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The mosquitoes were bad along the river. They clouded around him and stuck to his bare legs and claimed their meager allotments of his blood and though he would smash their little bodies on his neck and arms the rest of him was too much property to manage. So he allowed them their blood and he was used to them.
He lived under a tarp along the river. The tarp was tied from two beech trees into whose smooth gray hides the names of lovers were carved. He had read every name and at first he had despised these people, this intrusion of the town he’d left behind, but now in his fourth year on the river he had come to accept them and even to forgive them their misguided ruination of a beautiful thing with something so ugly as a name, or the illusion of lasting love.
He spent his days wandering the river or the nearby trails and sometimes he would go into the town for food. He was not above stealing something if he needed it. He had no philosophy about that; there was nothing to consider.
He was on his way to town now. It was late summer and the river stunk. He walked the riverbank studying the new prints in the mud from the night, the miniature human handprints of raccoons, the split hearts of deer. He left the river at a twisted piece of driftwood and climbed the bank and then he was at the road. He walked it not minding the few cars that passed, a little delirious with hunger, counting the mileposts of this a way he’d taken countless times. Mostly he noted the houses, each of them known to him and imbued with some character though he knew but few of the souls who peopled them.
He came upon an orange traffic sign. It had been dropped in his path on the side of the road. He stood beside it a moment scratching his head and listening to it clicking as the words changed. He stepped around and past it and turned to read the words. They said:
EEE SPRAYING 9/10 – 9/16 DUSK TO DAWN
He had no watch nor any clear sense for what day it was but he was sure it could be September. He walked along. The town rose up ahead and he could see the big brick buildings of the center. Not that it was a big town. But it had a grocery and a hardware store and each time he saw them after weeks in the woods they seemed like something bigger than the town he had grown up in.
The people of the grocery watched him as he entered. They looked away. He was known well, both in his current condition and in his former, and those who knew him in both shook their heads and wondered how to reconcile the two. Nor could they, nor should they try. He walked on into the aisles. His diet was one of packaged foods, of expirations one and two years distant. He put these into a sack he had brought with him. He got himself one luxury, as he always did, and this was a jar of chocolate milk from the dairy aisle. Then he walked out the door and into the parking lot.
Someone called to him. He kept walking. She spoke again: “Lowell, is that you?”
Now he turned and looked at her. She was older, she was wearing the black uniform of the store. He recognized her as one of his mother’s friends though he did not know her name. “I don’t have any money and I’m not returning the food,” he said.
“I know you don’t,” she said. “And I’m not asking you to.”
“Fine,” he said. And he turned to keep walking.
She followed behind him. The sack was getting heavy for him and he put it down. It had been two days since he’d last eaten. He waited for what was coming.
“I’m sorry to follow you like this,” she said. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I just thought someone ought to tell you to protect yourself. Being out there in the woods like that. Don’t you even have a tent?”
“Protect myself,” he repeated. He meant it as a question but he had forgotten the intonation, it had been so long since he had spoken to someone.
“You know. From the mosquitoes. From the EEE.”
“The EEE,” he said.
“Yeah. The EEE. I figured you hadn’t heard about it, being all alone out there.”
“EEE’s been around for a long time.”
“Not like this it hasn’t. It’s a big year for it. They found it right here in town. A little girl got it and she’s in the hospital. Another lady already died from it.”
“You can die from it,” he said.
“Oh, yes. You really didn’t know?”
“No,” he said. Though he had heard of EEE in years past he had thought of it like a passing cold, or perhaps like bird flu. He had not known it was so serious.
“Don’t you have a tent or anything?”
“I’d give you some bug spray but there’s none left in the store. All cleared out across the county. That’s how worried everyone is. I wish I could give you some.”
The woman looked at him morosely. “Well,” she said. “Take care of yourself.”
He picked up his sack and started again for the road. The whole way back to his camp he thought about what the woman had told him. He tried not to think about it but the mosquitoes were after him all the time and now they had more meaning. They got worse at the river and he slapped at all of them now. When he got to his tarp he set the food sack down and rummaged through a plastic box that held his clothes and found a pair of pants and a thin sweater. He put these on though it was very hot. He swatted the mosquitoes from his head and the long clothing protected the rest of him. Then he took a can of beans from the sack and opened it and sat on an overturned milk crate. He ate greedily, tilting the can to his mouth, scooping the beans out with his hands. He put the empty can away and got the chocolate milk and drank it slowly and watched the river ooze by.
