- Robert L. Giron
Issue 118 — Mike Maggio, Adaora Raji
— (or The Sudden and Inexplicable Disappearance of David C. Roche)
R. was drinking water from his favorite spot on the kitchen sink when he felt a fine spray cover his sleek brown body. Rubbing his tentacles together, he darted across the wet tiles and into a crack where he had often made his escape. He scrambled down the drainpipe, slipped through a narrow space in the wall and scurried through the darkness, exiting from a tiny crevice on the opposite side.
R.’s heart was beating fast, and he was beginning to feel sick when, suddenly, he found himself lying on his back with his little legs waving haphazardly in the air. His tentacles wiggled uncontrollably, and his body became weak. He struggled to turn over but was unsuccessful, and the more he tried, the sicker he felt.
R.’s mind became foggy and his body grew numb. He felt as if his hard, smooth skin were melting, as if, one by one, his legs were falling off, and he had the strangest sensation that his body was beginning to grow. He closed his eyes, hoping this would stop the world from spinning, and waited for what he surely thought would be death.
When he opened his eyes again, the world seemed a different place. The lamp on the table appeared smaller, and the couch, on which he loved to scramble, seemed as if it had shrunk. Indeed, the thought of scurrying along the soft upholstery no longer excited him. Even the ceiling — one of his favorite spots (for he loved to suspend himself upside down, suspended by his sticky feet) — no longer had any appeal.
R. wondered at these changes when he suddenly realized that he was alive. Joyful, he let out a sound that shocked him as much as the sight of his body which he now observed from the slits of his blue eyes. His skin had turned white, and most of his legs had disappeared. Then, he touched his face and discovered that his beloved tentacles were no longer there. This alarmed him further, and he let out loud, horrifying sound.
“Arnold, is that you?”
R. instinctively tensed his muscles but the reaction was not so much from fear of being discovered as if was from the realization that the sounds he had heard, which before had seemed alien to him, now had a pattern he identified with, a meaning that he could somehow understand.
R. remained still, hidden behind the couch, until he heard the footsteps retreat. Then, slowly and with great difficulty, he turned over on his stomach, a feat that required complex maneuvering since he now had only four appendages to work with. Still, these served him well, especially the two at the upper extremity of his body, and he managed to flop, with some pain, into a position he was more accustomed to.
At last, he tried standing on his four remaining limbs, but this seemed quite impractical, and R. feared that he would never be able to move around as quickly as he once had. So he propped himself against the back of the couch and pushed himself up, knocking the lamp over as he steadied himself on just two legs. Balancing himself, he took a few steps and discovered that he could move about more easily in this position. Testing out these new circumstances, he walked, ran, and jumped around the room, when there suddenly came a frightening sound, and R. lost his balance and fell.
“Arnold! There’s a naked man in the living room!”
At that very moment, in another part of town, the household of Mr. David C. Roche was in a total state of confusion. The servants were busily searching the premises, the FBI was questioning members of the family, and the campaign staff — for Mr. Roche was a candidate for the United States Senate — were desperately trying to decide what to do about his appearance that morning at City Hall.
As his wife, the lovely Evelyn Dunworth Roche, explained to the FBI inspector, her husband had been sitting at the breakfast table, reviewing reports on the speech he had given the day before when, suddenly, the newspaper he was buried in dropped to the table, and, instantly, he was gone.
“Vanished—in thin air,” she said, dramatically, to the agent.
He was a rotund, rather tiresome inspector with a shock of wavy hair and a pair of round spectacles on his plump, weary face.
“People don’t just vanish,” the inspector said, smoothing his thick, gray mustache with a stubby finger as he was wont to do when faced with such an exasperating client.
“Tell him about the—.”
Mrs. Roche stopped her son short with a stern glance, but the inspector looked up from his notepad and fixed his eyes firmly on hers.
“Withholding information will only obstruct the investigation, Mrs. Roche.”
“Well,” she said, squirming in her chair. “You can imagine our disbelief. We all got up and ran over—and there—. Well you know it’s quite embarrassing.”
“There on the chair—.”
“Was a big ugly cockroach,” Christopher said, rushing to his mother’s aid.
“I was shocked, of course.”
“And I killed it,” Christopher added proudly.
“Run along now, Christopher. The inspector and I have important things to discuss. We’ve never had this problem before,” she resumed, turning to the inspector. “Naturally, we’ve called an exterminator. Do you have to write that in the report?”
“It’s strictly confidential, Mrs. Roche.”
“You know how these things are,” she persisted, and she looked at him resentfully for his obvious lack of sensitivity. “The least thing could ruin my husband’s career.”
“I understand,” he said with a perfunctory sigh as he continued writing in his notebook.
At that moment, Mr. Doug Fowler, the campaign chief, briskly entered the room and interrupted the proceedings of the inspector’s interrogation.
“‘Mrs. Roche,’” he said. “May I have a minute with you?”
Mrs. Roche promptly excused herself, grateful to get away from the dreadful inspector who, as far as she was concerned, was probing too deeply into her personal affairs. It was bad enough her husband had disappeared, she thought to herself, but then to have such a punctilious inspector...yes, she thought, he was absolutely punctilious, and it was enough to ruin anyone’s day.
“We have a statement for the press,” Mr. Fowler said, closing the door for privacy.
Mrs. Roche nodded hesitantly, for despite her upbringing, she was not used to the delicacies of public relations, but she feigned experience and waited for him to continue.
