In my house, there was my mother, my father, me, and about fifty million roaches. My mother was mostly interested in them. While I was asleep, dreaming my Atari dreams, my mother was planning her attack. Ajax, Raid, Mr. Clean. Like any general or captain, she got up at dawn with war on her mind.
But as many souls as she took on the battlefield, hundreds more were being born. It was the roaches’ primary method of attack, laying eggs squirming with babies. My mother tried too, she was pregnant after all, but it was nothing compared to what the roaches could do.
During the day, the apartment was ours, but at night, we went to sleep, and the roaches took over. In the bathroom in the middle of the night, or the kitchen, there were roaches covering every inch from the tile to the floor. There were the young ones that looked like the tips of exclamation points with their eyes like little dots on the sides of their heads and older ones that looked like cheap wood paneling.
Some nights, my mother would plan a sneak attack. She’d come into the kitchen quickly, quietly and snap on the light. The roaches would be like lovers on the last night of summer, partying up and down the refrigerator, soft and crunchy underfoot. They’d be dancing on the countertops drunk on crumbs. That’s when my mother would strike. The cockroaches would run to hide. Most of them would survive.
“Let me tell you,” Saima’s mother said as she scratch, scratch, scratched Saima’s head. “After I used the bomb, I didn’t see roaches for months. Now they’re back, but that was a good summer.”
Our mothers were checking our hair for lice. I loved the way it felt when my mom scratched my head like this. It was the softest she ever touched me. I was torn between wanting to fall asleep and wanting to keep feeling her hands moving through my hair.
The sun streamed in through the living room windows. We had orange curtains, and the light that came in was melting orange like an icy pop. Saima sat next to me sitting straight up, watching TV, her eyes fixed on Woody Woodpecker laughing.
“Bugs, bugs everywhere,” my mother pulled an egg out of my hair and cracked it against her fingernail. Tik. It made a popping sound. “These I don’t mind. At least they’re contained in her little head, and the ants, they only come in when it’s raining. But the cockroaches—they’re in the food, in the pots, everywhere.”
Saima’s mother agreed. “We never had these roaches in Pakistan,”
“Hmmph,” my mother nodded but didn’t look up from my scalp.
Saima’s mother squished another egg, then said, “You should do the bomb.”
“The bomb?” My mother looked up, as if she hadn’t heard Saima’s mother the first time. Her pregnant belly pushed against me.
“You put it in all the rooms. Then you close the windows and take yourself and the children out of there. If you do it overnight, it kills all the roaches.”
“All the roaches?” My mother stopped scratching through my head. I shifted closer to her fingers, so she wouldn’t stop.
“You and the children could stay with us.” Saima’s mother made a quick pinch. Saima winced and we both turned to look. There was a huge lice scampering away on her mother’s palm. Saima’s mother grabbed it and snapped its head off.
“No,” my mother said, “We couldn’t stay at your house.”
“Why? We stayed with you.”
It was true. Saima’s family lived with us last winter, for reasons I still didn’t know. My mother nodded, and started looking through my hair again, but I could tell, she was barely looking. She was thinking of the roaches.
My mother sent me to the bodega first to see if they had the bomb. She gave me enough money for a gallon of milk. Then, not knowing how much it would cost, she counted out ten ones. I walked to the corner carefully, as if I was carrying a basketful of eggs, afraid of dropping any of the money.
The bell rang when I walked in, and the smell of wet cardboard hit me in the face. The man with the gold tooth was at the front counter, cleaning his fingernails with some matches. His friend, the man with the black patch on his eye and the mustache that curled up, was next to him. They were speaking in low angry whispers.
The door slammed behind me and the bell rang fierce. They stopped talking and the man with the gold tooth’s eyes lit up, “Ah, look who it is. My girlfriend!”
I felt even more embarrassed now to ask for the bomb. Even though the man with the gold tooth knew we had roaches. It was no sin. Everyone in Corona did, but buying Raid meant we had a little problem and buying the bomb meant the roaches were winning.
