Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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CNF Essay
1346 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

John Lennon’s Beetles

by Claude Clayton Smith

The Hoods—Cheryl and John—lived across from us on the cul-de-sac at the end of the ridge. They’d been renting a ramshackle cottage in a hollow at the bottom of the mountain, on the far side of a river that paralleled a dirt road. That cottage was only accessible by a swinging rope bridge—the kind Laurel and Hardy tried to push a piano across in one of their films. I thought of that movie whenever Elaine and I took a ride down the back of the mountain. Only a quirky couple like the Hoods could live in a ramshackle cottage on the far side of a rope bridge in the heart of darkness.

Halfway down, a metal pipe emerged from the mountain at the roadside and dripped cold spring water. Plastic milk jugs littered the area, left by the locals. Farther down, a weedy driveway cut off to the left, leading to an A-frame about fifty yards in. That A-frame struck my skier’s fancy. It was perched on the edge of a cliff, with a magnificent view of the foothills of the Blue Ridge below. It had been for sale when we moved to southwest Virginia and it came with eight acres of land. But Elaine had refused to consider living there, pregnant as she was with Owen at the time, with no neighbors in sight. There was a problem with those eight acres as well—seven of them lay at the bottom of that cliff, fifty yards straight down, through terrain only a mountain goat could negotiate. So it was just as well we bought the little ranch house on the ridge.

Cheryl Hood was tall and nondescript, a graphic artist whom I once hired to design a brochure for a program at the university. I forget what John did for a living. All I remember is that he looked like John Lennon—same long hair, lanky build, and granny glasses. It was spooky. And shortly after the real John Lennon’s murder, the Hoods moved away. Which was spooky as hell, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One summer evening after we moved in, just a week or so before Owen was born, the Hoods invited us over for a drink, setting in motion a brief but nightmarish series of events that were more psychological than physical. I was already convinced that the Blue Ridge jungle below—laced with kudzu and Tarzan-like vines—was intent on swallowing us from without. But after that evening with the Hoods, I was certain it would eat our house from within.

“Listen,” John Lennon Hood said during a lull in the conversation. “D’you hear that?”

We were sitting in their living room, sipping beer.

“Hear what?” Elaine said.

“That crunching sound.” Cheryl got up and put her hand on the wall.

“I don’t hear a thing,” I said.

“Listen,” John repeated. “Listen carefully. Ah—there it is!”

He was right. We could hear it. And once we tuned in to it, it seemed even louder. It was a crunchy crackling sound, like the sound of corn growing. When we later moved to Ohio—on hot summer nights after a good rain, with a hundred acres of field corn just beyond our back yard—I swore I could hear the corn growing. Elaine swore I was nuts, that I was hearing myself snore. But our Ohio neighbors could hear the corn growing too. It was the same sort of crunchy crackling sound coming from the Hoods’ wall.

“Powder-post beetles,” Cheryl said. “The larvae in the studs that frame this house are eating their way out.”

“It happens in cycles,” John explained. “In certain years, the stand of pine that’s cut into lumber is infested. They’re called powder-post beetles because they turn the lumber to dust.”

That night, of course, I lay awake listening for crunching and crackling. If the timber in the Hoods’ house was infested, why not the other homes on the ridge? The houses had all been built at the same time—by the same builder and from the same materials. So I lay there in bed, listening carefully. But by three o’clock I’d heard nothing except the chirping of a cricket—EERNT-ernt! EERNT-ernt! EERNT-ernt!—a cricket that sounded like it was in the house, not out in the yard. I couldn’t listen for powder-post beetles unless I got rid of that cricket.

By four o’clock the chirping seemed to be coming from the hall, so I grabbed a flashlight, slipped on my slippers, and checked. No luck. The chirping continued—EERNT-ernt! EERNT-ernt! EERNT-ernt!—and the cricket remained unseen. Disgusted, I went back to bed. But at five o’clock, when I got up to take a leak and snapped on the bathroom light, the chirping suddenly stopped.

The cricket was in the overhead globe.

I snapped off the light, just to be sure, and the cricket began chirping again. But I had it right where I wanted it.

At six-four, I can change a light bulb in the ceiling without a chair. By standing on tiptoe I can unscrew the screws to any overhead globe in its ceiling fixture. But at five o’clock in the morning, after a sleepless night of listening for powder-post beetles and hearing only a cricket, I was not only angry but all thumbs. I dropped the screws. Then the globe itself shattered at my feet, scaring Elaine as much as that cricket—which I crushed under my slippered foot on the second try.

“What’s going on?” Elaine muttered.

“Go back to sleep,” I said. “You had a bad dream.”

I swept up my mess and went to the kitchen for coffee, sitting until dawn with all senses on high alert. Listening in vain for the crunch and crackle of powder-post beetles.

After Elaine got up, I called a local exterminator. For a few thousand bucks, he said, they’d wrap our ranch house in a large plastic bag and pump Vikane—a gas deadly to insects—into the ductwork through high pressure plastic hoses from a 225-lb. cylinder. The Vikane would permeate the walls and every crevice, nook, and cranny. We’d have to vacate the premises for 24 hours, during which time they’d keep the fumiscope steady, at 36 ounces of Vikane per 1000 cubic feet. Then the house would be ventilated and we could move back in—free of powder-post beetles, crickets, and whatever else might be lurking in the woodwork.

“I’m not sure I even have the critters,” I said. “How can I tell? And if so, is there a cheaper solution?”

My questions disappointed the exterminator. He was hoping for a big job. Finally, sensing that we were new to the area, he instructed me to inspect the floor joists in the basement for pinpricks—tiny holes left by powder-post beetles when they enter the wood to lay their eggs. If I found any of these holes, I should coat them with creosote, which cost but a few bucks a gallon. Then I should continue my vigil for powder-post beetles. If I heard nothing, I could assume we were safe.

So down I went to inspect the basement.

And there they were—pinholes in the overhead floor joists. But no crunching or crackling. With the cricket dead, daylight outside, and Owen not yet born, the house was silent. I showed the pinholes to Elaine, then headed to 84 Lumber for a paint brush and creosote.

An hour later I had oily black creosote in my hair, on my tee shirt and jeans, and the basement floor. Worst of all, the pungent stench gave me a whanging headache, making it difficult to concentrate during the night at my powder-post listening post. But by the time Owen was born, we were in the clear, his nightly cries replacing the cries of crickets.

Then John Lennon was killed in New York, the Hoods moved out, and the Gallaghers moved in.

I didn’t have the heart to tell them they’d taken out a mortgage on a pile of dust.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Claude Clayton Smith

is professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of a novel, two children’s books, and four books of creative nonfiction. With the late Alexander Vaschenko, he is co-editor/translator of The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature (University of Minnesota, 2010). He holds a DA from Carnegie-Mellon, an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, an MAT from Yale, and a BA from Wesleyan (CT).

Smith has published a variety of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; and four of his plays were selected in competition for full production, one of which went on to Equity performances. His latest book is Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp (Kent State University Press, 2010). His books have been translated into French, Danish, Swedish, Russian, and Chinese. He lives with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury