*Many years ago, we lived for a while in a small town in south Louisiana. While there, I wrote a whole series of essays about our experiences that I never posted anywhere. I’m cleaning out some digital storage and am going to start posting some of them, along with other stories that have yet to see the light of day…
John turned the car into a short driveway. Along the side of the house, between the garage door that didn’t open and the kitchen entrance, sat a tiny garden with a rickety porch swing, a plastic pond, and a concrete bench. I unloaded the dogs and led them to the garden while John went in through the kitchen door to find Newt and corral her into a bedroom.
As soon as I stepped onto the crunchy stone path, I saw the cat. He splayed across the bench, paws draped over the side. His head lifted a few inches to gaze at us. Direct speckled his smoky gray coat but the fuzzy mane that surrounded his large, bright eyes made him look regal. After a glance at us, the cat settled back into sleep. The dogs were too wound up and excited to be somewhere new–and relieved to be out of the car–to notice the cat.
John pulled the side door open. “The power’s out,” he said.
He turned on the flashlight on his phone and led me and the boys into the master bedroom on the first floor. My eyes couldn’t adjust to the dark, and the dogs were amped up, pulling me in three different directions. We pulled the bedroom door shut. John pointed out the bathroom door, then left to call our landlord, flip the breakers, do something to try to restore power.
I used my phone’s to go into the bathroom. I shined the light around the room to get my bearings, and there it was, prone in the middle of the room: the biggest cockroach I had ever seen in person.
When we lived in DC, my roommate Erin and I had the occasional, sizable cockroach in our apartment. We did what any reasonable twenty-something would do. We threw our shoes at them. Later, I moved into a tiny studio apartment, and the night I moved in, tiny cockroaches swarmed the bathroom sink but disappeared after a thorough cleaning.
The roach in front of me on the bathroom floor was humongous, bigger than any DC roach, but it was dead. The house had been empty for a few days with the exception of Newt, so I imagined that she was probably the huntress who slayed the roach and that was that. Or, so I thought that was that.
But it was only the beginning.
After another hour, power was restored. We set out the dog beds in the bedroom and went to sleep on the futon John brought from his apartment. Our moving truck wasn’t going to arrive for another two days, so as I tossed and turned, I thought that would give us plenty of time to clean the house thoroughly, just in case there were more cockroaches. Just in case.
The North American cockroach, sometimes called the waterbug or palmetto bug, thrives in warm, wet climates. They eat just about anything, which means they can survive nearly anywhere. And they’re resilient; in places like New York City, where roaches flourish, they’re developing resistance to the most commonly used pesticides. That means they’re surviving against attack but, in an odd turn of events, sickening the city’s cats who, like Newt, hunt them. The cats ingest the pesticide that should have killed the roaches but, instead, built up in their system.
In places like Louisiana, it gets too hot for the roaches outside. They sense condensation inside house walls, assume it means a water source, and invite themselves in. Among the grosser side effects – other than just their creepy presence – cockroaches leave droppings and body parts that can end up in food. They expel secretions from their bodies, sort of like scent-marking, and constantly regurgitate fluids.
Even though they can fly, they prefer to run. And, on our first full day in our new house, we learned that the dogs loved to chase them.
Previous insect encounters didn’t entice the boys to chase. They’d see a fly and haphazardly snap at it. Emmett used to sit and watch bugs that got into our condo, and Cooper would bat at the occasional spider. These cockroaches, though, sparked something primal in them.
The first morning after our furniture was delivered, John left for work before the sun rose. He fed the dogs and left, so the boys jumped into bed with me and we all went back to sleep.
Sometime later, I was startled awake by the sound of the dresser being pushed across the wood floor. Emmett and Cooper had their faces underneath the dresser and were scrabbling as hard and as fast as they could. They were working hard to get at whatever was back there. My heart raced. Oh, my goodness, I thought. It’s a rat.
I called off the dogs, moved Lucas into the hallway–the last thing I needed on top of a rodent would be a dog fight–and grabbed a flashlight. I leaned down, clicked on the light, and sent a cockroach the size of a field mouse scurrying from underneath the dresser. It wedged itself underneath a dog bed. I yelped.
Emmett and Cooper dove at the bed, clawing to get at the roach. I realized then that it wasn’t the fact that it was a cockroach that enticed them to chase. It was the magnitude. They looked at the roach and saw a small animal. They saw prey.
I snatched John’s sneaker out of his closet. I lifted the corner of the bed. No roach.
I stood back. Reassessed. How did it get away without us noticing?
I flipped the bed over, and the roach shot out. It made a mad dash for the dresser again. Emmett dove forward while Cooper clawed at the floor. Before the roach could cross the gauntlet of dogs and another dog bed, I raised the shoe and slammed it down.
I backed off Emmett and Cooper, lifted the shoe, and yelped as the roach scurried away. I brought the shoe down as hard as I could.
I cleaned up the splattered roach with an entire roll of paper towels.
Over the next few weeks, cockroach killing became part of my routine. They climbed up the wall in my office and scurried behind the coffeepot when we flipped on the kitchen light. A cockroach fell into the bathroom sink while I was brushing my teeth, and another squeezed through the broken seal around an upstairs window while we were watching TV.
I invested in a spray can of pesticide, and we cleaned and scrubbed every square inch of the house. The previous occupants, it turned out, were a messy bunch. Beverages were spilled down the bedroom and living room walls. Bottle caps and pop tops from beer cans were wedged under the baseboards in the upstairs bedroom and bathroom. Expired cups of pudding were jammed behind the drawers in the refrigerator, and a trash can labeled “cans” hadn’t been emptied in ages. We found underwear in the garden and a rotten lizard in the kitchen cupboard.
Meanwhile, as I scrubbed and bleached every surface in the disgusting house, Newt hunted and killed cockroaches she found in her upstairs domain. We found several of her kills left out for us.
As we chipped away at cleaning the house, the cockroach numbers dwindled from a few each day to a few each week. Once I felt like we were getting it under control and the house was finally clean enough to live in, I researched pet-safe methods of eliminating the roaches and hit upon diatomaceous earth.
It’s a naturally-occurring substance, a kind of rock ground into a fine, white powder. People drink the stuff for purported health benefits like lowered cholesterol and clearer skin. But because the material is abrasive, and it absorbs the fatty oils from the exoskeleton of an insect, it kills bugs like roaches by dehydrating them. We knew that if the dogs or Newt got into it, they’d be perfectly fine.
Once we had the house clean enough to ditch the bleach and pesticides, we sprinkled the diatomaceous earth on the kitchen counters behind the coffeepot and toaster. We pulled the fridge out and coated the area underneath, then sprinkled more along the windowsills where the seals were broken. We poured it behind the toilet and into the fireplace.
The number of cockroaches dwindled even further. Instead of a few each week, we found a few dead roaches every couple weeks and only the occasional live one.
That is, until we started feeding Gray Cat.
More about our Houma adventures:
Some additional sources if you want to learn more about roaches (who doesn’t?!):