Fiction: The Entomologist

Read More: A brief interview with Hadley Moore

Earlier today the hippies had ambushed Lynette, and in the hours since they left she’d been off-kilter, lost in a vacant sort of perseverating that came down to feeling humiliated and not knowing how to soothe herself.

She guessed the hippies had tried the broken bell first. Then they knocked while she was in the bathroom, and she’d hoped she could hold her breath and wait them out. But they knocked again. She debated whether to flush, decided against it, and crept from the back of the house up the hall, at the end of which she saw a man’s face pressed to the wide front window. He waved. She considered running out the back, but he might chase her. She couldn’t remember if she’d locked the front door, and it seemed safest to meet him on the porch where the neighbors could hear her scream.

She opened the door. “Yes?” she said.

There were two of them, the man and a woman. They were skinny as new trees, and though their clothes were shapeless, they had bathed and combed their hair. Portland was lousy with vagrant youths—“hippies” was probably an old-fashioned word—but these two appeared neither sinister nor pathetic. Even so, Lynette reminded herself to keep her guard up.

“Yes?” she said again.

“I’m Antoine,” the man said.

Lynette crossed her arms.

“And I’m Catty,” said the woman.

Catty?” Lynette repeated.

The woman smiled. “It’s a nickname that stuck.”

The man went on, “Like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.”

“Huh,” Lynette said. She pulled the door shut behind her and took a step forward. Antoine and Catty took a step back.

“We’re from Oregon Micro Farms,” Antoine said. “Have you heard of it?”

Lynette stared at him.

“We notice you have a chunk of unused land—”

“What?”

“Behind the house.”

“You mean my yard?”

“It’s a full quarter acre, and it’s mostly empty.”

There was a toolshed she hadn’t unlocked in years and a dying crabapple tree.

“What do you want?” Lynette asked. She tried to sound impatient but the sun lit Antoine’s white-blond hair. “You have a halo,” she told him.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, not a halo—a, like, nimbus or something. Of light.” Lynette drew an imaginary circle around the top of her head and pointed behind them. They looked.

“The house faces west,” she said. “So, your hair.” It was four o’clock on a March day in Portland.

“Oh,” Catty said. Her hair was black.

Antoine touched his head. He and Catty glanced at each other.

“You must have lovely sunsets,” he said.

“The backyard faces east, which would give us enough light, and we could use this south-facing side yard too.” Catty pointed.

They talked, and Lynette watched their mouths. Antoine’s head still blazed, and the colors in their clothes pulsed, first the orange flowers of Catty’s floppy sweater, then the blue-blue of Antoine’s jeans. Lynette felt heat begin in her solar plexus. She wiped her upper lip.

Something, something, Oregon Micro Farms,” they said. “Something, something, something, vegetables. Something, something, raised beds.” That phrase over and over—raised beds.

“I’m Lynette.”

They stopped talking.

“Anyway,” Antoine said. “Can we show you what we mean?”

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That was how she ended up in the backyard with the hippies, all three of them assuming the posture of the surveyor: wide stance, hands on hips. Antoine and Catty would build raised beds on her “land”—they would start tomorrow—and maybe also plant a few hardy fruit trees. Some of the food they would donate to shelters and soup kitchens, and some they would sell at farmers’ markets to benefit Oregon Micro Farms. They would get to keep a little for themselves—it was part of the contract—and they would give a little bit to Lynette.

“I’m allergic to cucumbers.”

“Got it,” said Catty.

“Is this your job?” Lynette asked.

“Partly. I nanny, and Antoine works in a coffee shop.”

“Everyone in Portland works in a coffee shop.” Lynette laughed. “Of course, I love coffee.”

Antoine smoothed his beard. It was darker than his hair.

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I study termites. Studied them. I’m retired.”

That surprised them. They thought she was a nutty old lady, but she had a master’s degree in entomology.

“Interesting,” Antoine said. “Studied them for what purpose? I know they’re helpful for decomposition in some ecosystems.”

Lynette guffawed. “Like decomposing the ecosystem of your house!”

They gave her tiny fake smiles.

“I worked for a pesticide company.”

The grudging smiles persisted, but Lynette knew she had said too much. The heat began again, and she fanned her face. She was embarrassed because, for one, the hippies didn’t believe in pesticides, and for two, the termites were back.

