Washing windows across America: Blue Norther
He opens a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov. But then, remembering he will need strength for the night ahead, he tucks Chekhov under his arm and goes looking for food.
Ci-Ci’s is crawling with soccer families, bawling babies, and stoned teenagers.
Photo illustration by Stacey Warde
By Ben Leroux
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
Two pretty young black women in the computer lab at the public library in Bay City, Texas, are having a nice laugh over the person at the next computer. He is a large white man, 40 or so, and he itches a lot. The back of the hand he uses to operate his computer mouse is dotted with tiny red bumps. He is on the Internet, and scribbling things on scratch paper while reaching for his shins to rake. Underneath the table he wears sandals. The same red bumps make regular shoes and socks uncomfortable for him. The two girls don’t know his desperation. He wants to ask them if they know things about the noseeums, the bugs responsible for the bites on his shins, feet, ankles, forearms and hands, the bugs that have been traveling with him for the past several weeks, but he doesn’t wish to frighten anyone. Besides, he no longer trusts the information on the street.
The man logs off the Internet, goes itching over to a printer and feeds it coins. Out come several sheets of paper. Using the library’s stapler, he attaches these papers to his scribbled notes, and leaves. Outside, walking past the computer lab window, he looks in on the young women. They are still laughing. It would have been nice to joke with them, he thinks, but as with everything lately, the noseeums have ruined it, and it is no longer cute, no longer a laughing matter to him that he can’t go anywhere or do anything without having to hide his blemishes or stop to scratch at them. He gets in his old Plymouth and drives to the Lake Jackson Wal-Mart, and with the noseeum dossier under his arm, marches gravely into the store. He has the cold, mournful eyes of a soldier.
He pays no attention to his Wal-Mart greeter–does not even look to see if there is one. Whether he gets his greeting or not has become immaterial. He has, to put it kindly, found the Wal-Mart greeter to be a most useless creature, consistently negligent in his or her duties. He passes through the entryway and heads straight for Sporting Goods. There, he locates the camping section, opens his dossier, and peruses.
The Noseeum. AKA the Sand Fly. The Punky. The Chigger. The Thrip. The Itchmite. The Drain Fly. The Black Gnat. An invisible blood-sucking parasite that thrives in dampness, or off the blood of living animals. A relentless, resourceful, if not prolific enemy, the noseeum crassly marks its victims with tiny red bumps. Existing only to feed and breed, it is as content living by a swamp as it is at the sweaty foot of a man’s bed. Anywhere there is blood and dankness.
But now the man in the camping section at Wal-Mart (who believes he picked the noseeums up somewhere around Sweetwater) knows things about his enemy he didn’t until today. First, and not surprisingly to him, it is only the female that does the biting. All she cares about is eating so she can lay more eggs. Secondly is something he’d never guessed by the ferocity of their bites—they are quite easy to kill. One simply needs to be properly armed.
The man selects a fine citronella candle in a terracotta container, and a spray-repellant containing the chemical DEET. The over-diversification of simple products such as insect repellant aggravates the man. Unable to find just plain insect repellant, he settles on a wild berry-scented one. If his information is accurate, the repellant, together with the citronella fumes and dryness, will do in the noseeums. The man goes to the checkout lane, where due to an overdiversification of disposable lighters, he is forced to buy a Dale Earnhart Jr. lighter. The man does not care for motor sports. He purchases his ammo and takes it out to the Plymouth.
Deliberately, but without haste, the man goes into the early phases of his offensive. He drives to a carwash and parks by a vacuum. There, he begins extracting pieces of bedding and throwing them into a pile beside the car. Young Mexicans, buffing their lowriders stop to watch him. Once he has a nice mountain of blankets, clothes, pillows, and window-cleaning rags, he pulls out what looks like a piece of plywood roughly the size of his own body and rests it against the Plymouth. He then, from the driver’s side removes a ragged old sofa chair with the legs cut off. He feeds the vacuum coins, and sticks the hose into the Plymouth. Periodically, he stops to scratch bites.
Once the man has thoroughly vacuumed, he reinserts his plywood, crams his bedding into the trunk, and drives to a Laundromat he’d seen earlier. Feeding yet more coins into machines, his finances dwindling, he puts all his bedding, clothes, rags–anything that might be housing a noseeum—into washing machines, then dryers. While he waits he opens a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov. But then, remembering he will need strength for the night ahead, he tucks Chekhov under his arm and goes looking for food. He walks to a restaurant called Ci-Ci’s. He has never been to a Ci-Ci’s and does not care what it is. He knows there is a chain of them. He goes up to a man behind the register.
“I’ve never been to a Ci-Ci’s. How does it work?”
“Fav-nanny-nan,” the Texan says. “Fav-nanny-nan, and yew c’neat till y’hurt.”
