By Kate Rose
They were squirrel-like creatures, but bigger. The first time Sally had seen one literally fly off the wall, landing on one of the rafters, she’d made everyone get out of bed and sleep in the newly-renovated basement. When they’d bought the old farm, black-and-white photos of dour-looking people had been hanging over the beds. “They’re antiques!” Sally had said. “We should sell them.” “Um-hum,” Jim had nodded, busy measuring the floor, at Sally’s request, as she hoped to pick up an oriental rug at an auction. The house needed a lot of work, and Sally was supposedly taking some time off to oversee its restoration. As the bedrooms were getting torn apart and put back together again, the family slept on fold-out couches in the large living area, with one small window open to hear the birds singing. It was one thing Sally loved about the countryside.
The creatures had been disturbing Sally’s sleep for many nights, and every morning she had to wipe up their turds. This was the first time in married life they had not had a cleaning lady, and she deeply resented this encroachment on her time. On her list of things to deal with, she’d marked “intruders,” under “leaky tub” and “ceiling.” The ceiling was the priority, since she figured once the plaster boards were up, there would be no room for these rodents, who now dwelt under the loosely attached, uncovered insulation panels.
The morning after sleeping, or mostly not sleeping, on the wall-to-wall carpeting of the barren basement, Sally finally asked the man at the General Store for a have-a-heart trap. “Anything bigger?” she’d inquired. “Ma’am, you got anything bigger, it got a big brain too, you see; better go for the poison.” In this region, people talked like they had gravel in their mouths, but Sally understood them most of the time.
Back home, she spooned the bright pink oats onto squares of cardboard, which she nestled up under the glass wool.
“Might be lemmings” suggested Jim, biting into a stuffed tomato which disintegrated in his hand. “Oops”.
“Sorry honey, I overcooked them.”
“No worries, babe. Hey, Sal… are you OK?”
“You seem a little… tired these days.”
“I’ll feel better once the man comes for the ceiling.”
Just then the kids burst in, Timmy in his baseball uniform, Patricia brandishing an art project made of dried noodles and beans.
“How are you two lovebirds getting on here in these parts?”
It was Betty, their nearest neighbor, who lived nearly a mile away. “The man still hasn’t come for the ceiling. Other than that, great. Oh, except for the… squirrels. I mean, I don’t even think they are squirrels. There’s something different about them, not just that they’re much bigger.”
“Oh, you’ve got those? They are a protected species here. No exterminator will touch them with a ten-foot pole. Good luck. Gotta scoot. Bye kids. Have a great night!”
Sally guiltily eyed the hors-d’oeuvres of poison she’d set out for her unwelcome guests. When she heard them nibbling in the night, she almost wanted to yell “Don’t!,” a reflex for saving something, anything, that could be saved.
The moon streamed in through the large new windows . She walked so quietly the creature didn’t move. It stared at her, paws to its mouth. “It’s drugged!” Sally thought. “The damn poison is making it act weird. It’s eyes seem enormous and it hasn’t blinked.” She remembered that some of her dorm-mates in college tripped on rat poison when nothing else was available, so she assumed the creature was tripping, which worried her. What if it bit one of the children, thinking it was a carrot or whatever the hell they eat?
She soon found out what they eat. When she was woken up again it – or he as its large genitals indicated – was sitting up with a cookie in his paws. “Hey, I didn’t baked those for you!” she must have yelled, since it even woke Jim. “Why didn’t you?” the rodent seemed to say, calmly taking another bite. She put the cookie bowl in the fridge.
“What’s going on?” Jim was at her side, in his boxers, rubbing his eyes like an oversized child.
“Honey, he’s eating my cookies!”
One of the children rolled over and moaned.
“Come on, babe, we can get them in the morning.”
Within a minute, Jim was snoring. Sally heard the creature. “Oh well,” she thought. “The poor thing will be dead tomorrow!”
The season wore on, it got colder. Mornings, after being woken many times by scratching, scraping and rolling noises, as well as squeaks that sounded just like children’s toys, her cleaning duties grew – not only more turds, which stuck like glue, but also the crumbs of whatever they’d found to sabotage. Mopping the floor, she noticed how thin the linoleum was over the grime of a century. She longed for the brand-new apartment they had previously occupied. Trying to reassure herself that the linoleum was spiffy, perfectly installed by an expert Floor Man, she took a closer look; to her horror, the edges were frayed, chewed. When all was clean, she spooned out more pink oats, and reassured herself it would all be over soon. She could chalk up the damages and move on, forgetting the intruders had ever existed. She started on her round of calls to the workmen who, contrary to the rodents, were showing no signs of life.
The box marked Raticide was already empty. She returned to the store and bought a large plastic container of it, which didn’t cost very much more than the small box. “Its for pros” the shopkeeper explained. Happy with her purchase, she thought maybe she was on a role, so she called the Ceiling Man, and was delighted when the gravely voice picked up and said “yep;” her bubble was burst when he explained he had hurt his back.
“I’m sorry about your back. But it’s urgent!” she complained. “Can you find someone to help? We’d be happy to pay a little extra.”
“Sorry, Ma’am. Not before spring.”
“You don’t understand,” she whispered, then hung up a little louder than she had to, and swore. It was nice to be able to swear without having to worry about the kids hearing. She swore again, just for fun, then dished out oats – these ones, dark, iridescent navy with flecks of turquoise, instead of the friendly fuchsia – meant business. She stashed the hard plastic canister under the sink, glad she no longer had kids small enough to fear ingestion.
