Bugging Mr. G

Chapter One

Straight off the bat I want to say that I never meant to bug Mr. G. I’m not like that. Mary Alice, she’s a whole ‘nother story; dad says my little sister was BORN talking so she’s always going a mile a minute from the time she wakes up in the morning until she falls asleep with all her stuffed animals and dolls around her at night. Yeah, M.A. has a lot to say all the time. Probably a girl thing. Or a five year old thing.

But me, I’m pretty good about not bothering grown-ups. Unless I have to, and even then I don’t like to ask too much because I never know how they’re going to react. Dad taught me to be polite and I usually am—it helps, and it did the first time I had to talk to Mr. G.

My best friend Allan Tep and I were playing catch out along the little green strip of lawn by our townhouse. Allan’s shorter than me but runs faster. He has lousy aim though, and most of the time I can field his pop flies without even looking. It pisses him off so bad that I can do that—just hold up my glove and snag his tosses—so he started getting harder and meaner with his pitches. It didn’t help that I was teasing him about getting a D in Ms. Herman’s biology class at the time, but he knows I didn’t mean it. Ms. Herman grades hard.

Anyway, Allan, he threw the last pitch and I reached for it, but it bounced off the very edge of my glove and took this wild skim right over the top of the security fence, then disappeared into the next yard. I heard it smack against a wall and thump on the ground and I knew I was in trouble because dad told me Mr. G worked nights and we probably just woke him up with that hit. It was pretty loud.

Then Allan told me I had to go get the ball, and I told him HE had to since he threw it, and he told me I had to because it was my ball and he was right but I was pretty pissed. I threw my glove at him and dragged myself over to Mr. G’s door really slowly. I hadn’t met him before but I knew what he looked like and dad said he was a baseball fan so I hoped that would make it easier to ask him for the ball back. I rang the doorbell—it was a black metal one shaped like a cricket. Allan was making faces at me the whole time, and I managed to flip him off just as the door opened. I looked up and started to apologize.

“Um, excuse me, my name is Peter Meyer and I lost my ball in your yard?” It sort of trailed off, because it dawned on me that Mr. G was already holding my baseball in one hand, and was looking at me. I couldn’t tell if he was mad or not—his face was still and quiet. What my English teacher Mr. Vo would call impassive. I looked at the ball because it was easier than looking at Mr. G.

“I found your ball.”

“Uh, thank you.”

“It knocked over my cockroach hutch,” he told me, and I didn’t say anything but I was thinking it was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard a grown-up say. A cockroach hutch? I knew people kept rabbits in a hutch—

“And if you don’t mind, I need your help in setting it up again.”

Uh-oh. That was grown-up talk for ‘you’re going to do this because you messed up.’ That kind of talk I knew, so I nodded. He motioned with his head for me to follow him and I did, looking around as we went through his house.

Talk about weird. He had butterflies and bugs all over his walls. I mean everywhere—framed and stuff. It looked a little like some weird museum display and Mr. G caught me looking as we passed through his living room and towards the sliding door for his back yard.

“I’m an entomologist. I specialize in insects,” he told me and I started to feel a lot less creeped out after that. I mean if it’s part of what he does for a job, it makes sense that he has them on the walls, right? The only thing that still bugged me was that so many of them were butterflies. I always thought butterflies were very girly bugs.

Mr. G’s back yard was small, like ours, but he didn’t have the Barbie Townhouse and bikes and stuff in it. Instead, he had this weird box built along the back fence, with long rows of Plexiglas in it. Next to that was this knocked over brown box on legs, and I knew that had to be his cockroach hutch so I started over to help him get it back up. He took one side and I took the other. When we lifted it I could hear a lot of scratching going on inside the box and I had to wonder just how big his cockroaches were.

My mom, she HATED cockroaches. She called them water bugs and sprayed and got really worked up whenever saw them. Once when I was really little, smaller than M.A. I stepped on one and crunched it good and my mom had a fit about the bugjuice on my shoes. She’s dead now, and even though it’s been a long time—nearly three years—I still can remember that ‘ooh,oohOOOH!’ sound she’d make when she saw a cockroach.

Mr. G looked at me. I guess my face must have been funny, because he asked me if I was okay. I nodded.

“It’s just my mom didn’t like cockroaches, so she’d be freaking out big time if she knew you had some here. Are they okay?”

