A POTENTIALITY OF ROACHES

In my small South Florida community, the gates are the current hot topic. The residents endlessly debate the cost of running and repairing them (they are frequently battered by those who would like to see them gone) and the value they add to our properties. Make no mistake here: this is not an expensive, exclusive neighborhood. Many of those who live here, however, are fundamental in the belief that it is.

The gates, of course, do little to deter people from getting within our walls. For one thing, we have no walls – just an uneven hedge that runs around the property line with holes big enough to allow the passage of a couple of bicycles or maybe even a small car. Typically, though, determined drivers just plow through the gate arm. The more polite trespassers stop their vehicles, get out and remove the arm from its socket, toss it on the ground and then drive through. Others view their vehicles as battering rams assaulting the castle. So although the debate about the gates is ongoing and often vociferous, the gates themselves are less about security and protection than about the illusion of such. They present a potential for safety – and, I suppose, a symbol for feeling superior.

When I first moved here, I was an ardent supporter of the gates. Being a single woman, I was comforted by their existence and the promise of protection. My sense of safety was further heightened by my purchasing a second floor condominium. So long as the front door lock held, I reasoned, the gates and my dwelling near the palm tops would keep intruders out.

My attitude changed in a heartbeat, however, when the Demon came to call.

I was stretched out on the couch, watching the evening news on television and marveling at the stupidities in the world and the lack of hopeful reports. The first thing I noticed was a skritch-skritch-scratching on the lanai screens. (We do not call them porches in this area of Florida. Lanai is the word of choice. It adds to the ambiance and, yes, that feeling of elitism.) I assumed at first it was merely the cat. She likes to pad around my plants in search of anoles, the little lizards that frequent our premises, and – her favorite – the cockroaches that are ubiquitous here. So there was no trepidation as I turned my head to the opened sliding glass doors.

As I watched, the scratching became a slicing, and in the time it takes to gasp (which I did) a Demon was standing on my lanai, just at the doorframe. His appearance jolted me to my feet.

Now, I am not one given to nightmare visions, but I have read enough fantasy adventure novels to know a Demon when I see one. He was just as I’d imagined – which, I suppose, is actually a characteristic of this category of creature. He stood about seven feet tall, and his naked skin was leathery and the color of the burnt sienna crayon in the Crayola box. Horns sprouted from his forehead, right about in line with where his pointed ears stopped pointing. He had wisps of coal black hair on top of his head, serving as eyebrows and attempting to be a moustache and goatee. But by far his most striking feature was the pair of wings that folded like a dragon’s behind his back and peaked above his shoulders. Not surprisingly, he smelled slightly of brimstone, and a slight trail of smoke seemed to follow him like a wake.

He was, however, exceedingly and surprisingly polite.

“Good evening,” he said, clasping his hands in front of him and inclining his head slightly. “Do you mind if I come in? It would make our business so much nicer and less apt to draw a crowd.”

It is true, I suppose, that you get what you give. And so, despite my reasonable shock and awe, it seemed only natural to respond to his politeness in kind. Besides, Buddha always advised acceptance. (Not that I am a Buddhist. But having read some about the philosophy, I like to spout his sayings on occasion. And this seemed a particularly apt occasion to do so.) “Please do,” I stammered as I backed away from the couch.

Taking my movement as an invitation to sit down, he sank into the couch with an audible sigh. “Thanks ever so,” he said. “It’s been a long evening already, and it does get tiresome when folks waste time sputtering and screaming. It’s not often I get the chance to sit and make small talk.”

Now small talk is not one of my strengths, and small talk with a demon was completely out my realm of existence. So I said the first thing that came to mind. “Ummm, you’re a demon?”

“I am a Demon!” he said with a broad grin that amply displayed his pointed yellow teeth. “One of Lucifer’s many minions. How delightful of you to recognize me! They said you were a sharp one.”

“Ummm, who said?”

“Why, the other minions, of course. And the Dark Master Himself. Which, of course, is why the other minions agreed. It doesn’t do to disagree with Lucifer. He has apparently had his eye on you for some time. That is why it is such a great honor for me to have been assigned this task. I must admit, I was completely taken by surprise. My face positively burned with pleasure. This could be a real step up for me – or, rather, down, depending on one’s perspective.”

