by Ian S. Maloney
Dad woke me from a deep slumber. The call came in at 2:50 am. My head was covered in my Star Wars sheets. I was seven years old, living in Marine Park, Brooklyn and tagging along with my dad, Jimmy “Bugs.” His footsteps creaked across the parquet floors upstairs and a light tap followed on my bedroom door.
“Buddy, up for an adventure for a few bucks?”
“Now? What time is it? Where?”
“Almost three. Kennedy called. We’ve got a plane to do coming in from Singapore. Got to get it right away. Fast turnaround.”
I groaned a little, hopped out of bed and pulled on my jeans. You always had to wear jeans, Dad said, even in summer. I found my blue and orange Mets cap to cover my greasy brown hair and scrounged around my laundry pile to find a less smelly t-shirt.
“Hey, wear your shirt with the company name on it. Got it? We want to look the part out there. None of this hobo crap. All right?”
“Right. Right. Forgot.”
I continued the search for a work shirt. It was Dad’s thing: wear the company shirts, always wear pants, need to have a belt on. A workingman’s list. Down in my laundry basket, there was a light blue shirt with my name on one side and South Brooklyn Exterminating on the other. I had a couple of these in different colors. After a quick sniff of the armpit, I fitted it over my head.
Dad walked down the steps and laced up his blackened work boots. He picked up his sprayer and box and stuffed his route book into his jeans and his flashlight into its holster. I followed him sleepily to the truck. He shifted away some map books on the front seat and I sat atop a pile of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Arby wrappers, scattered with some glue traps with driving directions and customer phone numbers penned across them.
Dad started the truck and lit up a Pall Mall. He took a long pull from the butt and stretched back into his seat. Cigarette ashes dusted the consoles, and the car smelled like a full ashtray. Toll and gas receipts hung from the sun visor above my head. Paperback horror novels were stuck between the seats. Behind me was a combination of liquid poisons, bait bricks and spraying and fogging equipment. Hazmat flags, foggers, squirrel cages, a pellet and shotgun were scattered in the back of the cab.
We pulled out and drove slowly down toward Gerritsen Avenue. The car rolled on toward Knapp Street and merged on to the Belt Parkway with a dark sky shimmering with stars out over the bay. It was quiet and the water was still like glass. Our headlights pierced the common shore reeds and we headed east toward Kennedy.
The road was peaceful and empty. Dad smoked a cigarette and let the blue smoke curl out the window and into the warm air outside. My eyes stared at the green interior lights in the console of the truck, and then I looked out the side window, watching the sand dunes of Plum Beach and then the shimmering channels pass in the dark. Dad and I said little on the drive. The wind blew through the windows and we drove in the slow lane all the way out to the airport. Occasionally a car zipped by us going 85 miles an hour, but it was no matter to us. We were making our way out there on our time.
“How do bugs get on the plane?”
“Not uncommon. Figure planes have food and people, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, then they have bugs. Bugs stowaway on the packages of food trays, people’s bags and things. Sometimes they come in on people’s coat pockets, for Christ’s sake. Damn things always find a way in. Even an adventurous rat one time. But, that’s what keeps me in business and you in toys and baseball cards.”
I imagined bugs and rats hopping flights across the world. Jet-setting insects and vermin were flying friendly skies, maybe even setting up new families in Europe, South America, Asia, or Africa. Anywhere for that matter.
We parked close to the terminal and gathered our things. I carried a light black box with a gas mask and some replacement cartridges in it. A box of aerosol cans clanged in there. We walked, clattering our gear. The building had a faint, ghostly glimmer with the darkened skies behind it. Only the roaring sounds of jet engines could be heard in the distance. A couple of yellow cabs waited for passengers with their lights on in front of the glowing building.
Dad’s work belt was loaded with flashlight, screwdriver and hammer, and a Leatherman knife. In the back of his jeans, he stuffed disposable glue traps into the waist of his pants. His service book was folded into the front pocket of his jeans. In one arm he carried the bombs; in the other he held the silver canister of poison tightly in his fist. Security guards waved to us as we made our way to a deserted corner of the terminal. Sweepers scoured the floors with mops and buffing machines.
I was behind Dad, struggling with the discomfort of the box in my hands. The handle dug into my palm, and I adjusted it and set it down several times. Put the box down, shake out the hand and pick it back up.
“Need a hand, buddy?”
“I got this. I can carry my stuff.”
Dad punched in a code on a keypad and we entered an off-limits area. In a room down a long corridor, we spoke briefly with a man holding a logbook. Dad flashed a security badge. The guy wrote down our names and the time into his book, and he told us where the plane was on the field. We walked the corridor toward the airstrip. I stifled my yawns and my limbs pushed on beyond the burn. Dad seemed to have the strength of four men.
