My Life With Rats

“I hate rats. I had a pet rat to try and overcome it. I even gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when he had a heart attack. But I couldn’t conquer it.
~ Sam Taylor-Wood

whiskersWhen I was about ten years old, my brother killed a rat in front of me. We were on the side of the house trying to fix a flat tire on my bike when he lumbered up the narrow concrete walkway. It was early in the day, rats being nocturnal, this one couldn’t have been well. His dark coarse hair and fleshy reptilian tail repulsed me. I was afraid he might try to leap at me or bite me. My brother had used a square-headed shovel to smash his head sideways against the ground. The life seemed to ease out of him in one motion as his body untensed. Dark red blood welled up from his ear. I felt regret and relief when I realized he was dead.

The following year Sal and I had another experience with a rat. This time it was a white rat with brown spots all over his chubby body. I thought he was very cute, but he made me nervous. I again feared being bitten, so I didn’t try to pick him up and hold him, but I did work up the courage to pet him on the back of his soft head a few times.

Our new friend was almost as unwelcome as the rat we had encountered outdoors. When it came to pets, my father only allowed us to have fish tanks in our rooms. There was no way we ever would be allowed to have an animal like this in the house. A lot could be accomplished while my dad was noisily distracted by his own piano playing. During one of these episodes, my brother was able to sneak his rat into his room and make a hidden place for him in his dresser. He took his clothes out of one drawer and set him up in there with food and water. Before we could spend much time settling him in, my dad was calling us for dinner. We rushed through eating and cleaning up the kitchen, eager to spend time with our new pet. But when we got back, the rat was gone. It took a lot of sneaking around the house, making excuses to our father for the odd behavior, before we found him. As a desperate last ditch effort, we had rolled back the door to my father’s closet and peered inside. There he was, sitting in one of my dad’s brown shoes. He looked back at us, twitching his small pink nose and long whiskers. My brother managed to keep track of him for the night, and the next day we rode our bikes to the pet store and returned him.

When I was sixteen I worked for the family business my mother’s father started. I was paid less than minimum wage to do clerical tasks in the office after my school day ended. A new employee, Sonny, had just been hired in bookkeeping. One afternoon he mentioned a special clearinghouse account that was set up specifically for my small paychecks. He explained that this account was fed from the small estate my mother left behind when she had passed away almost a decade before. A look of surprise and concern crossed Sonny’s face when I told him I had never heard about this account.

I confronted my uncle, my boss, with what I had been told. He became livid. I was amazed. I had never seen him lose his polished exterior before. He brought his face very close to mine when he began to yell at me. I could see his skin flushing, and the whiskers of his mustache vibrating with his anger. I thought he might actually strike me, and in a way, he did: He told me I was a perennial liar. Then he left the room, slamming the door behind him.  Stunned, I sat on the edge of the bed for a while before picking the dictionary up from the small bookcase and looking up the word “perennial.” I was surprised to discover the meaning, to find that he considered me to be the dishonest one.

After that, I found a file in the basement with instructions and account numbers for this payroll arrangement. It was all there, just as Sonny had outlined.

The office was housed in an older converted home, and despite many extermination efforts, the basement seemed to remain hospitable to rats. I always tried to rush through any task that had to be done down there for fear of hearing their movements and feeling their presence.

Weeks after the confrontation, I bolstered myself and went back down the narrow stairs to the basement. I intended to make copies of the contents of the file, prove that I wasn’t a perennial liar after all, but by then it was gone. The subject was never brought up again.

When I was twenty seven I bought a townhouse in a very small, picturesque complex. The home inspection I ordered during escrow referred to a mouse living in the exterior wall of the small kitchen. The advice was to set a trap and live happily ever after. The first night I spent in my new home was amidst too much wet paint to set up the bed. I slept on the couch. I woke up around midnight to a view of the back of my small scruffy terrier’s head cocking from side to side as she growled at something in the kitchen. Becoming more aware, I could hear it too. It sounded like someone was using a hacksaw to carve their way into the house. I got up and slowly made my way closer. The sound was coming from the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink. I put my broomstick through the handles of the cabinet to secure it, and inwardly cursed the home inspector who labeled this obvious wombat as a mouse on his report.