Whistling, no tune in particular, always heralded the Walls Man’s entrance.
“Hi Bob. How’s it going?”
“Nasty stuff. The glue they used to use – would stick a horse to the roof!”
Sally remembered a drawing she’d once seen, the horse’s back fixed to the top of a chimney, it’s legs tilted up to the sky. She suddenly missed going to art openings, though it was mostly for the food, an old habit from her college years. She often had to remind herself that she could now afford caviar and pate, and didn’t really have to scrutinize the price stickers on cheese. She could basically go into a grocery store and buy whatever she pleased. She could fill her wagon with fancy cheeses and put it on their joint credit card. Jim wouldn’t notice the bill. She’d pull the shades, take off her clothes, get under the covers, or maybe draw a bubble bath, and not save a single bite.
“Ma’am?” She suddenly noticed Bob was still standing there. “Are you OK? You look a little … woozy.”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m fine. Didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“It’s that darn full moon,” he said sympathetically.
She didn’t want to tell him about the creatures, in case they really were endangered; she wasn’t sure whether or not he would care. Instead, she asked if he knew ceilings. Sure, they had already paid the deposit with the other guy, but wasn’t losing the deposit worth it, if she could start sleeping regularly again, and thus have a normal life?
“I’m a Walls Man,” he apologized.
“Real simple job,” she persisted. “Already got the plaster panels.”
Bob mumbled that he might give it a try.
When Bob whistled out, she had one hour before the kids came home, so she checked her offerings of poison. When the postwoman entered the house, she jumped and dropped one, scattering blue oats all over the floor.
“Hi! Don’t you look all rosy-cheeked! Always nice to see the mail…lady face to face. Never lived in a place like that before.” She hoped her banter would cover the constellations of navy oats dotting the new white linoleum.
“Must be quite a change from city life.”
“Oh, it is. A pleasant change. For the price of this lovely old house, we might have bought a parking space in the City. This way we can afford to add a swimming pool complete with Jacuzzi and sauna! Hope you’ll come and take a dip when it’s nice out. Want some cider?”
Besides the pile she spilled, all the rest had been eaten. She replenished it, relieved that her problems would be over. She would have preferred to feed pets rather than poison intruders, and, being a hospitable sort, didn’t like having to dish out oat death. She braced herself for the sight of dead creatures, only half-believing the box’s reassuring remark that the poison makes them go elsewhere to die.
That night, Jim insisted on rubbing her back. He wanted to feel close to her, he whispered. She felt his erection grace her, through his shorts and her nightie, an invitation she would have accepted even just a few weeks back. After Patricia was weaned, he had had a vasectomy, in secret, presenting Sally with the hospital report wrapped up and tied with a bow, as her 29th birthday gift. He’d had to sign a form saying he knew it was an experimental technique, still in its test phase. Since it had been virtually painless, which was why this new procedure had been invented, they had put the gift to good use that very night. It was the start of a new chapter in their sex life, almost as hot as in their child-free days, though not holding a candle to when they’d first met, in college. Now, all she could do was hold his hand and caress it, keeping it off her body without breaking their bond. When Jim fell asleep, she found herself crying, without quite knowing why.
In her dream, buildings were being dismantled, that had once stood around the house where she now slept, and all the people were being driven away. When she woke and realized it was only one of those creatures making a dent in the peanuts she had left on the coffee table, she felt relieved. She could not be angry with it, since she knew its days were numbered.
The next day, as a precaution, she refilled the cardboard caches with the oats. She took to keeping things by the bed to throw at the intruders. In the morning someone would ask questions like “why is there a shoe in the sink,” though the kids learned not to ask, that the answer was always “mom,” as if it were something she liked to do, and not part of the war she waged alone.
Going out to pick apples from their tree, Sally noticed a bushy gray tail. Assuming the rest of the animal lay dead nearby, she was happy for the rest of the morning, reassured that things actually do get done, all in good time.
Bob hadn’t shown up for a few days, but that particular morning, pouring herself a fresh cup of coffee and leafing through some catalogs, anything felt possible. She identified with rather than envied the lovely houses in the photos. Soon, hers too would look like a four-star spa hotel. She called Bob to check up on him, and ask if he wanted to give the plaster panels a try. She ended up leaving a message, giving her full request to the Machine (who probably knew as much about ceilings as Bob did); he called back sounding like he really did have the flu, that it wasn’t just an excuse to watch the Finals, as it had been sometimes when Jim called in sick to the office. Though she’d felt OK leaving it on the Machine, she wasn’t quite comfortable bringing up the panels when talking with him; but she was sure he was listening to the message at that very moment, and would spend his day googling “ceilings.”
Friday night, Jim invited some buddies from the office to watch the game. They brought their wives and girlfriends. They weren’t Sally’s usual set of friends but she found herself more glad to see them than she used to be, even if she was too tired to do much except make sure everyone got drinks and that the peanut bowl circulated, as well as the large and expensive assortment of handmade chocolates and fine candies Jim always bought and mostly ate himself, since they were all his favorite kinds and not necessarily what others craved while drinking beer, or even champagne. She felt flattered that these well-dressed women had come all the way from the City to eat her peanuts. One had recently been on vacation to some islands not far from where Sally was born. Another one’s husband had been diagnosed with a disease that made him bark like a dog. One woman was pregnant.
