TKnC welcomes Joe...
When I arrive, police cars are already there and a man is snapping pictures in the hot early morning sun, and I know it is her before I see the yellow tape stretched around the palms and poles like saltwater taffy. I spot the coroner, the gurney with the sheet pulled over the body, the blood seeping into the fibers. Everything slows down. Even though I’ve done nothing wrong, I want to turn around, get back in my van, drive far, far away. But there is nowhere to run. When you have a record like mine you are going to be questioned, sooner or later.
I hear the detective say, “Bring me the Bug Man.
They call me the Bug Man.
If you live in South Florida, you have bugs—silverfish, sugar ants, termites, roaches. I’ve become an expert on roaches. You have your American roaches, your brown-banded roaches, smoky-brown roaches, German roaches, and palmetto bugs, which are still cockroaches, just a lot bigger. Sometimes they’re called skunk roaches because they smell so bad. Word is the hissing cockroaches will be here soon.
The sun had just come up Saturday morning when I pulled my van onto the curb and parked in front of the Seaside, a slummy apartment complex on Ocean Avenue, but it was already hot. When I stepped into the heat, I could feel my shirt stick to my biceps and back.
A faded art deco behind a murky green pool, Seaside stood on a lesser strip of Ocean Ave. that wasn’t as sexy as the rest of South Beach. Tall palms with giant fronds and overflowing big blue garbage bins blocked a view of the sea. It stank like gym socks left in a hot trunk.
The apartments weren’t far from ritzy Lincoln Road, but in Miami you go block to block. High class never far from the hell of Little Haiti. I watched the lowlifes lurking in the in the sawgrass and monkeybrush as I made my way up the walkway. Windblown sands made it feel like I was walking on sandpaper. On the second floor landing, greasy men, arms slung through the bars, scratched themselves and drank from paper bag 40s, women, long past their prime, selling the only thing they had left. A Cuban with a black eye patch stepped in from out of the shadows.
There aren’t many jobs available to a man like me when he gets out of a place like Okeechobee. But there are always bugs in South Florida that need exterminating.
Last time I’d been at the Seaside no one was living in 5A.
Young, tiny like a bird, a finch or maybe a quail, dark skin, she had the body of a teenager, tight, no curves.
Her eyes looked…troubled.
I hit the bathroom, opened the back door and squirted the little patio where tiny pepper plants grew in round pots. A stiff ocean breeze blew back some of boric acid, which stung my eyes and made them tear up. They began to burn and I closed them tight. I felt something placed in my hands.
I wiped my eyes with the handkerchief. Red, silk, with a giant letter “S.”
“Sarhina,” she said, as I handed her handkerchief back to her. She took my hand. “I’m about to make coffee. Would you like to stay for some?” She squeezed tighter.
It’s easy being insulted, having someone be cruel, but when someone is nice to me, it saws like a dull knife on raw bone.
“Maybe next time,” she said with a sad smile.
Walking back to my van, I felt the sun beat down on my back, burning through to my skin. The harsh glare smacked off the asphalt in shimmering waves, making it hard to see. I shielded my eyes.
Across the street, the Cuban with the black eye patch stood watching me. I’d seen him before, this Cuban. So I eyed him back.
At my feet, a fat palmetto bug skittered past. I stomped it with my heel, and it popped like an overripe berry.
“Where were you last night, between midnight and two a.m.?” Detective Kaplowitz wants to know.
“Anybody verify that?”
“What were you in Okeechobee for?”
He already knows the answer to that.
“Never mind,” Kaplowitz says, pointing down at a thick binder on the table. “Got everything I need to know right here.”
And so on. I could do this drill in my sleep.
When I got off work that night, I took a long cold shower, but I couldn’t shake Sarhina from my brain. What was such a young girl who looked like that doing living in the Seaside? And why had she asked a man like me, a 6’4” longhair covered in ink, to stay? Stepping out of the cold water back into the heat, I felt lightheaded, and had to grab the edge of the sink to keep from falling.
