Love and Pestilence
by Nabeela M. Rehman
Alice perked up. “That might work! Keep to the scientific integrity argument. I’ll support you any way I can, Robin. Those bugs are disgusting.”
Leonard gulped at the screen. He cleared his voice, and the women looked at him. “Um, it says here,” he began, “cockroaches can live up to thirty minutes under water.”
A serene and determined smile formed on Robin’s face. “That does it,” she said, “I’m talking to Connor this morning.” She and Alice headed towards the stairwell, marching in lockstep down the stairs to Connor’s office on the third floor.
Leonard wondered to himself whether the cockroaches could evolve to hunt zebra fish. If the insect population expanded and the fish pellets became inadequate to feed the burgeoning population, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the roaches got into the tanks.
I stamp my foot. This love business is supposed to be transformative, make everyone better, kinder, more creative, more empowered. But it’s not doing that. It’s doing the opposite. I am persistently miserable. You ignore me. You have this awful gift of seeming to pull a person into the sunshine of your personality, but in actual fact, you aren’t paying attention. You have tuned me out. You are probably the kind of person who can sleep with your eyes open.
My love is incapable of helping you reach your potential. It’s not big enough, not against your iron-clad inertia. You fritter your time away. You are stuck in the same rut. I cannot change you.
A few days later, Connor called a lab meeting outside, on the roof patio. Since Priya’s countertop incident, none of the women would step foot into the break room. The rooftops of the academic buildings sparkled in the morning sunshine.
“The exterminator comes highly recommended,“ said Connor, “but he does have unorthodox methods.”
Bagels and cream cheese were piled up on the patio table. The lab members sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and used plastic knives to slather cream cheese on the bagels.
“Be patient with the exterminator,“ continued Connor. “He says he should be finished within three weeks. He’ll come again after two weeks to make sure all the cockroaches are completely gone. The fish will not be affected, and you can continue doing observations and experiments in the tank rooms while he is killing the bugs.”
Robin looked triumphant. The women in the lab looked relieved and hopeful. Leonard figured Connor was not terribly happy about the expense. However, Robin’s scare tactics must have worked. Connor seemed resigned.
Later that afternoon, Leonard saw a man in the corridor that he had never seen before. He was of average height with short cropped hair, and carried himself with a certain confidence, like a body builder or someone who had done years of martial arts. He was dressed in loose black clothing, long sleeves, long pants, and he wore dark black Doc Marten biker boots.
“Roman Wanzenfluesterer, but you can call me Manny.” He stuck out his hand to Leonard. Leonard gripped it. His handshake was firm and energetic. “Pleased to meet you!” he said. “I’m here about the cockroaches. Can you help me find Alice?”
He wasn’t cocky, but he seemed awfully sure of himself. Two thousand years ago, this guy would have fought for Caesar.
“I’ll take you to her,” said Leonard, “she’s in the fish room.”
In the hall, they saw Robin talking to an undergraduate. She looked at Leonard quizzically. “Hi Robin, this is Manny Wanzen-um?”
Manny stuck out his hand and gripped Robin’s hand with his sturdy palm. “Wanzenfluesterer, pleased to meet you, ma’am” he said.
She arched her eyebrow. “Are you here to help us with our insect problem?”
He smiled. “I provide solutions.”
Leonard said, “This is Robin, a post-doc, and this is um...?” Leonard could never keep track of the undergraduates. One minute they were at the bench learning an assay, the next month they disappeared and you’d get a postcard from Spain gushing about the study abroad program.
Manny grabbed his hand and pumped it hard. “Pleased to meet you, son.”
Robin and her undergraduate were taken aback by the exterminator’s apparently sincere enthusiasm. Leonard opened the door to the first tank room. He and Ralph went in. Robin abandoned her undergraduate and followed them.
“Alice?” called Leonard.
“Here!” She was wearing black rubber boots and wrapping the large plastic tube around the dry vac. She pushed a stray lock of her brown hair behind her ear.
“This is Manny Wanzenflust... um?”
“Wanzenfluesterer” Manny beamed.
“He’s going to be taking care of the cockroach problem,” Leonard added lamely.
Manny pumped her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Alice.”
Alice gasped, “I’m really glad you’re here, Mr. Wanzenfluesterer.”
The exterminator said, “Please call me Manny. I look forward to working with you.”
At that moment a medium sized cockroach scuttled across the floor in front of them. Before Leonard could think to crush the bug, Manny pounced to the floor and caught the cockroach with one hand. He picked it up, holding it by the abdomen, but squeezing it tightly so it couldn’t get away.
Manny brought the insect close to his face and spoke to it directly. “Here we are circling, bewildered like atoms?”
Leonard glanced at Alice. She was completely focused on the exterminator. The cockroach wiggled its legs.
“The black sky hates the moon. I am that darkness, I am that nothingness.”
