Two Junes ago one night Claude and I were sitting on the raggedy-ass sofa in his uncle’s apartment. We were watching the raggedy-ass tv, but it wasn’t easy because it was turned down so low you could actually hear the frogs and the crickets outside over the gunshots and the car crashes inside. It was turned down low because that was the way his uncle, who was asleep, told us to watch his tv. He’da been seriously pissed off if he was woke up by gunshots and car crashes. Like most of us from Louisiana, Claude’s uncle prefers frogs to lullabies. I agree. There is nothing like it.
I assumed Claude was listening as hard as I was, but I musta been wrong because after a while he all of a sudden stood up. He turned to me, then pulled down his pants and his drawers.
He whispered. “Do you know what this is?”
I was too surprised to answer.
“I believe,” Claude said, “them er crabs.”
I looked. “Yeah,” I replied. “I believe them er crabs.”
“Damn.” Claude pulled up his pants, sat back down. He was worried.
“Damn,” he said again. “I reckon I need to be more careful about where I place my pecker.”
Then he was quiet for a long time. Long enough that he surprised me when he spoke again. “Done everything I can,” he said. “I sat in the bathtub for hours, hoping to drown them suckers. Didn’t work at all. I think they like a nice warm bath. Makes ’em horny.”
“I also tried putting nail polish on ’em, but they’s just too many. Some of ’em are pretty hard to reach, too.”
“Well,” I said quietly, “you might try a little crab medicine.”
“I tried,” he said, “I been to the drug store in New Roads twice trying to buy some.”
Claude didn’t need to tell me why he’d taken the ferry to New Roads. Everybody in St. Francisville woulda known him. So would Doc McDonald at the drug store in Jackson.
“I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I mean, syphilis and the clap, those are real diseases. But I don’t have a disease, I got bugs. I got a bug infestation, goddammit.”
“The second time I was there the druggist asked me to leave. He didn’t know why I was flipping through his magazines for a half an hour. I reckon he figured I was there to steal something. But I wasn’t. I was trying to work up the nerve to ask for crab medicine.”
Claude stood up again, pretending like he was talking to somebody who wasn’t there. “May I help you?”
He looked at me. “What could I say? ‘Sure, podner, would you mind slipping back there and grabbing me something to get rid of these bugs I got all over my balls?'”
“Yeah,” I said simply. “I see your point.”
“Say,” Claude said, “do you know another name for crabs? Is there something else I could call ’em?”
“Never heard of anything else.”
Claude sat, his cheek on his fist. “Damn. I got to do something.”
I sat there silently for a bit, puzzling over this. I had never seen Claude embarrassed. It was worrying.
Claude was saying something under his breath. “Got to be something I can do.”
We sat and watched tv.
After a time, a thought occurred to me. It was one of those ideas you get when your brain forgets a problem. Claude didn’t know it, but he had told me the answer. I’d just been too dumb to hear it. I sat up straight.
“You’re right,” I said. “You don’t have a disease, you got what we call an insect infestation. You don’t need medicine, Bud. What you need is pesticide.”
Claude’s eyes opened wide. By God, we were on to something.
The next day we caught a ride into town with my dad and my sister. Claude and I went together to the Rinaudo’s hardware store, where after perusing the available products we eventually settled on a small bottle of 10 percent Malathion, which we somehow adjudged to be the appropriate strength. I also convinced Claude to buy a small package of cotton balls for applying the potion to hisself. It would be more antiseptic, I said, though really I was just thinking that putting his “medicine” on with cotton balls might be less embarrassing.
Somewhere around 1:00 a.m. Claude’s balls caught on fire. The blaze spread pretty quickly to every part of his privates, and he responded by howling the way a dog bays at the moon. He must have done a pretty good job of it, because in a few minutes all the dogs in his house were howling too. Then all the dogs in Pecan Grove joined in, and before long everybody in that little cul-de-sac of little houses was awake, wondering what the hell had got into them dogs. Doors started opening and slamming. Screech…wham. Screech…wham. You could hear the neighbors threatening their dogs with a clubbing if they didn’t shut up. A few children escaped their houses and were soon enjoying the cool night and the full moon. They were running the streets where you could hear their bare feet slapping on the blacktop.
Claude noticed none of this. At approximately 1:01 a.m. he ran into the bathroom and opened wide the cold water tap into the tub. He didn’t bother pulling off his step-ins. He just sat hisself down in it.
Claude’s mother banged on the bathroom door, but Claude had taken a moment to lock it, knowing that she might want to know why her usually content 17 year old was letting loose with such a mournful cry. He ignored her.
Unknown to Claude and me, when you mix water with concentrated Malathion (which is what they apparently sell in hardware stores) it turns from clear to white, and soon enough he found he was waist deep in a stinking mess that looked like dirty milk. He couldn’t imagine the source of this color and so he naturally assumed it must be him — peeled, flaked and just plain ol’ dissolved.
“A-roorooroo!” Claude howled, scared beyond anything about what was beneath that nasty water. The dogs took their cue, and soon the neighborhood was filled again with the sounds of grown-ups shrieking and children laughing. It was like a crab festival had just sprung up in the neighborhood.
Except for Claude, who had little to celebrate.
Claude’s tallywacker, and everything in that neighborhood, had shriveled up like the skin on a hand that’s been underwater for too long. He was pink and white and peeling, but at least he was in one piece.
The next day Claude’s mother brought him to the doctor. Fortunately, the crab treatment had worked, so Claude didn’t have to tell the doctor the whole truth. “Tumpted some boiling water on myself,” Claude said. The doctor looked doubtful, but he let it ride. Most importantly there was no mention of crabs.
In time Claude recovered, at least physically. But Claude had changed. He had learned a lesson I guess. The moral of the story is, Claude told me, “I reckon you better be careful where you place your pecker.”
From that day forth, with just a very few exceptions, he was.