What I Did On My Summer Vacation
As I write, tiny prehistorical killing machines are stalking my family. Sorry. Getting ahead of myself. I'll start at the beginning. Disclaimer: if you are easily creeped out, do NOT read this.
Lesson 1: Trust no one. Back in March, we moved into a new house. We loved the old house, a rock and brick cottage about two miles from campus, which I bought before I had met my wife and then had two beautiful daughters. So we were looking for something a little bigger, with a good yard and a better "neighborhood" feel, closer to campus. And we got it: a charming 1930s brick bungalow in the old downtown area, just a ten minute walk from my office. After several viewings, months of haggling, and a fair amount of hand wringing, we signed the deal. Although the house looked to be in pristine condition inside, we knew there would be some repairs: an old roof (tricky, because steep pitched with odd ridges and valleys), suspect H/AC, and some plumbing concerns in the basement. Nothing too exotic.
We moved in and spent the next couple of months scurrying to prep our beloved rock cottage for sale in the market from hell. That proved to be the easy part. Mrs. TMcD did such an exceptional job of fixing, primping, and staging that we sold it in a week. Pricing to sell didn't hurt. Still, what had once been a major source of stress turned out well. The real drama was three miles away at the new house. We started discovering kinks. Funky wiring that kept going out. GFCIs that weren't really grounded. A leaky roof. Heating problems. Cooling problems. Water in the basement during the great Tennessee flood. Our first Friday night, the college kids living behind us had a blowout bash, and we were up until 1 or 2 AM keeping drunk kids from cutting through our lawn and peeing in our yard. They kicked down our old lattice fence to get across. Just appetizers.
During our original home inspection, Mrs. TMcD had spotted a few dead spiders in a basement cabinet and asked the inspector about them. He took a quick glance and said, "Nothing to worry about." "They're not brown recluses?" "No, just little brown house spiders--everybody's got them." Mrs. TMcD was not so sure, but we had a lot of issues to hash out and this one got pushed to a back burner, past plumbing, roof, fence, and garage door openers. Once we moved in, we had an exterminator come out in the first couple of weeks. Again, the Mrs. pushed her spider question: "Are these brown recluses?" "No, no. They're nothing," quoth the bug man, casting a furtive glance toward the suspicious arachnids. When he left, she noticed that he had checked every bug treatment box on his form except for "brown recluse." Which seemed odd. But then, we'd had two experts tell us that these were just house spiders. Who doesn't have those? Brown recluses are notoriously hard for amateurs to identify. And yet there's the natural fear that you somehow got the deadly ones. What are the odds?
That's how I rationalized not worrying--"not worrying" being one of my few true skills--despite the increasing number of spiders we seemed to be finding, in drawers, in piles of clothes, even in the girls' toys. In my defense, I had a lot going on. We moved mid-semester, with papers and exams looming, and my uncle was in poor health, spending the last couple of weeks of term in intensive care. So I didn't need any additional, speculative stresses. That's my wife's domain, and she has a genius for it. I trust the "experts."
Lesson 2: Trust nothing. Then my uncle died. A big deal around here. Aside from being a second father in many ways, he'd been loved and respected in this community for decades. His funeral was like a Boro version of the Kennedy funeral, with ribald eulogies and a receiving line stretching on for hours and never completed. Mrs. TMcD was running late that day and grabbed a Kleenex box on the way out of the house. As she reached for a tissue in the car, a rather large brown spider appeared at the lip of the box, prompting her to open the door and kick the box out. Suspicions. She had been doing some web research on how to distinguish recluses from southern house spiders, their most common false positive. The bug man had left some traps and we caught a few. As she would tell me a few days later while I was desperately trying to finish my grading, she was pretty sure these were recluses. The "fiddles" on their backs were fairly distinct, and most tellingly, they seemed to have six eyes in a triangle pattern rather than the normal eight for other spiders. You've got to get damned close to pick that up.
I was skeptical. But she made a good case, so we started doing more research. If you get the chance, look at some web pictures of recluse bites. Or don't. They've got a "necrotic" bite that rots your flesh off and cannot be treated. They don't usually kill you, of course. Most bites are routine spider bites. It takes force--a swat, a foot jammed into a shoe, a roll over in bed, etc.--to release the worst toxins, and even then it's most dangerous to kids under seven. Hey, we got those! The day after I turned in grades, Lang and I were getting ready to read stories before I put her to bed. She came running into the family room in her PJs. From the other corner of the room, a big brown spider came galloping across the carpet. As we had learned from our fact finding, this was a bad sign. The "recluse" is non-aggressive and prefers to remain hidden. If you start seeing them in the open, especially in a loud room, you know they're so populous as to need to take risks to gain space.
