Cockroaches – Graham Irvin

Graham Irvin is a writer from North Carolina. He has an MFA! His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Show Your Skin, Tenderness Lit, Philosophical Idiot, Instant Journal, and Really Serious Lit. Follow him on twitter: @grahamjirvin and Instagram: @trash_gram_

By Graham Irvin

Ana’s dad lived in Woodbury, New Jersey. Outside Philly. Past Richmond and all the fake rustic water towers. Past the stacked interstate overpasses and giant concrete finger pointing Godward in DC. Past the convertible in Baltimore, whose driver side door was torn off and tied back with baling twine.

Six hours from our North Carolina port town.

Ana’s grandfather was dead and turned to ash and a catholic sermon awaited. Ana said she didn’t really care. She was doing it for her dad.

I was doing it for Ana.

She’s such a good grace. An angelic beam of light.

She fed me strawberries and string cheese on the drive. Told me to open my mouth like a baby bird and poured in some cocktail of spirulina and turmeric and cold brew coffee.

All the nice things you can say about a person you have to say about Ana.

I promise.

I’ll even say them twice.

And louder too.

Woodbury was a good place. A suburb with a couple pizza parlors, a big glowing all night sports bar, a narrow main street.

Ana’s dad wasn’t home when we crawled up the drive.

We shook the refrigerator into our open mouths. The cheese and fruit had burned off our bones.

We drank a few bottles of wine from the cellar.

You know, putting on a monocle and velvet coat and walking into the garage. Calling that a cellar.

Wiping dust off a glass with a shirt sleeve, saying “Ahh, naturally, a red.”

Throwing it back.

We were getting creative, dealing the best way we knew how. Grief had come and sucked the sand from our eyelids. Woke us up.

Ana got on a kick after a few glasses of wine. She wanted a cockroach tattoo crawling up her ankle.

Something to commemorate the trip. A way to mourn her dead.

We knew roaches well. They shared our sheets back home. And as much as I missed those bastards it was nice to get a break. I don’t know if it was the weather or maybe Ana’s dad cleaned better than us, but there was no roaches in sight in Woodbury.

So we sat at the kitchen table drawing as many vermin as we could, figuring out how many legs, whether their antenna would be short or long, which colors to use. All options sprawling across  the counter top, kitchen floor, sliding the images back and forth to each other.

“How about her?”

“How about him?”

“Is this your card?”

“Try this beaut on for size.”

Etc. Etc.

And she finally figured out which would be permanently dug into her flesh. Her perfect new sibling. An overlapping red and blue 3D cockroach placed just above the ankle, crawling to her calf.

Put that in your mind.

Just picture it.

Put yourself in the perfect size 7 shoes of Ana:

Post-it notes of single cockroaches stacked over each other, falling through your drunken fingers to the floor like in vitro fertilization.

Science creating life.

All powerful you.

This little rascal that you and I sweated over for hours will soon skittle scuttle into your bloodstream.

You have chosen to be taken over by this menacing pest, the little brown beast you’ve lived with for years.

Ana wanted to kiss that bad boy to sleep every night and say “I love you baby roach. I’ll give you shelter from the storm. I promise never to crush you again,” and the entire time I worked she talked me up.

Each stab and poke and drop of blood. Boosting me to the sun.

“You have to start a business. You have to start an Instagram,” she said. “You’re so good, these lines, these colors.”

This is what I was talking about.

You see what she does.

And I tried to play modest, stopping every few minutes to reply “I’m capable. I’m alright. I’m nothing special.” but Ana knew what she was doing. Knew it was giving me life.

Feeding my ego belly.

I wanted to kiss her eyelids and shrink down minuscule to live in the forest of her hair follicles.

Big booming voice saying “You’re safe there now.”

My spokesperson. My president.

I wanted to hide there while she fought my battles for me, and when we were alone I’d grown back to one third my regular size just to feed her seedless grapes and dried cranberries wrapped in cheese. Slow-smoke her speciality meats. Hand-grind mustard seed for a spicy spread, and watch her chew it all, waiting for her to tell me how good it all was. How good I was.

