Greg Jenkins

The December Editor's Pick Writer is Greg Jenkins

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greg Jenkins

by Greg Jenkins

I know for certain that my husband’s death was caused by the cockroaches. 

Oh, now don’t misunderstand me; I don’t claim they killed him deliberately, thinkingly.  Roaches aren’t capable of that! But over the years, their mere presence in our home, despite our best efforts to get rid of them, grated terribly on his raw nerves. Ralph was an excitable man with a diseased heart, and he simply couldn’t contend with those sly, scuttling little things that so resisted him.

We lived in a mill town. Our house was situated on a knoll directly across from the gaudy mishmash of buildings, rail spurs, pipes, chimneys, ducts and surreal doodads that comprised the paper mill. Aside from the queer view, our closeness to the site had a number of disadvantages, most of which we considered minor. Twenty-four hours a day we could hear and even feel the throbbing drone of the heavy machines; the water in our aquariums trembled as if struck by a fever. Because of a mysterious radio interference generated within the mill, no cordless phone was usable. Sometimes an odor that reminded me of a dead skunk would rise from the plant, envelop the neighborhood and penetrate our house—ugh! And thick, barmy clouds of steam hissed through the teeth of metal mouths and floated dependably in our direction; we used to wonder what toxins might be lurking in them. The PR people, all of whom lived somewhere else, explained that the clouds were harmless.

One way or another, we dealt with these annoyances. We ignored them, accepted them, defied them outright. Ah, but the mill, with all that delectable starch in its stockpiles of timber, was also the teeming source of the roaches. The roaches, I’m afraid, proved a much more difficult challenge for us to overcome—especially for my husband.

I truly doubt if anyone in this world has ever loathed and feared cockroaches half as much as Ralph did. Not that we had oodles of them, mind you—there were a scattered few in the basement, a couple in the kitchen—and not that many people savor their company. 

But let Ralph notice even a single roach in our house, a brownish blur on a tabletop, and you’d have thought the full moon had just gleamed at a werewolf. His eyes would bulge, his face would contort, and he’d let go with this savage, guttural growl. Automatically at such times I would retreat to the farthest corner of the room and try to make myself as flat and inconspicuous as the wallpaper while he stomped, stormed, snarled and spat. He was heavyset and muscular, and quite often he scared me.

“Those damn things are so different from us,” he might mumble later in bed, after he’d calmed down. “Completely different. They’re armored; they have antennae. They’re like…alien life-forms.”

“They’re insects,” I might say. What else could I tell him?

“Peculiar things,” he’d mutter. “Filthy…alien,” and he’d turn away from me.

About twice a week he’d suffer a nightmare that would terrify not only him but me. Bathed in an icy sweat, he’d spring up in bed with a loud series of gorilla grunts and grab repeatedly at his tongue and mouth. 

The dream, I gathered, was always the same: that a massive roach had crawled into his open mouth as he slept. So vivid and so disturbing were these episodes that, for a while, he insisted on pressing a length of masking tape over his lips before retiring. He finally abandoned the tape because it impaired his breathing and because he kept having the awful dreams anyway. Never once did we actually find a roach in our bed, and for that meager blessing I’m thankful still. Let me tell you, if we had discovered one, particularly at night, it would’ve been Ralph’s death and mine too, then and there.

Like most of the town’s workforce, Ralph held a job at the mill, where he operated a “chipper.” From what I could tell, a chipper was a large device that featured a high-speed metal disk mounted with knives. It was his duty to direct the nonstop loads of pulpwood through the chipper so the whirling knives could slash the logs down to platelets the size of fingernails.

What must the roar be like? I would ask myself. Equal to the screams of how many people? 

Of course, working at the mill created an inner conflict for him, worsening his tensions. He wanted to rail angrily against our roach problem, and indeed he did rail, every chance he got. But what sort of line could he adopt with the executives at the mill? The mill was the breeding ground for the pests, true, but it was also the provider of Ralph’s income. 

As he was aware, the feral fits he threw at home might not have been received so tolerantly at work. He needed to remember that the company owned our house and rented it to us for next to nothing. Our money, our home…I can only imagine what the little lightning bolts in Ralph’s chest must’ve felt like every time he asked his superiors to send around an exterminator.