I felt as though my brain had been placed on an out-of-control merry-go-round, and my state must have been evident on my face, as the Demon, with an expression of concern, asked if I was feeling all right.

“Yes, fine. Thank you. I just – I’m a little confused. I’m having a hard time digesting what you’re telling me.”

“Oh, that’s perfectly natural!” the Demon replied, back to his cheery self.

“Happens all the time. It’s the shock, I suppose. A lot of people faint dead away – well, not dead, but you know what I mean – as soon as they see me. Don’t worry. As comprehension settles in, you’ll feel better. Not exactly good…” – and here he chuckled at his inadvertent wit – “but certainly more like your normal self.”

This was all still going a little too quickly for me, so I veered to a different line of inquiry. “So… what’s your name? I mean, if we’re going to talk, it would be nice to know what to call you.”

I could immediately see that this was an unfortunate question. The Demon’s wings slumped behind his back, he looked down at his claws and started picking at imaginary bits of coal dust and flicking them on the carpet. “I have not yet attained the level of name,” he said softly. “Only Lucifer’s most trusted advisors are granted that honor.”

Touched by his sadness – and feeling responsible since I was the one who’d broached the subject – I quickly said, “But that could change, right? I mean, if you do well here tonight, maybe Lucifer will move you up – or down – a couple of, uh, levels.”

He brightened considerably at this possibility. His wings even perched back up. “Oh, that would be wonderful!”

“Anything’s possible,” I suggested.

“How true! How true!”

“But what should I call you in the meantime?” As soon as the question escaped me, I wanted to take it back. No sense irritating him again. But the Demon’s moment of self-doubt had evidently passed.

“You can call me…Demon!” he said with another great, horrible smile.

Unsure what to say next, I let the silence hang until it felt like a heavy, wet cloak. The Demon was staring at me with such happiness and expectation, that I figured it was my turn to talk. Trying to adopt a stance that I hoped appeared at least a little nonchalant, I cleared my throat and asked, “So, Demon, what brings you here tonight?” It sounded like a pick-up line from a cheesy nightclub, but I was having a hard enough time dealing with my reeling brain. Sounding intellectual was a little beyond me at that point.

The Demon sat back a bit, as if my question had surprised him. “Why, I thought that would have been obvious,” he said. “Lucifer sent me to claim your soul.”

Oddly, I was not completely taken aback. After all, why else would a person receive a visit from a Demon? Still, his answer did confuse me all over again. I knew I wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of examples of when I could have acted more charitably, times I could have refrained from gossip or held my temper. But I hadn’t ever done anything really bad. I wasn’t an ax murderer or anything like that. The more I flashed through the scenes of my life, the more convinced I became that there had been some mistake. And the more annoyed I got. “Why my soul?” I demanded.

This was when the real surprise arrived. The Demon seemed to agree with me. Nodding his head, he said, “I know, I know. You wouldn’t think you were the type of person that we in Hell could claim. Oh, you’ve got some minor little blemishes, but overall your soul is in disgustingly good shape. All of us in the minion corps were startled when the Dark Master said He was laying claim to you.”

“Then why?” I repeated, more determined and feeling stronger – and braver.

“But that’s the wicked beauty of it!” the Demon said with a grin. He may have even licked his lips. “It isn’t so much what you’ve done as it is the way your world views you! Society has changed its social opinions, and now you’re on our side of the gates!”

“I – I don’t understand,” I stammered.

“Of course you don’t! You’re too good for that. But others of your kind aren’t like you. They’ve decided that anyone who holds certain views – all that humanist philosophy, the we-are-all-one-and-we-should-be-tolerant-of-our-differences belief you espouse – is now damnable. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but it’s the people with whom you share this world who have pronounced your fate. The Fundamentalists have attained supremacy now, and you’ve become one of the lost souls – one that we can claim! It’s wonderful! We haven’t had such a rich opportunity – or so much fun – since the 1600s!”

The 1600s were when Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and found guilty of the crime of believing that the Earth circled the sun – a theory that was later proved correct but which the Catholic Church argued against for two more centuries. This thought came unexpectedly to my mind, the way a person might sometimes laugh at a funeral. I was no Galileo, but I knew his story well enough to recall that no amount of reason had saved him.

That realization prompted me to say the very next thing that popped into my consciousness. “Would you like some tea?” I asked the Demon.

