Roaches are despicable. They zip up a wall and onto the ceiling with their evil little-barbed claws like demons, gives me the creeps. If one disappears into a crack, it’ll reappear out another when you least expect it. This morning I woke up with a big one on my pillow, inches from my face, its antennae practically in my mouth. Sickening. It starts with one; then, before you know it, they’re everywhere, eating your food, taking over, making you feel like a guest in your own home, it’s crazy making.
A couple of weeks ago, I put a slice of bread in the toaster, and one crawled out before I could push the lever down. Killed my appetite knowing that thing was in where my bread goes. The problem is they’re not easy to get rid of, not under the best of circumstances and Lord knows I don’t have those.
I wanted the Shockwave Fogging Roach Bomb but it costs a fortune. Besides, anyone hopes to survive would have to get out before I lit the fuse. Right now, I’ve got Jolene nursing her twins in the back room, her two-year old trying to eat roaches every chance she gets, and her six and seven-year-olds treating the bugs like pets, racing them on tracks made out of cardboard boxes.
I can’t kill them fast enough. The way the roaches multiply I’m afraid we’ll end up buried alive. When I turned on the light in the basement the floor was so thick with roaches it looked like black water, rising and falling, all those little bodies rolling over one another scared me half to death. I shut the light off quick to avoid driving them upstairs. Every night I pray for an affordable solution, but God hasn’t shown me the way.
A lady at the church a while back told me to use lemon peels and bay leaves, but the roaches ate those up and looked for more. Another member of the parish suggested sugar and baking soda. Said the roaches would be drawn to the sugar and killed by the baking soda when it mixes with the acid in their stomachs, liar. The roaches tripled overnight.
Jolene suggested coffee traps. Ours filled up with roaches but left me with no coffee. They died but I resented those caffeinated little bastards for depriving me of my morning cup.
The fabric softener cure sounded perfect. I read about it online. It’s recommended for houses whose walls have gone black with roaches. The problem is it’s out of my price range too. One bottle’s six bucks and I’d need five or more cases a week to kill all of them. If I weren’t near broke I’d do it. Give the roaches the death they deserve. So easy, all you do is spray fabric softener on the floor and walls, and the roaches suffocate in the solution.
Jolene doesn’t complain about the roaches. She was lippy at first, testing her boundaries, but now she’s well behaved, seems happiest listening to that old classic rock tape of hers. I have to shout to get her attention and I doubt she can hear her babies crying when she’s got the headset on but it keeps her content so I let it go.
She’s easy enough to manage because she catches on quick, much faster than her kids. I haven’t spared any of them the rod, especially the children who, frankly, make everything harder than it needs to be. Family order isn’t rocket science. I answer to God, they answer to me, simple. The roaches are another story. I have no control over them.
I started sleeping on a cot in the attic surrounded by a thick ring of Raid and a second ring of white candles. It’s impossible to think downstairs with Jolene and her five kids scattered around and roaches tumbling out of the light fixtures. In the attic I’m closer to God, even if I look like the centerpiece of a satanic ritual when I sleep.
I should say “If I sleep,” I have nightmares. The kind you can’t remember but you know you had because you wake up hollow and afraid. I recall flashes, something in the dark, falling, people screaming. Nothing solid though, until I wake and see the roaches closing in on all sides.
At first I thought the Lord sent the roaches to test me but now I’m wondering if all this is Jolene’s fault. She’s a fallen woman. I literally found her on a street corner holding a cardboard sign. A pregnant beggar with three little one’s in tow. She looked so tired she could barely ask for change. I told her she could come home with me if she was willing to get married. I didn’t have to ask her twice. We stopped at the courthouse on our way home. That evening I saw the first roach, the next day a dozen more. There’s so many now the census bureau couldn’t count them.
Jolene had the twins a week later. Knocked the wind out of me. One baby would have meant four mouths to feed, not counting Jolene. Now I had six people to care for on zero dollars a month. No job and nothing left to sell except the house, and, I can’t sell it because of the roaches.
I had to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pack of smokes to calm my nerves. I quit drinking or rather I’d planned to quit when I brought Jolene and her kids home but it didn’t take. My smokes are a Godsend. They’re helpful too, little torches, because the roaches are afraid of fire.
If the roaches aren’t Jolene’s doing, it’s possible God’s not done punishing me. My mother died when I was born, making me a killer. The church ladies used to tell me it wasn’t my fault but I know better.
My father used to say he and mother went into ministering so God would grant them a good life but it appears in the end he misread God. I wish I’d known them before me but that’s nonsense thinking. All I know for sure is that my mother’s dying hurt my father so bad that he couldn’t help but pass the pain onto my stepmother Emily and me.
Sometimes when he got drunk he’d say beautiful things. Once he said, “God called your mother home because she was an angel.” I liked the idea of her in white robes with gigantic feathery wings. Maybe she watched over me from heaven although, lately, it doesn’t seem so.
