Wednesday is a school day for Tad Perdu, as are Monday and Friday. 5:00-6:15pm MWF for “Introduction to Entomology”1, and 6:30-7:45pm MWF for his own special interest subject “Medical Entomology in Humans and Animals”2.
I should know, as I designed them.
My courses are always taught in the late evening, scheduled that way by the college administration to attract Continuing Education students from the community at large as well as younger ongoing full-timers. Which means that the classes are populated by older males, themselves an interesting blend of medical students and professional exterminators, interspersed with younger students drawn by off-the-wall subject matter and a youngish instructor.
The latter are uniformly odd in character and always A-students. They are tired of being bored by the simplistic overview biology and sanitized world history, and reward my unconventionality with their attention.
We’re a weird bunch.
My classes are full and invariably have a waiting list.
Ever the conscientious and knowledge-driven academician, I normally spend three hours preparing for each hour that I teach in class. I occasionally practice my delivery of new material in front of the bathroom mirror. Yes, compulsive. But this rehearsal quirk has allowed me to rid myself of quite a few personal tics in my speech patterns. And to eliminate a recurring nervous squint when I deliver difficult material.
As a Professor, I am aware that the large age gap with my older male students and tiny age gap with the collegiate sorts each provide the occasion for numerous questions and explorations of the lectures I am to deliver. I need to be prepared, or be vulnerable to having a lack of quality knowledge exposed. So I prepare.
I am also known as being something of a showman. I enjoy this, and have a store of facts that I break out at various planned intervals to get an emotional and/or physical reaction from this academic audience. Like the reference I make as I close the Medical class this evening:
“The Assassin Bug – please include in your notes as Zelus longipes – kills many garden pests including flies, mosquitoes, beetles, caterpillars, moths – insects that can ruin farms and gardens in South Louisiana. They have the ability and patience to sit still for many hours lying in wait for their prey. They penetrate the flesh or carapace of their victims with their beaks, and inject a toxin that dissolves tissue, which they then in turn suck back up as food.
“Sometimes, when other prey is scarce, Assassin Bugs cannibalize each other. The females seem to pursue food even more aggressively because of the nutritional needs of reproduction. They are not afraid to attack creatures much larger than themselves.
“These insects will also bite humans and inflict wounds which can be quite painful and cause severe allergic reactions.
“Some varieties of Assassin Bugs live year-round in New Orleans homes, where they conceal themselves in the daytime around sources of moisture, like sinks, drains, bathtubs and even air vents. They emerge at night in the darkness and crawl along walls and ceilings to drop onto sleeping humans. These are related to the Mexican bedbug, and are known as ‘Kissing Bugs’1 because they often bite people on the face and near the mouth, which are the areas usually left uncovered during sleep.”
The class as a group emits a universal “EEEeeeeewwwww…”
“EEEeeeeewwww, indeed,” says I, in my role as the empathetic Professor. “You may think that this is a rare or unheard-of phenomenon, but even large extermination chains have sites devoted to the eradication of Kissing Bugs. To underline the insect’s proliferation, I have noted some of these commercial sites on the class’ online materials page.2 Please take a look.
“And even though these insects seem fairly repugnant in regard to personal attacks on humans individually, and can transmit infections to humans and animals, like Chagas disease3, remember that they are also a positive force on this planet. These bugs are important to human food sources. They naturally control many destructive insect populations in developed areas, and help balance life in undeveloped areas, like rainforests.
“And on that itchy, scratchy, creepy note, I wish you all a good night’s sleep. Leave the lights on and read the next chapter in Immunology.
“See you Friday.”
“No, you’re not!” she shouts, slapping the table top with her open palm. A sizable portion of her companion’s cocktail sloshes onto its napkin and the tabletop. “You’re nowhere near crazy!”
More heads turn in her direction. This is not an uncommon situation. She has dominated the room from the moment she entered. Toying with human herds before devouring them is a frequently indulged appetite with the omnivorous Zoë Gammon. Even subduing a modest environment like the centuries-old bar at Tujague’s offers her a satisfying serving of self gratification.
She is a creature of immediate note. A shoulder-length bright-red mane tops seventy-one inches of slender pale skin and a sinewy torso that has somehow been sculpted into rolling, sexual terrains. As a matter of course, this striking physical form draws attention without her making the slightest sound.
Zoë’s prey are caught in the headlights of her presence. As she moves among them, they watch her every gesture, though always cautiously, always afraid of being discovered at their inspection.
This Thursday provides a slight variation. Her shouting gives the occupants of the bar an excuse to take her in without embarrassment. She allows this as an exercise, so that she can then turn and confront their stares. Intimidation is part of an ongoing game plan to keep her world preserve intact.
She does this in two deliberate movements, each time locking eyes until the flustered victims winces and looks elsewhere.
