Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tales of a Scorpion Hunter

This essay is not for the faint of heart; or the squeamish; or anyone who might be repulsed by vivid descriptions of battles between humans and predatory arachnids. So if you think you may be grossed out by what you are about to read, I would suggest clicking away from this blog now. And if you opt not to heed my warning and end up losing your lunch on your lap, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I never encountered a scorpion—cockroaches, rats, and wise guys with bats, sure—but scorpions, never. In fact, my only exposure to scorpions in my youth was through James Bond movies, which gave me the distinct impression that all scorpions were the size of salamis and their stings would kill you instantly. But I never much concerned myself about these creatures, because I never thought I would be in a location exotic enough to encounter them.

Not long after I moved to Arizona in 1995, I finally came face to face with a scorpion, but it was dead and encased in glass in a souvenir shop in downtown Scottsdale, so it posed no threat to me (unless another patron picked up the container and smashed me in the head with it, but I didn’t consider that a real possibility.)  Indeed, I actually found them kind of cool looking and decided to buy some for my three oldest nephews who were nine, eight and six at the time. When I went back to New York a few months later and presented the souvenirs to them as “real live scorpions” (even though they were clearly not alive) they were all very excited. At the same time, I gave their younger brother, who was two, a stuffed animal and he started sobbing, “But I want a real live scorpion,” making me feel like an awful uncle. Clearly, though, the scorpions were a hit.

The souvenir scorpions seemed like a hokey reminder that I lived near the desert. But where I lived there were sidewalks and pavement and buildings, so really, the desert, and any critters that might live there, seemed a world away. It never occurred to me that desert creatures might happily wander into the urban landscape, so encountering a scorpion that was not under glass never crossed my mind. And for eight years I lived in this utopian fantasy.

In February of 2003 my wife and I bought a house in Chandler. Previous to that we lived in apartments in Tempe and Mesa, but now we were homeowners and were quite excited about it. Everything seemed perfect until one night a couple of months after we moved in…

We were settling down for the night. My wife was brushing her teeth and I was heading to my side of the bed to go to sleep. As I approached, something on the floor near my nightstand caught my eye. I focused on the small, orange-brown object scurrying about and my brain, at first, could not register what I was looking at, seeing as how it wasn’t dead and under glass and all. Then I suddenly realized that what I beheld was a deadly, venomous creature, which should only exist in spy films and tourist shops, yet was somehow waltzing around on my floor. It was about one-inch long. I stood there, petrified.

When my wife came out of the bathroom and took one look at my face from ten feet away, she said, “What is it? Scorpion?” How she came to that conclusion so quickly, I’ll never know, since we had never seen a scorpion before and didn’t really sit around talking about them. I guess my facial expression just screamed “Scorpion!” Whatever the case, her talking to me snapped me out of my trance and I quickly picked up the small plastic trashcan nearby and whacked the scorpion with the bottom of the can. The scorpion, for its part, appeared amused by this gesture, and I think it gave me the finger before attempting to scurry away. I then flipped the can over and trapped the scorpion, while my wife and I had a fevered conversation about what to do.

“You have to kill it with a hammer,” she said.

“I do?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes. It’s the only thing that will crush the exoskeleton.”

“Oh.” What a strangely scientific response that seemed to be. “Okay, grab me a hammer,” I said while I sat on the trashcan, half expecting the scorpion to gnaw its way through the plastic. My wife went running to the garage and came back seconds later with the hammer. I took it, slowly stood up, and removed the can. There was the scorpion.

Do you remember the scene in Home Alone when Joe Pesci is lying on the ground with the tarantula on his body and Daniel Stern is standing above him, wild-eyed, holding a crowbar high over his head, trying to summon the nerve to crush the dread creature below? That was pretty much how I felt as I held the hammer aloft. I took a few deep breaths and then brought down the tool with all the fire and fury I could muster.

SQUASH. The scorpion was no more and I was emotionally exhausted.

My wife and I hoped that this incident would be a one-time anomaly, but sadly, that was not the case. From this point forward we would start seeing these critters several times per month. We hired an exterminator, which helped only marginally, but mostly we left a hammer lying around on the kitchen counter for on-the-spot executions.

Each scorpion sighting became less stressful than the one before. Whereas the first sighting brought the reaction of, “Oh my god, we’re all going to die!” by the time we got to our 20th sighting the reaction was more along the lines of, “Oh great, another one.” I knew that I took these creatures completely for granted when I had this exchange with my brother, Mark, who was calling from New Jersey:

Mark: (Probably talking about Oscar predictions.)

Me: Oh, hold on a second. Just need to do something real quick. (Puts down phone, picks up hammer, bashes scorpion crawling on wall in den, picks phone back up.) Hey, sorry about that. What were you saying?

Mark: What was that noise?

Me: Just had to kill a scorpion.

Mark: I’m sorry, what???

Me: There was a scorpion on the wall. Just had to kill it real quick with a hammer.

Mark: There was a &%!#$ scorpion on your wall! How are you so %*&@# casual about this???

