When a Cockroach

I have suffered innumerable broken bones, burns, rare diseases and horrible wounds. I wear a piece of my ass on my elbow and have various appendages mended with assorted hardware. The only guy I know tougher was a skinny Coonass named Pappy who cut off the telephone pole foot peg, upon which he had impaled himself 12 feet up in a 140 MPH motorcycle accident, with an acetylene torch that he didn’t deem the EMTs competent to operate. I don’t know if that was the most painful thing ever happened to Pappy. From the ear to ear scar across his neck, I suspect not. The most painful thing that ever happened to me was when my wife left.

My friend John McClurg showed up at the house after a 6-year absence and I was glad to see him. He had left his lovely wife of 20 years with their 5 kids and had written his masterpiece, a quasi comic book of paintings with lots of genitals. The book was bound such that it opened from either side and each page was a mounted ink and watercolor print. John was off to sell it to liberal school libraries in New England at three hundred fifty bucks a pop.

I was working in Hagerstown, MD at the time, an 8 hour commute in a beat '59 Ford pickup every Sunday and Thursday night. The weekend of John's arrival was filled with revelry and reverie, friends, pot, booze, and all 110 pounds of Judy Grossman in front of the keeping room fireplace in tights in the lotus position. Weekends were lively with Beth Brooks and her I Ching, John with his theatrics and Judy with her Nashville hooker road stories if you hadn't heard them too many times.

After he had been there three months and had fallen in love with my wife, I got less of a boot out of the party. On some weekends when I came home, I would watch Chris and John play host and hostess. On others, I would be charged with babysitting and housecleaning while Chris and John drove around trying to sell his book. By Thanksgiving, I had a permanent knot in my stomach. I bought her a copy of the book for Christmas with money we didn't have. By New Years, I felt and acted like I'd been hit in the solar plexus by a prizefighter.

On January 25, 1977, half crazy, I wrote the following in my journal:

Have you noticed how my writing changes? Perhaps I am schizophrenic. Some shrink could use this book to do a post mortem on my mental state prior to my untimely demise. I feel like I'm writing you letters:

Dear Chris,
My trip down wasn't bad; Seth was good company. The week has been uneventful but we have gotten the apartment fixed up nicely. I am no longer sharing a room with Bill….blah….blah….blah.

I am a married man who should be home with is wife and kids.

WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? Am I supposed to sit at home alone after weeks away while my wife takes off for a couple of days with her lover?

You are going to bring John home with a friend who has been witness to the whole Goddamn affair and John and his snickering accomplice will cook an oriental feast for me? It's probably some kind of test for me to see just how much shit I can take and I'll be a better man for it right?
Well, maybe I will be.
Good night love.


You don't run to embrace me when I come home.
You don't overwhelm me with heartbeat and heavy breathing when we make love.
No stretch of the imagination could describe you as a clinging vine,
Nor me as a gallant on a white steed,
But you trust me and love our children,
And curl up against me like a kitten to sleep.
I'm not greedy;
I'll take no more than you give.

Judy just read a letter from Rod. Lucky Bastard; he had the balls to get out. No way is he going to take her back even if he thinks he's going crazy. Don’t know as I'd do it the same way he is though. My kids could use some travel under their belts. They are well enough disciplined to handle it nicely. We could have a good time in Europe or South America (or the interstate for that matter.) Perhaps Pete's boat would be the place.

I like my new pillow. In Hagerstown I sleep on a couple of rags. Thank you Chris and Beth.
What is this nonsense about not screwing while John is here? Are you sure you are not feeding me any of my children at this supper?
The whole party sounds like a very badly mixed crowd. Lets see how your McClurg boy holds up under adverse social circumstances. He will probably steal the whole show.

I left Hagerstown on Thursday, but ended up procrastinating at a bar in Alletown and passing out in my truck. I got home in the mid afternoon Friday just as John and his Cambridge buddy were starting their great culinary efforts. While they clanked woks with wooden spoons in the kitchen under Chris' admiring gaze, I went up to the kids' room and wrote in my journal. The writing went easily, and before I knew it I had written a little fable which I resolved to fit into the evening's entertainment.
John's friend, although a bit effeminate, seemed nice enough and enthusiastically explained the great advantages of cooking in a wok. I tried to respond with interest although I have always preferred #8 cast iron. John and Beth Brooks came early followed shortly by Henry and Judy. Diane Purcell came with her kids, Billy and Chrissie, but as usual without her husband Bill. Fine by me; I had little use for him. I actually managed to eat a fair amount of the food although it was difficult to force past the lump in my throat with chopsticks. All had stuffed themselves and were working hard on a gallon of deigo red when I took out my journal to read my fable.

This` is a story 2/4/77
Which may or may not come out right first time around in this journal.

