I was a teenager when the bugs arrived in droves. They looked like ladybugs but weren’t. They could bite, and when you squished them, they stunk like dirt. On warm fall days, they swarmed outside, clinging to patches of sun on the faded asbestos siding of our old green farmhouse. I ran to my car whenever I left, slammed the door. The car was better at keeping insects out.
The house was from 1908, a smallish thing with a barn that blew down the year I was born. Nothing in the house was air tight. It was freezing in the winter, hot in the summer. Faucets dripped, froze, broke. A chunk of ceiling fell from a hallway and was not replaced. The linoleum flooring in the kitchen was full of tears that were duct-taped and covered with rugs. We had mice, rats, spiders, birds, crickets and then the not-ladybug bugs. They got in through the windows in the living room, the attic, the kitchen, my bedroom. My mother kept a plastic lid over her water glass because bugs came out of the fluorescent light fixture while we ate dinner. They congregated on my bedroom floor, got smashed into my white area rug. One time my mother said, “You should have seen when I moved your pillow, Darci. You would have freaked out. You would have been so upset.”
What was under the pillow on my bed? A commune of stinking fake ladybugs.
No one did anything year after year but vacuum and sweep up their dead bodies. Even now, I occasionally find decaying orange shells amongst things long packed away.
In 1997, I turned 17 and met Orion. We worked across the food court from each other in the mall, he at Sbarro’s and I at Dairy Queen. We loitered in the employee access hallways, smoked cigs, talked about drinking and music. He introduced me to the Dead Milkmen. I introduced him to the green farmhouse. Then one day he quit his job at Sbarro’s, stopped calling me, and simply disappeared.
But four years later, I answered a call on the landline in my first apartment, an assembly-line thing with a vinyl curtain separating a tiny kitchen from a hardly anything living room.
“Is this Darci? Darci that used to work at Dairy Queen?”
“Yeah, who is this?”
“It’s Orion. Orion Miller. I used to work at Sbarro’s.”
“You’re the last person I expected to hear from right now,” I said. Four years is an eon at 21.
It was then I began to love him until he drank himself to death at age 38.
After we had been dating for a while, he told me about growing up in Eau Claire, how his mother became too sick to work. She was on disability, his father lived a few states away, and they were poor. So they moved and kept moving, living in a total of six places up and down Main Street. They lived in duplexes and apartments. They lived with other people. They moved and moved so he could stay in the same school with his friends.
I went to one of their apartments once. We strung popcorn for the Christmas tree. I petted CeCe, his mother’s sweet black mutt, and we listened to the Dead Milkmen song “Bitchin’ Camero.” The apartment was clean and small. It was cozy, not cold inside, and there were no bugs. If I close my eyes, I can still see the warm lamplight of the living room.
In 2003, Orion and I moved into a house together that we affectionately referred to as the little house. The little house was white with maroon trim. In the front yard grew a huge maple with leaves just a few shades darker than the trim. The kitchen had blue tile countertops and the dining room was golden—perfect for morning sunlight. We had our own washer and dryer, and our own fenced in backyard for Sydney, Orion’s moody pitbull. I hung a purple Chinese lantern in the living room, tailored an expensive duvet cover just for our bed. I thought sewing this was romantic, I told him during a fight after it got ruined.
In the little house, I had an office that I planned to use for writing. But soon it was overtaken by his vodka bottles and beer cans, a makeshift bed on the floor that he passed out in. The heat didn’t get into that room, and it was constantly freezing. I still remember the smell: stale tobacco and carpet cleaner, the remnants of his benders. And I still remember the fights—the way the house held the sound of us yelling. One time I left for a week and never wanted to come back.
A year and a half after we moved in, I got accepted to graduate school in St. Paul. We decided I would move alone, and we packed up the little house, disassembling our life together. We fought viciously over a cheap entertainment center and over who was supposed to take care of what. I was methodical, quick, angry. I wanted this part to be over. I wanted to get away—though we would stay together for one more year, the distance between us a poultice on earlier inflicted wounds.
