A Fire in the Head
by Rebecca Lindell

I smell like a bad sandwich.

Tuna salad past its prime; egg salad left on the countertop a little too long. Pastrami forgotten in the grocery-store bag; the half-eaten cheese sandwich recovered from my daughter's school backpack, vintage unknown.

The scent of day-old mayonnaise attends me wherever I go: into the office, into a coffee shop, into the library, where sniffing matrons convey their disapproval as I waft by.

And into the Laundromat. Always, these days, the Laundromat, where for the past week I have pumped fistfuls of quarters into industrial-strength machines, waging war against an insurgency that will not declare defeat.

The opening volley was fired 10 days ago, when I arrived at my younger daughter's preschool for her 4:30 p.m. dismissal. Spying me, her pint-sized classmates broke into a chant: "Cassandra's mom is here! Cassandra's not here!"

Indeed, my tousle-headed toddler was nowhere to be seen. "Jane?" I turned to her teacher, alarmed. "Where is Cassandra?"

"We tried to call you," replied Jane, in a tone both righteous and apologetic. "We're not sure, but we think she may have" - she lowered her voice discreetly - "head lice. We've been isolating her for the past hour. Your husband just picked her up."

"She's at home?" I asked, wondering at our new pariah status.

"I assume so," Jane said, handing me a photocopy of a greatly magnified louse. "Here's some literature. You might want to call your doctor."

My own head suddenly felt itchy. "How did she get it? Does anyone else have it?"

"We don't know yet," Jane said. "We're telling everyone to check, just to be sure."

I returned home to find my husband, Thom, frantically gathering laundry. Cassandra barreled at me from down our front hallway. "Mommy!" she squealed.

"Sweetie!" I replied, deftly deflecting her embrace. My otherwise charming 4-year-old suddenly had all the appeal of month-old flypaper. "Sounds like we need to check your head." I turned to my husband. "Did you see any lice?"

"I'm not sure what I'm looking for," he confessed. "I saw some white flecks in her hair, but they could be dandruff."

"Hmph," I replied. "I can't see anything either. Just looks like a dry scalp to me."

I had my own doubts about the preschool's ability to confer a medical diagnosis. Last year, the teachers had sent my daughter home, claiming she had pinkeye. Nonsense, I had countered; her bloodshot visage was due to a garden-variety cold. Nonetheless, the school refused to readmit her until both her eyes and nose were clear. I shuddered, recalling the missed days of work and the wasted hours watching Barney cavort on TV.

"We should check Susannah and each other, too," Thom said.

"Why bother?" I said carelessly as I flipped through the day's mail. "Cassandra does not have lice. The school is just crying wolf again."

"Just to be sure," my husband said.

We parked my 8-year-old on a chair in the middle of the kitchen and began scrutinizing her shoulder-length locks. At first we did not see them. Then, suddenly, we did: dozens of tiny silvery-white orbs hunkered within a quarter-inch of her scalp. Lice. Or rather, the spawn of lice: eggs growing plump on my daughter's head, each one the calling card of a tenacious, blood-sucking beast.

I have a cousin who developed a hand-washing fixation a number of years ago. He'd scrub his hands raw under scalding water, seeking to purge his body of a menace he could not see. At the time it seemed odd, a symptom, perhaps, of his inability to accept that much of life was beyond his control. You can't get so worked up about things, I wanted to tell him. Life is full of unseen hazards and you simply have to navigate them as best you can.

But now I understand.

We called the pediatrician's office, seeking confirmation, reassurance, or perhaps just a bit of compassion. "Can you just take a look?" I asked Nurse Bella on the phone. "What are we supposed to do?"

"You CANNOT bring her into the office," Nurse Bella, usually so calming and helpful, barked in a dominatrix tone. I closed my mouth, speechless.

She told us to purchase an over-the-counter lice-removal kit, launder everything that had come into contact with our girls' heads, and manually remove the lice eggs from their hair. "You know the phrase 'nit-pick'?" she asked. "That's what you're supposed to do."

"Do we have to wash everything?" I said, starting to panic. "I mean, there are clothes in their closets that they haven't worn in months. Do we have to get everything dry-cleaned? Do we have to get the furniture reupholstered? Do we have to fumigate the house?"

