A story of love, lust, and pest control set against the changing seasons of San Francisco.
Pamela gives an overview of the book:
The morning traffic crept along, winding through the city like termites. As Dawn drove across town from her daughter’s school in Pacific Heights to her first client in Noe Valley, she watched the styles transform. Like indigenous cultures where the weave of the cloth changes from village to village, signifying who belongs to which tribe, San Francisco residents exhibited a fashion solidarity that marked them as being from one neighborhood or the other.
Dawn drove past the women in Pacific Heights, clicking their way to the bus stop in pointy heals and ponchos. Through the Fillmore where the boys looked like Ewoks in hooded sweatshirts and beltless jeans four sizes to large, held up by a fist full of denim as they walked liked they needed a diaper change. She drove down Divisidero until it crossed Market and turned into Castro, the queer mecca, where currency is measured in muscle mass. Dawn passed through the Mission that hosted the unlikely combination of Latino gang-land chic and lesbians camouflaged as twelve-year-old boys.
It was easy to spot someone who had wondered out of their jurisdiction. Like the tourists who’d escaped Fisherman’s Wharf, the city’s tourist containment area, standing on windblown street corners across the city wearing khaki shorts and sweatshirts they’d bought from street vendors when they realized their California destination was inhospitably freezing.
Swirling red and blue lights marked an accident on Dolores Street and offered an explanation for the knot of cars that had slowed to a crawl. As Dawn rolled past the chaos she craned her neck to get a glimpse of someone having a worse day than she was. A car had run up onto the grassy median that divided the road and buckled against the trunk of one of the thirty-foot palm trees that had lorded over the street for generations. An orange haired woman leaned against a police car looking stunned and confused.
Dawn feared she had been wearing that same expression a lot these days. There was nothing particularly tragic about her life, but while others seemed to stay on the road toward their destination, she kept ending up sideways on the embankment, facing oncoming traffic, or leaning against the guardrail stunned, and confused.
Life had always held an accidental quality for Dawn, unfolding in a series of surprises rather than plans coming to fruition. Breaking up with David was one her few measured decisions, but now, in the throes of her descent back to single life, the whole thing felt as accidental as any shipwreck she’d ever swam away from.
David was a large man, large in stature and attitude. He took up space, he filled rooms, he filled whole houses in the same way he filled his studio with paintings. David stood over six feet tall and could easily carry the extra sixty pounds that hugged his frame. He smoked, he drank. He spoke with a booming voice that annihilated conversations. David’s convictions were immutable, bold, often offensive, and he had no inclination to edit them or soften his delivery. Yet people were drawn to him, and in the light of their adoration he grew even larger.
During the course of their relationship, Dawn had watched her friendships, one after the next, suffer at the hands of David’s blanket statements and brutish comments until her world had been whittled down to a small collection of thick-skinned people who were taken by David’s charisma and now disapproved of her decision to leave him.
There had been no choice. Dawn had felt herself collapsing under David’s weight for years. Her desires swallowed, dwarfed. Still, Dawn found it difficult to reconcile the fact that the man she loved was simply too much. She had a history of leaving men who weren’t enough but had no reference point for leaving someone because they were too much.
Dawn’s Acme Pest Control truck slowly rolled past the accident. She would be ten minutes late for her first appointment but hoped they wouldn’t mind; people were generally forgiving when they found a tall woman with raven hair standing on their doorstep dressed in white and loaded down with poison.
A woman with salt and pepper hair that framed her face like a librarian led Dawn to the kitchen while complaining about the stench of mice. When Dawn opened the cabinet, a flurry of mice dashed in all directions. It was easy for her to imagine how her clients could have let things get to this point. She’d seen it over and over, people seduced into inaction by their intruders’ twitchy noses and translucent ears, the soft gray down of their fur and their slender flicking tails. It was easy to be lulled into passivity by their monumental cuteness, a survival technique Dawn suspected worked only in mouse to human contact.