The next day an exterminator came and said it was definitely a rat – or many – nested in the wall. He dumped a white powder in the holes this rat had made and said that would do the trick. Apparently the powder would get on the rat’s coat, and being the fastidious little self-groomers that they are, it would ingest this poison and soon be out of my wall.

The powder only served to bolster my varmint roommate. He seemed to thrive on the stuff!  Never missing a beat, but instead boring new holes in the drywall over the ones I had just plugged up. We jousted this way for weeks, and I felt like he was winning. He wasn’t just getting through the walls, this rat was breaking me down too. I couldn’t take it. I got so distressed by the idea of this animal being in my home indefinitely, that I welcomed the suggestion of putting out trays of poison.

One-and-a-half trays did it. Rat didn’t die at home. I have to assume that he went to the creek bed nearby to try and get water. That’s the thing with rat poison. The decoagulant makes one thirsty as hell while dying by way of internal hemorrhaging.

If you closed the windows, the noxious odors from the nest permeated every corner of my small place. The bottom half of the wall in my new kitchen had to be opened up so that the nest could be cleaned out. I was amazed at the industrious creativity of the little mammal I had killed.

The rat had stowed stale saltine crackers and perfectly cleaned chickens bones in one neat pile. Bolstered up by a two-by-four stud, he had a few pizza crusts and some shredded paper towel. In the dishwasher bay is where he kept his egg shells and mouse trap, a chunked-up yellow kitchen sponge was nearby. The unintended yet perfect touch of the mouse trap is what did me in. A remorseful discomfort came to me then. I realized I had oversimplified this rat’s existence.

Still, ten years later, I committed another crime against vermin. I aided and abetted another suspect in a series of strategery that took a small rat’s life. It seemed justifiable enough at the time. He was jumping up on the kitchen counters, dragging his hairy little rat balls and ass across classic American snack foods while we slept. He occasionally nested in parts of the stove, rendering it foul smelling, electrically shredded, and useless. He bored creepy little succubus holes into my just-ripe avocados. And the last straw, a perfectly tiny hole was chewed into the corner of the pink box of fresh doughnuts I had bought earlier in the day.

I wasn’t the one to put the hit out on this little guy, but I didn’t do anything to stop the hit either. The set up was a  small cylindrical trap that had a metallic, electrified base. Any animal that goes inside it would be electrocuted. Baited with tasty vittles, it sat for three nights before we got him. I was the first to discover his stiff body, laying on its side in the thing. His small feet were balled up into little pinkish fleshy fists, his thin scaly tail hung out of the trap, dangling off the counter edge. By the small size, I was guessing this to be a young rat. Regret washed over me as I forced myself to look at him in the trap. I felt like an asshole for not suggesting a catch-and-release option for this animal.

I was engaged to the guy who owned the house and set the trap. When it was over, I officially moved in and brought my brand new stove with me to replace the one that the rat had ruined. It was the nicest appliance I had ever bought. It had a convection oven and what the manufacturer billed as a Super Burner, or “Supah Burnah!” as I liked to call out loudly when I flamed it up to heat things particularly fast.

After months of degradation, the engagement ended during a phone call later that year. He was on his way to a tee time, so we cut the conversation short and I prepared to move back to my own home. He kept the stove. I didn’t have the courage to insist on its return. Whenever we discussed the stove being brought back to my house, he would get irritated about this or that detail of having it moved, so I finally let it go. Many months later we spoke on the phone and he mentioned how underwhelmed he was with my most favorite appliance. Other than the Super Burner, he didn’t really see much in the thing.

My life is mostly rat free these days. And while I wish to bring no more harm to ones I may encounter, I also hope to avoid the ones who may bring harm to me.

When I think back on my life with rats, it’s mostly with regret. Regret for my own ignorance. Regret for the hurt I caused. Regret for the hurt brought upon me. I wish I had been more forgiving. I wish I had been able to simply see rats as they are, instead of falling prey to my own trap of deciding whether or not I considered them to be villainous or virtuous.

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