Father also said God was prone to darkness, evil even. Said we should watch out since he was the Lord’s vessel, chosen to do His work. I tried my best because I knew father had plenty of dark in him. I shivered to imagine what the devil was like after seeing God’s chosen man smoking like a fiend after sunset and drinking into the morning hours.
I used to come home from school and find him digging holes in the yard for empty beer bottles because he didn’t want the neighbors to see how much he drank. He didn’t care when he was liquor-drunk. He’d just throw the empty bottle at me and tell me to dig.
On my sixteenth birthday I snuck out of the house to go a party in town. On the way, I picked up some moonshine from Little Eddy’s Gas Station. The whole town drank off Eddy’s still. I wanted to try it after a kid in school had called it, “Liquid courage.” The moonshine hit me like Christ on Sunday and I understood why father liked to drink.
After the party, I started feeling sick. I cut through the apple orchard leading to our farm but I could barely walk and had to sit down. The sky was as black as Satan’s soul but I wasn’t afraid because I saw two angels’ eyes twinkling at me through the clouds and thought of mother. I lay there talking to her until the sick went away, but I was still too tired to get up. I prayed she’d protect me and before I fell asleep I wished on a shooting star that my father wouldn’t know I’d been drinking.
In the morning I woke up amid all the fallen apples. I stank of stale booze and felt as thirsty and sweaty as a man wandering in the desert. I reached up and picked an apple off a branch, chewing and spitting until my mouth was tolerable.
When I got home father was in the yard on his back, his blue eyes wide, filled with morning sky, vomit clogging his throat. Either mother heard my prayer or the devil answered my wish. Whatever the case, it was mine to live with from that day forward. Emily didn’t have to live with the loss near as long as I have. I’ve always wondered if father asked God to bring her in heaven to be with him and mother. I guess I’ll know someday.
Father’s replacement at the church, checked in on me from time to time until I turned eighteen so I wasn’t entirely alone. My father was a more tight-fisted man than I’d realized. He left behind a fair amount of money. I was able to live off my inheritance for a decade. Now the money’s gone and I still don’t know what to do with myself. I could preach but I’m not as charismatic as my father.
I no longer have enough money to hire pickers or driver’s to get the apples to market. Besides, the crop hasn’t been nurtured what’s out there isn’t fit to sell. I tried a few “Work from home” jobs I found on the Internet but they’re no good, mostly crooks.
I’ve started thinking the end has been coming for me all along, it’s only now catching me, riding in on the backs of roaches.
Doesn’t help that the IRS is after me too. Demons. I’m not going to give them a dime. My father paid off the house before he died. Nobody told me anything about paying taxes until the IRS stapled a notice to my door. The notice said to pay what I owed or move out. They claim my property is headed for a tax sale. What bullshit.
I called the next day and got some high-pitched guy that sounded too chipper for the task his job entailed. He guffawed and chattered about how he couldn’t believe my case had been overlooked for so long. I know he was smiling when he said, “I’m making your case a priority.” He acted like he’d stumbled across a lost treasure. As if my unpaid taxes were the Shroud of Turin and not some sick plan of the government’s to steal my home. I hung up. The house is mine. If the IRS wants it they can take it over my dead body.
My stepmom Emily would have said, “Take a deep breath whenever you start to lose your temper, God will see you through.” Or course, that didn’t really work for her. She’s been gone nearly as long as father, cancer. She went from diagnosis to death in less than three months, the two of them gone the same year. I still believe in God but don’t go to church anymore. I know they’d pray for me but they’d pity me too. Look down on you the way good people can.
Jolene’s no help. For a while she tried to keep things clean but couldn’t. The roaches are more determined than she is. She’ll sweep a bunch of roaches out of the bedroom a few times a day but I swear this only makes them more determined to get to the food in there, the poorly sealed formula tins, an unfinished McDonald’s burger bun, Oreo crumbs and the like. Her kids are a world of mess that she can’t seem to manage.
It’s hard for me to believe I once thought Jolene was my calling. I was a regular at the church at the time and she was holding a sign that said, “Save me.” I thought that if I helped her like Jesus helped Mary Magdalena, then the money would follow but it’s been six months and all Jolene and the kids did was drain the money faster. Maybe the Lord has another plan for me, for all of us.
Since I took them in it’s been chaos. Jolene’s kids are maddening, always screaming and crying. I never thought I’d be much of disciplinarian but those kids provoke me. Bowie, Jolene’s oldest, has no common sense. He broke our only plates trying to kill roaches. He’d set a plate over a dozen or more and jumped on it sending shards in every direction. I jerked that boy up from his destruction so fast I nearly pulled his arm out of its socket. His brother Hendrix kicked me in the shin and I knocked that little bastard out cold for acting out against me. I’m not a violent man but unruly kids require discipline.
