False advertising is a pain in the ass.
I finally got around to picking up a can of bug spray. It was an off brand. I figured I could kill off my roommates the roaches and still have money left for a few drinks. Actually, I would have been content just to kill one. The one. The fat fucker. He didn’t make an appearance as often; mostly I think he came out just to remind me he was still there. Sometimes I’d come in and he’d be there, gimping from the bed to the dresser or making his way across the tile in the bathroom; there wasn’t any skittishness to his movements at all. In many ways, he reminded me of my last roommate; a guy who slept 20 hours a day and smoked more weed than anybody grew in the entire state of Kentucky. When he wasn’t sleeping or getting high, he sat on the couch and ate Cheerios. That roommate – like the roach – didn’t pay rent, either.
After stepping on the roach a few more times, I broke down and bought the spray. It was a large orange can with a picture of a dead bug. I’d put it off because I thought I was making progress; I’d squashed I don’t know how many of them, and I continued to make a conscious effort to keep the room more picked up. Once I accidentally killed one that had managed to crawl into my shoes during the night – don’t ask me how – and from then on I kept my shoes up off the floor, too.
When I was choosing between all the various brands of roach killer, I went with the one with the biggest dead bug and the lowest price. I didn’t think that roaches saw in the way we see things – I remember being told they didn’t have eyes, per say – I still thought that maybe a brightly colored can with a big dead bug might intimidate the fat fucker into dying without my help. Kind of a cockroach coronary.
Too bad there wasn’t a money back guarantee.
I walked in carrying the can in my right hand. In my left hand was a bottle of cheap scotch I’d picked up to celebrate the roach king’s demise. I looked around. The sensation was visceral; I felt alive because I was sure that day would be the roach’s last. Naturally, he was nowhere to be seen. None of his minions were out, either. I set scotch bottle on the small table next to the radio and stood there for a moment, surveying every inch of carpet, tile, corner, light, and shadow. He was pretty wily for a roach; I knew he could be hiding anywhere. He was nowhere to be found. I was annoyed; but I told myself to be patient. That nothing came easy, but when it did, all the frustration was worth it. I gave one more careful look around the room, even looking under the dresser (which I had neglected to do initially). Nothing.
I decided to wait him out. I told myself that if I was quiet enough or nonchalant enough, that the fat little fucker would make his appearance. So I sat down at the table, set the large orange can next to the bottle of scotch, and turned on the radio. It was tuned to station that played a lot of old tough guys. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop. Some World War II music, like the Andrews Sisters. Some Sammy Davis, Jr. Bing Crosby. Music, according to the announcer during one of the breaks, “from when men were men, the drinks were all martinis, and life came up aces.” I suddenly felt like drinking a martini; but (of course) I didn’t have any of the mixings. So I decided to go ahead and open the scotch. A little sip wouldn’t hurt. I told myself that it might even give me something to look forward to.
While I waited for him to make his appearance, I thought about things. I thought about smiling Dave and mean Marta. Mac the Elder and Younger. Adelle and her regular lineup of cocaine and porn hooked boy toys. Loyce and her cop.
I thought Ruby and her offer to go home. Home. Go Home. Sometimes that kind of consistency is nice. You live around people who have known you your entire life. They know all the stories. They know when your birthday is. They know how you like your chicken cooked, how rare you like your streak. They care about how much you smoke, how much you drink. They compliment you if you lose weight and say nothing if you gain it. They make fun of your dimpled cheeks. They put up with you regardless of your lack of fashion sense. You know all the streets and you never get lost. Sometimes you run into the first girl you ever kissed in the bread aisle at the grocery store. You can even visit the old high school and see your senior picture on the wall, all smiling and hopeful, along with the other smiling hopeful faces who graduated with you, as well as those from years past. You find your mother’s picture. Your father’s picture. You start to see the commonality of all things – how much you look like your parents. How much they look like you. How much things never really change. You start to feel the weight of that word. HOME.
