Charles Malone

My boss hands me a list of addresses and says I need you to inspect each of these properties. No one will be home, she says, they are all abandoned.

Amy typically delivers instructions with a likable mix of confidence and humor. During my job interview she pulled out the original posting and asked me to read the last line out loud. It said that employees would get wet. Each year, she said, either during training or the first day in the field people seem surprised by this and they quit. Mosquitoes breed in water. You have to go in the water to kill them. I don’t know how to be more clear about this, she says.

When I agreed to take the job a few months before the end of the semester, my father was disappointed that I wouldn’t be home for the summer. By the time it started, it didn’t really matter.

Amy knows this work can suck. It takes a toll on the body. We are always soaking wet, always out in the sun. Our feet never get a chance to dry out. We have to keep our eyes out for rattlesnakes, snapping turtles, and shotgun-waiving property owners. As she explains what I have to do today, she’s timid. The task doesn’t frighten either of us, it just feels uncomfortable and invasive.

Matter-of-factly, she lays it out, we’ve seen a spike in the mosquito population downtown since the tornado. The trap numbers are high. Almost all Culex. The city is very concerned about a West Nile outbreak. We’ve upped our fogging, but the numbers are not going down. We believe there’s water where there usually isn’t. The city gave us this list of homes severely affected by the storm. I need you to go and check them out. Also, make sure you get lunch.

I tell her I’ll do it. I am just waiting for my partner Jason to show up. She apologizes.

Jason called in sick today, I’m sorry.

Sick in Jason-speak is tired, or hungover, or just not feeling it.

I understand this is not how the job is supposed to go. Nothing here has gone according to plan. On my first day in the field, I was standing in a swamp dipping and counting larvae just as they’d showed us in our training. A cold wind pushed over the cattails and roughed the surface of the water. The temperature dropped from 87° to 60° and the air tasted electric, like licking a battery. I called out to Jason, something seemed wrong.

I began to walk, then run back to the truck. I dove under the rear bumper to dodge the softball-sized hail that began to fall. When Jason reached the truck he decided we should drive as fast as we could away from the storm. My protests were useless. Hail slamming the truck sounded like a clothes dryer full of rocks. The emergency broadcast system screamed through our work radios and through the truck stereo simultaneously. As he spun around the corner onto Main Street, I leaned forward to look into the passenger side mirror. I saw the tornado burst through an old grain mill and cross the road in the center of town behind us. It was like watching television, it felt far away, unreal. A ball of ice shattered the mirror. I twisted around in my seat and saw the whole disaster racing away from us. Snapped boards, corrugated metal sheets, tree limbs, bricks, swirling like the inside of a blender. But swirling away from us. I told Jason that we were safe. He slowed the truck, calmed, and spotted a pizza place and pulled over. I’m hungry, he said.

Now, a few weeks later, I drive back through downtown. The tornado porn tourists, college students from Fort Collins and retired business people reborn as nature photographers, have finally stopped patrolling the east side of town. The glass has been cleaned up and the streets are quiet. A large swath of houses still looks like their roofs had been plucked up by curious giants. The tires and sections of cedar fences have been piled beside the jet skis and screen doors. Everything waits for insurance companies and garbage trucks.

My task is simple: anything that can hold water, even something as small as a bottle cap—check it, drain it, treat it—coy ponds, kiddie pools, buckets, tires. Yet, when I pull up to that first modest house, a dorky, welcoming late-70’s split-level, and I walk around to the side yard and see the siding stripped from the entire side and back of the house, every window shattered, and a corner of the roof gone, I’m just heartbroken.

In the backyard, there’s a pink bicycle and a pink helmet full of water, full of pupae. I dump it onto the cement patio. It is brutally hot out and I think I hear the water sizzle. I reach through the shattered French doors to set the helmet in the dining room. I don’t know for sure that it belongs to this house. The gas grill, slammed through the fence, lays open on it’s back. The lid is full of water baking in the sun. Tiny exoskeletons float on the surface. I heave the thing back on its feet. Through the hole in the fence I see the neighbor in his bathrobe watering his roses. His house is completely untouched. He just stares at me.

It’s okay, I say, Mosquito Control.

A few stops later I’m in Waterford Lakes, the house is brand new, a country club luxury home. The golf course is watered so heavily that we have to treat the place twice a week. All the product we put down on Monday is gone by Wednesday and the breeding cycle is just quick enough that we can’t wait a whole week. The place is so green compared to the high, dry plains outside of town. I can’t even smell the sage and rabbitbrush. I pull up with yellow lights flashing on the truck to knock on the front door. There is no front door, just some yellow tape crossing the void below it’s audacious pillars. I walk in. The house has never been lived in. Mold spots the drywall near the door. The interior opens cavernously. Hello, I call out.

