bug on the subway

Whatever we’re up to, it probably won’t work.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” my wife says.

We pull up to a red light a mile from our house.  It’s 7:00 a.m. Stopped in front of us is a pest control truck. On the back of it, facing us, is the company name, telephone number, and an all-star list of domestic pests that, if you don’t watch it, can get out of control. Wasps, ants, termites, bats, raccoons, ground hogs, mice; each pictured with a larger-than-life-size photo for the reading impaired or animal challenged, or both, on the back of the truck.

“They’re getting an early start today,” I say.  My wife averts her gaze. It’s the mouse, I know, that she can’t look at.  “Or maybe last night was a stakeout.”

I lean toward her, lift and check my face in the rear-view mirror.  I have a pimple on my nose, in the early stages of formation. It’s just to the left of the septum, getting big and red and tender.

I ask her how noticeable it is. Just in passing, you know, can you see it. I’m giving a talk in a few days to a small group, anticipating the feedback at the end of the session. Nice presentation. Does that thing hurt?

“It’s barely visible,” she says.

“But you can see it.”

“I’m not looking.”

“I mean if you glanced in my direction.”

“Yes, sort of visible. Stop.”

I knew girls when I was in high school, I tell her, who would stay home when they got a pimple. One of those big ones that erupt and get kind of crusty.  Sometimes they went into seclusion for a couple days.

The pest control truck completes a right turn. My wife says maybe we should call them. Or someone.


This summer we are overrun with pests. Mostly bad.

Fireflies are on the rise. Good.

Then there’s spiders, a year-round pest, also, depending on who you talk to, good. My wife forbids me to kill a spider. They eat bad bugs, she says, without specifying which. Any time of year, lying in bed, when we see a spider stuck to the ceiling or wall, honoring her wishes, I climb up on a chair and delicately extract it, cradling it between thumb and forefinger in a tissue, then carry it downstairs, open the front door, and, any time of year, throw it out of the house on its ear.

“Did you kill it?” she’ll ask.

“I don’t think so. It might have bumped its head.”

Then there are up-and-coming pests.

Earwigs, for example, are everywhere. It’s the indoor-outdoor pest. Down at the end of the driveway a colony of them live in our mailbox. They run to the back of the box when you swing open the little door. To be safe, we try to remember to fan the mail out and shake it before bringing it in the house, before reading it.

We have ants in the yard. No surprise. If you mow, you know. But there’s more of them in the last couple years.  My wife, gardening around the yard, discovered them the other day and alerted me.

“Shouldn’t we do something?” she says.


“You saw what they did to the brick walk.”


There’s a depression, an area just off the porch where the paving stones have sort of sunk. I roll the gas grill on top of it so I don’t have to think about it, so she doesn’t have to see the concavity. I tell her I think that was chipmunks, a pest, like spiders, she happens to like.

“There’s a bald spot on the lawn,” she says.  We walk outside and stand over a round, receding grassline. The turf, what’s left of it, is raised. “What do you think they’re up to?”

I tell her it’s a mystery. And it is: so much of the natural world, going about its business as if we weren’t even here, will startle us suddenly, get our attention when it gets too close, as when critters wish to co-habitate. Where did earwigs come from? I never saw them when I was a kid. Now they’re everywhere. Along with Canada geese. And groundhogs. They were out there all along, somewhere in nature. Just somewhere else. Now they’re here, in large quantities.

My policy is: leave them alone. As long as they’re not in the house, I give them carte blanche.

“But it’s my yard,” my wife says.

The real nuisance these days is deer. The area where we live is like a sprawling 100 square mile salad bar, with enough wooded area to give deer cover. They’re everywhere. They eat just about anything that’s green and will eventually blossom.  It used to be they only came out at night. Now we have all-day deer roving the neighborhoods, checking out hasta beds, spoiling vegetable gardens.


Until recently they left us alone. Then last summer they rubbed or ate the bark off a little cherry tree and killed it.  Now they’re in the flowerbeds on the back of our lot. Friends of ours’ flowerbeds look like something out of Better Homes and Gardens. Did look. To the deer it’s yard zero. Our friends have taken precautions. So have we.  We sprinkle deer repellent around the yard. It smells like sewage for a week or so. My wife is convinced it’s not enough.

Someone told her about a homemade repellent. For a couple days, she says, it looks like blood.


The truth is, I kind of like deer in the yard. It’s not uncommon to see four or five of them mosey across the lawn at daybreak. I’ll stand and watch for as long as they’re there. When I was a kid my parents used to load me and my brother in the car in the evening. We went out driving around the countryside, looking for deer. To see a deer was to come into contact with something wild, big wild; it was untamed nature. “Well, kids,” they’d say when we got home, “we saw six deer tonight.  Not too bad.” East of town was a farmer who kept a couple deer in a pen. It totally robbed them of their dignity and grandeur. They were like skinny, nervous cows.

My cousin had a pet deer for a short time. He got his picture in the paper. “Merritt Youth and His Pet Fawn Flag.” His uncle Alfred was out in the fields on a tractor, mowing wheat, and he ran over and killed a fawn. When he stopped the rig and jumped out, he found another one. He showed my cousin.

