It wasn’t as if anyone got hurt. It had to be done. What I knew could do a lot more damage if I kept my feet heading the hell out of town.
So what will they say of me once the smoke clears? Once the truth rears its pretty head? I don’t know that yet. This train whistles its hard steel through a runaway night to a destination that may be unknown to none but me and I don’t care.
Oh, sure, if they knew, they’d heap enough medals on my chest to bring this crazy man down to his knees, but I didn’t do it for the honor and glory. I got all that crap in high school football. Yeah, me, Craigville’s Touchdown King, the reason for the season, the golden boy who caught and carried that freaking ball like a mother clasps her baby and races out of a fire. I was lifted on too many shoulders to count. I was written up as the wonder lad who brought Craigville the state trophy for a year without one single loss.
My life after that was one huge lesson in the meaning of anticlimactic. I plunged like a stone. The future for this most-likely-to-succeed favorite son looked bright as a summer Sunday, but out there loomed more closed doors than I care to remember. In a nutshell, I was a man without a future. I had used it all up on the field, eaten up those hero desserts, and ended up sick on the “laurel flu“: that malady that tells you all coming treasures will be handed to you while your ass grows large and fat on the throne of your own royal ego trip.
Up to a point, before becoming the proverbial frog-once-prince guy, life was a fairy tale. I had it all. I had married the Valentine Queen Jessica Ewing; we had two blond-haired cherubs named Montgomery and Ward. A house on Sterling Drive. A his and her garage occupied with his and her BMW’s. Yeah, I had it all.Then came the other women.Then came the booze and the recreational powders up my nose. A good job at Merrill Lynch pulled from under my wobbly feet. Jessica’s final exit. Monty and Ward with her.
How many nights and days I spent on my knees begging God to snatch my life from me. Let me keel over on the brink of my own sorrow and plummet into the abyss of forgetfulness. But the same God who answered my touchdown dreams as I ran towards the goal line did not answer my put-down dream of a quick and painless demise.
Custodian or janitor –– call me whatever the hell you want –– I reported for work each evening at town hall where I emptied ash trays, trashed the trash, scrubbed toilet bowls, swabbed the wooden floors, dusted, made all things clean for another new day.
But all that is history. I tell it so you know what “end of my rope” means, in case you think my act was one of heroism. In case you make the mistake of believing I did what I did to win your approval, crown myself “Craigville’s Comeback Kid.” None of that would be true. I did it because I figured, if my life mattered so little to me, who better than I to die saving those who wanted to live?
The first time I noticed a termite in the basement of town hall it was about the size of a praying mantis. A single termite that seemed glued to the crossbeam above my head that I happened to notice when I looked up to check the flickering florescent light.
To be honest the bug startled me. I never saw one that large before and God knows I’d seen my share of those wood eaters from the time I was a kid and they had infested Grampa’s cabin in the woods where we kids spent summer nights with him. In the end Grampa had to hire a bulldozer because those bugs had eaten enough of the cabin to cause the support beams to soften and bend like paper maché. But they were little termites having themselves a community feast, committed to doing what they do best.
But not even a fool has-been like me who had often drunk too much rye or inhaled a thumbprint of the white to maybe see things out of proportion could deny the termite in the town hall basement was out of its size class. And those antennae, straight ahead of its head, looked scary, and those black wings, hardly moving at all, seemed poised for flight.
I watched I ran like hell, locked the basement door, and for the next week my nightmare sleep crawled with a troop of those bugs parading on my clothes, burrowing into my hair, screeching down the gray streets of my dreams.
A week later, after reading up on termites at Craigville’s Public Library, I braved another walk down the basement stairs. I wish I hadn’t. Now the white-painted crossbeams was spotted with colonies of swarmers, most without wings. Maybe like the book says, they shed them after leaving their underground tunnels.
Shaken by this new turn of events, I kept my spine pressed against the banister so I could race upstairs if one of them dropped from the wood. Then I realized the worst of it: the termites were much larger than the first one I had discovered! They humped on one another in an attempt to cover all visible parts of the crossbeams, but here and there I could see loners and they were huge. Praying mantis? Try frogs!
