If there was one thing Marty couldn't stand it was cockroaches. He waged a kind of personal war against the things, and any roach unwise enough to be caught crawling around on a wall near Marty would be instantly spotted and squashed with great satisfaction. Ones on the floor, of course, never had a chance.

Marty and I were sharing a run-down apartment in Manhattan's upper Eastside at the time. The place had one of those kitchen bathtubs with a metal cover that doubled as a counter and general catch-all for whatever we didn't feel like putting away. If we wanted to take a shower we had to remove all the junk and lift the cover, revealing hordes of cockroaches scurrying around in the tub. Marty, with great delight, would turn on the hot water and scald the things down the drain. Then he'd begin beating the tattered shower curtain, and hundreds more would fall into the steaming water. Oh, what fun!

Not that Marty's obsession was always so enjoyable, of course. The crazy bugs had a tendency to crawl into his bedclothes when he wasn't there -- and even when he was. Then all hell would break loose. I'd awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of shouted curses and the thumps of a brick on the apartment floor as Marty took his rightful vengeance on the presumptuous creatures.

Well, one morning after a particularly violent night, I was nursing a Burgundy hangover with a cup of hot coffee at the kitchen table. As I sat there, still half in a daze, I noticed a solitary cockroach scuttling across the red-checkered tablecloth. It moved in an oddly purposeful way and seemed to be looking at me. I looked back at it, amused at the idea of being examined by a cockroach. My thoughts began to wander in speculation. What was it like being such a creature? Did a cockroach have a mind? If so, what did it think about while crawling around in the darkness of drains and cracks in the wall? Food, probably. Or maybe sex. I tried to imagine a cockroach having sex.

I sipped my coffee and smiled: Then, of course, there was always the chore of avoiding Marty. That in itself must be a full-time occupation!

"That's not funny!"

I jerked in surprise, spilling coffee on the tablecloth. I swung to see who'd spoken, but I was alone. The room was empty. Marty'd stumbled out of bed an hour ago and gone to work. The police lock was in place on the door.

"What the hell," I muttered, starting to rise. This was a bad neighborhood. Maybe I'd better  . . .

"No, here!" said the voice again.

Through the fog of my hangover it finally registered that the words were coming from my own mind, at least appearing in it if not actually originating there. I stared at the cockroach on the table. It wiggled its feelers.

"Yes, me," came the thought clearly. "I'm the guy in charge of all the roaches in this building, you see, and  . . ."

But my mind was still reeling at the idea of a telepathic cockroach jabbering at me from the kitchen table and I missed the rest. Hell, I hadn't drunk that much last night. I shook my head violently and gulped some coffee. The layers of fog shifted a bit and I smiled, deciding to play along with it. I looked at the cockroach on the table. "Is that so," I said. "One little bug in charge of all those millions of — "

"No, no, no," it interrupted, relieved to be getting through at last but eager to straighten me out. "This one roach isn't me. I'm just using it to get your attention, see. To give you something to focus on. Actually, I'm  . . ." The voice hesitated.

"Yes?" I was enjoying my little fantasy.

The cockroach sighed. "Well, I guess you could think of all the roaches in the building as 'me'", it said at last. "I run them. I'm in charge of them. In a way they're my body."

"Sort of a cockroach baron."

"Something like that, yeah."

I raised an eyebrow.

"Well, someone has to run them," he said defensively. "They can't just swarm around on their own. Someone has to do it. It happens to be me, that's all."

I looked at him stupidly, but he didn't try to explain it any further. Instead he started telling me about how he needed my help with Marty. Marty, it seems, was getting to be a real problem. "You've got to make him lighten up. Squashing a few bugs here and there is no big deal. No one likes cockroaches very much and I can understand that. But this wholesale slaughter has to stop. I need your help. He's your friend. Talk to him for me. Please."

I stared at the roach on the kitchen table. This couldn't really be happening, I thought. Was I actually sitting here listening to a psychic cockroach complain about my roommate squashing him? Was this for real? And even if it was, did I honestly care?

Surprisingly I did, I realized. I was beginning to think of this guy as a real person rather than a revolting bug. We were talking together, weren't we? And he had a problem and was asking for my help with it. Who was I to turn him away?

So I found myself considering his bizarre request.

