I stare at the vacuum cleaner insignia. Silver cursive letters spell Regina. I mouth the word, but no matter how I roll it around, it still sounds like “vagina.” There’s no way I can return to the door and tell the salesman that I have a Regina. It’s not possible.
From the hall, his fragmented image shifts behind the dimpled glass of the sidelight. He taps on it like a confused moth. I found one dead on the porch once. Huge hairy thing that crumbled to dust between my fingers when I tried to pick it up. I hadn’t realized something so monstrous could be that fragile. He taps again. I check my phone. Mom won’t be home until seven. That is, if she doesn’t stay at the bar drinking after her act. There’s nothing exotic about it, she told me. It’s barely past four.
“I couldn’t find the name,” I say, cracking the door open. “It doesn’t have one.”
“I’ll come in and look,” he says.
Stupid persistent moth. Can’t he see I am not in charge of purchasing or comparing vacuum models? Why would a grown man try to sell a vacuum to a thirteen-year-old? We stare at each other from parallel universes. I’m human. He’s a bug.
“Are your parents home? Maybe I could talk to your mother?” He starts with the plural but homes in on Mom. There aren’t a lot of fathers around here and he knows it.
“She’s not home. But she will be any minute,” I blurt, just in case he’s a murderer looking for something to kill.
“I can wait,” he says, pushing his way in like it’s okay.
His suit is too big. It’s definitely not even his. And his hair is wet combed, but it’s too long to be tidy. Like the tail of a sick fighting fish. A man in a suit should care about his hair. This guy is all wrong. There are puffy circles under his eyes and his face hangs like raw meat. Hairy knuckles. Just an all around ugly guy. His shoes look like someone beat the shit out of them.
He looks down the hallway. “Is that where you keep the vacuum?”
I left the closet door ajar, and before I can say no, he’s already there, crouched down to get a look at my Regina.
“Ah,” he says, “Ruh-jee-na.” He pronounces it like something soft and French that melts on your tongue. “Right on top. I don’t know how you missed it.” He stands and looks at me, scratching his head.
Did he look at my breasts? He looks like a pervert. He could easily be a rapist. A male moth can smell a female from seven miles away. Last summer, one was careening around the light bulb in my room, swooping and banging into walls. It’s looking for the moon, Mom told me. What’s on the moon? I’d asked. She laughed at that. They’re not trying to go to the moon, Jean. They’re drawn to the moon to find a mate. But why? I’d asked. Just look it up, she said and sprayed it with Raid. She sprayed until her finger turned white and the moth fell on the floor and crawled around, sticky with poison. It was a Giant Silk Moth. Antharaea polyphemus. I looked it up.
“Do you mind?” he says, pulling the vacuum out of the closet and pursing his lips. “This is an older vintage, but they are good. Now, when your mother gets here, I’m going to do a little comparison for you. My vacuum versus yours. And we’ll see which one picks up more dirt. Does that sound fun?”
“Not really. I think you should go.” I don’t tell him there are no bags for the vacuum and that it was here when we moved in.
“What’s your name?” he says, buying time.
“Louise.” I give him my mother’s name. Never give your real name.
“Louise? Kind of old-fashioned for a young girl. You named after your grandma?” He’s making conversation to disarm me. I’ve heard about how Ted Bundy did that. Made women feel sorry for him by pretending to have a broken arm. I back away towards the kitchen to get closer to the knives, just in case.
The stupid moth follows, but he’s not ready for what he sees. He looks at the dirty dishes piled on the table and then at the pots and pans on the stove. Everything is filled with grime. The sink is full of putrid water and more dishes. He turns and looks through to the living room. Unfolded laundry litters the couch, more dirty plates from previous dinners are stacked on the coffee table and empty beer cans lay randomly on the floor. The bits and pieces of things cling to the dirty carpet like trash on the side of the highway. My cheeks burn.
“Well, this is going to come up real clean,” he says, bending to inspect the rug.
He turns to me with a new look in his eyes, like he just got home and rinsed his face in cold water. “Hard to keep up with the chores isn’t it?”
I nod, keeping my distance. While his back was turned, I pulled a knife out of the holder. My arms are bent tight behind me, gripping the wooden handle.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to do a few of these while we wait?” he says, taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves.
I had been planning to make instant noodles and go online before he knocked. My empty stomach rumbles as he tips the stagnant water out of the dishes in the sink and piles them on the counter. He winces when he plunges his hand in to pull out the plug. The greasy liquid phlegms its way down the drain.
He turns and smiles. “Soap and hot water. Good as new.”
He empties the sink and scoops up the bits of soggy bread and orange peels, the moldy grapes and fragments of fried egg that have collected around the drain and throws them into the garbage. The smell of rot wafts from the bin and fills the room when he opens the lid. He has no right to get his hands wet like that and feel the slime and smell the stench.