Sally suddenly shuddered, as she saw Regina downing the glazed nuts. The big, freckled blond was telling the whole party about an incident Sally had not been listening to and could not follow, because Regina talked fast and was from a different part of the country where people had their own accents and slang. English was not Sally’s first language; though she often forgot that fact, strangers were quick to remind her, always asking that unanswerable question, “where you from”? in a way that suggested they attached much less importance to the answer than they really did. When she told them what she thought they wanted to hear, they were happy, but wouldn’t believe that Sally was her real name. Sally didn’t mind their need to classify. She thought of it as an inherent part of human nature, like wanting to learn the names of butterflies.
As Regina was about to throw back another handful of the nuts, Sally jumped up, then hovered ridiculously by the tall and imposing woman’s side. She had debated not saying anything – after all, it was gross but probably wouldn’t hurt her. But then she noticed a rodent peering out at them from the kitchen island, and prayed no one else would. From that distance, it could have been a small cat.
“I think Sally has something to say,” someone said. All eyes were on her, as heat rose to her cheeks.
“No, no, I just want to refill the peanut bowl, thank you!” she grabbed it out of Regina’s hand and nearly ran into the kitchen. There were no walls. She longed to duck behind the kitchen island and hide. She would refill the peanut bowl, then just sit there on the floor eating from it, forever.
She resolved that night that they would make love, but when she came out of the shower, Jim was unshakably asleep. Jim could sleep through a tornado. He’d wake up in the morning, walls gone, and probably try to make himself some coffee before going to look for the missing pieces of his home, or maybe he’d save that for after work. He’d probably sleep in the rubble until the dead of winter, then go crash on an old buddy’s couch. Sometimes, if he worked late or had a meeting early the next day, he slept in the City, even in his office. Neither Jim nor Sally worried that the other one would be unfaithful. To them, it seemed a useless worry, something like a tornado in fact, that would probably never cross their paths, and if it did, having worried about it wouldn’t improve the situation. Sure, a direct proposition would have woken even Jimbo. But she couldn’t forget that the kids were in the room, and… sometimes, her kids woke up in the night, but it was never because of the creatures.
She fell asleep nestled into his back. She had a nightmare that he was yelling at her, calling her a frigid bitch and a host of other insults. His faced was transformed, a caricature, the veins popping out on his neck. She was almost glad to wake up and hear the screeching of two creatures, which her dreaming mind had transformed; it had nothing to do with her and Jim, whose snoring had a happy quality, she told herself.
When the blue oat canister was half empty, she had to admit that the intruders hadn’t died out, and in fact seemed to be multiplying. What irked her most was having to listen to them, picturing the mess they were making, the diligent destruction of the life she was trying so hard to renovate.
One night, she was chasing them around the house with the flashlight, and they all hid under a particular panel of insulation. She ripped down that panel. Things rained on her head, too heavy to be turds alone. Wheels, shells and bows of pasta littered the floor, as well as peanuts. So that explained what they’d been rolling around; far from playing, they’d been accumulating quite a stash. That also explained the empty packets Sally often found, but had assumed were picked out of the garbage for some incomprehensible purpose. A sudden wave of admiration cooled her anger. Then the squeaking started, and didn’t stop all night. The fattened creatures seemed to be inflating and deflating themselves, a mournful and annoying noise she could hear loud and clear through her earplugs.
The next morning she put out even bigger portions, whispering like a prayer, “hearty appetite.” Indeed, they seemed to enjoy a real feast. Not bothering, by now, to reserve their orgies for the night or early morning hours, they spent the day eating, looking at Sally, now and then scampering out of her way, or gave her a jolt, pleasant or not depending on the moment, thinking someone had come for a visit. They made her skin crawl, but she tolerated them in the name of Death – tardy, but she was sure he would arrive. She was particularly startled when, coming down from her bath, they were white as ghosts, having gotten into the flour. Before the kids got home, she refilled the cardboard plates.
She had a nightmare that BB guns were being fired at the house. Grabbing her flashlight, she followed the noise and saw the canister revolving like a top on the white linoleum. The creature had donned it like a Halloween costume, just its legs sticking out. It had chewed the bottom right off, and was going wild, either from the excitement of being in the midst of so much food, or the panic of being stuck.
“Mom, what the heck?” half-sleeping Timmy was sitting up.
“We’re going to the basement!” She was surprised to find she could still lift him and Patricia at the same time. She tucked her kids into their sleeping bags on the clean, white carpeting, under the plaster panels that gleamed as a ceiling should. Everything there smelled new, hermetically-sealed, and Sally was grateful. Returning upstairs, feeling the poison grains beneath her bare feet, she saw a bewildered Jim sitting up. She went to him; they made love.
It was a Saturday morning. Patricia, younger but already a leader, or bossy as less kind people would put it, all the more so beside her brother’s bemused and go-along temperament, announced they’d be making pancakes. Sally, suddenly aware of her own nakedness and the intertwined limbs, scrambled to pull the quilt over them, but it had fallen a ways away. “Lovebugs!” accused Patricia, marching to the kitchen, while her brother – the only one of them who could reach anything or read a recipe – lagged a few paces behind.
