Sea monkeys. Ant farms. Butterfly cages. The ephemera of childhood hobbies I’m sure every red-blooded American kid is well-versed in.
I didn’t get an ant farm or a butterfly cage or a plastic tank with a pack of freeze-dried brine shrimp. I got a roach farm. A 5X7 terrarium of scuffed and yellowed lucite, a packet of dirt, and what looked like a shiny brown cigar.
My dad made a joke of it. “If you can take good care of it, then we’ll think about getting you that slug.” Then he’d laugh and take another drink of Schlitz, thrilled by the weight of his own humor. Like I did with most of his jokes, I played as if it were said completely straight. I set up the box on my dresser top, dumped out the dirt, and set the small brown stub gently within. I had no idea how roaches lived, aside from the popular conception of them as a kitchen nuisance, so I littered the farm with the usual wildlife furniture: a bit of bark, some lichen, and a small, flat rock. Then I left it to its own devices.
My father would needle me about the farm’s progress (“have they learned any tricks yet?”) so I looked up roach facts to parry his derogatory jabs. I learned a single roach can live off the glue from a postage stamp for a week, that a roach can live without its head for up to a month, that their tendency to seek out warm, dark spaces has led to them occasionally found lodged in people’s ears because they lack the ability to back up. Like so many of my father’s attempts to discourage me from a subject, it only led me into deeper fascination.
I can remember rolling out of bed one morning and noticing the cluster of tan dots in the cage. My roach children had finally hatched.
And God help me, I found them precious.
I remember I put my hand inside out of some childhood petting impulse. They scurried under the shadow of my hand to hide, and a pact was born between us. I had to defend them now, I had to keep them warm and fed and alive because they had sought shelter with me.
In many respects they were the perfect pet for me. A cat might have lashed out in fear, and gotten its brains bashed out for the trouble. A dog might have tried to defend me, leading to more brutal treatment for both of us. But the roaches? When my father would rage and scream I would sit on the bed with my cage and we would be quiet together. I could empathize with them because I understood the urge to retreat into some small, dark space when something bigger came at you. My father pronounced the both of us disgusting. When he forbid me from setting foot in the kitchen over some imagined slight, I would sneak out at midnight and steal food for the both of us.
My roaches grew into shiny brown oblongs. They would preen themselves under my care, fussily cleaning their antennae as I held them in cupped palm. I liked to think that they were the neatest, best-kept insects in the world. I read in ancient China that they kept crickets in special cages. Had anyone kept roaches? Perhaps I was the first.
The end came in painful hiccups, rather than one fell swoop.
My father upended my cage, hissing in disgust as my pets scurried away. He beat me for putting my body in between his slippered feet and their retreating forms.
My mother, the new owner of a rather painful collarbone fracture, could no longer keep up with the housework. No amount of shouting on my father’s part could rectify that, and the house grew ankle-deep in trash.
Finally the day came when my father drove us from the house, dribbling and screaming in an alcoholic rage. Perhaps at another time, we would have come back. Lord knows we had already gone back too many times before. But by the time we reached my aunt’s house, the money felicitously ran out. No one in her family would spare money for us to return to our abuser’s den, so we remained happily stuck.
Since my mother was the sole breadwinner, the utilities were shut off one by one. The phone was the first to go, so we were spared the rants that cropped up with each new injustice. I can imagine my father raging in that house alone. Sitting in the dark as the electricity shut off, piling on blanket after blanket as the heat went. Would anything have changed if we went back? Even now, with the wisdom of hindsight, I doubt it.
It was a year and a half later that someone knocked on our door. A policeman with hat in hand, saying he had grave news for us. A former neighbor had called for a wellness check because my father hadn’t been outside for weeks, and there was a terrible smell welling up from the house…
I can imagine my father simplifying his life after we left. Leaving the house only to get food and drink, piling the filth up in a nest around him to further buttress his self-pity. I can imagine him making a fort of blankets in the living room next to the bucket he used as a toilet and a battery-operated TV.
I can imagine my pets. My roaches, stranded in the filth of that house. Growing. Feeding. Breeding. I can imagine their fear as winter set in. How they would seek out the one source of warmth left in the household, nestled in a crusty shell of blankets with a snoring mouth gaping open in invite…
My mother let the city arrange a burial. My father had no family left to wonder why his funeral was closed-casket.
I don’t think of my father much anymore. His memory is a vague, unpleasant smear on my mind that I have no wish to revisit.
I think of my bygone pets. How all they had really wanted was warmth and safety. How they must have been terrified in those last few moments, unable to turn back, unable to fight the press of their family’s bodies as they were forced into every dark, wet cavity available to them.
And, God help me, I find them more precious than ever.