Cockroaches and White Bread

Cockroaches and White Bread

by Val B Russell

On a chair
three legs sturdy
one loose
sits a girl
six
eyes scanning the tenement kitchen
scratching bed bug bites
and watching the cockroaches
crawling like babies
across the last slice of white bread
She counts eleven
then imagines one hundred elevens
because Ma says there are many times more than what you see
of anything
She knows there is only one slice of bread
and no milk
Ma deliberates over whether to chase away the roaches
and divide the bread equally to fill a small square space of hunger
or if she should toss it out the window
to the rats and birds in the alley
After Ma takes a draw on her cigarette
she flings the bread into the bare window sky
The girl watches the smoke curl around the counter
where the bread used to be
She doesn’t deliberate as the remaining cockroaches scatter
she decides
she will put this in her scribbler
where her printing is as neat as the words in her Mr. Whiskers
grade one reader
But she makes a mental note to leave out the fucks and goddamns
that are now drifting flippantly from her mother’s
newly painted coarse lips
because Mr. Whiskers doesn’t swear


refers to the word bread in Lynn Hoffman’s divorce: second anniversary


  1. Exquisitely rendered image of the survival instinct, Val! Makes me want to scoop that child up and take her away from there.

  2. Annmarie – I was thinking the same thing! I’ve been trying to write a poem or an essay for years about a babysitter I had who lived in the projects, who took care of her home as much as she could be still there were cockroaches. I think Val’s poem frees me up from having to struggle to right mine anymore 🙂

  3. Very graphic and still sweet poem with surprising descriptions.

  4. Rosalyn – I think you really hit a perfect description of the piece and thanks for stopping by the magazine!

  5. Very vivid and moving poem from Val. The description of the need for control (the neat writing and desire to record the event) in a chaotic environment makes the scene even more disturbing.

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