Which they always did, by the way, and without hesitation.

Yet the results of fumigation were never a match for Ralph’s demands. What I mean is, although regular treatments acted to control the roach population, they never could eliminate it. Refusing to be annihilated, the roaches would withdraw for a week or two, sometimes not even that long, and then come surging back, stronger than ever. Oh, and make no mistake, my husband was anything but shy when it came to sharing his frustrations with the poor exterminator.

“What in God’s name have you been spraying ’em with?” Ralph asked sarcastically on that bright, fateful Saturday afternoon. “Vitamins?  Steroids?”

He and I were seated at our kitchen table while the blue-uniformed exterminator, a man named Arnold Looper, stood next to the sink looking ill at ease. He’d made the mistake of arriving early and was now waiting politely for Ralph and me to finish lunch so he could carry out yet another treatment.

“Not at all,” said Mr. Looper patiently, wearily, and he began describing a family of chemicals called carbamates, and specifically a substance known as propoxur. “Supposed to be highly effective against roaches that have developed a resistance to organochlorines and organophosphates, which is apparently wh—”

Just then, as if by magic, a long stout roach appeared on the table and stood placidly between Ralph’s plate and my own, its antennae slowly wobbling in the air. My husband shot to his feet, white-faced, shaking.

“Highly effective!” he cried. “Look at that!  Look at…”

“I see it,” Mr. Looper said awkwardly. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“I want you to exterminate it!” Ralph yelled. “You’re an exterminator. Exterminate it!”

“Well, but how should I go about…”

“Ralph, please.”

Exterminate it!” Ralph bellowed.

Frowning, Mr. Looper tugged off one of his stained and clunky work shoes and used it to bash the insect—bang!—right there in the middle of the table. Gooey roach innards went spewing every which way.

No, I haven’t any idea what Ralph was expecting, but this solution had absolutely caught him by surprise; that much I can assure you. His eyes, his entire face, went blank, and in another second he collapsed as if some invisible giant had whacked him with a shoe. I watched in numb disbelief as he bounced off the linoleum. Dead? At that moment Ralph was no more alive than the mangled roach that oozed above him.

Strange the memories we glom onto from such emotional occasions…the phosphorescent details that glow at us in the dead of the night! While Mr. Looper scrambled off to dial 911, I stood feeble guard over my husband’s body. His shocked mouth was partially open, and the possibility that another roach might happen along and do what Ralph had always feared, commit the violation…No, I couldn’t allow it. It would’ve been too gross an indignity. So I kept a close watch until help arrived.

Sometime later, a doctor with hard eyes and a nose that poked at me like a scalpel took me aside.

“Mrs. Earwig,” he addressed me in a knowing voice, “the wonder isn’t that your husband died so young”—Ralph had just turned forty-eight—“but that he survived as long as he did. That ticker of his was worth about a buck eighty-seven.”

The doctor gave me this information as if to comfort me. Can you imagine? As if hearing such words might bring me peace! 

Besides myself, only two mourners attended the funeral: my sister Naomi, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in years, and Mr. Looper. Evidently my husband’s antics had distanced us even more than I’d realized from our friends, relatives and neighbors. Not a soul from the mill showed up.  Commenting on his own moist-eyed presence at the ceremony, the kindly exterminator said that although he and Ralph had not been close, he nonetheless felt a deep and abiding connection to my husband. In retrospect, I don’t wonder at it.

Naomi was a widow herself, with a windblown puff of dense white hair that reminded me of those steam clouds the mill liked to send wafting at our house. She meant well enough. After a respectful passage of time, she began taking me here and there, having me do things, meet people, participate in wholesome activities. 

The two of us went to plays, concerts, open houses. With her at my side, I donated blood to the Red Cross Bloodmobile, played bingo at church, ate bratwurst at a local ethnic festival, sat in on a singles’ meeting held at the library. (I’m no party girl, but honestly—what kind of singles meet at a library?) Naomi, may God love her, seemed to enjoy herself, but I always felt hopelessly out-of-place. Wherever we went, I felt as if I’d stepped out of a spacecraft and onto another planet.

Gently I separated myself from my sister, even as she’d withdrawn from me years before. It was nothing personal. I didn’t feel ready to get back into the “swing of things” as she laughingly put it, and frankly doubted that I ever would feel that way. 

