When you are engulfed in flames

It’s Catching

My friend Patsy was telling me a story. “So I’m at the movie theater,” she said, “and I’ve got my coat all neatly laid out against the back of my seat, when this guy comes along —” And here I stopped her, because I’ve always wondered about this coat business. When I’m in a theater, I either fold mine in my lap or throw it over my armrest, but Patsy always spreads hers out, acting as if the seat back were cold, and she couldn’t possibly enjoy herself while it was suffering.

“Why do you do that?” I asked, and she looked at me, saying, “Germs, silly. Think of all the people who have rested their heads there. Doesn’t it just give you the creeps?” I admitted that it had never occurred to me.

“Well, you’d never lie on a hotel bedspread, would you?” she asked, and again: Why not? I might not put it in my mouth, but to lie back and make a few phone calls — I do it all the time.

“But you wash the phone first, right?”

“Umm. No.”

“Well, that is just . . . dangerous,” she said.

In a similar vein, I was at the grocery store with my sister Lisa and I noticed her pushing the cart with her forearms.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, “you don’t ever want to touch the handle of a grocery cart with your bare hands. These things are crawling with germs.”

Is it just Americans, or does everyone think this way? In Paris once, I went to my neighborhood supermarket and saw a man shopping with his cockatiel, which was the size of a teenage eagle and stood perched on the handle of his cart.

I told this to Lisa, and she said, “See! There’s no telling what foot diseases that bird might have.” She had a point, but it’s not like everyone takes a cockatiel to the grocery store. A lifetime of shopping, and this was the first exotic bird I’d ever seen browsing the meat counter.

The only preventive thing I do is wash clothes after buying them in a thrift shop — this after catching crabs from a pair of used pants. I was in my midtwenties at the time and probably would have itched myself all the way to the bone had a friend not taken me to a drugstore, where I got a bottle of something called Quell. After applying it, I raked through my pubic hair with a special nit comb, and what I came away with was a real eye-opener: these little monsters who’d been feasting for weeks on my flesh. I guess they’re what Patsy imagines when she looks at a theater seat, what Lisa sees lurking on the handle of a grocery cart.

They’re minor, though, compared with what Hugh had. He was eight years old and living in the Congo when he noticed a red spot on his leg. Nothing huge — a mosquito bite, he figured. The following day, the spot became more painful, and the day after that he looked down and saw a worm poking out.

A few weeks later, the same thing happened to Maw Hamrick, which is what I call Hugh’s mother, Joan. Her worm was a bit shorter than her son’s, not that the size really matters. If I was a child and saw something creeping out of a hole in my mother’s leg, I would march to the nearest orphanage and put myself up for adoption. I would burn all pictures of her, destroy anything she had ever given me, and start all over because that is simply disgusting. A dad can be crawling with parasites and somehow it’s OK, but on a mom, or any woman, really, it’s unforgivable.

“Well, that’s sort of chauvinistic of you, don’t you think?” Maw Hamrick said. She’d come to Paris for Christmas, as had Lisa and her husband, Bob. The gifts had been opened, and she was collecting the used wrapping paper and ironing it flat with her hands. “It was just a guinea worm. People got them all the time.” She looked toward the kitchen, where Hugh was doing something to a goose. “Honey, where do you want me to put this paper?”

“Burn it,” Hugh said.

“Oh, but it’s so pretty. Are you sure you won’t want to use it again?”

“Burn it,” Hugh repeated.

“What’s this about a worm?” Lisa asked. She was lying on the sofa with a blanket over her, still groggy from her nap.

“Joan here had a worm living inside her leg,”