Chapter 5: The Marimba Roaches

I think this story is funny as heck. I hope you do too. It took me over 10 years to complete, but only required three quickly written drafts! Sometimes comic ideas arrive complete.

By Brian MacMillan, all rights reserved.

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 of tinfoil 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. Especially with bugs.

And the biggest lesson of all is that if anything is going to save us we have to listen to the music around us and sing and dance together.

What kind of singing? What kind of dancing? 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. Compelled me. Compelled me.

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 teleporting-butterfly way. Way way way. It’s difficult communicating in people terms when talking about insects.

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 cockroaches dancing the marimba? Well I don’t know how to answer that question. My understanding is that 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 in my apartment? I know just when, exactly. When I had a fever, last Christmas. I mean immediately after I had a fever.

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: now I’m 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. And feel it. And you dance along because it makes you feel so good. 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 came out and joined my 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, when bugs do that they’re 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. 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 and never listen to.

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 in your sink, and without even noticing it happening you find yourself in the middle of a party!

Another lesson: life is full of surprises.

Why did I threaten Ms. Dobson? That’s quite a curve-ball question, Doctor, given that we were talking about cockroaches marimba dancing while celebrating 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?” 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 and they dance by … Woah! I caught that just in time.

Yes. yes. Of course. As I was saying, Mrs. Dobson is one of the mean kind of squirrels who 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! Are you listening?

Sorry. Of course you’re listening. Where was I? I was answering your unspoken question about squirrels. You can tell a squirrel is mean because it has patchy fur and small, mistrustful eyes. Just like Ms. Dobson’s except squirrels have brown eyes and her eyes are foggy blue. And she has patchy white hair instead of fur.

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. The night I broke her broom the party started – like it always does – at 3:00 a.m. with the marimba band in the sink. And you can be sure that I was doubly sure I was there on my Glitter anniversary.

I didn’t set an alarm. I couldn’t have slept even if I wanted to with the radiator going sphifffst. And the cockroaches going chiggity chiggity cha. And the Chickin Delite sign going ….

Of course. We’ve covered the musicality of my apartment. But itsn’t it funny? The musicality of everything leads to the next part of the story. Like cha follows chiggity chiggity. So of course I started to dance a happy dance. I was extra careful not to step on any cockroaches. That was difficult, because there were a lot of them. There’s something about marimba music that brings them out …

Infestation? That’s not a nice word. Do you say that Manhattan is infested with people? Of course not. Do you say a Knicks game is infested with fans? …

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 and play marimba music in my sink. Which is how some is like having more because they’re all right there, not afraid, not hiding.

At least they didn’t hide until Ms. Dodson spoiled the fun with her broom and diatomaceous earth. That’s earth that makes you irritated the way tenacious people do. Its made of shells and ground up bones.

Murderous earth. Indifferent brooms. Ground up bones. Bones Bones …

Her broom? Right! I was talking about brooms in general. The problem with Mrs. Dobson’s broom is that some people get meaner in proportion to the amount of fun everyone else is having. And was my Glitter anniversary ever fun. 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? Sure I’ll sit down.

What was the ka boom? Hah! 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 the Marimba Cockroaches. That was the ice-maker laying down a beat. Cocky’s orchestra played along. And Trombone Skeeter …

The BOOM? That? 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: the Marimba Roaches were 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’s try!

Sing along if you want!

Here I gooo! Chiggity chiggity boom bang. Chiggity chiggity boom bang bang BOOM!

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.

What about Mrs. Dobson? Aside from her knocking on my ceiling with her broom. She gets so carried away. No sense of rhythm at all. But Cocky’s orchestra was good; 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. 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 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. Can you believe it? Cocky was inviting her to his party and she killed his entire orchestra! And while sweeping, she brought God into it, like hideous ruin and combustion! God God God. The next time you stomp on a bug 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! I mean aside from the wrong side. Mrs. Dobson’s side.

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 to music. Mute. Unwilling to dance.

Did Mrs Dobson hear the music? No she did not. She could have heard BUT SHE DID NOT 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 being proper, 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 could ALL hear music all around us, but most of us choose to hear noise!

But the music is always there, if you listen.