Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Night With Max

At two in the morning I was ready to go to bed. I'd finished setting up a scene in my current fiction draft and transcription work awaited me for the weekend. My brain was starting to fuzz over.

I stepped into the bathroom and realized I wasn't alone. But I was ready this time. I stopped in my tracks, smiled at Max, and said, "Hello."....

Max was fairly hefty as roaches go. He (she?) was perched on the toilet tank lid, waving his (her?) antennae. I couldn't have been more nervous, and yet I couldn't have been more pleased. I have not yet heard back from the Florida Entomological Society, to whom I had sent an e-mail back in June, probably because they think I'm nuts. I wrote to them, "I'm writing to find out if there is any program available to the layperson on getting over one's roach phobia, e.g., through progressive stages of habituation."

I explained in the e-mail that I wanted to respect roaches, not fear them. My phobia extended past the actual creatures and into the realm of irrationality; even a realistic drawing of one gave me the willies. I wrote of my fantasy therapy: "maybe first watching one roach or several in a Plexiglas box, then sitting near and watching someone interact with a pet roach (I know some are kept as pets), getting to the point where I can look one in the pronotum and not be completely repulsed. I want to get used to seeing them scuttle. Eventually I want to be able to touch one...."

I added that Florida seemed like the ideal place to have a bug petting zoo -- unless it already has one that I don't know about.

I'm fine with the other critters I've encountered. A praying mantis was one of my best childhood friends. Mary and I let spiders stay in the house as natural insecticides. Not long ago I watched a stag beetle lumber across a walkway and for the first time really studied the way it moved its legs. And, although lubber grasshoppers are considered pests, I marvel at their multicolored, downright psychedelic carapace. I call bugs "sweetie" and "gorgeous" and look them up in the field guides. I've escorted back outside those crickets who occasionally blunder into the house, though sometimes they become unfortunate cat toys instead.

I do kill mosquitos -- but once, as a child, I captured one and looked at it under magnification while it was still alive. It was mesmerizing. It was translucent and graceful and I could watch its heart beating.

Roaches, however, are another story. My introduction to "waterbugs" had not been gracious. When I was a toddler my father caught and crushed them in a tissue and then ran after me, his face impish, shoving the tissue toward me and crooning, "Isn't it cute?"

Nope. Not cute. Not even close. I remember having a friend at the house for a sleepover when we were both adolescents. We snuck downstairs for a midnight snack; and before we were halfway to the fridge one of us was trying to smother a roach in hairspray while the other chased it along the kitchen baseboard, whacking at it with the edge of a tennis racket. I forget who won. I think it eventually scuttled out of sight, leaving us to ponder whether or not we really wanted to eat anything after all. In college I managed to drown a roach in Lysol, before I enlisted someone in the dorm to get its thoroughly disinfected corpse off my desk.

The only time I was able to catch one was in Woburn about 20 years ago. It sat atop my answering machine, as if to challenge me to just try and get my messages. I lived alone. I told myself, You can do this.

"I'm going to tell you this only once." I spoke softly and calmly, the way I talked to Max in the wee hours of Saturday morning. And, like Max, the roach stayed put, waving its antennae.

"I don't want to kill you," I continued. "But you are not paying rent, and I'm not looking for a roommate. I'm going to try to take you outside. And I will let you live if you promise me you won't come back or let any of your friends come in here. Do we understand each other?"

It didn't say no. Somehow I managed to get a large cup and a piece of cardboard, and was able to trap the thing. I escorted it out the front door. Thereafter, we each kept to our part of the bargain.

But that was in Massachusetts, not the tropics. According to the University of Florida's publication Least Toxic Methods of Cockroach Control, there are 41 cockroach species in this state, though "only" about six are considered pests. Mary and I salt boric acid around the house, clear away egg cases, and clean up what we call "care packages," the droppings roaches leave behind to feed their toothless young. The house is in much better shape than when we first moved in, but on occasion we get a visitor nonetheless.

