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PEST CONTROL by Amanda J. Bradley

“Fly me to the moon . . . Let me play among the stars . . .  Let me see what spring is like on . . . Jupiter and Mars . . . Well, GPS, you best be right. Don’t want to show up at the wrong house, now, do I? I’ll spray the pesky buggers anywhere, but you gotta pay me for it, too. No pay, can’t keep the pests away, that’s the truth of it. What do you think, Frank? Park in the drive or front of the house? I agree completely. Driveway it is. Thanks for your two cents there,” Frank Franklin chuckled to himself as he pulled his shiny new Ford F-150 up onto the gravel drive at 143 Red Pines Road in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. He checked the side mirror for oncoming traffic before climbing out of his truck, then reached into the truck bed for his gloves and a giant metal spraying contraption. “Have spray, will travel. That’s a good one, Frank. Gotta remember that, might come in handy later.” Frank rang the doorbell then muttered some dooby doos as he inspected the shrubs lining the front of the house.

“Hello?” A middle-aged woman, maybe forty or fifty or so, Frank reckoned, stood before him with her vacant blue eyes wide open. Frank had knocked on many a door over the years, but never had he been so immediately taken with the person who opened it. She looked like an aging homecoming queen, still beautiful despite two thin, light wrinkles across her brow and the lovely crow’s feet splaying out from the corners of those enormous blue, now blinking, eyes. Frank realized he’d been stunned silent, which had not happened to him in a very long time.

“Hello! Sorry, there. Haven’t been stumped for something to say since second grade when Lucy Lynn shared a stick of gum with me.” The woman at the door drew back in toward the house a bit, and Frank realized he’d frightened her. “Guess I got lost in thought. No cause for concern. Not bound to happen again. You’ll be trying to shut me up soon enough.”

“Can I help you?” the woman asked.

“Oh, yes. You’re probably wonderin’ what I’m doin’ standin’ on your doorstep about now.” Frank lifted his spray can up a half-inch to draw her attention to it. “I’m here to spray for pests. Franklin Pest Control, you see on my truck over there, just got ‘er painted with that. Looks nice, don’t it? You don’t have to answer that. Nope, not fishin’ for compliments. But I’m real happy with it, if I do say so. So, you did call Franklin Pest Control, didn’t ya?”

“Why yes, I did. Please come in. I’m Carol.” Frank liked the looks of the living room he’d stepped into. A large, fluffy, white rug covered the wood floor, and a silvery gray couch sat against the far wall. A pink accent chair brought a touch of color to the room. Frank nodded his approval as he looked around. “I called you because I’ve seen two spiders in the house recently.”

“Two spiders? Well now, that’s not too bad, is it?” Frank arched an eyebrow at Carol, who seemed to ignore his question. “Where’d ya see ‘em?”

“One was in the upstairs bathroom, and one was in the dining room.”

“Yes, ma’am. I can spray those rooms real good, and I’ll spray the whole place down so they don’t have nowhere to run off to. Those two spiders’ll be dead faster than you can say Franklin, and any babies they might’ve had. You haven’t seen any other kinda varmint scurrying ‘round here, mean to tell me?” Frank noticed how pristinely clean the three rooms he could see appeared to be. He’d been in a lot of houses over the years, and he’d seen a lot of states of affairs in those houses. “Carol here must run a tight ship,” he thought. There were no signs of small children in plain view, and the general state of things suggested her kids were either grown or she didn’t have any. He wondered which it was, then caught himself wondering why he was wondering.

“No. Just the two spiders. I debated whether to call you or not, but I just don’t want the situation to get out of hand.” Carol smiled wanly with that vacant stare in her eyes still, unsettling Frank again. “May I ask your name?”

“Oh yes, rude of me. Sorry. Always so rude when I don’t pay enough attention. Frank Franklin,” he said, sticking out his hand to shake. Carol lightly shook his hand with small, cold fingers. “Now before you ask, it’s really Frank Franklin. Don’t think you’d be the first to make a crack about it. My momma had a sense of humor, I guess. Thought it’d be real funny to give me the same name twice. Or maybe she assumed the whole world was too stupid to remember more than one name. It is memorable, though. People aren’t likely to forget a name like Frank Franklin now are they?”