Sally’s bliss faded as she inventoried the blue oats on the floor, mentally putting on her dish gloves and picking up each one, searching till all were gone. During labor, the midwife had told her not to worry about contractions because if she did, she’d be suffering twice. Ever since, she had to remind herself to break this habit of mentally doing nasty chores before actually stooping to complete them. She briefly searched for room for bodies but found none, and was secretly relieved. A greater panic struck her as she saw Patricia, Indian-style on the floor, examining an oat, then putting it in her mouth as if it were a candy. Sally grabbed her youngest child, lifted her to the sink and washed her mouth out, making sure the oat came out. She thought of getting some vitamin K, which was noted to be the antidote, but it didn’t seem like a serious enough ingestion. As a precaution, she dialed the 800 number on the canister. “Raticide, how may I assist you?” the voice was wiry, nasal, bored. Sally hung up.
Mopping the floor, she noticed that the linoleum was completely unglued. Under it was a large stash of pink and blue oats, some pasta and grains of the wild rice she’d been saving for their anniversary dinner; also an unhealthy portion of a few century’s worth of dust and turds, which were slightly iridescent and looked a lot like the poison they contained.
“I have to find out exactly what it is, and how to get rid of it” she concluded. Online, she found a description that seemed to fit, mostly. One person asked why people would want to get rid of them – do you get kicked out of your bed when you snore? People answered him politely, discussing the noise problem, the poop problem, the eating-all-your-crackers problem, and Sally finally felt understood. These strangers out there were suffering just like her, while her own family was blissfully ignorant. She wondered if she were the only one who didn’t discuss the matter with other members of her household. Although she consulted forums occasionally, she never posted, fearing that if she entered, she would never leave. Her days and years would pass in a world that could be imaginary. She was a bit like her mother in that way: never believe anything you cannot see with your own two eyes. Or touch.
Sally was out of poison.
Fridays, Sally went to some big stores on the outskirts of the City. Sometimes she even went into the City and had a coffee and a pastry, her reward for being efficient in her shopping instead of lingering, undecided about purchases, until closing time. Most of what she bought was for the house. Every day, she’d add a few things to the list. It was like a scavenger hunt. She loved Fridays.
In the aisle marked “extermination,” she chose a device which resembled a small black fan. It was said to scare off all kinds of vermin, from mice to mosquitoes, via ultrasound. Someone on the forum had recommended it. Her only experience with ultrasound had been during pregnancy, so she imagined some kind of expensive, medical-type device. She was surprised by the cheap little black box and relieved that her worries could be over for so little, without hurting a fly. On the way to the check-out, she spotted a very good sale on nesting metal boxes. In front of her in line was a man she had known during her college days in the City. He’d been an excellent hockey player, and she had slept with him after a party one time. Now, he had a paunch and his shorts exposed a bit of his butt crack. In fact, she wondered if he’d become some kind of handyman, with all the doohickeys he had in his wagon. She thought of the ceiling. Would she be willing to sleep with him, to get results? Hadn’t she freely done so before, and was she so much above him now? She sort of felt like she was. They exchanged a few kind words, spouses, kids, careers and houses wrapped up in a few sentences, timed to how quickly the cashier could bag his stuff. The man, who wasn’t a handyman but the CEO of an important local company, as Sally might have known if she ever read the city paper they subscribed to, pushed his cart away into the foggy parking lot as his cellphone rang a tune from their college days.
Impulsively, she got off the highway and headed for the city center. The days got darker sooner, she was really feeling it, the between season before Christmas lights beautify the city streets. The shop-keeper, though 40-ish, could have been in a fashion magazine; her makeup was done so well it could have made anyone look pretty, and she was the kind of woman who only gets more appealing with the natural confidence that years bring. The cheese shop’s smell was overwhelming, as were the lights, bouncing off her raspberry nails and lips, the silver-lined eyes resting on her only customer, contemplating Sally as if she were a painting. Every piece of – cheese almost doesn’t feel like the right word – was displayed like a sculpture, with a hand-written sign, chalk on slate, telling the unpronounceable name, and how many months – occasionally years – it had been in this world. It was Sally’s first visit. “Just give me a bit of everything,” she blurted, in response to the question formed by the woman’s up-turned brow. It was raised slightly higher, indeed, she hadn’t been expecting such a rare request, and then the woman came to her own conclusion: “I can make you a tasting platter, please tell me for which occasion.” Her eyes narrowed in a way that made Sally fear she was seeing right through her, knew the real destination for these fancy fermented works of art. “It’s a housewarming. 10 people. I want creamy ones, the ones that taste really amazing. No funny stuff. Money is no object.” The last phrase had always intrigued her. This was the first time she had ever thought of using it. After years of buying processed cheese instead of good cheese to save money, she signed the credit card slip without looking at it, suddenly aware that the bus would be leaving soon to bring her children home. “Whatever you do, don’t refrigerate,” warned the woman with the heavy accent, putting emphasis on the ate. Sally stored the cheeses under some old sweaters on her side of the closet, and looked forward to the next day.
