I lived with my grandparents during my senior year of high school. Surprisingly, given what was coming, this didn’t have anything to do with a big rupture with my parents or anything like that; my father had gotten a job in a tiny town in northwest Missouri, and I was convinced that graduating towards the top of a class of 8 people wouldn’t look as appealing to colleges as doing pretty well in a class of 230. So I suggested to my parents that maybe it made sense for me to stay in Blair, and they agreed. Legal guardianship was set up and, the day after I finished my junior year, I moved into what had been my grandmother’s bedroom.
It took me well into my adulthood to recognize that my parents were kind of crazy, but my grandparents were the kind of crazy that was easily visible at the time. My grandmother was both beset by legitimate health problems and an extreme hypochondriac; she also had absolutely no sense of personal or emotional boundaries (during my undergrad years, she would often call me and ask me when I was going to get someone pregnant so that she could have some great-grandchildren) and was very fond of building a metaphorical wooden cross and climbing up onto it. She was a heavy menthol smoker, but thought she was hiding it from everyone by doing all of her smoking in the bathroom with the door shut; this clever ruse was betrayed by the heavy menthol stank in the bathroom, and by the empty cartons of cigarettes jammed into the cupboard under the sink.
My grandfather, well, I’m still not sure what’s going on. He’s still alive, and he’s currently fading from age (well into his 80s) and the effects of some head trauma in a terrible car accident that happened in the late 90s. Back in the early 90s, though, he was still very unusual. He had a childlike, helpless quality, and never seemed to be fully in touch with reality; he usually floated along, amiably dissociated from whatever was going on around him, with a terrifying rage welling up every few months. I always thought he might have been developmentally disabled, and I still wonder about that; my mother once told me that she thought he was suffering from a “social disease” that he’d picked up in the army in the 50s.
Anyway. My grandparents’ house was small – smaller, even, than the converted corn crib I grew up in – and my grandfather had built it by hand (despite his usual dissociated helplessness, he was a pretty good carpenter). Although it sat in the middle of town, it had a very rural feel to it – its lot was gigantic, at least a double lot, and the property was bounded by a creek on one side and a small woods on another. It would have been wonderfully quiet if it hadn’t been a block away from a very busy freight rail line, where the trains had to blow horns for street crossings.
As I mentioned, I was set up in my grandmother’s old bedroom (she took great glee in sleeping on the couch). It was a mess the way my old bedroom in the corn crib had been, but worse: my mess washed in and melded with my grandmother’s pre-existing mess (which included several dresser drawers crammed full of empty menthol cigarette cartons); imagine a sea of dirty clothes with islands jutting out comprising some dressers, a computer desk, a bass guitar, and the vast continent of a waterbed with champagne colored satin sheets.
My grandparents’ prized pets were a pair of dachshunds. I didn’t have friends over to my grandparents’ place for obvious reasons, but when anyone did come over, they’d have to contend with these spoiled, territorial, barky, yippy dogs. Several friends had holes nipped in the cuffs of their jeans; one friend had a sock mauled off of his foot. The dachshunds tolerated my presence, but they were still a bane; my grandparents, for some damned reason, didn’t want to let them out to go to the bathroom in the yard and instead trained them to shit on newspapers. The newspapers were laid out in the hallway in front of my bedroom, meaning that every time I went in or out of my room, I had to pick my way through a minefield of dog waste. There are very few ways to get a less auspicious start to your day than to step barefoot into a wet dog turd while you’re staggering out to the bathroom after waking up.
My bed back then was a queen-sized waterbed with an enormous bookshelf headboard. The only sheets I ever had for it were champagne-colored satin; looking back, I guess the combo of satin sheets on a gigantic waterbed with a big bookshelf bolted on seems to add up to an attempt towards some kind of 60s Hefnerian attempt at being an erudite, swingin’ man of the world. This effect would have been completely undercut, though, by the shelf’s heavy cargo of science fiction and Tom Clancy books, empty soda cans, and Doritos bags.
One late spring or early summer morning, I woke and found a wasp on the bed next to me. It was dead, fortunately, but I was still freaked out. A wasp! What the hell? They can still sting you when they’re dead, can’t they? (Can they? I still don’t know). My bed was huge enough that I’d never gotten within a foot of the wasp, but still. Unsettling.
I told my grandparents about the wasp, and they took it in stride. No big deal, they said. Happens sometimes. Might be a nest up in the attic and occasionally one makes its way through the ductwork or through a gap in the woodwork (my grandfather was a pretty good carpenter, but not a great one). Shouldn’t happen again.
I’ve always been an accepting person, so I took that explanation and moved on.
The next morning, I woke up to find three more dead wasps on the bed. Again, no big deal, just a thing that happens, don’t sweat it. OK.
Looking back, I’m amazed at how quickly my basic accepting nature expanded to just take it in stride that waking up and finding dead wasps on the side of your bed was just a thing that happened. Every morning, there’d be a few. Usually dead, occasionally moving around slowly, barely clinging to life. When I took the champagne sheets off of the waterbed (I might have only owned one set of not-terribly-age-appropriate sheets, but I wasn’t a goddamned barbarian; those sheets got washed every few months whether they needed it or not), I discovered a little cache of dead wasps underneath the water mattress. I guess that’s an argument that they can’t sting when they’re dead, or else you’d think they would have punctured the water bag. This remains a mystery.
At any rate, the wasps were now just an accepted part of my life, along with dirty clothes and the bass guitar.
Back then, before jobs and dog ownership and a perceived need to get up at 6:30 to write or work on comics, I was an extremely late sleeper. And it was high summer by now, and school was out, so I got to sleep in until 10 or 11 every day, and it was glorious, even when the lack of air conditioning and the heat of a Nebraska summer turned the bedroom into a sweatbox. One such hot morning, I slowly slid back into consciousness, swishing around lazily on the waterbed. As I awoke, I became aware of a low hum around me. I craned my head back (waterbed advantage: you can dig your head into the water mattress and get full mobility) and saw that my headboard, with its full load of books and cans and bags, was completely covered with wasps. Living, not sickly, fully awake wasps.
I sloshed to the end of the bed as quietly as I could, darted out to the living room, and told my grandparents about it. I then grabbed some clothes out of the laundry hamper (no way I was going back in there), went outside and freaked out.
I didn’t go back into that room for several days while my grandfather bug-bombed it and the attic; after spending several days couch-surfing at friends’ houses, I went back in to clean up the wasp debris. Whatever wasp-killer he used must have been the good stuff; there were no more morning wasp surprises for the rest of the time I lived with my grandparents.
The dogshit persisted, though.