Then she narrows and focuses her energy onto the rather perplexed man sitting directly in front of her. She has no idea he is visiting from Iowa and part of a large New Orleans Bar Tour. He is only prey. The man never expected to be psychically assaulted while seated with a Bourbon Milk Punch in hand. And yet here it is. He wilts under the redhead’s gaze.
Then much to his relief, she turns and goes back to her own more personal matters.
“So you can stop plotting to use that as an excuse. The reason we’re not getting on has to do with your lack of commitment. Your lack of responsibility. It was you who forced me to look elsewhere for someone who would make me feel worthwhile, for someone entertaining.”
I reckon there is at least a bit of truth in that. As Thaddeus “Tad” Perdu I have never been called “entertaining” during my long-term residence in New Orleans’ Faubourg Marigny, though I feel my company well-appreciated in many an other regard. Though I am a standard-issue middle-aged male, I stand two fingers below six feet, and a hand-count above forty years of age.
A licensed entomologist with a PhD, I now teach two courses a week in the local community college’s Environmental Studies degree program, when I am not consulting with any of the half-dozen architectural firms who employ me to assess historic properties for insect intrusion. My well-paid employment in those non-academic instances is to determine if there is any termite or other pest infestation, to assess what damage has been done in the past, and to devise methods of both halting the destruction and preventing future recurrence.
I have long since discovered that, to a long-term property-owner in older neighborhoods of the Crescent City, finding a structural entomologist who knows what he or she is talking about is considered a greater coup than discovering a Roman Catholic confessor with hearing disabilities.
I know that Zoë Gammon brags to her acquaintances that she has snagged a “Southern gentleman” and a “professor”, but she is always belittling both my heritage and field of choice to my face. It is her way. I allow it. Because I completely control other aspects of our relationship.
I am not an unattractive man by any means. My somewhat mousy brown mane has taken well to the veins of silver mined by the first intrusions of advancing age. At 45 I think I look younger than I did at thirty, having grown into a rather neutral physical form that suits me, unathletic and imperfect though it might be. I am comfortable with this body, think little about it other than tooth brushing and toenail clipping.
But I am also not unaware of interpersonal associations. The women with whom I have enjoyed friendship prior to Zoë seem to have been attracted in no small part by my inattention to outward appearances. If I had been more entertaining, I think I would have actually seemed less appealing to them. As it is, I happily stumble through life, cuticles subdued and molars gleaming, experiencing individuals of many sociological and physical persuasions. My female acquaintances particularly continue to care about my happiness, even when we have not met in ages. I count this as a sign of my own good faith. I may not be much, but at least I am real. And I have not, as a conscious matter of principal, physically consummated a relationship since I have been back in New Orleans. I know this is left over from my demanding years of graduate study, which absolutely required complete focus and no distractions, but as I now settle myself into an actual adult life, I have simply needed to keep it all quite simple. Celibate survival. For the time being. This is the principal reason Zoë distrusts me. I still control my own access to sex. If she can’t seduce me, she will need to employ other wiles to “own” me.
In my doctoral research lab, a rather droll fellow entomology candidate had once speculated that, in light of my limited relationships, I might have some insect strains tangled amidst my human DNA, most notably the traits of the moth called “Creole Pearly Eye” (Enodia creola). It seems the noticeable dark patches on the wings of Creole males are composed of raised sex scales, which produce the same sexual attractants, called pheromones, produced by humans. Causing the otherwise unnotable brown moth to be described as “a shade-tolerant satyr”1. My classmate believed the metaphor suited soon-to-be Professor Thaddeus Perdu.
This description was upsetting, actually, but I am at peace with myself. At least I was until I was claimed as the personal property of Zoë Gammon, who at this moment is again scanning the bar to make sure that none of what she called my “ex-pack” are there to spy on her discontent. Scanning the room, where in actuality there merely cringes a restaurant tour group of six puzzled out-of-their-depth Midwesterners, musing over what seems to be the natives’ predilection for sexual drama. By way of emergency diversion, the prim and proper tour guide is trying to get Dollene, the daytime bartender, to demonstrate the concoction of a New Orleans-style Sazerac. “We must draw attention from this embarrassing personal display,” she whispers desperately.
Dollene is having none of it, tells the woman loudly that she is not assembling another single cocktail, at least until the entertaining mid-afternoon soap opera ends. A developing drama that I can see over Zoë’s shoulder. Dollene is watching closely.
I hold my hands up, palms facing the woman across from me, signaling my acquiescence, my complete surrender to her superior logic. Zoë’s lapis eyes grow even darker in anger – I know that she dislikes winning too easily – but she does stop yelling.
“I wasn’t making an excuse,” I tell her quietly. “I wanted to share an experience with you, that’s all. I thought we could have a cocktail, discuss what we have on our minds like civilized human beings, then walk to a pleasant dinner on Frenchmen street.”
