Waiting for the Exterminator

 

by Laurence Miall

 There was one human that I knew, for a fact, I could never hate. Annabella was a rich Portuguese girl taking classes at the Alliance Française. I’d been chatting her up in the school's cafeteria for several weeks. Finally, I succeeded in scoring a date. That afternoon, a rapid dip in temperature gave the city some overdue relief. You could feel a breath of wind in the air. It was very pleasant for our walk. On the line of trees along the avenue, in the wake of the morning thunderstorm, the leaves were heavy with rain. A few drops fell on us. I kissed one from her nose.

       We came back to my room, and at last I had her where I wanted her. That’s when she saw it. A big fat grand-daddy cockroach crawling up the wall above the bed. She screamed.

       I killed the cockroach, but the cockroach succeeded in killing the mood. Annabella pulled on her T-shirt. She asked for a glass of water. I walked down the hallway to the lavatory and filled up the glass. When I returned, she had straightened her hair and clipped it back.

       “I’ve heard of slumming it,” she said. “But this is too much, no?”

 

***

        

       It took us a while to get over that. For the next few days, whenever I saw her in the cafeteria of the Alliance Française, she would give me a smile and turn away. Every time I approached her, she claimed there was some place she had to go, and hurried off. I got sick of the patronizing smiles of her friends and various hangers-on so I stopped going to the cafeteria. Instead, I waited across the street from the entrance of the school. Sometimes I’d wait an hour or more before she appeared.

       One evening, while I was preparing my usual dinner of baguette filled with cheese and spinach, I left my meal-in-progress on the plate while I went down the hallway to the bathroom. When I returned, I found a cockroach had taken an active interest in my meal, poking his head in around the crumbs. He tried to scuttle away to safety but I was too fast for him. It made me queasy to have to kill him the way I did — stomping on his back with only a sock between my skin and his exoskeleton — but after his twitching stopped, I felt proud of my decisive act. I put the corpse into an envelope, wrote the name of the building concierge, Philippe, on the front, and left it in the appropriate mailbox on my way out to work.

 

***

 

       That night, when my shift at the kitchen ended, I got very drunk with Andre. I had to listen for hours to his blathering. To exact some kind of revenge, I lied to him about having slept with Annabella. He knew how beautiful she was from a visit she'd once paid to the restaurant. I described the fictitious act in graphic detail, until I became uncomfortably aware of arousing myself. I promptly changed the subject. Then I asked him if he had any marijuana, which he did.

       In the morning, back in my own neighbourhood, I entered my building and suddenly saw the back-end of Philippe poking out of a doorway. He was pulling on an industrial-sized pail on wheels. I hoped to tiptoe past and avoid him, but he turned around, spotted me, and flagged me down.

       “Those friends of yours made a flood of shit,” he announced. “And now we can’t find them.”

       I had no idea who he was talking about. Friends?

       “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

       “The Slavs,” he replied, having temporarily given up on his pail and moving close enough to me I could smell his stench. “The Lithuanian in 204.”

 

***

 

       A thug named Jonas had moved into the building six months previously. One night, while one of his many parties was raging, Jonas lurched out into the hallway, evidently looking for someone, and found me waiting agitatedly for the elevator. He said I should join the merriment. He claimed that his party offered “a very special assortment of girls looking for superior penis skills.” His laughter was like a slap in the face, so I decided I should take him up on his offer.

       In his apartment I quickly noticed evidence of his dissolute lifestyle. There were cases of Polish beer towering up in one corner of the living room and the walls were adorned with pictures of girls torn out of men's magazines.

       After insisting that I do some shots with him, Jonas went back to wooing a Russian girl called Sonia. She was far too beautiful for him. As he plied her with more and more gin, her perfect eyes became watery smudges. Jonas eventually disappeared with her into his bedroom. He reappeared about thirty minutes later wearing a triumphant grin that gave the whole game away.

       At that moment, Philippe suddenly showed up at the party brandishing a French chef’s knife.

       “I’m an old man,” he raged. “I couldn’t care less about the consequences if I murdered every last one of you. Get the hell out!”

       The average age of the party-goers was about twenty-one. They were terrified.

       Ever since that night, Philippe had assumed I was pals with the Lithuanian and his entourage. He now grabbed my arm and insisted that I follow him so I could see what “my friend” had done.

 

***

 

       Being the restaurant’s resident garbage handler had given me a strong stomach for filth. During the stickiest days of summer, I had witnessed bags of refuse literally move down the alleyway, propelled by the maggots inside. But even for me, the scene I witnessed that day was difficult to behold.