In a far corner of the earth, away from the major travesties of mankind, this incident happened. A fox, hungry from the long winter, ran across a rabbit out checking the weather and began pursuit of what he assumed to be dinner. Just at the point when the fox was about to sink his teeth into the rabbit's hide, both animals came crashing to a stop inside a large, well-baited box trap. The rabbit just cowered in the corner shivering in fear while the fox tried franticly to dig his way through the wire mesh.

After a short while, the fox, who was reasonably intelligent stopped trying to dig his way out and decided rather to systematically search the cage for some opening. The rabbit of course had anticipated an untimely demise some time earlier and still hadn't figured out just what had temporarily salvaged his hide. As the fox sniffed around the rabbit's corner searching for a hole in the cage, the rabbit assumed the reprieve to have been only temporary and closed its eyes tightly in anticipation of death. The fox, who had temporarily forgotten his hunger, just nudged his rabbit dinner out of the corner to complete his inspection of the trap.

The rabbit became aware of this second reprieve and felt the first glimmer of hope for a less than fatal outcome. Meanwhile the fox paced back and forth at one side of the trap trying to figure a way out of his predicament.

It was not too cold that day. The fox finally settled down in a comfortable spot, and the rabbit, who was half hidden by the Juniper branches sticking through the wire, finally opened his eyes. The smell of both fox and man were strong and completely unnerving to the rabbit, but as time passed, he found them less pungent. The rabbit had one more scare when once he thought he saw a slightly threatening look in the fox's eye, but the fox only got up and ate some of the meat with which the trap had been baited.

For two days and two nights the situation remained the same, and on the third morning the fox ate the last of the bait. Shortly after that breakfast, the situation altered itself drastically. A man came. Both animals smelled him in the crisp winter air long before they heard him, and they heard his plodding footsteps breaking the crust of the snow long before they saw him.

The man, at first delighted by his catch, realized that the bait was gone and wondered why the fox hadn't eaten the rabbit. The rabbit was the last thing on the fox's mind at the moment. The man lifted the top of the cage enough to let the petrified rabbit out, and the fox saw his chance. He lunged through the inadequate opening, upsetting the cage and knocking the rabbit out with him. Both animals ran to the immediate closest hiding place, and found themselves crouched behind the same log in the Juniper thicket. The rabbit's fear of the man was greater than his fear of the fox (after all, he'd just spent two nights in the company of the fox) so the two remained still within inches of each other for the rest of the morning.

Long after the man had taken his trap and his scent was gone from the air, the fox decided to head home to his burrow under the overhanging oak roots and ferns down in the swamp. He snapped the rabbit up by the scruff of the neck and carried it home for dinner. He set the rabbit down at the entrance to his burrow and spun around just in time to snap the head of an intruding Grey squirrel firmly between his jaws. The kill was quick and the meal soon completed. The fox looked at the rabbit who had nearly died of exposure and fear already and decided to save it for the next day.

For several weeks, the fox had incredible luck hunting, and every time he decided to eat the rabbit, some other tasty morsel would divert his attention. The fox kept an eye on the rabbit at all times but allowed it the freedom of nibbling ferns and frozen skunk cabbage around the burrow's entrance. By the end of two weeks, the fox found himself making excuses not to eat the rabbit. He began to worry about his state of mind, much as a person might had he befriended a juicy steak.

On one occasion as spring approached, the fox returned to his burrow to find an intruder. The rabbit was busily munching crocus shoots that had poked their way through the melted patches in the snow. He was totally unaware of a large old tomcat from the neighboring farm crouched on the ledge of roots over the burrow about to pounce on him. The fox raced to the burrow in a fury and within minutes, the old gray Tom was resting comfortably under the warm stove in the kitchen of the farmhouse.

The fox lay in the sun for the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out whether he had saved his dinner or his friend. It was absurd. Why didn't he just eat the damn thing right then and there? The rabbit was a constant harassment in his life. Every time he was away from his burrow, he worried that the rabbit would leave and hurried back home. Even when the fox was there, he had to growl at the rabbit constantly when it would absentmindedly wander too far from the burrow. Somehow the fox, perplexed by the whole situation, came to the realization that he liked having the rabbit around and that eating it was no longer one of his options

The rabbit was too stupid to contemplate its own situation and only knew that if he tried to run away, he went through one of those traumatic experiences of being chased down by the fox and being carried back to the den between those terrifying jaws.

