by Kase Johnstun
Before I knew the proper term—Craniosynostosis—I told everyone I was born without a soft spot, which is relatively true. Two of the five sutures in my skull that create the soft spot were fused. In the mid-1970s, surgery to separate the skull and allow it to expand properly, and therefore allow the brain to develop normally, was pretty risky. Two things typically went wrong. Either infants bled to death because their blood was so thin, or, since the surgery was so new and unpracticed, the spinning blade of the surgical saw made contact with the brain. The front two sutures of my skull were fused, and if I didn’t have the surgery, my head would have developed like a football. Normally, as babies develop over the first year or so, the skull expands, using these fibrous joints to keep the skull together while the brain develops. Without the normal expansion of the skull, my chances of being the kid who always came to school in his uniform on free-dress day were high. The chances of having a funnylooking head were definite.
I got lucky. Plain and simple. My parents said yes to the surgery. My brother thinks I’m “retarded,” but the doctor’s prognosis came back normal. My head is shaped a little weird, and if people know about my birth defect, they notice the dented right side of my forehead. But overall, it worked.
But the doctor made a tiny mistake. After he pulled my skin off my skull, a flea landed between flap and bone. He closed me up with the flea inside. He was a little guy, just like me. He stuck with me through the first three years of life while I struggled through lung complications. The flea just fluttered in my head until we learned to talk together. Then, once he learned to chatter, he never shut up. He was a stubborn little flea who always gave his two cents.
The flea and I, to the destruction of my mother’s nerves, became best friends. He was involved in all my quick decisions for the rest of my childhood. He told me to eat a carton full of cherries even though I was allergic to them and watched me break out in hives from head to toe. He told me let go of the swinging rope early and watched me bounce off the huge boulder and splash into the river. He said it would be a spanking good idea to squeeze my brother’s eyeballs during a fight and watched my brother pummel me to the ground, and he told me to carry two Coke bottles home from grandma’s house on my bike and watched me crash and slice my hand and wrist open and bleed on the driveway. His advice always seemed right at first glance: cherries tasted so good, more time in the air before splash down sounded fun, winning the fight against my brother was worth any tactic, and walking my bike home with Cokes seemed tedious, did it not?
My dad’s lawn, the large, green symbol of his undying commitment to giving his family everything, took the brunt of the flea’s advice. We wrecked havoc on it. Instead of steering cautiously around sprinkler heads to avoid decapitating them, the flea advised to go over them.
“The blade is set too high to touch them,” the flea said. He shed his shirt and revealed the skinny body of a flea who couldn’t fly with his friends and who had accepted life between flap and bone, a home less comfortable and less exciting than a pile of dogshit, which he continually ranted about wanting to eat just once, just to see what all the other fleas loved about it. He did crazy things while I mowed. He talked about girls, the ones I never had a chance to date, about how I could get their attention, only if I was a little taller, and maybe meaner.
“Girls like assholes,” the flea said.
In our wake lay hundreds of sprinkler heads, a cemetery of irrigation products. But the flea looked out for me. He knew shortcuts. So I listened.
One hot but dry Utah summer afternoon, after my dad had called to get me out of bed near noon to tell me that a wasted day is a wasted life, I threw on some dirty jeans and a tee-shirt, moved morbidly through the kitchen, ate Saturday cereal, although it was only Tuesday, and headed out to the garage to my best summer friend: the riding lawnmower. My boney ass left two spiky imprints on the seat of my dad’s new mower. I spent close to two full days a week on that son of a bitch.
After years of plotting, my dad had finally turned the entire acre of land, which he had bought dirt cheap in the ‘70s, into grass. Now, I mowed his dream two days a week to make sure it stayed groomed and pretty. I started my day around eleven, in 100 degrees.