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Her humiliation was like having a chocolate cake in the house. She would think about it until it was gone. She would eat the cake in anticipation of the relief of not having to look at it.

There are things everyone knows but no one recalls learning—boys and girls are different, all of us will die. Her bewildering humiliation was like that. She had always known it; it was more than familiar, it was atmospheric. She got in trouble as a child for transgressions she didn’t understand she’d made. Be friendly. Smile and say how do you do. Look at people when they talk to you. Please try to seem like you’re having a nice time. She would try, but it was hard to tell if she was doing it right.

Also atmospheric was her preference for animals, particularly insects (abundant, intricate, six-legged!) over humans. For goodness sake, Lynette, stop digging in the dirt. She would go along, interacting with humans, or at least being where they were—and doing what they wanted her to do; it was easier than navigating on her own. So she was bossed around on playdates, then later on dates and at parties, her looks, she would come to realize, earning her heaps more patience than if she’d been homely in addition to strange.

“You’re so pretty!” girls would say, wistful-like, while the boys looked at her sidelong. This started when she was nine or ten. Then the boys got bigger and introduced her to the word hot, a word that could both thrill her and twist her stomach. She was tall, and very blond, and was made to understand that she was striking. But if she’d been homely people might have been more willing to leave her alone.

Now, Lynette glanced at her watch. Since the hippies left, five hours ago, she’d intended to call the dermatologist, do laundry, pay bills, give herself a cream rinse, and mollify her tenants, who were still pissed off about the mold in the shower. But all she’d done was bang around the house and check the termites about ninety-five times.

She sat at the kitchen table and kicked off her slippers. The window looking over the backyard was a black square, so she leaned to the wall and turned out the light. There was just a quarter moon, and the crabapple was the same stark sculpture she’d stared at for more than twenty winters. Soon it would show whether it had survived this one. The toolshed lay outside her sightline, and was not worth moving to see.

Tomorrow would begin the construction of the raised beds, large wooden boxes laid out geometrically. They were efficient and also attractive, the hippies had told her. She would like them, they would improve her property.

Lynette had made a resolution, and she reminded herself: she would not mention pesticides again. And she would not mention pests.

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A couple of weeks earlier, she had met the termite evidence with calm acceptance. Insects outnumbered humans some 200 million to one. That a relative few should show up in her house again was not surprising, though it was ironic. Or maybe just coincidental.

She’d been vacuuming the living room—which was itself notable; usually she just ran the dustbuster around corners—when she bashed through the baseboard on a not-very-aggressive pass. She turned off the machine. On hands and knees she held her nose to the wood. It smelled moldy. She hooked a pinky finger inside the four-inch gash and drew out dirt. On either side of the gash she pressed, and on either side it gave a little.

Lynette switched on the light and sat. She fixed her eyes on the new hole, then moved them slowly up until she noticed a rippling in the wallpaper. She leaned forward and ran her hand up too, until she could no longer reach. Then she sat back. She had to check the basement.

Directly below was the furnace room, where no one had been since the igniter for the tenant unit was replaced a few years ago. But the two old furnaces had been kicking on and heating the house, and more and more it seemed better to leave well enough alone.

Descending the stairs, she was serene in anticipation of what she’d already identified. She opened the door to the furnace room, and swept her flashlight beam up and down the south wall. Then she swung to the north, and on her third pass up she found the mud tubes. They had bloomed from a crack in the foundation, four separate termite highways straining for a food source. The tubes had reached the wood of the floor joists overhead and wrapped around the cross braces like vines. She noted a pulse of pleasure in the recognition: Reticulitermes hesperus.

She went upstairs for her penknife, and came back to slit open the base of the widest tube, revealing the tiny white workers, further evidence, wholly unnecessary. This must all be destroyed.

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In the morning Catty and Antoine began hauling wood into the backyard. They parked a rusty Toyota pickup in front of the house and used the south side yard to go back and forth. Catty wore a flowy skirt like a pioneer wife, and Antoine had on overalls. Lynette watched them alternately from the bedroom and kitchen windows. They would come and go, they had told her. They wouldn’t bother her. They didn’t say where they would use the bathroom. Not inside the house.

Even so, she batted cobwebs out of corners, ran a wad of tissues over the lid of the toilet tank to grab the dust, gave the bowl a vigorous scrub to loosen the layer of scum that now waved in the water like a lacy sea creature. She wiped her sleeve across the mirror and gave herself a good looking-over.

