Brief EncountersCanLitInternational Literature

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 24: “June Bugs” by Kim Fu

From Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century

The stories in Kim Fu’s debut collection are hybrids, melding realistic characters and language with situations that tilt in the direction of the speculative, Gothic, or otherwise bizarre. In “Twenty Hours,” a couple avails themselves of a 3D printer that will allow them to kill themselves or each other and resurrect themselves if fewer than twenty hours of non-life have elapsed. “The Doll“ is a ghost story about a group of kids who inherit a haunted doll. And “Scissors” is about a performance artist whose stage show explores the lines between consent and surrender.

“June Bugs” also deals with the subject of consent, this time in a more prosaic situation: an abusive relationship between a woman and an emotionally manipulative man. What intrigues about the story is Fu’s preferred structure. The piece is broken down into three parts, with the details of the relationship – the couple’s meet cute, their decision to move in together, and the downward trajectory as the male half of the partnership becomes increasingly controlling and, finally, physically violent – occupying the middle section.

The opening part of the story takes place once the woman, Martha, has fled the apartment she shared with Neil and rented a place on her own. The landlady, Mrs. Cutler (“likely, she used the title to keep tenants from becoming overly familiar”), leaves soon after Martha moves in; she says she is going out of town for unspecified surgery and she plans to stay with her son while she recuperates. Should anything go wrong, Martha is directed to a neighbour, Barb, who will address any problems.

This is where Fu leaves the safe harbour of realism behind and sets sail for the choppier seas of fabulism. Because something does go wrong: spectacularly so. Martha finds her new refuge infested by what she initially thinks are beetles, but what Barb determines to be June bugs. At first, Martha finds a small number of the insects in her mud room, but it isn’t long before they are everywhere: in the coffee maker, on the blades of her ceiling fan, crawling across her face as she sleeps at night. She disposes of multiple successive drinking glasses full of the pests, dumping them down the toilet and flushing them. This raises Barb’s ire, since the plumbing is old and the pipes easily clog.

Barb’s directive not to flush the bugs is the only thing she offers in the way of actual help, refusing to visit the property to assess the situation for herself and assuring Martha that the bugs are harmless and will die out as soon as the cold weather comes on.

The nature of the June bugs forms the central metaphoric conceit in the story. At first, their presence seems inexplicable, especially in such numbers. Why are they afflicting Martha’s property and no one else’s? Once Fu flashes back to the past and begins detailing the relationship with Neil, which quickly devolves into manipulation and abuse on his part, it is tempting to assume that the bugs symbolize a kind of manifestation of Martha’s PTSD, though she appears otherwise independent and ready to defend herself: she keeps a gun in a shoebox on top of the fridge.

The gun is another focal point in Fu’s narrative. She scams a man waiting in line at the local police station during an amnesty and takes the weapon home, where she obsessively cleans it as a means of providing psychic ballast against her increasingly violent partner.

Neil’s tactics go from playing on Martha’s sense of guilt by suggesting that she is wrong in staying out with friends – “You didn’t want to come home to me” – to coercing her to quit drinking and goading her to hit him. When he finally strikes her, it comes as a complete shock to Martha, who is not prepared for the escalation:

She tried to push past him, pushing on his chest, knowing almost before she made contact that it wouldn’t work, he wouldn’t budge.

She was on the ground.

Had she tripped over something? Had she fallen?

Her right ear was ringing. She hadn’t made a sound.

She gazed up at Neil. His face was filled with terror. She realized only then that he’d struck her.

The presentation is canny on Fu’s part; she leaves out any reference on the page to Neil hitting Martha, allowing the reader to share in Martha’s confusion and surprise until she manages to piece together for herself what occurred. Neil’s reaction is also typical of an abuser, feigning guilt and upset at his violence as a way of deflecting blame and playing on his injured partner’s sympathies.

Both Neil and Martha are victims of professional setbacks. He loses his beloved record store job when the block is slated for redevelopment; she is downgraded from a permanent position as a customer service rep at an Amazon-style retailer to a contract position working from home. This places Martha in close quarters with Neil during the day, he having taken a job as a bartender at night to make ends meet. She acquires the gun initially as a “talisman” to keep for herself, but eventually the process of cleaning and oiling the gun becomes a “ritual” for Martha, a “touchstone after every fight,” of which there are plenty.

When Neil inevitably tracks Martha to her new abode, the story’s twin motifs – the gun and the June bugs – come together in a scene that contains an ironic reversal, leaving Martha considering her experience in a new light: “She thought of all the things she could say, that Barb had said to her when she asked why it was only her house, what she’d done to deserve this: They don’t sting, they don’t bite. They’re harmless. They’ll go away.” What the bugs ultimately offer Martha is protection; their final symbolic relevance is as “a warning to anyone who might pass.”

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