Neither animal ever really betrayed his own nature. The fox still salivated a bit when he thought of his friend as dinner, and the rabbit never stopped thinking of escape. By the time the snow had melted, the fox's mental condition was really shaken. He couldn't eat the damn rabbit. They had even curled up together to keep warm on some cold winter nights. It was a very unimaginative animal and would surely never be able to travel with a fox!
Travel was much on the fox's mind those days because he was in hopes of getting laid before the season was over. Occasionally he would start the trip over the mountain where he knew of a family of foxes with some pretty foxy daughters, but concern about his damn rabbit brought him up short curtailing his trip. The fox finally resolved to let the rabbit go. It was his only salvation or he would go insane. He would leave,

The trip over the mountain took the better part of the day. When he finally arrived at the den where he had expected to find two young available lady foxes, he was not well greeted. His worst fears were realized; he was too late!

The fox regained his composure and optimistically set out to try some other possibilities. He was horny and persisted for an entire week. He hunted little and even passed up an opportunity to indulge in a rabbit dinner, which he thought he should have eaten just to prove to himself that he could do it.

What a wreck his life was. By the end of the week, he knew he was too late to find a mate. He spent the next two days meandering home. At least the damn rabbit would be gone. He would not have to deal with that hassle any longer. He thought he might even redevelop his taste for rabbit over the summer.

The fox had almost retrieved his morale by the time he got home. As he entered the swamp by his burrow, he quickened his pace, stopping just briefly for a bullfrog dinner and a cool drink of water. At least he had rid himself of the damn rabbit and could have his house back to himself even though the rabbit had cost him a mate to share it with.

As he entered the almost invisible path to his burrow, he began to sense something unsettling. Was it the smell of rabbit? No, it couldn't be. The damn thing was always trying to run away and could not possibly have stayed unattended for an entire week. Much to his dismay, the fox found himself almost hoping that the rabbit would still be there. No, that was shear madness! Cautiously, without really even knowing what he hoped to find there, the fox peeked around the corner into his den.

The initial shock of seeing two rabbits casually mating on the floor of his burrow was almost more than he could take, but the fox was also relieved to see that his friend had stayed. With a certain degree of composure and resignation, the fox curled up in front of his burrow with one paw over his nose and one eye closed and thought to himself, "Well, one of these days I may regain my taste for rabbit and I'll have the whole damn family for dinner."

Everyone but McClurg seemed to find my little fable entertaining. He just sat there with his brow furrowed while Chris seemed only able to stare at her empty plate. I couldn’t resist asking, "What's the matter John? Didn't you like my story?" "I'm not sure I like being compared to a rabbit." he replied getting up from the table.
Chris followed him into the keeping room and everyone else started carrying dishes to the kitchen. I couldn't tell whether others sensed the tension between McClurg and Chris and myself. Sarah was certainly aware. At age nine, she had confided to me that on a trip to
Boston with John and Chris, she had told her mother to remember she was married. Luke and Becky at 5 and 7 were too young to notice such subtleties. Diane Purcell knew what was going on because she and Chris had spent too many hours over coffee at the kitchen table discussing their plans to leave their respective husbands. Judy was too close a friend of Chris' not to know, but Henry and the Brooks' appeared oblivious. In any case, it seemed necessary to carry on with the charade. It was late and after many compliments to the chefs, our guests bid us adieu. John and his friend retired to their rooms while Chris and I sat in front of the huge old fireplace looking into the flames for some kind of resolution.
"What are we going to do now? We have the party tomorrow night. Which one of us is going to be your date? You know how hard this is for me."
She took my hand. "You know it's hard for me too don't you. I've been thinking about it for some time now. I feel so cheap about the whole thing. At least the Brooks' don't know. They are so tight with each other and so in love. I wish I didn't love both you and John, but I don't know how to resolve it.
"You could start out by not fucking both of us." It seemed logical to me.
"It's not that easy; you don't believe me when I say I love you."
She looked like she was about to cry, and I was suddenly awash with old feelings. I rose, lifting her gently with me and gave her a hug. She snuggled her head on my shoulder and gave me a familiar old hug back. We started up the stairs.
"I told you I've been thinking about this for some time. I mean feeling like some kind of whore. I guess fidelity is the only answer."
We had reached the top of the stairs and I put my arm around her again and headed towards our room "I'm so proud of you. I know how difficult this will be for you."
"You're so understanding. It's one of the things I love most about you," she said as she turned to her right and walked into McClurg's room.

I stumbled like a zombie to our room, flopped on my back on the bed without undressing or turning out the light and spent the rest of the night staring at the blank white ceiling listening to every little noise I could imagine in that quiet old house. The green eyed monster, churned in my gut, but I knew how much Chris hated and feared it when I raged. There was also that secret promise that I had made to myself never to hit anyone again. I hardly moved till dawn when I got up, undressed, showered and dressed again. For the rest of the day I did what I always do when deep depression sets in. I doggedly put one foot in front of the other and went about doing the next thing that I knew I had to do.

