The Conversation

by Michael Keenan Gutierrez

In Miami, we had Palmetto bugs, a euphemism for giant, flying cockroaches. They took root in our cupboards and silverware drawers, played house under the bed, and colonized our closets. At night they flew through the dark of the kitchen like bats with vertigo, smacking into walls, falling stunned onto the linoleum, before recovering and once again taking flight. This was Florida, so we’d expected bugs, but not the swarm that overtook our apartment, this prehistoric army that kept us at night, that made us jump at the slightest creak, and that led us to be scared of our home.

–This is fucked up, my wife said.

She was from New York and for her, cockroaches denoted some sort of dirtiness, a character flaw. But New York cockroaches—which are actually called German cockroaches—were so much smaller than the ones in our apartment. Ours were two inches long and didn’t scatter when we approached. No, they raised their antennas like middle fingers and told us to suck it.

–I hate Florida, my wife said.

This was September of 2009 and we’d only been there a year, but one morning, after a cockroach jumped on me in the shower and I nearly crashed through the shower doors, I began looking for a new job.


This insect invasion happened during the time when my father was dying. He had been dying for a while—six years by then—and for some reason, I’d expected him to keep on dying for a much longer time than he did. But while we were in Florida, the congestive heart failure, the cancer, and the emphysema tore at the last vestiges of his 57-year-old body, making it so he couldn’t walk across the room without panting, so he couldn’t lift more than a dinner plate. Not that I realized how bad it actually was. On the phone, his breathing was slower but he sounded the same. My mother hinted at more but she didn’t want to worry me, or, perhaps, she knew there was nothing I could do and no point in saying that aloud. Only when I went home for Christmas did I see how elderly he had turned since my last visit, how he now walked with a hunch like a man thirty years older, how his face had sunken in so that his eyes bulged, and how he tried to disguise his suffering from me by talking about football, politics, and even the weather, anything but his sickness.


The cockroaches in our apartment were called the Florida woods cockroach, a breed that preferred that peninsula’s damp, warm climate to drier places like Los Angeles, where I grew up. While mostly an outdoor bug, it enjoyed burrowing into kitchens and bathrooms. Our apartment, for some reason, was a kind of Mecca to them, a holy place where they went to pray to their God.

While I was reading up on cockroaches, searching through Wikipedia or scouring bug-specific websites, trying to find a way to attack, to stymie, to kill, I began to imagine these scientists, the ones who dedicated their lives to studying things that go flap through your bedroom at night. Is this what they daydreamed of during their childhoods? I saw them as ten-years old with thick-rimmed spectacles and a magnifying glass, peering into their mother’s closet, inside their father’s shoes. What did their fathers think when they explained the subject of their dissertation? “Cockroaches, hmm. Cockroaches.”


My father was a very clean man. He was clean in the way kids who grew up in filth, kids who rejected their parents, are clean. My childhood smelled of Pine-Sol and bleach. Often I’d come home from school to find him on his hands and knees cleaning the floor. He had to have it this way to feel comfortable. Not long after he died, my mother told me a story of when they’d first moved in together. She had spent one morning scrubbing the kitchen, trying, as best she could, to measure up to his standards, which were exacting, almost obsessive. She was proud of her work, wanted to show him. However, when he came home from working the night shift at the grocery store, he took a quick look around the kitchen, before wiping his finger along the top of the refrigerator.

–You missed a spot, he said.

This was not the best day of their marriage.


In Miami we hired exterminators, hulking men in gray jumpsuits with deep swamp accents that spoke to an innate toughness, a disregard for physical pain and a disgust for masculine weakness. They looked at my soft, English professor hands and ironic t-shirts and thought I was less of a man, a sort of subspecies of Homo sapiens, one who hadn’t evolved to survive in the South Florida ecosystem. I’m sure that when I startled at the sight of a dead roach—stepping back, wincing and shivering—it just confirmed their belief that natural selection was coming for me.

The exterminators sprayed poison under the sinks and along the baseboards and windowsills.

–This will kill some of them, one said.

–What about the rest?

He shrugged.


I grew up in the town of Tujunga on the northeastern edge of Los Angeles. The Wikipedia site for Tujunga says it is characterized by a “down home, rural flavor,” which is wiki-speak for “redneck.” And they’re right. There was nothing Norman Rockwell about it. It was dirty and run down and occasionally violent. But we did have the Independence Day parade that went down Foothill Boulevard, a stretch of road pocked by shuttered storefronts and fast food joints. The high school marching band led a procession of the usual sorts of floats sponsored by local businesses. But the highlight, at least for me, was when all the Hell’s Angels roared through town on their Harleys, their arms shrouded in tattoos, their chins veiled by long, increasingly gray beards. I don’t know why Tujunga possessed such a rich assortment of bikers, or why there were at least two bars dedicated to them, or why those bars opened at 6 A.M., but they did. Perhaps it’s the allure of the canyon right outside of town, one that winds through the San Gabriel Mountains towards the high desert, where a man can disappear into the wilderness. I remember sitting with my father during the parade, his mustache already flecked gray, though he was only in his early thirties. I don’t know what he thought of those bikers, men who seemed to live without hard work. Lazy, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Maybe, in fact, he envied those men. Because, even then, with presumably thirty years until the day he could cash his first Social Security check, my father talked about retirement. He wanted to move out of Tujunga, to live by the ocean.

