Midnight Pub

Frames Of Reference- Chapter 16

~nsequeira119

Autumn has come to Pueblo, and like all clean-cut smoothly shaded verandas it does its best to keep up appearances. The leaves are swept each morning from the few hardy deciduous species which call it home, and the scent of the burned piles wafts across each porch. Here in West, we aren’t so lucky. Sheila and I spend many an evening outside with some warm cider and our tangential, half-remembered anecdotes.

She seems preoccupied with the glow of the city just beyond the horizon, the vacancy of human activity further towards the range, and especially with the one single high-pressure sodium lamp two blocks distant. It seems strange that a relic of that kind should be present in such a curated locale.

“You remember that one night at Quixote’s?” she murmurs into my shoulder.

“I’ll be damned,” I murmur in kind. “I haven’t thought about Quixote’s for a long time. You mean the night we got faded and whirled around- I took you fast, you crashed into that one guy, he looked confused but just offered to buy us both a drink?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, and then we went out onto the patio and there was someone messing around with a Hoberman sphere- and that vending machine with the off-brand cigarettes. All coming back to you now, huh?”

“You could say that.”

It’s been two months since the incident and we haven’t had the time to talk about it properly. Or rather, I haven’t found the time. There’s never enough time when you spend every say in a state of confusion, doing very little of actual consequence, and the checks arrive in your bank account all the same. It doesn’t add up- Bradford should have called by now- instead, I spend every day screwing around in the basement outside the vault.

For two months, I haven’t seen Nil. I bring board games down, listen to full albums, scrawl answers into Sudoku boxes with rhythmic efficiency, all sitting next to the empty metal file cabinet on the concrete. Nobody seems to mind.

Sheila, meanwhile, has received a promotion in her department for her exemplary performance- a promotion she was all too happy to tell me about last week, overjoyed and confident. She brought in a bottle of wine, told me it’d do wonders for my heart, it flowed like the Anduin and we spent the night reminiscing. It seems we do that more these days, rather than creating any new memories for ourselves. Maybe we’re settling into the usual routine of marriage, even a kind of premature middle age.

There’s a chill approaching, and she’s wrapped in her shawl, arms folded securely so as to maintain insulation. My jacket is insufficient but I’m too tired to go in for a blanket. The cider provides a medicinal effect, even if it is only cheap pre-mixed powder brewed in a kettle for ten minutes. The healing property comes from her, from the love she holds for me.

A new fear has dawned with the encroaching chill, this one being that some day I’ll fail to fully appreciate the value of real love, or become unable to differentiate between love and coercion. Maybe I’ve already crossed that bridge, nobody can say for certain.

“Only one major surgery this week,” she mentions. “Organ transplant, someone needed a new liver. The way Dr. Todd goes- he has a comprehensive understanding of the arrangement, you know. Where everything is. I used to have doubts about him, but he’s even better than my old supervisor.”

“Was it an alcoholic?”

“How should I know? I think someone mentioned they were in a car accident, or maybe the donor was in a car accident. Someone was. Anyway, they probably got the liver because the donor had checked that little box at the DMV where you can sign up to have your organs donated in case of death.”

“Do we have that?”

“Hell no. Most of the organs they harvest from accident victims aren’t even transplanted, they’re traded around an illicit black market.”

I mull this over, lean into her shoulder as she rocks back and forth. A lot is racing through my mind- how much she looks like a grandmother already, even in the prime of her life, a grandmother destined never to have grandchildren, to sit alone and while away the hours and in the remainder of her finite time to heal the sick because she has nobody else. She looks far more versed in the respective ways of the world than she once did.

“Oh, did I tell you about what happened today?” she cuts in.

“No. What?”

“I went over to Ms. McCluskey’s house,” she says. “She invited me over. For pie. It was just a grocery store pie, but it was good anyway. She showed me photos of her father, who used to be a streetcar operator in Denver. She showed me this one picture of him standing next to this giant yellow streetcar on Colfax- I didn’t even know there were ever these streetcars, but I guess, you know- there had to be something before RTD.”