We also learned that normal extermination tactics have little effect and may make things worse. The recluse is immune to the most common pesticides, but they love the insect buffet those chemicals create. They can also hold their breath for three days and go without food for months. So you need specialists who can go old school on these dudes. On the web, there's a debate in the recluser community about whether they actually can be beaten, or whether you just have to move. Even then, you can't take any of your stuff, because, well, they like to hide in it, and they will follow you to wherever you move. Yeah. We chose to go with the theory that they are killable, just with patience and smarts. The next day, we got the recluse guy out to take a look. "You win the prize," he told us. "You should probably stay somewhere else for a couple of days." Our house resembled Arachnophobia, that old John Goodman, Jeff Daniels flick. I used to like that movie. When the reclusist went into the attic above our bedrooms, he said they started descending from the rafters like rain. "I don't have enough chemicals in my truck for what you've got," he said.
That's when we moved in with my aunt, whose house outside town was a bit emptier than it had been just days before. Thank God for Aunt J! We might be facing some creepy shit, but we had a safe refuge and a gracious host.
Lesson 3: Trust noplace. We thought we'd be out of the house for a few days, but it turned into a few months. We had a lot of work to do too. Most of our stuff was stacked in cardboard boxes in the garage. Not good. Recluses love cardboard. We had to spend the better part of three days going through each and every box, emptying them onto sheets in the driveway, shaking out every book and piece of clothing, and then squishing whatever nasty boys happened to fall out. The cardboard really was a draw; we'd often have an open plastic crate with nothing right next to a sealed box with a big daddy. We estimated that we probably saw a few dozen. Much of our stuff just got tossed--not the worst thing in the world. We took a lot of things that we couldn't go through closely, wrapped them up tight in garbage bags, and took them to storage. The whole endeavor was a stress fest, like working for the poor man's CDC or on the wimpiest bomb squad ever. Whenever we walked into the garage we looked up to make sure nothing was going to go kamikaze on us.
At the same time, we got a mega pack of glue traps and lined baseboards, shelves, and closets throughout the house. A trip to the house became like a mission into a minefield, complete with security protocols: check the traps, sweep the walls for webs, inspect the dark crannies. Then there was the plastic. Recluses don't like it much, they're just not "sticky" enough to scale it easily. Which turned us into the paranoid plastic people. We spent (are still spending) weeks, now months, putting everything we own into plastic storage containers, giant Ziploc bags, and hermetically sealed hanging bags. Don't laugh. The alternative is shaking out every single article of clothing before putting it on. I already have to do that for towels, shoes, and blankets; if I had to do it for literally everything I touched I would go OCD. We've had some surprise encounters. The day we went to close on the old cottage, we were both sweaty from working around the spider house all day. Mrs. TMcD went to grab a clean shirt from the middle of a stack of clothes atop a standalone metal rack in the bathroom. A healthy recluse smiled up at her, inducing her to fling the shirt up in the air where it promptly fell back on the spider, now on the floor.
It seemed like every day we caught a new spider somewhere, anywhere in the house. Not a room, closet, pantry, or breezeway came clean. One day I was in the family room and decided to check the DVD player and VCR, which had been covered with a shirt and garbage bag for the foggings. When I lifted the DVD player up and looked underneath, I found a veritable coven: one dead adult and more than a dozen dead babies, each in a little circle indentation around the feet of the player, as if they were plotting dark hexes around their tiny cauldrons. Goodbye DVD player, I hear you're obsolete anyway. I used a mirror to look in the near upper corners of the pantry above the door frame. Another coven. Dead, thankfully. Most sightings, however, involved solitary spiders: a thermos bag left near the fireplace, the door frame in the breezeway, a step halfway up the stairs. Often dead or dying, but not always. Maybe the fogging was having an impact. They told us the first treatments would get 80% of them. But since May-August is the active season, we'd likely keep seeing them for a while. Usually, they said, they can solve the problem in three months; for us, they couldn't make any guarantees, even after six.
