the short story project



Roaches are despicable. They zip up the walls 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, its antennae practically in my mouth. Sickening. It starts with one but before you know it, they’re everywhere, eating your food, taking over, making you feel like a guest in your own home – crazy making.

A couple of weeks ago, I put a slice of bread in the toaster, and one crawled out before pushed the lever down. Killed my appetite knowing that thing was in where my food 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 a Shockwave Roach Bomb because it kills everything within a hundred feet of its canister but it’s too expensive. Besides, Jolene nurses her twins in the downstairs bedroom and I don’t know what to do with them. She’s so overwhelmed with the new babies that she didn’t notice her two-year old put a roach in its mouth. Disgusting. Her six and seven-year-olds treat the bugs like pets, racing them on tracks made out of cardboard boxes. Half-wits.
I can’t kill them fast enough. The way the roaches multiply is unfair. When I turned the light on 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 turned the switch off quick to avoid driving them upstairs. I’ve prayed for an affordable solution, but God has yet to show me the way.

Awhile back a lady at the church 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. She 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. The traps I put out killed a lot of them but I resented those little bastards for depriving me of my morning cup. I’ve only got enough money left for instant and I’m tired of sharing that with a throng of dirty roaches.

The fabric softener cure sounded perfect. It’s recommended for houses whose walls have gone black with roaches. 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. I’d do it if I weren’t broke. Give the roaches the death they deserve. All you have to 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 behaves. She seems happiest listening to rock music with her headset on. She can’t hear her babies crying or me talking when she’s got it on but it keeps her content so I let it go. She’s easy to manage because she catches on quick, much faster than her kids. I don’t spare the rod with any of them, especially the children because they 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 can’t think with Jolene and her five kids scattered around, roaches tumbling out of the light fixtures downstairs. I prefer to sleep on a cot in the attic surrounded by a thick ring of Raid and a second ring of white candles. I feel closer to God up here, 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’ve had because you wake up hollow and afraid. I recall flashes of dreams, something in the dark, feeling like I’m falling, screaming, nothing solid, until I wake up to the roaches are closing in on all sides.

I thought the Lord sent the roaches to test me but now I believe they’re Jolene’s fault. She’s a fallen woman. I found her on a street corner holding a cardboard sign. A pregnant beggar with three little one’s in tow. She looked exhausted, barely able to ask for change. I told her she could come live 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 gave birth to twins a week later. Knocked the wind out of me. One more baby would have meant five more mouths to feed; now I had six people to care for on zero dollars a month.

I’ve got nothing left to sell except the house, and, I can’t sell it because of the roaches.

In spite of the cost I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pack of smokes to calm my nerves. I’d planned to quit after I became a family man but the quitting didn’t take. Frankly, I think smokes are a Godsend. Roaches are afraid of fire and each smoke is a little torch.
Of course there’s a chance the roaches aren’t Jolene’s doing, God could still be punishing me. I killed my mother in childbirth. When I was little the church ladies told me it wasn’t my fault, but I’ve always known better.

My father used to say he went into ministering so God would grant my mother and him a good life but God had other plans. I wish I’d known them before me but that’s nonsense thinking. All I know is that my mother’s death hurt my father bad enough that father couldn’t help but pass his pain onto me and my stepmother Emily.

Sometimes when he drank father would say beautiful things like, “God called your mother home because she was an angel.” I liked the idea of my mother in white robes with gigantic feathery wings. Father also told me that God was prone to darkness and that I should behave or risk the wrath of God through his hand. I did my best because I knew father was strong enough to do whatever God required.
I used to come home from school and find my father digging holes in the yard for his empty beer bottles because he didn’t want the neighbors to see how much he drank. When he was liquor-drunk he cared less. He’d just throw the empty bottle at me and tell me to dig.
On my sixteenth birthday I went to 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 at school called it, “Liquid courage.” The moonshine hit me like Christ on Sunday and I finally understood why father liked to drink.

After the party, I started feeling sick. To get home faster I decided to 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. I lay there talking to mother until the sick went away, but I was still too tired to get up. I prayed for protection from God before I fell asleep and 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 stinking of stale booze. I 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 before I started for home.

