MARY SCHMICH For release 10/02/13

BC-schmich 10/02 TMS Original

MARY SCHMICH For release 10/02/13

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Is it bad luck to break a leg -- and a leg, and a leg...?

By Mary Schmich

Tribune Content Agency

I have been living with a centipede.

And, no, "centipede" isn't a cute name I found in some self-help book that urges its readers to understand their significant others by categorizing them as things like "bedbug," ''roly-poly," ''tarantula" or "cockroach."

When I say "centipede," I'm talking about a real, live, creepy, leggy, brainless bug that a few days ago I discovered lolling in my bathtub.

To kill or not to kill?

That was the question I faced on the morning that I found the centipede camped out by the drain.

I have never been comfortable with bugs. I have, I'm abashed to admit, a very sensitive "eek" trigger, though I've also been known to beat more than one cockroach into oblivion with a glee that I fear suggests a dark, generally hidden aspect of my personality.

A centipede may not be as loathsome as a cockroach, but obviously, this one had to go.

How? I stood at the edge of the tub, pondering.

Should I kill him with a shoe? A rolled newspaper? What if I swatted and missed?

I once chased a cockroach with a magazine only to have him turn around and lunge at me; if you've ever lived in Florida, you know I'm not kidding.

As I stared at the centipede, my imagination cycled through the execution options, then it leapt a moment further. To the crunchy squish of a small dead body as I picked the bug up with a paper towel to toss him in the trash.

In the past few years -- one of those weird things that happens with age -- I've had more trouble killing bugs than I once did. I've started hearing a little voice tut: "When judgment day comes, lady, you are going to be dealing with some very bad karma."

So I turned the water on and stepped under the shower.

"Hello," I said.

The centipede scampered to the other end of the tub then stayed there, very, very still, while I went about my business.

The next day the centipede was back at his post by the drain. And the day after that, and several days after that, each time retreating to the far end of the tub when I arrived.

"You're still here?"

Occasionally I'd talk to him.

"Did you know that 'centipede' and 'century' and 'centurion' are linguistically related?"

"Hey, it occurs to me that the 'pede' in 'centipede' is related to 'pied,' the French word for feet. And to the English word 'pedestrian.'"

While I discussed etymology, he was usually scrunched up, as if I might not notice him if he got very small. Or maybe he was covering his ears.

Where did my centipede come from? How did he get up to the third floor of a century-old building?

"Chances are good he came up along the outside of the plumbing," said Phil Nixon, extension entomologist at the University of Illinois, when I called.

Centipedes like moist places, he explained, including mulch piles, sweaty pipes, kitchen sinks and bathtubs. But woe to the centipede who lands in a tub, unable to climb the slick sides.

I had read that house centipedes eat other bugs, but I had seen no other bugs in my bathtub. How was mine getting nourished?

"In a moist situation," Nixon said, "you get some microscopic mold going on. Little mites will feed on the molds and mildews. These are all prime prey for centipedes."

I, on the other hand, was not good prey for a centipede, he promised. A house centipede's little fangs have trouble getting a grip on human skin, so I was probably safe, unless I stepped on my bathtub pet.

Which, in my pacifist mode, I was not about to do.

The last time I saw my centipede was Monday morning. I left home, nicely showered, and it didn't occur to me until late in the day that the woman who cleans my place once every two weeks comes on Mondays.

The minute I got home, I made a beeline for the bathtub. It sparkled. Not a bug in sight.

Farewell, my centipede. But, hey, my conscience is as clean as my tub.

(Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at You can follow her on or contact her on