Photo credit: Jessie Dineen
I haven’t been posting as frequently as I used to because I’ve been working on something. A lengthy bit of fiction. You might even call it a novel (though I’m not ready to just yet). To be completely honest, I’m not really sure what the hell I’m doing. I have never tried this before, even though I’ve always known it’s what I wanted to do. It’s new territory, so I’m stuck in a bit of a constant grey area. It’s challenging.
I decided to post this for a few reasons, one being that it’s an exercise in keeping me motivated, but mostly because I’d appreciate any feedback from you. “Bugs” is a working title, but you’ll see why I picked it. I have been fussing over this excerpt – particularly the “narrative distance” of my third person limited narrator. Is it working? I’m not sure. But at a certain point you just have to stop and get some outside opinions, as scary as that might be. 😉
So tell me what you think.
Special thanks to my creative sister Jess for the absolutely perfect cover image. And without further ado, I present to you:
Bugs (An Excerpt)
by: Mike Dineen
Drew stood outside apartment 1103 in a carpeted hallway that was dimly lit and smelled of pine cleaner and curry. There was a sound coming from within. Drew could hear the sound through the heavy wooden door, which he knocked on. He knocked as he did with every home he was called to, with three sharp but gentle raps, then waited.
After 10 seconds with no response, Drew knocked again. And again, no response. Which was odd because of the sound coming from inside. He leaned forward and turned his head at an angle, an ear to the door. The sound was continuous, monotonous in one sense, but varied in another. It was a weird sound. It could have been a voice, but it had an inhuman quality about it. Robotic, even. Drew thought of an auctioneer, hammering off bids to an audience of buyers in the funny non-stop way they did. Not that he’d ever been to an auction, but he’d seen them on TV.
And perhaps that’s what it was, he decided: an auctioning show on TV. Or maybe even the announcer for a horse race – they also rambled away at a fast pace. He’d been to many homes with radios and TVs left on by the tenants, either to create the illusion that someone was home to a thief, or (and this was Drew’s theory) to save them from the discomfort when they got back. The discomfort of a home with no sound.
Drew fished for the key to unit 1103 in a small canvas pouch in his utility cart. Finding it amid a tangle of similar keys, he slipped it into the lock, then gave it a jiggle. The keys-in-the-lock jiggle was his trick for rousing tenants who might simply not want to answer the door. Now that everyone had cell phones, an unexpected knock rarely meant good news. Especially in City housing, and especially when that subsidized housing was a St. James Town apartment building as seedy as this one.
With the key sitting in the lock, Drew gave it one more knock and waited. Still nothing. Except for the TV. He turned the key – but, oddly enough, found the door was unlocked. He popped the key into his pocket and cracked it open.
“Anyone home?” he called into the apartment. The sound was louder now that the thick door wasn’t muffling it. “Hello!” he called again, then opened the door fully. Drew reached behind himself and grabbed the handle of his utility cart, wheeling it into the apartment entrance. “Pest control!” he announced. He closed the door. The legally required “Advance Notice of Entry” sheet, slid under the door yesterday by the superintendent, lay on the floor. Untouched.
He took a few steps down the hallway into the apartment. The place had a smell he recognized from experience. On the surface it smelled earthy, dusty, and dirty. But underneath those smells another one festered: the smell of something organic. Something sweet.
Drew stepped into a hot living room and squinted at the afternoon sun shining in through the bank of south-facing windows. A torn curtain hung by a shred of fabric at one end. Through the glass, in the distance – beyond the forest of St. James Town apartment buildings – Drew could see Toronto’s downtown amid the shroud of summer haze surrounding it.
The only piece of furniture in the living room was a metal kitchen-table chair, painted white, but grimy now. It was turned at a random angle in the western corner of the room. No one had sat in this chair for quite some time. Beside it, an overturned cardboard box rested on the floor. One of its corners was saturated with grease. Drew walked over to examine some items that had spilled out of the box onto the interlocking hardwood floor. He knelt. Under a tangled mess of mini blinds was an old phone book. The pages were rippled from moisture.There was a child’s toy, a faded pink princess with matted hair and a pink dress made of plastic. Beside it was a prescription walking shoe, and beside that an overturned picture frame.
Drew picked up the frame and held it, but then returned it to its spot without flipping it over. He stood up and turned back to the room. A man stood in the corner opposite him. The man stared back. It was himself, of course, reflected in a dusty mirror left to lean against the east wall.
