April 8, 2018

“Stinkbugs” by Michael Colbert

“Stinkbugs” by Michael Colbert

The stinkbugs came in when Sandra’s sister was dying. Every night after cooking dinner, Robert sat down on his couch to watch “Breaking Bad.” A hum announced itself and his eyes alighted on the perpetrator, a flat brown bug that jetted across the ceiling and then lazed on a new perch. He caught them and released them and wondered how he could eradicate the stinkbugs from his apartment. One time the stinkbug was green.

Robert worked at a small furniture startup called Simple Build in New Haven. They sold couches and coffee tables that were easier to put together than products from Ikea. Robert was in marketing; their chief audience was millennials, except all of their furniture was too expensive for millennials. As a result, most of the people who bought their products and liked their links on Facebook were middle-aged people trying to get in touch with their young side. And they got a lot of publicity from middle-aged people who worked at magazines and thought, “This is what all the kids are doing these days. This is hip.”

Robert sat across from Sandra at Simple Build, although where they sat wasn’t too important on account of the open-floor plan. Sandra was twenty-two and had just graduated from an expensive school in the south. She sat on a yoga ball and wore big black sweaters over white collared shirts and skinny jeans.

In her first month, Sandra was the cool young one. She took people to a Middle Eastern gyro place for lunch and to bars that served cucumber vodka drinks on weekends. This was somewhat of a feat in New Haven, and everyone congratulated her on her work.

But when the second month struck, her twin sister was diagnosed with colon cancer and was given only two more months to live. Sandra started bringing leftover pizza to work, and Robert missed the familiar white noise of her yoga ball’s bounce.

“Do you want to go to Haven Gyros?” Robert asked her at lunch.

“Thanks.” She smiled weakly. “But I have yogurt.”

That was two weeks ago, and she’d only gotten worse since then.

They were multiplying. Robert came home from work on Tuesday night and put “Breaking Bad” on. His day at Simple Build had been fine. He had meetings about the newest Simple Build Projects, posted on their social media accounts, and responded to fans who had commented on Facebook posts. Most of these fan comments were from middle-aged people who didn’t really know how to type: “HEY SIMPLE BUIld, I luv the l8test couch design and so does my 3 y.O. daughter THANKS!!!” Robert hated responding to these because he always sounded like a professional asshole to unprofessional fans: “Hi Carrie, glad you love it! Send us a picture of your family enjoying your Mayfair Helix Couch and maybe you’ll get a 20% off coupon for your next purchase. Love, Simple Build.”

He’d set down his bowl of pasta on the coffee table (from Ikea) and curled into his beaten-up couch (a Target hand-me-down from his older sister Elizabeth) when he heard the first buzz. “Earlier than usual tonight,” he said.

Robert had a stack of newspapers on his Ikea coffee table that he used to scoop up and release the stinkbugs. He glanced at the sports page (the Sox were down) before using it to scrape the stinkbug off the ceiling and transport it out to his balcony. He opened the sliding door and shook the sports page. The bug didn’t fly away, and he felt kind of bad for it. “It’s okay. I’m sure you’ll be back tomorrow.”

This was a thought that had crossed Robert’s mind before. That he was atoning for his sins in a Dante contrapasso hell. Every day the same stinkbug would come into his apartment and every day he’d have to release it. The only problems with this theory were:

a) He hadn’t determined if it was a worse punishment for him or the bug, who also had to make it into the apartment every day only to be set free into the cool November night;

b) He didn’t know what he’d done in his life to make releasing stinkbugs a fit, reciprocal punishment, and

c) He was fairly certain he wasn’t dead, even though he always wondered about this when responding to comments at work.

The bug flew away, off towards pizza joints and rolled joints in college dorms in the distance, and Robert closed the sliding door behind him, wrapping himself in a blanket (from the dollar store) because he was hoping to turn on the heat only once Thanksgiving hit.

He turned “Breaking Bad” back on and ate his pasta. He went to Sandra’s Facebook page and scanned through her pictures. She had lived in an off-campus house that she shared with other students who had turned away from the Greek system in favor of a hipper, more alternative lifestyle. After graduating, she backpacked for a month in Southeast Asia with her friend Ryan. From the pictures, Robert saw that Ryan was a pretty white girl who did yoga on the tops of mountains. Robert had thought about asking Sandra out on a date, to cheer her up and all, but he figured the timing would be weird.

