The Girl Who Cried Roach

My mother is terrified of roaches. I don’t use that word lightly – terrified. I don’t know of any other creature that can make her scream in fear as can a simple roach. Big or small, fast or slow-moving, they make her squeal and cringe with several levels of horror. For my whole life, I have been puzzled by her seemingly irrational fear. Afterall, roaches are just bugs. Not that different from potato bugs or beetles, really, but in her mind they are different enough to make her scream.

One day, when I was young and still living at home, she had gone into the restroom after coming in from the yard. She only been in there for a moment or two when we heard a blood-curdling scream from behind the closed door.

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Is that a roach in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

We jumped up from whatever we were doing and raced to the door. “What?! What?!” we yelled back at her.

“Something-jumped-out-of-my-pants-at-me-tell-your-daddy-to-get-in-here!”

We carefully opened the door, expecting to see a frog, tarantula, or some other menacing, red-eyed varmint. Instead, we saw her, standing on the side of the bathtub, guarding herself with the shower curtain.

The look on her face told us that the brief moment of fright was somehow over, and she said sheepishly, “I thought it was a roach, but I think it was just a cricket.” I never really understood how the cricket was somehow a better in-pant guest than a roach. Thinking back to a story they once told me, I realize that this deap-seated fear of hers may have been instilled in 1970, shortly after my parents were married.

During this time, they lived in an apartment building on Birmingham’s Southside. Their  complex had roaches; it had enough of them, in fact, that they had a can of roach spray in their bedroom of all places. The first time she ever took their trash to the dumpster after dark, she made the mistake of looking behind her at their building’s exterior wall; she was not sure, initially, what she was seeing, because the wall seemed to be moving, but then she realized that the movement was not her eyes playing tricks on her, but was actually thousands of roaches. That was the last time she ever took out the trash.

My mom describes the type of roaches they had at this apartment as “Palmetto Bugs,” and perhaps you know what those are. They are large and dark in color, and for that extra bit of creepish wow factor, they also fly.  Apparently they are very dumb as well, because this kind of roach, in my experience, will scamper or fly straight toward you.

My dad was taking classes at UAB in addition to working, and my mom worked at the phone company. They both usually came home after dark. The time they lived in this building preceded the semi-affordable modern convenience of air conditioning, so they kept their screened windows open, even when they were away at work. This was not effective at keeping roaches out, but it probably made the summer heat a little more bearable. In any case, one evening my parents had returned from work, and they were getting ready for bed. They didn’t have a proper bed, but only a mattress and box spring on the floor, and a single bedside table that held an alarm clock. Their small, .22 calibur pistol was sitting on the bedside table beneath a window, which was covered with a blind. From the inside, the blinds were tilted down (meaning that anyone outside could see in, as long as they were looking down), so my mom walked over to the window to pull the cord so that the blinds would then tilt upward instead.

My mother pulled the cord to switch the blinds from down, closed, to up, closed. As she did this, she saw something either in or through the blinds that terrified her and took her breath away. Still holding the cord, she pointed at the window with the other hand, unable or unwilling to speak. All she could do was to point, and point, and point.

Well, my dad knew just what was happening, so he picked up the can of roach spray that was somewhere on his side of the bedroom. As he rounded the bed in preparation for his spray-assault on whatever was lurking in or beyond the blinds, my mother was able to whisper the words, “There’s somebody out there.” My dad realized that when she had flipped the blinds, she had seen not a roach, but a person, standing on the other side of the screen, only inches from her, looking in. Whomever was standing outside must have thought that my mom didn’t see him, because he didn’t move from his spot until he heard my mother whisper those words.

They heard him begin to run away, so my dad, rather than pick up the pistol, took off out the door after the would-be intruder with the can of roach spray in his hand. The man, luckily for himself, had managed to get out of sight quickly, avoiding a faceful of poison. Perhaps a squirt of roach spray from between the blinds would have been a quicker bet, but like some of those big roaches, it might have just made him mad.

 

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