She makes a deep humph noise, a lioness unsatisfied with her portion of the prey. “Fine. Share. But don’t be trying to turn things to your advantage with it. You do that. You take things that happen to you and carve them into biblical parables, little gideonesque stories that you think prove that what you want to be true actually is. Even if everybody knows it isn’t. A guy that kills bugs for a living, and he thinks he’s a philosopher.” She notices the frown her last statement has brought to my face, and decides that she had sufficiently unsettled my confidence enough to keep me in check. For the moment. She settles back in her chair and takes another sip of her Grasshopper. A drink that was first concocted in this very room2, though Ms Gammon could care less.
“OK. Let’s hear it.”
As Zoë relaxes and becomes quieter, the raging-storm tension in the room evaporates into a dead calm. Pressure drops in the eye of the societal hurricane. A half-dozen simultaneous sighs erupt, and an elderly man seated at the next table leans his chair back against the wall, chest heaving in relief. Zoë surveys her subjects with satisfaction. She enjoys exercising power over run-of-the-mill people.
During the course of our relationship, she had been unable to classify me among such ordinary beings, which both attracts and upsets her. Every moment we spend together, especially our intimate, non-sexual encounters, inevitably became one more effort to drop me into the ranks of the subjugated. From the first I instinctively knew that if I allowed that, if I became that submissive, she would instantly have nothing further to do with me. Which at times constitutes the lure of submission. After four months, I am still unsure of course.
Even when confronted with the fact of her infidelity, she had immediately turned the blame to me. If only I’d been more aggressive, more captivating, more manly, more sexual, she’d never have looked elsewhere, she’d said. Her dalliance was and remained my fault. But with that assertion – that I now wanted a monogamous relationship, and that I cared enough about her to brazen out the tawdry facts – Zoë decided that she too would see only me. For the time being. If I didn’t get too boring. And if nobody better came along.
I accepted the qualifiers as yet another part of her character. We have “dated” now for almost sixteen weeks, less her two-week dalliance while sampling the company, and anatomy, of an alternative male.
She still required a minimum of subservience. And so I very deliberately began my narrative on an apologetic note: “I was startled, that’s all.”
As I knew she would, Zoë senses sanguine weakness, brings the sharp-toothed shark of her attention swimming to the hook. She will listen now.
“I was having a long soak, then I started to add more hot water, and I looked up and there it was. A snake climbing the frame of the lower bathroom window. Bright green. A viper. I sat up so quickly that the water sloshed from the tub all over the floor. I was sure that the noise would make it notice me. That it would draw the snake to me. It did not. Not right then.”
“So?” she demands.
“I was frightened, like a child dreaming of the bogey man. I didn’t know what to do, but I had the urge to call out, to yell for help.”
Zoë shifts in her chair. Her lips begin to part. She’d begun to show sparks of jealousy ever since her own indiscretions were brought to light. It is only because she is so completely sure that I will never betray her with anyone else that she allows herself to be possessive. She now glares at me.
So easy to read. “And no,” I continue, “there was no one else in the house, no one else to call out to.”
With a satisfied smile, Zoë inserts her coffee cup between her lips, as if that is what she had meant to do all along.
“Then the sun came from behind the clouds, literally.
“There was no snake. I saw that. Moisture had pooled on the window of the steamy bathroom to form the reptile’s head, and then given way to gravity, leaving a curving track of water traveling downward toward the window lock. The bright green of the banana plants outside had been amplified by the lens of the clear liquid.
“There was no snake.
“But there was, if I wanted it. That’s what exploded into the vacuum left by the departure of fear. That’s what made me dizzy with a different sort of fright.”
Her head tilts to one side: “If you wanted it? Wanted a snake?”
“Yes. All I had to do was decide that I was seeing a snake, and it would be a snake. There comes a time when everyone decides that his or her way of seeing the world is reality. At that point you make a simple choice, and life changes to suit. A little thing, like your affirming that a cricket’s song is really your lover’s voice in the distance, determines that you will be mad forever. Sets in stone that you will never get back to the state of sanity you possessed when you made that decision.”
“No way,” she scoffs. “Mental illness can be cured. I’ve seen the commercials.”
“Sure, they say they ‘cure’ you, that you’re as good as new. Medicate you to the point where the voice becomes a cricket again, and your life seems stable. For the moment. But once betrayed, sanity is fickle. I’ve researched this almost as extensively as I did my thesis. Like I told you, the hemipterous Emesa longipes de Geer…”3
“And I told you,” she interrupts, “you will merely say ‘bugs’ to me.”
“These are ‘bugs’ that affect people, live off them, then leave something of their own presence behind in the bloodstreams of their hosts forever. It never really goes away. They were everywhere in the lunatic asylums, even up into the middle of this century.”
“Ick,” she responds. But she is listening.