His eyebrows arched up at the question. I have to admit that I had actually surprised myself with it. But somewhere in the recesses of memory I could hear my mother advising, “There’s nothing so bad that a cup of tea won’t help.” Such ingrained lessons tend to erupt at the least likely moments. Like this one.

“How very thoughtful of you!” the Demon sputtered. “I do so love your human’s tea! Not that I often get the chance to savor it. Only sometimes when I’m sent to claim a soul in England or India. But I agree – a cup of tea is just the thing to settle my scales. Earl Grey, if you have it, please.”

“Ummm, I’m afraid I only have herbal teas. Sorry.”

“Not to worry. Anything lemony would be delightful.”

I stumbled into the kitchen, shaking my head to clear it. What was I doing, making tea for a Demon who had come to claim my soul? I must be crazy. That must be what was really going on here…

Lost in my inner monologue, I filled the kettle and put it on the stove, then turned to the pantry. The Demon followed my every move, as if he were training to adopt human form and customs. When I opened the door to the pantry, a good-sized cockroach skittered out, alarmed by the sudden light. With reflexes honed by years of Florida living, I mechanically stomped on it and reached back for a paper towel to clean up the remains. As I tossed the towel and crushed bug into the trash, the Demon shrieked.

“What are you doing?!”

Startled that he should be afraid of an insect, I replied, “Don’t worry. It’s only a cockroach. They’re everywhere down here. I wrote an article about them a long time ago. They won’t hurt you. They’re just pests.”

At this, the Demon stood up and huffed his way into the kitchen. “I know what cockroaches are! They happen to be my favorite treat! And they go extremely well with tea! Why are you throwing that one away?!”

I should have known, I suppose. What could be a better treat for a Demon than an insect I found disgusting and creepy? And he looked so distressed at my thoughtlessness that I immediately felt the need to make amends. I was afraid he might break down and cry; his eyes were already glistening.

“Would, would you like me to pull it out of the trash?” It didn’t seem a particularly appetizing idea to me, but it was the only thing I could think of. Apparently, it was just fine.

“Oh, yes, please! And if you have a bit of jam I could have on the side, so I could dip it in, that would be just perfect!”

What could I do? The Demon was grinning from ear to pointed ear and licking his lips in anticipation. It would have been downright cruel to deny him. So I fished the smashed roach out of the garbage and scraped it onto a plate, got the jam from the refrigerator and finished making the tea. By the time I was done and had laid everything on the table, the Demon was bouncing his wings up and down in anticipation.

“I don’t suppose you have any more roaches running around,” the Demon said as he licked the last bit of jam from his long fingers.

“Uh, not at the moment,” I admitted. Trying to be helpful, as always, I added, “But this is Florida. If we wait a while, we might be able to find some more. Especially if we checked the closets.”

As soon as I said it, I bit my lip in a vain attempt to take the words back. The idea of entertaining a Demon for the rest of the night was not particularly appealing. Besides, he wanted to take my soul! Somehow, in between the roach and the tea, I had forgotten that important detail. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to remind him of his mission either.

I didn’t have to. The Demon scratched his long nail through the remains of the jam on his plate and furrowed his brow. “Perhaps we could make some sort of arrangement about your soul,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean?” I asked, straining to find a glimmer of hope.

“Well, I was just thinking. I was instructed to give you some time to get things in order before I transported your soul to Lucifer’s kingdom.” He looked at me with a question dancing in his eyes, but since I had no idea what it was, I kept silent. Hope sometimes needs a little time and space to grow. The Demon looked down at his plate again and seemed to find resolution. When he looked back up, he was grinning once more.

“Perhaps you could use that time to raise the necessary – um – funds to ransom your soul!” he burst out, flapping his wings to add emphasis.

And suddenly he was a flurry of activity – standing up, dancing a little jig, pulling parchment and a feathered pen from the air. “Yes, yes!” he giggled. “Oh, this will work out just splendidly!”

He placed the parchment before me on the table and, as I watched, words appeared. It was a contract. For my soul. I was to be given two months to raise the ransom. If I failed to do so completely, he would return and claim my soul. And any portion of the ransom raised in the meantime would be forfeited to the Demon. It was a lose-lose proposition. Particularly considering what the ransom was.

In order to win back my soul, I would have to collect and deliver all the possible cockroaches in the world!

