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Illustration by Russell Christian.

Jim Knipfel's books are available from Amazon.com:


Ruining It for Everybody, Jim Knipfel's 3rd memoir. An anti-spirituality spiritual manifesto.


The Buzzing, a novel about an aging and embittered journalist who stumbles onto what may be the story of a lifetime.


Quitting the Nairobi Trio, available in hardback or trade paperback.


Slackjaw, available in hardback or paperback. Also available, Blindfisch, the German translation.

You can also send email to Jim Knipfel

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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

The Cockroach Theory of Humanity

 

When I bent over to grab a new plastic bag for my empties, I caught an unmistakable whiff.

Aww, crap, I thought.

The bag I was reaching for was in a plastic crate in a corner of the kitchen. Two and a half years ago, there had been two crates stacked in that corner, both of them stuffed with plastic bags. Both crates had been there–the bottom one untouched–for about eight years. Then I discovered that the bottom crate had become home to hundreds upon hundreds of roaches.

Since that very bad night (when I finally decided it was about time to get rid of that bottom crate), things had been okay. I replaced the roach traps in and around the remaining crate on a monthly basis. No bugs had appeared in my morning coffee, the cat’s water dish or any other obvious place. Not that I saw, at least. But when I reached down to grab that bag, I couldn’t help but notice the sharp tang of roach piss.

It was a Saturday morning, and Morgan was on her way over. Nobody (apart from me) had been in the apartment for more than a month, and I guess I’d let things slide a bit. The floor was covered in cat hair and grit and stains of various sizes and colors, the sink could’ve used a scrubbing and the shower curtain was beginning to frighten me.

Those things vanished from my mind, however, when I smelled the alien urine.

Aww, crap, I repeated, still bent there, holding the bag. Then, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke–that I hadn’t just gotten lost on my way to the bathroom one drunken evening–I picked the crate up and looked beneath it.

What should’ve been a clean patch of white tile floor looked more like one of Braque’s early cubist paintings. It was a carpet of brown and black, with no white tile to be seen. Worse, the edges of the patch were moving.

I–calmly, I thought–set the crate back where it was and, whimpering quietly to myself like a cocker spaniel, took a step backward to figure out what to do next. Fortunately, I’d been through this before.

I had no cans of bug spray around (none that worked, at least), so I was reduced to a more low-tech approach. I grabbed a handful of paper towels, got down on my hands and knees, lifted the crate away from the roach carpet again and slapped the towels down on top of it. There was a light crunching sound as several dozen exoskeletons shattered. I scooped up what I could, tossed it into the crate, then reached for another paper towel as the surviving roaches scrambled for the darkness. I began to sweat very badly.

After gathering together what I could of the roaches, both dead and alive, I ran the crate out into the hallway and dropped it there, trying not to leave a trail of filthy insects along the way.

I scrubbed that corner of the floor four times, smashing any stray roaches I happened across in the process, then scanned the area closely. Once I could finally detect no evidence whatsoever that this corner of my kitchen had, until recently, housed a mighty nest of roaches, I went out into the hallway again, grabbed the crate and walked it outside to the garbage can. The initial idea was simply to dump the contents, but hang on to the crate. But in the process of dumping the old bags out, as each newly revealed layer discovered a new extended family of bugs, I changed my mind and dropped the whole thing in the trash, hoping nobody had scampered up one of my sleeves. Then I returned to my apartment, washed my hands obsessively, sat down at the kitchen table, still shaky, and lit a smoke.

Jesus, I hate that shit.

Morgan arrived a bit later, we had a fine afternoon, and she saw no more evidence of insect life (I’ve asked her to tell me if she does). Still, that night I lay in bed, scratching at random itches on my arms, legs, under my hair, on my eyelids. And as I lay there scratching, I began to think back to my old "Cockroach Theory of Humanity." It explains quite a bit, if I do say, even if it does so in an asinine manner.

The theory goes a little something like this:

Consider the roach. It spends most all of its life in a well-circumscribed darkness, crawling around a kitchen (for instance). Across floors, on countertops, under sinks. But what does it really know about its surroundings? I’m sure it has some primitive knowledge, along the lines of, "This is what I walk on," "This here’s food," "There’s water over there," "I can escape the light by going over here."

(I don’t really believe that roaches think in complete English sentences, or that they have any sense of self–I’m just trying to make a point.)

That’s all they need to know. Perhaps it’s all their primitive wiring allows them to know.

So what do they make of the kitchen they crawl around in? The plumbing, the sink, the refrigerator or utensils? And what do they make of us, stomping around in the kitchen? Nothing, really, I’d guess. Probably not even the fact that when we appear on the scene, they tend to die. They know nothing of our goals, our fears, our motivations. We’re–again I’m speculating here–little more than another force of nature to deal with. Not only do they not understand a damn thing about us, they’re incapable, by the very nature of their construction, of understanding anything about us. We know more than they do because they live in a world that we have created.

Now consider the human being. We scuttle about on the surface of the planet, make shelters for ourselves, go on vacations, eat, drink, screw around, sleep. A lot of very strange things happen in the meantime–things that make no sense to us whatsoever, but there they are–a rain of frogs, strange diseases, bizarre fashion trends that seem to come out of nowhere. In order to deal with them, people tend to turn in one of two directions–either toward some form of religion or some form of science–to find an answer.

Me, I tend to turn back to the roaches.

Take the whole "god" business. Most people seem to think that there’s some brand of powerful deity "out there" who takes a personal interest in our scuttlings-about, who will punish us for bad behavior and reward us for good. But who’s to say that the universe as we know it isn’t just some guy’s kitchen? And who’s to say that "God" isn’t just this guy? Some guy leading a normal, boring life, going to work and watching the tv when he gets home. A guy with a pair of comfortable shoes, maybe an aging, incontinent dog, a wife and a couple kids, who occasionally steps on us as he passes or pulls out the can of cosmic Raid. Maybe that’s all plagues and natural disasters are–a little dose of Raid. Or maybe he puts a cosmic roach motel down in a corner of Africa, slowly wiping out one-third of the population.

Not only don’t we understand that this is what’s going on–we are incapable of understanding. Same with science. We come up with some fancy language, make some fancy guess. A few years later, we make up some new ones to keep things interesting.

Even so-called psychic phenomena, if you want to consider that anything. That’s just it. I have no problem in accepting the fact that very peculiar things (like psychic phenomena, or gravity) happen–but I absolutely reject the claims of anyone who believes that they can explain them, once and for all.

Man–and what if the guy whose kitchen corner we live in is himself a roach in someone else’s kitchen? It’s like stacking damn turtles.

"Now you’re talking like a stoner," Morgan told me the next day as we sat at the bar. Thinking about it–actually going to the trouble of writing it down–I can see how right she is about that. I’m an idiot. Worse, I’ve read short stories in early issues of Omni magazine that proposed pretty much the same theory, albeit in different terms. And Morgan was able to cite some movies in which stoner characters propose the same theory.

Yet despite its cheap silliness, its blatant stoner stupidity, it’s a theory I enjoy, one I hold dear even while sober, one that leaves room for tragedy without worry, victory without unnecessary pride. It just makes things easier. In the end, what it is, really, is a theory that allows me to look around at a pretty shabby universe and say (with a shrug), "Eh."