Stephen Lyons’ story Fleas integrates the development of character and plot to the level of a high octane thrill ride. Enjoy!
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Without a killing frost the fleas were relentless. No matter how often I bombed the trailer, vacuumed the rugs, sheep dipped the dog, ran the bedding through the hot cycle at Big Chief’s Wash & Dry, the fleas survived. They would begin their attack on my ankles, then my groin, and finally my neck and scalp. Soon I was scratching insanely just like the dog.
Calkins Trailer Court was across the highway from Patrick’s Point State Park in northern California’s Humboldt County, on the redwood coast near the Oregon border, an isolated place of constant drizzle and dispiriting fog. At the entrance to the trailer park was a café with a giant neon steaming coffee cup, but in the entire year I lived there the sign never worked. My trailer was hidden in a forest of old growth Douglas fir and fast growing eucalyptus. I liked the privacy and the quiet. I was starting over and needed to hear my own thoughts.
During the afternoon, when the fog lifted, I hiked the deer trails through the wet forest of banana slugs and wild ginger. When I came to the cliffs overlooking the ocean I’d lie down on the rocks and watch for migrating whales. At night I lay in bed scratching and listening to the bark of seals.
I first spotted Sara at Angel’s Inn in Trinidad, California, where I worked the dinner shift, making burgers, chowder, and catch-of-the-day platters. Angel’s was infested with mice. As I cooked I would observe them—their fat cheeks full of crumbs—scampering and skittering across the greasy kitchen floor, sometimes running right across my shoes. Often I would open the flour drawer and, using a scoop, push aside a half dozen mice that were in the middle of a gluten orgy. The unsuccessful attempts to kill them with peanut butter-baited traps seem to make them even bolder, and they would gather like an audience on the butcher’s block to watch me work.
Sara was sitting at a table with a couple of ruddy-faced crab fishermen. The smaller of the two resembled a ferret—all his features elongated—with a nervous tic that made him shrug uncontrollably. It gave him a who-cares attitude. Tattoos covered every inch of exposed skin, including his neck where, written in gangster script, was the phrase “An Eye for An Eye.” He went by the initials D.J.
The other guy—“Truck”—was around six foot eight. He had an unruly black beard and wore a knife sheath on his belt. He worried me for two reasons: One, he never spoke. Secondly, his eyes were always darting. It was as if he expected trouble and was calculating how to gain an advantage.
They were feeding each other oysters on the half shell and drinking shots of Patrón. Sara would occasionally break into song, at first something playful by Hoyt Axton like “Boney Fingers,” and later, as the drinks piled up, a mournful, minor key tune from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album. She had a strong alto folksinger’s voice and sang Joni’s “Canada” so convincingly that at first I thought she was a Canuck. But later I learned she was a lawyer’s spoiled daughter from the easy streets of Pacific Palisades, California. She had short, jet-black hair held off her ears with silver barrettes, earrings, and bracelets from Taxco. She dressed like a tomboy—an untucked men’s western shirt, no bra, flared Levis, and Red Wing boots.
I could tell she preferred the company of men—the rowdier the better. A long jagged scar from her left eye to just above her chin disfigured her otherwise lovely face. The scar was fresh, the result of an accident when she let an under-aged Native American teenager, who was as drunk as she was, drive her vintage Karmann Ghia on Highway 101 up near Crescent City. The guy rolled the Ghia, and Sara flew out the windshield into a bed of poison oak. Her daddy cleaned up the mess by suing the tire manufacturer for defective treads and the California Department of Transportation for unpainted centerlines. The Indian kid was found a month later floating in Humboldt Bay with his limbs splayed out like a starfish, his throat neatly slashed at the jugular. A professional job. There was no investigation.
A hyper Weimaraner named Ears sat at Sara’s feet. He chewed frantically on his hind legs hopelessly trying to ferret out the fleas. I had just lost my ten-year-old blue heeler to a logging truck so I was overly attentive to any dog I came across. I brought out some stew bones for Ears who wagged his stump of a tail in appreciation.
“Thanks,” Sara said, looking me up and down, as if I were prey. She opened a bag of Drum tobacco and expertly rolled a cigarette with one hand. “And you are?”
“Jake. Head cook, flea chaser, mouse catcher, and bottle washer around here.”
I extended my hand, but she simply sat there blowing perfect smoke rings in my direction. “You live around here?”
“Yeah. In the Calkins’ Trailer Park across from Patrick’s Point. Number 13.”
“That’s an unlucky number, Jake.”
“Yeah, I guess you could look at it that way.”
