By Brian MacMillan
It all started on the Glitter anniversary of my moving to Inwood. That’s why I was wearing a hat made of strands of tinfoil. The rough kind you get with deli takeout. You see, I don’t have many friends so I have to make up my own traditions. That’s not true, I have more friends than you and anyone, if you include the Marimba roaches. You’ve probably never heard of musical cockroaches before but I know all about them.
Let me explain.
You know the way cockroaches can teleport? You swat at them but miss because they’re instantly somewhere else. That’s a clue. A clue that they’re musical. What do I mean? I guess that’s why we’re having this conversation isn’t it? For you to learn what I mean. Well I’ll tell you and don’t worry. My story is full of lessons about how we have to all learn to live in harmony. Not just with people. But with bugs too.
And the biggest lesson of all is that if anything is going to save us we have to learn to sing and dance together.
What kind of singing? Let me tell you.
You know how you sit alone when other children throw stones at you? Down by the river under the friendly old willow. I don’t know what you do when you’re there, but I sing with the birds.
What’s that have to do with teleporting cockroaches who play marimba music? Have you been listening to me? I told you – it’s about music! Sorry, that was a bit loud. But you are listening to me now, aren’t you? I hope you’re writing down what I’m saying. Its full of lessons.
I’ll start again.
I first learned about teleportation from a butterfly. I was sitting under the willow, singing with some birds. Whistling, really, but it’s the same if you think about it. Whistling is just singing with your lips.
A Bach cantata, thank you for asking. Well not exactly J.S. Bach. More like something he’d have written had he been a sparrow. It was a pretty song about our souls reaching out to God because of the beauty of nature. That’s when I noticed a monarch butterfly.
His name was Butter. While I watched him flitting about I wanted to catch him. Trying to catch a butterfly is silly, isn’t it? Like trying to catch a musical note. You reach for it, but its already in the past. I know this but something deep in my brain compelled me to try.
What do you mean, how did I know his name was Butter? Haven’t I already told you insects are telepathic? No? Really? Well now you know! But you have to be receptive to their thoughts, or you’ll never hear them. I’m glad you’re writing that down. You did write that down, didn’t you? My story is full of lessons and that’s a big one.
Why did I want to catch Butter? I didn’t, really. Not in a pin-him-down-to-examine-him way. I merely wanted to say hi to him, in my grounded-in- space-and-time way, not in his flitting butterfly way. It’s hard, always communicating on other people’s terms. Or other insects terms, as the case may be.
While I thought about catching Butter I watched how he moved. Of course he was teleporting, that’s what butterflies do. First he’d be in one spot, then another WITH NO IN BETWEEN! Lots of bugs do that. But while I watched him I had an insight. When Butter teleported from here to there, he was dancing. Cha cha cha … chaaa Just like that. That’s how I caught him. I watched how he danced and anticipated his next move and …
I don’t want to talk about Butter anymore. Let’s talk about something else.
When did it start? You mean the marimba dancing? Well I don’t know how to answer that question. Cockroaches have been playing music for millions of years, and I’d guess they’ve been teleporting for even longer. I’ll have to ask Jumpy … BUT I CAN’T!! All because Mrs. Dobson …
You’re right. I shouldn’t get wound up about what Mrs. Dobson did to Flit and Cocky and Trombone Skeeter … and so many of my cockroach friends. That’s in the past. You can’t unsquash a bug. Though I’ve tried. Let me tell you, I’ve tried.
Oh! You want to know when the cockroaches started marimba dancing start in my apartment? I know just when, exactly. When I had a fever, last Christmas.
It was a very bad fever, thank you for asking. It swelled up my brain and made my ears ring like the A train. But it’s all better, now. More than better, given that my fever made me telepathic.
To be precise, I first noticed the musical cockroaches after my fever broke, just when I got better. I’d been in bed for over a week and then suddenly I had to get up. You know the way your body tells you that sleep time is over. It was 3 a.m. The radiator was going clangy chank; the ice box was going clickety boom; a car alarm on the street was going hunka hunka woo, and the neon Chickin-Delite sign outside my window was going Szzzz-itt Szzzz-itt. So of course I started to do a happy dance.