The feast prolonged itself into the morning hours, while the unsuspecting family had their usual cornflakes. Sally was thinking about cheese-making, about the places her bounty had come from, where she would never go. She suddenly realized she was not the only one whose thoughts were elsewhere. Timmy was no doubt thinking of the spelling bee, rehearsing words in his head, his dad dwelling on a deal that might go through. Only Patricia seemed really present, intent on getting the proportions of milk to cereal right. Sally kissed them the way she always did, after distributing the three brown paper bags. She went to the closet. She saw a tail skidding away. Furious, she seized the bag; only beautiful labels remained. She swore and raced to the little black box, which sat ticking uselessly, hurled it against the apple tree. A few apples fell. She swore again and ran herself a hot bath, that overflowed when she entered; she let the water go everywhere, and lay there for hours. As she finally sat down to lunch in her bathrobe, an hour before the kids were due, she heard the familiar rattling. The creature was brandishing the broken ultrasound box, banging it against the floor. “Piece of shit!” Sally muttered, not sure if she meant the box or the creature. Far from repelling the creatures, it seemed to attract them; in fact two more raced over and seemed to be kissing it. That night, there was no more raucous than usual, but Sally barely slept at all, nor the following night.
The phone rang. Patricia was running a fever and would have to get picked up immediately. As she watched her youngest sleep, Sally remembered how she’d looked as a newborn, the way her eyes would roll back in bliss whenever she’d nursed. Sally hadn’t particularly wanted a second child – Jim had – but now couldn’t imagine life without her. Sometimes when things had been too much, she had cursed her own baby daughter, hissing “I never wanted you!” then feeling terrible, so terrible, apologizing to the little fists clenching her shirt and, sensing danger, hanging on for dear life. She was amazed that her kids were turning out so well; thinking of it, and noticing that the fever was down one degree, made her feel happy for the first time that day. She noticed the black box and, since there was, surprisingly, no visual damage, she packed it up to take back to the store. She then began peeling potatoes.
Sally swore and raced to her child’s side. One intruder was on each side of the sick girl. Sally chased them away and inspected for damages, half dreading to see a missing toe or a chunk of flesh snapped out of the pale, perfect tummy. Her daughter briefly opened her eyes and seeing her mother, rolled them as she had as a newborn, and went back to sleep.
Sally didn’t wait for Friday.
In the Extermination Aisle, she asked the saleswoman what could be done, daring to mention the creature’s name. She nodded swiftly and motioned for Sally to follow. The woman – a girl really – joked with her colleagues about things Sally couldn’t understand, as they brushed past across the wide frontier of commercial space, brimming with things Sally would never know the use of, and many upon which her comfort depended. They were getting further into wilderness, and it had been quite a few aisles since Sally had seen anything recognizable. She wondered if the girl had really understood what she needed. Perhaps the word, with Sally’s accent, sounded like a totally different thing. The girl punched the numbers that unlocked a heavy door. Here, the lights shone on a shelf only when they passed it; otherwise it was quite dark. Sally said the creature’s name again, and the girl nodded. She mounted a ladder, came down with a cardboard box of things placed helter-skelter, a bit like the boxes that had contained Sally’s life for the move.
“It’s from Europe,” the girl said, the first words she’d spoken. “It’s good stuff.” She opened the lid of the tube and took a sniff, then extended it in Sally’s direction. “No, thank you,” muttered the seeker of destruction by any means. The box was written in a language with an slightly different alphabet. Sally was reassured by the crude, cartoon-ish drawing of the creature, in great distress.
Sally wasn’t going anywhere that day. She ignored the speed limit, muttering a short prayer so that a saint might think to keep cops at bay.
Again, Sally was cutting squares of cardboard; the mail-woman entered. She informed Sally that the town was holding a festival to celebrate one of the late-autumn vegetables that grew quite well there. Sally would normally have welcomed some local color and a chance to get to know the neighbors better, but at that very moment the thought of doing anything, of taking an interest in anything, felt impossible. She mumbled something, the woman left, and she went back to smearing the sticky potion onto the cardboard. She got some on her clothes and followed the box’s advice, luckily written in one language Sally happened to know, getting the chain-saw diesel out of the garage. Sally had been planning for Jim to trim the apple tree and, to make it easy, had bought chainsaw, ladder, and every liquid the shop attendant had recommended. Yet the tree wasn’t trimmed that spring after settling in, nor in the summer when the fruits were small and too numerous and, now that harvest was almost over, she resolved to ask him one more time.
“Sally?” said Jim at dinner. She dreaded conversations which began with her name. It was their night just the two of them, and Sally hadn’t been looking forward to it, as if she’d had something to hide. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean, Jim? The Ceiling Man is taking forever. I’m starting to get sick of waiting.”
“Sal, didn’t you say you were going back to work before Thanksgiving?”
“Sure, but business is slow. They don’t really need me.”
“Babe, I bumped into that new assistant, we had sort of a strange conversation. He seems to think you quit…”
“Oh, that! The kid’s a screwball.”
“Sally, if you want to quit your job, just tell me.”
“No no. What would I do without my job?”
“Sal, you didn’t work your butt off through two babies to be a housewife now that the kids are gone all day. I’m not saying we can’t live off my salary – but you didn’t do so badly yourself. Think about how much college costs these days, and it would be nice to fly south for the winter after retirement, which I don’t think should mean now.”
“Jim! What are you talking about, honey, of course I’m going back.”
His comments would have annoyed her, except that instead of getting annoyed, Sally lied her sweet little head off. Jim knew her quite well; he wasn’t sure what to believe.
“Jim, I want to work. I’m starting to hate the house. I feel like it’s permanently dirty, from those sour-looking old people that were the last to live here, and died in who knows which corner people died in, so many people. And why did no one live here for so long? It’s creepy, Jim. We decided not to tear up the floorboards, and I wonder what we would have found. I dream of a sparkling new place, the way some men dream about virgins on their wedding night; I sort of get their point. Sometimes I feel like a stranger in here, like an intruder on the boring, awful lives of those who went before us. Jim, we’re still dealing with their ugly wallpaper!”