That afternoon, I looked down on his new mower. The nice one. The one with gears. An adjustable seat. Power steering. Traction tires. I was not a huge fan of lawn mowers, but I knew she was a beauty. I knew I had a beast between my legs. I imagined myself in tractor pulls showing off for the country gals from southern Utah, cruising down main street Uintah, evving’ my lawnmower engine for the ladies. Most importantly, I saw myself finishing the lawn in one four-hour day instead of two four-hour days by popping that puppy into fifth gear and cutting grass corners on two wheels.
“Efficiency is key,” the flea said. My dad had once told us to trim the fat on anything we did, to be efficient and effective, right after he handed us a copy of both How to Win Friends and Influence People and Winners and Losers, two books that the flea opened up briefly. He couldn’t stop saying that efficiency was key. He never discussed accuracy, however.
We pulled out of the garage and made our first beautiful strip of cut grass across the front lawn in less than four seconds. Dad always asked me to cut the lawn in straight strips, north and south and then cross cut it east and west to make a parquet pattern. He had worked sun up to sun down most of his life for us, and when he was able to splurge on nice lawns and lawn mowers, he wanted it all to fit together as an image of his hard work – a concept the flea and I didn’t understand until many years later and now wish we would have given him that parquet lawn display. But the flea touted, “Efficiency, efficiency.” So after the first nicely cut strip north to south, we reverted back to circling the lawn, starting from the outside edge and winding in to the center. Much quicker. Much more efficient.
With the new mower, and after the first decapitated sprinkler head, I was able to raise the blade just high enough to clear the metal tips of the heads. “Home free!” the flea said. The dry sun melted my skin into the black, rubber seat of the mower. Shirt off, with my hairy Chewbacca-like chest exposed, I wanted the mowing to be done and knew that once the mowing was finished, the weed-eating began.
Utah’s summers aren’t bad. Unlike Midwestern summers, where the nights never cool and the mornings wake with hot, humid air, Utah nights release the heat from the elevated earth and the mornings take hours to heat up to the high 90s or low 100s. Morning wasn’t my thing, a trait inherited from my mom. My dad and Jake, men cut from the same jolly-morning cloth, began their days the moment the sheets left their feet, whistling, asking questions, laughing at something in their head (I figured they must have had a flea friend too because they would, and still do, just laugh or snicker by themselves – I realized later that Jake just likes the way a fart tickles his cheeks).
The ditch that ran across the front lawn was full. It streamed past our house down past our neighbors’ houses and flooded along grandpa’s garden where he placed his old-school sprinkler hose and kept his corn and tomato rows damp. In order to weed-eat the slanted grass walls of the ditch, I would have to stand in the water waste deep and avoid slipping in and the spinning weed-eater slashing my face. Not efficient.
The new machine rumbled and the traction tires gripped the ground. Fear felt good. The mower’s newness, along with the flea’s advice, called for a James Bond cut of the lawn, a two-wheeled ride on the mower. I leaned away from the ditch to keep from sliding in and attempted to cut the slanted grass walls of the ditch on an angle. The whole damned thing rolled over into the water.
It sat on me, briefly. I pushed and pulled at the hefty bastard and finally freed my body from beneath it. No movement. The tiny current of the ditch caught the saucer-like cover of the blade and tugged the machine against me. No question – this could not be done alone.
“Pull it out with the four-wheeler,” the flea said.
“Brilliant,” I responded.
Within minutes, the tow rope out of the garage had been tied to the back of the four wheeler and the front of the lawn mower.
“Pull!” said the flea.
I gunned it. There was a quick jolt. I sat in the middle of the lawn with the ass end of the lawn mower in tow. The rest sank back down into the water. I got lucky and unlucky that day. I got lucky that my grandpa pulled into the driveway to help me out. I gut unlucky that my grandpa pulled into the driveway to help me out. The flea got off easy. I got punished.
“Let’s go, you basket Kase,” Grandpa said.
In Salt Lake City, posters of Kramer from Seinfeld and Jimi Hendrix stared down through the thick haze of smoke in our one bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City. Dave Matthews strummed through the opening riff of Satellite, we sat on the couch and debated the difference between Rocky Balboa’s theme music and Ivan Drago’s, and the acid began to kick in. Kramer and Jimi’s eyes followed us around the room, and the world slowed down until the LSD wore off and the sun of the morning put us to bed. It could have been LSD or crank or mushrooms or peyote that created God’s face in our sheets or made us cry in corners, but the flea and I swallowed or sniffed enough ‘stuff’ our first year of college to fill a bucket.
