Hand Holding

Termites don’t have hands, I thought, silently cursing my not-so-very amusing friend. Rod, who wasn’t even a licensed exterminator, had crawled out from under the house chuckling and shaking his head.

“Chris,” he said, continuing to shake his head over theatrically, “I can treat the floors, spray ‘um up, but you know the old joke right?”

He paused as if he thought I wanted to joke about this. I finally shook my head.

“The only way it looks like your house is still standing up must be because all the termites are holding hands.”

I didn’t laugh. Rod, did, oblivious to the fact that I was taking everything very seriously. Falling through a floor can do that to you.

“And if you treat,” I said, “does that mean they’ll die, let go of their hands, and my house will fall apart?”

Rod took this seriously. “I could do that, but spraying is usually for something less extreme than this. There’ll be poison everywhere. You won’t be able to come back in for days.”

He paused, rubbing his chin. “You could tent it, but I think it’s maybe too late for that. Seriously, Chris, it’s almost like you need to tear this place down and start all over. How’d you let it go this far?”

Because, I thought, termites, while they may not have hands, are very sneaky about the way they eat your house. They rarely, unless it’s a mistake on their part, I think, come through any surfaces. They stay just below, eating their way in the dark, trying their best to go undetected.

I’d been fooled.

This is not a funny story, and even if it were, I’d never tell it to Rod. This is the way it goes.

Kylie had been over on Saturday. She wanted to dance, and well, I’ve never turned down her request to do so. I’m crap as a dancer, figured it out as long ago as disco, but Kylie, she’s like a professional. Sometimes when I’m limping around, moving my arms in some kind of vague homage to a dying chicken, dead rhythm beating to some drum unheard.

And I’ll stop. Frozen in awe, I feel I have to get out of her way. Especially after she’s had wine. She loves the grape. And man, when she’s fully fueled, she’s spectacular. Gyrating like she’s going to spin into some other dimension.

Or in the case of Saturday night, spin like a woman digging for an oil well, straight through the floor and into the compacted dirt foundation.

“Are you okay?” I asked, rushing to the new entrance to my house. A secret one! crossed my mind. The final shoot-out scene from L.A. Confidential flashed through my mind. Maybe I could mount a shotgun below the floorboards, hide there and pop up to surprise intruders.

“I,” said Kylie, dazed between the alcohol and the unplanned step down, “ I think so.”

Her hands reached for and grasped the splintered side of the hole. Reaching, I grabbed her wrists and boosted her from above as she did so below. Between the two of us, she came up and rolled over, looking like a startled flying fish caught short in flight on a boat deck. 

“Do you think anything’s broken?” she asked.

“Who me? It’s the other way around, Kylie. You have to tell me.”

“Let me try to stand up,” she said, coming to her elbows, and then into a sitting position.

“You want a hand up?” I asked.

“Let me try on my own first.”

I watched her, a very athletic woman, come up carefully, doing a mental diagnosis of the integrity of all her body parts. Finally, she stood a full height.

“So it’s okay?” I asked.

Nodding, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and then we both noticed it. There was a small pool of blood under her foot.

“Oh wow,” she said, hopping over to a chair.

“Must be a cut,” I offered shrewdly.

“Yes,” she agreed, crossing the slowly bleeding foot over her knee. I bent down to look at it as she examined it from her seated position.

I went over and grabbed some napkins off the dining table. Kylie dabbed at the oozing blood. “Sepsis,” she whispered.

“What?”

“Septicemia,” she said. “Blood poisoning. I haven’t had a tetanus shot in forever. Doesn’t this look like some kind of puncture wound, like a nail or something?”

“I suppose,” I said, not as sure a doctor as she seemed to be.

“Can you drive me to Queen’s emergency?” she asked.

With a towel wrapped around her foot, Kylie and I sped to Emergency. I wasn’t sure how much of an emergency it was, but just the idea we were headed to the ER made my foot lie heavy on the gas pedal.

After a wait that seemed to go on for years, one of the intake nurses called Kylie over. She sat while I stood behind her. After all the necessary information had been gleaned, we were instructed to wait because there was no bed available at the moment.

Kylie limped back to the waiting room chairs. As we sat, I said, “Beds? They think you need a bed for this? Why can’t they just let you in there, sit on a chair, they give you the shot, and we’re off?”

“I think they want to make sure about the wound,” said Kylie. “That it’s not more serious.”

Of course, this made sense. So we waited. It being Saturday night, the Queen’s ER was busy. Cops brought people in in handcuffs, several very bloody people came through the doors having perhaps been in fistfights or minor car accidents.

Kylie’s priority seemed to fall lower by the hour.

Around two in the morning, I was nodding off. Kylie gently elbowed me. “Why don’t you go home and get some sleep?”