“Sally, we can sell. You were the one who wanted the place. I don’t really care where I am, as long as I’ve got a pillow, some cornflakes, soap in the shower, and, and you of course. As long as we can be a family, have friends over, some cold beers in the fridge. I’m not a home-depot sort of man. I don’t fantasize about weekends going out to get the right screw or nail or toilet cover. Don’t care about putting in shelves or rigging some kind of automatic something. Can’t even stand to see other peoples’ projects, bores me to tears. My dad was that kind of guy, but I’d much rather shoot some hoop, or even go bowling, and go to parties at other peoples’ places – homey stuff is not Big Jimbo’s thing, babe. Actually, my dream would be to live at the Merryaught. I love it there.”
“I’m sort of with you on that. At least no rodents. Or if there are, you can just dial someone and they’ll take care of everything within an hour.”
“Within 10 minutes – and give you a free night. Hey, why don’t you get out of here for a weekend? You never go to the City anymore. I can handle the kids.”
“Jim, do you think we’ll ever get rid of them?”
“I mean the rodents.”
“Babe, just relax about it. They’ll probably die of the winter, and didn’t you poison them? They’re almost history.”
As if to contradict him, a fat one took a leisurely sniff across the counter. Sally had taken to putting the peanuts in a metal box, with a can of beans over the top, and using them to bait her sheets of cardboard. This one sniffed the cardboard and, without taking the slightest step towards it, muzzled its nose far enough to get the peanuts anyway. Sally stared in disbelief. It wasn’t until Jim handed her a kleenex that she noticed she was crying.
“It’s OK, babe, it’s OK. Kinda funny actually.”
Sally threw a vase at the rodent, who was as surprised as Jim. She dialed her best friend in the city. It wasn’t until the next night that Jim realized Sally was not going to clean up the shards. When she’d gone to her bath, he asked Timmy where she kept the vacuum.
Friday, the kids came home and found their dad on the internet. After virtually ignoring them while they ate the carrot sticks Sally had left, he finally turned to them with a wide-eyed grin. “This weekend, we’re making candy!” he announced, brandishing his detachable screen full of snippets of instructions hastily cut and pasted in various fonts.
“First, we gotta buy some stuff. As much sugar as we can get our hands on. Candy thermometer is a must. You can’t just toss it together like cakes or pies, kids.”
Timmy wondered when his dad had ever tossed together a cake or a pie. Certainly not in his lifetime. Perhaps it belonged to those distant, unthinkable days when his parents were people with lives that didn’t consider Timmy at all, since he was years from being born. Timmy himself was not bad at throwing together cakes, pies, meringues, muffins, biscuits, and, more recently, pretzels, under his mom’s increasingly inattentive supervision. It was usually his sister who supplied the impetus, brazenly threatening to throw ingredients at each other, while Timmy slowed and steadied her, as he now prepared to do with his dad. Cooking projects to pass the time was something they were used to; their dad’s involvement was something they were not. Had it been Sally who announced the weekend’s candy plan, they wouldn’t have batted an eye.
“Mind grabbing another wagon?” Jim asked Timmy, in the middle of the largest supermarket the City’s outskirts could hold. Full wagons were a common sight, obese people brazenly trotting around their vices, eyes gleaming as they knelled at every saint’s alter of their favorite cathedral. The Friday night love affair with food was in full swing. But this family had a mission, jotted in bribes on Jimbo’s palm pilot. Piloted through the aisles, not buying one single item for the week ahead, as they might have thought to do since Sally wouldn’t be shopping, they seized ingredients that would put many a fine chocolateer to shame.
“How you folks doin’ tonight. Wow. Goin inta the biznis?” Turns out the cashier knew a bit about candy-making himself. He gave them two pieces of advice: “you get the bug, they ain’t goin ta collidge. And your marriage out the window, buster. You get those kiddos ta collidge first.”
“In that case, I guess it’s like any passion,” supposed Jim, “like a sport. You get into it, and that’s all you want to do. Buddy, I used to want to be a professional volleyball player. The girl I was dating, never thought she’d be my wife. Just sort of happened.”
“Yep, life’ll do that. Then all of a sudden, somethin hits the guy and he gotta go make some candy, gotta do it big or not at all. But you wanna get it right, bro, slow and steady wins the race. Here’s your receipt. You folks have a nice life.” Timmy wasn’t sure if he’d said “life” or “night.” What had most impressed Timmy was the man’s corpulence. Yes, he’d seen this man once before, but his mother had been looking at the numbers adding up on the screen, and had hardly said a word.
It was their usual bedtime by the time they pulled into the dark driveway, but this was Friday, and no one could image not trying at least one of their plans, one of the strangers invited to their party: pecan turtles, cherry apricot almond clusters, white cranberry cashew ganache, milk mocha bean bark, honey-lime, mint and watermelon salt-water taffy, snowflakes, tulips, nonpareils, chocolate covered cherries, raspberry truffles, fleur de sel caramels. A lot of the wagon had been taken up by equipment, and weighed down by the carton full of bags of sugar, that they’d pilfered off a shelf-stocking fork.