Now Doug Fowler, as anyone on the campaign staff could proudly testify, possessed the unique talent of protecting his clients even under the worst circumstances. He did this without resorting to compromising statements and without having to commit his clients in one way or another. Despite his rather bovine approach to even the simplest of tasks, he could neutralize most any situation, using the most damaging evidence to his client’s advantage, all in a way that was seemingly so honest and so benevolent that it would be difficult for anyone to question his credibility and intent.
“’This morning’“ he read, “after finishing up his breakfast, David Roche decided to go for a walk. He failed to inform anyone of his destination and, when he did not return, his family members became worried and notified the police. We have every reason to believe that Mr. Roche is safe since he never goes anywhere without his body guards, and we can assure you he will be at City Hall this morning.’”
Now Mr. Fowler was also a good judge of character, for Mrs. Roche was quite gullible and would believe almost anything she was told, even if the truth was staring her baldly between her tiny dull eyes.
“Why Mr. Fowler!” she exclaimed. “Then there’s no problem after all. That’s absolutely wonderful. Oh inspector!” she called, rushing away to convey the news to the good FBI agent.
Relieved to have gotten Mrs. Roche out of the way, Mr. Fowler calmly stepped outside and delivered his statement to the press.
“Given the rash of terrorist activity that’s been plaguing this country, is it possible Mr. Roche has been kidnapped?”
“That’s a very remote possibility,” Mr. Fowler answered. “We are confident that Mr. Roche is off somewhere preparing his speech for today’s rally.”
“Does the Secret Service know where Mr. Roche is?”
“The Secret Service, as the name implies, is not in the habit of divulging information. If Mr. Roche does not want his whereabouts known, they are most certainly going to comply with his request.”
“Isn’t it unusual for Mr. Roche to deliberately not tell his family of his whereabouts?”
“Mr. Roche is very independent. That’s exactly the point he’s been making throughout this campaign. We can assure you that Mr. Roche will not let the public down and that he is preparing for his victory. That’s all the information we have at the moment.”
R., meanwhile, had managed to escape from his house (for it was the place where he had been born, had grown up and where he had spent his entire entomological life,) and now, as he scuttered down the street, he realized that appearances make no difference in this world, for everyone stared at him in disgust, just as they had done before his mysterious metamorphosis. Nonetheless, it soon dawned on him as he compared himself to those around him, that he was lacking a basic necessity of life (or at least the life he had now assumed), and he suddenly remembered the word he had heard as he ran from the house.
R. scurried around, searching frantically for something to cover himself with until his two legs were so numb that he feared they too would fall off, when at last, sifting through some trash in an empty lot, he found an old discarded robe that he wrapped tightly around his body.
Naked. He could hear the word clearly in his mind. He moved his lips, contorted his mouth to form it. It was difficult at first, but he slowly mastered it. Joyful at his newfound ability, he skipped merrily down the street, keeping a tight grip on his robe, and repeated the strange sound over and over.
And so with the instincts of a cockroach and the body of a man, R. wandered through the city, stopping to scavenge in his favorite places, hiding behind bushes and concealing himself behind trees, and secretly listening to conversations that he stumbled upon.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.”
R. watched a little girl eat the sandwich her mother withdrew from a brown paper bag.
Encouraged by this simple act of discourse, R. approached an old woman sitting on a bench.
“Hungry,” he said, mimicking the little girl.
“Oh you poor thing. You need food.”
“Here’s some money.”
“Money,” R. repeated, putting the hard coins she handed him into his mouth.
“Money,” she said. “For food.”
“Money for food,” he repeated.
R. scurried away, repeating the phrase over and over, then climbed into a large trash bin in search of something to eat.
“Excuse me, sir.”
R. looked up from his rummaging, his face covered with grease and grime, and grinned.
“We’re with Channel 2 News. We’re doing a report on the homeless and we’d like to interview you.”
In the meantime, all activity at the Roche household had come to a standstill so that the exterminator could perform his duties, for Mrs. Roche could concentrate on nothing except eliminating what she saw as the major obstacle to her husband’s success.
“It’s just astonishing,” she repeated yet again, following him around to make sure he missed no potential haven for—well, she still couldn’t get herself to say the word, not even to herself. “I just don’t understand how this could’ve happened. Now you’re sure you’ve sprayed everywhere?” she said yet again as the man gathered his sprays and nozzles and tubes.
“Good,” she said, handing him a fifty-dollar bill. “This is for you. You can send me the bill. I trust you won’t say a word of this to anyone.”
“No ma’am. Thank you. And if you have any further trouble just give me a call.”
“I hope that won’t be necessary. Thank you. Goodbye.”
Mrs. Roche closed the door and dropped onto the sofa, satisfied that she had overcome this latest hurdle in her quest, for she was going to be a senator’s wife, and she would not let one—one—insect, there, she could say that—interfere with her plans. She breathed a deep sigh of relief but her expression of content immediately soured as the odor of insecticide filled her nostrils.
Mrs. Roche, her face screwed up in disgust, could barely make out Mr. Fowler through the fog of disgust that enveloped her. Trying to restrain her emotions, she motioned for him to enter the room.
Mr. Fowler took a seat, hiding contempt and hoping it would not show. After all, if it had not been for her, Roche’s disappearance would never have gotten out, and he would not be faced with the enormous task of trying to cover everything up. His biggest problem now was to figure out what particular quirk in her behavior he could tap into to get her to cooperate.
