Let me explain. I managed to make it through about 19 years of life without ever seeing a roach in the horrible, hard-shelled flesh. On a visit to my brother Mark, who was living in an apartment in swampy Washington D.C., I got a taste of what was to come. I discovered what a roach can do to a man; in particular, what a roach can do to a man in love with a woman who comes unhinged at the sight of a cockroach.
Mark's wife Lisa was not home at the time, so I didn't get to see the unhinging, but I could guess at its intensity from the intensity of my brother's reaction. He spotted the roach in the bedroom, growled an expletive, grabbed a shoe, and dove for it. He missed. My stomach gave a little jump at its quickness, the speed with which it stopped and changed directions as it fled — like a fly in midair. My mind's ear registered the superquick tappings of its feet as it scuttled and scurried its way under the bed. Like a cat that has missed his pounce, Mark was down on his belly, peering into the dark space and saying, in a low tone of controlled rage, "Where are you, you son of a bitch?"
Such behavior is strange for our family. When I was a kid, my dad always stressed the importance of closing screen doors, because if a fly got into the house, he would spend however long it took to capture the little buzzer. With religious patience, he stalked it, slowly lowering a glass over it as it rested on a wall, only to have it dash sideways and away. Over and over until he caught it, at which point he slid a piece of paper under the glass, carried the trapped fly outside, and released it. Spiders received the same treatment. The only bugs I recall him swatting at were mosquitos.
Dad did this not out of a Franciscan love for brother fly, but because swatting flies was messy, and spiders were valuable, since they caught flies. But I didn't know that at the time, and so I filed it away under avoiding cruelty whenever possible. I tried to avoid killing flies the way I avoided skooshing worms on sidewalks, decimating anthills, and salting slugs, pleasures I had indulged in in my younger days. (Mark once quoted to me, I think it was form Thomas More's Utopia, "every brutal act brutalizes the brutalizer"; and so it came as no surprise when I learned, years later, that most serial killers tortured animals as children.
My own attitude toward flies was so far from Franciscan that I once took the poetic license to question God's decision to keep them around. Pausing one afternoon as Dad and I weeded the vegetable garden, I rhapsodized, "I wonder why/ God made the fly/ If I were God/ I'd make them die." This got me thinking that maybe flies (and even more likely, mosquitoes) were visited upon the world as a punishment for Adam's sin. how could something so infuriating and annoying possibly have existed in the Garden of Eden?
Mark was quick to correct me, nothing that God completed His creation in the six days of Genesis; nothing further was made. He also reminded me that, insofar as a fly or mosquito is created, that is, has its being from God, it is good, since God cannot be the cause of evil. The evil of flies comes form their relation to us; it is not intrinsic to their nature. And in a calmer moment, I am sure he would have said the same thing about roaches. On that damp D.C. evening, prone and cursing, eyes glaring, shoe-hand cocked back — I wonder. (For those of you who need closure in a story, the got the roach.)
Like my brother, I married a woman who can't handle roaches. Deirdre is a splendid, practical person, unperturbed by the messiness of the physical world. But when, while looking under the couch for a lost sandal, she brought forth a roach — a dead roach — within several inches of her face, she made a sound I had never heard before. Shock made her inhale, while fear made her scream. The result was a twisted, shuddering moan. Later, in a demonstration of our like-mindedness, she opined that roaches were a result of the Fall. I related to her what Mark had told me, and I saw her flirt inwardly with heresy.
She has some case. More than any other creepy-crawly, God seems to have put enmity between the roach and the woman. Besides their essential repugnance, they bring shame on their hostess, as if Deirdre can hear them crowing, "Here is a woman whose home offers me succor, where I may take my ease amongst the filth and scum." More than anything else I've written, it pains her to know that this story in in print.
And, concern for my wife aside, roaches have a unique effect on me. Slugs, snails, spiders, flies — nothing else brings on that tightening high in my chest. Nothing else makes my face twitch with emotion. Nothing else tempts me toward hatred. Perhaps God didn't create roaches as punishment, perhaps the punishment was giving them their predilection for houses.