Leonard grimaced at Robin. She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes as if to say, “This is unorthodox.”
Manny kept talking. “I don’t know where I’m going, haven’t a clue. But you ought to know better, you know all these highways and byways. You don’t need maps, you don’t need love, you have your truth and you know your way.”
Reciting poetry to a friggin’ bug.
Alice, Robin and Leonard stared at the exterminator, their eyes wide, their mouths open. They were aware of their breathing, the bubbling of tanks, a hum of florescent lighting overhead, and the sound of his baritone voice whispering to the insect.
Manny continued to speak to the insect in his low voice. “You set out to find God, but your tribe keeps getting waylaid at mean-spirited truckstops.”
Was that the G-word? No one ever spoke about God in the lab, unless it was to denounce fundamentalist Christians teaching intelligent design. Their political muscle could affect research funding.
“You gotta leave now. If you stay, it’s gonna look like Camp Sennacherib.” He put the bug carefully down on the ground and whispered, “No more advice.” Manny released the cockroach and the insect scuttled off under the rubber mat.
Leonard screeched, “Why did you let it go? Why didn’t you kill it?”
Manny turned to Leonard and looked him directly in the eyes. “Every tribe needs a fair warning. That little fella is their prophet.”
Prophet? As in Moses or Ezekiel? You snorting the product à la William S. Burroughs?
“He’s gonna take that message back to his tribe.”
Leonard indignantly sputtered, “And this works?” Manny looked at him blankly. Leonard tried a more sarcastic tone. “The cockroaches are going to listen to your message, as relayed by their cockroach prophet?”
“Heck no, son!” He grinned. “No one ever listens to prophets. That’s why this cockroach smackdown is gonna be of Biblical proportions!”
Everyone was silent, again the bible talk. Leonard shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The lab folks exchanged worried glances.
Alice cleared her throat. “What are you planning to do, exactly?”
“The first thing you have to understand, Alice,” began Manny, “is that we are undertaking Total Insect Warfare. My job is that of the Ultimate Warrior of Insect Pain, and that is the bottom line.”
“So what is your battle plan?” asked Leonard, “What is the cockroach equivalent of ‘shock and awe’?”
“Well, son,” said the exterminator leisurely, “the first rule of Total Insect Warfare is “know thyself, know thy enemy.”
Leonard rolled his eyes and said, “Meaning?” How much was Connor paying this Ultimate Warrior of Insect Pain? It was probably more than his graduate student stipend.
Manny replied, “Cockroaches have three goals in life, son.” Leonard wondered why this man kept calling him “son.” Unlike most people in Connor’s lab, Leonard had worked for a couple of years in the real world. “Cockroaches only want to eat, drink, and make more cockroaches.”
“That sounds familiar,” Robin chortled.
The exterminator seemed undaunted by the sarcasm. “Cockroaches have habits we can exploit.” Manny started walking to the main water filtration system along the back wall. The three of them followed. He whipped out a pen flashlight and shone it along the length of the water pipes. “These critters like to live in tight, dark spaces.” Were those glittering compound eyes and sleek antennae reflecting the LED light?
He snapped the penlight shut and walked over to the sink with purposeful steps. He clicked the flashlight, and shone it down the sink drain. “And,” he said loudly, as though talking to the sink drain, “they engage in endocannibalism and coprophagia.”
He snuffed out the light, and ambled over to the main fish pellet feeder attached to the north wall. The dispenser was similar to jellybean dispensers at grocery stores. The food was loaded in bulk at the top, but to get a smaller portion of food, a lever at the bottom would dispense a small amount of pellets into a measuring cup.
Manny took the cup, released some food, and after a quarter-inch of pellets, a dead cockroach body emerged. He stopped the flow of pellets, took the body, and threw it into the sink.
Alice said shyly, “I’ve found live bugs in there, too.”
Manny nodded solemnly as he poured the cup of pellets into the top loader of the feeder.
“Endocannibalism? You’re saying they eat each other?” asked Leonard.
“That’s right, son.”
“Well, thank God people don’t do that,” said Robin.
Manny pointed at her shirt. She was wearing a “Free Tibet” t-shirt from last year’s Dali Lama nationwide campus tour. The exterminator said, “People? What do you think people do? Aren’t you college kids always protesting globalization and exploitation of third-world countries? The rich consume the poor.”
Robin started to blush.
Leonard squirmed. First the guy was talking religion, and now politics? Leonard frowned and said, “What’s coprophagia?”
Alice answered in a monotone, “He means they eat shit.”
Leonard was bewildered. He sputtered, “People don’t do that literally.’
Manny looked at him with a self-satisfied grin. “When’s the last time you ate fast food, son?”
Robin turned pale, and Leonard’s stomach felt queasy. Alice said quickly, “I think we get the picture. What are you going to do, practically speaking?”
Copyright © 2013 by Nabeela M. Rehman