And then I thought about how sometimes how easy it is to stay, to accept the weight of the word and all the other words to follow. Family. Life. Wife. Children. Mortgage. Retirement. Death. Sometimes we get so used to having certain people around us because they establish our boundaries; they create and embody the niche our life becomes. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. Like a blanket someone uses to suffocate you. The presence of those certain people confirm for us everything we ever felt about ourselves and everything we were ever told.
Ruby and I had never really gotten along. I guess it was nobody’s fault. She was so much older and living a much different life. We never really got to know one another very well; and one thing I did pick up from her visit was that she was beginning to regret it. But there wasn’t any point to regret. There rarely is. Ruby had made up her mind about me a long time ago; and even with all her regret, spurred on by fresh sobriety and the twelve step morality, her view of me was fundamentally unchanged. Back when I was a kid she saw maybe two or three times a year, she had made up her mind that I was her fucked up baby brother. The spoiled, selfish, and inconsiderate boy who got everything she didn’t and who took and took and took but never gave back. If I took her money – if I accepted her help – there would be strings attached. There were always strings.
I was shaken out of my thoughts by movement. There was a roach skittering around by the foot of the bed. Just a small one. Good test subject. I took a drink (for luck) and stood up slowly. The roach didn’t seem to notice. I crept up slowly. The little fucker didn’t seem concerned at all – had he been, I might have been less pissed off. Little fuckers, I thought. They’re not even scared of me anymore.
When I thought I was close enough, I shook the can – giving the dirty little bastard one more chance to act like the frightened little bug he was. The sound made it stop – but that was all. Then I pointed the can downward and sprayed. Gave it a good dose, too. At first, the roach tried to out run the mist; but the poison must’ve acted quickly, because the little son of a bitch stopped, rolled on its back, and died.
“See that?” I stood and said out loud so that the roach king could hear me. (I knew he could.) “See that? You’re next, you fat bastard!”
I walked back to the chair wrapped in an air of triumph, and allowed myself a generous swig from the scotch bottle – strictly celebratory. But I didn’t get carried away. I knew it wouldn’t be long, though. There’s never just ONE roach. I took another drink and looked at the directions on the back of the can:
Kills on contact. For more effective coverage, spray along base boards and in corners. Do not use as an open air spray. Harmful if ingested. Do not spray in eyes. Do not crush can. Contents under pressure. Flammable.
Hmmm. Maybe I was going about it all wrong. Maybe I was taking the wrong approach. Sitting and waiting for him to appear was giving him the home field advantage. Fuck that. I took another drink and stood up. Then I proceeded to spray along all the baseboards, in all the corners. I sprayed along the bottom of the bed and under the dresser. I sprayed behind the toilet. I sprayed around the sink. I sprayed around the electrical outlets. I sprayed so much that a cloud of bug spray hung heavy in the air and I had to step outside. I shook the can. It was mostly empty, but felt like there was still some more in there. Gotta love that economy packaging, I thought. Try and get that amount when you buy a brand name. Raid, my ass.
My lungs cleared up in a few minutes. I wanted to smoke a cigarette, but I didn’t want to take the chance with all the bug spray lingering in the air and on my clothes. I walked back in the room, but I left the door open. Then I sat down and waited to see what happened.
My mind wandered again and I thought about the last Christmas I was home. I was unusual in that the gathering was a large affair. My sister hosted, of course. Our small family was there – what was left, anyway – me and my mom. Plus, Ruby had invited all of her in-laws and a few of her husband’s cousins. Lots of children running around. Lots of noise and hustle and bustle. My extended family had long developed the common sense not to try and get together except for weddings and funerals; and I didn’t really go to any of those. But there was something in Ruby – something that cried out for normalcy. Or at least, as close to a Rockwellian normalcy as she could achieve. She cooked a huge meal while her husband passed out cocktails with ridiculous holiday names and traded golf stories. My mom offered a few times to help but was shooed away; and she ended up off by herself, sitting in a corner chair near the fireplace. At one point, the men went out to the garage, the women (except for Mom) congregated in the dining room/kitchen area, and I sat on the couch, watch television and drinking Denis’s high-priced beer that he kept stashed in a mini-fridge down in the basement.