I hear movement upstairs and I tense up. Please let it be a fox or racoon. Please let it be a wolf or a bear. Nothing scares me more than people. I can tell they are trying to move quietly. I know it is human.

It’s okay, I say, Mosquito Control.

A very thin man comes down the stairs wrapped in a plaid blanket and boxer shorts. You can’t…you don’t tell anyone I’m here. Something jerky in his movements makes me uncomfortable. His right hand tucks behind his hip and leg.

Look, I just need to look through the property to make sure there’s no standing water. You gotta go, he says.

I just have to do my job; nobody needs to know. My boss doesn’t care anyway. I don’t really know what to tell him. I try the fear tactic. I’m trying to prevent an outbreak of the West Nile Virus.

Is that serious?

Yes, it is very serious. You get a headache, you feel tired, you ache, things get foggy, weak. By the time the fever sets in there’s nothing you can do to avoid the convulsions. You can end up paralyzed or in a coma.

Sounds like withdrawal, he says. You should probably check out the upstairs bathroom.

I don’t say out loud that I really don’t want to. His hand still behind his back, I can see the muscles in his forearm are knotted. I wish that fucking idiot Jason showed up for work.

I follow him up the stairs and he begins to talk to a woman in one of the bedrooms. Her blond hair is a tangle. All she has on is a loose, tattered tank top. She closes the door abruptly as I arrive on the landing. A flash of breast and rib. He points at the bathroom with the steak knife in his hand. The window has blown in and soggy drywall clogs the tub’s drain. Rain has collected in the bath and it’s full of writhing larvae, multiple stages. The tub is also full of glass. I don’t want to put my hand in there to clear the drain. I look around for something to use. Looking out the shattered window, I see crews already replacing windows and siding on some of the other houses. Judging by the patio furniture, the other homes have more permanent residents. I see a crushed trampoline on a small decorative island in the lake that separates the homes from the golf course. There is a red kayak twenty feet up in an old cottonwood tree. Tree limbs everywhere. A tow truck drags away a white BMW with a crumpled roof. Hail damage dimples many of the other cars.

I see myself in the mirror—not the round, friendly self-image I have. My cheeks and jaw show sharp angles. My tanned skin stretches taught and lean. I realize that this guy must be intimidated by me. I realize I am burning more calories in this job than I take in. All these long hours carrying heavy gear, walking miles, often waist deep through walls of cattails. My body has changed so much this summer and I haven’t noticed. I know there are a lot of things I’ve not let myself notice lately.

I take the towel rod out of its mounting and poke around the tub until the drain clears. I toss some Bti insecticide in the tub just in case.

I thank the man, he asks me if I can spare them any money. I tell him I’ll set my lunch inside the front door after I check the backyard. It’s all I have. He thanks me and says I don’t look so good, like maybe I’ve got that Nile virus.

I don’t know what to say about them living there. I want to urge them to find some other place, just so no one asks me any awkward questions, but I don’t know what that looks like for them. If I was in a position to be more helpful I wouldn’t have this job killing mosquitoes for a notch above minimum wage. I walk through the decked-out kitchen with two ovens, a Viking range, double-wide wine fridge and built-in espresso machine. There is a real estate flyer on the counter with professional photos of the house and golf course. The price is closer to a million than to half a million. I dump my lunch out of the little cooler bag. I leave.

Honestly, I’m not that worried about West Nile. I know fear of the disease drives cities to hire us. I also know that eighty percent of folks who get the virus never know it. Most of those who have any symptoms just get the shits and feel tired. It’s less than one percent who really suffer. The economics of this business callously tie to the occasional death.

Some nights, I run the fog truck through this neighborhood because only Jason and I know our way around the zone and he’s not one to put in extra time. You should be out with your fiancée he says. I need the hours, I answer. He tells me he’ll take her out instead. I remind him that he’s gay. He says he doesn’t know what that has to do with anything. The controls for the sprayer have to go out the drivers’ side window. The whole night mosquitoes fly in through the gap, fog drifts in through the gap. I am bitten dozens of times. I’m more scared of the repellants we use building up in my system than I am of West Nile or the chemicals we use to fog. I pull these doubles all the time. I’m making money, sleeping briefly and soundly. I don’t have to talk to anyone outside of work.

I understand the fear, the reason people slather themselves with deet. The idea of something uncontrollable, unavoidable, and unpredictable moving through your blood. Originating from a being as small as a mosquito. Small as that and destructive as a tornado.

