Storyglossia Issue 18, February 2007.

Tick Fever

by Rhea Wagner


"What happened to your dog?" the woman said. She was waiting in the lobby with a cat in a carrier. A second woman, also with a cat, shook her head at the sight of my dog's blood. Another dog had bitten the tip of his ear off. Now, the blood from the ear streaked the walls of the lobby as I apologized to the receptionist.

The first woman stood up and looked down at my dog, whose ear I now held tightly between the folds of my coat. Goofybaby was a seventy pound, black Labrador, strong and gentle and with a squeezable snout. He suffered from an ever worsening hip dysplasia, a malformation of the joints typical to his breed.

"That must be some bite!" the first woman said. "Honey, how did it happen?"

"I was out walking him with my neighbor and her dog. We were walking around as usual, and this other dog attacked us from out of nowhere."

"Attacked you?" the woman said. She sat back down on the hard wooden bench against the wall, the plastic cat carrier at her ankles. The cat inside of it mewed repeatedly.

"Well, no, not me, not us. It attacked my neighbor's dog. The one we were out on our walk with."

"But what about your dog, honey?" the second woman said. She stood next to me in the center of the lobby and knelt down to stroke Goofybaby's neck. "Your dog is the one that's here."

"He went to the rescue of my neighbor's dog," I said. "He intervened and that's when the loose dog went for him."

"Aw, that's so sweet." The second woman stood back up and went back over to the bench against the wall.

"Yeah, he's very protective," I said.

"That other dog should be put down," the first woman said.

"Did you call the pound?" said the second.

I shook my head.

"The dog just disappeared. It all happened so fast. And I rushed right over here—that's why I had nothing to fix his ear up with."

The receptionist returned from the back with a mop and a bucket.

"I would have called Animal Control right away," the second woman said. "I would have whipped my cell phone right out."

"I didn't even think of that," I said. I positioned Goofybaby on the tile floor and, still holding the edge of my coat around the bleeding ear, sat down on the bench by the second woman.

"You should have," the first woman said. "Now that animal is still on the loose."

She turned her attention back to the TV where the terrorist event of the day was being discussed on CNN. "Time to bomb them all," she said.

"Yeah. When are we gonna just nuke em?" the second woman agreed.


                           ~ ~ ~


I decided to stay home from work that day to take care of Goofybaby. When I got back to the house I thought about doing an extra workout using the weight machines in the upstairs room. But then I thought of the two women watching CNN in the lobby of the vet and about the terrorists and about the readiness of the two women to destroy the as yet unidentified "them," and I experienced a sudden sense of the world maybe coming to an end. The terrorist event of the day was one thing, but there were so many others. The terrorist event was connected to other events and those events could ignite the big one. Especially with people like those two women around who wanted to lash out at a foe they knew nothing about. Everything destroyed. The futility of sculpting my mortal body in the face of that, the end of the world, made me space out for a moment in the middle of the stairs.

I decided not to do the extra workout. Instead, I opened my laptop and read another message from Dan Arendt, my half-brother from L.A., whose existence I'd only just learned about a few weeks before. It turned out my jerk of a dad had gotten some woman pregnant, way before I was born. This woman gave Dan Arendt up for adoption, and then he grew up, he said, in a series of group homes in Oklahoma. I confirmed this story from my dad himself who could not deny he looked just like the guy in the photo. My dad carried out his own research, in order to make sure it wasn't a con-job he told me. Then, when all his checking panned out, he begged me not to share the story with any of our other relatives.

I looked away from the computer and down towards the floor where Goofybaby stretched out on his dog bed, his head invisible within the plastic cone that kept him from scratching at the injured ear. I reached down and rubbed his black fur. On his shoulder blades, I discovered several black bumps—ticks perhaps. For the moment I let them be, not sure of the best way to pull them off.

I turned back to the laptop and finished reading the message from Dan Arendt. He wrote that he would be in town the next day and he was asking permission to come over for a visit.