What is a happy dance? You know how music is always everywhere in the world and you just have to listen for it? Well when you hear it. I mean really hear it and you have to dance along. When you just help can’t help it. Well that’s a happy dance.
What happened next? Wrong question. You should ask what was happening now, which was a party. The cockroaches who normally live around my fridge had come out and were having a party. I didn’t realize it at first, because the only light was the Chicken Delite sign outside my window. But then I moved suddenly and they started teleporting, off the fridge onto the counter and into the sink. Like I told you earlier, that means they were dancing. And when I stood still and listened, I heard what they were dancing to.
What music were they dancing to? Good question. Let’s make this fun! I’ll give you a clue.
Chickity chickity cha.
You don’t get it? Clap your hands! Not like your fingers are bait fish! Really clap!
Do you get it now? Here’s another clue. Its really just the same clue, repeated for emphasis:
Chickity chickity cha.
You don’t get it? The cockroaches weren’t just teleporting, they were marimba dancing!
At first I thought I was crazy. But because it was Latin music I knew I wasn’t. You know the way some religious people see the face of Jesus on a cloth or in a water stain. In the same way, if I’d been crazy I’d have heard music I loved, like a pretty song by Fauré, or a Palestrina motet. But the cockroaches were playing a musical form I hardly knew.
I saw you smile. It is funny, isn’t it? You can go through life insensitive to the music that’s all around you, and then one day you hear a band of cockroaches playing marimba music under your fridge and in your sink, and without even noticing it happening you find yourself in the middle of a party!
But there you have it: life is full of surprises.
Why did I threaten Ms. Dobson? That’s quite a curveball question, Doctor, given that we were talking about cockroaches marimba dancing on my Glitter anniversary. But don’t worry. I’m not fazed because I’m way ahead of you. I’ve already thought of an answer to that question, which is another question: is that really the best question to ask? If I were you I’d ask, “why don’t more people threaten Mrs. Dobson, at very least in self-defense?” But maybe you aren’t asking me because the answer is so obvious. You’ve met Mrs. Dobson so you know what I mean.
Wait a minute. Have you met Ms. Dobson? No? If you haven’t seen her in person maybe you don’t know what I mean. She looks like a squirrel. Not the nice kind, that chitter in the shade of willow trees (that’s how squirrels sing, by chittering). But the mean kind, with patchy fur, that chase little squirrels and try to bite them.
Hold your question! Before you ask I’ll tell you. I know what you want to ask because I’m telepathic because of my fever. Are you listening?
Sorry. Of course you’re listening. Where was I? I was talking about squirrels. You can tell a squirrel is mean because it has small, mistrustful eyes. Just like Ms. Dobson’s except squirrels have brown eyes and her eyes are foggy blue. Blue like her hair and the translucent veins on her hands.
What was that? You wanted to know why I broke her broom? Do you even have to ask?
Oh, all right. I’ll tell you. That night the party started – like it always does – at 3:00 a.m. with the marimba band under the fridge. And you can be sure that I was doubly sure to be there on my Glitter anniversary.
I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to with the radiator going sphifffst. And the cockroaches going chiggity chiggity cha. And the car alarms and Chickin Delite sign harmonizing. So of course I started to dance a happy dance. I was careful not to step on any cockroaches. That was difficult, because there were a lot of them.
Infestation? That’s not a nice word. Do you say that New York is infested with people? Of course not, you say there are a lot of people in New York. Did I have a lot of cockroaches? I don’t think so. At least not a lot as in too many. I’d say the number was just right. Or better than just right because I’m lucky and they trust me so don’t hide when I’m around. Which is like having more because they’re all right there, not hiding and missing the party!