It was true. The man pays his $5.99 and eats buffet style, going back repeatedly for Italian fast food: lasagna, pasta, salad, cheese bread, and about six different kinds of pizza. Ci-Ci’s is crawling with soccer families, bawling babies, and stoned teenagers. Over it all, the man tries to read Chekhov. He hopes it will take his mind off his bites, but Chekhov’s stories are about disease, leprosy, plague, sanitariums, and madmen, and soon all the man can see around him is the sadness of families working very hard at fun. How hard they all work. He looks ahead to the night, wondering if the biting and itching goes away immediately or subsides over a period of days.
Back at the Laundromat, the man returns his clean, warm blankets, clothes, and rags into his car. He uses two folded blankets to make box-springs and uses four more to wrap around the plywood. The man owns a lot of blankets. He then places his cot into the vehicle and starts the Plymouth and drives north in the direction of Wal-Mart. As he does, a dark blue cloud follows him, along with a chill.
At Wal-Mart, the man chooses a discreet parking space that faces a fence and a row of palm trees. He then stands outside his Plymouth and surveys the lot, looking for the rotating yellow light of Wal-Mart security. He spots the security cart and the obese Texan man operating it. Putting it kindly, he has found Wal-Mart security to be one step above the Wal-Mart greeter.
As the man sets out for the security cart, he sees what the driver does to keep himself busy. He has found a game–a form of exercise without leaving his cart. He runs down stray shopping baskets, and with one hand on the wheel, grabs one by the handle, punches the accelerator, flips the steering wheel, then gives the basket a fling toward the basket bin. He is a good shot. His name is Artie. Artie stops his rodeo game when he sees the man approaching.
“Hi Artie,” says the man. “I’m going be sleeping here, alright? I always let security know.”
Artie goes into a state. It is a state the itching man has, for lack of a better term, come to deem the “Texas Gaze.” During the Texas Gaze, the Texan, stunned by the slightest of peculiarities, collapses into a state of sensory overload resulting in abrupt cessation of motor-neural activity. In Artie’s case, the cart-flinging stops, the arms fall to the side, and the eyes droop. The head appears to bobble slightly upon the neck as the body goes flaccid and the jaw falls just enough to expose the surface of a fat, bubbling tongue. The Texas Gaze is known to last anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds, during which time, if a person desired, he could walk up to the Texan, prod him, poke him, rub his belly, paint him, clean out his pockets.
“Hey?” the man says to Artie. “Gonna be any problem with me staying in my car over there?”
“Uh? Oh,” says Artie. “Wahl, ah don’t care.” He jiggles and chuckles a little. “But whay you wanna stay in yer caw-er?”
“It’s my business. I’m just checking first.”
“But I don’t see your van nor your motor home.”
“No, I told you I’m staying in that car over there.”
“What’d yew dew, hitch it to the back’yer motor home?”
“No, no. That’s it. That car is my motor home.”
Artie starts to relapse into the Texas Gaze, and the man wonders if this had something to do with the South losing the Civil War. Then Artie comes to.
“I’ll tell the night shift about ‘ya. But it’s fixin’t’storm you know?”
“A little water won’t hurt me.”
“Guess you kin roll up yer windas. Posta be a real turd-floater.”
“Yeah, yeah. Goodbye Artie.”
The man goes back to his Plymouth, and dismissing the few sprinkles that have started, leaves the windows down a crack for air. He sits straight upon his makeshift bed, resting his back against what was once the backrest to the backseat. With his Dale Earnhardt lighter, he lights the citronella candle. It doesn’t smell great–like orange peels soaked in kerosene. He opens Chekhov and waits for dark, and the first wave of noseeums to come out munching.
They make their first nips around the same time a formidable wind picks up outside. They’ve gotten used to depending on a meal every night around this time. But this night the man has something for the biting bitches. He has the bottle of wild berry flavored DEET. He aims the nozzle at the invisible pain, and twice depresses the pump-action spray button. It makes a “znk-znk” sound and he feels the cold chemicals on his shin and smells what would remind him of camping as a child were it not for the obscene perfume. “Znk-znk.” He fires again.
The pinching pain stops. “Yes!” the man says, getting very excited. He can barely wait for the next bite. It comes and he douses it. “Znk! Znk!” The wind howls now, and the sprinkles have become rain. But the man keeps his focus. He is focused on the bites and the “Znk-znk.” He snuffs out one noseeum after another. “Znk-znk.” They’re not very bright, he thinks. He gives them hell.
It is the bitter cold that interrupts the man’s resolve, and the realization that he is getting wet. Remembering the importance of dryness in this battle, he reaches for the Plymouth’s ancient passenger-side handle and cranks it and when he does, hears a sound that doesn’t sound good. He has a keen ear for such sounds and as he feels the handle go limp, he knows something bad is about to happen to his car and it does. The window collapses into the door and disappears. The man forces his fingers down into the door, trying to pinch a sliver of the glass, but his fingers are too big and the Blue Norther–the turd-floater Artie had spoken of—is coming through the man’s gaping window with the force of a fire hose.
