Kirby Johnson

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Everyone says they cannot harm you, that they look worse than they really are. They say, “Well, the big ones come from the trees. They come from outside. That’s just how things are here.” You try to listen but all you can think about is their bodies, their arms and their arms and their legs. You imagine them crawling on the sides of your desk. You see them from the corners of your eyes. They are everywhere and nowhere. You see the dying ones on their backs, trying to clean themselves. You think of them folding their bodies like cats, preening. All you can see are bodies, built and connected in segments, or the aggressive way they move, lifting their heads up to charge at you, to buck. You look out the window and imagine them in the trees, eating. You think, “Every leaf on the tree is a roach. Every roach is a leaf in the daylight.” Then at night you see them move around in the wind and brush up against your windows and know, know that you can’t avoid them.

The first time it happens is in early spring. Mama wakes up at dawn to start the sauce and you must join your aunties while they sit at the kitchen table, silently praying their rosaries. The food must be done to feed the men at noon. It’s so hot outside and the stove makes it even hotter. Mama stirs the sauce and you’re part of this family you never knew you had. You live alone in an apartment that sits behind a church in Port Arthur. It’s 3 am on a Tuesday in March, but this large brown insect, this roach in your kitchen, perched at the top of the blue pot you use for pasta, is your new mother and she thinks its Sunday. She knows its Sunday. It’s Sunday at 7 a.m. and her sisters sit around the kitchen table gossiping about the neighbors, holding beads in their hands. Their bodies are so much larger than yours, their arms shiny, their wings a light brown, their antenna languidly moving in the heat. They ask you where you have been, and you say, in bed. You say you couldn’t sleep, that they were making too much noise. They mumble something in Italian. They look at you, sweaty in your sleeveless shirt and underwear. They say you have to sit at the table and you ask them, “Why are you here?” Mama calls from the kitchen, “go pick some basil,” but it is too dark outside, and you say you don’t want to. The other women call you a lazy whore, and they flutter their wings. So you sit at the table thumbing your rosary next to them, too scared to attack them, too scared to grab something to crush their bodies. You sit at the table with your back to your bedroom door, waiting until the food is done, until the men wake up, until the sun starts to filter through the windows.

Don’t be alarmed if Billy visits you a few weeks later. He loves to cook when he’s drunk, and he loves to drink when he gets back from those oilrigs. He won’t tell you when he’s coming home, but you’ll know by the smell of hush puppies frying. The first night he wakes you, you’re half asleep, staring at the bedroom ceiling. All of the lights in the house are on when you hear dough hit oil. When you get to the kitchen Billy is standing over the stove drinking a beer, his large brown body sweating, hunched over the skillet, not giving a shit about the splattering grease. You aren’t sure who he is, and when he turns around, the underside of his body is yellow, almost sick looking. You tell him he’s in the wrong place. You say, “You gotta leave. Mama’s going to be up soon and she doesn’t want no body in her kitchen.” Billy doesn’t say anything. He turns back around to watch the hush puppies, and his antenna curl back behind him, real slick. He’s the largest roach you’ve seen and his pile of hush puppies makes a pyramid on a paper plate. You keep saying, “I don’t want you here.” You say, “I’m gonna have to hurt you soon. I’m gonna have to kill you,” but he keeps drinking. Every once in a while he turns from the stove, watches you stare at him from the doorway, makes a sucking sound with his mouth, and rubs his genitals across the floor. You stand motionless, adrenaline pumping, waiting, and when he’s done with the batter, he scrapes the bowl with his hands, offers you a taste, then asks where the goddamn hot sauce is.