The evening continued with three more stinkbugs. Before releasing them one at a time from his balcony, Robert tried to look for identifying features on each as he held it in the newspaper. They all looked the same. He didn’t know if that meant he couldn’t identify the unique characteristics of stinkbugs or that they were all the same bug.

She cried again today. Robert glanced at her over his desk as she whimpered down to her yoga ball. Positive synergy elsewhere in the office ignored her, and he did too. He got up and went to the break room to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“Sandra’s crying again,” he said to Saanvi. Saanvi was the CEO and founder of Simple Build. She graduated from Yale and never left New Haven. She was one of the younger ones at Simple Build and easily the most inspired. Saanvi hung vintage motivational posters on the wall that Robert remembered from his middle school science class. Teamwork. Integrity. She probably thought they were ironic, which jived with her chunky black glasses and how she wanted to be best friends with Sandra, but Saanvi was too earnest to pull that off.

“Oh no, really?” He voice was high. Her thin face became even narrower as her chin fell in surprise. “That poor girl. I’m going to take her out to lunch or something to cheer her up.” Saanvi smiled and patted Robert’s shoulder. “Thanks for being a team player, Rob.”

Robert was a team player who sat alone at his desk, tweeting. Robert was a team player who never said anything when Sandra cried. Robert was a team player who didn’t kill stinkbugs in the apartment he lived in by himself.  He returned to his desk. Shortly after, Saanvi came by. She tried to take a seat on Sandra’s yoga ball with her, but she fell onto the floor and laughed.

“Hey girl, how’s it going?”

Robert couldn’t hear her response. He made as if he were scrolling through Simple Build’s Twitter feed, but he knew they both knew he was listening.

“Well, how about we take lunch. My treat?” Saanvi massaged Sandra’s shoulders and relished some long cleansing breaths.

Sandra crumpled up a tissue, and it fell from her limp hand to her desk (Staples, not Simple Build). “Thanks, Saanvi, but I have some catching up—”

Saanvi patted Sandra’s back twice. “I insist.”

They came back an hour later. Sandra picked up her pocketbook and keys and left for the day. A tissue had fallen to the floor, and Robert threw it away before he left that night.

The stinkbugs were calmer than usual, but Robert didn’t feel like watching “Breaking Bad.” In fact, he felt lethargic, so he put on exercise clothes and decided he’d try yoga. He opened the first beginner’s yoga video he found online and pushed his coffee table into the corner of his living room. He stretched out, took deep breaths, and farted a few times, the stretching pushing out all the gas he hadn’t known he’d accumulated. As he rolled up into Downward Facing Dog, he got a boner. The teacher was an improbably thin young woman from San Diego. He finished the video but then masturbated before bed, thinking of the teacher and Sandra and Saanvi falling on the floor. Then a stinkbug buzzed onto the ceiling of his bedroom, and he had to throw on a robe and bring it outside. “Not tonight, buddy.”

Sandra didn’t come back to work until the next Monday. Robert was sitting at his desk and replying to tweets that Simple Build had received. To one stay-at-home dad, he said, “Yeah, Simple Build products are great to put together in a pinch.” To a young anti-gentrification activist, he replied, “Simple Build can be accessible to all.” He didn’t point out that the only person in the office who owned Simple Build products was Saanvi. She only kept defunct test products.

When he was about to reply to a furniture blogger’s tepid review, Sandra walked into the office. The gigantic bag hanging off of her made her look small, like a cartoon person carrying a bag with another cartoon person inside of it waiting to pop out. It fell down to her elbow and she hoisted it up. It fell down again, and she hoisted it again. She said something to it, angry, menacing, and Saanvi peeked at her from her desk. The bag fell down again and Sandra threw it to the floor. Its contents spilled before her exercise ball. Robert was depressed by how few things were in her gigantic bag: a granola bar, birth control, and her car keys. Robert didn’t offer to help her pick her things up because they were so few, and he was afraid he’d make her feel more pathetic. But then he realized she wasn’t picking them up, so he got up. She wasn’t picking them up because she was collapsed on the floor, crying into her lap. Her yoga practice had influenced the way she positioned herself when she cried, and he wondered if she knew she was getting a core workout while suffering a nervous breakdown.