I had moved far away from my family in order to avoid my dad, that loud and overbearing man. I did not want to meet this half-brother, who had the same face. I turned off the computer without actually answering the email and went outside to the orange tree in the back of my yard, moved into the smell of its white blossoms and the touch of the sun. I looked at each leaf, this one yellowish, this one brown, this one dotted by the cocoon of the brown dog caterpillar, which would grow to consume the leaves. Slowly, without thinking, I took off the cocoon between my thumb and first finger, killing the growing moth.

On the porch, Goofybaby had speckled the inside of his plastic cone with blood. I checked the bandage, which appeared tight and secure and yet specks of blood dotted the inside of the cone.

A little later Chet came home from the record store where he worked and we talked about Goofybaby's injury and about the ticks. He checked his own head and mine for bumps. Then we talked about Dan Arendt. Chet convinced me somehow that having a half-brother wasn't a bad thing. He would have loved one, he said. The more brothers he could have, both half and full, the happier he would be. Sisters too. We ate a frozen pizza and a salad as we sat next to each other on the hardwood floor, my thigh crossed on top of his skinnier one underneath the coffee table as we watched something about the terrorist thing on the TV.

"You should have heard these two women at the vet today," I said. "They wanted to bomb the whole middle east. They didn't care who the terrorists actually are or what country they even come from. 'Time to bomb them all,' they said."

"I can't believe people like that," Chet said.

"One of them actually said, 'Nuke em.'"

"That's disgusting," Chet said.

After a while we shut the TV off and Chet said "Marissa, you should go ahead and invite him over when he calls. He could stay with us a night or two."


                           ~ ~ ~


Dan Arendt arrived the next day in a dark blue junker. I had considered what Chet had to say about brothers and sisters and so in a spirit of wonder and openness I welcomed this guy into my home. He admired its décor.

"It has a warmth to it, you know what I'm saying? It's student-ghetto, but adult style, you see what I mean?"

His belly stuck out from under a black tee shirt. Like my dad's, the face contained a giant nose and tiny eyes, though admittedly, the expression was more good-hearted and jovial. He wore obesity, however, like a shield. I had the impression that the obesity was self-created, forged around a cowering soul. Within the first two minutes of being in my house, Dan Arendt took a call on his cell, entering into a lengthy discussion with someone about the whereabouts of his cat. I stared at him from the doorframe of the kitchen.

"I'm here at my sister's place," he shouted into the cell. "Let me call you back."

In spite of my having been persuaded by the brother and sisterly love talk from Chet, I took an immediate disliking to Dan Arendt's use of the word sister. I thought, send the guy home right now, before it's too late. But in the spirit of trying to maintain that sense of openness and wonder with which I had originally greeted the guy, I smiled and nodded at him above the red Formica of our kitchen table, telling him a bit about myself and Chet. Then my wonder and the openness truly began to dissolve as Dan Arendt listed his past girlfriends, describing how he hadn't minded the polyamory of the last.

"What I didn't like was having a Jewish girlfriend again, you see what I'm saying?"

"We're Jewish," I said.

"I know that. I just don't see having a Jewish girlfriend. They are so argumentative, you see what I mean?"

As he spoke, he emptied the contents of his pants pocket onto the table—what looked like about a pound of change, a Swiss army knife, loose bank cards, and a key chain shaped loosely like a hand. I had no idea how all of that stuff could have fit inside of just one pocket. I recognized the key chain as a Hamsa, an ancient protection against the evil eye used by both Arabs and Jews. He's going to need that one, I thought.

Finally, Chet came home from the record store and I turned the job of talking to Dan Arendt completely over to him. Dan Arendt, like a professor in a documentary, lectured loudly and egotistically about some DNA research project that had gotten him in touch with his roots. I wondered how long Chet would hold out there, nodding his head like that. He sat cross-legged on the couch, facing the man at the other end. Chet's skinny knees bounced up and down, sticking out of his Eddie Bauer shorts. His face displayed a youthful sociability. Chet is a lot nicer than I am, I thought.