“Where’s your dish soap?” he says, blinking.
I shift the knife to my left and point with the right. “Under the sink.” This is part of his act. Make your victim feel ashamed of themselves while you pretend to be a saviour. “You don’t have to do this. Why don’t you come back on another day?” Some moths get addicted to the light. I looked it up. They forget their purpose and just keep banging away, confused. The moon helps them know where they are, but they can’t account for electricity.
“It’s no problem,” he says. “Imagine how happy your mom will be when she gets home and the dishes are done, hey? She might even feel like buying a new vacuum.”
He doesn’t know Louise. I’ll take credit for the dishes and pretend he was never here.
He fills the sink with hot soapy water.
“I always do the glass first,” he says, “while the water’s hot and clean. That’s how I was taught. Mind you, I’ve got a dishwasher at home, so … ” He trails off and clears his throat. He has a dishwasher. So what?
“It’s best to let them air dry, so you don’t get streaks,” he says, placing the clean glasses into the dish tray. I already know that. Does he really think I need a lesson in how to do dishes? Dumb as fuck.
My hand is almost numb from clutching the knife.
“You can start putting those away,” he says as he moves onto the plates and bowls.
The edge of a tattoo covering his elbow pokes out below his sleeve. A spider web. I thought he looked ex con.
I renew my grip on the knife. “What’s your tattoo?” I’m onto him. Some moths are good at pretending to be other insects to stay alive.
He pulls down his sleeve. “Oh, that’s a nautical star. A little memento of my sailing days.” A lie.
My hand is shaking from the tension of holding the knife, and my stomach growls loudly.
“Hungry, huh?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, even thought it’s none of his business.
“Me too.” He’s starting to get a far off look in his eyes, like he’s doing time.
“I think your mom’s been delayed.” He looks at me with raised eyebrows. “You might want to give her a call and make sure everything’s all right.”
“She’s been late before. Maybe she went for drinks.”
He looks up at the ceiling and wipes his forehead with his wrist. It sounds like he says shit. He stops washing and dries his hands on his pants. It’s definitely not his suit.
“Look, I should go,” he says. “I’ve still got some time to make a sale.” He gestures his head toward the rest of the world. Anywhere but here, it seems to say.
“You finish these up. Your mom will thank you for it.”
He doesn’t know Louise at all.
“No one’s going to buy a vacuum,” I say. “This isn’t a rich neighbourhood.”
He’s got that cold water look again.
“Why’d you come here?” I say. “Pretending to be someone you’re not?”
“It’s not about how much money you have,” he says, like he’s been waiting to impart some wisdom. “I’ve sold vacuums to people living in trailers. Damn, even people without rugs. It’s not about how well it works or how much it costs.” He looks me hard in the eye. “It’s about the future. Clean, bright, better. It’s about that feeling of hope.”
“But it’s a lie,” I tell him. “Why do you make people want it?”
“It’s not a lie,” he says, shaking his head. “Is a wish a lie? What about when you buy a lottery ticket and for a while you might just win. Is that a lie?”
“It is if it never comes true.”
“But for the moment,” he says, “Can’t you see how real that would feel? You have to hope for something better than this.” He waves a hand to show me. He means me.
A moth is a single-minded optimist. Most spend their lives as caterpillars crawling around and looking disgusting. If their life is paused because of harsh conditions they can stay like that for years. Trapped. And then, if things turn around, they get this one chance to fly. Moths try to make the best of it. What they don’t know is most of them will be lured by lights and killed by predators. I can barely feel the knife in my hand anymore, but I think about how real it would feel if I plunged it into his gut.
I bring my arm out from behind my back and put the knife on the counter. I watch his watery eyes as he stares at it. Thoughts pass through him like prairie clouds. When he finally shifts his gaze to me, it feels like he’s reading something written on my skin. It must be a convincing story because he puts his hands back in the water and resumes washing.
“I thought it was pronounced Regina,” I say, rhyming it with vagina.
“You can say it either way,” he says.
I put the glassware away and he fills the rack with plates and bowls.
“I always leave the cutlery to the end,” he says, “I let it soak so it’s easier to clean.”
He takes the knife off the counter and places it in the sink.
“I know how to wash dishes.” I tell him. I smile so he knows I’m not going to kill him.
If you look up close, some moths’ antennae are like iridescent feathers and their fur is soft as down. Some moths aren’t so bad. There’s this one that drinks the tears of sleeping birds. It’s the only way it can get what it needs. I looked it up.
Tusa Shea lives in Victoria, BC, on traditional lək̓ʷəŋən speaking territory of the Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Her previous publishing credits include non-fiction essays, articles, and reviews for academic journals and anthologies, including The Malahat Review and Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies. She holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Victoria.