The flea slept more than anything else. He found a rounded corner of my skull, chilled most the day, and woke up after I suffered through class and work at the car wash. When he woke in the late afternoon, he said, “I’m stoked and ready to go again.” Though I felt too tired to roll another joint and knew tomorrow’s class and work would come too soon, he told me that we weren’t hurting anyone. And he was right. After the first inhale or swallow, things felt fine. The world slowed again, and we drove to get food in the middle of the night. The rain on the windshield fell like Plunko discs and weaved across the glass, and the wipers stayed still to not disturb the path of the droplets while stops signs blurred behind them. And the year blurred behind the stop signs.
Summer came. Grades fell. The renowned Pre-physical Therapy department at the “U” dropped me. “It wasn’t for us,” the flea said. He had me convinced. The years of preparation and of dreaming weren’t worth the pain, and five years of physical therapy during junior high and high school, watching therapists perform miracles, could not combat the flea and his pleading for another pizza with mushrooms.
On July 24, Utahans gathered in Sugarhouse Park to set off fireworks and eat snow cones. In Utah, Pioneer Day trumped the national independence day in celebration and festivities. The five by three block park hosted the largest fireworks show in the state and tens of thousands of people prepped for days to get there (what to pack to eat, where to park, how early to arrive). The fireworks would launch right after the sun raced across the famous salt flats of Utah’s West Desert and the “oohs” and “awes” would rise up with them.
My friends, the flea, and I went through the same preparation during the previous days (what hallucinogens to eat, where to order the pizza, and how early to start drinking and smoking). The “oohs” and “awes” from our group would stem from more than just the fireworks show but from the melting of the fire into the night sky. Our group had made this whole fireworks watching on LSD or mushrooms a tradition. So we prepped to join the crowds, only after our pizza had been eaten, our joints had been smoked, and our beer had been drunk.
Families parked their cars and walked toward the large park just south of the city center, and we melded into a small group on the sidewalk outside our rented home like bees joining a hive on the landscape of the Beehive State. Tiny swarms of people joined larger swarms and the larger swarms moved into a giant mass of people at the park’s edge, and we followed. The movement of the groups flowed across blocked off streets, and my feet moved without hesitation or thought. The dusk air felt good with the dropping heat of the Utah summer. I wrapped arms around friends and laughed and watched the greens of the leaves outline the blue sky, not the other way around.
The flea tapped me on the shoulder and talked to me about how he saw his face in a window and it looked like it was melting. Then he buzzed about his gift of nudity and shed his long thrift store bought shorts and his graying car wash t-shirt, but the closer we got to the park, the more the people in the swarm bothered me. The man behind me seemed to be walking on my heels and the person in front of me felt like she sat on my chest. The flow of the group had vanished and had been replaced with awkward stops and starts. The abundance of trees around the park grayed out the sky, and we were in the thick of crowd like peanuts trapped in brittle. Shoulders touched shoulders and eyes followed me. Children pointed at me and parents pulled their kids in front of them, followed with a glance in our direction.
We had another hour before the first firework lit up the darkening night sky. I didn’t have another minute. The voices, stares, and accidental rubbing of elbows sent fear from my heart to my head, and I had to get the fuck out of there. The flea pleaded to stay because wherever I went, he had to go too. He said we’d be fine, that it would pass, and that I just needed to breathe and relax. But the trip had turned its nose downward and there was no changing it. Without telling friends, I ran through the giant crowd, shoved families to get through them, and sprinted toward the quiet and comfort of my home. Within minutes, I sat on a friend’s bed and watched the walls breathe around me. They swayed and collapsed together and then fell toward me. The trip descended further. The flea kept talking about going back and how things were fine and other random flea-on-mushroom topics. I wanted him to stop, so I pulled at my hair, rubbed my forehead, and hope to expose the little bastard until a red halo had formed beneath my fading hairline and revealed the thick pink scars of my childhood surgery. I aimed to uncover every millimeter of scar that I worked so hard to cover up.
“A beer will help,” the flea said, and I listened. He was right. Beer had always calmed bad trips in the past, had always mellowed spiraling paranoias, and had always redirected a malicious batch of mushrooms. I walked to the fridge and opened its door and grabbed a cold Budweiser. The chill of the bottle rattled my fingertips and sent chills to the base of my neck. For a moment, the thoughts of the sky, the children, and the cops went away, and I took a long drink. The cool stream of the beer soothed my dry throat, momentarily, because on the third or fourth swallow, I felt nothing. Swallowing became tedious and my esophagus seized up. I drank more to make it stop but had lost all feeling in my throat. My eyes filled with water, and when they opened, a puddle of beer spread across the linoleum floor and flowed through the creases of grout. Then another wave of liquid fell to ground, and like the first time, there was no recognizable convulsion of my gut or pain in my throat or the rush of liquid past my lips. The numbness stretched from my tongue to my stomach, and as if just waking up, I realized it was me who vomited all over the floor.
“Run to the bathroom,” the flea said. “You’re puking.”
I ran to the bathroom, lifted the toilet seat in front of me, and waited. There were no clues of an oncoming wave of vomit, so I clicked my throat again and begged God for it to stop. My eyes watered and the toilet water turned red. In pure denial, I flushed it down – no more blood in the toilet equaled no more puking blood. I continued to click my throat and sat back against the base of the tub. A moment later, blood covered my shorts and a friend stood at the door and looked down on me. Others came. The girls yelled to call the ambulance. The boys knew not to. They fought outside the bathroom door. Their screeching voices came in through the edges of the door, and the sound of the phone being pulled off the hook and then being slammed back down again came through the keyhole. The trip had just begun. More blood would come before morning and the party would continue around me. Some friends left to other parties and then came back. Some just left. But one friend, the one that picked me up off the bathroom floor, the one that would be present for the birth of my son, wet a cold dish cloth a hundred times over and wiped it across my brow. She stayed until the red had gone from my scalp, and she covered the half-inch thick scars that ran from the top of my forehead to the bottom of my ears. When she felt I was good, she left.
The sun rose from behind the rocky cliffs of South Salt Lake, the mushrooms faded away, and I slept until the next day. The flea, dressed in his car wash uniform, told me to get out of bed because we needed to earn tips for that night’s party. I told him no.
“Come on, dude. It was just one bad trip. Don’t let it ruin what we got goin’ here,” he said.
“No, I’m done,” I said. He complained and flapped his wings in disgust. I’d never known how to tell him no and never stood up to his pleads or his advice, but within an hour, I had packed everything I owned into my Nissan pick-up truck and merged into oncoming traffic on I-15, north toward Ogden, and north toward home. Thirty minutes later, I walked through my parent’s garage, through the mudroom door, and through the living room. They stood and waited for me to turn the corner into the kitchen. Their faces didn’t show surprise, but relief. I waited for a lecture about the last year or a stream of questions about what brought me to their kitchen that morning, but they didn’t lecture or question.
“This decision will save your life,” they said. “We’re glad you made it.” I touched the scars on my head and realized it was my turn to make some cuts in my life, to give and myself a chance to keep growing.
About Kase Johnstun
Kase Johnstun is an award-winning essayist, columnist, and the author of Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis (forthcoming from McFarland) whose work has appeared nationally and internationally in journals and magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle Review, Label Me Latina/o, Prime Number, and The Watershed Review. He is also a regular contribution to The Good Men Project. He holds an MA and an MFA in Creative Writing, and his collection Tortillas for Honkies and “Other” Essays (Unpublished), which contains “The Flea,” was recently named a finalist for the Autumn House Press 2013 Award in Creative Nonfiction.