When I reached our yard I saw father on his back on the lawn, his blue eyes wide, filled with morning sky, vomit clogging his throat. Emily went into a depression over it. She felt like it was her fault for not checking on him. Of course, I knew it was my fault, either mother answered my prayer or the devil fulfilled my wish and I had another parent’s death on my conscience.
I found enough money in my father’s bedroom to live off of for ten years but that was a decade ago and now I don’t know what to do with myself. I considered preaching but I’m not as charismatic as my father. Farming is out because I let the crops go wild and no longer have the funds to get it all up and running again. I tried a few “Work from home” jobs from the Internet but, like all else, those took more than they gave back. Frankly, with all that’s gone wrong, I can’t help but wonder if God has been coming for me all along. Or, worse, maybe it’s the devil coming for me, riding in on the backs of roaches because I haven’t been good enough.
It 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 a notice was nailed to my door. It said to pay what I owed or move out. What bullshit. I called them and got some high-pitched guy who 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. When he said he was going to make my case “a priority” I could tell he was smiling. He was as giddy as a man that had found treasure, as if my unpaid taxes were the Shroud of Turin and not some sick government trick 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 and God will see you through.” Of 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 three months, the two of them gone the same year. Somehow I still believe in God but don’t go to church anymore. I know the congregation would pray for me but it hurts to be pitied and looked down upon by people doing better than me.
Jolene’s no help. For a while she tried to keep things clean but the roaches are far more determined than she’ll ever be. She’ll sweep roaches out of the bedroom a few times a day but it only makes them more determined to get to the food she’s got in there, poorly sealed formula tins, cookie crumbs, potato chips and the like. Her kids are a world of mess.

It’s hard for me to believe I thought Jolene was my calling. I came across her 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 her kids have done is drain my reserves faster. Maybe the Lord has a plan for me, for us all, but I don’t understand it. It’s been chaos. Jolene’s kids are always screaming and crying, provoking me to the degree I might not ever find a solution.

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 jump 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 against me. I’m not a violent man but unruly kids need to be disciplined; my father taught me that much.
When I was five, 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 big splinter. When I started to cry, Emily went to get a pair of tweezers to pluck it out. Father said crying was for babies and that the Lord expected children to be diligent and careful in all tasks. Because I was still learning about life, I told him I didn’t get the splinter on purpose. He hit me hard for talking back. I cried more still not understanding, so he hit me until I stopped crying.

When Emily came back she said, “You’re a brave boy,” infuriating my father. He grabbed her braid and jerked her to the ground saying, “You’re as insolent as the boy!”

I, like all other children, was a notoriously slow learner. I’d grabbed the bottom of father’s coat and begged him to stop hurting her. He forgot Emily and turned back to me, pulling me off the ground and carrying me to the barn.

The last thing I saw was sun streaming through a hole in the old tin roof before father locked me inside an old empty feed container. The screech of its lid, a metal echo before darkness. For awhile I could hear father yelling at Emily to quit crying and then silence.
The container was the size of a sow’s belly, oddly warm and muggy for autumn, and tight. As a punishment this would have been plenty but I wasn’t in there alone. There were roaches all around me. I kicked and thrashed to get them off as best I could but the rust and grainy surface of my cage tore at my skin until, exhausted, I lay still and let the roaches crawl all over me. 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, slow moving and mysterious, a veil between this world of pain and God. I knew He was always watching.

Emily’s tears felt like sparks hitting my face. To get away from the sting of her pity, I squirmed until she put me down. She reached for my hand but I didn’t want it. I ran away from her, up the front stairs and closed myself away in my room as if she were a ghost. She was a kind but father was the strong one. I never questioned or disagreed with him again. The next morning at breakfast when he ruffled my hair I was grateful. I’ll always love my father, but I’ve hated roaches ever since.

The next time I saw a roach I grabbed my father’s lighter from an ashtray on the porch and burnt it alive. I felt like the exterminator from a TV ad of the time. I don’t recall the brand but I’ll never forget the strong man with a flame-thrower wiping out all of the roaches around him before his weapon turned back into a spray can.
Today Jolene and her kids are downstairs. The thwack, thwack, thwacking noise I hear is, no doubt, Bowie and Hendrix smashing roaches with the hammers Jolene gave them. She thought they’d help keep the roaches off her littlest ones but it hasn’t work. Nothing has. The roaches are winning.
I was about to go down there and tell them to stop putting dimples in the floor when I realized the muntin in the attic window looked 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 called them “God’s magnifying glasses.” He hung the one I’d made over my bed and reminded me, “He is always watching.”

Before my eyes, the attic’s exposed beams and peaked roof transformed into a church. My cot has become an altar. Who am I in this place? I’ve prayed for God to come but, until this miracle, all I’ve heard is the scurry of little feet, forewings, compound eyes, and antenna but He is here and I pray, Dear God, I ache for all I can’t fix, for all that I can’t do, but mostly for all that has not been revealed to me. I beg you to show me the way.

In the silence I know God has answered me. Behold the lighter and the can. How clear it all is. All that is below is beneath me, coursing black and vile. My eyes are open and my mind is clear. The ticking and clawing of everything I once feared is a siren calling me home. I am the light. I hear everything, see everything. The roach’s movements are God’s whispers. The longer I listen the more I hear, water over rocks, one finger pressed to Emily’s fearful lips saying, “Shhh,” the wind through the leaves of an apple tree, father’s searing sermon, the quivering congregation, the gasps of infants, the snuff of a cigarette on the dusty floor. I am the answer to my problems! God is the last ray of sun before nightfall passes through the dust-flecked air and His voice is mine and I am brighter than the sun.

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