“This has been quite a shock,” Mrs. Roche said, breaking the silence.
“I’m afraid I have something even more shocking.”
Mr. Fowler calmly turned on the TV as Mrs. Roche focused her attention on the oversized screen.
WE ASKED OUR MAN ON THE STREET WHAT HE THOUGHT THE MAJOR PROBLEM FACING THE HOMELESS WAS. HERE IS HIS RESPONSE.
Mrs. Roche glared incredulously at the TV.
“Is this some kind of joke, Mr. Fowler?”
“I’m afraid not, Mrs. Roche.”
“FOOD. MONEY FOR FOOD.”
ARE THERE ANY OTHER PROBLEMS?
“My Davy? Promoting charity? It just can’t be.”
“I’m afraid it’s true. Your husband has apparently been wandering around the city and has been mistaken for a bum.”
“Indeed! Really, this is quite embarrassing. You don’t suppose anyone noticed?”
“The phones down at headquarters have been ringing off the hook.”
Mrs. Roche was flabbergasted, and she wondered just what she had done to deserve all that had happened to her on this most noxious of days.
“Well, Mr. Fowler, what do you propose?”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to pull out of the campaign. I’ve already canceled all your husband’s appearances for today.”
Mrs. Roche flinched. She stood up and looked out the window at the swarm of reporters camped outside.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Fowler, but I can’t let you do that.”
“Mrs. Roche. There’s no alternative. Your husband is not fit to run. Look at him.”
Mr. Fowler’s words could not have been truer, for there on the screen was R., straddling a large trash bin, digging through the refuse and feeding voraciously on whatever scraps of food he could find.
“Mr. Fowler, my husband is going to be the next senator of this state no matter what.”
“There is one other possibility,” he said, waiting a few seconds to goad her curiosity. “We can announce that your husband’s been kidnapped.”
“We can say he’s been brainwashed and that his appearance on TV was arranged. With all the terrorist activity that’s been occurring, it would be quite plausible.”
“My Davy kidnapped?”
“The public will eat it up.”
“Mr. Fowler, you can’t be serious?”
“Meanwhile, we’ll launch a search for him. Just think of the publicity. He’ll win by a landslide.”
“I won’t have it. Really, Mr. Fowler. I mean what would I tell the neighbors?”
“It’s really quite fashionable, Mrs. Roche.”
Mrs. Roche’s heavy lips suddenly lifted.
“I mean just last week,” Mr. Fowler continued, “the U.S. Ambassador to Gabon was kidnapped. Just think of the company he’d be keeping.”
“Ambassador,” she muttered, imagining a tribe of savage, half-dressed natives abducting the poor, unsuspecting diplomat in the middle of the jungle. “And you really think it would help my husband get elected?”
“It’s our only chance. He’d be a hero.”
“A hero,” she intoned, drifting off into dreams of cocktail parties with congressmen and senators and, yes, even the President who, of course, would be most charming towards her. It was all she could do to contain her joy.
“Very well, Mr. Fowler. We’ll announce that my husband’s been kidnapped. Only, I do hope they’ll be gentle with him. I don’t suppose you know how they’re treating that Ambassador—where did you say-?”
But just then, a large cockroach crawled unabashedly across the wall, and Mrs. Roche jumped out of her seat.
“There’s another one,” she screamed as she rushed to the telephone and began dialing. “This is totally unacceptable. Yes. Hello. This is Mrs. Roche. There’s been another incident!”
“At approximately 9 A.M. this morning, Mr. Roche was kidnapped while walking in his garden. A group calling themselves United Front to Free the Homeless telephoned Campaign Headquarters shortly after and claimed responsibility for the act. So far they have made no demands.”
“Could this incident be related to Iran’s support for international terrorism?”
“We are certainly not ruling out that possibility. The FBI is now looking into a possible connection with Iran and other rogue nations.”
“Can you tell us what Mr. Roche meant by money for food? Does this mean he has changed his position on federal funding for the poor?”
“Mr. Roche is constantly assessing the situation so he can do what’s best for the country. However, we do believe he was forced into making that statement.”
“How do you think this affects Mr. Roche’s chances of election?”
“I think we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen. That’s all for now.”
During the next few days, R. turned up at the most unexpected places, creating a furor at each and every one. His appearance in the lobby of a posh restaurant on the fashionable west side caused such an outrage that the maitre d’ was forced to raise prices in order to save face.
“Really, Muriel,” one of the patrons remarked. “The clientele here has just degenerated.”
“Why Cornelia, my dear, what did you expect? This place has become so affordable.”
The maitre d’ eventually persuaded R. to leave by offering him a chateaubriand, done to perfection, left untouched by an indignant customer who had pompously paraded out of the restaurant upon R.’s appearance. R. devoured the chateaubriand on the spot and, after being escorted to the door, was told that, under no circumstances, was he to return. Five minutes later, the police arrived in full force, further offending the clientele.
R. next appeared at an upscale supermarket where he managed to consume a large quantity of products before being apprehended by a burly security guard who, unlike the maitre d’ at the restaurant, took from him everything he had managed to forage from the shelves.
“Get out and stay out,” he said, heaving him out the door. Once again, the authorities arrived too late.
Now R. was used to being mistreated, so it was no surprise when people suddenly began chasing him.