       Philippe told me that several days ago, the toilet in Jonas’ apartment had become blocked, but this had not deterred the “subhuman Lithuanian” or his friends from using it many times over. A shower composed of water and shit had rained down into the apartment below.

        “Not even an animal does something like this,” said Philippe. “The worst part is he ran away. If you know where he is hiding, you better tell me.”

       “I tell you, I hardly know him,” I replied. “I saw him a handful of times and he never made a good impression.”

       “He invited you to that party,” Philippe pointed out.

       “He would have invited an escaped convict to that party,” I said

       “I will slit his throat if I see him,” said Philippe. “Tell him that.”

       He reached for his usual consolation, the packet of cigarettes that perennially made his shirt pocket bulge.

       “I don’t know where the world is headed,” he said. “Everyone one has lost their mind. Did I tell you somebody put a dead cockroach in my mailbox?”

A thick cloud of cigarette smoke enveloped us.

 

***

 

       I could hardly leave an old man with a weak heart and an unreliable back to clean up two apartments single-handed. So I fetched the industrial-sized pail from downstairs and started mopping. After an hour of mopping, I stepped into the hallway for a breath of fresh air and there I found Philippe, sitting on an upturned milk crate, smoking another cigarette.

       “Is this your idea of team work?” I said.

       Philippe looked back at me with the most doleful eyes.

       “I need a minute,” he replied. “The doctor said to not overtax myself.”

 

***

 

       Jonas’ apartment had deteriorated dramatically since his big party. In the kitchen closet were piles of garbage bags whose contents were liquefying and spreading out in a small sea of slime. In the living room, behind the entertainment centre, we discovered the corpse of a mouse. It was suspended in a nest of electric cables, its jaws open in a final squeak for help. Moving to the bedroom, Philippe and I uncovered fresh outrages. Under the bed were a dozen discarded plates and bowls, encrusted with food and layers of flowering mold. But that wasn’t quite as unsettling as what we found underneath his mattress: a collection of Eastern European pornography, chiefly specializing in sado-masochism, but not your commonplace cloths-pegs and ball-gags variety. That kind of S&M wouldn’t have stirred as filthy a man as Jonas. In this collection, most of the acts of torture had been carried out in a mock-up Nazi concentration camp.

       Philippe puffed away on a cigarette as he pronounced on our latest discovery.

“Now I can die having seen everything,” he said, grinning.

 

***

 

       Cleaning up the mess took all the patience I had. I took my frayed temper and flagging energy with me to the restaurant. My fellow dish-pig Andre noticed my exhaustion. He asked me if I was worn out from entertaining my lady-friend.

       I said, “This is the only friend I entertained today,” and then lunged at him, pushing my hand in his face. This provoked the anticipated squeal of outrage. We started wrestling, me keeping my hand resolutely pressed against his ugly mug.

       Suddenly the head chef loomed up out of nowhere.

       “That looks like a fun game,” he said. “Grab-a-fool-by-the-face!”

       He turned his giant mitt on me, his palm almost crushing my nose as he manhandled me back to the sink.

“Get to work!” he roared.

Once I’d overcome the shock of his sudden attack, I revolted.

       “It’s not enough for you that we’re paid so miserably that we can barely afford a room even in the filthiest neighbourhoods of Paris,” I shouted. “To be fully satisfied, you have to use your unquestioned power for the express purpose of abusing everybody, don’t you?”

       I grabbed the hosepipe and let him have a generous burst of the scalding spray straight in the face. Then I bolted. The rear door provided the best exit. Out in the alleyway, I ran as fast as my legs could take me, not once looking back. I reached the street, swerved left, hit the dinner-hour parade of moronic tourists looking for overpriced food, damn near trampled a toddler underfoot, and finally made it into the Metro, where a train was just departing.

 

***

 

       I wanted to see Annabella and I knew it would be too late to catch her at the Alliance Française so I travelled all the way to Bois de Boulogne. Her host family lived in the leafy neighbourhood just adjacent to the woods. I had never visited before, but for her birthday, a few months previously, she had permitted me to send her flowers, and ever since then I’d kept her street address on a scrap of paper.

       It was a white building that looked rather like a Spanish villa, with several large chestnut trees out front. To get to the entrance meant passing through an ornamented arched gateway, but I didn’t venture this far. I held back, contemplating the scene from the opposite side of the road.

       I played a game in which I’d stare at an object — the stone lion at the gateway, for example — and during the passage of five, ten, even fifteen minutes, I tried to gauge the changing of the light, as day turned to dusk. After one particularly long stint of staring, I turned my head, and the change of light was abrupt; suddenly it was night-time.