“Uh-huh.” the familiar four-bar Ray Davies blues riff starts up in my head. I work valiantly to suppress it.

“So then we went out to her backyard,” she continues, “And she lifted off this massive tarp. You can sort of see it from over here, but it blends in with the lot. About ten feet square, she keeps it pinned down with rocks on each corner, she said it was her life’s work, and she wanted to show it to me.”

“A mural or something?”

“Sort of. A swimming pool. A huge-” she adjusts her hands and visualizes it. “A big hole, really. Covered in mosaic tiles, you know- like the old Greek bathhouses featured- and on each of them, faded paint. Chipping away in some places. You could tell, and it really was impressive, you could tell- she had spent decades on this thing. A vast semicircular pit, like. There didn’t even seem to be any pumps connected to it, and it didn’t look like it had ever been full, every surface was coated in dust-” she sips and imagines the structure, shaking her head at its apparent scale. I’m transfixed by her piercing twilight sincerity.

“I was walking around the perimeter,” she continues, “Asking myself all these questions, why exactly anyone would build anything like this, to what end. And she’s walking around it with me, hobbling on her cane, babbling on about all the features, the symbols, what they meant. Gods and goddesses with weird faces, holding hands and dancing, and here and there some sort of people riding on horseback. And I was so enraptured by it, and the level of craftsmanship involved, that I didn’t look where I was going, and that’s when it happened.”

Another sip. Her eyelids close, she huddles. Getting tired now, close to the precipice of sleep, of the long evening’s rest.

“I knocked over a statue,” she admits. “Renaissance thing, maybe two feet tall, I couldn’t have seen it for shit. And it cracks down through the air onto this particular section of tile, makes this awful sound on impact, and when the dust settled, there was a big hole where a certain picture had been, tiles spilled everywhere like- like someone dumped out a Scrabble bag. And Ms. McCluskey was just- awestruck.”

“Uh-huh.”

“She doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, but then she gets out this pocketknife, starts chasing me around the edge. She’s not very fast, but she’s loud, God, she’s loud- I told her I was sorry, that I could pay for the damage and make it up to her any other way, but she just keeps going on and on about how much work it took her, years wasted, how she can barely paint it anymore, how it probably won’t be completed before she dies, and like that.”

“She sounds miserable,” I concur. “Wrapped up that deeply in creative mania.”

“And then she rushes at me,” Sheila stammers in disbelief. “She actually rushed me, came at me from the side, I wasn’t expecting it- she plunged the knife in, said she’d kill me, how she wanted to kill me, over and over again, and I think she- she meant it...” I lift her shirt, can vaguely make out the contours of the wound. It’s covered now, held securely in a sturdy layer of gauze and tape- it’s a good thing she knows how to deal with these situations, I realize, is intimately familiar with the locations of the organs, the exact mechanisms of the body, and that we keep a good stock of first-aid equipment on hand in the closet. It would take a while for an ambulance to arrive from Pueblo.

It dawns on me that I’ve long since forgotten how to properly dress a wound.

“She said she’d kill you?”

“It’s okay,” she wipes away a tear. “I managed to get out of the lock she had me in, it wasn’t too strong, and then I pinned her down, used a good restraint on her like we’re taught to with uncooperative patients, I took the knife away from her and threw it down into the pool. And I took her up to her porch and she didn’t say anything the whole time, just had this look of complete unspeakable hatred on her face, contempt for the whole world and everyone and everything in it, like you wouldn’t believe.”

“You don’t want to press charges?”

“Of course not,” she replies. “Not at her age. She couldn’t handle that. I don’t want to seek any legal recourse, all I really wanted was an apology, but at the same time, I felt like I owed her one, and in the end, I just took her up to bed, gave her a slice of pie, she ate it, barely even had the strength to at that point, she’d used so much energy stabbing me in the side.” A visible wince. Something might be punctured.

