It stayed unmoving, transfixed, not skittering away as roaches usually do as it seemed to trust the young woman. Slowly she took one finger, reached out, and with studied deliberation crushed the life out of a small cockroach on the apartment wall.
After the young woman had killed the tiny roach, she burst into tears. She asked for forgiveness; she had never meant to ever harm any living creature. “Surely, even a roach has a soul,” she thought. Since childhood, she had prayed constantly for everyone she knew and for all living creatures. She prayed for her Mother’s recovery from the injury inflicted by brain surgery. Perhaps, this was why she prayed so much for this little roach. There were consequences to this kind of compulsive praying.
She named the dead insect “the Apostle Barnabas,” revealing a slight trace of the influence of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, of which she was once been a fan. She was falling apart emotionally to be so distraught at the death of a mere cockroach, even if she were the agent of its death. A psychologist wrote in his notes that at that time she was involved in Satanism. Of that, she was innocent, and she did not know then what he had written. He did not pick up on her being religious; he knew she was an ardent fan of the Gothic soap opera that featured a vampire character, Barnabas. She gave it up because of therapy. Her relationship to roaches, though, would continue.
Miriam Wexler had always been one to have strange capricious thoughts. She had never had much feeling for roaches, although their darting movements scared her like mice did some women. For her, she would be happy enough if all roaches and the little cockroaches would lead their separate lives away from her home. Certainly, she did not want them to multiply within her home!
As a young child, she did not hurt them, though. She once saw a caterpillar change into a chrysalis, break forth out of its cocoon, and emerge as a new creature. As for roaches, she wondered sometimes if they could transform, too.
Roaches had always been part of Miriam’s life. When her parents’ marriage failed, some roach eggs had accompanied them in their furniture when the mother and child moved back with her mother’s parents. Although her grandfather once burned all of her toys because he thought the cat might have infested them with fleas, he did not throw out that furniture even though he knew it introduced roaches to his home. These belongings were all that they had. After repeated sprayings and by not leaving out food, years later the house was finally “bug-free.” He died soon afterwards.
Miriam had led an isolated childhood. While her grandfather was alive, she never felt lonely; he, and later her mother, were her constant companions. He would take her fishing or hiking over the land where later the lake stood after the dam was built.
Her grandmother, Ramah Spindor, always had trouble keeping a clean house. Though her sister-in-law, a minister’s wife, warned her that it was setting a bad example for young Miriam, Ramah kept a messy home because a doctor had told her to “slow down and not bother with the housework, or your diabetes would kill you.” Her in-laws never seemed to understand that. Also, since losing Miriam’s granddad, keeping a clean home just was not important to her.
Miriam tried to clean the house, but she really did not know how. She could make no headway with it; her room was used as the storage room. Everything that needed to be out of sight when relatives visited was shoved into her room. Due to the mess and because her mother was a mental case who might say anything, Miriam never invited anyone home. She could have visited her school and church friends, but she was ashamed of how she lived.
She did visit her other grandparents, her dad, and his second family on alternate Sundays. There, she was the eldest grandchild. She led the rest of the grandchildren, including her younger half-brother and half-sister, in play. She loved to dream up games and activities for them. She often had them pretend to be Indians, building teepees with chinaberry tree limbs and a sheet or old blanket. There, life was happier than with Grandmother Spindor who seemed sterner than her other grandma, but her father’s custody suit scared her. She truly did not wish to leave her “beautiful Mother” who cared so deeply for her and needed her so much.
Miriam’s mother had her brain surgery when Miriam was only eight months-old, but since then only took medication to inhibit the formation of scar tissue. Her mother had once been an independent young woman, but began to show signs of being disturbed through fidgeting and pacing. About the time Miriam was four-years-old, her mother went in alone with a letter of introduction from the family doctor to admit herself into the state hospital. Miriam could remember the trip the family took to the hospital and that her mother wore the blue suit that had been her wedding dress. She stayed there as either a patient or outpatient for the next sixteen years.
Her grandmother had always preached to her that this operation had been unnecessary and had made her mother’s mental condition permanent. A psychiatrist at the state hospital, whom Miriam was later to meet and to grow to despise —though once she revered him, told her grandmother this. Grandmother Spindor told her again and again that the operation was a vindictive action by her father, Joel Wexler.
Miriam prayed fervently that someday her mother could be well again.
Once, Miriam had experienced an accidental overexposure to roach spray in the kitchen. Afterward, she went to the old living room which was a disused room in her grandparents’ home. She lay on a bare mattress while she tried to read an old paperback that she had bought in a garage sale. The book was stained and smelled as if it had once fallen into a toilet. Then, she tried to sleep. As she lay in a semi-stupor, apparently unable to move herself, several cockroaches skittered over her body. She jerked, and her skin twitched convulsively away from these pests. Somehow, she just could not get up.
Her grandmother did not come. She knew that Miriam liked to get away into cubby holes to read, and she thought nothing of it this time.
Crazy, delusional thoughts began to race through Miriam’s mind. She felt an imagined sense of telepathy develop between her and the roaches. She had the mental image of a roach leader speaking to his followers …
“We are the guardians of humankind. We have been here since primordial times. To them, we are pests, the carriers of plague. The Master has ordained us to serve them, to clean up after their messes, and to protect them from themselves!”
Her thoughts raced wildly, jumping to strange conclusions. “What if roaches are our watchers, our guardians? Could it be possible that God would shrink the mighty angels and make these lowly creatures be our guardian angels? They have always been present with humankind to clean up our worst messes, and the scientists do know that they have been here 300 million years.”
Miriam suppressed the memory of her roach spray delirium. Possibly, the fantasy book tainted with the queer smell could have contributed towards her aberrant moment of epiphany. Other disturbing events impinged on her subconscious then: all to rise again, along with the fear of roaches, while she suffered at the mental hospital to which she was sent. Her uncle told her that no boy would ever like her and then climbed to the roof to fix the television antenna. Because of the whirling of the antenna and the erratic broadcast of a documentary on television about Hitler, she mistakenly identified her beloved grandfather with Hitler and herself as the cause for the war due to her fidgety movements as a toddler making him nervous.
With uncanny déjà vu, this experience with roach spray enhanced delirium foreshadows what will come about in Miriam Wexler’s life. The young woman’s snuffing out the life of a small roach on the wall of her recently sprayed apartment initiates a train of events that cause her to lose her job shortly afterwards and to “break” again with reality.
Ten years later in her next job, Miriam’s entire career as a librarian will come to a halt when she gets worried that her co-workers will fear her if they know her diagnosis. She admits to a therapist that she feels that in a way she is “alien” to her co-workers. She feels that she might actually be a “roach among humans.” Such worries seal her bipolar condition as a certifiable disability. The Social Security consulting psychologist and her therapist agree that, under stress, Miriam Wexler could be harmful to herself or to her co-workers. Miriam does not feel this is true. Her isolation is due to her boss’ policy of non-fraternization with students and working under extreme exhaustion not being able to sleep and not being aware that work breaks are permissible. To her, she believes that even Jesus would not be accepted if he did not fit the mold expected.
“Could roaches be our guardian angels? Surely, not!”
Still, there above her is the shadow of a cockroach in the light fixture overhead, watching . . . .