I never planned to have sex with the bug man. I didn’t even have a monthly service contract. All I’d agreed to was a termite inspection. When Joe first showed up in his roach-brown jumpsuit with “Puckett” on the pocket, I didn’t notice that he looked like Baryshnikov, didn’t look into his swimming pool-blue eyes. Most likely, I was preoccupied, thinking about the chromium cannister in his hand with the long dangling nozzle. That cylinder of poison. If he insisted on spraying inside, I would have a growling sinus headache.
“Do you need to come in?”
“No, ma’am, I’ll be working outside. We treat the foundation, and—”
“Oh, good. No nasty chemical smells today.”
He smiled. “I do need access to the basement.”
It’s odd how life-changing tiny nuisances can turn out to be. Your neighbor says he’s seen termites swarming in your yard. You make the call. The pest control person comes, discovers a problem you didn’t know you had. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me first explain who I was the day Joe Puckett lit on my doorstep. Charlotte Ravenel, forty-year-old daughter of Baird and Virginia Ravenel. Former St. Cecilia deb from Charleston, South Carolina. Mother of two, PTA president, active in the Junior League. But a year before, my picture-perfect Southern belle résumé had become flawed. My husband of fifteen years discarded me for one of his students, and – oh, you know the story. I was feeling old and ugly, unrecyclable.
I live in Asheville, North Carolina, a lovely small city in the mountains. We moved here in 1992 when Coleman was offered the chairmanship of the history department at the university. I suppose he had a mid-life crisis because soon after we arrived he started riding the ridges with some granola-eating, tree-hugging sophomore. I never suspected a thing, had to overhear one of Coleman’s colleagues discussing it in the ladies’ room at church.
My two children—Rachel, eleven; Taylor, thirteen—keep me busy so I haven’t connected with many women here; only my neighbor Martha. Trouble is, she hounds me unmercifully to get out and meet nice, eligible men. I thought she’d be pleased about Joe.
“Look, I said when a horse throws you, you’re supposed to get right back up and ride. I didn’t mean just any horse.”
“You’re so elitist, Martha. Joe’s got a degree in computer programming for god’s sake.”
“I don’t buy that. Why would he be working as an exterminator if—”
“You’ll love him. You’ll see.”
It started that day when he came in for the check and saw my new PC. I was fretting about having to set it up and he offered to come back after work to help. That’s when I asked why he wasn’t working for a computer company. Turns out he was headed from Indiana to Charlotte for a job interview and got side-tracked by these beautiful mountains. Just stopped in Asheville and decided to stay. He’d thought he could get a job here, but nothing panned out. His story made perfect sense and I didn’t question it.
I felt comfortable with Joe. We went out for coffee a few times – he’d flit in when he was working in the area – but then I started canceling plans, making a point to be home when I thought he might stop by. I fixated on how I looked; got gold highlights in my chestnut brown hair; ordered workout tapes; bought a black Wonder Bra and a revealing tank top. I never questioned my behavior, just figured I was coming out of my shell.
“You’ve changed your image,” Martha noted. “What, uh, is the look you’re actually going for?”
“Ah, finally ready to get even with Coleman. Good for you. It’s about time you got angry at that slime ball.”
Martha was way off; I never thought about Coleman. In fact, I could think of nothing but Joe: his incredible eyes; his soft sandy hair, the way it flopped down over his forehead. I went through the motions of cleaning house, cooking for the kids, helping with their homework, but I started forgetting things—meetings, appointments.
Rachel was the first to notice something was wrong. “You need some new pants, Mom.”
My clothes were falling off, but I couldn’t eat. I sat in the kitchen staring out the window, drinking pots of black coffee. My hands shook and I ran a low-grade fever. My condition didn’t improve when Joe and I started having sex—tectonic plate-shifting sex. He’d come by on his lunch break and we’d make love. Wild, animalistic love. I’d forget myself, scream out so loud the neighbors must surely have heard. Once, after he left, I stared at myself in the hall mirror, my hair tangled, my face and neck blotchy scarlet. I looked unfamiliar.…Return to Table of Contents