It’s remarkable how convincingly, at 3:30 in the morning, a dead, brown, rolled up leaf can pass for a monster cockroach – complete with layered, translucent, glistening wings; curiously twitching antennae; flexed and ready legs prepared to jet across the floor in search of my bare foot or the nearest crevasse. Even more remarkable is how quickly my heart leapt into my throat at the first sight of it.
But more amazing still is that less than three minutes after my first encounter I returned from the kitchen with a glass of water and suffered the exact same reaction to the exact same leaf.
Now, at 3:45 in the morning, with my heart racing but my thirst quenched, I sit at the computer writing rather than sleeping because it will be a while before my pulse quiets enough for me to resume sleep and laying awake in the dark thinking about roaches just ain’t my cup of tea!
I will remain awake, probably for the remaining 105 minutes until my alarm goes off because I can’t stop thinking about a non-biting, non-stinging, nonpoisonous and by all accounts harmless insect. Which, as far as I know, isn’t even in my apartment.
When I was 16 years old I worked for a short while in a to-remain-unnamed fast food restaurant in Chattanooga – one of a young, growing southern chain specializing in chicken filet sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Our store prided itself in its cleanliness and was particularly sparkling on this particular week as we had just scoured the entire place in anticipation of a visit from some of our company honchos from down in Georgia which had at the last minute been cancelled.
It therefore came as quite a surprise when Will, my best friend and one of the closing crew, spotted a medium-sized cockroach on the wall in the back room, right next to where we breaded filets for frying. Had our manager been there, I’m certain we would have quickly killed the intruder and alerted the captain, but on this night the closing authority was Michelle – a young girl no older than myself who was new to the job and not one we saw any need to impress or brown nose. So, rather than kill it, we decided to catch it.
I approached the roach with a cup my hand, thinking that I would trap in against the wall, slip a piece of paper underneath the cup and then pull the cup and paper away from the wall with the roach safely trapped. The first part of the plan went as prescribed and the roach was swiftly and easily trapped, but as I was about to slip the paper underneath, I realized that the roach had never moved – not at my approach, as the cup came down around it, not even now that it was trapped. This, of course, raised several questions.
Clearly a great deal of air pressure would have been created by the slamming of the cup. Could this pressure have squeezed the exoskeletal armor of the roach enough to have caused internal damage, killing the roach instantly? Could the trauma induced by the simple knowledge of being captured been enough to cause cardiac arrest and death? And if either of these things had happened, wouldn’t a dead roach fall off the wall? And if a dead roaches don’t fall off walls, was the roach dead when we discovered it and if so, why don’t we see dead roaches all over walls everywhere roaches live? And, perhaps most importantly, if it was already dead, did it die from eating the chicken?
After pondering these questions for a minute or two, we decided to remove the cup and see for ourselves if the roach was alive or dead. Expecting a mad dash behind the shelves, I was flanked by Will and Kevin, each double-fisting cups and prepared to quickly re-contain the prisoner should it escape.
Slowly I lifted the tomb. The roach remained motionless on the wall. A ploy? We watched it for a few seconds then Will poked it with one of his cups. It took off running. And fast. Luckily, Kevin was there and slammed another cup down over her. We could hear it scurrying around the perimeter of her cell. One lap. Two laps. Three. Four. Then silence. After a minute passed without any movement, Kevin lifted his cup. Once again, she did not move. Then I got a great idea.
“Let’s tape it to the wall.”
We didn’t discuss my proposal. We didn’t need to. Will went to the desk and found a roll of packing tape then came back to the wall where Kevin had replaced the cup just to be sure and I was standing guard in case… well… just in case. Will tore off a piece of tape and handed it to me. Kevin lifted the cup. In one swift motion I placed the tape over the roach, sealing it against the wall on all sides.
We stood silently and proudly over the victim of our prowess for a moment until Michelle looked around the corner and suggested that we get back to work, which we did.
This all happened on a Saturday. The restaurant was closed on Sunday and Will, Kevin and I were off on Monday and Tuesday. Now one might expect that the Monday morning crew, upon seeing a roach taped to the wall in the back room would take appropriate measures to remove the offense. One might also think that our boss would have had questions for us. But on Wednesday, when the three of us returned to work, the roach was still taped to the wall and there were no questions, no comments.
Now there were several possible motivations for why none of our coworkers removed the tape and the roach – curiosity, fear, entertainment value… just to name a few. And it is entirely likely that our boss simply never noticed the tiny transparent tomb given that his job did not frequently include breading filets. Whatever the reason the others had for leaving it, we decided for the same reason that led us to capturing it that we too would leave it there.
A week after the night of the capture, the roach was still entombed (and presumed dead) and Michelle strongly suggested that we remove it from the wall. The dignitaries from Georgia had not come the previous week as expected, she explained, and it was rumored that they had re-scheduled for the following Monday. We agreed that we did not want them to arrive and find a dead roach taped to the wall above the breading station and I volunteered for disposal duty.
The tape was still sealed on all sides of the roach, just as when I had applied and there was no sign of any struggle. The roach was perfectly archived there and I assumed that removing the tape would remove the roach as well and then I could just toss the whole lot into the trash. But to my surprise, the tape came off smoothly and the roach stayed on the wall… and then… began… to run. After a week of food and oxygen deprivation, the roach was alive, aware, and off to the races, moving faster and straighter than I had ever seen (or have since seen) a roach or any other insect move. This time, unfortunately, I had no protection on my flanks and no cup of my own and the roach made a beeline for the shelves, behind which it disappeared, never to be seen again.
Two years after my roach encounter, I found myself living for one semester on the campus of Tennessee Technological University where my dorm held the distinction of producing for several years running, the winner of the all-campus cockroach race. I suggested to the captain of our team that research I conducted while in high school, uncovered the secret to cockroach training and I thereby guaranteed that if given the opportunity, I could produce the fastest cockroach TTU had ever seen. But I was a freshman, he was an upper classman and my chicken-feeding-followed-by-deprivation training regimen would not be followed. So our cockroach was trained without my assistance or advice and finished third – breaking our string of victories. And although my dorm-mates were humiliated, I was somehow satisfied with the knowledge that, if given the chance… just maybe… I could’ve won that race.
Now, almost exactly twenty years later, I’m reminded of all this at 3:30 in the morning because I was frightened by a dry, brown, rolled up leaf on my dining room floor and more questions are surely begged. Had that leaf been a roach, what was there to be afraid of? Perhaps the idea, twenty-two years ago, that a roach was able to defy death and live to be a champion is somehow frightening to me – that any creature could exhibit even the possibility of immortality.
Or maybe roaches are just plain creepy and I don’t want them creeping around my house, in the dark, when I’m usually asleep or, if awake, barefoot! But now it’s morning and the sun will be up soon so I’m going to put on my shoes and make some tea.