I took this job before my father died from an aneurysm, which is a kind of tornado. I was dragging my feet about moving home after graduate school and then there was nothing to move home for. Both things happened the same week. Back for the funeral, the house might as well have had its windows shattered and the front door torn from its hinges. It might as well have been gutted, never lived in, or full of junkie squatters. He was there, then he wasn’t.

I can’t shake the thoughts of my dad while I try to inspect the old mill building. Sky slashes through the roof all over. One grain elevator belt is intact and the cups are full of water. Another has broken. There’s equipment toppled everywhere. The floors creak. Some of the stairs are missing. I don’t know for certain which damage is from the tornado and which belongs to time. Dust hovers in columns of light, hovers with the smell of dry grass. The scent is a near perfect match for my dad’s dad’s farm. It’s too dark in here to do any work. I can’t see the water I need to treat, but I feel its dampness in the air. The floors creak louder. I’m not sure it’s even safe and without really noticing tears stream down my cheeks. For once I am glad Jason called off.

I set my dipper and bag of insecticide down. I sit cross legged on the floor. Doves coo in the rafters. The building groans. I take my feet out of their boots. I slip the soggy socks off. My feet are ghost white, skin puckered like dried fruit. Blisters peel off in flaps.

I find the building comforting. My father’s parents had an old farm and its big red barn was just like this. Vast and yawning—old and quiet and filled with evidence of past inhabitants. Sun bends through sagging panes of glass. The light is the light of every childhood summer. It is the golden light of my engagement photos.

I think about that evening when photographer took us out into a cornfield just before dusk. The tassles, the giant bales of hay, Ellie’s blue dress, the hills in the distance—I close my eyes. I see that whirl of black cloud smashing into this building. I see the old beams, these massive timbers quake. I imagine the idea of safety and shelter vanishing into impossibility, the rupture of the division between ideas of inside and outside. I have been outside for so long.

There’s a crack of radio static, a crude beep.

Amy calls on my radio. She asks how things are going. I tell her they are going well. I have five or six more houses to do after lunch.

I turn off the radio. I call my dad’s cell phone number just to listen to the snippet of his voice. It’s been a few weeks. I feel silly, self-indulgent. While it rings, I wonder how long before the number is recycled. There he is: a guarded, even-toned version of himself. I leave a long message that starts as an apology. It ends with a bunch of self-justification interrupted by the time limit. I call back again to leave a pure apology. I call back again just to hear him.

Before heading home, I drive by one of our problem sites, a farm on the edge of town. The field is a shallow sheet of water glinting with afternoon light. The east edge of the field sits lower than the west. Every other week or so the farmer floods the field to water his corn. The site takes a couple hours to do alone and it’s the last one I have to do today. I walk up and down the ridges of dirt. My boots stick in the mud. They pull up the fishy scent of fertilizer. I gage the aperture on the blower to get the right amount of product down; I feather the throttle. The ear protection I wear turns everything into one smooth ohm. Work numbs me. I think about picking up the weekend shift. The humming truck and fogger. A great horned owl watches from the tree that marks the corner of the property.

I talk to the owl while I work. He says I don’t look so good. Like maybe I have that Nile virus. He says, if I’m going to work the night shift, maybe he’ll take Ellie out. I remind him he’s an owl, and he asks what that has to do with anything. The sun hovers still high but not as hot above the mountains on the horizon. I feel very tired, my legs are so heavy, I tell him. I think that I have been hollowed out. Something huge has swept through me, but I haven’t done the work to clean up. He says that I’m being self indulgent letting my personal tragedy blur with the dozens of personal tragedies around me. The pink bicycles and needle marks. The broken windows and crumpled cars. There’s a work that I’m not doing. You’re right, I say to the owl, or the ohm, or to Jason, or to Amy, maybe to Ellie, or to my father. I’ll take the weekend and spend it with her. I squint at the particular color of blue above the snowcaps. A color like a fabric you might hold, briefly between your fingers.

About the Author

Charles Malone works with writers in the community around Kent, OH. He recently won the Moonstone Arts Chapbook prize for his poems “After an Eclipse of Moths.” His full-length collection “Working Hypothesis” is out with Finishing Line Press. And, his first chapbook “Questions About Circulation” was published by Driftwood Press as part of the Adrift Chapbook Series. He edited the collection “A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park” with Wolverine Farm Publishing and has work recently published or forthcoming in Dark Mountain: Abyss, Hotel Amerika, The Best of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac, The Sugar House Review, The Dunes Review, and Saltfront. Charles now works at the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State.