Finally, Dan Arendt must have worn him down, because Chet stood up suddenly and suggested we all three take a walk with Goofybaby. Goofybaby got up for the walk with an unusual slowness, the plastic cone hitting against the ground. I remembered then that I had not yet called the vet about the ticks. The hip dysplasia also appeared to be getting worse.


                           ~ ~ ~


The next morning, Dan Arendt, as we had predicted he would, asked permission to stay with us while he looked for a place to live. Just a little while longer he said.

"He is heavy, and he's only my half-brother," I said.

"What are you talking about?"

"The song. You know. He ain't heavy he's my brother . . . ."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Chet said.

"You've never heard the song? C'mon."

Chet stared back. He could be so blank sometimes, so harmless and record store clerk looking. He could have a certain idiotic "doe in the headlights" look, I thought.

"Just give him one week," Chet said. "Why not?"

While we discussed this in the bedroom, we could hear the guy on his cell phone all the way from the guest room. If he wasn't talking to us, he was on the cell phone to the roommates he left back in L.A., loudly engaged in their melodramas and his own.

These roommates appeared to be the only connections Dan Arendt had. No other family members from his mother's side had ever surfaced to adopt him, or to visit him even just once throughout his life in the series of group homes, and my side of the family did not know of his existence until now. The roommates, though not enduring and nurturing and thick like a family that had watched you grow up, that had known you since the time you were born, appeared to hold Dan Arendt suspended in something that at least might prevent him from committing suicide one day, I decided. He was better off with this web of ex roommates, I thought, than with the father he thought he wanted to connect with now, the one I'd pretty much severed my own connection with several years before. For Dan Arendt's sake, I would not do anything to facilitate a meeting between him and my dad—if he wanted to find the old man and set that up, he could do it on his own.

"Why are you so open to him staying?" I said. "He's not your long lost relative."

"I'm just open to it," Chet said. "Can't we be generous and tolerant? I mean we think we are, but do we act like it? Just because he's a little obnoxious . . ."

I stared at him.

"C'mon, Marissa. It's like you talk about tolerance all the time and you get mad at people about their politics, and now you want to kick your own brother out of the house?"

"Half-brother," I said.

"What about the Seder dinner thing you were telling me about? Where you set a plate for the Palestinian? So it's not just about your own comfy family but you acknowledge the less fortunate, the stranger, the other. You said you were proud of that tradition."

"No, that's not the tradition. Where did you get Palestinian from? The plate is for Elijah."

"Who's Elijah?"

"The prophet Elijah. The plate is for when he returns."

"From where?" Chet said. "Weren't you telling me though that some people today, like maybe the Israelis, change the thing around a bit and do their own Seder where they set the plate for the Palestinian instead? Seriously, I remember you talking about it. It was all about accepting otherness. You said you liked it."

"Well, maybe," I said. "But the Palestinian never actually shows up."

"Just put a clear timeline on it," Chet suggested. "Tell him one week, and then he's out. You can set clear limits with the guy."

When we told him he could stay for the week, Dan Arendt went out and carried three boxes of ramen noodles into the house from the car. He took forty five minutes in the shower and came out wearing the same clothes as yesterday.


                           ~ ~ ~


That same morning I removed Goofybaby's blood speckled cone. The ear appeared to be healing, however Goofybaby was moving very slowly—the hip dysplasia getting worse. I also found the bumps again on Goofybaby's neck and armpits. Ticks I decided, this time for sure. Bigger this time, green and engorged.

Dan Arendt hovered over me as I pulled the ticks off with tweezers and deposited them into a jar of alcohol.

"I'll go with you to that vet appointment if you want," he said. "It's for tomorrow right?"

"What?" His offer startled me. "No, why would you need to go with me?" I said. Dan Arendt bent down to pet the dog. He caressed Goofbaby's rump. He put his face in front of Goofybaby's snout and emitted baby-talking sounds.

