The Cockroach Hat
The Cockroach Hat
illustration by red nose studio

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

Sam Gregory woke up one morning and found, to his dismay, that he had turned into a big cockroach. “Oh, no,” he thought. He had some idea of what was happening because of the Kafka story. He hadn’t exactly read it, but he had heard all about it back when he was in college. Sam’s roommate, Cliffe with an E, had taken a course called Shape Shifters in Modern Lit, thinking it would be an easy A, like the video games he played in the Student Union, taking on all comers, or Eco-Alternatives. Instead, it required a paper, and Cliffe felt betrayed. Sam said I told you so (the wrong thing to say) and Cliffe suggested he shut the fuck up. That only made things worse and soon they weren’t speaking at all. Several times, they almost came to blows.

Instead, they became the best of friends.

Here’s how that happened: Cliffe’s girlfriend was a Conflict Resolution major, and she suggested they go bowling blindfolded (neither of them bowled) in an effort to change the subject through creative misdirection while she monitored the experiment for credit. They even rented the shoes. It might have worked, too, but she didn’t know how to keep score, plus they had forgotten the blindfolds, so they played the pinball machine instead; there was just one, between the Men’s and the Ladies’, a leftover from some previous universe of bells and flippers.

 

“What I don’t like about it,” said Cliffe, “is that is it’s just a metaphor instead of something real.”

“What if it was real?” I (Sam) asked. “What if it was me and I actually turned into a cockroach someday?”

“Then I would do everything I could to help you out,” said Cliffe.

I was to remember that promise later when I actually turned into a cockroach.

Meanwhile Cliffe’s girlfriend, who I will call Anna, tagging along to monitor the experiment, was pleased with the results so far. She was cute, not as cute as some but cuter than others, and I immediately fell in love with her. It made me angry how Cliffe always criticized her for everything and I told her so.

We were sort of a threesome.

She was dying of a disease and told me so. Cliffe already knew. She only had a year to live. We both felt sorry for her, me sorrier, but it was Cliffe who died. This happened unexpectedly one afternoon.

It was time to make a new start so Anna and I moved to Park Slope, in Brooklyn. We pretended we were married and even got a baby carriage. We rolled up a towel in a blanket and pretended it was a baby and rolled it around the streets and sidewalks.

Then we discovered it really was a baby. I say “we” but Anna had known it all along. It was crying like crazy. Luckily by then we had a house. Now this had to happen!

Here I was, a big cockroach!

I tried to think of what to do. The bedroom door was shut but I knew that sooner or later Anna would come in and see me, flat on my back with six legs in the air. I had to figure out a way to communicate with her and let her know what was what, before she freaked out.

I was still figuring when the door opened and she came in and immediately started screaming. I could see she wasn’t going to be much help, so I scurried under the bed as fast as lightning, cockroach style. Meanwhile she ran out of the room to get a broom, I figured, or something to kill me with.

I was on my own. That was when I remembered Cliffe’s promise and wished he was still alive. But if wishes were pennies we’d all be rich. I scurried down through the walls and out of the house, making quick work of the front steps.

Here on the streets of Brooklyn I was less noticeable. Fast-moving, too. It was raining, and after lots of adventures which involved things like making a boat out of a leaf and riding on a roller skate like it was a bus, I made my way to the Gowanus Canal. I had a plan. I knew that with all the renovations in Brooklyn all the writers had ended up in one building, an old warehouse that wasn’t hard to find. There were their names on the mailbox: Auster, Lethem, Whitehead, etc., and a bunch of unknowns.

“This is not how you spell metaphor,” they said, when I explained what had happened by walking through ink on scrap paper. I had spelled it with an F. I met with them all separately and together as well, but they were no help. Plus, the canal smelled good and I was beginning to face facts: the cockroach thing was for real.

I ate some paper. It was almost noon. I had to figure out a way to call in sick, at least. Then I might at least still have my job when things got straightened out.

I walked in a circle, thinking.

Then I met this old Jew. It was in the park. He almost stepped on me, then he picked me up and put me on the cuff of his shirt and started talking to me. It was in Hebrew but that was the least of my problems. His children had all died of this and that and he was fond of me. It turned out he was even older than he looked and knew lots of secrets, many of them Kabbalistic. He took out his pencil and outlined a Quest that would return me to normal.

I was off!

It took all day and involved more things like leaf boats and jumping onto the back of a pigeon and riding it like a dragon. I got to know the sewers too. I wished I had six little shoes.

But never mind, it worked, and by midafternoon I was normal, that is human, and full-sized. I was in the Bronx, but I made it home and knocked on the door at precisely five p.m.

To my surprise it was unlocked and swung open on its own. There was Anna with another lover, both of them nude.

“I thought you had turned into a cockroach,” she said.

“It must have been your imagination,” I said. I didn’t want to get into it. Especially in front of this other dude who was pulling on his pants.

If you are thinking I was devastated, you’re right. But at least I was no longer a cockroach. I looked in the mirror to make sure.

I’d had nothing to eat all day but paper, so I fixed a bowl of Cheerios while Anna got rid of her lover, who it turned out she hardly knew.

“Maybe we can make a new start,” said Anna, pulling on her panties and replacing the barrettes in her hair. That was okay by me, I told her, and we were just about to watch TV when we heard the baby crying like crazy. We had forgotten all about it!

Well, it had turned into a cockroach too. There it was with six tiny legs, waving about, and I could see why Anna had screamed so on seeing me.

I looked at her. She looked at me. I knew what she was thinking. We had neither of us wanted this baby and now it was a cockroach.

She was just about to step on it when the phone rang. It was her father, the doctor.