That night, they only got to the taffy. Complicated, but delicious. They fell asleep eating it, had it in their mouths all night, chewing now and then, and in the morning, chewed more vigorously; they were an agglomeration of three little heavens. Jim figured he must have done something really good in a past life to deserve this: a day, then another day, ahead of him, with nothing to do but concoct other treats and eat them, all the while being a father, no conflict, for once, between child-care and his own pleasures. The phone rang.
“Yeah, babe, we’re good. The usual,” he lied.
He didn’t imagine that Sally was naked on a towel in the solarium of a racy new spa, being pummeled by a large greased-up woman who might have been able to pin Jim to the ground.
“To cleanliness!” she toasted with her college buddy, when the attendant brought fluted glasses of yet another H²0 from the well-stocked water bar. She wished her house looked like this: white, gleaming, new, a scent of chlorine and essential oils, immune to dirt, washed with waves flung from a bucket every hour, down into the floor-incorporated drains; she wished nothing could get into it, only people who showered at the entrance. Not the mail-woman with her dirty boots and unkempt hair. Not the flies. Most of all, not the Intruders. Sally finally knew what she’d wanted all along. Somehow she had vaguely imagined a fairy godmother in Carharts and a heavy red toolbox coming and making it all perfect, but no matter how many times she summoned, no one came.
As they walked back to the car, Sally stopped and shrieked. “What happened?” Sally was speechless. In the pet-shop window, there was a little white dog. Some lizards. A couple of rodents the size of small cats. No one was eating anybody else, and her friend wasn’t sure if it was the animals, or if her friend was spontaneously having some sort of attack, perhaps from over-dosing on steam, or from all the various minerals the world’s waters contained. “Can’t they leave me one second of bliss!” Sally hissed.
Her friend had a hair appointment, so Sally had a few hours. “We exterminate anything!” said the ad. A woman in denim overalls, a kind face, brown curly hair, a few strands of gray, and dimples, asked how she might help Sally. “Oh, you’ve got those… technically there is nothing that can be done. They are resistant to everything. A genius of evolution, and yet endangered. Know why? They only like certain places, some say; they won’t do it if they’re not happy with where they are.” “Do it? You mean like -” Sally hadn’t heard that particular euphemism in a while. “Yeah, reproduce. They only consent to living a life worth living, I guess. Oh, honey. Here, have a tissue. You can tell me about it. You can tell Big Rosy.” Sally glanced at the large rings and was reminded of a fortune-teller.
After falling apart in Big Rosy’s arms and describing the invasion in teary gasps under the exterminator’s knowing gaze, the later squeezed her hand: I’ve been there.
“Honey, we don’t go into this business for nothing!”
The mess was unfathomable to Sally. How could it be that the new kitchen wallpaper was bulking, coated in syrupy sweat? What were all those instruments soaking in her sink and in her bathtub, where she’d immediately thought to seek refuge? Why were they coated with a layer so stuck that diesel probably wouldn’t remove it? In truth, the three chefs had only begun cleanup an hour earlier, hastily throwing the scattered items in any water-holding surface they could find and, not knowing where most cleaning stuff was, rubbing laundry-bin shirts across the floor with their feet. Only a few pieces of taffy were left after their three-day binge. So they presented the taffy to Sally hoping to appease her, saying they’d made taffy and by some silent agreement, not speaking of the host of their other confections. Sally didn’t know where to take her anger. She threw everything out of the tub and just outside the bathroom door, and stayed under the water for hours, until Jim called his sister to come from the City and help clean up, then coaxed Sally out again.
The scudding woke her, but this time it filled her with joy, as she flicked on her flashlight and ascertained what she’d suspected. The creature was on it’s side, trying to roll over and get away, but the glue held strong. Sally crumpled the sides of the cardboard and stuffed the whole thing, creature and all, into one of the metal boxes, securing the lid with a can of baked beans, and putting it in the back of the pickup truck, next to the bags of garbage. A few hours later, she caught another in the same way. Again, she threw on her bathrobe and slippers and left the house. On the way back from the truck, she noticed the intensity of stars, the rustling of leaves that still clung to their trees. She lay down in a newly-raked pile of maple leaves. Breathing in their distinct, damp smell, she resolved she would enjoy nighttime more often. A neighbor’s black dog ambled over and warmed her as they lay there until she saw a shooting star.
The next morning, the house felt so peaceful, as she swept what she thought was the last of the droppings, that she thought she might want to die there after all, someday when she was old and surrounded by grandchildren. After her bubble bath, she felt entirely refreshed, entirely clean. She called her former associate to say that she might consider going back to work, but reaching only the answering machine, she hung up. There were certain things she could not admit to a machine.
Two days later, she still hadn’t been to the dump. They were all but dead, huddled identically, each in a corner of its coffin, shivering in excrement, hair and other parts doubtlessly having adhered to the cardboard. She took off the cans of beans, though she never would bring herself to eat them. It seemed paranoid to leave the cans there, as if they could raise from the dead, rattle off their coffin lids.
The next day, the lids were off. She peered into the boxes – empty except for excrement and cardboard – and felt like she’d just seen a Houdini-like trick. The feat was so awesome that for a second, she didn’t mind her own defeat.