Mary is a master at dispatching them -- not with tissue but with her bare hands. She is fearless. But she's also allergic to cockroaches, which motivates me all the more to get over my phobia of them. I wrote to the Florida Entomological Society, "I want to be able to do more than shriek, stand petrified off to the side, and rub myself down afterwards like someone suffering from the DTs whenever I feel a strand of my own hair against my skin."

Talking is one way I calm my fear. Naming is another. At 2AM I forced myself to look, heart thumping, at the creature on the toilet tank lid, and decided it looked like a "Max".

Mary was reading in the kitchen. I told her about our guest, disclosed my plans, and thanked her for putting up with me. I got my reading glasses so that I could see Max better. I sang to it: "I've grown accustomed to your face...."

Henry Higgins meets Doctor Doolittle meets Gregor Samsa.

"Okay," I breathed. "I'm checking you out. You're checking me out." Too many objects sat on the tank lid for me to try to capture it there. "I've got the bigger brain but you've got 60 million years of survival smarts."

I was wrong, I later discovered. According to my Audubon Field Guide to Insects and Spiders, Max had 350 million years of survival smarts. (Wendell's Yucky Roach World pins it at 280+ million years, during which time roaches have diversified into 5,000 species worldwide.)

We faced off. I edged closer, watched the ways in which Max's antennae responded to the sound of my voice. They were really quite balletic. Max was an American cockroach, a species whose antennae are longer than the rest of the body. They were really quite lovely antennae.

I watched the movements of his (her?) cerci -- little, tapered appendages in the back, which made me think they dealt with reproduction; but they don't. Cerci are highly-sensitive motion detectors, and Max's were responding to me -- though not to the point where Max felt the need to flee.

Four tiny feelers seemed to drop from the mouth: a pair of maxillae and one of labia, I later learned: ways Max had of tasting and investigating the surface underneath. Little by little I was transforming my revulsion into fascination. So long as Max didn't move quickly we were best buddies.

I bit down on a startle response when Max suddenly executed a speedy 180-degree turn, still maintaining his (her?) post on the toilet tank lid. At one point the roach engaged in some grooming, pulling down and cleaning off an antenna. I smiled, happy that Max felt comfortable enough to attend to his (her?) personal hygiene while I looked on, now at around three in the morning.

I was habituating rather well to Max's appearance, to the point where pictures of roaches don't give me the willies any more. I realized it's the scuttling that most upsets me. According to Yucky Roach World, cockroaches run at speeds of up to three miles an hour. That means that on a really hot day, if I don't want to take my normally brisk constitution, Max could keep up with me on my walks to the post office.

In fact, Pennsylvania State University gives directions on how to construct a roach racetrack as part of its Insect Olympics; and last August the New Jersey Pest Management Association held its 12th annual Running of the Roaches, in which it pitted two Madagascar hissing roaches, named Bush and Kerry, against each other to predict the then-upcoming presidential election.
"We have had an 80% accuracy rate in previous election-year races," Leonard Douglen, NJPMA's executive director told The Washington Times. "In 2000, however, the race between the Gore roach and the Bush roach was so close it was run a second time with no conclusive decision which roach had won."
(The article appeared nine days before last year's race, so I don't know how the six-legged contestants fared.)

Max and I were takin' it slow. He (she?) meandered around the tank lid a bit, before edging onto the toilet lid and out of sight unless I looked between the lid and the tank. Capturing was out of the question unless I lowered the lid.

I held onto my plastic container, feeling thwarted. We observed each other for a while. I'd learn later that Max was appraising me with compound eyes, each of which contained 2,000 individual lenses that allowed for 360-degree vision. For now I was content to lean carefully forward until I saw the waving antennae and say, "Peek-a-boo. Hello."

Were I living alone I might have been braver, but with Mary around I wimped out. I asked her to stay with me for moral support while I lowered the lid, in case Max made a run for it. I'd already covered the toilet seat opening with a piece of closed-cell foam. I put on a pair of latex gloves: my only article of clothing.

Following Mary's suggestion, we cleared items off the bathroom floor; if I couldn't capture Max he (she?) would be made into compost. A sudden movement on Mary's part caused Max to scuttle to the far edge of the toilet seat lid, which was just as well. The added distance between us gave me enough nerve to take hold of the opposite edge and slowly ease the lid down. Max stayed put for the ride.

