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.
“Daddy, what are you doing?” Jennifer lightly crawled over her father’s lap and then sat down.
“Counting out your inheritance, sweet pea.”
Jennifer looked down at the dirty coins that cluttered her father’s mahogany-stained desk ”Gimme a break. I hope that you can do better than that.”
“Of course I can. This will be one of many things I hope you to remember me by.”
David leaned over his desk and began to organize his coins into tiny piles, by value, size and year. Piles of commemorative coins were scattered around the perimeter. He slowly, rhythmically tapped his foot, and bounced his slender daughter on his knee as he sorted the old coins, their clinking sounds resonating merrily together. He buried himself more deeply into his idle work, transported for a moment from his tiring life by a feeling of simple whimsy. There was a song in his head.
“Dad!” Jessica shouted angrily “Andrew is stealing my doll.” The happy feeling passed in a moment as the duties of parenthood returned.
“I am not. I had it first.”
“Calm down”, Dad interjected, trying perhaps too hard to project a voice of reason. “You must learn to share your …”
“Give it back”
“No its …”
“Who wants to jump on the couch? “
“I do”, the children chimed in chorus, their fight ending abruptly.
Reason never wins, he thought, his irritation passing as quickly as their anger. “Come along dear children”. He stooped ever so slightly to grab their hands and together they walked downstairs to the TV room.
“Andrew, help me put the cushions on the floor” shouted excited Jennifer, breaking away from her father and rushing forward in excitement.
“We must be careful not to put them too far away from the couch so we don’t hurt ourselves.”
Dad stood back to watch their model behaviour, amused by how his rules were embraced when they corresponded with his children’s wants and needs.
“That’s my half and that’s your half.”
“I’m climbing up the back of the couch.”
“Daddy, look at me! Me!” Jennifer jumped up and down, giggling raucously.
“Do you think you can jump up to my hands?” Dad put his hands 1 metre above his daughters’ heads.
The two children bounced against their father’s outstretched hand, causing his arms to rise and fall.
“I can land on my bum”, Jennifer shouted suddenly and pulled her legs out from under herself and bounced several times.
“Watch out”, her startled father nearly shouted. “You know your mother wouldn’t want you to do that. You could hurt yourself.”
Meanwhile upstairs Daniel raced through this week’s sci-fi favourite, for once not disturbed by his riotous sisters. Page 48: the witch was testing Paul. If he flinched he would die.
“What was that noise?”, Daniel looked up from his book.
Page 49: Paul is on the verge of death! He must not flinch: the witch is pitiless…
“What was that wheezing noise?” Sigh. “Better go check.”
He found his mother lying flat on her back, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. Her breath was shallow and constrained as if she were breathing solely out of her throat with no support from stomach, lungs or diaphragm. Her chest rose shallowly and fell. Otherwise, she did not move.
Daniel stood stunned for a moment while he made the transition from a fictional death to his dying mother.
He walked quickly to the top of the stairs. Before he could utter a word the bouncing game stopped.
Dad looked up. “Is something wrong?”
Daniel nodded and looked toward the kitchen. His father raced up the stairs. The daughters followed closely behind. They rushed in to the kitchen and then slowly encircled Mom’s prostrate body.
Eleanor stood for a moment trying to work out her next moves. Her girl scout training took over: she kneeled beside Mom and began a futile attempt to revive her. Mom’s body was very limp, and inflated not one millimetre more than Eleanor’s exhales allowed.
Daniel said to no one in particular, “I’ll call an ambulance.”
Dad protectively attempted to shepherd the little girls. ‘Come along, children. Let us leave Eleanor with mother. Let’s go in to the den to pray.”
They all moved to the adjoining room, cleared away a teak coffee table, then kneeled in a circle. Dad began to pray. The girls wriggled distractedly and kept glancing over their shoulders to where Eleanor was trying to help Mom.
Daniel returned from the kitchen and stood mute in the doorway between the living room and den, looking alternatively at the inaction of his father and the futile action of his sister. Eventually he squatted beside his sister, waiting for her to ask for assistance, unable to think of anything that he could do to help.
Unexpectedly, firemen arrived instead of ambulance workers, their truck with a light on but no siren. Three years ago the scene would have been the definition of excitement, now it was a very disconcerting reminder of a reality that he had only just begun to know.
The family backed away from the medical workers and regrouped in the den. No work was spoken but they acted in concert, the little ones avidly – but mutely – following their elders for clues.
“Daddy, is Mom going to be alright?”
“Certainly, pumpkin. You can count on it.”
‘Mr. McKinnon. Could you come here please.’ Dad joined a fireman in the kitchen.
After their father got out of earshot Daniel turned to his sisters and said, “That’s bullshit. Did you see the gear those guys used on her? Did you see how waxy she looked? I love mom. I’m going to miss her.”
Daniel and the girls sat down together on the couch, the children wriggling slightly as they tried to get further under the protective arms of their elder brother. He held them tightly, trying to calm his own fear. Reactions varied among the children. Anna, the youngest, looked blankly at her two siblings and then across the hall towards her father trying to assess the situation from reactions. Daniel stood mute and slightly stunned wavering between his fears and a desire to retain control. For Grace, amorphous child hood fears of loss and rejection, reinforced by dozens of nightmares, suddenly crystallized in one focused feeling of panic. She was so upset that she trembled.