From living with Ralph, attending to his needs, desires and (shall we call them) eccentricities, I’d seen my own world shrink to the modest scope of our infested house on the hill. My house, I should say. Beyond its walls lay complications, dangers. I guess I’d developed a touch of agoraphobia—is that the word? Whatever, I nursed hardly any bitterness, almost none, at what my state had come to; one’s state always comes to something, doesn’t it?

Naturally, the roaches persisted, and so the periodic visits from Arnold Looper continued. After the funeral, we never spoke of my husband, of his tragic end. But we were in some ritual way linked, Mr. Looper and I, by the simple recognition that we’d been there for Ralph’s demise—that we’d partaken of it. 

Our relationship was suddenly more than professional, though maybe not much more. I began to call him “Arnold,” and he started calling me “Joyce.” We took to yakking with each other for long periods about TV shows, the weather, happenings at the mill. When I asked what had led him to the extermination business, he gave me an impassioned reply about his early and ongoing fascination with science. He was really a very intelligent man.

Handsome, too, with his curly black hair (I wonder if he touched it up), his military-style uniform and his big tank joined to that long dark hose. He was witty, charming—a mesmerizing conversationalist. Perhaps I let my notions run away with me to tropical places where I shouldn’t have gone.

At some point I began to have him come by more often than was strictly necessary to contain my roach problem. I don’t think he minded, though; besides, he was accustomed to making frequent stops at the Earwig residence from his years with Ralph. Usually, before he sprayed, I could persuade Mr. Looper to sit with me at my table where we had apple crumb cake and coffee with chicory in it. Sometimes he would use these occasions to discourse, in the confident tones of a university professor, about the various types of pests and the means of combating them.

“Pests go back a helluva long ways,” he told me once. “The Bible says: ‘Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.’ Moths, you see? Course, the Greeks found they could use sulfur—burn the stuff—as insecticide. And Pliny the Elder mentions that gall from green lizards would protect apples from worms.”

“Were there roaches in those days?” I asked.

Mr. Looper munched his crumb cake. “Roaches,” he said solemnly, “have been around since the birth of time, and they’ll still be going strong when the human race is nothing but dust.”

“My goodness. Arnold, tell me again the chemical name for propoxur.”


“I just love the way it rolls off your tongue.”

“Aw, Joyce.”  His rugged face alight with embarrassment, he had a generous sip of coffee as if to prepare his lips for the effort. “Ahem. O-isopropoxyphenyl N-methylcarbamate,” he said.

“Yes . . .  Again.”

He said it again.

If my husband had been afflicted with dreams, I now fell prey to visions. Lovely visions that teased and haunted me. I was kept awake in my bed by enchanted vistas, hope-filled scenarios, dawn-shaded potentialities. But I won’t describe them to you, no, I won’t offer another syllable about them, because their fabric was pure foolishness. Dreams, visions—either way, where’s the substance?

Mr. Looper seemed both interesting and interested. He was warm, worldly, considerate and responsive—rare traits in an exterminator, I should think, and not too common across the general run of humanity. Yet there was also about him a distinct reserve; he was slightly more formal than he needed to be, a hint more guarded than I would’ve hoped. Supposing he was bashful, I took a cue from soap operas and assumed the initiative myself.

One day as he was about to leave, the familiar chemical scent expanding mildly through the house like the fragrance of roses, I stopped him in the doorway.

“Why don’t I cook for you some evening?” I said.

He looked at me as if I had just switched languages to Zulu.

“Cook for me? Some evening? Why?”

“Well,” I stammered, “I—I thought we might have a nice meal together. Something more than just coffee and…”

“A date,” it dawned on him.  “You’re asking me here on a date?”

I blushed. He lowered the tank he was carrying in one sinewy hand; the hose flopped free. Dangled.

“I don’t think Sharon would approve,” he said.

Now it was my turn to be lost and confused.  “Sharon?” I blinked. “Who’s—”

“My wife.”

I glanced again at his hand.  “But you’re not wearing a ring.”

“Oh, I hate rings,” he smiled. “But I love my wife.”


Time went by, gradually and then swiftly.

