No, when he entered someone’s house, it was at its most living, breathing state. No one cleans up for the bug man. Sometimes, it’s a lesser state than that—the emergency jobs—the termites, the bed bugs. All the embarrassing intimacies are exposed, and no one cares. The bug man gets the crusted dishes in the sink. The untamed dust bunnies exploring new territories like tumbleweed on an open prairie. The beds stripped and yellowed mattresses exposed, tainted with creatures, as sheets spin in an extra-high-heat dryer, and Mrs. Scoffield or Johnson or McAlister scratches her arms and cries when he leaves.
But seeing how the mighty had fallen wasn’t what he loved most. Sure, he had grown up poor. He’d done a stint in the navy and ended up exterminating bugs when his previously undiagnosed sleep apnea got him honorably discharged. He’d only had chance encounters with the rich and famous until he took this job, but peering into their nooks and crannies didn’t do it for him. Besides, wealthy, educated people didn’t tip well.
What he really loved were the houses where people lived alone, especially Emily Conyers’ house, though he couldn’t admit that to anyone for fear of being labeled a predator. He had never lived alone. He moved from his childhood home with his mother, four sisters, and an aunt, the lone man in a gaggle of women, to the ship, where the men at first overwhelmed him. And now he lived with Raye, who was more girl than all his family members, yet cruder than anyone he’d met at sea. She spent hundreds at a hair appointment, slept in makeup, pissed with the door open, and drank milk from the carton.
The loner-houses weren’t anything like his apartment with Raye. The men lived unapologetically—entire rooms with no furniture. And the women’s spaces, especially Emily’s, intrigued him most of all. Women alone didn’t sacrifice anything for anyone else. If Emily wanted a pastel pink dresser and intricate lace doilies on the wall, she had it, and yet it didn’t come across childish. Just true.
Emily was twenty-five, divorced, and interested in stargazing and staying fit, but he only knew this from her OKCupid profile, which he wasn’t supposed to be viewing, as he was in a loving, committed relationship with Raye. He visited Emily’s house once a month for a routine cockroach/spider/centipede spraying, and each time he found himself lingering in the corners, taking his time. He knew this was counterintuitive. She’d never call him with a brown recluse problem if he took such pains to keep her pest-free, but he couldn’t imagine her, all alone, sleeping in fear on her tiny living room loveseat because of a rogue cockroach in her bedroom at night.
His OKCupid profile featured an unrecognizable photo of himself, ten years prior, at boot camp. He wore sunglasses and had the requisite close haircut. Raye would never discover him, as long as he cleared his computer history, and Emily wouldn’t guess that Chris, “I like to work out and live life to the fullest,” was the Chris-the-bug-man-Chris.
He was building up the courage to send her a private message.
“I hope you haven’t had any problems with those Japanese stink bugs,” he mumbled as he sprayed poison in her kitchen.
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“Stink bugs. From Japan? They came in on a boat…invasive species.”
“Oh. No. I don’t even know what they’d look like.”
“Kind of like little origami kites, actually. But, you know. Smellier.”
“I’ll be on the lookout.”
“Yes! Let me know if you see any. You can call me any time. I mean, call ExpressPest any time, and someone will come out and take care of it.”
“Thanks. I will.”
He ran the conversation over in his mind. Her voice had risen when she said thanks. Like she genuinely meant it. It was a start. He’d send the message.
You seem like a cool girl I would like to get to know. Would you like to chat sometime?
Over his shoulder, he heard the sound of smacking gum.
It was Raye.
“Um. A client with a stink bug problem.”
“That’s what she said,” Raye snorted.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
“Whatever. Oh my god, is that OKCupid? What the hell, Chris?”
It would take a trip to Jared’s Jewelers and a lot of groveling to unwind Raye from this one. Raye cried that she shouldn’t have to feel insecure because she worked so hard at being confident. That he should know how far she’s come with trust after her last boyfriend and the mess with her step-dad, and she built a home with him, right, don’t you understand that we’re a family?
He looked around at their apartment. Raye’s purple bra hung over the bathroom doorknob, drying from the laundry. There were tampons in plain sight on the toilet tank. Over the fake fireplace was the art Raye had bought from TJ Maxx, the wooden plaque that said, We didn’t realize we were making memories—we just knew we were having fun! He realized he did live in a loner-house, but that house was Raye’s loner-house. Where did he go?
He got a message back from Emily.
Do I know you? You look so familiar from your picture.
He thought of Emily sitting on her double bed, the room dark but for the twinkle lights strung above her doorway. He envisioned himself disappearing there, too, tucking his work shirts away in the bottom pink dresser drawer.
He hit reply.
Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: Dot Dannenberg