The cockroaches in this apartment have gone beyond all rational number — they have reached an irrational number. And they no longer wait until midnight to come out; they swarm after dark, at five. Ever since our visit to Russia in 1990, they’ve been increasing, and now they outnumber us four thousand to one.
Oh no, I just found one in the saltshaker! I helped it escape, using one of the baby’s spoons.
This morning, three more cockroaches were in the saltshaker, but I couldn’t find the baby’s spoon. I used a larger spoon, which they refused to climb on. It was sad to see them struggling through the killing salt, dreaming of escape, but avoiding the instrument of salvation.
This must be how Christians see the world, I thought.
My wife woke up with a cockroach in her ear.
“It feels really strange. It’s moving around,” she said. She tried to take it out with a tissue wrapped around a chopstick.
“Let it crawl out,” I told her. “If you kill it, it’ll get stuck in there.”
She stopped digging, and fifteen minutes later the bug did crawl out — a cute baby roach.
Now Violet is cleaning out the insect den under the sink. “Sorry, cockroaches. It’s just not working out between us,” she explains as she wipes away their nests.
“It smells of cockroach shit down here,” she says to me.
I never knew cockroach shit had a smell.
Last night went well. There were fewer roaches than I have seen for months — as few as thirty-three.
But tonight we went to our neighbor’s house to watch a video, and when we returned there were thousands again.
It’s like trying to destroy the Mafia. You can arrest them, but you can’t break their organization. These cockroaches have been at it for generations — it’s all they know. The kids go into it because their fathers do it.
Until now we haven’t killed the roaches. We’ve employed preventive methods: doing the dishes right away, taking the garbage out daily. Then last night, while washing dishes, I noticed a roach crawling on the side of a cup. I made no effort to save him, and in a moment he had drowned. A certain hardness has crept into me, I realized.
When I bathe now, and notice three or four roach corpses in the tub — drowned as the water poured in — I feel a grim satisfaction.
I wonder, “Could I kill a man now?”
A cockroach has been trapped in the saltshaker all day, and I’ve done nothing. I’m bored with liberating them over and over. He walks around while I pour salt out from under him. It’s like having a tiny man living in your watch.
At our New Year’s Eve party, Norman announced, “I think you have a roach problem.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve seen several roaches walking around next to the food. If roaches come out in the middle of a party, you have a problem.”
“I’ve already killed six of them,” added Violet’s cousin Bill.
“I bet you don’t kill them,” Norman accused me. “You probably tell them to leave. I had a roommate like that in San Francisco. We lived above a carriage house in an alley, and we had a bad roach problem. He believed that if he told them to leave, they would go. He’d say to them, ‘Roaches, please don’t stay here. We don’t really want you here.’ ”
“Did they listen to him?”
“Of course not. They got worse.”
“So what did you do?”
“I called in the exterminator. He came three times, and then the roaches were gone.”
Violet said, “But our friend Therese told the cockroaches to leave an apartment, and they left.”
“Yeah,” I told Norman. “Your friend probably wasn’t spiritually evolved enough.”
“Well, the roaches aren’t listening to you either!” Norman said.
I forgot to tell Norman my favorite roach-killing story — the time a guy came to my door in Washington Heights and asked, “Do you want to be exterminated?”
It’s unfortunate that we had our baby, Sylvia, in the middle of this cockroach war, because a baby’s job is to eat one-eighteenth of a potato, then throw the rest on the floor for you to step on, and the whole time you’re thinking, “She’s feeding the damn roaches. She’s in league with them.”
Today as I drank some tea I saw a speck floating in it. Is it a baby cockroach? I wondered. I looked more closely, and it seemed benign.
After I finished the tea, I thought, perhaps it was a roach. Maybe I eat cockroaches every day. They run out of a pot of millet sometimes. But does every one run out?
How many roaches a day do I eat?
My mother came over to babysit and said, “I’m having such a roach problem. I got a small garbage can with a tight lid, but it doesn’t help. I just can’t cope with my roaches anymore!”
This reassured me. Perhaps roach problems are hereditary.
Today I was working on my novel, and a bug walked out on the desk in front of me. I looked down in anger, then saw it wasn’t a roach. It was a gray, horned creature, like a miniature toad. I almost kissed it, out of gratitude.
“Lately when I open the cupboard doors,” my wife said, “a cockroach usually falls on my head. It’s really obnoxious.”
I’ve noticed it, too. Are they leaning on the doors more than they used to?
