It started this afternoon. I returned home from the store and was putting things away when I heard it; a soft, scuttling sound. I immediately thought of roaches and began to shudder spasmodically, dropping the pound of sugar I bought. It burst and spread like a tiny universe being born upon my floor.
My clean floor.
I cannot stand roaches. I loathe them. I detest them. Of all God’s creatures, roaches are the most vile, the most abhorrent. My college chum Franz, now a professor, loves them. He calls them “cute!” Can you believe that, Dear Diary? He has a hundred or so of the horrid things running through a complex series of tubes he built in his classroom. Franz says roaches are “closer to humans than we care to admit.” He also says we are “never more than fifty feet from a roach at any given time.”
I shuddered again and quickly swept the sugar. I am now in my room, and I do not think I will sleep tonight.
I was right. As soon as I shut off the lights and settled into bed, I heard them; their little legs tapping tiny rhythms within the walls, or click-clacking up and down the metal pipes. Each time I felt myself drifting off to sleep, the frantic scurrying would begin again.
One thing which I can be sure of: there are no roaches in my apartment. You know, Dear Diary, that I keep a very clean apartment. My home is as clean as clean can be. I dust and sweep every day. I scrub the floors and surfaces every other day. There is a place for absolutely everything, and absolutely, positively everything is always in its place.
Oscar, however . . .
Oscar moved into the apartment upstairs almost two months ago, after the mysterious (but fortunate) disappearance of sweet old Mrs. Freely. Mrs. Freely cooked the most disgusting and foul-smelling food, and the odor would leak down from above and fill the whole apartment. I spoke with her several times about it but she was obstinate. So frankly, I was happy when she left without a trace.
As I was sure there were no roaches in my apartment, I reasoned then that the skittering, scuttling sounds must be emanating from my upstairs neighbor’s quarters. I initially intended to go up and politely ask if he had heard the same sounds. I rapped the door with my knuckle and after several moments, he opened it.
The scene which unfolded before my eyes can only be reported as ghastly, and that is barely doing it justice. Behind Oscar’s bulky frame, I could see pots and pans stacked high in the sink, baked, encrusted filth covering all of them. The walls and ceiling, from what I could see, were either coated with a shiny brown grease or otherwise carpeted with a thick and furry black mold. I immediately covered my nose and mouth to keep from breathing anything in.
Oscar looked me up and down and said, “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I said, still covering my mouth with my hands. I did not extend to shake. “My name is Howard. I live in the apartment below yours.” He did not reply, only continued to stare at me with doltish impudence. I coughed and continued. “I’ve been hearing some sounds recently—sounds like roaches in the ceiling or in the walls—and was wondering if perhaps . . . ”
“No roaches,” he said.
“I said no roaches. I got no roaches in my place.”
I coughed again. “I’m sure you don’t, and I wasn’t accusing you. I was just wondering if you’ve heard anything unusual recently? Scuttling noises?”
He looked puzzled and did not reply immediately. Then he reached up with a calloused, grime-covered hand, the nails of which were uneven, some long and some bitten short, and scratched his stubbly cheek.
“They don’t scuttle,” he said.
I blinked. “I’m sorry?” I said again.
“Roaches. Their little feet don’t make a sound. They don’t ‘scuttle.’” He said this last word as if it offended him.
I blinked again. “Thank you.” It was all I could think to say. Then, I turned and went back downstairs as fast as I could.
And here I am, Dear Diary—back in my apartment and still unable to sleep. I hear them now, in the walls, in the ceiling.
He’s right, you know. They do not scuttle. I checked it on the internet as soon as I came back down. They do not scuttle. They chirrup. And as soon as I learned this horrible fact I could hear them, churring and chirruping like nasty little birds stuck behind the plaster of my bedroom wall. I will not sleep tonight.
No sleep last night, as I suspected. I tossed and turned for several hours. I pulled the covers over my head, buried it under my pillow, but it did no good. Their tiny voices continued. My fingers and toes began to twitch, and I realized I had to do something or I would go mad. When I was sure sleep would not take me, I got out of bed and began to clean.
I started with the kitchen, then went on to the living room. Then the bathroom. Then the hall. Then my bedroom. I tried to get back into bed and go to sleep. But as soon as my head touched the pillow I heard the noise again. I got up once more and started anew—the kitchen, the living room, the hall, the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room, the hall, the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room, the hall, the bathroom, the bedroom.
There is nowhere—NOWHERE—that is not clean. Every inch of my apartment is spic and span.
And yet the sound continues.
It is 5 a.m. I see the sunlight creeping in through the drapes. Above me, Oscar tosses and turns in his bed. He will soon get up. He has had, I trust, a long, peaceful, and uninterrupted sleep.
I hate him.
I have no reason to, but I hate him.
Of course I suspect, Dear Diary, that the sound of the roaches is coming from my well-rested neighbor’s filthy abode. I suspect this—I KNOW this—and yet there is nothing I can do. I tried, believe me, Dear Diary. I called the landlady who, sweet soul that she is, does not possess a single speck of sense. Even when I told her about the black mold and the dishes piled high in the sink, she only laughed and said “That’s Oscar” in a tone more reminiscent of an indulgent aunt than a proprietress. And she would not for one second believe my complaint about the chirruping.
“Besides,” she said in a lecturing tone, “they don’t chirrup. They hiss.”
“Beg pardon?” I said, but already I could feel my skin beginning to crawl.
“In Madagascar,” she said. “I went there for vacation once. You know the roaches there are as big as your thumb? And they hiss. Like snakes.”