“No, I suppose not.” Vague smile. Distant eyes. “Well, I guess I will get out of your way and let you do your thing.”

“Yes, okay. I’ll spray all around the interior and then I’ll get the deck, if you’d like? Saw it round the side of the house as I came up. I can sweep around the outside of the house, too, if you’d like, try to keep the pests back from your quarters a bit, if that suits ya?”

“Yes, that will be fine. Thank you.” Carol flashed her fingers in a mildly awkward wave then retracted them as she spun around and headed for what appeared to be the kitchen. Frank could hear pots and pans, dishes – something — clanging around in there, as he started spraying around the walls of the living room.

“I like my job real well, Carol,” Frank hollered so she could hear him from the other room. “I’ve been at it for near on twenty years now. Worked for a different company at first, then started my own bug-spraying business. Nice to have your name on something, ya know? I keep my own hours this way, no boss to tell me where to be when. Nobody to blame if it fails, neither, I spose, but there will always be bugs. Seems like there’s more and more with these warmer winters we keep havin’. Most people don’t fret over just two spiders, but you have a real nice place here, so I can see keepin’ those creepy crawlers outdoors if this were my place, too.”

Carol popped her head around the corner. “Is it safe for me to stay inside while you spray?”

“Oh yes! Oh, most certainly! See, I don’t even wear a mask this spray is so harmless. I spray produce at the grocery with this stuff. All those environmental types buyin’ their organic oranges and asparagus don’t know that ol’ Frank Franklin has been by and squirted bug spray all over their precious fruits and vegetables!” Frank’s gruff voice cracked into laughter. “Not that there’s anything wrong with organic, of course. But no, Carol, the spray is harmless except to the critters. Totally fine.”

“Okay, then. I’ll just be tidying up in the kitchen.” Frank noticed Carol’s gentle voice, thought to himself that it had a real sweet timber. He liked soft spoken women, he realized suddenly. He felt some phlegm rattling around in his chest as he moved into the den and Carol disappeared from sight.

“Yeah, I spray at the grocery. Now that’s a good gig. Big stores, takes a lot of time, but the pay’s real good because of that. I have to do it late at night, though, when the store is closed or when there aren’t many people there at the 24-hour ones. Some of those stores stay open all night for people working the graveyard shift. Everyone has to buy groceries, after all. Gotta be stores open somewhere for those folks.” Frank raised his voice a register to make sure Carol could hear him: “I’m just going to head upstairs now, Carol! Won’t take me too long, though.” He returned to mumbling. “Naw, it never takes Frank Franklin too long to spray a house. Out in a jiffy. Moves like lightning.” Frank moved his arms quickly to demonstrate the speed of lightning to himself then chuckled. “Yeah, ol’ Frank, he’s fast even if he’s gettin’ up there in years. Not too old now, though. Everything’s still ticking on him. Can’t stop Frank. Not yet, at least. Not yet indeed.”

Frank wandered from room to room upstairs spraying along the floorboards. He kept up his chatter and coughed a deep, guttural, phlegm-producing cough that required he swallow a loogy. “Yeah, that coughs gettin’ worse, Frank. Gotta keep an eye on that. No little ol’ cough can’t stop Frank, though. He keeps right on truckin’.” As Frank finished the second floor, he paused at the top of the stairs because Carol, a vision of yellow hair and pale skin, stood at the bottom looking up at him.

“How’s it going up there, Frank?” Frank waved away a cloud of pesticide.

“It’s finito up here. Didn’t see nary a bugger anywhere neither. Now, you may spy with your little eye a spider or two coming out of the woodwork to get away from Frank’s spray, but rest assured they won’t have much fight in ‘em. Let ‘em be, and they’ll be dead in no time.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’ll scoot on around to the deck and the outside of the house now. Ya got any dogs I outta worry about? Don’t get me wrong. I love dogs, but sometimes they don’t realize that right at first, gotta mind of their own, some dogs. Any Rottweilers or Dobermans I need to keep an eye out for?” Frank chuckled.

