Fun fact: Cimicids are attracted to their hosts by carbon dioxide and warmth. Also, cockroaches are a natural predator to cimicids.
* * *
One night my roommates and I were sitting on our front porch and a man approached us from the sidewalk.
I assumed the man was a bum, about to ask me for change. His clothes matched the tobacco shade of our walls and you could smell a mixture of alcohol, cigarettes, and body odor emanating from him a few feet away.
“Hey guys. You live here?” he said.
He had an obvious stutter in his step and the tone of his voice sounded like he was speaking through a sack of rocks.
“Yeah,” we answered.
“Natalie doesn’t like us to sit out on the front porch, but you’re alright—I won’t tell. Just don’t let her catch you doing it.”
His appearance resembled how I imagined all Binghamtownies looked: strung out and homeless.
“Oh thanks, man,” I said. “Want a beer?”
“Sure, sure. Thanks,” he said. “My name’s David, by the way. I live down in the basement.”
“Good to know. How long’ve you lived down there?” Jimi asked.
“And how do you feel about Natalie?” Dr. Handsome added.
“Ha,” David said, pausing. “Natalie isn’t worth much for anything except maybe a place to live. And she’s barely good enough for that… always trying to kick me out. Where am I supposed to go? I’ve been living here for years.”
“So you must know her pretty well then, right?” Jimi said.
“Good enough, I suppose.”
“Not this again,” Dr. Handsome said.
“Yeah, c’mon, Jimi, we don’t have bedbugs,” I added.
“Let the man answer, guys,” Jimi said with a smirk.
* * *
When the leaves began to fall and the evenings turned cooler, we started to wonder when Natalie was going to turn on our heat. Dr. Handsome spent time each night sifting through landlord-tenant law trying to find how cold it had to be where she was required to turn the heat on.
“According to this, once the temperature reaches 52 degrees she’s required by law to turn on the heat,” Dr. Handsome said.
“Yeah but have you talked with anyone else in the building? Maybe it’s just our apartment?” I asked.
“I spoke with the guys on the other side of us. They said they’ve been complaining to her to but she just keeps telling them it will come on soon.”
“We both know what that means.”
“Yeah, I’ll make sure I remind her again the next time I see her.”
The next day after Dr. Handsome returned from school, he seemed upset.
“What’s up, Dr. Handsome?”
“Zack, did Natalie come by yesterday?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “How’d you know?”
“Well I was talking to her today and she was all scatter-brained as usual. But, eventually, she’s like ‘I knock on your door but no one answers and I know he is home because the car is parked in the drive way. I knock again, no answer. So I leave a note.’
“Dude, you can’t just ignore her like that. Especially when we’re trying to get the heat turned on,” Dr. Handsome said.
“Yeah I know,” I said. “I just can’t stand talking to her and listening to her ramble on about nothing I understand.”
“Fucking man up and deal with it,” Dr. Handsome said, then went into his room.
When Jimi found out I’d ignored Natalie, he understood my predicament better. Jimi had already started telling us she wouldn’t speak with him because she’s a racist, he’s black, and she probably thinks he’s gonna try to rape or mug her. Or maybe a combination of the two.
“Either way,” Jimi told me, “You know you should’ve answered the door. We need to maintain at least a functional relationship with her.”
“Yeah you’re right,” I said.
“Oh well, whatever… next time,” Jimi said. “Anyways, check this out.” Jimi raised his arms to show me a couple areas where there were clutters of three or four what-seemed-to-be large mosquito bites. “I’ve been getting these on my hands and arms and I think they’re from when I sleep.”
“Damn, dude. Those look like some gnarly bug bites.”
“Yeah and the worst part is how itchy they are. It’s like a mosquito bite, but ten times worse.”
A little over-concerned about trivial things, Jimi started looking into possible causes of these bites. He’d already sifted through the Wikipedia articles on cockroaches, and we knew they weren’t known for biting humans. In search of other articles regarding pest problems in Binghamton, he found some discussing the increased occurrence of bed bug infestations throughout the Broome County area.
There it was. Jimi knew we had bed bugs.
Coming from the same person who refuses to venture south of Virginia because, “They’re all racists down there,” Dr. Handsome and I took Jimi’s convictions with a grain of salt. Besides, Dr. Handsome and I had zero bug bites whatsoever. If our apartment were truly infested, we’d also have bites similar to those clusters on Jimi’s arms, I thought. Dr. Handsome agreed.
* * *
“I’ve been dealing with bed bugs since the first night I moved in,” David said. “Gotten used to them by now, though. Just keep the heat on a little high, sleep with more clothes on. They’ll leave you alone for the most part.”
Jimi didn’t say anything because he knew he didn’t need to. Jimi was Bull Connor, his smile the hose that pelted Dr. Handsome and me in the face. Later on he would realize the triumph had been shortsighted but, for now, he relished his victory.
For the next couple of hours we sat with David and he mentioned being a soldier in Vietnam. He wouldn’t go into detail but none of us really probed for any either. I think it was too real, too visceral.
I had a hard enough time comprehending this man who sat, speaking with us. He didn’t try to regal us with details of killing people. And he didn’t try to tell us the horrors of war—ones of the Viet-cong using children as bombs or sacrificing civilians as a guerrilla tactic. The only thing he really seemed adamant about telling us is that war is terrible, not glorious, and that he wished he’d never gone. He wished no one else would have to go to war but also acknowledged that war is a sad reality.
Though it seemed long, our conversation with David only took a brief turn for the dark side. We mostly found ourselves making jokes and exchanging views about the good and bad in our building—we all agreed when it came to the subject of Natalie. David also told us a good way to avoid buying the over-priced green garbage bags the City of Binghamton required your trash to be in for pickup day.
“Every Wednesday, or whenever my trash needs to be emptied really, I’ll get up real early in the morning and just throw all my trash in the can that’s right by the bus stop.
“What are they gonna do? Tell me to quit throwing my trash in the trash bin?”
We all laughed at his resourcefulness and I realized I’d started to like David. He was a good guy, in spite of his issues.
“That’s brilliant,” Jimi said.
David let out a gravelly chuckle and said, “Hey, you guys like old records? I’ve got a whole bunch of Zeppelin and Dead. You should come down and hang out some time. Throw some back. I’ve built a pretty good collection.”
“Oh yeah, that’d be cool,” I said. “Think I’m gonna head in for the night though. You know where we live, just give us a knock. We’ll have to get together and check out that collection.”
Drunk and tired, we said our goodbyes and went inside for bed. It was a gracious gesture, inviting us to hang out, but I couldn’t see myself, or any of my roommates, going to hang out with him.
Once I was in bed, I found myself wondering about David.
Living in the basement of a slumlord’s building with no job, getting drunk and being bitten by bed bugs each remaining day of his life. Was it his fault, the way he ended up? How does one slip into this sort of situation? Did his experiences in the war cause trauma that lead him, or at least influenced, where he ended up today?
It was easy to wonder about him. I could feel sorry and it almost felt like my concern would help him.
Oh the injustices of war, of our government. You sleezy rich, always taking advantage of the poor.
In some ways I was worse than Natalie. I felt compassion for David. I even thought I felt some of his pain, but I didn’t do anything. Natalie seemed almost incapable of feeling anything. She certainly wouldn’t have any incentive to unless it made her some money. But me, I thought about it, felt a little bit better for having thought, and then went to sleep.
Other Sections: Prologue - I - II - III - IV - V - VI - VII
Other Sections: Prologue - I - II - III - IV - V - VI - VII