Damn. A big step backward. Adding to the difficulty, we knew that my aunt had some recluses too, although her problem was under control. There were some dead ones in the play room, and we had found one or two dead in other locations, but that seemed like a sign her bug guys had it covered. Recluses are not uncommon around here, we've discovered; the issue is whether they've invaded your living space. Then one morning I got up to go to the bathroom and found one smirking at me from the sink. Better than the bathroom rug! Plus, Mrs. TMcD had a very exhaustive bedtime protocol, the time when we'd be most vulnerable. She'd spend about a half hour spider-proofing the bedrooms before we put the girls down: remaking all the beds, taking off every sheet and blanket and shaking them out, inspecting all the available hiding spaces, etc. When we went to bed, we'd take flashlights for a reinspect--in part because Bay was sleeping in our room. Two nights after the sink incident, I was doing the flashlight check of our bed. All good. Then the Mrs. came in and did a re-check. When she picked up her pillow, a recluse zipped up from behind the bed and jumped right onto that pillow and roared. We switched on the overhead light and I smashed Brownie with my shoe. Then we sat on the bed to talk about what we were going to do. That's when we saw the second one. It was frozen on the wall, right over the (sealed) suitcase with all my clothes. Crap.
Goodbye, safe refuge. There was no way we could sleep there after that. We packed up the car and the girls and by midnight were on the road to a hotel. The next day we checked into an extended stay hotel--a single room, but with a kitchenette. As cramped and defeated as we felt, at least we slept pretty well there. Each day, we'd drop the girls at the sitter, and then head to the house; then I'd go to teach.
Lesson 4: It's a long crawl out when you're "in the weeds." By now we felt like we were being stalked. We even found one climbing on the wall in a classroom at church. The house was due for another round of gassing. When Mrs. TMcD went in afterward, she found a couple of big ones that looked like they had fallen out from under Bay's crib and gotten caught in the sticky tape underneath. This was getting old, and we didn't have a long range plan. Where, exactly, were we going to stay after our hotel week? I pushed for a move home, spiders be damned, but it was a tough case when we kept finding new ones in freaky places. We started looking for apartments we could rent on a month by month basis, but that's not easy when all the local landlords are holding out for the student infusion just about to hit town.
My favorite reality show expression (heard mostly on my guilty pleasure, Top Chef) is "in the weeds," meaning, you're in the thick of a challenge, and everything is a mess. That's where we were. The beauty of "reality" shows is that you know you're out of the weeds in a TV hour--there's a time limit. Not for us. To use another horror movie reference, I felt like I was in Fatal Attraction. I just didn't know how far into the movie I was. Did I just break up with Glenn Close? Did I just find the rabbit on the stove? Is she in the bathtub yet? Of course, all that is pretty melodramatic as a description of a spider problem. They're just frickin' spiders! They rarely actually kill you! Our plight pales next to all those folks who lost their homes in the Nashville flood or the Good Friday tornado. We've still got our home, it's a nice place, and we can even live here. A big part of my brain says, suck it up, this isn't that unusual. Then we'd have some bizarre conversation where the Mrs. and I would talk about how if someone had to get maimed, we'd rather it be us than the girls. It gets hard to keep perspective when you're dealing with some threat of unknown probability. A little like fighting terrorists: we don't know how many there are, where they're hiding, what the chance of a major attack is, or how many resources we need to devote to the problem, and we don't have a very good exit strategy.
I tend to cope with the spider stress by telling the spider story. Which drives Mrs. TMcD crazy. "No one will want to come to our house. We'll be 'those crazy spider people!'" So true. But if I've got to spend every day on spider patrol, I'm going to bitch about it and try to make an entertaining story out of it. I have discovered that when you tell someone around here you've got brown recluses, they've all got their own stories, about themselves or someone they know. They commonly end in one of three ways: 1) the wound never healed, 2) they had to amputate that X (insert body part here), or 3) they left that house and never went back. Sometimes financial ruin is thrown in, and I got a a coma story once. Ack. Then again, I've had a couple people say, "Yeah, we've got a few of those, but they're not a big deal. We just avoid that closet, etc." Still, I like telling my story as epic drama, and as of now, no one has gotten bitten, so our ending--not yet written--may be a happy one.
We moved back into the house a few weeks ago. And things certainly seem like they're getting better, despite occasional glitches. We've had a mouse infestation to compete with the spiders. I've also still got a lot of spider-proofing work to do. Last week I cleared off the ivy on the house, which the exterminator told us was a big problem. We've got a lot of it, growing on many of the walls, especially around the patio. Infested. Filthy with the bastards. The most I've seen since we've been here. A kind of spider superhighway that allows them to zip all over the house, from basement to attic. We also need to get the roof done soon, and that's going to stir up a few nests. The killer ivy, at least, is mostly gone, and our overall prospects are looking up. For now, however, the tenaciousmcd's remain hopeful, on alert, and in the weeds.