When I was five, my father, Emily, and I were stacking wood for winter. As a small boy, I could only carry one piece of wood at a time. When I tried to carry two the second piece slipped through my hand and I got a splinter. I know now I shouldn’t have, but I started to cry so Emily went to get a pair of tweezers to pluck the sliver out. Before she came back father said my behavior was proof I wasn’t trying hard enough. He told me the Lord expected children to be diligent and careful in all tasks.
I was still learning about life so I told him I didn’t get the splinter on purpose. He hit me hard for being insolent. Still not understanding, I cried harder. He hit me until I stopped crying and I had a bruise the shape of his hand on my cheek.
When Emily came back outside she told me I was a brave boy. My father became furious. He grabbed her braid and jerked her to the ground and shouted, “That boy is as insolent as you are!”
Children are notoriously slow learners and I, at the time, was no exception. I grabbed the bottom of his coat and begged him to stop hitting her. He forgot Emily and turned back to me. He jerked me out of my shoes and carried me to the barn.
I recall the sun streaming through a hole in the roof onto an old empty feed container. Father locked me inside. In the metal echo and darkness, I could hear father yelling, telling Emily to quit crying and soon enough she was quiet and I was left to the sound I hadn’t yet identified.
The container was about the size of a sow’s belly and unnaturally warm and muggy for autumn. As a punishment this would have been plenty but I wasn’t in there alone. When I realized there were roaches all around I began kicking and thrashing to get them off. It made a mad music. The rust and grainy surface tearing at my skin until I sat still, exhausted and let the roaches crawl all over me, through my hair, and down my back. I’ve never been as still since.
In the middle of the night Emily set me free. She carried me to the house, the whites of her eyes bright as two distinct moons under the billowing grey-black lace of clouds, their mysterious layers leading to God. I knew He was always watching.
In Emily’s arms I felt her pity for me, it was as intense as being struck by the sparks that shoot from a fire made with sap heavy wood. I asked her to put me down and she did. She reached for me and I ran the up the stairs and closed myself away from her as if she were a ghost.
Emily was a kind soul but father was the strong one. I never questioned or disagreed with him again. I was grateful when he ruffled my hair at breakfast. I loved him but I have hated roaches ever since.
Soon after that night, I saw a roach and instinctively grabbed a packet of father’s matches from an ashtray on the porch and burnt it alive. I felt like the exterminator from a TV advertisement of the time. I can’t recall the brand but remember the strong man holding a flame-thrower that wiped out all of the roaches before him before it turned back into a can.
Killing the roach wasn’t a gentle act; yet, it felt right in the way certain things can be both frightening and alluring at the same time. I’d call it “uncanny” but it’s hard to describe what makes something uncanny. I think it’s when a thing is almost right but not quite so. That’s how I feel today just off center, like seeing myself in a cracked mirror, but the mirror’s in my head.
Jolene is juggling the twins and the older children are watching TV. I’m in the attic. I recognize the steady, thwack, thwack, thwacking noise of Bowie and Hendrix’s hammers making dimples on the floor. I imagine the splayed guts of roaches oozing out around their small feet, intimidating creatures even in death.
Jolene gave the boys the hammers so they could kill roaches while doing whatever else they were doing. She thought the hammers would keep the roaches off her littlest ones but it doesn’t work. Nothing has. The roaches are winning.
It’s funny really, even as I stand here trying to conjure God by talking to myself, I feel distant to everything except for the scurry of thousands of little feet, forewings, compound eyes, and antenna. These creatures make me ache for all I can’t fix, for all I can’t do, but mostly for all that has not been revealed to me.
Unless my words His truth? I think of all below me, coursing black and vile and my eyes open. The muntin in the attic window looks like a cross, no, not a cross, a God’s eye. That’s what we called those yarn inventions we wove over two sticks in Sunday school. Father said they were God’s magnifying glasses. He made me hang mine over my bed.
The attic’s exposed beams and peaked roof make me feel like I’m in church. My cot is the altar. But, who am I in this place if not the preacher or parishioner?
I light the ring of candles around my cot before lighting a cigarette. I drink the last of the Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle and wait.
The ticking and clawing of everything I once feared is a siren calling me home. My ears are no longer filled with paraffin wax and my eyes deny the darkness. I am the light. I hear everything. I see everything. The roach’s movements are now whispers. The longer I listen the more I hear, water over rocks, one finger pressed to Emily’s fearful lips saying, “Shhh,” father hissing at his congregation, wind through the leaves of an apple tree, the gasps of infants, the snuff of a cigarette on the dusty floor, and God’s answer.
He is the last ray of sun before nightfall passing through dust flecked air and His voice is mine and I am brighter than the sun. I hear Him say, “Let the roaches be your reason why.” And I know what I’m supposed to do. I pick up the can of Raid, its mist wide and intense, as I light the stream. I prayed with greater intensity than that long ago night in the orchard, but this time I’ve got it right because I’m not praying for myself My actions are for Jolene and her kids. Dear Lord, show them your love and strength and may they all feel the glory of Our light.”