In the mirror was a young man, 27 years-old, on the shorter side of average height. He wore steel-toed boots, black cargo pants, and a white button up shirt. On one side of his chest “Drew” was sewn into the fabric; on the other was the branded logo “Bugz”. Around his neck hung a breathing unit that he wore over his clean-shaven face when he sprayed pesticide. Around his narrow waist hung a utility belt which carried a flashlight, dusting bulb, spare bait cartridges, and – on his left hip – a bait applicator, shaped like a mini-caulking gun.
Most of the time Drew hated looking at himself in the mirror – disliked the intimacy of it. He was confused when people were attracted to him. His body was skinny. He had conceded that his body would never “fill out” like his mother had promised. His hair and eyes were a dull brown, and his white skin resisted tanning in summer. There wasn’t much to get excited over. But in the uniform – even now, looking at himself across the room – there was someone different. Someone with a story to tell.
Like a police officer, for bugs.
The chattering sound was coming from a doorway at the end of the hallway leading from the living room. It had taken on the auditory flow of rambling. Drew listened from where he stood in the hot space. Syllables began to take shape. It was a foreign language. Was it Russian? But spoken at a rambling, manic pace. He decided that yes, indeed, it was Russian, but wait – was it a TV?
It was a person. It was not a TV. Drew was wrong about the language, too. He was almost right, but not quite. Drew was eight years-old when he’d first heard this same language. He’d snuck up behind his grandmother in her kitchen as she spoke, in a hushed way, with a cousin visiting from Ukraine. A cousin his grandmother hadn’t seen since the war, who’d since died of old age. Drew had not known she spoke another language and had sensed – in the way that children do – that he’d witnessed a secret. Though he didn’t understand what the secret was or why it was a secret, and had never heard the language spoken again after that. Until today.
But the memory didn’t come flooding back. It remained tucked away, where he’d placed it. Because now a more immediate choice had to be made. Drew looked back toward the closed door that led out of the apartment. He had entered without permission from the tenant. At the same time, however, he had a job to do. One that the landlord – his employer’s client – was required by law to provide when a tenant requested it. He considered sneaking out, closing the door quietly, and recording “R” for “Refused treatment” on the work order.
Which would be a lie.
He thought back to earlier that morning, to the ribbing he’d gotten at the office for being so slow at his job. “You’re too bloody soft,” Brent – the top-performing technician – had said to Drew in front of his entire team of colleagues. Among his division, Drew was consistently the lowest on the list for monthly production. They printed the list out, of course, and tacked it up in the office’s common area to create competition among the technicians – and also because they made a commission relative to the amount of production they completed. He made the least amount of money.
Drew was keenly aware that he lacked practical, blue-collar wisdom for when to bend the rules to get more work done, how to cut corners and when not to. He saw how Brent and the other guys treated the tenants and their homes like broken appliances that needed fixing. Someone else would have to come back next week if he didn’t do it today. He would hear about that for weeks.
Drew continued through the living room into the back hallway, approaching the bedroom doorway. “Hello!” he shouted. The incessant talking stopped for a second, then continued again. He came to the edge of the door and peeked around the corner.
Lying on her back on a queen-sized bed was a large woman. Very, very large. In one hand she held a portable phone. She was on the phone, hammering away at someone on the other end. “Hello?” Drew asked. The woman finally stopped talking and put the phone down.
“Ah?” she grunted. She turned her eyes toward Drew. She couldn’t actually move her head because her neck was so fat and swollen. The whites of her eyes showed, giving her a look of panic. She wore a dirty nightgown that had gotten bunched up just below her waist, exposing enormous, bulbous legs and swollen feet.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Drew said, clearing his throat in an effort to hide his surprise. “I’ve been calling and calling.…” His voice trailed off. The woman’s dark hair was messy to the point of being knotted. The bedsheets had bunched up at one side of the bed, so she was lying directly on the mattress itself. On the floor to the side of the bed stood a metal walker. One of the bars along the top had warped. Drew realized he was gawking, and looked away from her to the floor.
“For the bugs?” she asked with a thick eastern European accent. “You’re here for the bugs?” she repeated. “The last guy came early in the day so I don’t know these things.” She turned her eyes back up to the ceiling and resumed the fast-talk in her other language on the phone. Drew looked up from the floor. The size of her was difficult to take in.
“Okay then, I’ll just head on to the kitchen,” Drew said.