Out on the tarmac I paused. Baggage handlers drove carts to the terminal. In the distance, a man with two yellow batons guided a jet plane out of the terminal and toward the runway. He was wearing protective ear guards and eye goggles, and he looked as if he should be roving around Tattooeen or flying out of Mos Eisley with the Millenium Falcon. I half-expected a land cruiser to whiz past me in the dark.
We approached the solitary plane, ascended the steps, and entered the night plane.
The plane was empty and the coast was clear. I was free to roam and Dad gave me the captain’s go-ahead. He motioned me into the plane with a tilt of his head. I ran in and made a quick right turn to the aisle. Straight through first class, I went, running and pumping my arms up and down like an Olympic sprinter. My hands tapped the seats of every aisle, one after another, all the way to the tail of the plane. In the tail, I saw Dad watching me. I went through the small kitchen in the tail, and then right back up the other side. Dad smirked as I stopped at the front of the plane.
“Was that the two-hundred meters?”
He laughed and walked toward the cockpit. “Can you believe someone knows how to handle this thing and what all these things mean?”
“So cool. How do they figure all this stuff out? Must take a while to get all of this down.”
“Where are we off to, kiddo?”
“Let’s go to Europe first. Then, we can dip down into Africa, and continue on to Asia.”
“You got it. Prepare for takeoff.”
“Cleared for takeoff.”
“Roger that. Who knows where we’ll end up, right?”
I stared at the blinking, off-limit space. The numbers and the meters created a dizzying kaleidoscope pattern. I scanned the intricate panel of gauges and odometers and fuel level meters before I placed my hands gingerly on the wheel before me. Dad stayed with me for a moment or two. He was behind me playing navigator for a second, giving me coordinate numbers to adjust the path of my flight. After a minute of pretend, he was out of the cabin. My fingers were on the steering wheel, holding it firmly and daring not to turn the wheel off course. The course was set, dead ahead. I stared out the cockpit windows at the New York terminal and the endless sequence of planes coming and going out in the night. I was a captain of a huge jet liner, glancing over an endless pattern of muted green and red lights, signs of altitude and velocity, direction and wing-flap adjustments. I closed my eyes and allowed for take-off down that runway, soaring far out into the night sky, leaving New York behind me in the distance.
Dad walked down the aisle of the plane to work. He pumped his silver sprayer with the gold handle with swift, short strokes. It was like a good blaster. His work boots pressed and dragged against the carpeted floors. Then, there were the familiar sounds of the spray being sprung out of the pinhole nozzle and into the crevices of the plane. I looked down the aisle and saw Dad adjusting the nozzle head. He was turning the tip of the sprayer to fan-spray. The carpets were getting a light coat of chemical.
I drifted back into my captain’s seat. The clouds filtered past my window. Below, I saw vast cities of the world in miniature. Great walls, mighty bridges, huge canyons, deep seas, and long stretching plains to eternities. Mountain ranges kissed the sky and high above the stars twinkled and the moon beamed a round orb of white.
Dad reentered with a couple of bags of peanuts. He tossed both to me and told me to save him one. He handed me a set of plastic captain’s wings he found in the attendant’s station. I clipped my wings on to my shirt. The smell of dispensed jet fuel filled my nostrils, and I loved it. I thought about where life would take me. I imagined soaring planes jetting to exotic destinations. I too could soar anywhere, be anything. Dad was somewhere in the plane, opening latches and kneeling and looking under cabinets. I was far away from him up front, flying the jet across the oceans, encountering turbulence and preparing for a smooth emergency landing and using the force to negotiate any imperial entanglements in my way.
After a few minutes, I walked to the back of the plane.
“Need me to do anything now? Happy to help, if I can.”
“You’ve done all you can do for me. Coming along and keeping me company and lugging the crap is the job. Hang back for a few more and then you can help me set up the canisters.”
In a few minutes, Dad finished spraying. The bombs had to be placed up and down the aisles and across the small kitchens in the belly and rear of the plane.
I strode back to the cockpit for one more moment to take a final glance out the windows. I grew a little sad, wondering if we were ever coming back for night plane service like this again. It was possible it would end. Someday it would. We’d lose the account, no longer have to come out for these things. It was the nature of the beast, part of the job; someone was always out there waiting to grab what was yours. Dad told me this all the time on the road.
