A man shoveled dirt in his backyard one day. He and his wife planned to put a chicken coop there, but this project was years in the making. This was the fifth year in a row he’d shoveled this dirt, the summer rains always settle it back to the earth, forcing him to return again next year. That summer, though, had been dry. A rare occurrence this far north. He shoveled the dirt and raked the leaves and pine needles and moose shit. While he shoveled and raked and whistled a tune under the high, bright sun someone across the street watched him. They watched him not to get off or to find pleasure in his sweaty work, but to observe. No more, no less. They’d watched his toiling year after year, felt his back-breaking shame after the first rain fall and first snow fall. They both knew what that meant—more soil to dig up, more ground to break. These eyes, peering with intent from across the street witnessed the man, who worked the whole day through, just drop his shovel and return inside. The eyes went to the sky, a clear day. They went to the dirt and to the shovel, and thought maybe the man’s wife called him in for sandwiches and tea, or an afternoon snack. Those eyes shut the blinds, shut the day away, for the entertainment vanished without a warning, without a sign.
The man, and his wife, got in their car and left the house, left the digging, not long after he went inside. Then, the eyes returned to the little bugs with their stiff little legs and glassy little eyes, and they forgot all about the man and his failed chicken coop.
“It started small, like most things do,” Ellen Brun said. She sat in front of us all, talking with an ease and a calmness I hadn’t believed to exist in a case like hers. She spoke with her hands, but kept them close to her chest. Her breasts were small—like two swollen bug bites, spider bites, maybe—from what I can remember, but the dress she wore made them disappear, as if they no longer existed. I did a lot of thinking about those breasts since I saw her walk into that place. I did a lot of thinking about what life would be like if I were another man; what life would be like if I were another human. A human like Ellen Brun.
“We didn’t think much of it. Then, that next day, the whole nail on his ring finger was swollen with yellow pus. I’m just glad we took his ring off before that happened, or else we would have had to cut it off, and I don’t think we could have brought ourselves to do that. To ruin such a thing. I’m not materialistic, but I am sentimental.
“We went to the doctor, because at first, we thought our insurance was good, didn’t see any reason not to. It could have been infected for all we knew.”
“What did they tell you, at the doctor’s office?” the man asked her. He wore a cheap suit, but wore a Rolex. It was the kind of suit he had before losing drastic weight—from sickness—but couldn’t afford to resize—from the medical bills. He stood in front of us, too, smiling with his coffee stained teeth. His hollow eyes told a different story than Ellen’s sunken eyes, whose bags wore more brown than his did black.
“They turned us away. Said our insurance wasn’t good anymore. Devin’s job provided the health and life insurance for both of us, well into his retirement. And they refused to even look at us. Our doctor of fifteen years didn’t even look us in the eye, didn’t even show himself. Coward.” That doctor sat in the back of the room, and when Ellen said that he scoffed and some of our heads turned to the sound, but he just stared down at a book with a cheeky, cunt smile stretched across his fat face. “So we went to a free clinic. Free it wasn’t.”
“Describe your husband’s finger,” he said.
“Like I said, it started small. Devin used to pick at his nails, cause he was always very anxious, and he did it without even thinking about it. Sometimes he’d pick too much and pull the nail down further than he should’ve, it’d get infected, he’d put some triple antibiotic on it, and voila, all better. But this was different, worse. Like cellulitis, fasciitis, or leprosy for God’s sake.” She laughed then took a sip of water, set the glass down, but brought it up again to her lips and finished the glass off.
“Would you like some more?” Rolex asked.
Another man approached her and filled her glass to the brim, she nodded and gave him a pathetic rise of her lips. She showed her teeth, they were yellow, caked with plaque. She closed her mouth just as quick as she opened it. She bent her top lip over those teeth, then drank. Strange way to drink water, Ellen. Strange way to keep your teeth, Ellen.
She gulped, wiped her top lip with her knuckle then spoke, “The first day he noticed it, it looked swollen and infected, nothing out of the ordinary. Then it just got worse and worse. The fingernail and whole top of his finger went black and stiff, like it’d been drained, sucked dry by some parasite.”
“When did it become worse?”
“That day after we went to the clinic. The doctor identified it right away as a type of necrosis found after the bite of a Brown Recluse. Devin worked in an office. The only time he ever went outside to work was in our rose garden, or trimming the hedges in our front yard. Devin didn’t care for labor, didn’t care to sweat. But, here’s the thing, Brown Recluses don’t live here. They can’t. It’s damn near impossible for them to make it this far north. Black Widows, maybe. Even then, they don’t inflict that kind of bite. They can’t. You fall into shock, you don’t degrade. You don’t disintegrate.
“So, they prescribed him some intense antibiotics, ones we could barely afford. They weren’t expensive, but they put a dent into what we had left. But they had to have them sent from Florida for some awful reason, and they made us wait two days for that.
“When we received the antibiotics they seemed to work. His finger had cleared up, he regained a little bit of motion and the pain simmered. Then, the very next morning, small blisters, hundreds of them, covered his whole left hand. They itched, he said, itched terribly. He scratched in his sleep and they bled with an awfully strong smelling odor. I will die with that smell in my nose. It smelled of sweet death. Something pungent, yet so sweet, you didn’t know whether to gag or take a big deep breath.” As she said it, something nostalgic, like catching a whiff of my great aunt’s house at Christmas time, filled my thoughts with sweet memories. All sweet memories, after some time, turn sour.