Something harsh and insistent breaks your doze. It’s morning. Saturday.
The door is buzzing. You’re not expecting any packages and it has been a while; it must be that time again. In the studio apartment, your bedroom is the living room, the kitchen, the entranceway. You drag yourself up and pull on some jeans, topless, eyes half closed.
You open the door.
A man stands motionless on the other side. He is short, squat and appears to be made of lego. Smoothly squared and plastic underneath his navy-blue boiler suit, his scalp surely bearing a stubby cylinder of plastic to clip into headgear (today a navy cap). He is of recently Mexican descent.
“Morning. Exterminator. Any pro’lems boss?”
In the shared hallway behind The Exterminator are faded plaques, dusty certificates, telling of the facilities once provided by the landlord – SHALL BE PROVIDED TRAPS, DUSTED ONCE A FORTNIGHT – now twenty years old and reduced to what ought to be. The artifacts serve only as a reminder of the dangers lurking within the walls.
Mice, bedbugs, rats, cockroaches… waterbugs.
Of all creatures, the waterbug is the most terrifying. You are not at all clear on: the appearance; speed; possibility of darting movement, or alarming colouration of the waterbug, and are content never to find out.
When The Exterminator asks – as he always does – you know what he wants to hear.
“No pro’lems? No… waterbugs?”
In remote Exterminator villages, when the young males come of age they are sent alone into the great communal basements, to survive for three nights in the rustling, scuttling darkness. To emerge on the fourth day, alive and of sound mind, grasping a furious waterbug – one great black/white antenna coiling in each hand – is a great omen for the tribe.
Today he bears a canister proudly before him, a hand-pumped relic from the 1960s, battered steel and thin rubber hose. Politely brushes past you – a liquid clang, the squeak of the pump.
You rub your eyebrows, make an effort to remember.
“I’ve seen maybe one cockroach this month. I think they get in behind the fridge.”
“Yeah big one, maybe like this.”
Beneath the cap his eyes fix on you. Or perhaps on something just behind you; antennae wave in currents of air.
“Like a… waterbug?”
“No. No… definitely a cockroach.”
His look fades.
The Exterminator sees into people’s mornings; the pale, vulnerable underplates of Saturday. He is not fazed by nudity, by embarrassment, by odours. Ignoring the darkness, the mess, he squirts a clear liquid carefully behind the kitchen units, behind the fridge, into the uncertain space beneath the kitchen sink.
You stand awkwardly until a pencil appears from behind a solid ear and the familiar form is offered to you. Then your scrawled and bleary signature, a barely disappointed
“Thank you boss, have a good day,”
and The Exterminator is gone.