This first happened at the corner of a busy intersection. An elderly couple was walking their dog when the curious canine stopped to sniff at R.’s grimy foot. The dog spontaneously lifted his leg and released a warm stream that trickled down R.’s shin. R. followed the dog’s lead, and the man and woman, who up to this point had done their best to ignore him, found this behavior much beyond their idea of tolerance.
“How dare you do that in front of my wife, you bum,” the man shouted.
“Leave him alone, Harold,” the woman muttered under her breath. “You never know what these people are liable to do.”
But the man refused to listen and proceeded to chase R. down the street. A number of people joined in the pursuit, while the old woman, clutching onto her barking dog, shouted anxiously for help.
Eventually, R. bolted into a park and hid behind some bushes, but the smell of food soon attracted his attention and, obeying his instincts, he followed the aroma to its source.
“Hot dogs. Hot dogs.”
“Hot dogs,” R. repeated.
The vendor smothered two hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard and handed them to R.
“That’ll be three fifty.”
R. grabbed the hot dogs and quickly devoured them.
“Hungry. Food. Money for food.”
“Yeah. Three fifty.”
“Hey mac, what’re you some kind of nut? Now that’s three fifty you owe me.”
“Hey look. All I want is my money, OK? Money. Do you understand? Money.”
“Money,” R. exclaimed, remembering the old woman on the bench. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the coins she had given him.
“Good. Now you owe me three dollars.”
“Money. Money for food,” R. repeated loudly, jumping up and down.
“Hey mac. I’ve had enough of you. Now get out of here before I call the police.”
But R. continued to jump, and a curious crowd soon gathered around him and began to repeat:
“Money for food. Money for food.”
For the first time in his life, R. felt appreciated. He walked proudly through the park repeating the phrase as the growing crowd marched behind him.
When they reached Main Street, they were suddenly confronted with an onrush of police, and the crowd began to disperse. R. used his instincts and weaved his way through the fleeing marchers, finally darting down a side street where he concealed himself in a darkened doorway.
“We’ll be safe here,” a stranger whispered.
“They represent the corporations. Money. Profits. Power.”
R. listened, snatching the white bread, processed cheese and packaged meat his scraggly friend placed on the small kitchen table.
“They’ll never do anything for us. You see how they chased us down the street?”
The stranger brought over two beers.
“No sir. People like that have to be eliminated.”
Pushing his long, stringy hair out of his face, he sat down and joined R. who was eating ravenously.
“Food. Money for food,” R. said.
“We need more than that,” the stranger continued, placing his hand on R.’s arm. “We need jobs. We need better schools. We need decent housing.”
“Housing,” R. repeated, his mouth filled with food.
“Look at the squalor they force us to live in. The wallpaper’s peeling. The toilet in the bathroom leaks. The heat don’t work. And do you think the landlord does anything about it? Of course not. And look at the furniture.”
R. imagined himself crawling along the cracks in the wall, romping through the worn carpeting, searching for scraps of food as he had often done before his metamorphosis.
“And roaches?” his friend continued, pointing to a big cockroach meandering along the pipe that led to the ceiling.
“Roaches,” R. beamed.
“I got roaches up the kazoo.”
R. approached the little creature but it instantly darted away.
“Naked,” he exclaimed, not knowing how else to express his happiness.
“Naked. Yeah. It’s naked city. But we’re gonna change that.”
R. ran his eyes up to the ceiling and longed for the days when he could move around freely. He tried climbing up the pipe but settled, instead, for crawling around the apartment on his hands and knees.
“Nobody else is gonna do anything about it,” the man continued. “We’ve got to take things into our own hands.”
The man carefully placed a cardboard box on the table.
“See this package?”
“Package,” R. repeated, spinning around in circles on the floor.
“There’s this guy who wants to be senator. He supports the corporations. And he doesn’t even try to hide it. Well this’ll show him that there are people out here who aren’t going to stand for it.”
R. stood up and gazed at the box.
“Finish eating my friend.”
“Food,” R. said as he resumed stuffing his mouth with bread and meat.
“Yeah. This’ll get us food and much more.”
When they finished eating, the man got up. R. followed him out the door and down the dark stairway, stopping outside to investigate the trash cans that lined the broken sidewalks.
“C’mon. Hurry up.”
THE DEMONSTRATORS NUMBERED IN THE HUNDREDS AND MARCHED PEACEFULLY DOWN MAIN STREET. AS AUTHORITIES ARRIVED, THE CROWD DISPERSED, AND ROCHE ONCE AGAIN DISAPPEARED. SEVERAL DEMONSTRATORS WERE APPREHENDED FOR QUESTIONING BUT SOURCES SAY SO FAR NOTHING HAS BEEN LEARNED ABOUT THE KIDNAPPING.
Mr. Fowler spotted a roach scurrying across the room and angrily smashed it with his foot.
MEANWHILE, THE CANDIDATE’S WIFE MADE HER FIRST PUBLIC APPEARANCE TODAY. WITH TEARS IN HER EYES AND A TREMBLING VOICE, SHE APPEALED TO THE KIDNAPPERS TO RELEASE HER HUSBAND UNHARMED. “IT’S ABSOLUTELY SCANDALOUS. YOU CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT WE’RE GOING THROUGH.” SPEAKING TO REPORTERS FROM HER HOME, MRS. ROCHE SAID RECENT EVENTS HAVE LEFT HER WITH WHAT SHE DESCRIBED AS A CREEPY FEELING AND THAT, EVER SINCE HER HUSBAND’S ABDUCTION, HER HOUSE HAS BEEN CRAWLING WITH VERMIN.
