Little Eggs, Little Bacon
Fiction - First Place
Nolan gave me a lecture about the roaches, and about gender roles. What I learned was: Men don't like to kill things, but women make them, by having all the power and all. So men get used to guts. To be fair, though, women should try a little harder, so as not to rely on men for everything. And didn't we have a movement for that? He stamped his dusty boot on the floor and came up with something in a paper towel.
I was making us a casserole, so I said, "Look, you are the hunter. I am the gatherer. And the cooker and cleaner." House painter, candlestick maker. "In fact, you are the bug killer, and I am everything else."
He opened the paper towel and said, "You going to cook what I hunted?"
It's interesting, thinking about things like that. But it doesn't change the fact of Oriental and American cockroaches. No one wants to live with them, but no one wants to kill them. Not our Lord Jesus Christ and not my husband.
I called an exterminator. He came with a black carrying case, and I thought that if he used all the poison in the case nothing would survive. I slipped him $10 under the table to put extra poison in the corners of the rooms.
"They probably live under the house," he told me, "in the crawlspace. You got a crawlspace under here?" He bounced on the floor. It sounded hollow. "I got a guy who'll go in there, as long as it's taller than a foot and a half. If he doesn't go in there, you'll see more problems."
"There's no door to it that I know of," I said.
"We'll put you on a monthly service then."
He showed me his bait gun. When he pulled the trigger, brown gel squeezed out. He said, "The roaches eat this, and other roaches eat those roaches. All of them die."
When he knelt down to spread the gel, his uniform shirt pulled up a little bit over his back. I liked watching him work, because he knew what he was doing.
After the exterminator left the roaches came out again, but some of them died right away. I picked up their bodies myself, just as soon as their legs stopped moving, and I showed Nolan.
"There goes your one job," I said. But I felt good and stuck my tongue out at him like a little girl.
I taped a piece of paper to the refrigerator and kept a battle tally of victories and losses--one column for every dead roach I found, one column for every live one. In the meantime, I collected the bodies. They could be beautiful, dead, with shields and parts that attached like pieces of a machine.
It was only a couple of days before all of my lines were in the dead column. One morning after that, there were no lines to make at all. Before I left for work, I took down my tally paper and taped up a blank sheet. I drew a picture of a bug with a thick circle around it and a line through the circle. Underneath that I put an exclamation point.
That night I didn't work overtime. I came right home and didn't stop for a second to stare at the front door. I sat on the floor to watch television and at the commercial breaks I remembered to say, "Lord, thank you for killing the roaches. Thank you for sending the exterminator."
It seemed like that cleanness got into me too. I bought a new dress and wore it to work. The sales manager said, "You have a thing going on, on the side?"
I didn't know if she meant a job or a man. Or what. But I smiled like there was something more to me, something as new as the dress.
One night I went to happy hour with the girls from the customer-service department. We drank margaritas from glasses as big as fish bowls. I sucked in my cheeks and flapped my hands at my ears to pretend I was a goldfish. The girls from customer service leaned back on their stools and held their big bellies. "We always thought you were so quiet," they said.
A man sitting at the bar heard us and walked over. "Make that fishy face for me," he said. "I could use a little fun."
I couldn't do it with him staring at me. "No problem," he said. "Hey, are you a kissing fish?" He looked at me real close. The girls from the customer-service department cracked up and grabbed at his oily T-shirt. When we got up to leave, he patted me on the butt.
I got home and Nolan was watching animals attack each other on TV. "Where've you been?" he asked.
"Working," I said.
On television a cheetah toppled a slow gazelle. An alligator clamped its jaws on a bird's neck. "And that's life," Nolan said. "I'm hungry."
While I watched, a black disk slid across the screen. It stayed for a minute, poised over the alligator's snout. I wasn't used to margaritas. I found the couch with my hands and curled up.
"Jesus, don't cry, I'll get it," Nolan said. He half stood up, but then he hitched his pants and sat right back down again. "Damn it," he said, "it went into the wall."
The next day I called in sick to work. "Rough night last night?" the receptionist said in her smiley voice, like she had heard something.
"I guess," I said.
I called the roach man. He came out right away. "This visit's free," he said, "because it hasn't even been a month yet. I'm using something different this time. Should work."
You don't have any young kids, do you?" He looked at my stomach, like he could tell if any had come out of there. "These chemicals might be dangerous to them."
"No, never did," I said. He had the same black case, but a different gun that was a hose with a bottle attached. It sprayed dust under the door and into lots of cracks. Bugs walk on it, and then they lick it off their feet.
"You have a clean house, you know. Don't think cockroaches mean something. Your real problem here is all the trash around outside."
"I know," I said, "but what can I do?" I told him I call the city but that they don't do a thing. People dump.
