December 14

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 1)


William pressed the doorbell, a false-ivory button that had aged to the color of a coffee-stained tooth, but when he didn’t hear an electronic chime from inside he rapped his knuckles against the door.  While he waited, William had plenty of time to study the condition of the housefront.  In the door panels, vertical scratches of the original wood were visible beneath peeling curls of dull black paint.  The door knob was rusted; an obsolete mail slot near the bottom of the door was held shut with a piece of duct tape.  The brick facing fared better, though wooden window frames were chipped, and each of the screens had holes large enough to invite the very visitors that screens intended to keep out.  As evidence, the near window had a small graveyard of flies and moths on the ledge between the screen and the glass.  Another window had one panel patched with masking tape and cardboard.

“Be right there.”  Although muffled by the door and distance, the old woman’s voice was surprisingly loud.  He waited as the slow scuffle of feet got closer, then stopped.  William posed for the spy-hole.

“You saw the ‘No Soliciting’ sign?”  The voice was even louder; loose curls of paint vibrated from the sound waves.

In fact, there wasn’t a sign.  Perhaps a wind gust had blown it off the door, carried it along with the other trash that littered the mostly emptied neighborhood.  “I’m not a salesman,” he assured her.  “I’m an exterminator.”

More of a grunt than an answer, then a long pause before the door opened.  As he stepped inside the woman kept her back to him, already returning to wherever she’d been when he rang the bell.  He shut the door and followed, making sure not to crowd her.

The woman was taller than he expected, about 5’7”, and she walked with a slight limp.  Her slow steps found their way by instinct rather than sight; she sometimes touched a wall or brushed the corner of a stacked box, but mostly she kept her own balance.  Her long gray hair still featured a few streaks of black; strands of it flowed free, while other strands were tucked beneath a faded blue house dress.

“Like Grand Central Station around here,” she said, as if he was the latest of many visitors.

He thought, if anything, her house was like the Station’s Lost-and-Found department, with boxes and papers and clothes in abandoned piles.

William followed her into the next room, and it was like emerging from a tunnel into an open cavern.  The small living room was clean and candle-lit, with minimal furniture:  a sofa and two armchairs, two endtables and a coffee table, one bookshelf, and a television on a wooden stand.  Three bed pillows were stacked neatly at one end of the sofa, with a folded blanket draped over the back cushions.  On the opposite end, a smaller fleece blanket lay in a bundle.  The woman picked this up then spread it across her lap and legs as she sat.

William took the closest chair, which was covered in clear plastic.  It crinkled when he sat down.

“When did you fall?” he asked, referencing her slight limp.

“I’ve never fallen.  I’m very careful.”

“Of course.”  William reached inside the front pocket of his suitcoat and pulled out a sealed letter.  He turned the envelope so she could see the name printed on the front.  “You’re Mrs. Ethel Finley, correct?”

She made no movement to take the letter.  “I know what this visit is really about,” she said.  “I’ll die first.  I’ll die before I let you take me away.”




[…continued in December 15 entry….]