“Your year is up,” he said.

Was our happiness about to come to an end? She had agreed as part of a medical experiment to come into his office after a year and be killed. It wasn’t a disease at all.

“My father pressured me into it,” she told me.

“I’ll go with you,” I said. I felt sorry for her. Plus I had a plan. I got a gun out of the box of them I had won in the lottery and stuck it into my belt. My plan was to kill him before he killed her.

“What’s with the gun?” she asked and I told her.

“You’ll need an alibi,” she said, mysteriously. Her father’s office was also near the Gowanus Canal, so I found myself retracing my steps, following her. It didn’t smell so sweet this time. It turned out Anna had a plan as well. On the way, she showed me the items in her purse: a huge pair of scissors and a weird thing.

“What’s this thing?” I asked.

“It’s a cockroach hat.” She showed me how it worked. When she put it on, she looked exactly like a cockroach, six legs and all. I tried it on myself. We were passing a health food store and I saw myself reflected in the plate glass window. It worked!

She had made it herself out of stuff around the house. “You gave me the idea,” she said. “I thought it might come in handy.”

Indeed it did. “Before you kill me,” she told her father, “I want you to try on this hat. I made it myself.”

Like a fool he did. I shot him and she cut him up with the scissors, careful to leave the hat on his “head.” When the police came they were puzzled but we had an alibi.

“He looked to us like a big cockroach,” said Anna.

“We believe you,” said the police.

“I love you,” she said (to me, Sam), but that came later.

First, they let us go and we walked home, hand in hand, along the canal part of the way, holding our noses comically. It was a beautiful spring night in Brooklyn and I had learned a thing or two about love. It was time to make a new start.

We quickened our steps. We had forgotten to step on the baby.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2010 by Terry Bisson

19 comments
David Goldfarb
1. David_Goldfarb
Very surreal and dreamlike.

I notice that in the tenth paragraph, the name "Cliffe" loses its final e a couple of times.
Eugene R.
2. Eugene R.
Sure are a boatload of metafors, here.

I enjoy the way that the story literalizes the cliches of our lives (the couple who think their kid is a pest, the parental interference that kills a relationship) and thus moves them from the tragic mundane to the comic fantastic. The narrator's qualification on "by midafternoon, I was normal, that is, human and full-sized" summed up nicely just how little meaning "normal" has.

And I'd like to find that house in Brooklyn where all the writers wind up. Hmm, it's a former warehouse, so maybe it's in Red Hook. Or DUMBO. Over by the Navy Yard?
Eugene R.
3. James C. Wallace II
I'm reminded of an old short story/poetry piece by Don Marquis called Archie & Mehitabel. It starts out with a suicide and winds up with a cockroach reincarnation. Very odd work and I'm loved it. Still do!

You should look into it.

http://www.donmarquis.com/archy/
Eugene R.
5. CassR
I'm not quite sure what just happened there.
Eugene R.
6. seth e.
I'd never read any Terry Bisson before his stories started showing up on tor.com, but I've been enjoying the hell out of them whenever they do. Meta for the win!
Rebecca Murphey
7. Mystictrout
There are so many things wrong here I don't know where to start. This story is awful. It reads like it was written by a 10-year-old.
Eugene R.
8. twirlip
Mystictrout: The "written by a 10-year-old" thing is deliberate, not a symptom of incompetence.

I often find surreal stories like this to be pretentious, unengaging, and overly cryptic. But this one was a lot of fun. I feel like Bisson communicates (what I take to be) his "point" very clearly despite all the random-seeming weirdness on the surface of the story. Good times.
Eugene R.
9. twirlip
Also, that illustration is great.
Irene Gallo
10. Irene
@9Twirlip: Thanks! I love working with Red Nose. I don;t get the chance very often but I thought this story was an excellent fit for him.
Eugene R.
11. Dan Shamrock
I am not sure what made me read this, I am not into finding deep meaning in short stories or anything. But this is one of the coolest stories I have ever read. I apologize that "coolest" was the best adjective I could come up with to describe this story, haha.
Eugene R.
12. Karen G Anderson
I appreciated the way Bisson expanded on the trivial details while dismissing the elements what would traditionally be the focus of a fantastical story (the quest he was given by the elderly Jews, etc.).
Wolf Lahti
13. wolflahti
I wrote a story similar to this titled "Rabbits", of which a reviewer said, "This is one of those stories that, when you finish it, you think, 'This was about something.'"

"The Cockroach Hat" was too.
Eugene R.
14. Spriteleigh
I've come to realize that style is possibly more important to me in a story than plot, and this is exactly the kind of adorable, sincere, surprising voice that I watch and wait for. I'm so grateful that this story is here and that I just read it.
A recommendation: Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Canada), my newest all-time fave.
Eugene R.
15. spacegirl
In this story I specially like the fact that the importance of things in our lives may be relative. In this respect I agree with Karen G Anderson.

However there are a bunch of editorial mistakes like to many "is"s, misspellings or unnecessary words. Is it deliberate? I don't like it. It makes me feel like a teacher reading student essays.
Charisse Lopez
17. secuchick
Very surreal, but I find it rather amusing.
Eugene R.
18. Farlstendoiro
To David_Goldfarb: I thought that the missing E in "Cliffe" was just another of the surreal details in the story. Not even the names can keep their edge in reality.
And: Now I hunger.
Eugene R.
19. EllenKushner
Just heard Terry read this live at KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series in NYC. An incredible experience. Every word of this story is chiseled & polished.

And on the page, it reminds me of Kelly Link.

JCWII - I love Archie & Mehitabel!

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