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Love and Pestilence

by Nabeela M. Rehman


Manny started to walk down the line of tanks, looking at the shelving, the tops of the tanks, noting the pellets and, perhaps, traces of cockroach activity? “In the case of cockroaches, we must take a multidisciplinary approach. No one method will stop them. They have been around for 300 million years. Whatever destroyed the dinosaurs didn’t get to them. They know how to survive.”

Satisfied with his inspection, Manny now made his way to the door, entourage in tow. “We’ll use many approaches, but again focusing on the three motivators: eat, drink, sex. Elimination of the cockroach requires persistent dedication.”

“More like fanatical dedication,” muttered Leonard.

“What’s that, son?” The exterminator had his hand on the doorknob.

“Nothing,” mumbled Leonard.

“How soon do you start?” asked Robin.

“I already have, darlin’, I already have.” He opened the door wide and winked at her.

Robin was grinning.

As they exited the tank room, ladies first, Manny said in a business-like tone, “What one person calls demolition, another person may call renovation. We are moving these cockroaches on to the next plane of existence.”

They stood awkwardly together in the hall. The exterminator clapped his hands together and rubbed them, “Now, Alice, can you take me to the storeroom where you keep the fifty-pound feed bags? I’ll need to examine those and determine how to fumigate them.”

“Yeah, sure, right this way,” said Alice. She turned and walked down the hallway, the exterminator in close pursuit.

Leonard shook his head. “What a weirdo!” he said to Robin. “I think he’s spent too much time in the War on Insects.”

“I don’t care what he does,” she replied, “as long as he gets rid of those bugs, I will be happy.”

Leonard shrugged. “Connor said he was unconventional.”

“I like his boots.”

Over the next week, Leonard would often see Robin and Manny together in the morning, their heads nearly touching, in deep conversation. Manny seemed to be doing most of the talking, Robin nodding in agreement.

Late in the afternoon, just before Leonard would take his dinner break, Manny would again appear, this time with Alice in his wake. He was giving instructions and she was writing furiously on a small pad of paper.

I go home in the middle of the day and try to sleep off this despair, as one would sleep off a migraine headache. I wake up after an hour. I make myself a strong cup of coffee and drink it all, every drop. Pick up that inspirational book and try to read. After three pages, throw the book on the floor and sleep again.

The exterminator preferred to work very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Manny was always cheerful and friendly in the hall, but he never stopped to chat. He was determined and focused, but Leonard never saw him with any of his equipment. He did all the spraying, or smacking, or whatever he was doing in a silent and completely unobtrusive manner. And he was consistently cheerful, even whistling sometimes.

Because they eat their dead, and the feces of the dead, once one bug is poisoned, then at least forty others will be killed from their comrade’s remains.

You whispered, “Actions which seem cruel may often stem from sincere friendship.”

The glue box traps disappeared, and within a few days there was a dramatic decrease in the insect population. When he opened the door of the tank room, Leonard was not greeted with the typical click-clack of insect abdomens. The tranquil tank room hush had returned. Despite the reduced numbers, Leonard never saw a single cockroach corpse.

The next morning Leonard went into the fish room and smelled a faint odor of peppermint. Or was it rosemary? He couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t smell bad, only unusual coming from the tank room.

Spike the poison with growth inhibitors because this arrests them at the teenage stage of development with an all-consuming appetite. It reminded me of my brothers, when they played basketball and came home to drink a quart of milk in one long chug.

You murmured, “Can you feel it? A new life begins for them, boiling with promise. They are drawn by forces they cannot understand to that which they truly love.”

That afternoon Leonard was at the printer waiting for his microscope pictures to print out. Alice was typing at the computer next to the printer. She wasn’t typing, it was a rapid hunt and peck method. She clearly had never learned to type properly.

“Hey, Alice,” said Leonard, “how’s it going with the exterminator?”

Alice was preoccupied with the keyboard, “Yeah, okay, I guess.”

“Is he still reciting poetry to the bugs?” Leonard had meant to sound light-hearted, but Alice suddenly looked at him sharply. She scrutinized him for a few seconds, then she said, “Manny feels that poetry keeps him grounded in the moment.”

He wanted to laugh at this New Age baloney, but Alice was so serious that Leonard couldn’t. His first picture was slowly rolling off the printer. He fumbled with the page and asked, “What kind of poetry does he recite?”

She turned back to the keyboard. “He likes Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet. Only Manny says he gives it a ‘cowboy spin’ to keep it real.”

“Mmm. Never heard of him.” Leonard wished the printer would move faster.

Alice glanced at Leonard. “Do you read any poetry?”

Leonard dropped his print-outs on the floor. He scrambled down to collect them and said, “Me? Ah, I have a hard time just keeping up with the scientific literature.” That answer sounded awfully boring, and at that moment, Leonard did not want Alice to think he was boring. “When I need to relax, I like to go mountain biking.”

Alice nodded and seemed more interested her computer screen. Leonard grabbed his remaining papers off the printer and retreated into his office.

Seek them out in their nests; the eggs will be poisoned. They live in cracks. Put poison into their homes and seal the cracks.

“We have spoken many words, the two of us, you and I. But words are no preparation for the way that you must go, for the way that I must go.”

Three weeks out, Alice seemed different somehow, more apt to smile. It was as though a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Leonard always thought Alice was a bit too chubby, but now he realized she was quite athletic. She rode her bike into work and always took the stairs. Her round, rosy cheeks complemented her cheerful smile.

