|Centipedes crept out of the drains of our old house at night.
They materialized suddenly, high on the white walls, reddish and hairy,
terrible. The sight of their countless filament legs made my nose
and ears itch, and my skin crackle. It was awful to rise in the morning
and see one quivering near the ceiling, to know that my first task of the
day was to find a suitable swatting implement, strike quickly and accurately,
wipe guts and twitching limbs off the wall. If the first blow missed,
the centipede ran crazily, and if he escaped to lurk under furniture, the
day was ruined.
One of the bathrooms that provided an entrance for these vermin belonged to my much older siblings Susan, Sarah, Matt, and Preston. I remember its shower door of lumpy glass and the small gray tiles that created a harsh echo as the door opened with a profound click. The centipedes saw more of that bathroom than I did. Not that it was off limits, but I rarely used it, and when I did I was in someone else's territory.
Preston shared my hatred of the centipedes, although he despised them more playfully, voicing war cries, charging barefoot and shirtless with a rolled up classified section in one fist, laughing deviously. I struck more hesitantly, hoping to use just enough force to kill the beast, but not enough to smear it completely and leave an eternal reminder on the wall. Preston was merciless.
One winter night I was very ill, feverish. Voices on the television seemed absurd and distant. I had no appetite for saltines and hot ginger ale. Breathing was becoming difficult, and I had begun to think death would be the simplest cure. Pneumonia blasted over me like ocean surf. By telephone, the doctor advised my parents to hold me under a steaming shower. When they helped me up off the couch, I think all three of us noticed the way they were concentrating so capably, talking more than they really had to as evening slipped into emergency.
We happened upon Preston at the bottom of the stairs. Fresh from drawings, tin snips, pliers. "I think I found a way to cover that drain, if you want to help me," he said, ignoring the falling blankets and weak steps. He held up parts of a device we had dreamed up the week before, a centipede stopper. "Not now," I groaned, and for some reason held up one limp hand, the wrist bent and fingers curved as if I'd lost all muscle.
"Screw you, too," he snapped, and I glimpsed his cross face as we turned toward the stairs.
My parents helped me to the nearest shower, the one near Preston's room, and positioned me close to the scalding spray. Amid pillowy layers of steam and pain, I felt bad about rebuking Preston and bad about hogging his bathroom. In the mirror and in the doorway and in the other mirror his pained expression came and went.
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