I place my dog’s food bowl on a mat that has a shallow rim around it. The rim catches the food she noses out of the bowl, which, when she’s angry at me for having been away for too long, amounts to about a quarter. It’s the most belligerent act of revenge that occurs to her and a lot of food to waste. She probably supposes this annoys me about the same amount that my daily work absences annoy her. Even Steven. But I think she puts herself accidentally over the edge when, in lapping water from its nearby dish, she wets the food down. Soggy Cheerios of salmon and chicken, pooled in a grotesque soup contained by the mat’s rim.
I left the food rotting in the water too long, and it was time to clean. I turned the mat over, and three American cockroach nymphs scurried from it to hide behind a bookcase to the mat’s north.
I moved some blinds slats standing beside the bookshelf, and five more roaches fled behind it.
I moved a decorative canoe paddle I’d forgotten I own, exposing fifteen or so more of the insects.
I moved the bookshelf itself and discovered the nest from which the vermin had been emanating — a wall of writhing, winged abdomens.
I flew into a mortified Kurtzian rage — “Exterminate all the brutes!” — grabbing a yellow can of Raid, spraying and shielding my daughter — who stood on the couch across the room — from the interlopers.
I removed books from the shelves and shook ten more from the pages. The creatures dropped to the floor, not knowing I’d resigned them to an excruciating demise, and flitted off to curl over, their legs upturned in deathly question marks.
I arrived in Dallas in 2017 from places that don’t have cockroaches, having recently been discharged from the Navy, now a graduate student in environmental studies, trying his best to be a good intellectual. I had arguments with people on political topics I knew better about. I was carefully crafting the image among friends, love interests, and coworkers of an iconoclastic intellect forced to participate in Western capitalism, conform to its conventions, subjugate nature. The tragic environmentalist. The projection enjoyed, where he could, small silos of resistance to this system. An apartment full of obscure and sophisticated literature, a kitchen designed with vegan living in mind, attendance at protest marches at City Hall.
Nevermind I had read maybe an eighth of my books. Nevermind that I cheated in my diet. It was a hard time making it work. I’m too passive to be an iconoclast. I’m too unorganized to cultivate a garden. I don’t make enough money to live downtown, in more intentional environs. So I scrounged to make up what I could — I covered my walls in large posters that depict some of the world’s disappearing creatures — pangolins, aspen groves. I hid the parts of myself that didn’t fit this story in drawers, under tables, a couch, a bed. I went hiking and brought back tokens of the outdoors — interesting twigs, dessicated insect corpses, bits of rock from the area’s blackland substrate and the layer of chalk that undergirds it, displaying them tastefully on my mantle.
But vermin, antithetical as they are to the clean human story, didn’t belong even in this semi-corporal lifestyle. Most people probably don’t weave into the stories they try to enact close quarters with roaches. With the exception of natural or artificial laboratory environments, vermin have a welcome place only in stories people don’t want to be part of, those that involve meth dens or sewers. That’s where the vermin belong. They are the enemy.
So I declare war on the roaches when I see them. They’ve besieged my home, immersing me in a psychedelic irony not unlike that of Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. Samsa, having transformed into a cockroach, felt besieged in his own room by his mother and sister who were there to simply move out his furniture; their “going to and fro, their little calls to each other, the scraping of the furniture on the floor, all these things made him feel as if he were being assailed from all sides.” The attack is imminent, the sum zero. Raid and heavy cleaning chemicals do the work for me. Frequent scrubbing. My society has set me up to fight this battle; it has given me, through a set of values based on the attributes certain people find attractive, a story to enact. Through its industrial revolution, it has given me the tools.