I walked back to the kitchen kicking myself for revealing where I lived. I was a loner, burned out from two sour relationships—a nasty family feud over my late mother’s care and an emotionally violent breakup with a vengeful masseuse. I was usually more cautious and kept to myself, but I liked Sara’s singing and the way she said my name. And the scar was intriguing. It made her appear vulnerable and sad, and at the age of twenty-six I still had a soft spot for sad women. I thought I could rescue them. A divorce, thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees, and five years of counseling would cure me of that impulse.
Later that night I looked out at Sara’s table and she and the men were sitting closer together. D.J. was whispering excitedly. Truck simply nodded toward the kitchen, toward me.
Trinidad is a miniscule, bucolic fishing village set on a bluff, a destination for weekend tourists traveling up the coast for a taste of smoked salmon, Dungeness crab, and fish and chips. The shops sell overpriced wind chimes and dream catchers, and pastel-colored artwork of whales, lighthouses, and sandpipers—the kind of stuff that looks great at the point of purchase, but less so when you get home.
Just beneath the surface was a parallel economy. A few miles inland from the coastal fog belt were heavily guarded and booby-trapped pot farms, where it was understood that you should give these areas a wide berth, especially during the month before harvest when group paranoia peaked. Once harvest ended you could feel the tension lift. Money began to flow and businesses up and down the coast would advertise “Harvest Specials.” In between vacations to Mexico and France, growers would head to the dealerships in Eureka and purchase new Mercedes and Volvos with bundles of cash. A popular bumper sticker was “Thank You for Pot Smoking.”
The fishermen plied an even shadier economy. Fishermen were a short-tempered, surly bunch that kept to themselves. They didn’t tolerate too many questions. I’d observe them at Angel’s, cradling cups of coffee in scarred hands, engaged in angry rants about the lack of crab or salmon, or the catch limits and short seasons set by the Feds. They complained bitterly about the Russian and Japanese factory trawlers that operated without restrictions just beyond the U.S. fishing boundary that were scooping up everything in their dragnets. At night you could see their lights bobbing on the horizon of the ocean and, if the wind was right, you could hear the cacophony of foreign tongues.
Seafood was not the only thing that landed on the fishermen’s boats. I heard rumors about a variety of contraband: Colombian cocaine, Mexican meth, African ivory, and even illegal refugees from the recent wars in Iraq and Syria.
The next week I asked around about Sara. She had arrived about two months earlier, was enrolled in photography and pottery classes at Redwood Community College, and singing at open mike nights at the Jambalaya in Arcata. She was unattached but not celibate (like me) and had a reputation as a robust drinker. Money was not an issue for her. I began to see her just about every night at Angel’s usually with D.J. and Truck, but sometimes she would drink with other rough-looking guys. Ears and I quickly bonded. Whenever he arrived with Sara, he beelined into the kitchen, where I gave him bones and meat scraps. My audience of mice disappeared.
Three a.m. I was in the middle of an erotic dream that was headed toward a sweet release when I smelled cigarette smoke and then, reaching semi consciousness, I heard pounding on the trailer walls. I threw on baggy sweats and opened the door. Standing there was Ears, his muzzle and chest a quiver of porcupine quills. When he saw me, he whimpered and tried to wag his tail. Sara leaned on the doorframe, holding a bottle of wine, and calmly smoking. “I assume you have pliers?”
I led Ears by his collar into the kitchen, where I found a pair of pliers in a catch-all drawer. Quills have barbed ends that slip through fur and flesh with ease. They are not designed to come out. Ears weighed a hundred pounds of lean muscle. I straddled him but it was trying to ride a bucking colt. “Easy, buddy, I know this sucks. Let’s just get through it as quickly as we can.” My voice seemed to soothe him. He leaned against my leg and let me pull the quills out of his chest without much resistance. His soft, sensitive muzzle was the hard part, and Ears snapped at me as I pulled on the first quill.
“Wait,” Sara said. “Give him this. It will calm him down.” She handed me an oblong pill. I opened his mouth dropped it in, held his jaw shut, and rubbed his neck to make him swallow.
“I guess I should ask what I just gave him.”
“Xanax. Never leave home without it.”
While we waited for the drug to kick in, Sara dug out two glasses from the drain board and poured us generous portions of warm chardonnay. She drank hers down like a single shot of whiskey, poured herself another, and sat up on the kitchen counter.
“I should never let him run at night but he has to have exercise. Shit, I didn’t even know there were porcupines up here.”
“My blue heeler got into one. Once. Usually that’s all it takes.”