“You should go get that checked out tomorrow,” I mention.

“No,” she says. “It’s fine. Right beneath the spleen. An inch higher and I would need to. I’m real lucky. I sat with her a while, she was breathing heavily, and I was bleeding all over the sheets right next to her, and it was funny in a sort of way- how much pain we shared, mutual pain... and I think she was really losing it, she started calling me an angel- and then I decided, I had better just get out of there, and I told her I had to go patch myself up, and she didn’t argue.”

“And you’re sure she’s not dead?”

“No,” Sheila resorts. “That’s impossible. The light was off when I left, look over there now.” Sure enough, coming from McCluskey’s property, right where I imagine the bedroom to be, a bright yellow window shining across the night, intersected by two sturdy oak frames.

“It could have been her nurse who turned it on.”

“Her nurse isn’t scheduled to come today. And besides, if her nurse had found her dead, she would have called the police.”

“I guess you’re right. I guess she’s over there right now.”

“Don’t go outside very often,” she says. “I don’t think she’s right in the head, after what I’ve seen. She can be really sweet, but- at certain points she turns. And there’s nothing she can do about it, she’s just at that age.”

“If you say so. I wasn’t planning on talking to her, anyway.”

“I hope I never get like that,” she mutters. “If I ever reached that point, where I don’t have control over myself anymore, no more discipline, just pain and suffering all over-”

“Yeah. Okay. I get it.” I raise my mug in a futile gesture, she fails to meet it in kind with a toast. She’s not in a festive mood tonight, and it increasingly seems that as she feels worse I only feel better. I shrug and retreat inside to the warmth of the living room, scan cable to check if there are any good reruns.

Eddie walks surreptitiously up to the window, he motions for me to roll down.

“What’s up? You’re late.” He’s lugging two thick industrial-grade masks, some pressurized metal tanks, and corresponding straps beneath his arm, and I can only imagine how it must be to carry those all twenty feet from the house.

“I got some food. Some for you, too,” I gesture towards the passenger seat, where there’s a lonely wrinkled bag. Eddie furrows his brow in disgust.

“That Carl’s Jr.?”

“The one and only.”

“Carl’s Jr. is shit, man,” he complains, tossing the stuff in back. “Worst fucking hamburgers in town. I can’t believe you actually eat there every day. Especially when we have a Bingo Burger here. Why pull this shit?”

“I don’t know what you like.” We pull out and cold dust is sprayed everywhere. I close all the windows simultaneously, switch on the heat. Eddie takes one morbid bite, laughs, throws it out onto the side of the road.

“It’s not a matter of what I like,” he exclaims. “It’s like- like, you go to New York, and you buy fucking Pizza Hut instead of Famous Original Ray’s or whatever the fuck. You’re from New York, right, ya go to Ray’s, right? Not the chains you can get everywhere else. Because there’s nothing special about that, because you’re not contributing to anything of consequence-”

“Truth be told, I did used to go to Pizza Hut when I was in medical school,” I admit. “All the time. Made for great sustenance during cram sessions and all-nighters.”

“You’re a hopeless case,” Eddie squawks. “Hopeless, I tell ya! Don’t worry. We’ll make you certified Puebloan yet. What I got planned today, you’ll be in with me and we’ll have something to consider ourselves fortunate.” I switch onto Highway 50 and he flips on the radio. Nothing worthwhile to be found across dozens of bands. As per usual.

Eddie’s asked me to assist him with an extermination job today, it being my day off, and him having wanted to show me the ropes of his profession for some time now. Admittedly, I have always been curious about it, and I’ve always wanted to see his face at the moment he discovers an infestation. I consider it a worthwhile investment of my time, and he’s all too happy to have a car, as he mentioned over the phone he’ll feel more legitimate and professional arriving in one.

“What do you-” he starts as we race along the yellow line. “I mean, what do you get out of this? Why move here, Jerry? You’ve never really told me that, why you’d want to be here, what’s in it for you. What is it for ya, that would drive you here?”

