The resonant alto voice of Bernice Wilkins--mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and director of the day-care center at the community building I manage--is on my telephone: "They're back. The roaches."
In truth, the roaches never left, but the biweekly treatment and quarterly fogging have kept their profile low. The day-care center has 100 children; its small kitchen feeds each child breakfast and lunch, which are served in one of several large classrooms. To the German cockroach, each classroom is a small restaurant, a never-ending buffet.
"I'll come down," I say.
"They've taken over the farm," she adds cryptically.
I hurry down the stairs and across the lobby to the center. Bernice is standing at the door. She's a large, handsome woman, not flabby but muscular, her hair stippled with gray, her mouth a grim line.
"In there. The yellow room."
Each classroom is known by its door's distinctive color, which continues on an accent wall inside the room. The yellow room is for the youngest children, the toilet-trained two-and-a-half-year-olds. I follow Bernice into the room, and she peels a perforated gray block designed for soundproofing from the cinder-block wall. Roaches of every size scatter into crevices and niches. The children jump up and down and clap. One little girl with neat braids and multicolored barrettes shouts, "Bees! Bees!" The other children join her, and we don't correct them. I figure it's better for them to tell their parents they saw bees in their classroom, though I'm mildly surprised that the children don't know them by their true name.
I've never believed that the glued-on blocks buffer the sound or even that the sound of children is a problem, but the blocks predate me. Now they've become little roach resorts where the roaches check in and in and in again.
I take the block from Bernice, deposit it in the trash can, and twist the trash-can liner closed as quickly as I can just in case some roach failed to escape. Building management is not for the squeamish.
"Mrs. Johnson was making a farm for the children," Bernice explains and nods in the direction of the yellow room's head teacher. From a previous brief conversation I know that Mrs. Johnson is from rural Mississippi and new to Chicago. Right now she looks embarrassed.
"We've always had a problem with roaches," I say. "That's why we got the contract and sealed the door frames and light switches and electrical outlets. Really, it's always been difficult."
Mrs. Johnson's smile is thin, joyless. Bernice directs me to a table under the windows. On top rests a flat plastic sorting box with U.S. POSTAL SERVICE on the side. It's filled with dirt. Tiny plastic cows, pigs, horses, and chickens inhabit squares marked off by fences constructed with glued-together Popsicle sticks. The animals don't conform to any uniform scale, so a pig may dwarf a cow, a chicken look eye-to-eye with a horse. One pig is neon orange, and a gigantic cow sports lavender spots. These are the survivors of a score of farm sets. The day-care center's budget doesn't permit waste. Scattered around the fences and matchbox houses and barns with silos (empty sewing-thread spools?) are tiny green plastic soldiers. Someone has snipped off their little green rifles and affixed paper aprons and other construction-paper outfits. Farmers, I guess, and their wives and families.
Suddenly I detect a small, steady movement that makes me look twice and refocus. A river of tiny infant roaches is moving back and forth across the soil, even beneath it. Tiny roaches are riding the backs of the pink pigs, the white-and-black cows, the brown horses. Even the tiny farmer people are infested. I shudder. This is bad. Really bad.
"What on earth are we going to do?" Bernice asks, and turns to glare at Mrs. Johnson, who seems to grow smaller inside her skin.
It's below 32 degrees. "Maybe if we place the farm outside the roaches will freeze to death," I say.
Bernice is skeptical. "Cold won't kill 'em. Hot won't kill 'em. Atom bomb won't kill 'em. Roaches are forever."
My brother was once, briefly, an Orkin man. He had a clear plastic paperweight in which was embedded an example of every stage of roach life, as well as adult insects of the German, American, and brown-banded variety--
disgusting, but most helpful. From my brother I know that Bernice is probably right, but I'm not about to give up. Her students are the children of working people who rely on her to create a safe, clean learning place. The bugs have to reassume their low profile.
"We'll take the farm outside and see what happens," I say. "I'll call the pest-control company too, so don't take down any more of those blocks."
I ask Mike, the center's custodian, for help, and he carries the farm to the parking lot. The wind whips through from the west, dragging ragged leaves with it. Mike's breath steams from his mouth, as does mine.
I return in a few hours. The cold hasn't killed anything we wanted dead. But the fierce wind has blown the little paper outfits into a corner of the box, and scarcely a plastic figure is still upright. The Popsicle-stick fence is gone.
As I contemplate potential solutions I'm interrupted by the sound of sturdy boots. Bernice and Mrs. Johnson are coming toward me. They have on heavy rubber gloves, and each is carrying a steaming plastic bucket of soapy water and, from the smell of it, a healthy amount of bleach.
Mrs. Johnson smiles and says, "This is the only way. We scrub the animals and farmers. Maybe we can start over with papier-mache?"
"That's a decision we'll make later," Bernice says.
I ask if I can help, but they shake their scarf-covered heads. As I walk back into the building I see a dozen pairs of eyes gazing from the classroom window, watching their teachers do this important work.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.