canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Little Bugs 

by Corin Cummings

"Little Bugs," he says. "Let me off the train before you come rushing on." The old man sees the people on the subway platform as a swarm. His eyes meet none of theirs. To him they are a mass. "Little bugs," he repeats as he rides the escalator out of the station.

One train with a switch and now a bus, he thinks. He holds his breath as he mills through the sidewalk's shoving, scrambling crowd. What the hell is the matter with these people? They're like caged dogs let loose in the street, spreading germs, bouncing off the goddamn curb. He stands at the bus stop with his transfer slip in hand and growls, "What the hell country do they think this is?"

Reid O'Donnell is a curmudgeon on the best of days, but with this commute, and after what had happened to the car, he's worked up into state of exquisite belligerence. "Takes 15 minutes to drive," he mumbles as he climbs onto the bus. "Let an old man get trampled in a foreign bazaar, but God forbid he should drive."

Reid rides the bus with his arms crossed. He's only made the trip on transit twice before, but he's no newcomer. He doesn't have to strain his neck to see where to get off. He knows this neighborhood better than his own list of dislikes. He and his wife lived here. They raised their daughter here. Now they live in a retirement community in the north part of the city, but he held on to the house and rented the first floor. "It'll appreciate," he'd told to his wife, and by the taxes you'd believe that it has. The small upstairs of the house is his studio.

Reid had been driving down here three or four times a week for the last three years. About a month ago, he got in an accident. The car was totaled. "You might have killed someone," his wife had said.

Me kill someone! One accident. One time.

"Next time you might kill somebody," she said.

Oh, next time! It wasn't even my fault. You'd think I was some shriveled old moron who can't see over the steering wheel.

Stepping off the bus and taking a breath of damp air, Reid walks down a side street then turns onto another. It is late fall, and despite a couple recent days of rain, the small city lawns are brown from a dry year. As he walks, Reid remembers the faces and other small things about the people who lived in the houses over the years, friends of his wife, friends of Becca, their daughter. He remembers the busy sound of childish feet on the hollow wooden porches. He notices that some of the places have been redone; others are in need of it.

I don't give a damn if I do kill someone, he thinks, pulling himself back into his mood. I'm an old coot in a big car. Watch out! I'll kill a whole squad of those crawling, shoving bugs coming out of the subway. Swoosh!

He thinks back to the accident. While painting that afternoon, he'd had a bit more wine than usual. The police hadn't asked him about it. What a goddamn hoopla that would have been. It didn't have anything to do with the crash anyway. It wasn't him that ran the stop sign.

He wouldn't admit it, but it shook him up. No one was hurt, but there was a kid in the other car that cried and cried while the EMTs checked him over. Cry because your mother can't read STOP in English! She may kill you yet! But he, Reid, was being reasonable. He was taking transit. The insurance company was still investigating, so he hadn't gotten a new car. But that didn't mean he wasn't going to.

Trains and buses and a big pain in the ass! And what about getting groceries? "Are you going to get French," he'd joked to his wife. "Everyday you're going to stop at the Boulangerie and the Boucherie and the Boo-what-have-you?"

Reid ascends the slight incline of his driveway and thinks, Not a chance I can do this in the winter. "You want me stumbling along those icy sidewalks," he imagines saying to his wife. "They don't bother to plow down there anymore."

She won't ask him to give up the studio. He knows that, at least. It's his retirement. Everything else, all the money, went into the condo. There's no space there, and even if there was, the last thing he needs is the telephone and the television and her questions all the time. Christ, she leaves the shopping channel on for noise and talks to the cat. He loves her, no question, adores her, rubs her shoulders every night; and she's an accomplished woman; but you have to get away. And sure she likes me out of the house, too, he thinks.

Reid looks up at his house and thinks it's an odd perspective for light and angles. That's the kind of thing he might paint, light, angles. The view everyone sees but never notices. Instead they see the overflowing recycle bin on the front porch and empty six-packs stacked up. Now why couldn't he put those in the garage?

The downstairs tenant's name is Dudley or Doogal. Neither of those but something Reid can't recall at the moment. He's an art student, strangely enough, or he used to be an art student. He's been here for a few years, so he's probably out of school by now. He still dresses like a student, though. He's got big curly hair and wears overalls half the time. Why in the hell anyone would want to wear overalls is beyond Reid. Ridiculous looking outfit.

Reid climbs the two flights of wood stairs at the back. Puffing from the activity, he unlocks the door and shoves it free of the swollen jamb. The glass rattles and the door swings. Ah, the lovely scent of the studio, paints, canvases, the dusty attic smell. Bakers, too, he thinks, must love the smell of their kitchens even before they make bread. Reid leans against a greasy old easy chair for a moment to catch his breath. The seat of it is filled with newspapers and things he's picked up, all of which will likely never move from where they are now. He drops his coat.