I didn’t have any money for presents and I didn’t really know anybody. I hadn’t seen any of Denis’s people since the wedding. I was maybe ten at the time. (He made me an usher – I was too old to be the ring bearer – so I had to go.) I was stuffed into an uncomfortable tuxedo with extremely shiny and uncomfortable shoes. The church was hot and packed to all four walls with hordes of wheezing, whispering, crying relatives. I met a lot of people back then, but didn’t bother remembering them.
When I showed up for Christmas, Ruby introduced me around. Then came the inevitable question/answer exchange. What do you do. Are you in school. What are your plans. After several rounds of not having the appropriate answers, people got the hint and left me alone.
Large family gatherings let you know right away where you are in the pecking order. Typically, level of success (as determined by general consensus) indicated Where You Are. Since the gathering was taking place at Ruby’s, that placed her pretty high in the food chain. The pinnacle, really. Which meant her husband was too, and so were her kids. (Hierarchy and birthright go hand in hand.) Mom filled the Queen Mother role, placing her, by proxy, near the top – though not even close to Ruby’s level. The middle ground was filled with in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Denis’s brother the cop figured prominently – both by birth and by the fact that he showed up in uniform. (He glared at me pretty early and we kept a safe distance between us. Types always know types, and both of us had our experiences to tell us it was probably better for everyone if we just nodded at one another from across the room.)
As the somewhat disappointing and outcast younger brother I played at a role similar to Richard the Second; though I think a hump back might’ve made me more sympathetic to the uber-Southern Baptist faction that frowned behind their fruit punch at the rest of us.
Bugs also have a pecking order based on function. Every bug has a job. When a bug dies, it is immediately replaced so that the whole colony doesn’t suffer. Bugs. Families. Governments. Corporations. PTA groups. People fill a role and that’s how people identify them. Ruby was corporate. Denis was a teacher. Mom was a housewife. I was the lost drunken baby bother. And when people die, someone immediately takes up the role so that society doesn’t suffer. This seems normal and natural when it comes to accountants, politicians, teachers, and corporate executives. People just don’t like to accept that there’s always some bug in the mix, not giving a shit about any of it.
After I ceased to be of interest, the night went on. Dinner was served. (Seating and pecking order are directly related.) People laughed. Children played. Later on, presents were opened and the carpet turned into a difficult to navigate cesspool of cheery wrapping paper, torn open boxes, and instruction manuals written in every language but English. Lots of pictures. Lots of smiled. I was asked to help once. I held the camera and pushed the button while Ruby smiled and hugged her father-in-law.
My bottle was scotch was almost empty and the roach king hadn’t shown up. Every once in a while I’d pick up the can and shake it, like some pathetic battle taunt. It didn’t do any good.
Patience, I thought. I took a deep breath. Then I smoked a cigarette and waited some more. I took another drink. I smoked another cigarette. I finished off the scotch. Not one single god damn roach.
“They’re plotting against me,” I complained to the empty room. How is it that these mindless little fuckers always one-up me?
Finally I stood up again and turned off the radio. I was tired of waiting. I was tired of listening to the radio. I was out of booze. I was almost out of smokes. I wanted to watch TV and pass out. I closed and locked the door – the room had aired out enough – and walked over to the television. Maybe I’ll find dead roaches tomorrow, I thought. That thought had a certain appeal. The potential for real progress.
I turned on the set; but instead of tuning in to some reality show with fake drama and plastic people, the screen flashed, fizzled, and went dark.
The first thing I did was check to make sure the plug hadn’t come out of the socket. That was fine. I hit all the buttons, thinking maybe I’d accidentally hit the off button. The set was dead. I went back over to the table and picked up the bug spray to see if the back of the can said anything about it not being good for televisions. Nothing. I put the can down next to the TV and started looking around the set to see if I could notice anything. Maybe there was a loose wire, like Dave had said. Maybe I just need to jiggle the set or slap the top of it and it would work.
