This was a sign as far as I was concerned. The high water mark. The North American standard for being a shitbag.
A plague of the poor and dirty.
So when we started to see them coming out from the oven it was hard not to feel bad. Like we'd done something wrong. That we couldn't take care of ourselves.
It came at a bad time. As far as morale was concerned.
The refrigerator had taken a turn for the worse. Possessed by a horrific odor. Which attached itself to anything we put in it. We did everything we could. By the time we found the problem we were both worn out.
And didn’t have much fight left.
At first it was only a couple roaches. They'd scurry across the counter top. Antennae waving. Legs a blur. They'd crunch as we squished them.
It was manageable.
But one or two is just the tip. Soon they were all over the place. On the walls. In the toaster. I had to shake my clothes out in the morning. For peace of mind.
Eventually we had to give up on the oven. No matter how hot we turned it up we never found a dead one in there. We were down another appliance.
I wasn't sleeping well. I kept imaging them. At night. Crawling on me. Over my lips. Down my throat. I started to think the colony was inside me.
At work they noticed. Asked me what was wrong. Why the bags under my eyes were worse than usual?
There wasn’t enough energy to lie. 'I have cockroaches. I'm feeling pretty low.'
'Oh shit,' one of the guys said,' I lived in this place. In Windsor. So many roaches that in the morning. When we came into the living room. Where one of the guys slept. We'd turn on the lights. And see them running. A black shadow. They'd been crawling all over him when he was sleeping.
The men laughed. The women gagged.
I stopped turning the lights off at night.
Which didn’t work for very long.
We didn’t call the super right away. We let it get worse. It was how we worked.
When I finally called him he sounded weird. Like he didn't believe me. He told me I had to catch one. That if I didn’t he wasn't going to spray any poison.
So that's what we did. By the time we called the super we'd crossed a line.
He came by. We walked him to the kitchen. Showed him our prize. The fifty or sixty dead bugs thumbtacked to the wall. Their blood and puss oozing down.
He agreed we had a problem.
After a week he came back. A large silver canister with a black rubber hose. He told us as he pumped it that we didn't have to leave. Could sit back and relax. It wasn't all that bad.
We went out on the stoop. Smoked a joint. The super sprayed the entire place with out wearing a mask.
After the spraying things got better. We only saw them occasionally. Killed them as we could. Assumed they just moved on to the next apartment over. That they were someone else's problem now.
I moved soon after that. My girlfriend was going to Toronto. And I had nothing else going for me. So I tagged along.
This was the worst apartment I’d lived in.
I moved in with another guy.
The place was a dump. But it was cheap.
When we met the landlord we recognized him. He was a regular reporter for the local news. Worked the human interest beat.
A real piece of shit.
Both apartment and man.
But we moved in anyways. Around the beginning of October.
It was freezing outside.
At the time I was pretty fat. I could take it. But my roommate would spend the nights sitting on the couch. Playing video games. Huddled under several layers of blankets.
One of those nights. We were sitting there. I was watching him play a video game. He dropped the controller.
'What the fuck is that?' he said.
'I don't know. But it's coming from the ceiling.'
It was loud. The sounds of some animal waddling around.
It was a while before we figured exactly what was up there. Neither of us were brave enough to lift a tile to take a look.
I phoned the landlord. He told me not to worry. Called me buddy.
We passed the winter living in fear. The animal spent most nights scratching. It had its favourite spots. Above the couch. Above my bed.
Weeks rolled by.
Listening to the endless scraping of its claws. Wondering when it would come falling through.
When the landlord came by looking for rent we begged. He gave us excuses. We stopped giving him the full amount.
Then spring came.
The landlord finally called someone. They put a couple traps around. But my roommate was pissed. Didn’t like how long it took for anything to happen. He felt like he needed some justice.
So when the raccoon stumbled into the trap. We let it go. Gave it back its freedom. It started scratching the ceilings in return for our empathy.
The sleepless nights kept on rolling.
I lost all my finesse.
My roommate started demanding the landlord do something. Said we weren't going to pay the rent anymore. I liked his audacity. After letting the thing go.
We left for the weekend. Went to some small town fair. Drank and slept on the beach for three days. When we got back we were tired. Wanted to relax.
We were sitting on the couch. A friend was with us. He was rolling a joint. Something fell from the ceiling. He paid no mind.
Until it happened again. And again. He looked up. He looked at the floor. There were several maggots. Squirming. And another fell.
'Dude, there's maggots falling from the ceiling.'
I laughed. 'What?'
'Maggots are falling from the ceiling.'
And then I saw them.
'He didn’t,' I said.
I called the landlord.
'Hello,' he said.
'You poisoned them didn’t you?'
It took him a couple hours. But he made it over. He brought a ladder. A box of garbage bags. I went for a walk while he worked.
I smoked cigarettes. Laughed to myself. Him over there. Balancing on that ladder. Scooping a putrefying raccoon into a garbage bag.
I just hoped that he didn’t get any on the couch.
We ended up living there for another year. Until the electricity was about to get shut off. We had to find a place that was all-inclusive. Or leave town.
I've never felt worse in my entire life. Cockroaches were one thing. Raccoons another. But this was beyond any amount of shame I've ever experienced.
It was July. Montreal. And the island was covered in ten degrees of thick humidity. It held you up as you walked. It was hard to breathe.
I was sitting at the kitchen table. I was wearing a pair of very short red shorts. I looked down at my pale white thigh. And against the hair and blue veins I saw something move.
Crawling out from the edge of my shorts. There it was. A tiny, brown beetle. Or so I thought.
'Hey, babe,' I said to my wife, 'what kind of bug is this?'
'I don’t know, baby.'
I tried not to show it. But I was scared.
The first thing I Googled was bedbug.
It was exactly what was in my hand. I squished it. My blood flowing out of it as I did.
'Babe,' I said, 'got some bad news. I think we have bedbugs.'
Here face lost all its colour.
'I have to check the mattress.'
I went up onto the mezzanine. Grabbed the corner of the sheets. Gave it one good tug. And there they were. Hundreds of them. Crawling around.
My wife’s parents had just bought us the mattress. Now it was black with bug shit. There were bloodstains everywhere. We'd been crushing them in our sleep. It had been a massacre.
I was pretty sure my wife’s rash wasn't from camping. They were bites. Covering her entire forearm.
She called up to me. 'How does it look?'
'Not good. We have to call the landlord.'
I took the next day off work. Did all the laundry. They say heat can kill them. So we prayed. Hoped for the best. Waited for the exterminator to come.
I have a photo of my wife. On the morning of the day the exterminator showed up. I'd never seen her look so sad. I'd never seen her look more beautiful.
We slept on an air mattress for the next six months. Had to keep all our clothing in garbage bags. Threw out all our furniture.
There wasn’t any money for new things.
When we told people. The looks on their faces. They wanted nothing to do with us. We stopped getting invited to summer get-togethers.
My wife and I were no better than lepers.
And that wasn’t the worst part.
I still have waking nightmares about the little fuckers. Any time a leg hair blows in the breeze, tickles me. I get scared. Start pulling the sheets off the bed. Run around in a terror. Ready to pitch everything I have in the dumpster.
And I don’t think I'll ever live that fear down.
After six months we moved. Prompted by Transport Quebec. So they could tear down the building. To make way for commuters.
We moved into a place with rats next.
My wife and I woke up. It was early in the morning. Still a couple of hours before the sun came up.
The entire apartment. A brick lined box. Was filled with a horrible sound. I couldn't place it.
So when my wife said, 'baby…what is that?' in her soft tired voice. I couldn't hazard a guess.
I swung my feet out of bed. They touched the untreated plywood that was my bedroom floor. I stood up three quarters of the way. The cement ceiling stopping me from being fully erect.
Standing at the top of the stairs I couldn't hear a thing. My exhausted brain got the better of me. 'It's over now, baby. Probably just something in the electrical room. Go back to sleep. It's early.'
But as soon as the covers were pulled back up over my head it started again. And I was furious instantly. I jumped up. Before my wife could say a thing I tore down the rickety stairs to the main floor.
I thought it had to be the back door. It lead out into an alley. There's no shortage of junkies and deadbeats hanging around the building. And I'd been waiting for this.
In the dark I stood. Holding a bat I kept at the bottom of the stairs. In nothing but my underwear. Waiting for the sound to start again.
My plan was to hit the door. Scare the fuckers off when they started messing around again.
But when I heard it it wasn't outside. The sound was coming from the living room.
I walked back. Turned on the lights. Looked around. Couldn't see a thing.
'What's going on down there?'
'I don't know. I can hear it. But I have no idea where it's coming from.'
'Well come back to bed. I'm cold up here all alone.'
After I went back to bed it was the only sound I could hear. Even drowning out my wife's heavy breathing. For half an hour at least. And then it stopped abruptly.
A few nights later. Some friends were leaving. And I saw something. Looking at me from under the sofa.
It was thick. Followed me around the room with its cold black eyes. It knew that I saw it. And didn't give a shit. I directed all my hate towards it.
'I'm going to kill you. You'll regret getting in.'
I was sure it heard me. But I made like I didn’t see it. No acknowledgement. I didn’t want my wife to know.
She never would've fallen asleep.
In the morning I texed her from work. Asked her to pick up some poison. Some rattraps.
I could only hide it for so long.
The first one we caught screamed.
Someone told me they do it to warn the others.
'Shit. I didn't know they were so loud,' my wife said while holding her hands over her ears.
'I think you should take a walk,' the rats shrill death rattle was already making her eyes well up. Turn pink.
After she left I got an old basmati rice sac. The one with the zipper. The handle.
I used a broom. Got the rat and the trap in. Took it out our back door. Into the alley. Beat it against the concrete until it stopped moving. Chucked it in the dumpster when I was done.
Foolishly we thought we had the problem licked.
But there's never only one.
Three days later. I was drinking a coffee before work. Sitting on the couch. And there were four rats running around. Checking things out. They didn’t care that I was there.
I was losing control.
I let out a yelp. Yeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiippp. They ran to the corner. The one closest to the electrical room. I was half right that first night skulking around in my underwear.
There was a speaker in the corner. I moved it. A hole as big around as my arm behind it.
We called the landlord.
They knew what to do. It wasn't the first time. They laid out poison. Traps. Plugged up the hole. But they said it might take a bit. And it did.
In the morning I got up. I saw one. Trying to gnaw it's way back into the electrical room. It heard me. Looked over its shoulder. Shrugged its grey shoulders. Went back to gnawing.
I tiptoed. Picked up a heavy wooden soled cowboy boot. Steadied my hand. And threw it.
I've never had much faith in myself. But that morning was different. And as that boot sailed across the living room there was nothing but hubris in my heart. Because I knew my aim was true.
I hit it square. The rat lay dead. For an instant. Then it started flopping all over the floor.
I hurried. Picked up the boot. Started beating it to death with the heel. But softly. I was scared of it exploding. It's diseased blood everywhere.
So I had to be sure to keep my lips from opening into a smile. But it was hard. Because I finally knew what it was like to triumph.
We ended up moving out of this place. Junkies had started squatting in the laundry room. Another sort of infestation all together.