Then one night you hear a flutter of wings and dry bodies in the dark, the rumble of bass and a tambourine. Eddie opens your bedroom door slowly, singing smoothly, “I’m gonna do all the things for you, a girl wants a man to do. Oh, baby.” He holds a large, old microphone and looks at you smiling. You’re so tired his body doesn’t scare you. Half asleep but more awake, you look at his shell and his abdomen, and in your sleeplessness you think what it would be like to touch him. Smaller roaches fly figure eights behind him. Their costumes, silver and sequined with matching headbands around dark heads of hair. A woman steps from the shadows, and you put your feet on the floor, tired, sweaty. Her costume is peach with bright orange rhinestones; her hair is large, blown out and full from humidity. Her eyes are lined thick with black liner and her embryo sack, a yellow mound that hangs from the bottom of her dress, adorned with an orange stone at the tip. She sings, almost whispering, “And I’m gonna use every trick in the book. I’ll try my best to get you hooked. Hey, baby.” You get up. Eddie and the woman take you arm in arm into the living room. A ball of light lowers and swirls. The backup singers fly rapidly; you hear their wings, they sound like paper. Music swells. You start to swoon, and a short dark roach tickles you from behind while shaking a tambourine. He pushes you to the middle of the room. Another man plays drums in the corner with sticks in all six of his hands. Eddie and the woman look into each other’s eyes, dancing, singing. Above you, lights spin faster. You breathe heavily, and the woman turns to you, singing, almost yelling, “And every night, every day, I’m gonna say, I’m gonna get you. I’m gonna get you. Look out girl, ’cause I’m gonna get you!” and all of the backup singers chime in, “I’m gonna make you love me. Yes, I will! Yes, I will!” And everything is whirling uncontrollably. You turn to the couch to steady yourself, to pick your feet off of the ground. There are too many of them to stop, so you wait until it’s over, until their arms grow tired from singing and dancing, making sure they don’t touch you, don’t nestle in your hair, or come to rest on your face. You wait until the sun comes up, and they quietly pack up.

Katrina isn’t like the others. She doesn’t like it when you watch her, when you follow her every movement, when you ask her where she’s going. Katrina doesn’t like that. She doesn’t want you up in her shit but you’re pissed and up in her shit anyway. She gets like this at night when you want to sleep. She wants to roam around, not caring if the lights are on. You tell her to fuck off, to go home, but that bitch doesn’t understand. She doesn’t care. You’ve been fighting with her, trying to kill her when she eventually flies at you, cursing. You turn and run into your room, into the only space you think is safe, and don’t know where she goes. She’s not like the ones who grow in size in the dark early hours of the morning, the ones you only see when you are desperate and too scared to sleep. She’s smaller, faster, and more antagonistic. So you leave your lights on at night, hoping they hide, hoping they won’t bother you, but they come. She comes. They come in all sizes and do what they want. You shake your hair, scratch your skin, and sleep but not sleep because you’re really awake and all you can see is them. All you ever see is them.

When it finally happens you decide to take a bath. You scrub all of your skin; you wash your hair and push back your cuticles. Everything is clean. You put on a large t-shirt, cut off the sleeves, pretend it’s a dress, and begin to hum, a low hum. You sing hum, and you hear them come from outside to join you. They squeeze through the cracks between the windows and screens. The large ones, the human sized ones, stand near the walls, watching. The small ones cover the floor. You let the heat wash you again and you lick the sweat on your arms. You lick the tops of your legs and wipe your face with the left over moisture. You stand on the sofa and march your legs, crushing the cushions. You march and hum; you raise your arms and breathe, you hum louder, waving your arms in the air. You step to the coffee table and stand, almost touching the ceiling. They fall from above you, the bugs fall when you touch them, when you touch the ceiling. You look down and they cover the floor, their bodies, dark like wood. Noises are coming from your mouth. You sing without words, your eyes slowly reclined past the lids. You step down from the table on to the brown sea top of their bodies, pumping your arms in the air. You move without moving, their bodies working in sheets below you. You pump your arms more, raising your shirt-dress in the air as you move, as you moan, “Heaven! Heaven! Heaven!” And they pull you on their backs, back into your bedroom. They lift your tired body on to the bed. You drip with water from your hair and your sweat, and you finally get to rest.

When the exterminator calls to share what he’s found, he gives you a list of holes the bugs are coming from. You buy bottles of caulk and foam and when you get home you caulk all of the baseboards and fill the spaces between the cabinets. You find a hole behind your sink, and fill that too. Everything looks clean and white. You go to bed at night thinking you can rest, but you hear them. You hear them eating your work, filling their bodies. You call the exterminator to ask why they aren’t dying, why they won’t stop coming in, and he tells you this is what spring is like. He tells you they will always be here, that sometimes it’s more difficult to fight them.


ART: Jenn Brehm, Jason Polan,
Grant Willing

FICTION: Kirby Johnson, Anjali Sachdeva, Chad Simpson, S. E. Smith

NONFICTION: Laura E. Davis, Aaron Gilbreath, Alexandra Kimball, Elena Passarello, Alison Stine

POETRY:Samuel Amadon, Will Arbery, Elizabeth Arnold, Melissa Broder, Kara Candito, John Lee Clark, Graham Foust, Kit Frick, Paul Killebrew, Kyle McCord, Shane McCrae, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Sandra Simonds, Bruce Smith

ET CETERA: Flannery O'Connor Soundboard, Poetry Bingo

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