Picturing Mrs. Roche in his mind, Mr. Fowler smacked the newspaper he was holding against the wall and claimed another victim.
A CAMPAIGN AID LATER EXPLAINED THAT THE STATEMENT WAS NOT A REFERENCE TO REPORTERS BUT RATHER TO A STEADY STREAM OF ONLOOKERS WHO HAVE BEEN GATHERING IN FRONT OF THE ROCHE RESIDENCE SINCE THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE MISSING CANDIDATE. AND A CBS NEWS INSTANT POLL TODAY REVEALED THAT, EVER SINCE HIS DISAPPEARANCE, DAVID ROCHE HAS JUMPED AHEAD OF HIS OPPONENT BY TEN PERCENTAGE POINTS IN THE HOTLY CONTESTED RACE FOR THE SENATE. THE POLL ALSO INDICATED THAT ROCHE’S LEAP WAS DUE TO VOTER SYMPATHY AND NOT TO THE SUDDEN CHANGE IN HIS CAMPAIGN PLATFORM. FIFTY SIX PERCENT OF THOSE POLLED SAID THEY OPPOSED ROCHE’S RECENT CHANGE OF HEART TOWARD THE POOR BUT AN OVERWHELMING MAJORITY SAID THEY WOULD VOTE FOR HIM ANYWAY. IN MAN ON THE STREET INTERVIEWS, THOSE WHO OPPOSE ROCHE’S RECENT POLITICAL TURNAROUND SAID THEY WOULD VOTE FOR HIM IN ORDER TO COMBAT FOREIGN TERRORISTS WHO WERE TRYING TO INFLUENCE AMERICAN POLITICS. THE POLL HAS A MARGIN OF ERROR OF PLUS OR MINUS THREE PERCENTAGE POINTS.
COMING UP NEXT
Mr. Fowler switched off the radio, satisfied at the forecasts for his client. He had overcome all the obstacles. It was a real coup, outstripping everything he had done in his entire career. Then he remembered that Roche was still missing. He pounded his fist on the chair, triggering another rush of roaches, and stomped on them viciously as the door opened and Mrs. Roche marched in followed by a troop of servants.
“Move all the furniture. Remove the carpets. Make sure you spray everywhere.”
“Beggin’ your pardon ma’am, but the more we spray the more they keep coming out.”
“Then use your feet, your hands. I don’t care what you do.”
Mr. Fowler watched incredulously as the servants set to work executing Mrs. Roche’s latest attack against the little brown beasts, as she had now taken to calling them.
“Mrs. Roche,” he protested, trailing her around the room.
“Make sure you spray under that painting. Not now, Mr. Fowler. And be careful!”
“Get all the corners.”
“Mr. Fowler! I’ve had enough!”
She stopped dead in her tracks and stared vengefully at him as if he had suddenly joined the ranks of the enemy.
“I don’t want to hear anymore. Not unless you can tell me how to get rid of these little brown beasts.”
“I can’t believe you’re more concerned about roaches-”
“Don’t say that word!”
“-than you are about your own husband.”
“Mr. Fowler. I’ve got a problem here-”
“You’ve got a problem? I can’t believe it! Don’t you realize what’s going on? We’re going to win the election?”
“Why Mr. Fowler. Why didn’t you say that in the first place? Why that’s wonderful news!”
Mrs. Roche spun around in joy, her face filled with rapture.
“I don’t believe you understand, Mrs. Roche. Tomorrow is the election.”
“Yes, Mr. Fowler, I understand.”
“What do we do if we don’t find your husband?”
The reality of Mr. Fowler’s statement hit her almost as pointedly as the spray the servants were deploying, and Mrs. Roche’s lips began to tremble.
“We’ve got to find him Mr. Fowler. We’ve just got to.”
She sat down in one of the remaining chairs and tried to get a hold of herself. Just then, an explosion shook the house, causing the servants to panic and an army of cockroaches to appear. Mrs. Roche shrieked and rushed frantically out the front door.
Outside, the smoke was thick. The lawn was covered with rubble, and people were running in all directions. Lights were flashing as cameras rolled and, in the middle of it all was R., surrounded by reporters.
“Mr. Roche can you tell us something about your kidnappers?”
“How about your proposal for aid to the poor?”
“Could you be more explicit?”
“Jobs. Schools. Housing.”
“Do you have anything to say about the explosion that just occurred? Who do you think is behind it sir?”
“Davy!” Mrs. Roche ran toward him, but her strident voice frightened him, and he began to run.
“All right, that’s enough fellows,” Mr. Fowler said as he rushed toward R.
The next day, the Roche household was once again in a flurry of activity. The grounds were crawling with FBI agents and, inside, the campaign staff were busy monitoring the election returns. Meanwhile, R., who had been secretly captured during the commotion the night before, was being interrogated in the living room which was still in a state of disarray. Mr. Fowler looked on impatiently while Mrs. Roche, armed with a can of insecticide, fired her weapon at the least sign of movement.
“Can you at least tell us what they looked like?” the FBI inspector asked, pulling his mustache in frustration.
The inspector threw his hands up in the air.
“It’s no use,” he exclaimed.
He had used every technique in the book but had not been able to get one bit of coherent information out of R.
