THE LIBERATION OF THE BUG MAN
It was my job as exterminator to spread boric acid in all the kitchen cracks, even those hard to reach spots, so the roaches would step through it and track their death all the way back to wherever they built their nests in the walls. I could have told the property owner he needed to control some leaky pipes behind the kitchen and bathroom, because roaches love the damp, but the owner didn't give a hoot about actual eradication. He just wanted the creatures to be relatively unseen around rent payment time. The rest of the month they could fly in a tenant's face if they wanted.
The tenant I visited on this particular day was an old widow. I felt bad for her because she struggled to haul out the trash on a daily basis, wash dirty dishes as quickly as she could, and scrub the bathtub, sinks and floors as often as time and energy allowed. She took the presence of the bugs as commentary on her housekeeping skills, a sign of her deterioration in that regard perhaps, since she had spent most of her adult life tending house for her husband.
Her children were scattered around the country, themselves reproducing, and seldom coming to see their mother. She wasn't fit to travel. She was a short, slightly hunched, frail little creature in her mid-seventies. Often she sang while I sprayed the gaps between ceiling and walls, cheerful because she thought maybe this time would mean the end of the infestation, only to sulk in disappointment later in the month when the bugs returned.
She invited me to stay for dinner that night, since I had arrived late in the afternoon. I didn't tell her that I arrived late because I had sat out in the bug mobile and smoke joints until I went from halfway catatonic to fully asleep. The scent of the sprays and other chemicals I used in my line of work clung to me much like the bugs themselves. Worse, the smells worked their way into my sinuses and made me dizzy to the point of wanting to throw up. I had heard of how pot made cancer patients better tolerate their chemotherapy, so I gave it a go. It worked fine.
I made sure to air out the cab of my truck before I went inside anywhere. I also sprayed myself with cheap cologne to try and mask the pot smell. It didn't seem like the tenants ever recognized the smell, perhaps confusing it with some new insect remedy that just happened to smell like an illegal drug.
Stoned, and therefore quite hungry, the old lady's offer was too good to pass by. It was strange to be seated across a table from someone who might have been my own mother. My mother had passed away before I was a teenager and could engage in adolescent fun like hiding the aroma of reefer as I stumbled in of a night. This lady led us in prayer, which I never did on my own but acquiesced to here, properly bowing my head, shutting my mouth, clasping my hands together. The stillness almost caused me to nod off again.
She served hot dogs. I had been anticipating something more along the lines of a roast surrounded by big chunks of carrot and onion. The hot dogs were naked. No mustard, no ketchup, no relish, not even a bun. Next she added another item to my plate: a coconut donut.
She then sat down to eat, delicately cutting apart the hot dog with a knife and fork, feeding herself a bit at a time. The donut was eaten post hot dog. More symbolism to ignore. I finally stopped watching her eat and devoured my own food.
The pot-delayed processes of my brain continued until I again felt a deep sadness for her. This wasn't a meal she would have chosen to serve. It was the only meal she could afford to serve. And there I had been, staring at it instead of immediately eating it.
Since it was winter, the sun faded early. Darkness from outside fell into her apartment as well, only a couple of weak lamps throwing off light. She stood up from the table after wiping her mouth. "I want you to see this," she said.
She shut off the lights. From the shadows she said, "Now watch."
When she flipped the lights back on, nausea flooded me. The kitchen countertops were teeming with roaches. The floor looked as if it had a carpet woven of them. They even ducked in and out of the stove. Big ones, small ones, water bugs, German roaches, cockroaches, the gamut of the ugly creatures except for maybe the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, for whose absence I was extremely grateful.
If I was nauseous, this certainly had to repulse the widow. But she was as active as I had ever seen her, slapping the creatures on the countertops with her bare hands while stomping the ones on the floor with her slippers, moving with rapidity that belied her age.
In honor of her efforts, I went back out to my truck and retrieved my weapons. I returned with some Gentrol aerosol to sterilize the mature insects, some gel to keep them in their place, and some heavy duty traps to stick in all the corners. I worked on all the cracks and crevices with a sense of thoroughness I seldom brought any more to my work.
My task took me from the kitchen to the bathroom to her bedroom closet. These creatures would no longer hamper her if I could help it. My professional pride, which had long since abated with the lackadaisical attitudes of those who hired and paid me, returned in stoned animation, a slow and deliberate dance of death delivered to the roaches.
"It'll take a couple of months to fully rid you of them," I said once I was done.
She scrubbed her hands of cockroach blood. "What will I do in the meantime?"
"Do what you've been doing. Clean."
"But what if the neighbors have them too? Won't they just come back?"
"Leave that to me," I said.
With a combination of repulsion and eagerness, I began to collect both the corpses and the occasional live and wriggling bodies of the roaches and put them into a solitary Baggie. "I'll be back next week," I said to her, "and the next, until they're gone."
I returned to my truck, lit another joint, and drove. The property owner was old too, a man who lived on a respirator but in a lovely brick home in a splendid neighborhood. I reconsidered my original intention in light of these facts. I had wanted to places the roaches, both living and dead, in his house and see how he liked them. But I also knew that if his health was poor enough to require a respirator, the insects' bacteria might possibly kill him. I was paranoid enough to think that might come true, and imagined vividly what that would feel like. It would feel terrible and conjure up my former Catholic schoolboy's sense of guilt.
Instead of a tale of bug man vengeance, which could probably be quite chilling, I recognized in a moment of THC induced insight that my job was to eradicate insects, not people, and that no one liked roaches. Then the odd trickery of language and an addled mind came to fore: roaches, as in the butt-end of what I smoked every day. Maybe that had something to do with my attitude at work?
The old man emerged from his house and caught sight of me there. "What in tarnation's wrong with you, boy? What's got you in my drive?"
I showed him my Baggie. The same kind of Baggie in which you might place what I smoked.
"That's revolting," he said, taking a long and audible gulp of air through the plastic cone that connected him to his respirator.
"They're from one of your apartments. Ten-B."
He thought about this. "Old woman lives there, right?"
He thought further. "Serves her right. Sloppy housekeeping's always at fault for such things."
I started growing angry. "Her housekeeping's not sloppy. She tries to practically keep the place immaculate."
"Maybe they're from outdoors. Can't blame me for what nature's wrought." Then he nodded knowingly. "Or maybe this is your way of telling me you're not up to snuff. There are other bug men in town, you know. Some might put you to shame."
I wanted to tell him that being a bug man in and of itself contained a certain amount of shame. It wasn't like people wanted to cuddle up with you after a day of contact with insects. Like their little legs and feelers might just fall off on them. "I'm the best bug man in town, sir."
"Then do your danged job and leave me be." He went back inside his house and slammed the door.
I did my danged job, all right. I went into my truck and removed some sticky strips and placed them just outside his front door. There were a dozen of them, so if he stepped out again in any absentminded fashion they would adhere to the soles of his shoes. Or even better, to his bare feet if he went out to fetch the morning paper. I also filled the entire frame of his door with Maxforce Roach Gel. The door wouldn't fully cooperate with him any time soon.
None of this would affect his breathing. It would merely impede his progress and frustrate him, six-foot-tall cockroach that he seemed at that particular moment, his crumbs at the apartment complex where the old woman lived. Maybe it would teach him a sense of mercy. Or maybe he would simply fire me. Either way, I felt no guilt and drove whistling home.