Many things go through the man’s mind as he sloshes around inside the Plymouth on his knees. Does he save his blankets? He had invested many of his last coins into getting them dry. Does he make a run for Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart is gone. It, and any sign of civilization have vanished behind the gray violent wetness whipping about. The wind lifts the right side of the Plymouth, and the palm trees bend over so far their fronds touch the ground.
As the Blue Norther fills the Plymouth, the dripping man knee-sloshes with and begins brainstorming. He finds himself overturning the laundry basket in which he stores many of his belongings. Then he pushes the empty basket bottom-out, through the open cavity and holds it against the Blue Norther. It is a perfect fit.
“Ha ha!” the man laughs, holding the laundry basket against the slamming elements. It has stopped the flooding. He grabs a broomstick that he uses as window-washing pole, and props one end against the laundry basket and the other against the driver’s side door. It holds. “Yes!” he shouts again. His victories are simple.
The man sits back on his damp bedding. The candle has gone out. He grabs his DEET. His Plymouth smells like a toxic whorehouse. As the Blue Norther takes its course, the last of the noseeums, empowered by the newfound wetness of the Plymouth, come out to feast. The man in the swaying, waterlogged car stays awake holding his DEET bottle. “Znk, znk, znk.”
“Wrenchin’ out your blankets?” It is the next morning and Artie has pulled up in his cart beside the man who wrings out his wet bedding.
“Yeah,” says the man, throwing sopped linen into the parking slot next to him. “I’m trying to get rid of some bugs, and the Blue Norther didn’t help.”
Artie starts to go into the Texas Gaze. “What kinda bugs?” he asks when he comes to.“
“Noseeums, I guess you call them.”
Artie’s response is to relapse for five minutes before announcing: “Ahm’o get back to work now.”
Artie leaves the strange man as he lays his blankets out in the car to dry as best they can. He is out of money save for the few coins he has not put into the printer, the vacuum, and the laundry machines. It’s a Sunday and he has hours to waste.
He walks across what seems like miles of parking lots to a mall where he has seen a Hastings Bookstore. He hasn’t had many good experiences with Hastings Bookstores. They are loud and uncomfortable, and tend to be to Barnes and Noble what the romance novel is to Russian literature. Along with books, Hastings sells electric guitars, skateboards, DVDs and other crap.
In this Hastings, deafening death metal is playing, and the place is very crowded. But there is reading in here, and chairs, and dryness and free coffee. The man has nowhere else to go.
The man finds what he thinks is a relatively private place to sit, until a pack of out-of-control adolescent males move in on him and his chair and books and coffee. Hormone-crazed, they begin gathering up sex magazines and Sex For Dummies books and the Kama Sutra from the shelves, ripping the pages out, reading out loud, and tearing them to bits. They laugh and throw the books at each other, calling each other punks, fags, gays, fuckheads, vaginas. They punch each other. They fight. Employees walk by. No one cares. The man gets up to get a coffee refill, hoping they will be gone when he returns.
At a coffee bar with no condiments or stirrers, the man stops a young employee by tapping her on the shoulder. Inaudible over the death metal, he tries to communicate to her that Hastings is out of condiments and stirrers. He shows her the empty creamer container. She responds by opening a little cabinet door and pointing to stacks of creamer packets, sugar packets, and plastic stirrers. Disgusted by his inability to comprehend, she begins handing him stacks of condiments and stirrers. As the man watches her walk away, he stocks the coffee bar for Hastings.
Back at the chairs, the teens are gone but have left in their wake, piles of mutilated sex books. Employees and customers step over them. No one cares. But at least now the man, whose bites still itch but not as bad as they did yesterday, can read.
But no–the animals are back, ripping pages out of the Kama Sutra, calling each other cocks, cocksucker, cocklovers. Two hold one boy down and try to make him have sex with a gay sex book. It is horrible. People just watch, afraid to intercede. The man leaves. He’s had all he can take.
It is dusk when he returns to his car facing the fence at the Wal-Mart. Broken trees are all around. The man lights his Citronella candle, and sits guard with his spray bottle. He opens Chekhov. There is a knock at the back window.
“Kill yer bugs yet?”
“I’m workin’ on it, Artie.”
“What’s that burnin’?”
“Cain’t have no fires in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s regulations.”
“OK.” The man blows it out. The smell was driving him insane anyway.
“I’m gittin’ off duty now. I told the night shift about ‘ya. Posta be another gully-washer tonight—a frog-strangler, I hear. Good luck with yer bugs.”
Artie goes away, and the man plugs up the window-hole with his laundry basket and broom handle and sits back and waits for bites. He doesn’t sleep. §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at email@example.com.Read more of his Washing windows across America series here: