The Tale of the Arthalee
Water bugs. Cockroaches. Las cucarachas. We are all too familiar with the insect that scurries in the dark and scatters as soon as the lights flip on. The larger of the species will glare back at you. Some even taunt you; their antennae flicking and twitching as if threatening you to cross their path. There are 4,500 species of cockroach and more than 30 of them are associated with humans. Don’t you feel a little bit filthy right now?
The little buggers would creep around the kitchen late at night. I remember walking into the kitchen to get a glass of water and always washing out the clean cups, just in case. I would scrub these glasses as if I were Lady Macbeth. There was no possible way I was going to ingest any residual filth left by these bugs.
Mother always called them arthalees. There was no explanation for it at the time. Arthalee. Say it with me “ahr-thah-lee.” No matter the size, they had the same name. The small German cockroach was an arthalee. The enormous American cockroach was also an arthalee. It didn’t matter if they were in the house or hanging in the trees outside of the house — they were all arthalees.
Language is a funny thing. Where you grew up in the country lets us know if you drink soda, pop, cola or Coke. Yes, there are parts of the country where you order a Coke and it could mean Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi or any other of a handful of beverages. If your parents have a habit of calling something by a particular name, more than likely, you will do the same.
All those years of hearing mom call roaches by that unforgettable name, I followed suit, of course. There were arthalees in the kitchen. There were arthalees in the musky sheds in the backyard. There were arthalees that would hang around the back porch after a really good rain. There were arthalees inside the street gutters, in which I’m still convinced that Pennywise the Clown was laying in wait to grab me.
I chalked it up to my family being from New Jersey. People in Texas don’t call roaches by that name. It’s got to be a Yankee thing. It was always a Yankee thing, wasn’t it? Damn Yankees.
It was an embarrassing moment in junior high where I discovered that my use of a word that really doesn’t exist in the English language. My English teacher was kind enough to correct me when one dashed across the floor of the portable classroom. I gasped “Arthalee!” and the teacher gave me a confused look.
“Where did you get that word,” he asked me.
I replied, “My mother. She always calls roaches by the name ‘arthalee.’ I think it’s what they call them in New Jersey.” When all else fails, blame New Jersey.
He smirked, “That’s not a real word.” He was a liar. Of course it was a real word. How could it not? My mother used it all the time. My dad used it a few times too. I highly doubted that my mom was coining new words on the fly. That seemed more unlikely than the fact that I had been using a fictitious word for all these years. Surely, my teacher just wasn’t educated enough. How could he know every single word in the English language? I had to get home and tell mom that the teacher didn’t believe me. This was also the perfect moment for me to have her prove him wrong. Oh so wrong. I needed to hear this from the source. If I was wrong, mom had some explaining to do.
I got home and told mom the whole story. The roach, the teacher, the confrontation; it all made her laugh. I could tell that the answer I was about to get was most definitely not the answer I wanted to hear.
Back in New Jersey, my mother worked at a mental hospital, specifically the psychiatric wing. She tended to presidents, kings and celebrities, at least in their own minds. There would those who thought they were still children. There were those that took on the persona of inantimate objects. One of these guys thought he was a roach. A nasty, filthy, dirty cockroach.
He would scurry across the room at the flick of a light switch. He would gather food from the ground and eat it. This man had a real name. His name was Arthur Lee. Yes folks, the man was a 6+ foot tall black man named Arthur Lee who thought he was a cockroach. This, combined with my mother’s thick Bronx accent, gave us the moniker of Arthalee. See what happened there? Arthalee = Arthur Lee. I never shared that tidbit of information with my teacher for fear of the shame. Would you?