       Still no one had either entered or exited the white building. I was hungry and my legs hurt from standing the whole time. It was crazy to invite such suffering onto my own shoulders for Annabella’s sake. I’d fallen in love with an idea: that she, a rich girl, could end up slumming it with me.

       Walking back to the Metro, I told myself that I would never again suffer for her sake. Just after I had decided this, I spotted her stepping out of a pharmacy, pushing a recent purchase into her purse.

       “Remember me?” I said.

       She looked up and seemed nervous.

       “Where did you come from?”

       “I’ve been looking for you,” I said.

       “Where were you looking?”

       “Where else? Your house.”

       The smile she’d been trying to arrange on her face immediately vanished.

       “You were at my family’s house? What happened?”

       “Nothing happened, Annabella. I know better than to knock on the door and introduce myself.”

       This news visibly brought her considerable relief. She tossed her head a little to one side.

       “OK,” she said. “What are you doing now?”

       “Nothing,” I said. “We should have a drink.”

       We found a café that was half-deserted and as soon as we entered you could tell the waiter had been planning on closing up, but the sight of Annabella changed his mind. He told us to sit at the table by the window and gave us a menu each.

       It was anxiety provoking to discover that our combined orders would cost me over one hundred euro. The wearying thing about poverty is the incessant mental gymnastics you have to perform with numbers. While Annabella was talking, the features of her face fell into the exact configuration that made me so crazy for her, and suddenly I stopped thinking about numbers and started thinking like a madman again.

       “Bring us a bottle of wine if you could,” I said to the waiter.

 “Right away, monsieur,” he said.

       “Are you sure?” Annabella asked me.

       “I’m sure,” I said.

       I told her about having quit the restaurant. She loved the story and even clapped her hands. We got talking about other things for a while, films and books — she was in the middle of reading Anna Karenina — and then the waiter stealthily crept up with the bill. A little panic must have showed in my eyes.

       Annabella said, “Are you one hundred percent sure you should be paying for everything?”

       “One hundred and ten percent,” I said. “Jobs come and go.”

       After I had paid, there was still half a bottle of wine left. That’s when she announced she had to be going home. She claimed her host family would worry if she stayed out too late.

       “You’re twenty-three,” I said. “It seems a bit odd, don’t you think, to have a curfew?”

       “I know, I know,” she sighed. “It’s not their fault. It’s my family. They call every night at ten-thirty to see if I’m home. My host family feels very responsible.”

       “Don’t you think it’s a bit odd to have your family checking up on you?”

       “I know,” she sighed again. “It’s just that they don’t really trust Paris. If I were back in my town, it would be different.”

       “I think you need to be in charge of your own destiny,” I said.

       “I know,” said Annabella. Her repetitiveness was starting to irritate me. “It’s also that I shouldn’t really keep drinking. Tomorrow my host family wants to introduce me to—”

       She stopped.

       “Who are they introducing you to?” I asked.

       “It’s one hundred percent their idea,” she said. “I’m going along out of obligation.”

       “Who are they introducing you to?”

       “Just some guy from Lyon,” she said. “He’s moving here to open up a new branch of the family business. It’s something to do with fibre optics.” She smiled at me and squeezed my hand. “I’m sure he’ll be a very boring guy.”

       She stood up. There were at least two glasses of wine left in the bottle — the bottle that by itself had cost me over sixty euro!

       “It’s been such a nice evening,” she said. “I always enjoy our time together.”

       She kissed my cheek.  Then she darted out of the door. The waiter looked at me.

       “I bet that didn’t end the way you wanted,” he said, and laughed.

 

***

 

       I got very drunk that night. After finishing the expensive bottle of wine, I bought a cheap one to follow it. Then I passed out in my bed. When I woke up, it was noon. An ambulance siren was blaring nearby. I staggered up the hallway to the toilet and found it occupied. I cursed my miserable building. Even that bastard Lithuanian had enjoyed a toilet and shower of his own. Not to mention a proper bedroom.

       I walked all the way around the circular hallway to the bathroom on the opposite side of the building. This one didn’t even have a window. When I flicked on the light, I saw a cockroach skitter away into his hiding hole. More than eight months I'd lived with this infestation, and still Philippe hadn't called in an exterminator. I had enough money for a train ticket south. I decided that I would leave the town that very same day, renege on my sublet, and leave Philippe to sort out the consequences.

