story about a 44-million-year-old louse brought me abruptly to my own annus miserabilis in the form of another scrawny sucker, the lowly flea.
This tiny but persistent parasite perhaps fittingly symbolizes my first — what shall I call it? encounter is entirely too benign — bout with homelessness and economic instability. Everything began to unspool just after another family Christmas with less love and joy than wassail served from a glass that was only half-existent.
That January, our 1950s bungalow-style house in West Whoville had no electricity, running water, or working telephones. The phone would be threatening us incessantly otherwise, demanding that this account be paid off eee-mmediately. My sweet longhaired seal-point had suddenly curled up and died of flea anemia, or perhaps he’d just decided suicide actually is painless. Being the responsible party in the house, I carried him from our frigid laundry room and buried him as best I could in an outdoor trash can (I had no shovel).
If this seems like the set-up for a twangy tearjerker of a country music song, you’re not too far off.
Soon thereafter, on the cusp of 16, I found myself at the hair-splattered sink of my local burger joint scouring the awful truth from my face with hand-McSoap. Although I was thankful for my first “bath” in days, I lamented that the 88 cents in my ripped jeans wasn’t enough to buy anything, even from the discount menu.
Except for the free bingo hall hot dogs, I’d had little to eat. Fortunately, it didn’t take much to power a 100-pound teenage frame, so I’d been getting by okay. And, better yet, no one at school had seemed to catch wind of my silent, unholy plight, or my mom’s quest to liberate All. The. Money.
Within a few days of my jaunt at McDonald’s, about eight inches of newfallen snow just lay there like a bloated corpse. Inside the house I shared with my mom, it was Zero at the Bone, to echo Emily Dickinson (odd capitalization and all). With nary a fellow in sight, either narrow or wide, as my father lived out-of-state for work, so I rarely saw him.
More than a few mornings I awoke to see my breath in the sunlit air. It billowed into cartoonish bubbles as it escaped from the trembling steeple of my hands.
One such morning I somehow made it to school. I followed my morning nerdy ritual, hanging out in the library with a clique of a few like-minded misfits. We were dorks before the diaries, geeks before the term reeked of its current coolness. Ashley and I had originally bonded over Christopher Pike novels and Public Enemy and had in the last couple years graduated from baby-horror books to bona fide gore. We’d dipped our amygdalas first into Dean R. Koontz’s dog-friendly stories, then Stephen King’s skeleton crew, and finally stopped at the Red Line in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (which were a disembowelment too far for me, given my worsening life situation).
That day, somebody, probably toothy Wendy but maybe bespectacled Tonya (twin to Sonya), sat reading as I stood nearby, hovering over the page.
The minutes crept molasses-slow as nothing happening, and suddenly something did. A Lilliputian black body launched itself out from me — screw this teenage Titanic, it probably thought, mutinous mite! — and landed on the white space of her page.
This was not the sexy six-legger of John Donne, whose Flea poem I’d devour just a year later in AP English, feasting on its grand conceit of “two bloods mingled be” in “living walls of jet.” Oh no. It was a sucking, shimmying bioluminescent being shouting my shame. It constructed a teensy temple to self-loathing in that millisecond it took to vault as far from me as insectly possible.
My friend pretended not to notice the leaping interloper on her page. But in my mind, I’d been branded for all time with a scarlet H, for homeless. Outcast even among outcasts. Surely everyone could see my deficits, my parents’ battles with addictions, money, and mental health, plain as a string of PayDay Loans and pawn shops in a poor neighborhood.
This was before the so-called McKinney-Vento Act reached its zenith, in approximately 2002, collaborating as it did with the No Child Left Behind Act, when all school districts were required to appoint a local liaison who could help homeless students gain access to needed resources.
I wouldn’t have dreamed of talking to a school guidance counselor or a mental health professional. Did those even exist in the Whoville of the early ’90s?
Plus, it being the Southern United States, every person was expected to “keep calm and carry on” — albeit in abject silence, with grace and, whenever possible, NASCAR-approved humility.
I never talked to a counselor or any other adult about not having a safe home or any stomach to continue navigating through hell.
As man hands on misery to man, per Philip Larkin, I have neither forgotten nor forgiven the parents whose own demons helped fuck me up. Nor have my travails with homelessness and economic entropy, mental illness, and various board-stiff deceased pets left the child in me behind.
Yet on my sublimest day, when I have hiked, or crawled, to a promontory where I can see the personal landscape of all that has happened before, I accept that I have my sadness and regrets, but they do not, in turn, have me. For the time being, they’ll have to work a lot harder to quash this fierce heart.