“No way!” I shouted. “How could I possibly collect all the cockroaches in the world? You’re giving me a ‘bargain’ that has no solution!”

The Demon abruptly stopped his little dance. And for the first time, his voice had a greasy quality to it when he spoke. “But aren’t you the one who’s always saying that anything’s possible? Oh, ye of little faith!” And he began to cackle with such delight that his wings shuddered the air, wrapping us in wave after wave of the smell of brimstone.

Tears brimming in my eyes, I protested, “But this isn’t fair!”

The Demon cackled even harder. “Well, of course it isn’t! Why would you expect it to be?”

I grabbed at the still open jar of jam with the thought of smashing it into his face. But the jar carried a different connotation for the Demon. He stopped laughing and a little of his former courtesy resurfaced. “I did so enjoy that roach you served me,” he said by way of explanation. “And I would so love to have more. With this contract, I’ll be able to have my roaches and your soul, too. I really thought it was quite clever.”

Noticing my lack of response or even relaxation, he added, “And if you don’t accept these terms, I have to take your soul anyway.” His shoulders slumped at this last, almost as if he regretted having to say it.

So, with a shaking hand, I signed my name to the Demon’s impossible contract. What else could I do? It was no more unreasonable than the claiming of my soul in the first place. At least this way I had a chance. A ridiculously slim one, but a chance nonetheless.

Perhaps my quiet acceptance stirred something in him, because as he rolled up the parchment, the Demon whispered, “The roaches don’t have to be alive, you know. Dead ones are just as good. That should make things easier.” And with a small smile – and a burst of smoke – he was gone.

 

For the next few days, I was wrapped in the immobile stupor that often follows shock. But as my sense returned – dragging along the reality of my untenable situation – I became a blur of activity. Yes, my mission was impossible, but moving somehow kept that reality in the vague distance. I was suffering the fever of desperation, running from my fear.

I rushed to the store and bought all the “roach motels” they had in stock. I came home and placed them in every closet and corner. I bought cans and cans of roach spray and rigged a holster for my belt so I could bring one with me everywhere, a gunslinger with a serious purpose. I had no idea how I would round up all the roaches in my neighborhood, let alone the world. I certainly couldn’t tell my neighbors and enlist their help. They’d have me committed – and that would only curtail my ability to collect roaches.

As the days passed and the plastic bags of roaches began to mount up in my dwelling, little notes from the Demon started arriving. The air would suddenly snap and, in a puff of smoke, a note would materialize, drifting lazily to the table. The notes would turn to ash as soon as I read them.

“Make the most of your time – only five weeks left!”

“Remember: the cockroaches needn’t be alive! Carry on!”

These were the sort of bits of wisdom they imparted. Perhaps the Demon thought he was being encouraging. But all the notes accomplished was to make me feel worse than I already did. I got so I jumped whenever I heard a snap or felt a slight breeze.

Two days before the deadline, I received a note I found in particularly poor taste. I know I shouldn’t judge others, but this one really seemed to me to show the Demon’s vicious side. It read, “Anything’s possible! That’s what you always said!” I could almost hear his unforgettable cackle.

Anger too often clouds the brain and blows things out of proportion. But sometimes anger is just what you need. It brings a clarity that’s been previously hidden. As this latest message disintegrated, I rushed to my filing cabinets and began digging through old contact files. When I’d written that magazine article all those years before, the exterminator who’d been my main contact had told me he had the largest collection of cockroach specimens in the world. He’d invited me to view it, but I had politely declined. Now seemed the perfect time to take him up on his invitation.

When deadline day arrived, I was ready. I’ve always been good about deadlines. There’s something about that pressure that spurs me on.

I was calmly sipping tea when the Demon arrived. He entered once more through the lanai screen, but this time I didn’t even turn my head at the skritch-skritch-scratching. “Hello, Demon,” I said as he broached the doorway. “Right on time, I see.”

He glided toward me, his eyes aglow with anticipation. He smacked his lips loudly as he noticed my tea, but this time I wasn’t feeling gracious enough to offer him any. I simply stared at him and let the silence hang.

With a look of barely suppressed disappointment, he cleared his throat, scratched at his nose and said, “Well, of course I’m on time! Lucifer is very strict about such things.”

“I imagine he’s also strict about the orders he gives you minions.”