I said a quick hello and hurried to the milk fridge in the back. It hummed fluorescent like an alien ship. The flashing light and song of the fridge went in sync. I opened the glass sliding door with its crumbs and black tar in all the corners. The gallon was heavy and smooth. Milk pulsed out of the plastic. My mother didn’t know how to read English, but she had taught me to look for the numbers, the expiration date, even though she said “espiration.” I checked it. “Good until September 9.”
The cat watched me, then lunged into the corner. She had caught something, a water bug or mouse. I didn’t wait to find out. I ran back to the counter. I stared at the plastic glass display case with all the penny candies, waiting for the men to notice me.
Finally they looked down, and I swallowed my pride. “Do you sell the roach bomb?”
The man with the gold tooth leaned towards me. “You got a problem with the roaches baby?”
“This country is full of roaches,” his friend said, then cursed in Spanish.
The owner started pulling items off the shelf behind him. There were boxes and tubes, sprays and hoses. All of them had pictures of cockroaches dead, their antennas twisted and red.
The man with the patch picked up the spray. “You see this? You know what they use to perfume this? Roses. They make it all romantic for the roaches before they poison them. Just like women who put on their perfume before they eat your heart out with their—”
“Hey watch your mouth, brother,” the man with the gold tooth said, “That’s my girlfriend you’re talking to. Don’t turn her against love. I’m going to marry her some day.”
“Marry!” the man with the black mustache leaned over the counter until I could see his nose hairs and imagine the bloody mess behind the patch. “Don’t ever let anyone trap you.” He picked up the roach motel. “Cause once you get in, you can’t get out!!” He started cracking up.
I smiled. I’d seen the commercial where cartoon roaches pulled up to a cartoon horror movie Bates motel.
“You bastard,” the man with the gold tooth said, but he was laughing too.
The front bell rang. I looked and couldn’t believe it. It was Julio, a boy from my school I had a huge crush on.
Julio went up to the owner and kissed him on both cheeks before he saw me. When he did, he looked flustered. “Hi.” He’d just gotten a haircut and I could see the blush spread up his neck.
“Hi.” I stammered. The owner looked at Julio, then at me. He started laughing. All his gold teeth shone out into swollen points of light. “Ha, ha, ha. Ah, man love ain’t any of those things. Love is- ”
I didn’t stay to hear what love was. I left everything on the counter and ran home.
I told my mother they didn’t have the bomb at the bodega, even though it meant I’d have to go to the place I hated most in the world: Key Food with my mother.
My mother was ferocious in the house, a small demon woman. But outside, I’d watch her shrink. Like a forever expanding and shrinking Shrinky-dink. She didn’t know how to read English, so she brought me with her to make sure she bought the right bomb.
There was no sign dangling above the aisles, that said, “Roach bombs,” so we walked through every one. There were aisles with meat wrapped up in cellophane, aisles with boxes and boxes of cereals and cookies, and one aisle filled with sponges, toilet bowl brushes, and detergents. It was here that we found an entire section for poison: sprays, traps, and roach motels.
I picked up a box and showed it to my mother. It didn’t say bomb. Saima’s mother must have made that part up. It said: “Fumigator.” I figured that was what she was talking about.
“That doesn’t say bomb,” my mother said. She’d caught me. She’d started watching Reading Rainbow during the day, so she knew bomb started with a B, not an F.
“Ammi, they don’t call it the bomb. They call it ‘The Fog’. Only Saima’s mother calls it the bomb. Look.” I showed her the pictures on the back of the box. One had a hand putting the bomb in a room on a table. The next picture had the gas coming out. The last one showed a picture of dead roaches. The pictures convinced her more than I could.
She turned and looked for her way out of the aisle. “Okay, let’s go.”
We walked up to the checkout. The cashier glared at us. She was an older lady, Italian. Life had not meant for her to be behind the Key Food register. This was her time to sit back and enjoy her respect. She should have been resting, wearing black in mourning for her husband. Instead, her sons were good-for-nothings living at home. Her daughters were living in sin somewhere in Queens. Her grandchildren were playing videogames, and the Key Food store manager told her black was too depressing to wear to work. She had to wear cheery colors like maroon or aqua.
The Italian lady looked at my mother and I saw my mother shrink in her eyes. The roach bomb was on the counter. I wanted to tell the lady what I’d heard Saima’s mother saying: There were no roaches in Pakistan, but something stopped me.