As she went to the kitchen-island, intending to actually cook lunch for once instead of opening a can, bending to pick up an apple from the crate to eat while doing so, she saw something even more grotesque than the usual creature. It was missing a tale and an eye, and limped out of her path. It reminded her of a pirate, or of Moby-Dick. She took another of the glue-rigged cardboards and pressed it against the animal, this time totally attached on its back. She deposited it in another metal box, into the back of the pickup, with a can of ravioli on top. Then Sally vomited right onto the linoleum. She had to get out of there.
“Hey there, good to see you! I’ve been dying to show you our new lounge. It’s a playroom for the kids and for us. Here’s the bar, and here’s where we’re going to put in the wide-screen TV.”
“Oh Betty, that’s great!” lied Sally. In truth, all she noticed were the dusty pipes, the dank smell. Why did the creatures not bother coming here – or did they? “Do you ever have pest problems?” she dared to ask.
“No, never. Why?” As suspected, her neighbor had forgotten their previous conversation.
“Oh, I heard that it’s common around here.”
“Sally, why don’t you sit down – you’re looking faint.”
Betty served soup and a sandwich, which tasted quite good; Sally was glad she had come.
That evening, she and Timmy were cooking, but she had to sit down. Jim convinced her to see a doctor.
The test results arrived in the mail with a short note: congratulations.
Sally thought maybe she was going mad. Had she slept with someone and not remembered? That could have happened in her college days, but not lately. She barely met anyone, let alone having sex with them. What would she tell Jim?
She didn’t have to; he had already been congratulated while picking up some beef at the General Store. She knew it because he was ashen, as he made some calls arranging for the kids to be elsewhere that night.
It was Jim who ended up leaving. They hadn’t fought; it wasn’t their style. Might have been better if they had. She assumed he would camp out on a couch, but he called and left a number on her answering machine, for the city center’s Merryaught.
Alone, she almost welcomed the rustling sound, forgetting this was her enemy.
She bagged two that night. She stuffed them, cardboard and all, into the metal boxes topped with canned peas, placing the rattling twin coffins on the porch out of earshot; and out of mind for two days.
The second morning, oblivious to whether there’d been noise or not, she stumbled upon them while searching for more apples, since that was all she found the courage to eat. She got up the nerve to look after noticing that many of the apples had been bitten into, as if the goal wasn’t to nourish oneself, but to prevent anyone else from doing so. She hated waste, and suddenly didn’t mind their suffering. She peered in, expecting the worst. They were identically curled up, shivering in a corner, looked more dead than alive. She placed the boxes in the car, careful that they wouldn’t get knocked over on their dirt driveway.
That night, she got up with the flashlight to watch the ones in the cupboard. She just wanted to observe them. They were strangely unafraid. She knew it was an odd impulse, when she extended the pear-shaped wine glass that had been a wedding gift, so she was more than surprised when the creature crawled into it. “Ha!” she exclaimed, overturning the wineglass on the counter, weighing it down with a can of corn on the foot. She caught two of them this way. They filled the entire glasses, stuffed into them. A wineglass full of rodent, like some avant-garde hors-d’oeuvre.
In the morning, she transferred them into a metal box and drove to the furthest place she could think of driving. It was by the sea, a place they’d been to many times in the summer, for many years. The memories were just normal memories: eating fried clams here, watching Timmy swim for the first time without his water-wings, or the day there had been a shark scare. Once, Timmy had befriended an injured seagull, and convinced a doctor friend of his dad to try to splint the broken wing; the creature had died a few days later, in the bathtub, surrounded by snails and crackers Timmy had brought for it. They’d buried it in the park. One time, Patricia had surprised them all by finding a very old coin. There were memories of friends and family who had shared their beach blanket, and of the cheerful chatter of the sandwich man, growing old and putting his kids through school, always making the same delicious grilled cheese. There was the same chant of those who sold ice-cream or sodas, then moved on in life. The people were different; the chant was the same. She remembered the beach during storms, Jim loved going then; he sometimes found lobster traps that had been washed far from where they were meant to be. He would swim out and get them. There were often many lobsters, so many they would make sandwiches and salads out of the leftovers all week. There were also creatures not meant to be there at all, beautiful things that were the sea’s secrets; seeing them was intriguing, but almost obscene.
She knew it was a dumb thing to do. At best, or at worst, they would survive, reproduce, become a nuisance and a tourist attraction. Otherwise they would just die; by now she couldn’t picture them doing so. She knew this was a ridiculous place for them, but nonetheless let them out next to a garbage can by the seasonally-abandoned sandwich shed. Who would want them there, even if they did survive? Shouldn’t she have called the university? Someone would take an interest, if they were endangered. Or the pet-shop? She couldn’t go that far for them. They had to give her something in return, and that something was the drive. Sally felt oddly grateful that she would be home in plenty of time to fix snacks for her kids, who thought their dad was away on business. She didn’t really care where he was; in the eye of the storm, she felt calm. She remembered what Jim had said: “I’m not mad at you Sally, I just need time to think. Just tell the truth. It happens. You can still have an abortion.” She knew then that she wouldn’t. And she knew, though Jim had first sought refuge there, that there was no mistake. So many things now made sense.
She was so surprised by the serious-looking van marked “Modern Pest Control – Rodent Section” in the driveway, sitting there like a welcome hallucination, that she didn’t notice the car. Jim had been waiting; he showed her what was in his arms: a newly-weaned black kitten with blue eyes. She noticed many month’s worth of kitten feed on the counter. Without saying a word, they both now knew they would sort out what went wrong, what went right.