She’d grown up with the cartoons too and could effortlessly spin elaborate tales about mice that use wooden thread spools for tables and sleep in tiny matchbox beds, and when humans aren’t looking they dress up in clothes and speak with French accents. People were hard-pressed to admit the small rodents were three-dimensional, let alone consider them a problem until it was too late and the stench of mouse piss permeated the house. It was usually at this point that compassion failed them and the exterminator was summoned.
“You’ve got a few choices here,” Dawn explained while closing the cabinet door. “The easiest would be to get a cat.”
“I’m allergic to cats,” the librarian answered flatly.
“Okay then, I can lay some sticky traps.”
“How does that work?”
“They capture the mice,” Dawn said. “Then we come back and exchange the traps for new ones.” The twelve by twelve inch trays of glue in which mice become lodged, then dislocated their limbs and eventually starved to death, were never worth fully explaining to clients. Sticky traps, sounded much kinder.
“Or I can set out some poison. The problem with poison is the mice tend to die just out of arm’s reach so the house might smell a bit gamy for a while.”
The librarian squished up her nose like a rabbit.
“The most humane thing to do is set up a few have-a-heart traps. They catch the mice but don’t kill them. Every day you empty the trap outside and hope they don’t find their way back in.”
The woman listened intently and nodded.
“If we go with the humane plan we need to find where the mice are getting in and seal it off. What’s on the other side of this wall?” Dawn asked.
“Let’s take a look.”
They stepped into the backyard, a beautifully manicured oasis of deep greens and browns. Dawn crouched down beneath the kitchen window and bent a tangle of weeds out of the way. “This looks like it,” Dawn said, pointing to a gap between the sidewall and the foundation. She pulled some steel wool from her pocket and shoved it into the small hole. The back of Dawn’s hand brushed against something prickly. “Ouch.” She yanked her hand away quickly and rubbed it as white mounds erupted on her skin.
“Stinging nettles,” the librarian said, “It’s a tenacious weed, and hard to get rid of because the consequences of getting near it are so unpleasant.” She bent down and sifted through the weeds. “But nature is very kind,” she said, plucking a fuzzy leaf off its stem and rubbing it across the welts on Dawn’s hand. “She never gives you a problem without a leaving a solution close at hand.”
“That’s encouraging,” Dawn said, watching the hives retreat. She looked around the yard. Everything was lush and tidy, a deep green fortress hidden from the city traffic that whooshed by beyond the fence. Pink flowers clung like corsages to the waxy leaves of a tree. Brilliant ground cover grew in a soft bed around silvery bushes. A path meandered toward the corner of the yard where a waterfall trickled down stones and into a pond. Dawn thought of her own yard and started to form the vaguest vision of how to tame the unruly mess. “Your yard is beautiful,” Dawn said, walking toward the flowering tree.
“What’s this?” Dawn pointed to a low tree loaded with drooping trumpets the color of butter.
“That’s called brugmansia, or angel trumpet the flowers are very poisonous. In Haiti they use them to turn people into zombies.”
“Really?” Dawn tipped a flower so she could see inside.
“They’re pollinated by bats.”
Dawn let go of the blossom quickly, as if she’d had a bat’s wing in her hand. “I thought prettier things did that work.”
“In the daytime they do, but nighttime plants are the domain of bats and moths.”
“My garden’s such a mess I doubt that even bats and moths would have anything to do with it. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“You get yourself a pair of leather gloves and go at it a little at a time,” the librarian advised. “I did most of this while my husband was in chemotherapy.
“Is he all right?”
“No, he didn’t make it. But I did,” she said with a mix of sadness and triumph.
Dawn wrote out an invoice and left with a gardening catalog tucked into her bag.
Pamela Holm is the author of The Toaster Broke, So We're Getting Married, published in hardcover by MacAdam/Cage in 2002, and in paperback by Villard in 2004. Her novel, The Night Garden was published by MacAdam/Cage in...