Gray hair a springy cloud she could tie a knot and put a pencil in to hold it. No makeup, prominent laugh lines, and pale, shriveled lips. But eyes still bright blue, brows still dark, pores still small, chin still single.

And she wore a bra, for heaven’s sake. Under a gold kente cloth tunic she’d found at Goodwill, but still, she made some effort. She sneezed into her elbow. She was nearly seventy, but she’d been attractive, arresting even, when she was younger.

Lynette opened the medicine cabinet, thinking she might find an old lipstick or blusher. She poked around for a few seconds, knocked a label-less tube of ointment into the sink, replaced it, and shut the door. She pursed her lips and pinched her cheeks and blinked several times. The color rose from her heart up across her chest and throat, seeping and uneven like something spilled. She turned from the mirror, stalked out of the bathroom, and shut the door behind her.

She sneaked back to the kitchen and leaned against the window frame, peering out at Antoine and Catty’s progress. There were two small trees in plastic tubs (pears? apples?) set against the shed; ten or twelve bags of soil, or manure or peat maybe; and stacks of wood, two by fours or four by sixes or whatever, long reddish rectangles. Everything new and raw.

Antoine and Catty came around from the side yard, each carrying another load of boards. Antoine set his down next to the others, then took Catty’s and set those down too. They stood for a few minutes, hands on hips, or hands pointing at things, or hands gesturing to each other. Catty looked at Antoine, and Antoine looked at Catty, and Lynette watched the swiveling of the backs of their heads, black to blond and blond to black.

They turned toward the house and shaded their eyes. Antoine held a hand up toward the window, and Lynette did not move. Then they left, back around the side yard to the front. The truck started, and she exhaled.

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It was only ten a.m. Lynette knotted up her hair and put on a sweater and went outside. The neatness of their supplies was even more impressive up close. Corners had been lined up, bags stacked like with like, three soil to every one manure and peat. The trees were indeed pears. She wondered where they had used the bathroom.

How long could this go on? They would build their raised beds and plant their trees and vegetables, and winter would come, and would they be back next spring? For years and years and years, every spring? Eventually they would realize they needed real jobs, or they would break up, or Catty would get pregnant, and the raised beds would fill with weeds and rot, and the trees with worms, and Lynette would either be dead or the one to witness the entropy.

Or the house could fall first. Not literally fall, but be eaten to crumbling. It would take a while. People thought termites worked very quickly, but that was only because by the time they discovered any damage, Reticulitermes hesperus had been working for years. The bugs ate from the inside out.

It was almost a decade ago that she had come upon a termite swarm in the front yard and hired her employer. But now it had been so long since her retirement, and the new owners were lying low because of all the bee deaths last summer. Anyone would have sprayed like that for aphids, but they clearly overdid it: 50,000 bees dead. Anyway, she felt awkward going back there. Maybe no one would remember her, and she wanted to do some research on her own, besides. The science would have progressed in the last half-dozen years. A few weeks would make little difference.

There had been a memorial service for those bees. Oh, Portland. Maybe Catty and Antoine had gone. Did you sing at a service for bees? Were there prayers? Lynette stared at the boards and bags and the trees in tubs and tried to imagine it. Was there a minister? Some Unitarian Universalist probably.

“Mrs. Collins?”

Lynette turned around. The tenants were striding across the lawn. “Christ,” she said.

They caught up to her. “What’s going on here?” That was the white fellow, Mitchell, the more obnoxious one. The other one was Prashant, who told her he was from Kerala (in southwest India—she’d had to look it up) but was dark like an African. When they moved in, seven months ago, she’d asked them, “Are you roommates?” That was an idiotic question, but what she’d meant was, Are you gay? Mormons? Adopted?

They were graduate students.

“The university’s kind of a hike from Southeast, isn’t it?” She’d meant Portland State, downtown. They went to Western Seminary, they told her, only a few blocks away.

“That’s handy, then,” she’d said.

They were neat and quiet but they complained, more than any other tenants she’d had. It was mold in the shower or condensation on the insides of the windows or ants in the kitchen or noise she could hardly recall making, just the incidental sounds of daily puttering on her side of the duplex. Her side. It was all hers. This backyard too. She didn’t have to answer to Mitchell.