“Jesus Christ, David, what are you doing?” Mr. Fowler shouted. “Do you know what they’re saying about you?”
He picked up the paper and shoved it in R.’s face.
R. grabbed the newspaper, examined it curiously, then stuffed it in his mouth.
“This is not funny. Are you out of your mind?”
He ripped the newspaper out of R’s teeth.
“Listen to this. ‘Before Roche once again disappeared, he told reporters that, if elected, he would fight for additional money for jobs, schools and housing. Previous to last night’s statement, in a bizarre appearance in a street demonstration, he demanded money for food.’”
“David, what’re you doing? Don’t you realize you’re going to alienate all your backers? How do you expect me to justify this?”
“Money for food.”
“I give up!”
Mrs. Roche approached R. cautiously and sat next to him, her can poised for action.
“Really, Davy. Haven’t you gone too far? Have you forgotten your friends? I mean what will they say when they hear you publicly promoting charity?”
R. looked at her with a big smile.
Mrs. Roche’s lips quivered, and her face reddened in shame.
“My poor Davy. What have they done to you?”
She wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Really, Mr. Fowler. You’re responsible for all of this. I should’ve never listened to you. You’ve got to do something.”
“Perhaps we ought to let your husband rest, Mrs. Roche,” the inspector interjected.
“Excuse me, inspector,” Mr. Fowler burst out, “but there’s an election going on. We’ve got to do something.”
“Mr. Fowler, I’m very well aware of the circumstances. But as you yourself can see, Mr. Roche is not capable at this moment of giving us any useful information.”
This was quite observant of the good inspector, for R. was, at that moment, crawling on his hands and knees.
“Really, Davy. What’s become of you?”
R. stood up and held out his clenched fists.
“Roaches,” he said, opening his hands.
Mrs. Roche, espying the little brown beasts he offered her, quickly fired, letting out a steady stream of insecticide that filled the room. R. dropped to the floor and immediately began shaking.
“Take him upstairs,” the inspector said to the two agents who were standing by the door. “Lock the room and make sure he doesn’t get away. I’m sorry, Mrs. Roche. I have my orders. The President is counting on him. Your husband will need to be completely debriefed.”
“Mr. Fowler,” a campaign aide said, entering the room. “We’re ahead by twenty percent.”
Upstairs, the room spun around quickly and R. could feel his body beginning to change again. His body shrank quickly. His legs started to grow back, his soft, white skin became hard and brown, and his tentacles, which he had dearly missed, slowly reappeared.
When the metamorphosis was complete, R. scrambled off the bed and up the dresser and looked in the mirror. He examined himself, crawling up and down the shiny surface to get a better view. Then he scurried joyously back down and crawled all over Mrs. Roche’s toiletries, investigating their smells and textures. When he had had his fill of these, he rushed down to the carpet, traversed a pair of Mrs. Roche’s expensive shoes, then darted up the wall and across the ceiling, stopping to hang upside down, happy at last to be back to normal. He remained that way for quite a while, perhaps five minutes or so (for cockroaches have no sense of time as we know it), then scuttered down the wall, onto the bed and burrowed himself comfortably between the pillow and the sheets.
Copyright © 2019 by Mike Maggio.
About the Author
Mike Maggio’s publication credits include fiction, poetry, reviews and travel in The Montserrat Review, Nebo, Potomac Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Pleiades, Apalachee Quarterly, The L.A. Weekly, The Washington CityPaper, VOL. NO MAGAZINE, Gypsy, Pig Iron, DC Poets Against the War, and many others.. His full-length publications include a collection of short stories titled Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris, Inc, 2001), a chapbook of poetry titled Oranges From Palestine (Mardi Gras Press, 1996), a full-length collection of poetry titled deMOCKracy (Plain View Press, 2007), a collection of short fiction, The Keepers (March Street Press, 2011), a novel, The Wizard and the White House (Little Feather Books, 2014) and a novella, The Appointment (Vine Leave Press 2017).
Nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize
A Painted Face
When I asked my daughter not to marry Nduka, my reason was simple. The men of his household do not make good husbands. His brother had run off to the big city with a rich older woman, leaving his wife to fend for their two children all by herself. And their Father, that their Father is a renowned womanizer who derived great pleasure in pursuing with other men’s wives. Even after I have recounted Nduka’s family history, she would not reconsider her stance and will reply me with some new generation notion about love.
“The most important thing is that I love him, and I know he loves me in return. It is unfair to judge someone because of the actions of his relations. You don’t even know him Nne. Don’t judge who you don’t know.”
“Nwakaego, see beyond his gentlemanly airs and government job.” I say to her in Ibo hoping that she will understand me better when the language is not lost in translation.
“I have made my choice Nne and that choice is Nduka.” She will reply in English.
A few days later, Udohchukwu my eldest son will approach me, soliciting on Nwakaego’s behalf.
“It is not in your place to tell Nwakaego who to marry. You must allow her to make her decision and live with whatever consequences that decision will come with.” He counts his words slowly, pausing in between to catch his breath because he stammers when he speaks fast. Before he inhales again to speak, I hush him.
“I have heard. Nwakaego can marry whoever she chooses. If only your Father were alive, he will know the proper thing to do. Right now, I do not.”
“You are doing the right thing Nne.” He drapes his hands over my shoulders to look me in the eye.