“Peace and quiet,” I retort. “Gimme some.” He cackles and shoves a french fry past his lips.

We proceed until we’re on the east side, driving along dilapidated lanes where the trees sit unwatered, rusty swing sets in the yards, uneven construction. Streaks of tar sprawled over every street like an interconnected network of snakes. Even now, in late November, they burn hot.

“In here,” Eddie gestures, pointing at a classic property in the middle of the block. It’s unassuming, set back, with four dark windows in front and tan bricks. I park behind an old Buick and Eddie promptly picks a few plastic envelopes from his pile in back.

“Poncho,” he says. “Keeps the pesticide off your clothes. Believe me, it stains.” I get out and lock up and then unfold the unwieldy thing and drape it over my body. It’s two sizes large for me, and makes crinkly noises whenever I take a step. Eddie wears his with tact and decorum, though, and soon enough he’s hauling the tanks out, connecting the hoses and straps. He positions mine like a backpack, hands me the hose, shows me how to aim it.

“”You only turn the nozzle when it’s time,” he says. “This stuff is expensive, so use it sparingly. It’s lethal, kills on sight.” I nod.

We don our masks- they remind me of the type I used during most procedures at Swedish, but come with a special circular filter attached to the front. My breathing is heavy and methodic, my lungs feel cramped. I wonder how it is that Eddie able to do this most days of the week in the sweltering heat, where the supply of new customers comes from considering Pueblo’s relative size, how he maintains such a chipper attitude through the ordeal.

Maybe Pueblo is infested from the ground up, I postulate as we approach the front door through the unwatered lawn. Maybe there are pockets of things- writhing from deep beneath, desperate to claw their way free...

Eddie rings the doorbell once, simple chime response. We probably look like astronauts to any wayward pedestrians, I realize. Thoroughly otherworldly garb for an inhuman task, designed purely for function and not at all for comfort. Eddie prepares himself, he’s running through a thousand greetings while the thick footsteps inside grow nearer.

“Hello,” comes a syrupy tone. “Exterminators? Here for the- uh- problem?”

“Yes Ma’am.” She’s around forty, probably the wife of a real estate agent or something like that, crow’s feet and dimples, modest slacks and no makeup. Eddie looks her up and down, probably to estimate how much he can charge for the job.

“This way,” she invites us in. “It started around six weeks ago, and it’s kept on ever since. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get rid of it, and my kids- they hate it. I tried the usual sprays, the traps, the deterrents. Nothing works.”

“No, Ma’am,” Eddie states matter-of-factly. “Those sprays you buy at the store- they don’t cut it. In all honesty, they’re not meant to. The stuff we have on us today- this stuff is guaranteed to get rid of your problem. It’s complete poison to anything with antennae. We ask you- don’t breathe any of this stuff in, don’t inhale it, let it settle. You’ll only be able to come back in after 24 hours.” We follow her into the garage, where she’s arranged a few bags of things. Her children, both of them boys aged around 7, stand next to her car looking bored. One of them is staring at a Pokemon game on his phone, the other is crossing his arms and staring out onto the empty street.

“Most of the nest is in here,” she says. “But there’s a little bit back in the kitchen. We’re going to spend the night at my mother’s, so you can get at them undisturbed- I trust you’ll do a satisfactory job- how much did you say?”

“$1,200,” Eddie beams, and I know that if he weren’t wearing the mask his typical weasel grin would be on full display.

“Here you are,” she steps forward, deposits a crisp stack of hundreds in his palm. He reaches underneath the poncho to tuck the payment securely in his wallet, then grasps the end of his hose and turns it over as if making a thorough inspection of the tip, which glints in the afternoon haze.

“Well, we’d better get to it, then,” he says at last.

“So long. And thank you. Thank you for everything.”

She gathers the boys up, packs them in behind her next to some luggage, and the cheap Civic rolls out. Eddie is silent, eerily reflective given the circumstances. Then, not saying a word, he trundles inside towards the kitchen and begins methodically feeling the wall. He puts his ear up to it, gasps, and asks me to do the same.