What the hell was going on? As custodian of the building, I had often seen the termiticide boys come each month with their silver hoses spraying the corners and the beams and anywhere they suspected these bugs would congregate. What had they been spraying? Whatever chemical it was, somehow it was working in reverse: instead of minimizing their voracious appetites by killing most of them, it was maximizing their size!
Who could I tell? What could be done? When I checked my own house, I was relieved to find no termites anywhere. The same for some of the other houses. My father’s. Aunt Emma’s. The silo center where my neighbor Fenton worked. Why only in town hall?
What if I told the mayor or the councilmen and they came to find nothing out of the ordinary in that basement? What if the beams looked like white supports and all those big boys with their chomping mandibles were not there? For sure I’d lose my job on grounds that my d.t.’s made me an unreliable custodian. I’d end up on Georgia Road with the rest of the unshaven, smelly homeless begging for loose change.
So I kept it quiet for as long as I could. Then one night I was watching the boob tube and something caught my eye and ear. A UFO enthusiast who looked a lot like Albert Einstein except his hair was even whiter than the e=mc2 whiz. The man’s name was Dr. Franklin Birch and he was an authority on UFO’s, he said. Sightings, he claimed, were more numerous than the media reported, and he even implicated the government for hushing them up.
The interviewer wanted to know the latest. “What’s new up there?” he asked the old man.
“A month ago several sky events in this very area,” he said in a pronounced British accent.
“Yes,” replied the Einstein look-alike. “Not unusual. These beings from wherever they originate come to new worlds and they take on the environment.”
The interviewer dressed his face with one of those smiles mental-institution personnel keep on hand. “Take on the environment? You mean extraterrestrials wear disguises?”
“They blend in,” said Dr. Birch. “If they can fly their ships into our space, it would be safe to assume they are intelligent beings, perhaps much more than we are.”
Now the interviewer was giggling like a school girl. “And you think, Dr. Birch, that these intelligent creatures from out of space might want to come here and take over or they’re on a Sunday drive and just want to hang out?”
The UFO expert wasn’t amused. “We don’t know. Our intelligence is lacking for now. Maybe one day we’ll know. Hopefully, it won’t be too late.”
Then the interviewer summed it all up before going to commercial. “You folks out there, if you see anything unusual, something unidentified, contact Dr. Franklin Birch at the Institute for Scientific Development in Atlanta.”
Which I did. What could I hope to gain by keeping my mouth shut? I had returned to the basement several times and the scene was the same with one variation: the town-hall termites were growing in number and size. Last I looked they were big as cats! And yet they remained in the basement and did not attempt to storm the door that led out of the basement, nor did they eat the wooden beams that kept the town hall on its legs.
When I told it all to the old man who kept in his head rows of file cabinets crammed with UFO trivia, he was ecstatic. Of course he could come to Craigville. Of course he would drive out tomorrow. Of course. Of course.
I led him down the basement stairs, not knowing what to expect since my last visit two days before. You better have a strong heart, old man, because what you are about to see will knock your socks off. I don’t know CPR. All I know is you’re in for a horror shock, that’s for sure.
But when we reached the end of the eighteen steps, Dr.Birch surveyed the termite-infested basement, nodded, and said, “I see. I see.”
“What’s causing this?” I asked. “Why are they growing?”
The old scientist cupped his bearded jaw.The termites were so still the scene appeared like a dark clip from a horror film.Now and then I could detect the rise and fall of antennae as if these creatures were conversing with one another, maybe asking who the old guy was or what the hell these two inferior beings intended to do.
“This is not the first time I’ve come across giant termites,” said Birch.
Ok, so now you’ll make light of it all and explain how your grampa like mine had a cellar filled with ––
“Termites larger even than these,” he was saying. “Years and years ago when I first left London for America. In an abandoned house on the outskirts of a small town like yours. Somewhere in Tennessee.They had grown into dog-size insects! Incredible!”
“Why don’t they attack us? Why aren’t they eating the wood?”
“Good questions. Perhaps they’re waiting for their growth to reach full potential. Who knows. If we leave them alone, will they grow tall as men or trees or buildings like this one? If I could even entertain a logical reply, I would.”
“What happened at the end?”
“In Tennessee?” he asked. I nodded. “Somebody concocted some rather hard moonshine. Who can say how potent. Enough to kill an army of drinking men. They hosed down the termites and set fire to the building and the entire grounds down several feet where it stood.”