“No wait, no wait, no wait. I want to show you where they are.” She dropped the phone away from her ear and turned her eyes back to him with that same panicked look. She began to move, to jerk in waves of motion, building up a momentum. With each jerk, she grunted. She could have been having a seizure for all Drew knew, or worse: She meant to get out of the bed.
“No, no, it’s totally fine. I know what to do.” Drew waved his hand to emphasize that showing him where the bugs were was not necessary. He didn’t wait for an answer, turning back down the hallway toward the kitchen, which opened up off the living room. From behind him, between grunts, the woman continued talking. “They are really bad, those bugs. They are really bad right now. It’s too much. Too, too much.”
Drew came to the entrance into the kitchen – it was dark inside – and reached around the wall to flip on the overhead light. It was about 3:00PM now, but later that evening Drew would pull two beers from the fridge in his Cabbagetown apartment. One for himself, the other for his roommate Trace. And he would attempt to describe what he saw in that kitchen. Trace would stand across from him, leaning against the counter like she always did, with her eyes and ears intent on every word of his story. But what was in front of him now would be difficult to describe without resorting to metaphors. He would think of comparing it to a “bad acid trip” – except that he’d never taken acid, nor had any idea what differentiated a “bad” trip from a “good” one. He would settle on, “The walls were melting,” and feel satisfied by the profundity of the metaphor, even though – as far as metaphors go – it wasn’t entirely accurate.
Neither would it be entirely accurate, in his telling of the events, that he hadn’t considered the chattering voice was a real-live human, not a TV, only after he’d picked up that picture frame from the interlocking hardwood floor. Because he’d known that someone was home after finding the door unlocked. He’d known in the same way that he knew mirrors confused him and that his grandmother spoke Ukranian. Somewhere below the surface.
Because right now the walls weren’t melting like, say, wax down a candle. They were running in all directions. Up, down, left, right. All throughout the kitchen there were roaches, clusters of them. There were dark, pulsating patches of them in the corners. Drew watched as cockroaches scurried across the countertops and plates of old food left there, one full of chicken bones so covered in bugs they were barely recognizable. Up and down the fridge they scurried. Over the stove, in and out of the sink, across the ceiling. All throughout the top and bottom rows of cupboards – their doors left gaping open. The droppings were bad, too, clusters of little brown dots along seams and edges – dots upon dots upon dots. A roach fell from the ceiling to the floor in front of Drew, then ran in the opposite direction. Another one seemed to be running straight at him. Roaches scurried along the doorframe he stood in, beside his head, down at his feet.
From her bedroom, the woman’s ramblings to Drew were carried through the open door into the empty apartment. She produced a variety of different ruckuses – shuffles, clangs of metal, creaks, grunts, the odd crash. She was making progress.
Drew snapped on a pair of blue rubber gloves and stepped into the kitchen. He pulled out his roach bait gun. He knew that, with this level of infestation, a spray and its quick knockdown effects would be more immediately effective than the slow-acting bait treatment. But he also knew that there was no way this woman would be able to leave her apartment for four hours, as was required for spraying.
He went to the cupboards. They were mostly empty save for the odd can of food or errant piece of dishware. He reached inside to apply the sticky bait along the cupboard seams. There were so many roaches that they seemed not to mind his presence. Where normally they would run, the population had grown so dense that they had achieved a collective safety in numbers – a cockroach singularity.
Drew continued across the cupboards applying the bait. He paused at certain points to watch the disgustingly fascinating dance in front of him. He regularly stopped to brush roaches off his boots. One brave bug made it all the way up to his knee. He was mindful not to step on any of them, especially this variety – German roaches – the only kind which carried their egg sacs on their back. That they did this was also why, unlike other types of roaches that dropped their eggs into whatever dark secret place they could find, German roaches were the worst for infesting entire buildings.
All it took was one pregnant roach and a bit of time.
The scuffling and shuffling of the fat woman became louder as she got closer to the kitchen door. Clang. Clang. It was slow motion. First one leg of the walker became visible at the door. Clang. Then another. Clang. Now Drew could see her hand. She had a death grip around the walker and her knuckles had turned white. He kept working.
Finally she was fully visible, standing in the doorway. Her nightgown, damp now with sweat, had thankfully returned to a hanging position below her knees – though the neck of it was stretched, exposing more of her upper body than he would have preferred. With each gasping breath, her eyes expressed her body’s uncertainty as to whether she’d gotten enough oxygen.