"Isn't you a sweetie?" Dan Arendt said. "Those hips hurt, huh? Oh, that's right, let me give you some rubs. What a good boy, oh you like that huh . . . oh, he likes it, yes he does . . . I just thought I could come with you, just to give you the help."

"No, don't worry about it," I said. "That's absolutely unnecessary."


                           ~ ~ ~


When I got home from work, the screen door was open. I had told Dan Arendt not to let that happen, because of the possibility of Goofybaby getting out, getting lost in the street, hit by a car, but he had forgotten. Now, in the guest room, after having left the screen door open even though I had completely stressed it and emphasized it and reminded him about it a few more times right before I'd left him there alone in the house, Dan Arendt was holding his arms out as Goofybaby dipped his snout into the forty eight ounce can of Menudo at the end of them. I couldn't believe anyone would actually eat Menudo, and canned at that, a Mexican stew made out of tripe and supposedly a cure for hangovers.

"Oh, you likes it," he was saying to Goofybaby. "Oh, yes he does. Isn't that yummy? Yummy, yummy, yum—just for you my little pup. Oh, aren't you so cute? What a cute little pup!"

Then I saw the can with its sharp jags on the metal rim.

"Don't give him that!" I yelled. I snatched the can away. "Don't ever do that," I said. I set the can down on the kitchen table, next to three cardboard boxes of oranges and five giant bags of fresh greens.

"That's for you guys. I know you're really healthy. You guys like the fruit and the vegetables," Dan Arendt said. "For your hospitality. I mean it's really nice of you guys to let me stay here. I really appreciate the both of you—"

"We can never eat all this," I said. "You got this at the food bank. You took from the poor to give all this food to us, that we can't even eat."

"Well, it's great having that foodbank down there, Marissa. This town is great. I looked into the health coverage system, too, you see what I'm saying? I'll be able to get free drugs." He meant the anti-anxiety pills and the anti-depressants he took.

We went out to dinner that evening with a few of my computer friends from work. In the middle of it, squeezed between me and Chet in the booth, Dan Arendt answered a call on the cell phone.

"What do you mean he took the cat?" Dan Arendt said into the phone. "That's my cat. What do you mean he just took him?"

I glanced at Chet and then across the table at my friends.

"What do you mean he said I wasn't taking care of him?" Dan Arendt said. "Of course I'm coming back. Do you see what I'm saying? I mean, do you think I should move here though eventually? Here where my sister lives. I'm going to be checking it out. By the way, how is Jasmine going to—"

"Put the phone away," Chet said. "This is a social occasion."

"I will," Dan Arendt said, "I will in just a second." He continued to speak to the ex-roommate. "It's just my sister's boyfriend," he said into the phone. "By the way, is Jasmine still dating that—"

"Do it now," Chet said. "We're here to eat dinner together, with each other, in a sociable way." Dan Arendt continued to use the cell phone. Chet did not look at him for the rest of the meal.


                           ~ ~ ~


That night Goofybaby began to get sick. He refused to go on a walk—a first in his eight years of being a dog. Around ten p.m. he began to pace, walking underneath the dining room table and out the other side, asking to be let out and then to be let back in again. Thank goodness I'd already made the vet appointment for the morning. The pain of the hip displaysia must have reached an unbearable point. Goofybaby could not even jump onto our bed where he normally slept, his seventy pounds pinning me and Chet under the sheets. So on that night we lifted him onto the mattress ourselves and he slept there for awhile, stretched lengthwise between us until the pain must have woken him up and he struggled down, to begin his pacing again.

For an hour, while Chet was asleep, I followed Goofybaby from room to room. He seemed to want to settle down on the small dog bed in the living room but could not position himself properly to make the descent. He seemed to require a larger surface area to balance above and to then drop down upon.

I glanced at Dan Arendt who stood watching me from the doorway of the guest room. On this his third day of being with us in the house, he had still not changed his clothes.

"Help me take the mattress off of the bed in there," I said to him. "Goofybaby needs something bigger to sleep on, on the floor so he doesn't have to climb. So he can get up and fall back down on it if he needs to."