The Demon stepped back a pace, thrown off balance. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I was just thinking that Lucifer probably won’t be very happy when he learns that I’ve fulfilled our contract. One less soul for him to claim.”

Greed and fear started to ignite a war in the Demon’s face. With a voice that sounded like a strangled cry, he whispered, “You’ve done it? Where are they?” And he immediately began to scan the rooms he could see.

I pushed my chair slowly from the table, walked to the kitchen, opened the pantry and pulled out a small jar. Returning to the table, I placed the jar in front of him. He snatched it and held it up. A sneer spread across his face as he looked inside. Slamming the jar to the table, he snarled, “You bring me two measly cockroaches and expect me to release you from your contract?!”

I sat down to my tea again and took a slow sip before I responded. “In the first place, those cockroaches don’t have the measles.” I looked straight at the Demon. “That was a little joke, in case you didn’t get it. But more importantly, those two cockroaches are alive.”

“I told you I didn’t care if they were alive or dead!” the Demon fairly screamed.

“I know you didn’t care. But I do. Those two cockroaches are also of opposite sexes. Being alive, they can mate. In fact, if you look closely, I think you’ll see an egg pouch on the belly of the female. That’s a good way to tell the difference between them.”

“So?”

“So you had me promise to give you all the cockroaches there could possibly be in the world. Possibly – as in the future, as in creation. What I have given you in that jar is pure potential. Kind of like God.” The Demon blanched at this point, whether from the mention of the Prime Mover or the realization that he had lost his bargain . The paleness didn’t make him look any better.

“But…but…that isn’t fair!” he shrieked and boiling hot tears began to bubble out of his eyes.

“Actually, it is,” I said softly. “Sorry, old chum.”

As if in confirmation, the parchment I had signed at the close of his last visit twisted into the air and floated to the table. A large red “PAID” stamp appeared across the front, and then the parchment crumbled to dust.

The Demon was now sobbing uncontrollably, his wings hiccupping behind him. He brought his hands to his face and howled. “What am I going to say to Lucifer? The Great Dark Lord is going to be so very angry with me!”

Pity finally moved me. I couldn’t begin to imagine the torments Lucifer could devise. It also kind of annoyed me that this hard-working minion – who had failed only by attempting to imitate his master – was deprived of a name while Lucifer apparently had several to spare. So I went to the Demon and put my arms around his shoulders.

“It’ll be all right. You’ll see. Buddha says everything unfolds just as it should.” It seemed the wrong thing to say, as his wings just shuddered harder and his sobs increased. I tried again. “Maybe it won’t be as bad as you’re imagining. Things seldom are – in this world, anyway.”

The Demon stole a glance at me then, and I could recognize that same glint in his eyes that spoke of the hope for hope. “Do you honestly think so? I know you wouldn’t lie.”

The last was a challenge I couldn’t ignore, so I thought carefully before speaking again. When I did, I pushed the Demon back a bit, so I could hold him by both bony shoulders and look him directly in the eyes. “You know Lucifer much better than I do. But just remember the roaches, okay? Anything is possible.”

He brightened just enough to sniffle and give me a weak smile. “If I ever get past Hell’s gates again, perhaps I could come for tea?” he asked in a small voice.

“Absolutely! But I think we’ll stick to jam and biscuits.”

He nodded solemnly. “Agreed. Well, I thank you for all your kindnesses. It hasn’t exactly been a pleasure, but… well, perhaps I learned something today.” And with that, the smell of brimstone began to fill the air, smoke swirled around his great body, and he disappeared.

 

A few days after the Demon’s departure, the dispute over the gates to our community was resolved. The president of the homeowners’ association calculated that the money spent repairing the gates could have covered the salary of a guard to operate them. He convinced the rest of the board that this was the route we should follow – stressing how much a uniformed guard would add to the presumed prestige of the community.

So now we have a tall, slender fellow who checks each vehicle and determines whether to let it pass. He’s not the most attractive man. His ears are a bit misshapen, almost coming to a point on top. His shoulders seem to echo the shape. His black hair is scraggly and sparse and coarse, as are his eyebrows and his poor excuse for a moustache. And he usually looks a bit dusty, as if he could use a good shower. His most noticeable characteristic, however, may be how vehemently he hates cockroaches. Any that dare scuttle into the guardhouse are swiftly and vigorously dispatched.

So I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should invite him to tea.