I moved next to my mom until I felt stuck to her side like a mouse caught in a glue trap. The woman rang us up. I tried to smile at her, to see if it would work like it did at the bodega. It didn’t. She frowned, and I moved closer to my mother who didn’t seem to notice. She was just focused on getting the bomb and getting home.
When we walked out the store, I looked at my mother. For a moment, the self she was inside the house became the self she was on the outside. People on the street stopped and looked at her. Like a bulb, a wetness, a wonder. She swelled with purpose, and I saw her the way the roaches must have seen her, as a giant.
Saima’s mother came over the next morning to help my mother. They put all the dishes away in plastic bags and taped them up. They shut the food tight and opened all the doors of the cupboards and the drawers. Then they carefully set a bomb in each room, two on the tiles of the kitchen floor, one on the small dining room table, one in each bedroom, a sentinel.
Saima and I were playing Barbies in the corner, in the tiny space between the sofa and the radiator. I was getting too old for Barbies, but when Saima and I were together, we still played. Our Barbies did everything, fly, swim, jump across valleys and ravines, but today Saima wanted to play a new game where the Barbies had to run from the Teddy Bear who grabbed them and rubbed against them until they screamed.
Our mothers were busy in the kitchen, so they didn’t notice. Barbie’s plastic legs thrashed against the Bear on the sofa. Saima stopped and looked at me. “If you sleep at our house, you’ll have to sleep with the spider.”
“It crawls up your legs and onto your stomach.”
“There’s no spider that does that!”
Still, I looked for my mother. I could see her in the doorway of the kitchen, laughing. Her pregnant belly moved up and down. She was packing up the pots as if she was going to a new place, a better place. I swallowed my fear. I would do anything to make her happy.
“How do you stop the dream spider?”
“You make yourself go to sleep. You just tell yourself it's a dream.”
After dinner, all the grown-ups sat around the tea table drinking chai. Saima’s father was telling stories from our fathers’ university days in Peshawar. Our mothers were laughing. Everyone was stuffed and happy. Saima’s mother had outdone herself, made biryani and keema, tandoori chicken in the oven and kebabs. Soon, the table was covered with empty cups of chai and an almost empty tin of Denmark butter cookies.
Saima’s uncle had just come from Pakistan. He reached for the tin and ate the last sugar-crusted cookie. He was young and had a thick, bristly mustache. The crumbs from the cookie got lost in the hairs above his mouth. He kept looking at me over the table in a way that made me want to run to the bathroom and pee. I put my face in the crook of my father’s arm.
While our mothers took the empty cups to the kitchen, Saima’s father turned on the VCR and put in a movie. “This is the one everyone’s been buying at the store.”
It was a scandalous movie, filled with fight scenes and cabaret dance numbers. I watched the heroine of the movie. She had a job at a nightclub and her main conflict was that two friends loved her. The one she loved was in prison. When he was released, he came to see her at the cabaret. She was wearing a red sequined dress, singing, holding a microphone easily in her hands, disco lights swinging over her head. The movie was long and soon among the tashoom tashoom of the disco and pistols, I fell asleep. A fight scene woke me up, but then I fell back asleep curled up next to my father.
At some point, I was lifted up and put into a bed, then fell asleep again. When I woke up, the room was cold and my parents were gone. I felt the bristle of hair, of something against my leg, like the tiny feelers of spiders. I froze. The spider crept up my leg and over my stomach. I wanted to cry out, but I couldn’t move. Saima was asleep next to me. I could hear her breathe, but I couldn't look at her. The hairy spider arm crawled over my body.
I was frozen like a roach on a wall. In my house, the roaches were dying, falling right down in their place. The smell of roach poison was in the air. Everywhere there were bodies, roach feet worrying the air.
I willed myself to sleep as Saima told me I should. I imagined myself in the sun with my mother searching my hair gently. I saw a mother lice scampering across her palm, getting smaller and smaller. Then I got smaller and smaller, too, until I was gone.
AJAX, RAID, MR. CLEAN
“This story uses humor for a serious purpose, namely to show how easily children can become the victims and prey of pedophiles.”
— Jeffery Renard Allen, prose judge