Dan Arendt did this, his body huffing. He pulled the mattress through two doorways and laid it down in the living room. Goofybaby got on the mattress and slept a few minutes, then got back up again.

"Go back to bed," I told Dan Arendt.

"I was never in bed," he said. "Are you sure you don't want me to come with you in the morning? To the vet appointment. I could help."

"No. I don't want you to," I said. "You don't need to come."

In the morning, I put Goofybaby in the car and went back to the vet where Goofybaby's blood had been washed completely from the walls. I apologized again to the receptionist about the ear.

"It's ok. It happens all the time," the receptionist said.

I left Goofybaby at the vet so that they could run tests.

The diagnosis turned out to be Erlichia, Tick Fever, an AIDS-like disease of the immune system, which had caused Goofybaby to develop Meningitis. I got the phone call while I was still at work. Goofybaby had died.


                           ~ ~ ~


I didn't cry yet. I just thought about things for a moment. I sat in my office in silence for twenty minutes and then I informed my supervisor and co-workers that I would be taking the rest of the day off.

"You do what you need to do," my supervisor said. She put her hand on my shoulder.

When I got home Chet wasn't back yet and so I couldn't cry about it with him, but Dan Arendt was there, bigger and uglier than ever before, taking up space and offering to help, asking questions which I didn't answer. I shut myself in the bedroom, crying. Dan Arendt knocked on the door. He wanted to know if he could move the mattress back on top of the bed. He hadn't gotten much sleep last night on just the box springs.

"No, just leave it there," I said, shouting through the closed door. I did not want Dan Arendt to know about Goofybaby. I did not want him to hear me in there, crying. "Just leave it," I said. Dan Arendt retreated back to the guest room and so I allowed myself to cry further. There were no tissues in the closed room. I could have gone for a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom but I did not want to interact with Dan Arendt.


                           ~ ~ ~


Goofybaby was dead, but another dog lived next door—I would have to tell the neighbors about the ticks. I would have to exterminate the ticks and coordinate the effort with the neighbors. I did not like chemicals. The world was full of chemicals and pesticides and toxins. These things caused cancer. They contaminated the environment and ruined the world.

The next day, I went to a holistic pet store and bought a large container of something called Diatomaceous Earth. The Diatomaceous Earth would dry out the exoskeletons of any insects it came into contact with. The Diatomaceous Earth would not harm anything else. I sprinkled the powder on the plants around the edges of the yard and then I realized how futile this was. I would never reach all the ticks this way. The neighbor's dog, the same one that Goofybaby had protected from the animal on the loose, licked me through an opening in the fence, and it was then that I understood them, those people, the people who killed the other people in the rest of the world and who had no empathy, just revulsion, and with it the desire to do something, to take action, action of any kind as long as it involved the drastic doing of something visible, concrete and undeniable.

That night I thought I would have to argue with Chet, to yell and pace around and make my case about spraying the house and the yard, but surprisingly he nodded immediately and said "Time to bring out the big guns."

That weekend we called the exterminator, and when he arrived I questioned him about the chemicals. He looked at me with a mild disdain.

"You don't even need to absent yourself from the house," he said. "Unless you have asthma or something. Anybody here have asthma?"

"No," I said.

He explained how the chemical worked, how he would do the spraying. He explained the life cycle of the tick, their breeding habits, and their locomotion towards vertical surfaces. I glanced at the walls. The exterminator was a young man in a brown jacket with crow's feet on his face and laugh marks.

"I would just take your dog and get it dipped," he said. "Don't waste your time with those things you buy over the counter. People these days are afraid to get their dogs dipped- they don't realize the harm of not dipping outweighs the harm of dipping. Just get him dipped."

"He's dead already," I said.

The exterminator put his hand on the doorknob of the guest room and looked back at me. When I nodded my head, the exterminator opened the door. Inside, Dan Arendt lay on his stomach on top of the box springs, eating from another can of Menudo.

"I'll start in here," the exterminator said.

Copyright©2007 Rhea Wagner