Both the pity and compassion people showed for my gout at the shelter seemed ironic. Brian and Irene, an elderly couple, showed particular interest.
“I used to get the gout bad,” began Brian.
“He was a mess,” Irene continued.
“I know it’s no joke. Like four days of hell. And nobody understands,” he said.
“I thought he was being a baby. Then my mom got it towards the end, and my mother had never been slowed down by anything,” she continued.
“Her mother was a force. A force! Everyone knew her mother,” said Brian.
“My mother had four of us and went to college. The flood wiped the college out. Dad was in Korea. She didn’t miss a beat. We moved downtown and she kept going to college. She worked 6 days a week into her seventies. I saw her kill a raccoon with a broom on Christmas day. She told it to get its own trash, and jabbed that motherfucker to death. Saw it all through the front window.”
“You know when you have to act right around someone’s mother, you see it in mother’s eye,” Brian said.
“One day, we thought she was dying, because she never slowed down. She said, ‘I got the gout’ and didn’t get out of her chair for a week. I took it seriously after that,” Irene said rubbing Brian’s back.
“Clear liquor,” Brian concluded.
“Clear liquor?” I asked.
“You try it and you'll see,” Irene said. They helped each other onto the bus.
I was stationary calling names off the list. That got me through the hour or so it took to load everybody up.
“Nadine has lice,” a new face said, and pointed at her. I took note.
Lice is an awful thing to hit a shelter, and the rumor of it is as bad as the real thing. I sat on the bus, absently itching my scalp then noticed Jessie staring at me. Shit, I thought.
An inspection of my scalp in the bathroom yielded no eggs. Why was I itching? Psychosomatic, no doubt. I hobbled back into the hall. By the reception desk there was an angry group of people. It was no coincidence that people were certain their enemies had lice. Demands were being made for room switches. Incriminations, finger-pointing, and shame. Kate and Anne passed me and hurried to their rooms. It took about five minutes to limp to the auditorium. Nadine was alone. She was squirming over a steaming cup of Ramen.
“I don't think I have lice,” she said calmly, which was a relief.
“That’s good news,” I said.
“They’re much too big to be lice,” she added.
Christ, I thought. Her boney fingers inspected her scalp.
“There goes one. Is that lice? It looks like a mite,” she exclaimed, pointing to the table.
I peered closely at what she was pointing at. I peered closer.
“Look out, he jumps,” she said, with a lovely touch of personification.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“You don't?” she sounded disappointed.
I considered moving away, but my foot could stand no more movement. Even the idea of going home sick was impossible. The shelter was full and agitated and Nadine created a handy barrier for me. The buses were a monumental task and when I needed to, I felt no guilt in shirking duties. Some Portland transplants were manning the front desk, hipsters with the kind of real contempt for humanity you only see in the social services. They did this job only to brag about it during their off hours. I was in a foul mood.
“Why do you think it’s lice?” I asked.
“Oh, woman’s intuition I guess,” she said, smiling. “It’s not scabies. I can see them. Look there!” She pointed at her arm. There was nothing, and even though it was occurring to me it was a hallucination, every sighting was important. She seemed entertained by her invisible tormentors.
“I got lice when I was a prostitute in LA from the hotel beds. Ya know, rock bottom? That thing they talk about in AA? I was out of dope, pregnant, a god-damned hooker, and then I got lice. I don’t think that was rock bottom though. That was a special day. I remember it,” she said, her pale blue eyes far away. “I mean, have you ever seen Jupiter?”
“No, Nadine, I can’t say that I have,” I replied. There was a cold sweat forming on my forehead from the gout pain.
“But it’s there,” Nadine said.
“So that means your lice is there?” I deduced.
“No, stupid.” Nadine said. “My lice aren’t real because,well, just because we can’t see Jupiter we have to trust it exists. That doesn’t make sense,” she scolded.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It means my lice are from Jupiter,” she said.
“I see, and scabies are from Venus?” I ventured.
“No, scabies are tiny burrowing mite,” she said, emphasizing each syllable like a school lesson.
“So they’re tiny spiders?” I repeated in disgust.
“Correct,” she said.
“Among my people, it's considered a good omen to have both at once,” she said.
“People from LA?” I asked.
“I was born here. I lived with my grandparents when I ran away,” she said.
“That makes me one of your people?” I asked, somewhat proud.
“Uh huh,” she agreed, flicking a non-existent bug away. She started humming as one does when they are cooking or knitting. I took my shoe off.
“This place is disgusting,” a woman yelled as she stormed by. Many of my favorite participants were preparing for a long night sitting on an auditorium bench instead of braving their rooms.
One of my coworkers came to our table. A flustered younger girl from the Midwest. “The rules say you need a doctor’s note to return to the shelter if you have lice,” she said to me. It took me a moment to realize she was implying Nadine had to leave.
“She doesn’t have lice,” I said.
My Coworker hadn’t considered this. “Do you have lice Nadine?”
“Do you see any?” Nadine asked.
She loomed closer. “I don’t know what they look like.”
“Do you know what Jupiter looks like?” Nadine asked.
She ignored the question.
“It’s not something we can diagnose, is it?” I asked.
She disappeared in an infuriated silence.
“Thanks for covering for me,” Nadine said, flicking another invisible bug off of her. “I don’t want people to think I am high. I mean lying.” She started to laugh.
I started to itch my scalp again. Nadine gave me a sly look.
I remembered how kids obviously being neglected at home were ignored by their teachers until they had lice. Their morbid response was to send them home. There seemed a correlation hidden somewhere in this homeless shelter. Nadine had a comb on the table. I sighed, stood and parted her hair with the comb. Nothing on the scalp. I looked behind her ears. Nothing. No dandruff, no nits, no eggs. Her scalp was as pale as my hands.
“Are they happy?” she asked.
“Very,” I said, sitting down.
“See, I caught you in a lie,” Nadine said. “I don't have lice.” She took some bleach wipes from her bag as if to clean my touch off her. She rubbed her hair and face with them, paying special attention to the sores on her chin and forearms.
“Smoke break!” Nadine yelled suddenly, producing a generic pack. I rolled my eyes and got up gingerly. Gout is excruciating. Nadine propped me up like a tiny stick improvised as a cane, ready to break as we hobbled towards the door. “I do really have scabies though,” she said.
I didn’t care. I needed a smoke.
by PATRICK CARRICO