Even partial childhood in the Deep South stretches and sharpens peripheral vision, provokes that tonic temple-sweat prickle at the light switch flick. Years of Yankee-fication may blunt the expectation, but the sense never dulls. I’m blearily seeking coffee, sleep filled eyes on the Keurig when it’s triggered afresh.
I scream. I’m unpracticed. It’s been a while.
My husband snorts from twilight to red-alert, tottering couch-side to witness my flight. At the content of another gusty shriek his eyes widen, gears turn, clack, and he makes for the kitchen.
I hear the tunk from the hall closet, the broom, hand vac, cleaner and polish clenched to my torso, mop bobbling on its hook as I grapple. By the time the waste-can lid has plunked, I’ve shifted the furniture from half the living room, doused the already gleaming parkay with cleaning fluid, face flecked with raw sudor.
“Goldie, you just did that Thursday.” My husband’s hand is on my waist, another on the mop handle.
I’m barely aware of him. I’m inside myself, and inside I’m five years old. My father is deployed, overseas, ethereal. My mother is overwhelmed by life and genetics, severely depressed, alternately raging and apathetic. My little brother is timid and hungry, flinching, tearful. My intestine is tangled and ichorously productive, slave to the anxiety clenching my trunk. The hard wet heat of empty summer weighs on us day and night, oppresses all but the cicadas on the pines in the yard.
And the cockroaches. The cockroaches skittering on the walls, quivering about the counter, in the cabinets, teetering over the sheets in those calid spectral nights.
No matter how many I pursue, strike to smudge and early grave, no matter how diligently I clean, how hard I scrub the pocked laminate, how briskly I sweep up and away the crumbs of the animal crackers I ration from our dwindling pantry, no matter how tightly I jam orphaned socks into gaps in the wall, they are ever present, skulking, scrabbling underfoot, streaking from the light towards corners and cracks.
When my father comes home, they disappear, along with my brother’s hunger and tears, my diarrhea. But there is always another assignment, another training program, another deployment for him, another little hole in our nonage beckoning pest entry.
It’s late afternoon by the time I’ve scoured and shined every crevice, bleached and buffed each baseboard, torn every appliance from the wall to soap to a sterile lemony fresh, inspected and re-rearranged closet and pantry and fridge and sink-unders in search of breaches and attractants, a mound of paper towels and scouring pads burying the insectile JAMA-bashed trigger in the bin. The trash slid down the chute, the only pollutant remaining is me, the addled tears I cry in secret, crushing shame, the memories I cannot smash, scrub or stopper.