       After a long and painful session on the toilet, a strong appetite gripped me. I descended to the main floor, meaning to head out to the local bakery, which sold quite passable croissants, brioche and salads in plastic take-out bowls. Down in the foyer, there was crowd of people hanging around. I spotted the inhabitants of Apartment 104 — the apartment that had borne the brunt of Jonas' flood. There was a woman and her daughter standing outside. I asked the woman what was going on. Apparently Philippe had collapsed while doing the cleaning. An ambulance had come and rushed him to the hospital.

       “He’s almost seventy,” she said. “He shouldn’t have been working so hard.”

       “Philippe is seventy?” I said.

       She nodded.

        “I’d never have given him such grief about my apartment if I’d known about his heart,” she continued. “I heard you were the only one who helped him.”

       I nodded my head.

       “It was a mountain of work,” I said.

       “You did more than anybody,” she said, appearing quite choked up about the whole thing.  Her daughter was tugging on her arm. “I hope he will be OK.”

 

***

 

       I failed to execute my plan to leave Paris. The next day, I was in the café around the corner, fighting another hangover with coffee and trying to focus on a book. All of a sudden I saw the owner of my apartment building walk in. I recognized him from a high-decibel argument he’d once had with Philippe in the apartment building courtyard. He was a middle-aged man with a paunch. He remembered me, probably because I was one of his only Western European tenants. I asked him about Philippe.

       “Philippe is dead,” he said. “The ambulance might as well have taken him to the morgue. There was nothing they could do for him.”

       I should have been prepared for this, but I wasn't. It jolts you to see someone, smell someone, talk to someone, and then twenty-four hours later, know that you’ll never be able to see that person again, even if that person is Philippe. I tried to remember his last words to me. What really stood out was our discovery of the Nazi-porn collection, and how greatly that amused him.

       “Philippe was a good man,” I said.

       The owner seemed to appreciate my thoughtfulness.

       “He was a soldier,” he said. “I didn’t imagine him leaving us, ever. He never complained about his health. He never complained about anything.”

       I wondered what version of Philippe the owner had been dealing with all these years.

       “You helped him out with that nasty flood,” he continued.

       “You heard about that?”

       Suddenly his face became animated. “I’ve got an idea.  I need someone to replace him. I don’t know if you’re interested. Probably not. Got bigger fish to fry, no?”

       I didn’t have any bigger fish to fry. I said I would reflect on his offer. He insisted that I consider it very seriously.

       “The room Philippe had probably wouldn’t be big enough for a younger man like you, someone who is likely to have a girlfriend. Why don’t you take Apartment 204? The Lithuanian who lived there has disappeared and isn't coming back.”

 

***

 

       And so the next day I moved into the Jonas' old lodgings. I was happy with how events had started to move in my favour.

       One day, as I was hauling out the garbage, I found Annabella standing on the front step looking distraught. I took her into my apartment to see what was the matter.

       She was surprised to find out about my change of lodgings.

       “I’m moving up in the world,” I said. “As you can see.”

       “At least one of us is,” she replied, and then burst into tears.

       It turned out that she had been dating the fibre-optics businessman from Lyon. Against the wishes of both her host family and her own family, she had moved in with him. Mere days later, she came home early from her classes and found him snorting cocaine with a couple of half-naked escort girls. She fled for the safety of her host family, but now she couldn’t stand the constant surveillance and second-guessing of her every action. Tomorrow, her father would be arriving in Paris and was threatening to take her back to Portugal.

       This is what had prompted her to see me. She needed somewhere she could disappear.

       “I see, I see,” I said, and handed her another tissue.

       Quite a pickle she had gotten herself into!

       I was in a position to be magnanimous. My former home on the top floor was still unoccupied and so I offered it to her on a temporary basis.

       We took the elevator to the seventh floor and arrived at the apartment. There was the tell-tale stain on the door where I’d squashed a wasp the previous summer. We went inside. Places smell different after you move out of them. My smell still lingered there, but it was an old smell now, like my previous life had been archived.

       “Here’s the key,” I said. “You know where to find me if you need anything.”

       Just as I was moving back into the hallway, she reached out and grabbed my wrist. Her apprehension made her look much younger.

       “There aren’t cockroaches up here are there?”

       “I'm not sure,” I said. “I haven't seen one in a few days. But on Monday there may have been one skulking in the shadows. But then again, it might have been my imagination.”

       “I won’t be able to sleep if there are cockroaches,” she said.

       In that moment, I brought my clear advantage into view, where it was a very ugly thing.

       “Well you could sleep with me,” I said.

       “I would much rather sleep with you,” she replied, visibly relieved.