“Nah,” I said, shifting in my chair. “I’m fine. I wouldn’t want to leave you here by yourself.”

She gestured around the room. “It’s not like I’m alone, Chris. Look at this crowd.”

I surveyed the scene. It did seem unlikely that she’d be attacked by anyone given the number of people waiting to be seen. One of them was a police officer who’d dragged in a bloody woman who looked as if she might live on the streets.

“Well, okay, Ky. Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”

“Yeah, I got my phone. I’ll call you if I need you to come back down. Otherwise, I’ll just take a Lyft home.”

I nodded, yawned and stretched, kissed her on the cheek, and was off.

When I got home, I went over to look down in the hole. What the heck, I wondered. How could this have happened?

I went to bed walking very gently all the way. I did not throw myself on my bed, either. The idea of the whole thing falling through the floor crossed my mind. The picture was not pretty.

The rest of the night I tossed and turned, visions fleeting through of falling into the molten core of the earth or waking up in China.

When I finally did come to, I asked Alexa the time. It was 9:30. I was usually up by 6:00 on a Sunday morning.

I brushed my teeth and ran a comb through my hair. Heading carefully back to my bed, I sat gently and picked up my phone. I dialed Kylie’s number and waited. There were several beeps and then the line went dead.

Trying a second time, I heard the same beeps, and again the line went dead.

Her phone must have died, I thought, not having been plugged in since the morning of the day before, no doubt.

Locating the number of Queen’s Emergency, I dialed them up.

“Um, can you spell that again for me?” the woman who answered the phone asked.

I waited. I could imagine how hard it must be to keep track of all the patients in that enormous hospital.

“No, sir, I’m sorry. I don’t see anyone by that name here. Are you sure it was Queen’s?”

Still fairly calm, because I know what it’s like to keep track of a bureaucratic maze like Queen’s, I said, “Yes, uh huh, I’m sure. I brought her in myself.”

“And you did the intake?”

“Oh, yes, she did. Then we were in the waiting area. There weren’t any beds for her because of all the higher-priority people.”

“Well, if you did the intake she should be here, but I’m afraid she isn’t.”

Now, I was getting a little bit excited. “That’s impossible. I bought her in there. I sat with her. She sent me home at around two in the morning. She said she’d call me if there were any problems.”

“Okay, sir, sorry, just hang on. I’m going to call over to Emergency and check on this.”

“Call Emergency. Aren’t you the Emergency Room? I dialed Emergency.”

“Sir, sir, please calm yourself. This is the operator. We take all calls here. Let me call the Emergency Room. Please hold.”

“I don’t want to ho –”

On came Christmas muzak. Happy Holidays, I thought. “Geez, these people.”

And then the line went dead. “Oh frickin’ hell!”

I dialed up the number again. The phone beeped, the same kind of beeps I got when I tried calling Kylie. Then nothing. Again I dialed. Again the hang up.

My heart racing a bit now, I dialed Kylie again. Beeps and dead. Again, beeps and dead.

Forgetting to walk carefully, I stormed to the front of the house. As I skirted the hole in the floor, I looked down. I froze. I saw me.

The sense of dislocation hit me. I stared at myself, felt myself to be sure I was standing there, then felt faint. The last thing I remember, I was reeling from the idea people could be in two places at the same time.

When I opened my eyes, I was looking up at the light. Is this the light you see when you’re headed for heaven? I wondered. Should I be watching for the welcome from all of my dead relatives?

A head appeared. I wondered who would be first. One of my grandparents? My mom or dad?

I squinted as the face came closer. It was Kylie. Oh my God,” I thought. Can septicemia work that fast? Could I have called an ambulance instead of driving her myself? Would that have gotten her into an ER bed faster?

“I’m so sorry, Kylie,” I wailed. “I should have done more. I’m so sorry you died.”

“What?” Kylie said, her welcoming arm reaching for me. “Died? Who died?”

“You did,” I moaned. “My stupidity killed you.”

“Chris,” she said. “Give me your hand. Do you know you just fell through the floor of your house?”

I looked around me. The crawl space looked vaguely familiar. “I fell . . . No, you fell through the floor.” She was laughing. “I fell through? Hey, if I fell through, how come you’re the one down there?”

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. “So you’re not welcoming me to heaven?”

“Well, if you climb up out of there and you’re not injured, I may welcome you to heaven pretty soon.”

Now, I laughed a bit. “Well, I hope I’m okay then,” I said. “Because I could use a little bit of heaven with you right about now.”

I grabbed her hand. She is an athlete. It was like she pulled me up as if I were a feather. Scrambling out of the hole, I jumped up and hugged her. “I thought I took you to Queen’s Emergency,” I said.

Kylie laughed. “Let’s have a look at you. Then we’ll see who needs to go to the ER.”