Her reaction drives me forward. Let’s see where this goes. “Along with the continuing Emesa… uh, with the ‘bug’ studies, I’ve read a great deal about the onset of madness these last weeks. The people who went insane say that they knew they’d never get back to the state of mind they held before they made their decision.
“Once you’ve lost that first hold on reality, once your own awareness’ trust is broken, you’re never sane again. Not like you were. You can only hold the appearance of sanity and hope it’s good enough to get you through the machinations of the rest of your life. You see, don’t you, why I was so excited?”
“No,” she says bluntly.
I know this is true. She is intelligent, but uninspired. I know that she considers most other humans obtuse and inferior, their arguments clouded. She does not willingly open her own mind, or her attention span, often during the course of a day. I will keep going anyway. What the hell, maybe she’ll get it.
“I consciously chose to be sane this morning. I could feel how easy it would be to simply say ‘That is a snake,’ and embrace the madness. I even let my mind tempt the edges of the idea. It was frightening how little it would have taken to go over. But I didn’t do it. I was offered the choice and I decided on this world.”
“‘Decided on this world.’ If only.” Zoë shrugs.
“It is. Once you are offered the opportunity, once your mind says that you are ready to go either way, then both doors are open. And once you pass through, they close behind you. Forever.”
It is her turn to hold up her hand for emphasis. “Are you saying you wait for some sort of basement Sanity Sale, then go shopping for what’s discounted as real?” says the constant denizen of high-end couture shopping sites.
“Wonderful. I knew you were listening.”
“I hate snakes.” Zoë provides little transition when she offers her opinion.
Blindsiding is another specialty. Unexpectedly she reaches quickly under the table and overtly grabs my crotch. Squeezes hard. “Though I do love this. With all your psychology, I suppose you’ll find some Freudian inconsistency in those two statements.” She looks at nearby tables to see if anyone is watching. They are. She flashes her demoness-from-hell smile to them until they wilt, then squeezes me once again before letting go. It hurts.
I jump up, slapping her hand away. I am the sucker once again. “Why do you do things like that? Why do you always try to subvert anything I say with mindless nonsense? This is important to me – it’s about a loss of innocence as much as anything else, a loss of trust!” yells Professor Thaddeus Perdu, Sucker Extraordinaire.
She stands opposite me, both hands on the table as she leans forward. I can smell the Grasshopper mint on her breath. “Trust me, Bug Man,” Zoë whispers huskily. “I heard every word. And what do I hear? I hear baby Tad getting all worked up about a teeny drip of water in his bathroom. He looks out his window and says he’s getting lost trying to figure out what’s real out there. For this world you need a road map, honey.
“Get hold of yourself,” she says, pointing where she’d pinched.
“Trust me. It’s the right thing to do.
“Oh, and I think I have other plans for dinner. You and your…” here she points again at the region of his body that she had just assaulted, “…friend can have dinner on your own.”
And on that note she turns her back on me and on the rest of her audience, does a beautifully orchestrated exit, and completes the effect with a door slammed hard enough to dislocate a vintage photo off the far wall.
“Damn,” says a 74-year-old Des Moines car dealer. “What a woman!”
“Damn,” says Tad aloud. “What a pain in the ass.”
“Damn,” says Steve the bar manager. “What a loss leader. Get back to work, Dollene.”
* * *
- Required text: The Insects: An Outline of Entomology, Third Edition, P. J. Gullan & P. S. Cranston, Blackwell Press, Malden, MA, 2005
- Required texts: Medical and Veterinary Entomology: Edition 2, G.M. Mullen & L.A. Durden, Academic Press, Walham, MA, 2009, and Insect Immunology, Nancy E. Beckage, Academic Press, Walham, Massachusetts, 2008.
- “Is the Deadly Kissing Bug Disease the new HIV/AIDS?” David DiSalvo, Forbes Magazine, 5/13/2012
- US CDC http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/chagas/gen_info/vectors/ Chagas cases have been reported across the southern US, in every state, coast to coast, and as far north as Pennsylvania.
- Wetlands: The Audubon Society Nature Guides, page 515; Alfred A Knopf, NY, 1989
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grasshopper_(cocktail). “The drink reputedly originated at Tujague’s, a landmark bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, and gained popularity during the 1950s and 1960s throughout the American South.”
- Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, Volume 5 (1889), issue 160-164, pages 280-281
©Copyright 2022 Jim Gabour
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Portions of these stories originally appeared in The Guardian, on openDemocracy.net and chinadialogue.net, and the Business Week and Wall Street Journal websites.
This is a work of fiction. The characters in these pages are fabricated from isolated characteristics of a variety of source subjects, but for the purpose of the stories the characters and the places have been revised, relocated, exaggerated, fabricated, compiled from multiple human and non-human sources, and in any case are all completely fictitious.
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