By the fourth week, Leonard didn’t see Manny at all. However, that Friday, Robin was in a foul mood.

“Aren’t there any natural predators?”

“House centipedes and geckos,” you said. “But what are those critters going to eat after the cockroaches are gone? I’ve heard of someone training their cat to hunt roaches, but that is going to depend on the temperament of the cat. And I don’t think one cat could eat all the bugs you have in this place.”

“Are you a night fighter? How should I greet thee? If you love sleep, I’ll be your nightmare. If you love food, I’ll be your stomach ache. If you become water, I’ll freeze you. Turn into ice, I’ll shave you. Rainbow snow cones for the neighborhood kids.”

Alice was in the tank room, mopping. Leonard was counting his transgenic fish to see whether he had enough for his next time-course assay. “What’s wrong with Robin?” Leonard asked Alice.

Alice looked around the room, and when she was sure they were alone, she whispered, “I think she had a thing for the exterminator.”

“Really?” said Leonard. “I haven’t seen him around.”

“He only comes early in the morning, around dawn, as soon as the lights switch on,” said Alice. “He doesn’t keep your 10 a.m. to midnight schedule.” Leonard blushed. Alice continued, “I think Robin changed her schedule so she could bump into him.” She paused, then added timidly, “I don’t think he’s that into her.”

Leonard shrugged. Robin was too assertive and let her emotions control her life. During stressful situations, one had to keep a sense of balance.

Leonard said to Alice, “I think you’ve done a great job handling this whole extermination thing, I mean, you know, there was a lot of pressure to get this thing solved. And it’s working.”

“Thanks,” said Alice as she looked down at her mop, her face beet red.

You know this is the only way we can communicate, yet you choose to say nothing. You have nothing to say to me because you don’t really care. Not Truly. It’s just some kind of conquest thing to you. I am just one speck among many. Nothing special here, just move it along, move it along. I don’t count anything in your thoughts. You never think of me. You never dream of me, you never give me the slightest bit of anything in your day unless I am right there, in your face, and then of course, you are forced to deal with me.

You never ask me questions about me. I am only here to entertain you, like a monkey with a drum. Entertaining, distracting, the jester. Tell me a story, make me sleep. My life is some little game to you, and you laugh at me when I take it seriously. My troubles are nothing, my feelings are nothing, I am nothing. Dust dust dust.

I tell myself I feel like nothing, but it’s not true, I feel angry. Big hot angry-fire angry. Burning mad because you don’t talk to me and you don’t think about me and you don’t care. I’m like those little spark-dust-pop! From a bonfire. Blazing red hot, but too small and insignificant to start a real fire. Fiery dust motes burn out, revealing their true nature. Ashes.

I am such a fool.

Why do I go on?

This is madness.

How can this possibly be love?

Do you love me enough to see me? When time has ravaged my outside body, would you love me enough to see those parts of me that time cannot change? Time and disease change everything, not just the body, but personality and mind drift in the carnage. Will the soul remain unchanged, despite the work of time?

On the Day of Judgment, what will we be left with?

Will I recognize you?

Will I recognize my own self?

The following Tuesday, the lab was seated around the break room, ready to start morning lab meeting. Leonard and Alice were holding hands under the table.

Connor walked to the front of the room and cleared his voice. “I was talking to Mrs. Kim, and it appears that the cockroach infestation actually started in her kitchen.”

There was a collective gasp from around the room.

“Apparently she got a discount on some rice from China, and it turns out many of the bags were contaminated with cockroaches.”

Robin pounded her fist on the table. The loud thump silenced everyone. She started shouting, “I can’t believe she could be so irresponsible! Doesn’t she realize what she put us through? Is she going to pay for the exterminator?”

Connor shook his head. The look in his eyes was pleading for Robin to stop shouting, but Robin wouldn’t let up.

“What if this happens again? Will she pay for it?”

Connor said, “I don’t think it is going to happen again. Besides, we have a one-year guarantee from the exterminator.”

Robin twisted back in her chair, arms crossed, inconsolable.

“Look at this!” you said, casually, playfully. You were holding the corner of the black mat. I looked down at the floor, no scuttling of carapaces, no dead bodies, just the pale beige concrete floor. My curiosity had pulled me closer to you, and I saw the blue-gray tattoo lines winding around your wrist. You always wore long sleeves.

I wanted to ask you about the tattoos, but the moment I looked into your eyes I could feel your enthusiasm wither away. The mat fell from your hands. You wouldn’t meet my gaze, you kept looking over my right shoulder, and suddenly I had the distinct feeling that you wanted to strike me. The palpable hostility made me take two steps backward, as though I was trying to avoid a blazing fire.

You walked past me and stood at the sink. I sensed you wanted to push me. With both hands griping the edge of the sink, were you somehow restraining yourself?

“So they’re all gone?”

You wouldn’t look me in the eye, but you nodded. As you talked, you focused on the sink drain. I noticed you had popped some blood vessels in your eye: a bright red patch of angry capillaries just above the brown iris.

I felt you would like to grab me by the shoulders and shake me. If you could, you would slap me across the face, cuff me on the chin, box my ears.

You don’t know me and you don’t know what I am capable of. You think me so small, and yet I am a Great Soul. How odd that you are so blind.

Copyright © 2013 by Nabeela M. Rehman

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