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Fumigation Day

Story by JR Fenn (Read author interview) June 24, 2014

art by Melissa Warp

I open the cedar chest and shake out the first thing that comes to hand. My green sweater, weave intact, no holes.

It’s a good cedar chest, an old one.

I’m going to give it to Chloe.

I’m giving all of my wool sweaters to Goodwill. In Florida, I’m wearing cotton T-shirts and cotton shorts that show my knees. I never liked pools but I’m going to lie by the pool in that little community I found online and stick my chest up toward the sun while I smoke and get leathery.

The doorbell rings. Through the eyehole I see the fumigation guy, his nose huge and the rest of his face receding. He bobs forward and back as if he were admiring himself in the bottom of an upside down stainless steel bowl.

His nametag says Ken. I let him in and he unzips a yellow nylon bag, takes out a white nylon suit, steps into it. Ken disappears and an astronaut takes his place. He bends down to inspect my carpet, gets down on hands and knees and looks for eggs in the threads through his face mask.

Maybe Chloe won’t want the cedar chest. Maybe her apartment is too small for family heirlooms. Maybe she doesn’t wear wool anymore. Last time I saw her she kissed me on the cheek and a smell washed over me like lilies of the valley. She never wore perfume. Her hair glittered in the sun and she smiled a kind of smile I didn’t recognize.

I knew all her smiles when she was a baby—the smile that said she thought my jokes were kind of funny, the one that said she wanted a strawberry real bad, the one that said she had to quench a thirst so deep it made her flap her arms and hold them out toward me to nurse, a half-smile of pure need, pure certainty.

She said, “Why Florida, Mom?” as she smiled this smile I didn’t understand.

I wave my hands at Ken and go upstairs to the bedroom with the walk-in closet. His boots thunk behind me, his breath wheezes through his suit vent.

I open the door of the closet and duck as a cloud of white moths pours out over my head.

Ken moves forward and stands at the door, his arms spread, his gloved hands touching the doorjambs. As I back away, I see Ken’s man-shaped suit silhouetted in a pale kaleidoscope of moths that stream up, down, and around in the closet.

The boards feel cool and solid underneath me. The light hits the water as I dangle my feet off the dock. A blackfly lands in my hair. As I comb it out, it buzzes in my fingers. My sweater smells sharp, medicinal, fresh.

In Florida, the fumigators wrap whole houses in plastic and pipe the poison in through a nozzle. You can’t go back in for two weeks.

My house looks like the outside of a house, with shingles and windows and a roof. Not at all like a giant plastic bag.

I don’t look back at it, though. I know what it looks like.

Ken bobs through the rooms like a helium balloon, dropping poison.

The rocks crop up as the tide goes out. The seagulls hunker down on the stone outcroppings and send mean, defiant shrugs to no one in particular.

Chloe can have whatever she wants but she can’t fit that much in her apartment. New York apartments are really small. There’s not that much room for stuff. The antique furniture my father made—the Shaker tables, the bookshelves, the spice rack.

The high chair where she met her first blackberry. Blackberry juice all over her hands, up her bare arms, smeared in a purple stain across her cheeks, her little knob of a chin. Blackberries on the floor, splatted on the white wall behind the high chair, smashed all over the high chair’s tray, juice dripping down its legs.

I swing my feet. A wind comes up and cuts through my green sweater. I shiver.

A fog of poison lingers in the house. Ken can’t work the window latches in his foil gloves, but he leaves them on, fumbling around without accomplishing anything.

I go through the house and open all the windows to the cold.

In the kitchen, which soon feels arctic, I offer Ken a glass of water.

He takes off his helmet. His hands crackle as he drinks.

Ken looks at the pictures on my refrigerator.

Ken has a baby. Her name is Claire, seven months. He curls his space-man arms to his chest as though he can’t stand her absence, as though she might be right there in his fumigation hug.

We stroll through the house. The dead moths puff out under our feet.

We wind up in the attic. The light from the dormer cuts through the dust and the poison smog in a thick ray. All the furniture looms in heaps.

I brush a pile of moths off the high chair tray, off the chair back with its hand-carved leaves and roses.

I pick it up, so brittle and tiny.

I shove it at Ken. I insist that he take it. I don’t need it anymore, don’t want it.

He refuses.

I carry it down the attic stairs and outside, where I set it down by the tailgate of his white fumigation truck.

The peg legs sink into the spring mud.

We argue. He gives in and puts the high chair in the back of his truck, where it rattles as he drives away, skittering across the truck bed like a live thing as he disappears around the bend.

After the sound of the truck dies out, I walk down the drive to the mailbox. I pull my sweater tight around me as the evening chill sets in and the smell of the sap cuts through the air. When I get back to the house, it’s dark.

About the Author

JR Fenn’s writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Versal, PANK, and Flash, among other journals, and can be found at www.jrfenn.com.

About the Artist

Melissa Warp is an illustrator and graphic designer based in western Kentucky. Her recent projects include editorial illustrations for Kentucky Living Magazine, window displays for Orange Theory Fitness, and a food truck design for HipPOPs desert truck.


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