Violet woke up with another cockroach in her ear. “It’s really loud,” she said. “It’s walking on my eardrum.”
“Did you try to take it out?”
“No. Now it’s stopped moving,” she said. “Can you look in my ear?” (We bought a speculum to check the baby’s ears for infections.)
“OK,” I said, but we both forgot.
I remembered to look in Violet’s ear. Inside was a small dead cockroach, curled on its back.
It’s strange to see a dead roach in your wife’s ear. A little scene in there — like looking in a Viewmaster.
Violet tried to extract it, failed, and agreed to see a doctor.
Violet is procrastinating about going to the doctor. Meanwhile, as I was meditating tonight at 1:00 a.m., I felt a cockroach in my ear. It crawled deeper and deeper, perhaps into my brain. (Does the brain connect with the ear? I wasn’t sure.)
I continued meditating and found myself speaking mentally to the insect: “Turn around! That’s a good roach!”
Not that I believe in talking to roaches.
When I finished my meditation, I asked Violet, “Are you awake?”
“Can you look in my ear?”
She looked in my ear. “It’s a hair,” she said. “It’s touching your eardrum.”
Now I’m in the Bellevue emergency room, waiting for a doctor. It’s 2:30 am. I was hoping there would be no line on a quiet winter night, but I forgot that the homeless come here to stay warm. So thirty-eight men and one woman are waiting with me as an infomercial plays on the television above us: “I made a fortune investing in real estate. So can you.”
Once in a while the police pass through with a young, handcuffed criminal. They walk right in without waiting.
After two hours and forty-five minutes, I got to see a doctor. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
“I have a hair in my ear,” I said.
“Um hmm.” He got a speculum and looked inside.
“You’re right. There’s something in there. It looks like a hair.” (But to another doctor, he muttered, “It isn’t a hair.”)
“It might be a cockroach,” I volunteered. “My wife has a cockroach in her ear.”
“Why doesn’t she take it out?” the doctor asked.
“She’s been busy.”
The doctor looked in my ear again. “It looks like a cockroach,” he said. “I saw it moving.”
“Really?” I said. I felt a cockroach in me. I felt it move.
Another doctor came to look. “I don’t see anything,” he said.
My doctor put a long Q-tip in my ear. He pulled it out. Nothing was on it. He handed me the Q-tip. “You try it. You can feel it in there.”
I put it in. The two doctors watched. I pulled out the Q-tip. A tiny cat hair was on the end.
The doctors looked disappointed.
One took the Q-tip with the hair. “Can I throw it out, or do you want to keep it as a souvenir?”
“Throw it out,” I said.
They gave me a bill for $295, and I left.
I am going to begin killing the roaches with my own two hands.
I killed my first roach. It was a baby that crawled out of my novel when I opened it.
It took me five tries to kill it. They have very hard skins.
I admitted to Violet that I’m killing the roaches.
“So am I,” she said sheepishly. “Though I feel guilty about it.”
“I wouldn’t mind them if they didn’t crawl into our ears.”
“Well, they haven’t crawled into your ears.”
“We don’t know. Maybe they crawl in and crawl out.”
Soon after I killed the first roach, the others began running faster when I approached. They must have a sophisticated communication network between the living and the dead.
Since then, I’ve cataloged a number of roach species: a dark-colored one, a squat one, a long, thin one.
Strange I’d never noticed them before. You don’t really see something until you kill it.
I came home late from work and Violet said, “The house is clean, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is!”
“I killed a lot of cockroaches,” she said.
“Oh, yeah? How did it feel?”
“Terrible. When I killed a little one, I would think, ‘That’s someone’s baby.’ ”
“Yes, but I doubt the mothers love their babies as much as you do.”
“And when I killed a big one, I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a pregnant one,’ and felt horribly guilty.”
I keep the Jewish Sabbath, and I’ve decided not to kill roaches on that day. On the Sabbath, I feel I’m in the palm of God’s hand.
I began killing roaches again at the sink out of frustration. But in the middle of my death spree, I remembered Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.
“Wait a second,” I told my wife. “If I kill all the slow ones, only the fast ones will survive, and we’ll have the fastest roaches on earth!”
Violet, Sylvia, and I took a trip to Israel. I was struck by the utter buglessness of our Tel Aviv hotel, though it was in a hot, Middle Eastern country.
A great deal of poison must be responsible, I thought with a shudder.
Also, the room felt lonely — there was no one in it but us.