The clanging slam of our iron gate announced the arrival of someone in a hurry. Dakota, my nine-year-old son, scuttled crab-like down the garden path toward me.
"What's up, Bub?" One look at his odd posture told me that something had to be wrong. His back bent and twisted; the upper half of his body was hidden from my view. I tried to imagine what had happened in the thirty minutes that passed since he went to his friend's house to make Halloween costumes.
"Me and Tony got a big problem, Mom. Ya hafta help us." Dakota's husky voice trembled.
I took both his hands and turned him to face me. Then I saw what he had tried to conceal: his bright orange American School Mogadishu tee shirt was blotched with black spatters.
"Whoa, that looks like tar to me. What have you guys been doing? And where is Tony? He didn't get burned, did he? Quickly now, tell me." Dakota flinched and I realized that my grip on his hands had tightened.
"Tony's O.K. He's O.K. Really. He's waiting outside the gate. It's just…he…well…uh… We were throwing rocks into this big puddle of tar by Tony's driveway and…uh…Tony threw this really big one and…uh… I'm gonna go get him and you can see for yourself."
A tearful grimace replaced Tony's usual naughty-boy grin. He flapped his hands at the enormous black blobs covering the front of his polo shirt.
"Mom is gonna k-k-k-kill me! I-wasn't-supposed-to-wear-
"Tony, I am so sorry about your new shirt. Come here, sit down, and let's decide what to do." Poor Tony. Trouble ruled his life. As School Counselor, I knew details. Empathy urged me to help him in any way I could.
"OK. How about this: Dakota can loan you a shirt to wear while I try to get rid of the tar. If I'm successful, then there's no more problem and we three can keep this whole thing a secret. If I can't make your shirt look like new again, Dakota and I will go with you to break the news to your Mom and Dad, and I will offer to replace the shirt. Does that sound all right to you?"
Tony nodded and the tension in his shoulders eased. I sent the boys to Dakota's room for clean shirts and asked them to play there while I attacked the tarry mess.
Where would I find a powerful solvent? Mogadishu had no supermarkets, no hardware stores, no convenience stores. A search of our storeroom produced nothing better than laundry detergent. That would not cut it. I glanced around the yard and noticed the fuel tank next to our emergency generator. "Daily generator" would have been a better name, due to the frequency and length of power outages, but "emergency generator" was what everybody called it. Probably wishful thinking.
Diesel fuel should work, shouldn't it? It's worth a try, I thought.
With rubber gloves, an old coffee can full of diesel, and a box of Tide, I headed for the bathroom sink. Full-strength diesel fuel stinks. Mightily. It also dissolves tar. Completely. Now I had stain-free shirts that smelled like a fuel-dump. So I filled the basin with hot water and swished the Tide around to make suds. In went the shirts. I squeezed and pummeled and squeezed some more, hoping the Tide would eliminate the nasty odor. Then I pulled the plug to drain the wash water. As I reached for the tap to begin rinsing, I felt a tickle on my bare foot. My foot flicked a reflexive kick and I looked down.
Damn cockroach! Even if I could catch up with it, I wasn't about to stomp it with my bare feet. Normally I try to live in peace with all of Earth's creatures. In fact, before we moved in, I had declined the Embassy's offer to spray our house for insects. But cockroaches push me over the edge. The varmint scuttled out of sight; I shuddered and turned back to the basin to rinse the shirts.
Horror. The surface of the sink undulated with movement. Cockroaches swarmed up out of the drain. They crawled over the shirts by the dozen and more followed. I lurched backward, groping for the door handle. Looking down again, I saw cockroaches everywhere. Hundreds of cockroaches scurried in all directions. They covered the bottom of the bathtub. They scrambled across the tiles. Brown ones, black ones, big ones, small ones, hideous tiny white ones. They came from every crack and crevice. They came out from the base of the toilet where those little covers conceal bolts attaching the toilet to the floor. How could they fit through there? God help me; let me wake up from this nightmare.
I ran out as if pursued and grabbed the Embassy communications network radio.
"Eagle One, Eagle One, this is Eagle Twenty, over!"
"This is Eagle One. Go, Eagle Twenty."
The Marine Security Guard who took the call teased me later about the jumble of words that hit his ear that day, but I don't remember being hysterical. Help came right away. A crew of workers sprayed the house inside and out, flushed the drains, and removed all traces of the disaster.
Although the diesel smell never left Tony's new shirt, his parents accepted the fact with uncharacteristic calm. Happy to be out of trouble, the boys got busy with their costumes and finished in time for the school party that evening. Halloween wasn't as much fun for me; I couldn't stop thinking about the cockroach invasion. And I couldn't shake that creepy sensation that something was crawling up my back. ###