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Redena Hobbs is a writer who lives and works in Dallas.

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Critical Mass

by Redena Hobbs


     "Oh, well, down the disposal," I decided aloud, and dumped the contents of the glass out into the sink. I picked out the two plastic spiders and a plastic ladybug to return to the toy box, and washed the living pillbug on down.
     Still, that was damn cute. My little boy had brought in a pillbug -- some people call them roly-polies -- and I gave him a glass to put it in and a little scrap of paper that it could grab hold of to turn over off its back with. We watched in fascination while it ice-skated on the glass, trampled the paper up and down, and finally retreated underneath the tiny scrap.
     A little while later, we were playing with toy animals on the floor and his little sister found a plastic ladybug.
     "Bug!" she said, with a sudden delightful insight. She carried it over and added it to the pillbug's prison. Later she found a couple of plastic spiders, too.
     "But a spider isn't a bug!" I protested. "It's a ... spider."
     Still a bug to her.
     That nightly miracle of bedtime came at last, and I sat down to a quiet box of candy and a mystery novel, bugs forgotten.

     We opened up the dishwasher next day and discovered a cockroach scurrying around. Hadn't seen one of those in a while.
     "What's that?" said my son.
     "It's a da--dang cockroach. Close the door so it will go away."
     He complied, puzzled.
     I didn't swat it. I didn't like to kill things. All those books I used to read - the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, and the Way of Zen, and early Christian mysticism. They taught: Be harmless; be at one with all living beings. They taught and I listened.
     But I wasn't unbalanced on the subject. I hadn't gone as far as a friend did, a guy I once knew who rescued June bugs from a gas station driveway so they wouldn't be squashed by cars pulling up. And I didn't quite swallow the concept of putting a screen over your nose so you wouldn't inhale any gnats by accident and cause their unseemly demise.
     Except maybe in Alaska during the summer.

     Driving home from work that night, I thought again of the pillbug. Deep thoughts, stuck in traffic on Central Expressway.
     Was is symbolic of my own decline? From idealistic youth to worm food? Was it symbolic of ... Wylie?
     My dog Wylie, poor Wylie. I didn't say goodbye to him, anymore, in the mornings, or hello in the evenings. I lost that ritual somewhere. I didn't even miss him, much. I was better off without him.
     But the memory opened up a raw scar on my self-esteem. I killed him, you know. I knew better than to let my fool sister tie him by the fence; the fence that was too high to jump over but he jumped over anyway. I knew how scared he was of thunderstorms. I could have built a dog door, could have set up a safe dog run or installed a higher fence. Could have let him go.
     I didn't think.
     It was easier not to think. All the grasshoppers chewed in the mower blades. All the cows trampled in the feedlots. The chickens in the four-by-four wire cages. All the sad eyes in the gray metal rooms.
     At least I gave Wylie a fitting farewell. I carried him away, far from the house, staggering under the fifty-pound weight like the weight of a dead spirit. I gave him Edward Abbey's dream, a burial preference that I doubt the poor man was allowed to have -- to fly around in the belly of a beautiful vulture, tilting and free, floating above the earth, balancing on the planet's heat echoes. Airborne on thermal decay.
     I was back on my own little road now, winding through fields and trees that used to be nature. I killed him and like him every thing I touched, from the pile of brown cat fur on my driveway to the trees cut down to build the road I drove on. Had to have roads. Had to have ....
     A squirrel darted out in front of my car. I swerved on the narrow road, freezing on the wheel as trees swayed in front of the windshield. Then instinct took over and the car straightened up and both feet slammed for the brakes.
     "Too fast --" I thought, and the squealing in my head was coming from my own tires as the car's momentum finished the turn anyway and it started sliding sideways.
     Maybe the carnage in my life had reached a point of no return. Carnage and karma ... carnage-karma? Maybe I was paying for my sins on earth. Maybe ...it was too late.
     Maybe it wasn't.
     The tires bumped on the ground and my head hit the ceiling, hard enough to blur my vision. But ... we were bumping to a stop.
     The slowing bumping calmed and ended dead still.
     Embarrassed, I looked around.
     No one had seen. The narrow country road was little traveled, and only me and the shifty-eyed squirrel had observed the near collision. It was sitting on the branch of a tree now. Still watching.
     The car engine was dead, and I tentatively turned it off and on, to restart it, wondering why it had died, too.
     It started.
     My hands shook on the wheel, but I backed up and straightened the ugly hunk of metal. I drove on, at ten miles an hour, slowing at every turn to let my heartbeat calm down again.

     Still shaky, I pulled into the driveway and trudged into the house. No one was home yet, so I didn't have to start dinner immediately. No little hands were reaching up for mommy-hugs, no little tearful faces screaming for milk. I dumped my baggage on the counter and reached for a glass in the dishwasher. A big glass of iced tea and plenty of time to enjoy it. I'm alive. I'm the queen of the universe.
     The cockroach scurried for the corner. I slammed the dishwasher door on my fingers.
     It was still watching.
     It was still watching as I ran for the door, grabbing my car keys off the countertop and ran for the door.
     Wrestling with the door handle -- stuck again -- I almost fell over when it finally gave way in a jerk that banged the handle against the wall. Only three steps to the car -- and my foot tippled sideways through the decay in the top step.
     Damn termites. Why didn't we ever fix anything?
     I tried to bring the other foot forward to balance, but my weight was already pitching forward and sideways. An instinct to protect the head started an arm upward, no, downward to my upside-down descent --

     Whew. That was scary. Almost busted my head open on those concrete walk-stones. It's OK now.
     I crowded forward, pushing aside pieces of debris.
     Mmm. Good food.
     Munch, munch, munch.
     Thought I'd died. Silly thing. People don't die falling down stairs.
     The food was really rich. Good. This was good! Sort of whitish, sort of sticky. And that rich, red-brown streak. I needed to find more of this.
     I squeezed in a little further, nosing under a sleek, green piece of leaf. A little more food there ....
     Wasn't there once someplace ... bigger?
     No, I couldn't think of it. Well, this bit of food was finished, I'd better go around this rock and see if there was any more.
     Ugh, light. I didn't like light. Not that it hurt, or anything -- I just didn't like it. It made me nervous.
     I backed away from the light and squeezed under a piece of wood, grateful to get back to the dimness. I could feel better, there.
     More food! This was richness.
     Didn't I used to like the light? Some other time and space ... didn't the light make me feel good? When I was ... bigger?
     No, not that I could remember. And I was encroaching into someone else's territory, here. I could smell the markers, and here was someone else's pile of crap. All the food was gone, too, so I decided to take a shortcut over the piece of wood and get back into my own personal walkway. The world hadn't been so dry that I had to hide underground.
     Feeling around carefully, I climbed up onto the piece of wood. It held my weight easily, and I could move at a pretty fast clip along the smooth surface. But there was light up there, so I'd better hurry to the dark. The dark was just over the other edge, where my usual walking way was. Hurry.
     What was that?
     A huge, rounded, pink bug was coming at me. Right at me! I'd better hurry, get over the edge. Hurry.
     It wasn't a bug -- no head. No eyes.
     It was going to hit me!
     Two of them! There were two of them! They were going to --
     "Mommy! Look, a roly-poly!"