Air. I need air. I could hear myself snoring. Feeling the back of my neck, I wake up rigid against the unpadded metal chair staring at my reflection in the glass table. There was a drizzle of dream, but the edge of it is a vague, imperceptible shape. A black lacquer Cross Townsend pencil rests loosely in my right hand on the Sunday Times Magazine. I push away from the table and walk to counteract the somnolence induced by the crossword.
A green ginger tea bag lies on the rose granite counter top like a laundry bag on a sanctuary floor. It might leave a stain. I pick it up and see the roach race for darkness, past the butter knife with a palette daub of cream cheese, past the bone white china bowl with crusting remnants of gazpacho, past the open rectangular package of sesame rice crackers, round the bottle of capers, and disappearing behind the stainless steel canisters.
I patiently watch the cool surface from canister to microwave to the acrylic hourglass timer, but he's escaped. I grab the box of crackers certain the vile creature defecated in it and throw them into the touch top chrome garbage can.
My eyes hover over the hardwood floor like a kestrel scanning squares of territory for prey. Nothing but a faint trace of lox in the air.
I look under the sink and into the darkness, amidst Simple Green, Windex, and Murphy's Oil to find the sixteen ounce plastic bottle of roach killer. I cut off the white tip and squeeze the bottle slowly passing it over the imperfect junction of floor and wall. The powder can't be too thick or they'll avoid it. Boric acid crystals float down penetrating the seams.
I float down with the powder meeting the image of myself sitting in the middle of a huge living room, surrounded by ficus, peace lily, coleus, and a jade plant with the waxy round pliant leaves I loved to touch as I stared through worn French windows. The bottle has that same waxy smooth texture. I squeeze it and listen to the wheeze.
An immense space of plants, brick fireplace fašade, ten foot ceiling, seventies brown couch, lime green Lazy Boy recliner, 24" Zenith black and white portable television, and three pressed wood shelves laminated with fake mahogany. Shelves holding my meager collection of paperbacks and old school textbooks, Great Expectations, Are You Running With Me Jesus, Sound and Sense, Dubliners, Death Comes to the Archbishop, Lord of the Flies, and The Exorcist.
Gargoyles are attached to the synapses of memory. They scoff at me with terra cotta eyes and wide contorted nostrils. They pin me to the lime green over-stuffed Lazy Boy recliner. It was my smoking chair where I sat staring at books I wasn't able to read. My only thoughts were of roaches, and headless mice. They were the vermin whose destruction became my only job. Mice left their caraway calling cards of shit on the Formica counter top. Split husks of amber brown shells announced more roach off-spring to come a-crawling. One roach had the audacity to climb my leg beneath pants. It was a nightmare of German cockroaches in blitzkrieg attack breaking through every boundary, I was Austria, then Poland, then France. My shaking hands ached for another drink to quell the delirium.
But it was real. I could hear mice running over fake fireplace bricks. Their feet were like dainty taps along a computer keyboard. I waited for their attack, arming myself with wooden spring traps and a bottle of boric acid. I knew the route they'd take. My apartment was Greece. I placed my poison and traps in the Thermopiles of constricting passes between kitchen cabinet and wall. Somewhere beneath the sink and cast iron pipes, in hollow spaces between board and plaster, joist and joint, sat thousands of roaches and a host of mice, all driven by the need to gnaw.
I killed dozens of mice that year and god knows how many roaches. I remember the snap sound when they licked the peanut butter and the snap, the sudden force of the spring unleashed and the flying metal bar crashing against head, neck, or spine. Snap and the tiny skull was fractured. Snap and the delicate vertebrae crushed.
Once the snap caught the leg of one cowering and timorous beastie. The creature was dragging the trap along the floor, like Long John Silver dragging his wooden stump on Treasure Island. I drowned him in the old paint-smeared aqua bucket averting my eyes as the toilet plunger held him struggling under the surface.
Every night I turned out all the lights so they couldn't see me and sat in the middle of the room waiting for the silence to be broken by a snap. I stretched out with the chair pushed all the way back like a green overstuffed gurney drifting between dreams and shadows from the past.
Oh what a past it was with those inflatable orange plastic boxing gloves he had. You could blow them up like beach balls and force your hand through the core of them with air pressure holding it in supple vinyl grip. A ridiculous bit of mayhem and comic violence for a little boy who was only three. My Little-Buddy who laughed and smiled and sometimes whooped at night, but I didn't know anything about whoops, it was just a harmless bit of rasp, that's all.
Little-Buddy would make me blow up those gloves and force his Chinese dumpling little mitts inside them. And I'd urge him to pummel me with those impossible beach balls on his hands.
"It's okay; go ahead hit daddy. Don't worry it doesn't hurt."
Vinyl blows glanced off me kneeling on the floor and he's laughing and wailing away. I would fall forward to the floor feigning injury and lie there still and silent. He'd get quiet right away, then a burst of giggle, no response I'm still playing dead until he leaps on top of my stomach and forces the air out of it in a belch and puts his smug round face right on top of mine.
I can feel the bush of his eyebrows, the whisking flicks of his delicate eyelashes against mine, his pert nose and the always sweet breath tinged with zwieback biscuits. I open my eyes to wide, brown eyes. He's pressing his forehead into mine, rolling right and left, his lips together in a grimace meant to make me laugh. And I do. I laugh, and he laughs and isn't everyone laughing? I return to my knees with his torso held tightly in hug as I kiss his forehead.
He's Little-Buddy, my son, my son. He squeals "daddy, daddy, daddy" and we are an Augie doggy, doggy daddy cartoon of action and words. There's just a hint of whoop. Yes I remember a bit of rasp now, and a brief bit of wheeze.
"Don't worry buddy, daddy's fine, come on and swing some more. I was just kidding."
And the giggling swinging pandemonium begins again, but the blows come a bit slower. He's tiring with the energy of blow bursting from boy to dad to space. I grab him and raise his right arm in victory. "The winner and still champion, forever champion, my Little-Buddy."
When I take the gloves off they're slimy with sweat on the inside. I put my nose into the opening where his hand had been and inhale deeply. The scent of flesh, sweat, and vinyl is a sweet little boy stink.
"P.U." I say. And bring the glove to his tiny upturned nose to make him smell.
"U." he says.
Then we'd get in that overstuffed lime green Lazy Boy chair with wood handle on the right side. The handle that he loved to pull and the foot rest would snap up with a clang and squeak and we would lean all the way back and the chair would creak from the pressure of us both rocking back. We were getting ready to ride. We could go anywhere. It was the perfect roller coaster. We strapped ourselves in and climbed higher and higher.
"Look it's the Sears Tower, and over there is grandma's house and there's Lake Michigan, and see those smoke stacks all the way back there, that's Indiana. We're up so high we can see all the way to Indiana. Hold on. Keep your hands in the car. I don't want you to fall out."
And he looks out from our lime green Lazy Boy roller coaster and points and says "bow-wow." To make sure I understand him, he grabs my face between two sweaty Chinese dumpling hands and says "bow-wow, see bow-wow." And I see the tiny little Jack Russell terrier. And we both bark at the dog. And he grabs me again, my face in both of his hands and he points to the ceiling and cries "birdie, birdie, birdie." "Yes" I say, "We're as high as the birds in the sky," me and Little-Buddy on our very own roller coaster. Then as I clutched him in my lap we would swoop forward in the herky-jerky twisting and turning g-force imitation of a rollercoaster. Down and back, up for a brief second and back down again in a spiral, a lunge, a rollicking bump, bend and curve and finally slowing down. Wow, Bow-Wow, Birdie, wheeeeeee, wheeze. It was just a parcel of wheeze, nothing serious, not my Little-Buddy.
The coaster rolled to a stop and I put the foot rest down and we took a moment because you never want to get too excited before bed time.
I spoke silly words and he didn't stop me when I traced the curve of his nose or when I pointed to the ceiling looking for Birdie-Girl or chewed invisible cookies and drank from a pantomime glass. We were flying together. We could go anywhere on that big overstuffed lime green Lazy Boy. We could spin our dreams into stories. Twirl around once and we tasted sweet oatmeal cookies, chewing big open chews like the broad sweeps of a Spielberg movie. We were jaws. My jaw was opening and closing with those hands controlling it. Three-year-old Chinese dumpling hands moving dad's mouth open and shut.
Open and Shut. Like the spasm, edema, and mucus blocking the bronchial tree in his lungs. The doctor said later it could have been aggravated by the fecal matter of mice and roaches. The rasp turned into a desperate wheeze suddenly one night and the wheeze became a snap. He became an accordion in its collapsing return to case. He played the last dissonant notes of rasp, wheeze and snap in my arms as I raced downstairs to the car.
One final squeeze. The flecks of fine white powder float through the beam of sunlight like spores puffing from a mushroom booted on the forest floor.
I picture the roaches licking their haunches like dogs. The crystals sear through their intestines like particles of a white phosphorous grenade. They are left riddled full of holes and all their bodily fluids leak out.
I return to my black, kitchen chair with tapered legs. I pick up my automatic pencil and try to focus swollen eyes on the puzzle. One tear escapes. I can't stop it. It crosses my clean shaven face leaving a trace of moisture. Part of it survives and falls to the puzzle beneath my hand. It spreads and blurs number eight down; a nine letter word for Everything is just fine.