"Well, no," Nurse Bella replied. "But you want to make sure you get rid of all the nits. Because if you miss even one, you might have to start all over."

Every last nit. There are roughly 100,000 hairs on the human head. There are four heads in our family. I did the math. Meanwhile, my husband sprang into action.

Eczematic and allergic to dust, pollen, nuts, animal dander and even the sun, Thom already possessed a keener sensitivity to hygiene than most people. Like a cyclone, he yanked the slipcovers from the furniture, the mattress covers from the beds, and every stray textile from the house. Kitchen towels, socks, stuffed animals - basically, anything that had come into contact with human skin within the last two weeks - would have to be washed in scalding hot water. Thom stuffed everything into about a dozen garbage bags and loaded them into the back of his station wagon.

Then he raced to the pharmacy and picked up one of the scores of chemical treatments that vow to "kill lice and their eggs with a single application." He dropped the potion at home, then headed to the Laundromat to do the equivalent of six months' worth of laundry. My job was to sequester the girls in the bathtub and rub the toxic brew into their scalps.

We each thought the other had gotten the worse end of the deal.

I checked the product's Web site. Conveniently, the information was organized in a question-and-answer format, as if the chemists behind this wonder drug had sought to calm all the fears and concerns in my seething mind.

I learned our treatment of choice contained permethrin, a broad-spectrum chemical that attacks the louse's central nervous system, causing paralysis and death. I was told the substance would remain active on my children's heads for up to two weeks, rinsing off little by little with each shampoo. I was warned that I shouldn't be alarmed to see live lice on my kids' heads even after treatment, since permethrin can take several hours to complete its deadly task. As for the lice eggs - well, they might survive the chemical onslaught, but the residual pesticide would dispatch them after they hatched.

Oddly, my most pressing questions appeared nowhere on the insert. Such as: How does this stuff know the difference between a louse's nerves and those of my kids? How do I know I won't be setting into motion long-term neural damage? Will the impact of this treatment reverberate through the generations, bequeathing my descendants some kind of bride-of-permethrin genetic disaster?

I undressed my daughters, placed them in the tub and, saying a prayer to the modern gods of medicine, began to massage this nerve-killing substance into my children's heads.

My girls, always rambunctious in the bath, seemed to respond with heightened hilarity to the code-red atmosphere in the house. They splashed the pesticide-laced water into each other's eyes, nose and - please, God, no - into their chortling mouths.

"Keep your mouths SHUT!" I yelped, inwardly cursing our slow-draining tub.

"Mommy, this is funny!" Cassandra giggled as she licked her lips, wiped her eyes and scooped the noxious bathwater into her chubby hands.

I scanned the directions again. Though I was told to leave the gel on for a full 10 minutes, I also noticed that it would continue working for "up to two weeks" after it had been rinsed off. Great, I thought. I'll just wash this poisonous stuff off my daughters' heads right now. How convenient! It's not there anymore, but it's still working! I gave thanks for this great advance in modern medicine, failing to grasp that the great philosophical adage - "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" - applies to lice as well.

I don't remember lice being an issue during my own childhood. But they had been my mother's constant companions throughout her youth in the Middle East, where, according to her, children exchanged lice as frequently as they now send text messages. The preferred means of extermination was a solid dousing of gasoline. Every few weeks, my grandmother would soak my mother's hair in a bucket of petrol. Miraculously, my mother survived this treatment without incineration: my grandfather, like most men in his culture, had been a heavy smoker, firing up one cigarette after another even as his daughter soaked in a flammable liquid nearby.

Now lice are endemic in this country too. Between 6 and 12 million Americans battle head lice each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Given the array of lice-fighting products on the drugstore shelves these days, it would be reasonable to think that this pandemic had found a cure. But lice are as crafty as any creature in this Darwinian universe, adapting to and surviving just about everything our 21st century chemists have thrown at them. Hence, pediculicides like the one we purchased are now cursed on Internet forums by parents who claim to have been vexed by head lice literally for years.