I held on to each gadget as it was and copied every color of the blinking light to memory. A jet was taxiing into the terminal a few hundred feet away. It landed out there in the darkness with the blinking lights not more than minutes ago. I wondered who was flying in over my house at 3:30 a.m. What were they carrying with them? What dreams did they have, unbuckling their lap belts and reaching for their carry-on bags above their heads? A few hours ago, there were people on this plane I was playing in. Their suitcases were tossed down conveyor belts and their luggage spun around a winding carousel. In the terminal, next to me, they grabbed their gear and darted off in the waiting yellow cabs. Some were greeted with hugs and kisses by waiting relatives; some carried darker things, like a family death, as they got their bags. Now it was all just empty seats.
Out on the runway, in the dark, another set of travelers were readying for liftoff over the Atlantic. Some were heading out of town on business, or vacation, or family visitations. I imagined people like me, hurling into the sky with fresh wings for adventure, to see new sights and sounds and smells. Off into the clouds, they went hoping to see stars on their ascent and a last glimpse of their home down below. They’d see the calm ripples of the bay waters below them and the postcard image of the sleeping city off in the distance. They’d return to this place with memories, things they had to do. The coming and going, the lifting-off and the touching downs buzzed through my mind like bees entering and leaving a hive. I heard engines and wheels spinning and the bells of the cabin going on and off, telling passengers to buckle up for bumpy rides or touching down with the harsh push of the flaps forcing the air to slow everything down to a stop.
The plane was now saturated with chemicals. I smelled the pyrethroid, and it was time to depart. I felt myself coming back down to the ground from far away. I took a final glimpse at the control panel and captain’s seat, and then I went to the docking area, opening up cardboard cartons of aerosol bombs. We worked quickly, a box of bombs in our hands, on either side of the passenger aisles, placing the canisters down every ten feet. When we met in the tail of the plane, Dad motioned for me to get out. He tilted his head forward and took the box from my hands. I walked up to the front and looked back when I got to the hatchway door.
Dad fitted his gas mask across his face in the plane’s tail, pulling it through his dark black hair. He refitted the South Brooklyn Exterminating baseball cap on his head. I saw him, breathing air through the charcoal cartridge circles. His glasses shined in the cabin light with the plastic protective gear over his face. He looked like a Storm Trooper there. Then, the subtle hissing began. The vapor drifted up towards the top of the cabin and my dad was covered in it. He held an open canister; he pointed the nozzle towards the open cabinets in the air kitchen. Steam and haze followed my father forward. He motioned me away from the door with his hand, willing me back down to the stairs. I watched from the crevice of the door. Dad was in a fog of insecticide as the aerosol cans filled the tight compartment, soon to be sealed.
Dad set off the aerosol bombs like a chorus of hissing snakes. He screamed me away with a violent expletive through the mask and a backward thrust of his arm, like a punch. I backed off and started down the stairs. He followed close behind, slammed the hatchway and sealed it. He fished out a Poison: Keep Out sign with a skull and crossbones emblazoned on it, and taped it with some electrical tape to the door. We gathered the gear and Dad unstrapped the mask from his face. I smelled the traces of the fumigant on him, and it made me sneeze twice before we walked back to the underground in the terminal and headed back the way we came in.
“Let’s hope that does it. Don’t want to be back doing that tomorrow.”
“It’s cool thinking about all the places it will be, right?”
“Certainly true. Think about all the places you’ll be. A lot possible. You beat?”
“Someday you might miss even these night trips. Never know where things may take us, right?”
“You always say that.”
“Hell, I always think what might be next down the road. Maybe not doing this forever. Lot out there to explore. Different opportunities. Back to school, even.”
“You say that now. But imagine killing these things forever. Sometimes school looks a lot better from where I’m standing.”
We stowed the boxes and sprayers. I climbed back into my navigator seat and before we turned out of the lot, I was drifting off to sleep. My head rested on the window ledge, opened up a crack for fresh summer air.
I awoke and thought of planes and airports around the globe. Dad’s smoke drifted out the window, and he coughed and spit phlegm out on the road. The faint glimmer of morning light was still a distant dream over the bay. In the driver’s seat my father pushed his head, muscles, and bones home to bed, past exhaustion, and I piloted a jet plane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, imagining I was in search of some lost treasure or secret plans I had to find, somewhere out in the universe far ahead of me.
Ian S. Maloney is Dean of Humanities, Communications, and Education and Professor of Literature, Writing, and Publishing at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. He directs the Jack Hazard Fellowship for the NewLiterary Project in Berkeley, California and serves on the Literary Council for the Brooklyn Book Festival. His first novel, South Brooklyn Exterminating, will be published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2024.
Image source: Spencer Imbrock/Unsplash