But he certainly didn’t want that life for his own son. When he drove me somewhere, baseball practice or the grocery store, he gave long lectures full of advice while smoking menthol after menthol. He told me about the importance of hard work, of marrying a nice woman like my mother, of going to college, of never quitting. But what I remember best was this one piece of wisdom.

–Once you have children, your life is over with, he said.

I was never sure how serious to take him.


My wife and I had never planned to have children. We saw kids as expensive and exhausting, as shackles to a life neither of us wanted to live, as the quickest route to a boring existence. But then, years passed, and we got lazy with birth control and we found ourselves changing diapers at three in the morning. Our ten-month old son is a giant—10 pounds, 5 ounces at birth—with light red hair and a joyous disposition that resembles neither my wife nor me. His favorite activity is to crawl across the house in hopes of finally catching the dog’s tail. He is expensive and exhausting but being with him is almost all pleasure. My life does not feel over with but I am 38-years old and my father was 26 when I was born and that might explain some of the difference.

But not all of it.

He hated his job and he hated Tujunga and if you hate your work and you hate your home there is very little that children can do to give you peace.


Not that I offered much peace. I was a quiet and introspective child, moody and lazy, so much so that in high school, after I got a report card showing I’d failed gym and gotten D’s in biology and history, my father took me to work in hopes of teaching me the value of it. He feared I’d never go to college. He feared I’d live at home until I was 30. He wasn’t having any of it.

He managed apartments by then, handling the collection of rent and maintenance of the units and grounds. It was a business he’d built up over the years and that Saturday he had to clean out an apartment recently vacated by evicted tenants. I went along, shoulders slumped, pants much too baggy for my frame. This was 1993,after all. I would do what he asked but I wasn’t going to enjoy it.

At the apartment’s door, he handed me a can of cockroach fogger.

–Put it in the living room, press down and then run, he said.

He then handed me a tarp.

–Put it over your head.

I did, though I wasn’t sure what good it would do against the bug spray.

–Good luck, bud.

He opened the door, stepped back.

I walked inside, turned on the light.

–Fuck, I said.

It might have been the first time I ever swore in front of him. Roaches rained from the ceiling. They fell atop their brethren, who ran along the carpet in great waves of brown, a sort of burnt-out kaleidoscope. They were small, fierce. German roaches. This apartment was their France and I surrendered.

–Hurry up, he said, pushing me inside.

He might have laughed, I can’t remember.

I ran into the living room, my feet stepping on the roach rug, not so much squashing them as being held up like I was crowd surfing. The roaches pinged against the tarp, tumbling off and onto my shoes.

Once I reached the middle of the room, I waited a moment, hoping the great wave would recede for a second so that I could find an open piece of carpet to lay my weapon down. It took a few beats.

Later, my father laughed. Not out of malice. He didn’t find joy in my suffering. No, he just thought it was hilarious that I kept brushing my arms and face like I’d walked through a particularly dense cobweb.

A few hours later, when we returned to the apartment, I saw a carpet laid to waste, roaches strewn from wall to wall, a great field of death.

–Get the vacuum, he said.


I ended up going to college, for a very long time. Whatever plan he had that day of showing me what real work looked like convinced me I wanted no part of it. After I got my bachelor’s degree, I wandered the country for three years, working odd retail and restaurant jobs, before returning to graduate school to study history and then creative writing. Whatever he thought of the merit of these degree programs, he kept his opinion to himself. He was supportive at the very least, just telling me to try hard. He did, however, like that I got a job right out of school at the University of Miami.


I don’t know what my father was like in high school. I don’t know if he was popular or happy. I know he played football but I don’t know if he was good at it. I know he was born in San Francisco, spent some of his childhood in Pennsylvania and South Dakota before finally settling in Los Angeles. But that is just geography. I don’t really know anything about his life before I was born, nothing specific, nothing about what his room looked like, how he did in school, what he liked to do away from school. I know he had two sisters and a brother—siblings whom he rarely spoke to as an adult—and I know his mother was abusive and his father abandoned him and his stepfather, a man he loved, died when he was just a teenager of a long terminal illness, but I don’t know what that illness was. I never asked.


Some nights, my wife and I lay in bed and listened to the roaches bouncing around the kitchen walls. Other nights I went in there with a spray bottle filled with soapy water. If you hit them directly, they kept flying or running for a little while before slowly suffocating. For weeks after a roach surprised her, my wife refused to open the silverware drawer. Instead, she used the same fork, over and over again. By March it was already hot and she could see a summer where the roaches crept under our sheets and crawled across our sleeping faces. She was breaking down and I was no better, jumping at the slightest creak, turning on the lights, my muscles tensing.