“Ears is not the brightest. He’s been skunked a bunch.” Sara pulled out her pouch of Drum tobacco. There was something seductive about the way she rolled her cigarettes with one hand. Smoking is a very oral act and as I watched her I remembered my dream.
She hopped down. “Where’s your john? I need to whizz.” I pointed down the hallway. She left the door open, and I could see her panties bunched around her jeans and boots.
She took a circuitous route back to the kitchen, passing through the living room, sparsely furnished with Goodwill furniture, a broken clock radio that continuously flashed twelve, and a stack of raggedy paperbacks. She also spent some time in my bedroom, rooting around in the closet. She returned and opened the fridge, looked inside and sighed. “You’re not doing too well are you, Jake?”
“Not materialistically, but I get by.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Had one. In Oregon. Didn’t work out. Now I’m here.”
Her questions made me nervous. I felt off balance.
“Look, you did me a big favor tonight. I’d like to pay you back. Maybe we can help each other.”
Her phone vibrated and she walked outside talking out of earshot. When she returned she said, “I gotta run. DJ’s waiting at his boat. The salmon are running near the Klamath. Be a doll and watch Ears for me, OK? I’ll be back in a couple of days. Here’s some money.”
She pulled three twenties from a thick roll of bills. Before I could say anything she kissed me and teased her warm fingers lightly across the waistband of my sweatpants. “Sweet dreams.”
I now realize that everything shifted at that moment. Sara was not sad nor vulnerable. She was clearly in charge and had a plan for me. I was the helpless one, the less confident one, and all I could do was play out my role.
I looked over at Ears. He was passed out doing that twitching thing dogs do when they dream. Chasing rabbits. Or porcupines. I pulled the rest of the quills out, and then carried him into the bedroom with me. That’s when my flea problem began. It was a minor irritation to what would come next.
The couple of days turned into a week, then ten days. Ears and I got along great and, despite the fleas, I loved having a canine companion again. We hiked through Patrick’s Point and ran on the beaches when the tide was out. When I drove to work Ears sat upright in the passenger seat occasionally leaning his head affectionately on my shoulder. He didn’t seemed to miss Sara.
The next time I saw Sara I was in the middle of a reoccurring nightmare. Orders were piling up at work and I was falling further behind. In each bowl of chowder dozens of swimming mice laughed at me and sang some Disney song I could not recall. I woke up to the familiar aroma of Drum tobacco and the sound of a dog collar rattling. Sara was leaning over the bed petting Ears. “You always leave your door unlocked?”
“Huh? Hi. Yeah, I have nothing nobody wants.”
“You should be more careful, Jake. Lots of bad dudes around here.” she said, heading toward the kitchen.
I threw on my jeans and instinctively followed her—like a dog. Truck and DJ were sitting at my small table smoking and drinking bottles of Heineken. Truck raised his bottle in greeting. DJ belched and flexed. Then he slapped his calf. “Shit, you’ve got fleas!”
“Thanks for watching Ears,” Sara said. “I hope you can keep him a while longer. The boys and me have some business to attend to up in Crescent City. If everything goes well it shouldn’t take but a few days.”
“Sure, that’s fine,” I said. “He’s no trouble.”
“Good. Now, I need another favor. We need to keep some boxes here. I see you’ve got plenty of room in your closet.”
“What’s in the boxes?”
“You don’t need to know shit about what’s in the boxes!” DJ said, glaring at me.
Truck cracked his knuckles, scratched his ankle, and glanced toward the door.
“Easy, DJ, I warned you to be nice,” Sara said. She came over to me and put her arm around my waist looping her thumb inside my waistband. “But DJ’s right, Jake. It’s best if you don’t know what’s inside. You just go about your regular business and nothing bad will happen. We’ll get ‘em out of here in a few days.”
DJ and Truck went outside and began hauling in wooden crates with rope handles. Cyrillic writing was etched on the sides and lids. They smelled like a combination of seaweed, gun grease, and diesel. Whatever was inside was heavy and each time the men placed one on the floor of the closet the trailer shook.
When the men were finished Sara slipped me two hundred dollar bills from her roll. “For your troubles. Oh, and one more thing. You might start locking your doors at night. We’d hate to have anything happen to those crates.”
DJ glared at me.
I couldn’t get back to sleep for thinking I was now an accomplice in some kind of smuggling ring. I thought about leaving, heading north and disappearing into the crowds in Seattle. Or maybe try Alaska. But I had a feeling that nowhere was safe from Sara’s reach. Or DJ’s and Truck’s. And I remembered what had happened to the Indian kid in Humboldt Bay. I began to lock my door.