On the day of Nwakaego’s traditional wedding, Nduka wasted no time in showing that he is a very important government official. The siren sounds that blasted through our usually sleepy ogbeowele quarter were enough to awaken the ancestors from the yonder world. His motorcade entourage stretched out from our compound down to St. Thomas’ College football field. Where 5 kegs of palm wine were required to be presented to elders of my husband’s clan, Nduka brought 50 kegs. Where two male goats were required, he presented three robust cows. After the presentations, the nuptial dance further cemented the legend of his wealthy connections. The naira notes plastered by Nduka’s friends during the dance poured like rainfall and everyone stepped on them like is the bare ground. The six bridesmaids, part of whose task was picking the notes from the ground, packed thirteen cartons full of cash not counting the ones they had kept for themselves.
“We are one family now.” Nduka’s father says to me at the end of the ceremony eyeing the otuogwo cloth tied tightly across my chest that housed its flat breasts.
“It is loyalty and love that makes a family, not necessarily blood or fancy ceremonies.” I am surprised that I dignified his statement with a response.
“Well said wise woman. Be assured that your daughter has married into a good home.” This time I do not reply.
The pomp and pageantry that surrounded Nwakaego’s wedding became a reference point for subsequent weddings in Ibusa. But when six long years came and passed without any reported case of pregnancy from her marriage, people began to talk. And they talked so much that the wedding was completely forgotten. It is inconceivable for me to think that my only daughter is infertile. It must be that Nduka who has the problem. Perhaps as a result of a curse from his family’s philandering ways? Still I cannot sit back and watch her suffer any longer. I must get to the bottom of things.
I have come to dread my mother’s visits, because we always end up in the same place after going around in circles. She called again, the second time this week to remind me that she will be coming to visit this Saturday.
“Can you come and pick me up from the car park?”
“Of course, I will Nne.”
I sit heavily on the couch and I tried to process how to tell Nduka that my mother was coming to visit again—the third time in two months. I knew it was not going to be a pleasant conversation since we had both agreed to stop extended relations from paying unscheduled visits to our home. But my mother is not extended whether Nduka likes it or not. So, I prepared his favorite soup and ensured that the cook pounded yam with the mortar so that it formed a fine smooth paste.
When he returned, I met him at the door and enveloped him in a bear hug.
“Nnuo.” I cooed lovingly giving him my nicest widest smile ever.
“Someone is happy to see me today. What have I finally gotten right?”
“I am always happy to see my husband. Will you shower or eat first?”
He stands still bemused before pointing to his stomach.
I sit on the dining table watching him swallow lumps of pounded yam dipped in a mixture of dry stock fish and Oha leaves. I could stall and ask about how his day went but I wanted to get the conversation over and done with.
“Nne says she wants to come and see us tomorrow and she will be staying for a few days.” He stops molding the pounded yam into lumps and looks at me intently, as if finally catching up on what the charade is about.
“This is the third time in—”
“It is just for a few days Nduka.”
“I don’t like this.”
“Ooh you think I liked it when your mother and your sister camped here for a month sowing seeds of discord between us?” I could hear my voice raising and the sound of the dining chair creaking against the tiled floor as he got up, leaving behind an unfinished meal.
He is in the shower when I go to him. Water cascading from the shower head leaves droplets all over his body. I plant kisses on his hairy chest before I suck on his erect nipples, then trace my tongue from his bugling midriff to his penis. His hands caress my wet hair and he pushes my mouth into him so that he fills my mouth. When I am breathless from gurgling water and sucking him, he inserts his left index and middle fingers inside of me and makes me taste my wetness. Then, he enters into me violently from behind making me lean on the glass sink for support.
“Why do we always argue about the smallest things?” I ask short of breath after he had deposited his seeds in a characteristic spasm.
“You tell me.” He retorts, and grabs his towel, leaving the bathroom without looking at me.
After Nne had settled in and I have proven beyond reasonable doubt that I am hale and hearty, she asks after Nduka.
“I think he is at some meeting at the country club.” That was a lie. I had no idea of where he was because he had conveniently left the house before I had gone to pick up Nne from the park. And I know he will not return until everyone at home is fast asleep. When she has confirmed his absence, she makes small chatter with news from our ogbe. I couldn’t absorb of the details of what she is saying because I am fixated on the terrestrial orchids growing in the front porch where we are seated. The orchids have bloomed better than the other indoor plants even with the present October harmattan. I hear faintly that Uncle Emenanjor has taken the Obi title and left the church and Okorie has finally resolved the land dispute between him and the construction company with a huge settlement. She jolts my attention when she says:
“I hear Nduka’s mother and that his miserable wayward sister came here to make trouble.”
“How did you hear?”
“Bad news travels faster than good news.”
“That has been taken care of Nne, they won’t return here again, Nduka has made sure of that.”
“But the root of the problem remains.”
“I have tried everything biko, I can’t kill myself.” Hot tears are beginning to swell in my eyes, and I didn’t want to shut my eyes so that they do not flow in succession. I inhale deeply hoping to calm myself, but the tears fall quickly when I remember how many concoctions Nne has sent for me to drink, how I drank all of them religiously no matter how bitter, nauseating or oily they tasted. How I have attended countless crusades held within and outside Asaba, gone for special services and went on dry fasting for weeks at a stretch. Seers and pastors have come here to pray with Nduka and I and yet nothing. What I get in return is some Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome diagnosis and two failed IVF cycles.