“The last guy gave me a tube of the brown gooey stuff,” she began, pausing to take a raspy breath mid-sentence. “So I cooked up a pot of the rice and mixed it in – left the pot on the floor. They went for it.” A look of delicious mania had spread across her sweaty face. She licked her lips.
“Uh-huh,” Drew said, continuing to apply the bait in the cupboards on the other side of the kitchen. The irresistibly delicious brown gooey bait she wanted to cook with worked by first poisoning the roaches that ate it, then poisoning the roaches that ate their dead poisoned friends and family – as roaches do – and so on and so forth. Although it was systematically effective for casual roach control, it wouldn’t even put a dent in this extreme level of infestation.
A roach had scurried onto his gloved hand. He flicked it off with a finger. The creature landed on the floor with a click, then ran straight at him. It was not finished with him yet.
“You can give me a tube?” she asked. “I killed so many of them last time.”
“I can’t, unfortunately,” Drew said.
“The last guy did.” She shifted her grip on the walker. Her massive breasts rested on the metal. Not because she was short, but because they hung so low. How the walker held her up was a feat of engineering – as were her own bones and muscle for that matter.
“Just one. I won’t tell anyone.” She licked her lips, eyes darting around the kitchen of roaches.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I really can’t.” Drew applied the last of the bait and replaced his gun in his belt. He pulled out the bulb of dust and knelt down by the fridge, puffing a stream of boric acid powder underneath it.
“It’s the neighbours, I think, where the bugs keep coming from. I keep killin’ ‘em, but they keep comin’ back.” Her words had begun to speed up again, near rambling. She’d broken eye contact. “New ones moved in next door – loud ones – kids – it’s too much – there’s too much.” She went from looking flushed to suddenly pale.
Drew knelt by the stove and puffed another stream of powder underneath it, then stood up, addressing her. “If you would ever like to do a spray, ma’am, we could do that. I would recommend it actually.” The woman didn’t seem to be listening. “But you’d have to leave the apartment for four hours.” She’d begun to lean against the doorway. Her wrists must have been aching.
She was blocking most of the door, but Drew estimated visually just enough room to squeeze past her. A roach had found its way onto her shoulder. It scuttled up and down its new-found mountain of flesh.
“Alright then,” Drew said. “All done. Hopefully this will help.” He went towards her, but her eyelids had closed – she may have fallen asleep. “Alright then, ma’am, I’ll just be leaving.” He said it louder this time. She opened her eyes again and muttered a sentence in another language. Then her eyes slipped closed again.
Drew turned to the side to squeeze past, shimmying into place. His butt started brushing up against her walker and the rolls of fat sagging down from around her stomach. He sucked in his stomach, side-shuffling his way between her and the edge of the door. A roach scurried down the wall, directly in front of his face. He was nearly past, nearly free. The roach stopped momentarily, then seemed to hurl itself into freefall, landing on his shoe.
The nozzle of his bait gun got snagged on her nightgown. As he shimmied, it pulled the thin fabric. Drew stopped, craning over his shoulder. Because he was taller than her, the nightgown was not only sliding off her shoulder, it was also slipping up her legs. Fuck. A smell wafted out from her body. Old sweat. Yeast.
Drew stopped his side-shuffle. He held still. He was stuck there between the woman and the door frame. He couldn’t allow the nightgown to expose her body. Not only because he’d seen more of it than he cared to. It was all that he had to offer. All he could do to preserve the sliver of dignity she had left.
He turned his upper body at the waist, counter-clockwise, giving some slack to the snagged fabric. He continued side-shuffling, until – there, he made it past the doorway. He bent at the knees, crouching to lower himself, which allowed the nightie to become unhooked from his gun. It billowed back into place around her body.
“Alright, take care then, ma’am,” Drew said, stepping away from her side. Her heavy breathing behind him had switched over to a rasping sound. Was she dying? He listened to her breathing for a moment.
Then he left the living room and walked back down the hallway. He grabbed hold of his cart. Drew opened the door and stepped into the hallway. He left the woman there, leaning up against her kitchen doorway. As he closed the door he glanced back to see more roaches running up and down her.
Drew pulled the key from his pocket and slid it into the lock. He hesitated for a second, then removed it without locking the door – a vision of her decaying body covered in roaches, after being unable to get to the door to let in a social worker, flickered across his imagination. He stowed the key in his pouch and retrieved his work phone from his pocket. No messages from the office. It was 3:17PM, with three units left. Unit 807 for roaches, 714 for pharaoh ants, and 203 for bed bugs.
He smiled. Today he’d finish early.