I toweled off and poured a drink. I started to get a picture in my head, which got clearer with each slug. When she’d taken my hand, she wasn’t asking me to stay for coffee. She was asking for my help. She was caught up in something, desperate enough to take a chance on a stranger. I thought back to the Cuban with the missing eye, how he’d been watching me go in and out of her apartment, how uneasy it had made me feel. Now I knew why.
It was time to go back to work.
When you are good at your job, you can use more than one sense, sniff out the faintest odor, let the hairs on your arm stiffen, tune into the silent cries of a cityscape, and it will lead you in the right direction. I’d been exterminating bugs all my life, from the drunken trailer parks of childhood, through those long, dark nights inside Okeechobee, with nothing but good deeds misconstrued and perverted, until those insects came creeping out of the stone, squiggling over the dirty floor, thousands of the diseased little fuckers, and I’d jump down, stomping, grinding, punching the walls, until each one was dead…
I knew where to find him. Like all cockroaches, he’d shy from the light, scurrying into the darker corners where he thought he’d be safe with all the other vermin.
But this is what I do. I am the Bug Man.
I followed as he caught a bus, dropped off in the skeleton shantytowns of Little Haiti, no doubt looking for something to breed with. I parked my van under a dense eave of bougainvillea, and put on my gloves, strapped on my tank. Only sporadic light shone from power generators inside little huts, cast over the remains of headless chickens and bones, sweet starches perfect for scavenging.
Behind the tin shed and oil drums, I pouched, a fast, fluid strike. His body flattened, and I pinned a long, spiny leg to the earth as he writhed to break free, mouthparts flicking every which way, squealing and hissing as I inserted the nozzle deeper inside his throat, filling the cavity. He spasmed and twitched. I cracked my tank against his mandible, and ground it into the mud. Then he spasmed and twitched no more.
I rolled the bloated body down the culvert with the rest of the discarded goat and pig carcasses.
I looked down at the black eye patch I held in my bloody palm. He can’t hurt you no more, Sarhina…
Detective Kaplowitz stands up, puts his hands on the back of the chair. “We know you were there.”
I sprayed for the bugs.
“But you can’t account for why witnesses place your van outside the Seaside around midnight last night. A man with a history like yours—”
I was protecting her.
“Protecting her? From who?”
I tell him about the Cuban with the missing eye, not what I’d done to him, of course, because there is no reason, but about how scared she’d been, how she’d asked for my help, how he’d been stalking her, how I was one of the good guys, couldn’t he see that?
Kaplowitz pauses, momentarily stunned, then he smiles, says he’ll be right back.
When he returns he is not alone.
My whole body tenses. I fight to break free from the handcuffs, which cut into my wrists and pinch my circulation until my hands swell with blood like crustacean pinchers and go numb, my eyes beginning to tear up. He just stands there, a ghost.
“This is Detective Gonzales,” Kaplowitz says, putting his arm around the Cuban with the black eye patch. “He was at the crime scene this morning. I think you might be getting…confused. You have a history of getting confused, don’t you?”
I was protecting her. Why can’t you see that? Tears stream down my cheeks.
“Sure, you were,” says Kaplowitz. “Just a question of who you were trying to protect her from.”
The Cuban with the black eye patch reaches into his pocket, pulls something out and places it in my hands.
I stare down at the red handkerchief with the giant letter “S” stitched into the silk.
My skin begins to crawl, as though with a thousand unseen bugs, and my throat starts to close. I feel the choke of boric acid firing down my nasal passageways and esophagus, asphyxiating me. I want to scream but know no sound would come out.
You can’t kill them all, no matter how hard you try. More just keep coming. They fuck and they breed, molting their bodies in the darkness, shedding their sickness and assimilating, until they infest us all.
(This story was originally published in Thunderdome)
Joe's work has appeared in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, Opium, Thuglit, and Word Riot, among others. He produces Lip Service West, a gritty true story reading series in Oakland, CA.