“Booze?” I asked. Now for sure I’d stay far from the spirits.
“Isn’t that ingenious? Hard alcohol. What else could these moonshiners envision more murderous than that? But it worked. Now it seems they’re back. But oddly enough they have settled in a small town that boasts not even one liquor store for miles and miles. Not one bar or saloon or beer joint or whatever.
For years the press has heralded Craigville’s noble reputation of being a dry town since it was incorporated back in the 1800s. Why not come here? They could mature and then do their business, which I suspect is not to announce to the world that they have come in peace. For some reason their intelligence identifies unswerving determination to conquer with the lowly termite they have been raised to new heights. Before they grow even larger than they already have, my good man, I say we drive somewhere wet and load up on some heart-stopping mountain brew!”
Had it been all mine to solve, this dilemma would have gone beyond the pale. Those bugs would have reached their size limit and devoured Craigville in minutes. Then, having laid more eggs than sane men would care to go hunting for, these mighty termites would lay waste a nation! But I had Birch and Birch had an unswerving determination that rivaled that of these foreigners from out there in space, except his drive was to drive them to kingdom come or wherever extraterrestrials in bug’s clothing go when they die.
We had no time to waste. Once my truck was loaded with poison shine, as Dr. Birch dubbed it, we drove back into Georgia and into Craigville, praying the colonies hadn’t left the basement and we’d find a prairie of ashes where once good people lived.
The town hall was filled with people, not unusual for an early Monday afternoon. Alongside the good doctor, I told Mayor McGowan to clear the building. Of course, he gave that haughty look folks like to spring on custodians, but when I told him what was in the basement, he just laughed.
He tried to pat my shoulder, but I pulled away. “Giant termites, you say? And they are ready to eat Craigville? You saw them with your own eyes? Was that after a few swigs from a bottle of Jim Beam?”
“I’ll take you down and show you, Mayor,” I said, “but give me your word you won’t let fright drop you dead. These bugs are ugly!”
I had to clear the building. There was no comfort zone where time could be laid aside and tended to at a later date. We had run out of time. Red rivers would run through dry Craigville if we didn’t act fast.
The mayor threw up on his shiny Florsheim shoes, then nearly fainted down the basement steps, but the doctor and I grabbed his arms, slapped his face, brought him finally to, his popping eyes rolling to and from the back of his head. “Do it! Do it!” he screamed from a foul-smelling mouth. “Kill them!”
I told him to get upstairs and order everybody to evacuate town hall and clear the area for at least several blocks. “Don’t tell them why,“ I said. “Panic’s not what we need right now. It might even wake up the swarmers.“ I didn’t want anybody getting hurt, not by chomping termites, not by stampeding town hallers.
So we hosed down the creatures from another world, then from outside town hall we lit the end of a long fuse that snaked its way from where we stood hoping hard, through the open door of the building and down the basement steps where the poison shine covered the floor a good inch thick.
When the flames engulfed the building, it looked like a war zone.We even heard the screeching cries of the termites and imagined them writhing their black-shelled bodies in a grotesque dance of death. Later, teams of public-works crews dug the grounds several feet deep and planted more poison shine to light with torches.
I got my job back once the new town hall was built months later. Well, not my old job but my new promotion job of city councilman and public works director. Oh, and I got Jessica back, just in time for Montgomery and Ward to start school at Craigville Elementary. My life’s back in order. Knock on wood.On second thought, don’t. It might just be enough to invite that old gang back from somewhere in the dark black skies.
This story first appeared in The Criterion: An International Journal in English, (issue 2, number 1). http://www.the-criterion.com. (April 2011).
Sal Buttaci is a former English instructor at a local community college and middle-school teacher in New Jersey, he retired in 2007 to commit himself to full-time writing.
His collection of flash fiction FLASHING MY SHORTS is available in book, e-book, and audio book versionshttp://www.amazon.com/Flashing-My-Shorts-Salvatore-Buttaci/dp/0984259473 " target="_blank" rel="noreferrer"> http://www.amazon.com/Flashing-My-Shorts-Salvatore-Buttaci/dp/0984259473
His latest collection of short-short fiction, 200 SHORTS, is available in book and Kindle editions at
He lives happily ever after with his wife Sharon in West Virginia.