“A lot of moms don’t like cockroaches,” he told me. “Even MY mom. Let’s check them and see.” While he opened the top of the hutch I thought for a minute about Mr. G having a mom. I could sort of see it. I bet she had the same grey hair. But not the beard. Then he reached into the box and pulled out this huge freakin’ brown thing that looked like one of my dad’s shoe inserts except it had legs and I know I said a bad word and backed up until my butt hit the sliding glass door. It crawled on Mr. G’s hand and all of a sudden I though my mom had been abso-freak’n lutely right about them.

“This one’s called Drain Man,” Mr. G told me. I started to laugh; I didn’t mean to. Talk about embarrassing! But I couldn’t help it—first the thing had scared me, and now it had a name. A really dorky name. I tried really hard not to crack up, but it came out in sort of a snorty noise and Mr. G. was trying not to smile but I could tell he wanted to. He fished in the box for another one. Now that I knew what to expect I didn’t jump, even thought this one was a little bigger.

“And this is Tessaroacha Ferrari.”

“Don’t you mean Tessarossa?” I asked, and even as I did, I got it. Duh. Roaches, so yeah, Tessaroacha. Mr. G. saw that I figured it out and didn’t say anything. I pushed away from the glass and came closer to have a look at the bugs. The one on his right hand had a DM written on it in silver ink, and the other one had a T. I looked at Mr. G and he sighed.

“Even I can’t tell roaches apart unless I mark them,” he told me, and I could respect that. Bugs really do look alike. I peered down into the hutch and it was all neat inside—six little clear plastic boxes with water dishes and food dishes. Two of the boxes were empty of course, but Mr. G. put Drain Man and Tessroacha Ferrari back.

“What are the other ones called?” I asked him.

“Well, I’ve got Wally Scaler, Crunch McGoo, Cucaracha Jones and Hissing Jessica Stein.”

That cracked me up, and I laughed. Couldn’t help it, and didn’t want to, but Mr. G smiled a little too and set his roaches back in to the hutch. I helped him latch the top again.

“So you have pet bugs. Cool. Do they do tricks?”

“I race them. The International Championships are in Australia, and there’s the Bug Bowl in Purdue, although to be honest I haven’t come in any higher than eighth in the last couple of years.” He sounded discouraged, and I don’t know why that got to me but it did. Maybe because I know how it is when you hit a plateau. I had one in pitching, and I guess Mr. G. had one with roach coaching.

“That’s cool though—I never met anyone who raced bugs.”

“Roaches,” he reminded me, and he sounded just like a teacher. “It’s easier than spitting crickets.”

“Spitting crickets?”

“Another contest with frozen ones that you spit, for distance,” he sighed. “I used to do pretty good at that one until the year I choked.”

I gave a little nod and tried to make him feel better. “Yeah, my dad says pressure can be like that.”

Mr. G’s face twitched a little again and I was starting to figure out that that was his way of laughing. “Sorry Peter, but I mean I really choked. Got a frozen cricket lodged in my throat. My distance was good, but it didn’t count since someone was doing the Heimlich on me at the time.”

I lost it, then and just busted up big time. I really did because the whole idea of Mr. G choking and then hoicking up a dead bug for a world record just GOT to me, you know? Here he was all dignified and I just couldn’t get around the idea of him spitting anything, much less a frozen cricket.

I guess he thought it was funny too because he laughed as well, and then motioned for us to go back through the house.

I didn’t mind the butterflies so much this time, and when we got to the porch, Mr. G was about to hand me my ball when he hesitated.

I got it.

I smiled and began to run out along the greenbelt, looking back until I was about twenty yards out. Allan came over and was watching as I waved to Mr. G. “Okay, give it a shot—“ I hollered to him.

He stepped off his porch and right into a pitch stance, and it was great because I could see the exact set of his shoulders. He looked left and I grinned—no first base, but he was checking anyway. Then he looked at me and I nodded. Mr. G threw.

My old Rawlings official League rocketed out of his hand in the sweetest fastball I’ve ever seen. I know Mr. G was holding back but still, it hit my palms and I felt the sting all the way through my wrists. I hung onto the ball, but barely, and Allan was staring.

“Whoah! That was sixty, easy!”

“I know,” I yelped, since I was the one waving my fingers and blowing on them. Back at his porch, Mr. G was looking my way, kinda concerned, so I waved a hand at him to show I was okay. Allan took the ball from me and threw it back even as I protested, and Mr. G. snagged it one-handed, just pulling it out of the air. It was then that I figured he’d played a lot of ball when he was a kid.