“It’s a big one.”

I nod in agreement as I listen to the noise of the vermin, their chattering legs clambering over one another, eating away at the foundations of the home, a hungry swarm who pay no regard to common decency in their pursuit of resources. Thousands of eyes in cramped squalor, all ages unified as one in the corners and the shadows. They possess the strength of will and the strength in numbers human beings could never hope to muster- they are instinct, raw and unchained, and with infinite discipline.

Eddie takes a small chisel from his belt, begins chipping away at the plaster. It falls down in medium-sized chunks, he grips his mask closer to his face, as if preparing for a torrent. Sure enough, as the hole is formed, a wave of termites come out in a horrible anatomical waterfall, their beady little faces arranged one atop the other, wings buzzing against each other in a magnetized fury... Eddie raises the hose, shoves it into the hole.

“Now!” he shouts, and I turn the valve on his pack.

Instantly the clacking is drowned out by a steady hiss, hundreds of deaths in an instant, then thousands as the entire colony is erased in a yellow sulphuric puff. The vapor escapes the chamber, snuffing out the lives of the few who dared to attempt an escape. He makes a motion for me to slow the output gradually. My eyes sting like hell.

“Where do you get this stuff?”

“Specific industrial supplier over in Petomele,” he remarks. “Have a personal connection with them. I get it in bulk, always manage to turn a profit because the compound used to create it is cheap. Not bad, eh?”

“It hurts.”

“Oh, ya mean you’re crying? Yeah, just like onions. Let it out.” The tears run, and I get the urge to run towards the bathroom and douse myself with cold water, as we were taught to do back during my preliminary classes with sarin and other nerve gas, but Eddie puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder as he chips away some more and the little exoskeletal remains pile up in front of us, and further inside the wall other corpses rest motionless.

I’m suffocating, I grip my chest- my heart is racing. Forgot to take my pills today, of course I did, wanted to get on this as soon as possible, didn’t want to disappoint- and now a marching band is playing in my ears while Eddie chips away at the little graveyard, the interior all caked with shit and blood, the smell- oh no, the smell-

I take the mask off and begin dry heaving.

“Hey, you can’t do that! You’ll breathe it in!” Eddie shouts, picking my mask up and trying to force it back onto me, all while I’m convulsing in his arms and making a desperate attempt to release the contents of my stomach.

Nothing comes. I stagger outside, rip the plastic off, fall forward onto the brown grass.

Eddie is close behind, he sets his canister down and kneels beside me. I’m staring at a pebble, breathing deeply with zenlike fixation, and I realize how awful he looks with that mask- a bug person in and of himself, caught in his own environment. I squint. All I want is to rest, to let it all go. To enter a state of nothingness.

“Hey, we still gotta get the nest in the garage,” he chides.

“I’m done for today,” I moan, rolling over onto my back. The sky is overcast, holding back its precious rain from the people who deserve it the most.

“Well, suit yourself. You can leave if you really have to.”

“Eddie-” I stammer. “What’s hickory? What’s in it? The key ingredient?”

“Oh, hickory?” he mulls the thought over. “VHS tapes, mostly. What you do is, you open a VHS tape, pull the tape itself out, take it off the spool, chop the tape up into fine little pieces with scissors. Then you burn it in a spoon, until it’s ashy. I usually do that with a lighter.”

“VHS tapes...?” I can hardly believe it. “Just VHS tapes? What the fuck?”

“Yeah, man,” he replies. “Tapes. Doesn’t work any other way.”

“Can it- this is going to sound crazy, but... can hickory make you see the future?”

“Not as far as I know. Just for kicks, that’s all. Just a simple and effective high.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Eydrich Verwus, 21st century renaissance man, turns on his heel, hoists the pack up over his shoulder and returns inside, while the walls of my lungs remain coated in a thick compound paste of fire and asbestos. I try not to get it everywhere.