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking; my knowledge of television repair starts with me turning it on and ends with me turning it off. But I was looking around for something, anything. I wanted to pass out and deal the roaches and the TV in the morning. But I kept looking around anyway. I looked at the plug at least five times.
I should go tell them. That would be the normal thing to do. But that wouldn’t do me any good. If Dave was working, he’d shrug and smile. If Marta was working, she’d just give me a dirty look and horde her 13 inch television. Plus, they’d find a way to blame it on me. Fuck all that.
I was taking the tactic of trying to turn it on and off again, when I saw a roach running from under the television across the top of the dresser. I picked up the TV and smashed the roach under it.
“Take that motherfucker.”
Then I saw another roach. This one was climbing out one of the heat vents in the back. And then there was another. And another.
The motherfuckers were IN the television.
“SONS OF BITCHES!” I cursed. I put the TV down, picked up the orange can, and killed the roaches that escaped from the set.
I kept on cursing them for another couple of minutes, when it occurred to me. The nest was IN the television. No more TV. No more roaches. That fat fucker was probably in there hiding and getting fatter chewing on the circuit board. Let him.
I turned and opened the door. The parking lot was quiet. Loyce was in her room, entertaining. The dumpster was behind the building. If I walked down the stairs and turned walked between the building with the rooms and the small house where the office was, I could probably get away with tossing the TV. No one would be the wiser. Who would know? The cleaning staff??
I pulled the plug out of the wall, picked up the set and walked quickly out the door. It was heavier than I expected; but it was worth it. I’d be rid of the roaches once and for all. Let them have the TV. Let them have the whole dumpster. They can have their space and I can have mine. Everybody’s happy. I could probably get a TV out of one of the empty rooms if I really wanted another one.
When I got back to the dumpster, the lid was open. So I hurled the thing as best I could. I heard it crash at the bottom of the dumpster.
“There, you son of a bitch,” I said. “Gorge yourself to death. Have at it.”
When I walked back in my room, the air conditioning felt wonderful. I closed the door behind me and locked the door. Sweet relief. I looked over at the empty bottle on the table. I told myself that after I cooled off for a bit, I’d run and get some beer. After all, I deserved it, didn’t I? I walked over to the sink (I could still smell the bug spray) and splashed water on my face. I wanted to go out for the beer and get back so I could strip and get out of my sweaty clothes.
That was one of those tricks I learned in New Orleans. This guy came up and asked me for a dollar. “For a burger,” he said. But I knew from looking at him that he wasn’t going to buy a burger. He looked like man who valued a bottle of Mad Dog over an overcooked quarter pounder. I gave him a couple of bucks – thinking that someday I’d need the same kind of assistance. It never hurts to build up good karma. When I handed it to him, he thanked me. Then he said, “You look uncomfortable.”
“I’m just not used to the climate yet,” I said.
He cackled. “Don’t let them sweaty clothes dry on your back,” he said. “People do that, they get pneumonia and die.”
I’d never heard that before, but I had no reason to doubt him. After all, if anybody knows how to survive in the elements, it’s probably a homeless drunk.
When I walked up to the liquor store, there was a spring in my step. I bought a six pack and got back to my room as quickly as possible. When I walked into my room, I closed the door, locked it, and proceeded to strip down.
Then I saw him.
It was him. The fat bastard roach king. He was waddling on the tile floor, heading towards the toilet. From the looks of him, he was only using three of his legs. The shell, which had been cracked, was starting to call off. I rushed over to the dresser, grabbed the big orange bottle, and held it right over the little fucker. He didn’t even bother to stop.
When I pushed down, the only thing that came out of the bottle was air. I shook the bottle. There’s no way this fucker’s empty. I sprayed again. That time nothing came out.
I threw the can and thought about stepping on him one more time. Surely to god one more time will kill him!
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t have anything left. I let him go and cracked open a beer.