“No, I don’t have any pets.” That sweet little voice tickled Frank’s ears like a fragile song. He found himself noticing Carol had said “I” instead of “we.” “So maybe there’s no husband in the picture,” he thought. “Damn shame, too. Such a pretty little lady.”

“Well, alrighty then. I’ll pop my head back in before I take off.” Frank headed out the front door and shut it behind him. “Dooby doo be doo be dooby doo be dooby doo,” he sang. “Can’t get that song out of my head. Fine song and all, but it’s bound to drive a man nuts to have the same thing rolling around his brain all day. I should try to think of a different song. Maybe I’ll listen to the radio once I get back in the truck. I wonder if ol’ Carol in there likes Sinatra. Who doesn’t like the crooners? The lyrics, the catchy tunes, the romance. What’s not to like? Hell, I don’t mind if this song’s stuck in my head after all, come to think of it.” Frank rounded the corner to the back of the house to see a large yard with peach and pear trees and a fenced-in vegetable garden. “Well, I’ll be. If she doesn’t garden, too. That’s mighty nice. Wonder what she’s got in there. I’ll have to ask.” As Frank climbed the steps onto the deck, Carol poked her head out the door.

“Would you like a glass of water or some iced tea?”

“Well, that’s right nice of you,” Frank said, but suddenly his throat caught and one of the massive coughing fits he’d been having seized him. He bent over to try to slow it down, and a pile of phlegm filled his mouth. He swallowed it to avoid spitting in front of Carol. Once he’d managed to get the spell under control, he stood upright. “My apologies, there, Carol. I think a nice glass of iced tea would be mighty fine. Help me clear my throat.”

“I’ll be right back.” Frank saw that Carol had an apron on now of pink checkered gingham, and she wiped water from her hands as she turned back into the house. Frank finished up along the deck while he waited for Carol to return with the tea. “Here you go, Mr. Franklin,” Carol said formally, offering a tall glass of iced tea.

“Thank you right much.” He took a big gulp of the tea, which he found delicious. Not too sweet, with a hint of a fruity flavor to it. “That’s mighty tasty. What’s that in it? A hint of strawberry? Oh, and please call me Frank.”

“It’s raspberry, actually,” she replied.

“Is that so? Well, I’m a big fan of your raspberry tea, Carol.”

“Thank you.” Frank gulped down the rest of the tea, handed the glass of ice back to Carol, and glanced around. “Well, I reckon I’m finished. That’ll ‘bout do it for ol’ Frank today. Seems there was something I was gonna ask you, but I can’t recall what it was just now.” Frank stood on the deck staring at the boards beneath him trying to recall, but all he could think was how pretty Carol was in her pink apron. “Well, I’m sure I’ll think of it later,” he laughed. “Once I’m long gone.”

Carol smiled courteously at Frank. “How do I pay you?”

“I’ll send ya the bill. All the instructions will be on it – the address to send the check to and whatnot.”

“Thank you, then,” Carol said. “Well, have a nice day!” She gave Frank that weird little wave again as she went back into the house. Frank heard the door lock behind her.

“Dooby doo be doo be dooby doo be dooby doo,” Frank sang as he got in his truck to leave. “Jupiter and Mars!” he bellowed as he drove off.

*

Later that evening, Frank rattled around the kitchen of his home making macaroni and cheese, shuffling steps over the linoleum to the Bob Seger song that had come on the radio. “That Carol was a fine specimen of a woman. Pretty hair. Pretty house with that pink chair.  Veggie garden out back. Makes raspberry tea. Yeah, I’d like to see that woman again. Wonder what she thought of me. She sure did smile at me a lot. Smiled and stared at me, come to think of it. I betchya Carol liked ol’ Frank. She offered me a drink after all. Could have just been her being nice but maybe she wanted me to stick around a little longer, didn’t want me to leave?” Frank dumped the cheese in the macaroni on the stove and stirred it with a wooden spoon. The radio was crowding his thoughts, so he leaned over to turn it off.