At night the mosquitoes hummed in his ears and he felt them all over him, even in places they could not be: under his sleeping bag, inside his socks. They had a hold of him; they had re-opened the door to philosophy. His mind unaccustomed to thought began to churn and struggle. He knew the risk was small; likely he would be fine. But to refuse to protect yourself, to put yourself intentionally in harm’s way? He could not do it. Even an unloaded pistol is too heavy to lift to your temple, so long as you have a use for your life. And this he knew well.
So he stayed up all night swatting at the little bodies and he got no sleep. Nor was there any relief in the morning. The only true relief would be to leave the river but he would not do that.
After a breakfast of canned peaches he went down to the riverbank. He stood there looking down at the stinking mud. A dead heron had washed ashore and it lay broken-necked and foul with its black intestines spilling from its body. He walked upriver a ways from the bird and crouched down and plunged both hands into the mud. He wiped the gray glopping mud onto the tops of his feet and then he proceeded to cover his head and neck with it. When the mud dried he felt it pulling at the wrinkles of his face.
So protected he slept in the shade of the tarp. He slept all morning. At midday he rose and relieved himself and went again down to the riverbank to reapply the mud. He had just crouched down when he saw a fisherman in a boat midriver.
“Aren’t you a sight,” the man said.
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You ought to get yourself some proper repellant.”
He repeated what the woman had told him, his mother’s friend. “Stores are all out.”
“Stores may be,” the man said. “Amazon is not.”
“Amazon,” he repeated.
Now the man looked beyond him, to the tarp between the beech trees, the various sundry possessions piled not unneatly about the camp.
“Say,” he said. “You’re that homeless feller lives by the river, aren’t you.”
He said nothing.
“I heard about you.”
“I ought not to take pity on you,” the man said. “With where you came from and everything.”
Then don’t, Lowell thought. But he knew the man would try to help him and he waited for it. Sure enough the man sighed, reached into his boat, and tossed a white spray bottle to him there on the shore. Lowell read the label on the bottle. It was 98% DEET bug repellant. He sprayed himself all over, his clothes and his hair and his mud-caked skin.
“Come closer so I can give it back to you,” he said. “I don’t want to miss and get it in the water.”
“No, son. You keep it.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Course you can.”
He looked down at the bottle in his hand. He shook his head. He threw the bottle to the man, and missed, and the bottle splashed into the water.
“You crazy son of a bitch,” the man said. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“You’re sorry alright. You’re a sad son of a bitch.”
He shrugged. He went back to his camp and sat on his milk crate and watched the river. The man went away. He could just make out the white shape of the bottle bobbing in the water. He looked at it a long time. Finally he rose and went down to the river again. He undressed and waded into the tea-colored water to retrieve it.
He came back to shore where the heron lay. The mosquitoes started sticking to him as his skin dried and he uncapped the bottle and sprayed himself again. Then he put his long clothes back on and lay down under the tarp and he slept the rest of the afternoon.
So he was awake in the evening when they sprayed. He heard the plane coming and then he saw it; it was not quite dark. It was a twin propeller plane and the mist dropped like a curtain from the wings. It seemed impossibly low to the ground. The plane flew past and he hid under the tarp and waited for the mist to hit his camp. He did not know at all what to expect. He imagined droplets falling on his tarp like rain. But nothing of the sort happened. He did smell something like mineral oil, and he saw the failing orange light from the sunset refracted in the mist, but then it dissipated and it was gone.
They sprayed again two nights later, and from the road the night after he heard them spraying from trucks. Still there were mosquitoes. He applied the repellant every time he ate a meal, which was sometimes twice and sometimes three times a day. The bottle was only part full when the man gave it to him and after four days it was empty. He unscrewed the spray cap and filled the bottle with river water and sprayed himself with the dilute solution but it did very little for the mosquitoes. He went back to mud. There seemed to be no break from the heat nor sign of coming frost and he foresaw at least a month of this, sleeping in mud, waking in mud, being always covered in mud in varying states of drying and stinking and he felt desperate and alone and very sad.
