|Marshall Hedin/Creative Commons|
by guest writer Mark Dery
Something was moving. In the heat of a San Francisco night, in the summer of 1982, something was scuttling across the floor toward the foam-rubber mattress where I lay. It was moving fast enough to jolt me out of a dead sleep. Not only was this thing coming toward me with alarming rapidity, it was big. From my perspective—lying on my side on a floor mattress, practically at eye level with the intruder—it might have been a good-sized mouse … if mice had six legs.
In a jump cut, I was out of bed, across the room, switching on the light to reveal a crawling horror: a humongous insect, thicker than a man’s thumb, maybe three inches in length. It had powerful, cricketlike hind legs and a caramel-colored abdomen, ringed with amber bands. Its head was dried-blood red, with the lacquered glossiness of a candied apple. It made me think of a skinned thumb, or the swollen head of an aroused penis, shiny with precum.
The creature was obscene in its ugliness. But what was it? David Cronenberg’s idea of a partial-birth abortion? A stool sample from the man-eating xenomorph in the movie Alien? A nightcrawler from the cultural unconscious?
Sweeping the thing into a dustpan, I shuddered at its weight as I carried it to the bathroom. To my horror, the creature swam against the tide when I flushed, scrabbling frantically at the toilet bowl. I flushed. And flushed. And flushed. (Die, monster, die!) At last, it disappeared down the porcelain gullet. The toilet made a gagging sound.
Trembling with revulsion, I laid the heavy ceramic lid of the toilet tank across the closed seat to ensure that no six-legged freak could exact revenge, even if it did manage to clamber up, out of the sewer. Not that I slept much that night. In the dark, I could still see those beady black eyes staring back at me unblinkingly as I sent the abomination swirling into Eternity with a final flush.
* * *
Decades later, I found myself looking into those eyes again, when a Google search put a name to the face in my nightmares: The Jerusalem cricket (order Orthoptera, family Stenopelmatidae, genus Stenopelmatus)—a large, wingless relative of the grasshopper and the katydid that spends most of its life underground except at night, when it leaves its burrow to scavenge for food or seek out a mate.
Curiously, the Jerusalem cricket is neither from Jerusalem nor is it, properly speaking, a cricket. (As Linda Richman used to say on Saturday Night Live: Discuss.) Most species live in the United States, west of the Rockies—specifically, in California, a world away from Jerusalem. And its resemblance to its namesake, the cricket, is only passing: Unlike the Gryllidae, the Jerusalem cricket doesn’t chirp, doesn’t hop, and the females of the genus don’t have long ovipositors like female crickets do. (To complicate matters, Stenopelmatus is also known, in those states where the sobriquet hasn’t already been claimed by the wood louse, as the Potato Bug. Predictably, it isn’t a true bug, nor is the potato a staple of its diet. Its typical fare is decaying plant matter and decomposing animals.)
As it happens, most of Stenopelamtus’s seemingly numberless species are also nameless because they’re all but impossible to tell apart, except by counting the spines on their hind legs. Identifying and naming the species of Stenopelmatus is a Herculean labor, made even more daunting by virtue of the fact that the scientist who has set himself this task, David Weissman, confronts it alone, in his spare time (entomology is his avocation; in his working life, he’s an anesthesiologist). He is the world’s foremost authority on JCs, as he jocularly calls them, because he’s the only entomologist who has devoted himself to studying the genus.
Based in the San Francisco Bay area town of Los Gatos, Weissman has identified forty-three new species in California alone, where JCs seem to be everywhere: in mountains, chaparral-covered foothills, oak woodlands, riparian belts, desert dunes, coastal sage scrub, and, increasingly, the homes of horrified suburbanites.
(c) Mark Dery; all rights reserved. A shorter version of this essay first appeared in the (now out-of-print) spring 2007 issue of Cabinet magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.