Dark in here, thinks Reid; the air conditioner is still in the window. He picks up his smock from where he last threw it and puts it on. It's a lab coat, really, but perfect for painting. He mixes colors right on the sleeve, and it doesn't seep through to muck up his shirt. Becca works in a lab. Every time she comes to visit, she brings him a pristine, starchy, new white coat. The extra-large is big enough to wear over a sweater.

He fills up the kettle in the bathroom sink and plugs it in to buzz and tick.

Rebecca has never been married, never says anything about a boyfriend, or a girlfriend for that matter. It's no use pretending, he'd said to his wife, she's getting up there in age. It's a pity. He feels soft thinking about her. She's so mopey. She's always got something wrong and some reason she can't do anything about it. She baits him when she visits, talks about going to therapy, tries to snare him into talking about her problems. He nods, says nothing. I love you, Beck, he'd like to say; I did what I could for you, but you're on your own now like everyone else. Don't get hung up on things.

I don't have a car, for instance. I'm hung up on that, he thinks. I can't get to the only place I like to be. Sixty years of driving, and they want to put you in front of a TV with a bib on.

He stares at the air conditioner and can hear his wife telling him to get Whatshisname downstairs to help him. He weighs this bit maintenance against his routine of retirement that he is eager to begin: A couple cups of tea, two or three hours of painting, then some wine and a bit to eat. It is purely and precisely what he likes to do. There's burger meat in the fridge, too; cook that up with Ragu sauce, some bread. The last time he came down he'd brought supplies. There's at least two-thirds of that wine left.

I just need to put it on the floor, he thinks. I won't try to carry it. "No use putting it off," he says.

Stepping over boxes and ducking for the pitch in the roof, Reid unplugs the old appliance. I set it up in the summer, don't see any reason I can't take it down. He keeps one hand on the air conditioner and with the other pulls out a piece of 2X4 used as brace. As he pushes up the sash, he hears a hollow crack. There's a puff of wood dust and part of the window frame gives way with dry rot. His grip slips; the air conditioner falls, and the cord whips behind it with unreal speed as if being retracted into the overcast sky. The crash on the ground sounds like a distant wreck.

"Shet," says Reid and pokes his head out the window, a cuckoo looking for witnesses. The air conditioner is embedded, one corner down, in the damp brown lawn below. The broken faceplate lies next to it. "Shet," says Reid. He stares down and thinks that buying a new one might be cheaper now that it's off-season. How the hell am I going to get it out of there? He examines the broken window frame. It's all dry rot. The place is falling apart. A sentimental stab pierces his grump.

Just then something tickles his neck. Startled, he slaps and grabs and finds a Ladybug. He watches it crawl up his finger for a moment before noticing its pungent smell. Flicking it out the window, he sniffs his palm and makes a face. Already sore from stooping, he backs awkwardly away from the window like an old dog in reverse. As he stands, Reid feels a bit dizzy and hears what he thinks at first is a blood rushing in his ears. But it's not a head buzz; he is encircled by Ladybugs. The flying polka dots multiply as they zigzag before him, blurring his vision, one dot dripping a stream of others behind it. In an instant there are twice as many. They must be coming out of the wall, but he can't see where. Reid chuckles and swats. They give off their stink, and he backs away.

Spotting a can of fixer, Reid sprays a sticky cloud, and after a few seconds, the jolly mini lotto balls begin falling to the floor with tiny tapping sounds. Their wings and legs gummy, they struggle on their backs. He sprays again, a wriggling collage. There's an idea! Reid collects a few beetles in his palm and carries them to his easel where he sticks them to a canvas. Points on a map, he thinks. What am I going to do with this? He sniffs his hand again and wipes it on his coat. I could have a big car in the middle, a Pontiac, and all the bugs surrounding it, coated and stuck down with shellac. I could have the car on a crowded street, the twisted, manic figures around it sporting beetles in their foreheads. My misanthropy is underestimated, Little Bugs. They think I'm kidding.

His wife would hate something like this. He can see her shaking her head and saying earnestly, 'that's just horrible.'

It's just a way to let off steam. I won't show this to her. He curls his lip. "This really is terrible." What a way for an old man to behave. I could be someone's Grandfather. And why did I kill all those Ladybugs? It's probably bad luck. And Ladybugs are better than Carpenter Ants, better than art students and other parasites.