I am a Scorpio. I aspired to be a soaring eagle, but was behaving like a gray lizard. My shoulders were growing stooped and I was as close to cancer as I ever hope to be. By the time Chris left that spring, I had lost 45 pounds and could fit in the tux I had bought at 17.

There was plenty to do. I shoveled the drive and barn out so that people could park. I killed a chicken for the pot and made stew. McClurg and his friend helped with the shoveling in the afternoon. They held the hen while I chopped her head off and watched in fascination as she flapped around the doorway spraying crimson blood on the snow from her still pumping jugular.

McClurg shoveled a path from the back door to the wooden lawn chairs we had inherited when we bought the house and which I had neglected to put away that fall. He mixed gin and tonics with a slice of lemon, put on an apron and delivered them on a tray held over his head like a Matre de. Skip and Judy had hiked up the hill by then and we all sat in the snow covered lawn furniture sipping gin and tonics in the fading sun in our long-Johns and mittens as though it were August till we were all pretty rosy.

Already John Mclurg had taken center stage. It was easy to understand. He was a striking character; a lanky Midwest blond with chiseled Nordic features, a sharp intellect and a quick wit. He had been head of the art department at Lycoming College before the purges of the late sixties and was closely aligned with the theater department there. Chris had been the shining star of the theater department before I knocked her up in the middle of her junior year. McClurg was always on stage.

The house began to fill up with people, John and Beth Brooks, Tony and Jen Kolenda, both Diane and Bill Purcell, the Klems, Pete and Dede King, Allen Lewis. It was a good thing I had made a lot of stew with the scrawny bird because we had a full house. The party went fine till about 11 o'clock when I lost it.

McClurg had wrestled center stage (the big hearthstone in front of the keeping room fireplace) from Judy by finally telling her to shut up. After too many tangential interruptions, he told her that it was not her turn and that she could think but that she was not allowed to speak. Everyone thought it quite funny and Judy was actually embarrassed into keeping her mouth shut long enough for John to tell the story of Claudie and Daddy.

It was a Midwestern story about an elderly father sitting high on a bale in the back of the wagon with his slightly retarded son Claudie driving back home to the farm. A large branch partly broken by the wind hangs low over the road ahead. Claudie looks first at the approaching limb, then back at Pappy perched on his bale, then back at the menacing limb. McClurg acted out the part where Claudie jumps up with his heels against the wagon seat and holds on to the limb to the full extent of his endurance. The massive team of Belgians continues relentlessly on, Claudie hollers, "Daddy, Daddy, I cant hold it no more!" and the branch takes Daddy out. Claudie stops the horses and runs back to pick up Daddy. While Claudie dusts the road dirt off of Daddy, Daddy tells him, "Claudie, if you hadn't held that branch so long it would have like to have killed me."

But McClurg never got that far because I stopped him. John had picked up an ancient Windsor chair as part of his dramatic presentation. When he got to the part where Daddy bites the dust, McClurg thumped the frail old chair on the hearth. It fell apart in his hand. Although I believe the disintegration of the chair was a very real surprise to him, John never went off stride. He kicked the pile of sticks into the corner and tossed those remaining in his hand after it just to punctuate Daddy's crash. Our guests were duly impressed. I was not.

As I look back on it, I think my response had something to do with the destruction of property. You can't call the cops because your buddy climbs in bed with your wife but you can if he starts breaking up your furniture. The chair became the gauntlet. It provided the excuse to open the spigot on months of bottled human emotions. I hit him in the chest hard enough to have knocked him down if I hadn't grabbed him by the collar at the same time. With one continuous motion I slammed him to the wall. He seemed smaller than I had thought. I'm not sure whether I lifted his feet off the ground, but I tried. His head was turned sideways and I had his collar pulled up to his ear. With my teeth clenched tight and my face as close to his as I could get it, I growled at him, "Get the fuck out of my house. Get the fuck out of my life"

As I loosened my grip, I could hear Chris' voice. "What the Hell are you doing? Leave him alone."
John squeezed her arm as he passed on his way out the door but said nothing. Everyone in the room was looking at me with their mouths hanging open. The only one talking was Chris who continued her tirade. "Why do you always have to wreck everything with your damned temper. You just can't stand to have anyone else be the center of attention can you."
I told her to kiss my ass, turned and apologized to the guests and walked out to the barn where I stayed leaning against a warm horse in the dark as the cars left the driveway. I didn't know or care where McClurg had gone. He had no car and it was a cold night for a long walk. I stayed with my team until long after the lights in the house were out.

At least that night Chris slept in our own bed although I hardly cared. She was probably feigning sleep when I climbed in with her but I let her. I felt better than I had in months. I had finally acted the way humans have acted since the species began. If I was a cockroach at least I was doing as cockroaches do, and I had probably just saved not only my sanity but my very life.