Eleanor stood with her back to the group, watching the firemen raise Mom onto a stretcher then bring her outside to where she was bathed in red light then the blue light of the approaching ambulance.
“Everyone hold hands and get down on your knees and pray.” The three youngest looked at each other blankly while Eleanor moved to her knees so quickly that she brought Dad down with her.
Eleanor looked out the window onto the patio. The black sky was tinted blue by the pre-glow of the sun. She glanced at the clock. 6 am. “Dad, its almost morning. Shouldn’t you call the office?”
Dad didn’t notice. He was still on his knees continuing to pray. Everyone else slowly got up. Eleanor rose last, crossed herself devotedly and went to the kitchen. The children could hear her pick up the phone and dial.
“Hi, this is David McKinnon’s daughter, Eleanor. Our Mom just had a stroke. Dad won’t be coming into work for a few days.”
“Daddy’s working at home this week!” Grace’s face lit up.
Grace fell silent in an instant then began to cry.
“C’mon Jenn. Be nice to Grace. She’s young. She doesn’t understand.”
“I don’t understand.”
Eleanor finished the call, Daniel moved into Den and placed his hands on the heads of Jennifer and Grace. They all stood silently, having run out of ideas as to what their next moves should be.
Dad finally broke the impasse. “Get your coats children, we’re going to the hospital.”
“I don’t want to go!”
“I know that you’re really tired, sweet pea, but we have to join Mom at the hospital. She wants it this way.”
“How do you know? Did she talk to you?”
“I know pumpkin. Run along. Get your coat.”
The family piled into the family’s country-squire station wagon. The usual fights over windows ensued. When the dust settled Eleanor was in Mom’s spot in the front seat, Daniel was alone in the back and Jennifer and Grace had enacted an uneasy truce in the middle seat.
“I think that I should drive, Dad.”
“No. Let me drive Eleanor.”
“No, I really think…”
“Eleanor please. I need this. To take my mind off…”
Eleanor retreated into large folds of the front seat and was silent.
Dad thankfully choose to take the longer, slower route to the hospital. Which was fortunate because he ran right through a stop sign at the intersection of McNichol and Clansman, and slammed on the breaks half way through running the red light at Leslie St.
“Just turn left Dad. Take it easy. Turn left then drive straight for 2 miles. Please watch the traffic lights.”
As the family drove down Leslie Street Eleanor fingered her onyx rosary, while the rest of them looked out of the car window, blankly staring at the dawn.
When a hospital is described to you in the story of your birth it seems like a magical place. It’s where you first happened, ground zero. The first actual visit was doubly bleak for occurring during a time of dying. They went to Toronto General. It was as if they were visiting one of the more benign levels of hell: a clean but poorly lit maze with random corridors branching off in unlikely directions. The light was deathly blue.
For the first two hours all they did was wait in a cheerless room with thin gray carpeting and an odd assortment of romance and action books. Bleak, boring.
Then a nurse appeared out of nowhere. “Mr. McKinnon, you can come in now. Will your children be coming in with you?”
Dad didn’t have the energy to enforce a decision on his children so he simply rose and followed the nurse and they walked in with him. Grace started to talk once but Eleanor severely cut her off and after that she was silent though her brown eyes were big.
Mom was attached to intravenous devices and strange plastic machines that helped her breathe and digest. Her face was blue and her breathing was thin.
“Let’s say a rosary together.” Hands clasped, heads down we mumbled through a dozen Hail Mary’s. Mom made a rattling sound with her throat. We all stopped at once to look, except for Dad, who took a moment to notice. Then her wheezing stopped. The nurse closed her eyes with a gentle latex touch then turned Mom’s palms to face upward.
Silence. “How old is Mom?”
“She was 47”.
The family stood mutely around her dead body. Minutes passed in silence and then we each left. Once everyone was in the hallway. Dad silently returned to the hospital room to say his final farewell. Eleanor marshalled the rest of us towards the waiting room.
Grace suddenly fell down “My shoe doesn’t work.”
“That’s stupid. Shoes don’t break.”
“I can’t stand up. My right shoe DOESN’T WORK!”
“Let me look at it.” Eleanor approached Grace, as the eldest woman preparing to take on some of Mom’s roles. Grace recoiled and reached both arms towards Daniel who lifted her up and carried over to the couch. Everyone sat down again and was silent while Daniel comforted Grace and retied her shoe laces.
“Dad, when are you going to be 47?”
“Not now, Gracie. I’m busy.”
“He’s 46 now! You know that idiot.”
“Is 46 less than 47?”
“Yes. Can’t you count?”
“Give her a break! She’s just little.”
“Dad, when you die can I go with you?”
“Not now, Grace. I’m busy.”
Grace crawled on to his lap. “Dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m sorting coins, sweat pea.”
“Why are you sorting coins?”
“I’m picking up where I left off. The last thing that I did before Mom left us was organize the family coin collection. Now I’m finishing my job. That’s what we’ve all got to do now, pumpkin. Pick up where we left off and finish our jobs”. He returned to his work.
Clink, clink. Dirty pennies were quietly counted, stacked, then put away. Dad put the last penny down and stared blankly at the table in front of him. Once there was a song in his head. Over the past week it had turned into a rhythm and now it had flattened into a repetitive beat. Blood flowing through the heart in pulses. Day preceding then following night. You could count the days. Fin
Draft March 2005