Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld sat in a tall leather backed
chair behind a dark mahogany desk. He looked irritably at the clock on the wall
opposite his desk. His 2:00 pm was late.
He flicked the button on the intercom. “Has my two o’clock called
to say he’d be late?” Professor Hartfeld asked.
“No, sir,” Marta answered.
“Please let me know the moment he arrives,” the professor
requested, “but have him wait in the waiting room for the time he made me wait.”
“Yes sir,” his secretary said.
Bartholomew’s eyes scanned his consultation office to make
sure that nothing was out of place, that everything was in order. The clock
showed 2:05. He checked his watch which confirmed that it was indeed 2:05, actually
closer to 2:06. His irritation increased.
The professor spied something crawling up the richly upholstered
blue chaise lounge chair beside his desk. He squinted one eye to see better
what kind of creature it was. After identifying the culprit, the professor
slipped off his right Oxford shoe and, standing up with right shoe in hand, he hobbled
over to the lounge chair.
The cockroach reached the top cushion and moved toward the
Bartholomew raised the heavy shoe above his shoulder, taking
careful aim in preparation to strike the disgusting insect. He hoped that his 2:00
o’clock wouldn’t walk through the door exactly at this moment and see him, one
shoe on and the other raised to strike a cockroach on his expensive chaise
Suddenly the cockroach flipped itself over onto its back so
that it was facing Bartholomew and hissed, “Stay your hand, kind sir, I implore
you! I am your 2:00 o’clock client. I apologize for my tardiness, but it takes
a while to crawl under the door and make my way across your carpet and up your
chaise lounge. I announced myself to your secretary, but she did not seem to
The professor was dumbfounded. Somebody must be playing a
trick on him! He looked around the room again, trying to find the camera or
recording device. He walked around the office, methodically checking behind
every chair and underneath each piece of furniture. He even opened each of the
drawers in his desk. Nothing seemed suspicious or untoward.
Bartholomew stumped back over to the chaise lounge and
scrutinized the cockroach. The professor smirked jocularly for whoever might be
watching him, asking the cockroach, “How do I know that it is you that is
talking to me, and not some impish trickster with a hidden microphone nearby?”
“Ask me a question whose answer is six or less and a
positive integer, and I will respond by raising my legs as appropriate,” the
The professor thought a moment and asked brightly, “how many
fingers am I holding up?”
The cockroach extended outward three legs, keeping its
remaining three legs folded over its abdomen.
The professor lowered one finger and the cockroach lowered
one of its extended legs. Bartholomew thought to himself, well, whatever was going
on, he’d play along. “Do you mind if I record our session,” he asked perfunctorily.
“It’s something I do with all my clients for later review and analysis. I don’t
want to miss anything.”
“I have no issue with that,” the cockroach hissed. “I know
how disgusting we are to you, but could you be so kind as to help me turn back
over onto my abdomen? It’s quite difficult for me to flip myself back over. I’m
not as spry as I used to be.”
The professor felt a little less disgusted by the cockroach
than he had before. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was the recognition of another
conscious being, no matter what the form was, that stirred the soup of empathy.
He slipped a sheet of yellow paper from his notepad carefully underneath the
cockroach and held the sheet at a 45-degree angle so that it slipped down the
page gently but with enough momentum that it was able to turn itself over.
“Thank you, Professor,” the cockroach hissed.
“Happy to oblige,” the professor said. He pulled one of the
narrower chairs over to the chaise lounge, sat down, and turned on the
recorder. “For the record,” he began. “It is 2:15 pm, Tuesday, July 22, 1958. I
am in session with Gregory Samuels. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Samuels?”
“Please call me Greg,” the cockroach hissed. “I’ve been
thinking a lot about suicide.”
The professor made a note of that and paused a moment before
saying, “The mind entertains all the thoughts that are possible for it to
think, but that doesn’t mean that we have to act on every thought we think or
let a particular thought take over control of our mind.”
“I know that I don’t have to act on every thought I have,”
Greg answered, “but I’m not so sure that I have the intellectual or emotional
resources to prevent this particular thought from eclipsing all my other
“I would imagine you to be somewhat lonely, possibly cut off
from the care and support of family and comrades,” the professor ventured.
“Not really,” Greg explained. “Could you close the curtains
and dim the lights a bit? I have 350 siblings and thousands of close friends.
We get together as often as we can. Most of us are quite gregarious and
decision-making is easier and less stressful when we’re all together. The sex
is good enough, I suppose …”
The professor wrote down some more notes, looked directly at
Greg, and asked, “Could you expand a bit on your last sentence?”
“About the sex?” Greg glanced back at the professor.
“Yes, the sex,” the professor said.