Nne makes no attempt to stop me from crying and we sit in a silence that is somewhat comforting. After which the tears stop.
“There is a woman I want us to see.” Nne says in a hushed tone as if she fears been overheard.
“I am not going anywhere again. I am done, just done.”
“Not when I am still alive Kaego, all hope is not lost. They say she knows her job well because she is not called nwanyi oma for nothing. Let us go tomorrow please.”
“Don’t tell Nduka.” She warns me before relaxing her back on the wooden recliner and closing her eyes.
When we get to Nkwor market, I ask the driver to find a safe place to park and wait for us. I couldn’t risk him taking us from Asaba to nwanyi oma’s address in Achalla-Ibusa about three miles away. He is loyal to Nduka and will surely tell him where we had been if I let him drive us. So, we walk to the outskirts of the market and flag down a taxi. The taxi man gives us an exorbitant fee and Nne begins to haggle.
“Fuel cost.” The taxi man says in Pidgin English.
“My son, the place is not far like that ooh.” Nne pleads in Ibo. I assume that she is hoping the man speaks Ibo too.
“Nine thousand naira last.” He replies in Ibo, deducting just a thousand naira from his initial ten-thousand naira fee.
I couldn’t deal anymore. I open the passenger’s side and slide in, leaving the door open for Nne to enter.
The entrance to nwanyi oma’s house is paved with interlocking stones and well-trimmed daisy bush and white rose flowers make up the hedge that surround the house. A dark-skinned boy of about seven years old answers the door. He leads us from an ill lit corridor into a large sparsely furnished sitting room, before disappearing into an adjoining room. Nnwanyi oma’s bulky frame is seated on the longest piece of furniture as she waves to the two individual cushioned settees opposite her and asks us to seat. It appears she has been expecting us.
When the pleasantries between her and Nne is over, she stares at a mini crucifix clad on her right palm. It is now that I notice she is dressed in an all-white attire—a free flowing kaftan with long sleeves and a white headgear. She has no jewelry on. Underneath the center table is water filled to the brim in a medium sized stainless-steel bowl. A lit white candle is on a silver coloured stand positioned directly above the stainless-steel bowl in the middle of the table. When I look up, the only painting on the wall is a reprint of the Madonna. It is surrounded by a photo of a middle-aged man with his arms draped around the shoulders of a smiling woman who is carrying an infant son. On the opposite wall is a black and white portrait photo of an older man in a three-piece suit. Perhaps this is the husband I chuckle to myself, seeing that he is good looking.
“The reason you have been unable to conceive is because you are having an affair.” Nwanyi oma’s sultry voice interrupts my train of thought. I could feel my mother’s eyes on me, waiting for an answer.
“That was over a year ago, I haven’t seen him since then. Besides what has this got to do with anything? I still couldn’t conceive even before it started.” How is it that I have admitted to the affair so easily? I thought to myself.
“You have to understand that the spiritual controls the physical. So, when we cannot progress in the spiritual, we will be hindered in the physical.” She is speaking slowly in Ibo, like she is in some meditative trance.
I am livid. So Nduka is able to conveniently steal large sums of government funds, maintain a high-flying mistress he thinks I know nothing about and still the spiritual did not finger his corruption and infidelity as the cause of our childlessness? The one time I let my guard down and inadvertently have a transient affair, everything suddenly becomes my fault? I am not buying into this shit!
“Your husband’s family has a hand in this too. But there are many things I cannot begin to explain here.” Her face is surprisingly serene and beads of sweat had formed on top of her brows.
My mother adjusts her head tie and shifts her buttocks so that it is at the edge of cushioned seat and I hear her exclaim.
“Ahhah, this is what happens when children do not listen to their parents! Did I not tell you?”
I was growing more uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to leave when Nne finally asks:
“nwanyi oma, what can be done to remedy the situation?”
“I need to perform a cleansing ritual on her behalf. Then she will have to bathe daily at the break of dawn with a special soap.”
“How much will these cost?”
“One hundred and fifty thousand naira for the ritual, and an additional twelve thousand naira for the purchase of the soap.”
“Fine, I will bring it the day after tomorrow.” This time Nne doesn’t haggle.
When we get up to leave, nwanyi oma walks us to the waiting taxi and that is when I notice she walks with a limp and leans heavily on her walking cane for support. When I am about to enter the taxi, she turns to me and says.
“You will have children my daughter. It is merely a question of time.”
“Thank you, Ma.” I murmur and for that fleeting moment, my anger dissipates, and I am able to wave her goodbye from the moving taxi.
“Does Nduka know about the affair?” Nne asks on our way home.
“Good, keep it that way.” I am surprised she did not demand for the details.
I will never forget how I ran into him. I was bent over the shelf rack selecting strawberries from the fresh fruits section of the shopping mall, when I felt a slight tap on my left shoulder and turned to see who it was.
“Jacob!” I exclaimed.
“I wanted to be sure that it was you before coming over.” He said as we hugged instantly. When I felt the hug had gone on for too long, I tore myself away and asked how he was doing.
“Good good.” He answered.
“So, what have you been up to?”
“The hustle is real Kaego. When we graduated, I tried a couple of exhibitions, but those didn’t get me to the places I needed to be. So, I am still in the process of knocking on some doors.”
But he had a high GPA at the university. Why did the brightest ones always have the hardest time breaking even in the real world?
“All will be well.” I look him in the eye when I say this, and instinctively reach for his hand.