I’d do anything for that validation.

Give me some salvation, angel baby.

When Ana’s dad got home he seemed pissed but didn’t say it. Just frowned while he roasted some chicken and potatoes in the oven. Tossed a spring salad by the kitchen sink.

I continued the tattoo while they ate. Food would be my reward for a finished piece. I felt like a dog doing tricks for scraps and drooled for it.

Ana’s dad would lean over to watch the progress, the disappearing pure skin on his daughter’s ankle. Still just shook his head instead of scolding us. Or scolding her.

Maybe he was just happy to have some new bodies in the house again.

I felt like a visitor at a zoo. Watching Ana and her dad talk about her grandfather. His father.

He had been sleeping there for weeks, until they transferred him to hospice a few miles away. He spent his last days calling grandchildren, listening to Frank Sinatra, watching Batman cartoons.

Ana’s dad watched his father, and watched himself become his father, and watched himself disappear. He imagined how he would turn into that man in 40 years, 30 years, less.

Thought about how he would die disappearing.

Ana’s dad told her,“He couldn’t eat for 3 days before he died.”

I wiped away the excess ink from her ankle.

I was just there to watch love bloom like a fresh bruise.

Love fill a bathroom sink.

Wash my face in a love I’d never seen before.

If I did anything, it was test him. Maybe Ana’s dad was boosted by ignoring the cockroaches. He could imagine himself calm and casual for not losing his shit about the tattoo, and his father would be remembered as an extension of that.


We woke up late. Ana’s dad left for the service early.

We scrambled, mismatched socks, tie loose, dress back open, puckered buttons, to make it to cobblestone Camden 15 minutes away.

We tripped in behind the priest as he read about their grandfather’s life and all the names he had ever been called:

Pappy, Pops, Big Dad, Daddy.

We tried to remember the sign of the cross, running fingers through the grease of our foreheads and sensually down the middle of our bodies. Ana laughed and held her dad’s hand. I opened a hymnal and sang along to “Going Home” with my stupid flat voice.

Ana’s dad walked up to the podium and read his father’s last words, crying.

“I’ll see you on the other side, see you when you get there. I’ll save you a seat in hell. Whatever it is you need to hear to let me go.”

He said that to some nine year old cousin from Wisconsin over video chat. He was gone a few hours later.

Can you imagine that? Carrying that with you?

Someone sang “Ave Maria.” Time felt insane. Like a turtle crossing the interstate.

Ana cried and her dad cried and her aunts and uncles and cousins cried.

I wanted to be pushed down onto the hardwood floor of the church and have my head crushed by God’s middle finger.

What a little virus I was.

I wasn’t mourning right and had taken up too much space.

I’d seen too much.

At the end of the service Ana’s family surrounded us, blocked the door, grabbed Ana’s arm and asked about her tattoos.

“No, they didn’t hurt.”

She pulled up her black dress and showed them the new one.

The roach.

An uncle fell to the floor with a magnifying glass and prodded it with a fat thumb.

“He gave it to me.” she said.

Roach boy, the new infestation in the family.

Talk about becoming the villain.

They asked Ana’s dad what he thought of it. They had their eyes crossed, looking at me and the tattoo, hoping to focus the sun and vaporize the problem right there.

“I don’t mind it,” Ana’s dad said, looking down again. “I don’t really give a good god damn about it.

“Hey,” he said with his arms out, “they’re alright with me.”

Then he hugged us both like family.

Then he hugged Ana longer, shaking against her.

While everyone caught up I stepped away. I was back in the zoo again. In those moments you forget how or why to be. You just wait for the compass to start working again.

I loved Ana like a firebomb.

I stood there hoping I could keep that energy going, that doubt didn’t seep in and stay with me on the drive back. Didn’t follow us home.

I wanted the last bad thought to die.

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