"Well, scrap this," mutters Reid. Let's go get that air conditioner. He pulls open the shaky door and clomps down the blue-painted wood steps. The yard is spongy and matted. Reid stands over the air conditioner and stares down at it as if looking under the hood of a dead old car. Maybe it still works. Might as well plug it in and see. He spots a string of Christmas lights draped along the railings of the back stoop, neglected like everything else in this place. Dudley Whatshisname hung them, never took them down, of course. But there's an extension cord there. Reid had used it one day last winter to plug in his car.

The cord isn't long enough alone, so he plugs in the lights to make up the difference. Holding one end of the blinking string, he flips the lights off the railing and over to the wreck of the AC.

What's this? Hopscotch, jump-rope? "Flashing nonsense," grumbles Reid as he stiffly bends down to catch hold of the AC cord. There's no ground on the lights, but he forces the plugs together anyway. This has taken too long as it is.

The old AC is silent. "Don't panic," Reid says, "I still have to turn it on." He grunts and turns a knob. The machine emits a grinding sound that quickly turns to a throaty hum. No explosions. No puffs of smoke. No trip to WalMart, thank God.

What a picture this would make, thinks Reid. The air conditioner, the blinking lights, the ladybugs. Old man with still life. Reid turns off the AC and unplugs it.

He knows what his wife would say. "O'Donnell, you old fool, don't you dare try to carry that up those stairs." Oh, she would fume. "Get the tenant to help you." Reid works the machine out of its crater and sets the faceplate on top of it. It's not really that heavy, just awkward. He squats to pick it up. With a heave, it's up in his arms. It's not so bad, he thinks. He heads for the stairs, leaving the Christmas lights blinking on the lawn.

Reid takes the first few steps and feels his blood rise, his heart kicks into gear. After a few more, he feels pressure pumping in his temples and his face heats up. He tries to pick up the pace. Get it over with. Get to the top of the stairs before this old corpse figures out what's going on. This is a mistake. He starts to feel dizzy. Maybe a big mistake. Something is going to pop, a radiator hose, something. Old fool. Old fool. They're going to find a dead man and an air conditioner not worth saving.

Reid bares his yellow teeth. He groans and wobbles on his legs and makes it to the top step. But even then, despite fear that he'll propel himself into cardiac arrest, he doesn't stop. He charges ahead through the cluttered studio sweeping a path with his foot. He props the bulky machine against a wall, braced with his legs, and clears a space on the floor. He grabs a stack of canvases and throws them roughly aside. With a great final effort he lays the old machine down. Reid leans over and struggles for breath. As if to a nemesis, he snarls, "They'll be hauling this shit off when I'm dead."

He sits down on the arm of the old brown chair. He wants to cough but can't. He's dizzy, and his vision closes in on him. It's all black. Just concentrate on breathing, Reid.

It's okay. It's going. The light comes back in. It's brighter in here now with the window clear. Reid sits listening to his heart. He feels a Ladybug land on his head. It struggles in his thick old hair for a while  before he picks it out and flicks it away. Reid looks bashfully around at his mess.

I ought to drop that air conditioner out the window and carry it up again. If something's going to go, it might as well go now. There sure as hell are worse ways to go.

Reid thinks of a friend who died of cancer not long ago. They had him dressed up in pink pajamas the last time he saw him. It was Ken who'd put the bathroom in up here and built the stairs at the back. That was his retirement.

Reid thinks suddenly of Rebecca and says, "She blames it on me, I suppose." I should have had been nicer to her, he thinks, but Reid doesn't dwell. Just the single thought is enough to make him heartsick. People do what they do in a moment, and it's moment after moment. You can blame things on circumstance. What else are you going to do?

Breathing easily now, he stares out the opened window at the gray afternoon. He smells dirt and dead leaves on the breeze.

"Shet, this is the problem with locking yourself up in a  little room." This is why my wife has all her distractions. Time for a glass of wine.

It's getting dark when Reid leaves the house. From the top of the stairs, he surveys the neighbors' rooftops, the sun just-set. Then he sees the Christmas lights below, still blinking, strung over the lawn like a tangled runway.

The lights are on downstairs, he sees. How the hell did that guy miss the blinking lights? The place could be on fire, and he wouldn't notice. Here I am dead on the landing or squirming on my back like one of those beetles, and he's in there making dinner.

His soft mood, induced by wine, disappears, though it still makes him unsteady as he comes down the steps. Sorely, he contemplates the bus ride and the subway.

Reid leaves the lights. He no longer feels pensive or relaxed or even relieved to have escaped death. He walks resolutely away from the house. I'm buying a new car, he decides. I'll drive until they make me stop.


Corin Cummings is currently working on a novel. More of his work can be found at







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.