Our house is sometimes messy, but it is not dirty. Food doesn't get left around, grime doesn't accumulate, and dirty dishes do not spend days in the sink. Every now and then, Deirdre takes bleach to the whole of the kitchen, a habit that may have developed after she saw a roach at our Torrance Street apartment. So maybe it's El Niño, maybe it's the alley behind our house, maybe it's bad luck, but we have roaches. Great big roaches, one to one and a half inches long, brown-black like burnt caramel, their quickness all the more unnerving because of their size.
In the beginning, they came out to die. We would find them about once a week, belly up, legs folded neatly toward their middle, gruesome and perfect. We would fin them near the fridge, next to the water cooler on the other side of the kitchen, under the couch, under the liquor cabinet, even in the mantle (an eerie sight) — all dead or mostly dead. Sometimes, in an effort to stave off the inevitable, they would give futile kicks with their spiny legs or wave their two-inch antennae in saucy defiance. I had to get a paper towel and skoosh them a messy business, during which Deirdre made sure she was elsewhere. The situation wasn't quite dire enough to call the roach man — they were dying, it was never more than one at a time, it was only once in a while.
Whatever was killing them must be wearing off, however, because of late, we have had three encounters with healthy, nasty cockroaches. One was lying in the cabinet above our water heater. Deirdre had seen him the day before, and frightened curiosity drove her to see if he had remained, which he had. He died under a cloud of bug spray, but he didn't go without a fight. After my initial shot, he darted back behind the heater, and he was heavy enough that I could hear him dashing for a crack in the wall.
We surprised another on a nocturnal perusal of our freshly washed silverware; I knocked him to the floor and crushed him. (I find myself using "him" instead of "it," as if cockroaches were people. I suppose this is tied up with my ascribing a moral quality — evil — to the roach.)
The third was different. Deirdre found him basking and frolicking in our fruit basket in broad daylight. She summoned me, and the roach and I began the Dance of Death. I led, making awkward lunges and jabbing with a fork, in an effort to flush him, first from his hiding places in the fruit basket, then from behind the water cooler below the basket. Always, no matter how clever his position, I could see those antennae waving. It seemed an obscene gesture. Finally, I drove him to the floor and dashed around the table in time to skoosh him before he reached the water heater cabinet.
No doubt, dear reader, you are wondering, with not a little trepidation, "This is a fatherhood column. What do roaches have to do with fatherhood?" I will tell you. I have offered all this as background to single short but traumatic story. Here it is:
Deirdre was in the bathroom. I was in the living room. Finian was in the kitchen, near the water cooler. My parental ear, the ear that listens for the silence that comes when a child is misbehaving, has been functioning for some time, and after two or three seconds of quiet, I looked over at the boy. He was bent over something, an intent expression on his face. He was chewing. My stomach dropped. I hurtled into the kitchen, snatched Fin up, and saw the roach. It was dead, belly up. I couldn't bear to inspect it for missing parts.
"Fin has just finished breakfast," I thought. "He might be chewing a peach. yes, that's it, a peach." But I knew I had to make sure. I knew I had to inspect his mouth for roach legs. And I couldn't. I stood there, holding Finian at arms' length, paralyzed with feat. Fin kept on chewing, his jaw set and jutting. He suspected that I was going to take whatever he is chewing away. He was wrong. I was too scared. Instead, I asked, "What have you got in your mouth? Do you have a roach leg in your mouth?" as if I expected a response. Time slowed to a sickly crawl.
Deirdre had been listening to all this from the bathroom with growing alarm. After I had repeated my pathetic question, the bathroom door flew open and Deirdre charged forth. She shot me a look that told me I was an utter failure as a father and a man, and stuck her finger into Fin's mouth. Deirdre, who both hated and feared roaches so much, was not about to let one, or any part of one, get inside her son.
As it turned out, he was chewing a peach. The roach was intact on the kitchen floor. But I still have to live with the shame of failing my son. Given another moment, I might have swallowed hard and reached in, but I hesitated and was lost. A lesson learned; next time. I'll do better. Meanwhile, I'm calling the roach man.