A week later he dug out from his clothing box an outfit he had worn not once since coming to the river. It was a nice clean shirt and wool dress pants, still with the pleats pressed into them. He set them atop the box and went down to the river to bathe and then he put them on. He had not thought about the weight he’d lost; the pants fell from his hips and the shirt was boxy and loose about his midsection. He had no belt and so he tied through the beltloops of the pants a length of rope. The shirt he would have to live with. He tucked it into the pants and walked out to the road.
It was afternoon when he reached the house. He knocked on the door and waited. He swatted at the mosquitoes around him. He knocked again. At last he heard the heavy footsteps from inside and then the door opened. The man inside was grayed and tired-looking and this was his father. He looked at his son as if he did not know him.
“Dad,” Lowell said.
“Can I come in.”
The old man looked him over.
“Alright,” his father said. “Come in.”
They sat at the kitchen table. His father sat where he’d always sat; Lowell took the chair that once was his. His mother’s chair was piled with books. His father said nothing for a long time and Lowell read the titles of the books as if that were what he’d come to the house to do. They were books on astronomy, the universe.
At last his father said: “Son, this is very upsetting.”
“To see me you mean.”
“Yes. It is easier not to.”
“I had nowhere else to go. The mosquitoes.”
“Ah,” his father said. “Yes. You must take precautions.”
Lowell nodded. He didn’t know where to go from here. He looked again at the pile of books. “Do you see Mom,” he said.
“How is she.”
His father didn’t answer.
“Is she alright?”
He did not answer. He said: “I thought a lot about what I would say to you if you came back. Now I don’t want to say any of it. It’s been too long.”
His father’s eyes were wet and red. “It’s too much. You have to leave.”
“Can I stay just for a night.”
“Not even in the garage.”
“No, son. I couldn’t bear it.”
“I understand.” And he did. His father had lost his only son and then, by his son’s leaving, his only wife. And yet both were alive and could be faced and he could not face both. He pushed his chair back and rose from the table. He walked to the door he’d come through.
“Do you have any bug repellant,” he asked.
His father had not followed him. And though he was sure his father heard him he got no answer. So that is all over, he thought. He let himself out and walked back to the river.
It was late when he got to the camp. He was very tired. He lay on his back in his good clothes under the tarp. The mosquitoes hummed around him and landed on him and he swatted them away and then they landed again. Turning his head he saw the moonlight on the river. Even the bones of the heron shone in the moonlight; they had yet to be taken away by raccoons. He knew he should get up, take off his good clothes, and cover himself with the foul stinking mud. And yet what was the point. He fell asleep as he was.
He woke to the morning sunlight, the singing of birds. Down at the river he washed his face. He saw himself reflected in the water: his dress pants, his good shirt. He raised his hand to his forehead to feel the welts that had risen overnight. He cupped his hands into the water and drank, and drank.
For the first time the air was chilly and there were no mosquitoes. Perhaps the frost was coming after all. And with it relief. He spent the day walking along the riverbank and taking little rests and walking again. The mosquitoes came out as the air warmed but he did not bother to slap at them. They landed all over him, stabbing at him with their awful straws. Soon every inch of his skin was covered in the small itching welts.
As the day passed he thought of his four years on the river and what they amounted to. And what they cost. He thought of his father the day before and of his mother unseen in the asylum. His father, his mother, to whom he was flesh and blood, who had abandoned him now these years after he abandoned them. His mother by no doing of her own. And why had he, Lowell, done it. Why was he here. To choose a different fate from the one he’d been given, which was just a fate and could be no worse than any other. And which could not in fact be changed. Fate. Well. If this was his fate then he might as well accept it. Why put yourself at god’s mercy only to slap at his mosquitoes.
That evening he lay motionless beneath the tarp. The two trees held him like parentheses. The mosquitoes stabbed at him and took their blood and he gave it to them, he gave it readily, and We will see, he thought, if the frost comes or it doesn’t.
Derek Pfeffer lives in Massachusetts. His work has also been published in Barren Magazine.