"Maybe your husband could clean it up sometime?"
"Maybe." He had that soft face you don't see too much on a grown man. "Would you call yourself a hunter?" I asked him.
"You mean of roaches? I never thought about it. I mean, maybe I'm like a hit man or something." He blushed a little and pulled his shoulders back. "Maybe just a bug killer."
He gave me the number to his cell phone so I could reach him directly if I had any more difficulties. Roaches came out again, and they died again. But I didn't keep a tally this time. I didn't go out with the girls from customer service, and I didn't work any overtime either. I walked up and down the stairs and kept my eyes on the floor. Plenty of times I thought I saw a roach, when what I really saw was a piece of lint or a scrap of plastic brought in from outside. Sometimes I crouched down and pushed apart the strands of matted carpet to make sure nothing was hiding.
"Why are you trying so hard to see what you don't want to?" Nolan said. "Take your glasses off. Come sit with me."
But while he was talking, I found something on the floor of the kitchen, stuck in a crack in the linoleum. It looked like a fat black hair, bent in the middle. Or like a bug leg, if it got caught on its way down into the floor and ripped clean off.
I picked up the leg with a paper napkin and laid it out on the kitchen table. I dialed the number I had in my pocket. I had to leave a voice mail. "Can you come out here? Right away. It's Barbara. On Berger Street."
"Who you talking to?" Nolan said from the other room. He would just make fun of me. "Actually, could you come tomorrow morning?" I said to the phone.
I couldn't sleep all night for thinking about roaches. They could be anywhere: crawling up under my T-shirt, tickling underneath my chin with their feelers. I felt their feet padding across my body. When I turned over, the bedsprings gnashed together and scared me all over again. I kicked Nolan, and he woke up. "You OK?" he said. "Sleeping," I said.
I remembered the exterminator, pulling the trigger of his gun, a little vein in his bicep moving with every squeeze. And every time he squeezed, one of the prickles on me went away. But they came back. I said a rosary, not the right way, because I'm not Catholic. I said, "Lord, kill the roaches. Send the roach man. Please send the roach man." Eventually, the sun came up.
I told Nolan that it had been a stomachache that kept me awake, and I thought it best to stay in bed. "Too much time with your nose down in the carpet's not good for a person," he said, and went to work.
I got up and made some coffee. Waited. I scrambled eggs and fried bacon but decided I couldn't eat it. Would he be hungry? I kept the food warm just in case. I drank the whole pot of coffee and made more. It was 10 before the bell rang.
I asked him if he wanted coffee, and we stood in the kitchen and drank it. "You shouldn't be seeing more activity so soon," he said, "unless your problem is worse than what I've seen." He thought he should look around more carefully to see what was what. I walked with him. First he checked the kitchen cupboards. Then he pulled back the curtains in the living room and squatted to run a finger across the baseboards. Upstairs in the bedroom he knelt to look under the bed, and in the clothes closet he parted the row of my work dresses to examine the walls.
His face was puzzled. "I don't see any signs of roaches in this house," he said. "And I'd tell you if I did."
"But see what I found?" I said. I showed him the napkin with the leg inside. He looked at it for a long time and then he looked at me.
"I don't know, Mrs. Fewster," he said. That made me nervous. "Could you maybe put something down?" I said.
"Couldn't do it for free this time, because I just don't see anything."
"Fine," I said. He shrugged and got his spray bottle out of his case. "Aren't you going to use the other kind?" I asked him. I wanted the other poison, the kind where the roaches eat each other up.
"Ma'am, that's bait. And if they're not here, we wouldn't want to make them come out. Unless you want to be seeing a lot more of me," he said. He didn't smile though.
"But I think the other works better," I said. He put back his spray and got out his bait gun. He pulled the trigger and put roach bait in the living room, quick. He put it in the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen. He had already eaten breakfast.
"OK," I said, "I guess I'll be seeing you next month." He picked up his case full of poison. I paid him, and he left. He didn't say to call him if I needed him.
I had eggs and bacon enough for two people, and I pulled the trash can over by the sink to scrape the pan. I pushed the food into it slowly, a little eggs, a little bacon. I scraped half of breakfast into the trash, and then I took the pan into the living room to finish it.
I put a forkful in my mouth. I put a forkful behind the couch. I hummed a song I knew when I was little that went, "One for you, one for me," plus more words I couldn't remember. La-di-da. Eggs for me, eggs for you, but yours mushed in the carpet. Fresh bacon grease for underneath the ottoman. I left the pan on the floor and waited.
Susan Lantz lives in Baltimore and is a volunteer monkey-feeder at the Chester Stacy Wildlife Preserve. Part time.
And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest
An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
What Was Janie Looking At? (12/2/2009)
Short Fiction Contest • Second Place
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201