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Robert Meganck illustration
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Nit Fairy Beverly Man and the tools of her trade. Sarah Walor photo
A soft knock. The nervous mother opens the door and greets her visitor. She is almost visibly relieved at the sight of her guest, a small woman in scrubs, a fastidious bun corralling what is probably life-of-the-party hair. The mother glances anxiously over the woman's shoulder and says, "Beverly?" The visitor smiles.
Meet Beverly Man, the woman with the lousiest job in Richmond.
And, OK, the nervous mother is me. And the reason I am glancing over Beverly's shoulder, even though I am assured of her discretion, is just to make sure she did not pull into my driveway in a giant van with "The Nit Fairies Lice Removal Service" emblazoned on its side.
Yes, Man is here to paw through my family's heads.
It had all begun several weeks earlier when my younger child, let's call him Thing 2, started scratching at his head. With a first-grader, the initial thought that pops into your head is, "Please, God, not head lice," so you check even though you have no idea what you are checking for. I saw no sign of moving critters, but the itchies persisted. I checked again. And again. His hair had grown longer and Beatlesque, the weather had turned warm and so I began to suspect he was just itchy from sweat.
Finally, I checked again. Moved one section of hair and saw a black dot. Dirt? Moving dirt? Walking, crawling dirt?
We buzzed his head.
Still, he needed to be treated, and so I raced to CVS to buy RID, a pesticide I would think twice about before putting on my lawn. As I scrubbed it into my dear child's head, I begged for the forgiveness of future grandchildren for the possible third eyes or antennae they might sprout.
Then I sprang into action: washing sheets, vacuuming, spraying hats and booster seats with more pesticide, and confining beloved stuffed animals to a Ziploc prison for four weeks. I checked my daughter, Thing 1, as carefully as I could and e-mailed her teacher. Could the school nurse check her just to be sure?
The next morning came the great news that Thing 1 was clean. I couldn't imagine having to deal with her long hair, and I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
Until two weeks later, when she started scratching her head with her violin bow. The next morning, the school nurse confirmed my second-to-worst fears, and I headed back to school to get her. When I arrived, I asked the nurse to allay my worst fears of all: that it would be in my head. Now, lest you think I'm just an awful, self-absorbed mother, let me explain. I knew that as much energy as it was going to take to rid my kids of lice, I could stay on top of it. But what if it was in my head? Have you seen my hair? I have five times the hair of most mortals — corkscrew curls that fall past my shoulder blades. Who was going to spend the hours it would take to pick nits out of that? My husband?
I'll give you a minute to collect yourself.
The school nurse kindly agreed to check me and patiently waded through the jungle of my head. I was clean.
But there was still the matter of treating Thing 1, so back out to the drugstore for more pesticide. This time, buzzing the head was not an option. This was going to require hours of combing and a dose of levity, not to mention a giant bowl of popcorn. I decided that to get my child through this, I was going to have to make this the most fun delousing in history. We turned on The Sound of Music and doe-a-deered and yodel-ay-hee-hooed while I caught critters and picked nits with a comb that has more teeth than Mark Warner. We were at it for hours, past the intermission and deep into the Nazis. She went back to school the next day.
Meanwhile, my husband and I were checking each other's heads so much we just decided to consider it foreplay. I even treated myself with olive oil, just in case, wrapping my head in plastic wrap and letting it sit on my head and drip down my face for two hours. Oils are a natural treatment that suffocates head lice. You can't rinse them out of your head and you can't kill them by drowning them. They can hold their breath in water.
They can hold their breath in water.
Three days after Thing 1's treatment, I checked her again. There should have been nothing in her head because the pesticide should have killed anything alive, including eggs, the product claims, and yet there they were. Later that day, I scratched my own head. There was a bug under my fingernail. We had arrived at DEFCON 1.
I had read an article once about a woman in Brooklyn they call the Lice Lady. A woman with 13 children and the patience of a saint, she treats head lice with her own blend of cream conditioner and baking soda and by picking nits one by one. People come to her from hours away.