Every time I opened the closet to get a shirt I became more curious. The four crates were around two and a half feet square and came up to my knees. When I tapped on the lids there was no echo. Whatever was inside was packed solid. Large, industrial sized staples held the tops in place. In addition to the Cyrillic words were a series of numbers.
A month went by and there was still no word from Sara. The summer fog turned to relentless autumn rain. Without our daily walks Ears and I became restless. I thought a temporary change of scenery—somewhere sunny, dry, and warm—would do us good. I took a few days off from work, locked up the trailer, stashed the key under the propane tank, and headed south for the beaches of Santa Barbara. Sara had my number, and I figured if she called I’d tell her where I hid the key.
After four days in the sun and sand away from the fog belt and my dead-end job I began to think straight. I decided to call Sara and tell her to remove the crates as soon as possible. Even though I’d miss Ears I wanted Sara and her baggage out of my life. Stress was not something I needed.
I called from the road but her number had been disconnected. I called in at work and asked if Sara had been around. My boss said no, but DJ and Truck had come in a few hours ago asking for me. That anxious, out-of-control feeling I’d felt before Santa Barbara returned.
It was dark when I drove into the trailer park. When I stopped the car, Ears growled, and the hair on his back stood up. The cheap aluminum door had been jimmied open with a crowbar. Wet footprints led to the bedroom. The crates were gone and my bedroom looked as if a tsunami blew through. Someone had taken a knife and slashed my futon to tatters. In the living room my thrift store furniture had been reduced to kindling. The kitchen floor was covered with broken glass and the refrigerator was knocked over, its contents spoiled and rotting. Whoever did this wanted to leave a message.
I sat down on the floor and Ears put his head in my lap. If Truck and DJ had taken the crates what had happened to Sara? I was the only one who could link all the characters together. I needed to leave Humboldt County, and I didn’t have much time. I grabbed some clothes and threw them in the car. My heart was beating fast and out of rhythm. There was a small storage shed near the rear of the trailer with the rest of my worldly possessions. I thought about abandoning them, but there were some irreplaceable family items. Letters my father had written my mother when he was stationed in Vietnam. A pair of ceramic roosters my great-grandmother had brought to America from Czechoslovakia.
Ears stayed right at my heel whimpering when I approached the shed. The hasp on the padlock hung by a screw. When I opened the door, DJ and Truck looked out at me, their heads and limbs twisted in unnatural positions, like something Picasso would paint. The bodies were still warm to the touch. Both their throats had been slit and drops of blood dripped from the ceiling.
I smelled her tobacco first. Then heard the humming. The tune was Joni Mitchell’s “California,” one of my favorites. Ears barked but would not leave my side. The hair on his spine stood on end. Sara stepped out from the shadows holding the biggest handgun I had ever seen. It was pointed at my heart. She didn’t tell me to but instinctively I put my hands up, thinking about all the cops’ shows I had watched when I was a kid.
“Well, Jake, you missed all the fun. I caught those two assholes stealing the crates, and as you can see, I really get pissed when someone double-crosses me. If you were home those clowns would have had some fun watching you die. But now I get to have all the fun. With you out of the way I’m in the clear. What’s the saying: ‘The dead tell no tales.’”
“Look, you don’t have to do this,” I said. “I won’t tell. I’m not a snitch.”
She laughed, blew me a smoke ring before throwing down the cigarette at my feet. “You’re not very bright are you? Kind of like Ears. Haven’t you noticed by now that up here it’s killed or be killed? Funny thing is, I kind of like you. Or liked. But business is business and I can’t have any loose ends. Now get down on your knees. I got a boat to catch.”
“Fuck! Damn!” With her free hand Sara reached behind her back to slap at a flea. The gun hand dropped and Ears leaped on her. He went for her jugular with a ferociousness that he had never shown before, tearing at her flesh as if he had not eaten in days. The gun fell and I grabbed it.
“Ears, stop, enough!” I yelled. But he would not let go until it was too late. In those last moments Sara pressed both hands to her neck, blood pooling through her fingers, her eyes glazed over. She only had enough time to let out one long dreadful scream, her alto voice strong and true to the end.
When Ears finally came over to me, his muzzle glistened with blood. He shook his coat as if he’d just been for a swim, sending a spray of red splotches across my jeans. Then he sat down and began furiously scratching his neck while I phoned the sheriff.
Stephen Lyons (Monticello, Illinois)authored Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. He received two fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council. He’s been published in Newsweek, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Sun, The Oleander Review, Salon, Audubon, USA Today, and dozens of anthologies. He received a Notable Essay mention in The Best American Essays of 2016.