Illustration by Russel Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
A few weeks ago, I started noticing a bad smell in the apartment. Not the whole apartment--it was very localized. Just the corner over by the refrigerator. It was the unmistakably sharp odor of urine.
There are quite a few things over in that corner that might've been causing it. I checked the cat box, and it wasn't that. I washed and rewashed all the tools I use to clean the cat box, and it wasn't any of those. It wasn't coming from anything inside the refrigerator.
At first I thought maybe one of the cats had pissed in the corner. If so, that might be a bad sign. But as the days passed, I didn't notice the smell anyplace else in the apartment, so maybe it was an isolated incident. Then I thought that maybe I'd pissed in the corner in a moment of blind and drunken confusion. Still, I could find no real evidence to back that theory up, either.
Last weekend, I took a bucket filled with hot water and bleach, and scrubbed the entire area. At first it seemed okay, but soon the stench of piss returned, overpowering the clean, fresh scent of a newly-bleached floor. The odor was growing worse by the day.
All the while this was going on, I'd been noticing a sudden and disturbing eruption in shameless, public roach activity.
I'd never had much of a serious roach problem--none that I'd been able to see, at least. A couple years ago, I accidentally ate a big bowl of roaches for breakfast, but after that bit of ugliness, I started keeping the cereal in the refrigerator, which seemed to solve that problem.
Now, however, it was getting out of hand. When I got home from the bar Tuesday night, I discovered a few more roaches floating dead in the cat's water dish. That wasn't so uncommon. Bothersome but not peculiar. But when I picked up the dish to wash the tiny brown corpses down the drain and refill it, a tiny swarm of the creatures--alive they were, and some of them mighty big--scampered around the sides of the dish, over my hands and up my arms. The following night, as I was walking my dinner tray back to the kitchen, another two suddenly appeared on the back of my left hand. I had to do something about this. I'd put it down to the weather--the cold driving them inside--but that wasn't good enough. Things had never been this bad before, and as usual my cats had been no help at all.
So the following Saturday I went to the store to pick up more roach traps, only to discover that there were none to be found. I went to three stores, and could only find "Outdoor Ant Stakes," which were of absolutely no use. I went back home, empty-handed, to face the roaches and the stench of piss unarmed.
I was coming to the conclusion--slowly, but I was getting there--that everything was simply falling apart once again. Everything was crumbling around me. My health was in a free-fall, the place stank, and I was being overrun with vermin. There was nothing I'd be able to do to stop it.
Late Saturday afternoon, I was watching the television, working on a beer. In an hour or so--about 6:30--a friend of mine was going to stop by and pick me up, then we were going to pick his wife up, and the three if us were going out to dinner. We'd been talking about it for awhile before finally getting around to scheduling it.
When six o'clock arrived, something went a little wacky in my head. It was one of those flashes of insight which, however logical, if not exactly brilliant, always come at the worst possible time.
I thought I might know what the problem was. I stood up, turned off the television and walked into the kitchen, setting the empty beer bottle on the table.
I keep my empties in a plastic grocery bag which dangles from the doorknob of an unused door next to the refrigerator. Actually, I don't even know if you can really call it a "door," since it was painted shut long before I ever moved in here.
Beneath the hanging bag of empties rest two stacked plastic milk crates. When I first moved here with my then-wife eight or nine years ago, she placed them there, and I never questioned it. The top crate held more grocery bags--paper and plastic alike--some of them waiting to be filled with empties, some of them waiting for whatever other use I might find for them in the future.
I had no idea what was in the bottom milk crate.
It had been there for nine years, and I had never once looked
inside it. Now I thought I had to, convinced that it was there
that I would find the answers I was looking for.
The bottom milk crate was black and alive, swarming with what seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands of roaches. A veritable blanket of cockroaches, sliding, crawling, slithering over each other in an attempt to escape the light. I usually can't see them when they work individually, but this, yes, this I could see just fine.
I grabbed a corner of the crate, lifted it off the ground, where a few dozen other roaches dashed for the darkness. I ran the crate out of the apartment, then downstairs and outside in my stocking feet, where I dumped it.
The odor was still lingering on the stairway when I got back inside. As I ascended the stairs again, it all made sense, and I suddenly realized how stupid I had been.
Over the course of the past nine years, as I dumped my empties in the bag on the doorknob, I'd occasionally miss, or spill the dregs of my beer onto the bags in the top crate. That beer would filter through the bags, through the holes in the bottom of the crate, onto the plastic bags which (I'd just discovered) were packed tight into the bottom crate. That beer, being as it is, a roach aphrodisiac, had been ingested, digested and excreted down there for nearly a decade. (Morgan pointed out to me later that I had unknowingly set up, not just a roach motel, but a whole goddamn roach apartment complex, complete with restaurant, swimming pool and bar. I'm such an idiot.)
I sat down at the table until the shaking stopped. Then I put on my shoes and coat and wet outside to wait for my friend to arrive.
The next morning, I decided to clean the rest of the bags out from the remaining crate. Just remove that source, that home, for good. I didn't think it would be a big deal, since most of the nasties seemed to be living on the lower level.
I grabbed a big garbage bag from beneath the sink and reached for the first handful--large shopping bags which had been crammed in along the sides. The moment I jostled them, however, I could sense that my problems were far from over. The little vermin were scattering. I think I broke up a big party of some kind. I started grabbing loose bags and shoving them into the one I held, praying that none of them would make a dash up my arm, then up my neck into my eyes and mouth. They were everywhere. There were more bags crammed in there than I realized, and each time I uncovered a new layer, I also uncovered new layers of roaches, each level revealing dozens more. The numbers were adding up too fast as I got closer to the bottom.
I wanted to yell and cry and puke in my horror, but I knew I couldn't. I had to get the job done. As long as I couldn't see them, I was fine. Now that I could see them, though, things weren't fine, and I was seeing them pretty damn well.
Soon the garbage bag was full, and I tied it off and ran it outside with the others from last night. I returned upstairs, grabbed the empty milk crate, and stomped on the few stragglers hiding beneath it who were still milling about. I ran the crate into the bathroom, dumped it in the tub and turned on a scalding shower. I didn't know if it would do any good or not, but hell, I figured, it couldn't hurt. While all the disease was being washed off the crate, I scrubbed my hands obsessively for awhile.
When I figured the crate had had enough, I turned off the shower. I let it dry there for a few minutes, then sprayed it inside and out with Lysol ("Fresh Herbal Scent," which I'm certain will keep them away for awhile). Then I returned it--a bit hesitantly, but I had no choice--to its corner beneath the bag of empties.
Later that morning, I returned home from the grocery store, happy in having finally discovered some roach traps. I put the milk and the cereal away, set the traps aside to deal with later, then dumped the empty grocery bags into the crate.
Way I figure it, if it took the little bastards almost a decade to overrun my place, well, then, that means that I have another ten years before I have to deal with it again. And who knows where I or any of us will be in ten years? We might all be living in a roach-free paradise on the moon!