Maybe I made a mistake in washing the gel out of my kids' hair moments after I applied it. But even if I had left it in, I shouldn't have been surprised two days later to discover not just nits, but their damnable parents in my older daughter's hair - brownish-red parasites the size of a semi-colon, scurrying with justified fear between the shafts on her scalp. We also found nits on my 4-year-old's head, as well as on my 41-year-old head. My allergy-ridden husband, usually the most susceptible of us all, seemed oddly to have escaped the scourge.

Again we called the pediatrician's office. This time, we demanded to speak to the good doctor herself.

"Don't waste your time with the over-the-counter stuff," she told us flatly. "This is what you have to do. Get a jar of mayonnaise and put the entire contents on your head. Full-fat mayonnaise. One 32-ounce jar for each of you. Cover your head with a shower cap, and sleep with it on all night."

"All night?" we asked, astonished.

"All night," she replied firmly. "It will take that long to smother them. And wash all your clothes and linens in hot water again. Oh, and you still have to pick out all the nits."

This time, I opted for the Laundromat, thinking that washing a dozen loads of laundry would surely beat massaging 32 ounces of mayonnaise into my kids' hair. I left Thom to that task and packed up our sheets, blankets, coats and pajamas - again.

While watching our clothes slosh through the rinse cycle, I flipped through a 2001 issue of Rolling Stone that someone had left atop one of the machines. A long-tressed Britney Spears gazed seductively from the cover. Happier days for Britney, I thought idly, wondering if her well-publicized mental breakdown, not to mention her own shaven head, were evidence of the same maddening fate. If my two well-scrubbed, obsessively parented kids had fallen prey to this pestilence, surely the Hollywood toddlerati were not immune either.

I began wondering who else in history might have had lice, since the sages on the Internet assure me they've been with us since prehistory. It's easy to imagine them infesting the barbarians and the serfs, and even the colonists who crossed the Atlantic on flea-ridden boats. But what about Socrates? Charlotte Brontë? Hieronymus Bosch? Anyone who didn't have access to heavy-duty washing machines and their very own set of hair-care supplies - that is, just about everybody - probably found themselves furiously scratching their heads at some point. Heck, even the Virgin Mary probably spent some time combing through the boy Jesus's head for nits, if my mother's stories about her childhood in the Holy Land are true.

I returned home after midnight with my louse-free laundry. Soon, I hoped, I would enter a similarly exalted state.

I twisted open the jar of Hellman's and rubbed it into my scalp. It dripped down my back and onto the floor in greasy yellow rivulets. No matter. It wasn't mayonnaise anymore; it was my absolution. And it was kind of fun. I sculpted my hair into a unicorn's horn, a crown, an erupting volcano. For good measure, I glopped on some more. My hair could take it; there appeared to be no saturation point at which it would repel the stuff. By the time I was done, my head felt several pounds heavier, because, in fact, it was. I sealed my mayonnaise-laden scalp under a plastic shower cap, and my husband did the same.

We stared at each other in the mirror. Surely, this was not the image we contemplated when we beheld each other at the altar some 15 years ago.

That should have done it. Except it did not. Three days later there are even more nits in my older daughter's hair, though there are fewer in my younger daughter's hair and still fewer in mine. Still, it feels like defeat. We've tried the permethrin and the mayonnaise. We've attempted to examine the 100,000 hairs on each of our heads. Just like the doctor said, we've removed each egg individually with a super-fine-toothed comb. We've spent untold hours in the Laundromat, compulsively washing virtually every item with which we come into contact.

My husband and I are beside ourselves. We snap at each other. I threaten to shave my daughter's head. I contemplate shaving mine. Will we be at war forever?

Or should we declare a truce, acknowledging that lice really fall rather low in the hierarchy of human threats? They don't spread germs or disease. They don't disfigure you. All they really do is make your head itch. Given that we are already battling terrorism, resource depletion and global warming, how bad a problem can that be?

We decide to fight.

Sighing, I reach for the Hellman's yet again. Perhaps we didn't use enough the last time. What a pity, I think. Potato salad will never taste the same again.

Rebecca Lindell is an Evanston, Ill.-based writer. After repeated applications of mayonnaise, she and her family are now louse-free, though still averse to coleslaw, potato salad and deviled eggs.

feature added on 2008-09-14 :: ::

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