.
“Put some calamine on it,” Frank said, his voice as lumpy as prison oatmeal. He noticed a red mark, like a tiny pimple, on Shirl’s plump white arm where she was scratching. She stopped scratching and picked up her crocheting. Frank turned his attention to the news again.
On Saturday they had dinner at their oldest son’s house. Paul was a successful real estate agent in Bakersfield, married, with a son, Alfie, six years old, and a new baby daughter, Elise. Paul’s wife, Christine, accepted the purple baby something from Shirl with effusive thanks and held it up before her admiring eyes.
Frank planted himself in front of the television and watched cartoons and sitcoms with Alfie in his lap. His snoring did not disturb anyone.
On Sunday, Frank and Shirl had dinner at the Ising Mountain Inn. Shirl told him that she would be seeing Dr. Hanson the next day about the little itchy spots she was getting.
“Christ,” Frank said around a mouthful of mashed potatoes and gravy, but he did not elaborate.
On Monday’s news there was a psychologist quoting something from Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Shirl told Frank that Dr. Hanson had given her a prescription for Prozac.
“So he thinks you’re nuts,” Frank said, feeling gratified that the doctor agreed with him.
“He said no such thing,” Shirl sniffed. “It’s just nerves.”
“What have you got to be nervous about?”
“Honeybunch, look. It’s those bugs again.” She got up from her recliner and went to stand next to the window where the afternoon sun shone in. She slapped her hands together, looked down at them, frowning. “Come see,” she said.
He got up heavily and went over. He peered and looked, wiped his glasses and looked, made such a production out of looking that Shirl turned away in exasperation and sat in her recliner, not saying another word for the rest of the evening.
On Tuesday, Frank was called from the line by the foreman. He went into the office. Shirl was on the phone. In all their forty years or more, she had only called him once before, when Sylvia, their youngest daughter, had broken a front tooth.
“Frankie,” her voice came through to him shrill and moist, “they are eating me alive, the bugs, they are everywhere, Frankie.” she never called him Frankie. He hated Frankie.
“What bugs?” he growled.
“The bugs! The ones you can’t see but I can!” She sobbed into the receiver and he imagined he could see her face, quivering, red, sweaty. “They’re eating me up, it hurts! It’s terrible!”
“Listen, take your Prozac. Did you take your Prozac?”
“Fucking Prozac isn’t going to do anything!”
Shocked, Frank stammered, “T-take your d-damn Prozac, willya? Sheesh!” He handed the phone to the foreman and stomped back to work.
When he entered the trailer park he was met in the street by Mrs. Wentworth, their elderly and birdlike neighbor.
“It’s your wife, Frank,” she told him, blinking owlishly in the afternoon sun. “She’s been screaming something terrible. I knocked on your door but she told me to go away or they’d get me too. That’s what she said, the bugs would get me.”
“She’s off her nut, the doc said so,” Frank explained.
He found his wife, finally, in a closet with the door shut. Disheveled and wild-eyed, she clutched at him and blubbered. Her face was scratched, her forearms were gouged and bleeding.
The paramedics sedated her and took her in an ambulance into Bakersfield, to Kern Medical Center. Frank followed in the old Studebaker. She was to be kept in the psychiatric ward for three days for observation and rest.
Deeply shaken, Frank sat in the lobby, indecisive and teary-eyed. Paul and Christine came to the hospital and took him to their house to spend the night. Frank picked at his food, then called the shop foreman and explained the situation, not coherently, and was told to take as many days as he needed.
Later on the news was a disturbing story of a woman who had blinded her sister because she kept seeing the devil.
Frank spent every hour he could in the hospital visiting Shirl. When he took a break for lunch he arranged to have an exterminator come to their mobile home.
About evening the exterminator called him at Paul’s house.
“That’s about the cleanest house I’ve ever seen,” the man told him. “No termites, no roaches, no ants! Damn, every place has ants. No flies, hardly even a spider. I can’t take your money, Mister. No charge for the inspection. Cleanest house I’ve ever seen.”
After a nap, Frank watched the late news. A sexy blonde reported that a rash of complaints had been made about “no-see-ums,” tiny flying insects that bite. “Scientists are baffled,” she said, unwittingly quoting a popular tabloid. It wasn’t the season for the insects and no actual insects had been collected.
Also in the news, George W. Bush stammered praise for the troops in Iraq.
On Thursday, Shirl listened calmly as Frank told her what the exterminator had said. He patted her hand, trying not to look at the scabs on her face. Her forearms were bandaged in several places and an IV dripped into a tube that went to the back of her left hand
“The doctor says I can go home tomorrow,” Shirl said. “I feel much better now, you know.”
Frank said nothing.
“Poor dear,” she said. “I know it’s been a struggle for you.”
Later, her doctor, a tiny young woman from Delhi with a red dot on her forehead, told him that Prozac was proving effective in cases of this kind. Frank stared at the red dot, which made the doctor uncomfortable. She mumbled a few more words, then hurried away.
On Friday, Frank drove Shirl home in the evening. They spent the weekend quietly at home, and Frank did everything he could to make her life easy and soothing. She took her Prozac dutifully and nothing was said about bugs. For two days he cooked breakfast and served it to her in bed, he made soup and sandwiches for lunch and took her to the Ising Mountain Inn for dinner, shushing her when she said something about money. Sunday night, as they lay in bed, he told her he loved her and said he didn’t want to live without her.
He was at work on Monday when the call came. It was the manager of their trailer park. His wife had been screaming something terrible and wouldn’t open the door or even respond to their knocking. Did he want them to break in?
Frank rode home on the bus, walked into the park. Mrs. Wentworth, the park manager, and several neighbors went with him to the mobile home and stood on the porch as he shakily unlocked the front door. It was ominously quiet inside.
He opened the door. His wife was sitting in her recliner, crocheting, facing the television. The set was off.
“Shirl, honey?” he said gruffly.
She put down her crocheting. As she lowered the foot rest and slowly turned the chair towards the door, she said, “The bugs are gone, Frankie. I got rid of them.”
He stared at her face. Her eyes were gone and in the eye sockets muscles, tiny muscles, squirmed like white worms bathed in blood.
“The bugs are finally gone,” she said calmly.