Me: Oh, it’s no big deal, we get them all the time. They don’t actually kill you. If you get stung, it’s about the same as a bee sting.

Mark: Why the &*%%^& are you living in Arizona?!?

And such was our casual lives with scorpions in Chandler. But about three years after we moved into our house my wife became pregnant with our first child and it suddenly occurred to us that maybe it wasn’t the greatest thing to have several scorpions per month scurrying around the house with a baby scurrying around the house beside them. So we got aggressive.

We had our house fogged.

We got a new roof, because we were told they could be getting in through the shingles.

I spent an entire day putting caulking along every baseboard, every vent, every window, every crack, and every crevice in our house.

We hired an exterminator that specialized in scorpions.

We bought a second hammer.

And lo and behold, the scorpion sightings became much less frequent. Instead of several times per month, it became once or twice per year. But, because the frequency went down, the anxiety upon seeing a scorpion went back up. Whenever one was spotted (often by our cats who consider them exotic toys) the whole household would go into crisis mode. Like the time, three years ago, when I was sitting in the bathroom doing my business when my then 7-year-old son came running into my room and started banging on the bathroom door, shouting, “There’s a scorpion in the kitchen!” I came out as quickly as possible and headed to the kitchen area where I found my sons standing on the dining room chairs with my wife shielding them as though she were warding off a knife-wielding intruder. In the kitchen our cat, Dobby, was looking intently at something in front of the oven. You can guess what it was.

I grabbed my trusty hammer and strode toward my foe in battle posture. As soon as I approached, it ran under the oven. An evasive maneuver I was not expecting. So I got a yardstick to reach under the oven and coax it out slowly. But as soon as I stuck the stick under the oven the thing came charging out at me at a speed I didn’t think possible by such a diminutive creature. Startled, I fell onto my butt and dropped the yardstick as my family screamed in unison. I quickly recovered and viciously thwacked it with my hammer as though I were Thor defending Asgard from the Frost Giants. But I hit the thing so hard it flipped into the air and hit me in the arm causing my entire family to scream in unison again, this time with me joining in. The creature was dead, though, so it caused me no bodily harm—just some minor psychological damage.

This incident marked the most bizarre encounter I’ve had with a scorpion up until about a week ago. It had been a long time since we had seen a scorpion in our house; probably well over a year. I was sitting at my computer and my wife was sitting at hers when suddenly I heard her say a bad word. My wife rarely says bad words, so it caught my attention.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, and as I did, I looked over at her. She sat there looking up at the ceiling with a very pained expression on her face. I followed her gaze to the ceiling and then I said a bad word, too. There, about five feet from where I sat was the largest scorpion I had ever seen in our house. The thing was like a foot long…give or take nine inches.

I ran off to get the hammer and a stepstool. I came back, positioned the stepstool just so and started mentally psyching myself up for the battle.

Okay, I should pause here and give you one last chance to abandon this blog entry before it gets real ugly. Truly, I debated whether or not to even write about this incident, lest I give my readers the heebie-jeebies for life. Maybe do a crossword puzzle instead, because we are about to enter Stephen King territory, here. Okay, for those few who are still with me, here we go…

I got up on the stepstool and was now about ten inches away from this massive arachnid. I’ve killed scorpions on ceilings before, but it’s never easy. The angle is always awkward. Once, about six years earlier, I didn’t hit one on the ceiling quite right and it ended up falling down behind my desk in a spot that was unreachable and unseeable. I never saw that one again and it had me looking over my shoulder for months.

The key to killing a scorpion on the ceiling is hitting it firmly and squarely and not pulling the head of the hammer away too quickly, lest it fall to the ground and run off to get reinforcements. So, I took a few deep breaths and then—POW—smacked the beast hard, right in the middle. It wriggled for a second or two and then stopped, which is when I felt comfortable about pulling the hammer off the ceiling. But then—and no, I’m not exaggerating for macabre comic effect here—the head of the scorpion started running across the ceiling. To be clear, the creature was now in three separate pieces—the tail was attached to the ceiling, the body was attached to the hammer, but the head just took off on its own. I jumped off the stepstool, stunned and looked at my wife—a rictus of disbelief and horror was transfixed on both of our faces. After a few seconds I realized the only logical thing was to destroy the head, as though I were in some sort of scorpion-zombie flick. As I started up the stepstool my wife said in anguish, “Don’t go back up there!” as though she were in the same flick. I’m not quite sure what she thought might happen to me if I went back up there, but I decided to take my chances. After all, I had a hammer and the scorpion only had a running head. Terrifying as that concept was, I didn’t see how it could do much to me. So I got to the top of the stool and—BAM—crushed the mutant head. This time it wasn’t going anywhere—foe dispatched. I cleaned off the ceiling and my hammer and curled up into the fetal position for a while.

So goes my life as an Arizona scorpion hunter. It’s a thankless job, and at times horrifying, but I’ve gotten good at it and I wield my hammer like a pro. Next time I see one on the ceiling though, I might just call Thor.