At least they didn’t hide until Ms. Dodson spoiled the fun with her broom and diatomaceous earth. That’s earth that’s tenacious in case you don’t know. The earth we turn in to when we die, at least those of us with shells. To be swept up by an indifferent broom …
The broom? Right! The broom! The problem with Mrs. Dobson’s broom is that some people get meaner in proportion to the amount of fun everyone else is having. I’m sure you’ll agree that was the problem on my Glitter anniversary. The music kept getting more exciting. It started simply enough – chiggity chiggity chaaa chiggity chiggity chaaa chaaaaaa – but before you knew it, it was clacketty clack ka boom bang bang BOOM!
Sorry about your vase. I sometimes get carried away by the music all around me. Why even the klang of your radiator makes me …
What was that? What was the ka boom?
I see where you’re going with this. You’re right. Ka boom bang bang BOOM is not the kind of music you associate with marimba cockroaches, even when hundreds of them are playing together in a band. That wasn’t their part of the music at all. Cocky’s orchestra just played along. The boom clacketty clack was the ice-maker, and the quiet boom, if booms can be quiet, was a car backfiring.
The BOOM? That was the sound of my bookshelf falling over. I don’t even need to read your mind. I can tell what you’re thinking from the envious expression on your face: Cocky’s marimba band was so terrific that you, yes even you with your stiff white coat and soft pencil, could get carried away dancing and knock over furniture.
Let me show you. Sing along if you want! Chiggity chiggity boom bang. Chiggity chiggity boom bang bang BANG!
Pardon? OK. I’ll sit down. But I think you’re making a mistake not joining me. One of the lessons in this story is learning to dance to the music all around you.
The bang bang BANG? That was the sound of Ms. Dodson knocking on my ceiling with her broom. She gets so carried away. No self-control at all. But Cocky’s orchestra was so good that he just incorporated her noise into a song. Let me tell you, if Duke Ellington was an insect …
The rice cooker? Sure I’ll tell you all about it! That’s the best part! You see I’d forgotten about the rice in the cooker. What I mean to say is I hadn’t thought about it for a week, if that counts as forgotten. So when the book shelf knocked it over I discovered a whole community of roaches was having its own private party and our two parties merged. Wow! You should have been there.
Did Mrs. Dobson’s banging with the broom make me want to stop? Hah! Hardly! Remember I told you this story is full of lessons, Doctor. Mrs. Dobson’s banging is one of them. There’s always someone banging and stomping but you should never let them distract you from the music that’s everywhere and the harmony in all things. Banging on the ceiling, stomping on the floor, the crash of breaking furniture and the splatter of broken appliances. That’s life giving you a rhythm section!
Even at 3 am? What kind of question is that? Especially at 3 am. At that time of night the clubs are all closed so your musical options are quite limited.
What did Mrs. Dobson say when she broke open the door?
Oh my God! That’s what she said and then she went sweep crazy. God! Can you believe it? Cocky was inviting her to his party and she killed his entire orchestra and while she did she brought God into it! The next time you stomp on a bug or the plane you’re on kills a bird, ask yourself which creatures were made in God’s image? JUST ASK!
I hear you. I HEAR YOU! But you’re making a mistake. The mistake you’re making is thinking that there are two sides to this story. Who broke up the party? Who swept away the band? There is no middle ground. There is no other side to this story!
No, I won’t answer that question unless you answer mine first. Has Mrs. Dobson been arrested for what she did to Cocky and Jump and Flit and Trombone Skeeter? She hasn’t been has she? No need to tell me: I can hear your thoughts loud and clear. But I can hear your heart as well, and in your heart you know its wrong. That’s why you’re scowling.
You’re conflicted because you know. We stumble through the insect world like insensitive giants. But twice as dumb. And deaf. Unable to sing. Unable to dance. Unable to listen.
Did Mrs Dobson hear the music? No she did not. She could have heard BUT SHE DIDN’T LISTEN.
I hope you’re listening, Doctor, because here comes the most important lesson of all:
We call our inability to hear the music of the world so many bad words, like fastidiousness and disgust but that’s not propriety that’s fear: we’re afraid of how music pulls us out of ourselves and connects us in one great big happy dance, not just with each other but with birds and bees and bugs. We can hear music but we choose to hear noise!
But the music is always there, if you listen.