I took a deep breath. "Hey, Max, how'ya doin'?" I thanked Mary again for putting up with me. She assured me that I've done the same for her, especially when she was afraid of slugs. She's since conquered that phobia.

Slugs don't bother me; in fact I think leopard slugs are beautiful. And they move slowly.

I kept talking to Max, short of making a formal introduction between him (her?) and Mary. We waited until Max had ambled closer to the center of the lid. I moved in -- very, very slowly -- holding my up-ended, wide-mouth container and telling myself I should really order a bug jar and bait it. (U FL calls a quarter slice of bread soaked in beer "a cockroach favorite.") When I reached my critical mass of suspense I moved.

Max was quicker. We found him (her?) hanging to the bottom of the closed-cell foam.

Mary lifted the toilet lid. I slowly turned the foam over. Max continued holding on, eyeing and eyeing and eyeing me at four in the morning.

According to Yucky Roach World, a cockroach's brain is spread throughout its entire body, with the head holding only a bit of its nervous system. A headless roach can live for as long as a week, dying finally from thirst. Prior to that it can still breathe because thin tubes -- spiracles -- are spread across the sides of its body, drawing in oxygen.

And if oxygen is hard to come by, a roach can hold its breath for 40 minutes.

When Max's ancestors first scuttled over the earth, according to, "Most of today's central and south United States remained submerged as a coastal shelf." The first amphibians ventured onto land at that time, and ancient fern forests were experiencing their heyday. Their plant matter would compact into the coal, oil, and natural gas reserves that today power the planet.

Judging from the table of Grand Canyon rock layers, only about half to two-thirds of the canyon wall's mile-plus depth had been laid down.

The atmosphere was decidedly different then. According to Evert Wesker's review of climate change, concentrations of carbon dioxide had dropped to half of what it is today, after exhibiting levels 5 to 15 times higher than present-day amounts.

So far we've traced human ancestry back around four million years. Four million for me, versus 350 (or 280+) million for Max. Talk about your "old souls."

Mary and I, young souls that we were, needed sleep. Regrettably, I left Max to Mary's expertise.

She dispatched the roach in about a minute, following a spirited chase across the bathroom floor. Max was on his (her?) back, half-mashed, still moving. Mary took hold of a tissue and crushed the body further. When she lifted up the tissue, what was left still moved.

"You might want to see this," Mary said. "She's cleaning her leg."

Something yellowish, tapered, and translucent extended from Max's destroyed hindquarters. I told Mary later that it might be the fat body, which, according to Yucky Roach World, "stores energy....breaks down nutrients to provide energy, and helps treat or detoxify insecticides that may be sprayed on the roach (no wonder they're so tough to get rid of)." Mary wondered if it was instead the prelude to an egg case: the reason she referred to Max as "she".

But all I could think of at that moment was that after at least two hours of keeping company in an atmosphere of fear and fascination, I was looking at a half-dead roach that, in spite of everything, was cleaning its leg. It seemed an amazingly, tragically poignant act.

I said, "I'm done looking. Put it out of its misery."

The tissue came down again. I moved items back into the bathroom as Mary took the corpse to the compost pile.


Blogger twila said...

I must admit, this is the most interesting, informative and fun piece I've ever read about roaches. I applaud you, both for your sensitive attitude toward bugs and your courage to face your fear and work on it.

I'm not nearly as evolved as you. After living in the tropics for more than half of my life, I'm only now getting brave enough to kill a huge palmetto bug roach (little ones don't faze me) without screeching like a little girl.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I squish squash bugs with my bare hands, like I'm the mother of butternut! But a cockroach, I'd rather die! I remember the big ones in Florida when we visited my grandmother in Hialeah. I think they were tree roaches, bigger and not as fast as the house ones. One of them lived in the car and we named him Freddie.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Great post! Cockroach phobia is so widespread, I'm wondering whether it might possess some evolutionary advantage, like fear of snakes.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

This is terrific (in all the senses of the word :->)

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, that was the most interesting roach story I've ever read. Actually, the only roach story I've ever read, but interesting, nonetheless!

10:12 AM  

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