I turned slowly around in front of her like I was trying out for her ballet class.

“Okay, mister,” she said. “I pronounce you fit for a little bit of heaven.”

“You know what?” I said. “I need a shower. How about you?”

“Hmmm,” she gave me one of her mysteriously sexy looks, “sounds very appealing, but I think I’ll pass. See you later in the bedroom. Hurry up.”

Before heading to the bathroom, I looked down into the hole. “What the heck you think is going on around here?” I asked.

“Beats me,” she said. “But you better get someone in here to take a look at it. Maybe it’s dry rot?”

“Or,” I said, “what if it’s termites?”

“Oh boy, Chris. That would be awful.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, real bad news.”

I headed off to the bathroom, stepping gingerly down the hallway. Falling through another hole would be more than I could handle. The core of the earth or China, I mused. “What a dream.”

I planned to shower as if it were a timed Olympic event. I ripped off my clothes and jumped in. The hot water was still working its way to me, and the flow had just turned warm when I shut it off, jumped out, and grabbed for a towel.

“I’m coming, my dear,” I sang out, wrapping the towel around my waist.

Then I heard my phone ringing. I went to my bedroom, noticed that Kylie hadn’t made it back there yet, and picked up.

“Yes?” I said.

“Chris? It’s Rod.”

“Yes, hey, Rod. Howzit?”

“Good, good, man. Howzit with you?”

“Well, it’s good, yeah, things are good.”

I craned my neck to see down the hallway. Where was she?’

There was silence from Rod’s end.

“Well,” I said finally.

“Well what?” said Rod.

“Well, what did you call for?”

Rod cleared his throat. “What are you talking about, Chris? Why’d you call me? I’m returning your call.”

I looked down the hallway. “Hold on,” I said. I walked down the hallway, phone in hand. “Kylie?” I said. “Kylie. Where are you?”

I tiptoed around the hole, peeping in to make sure I wasn’t down there again. The hole was dark and void of bodies.

Going into the kitchen, I called out for Kylie again. Nothing. She wasn’t in the living room either.

“Damn,” I said to Rod. “I was thinking maybe Kylie called you on my phone to tell you about the hole.”

“Dude, have you been drinking?” Rod asked.

“Well, yes I have. Why?”

“Chris, I’m sitting right across from Kylie right now.”

“You, you’re what? This is Kylie, I’m talking about. Kylie Chang.”

Rod laughed. “Well, I’m guessing we don’t know too many Kylies, right? Yeah, I’m talking about Kylie Chang, too. Why would you think she was calling me using your phone?”

The alcohol haze wasn’t helping, even with the cold shower. Kylie Chang was not here because she was sitting with Rod. How’d she get from here to Rod’s house while I was taking the fastest shower ever taken?

“So where are you guys?” I asked.

“In Cali,” said Rod. We’re at LAX. Coming back from Vegas. Kylie wanted to Disneyland even though I wanted to fly direct. But what the heck? It’s hard to deny your blushing bride, right,? If we’d been married longer, heck, I might’ve told her go Magic Kingdom by herself, and then I just fly home alone.”

He laughed. I could hear Kylie’s voice in the background saying “Ha ha, very funny.”

The truth came creeping back to me. Rod had married my ex. Right then I decided there should be a rule that friends can’t go out with ex-girlfriends. And for sure they should never marry them.

“So,” said Rod, “why’d you call?”

I stood over the hole in the floor. China. The molten core. Either one sounded good right now.

“Are you still doing the extermination stuff on the side?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. Why?”

“There’s a big hole in my floor,” I said, “and I think it might be termites. Can you come over and take a look at it?”

“Sure sure,” said Rod. “We’ll be back in the morning. “I can come over any time,” he laughed, “ ‘cause the Honeymoon’s over.”

Kylie was laughing in the background, too. I wanted to curse. “Okay, yeah, how’s after lunch? Like one-thirty or so?”

“I’ll be there,” said Rod, “ but I’ll leave the ball and chain at home.”

I rolled my eyeballs and scowled. “See you then.”

So now, here was Rod. Of course, I wouldn’t tell him this dream tale of drunken despair, treachery, and the undermining by this termite horde I’d housed and fed so well.

So I said, “Thanks for coming over. Maybe I’ll give tenting a try. I don’t think I can afford a new house.”

“Okay,” said Rod, getting into his truck. “Shall I tell Kylie you said Hi?”

“Yeah,” I said, “yeah, you do that.”

Rod waved through the windshield as he backed down my driveway. I went into the house, tiptoed my way to the refrigerator, grabbed a beer, and pulled up a chair to the side of my secret entrance hole.

Yeah, I thought, I’ll mount a shotgun right up under the edge. Just pop up and start pumping ‘um out.

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