I was miserable in Miami in a way I hadn’t been since high school. While the ibis and macaws and iguanas were amazing, like living in a wildlife refuge, the Maseratis and rooftop bars and cultural absurdities wore on me. I never got used to sweating so much. I was angry. I was angry in grocery stores and in traffic and especially in my roach-filled house.

But I know now that it wasn’t Miami’s fault: I was angry because my father was dying and we didn’t particularly get along and there was nothing I could or perhaps was willing to do about it. So I did nothing. Except worry about those goddamn giant, flying cockroaches.

It was around then that I got a job offer at the University of Houston.


During the last year of his life, my parents sold their business and then their house. They moved into a rental condominium in Oxnard, about an hour north of Los Angeles. They got a puppy and my mom walked that dog to the beach every day. It was only five minutes by foot, but by then, my father wasn’t strong enough to do it.


That summer my wife and I wandered the eastern half of the United States in a Honda Civic packed full of camping equipment. We drove 8000 miles in a month, leaving Miami on Independence Day, taking a circuitous route from Florida to Texas to Chicago to New York and back to Miami, with stops in Arkansas, Kansas, and Virginia. We had planned on camping most of the time, but it was hot and muggy and we just wanted the cleanliness and bug-free living that a Holiday Inn gave us.

When we got back to Miami, the plan was to quickly pack up our apartment and move to Houston. But instead we arrived to a broken air conditioner and a house full of giant, mostly dead cockroaches. It was then that my father dropped into a coma.


By the time I made it out to California a week later, he’d had a brief recovery, and was home with my mother and his hospice nurse and a steady stream of morphine and tank oxygen. I spent a week there, helping him to the bathroom, cooking meals, and watching television with him. The morphine made him moody and confused. Mostly he was angry with me. I took away his cigarettes. I wouldn’t let him smoke near the oxygen tank.

–You’re being a real asshole, he said.


Eventually, tired from the confrontations, I helped him outside—sans oxygen tank—and let him smoke.

The hospice nurse was a tough woman, who spent her days around the dying and saw it as her duty to help the family make sense of death, to get ready for it. One night she sat us down—my mother, my wife, and I—and tried to prepare us. She said that while he was having a brief recovery, the end was near. She looked across the table at me, told me that if there was anything I needed to say to him, I should do it now. If I was going to have the conversation with him, this was the time.

–I’m good, I told her.

–Are you sure?


Later, my mother and my wife laughed.

–You should have seen your face, they said.

I looked as though she’d asked me to rob a bank.

–You’re the last person who’d have the conversation, they told me.

They were right. There was nothing I could say or would say to him that I hadn’t already said. There was never going to be that TV drama moment between us, one where I take his hand while soft music plays in the background and I tell him all of my feelings, where I confess regrets, where we reach some sort of resolution in our relationship. It would have felt absurd because our relationship was never based on conversation in the first place. We just weren’t that father and son.


The soulless, newly built apartment we rented in Houston was regularly sprayed for every kind of bug imaginable. It was so free of insects I often wondered if they kept stores of 1950’s-level DDT in the utility closet. Whatever they did worked. We slept at night free of the pinging of roaches smacking against walls. Houston was hot and sprawling and I still sweated through everything I wore, but for some reason, I just felt more at home. I started teaching my classes, trying not to think about my father during the day, while calling my mother each night to see how they were doing. Not well, was the answer.

A month after I left California, my father called. He’d gone off the morphine and was feeling better in his head. He apologized for his behavior, saying he didn’t know what he was doing, saying he didn’t remember I had ever visited.

–I’m sorry, bud.

–It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.

The last time he remembered seeing me was in December, nine months earlier, during Christmas. I was glad that was the case. I don’t remember much else about the conversation. I probably told him about my job or the apartment or maybe that we were planning on getting a dog, but nothing else, nothing more than the usual sort of talk we always had had. It was the last time we ever spoke. A few days later he was dead.


While I see parts of my father in the mirror, the small mouth and the long face, I see none of him in my son. His pale blue eyes and red hair and square head are all his own. He is joyous in a way no man in my family has ever been, laughing easily and often, while finding great pleasure in anything new. Perhaps he will age out of this or perhaps the world will kick it out of him, but I hope he stays this way. I hope this is his character and he’s able to hold onto it. And I hope when he is older and lost he is able to come to me for help. Not just financially. I want him to come to me when he doesn’t know his place in the world, when he is scared or heartbroken or angry, and although I may not be able to give him wisdom, I hope he will find comfort in my listening. I hope that I am able to understand him and he will understand me, though I don’t know if that is possible between fathers and sons.

Seven years after that hospice nurse asked me to have the conversation, I still don’t know what I would have said to my father that I hadn’t already said. I loved him and he knew that. I didn’t want him to suffer and I hope he knew that. I was grateful for what he could give me, the lessons he taught me about hard work, about not quitting, but I am not sure if he ever knew that.

Michael Keenan Gutierrez is the author of The Trench Angel (Leapfrog). He lives with his family in Chapel Hill where he teaches at the University of North Carolina.