I had adequate money from the insurance—Ralph had done that much for me—and I knew of a grocery store in town that delivered. More than ever, I kept to myself. If I had to venture outside for any reason (to collect my mail, put out my garbage, water my flowers), I would do so only at night. When I needed to communicate with others, something I seldom did anymore, I relied on my phone.  I wasn’t so much afraid of the world as weary of its ways, mistrustful of its tawdry tricks and illusions.

I fell into the habit of sitting at my kitchen table late into the evening, all the lights extinguished, staring sullenly at the shadows and allowing my mood to shift from one bleak shade of gray to another.

Thinking, too: thinking what could one cling to in life? Where was stability? Where was permanence? Was there anything, anywhere, that could weather the assaults of time? I flirted drearily with a turn toward religion but realized I had no faith in faith. On a certain Friday night—by then it must’ve been early Saturday morning—I decided that my life was an empty shell and would best be thrown away.

Just then, a lone cockroach scooted across the floor, misty moonlight glinting off its folded wings. Passing in front of the sink, precisely where Mr. Looper had spread a liberal dose of his poisons, the roach drove ahead like a miniature M-1 tank. Unaffected.

All at once I began to smile.

That very day I called the library, the same one where those depressing singles had met, and requested that several books be brought to the house.  (“But I’m a sick woman,” I told the cranky librarian. “Can’t you please deliver them?”) 

Soon I began to acquaint myself more properly with the roach: with its five major, and irrepressible, families—Cryptocercidae, Blattidae, Blaberidae, Blattellidae and Polyphagidae—and with the more than four thousand known species that live and prosper throughout the world.

“Nature’s perfect machine,” one of the books pronounced the roach, and who was I to argue? It could survive gallons of pesticide designed expressly to kill it, I read, ungodly extremes of heat and cold, blasts of radiation that would fry a human being to a crisp. It could eat almost anything or almost nothing. Cut off a roach’s leg, and a new leg will regenerate. 

In fact the dismembered leg, if the nerve and thoracic ganglion are kept intact, is itself able to learn simple tasks. Scientists have proven it! And if something unfortunate does happen to a roach—like getting squashed on a kitchen table, for example, by an enormous shoe—the loss doesn’t matter, not at all. In many species, every mature female lays loaded egg cases, or oothecae, at intervals of a week or less. Swarms of new roaches are always emerging.

Toughness. Resilience. Resolve. Indomitability. An unwavering commitment to carry on in the face of countless hazards and pitfalls. The more I thought about roaches, the more honored I felt that they had chosen to live with the likes of me.

I began to collect them, trapping them in quart jars lightly coated inside with petroleum jelly and baited with slices of banana or chunks of white bread dipped in beer. For a while I kept my collection in a medium-size cardboard box; when the colony grew, I drained the water from my three aquariums, scrubbed them out and turned them into upscale shelters. (The transparent glass was a delightful bonus.) 

To enhance the appearance of the containers, I decorated them with bright, colorful ribbons and tiny trinkets. At first I used tongs to pick up individual insects for examination; later, the tongs became superfluous, and I used my bare fingers. I spoke to my roaches and sang to them, hoping to make their new home as pleasant as possible.

“You’re my inspiration,” I once told them. “You’re my strength. I love each and every one of you.”

My confession was still hanging in the air when someone knocked on my door. Through the window I saw that my visitor was Mr. Looper. I went to the door and opened it.

He seemed flustered. “Joyce,” he said, “I hadn’t heard from you in a while, so I thought maybe I’d drop by, see if anything was…” 

Staring frozenly past my shoulder, he’d fixed his eyes on my aquariums, which were crawlingly alive. “What the . . .”

“My pets,” I said.

For several seconds he said nothing. Finally: “Joyce, you’ve got a problem here.”

“Not so much.”

“You need help.”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty of help.”

I opened my hand to show him a superior specimen of Blattella germanica, its integument a warm, autumnal shade of pale yellowish brown. The tarsi tickled my palm. I was about to disclose that I’d named the little fellow after my late husband, but Mr. Looper didn’t stay to hear me.

Greg Jenkins is the author of four books, the latest of which is the novel A Face in the Sky, published in 2016 by Harvard Square Editions. He has contributed dozens of short stories to such literary journals as Prairie Schooner, Prism International, Chicago Quarterly Review and Mensa Bulletin. He has also had several plays produced.