It's small. It's silent. It's cheap to keep. It's easy to care for.

It's the urban pet of the '80s.

(Hint: It ain't no gaboon viper.)

It's a cockroach.

We're talking trend here. Be there or be square.

In a fourth-floor office of a Department of Education building, "Cuca," Washington's pioneer pet cockroach, is in his 20th week of captivity. Living the good life. A roof over his head (actually a government-issue magnifying glass where he was trapped, making him "cockroach under glass," a delicacy in some countries), all the water he can drink (and sometimes a sip of Weidemann's Beer, the real primo stuff, $4.88 a case), and the best food lunch money can buy (usually lettuce, with a schmear of mayo). A damned sight better than a weekend at the Roach Motel, don't you think?

If Cuca could talk he'd probably thank his convivial keepers--Howard Fenton, Mark Gilbert and Ron Lipton--for proving that government workers don't have to be cold, heartless bureaucrats. If Cuca could talk, he'd probably tell the world how great it feels to be cared for, not stepped on. If Cuca could talk, he'd probably ask just how the hell are they so sure he's a he?

"Hairy legs," says Fenton.

(Cockroach joke: A guy places an ad in the paper. Wanted, 3,000 cockroaches. Respondent asks, "Why do you want 3,000 cockroaches?" Guy says, "I'm being evicted, and my landlord insists I leave the apartment in the same shape as I found it.")

Cuca--short for "cucaracha," Spanish for cockroach--seems to have no natural enemies, other than cleaning people and, presumably, Muhammad Ali ("Get D-Con Four-Gone. It kills bugs daid"). His is a life of leisure. Meals are provided by quickly (it has to be quick or Cuca might scoot out; you can take the roach out of the drainpipe, but can you take the drainpipe out of the roach?) lifting one side of his residence and throwing in a spoonful of liquid or a shred of solid. This is called "slopping the roach." It is commonly believed that cockroaches hate light, but Cuca seems content in his glass bubble. Then again, as Fenton asks, "Where's he going?" Occasionally Cuca exercises, crawling around the perimeter of his domicile. (His floor is papered with government-issue regulations, which serve as cockroach litter; Gilbert says, "Same training as I got my first year here--sit on the regs nine hours a day." He has even been observed rolling over. When Cuca first did this, some 12 weeks ago, Fenton feared it was a death dance. Obviously not. The roll-over is now considered Cuca's best trick, and although he has yet to do it on command, his keepers believe the potential is there. But most often Cuca lies still and gives the appearance of being either in deep thought, or dead. One must look closely to notice the fine movement of Cuca's antennae. The consensus on these antennae is that they are good, but not great; so far they cannot bring in the Baltimore channels clearly.

Cuca was originally spotted by Gilbert, who picked up the hollowed (later generations may say "hallowed") magnifying glass and thrust it upon him. "I tried to trap him," Gilbert says. Then, giggling, he says, "But I wouldn't mind killing him now." (A chorus of boos from Fenton and Lipton, both lawyers, wise in the danger of premeditation.) But, in fact, they're all committed to letting Cuca live out his days, however many they may be, in peace. "We hope he dies a natural death," says Lipton. When asked for a working definition of "natural," Lipton smiles. "When and if--God rest his soul--Cuca bites the dust," Lipton says, "I hope we'll get another one." Says Gilbert solemnly, "Amen, brother."

It seems the only thing Cuca lacks is a mate. Fenton tried to provide him with one last week; he found another cockroach (it's not like these things are hard to find; the available Washington cockroach pool is probably only in the billions) and attempted to force the cockroach--sex unknown--into Cuca's lonely cell. Unfortunately, Fenton couldn't complete the act, and in frustration, he crushed the would-be lover. As in, bang, zoom, splat! Kills bugs daid. "Cuca's a real nice guy," Gilbert says, addressing the group ethos, "but that doesn't mean we have any compunction in stomping other cockroaches to death." Alas, poor Cuca. Apparently doomed to be celibate, sentenced to live out his life in quiet desperation.

(Cockroach joke: A guy in prison finds a cockroach in his cell. Rather than killing it, he adopts it as a pet. Teaches it to speak. Nurses it. Rehearses it. Gets out and heads straight for the William Morris Agency to get bookings. On the way he stops at a bar to get a quick brew and show the bartender what this cockroach can do. Sets the cockroach on the bar. Calls the bartender over and, pointing with pride, says, "See this cockroach?" Embarrassed by having a cockroach on the bar, bartender says, "Sorry," and ham-fists it to death with a single massive blow. C'est la vie.)

Cockroaches come and go (thank God), but Cuca has found a home. Perhaps other government workers, seeking to be on the cutting edge of this trend, will want cockroaches of their own. (Other potential office pets of this genre might include water beetles, mites and dioxins.) Washington, already the bugging capital of the world, could then supplant New York City as the cockroach capital of the world. Should this happen we will all owe a debt of gratitude (and perhaps a megaton of Raid) to Howard Fenton, Mark Gilbert and Ron Lipton, three men who dreamed the impossible dream, and strove with their last ounce of courage to snare the unbearable foe.

FLASH . . . cancel the trend.

It is with a heavy heart that I write these final, tragic lines in the story of that valiant cockroach, Cuca. Yesterday afternoon, as a photographer from The Washington Post sought to record Cuca on film, he asked that the magnifying glass be cleaned in order that the photographs be more clear. Hoping that Cuca's legs had atrophied from the weeks of inactivity and that he wouldn't run away, Howard Fenton lifted the glass to clean it. However, as fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, roaches gotta scoot--and Cuca did. He leaped for his freedom, landing on the floor. At 2:40 p.m., Fenton went for him with the glass, trying for the difficult trapping maneuver.

He came close.

The edge of the glass caught Cuca's neck and partially severed his head.

Like the bartender said, "Sorry."

A wake is planned for Friday. Presumably, Weidemann's Beer will be served.