I myself have always been reluctant to destroy life, no matter how disagreeable. When I'd had a small garden as a kid I'd let the weeds grow as they would, despite the protests of my mother. And whenever I came across a spider or a wasp in the house, I'd catch it and set it carefully outside. I just don't like killing things. Not even cockroaches. This may be silly or naive or whatever, but there it is.

On the other hand, I had no great fondness for the swarms of roaches that infested the apartment I shared with Marty. Roaches were disgusting, and I was perfectly happy to let Marty squish and scald as many as he wanted. Especially since he did it so entertainingly. Obviously I have conflicting feelings on the subject.

"Okay," I said, pouring fresh coffee. I took a swallow and the fog began to clear. "Okay," I said again, looking at the cockroach on the tablecloth. "There's something I don't understand here: Why are you going around being a bunch of cockroaches in the first place? If you're self-aware and all that, how come you don't have a human body? Human bodies are sure a lot more fun than cockroach bodies."

He mumbled something about how he'd had these cockroach bodies for a hugely long time now and it hardly seemed worth changing and he couldn't get a human body anyway, blah, blah, blah.

I sighed, wondering why I was taking any of this seriously. "Look," I said, "What do you expect me to do? I mean after all, Marty's got every right to be annoyed with these awful bugs crawling on him at night and everything."

"It serves him right for killing them all the time!" pouted the cockroach.

I blinked. "Well, fine. So why don't you talk with him about it? Why me?"

"Marty's evil," he sulked. "He likes killing cockroaches. There's no way I'm going to talk to Marty about anything!"

"Listen, "I said, exasperated. "There's nothing I can do about Marty, even if I wanted to. It's you're problem, for God's sake. If you don't like being squished and scalded all the time, stop being a bunch of cockroaches. Be a real person."

He started scuttling around in circles, muttering about how he'd been running cockroaches for four hundred now and would probably go on doing it forever because everyone knew you could never get rid of cockroaches anyway.

"Look," I said gently. "Just answer me this one thing, okay? Just this one thing: Do you actually like being cockroaches? No more evasions now. Give me a straight answer."

He winced and scuttled and whined some more but finally settled down and admitted: "No, I guess it isn't much fun."

"All right, so quit," I said. "Just drop the whole thing and go do something else."

He looked at me apprehensively. "Oh, I couldn't do that!" He shivered. "You have no idea how it is. My boss would never allow it. He —"

"Your boss?" I exclaimed in amazement. "You've got a boss?"

"Well, of course. Everyone's got a boss. The guy in charge of this neighborhood's mine. And he's no one to mess around with, I can tell you. And his boss, the guy over all Manhattan -- I don't even want to think about what he'd do to me if  . . ." He began scurrying around in agitated circles again. Finally he came to a stop, but the voice in my mind was terrified: "No. No way. A guy can't just quit and walk away like that."

We considered each other in silence. There really wasn't a whole lot more either of us could say. He'd told me his problem and I'd given him the best advice I could think of. If he didn't like it, he could go on being squished. It was his decision.

I sat there looking at him. Slowly his presence began to fade from my mind, shrinking down a long, narrow tunnel into darkness. I felt an unaccountable sadness, with maybe a twinge of guilt. I continued watching till he was gone, till finally just an ordinary cockroach stood on the table. It wiggled its feelers and scuttled away behind the napkin rack. I got up and went to the cupboard to see if there was any Burgundy left.


I never said a word to Marty about any of this, of course. He'd have just laughed. Who'd believe such a story? I wasn't all that sure I believed it myself. As time passed with Marty's obsession unchanged, I eventually shrugged the whole thing off as an unlikely fantasy.

A couple months later I got a letter from a friend offering me a job in a woodworking shop he was starting up in Hawaii. I jumped at the opportunity. I'd had enough of New York City anyway. So I called my friend long distance and the next day was on a plane bound for warm sands and sunny skies.

As it turns out, there are cockroaches in Hawaii too. Huge ones. Oddly, though, they don't bother me much. God knows what they do when I'm not in my apartment, but when I'm here they leave me alone.

I got a letter from Marty today. It's the first I've heard from him since leaving New York over a year ago. Marty's not much of a letter writer. Anyway, it seems he met a girl shortly after my abrupt departure, and they fell in love and got married. They're living in a huge white house in Connecticut now, somewhere north of New Haven. With no roaches!

Marty's just ecstatic about his newborn son. They've named him Baron. Brightest looking kid he's ever seen, says Marty.