Robert dropped to his knees and picked up her three things and dropped them into her bag. Watching her sit the way she did, he got a boner thinking about her and about his online yoga teacher. He grabbed the bag by its handles and handed it to her. “Here you are.”

She looked up from her child’s pose and stared at him with blank, wet eyes. She didn’t take the bag, so he set it on the floor. “What am I doing here?” she whimpered. “What is my job? Where is my chair?”

Saanvi had rushed over and stood Sandra up by the elbows. “Come with me, girl. Let’s get somewhere quiet.” Sandra made no effort to help as Saanvi walked her through the office into the corner by the stairway, the only place far from people. Giving her side to the office, Saanvi hugged Sandra close to her. Sandra looked straight ahead. Her face blank, her eyes releasing tears. Saanvi opened the door to the stairway and walked Sandra out. Robert looked over the top of his desk at her bag on the floor. She probably couldn’t drive and probably couldn’t eat a granola bar in her current state, so he didn’t think she needed it. He wasn’t sure about the birth control.

He went back to responding to tweets. Saanvi returned and called the office into a meeting, which was never hard to do, because based on the floor plan, if anybody spoke too loudly, everybody else had to listen.

“Listen up, everyone,” Saanvi said. “I’ve told Sandra to take a personal leave. Her sister isn’t getting any better, and she needs time to be with her. In the meantime, I want you all to pick up the slack,” she said. “And none of you know any of this.”

At the end of the day, Robert picked up her bag and carried it down with him to his car. He was a little self-conscious about it, but then he decided that if people looked at him closely enough, they probably knew he was doing something good.

He put the bag on the passenger seat of his car and drove past Yale downtown, past the few local businesses that got New Haven written up in hipster magazines. He found parking outside of her building–drab, concrete, and short. He’d written down her apartment number from the work directory, and he pressed the buttons for her room into the intercom. He waited a few minutes, looking for stinkbugs and finding none. Maybe they’d already gone inside this building. Maybe they’d gone inside his building.

“Hello?” the voice was syrupy and snotty, like she’d been blowing her nose and drinking.

“Hey, Sandra,” he said. “It’s Robert, from work.”

“Yeah?”

“I brought your bag. You left it at the office today.” He looked around. Nobody was on the streets and church bells chimed from some other neighborhood.

The door clicked, and Robert pulled it open. As he walked up the stairs to the fourth floor, he imagined Sandra opening her door. He’d get a peek inside and would see the white walls with hip photographs and artwork, maybe some fancy lamps and yoga balls. Footsteps echoed in the stairwell. Sandra met him on the third floor landing.

“Oh, you didn’t have to…” Robert started, but he handed her the bag, and she took it.

“Thank you.”

She walked back up the stairs without saying anything else.

Robert thought of what he could say to her that wouldn’t sound trite, but then he just wanted to say something. “You know,” he said. “You can talk to me if you want.”

She turned around and chortled. “Thanks.” She ran back up the stairs. “Thanks for bringing this by,” she called from above before shutting her door behind her with a thump.

That night there were no more stinkbugs when he ate dinner. Sitting on the floor before his coffee table, Robert ate pasta with melted butter sauce. He started watching “Breaking Bad,” but he got bored of it and turned it off when he went to wash his dishes, except he didn’t wash them but left them to soak in the sink.

He returned to his living room and did the yoga video. He got a boner again, and a little came out. At eight, he got into bed and turned off the lights. He looked up at the ceiling and listened to the stinkbugs fluttering and buzzing. Twenty, thirty, fifty danced a night sky into his ceiling. He wondered if Sandra and Saanvi and the yoga teacher looked up at the same night sky and found inspiration, and he knew they must.

He woke up to carcasses on the floor. One crunched under his foot, and then he found the rest. He got his dustpan and brush and swept them together and out onto the porch. “Maybe I should say something,” he said. But that was all he said as he watched the carcasses catch in the wind.

***

 

 

Michael Colbert is a writer based in Portland, Maine. He loves horror film (his favorites are Candyman and Get Out), and he’s a coffee addict (his favorites are Costa Rican and Ethiopian). His work has appeared in such publications as Germinal, Gravel, Orion, and the Worcester Journal. More of his work may be found at his website.

 


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