“Oh, some young people are planting some things,” she said to him now. “Raised beds.”

“Some young people?” That was Prashant. He sounded more British than Indian.

“A couple of—“ She didn’t want to say hippies. “A couple of gardeners.”

Mitchell sniffed and Prashant just looked at her.

“You rented your yard?” Prashant again.

“Yes.” Should she have asked for money? The hippies were like tenants, but with no monthly rent check. So the benefit to her was what, again? Property improvement. Fruits and vegetables. “But I wonder how they knew this big yard was here,” Lynette said out loud. Had they been lurking around her neighborhood? She felt hot again and shrugged her sweater off her shoulders. She sat on a pile of boards.

Mitchell started up. “Anyway, we wanted to ask you—”

“I know, the mold.”

“Not the mold. We just bleached the heck out of it.” He smirked. Why should he care about mold? He was transient. None of the responsibility was his.

And the bleach was supposed to bother her (no makeup, kente cloth tunic, “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker on her car, and now urban farming). It did not bother her. Lynette wondered what the tenants would think about a memorial service for bees. She was so hot. She wanted to put her head between her knees.

“What then?” she asked.

“Will this be loud?” Mitchell made a half-pointing, palm-up gesture toward the wood. “A lot of hammering, I mean.”

“Oh Jesus,” Lynette said. Now they would complain about the hippies too. She fanned her face and chest. What the hell was going on? She was well through menopause. “You could tell them when you’ll be gone. You could give them your class schedule.” She’d tried to sound sarcastic, but the tenants looked at each other. Prashant shrugged.

“When will they be back?”

“I don’t know,” Lynette said.

“What do they look like?” Mitchell asked.

“They look like hippies.”

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The hippies came back in the evening. No sooner had they braked in front of the house than the tenants practically galloped across the front lawn to meet them. There were handshakes all around, and the tenants gave the hippies a sheet of paper. Catty held it and Antoine looked over her shoulder, and they nodded, and the four of them laughed. Mitchell turned to indicate the house behind them, and Lynette shrank from the front window, where yesterday Antoine had pressed his face.

So they were friends now, the earnest farmers and the earnest Christians, and they had come to an understanding about how and when they would all make use of her property.

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A month ago Lynette had let a plumber into the tenants’ apartment while they were in class (rust stain, dripping tub faucet, weeks of complaints about the noise), and after showing him the bathroom, she’d walked through the other rooms. For all their fault-finding it was the first time she’d had real cause to be in Mitchell and Prashant’s space longer than a few minutes, and without them present.

The apartment’s familiar layout mirrored the side where she lived, kitchen and one bedroom in the back, living room and the other bedroom in the front. Bathroom between the bedrooms, where the plumber was banging away. That was some top-dollar noise he was making. It sounded a little overdramatic.

In the kitchen was a small dining table set with a laptop and a manila folder. She lifted one corner of the folder and let it drop. In the refrigerator, their food was labeled, black magic marker for Mitchell, green for Prashant. Each had his own carton of eggs. Mitchell preferred orange juice, Prashant whole milk.

Prashant had the back bedroom (she knew by the family photo), with just a twin bed, tidily tucked in with a navy blue quilt, and bookshelves made of stacked milk crates. Mitchell’s front bedroom had a double bed with a yellow chenille blanket and two tall bookcases—proper bookcases, but cheaply made.

The living room held two more dining chairs and a card table on which was set up an elaborate board game printed with a map of the world. Lynette moved an olive-colored battleship from Spain to Brazil. […]


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Hadley Moore’s short story collection Not Dead Yet and Other Stories won Autumn House Press’s 2018 fiction contest and is forthcoming in September 2019. Her stories, novel excerpts, and nonfiction have appeared in Newsweek, McSweeney’s, Witness, Amazon’s Day One, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the revived December, the Indiana Review, Anomaly (formerly Drunken Boat)Quarter After Eight, Confrontation, The DrumAscent, Midwestern Gothic, ReduxKnee-Jerk Magazine, and other publications. She is at work on a novel and another collection, and is an alumna of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Find more at http://www.hadleymoore.net/.

“The Entomologist” originally appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review and was runner-up in the 2018 Editor’s Reprint Award.

Read More: A brief interview with Hadley Moore