Why can't there be someone like that in Richmond, I think. Out of desperation, I Google "Lice Removal Service Richmond Virginia." Like divine intervention, up pops "The Nit Fairies."
And just like that, she is at my front door, the Nit Fairy herself.
She is petite and soft-spoken, but her presence brings immediate calm. She wheels in a rolling medical kit and says hi to the kids and the dog. She sets up a chair near a large window to make use of the natural light. She dispenses with Thing 2 quickly. He is clean. My husband is clean, too.
Then she gets to work on Thing 1, picking what is left of the nits and even a few live critters. She shows me a live egg on a paper towel. It is about the size of a comma on this page. It appears whitish, almost translucent against the paper towel.
"See how it has a little stick at the end?" she points out.
"No, I don't see," I say, and I realize exactly what we've been up against. Fighting an enemy we can hardly see.
As she works, Man also educates. She explains that lice prefer clean, not dirty heads. (A moral victory, at best.) They do not fly or jump. They only crawl, but very quickly. She advises girls to keep their hair up. She says schools should work harder to make sure backpacks, jackets and hats aren't tossed together. Lice will crawl across those things, and an uninfested child can carry them home on a backpack.
She has had some experience in this area — maybe too much experience. The mother of five children ranging in ages 2 to 18, she estimates that lice have infested her household more than 20 times. She herself, with hair thicker and curlier than my own, has had it five times (but not since going into business). I feel a little lightheaded when she says this.
Her own frustration over the situation made her a sort of self-taught expert. She was called by friends and relatives when they battled it in their homes. "We would say, ‘I would pay someone to come and take care of this,' " she recalls. About a year ago, Man, a former medical assistant in a private physicians' practice, decided to go into the lice business. People laugh when they hear what she does for a living. "Their initial reaction is like, ‘Why would you want to do that?' And then they're like, ‘That's a really good idea.'"
Man gets calls from as far away as North Carolina. (She will travel, but no more than about an hour.) She will help distant callers as much as she can on the phone. A New Jersey family vacationing in Williamsburg recently traveled to Man's home in Midlothian because they had been infested while on vacation. In addition to her largely residential work, Man also offers services such as screenings and faculty refresher courses to schools and day-care centers.
She charges $100 per hour, a gasp-worthy figure at first. But when you consider that each pesticide treatment cost me $25, nit combs cost me $10 and I was going to have to shell out more had I not been treated by Man, it all starts to add up. That's not counting the strong possibility that we would not have eliminated the problem on the first go-round. Man guarantees that clients will be lice-free in a week or she will continue treatment for free. All things considered, I felt like I got off cheap.
We discuss all this as she goes through my hair. Then we move on to our ongoing treatment. My daughter and I will have to saturate our hair every night with Man's blend of olive, tea tree, peppermint, rosemary and eucalyptus oils. Then we put a plastic shower cap on our heads and sleep with it overnight. In the morning, we comb through our hair with the lice and nit combs. This goes on for a week.
Because of it, my daughter misses a sleepover birthday party. These critters don't just invade your head, they take over your life. They will not make you sick or harm you in any other way. Lice never killed anyone. But they will bring you to your knees.
Every creature on earth seems to serve some purpose. What is the purpose of this tiny pest, which feeds only on the human scalp? Considering that one day my son bounced through the front door absolutely jubilant that he'd been chosen Student of the Month in his classroom, and the next day he had head lice, the answer seems clear to me now: Lice exist solely to teach human beings humility.
One week later, Man returned to our house and carefully went through our hair again. We were lice-free, and life would return to normal.
Well, sort of. Because now every time my head itches, every time my kids try on a hat in a store, every time we rest our heads against movie-theater seats or use the headphones for a museum audio tour, or every time I hug a friend, it sends a jolt through my system.
The bottom line is this: It is far easier to remove lice from your scalp than to get them out of your head.