Blake, from the pest control service, stands several feet back from the front door of my house, after having knocked and waited, holding a mask in one hand, a box of rodenticide in the other. It’s Good Friday, 2022, and the mask says one thing, and the box another, and I tell him I’m fully vaxxed and ask if he is, too. He says yes, and I tell him he doesn’t have to wear the mask if he doesn’t want to, but if he’d prefer to wear the mask, I want him to wear the mask. Blake stuffs the mask into his pocket.
His first question is whether I want the rodenticide. That question comes first because it seems many of us do not want the rodenticide, and I don’t want the rodenticide. I’m making my first foray into professional pest control because of carpenter ants, not mice. The ants are so much smaller and tidier than mice, but mice I can at least capture. These ants, though: the obsidian armored, some winged, we see exploring our floors, are part of a larger, unimaginable, un-trappable thing, a nest or maybe a colony, an organism like a vast underground mushroom, a network, an idea, a virus.
In the basement, the attic, the main rooms, Blake attends to the windowsills, the corners, the baseboards, the doorjambs, with a flashlight and a big syringe of something he injects into cracks, in some pattern I can’t discern but which I assume is strategic. Then he does the outside, a slow, precise perimeter of the entire house, even beneath the deck, stuffing up some holes, ministering again to the sills, this time also wearing eye goggles as he applies a spray to finish it off. At the beginning, in the basement, curious and awkward, I watch him, but after that, I just listen, imagining, from another room, from inside, through a window.
Meanwhile, in town, a friend messages to confirm she has COVID, after all this—a suspected cold unmasked itself on the fourth day’s test, and, at risk, she’s already off to get infused with antibodies, to shield the cells, to stave off what wants to go further and further inside. To make a vast and expansive network of itself. A colony. A nest. Or at the least, a place to live and thrive for a while. For as long as it can last.
The carpenter ants, Blake warns me as he prepares to leave, will probably surge back, baited now by the delicious poison he has set out for them, drawn anew from any secret hideouts they’ve chewed through water-softened spots in this collection of boards we call our house. He has found one such spot beneath the deck where he crawled–because his job was to touch every part of this house that he possibly could—one spot we need to have taken care of, added to a growing list of tasks we don’t know how to accomplish ourselves.
That a thing as solid as a house could have such spots, could harbor such tender, slowly festering wounds you could push your thumb through, but had better not—isn’t news, yet feels sudden as a bombshell when Blake confirms in words what the last month’s daily reconnaissance of tiny, seeking scouts trickling across the hardwood floor was making plain as day.
I usually can’t recall my dreams at all; whatever fragments or sensations linger when I wake tend to dissolve very quickly. But recently I’ve remembered a few in which I forget to wear my mask somewhere, usually a restaurant. In the dreams, I’ve stopped in, unplanned, with friends, and am seated and suddenly realize, panicked, that I’m not wearing a mask, that I need to leave, and I do, I just get up and leave. In my waking life, I haven’t returned to public indoor dining yet, haven’t returned to spending more than a few minutes indoors anywhere public without a mask. It helps that I still mostly don’t go to public indoor spaces besides the post office, the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and, a handful of times over two years, my office on campus. After a year of remote teaching (2020-2021), I’ve been on sabbatical leave for 2021-2022. During this leave I have done some writing, some editing, a lot of reading, and a lot of driving. I have tried to take care, as pandemic has permitted, of some home-related tasks and maintenance, since I can usually be at home for those hours-long service provider “arrival windows.”
I feel taken care of by Blake. He’s very good at the part of his job where he must explain things to people, like me, who think they understand more than they actually do. He has a good way of helping me understand, a way, not unlike that of nurses who have cared for me, of calibrating my attention, tuning me to just the right spot on a spectrum that stretches from blissful ignorance on one pole to full panic mode on the other. I am inclined to trust him, to believe the things he says, the tone with which he paints this situation, which is real, but not yet dire. And so for a moment, I feel competent enough, glad I called before it got out of hand. I called, they set up the appointment, and sent Blake, who stood a few feet back from the door I opened, holding a box rodenticide in one hand and a mask in the other.
As I write this scene, I remember that I opened my door to him maskless, as he stood safely distant, holding his mask so I could see it, as if to say something to me without words: I know there’s a pandemic. I know it’s real. I expect you might want me to wear this and I’m ready to do that. You’re not crazy. That’s the nature of what I heard, anyhow, the nature of what I read in that sign. I wish I’d been holding a mask, too, as my wordless answer. Or wearing one. I wish I had said something different in my wordless reply, though I suppose only Blake gets to say what I said, even if it’s not what I meant. Had my masklessness said something I didn’t mean to say? It’s over. Why do you have a mask? You don’t need that. I don’t care about your health. I think I might have been wearing my house — the luxury of its solitude and therefore perceived safety — like a mask, even as ants were maybe slowly destroying it from the inside out. The actual masks were right there, where they’ve been stationed for over two years now, right by the door, hanging on a peg meant for a coat you’d grab without thinking on your way out into the cold.