My aunt let him keep it. They fed the fawn from a baby bottle. It had sharp feet and tended to kick. It had dark, worried eyes. Of course, my cousin wanted to sleep with it, and did for a few nights, until my aunt got sick of dealing with deer urine in the bed. I think they put a dog collar on it and tied it to a tree for a while. There were no deer obedience schools in the area. My cousin would let it run free, then call out to it, Flag! Flag! and it would come running home. One day when he untied it, it ran and ran and disappeared back into nature.

“We need stronger stuff,” my wife says one night. We’re lying in bed. I’ve checked the ceiling. I know what she’s thinking. The deer could be out there right now, eating her cannas. “Find out about that spray Jill uses. ”

Our friend Jill has a company come out twice a year. They spray the deer away. Supposedly it works. It’s not cheap.

“It’s organic,” my wife says.


Over the next couple days I look at our options. On Amazon I can buy something called “The Scarecrow,” a heat- and motion-activated sprinkler that emits three-second blasts of water. It sounds better than poison or blood in the bushes. But I would need a lot of them. The reviews are mixed, ranging from junk, particularly the Scarecrows made in China, to panacea. One frustrated consumer, Susan Weed (her real name) writes, “This item discourages the rabbits only when the water actually sprays and they soon learn where they can eat that is not in the line of the sensor.” A company named Havahart markets electronic stakes. Not, as some deer haters might imagine, something to drive through the heart of a deer. You position the stakes strategically in order to deliver electric shocks to deer; small children are not exempt.

chelsea data

Other options include bars of soap hung from tree branches, eight penny nails on stakes, putrescent eggs, human hair, hot sauce, and coyote urine. Chelsea, a seventh grader in Pennsylvania, actually conducted an empirical study and concluded that putrid eggs and hair win the day. The commercial products she tested did not finish strong.

Google, of course, will take you down rabbit holes (and ant hills). Following a link to deer antler spray I’m taken to a site picturing a youngish stud and Jackie Stallone, Rockie’s mother. They swear by a product called Nutronics, the active ingredient of which is, among other things, deer antler velvet. Something tells me this elixir will appeal primarily to yearning boy-men. Longjack Plus 25K raises testosterone levels, boosts endurance, and increases libido in both men and women. (Oh, Jackie.) A one-time purchase, for a 30-day supply, is only $99.99.

While in the Google, I decide to check on pimple remedies. Mine is now a raging blemish. When I was in high school there were Stridex Medicated Pads and Clearasil. That was about it, though my father often growled, perhaps erroneously, that old-fashioned soap and water was all you needed. Today I see my options are X Out Face Wash-In, Proactiv Clear Zone, Proactive Dark Spots Corrector, and Medinatura. There are lots of other products, all of which cost about the same as deer repellent.

Back when I was in high school, deep in the swamp of adolescence, solitary short boys and big-boned girls, kids with funny hair and crooked teeth and zits, found common cause and awkward company on Saturday nights. One night a throng of us went to the Temple Theater in Saginaw to see a movie. This was before there’s-an-app-for-that, before Flixter. It was also before the pre-fab studio movie-plex. The Temple was a one of those entertainment cathedrals that gloriously if briefly took you away from yourself. That night we thought we were going to see a horror film. We slumped into seats in the empty balcony, the lights dimmed, and a movie called The Hellstrom Chronicle began to play.

chronicle poster

The subtitle might as well have been “The Bugs Shall Inherit the Earth.”

In 1971 Roger Ebert reviewed the movie, setting the stage thus: “The Long Afternoon of Earth, an uncommonly interesting science fiction novel by Brian W. Aldiss, tells of a time far in the future when the ‘greenhouse effect’ has warmed the planet into an endless rain forest. Only a handful of species have survived, and man co-exists with highly specialized plants and insects, barely managing to hold his own. And that is the way the world will end, if The Hellstrom Chronicle can be believed.” (Those are Roger’s quotation marks around greenhouse effect.) It was a big screen documentary, and I’m sure it was the first time for all of us (not the first time we were all hopefully if fearfully anticipating). For an hour or so we squirmed in our seats, eating popcorn and M&M’s, pummeled by nature, wondering what kind of life we would ever have. We probably hadn’t heard of the greenhouse effect; if we had, we didn’t care. I’m pretty sure we left before the movie ended.

Ebert’s parting words about the film: “Think how bad the insects would feel if they could see a documentary about what humans are up to.”

Whatever we’re up to, it probably won’t work. I have an idea that earwigs will prevail in the end. We’ll be gone. The deer and mice and probably even the ants will be gone. Benevolent spiders will have gone down the tube. If not earwigs, another prehistoric-looking thing will live on and hang out in our defunct back yard for a few billion years. Oxford physicist Rafael Batista is betting on a creature called the tardigrade. It’s an extremophile with eight legs, “renowned for its ability to survive where every other complex living organism cannot. The tardigrade, a micro-animal that grows up to 1.2 millimeters and can live for up to 60 years, is able to survive for 30 years without food or water, endure temperatures up to 300 F, and can even survive exposure to the vacuum of space.”


But right now we’ve got pests. The day of my presentation we call Jill, inquiring after her deer master. I discover a couple more anthills. My talk goes fine, though a few minutes before it starts a three-year-old approaches the podium, points, and asks, “What’s the thing on your nose?”

A plugged-up sebaceous gland. Bacteria run amok. It will live and die, in other words heal, on its own.

Do what you can or leave it alone. Either way, it’s got you.

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