I love animals. Kitties, puppies — those are easy. Cows and pigs? Sure thing. Pigeons? I feed ‘em where I see ‘em and ignore the scowls. (I eat ‘em too sometimes but that’s a different essay.) Zebras, giraffes and macaques? All good.
Spiders? I couldn’t kill one if you paid me. Snakes and lizards? AOK. I confess to not being crazy about ants but Mama got very mad when my brother and I used to employ magnifying glasses to, well, heat them up, so I’m Switzerland where they’re concerned as long as they leave me alone.
There are only two critters I despise, and I despise them both quite a lot.
First come the cockroaches. I was born in Houston, whose dampness made it a cockroach wonderland. And while I am sensitive to the predisposition among Texans to boast about our state, where cockroaches are concerned it is the absolute truth that the cockroaches in Houston run in the range of four inches, larger in some of the more moist neighborhoods. And they fly. Houston cockroaches are larger than many bat species and they are far less attractive than the bats, and they fly.
They hide in your shoes so that when you put them on you feel wiggliness and at first think your sock is bunched up but as you twitch your toes and that doesn’t make your socks feel any better you wonder what’s happening until, even as you keep your foot still and the wiggling continues, you realize that something else, something unthinkably repulsive, is going on. You remove your shoe, and if you’re lucky a roach corpse tumbles out. Roach corpses are crispy like certain cookie-and-chocolate candies, and when you pick them up in a Kleenex their legs and wings will fall off and greenish-tan juice will drip from their abdomens, requiring you to get paper towels and quantities of cleanser to wipe up the mess. You will also need to throw your shoes away because no amount of scrubbing, steam or cleanser could ever remove the grossery that now surely exists in the recesses of the infected shoe. Your socks will also have to go.
If you’re not so lucky—and this is the far more likely scenario—when you tilt your shoe and shake it a little the cockroach will fall out, not injured or dead but in fact quite invigorated. Odds are he will never hit the floor because he will take flight, circling your head a few times just for the fun of it, grazing your forearm or neck, before departing for another closet or the kitchen.
The kitchen is where your cockroach will have the most fun. In my experience he will most likely hide behind the cereal boxes. In the morning, when you just want breakfast to start your day, Mr. Roach will emerge with a new, impish sense of purpose. Before you can close the cupboard door he will zoom forth like a rocket, and because his aim is good he will make contact with your face or neck, or possibly, if you’re a woman in your house dress, your shoulders. He likes to focus on the upper body areas when he isn’t in your shoe.
You will drop your box of Special K and recoil in horror and in this case you might make contact, if only because the violent flailing of your arms could generate a downdraft. You won’t kill the cockroach but there’s a chance you will stun him enough that he falls to the floor. Here you must act quickly because Mr. Roach has merely lost the round. The fight is far from over.
You have precious seconds to react and you must rely on reflex; don’t think about it as you reach under the sink for the roach spray. Grab the can, remove the cap, aim, and fire. It is important here not to imagine yourself deploying a revolver, even one of a large caliber. No, you must shift into Gatling Gun mode. Hold the trigger like William Holden did at the end of The Wild Bunch. You might not win but you’ll go out fighting, nobly, your teeth gritted. Growl as you fire.
If you’re not prepared to give the roach on the floor ten seconds of spray, you might as well board up the house and move to Reno.
This is not to say the roach’s life will end immediately. On the contrary, ten seconds of insecticide applied liberally will as likely drown him as take him out chemically. It is actually a great pleasure to be able to watch from close range a cockroach wiggling his last. I remember many pleasant instances in childhood Houston, leant over a gasping, flailing, helpless cockroach.
Unless you have a cat or dog who might be tempted to look on the wet crispiness as a snack or a toy, it’s nice to leave the roach alone so you can check back in during commercials to see if he’s still alive. He won’t have gone anywhere, and if you’re lucky you’ll have a good half hour more of theatrics to enjoy.
Now that I think of it maybe it isn’t an accident that I lump roaches and mosquitos into the same barrel of hate. I do hate both animals and they both happen to thrive in Houston, where I was born and spent at least the first eight years of my life.
Only days ago I described in these pages my extreme antipathy toward mosquitos. They sit at the pinnacle of my detestation—they buzz and bizz around it, anyway—because they attack. Roaches disgust me but mosquitos attack me.
As I type I am in the bar tabac in Fitou, the site of last week’s onslaught against me. The tree outside is still full of birds—you definitely wouldn’t want to sit beneath it—but there are far fewer six-legged Messerschmitts aloft now. Either they don’t like the cooler weather and the wind that came up, or the birds got off their asses and launched a counteroffensive. Either way, I’m happy.
I took my first hike in the arrière pays—the back country—today, carrying lunch to a spot I like in a vineyard about two miles from my apartment. While I was sitting there, munching on a radish and admiring the hills and reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, I felt something on my arm that most definitely was not a wind from the Pyrenees.
All in a flash I understood what was there, and before a French cat could say miaou I reached and grabbed.
It would have been sufficiently satisfying if I had withdrawn my right hand from my left forearm to find a smushed mosquito in it, but no. Without even trying I found myself with Moby Dick between my fingers and she was alive!
Having discussed only recently my dream of dismembering a mosquito in ways that would confer upon it the most possible pain and unpleasantness, I immediately considered options. I photographed it, of course, so that in days hence I might print and laminate the images and brandish them at future assaulting swarms like a huntsman flashes a cross at a vampire.
I spent a solid minute thinking about torturous options, not to mention manipulating my camera with my left hand. I watched as the wretched creature writhed and tried with her five free arms to extricate herself from my grip. But I was overcome by a wave of weakness. I rolled my thumb and forefinger together, and in an instant elle est morte. I flicked the remains into the vineyard, wiped my fingers on my jeans, and went back to my wine and my book.
This was of course a French mosquito, and my universal love of things French would normally give these insects a pass, but the issue of mosquito-hate transcends manmade constructions like national borders.
I just now remembered leeches and I am confident that I would hate them, too, if ever I were to have an encounter with one.