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Fiction #182
(published June 17, 2004)
by Ben Stroud

I came over to Laura's house for the first time one night and saw this cockroach darting around an old aquarium, touching its feelers to the glass here and there, and I thought, what next. "Oh, Barry, my cockroach," Laura said when she saw me take a few halting steps toward the tank, which sat under the living room window where a television should have been. She told me one of the patients at Sunrise, Mr. Gudareddy, had given him to her. Laura was the sweetheart of the nursing home and the patients were always giving her things: flowers, wooden animals they carved in crafts class, worn wheat pennies and buffalo nickels, whatever. At first she was disgusted when Gudareddy handed her the cockroach, trapped in a plastic cup sealed off with saran wrap. But she bit her lip and said thank you, smiling into Gudareddy's hoary, mustachioed face. The man needed a walker to get around, so procuring this gift had been difficult, requiring either the building of a good trap or the trading away of something precious to a more agile patient. Laura didn't want to hurt the feelings of the old man, so she figured she would humor him a while— keep the roach in its cup at her station where everyone could see it, then a few days later, after lights out, discreetly flush the vermin down the toilet. Surprisingly, Mrs. Cook, her supervisor, didn't mind. "The happiness of our patients is the most important service we provide at Sunrise," she said. Laura told me all this while I looked at the roach in the tank.

Before she knew it she was attached to the roach, Laura said. She named him, as she named all the things she liked— her stuffed animals, her car, her waffle iron— calling him Barry, and watched as he displayed remarkable, super-insect intelligence by moving around the bottom of his cup in perfect circles. Gudareddy would come by a couple times a day, two-stepping down the hall with his walker, to tap on the Solo plastic cup at the roach inside. The day she named him, Laura took Barry home and set him up in her old fish tank. After only a few weeks, she told me, she and Barry had developed this trick where she would put three different colored tiles in his tank and she'd say "red" and Barry would go to the red tile, then "blue" and Barry would go to the blue tile, then "yellow" and Barry would go to the yellow tile. If she said "green" he'd just stand there or skitter around in a circle. There was no green tile. After that she'd give him a treat, which could be most anything at all. I asked Laura to show me the trick then, but she said Barry was bored with it now and there was no point.

I had to admit Laura did a pretty genius job on Barry's tank. Its top was sealed off with wire mesh to keep Barry from getting out, though he did manage to escape a few times, and the bottom was covered with wood chips to make it homier. Plus Laura had put a few of her dead hamster's old toys in there (RIP Mr. Fluff. E. Bear): a plastic cottage, a ball with a bell inside it, a wheel. But what Barry most liked to do was climb the glass walls and stare out. I watched him for a while as Laura, her story over, tended a boiling pot of pasta. He waved a feeler at me and I nodded back. Then he skittered around on the tank's walls, losing his footing and plunging into the woodchips only to come running back up again to stop near the tank's top. He held still there for five minutes and watched me, watched me watching him and thought, I didn't doubt, something that would astound the both of us.


In time the roach grew on me and whenever Laura and I would make love on her couch it pleased me to look over and see Barry blessing our union, making what appeared to be the sign of the cross over and over again with his waving feelers.

One thing I loved was feeding Barry, even when I wasn't supposed to. While Laura was in the bathroom or taking a nap on her bed, I would take a few bits of bread from the kitchen and sneak them into Barry's tank. Then I would watch as he moved toward the pieces, inspecting them with his feelers before he climbed on top of them to nibble, showing off the white dot painted on his back. Laura did that, freshening it at least once a week. Like I said, even with the mesh top of his tank he had escaped, like, three times. This way, with the dot, if he escaped all she had to do was look for the walking domino and she'd know she wasn't coddling some other, nameless cockroach. Even with the dot it was a pain to find him since he was so small and could slip through any of the small cracks hidden throughout the old house. Usually Laura had to leave a piece of food out in the middle of the kitchen floor, shut the lights off, and then stay up until she saw a glowing white dot move across the linoleum (the paint was fluorescent, too; Laura thought of everything). When she turned on the light he wouldn't scatter like other cockroaches. He would sit there and let her pick him up. He must have known life was good in the tank. I guess he just had to get out every once in a while for a breather.

One night not so long ago I went over to Laura's house and when she opened the door she told me Barry had gotten out again. I sat with her on the living room floor, the lights off while both of us watched the pile of crumbs in the kitchen. An hour into the vigil I told Laura I had to piss. I got up from the floor and walked down the hallway to the bathroom, watching my step in case Barry came scurrying out from the wainscoting.

When I turned on the bathroom light I didn't notice anything at first. In fact, I pissed staring right at the spot on the floor before realizing what it was. Barry. I flushed the toilet and called for Laura to come.

"What is it," she said. I heard her getting up from the floor, her socked feet rushing against the wood. There was worry in her voice because she heard it in mine.

"I think I found Barry," I said. Gently, I touched him with my forefinger and flipped him over. There was the telltale white spot on his back. "I did. I found Barry. I'm sorry." Laura was standing in the bathroom doorway. She had her hands up to her mouth, cupped over her nose. Her eyes were tearing up and turning red. "I'm sorry," I said again and held her against me. Then I said, "I guess he knew it was his time," hoping this would comfort her. "He wasn't stepped on, and he's too big for the bathroom spiders. He just died, I guess." I held her close and after a while I walked her back to the living room. I asked her if I should flush him and she shook her head. So instead I took a matchbox from the kitchen and dumped the matches on the counter, then went to the bathroom. Pulling off a square of toilet paper, I wrapped it around Barry for a shroud and set him in the box then slid it closed. I took it back to the living room, settling it carefully in the tank.

"We'll let him lie in state a while, then we'll go bury him in the backyard, by the tomato plants, OK?"

Laura nodded. She squeezed me hard and cried some more into my shirt. I knew how much she loved Barry, but in a way I was surprised that she was so upset. I put my hand on the back of her head, petted her hair softly. Her tears and her quaking body made me feel protective, and awkward, and hollow. A whole mix of emotions. The tide of her sobs was violent now, their force uncovering something within me. I looked at the tank, empty of life now, the little matchbox coffin sitting on top of the green plastic cottage with its roof molded to look like thatch.

"I love you," I said, telling her this for the first time, knowing I meant it, "I love you and I want you to know that."

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