By Sean Craven
Henry walked by the house semi-regularly; it was between his place and the bus stop where he’d catch a ride to the BART station when he went to San Francisco and didn’t want to drive. The house was set back from the street, hidden by a stand of bamboo, the front windows so heavily curtained it was impossible to see inside. Henry assumed someone was growing pot inside, but he never smelled it.
The glossy green door was answered by a stocky woman with iron-grey hair, short on top and long in the back. There was a scent coming from inside the house, fresh and sharp and green, that wasn’t marijuana. “Are you Henry?” the woman asked.
Henry smiled. “Yeah. You must be Judy Schell. Pleased to meet you.” He extended his hand.
When Judy took it, she gave it a hard squeeze, testing, and her smile was guarded. “So Heather told me you helped get Morrie into a nice school.”
Henry said, “Yeah, well, he was gonna wind up going to Downer. I don’t know if that place has changed since I went there, but back in my day there was absolutely no irony in the name at all. Morrie’s a great kid, but he’s not what you’d call a tough guy and I’d hate to see him turn into one.”
Judy looked at him, hard, then stepped back into the hall. Henry followed her. With her back to him, Judy said, “Yeah, they’ve both been through a lot since Morrie’s dad died.”
“He’s still pretty mad about it,” Henry said. “I think that’s why he’s got such a thing about monsters. So what’s your problem, anyway?”
“Ants,” Judy said. They passed through a living room with low, soft furniture arranged around an old-fashioned projection 3D TV. There was art on the walls that Henry assumed had been made by Judy’s friends – good, but not the kind of thing you want to pay for. Henry liked that. It’s good not to have so much taste that you get to be a pain in the ass.
Judy opened the door to the front room, the one with the curtained windows. There was the glare of full spectrum lights and the whine of fans that Henry had expected, but the smell was different. Rather than the sharp, almost fecal pungency of growing marijuana, he smelled cilantro, parsley, peppermint, spearmint, Mexican oregano, and more, twenty or thirty different types of herb. The plants looked strange to Henry, too big, with overgrown leaves pushing out in fecund clusters.
“Look,” Judy said, and showed him patches of powdery white on the flowering head of a lemon verbena. “It’s not just the ants. They bring mold in here with them.”
“Why not spray?” Henry asked.
“Because these are organic,” Judy said.
“There’s no such thing as organic any more,” Henry said, and set his knapsack down in the corner. “The food industry had them change the way things get labeled. I mean, organic used to mean no GMO, no artificial pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Now, it means the food has carbon compounds in it.”
“It’s not about the law,” Judy said. “I sell to the restaurants in the gourmet ghetto. They might not be able to label their food, but they let people know. It’s a trust issue.”
“Okay,” Henry said. “Listen, let me think about this a second. Ants are hard. Basically, the whole West Coast is one big Argentine ant colony, and they’ve found you.”
“Shit,” Judy said.
Henry started going around the white-walled room, finding the trails of ants up and down the legs of tables covered in hydroponics trays.
“So, do you have a girlfriend?” Judy asked.
Henry thought she sounded interested in the answer, and he was pretty sure Judy wasn’t interested in guys. Was he being inspected? He stood up. “It’s been a little while. I had a long-term relationship break up on me a couple of years back, and I haven’t really... You know how it is.”
“Sure,” Judy said. Was there a little sympathy in her voice? Was this conversation going to get back to Heather? “Sorry about that.”
“Nobody’s fault,” Henry said.
“So what happened?” Judy asked.
“Cheryl’s mom got sick, so Cheryl spent a lot of time in Bakersfield helping take care of her, and she met someone down there. Things can get weird when someone’s dying, it presses all kinds of buttons,” Henry said. He could see at least three points of entrance, but if he caulked them closed, the ants would just find another way in.
“I guess so,” Judy said. “That’s pretty rough, though.”
“It wasn’t my favorite part, but that’s how it goes. Listen, I’ve got an idea but you might not like it,” Henry said.
“There’s this stuff called ant chalk. It’s a Chinese import they sell in the liquor stores around here and it’s totally illegal because it is unbelievably effective. I think it’s made out of DDT and plutonium, maybe a little Agent Orange thrown in there,” Henry said, and Judy kept on frowning. “I’ve resisted the temptation to have it analyzed, but I’ve got some in the car, and some little robots I can use to pack it into the tunnels, where it won’t get anywhere near your plants. It’s not an organic solution, but we’re dealing with an invasive species and at least your plants will still be as chemical-free as possible.” Chemical-free, Henry thought. What do they think things are made of?
“You’re sure it won’t get on the plants?” Judy asked.
“Absolutely. But look. You can’t fool me. Look at this foliage.” Henry gestured at a sage plant whose fuzzy grey leaves were packed into rose-like clusters. “These plants are totally polyploidal. You’ve been doo-hickering their genes, Judy.” Henry grinned. “Is that how you do organic these days?”
“As a matter of fact, it is. Crocus juice is an accepted organic mutagen.” Judy nipped a four-inch leaf from a cilantro plant and handed it to Henry. “Here. Try it.”
Henry popped it into his mouth, and relished the bright, deliciously waxy flavor of the leaf. “That is nice.”
“That’s what they pay me for,” Judy said. “Speaking of which, how much are you going to want for this?”
“Ah, forget about it,” Henry said. “Ant chalk’s a couple of bucks and that’s the only thing I’ll be using up on this.”
“No, seriously,” Judy said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Henry said. “There’s enough going on, I hate charging people for little shit.” He unzipped his knapsack and pulled out the plastic case that held his little robots.
A week later, Heather Flores came by carrying a planter with a built-in light. She had heels on, and a skirt, and her light blouse showed enough cleavage to make Henry consider the direction of his gaze on a moment-by-moment basis. “Judy told me to give this to you,” Mrs. Flores – no, Henry was supposed to call her Heather now -- said. “She said the ants stopped, and thank you very much.”
“Cool,” Henry said. “I liked Judy.”
Heather set the planter down on Henry’s kitchen counter. “Yeah, well. She said some nice things about you.” That sounds iffy, Henry thought. Heather ran the cord for the light to the end of the counter and plugged it in.
Under the fierce LED glow, there were two types of mint, Thai basil, cilantro, and a couple of herbs Henry didn’t recognize. The kitchen filled with the fresh, lively scent of growth. It was going to be nice to come home to that smell.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Heather said.
“Well, you’re dressed up,” Henry said. “You going somewhere special?”Tweet