“Carol’s probably a good deal younger than me, but nothin’ too striking. Prolly not even fifteen years. Wonder where her husband got off to. Maybe killed in a war or car accident or somethin’. There’s no way that lady made it out of high school without a beau. Wonder if she went to college. I bet she’s real smart, probably watches documentaries and reads thousand-page books from the library. I bet she knits, too. Seems like the crafty type with that garden and all her interior decoratin’. Wonder if Carol has family around. I bet her mom and pops live nearby, and she probably takes them casseroles and keeps their house clean, sits with ‘em and watches The Price Is Right. Her momma misses Bob Barker, but Carol thinks Drew Carey is right nice lookin’ with his glasses that make him look all intellectual.” Frank took his dish into the living room and set it on a tv tray as usual, but he didn’t feel like watching tv tonight.

“I bet if I were with Carol right now, we’d be eating a much finer dinner than this here mac ‘n cheese. She’d probably cook up some vegetables from her garden for me, all nice and fancy-like. She’d put some spicy stuff on steaks, and I’d fire up the grill and cook ‘em. She’d make potatoes somehow – au gratin or somethin’. Or maybe she’d bake ‘em with some sour cream and chives on top like from Wendy’s but even better.” Frank stuck his fork in the macaroni bowl and let it rest there. He’d talked himself out of his appetite.

“Ya know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna hatch a plan. I’m gonna figure some way to get that Carol lady in my life. Frank Franklin doesn’t just sit around mooning over no one. He’s a man of action. Ol’ Frank goes for it, yessiree. What’s the point of little Carol sitting alone at her house feeling bad and ol’ Frank sitting alone at his house thinking about Carol? No point at all. What time is it?” Frank glanced at his phone. “Why, it’s only 5:30! She prolly hasn’t even had dinner yet. I’m just gonna go right over there and ask Carol out on a date with me. If she can’t go tonight, I will have done her the courtesy of askin’ her in person for a night when she’s not eaten. The plan is hatched, and out the door with Frank. Pronto, pronto, Frank,” he said as he stepped into his shoes and grabbed his ballcap.

Frank hadn’t been so quiet during a drive since he couldn’t remember when. Even his mind was still as he drove, radio off, quickly but cautiously back to Red Pines Road. He focused on not having an accident like maybe Carol’s first husband had. This was no time to die, with so much promise on the horizon, a happy future with Carol . . . Frank couldn’t think of her last name just now. “But soon enough it will be Carol Franklin,” he thought and a small grin crept onto his face. Frank’s nerves tittered as he pulled up into the drive, causing a huge cough to erupt from his chest. He swallowed, took off his cap, tossed it on the seat next to him, and got out of the truck. The sky was awash in a glorious sunset, all pinks and oranges and purple clouds. The house appeared to be dark except from maybe way back inside it, probably from the dining room and kitchen. “I hope she hasn’t eaten dinner yet,” Frank thought with a small gulp. “Well, it’s do or die. Don’t wanna’ be standin’ out here too long lookin’ the fool.” Frank rang the doorbell and shifted his weight from foot to foot.

The honied notes of Carol’s voice suddenly filled the air, although the door had not opened. “Mr. Franklin? Can I help you?”

“Please call me Frank. Do you . . . do you have a minute?”

“Well, not really. I have dinner guests, and I’m just putting the food on the table. Did you forget something this afternoon?” Frank noticed the lit blue ring of light on the bell he’d just rung and realized she must have one of those doorbells with the cameras.

“No, I . . . well, yes, I forgot to ask you a question, but if you’re busy . . .”

“I really am busy, Mr. Franklin. Please send me the bill, and I will pay you right away.”

“Yes of course,” Frank said to the closed door.

“Have a good evening.”

Frank started to respond “you too,” but the blue ring of light had darkened, and he suspected she wouldn’t hear him anyway.

Amanda J. Bradley, 48, lives in Beacon, New York. She was a professor for twenty years and recently retired.

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