Greg exhaled in a long hissing breath that almost turned
into a whistle before answering. “It’s not so bad, really. When we’re ready for
it, we give off a potent pungent pheromone so that willing partners may find
each other. Then we have our courtship rituals, the usual posturing and
stridulation. The copulation is both intense and prolonged. We go back to our
friends who expect to hear all the intimate details about our partner, the
courtship, and the copulation. The problem is that it seems so mechanical, so
predictable, so meaningless. I feel like a damned fool.”
“So, you don’t engage in sex?” the professor asked
“I do engage,” Greg admitted, “but I don’t run to my friends for debriefing or enthuse about it. In a word, it’s not my ultimate experience.”
The professor smiled wanly. “I suppose you just haven’t met the ultimate partner.”
Greg answered, “It’s more than that. We’ve been living like
this for the last 320 million years: hatching out of our egg casings with 30 to
40 siblings, all of us gulping air in our initial shock of existence, crawling
out on our own, feeding on whatever is to be had, morphing into adults,
congregating, copulating, impregnating, dropping egg casings, and dying. Da
capo al fine. We’ll probably continue living like this for the next 320 million
years. There has to be something more than that.”
“Except for hatching out of eggs, it sounds like a good
description of the human condition,” the professor said after a while.
“I beg of you,” Greg implored, “don’t make light of my
plaints. I’m pouring out my soul to you. You are my last hope. After you, the
long night of non-existence.”
“I swear to you, my words were wrung from the depths of
empathy for your plight,” the professor chose his words carefully. “Is there
nothing to which you look forward, for which you hope, to which you aspire?”
Greg spoke as if from another world. His words hissed out of
him, “There is no beauty, no poetry, no aspiration or hope, no break in the boring
continuity of existence, no lovely fictions to distract us from our dull
The professor countered, “How can that be? You seem to me a
Greg explained, “Yes, that is my curse. I am the exception
that proves the rule. I could be the Shakespeare of my species, another T.S.
Eliot or Ezra Pound, an Yves Bonnefoy, and it would matter not an iota. Poetry’s
coin is not legal tender in our society. I recite my poems to crowds of
thousands, even millions, but they don’t even listen. They look at me dumbly
and continue with their copulation and feeding on dung, or whatever the
collective mind has decided this moment. I feel loneliest when I’m in such a
crowd. It’s unbearable. If only I could have this poetry somehow removed from
The professor scribbled notes as fast as he could. He raised
the pencil to his lips and tapped the eraser against his lower teeth. When he
became aware of what he was doing, he stopped and thought about what he had
just heard. He asked, “I suppose it would be too much to expect that your
species has doctors who understand the functions and anatomy of your brains,
“Unfortunately, we do not,” Greg replied. “We don’t have so
many different roles. There are no doctors. We don’t live more than a year or
so, although I’ve heard of some of our distant cousins living as much as four
or five years. If we get sick, we die and that’s that. End of story.”
The professor said, “It’s 1958. We don’t have the capability
to do what you wished yet. We don’t even know where poetry is located in our
own brains, let alone in a … forgive me … cockroach’s brain. Who knows when we’ll
be able to map out our own brains or understand how they work? It will probably
be hit or miss a long time until we finally get it right. A miss might render
you speechless, unable to walk, or kill you.”
Greg hissed a long whistle of wonderment. “Why make the
effort to stay alive as long as possible when life is so fraught with suffering
and pain? It took an eternity before I was born. My life will end before I
achieve anything worthwhile. Then I will be dead or non-existent for the rest
of eternity. We are barely a blip on the vast radar of eternity. Why bother?
Why continue after the fallacy has been uncovered?”
Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld glanced up at the clock on
the wall. It was 2:50 pm. “I’m afraid our time for today’s session is up,” he
said, not insensitively.
Greg flinched as if waking up from a dream, “Huh, what? Oh …
yes,” he recovered his initial presence of mind. “I had forgotten about the fifty-minute
The professor added, “It seems like we’ve barely scratched
the surface. There is much ground to cover.” Then he asked kindly, “Would you
like for me to have Marta schedule an appointment for next week?”
Greg hissed ever so softly, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Next week’s session will be … shall we say … ‘gratis’?” the
professor offered most generously.
The cockroach crawled slowly toward the edge of the chaise
lounge and then down one of the legs to the carpet.
“What will you do?” the professor expressed genuine concern
over the fate of his small client. “Please, don’t do anything drastic until we’ve
had a chance to examine all the alternatives!” he implored.
The cockroach slowly made his way over the carpet until it
reached the door and then crawled under it.
Marta’s voice over the intercom broke the ensuing silence as
she announced, “Your 3:00 o’clock is here, Professor Hartfeld.”