March 30, 2015

Rat Five Ways
by Bernie Pilarski (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

An infestation on a cosmic scale?


"I've got a frickin' rat in the basement," the man next to me at the bar said. It was the kind of thing you do not necessarily want to hear, but I suppose that there was enough alcohol involved that it was the kind of thing that someone might say, even if they might regret it later.

"Seriously?" I said, less inquisitively and more rhetorically. I didn't need to know more.

"Pretty sure. I've seen the droppings, and the little bastard chewed a big hunk out of a picture frame I had sitting against the wall." He sipped at the Collins he had had in front of him. I thought it was a Tom, but then again I wasn't sure what kind of liquor people drank with rats.

"Too bad." I was waiting for the ferry to get me across the bay at the end of a long and not so good day of having to deal with rats of my own and didn't much care.

"You think less of me now, don't you?"

I shook my head.

"You think it's my fault that there is a frickin' rat in my basement." He said this quietly, with an air of resignation.

"No, I ..."

"That's what I would expect, ya know? You say 'I have a rat in my basement' and people immediately assume that your basement's a pig sty, that you've got half-eaten baloney sandwiches laying all over the place."

"Look, I'm waiting for the ferry, I came here to have a quick drink and to unwind."

"You know what? Think what you will, but first take the rat out of your own eye."

"Fair enough." I thought that by agreeing I might get him to stop.

"You've had rats, right?"

I had to admit to myself that I felt uncomfortable talking to others about my own rats. Rats elicited the same kind of feeling as toenail fungus. I hate it when I call the doctor's office for an appointment and the person on the phone, who for all I know could have been the town gossip with no medical training whatsoever, inevitably asks about the nature of the visit. It is bad enough that I have to bare my gnarled, blackened toenails to the doctor. I can see no good reason to expose my maladies for the receptionist's prurient curiosity. Some people, my mother included, felt compelled to go into great detail about their ailments right there on the phone. I was in the room once for a graphic description of the condition of her hemorrhoids that was explicit enough that she would have been easily recognized from behind by any who had heard it.

"I'm from Jersey."

"That could explain a lot."

"Hoboken. I know rats. New York is filthy with them. A hard rain and they get washed out of the sewers and come across the Hudson river, sometimes in packs."

"No doubt looking to make your women their own."

"What's that mean?"

"Just speculating."

"I'm saying that just because you have rats doesn't mean what you think it means."

"What do you think I think it means?"

"It's part of the human condition."

Since I hadn't thought that was what it meant, I assumed that he was either wrong or simply ignoring my question. There is an undeniably visceral reaction to rats, even to the thought of rats. I remember that as I child, I was forbidden to go into the Thortons' house because, as my mother put it so indelicately, "Their place is filthy with rats," and the Thortons were filthy by association. Granted, rats were still trying to live down the whole plague thing, and even if they themselves didn't carry the plague, they mostly hung around in very unsavory places. The rats I saw around my apartment were always in the dumpsters. Maybe they had no choice, maybe because they're rats they are just prone to making choices that lead them there, but there you have it, and unless you want to intervene in their lives, unless you are willing to overlook what they are, give them a bath, and provide them with food other than garbage, rats are going to be rats.

"Why don't you just call an exterminator?" I asked.

"I don't want somebody coming into my house and making judgments about the way I live."

"Perhaps they wouldn't. They're professionals, I'm sure they've seen all kinds of things."

"They'd snoop around and find a pair of my underwear behind the couch, and it would be a quod erat demonstrandum moment for them, a haughty professional achievement."

"But they might also find your rat."

"And then they'd know I had a rat problem."

"I know you have a rat problem."

"But they keep records! I don't want it spread around the internet that I'm some guy with rats."

"That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard."

"I'm Jason." He held out his hand, but I was still mulling over what kind of person would not use an exterminator for fear of ending up on Youtube. "What, you afraid you'll contract rats from me?"

"No," I said. I shook his hand.



"What's your name?"

"Linda," I said. It wasn't, but I rarely use my real name in a bar.

"You live in Alemeda?"

"Oakland, actually."

"Then you've probably got rats too."

"Probably." The sad truth of the matter was that there were always rats in my life. One of them lied today about information that I had supplied four weeks ago, said he never heard from me even though I had talked to him face-to-face and twice on the phone. But he had seniority and lived in the same neighborhood as the department head. I was made to look like an ass. And of course there was my ex who was and is a rat-bastard. I haven't seen or heard from him in five years, but I'm sure that if necessary I could locate him simply by checking around the dumpsters in Venice Beach.

I have a sister, too, to whom I have not spoken for three years, a fact that makes me painfully aware that it is not just other people who can be rats. My sister is probably a saint. She found me with her husband one night. It was my fault. I could cite a dozen reasons why it happened, but none of them would be good. I could blame my ex, I could blame the dope I had been smoking, maybe my hormones or even my analyst, but the very sad truth was that I knew what I was doing, knew that it was wrong, and simply somehow, someway thought I was going to get away with it. I damaged a lot of things that night. I altered forever the lives of a lot of people and put roadblocks up all over the place. I was forbidden from ever seeing her kids again. I was not welcome in their home. My mother died six months later, and I was the whispered cause of her sudden decline.

While I had battered their relationship, I did not destroy my sister's marriage. She forgave her husband and committed to the painful process of reestablishing trust. She even forgave me. The last time I talked to her, she said she wished me no harm, then she asked for my forgiveness for not being a good enough Christian to get past the pain. She said she really did hope that someday we would be able to talk again as sisters, if not friends. Part of her pain, she said, was that she didn't think that could be any time soon.

I don't know. At one time I would have told you that I did not subscribe to the whole "good and evil" thing; I didn't believe that there was some cosmic font of Ms. Manner's propriety and an opposing force of demonic hooliganism. It was all relative -- the world was what you made it. Maybe I'm just that bad at world-making, but all you have to do is watch the news and you realize that it seems nobody else is good at it either. Maybe my new friend was right, maybe it is the human condition -- there will always be rats. My sister should have beat the shit out me and thrown me out in the street, but she didn't. I just don't know.

"You want to come over to my place for a drink? I'll show you my traps."

"No doubt, and no thanks."

"Your place?"

I shook my head.

"The rats, huh?" I just had to smile. I nodded. "Listen," he said, "how about this. Let's have dinner someplace, talk a bit, and if it feels right, we'll get a room, a certified rat-free room."

I had to smile at his persistence. There are times you can't really blame a rat for being a rat. "Maybe next time," I said.

"How about tomorrow? Meet here for drinks at the same time?"

"I've got a ferry to catch. Good luck with your rat."

It shouldn't be so hard. You would think that somewhere along the line there really ought to be a "war to end all wars;" you would think that it would become obvious that lying and cheating just never do work out. I would love to be able to talk to my nieces and tell them that that there are things that I've done that I never should have done, but they probably know that now. And I knew it too when I was their age.

Tomorrow I'll wear my black jacket and pants. It's a nice professional look. Just in case, I'll stick a clean white blouse in my briefcase and put a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste in my purse, then I'll head down to the sewers for another day of work.

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Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.

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