As we were about to leave the place for good, he stopped me at the threshold. He pulled me into his arms, and we stood there, half in and half out of the little house that was no longer our little house. It was then I began to cry.
For years, he drove by the little house and told me what had changed and what was the same. When it finally went up for sale, he wanted to buy it.
In 2017, I turned 37. Though Orion and I had been broken up for many years, we remained close friends. I lived in a duplex in Minneapolis with my husband, and he bought a house in Eau Claire with his girlfriend, a woman with whom he shared a tumultuous relationship. The house was on the East Hill, the neighborhood he loved. He was happy, and he was proud.
He was also debilitated by anxiety and sick with alcoholism.
A year or so after buying the house, his relationship deteriorated. His girlfriend got a new boyfriend, and addiction consumed him. He was admitted to the hospital multiple times and did a 10-day stint in rehab before checking himself out.
“You have to stop drinking,” I told him. “You’re going to die. I don’t want you to die. I just don’t want you to die,” I said one day at his house while his ex was gone. He said nothing but hugged me tightly as I cried in the living room. “You’re so skinny,” I said. It was early afternoon, and he had been drinking since at least 7 am.
The next month he lost his job, which gave him more time to drink. Despite his unemployment, despite the fact that his ex had a new boyfriend, neither he nor his ex would move. They fought about the house. They went around and around.
“Just get out of there,” I said. “Living with her is making everything worse for you. You can buy another house. There will always be another house.”
“Why should I have to leave?” he asked me. “Why should I have to live in a shitty apartment?”
A month after that, his ex smashed him in the face with a 10-pound dumbbell, knocking him unconscious. In her mug shot, tears run down her face, as though she can’t believe she got caught. At her sentencing hearing in 2019, a lawyer played the whole 5-minute 911 call as we, those survived by him, sat listening. “Get up,” his ex said on the recording. “Get up.”
But he couldn’t get up then, and when he could, he wouldn’t go to the hospital to get treatment for his concussion and lacerations. He didn’t want to leave the house.
On February 21, 2018, he hadn’t had a drink in a day and a half. “I feel really weird,” he said to his mother, who was staying at his house. She urged him to go to the hospital, but he refused, though he had strict instructions not to detox at home. Early the next morning, he died in his bedroom as his mother slept on the floor next to him. He is interned in a cemetery a few blocks away from the house. Beloved Son and Friend, his stone reads.
By March 2019, I had lost Orion, my father, and my niece all within a year and a half. The grief was often paralyzing, but I managed to keep commuting to my job near Duluth, Minnesota, from my home in Minneapolis. At the end of spring semester, I told my husband I couldn’t do it anymore. I told my husband we needed to move north. He agreed.
My only consolation in the whole mess of leaving my beloved Minneapolis was to get a nice house. I can’t explain it. When you have never gotten to live somewhere really good in your whole life, when you’ve always lived somewhere ramshackle, cold, and cramped or infested, you feel desperate not to feel that way anymore.
In Duluth, I chose a big old arts and crafts style house. A creek runs behind it. Deer bed along the fence line amongst the trees surrounding the property. In spring, greenery and flowers explode, and the scent of lilacs and plum blossoms fills the air. Everything in the house works properly. The kitchen cabinets are soft close, the floors real tile. There are no bug infestations, no fallen chunks of plaster, no tears in outdated linoleum floors.
Shortly after we moved in, I ran a bath and slid into the deep soaking tub. It felt good: the light coming through the generous yet private bathroom window, the hot water, the depth of the tub. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath. But at the top of my breath, I was struck by another kind of desperation—panic at the fact that I owned something like this, that I could have it, that I deserved it. I was suddenly terrified, terrified of losing the very thing I had wanted so much for so long.
I thought of Orion then.
And, like so many things I have realized too late to be of use, I finally understood why, when everything was falling apart around him, he simply never left home.
-- Darci Schummer is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press) and her work has appeared in journals and magazines such as Ninth Letter (web edition), Midwestern Gothic, Midway Journal, Necessary Fiction, and Paper Darts, among other places. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.