A lot of good ball from the way my palm was stinging.

“You okay Peter?” he called to me.

“I’m fine—let me try it again with my glove on this time though, ‘k?”

Allan was pouting about wanting to catch it, and even though I didn’t want to, I gestured to Mr. G to go ahead and throw it to him. Mr. G did, but it was an easy pop fly, and Allan fielded it, grinning the whole time. Then he tossed it back to Mr. G and I got another rocket pitch, but now I had the glove on, so it made this great little smack into the leather. I felt good about catching it; professional almost.

We got into an easy three-way game of catch, and Mr. G made Allan and me work for some of those snags. He had a good pitch, yeah, but his grounders were sneaky, and he kept changing his speed. Right in the middle of a really bouncy pop fly I saw that M. A. was pulling her wagon right out in the middle of our triangle, getting ready to spoil everything like she does whenever I’m having a good time.

Okay, maybe that’s not fair, but honestly, she’s like a piece of gum on your shoe, you know? Sticks with you whether you like it or not. And here she was, looking at Mr. G with that scowl of hers that I KNEW was going to be trouble. I love my little sister, I do, but that never stops her from being a pain in the butt.

“Hey! Who are you?” she yelled, really loud, embarrassing the heck out of me. M.A. dragged her wagon right up to Mr. G. and planted herself in front of him. In the wagon I could see Charlie, our cat lounging in a baby doll dress. Charlie weighs about twelve pounds and he’s the only cat I’ve ever known who doesn’t care if my sister dresses him up. He’s so big and round and mellow that Dad and I call him Pudge most of the time. M.A. has him in a green flowered dress and he looks . . . gah.

Like a big fat cat in a dress. I am SO humiliated, and I know it’s the end of playing Catch, so I trot in and holler at M. A.

“Mary Alice, go home, okay? Mrs. Sanchez will be mad about you being out front without permission!”

Mr. G. was already squatting and looking at my sister eye to eye. I thought that was pretty brave of him, but he didn’t know any better. I did. She was glaring back and I knew why—Dad always told us not to talk to strangers, and since she didn’t know Mr. G he was a stranger, blah, blah, blah.

“I’m Gil Grissom. You must be Mary Alice Meyers. I think I have one of your dolls. Are you missing a Barbie with . . .” he paused, and I watched him think about how to ask it, “. . .Er, short hair? VERY short hair?”

“I gave her a haircut,” Mary Alice told him, still looking at Mr. G with her suspicious face. “That’s Dora’s mom.”

“Dora’s mom. Okay, wait here and I’ll go get her, all right?”

“Mr. G—“ I muttered, feeling ultra embarrassed now, “You don’t have to—“

“—Not a problem,” he told me in that calm voice of his. He disappeared into his house and the minute he was out of sight I let my sister have it.

“Thanks a LOT, M. A! He was pitching good and now you had to go and ruin it with your stupid yelling!” I yelled at her.

M. A. just scowled at me. She doesn’t cry when I yell at her; probably because I do it a lot. Instead she just started stamping her feet.

“Dad said no strangers and YOU talked to one!”

“He’s not a stranger, he’s Mr. G!”

“No he’s not, he’s GilGrissle! And he is TOO a stranger!”

Allan was hooting and laughing like he always does when I get into it with M.A. but he’s smart enough not to take sides. He did once, and M. A. hit him. It should have been on his leg, but her hand slipped, and . . . well, now Allan doesn’t take sides—at least not when my little sister’s around.

“He’s NOT, M. A. He gave me my ball back and he’s getting your stupid Barbie, so he’s cool, all right?”

My sister was not about to give in though, and when Mr. G returned she was still looking mad. Then she sees her doll and she yells again.

“She got CLOTHES on!”

“Yes . . . I wasn’t comfortable having her lie naked on my bookcase, so took the liberty of buying her a dress. I hope you don’t mind,” Mr. G. said to her as he handed M. A. her stupid doll. M. A. looks at it a minute, then takes it and grabbed Mr. G’s hand and gave it her serious hard handshake. He looked a little startled, but I clear my throat. It was going to be okay now—Mr. G’s in M. A.’s good book.

“You are NOT a stranger now, GilGrissle, so thank you. Wanna play Barbies?”

“Another time,” he told her and when he looked at me he winked. I snort into my glove, and it dawns on me that through all of this Mr. G is actually a pretty cool guy.

For a dude who keeps cockroaches.

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