“Thank you,” I said, and hung up.
No sleep again, Dear Diary, I think I am losing my mind. I have been up there again, twice. Each time I go, I am met once again at the door with a view of the filthy room and its filthy and increasingly obdurate occupant.
“Look, you freak, there are NO ROACHES!” he shouted at me the last time I went up. “NONE!” He moved aside and motioned for me to come in and see for myself, but I would not. Of course I could not! Even thinking of it now makes me sick. I nearly vomited right there in front of him and would have done so had I not been quick enough to cover my mouth with both hands and quickly run back down the stairwell.
I made it to the toilet just in time. There followed fifteen minutes of retching and an hour of scrubbing and sterilizing. The smell of disinfecting chemicals may be harsh to others but I find it always calms my nerves.
As I cleaned, I grew tired. I wondered then with a frantic sort of hope whether my body finally reached the limits of exhaustion. I have showered and am about to go to bed. Wish me luck.
It is no use. Each time I close my eyes, I hear them, the sound of their little legs amplified as if they are in my head, crawling over my eardrums. They may well be. Whenever I am still, my arms and legs begin to itch. I can feel them crawling up and down my legs, over my arms, across my chest.
I have tried several times to force myself to be still, to ignore the soft chirrups, the light brush of antennae, the soft, sibilant hisses. It never lasts long, and always ends with me curling inward, like a spider, and scratching at my skin. I raked red ribbons across my arms and legs, but the feeling of the crawling takes longer and longer to subside. And the noises never leave.
Even now, as I write I can hear them. Hissing, chirruping and yes, scuttling. Oscar was wrong. They do scuttle. They scuttle and Oscar was wrong.
Oscar was wrong.
I sit here, propped up in my little bed, and I can feel my lids getting heavy. My fingers can barely lift themselves to tap out these last few words, and so I know I must hurry.
I ascended those steps one last time and knocked on Oscar’s door. I was sure he would be angry, but he was surprisingly docile. I told him that this time, I would like to accept his invitation to enter his apartment. He nodded stiffly and let me in.
We talked for a while, seated across from each other in his living room, his eyes never leaving mine. It struck me that he was afraid of something, and I knew I had been right. About the roaches. About everything.
Between us on the coffee table sat a pack of cards. I asked him if he knew how to play Patience. He shook his head. I told him I would teach him how to play. I picked up the cards from the table—yes, Dear Diary, I had no trouble doing it—and handed them to him and told him to shuffle them. I was not able to shuffle with only one free hand, you see.
He did so, his own hands shaking and his eyes never leaving mine except to glance occasionally down at the thing I was holding.
I told him to deal seven cards, face down. When seven were laid, I told him to go back to that first card and turn it up. He did. The King of Clubs. He looked at me for instruction. I told him to do it again, placing six cards on top of the ones that remained face down. He did. At this point his hands shook so much I was afraid he would ruin the game.
Once more I told him to turn over the leftmost card. Queen of Diamonds. A red card. Was that good? he asked. I told him we would see. I told him to do the same thing again.
And again. He placed the last card and turned it face up. Two of Spades. I told him to put the deck aside.
The goal, I told him, was to move all the cards into their respective “foundation piles.” The piles, I explained, must be in order, and all cards in the pile must be of the same suit. he frowned at me. “Yes!” I said happily. “It’s a game about cleaning up!”
We played. As he worked, his hands continued to shake. I told him to relax and go slow. It was impossible for one to lose patience. I realized what I’d said and laughed. It was the first time I had laughed in a long time, and it must have sounded strange because he flinched, dropping the cards. He looked at me, his eyes wide and terrified.
I was not angry, Dear Diary. A calmness washed over me from the moment I’d climbed the steps and knocked on his door. I watched him pick up the cards and resume playing.
I’m not sure how long the game took. There comes a point in Patience where your mind settles in, resigning itself to the long game. As we played, I looked around the room. You will be impressed with me, Dear Diary, for I did not shake or shudder as my eyes scuttled along the walls and filthy surfaces in the kitchen. My stomach did not make so much as a chirrup upon seeing the same grime-encrusted pots and pans in the sink. I barely noticed the smell.
My friend’s voice drew my attention from the mess. “Done,” he said. I looked and indeed it was true. He was all done.
“Very good,” I said.
The shot rang out in the tiny apartment, louder than I expected, and I almost lost my composure, but you will be happy to hear, Dear Diary, that I kept it together. He bounced back against the chair and fell forward onto the table, disrupting the neat piles we had made. I did not mind. I propped him back up and began my work.
I started with the pots and pans. I soaked them in hot, soapy water and scrubbed them clean. I placed them on the rack to dry and went to work on the rest of the apartment.
I tidied and reorganized, discarding anything which did not have a place. I dusted, scrubbed, swept and mopped. I disinfected, and as I did, the calm that always comes with cleaning washed over me and I became tired. I knew then that I must hurry—I did not want to be caught sleeping on the job! I filled nine more garbage bags and set them neatly by the door.
At last, I stood, hands on hips in the middle of the spotless living room, and surveyed my work. All was at last put right. A place for everything and absolutely, positively every single thing in its place.
I stifled a yawn with my freshly scrubbed hands. Time at last to get some sleep.
And indeed it is, Dear Diary. As I type out these last few words, safe within the confines of my own home and my own room, I feel my head droop and my eyes close. On the edge of my hearing, I think I hear the chirrup of sirens, but they are far away on a distant shore, separated by an ocean of blessed, peaceful sleep.
I will stop now. Good night.