This story is dedicated to my ex-brother-in-law angelos’ step-father (called by his family JOE-DE-RAT) who weighs 300 lbs. and has a disability and stays home and whose wife and angelo’s mother annie continues to live with him and make spaghetti for him for love of the catholic church and other dark reasons of her own.
So sometime in the not-too-far-past this neighborhood has been taken over by a certain line of outside cats big as raccoons. I see two out my window one time loping out across the vacant lot on the other side of the street like they are bringing antelopes down. And there are these cats everywhere — they don’t seem to have particular houses, they just have the neighborhood, and some of them take over whole backyards. There is one backyard just a few doors down with a bathtub on the front lawn full of flowers and a back yard where there must be forty cats, and every one of them black, so that it must be some black cat staked the territory out years ago and now all his progenitors are still there, holding that territory. There are black mothers lolling under the bushes nursing black babies, and black cats big as boxers sitting on their hind legs watching out for suspicious street traffic, like me being watched when I walk along by a yardful of yellow eyes, although they aren’t at all like dogs, as you probably know, because they could care less who comes walking along just so long as it’s nothing good to eat and displays no danger signs, because they’re enjoying so much just lying around in their cat herd.
I try to keep a little black one in my apartment one time because he is so incredibly beautiful. I feed him canned food and milk and share my meals with him, but as soon as he gets big he goes off anyway. I see him in the vacant lot sometimes twice and then three times bigger. And I wonder why did he leave? I fed him better than any cat I ever had, and I wonder what and where he could find anything to eat that was better. And I really do think about this question from time to time when I see him or those other cats, so sleek and huge, by god eating something that makes them the biggest cats I have ever seen.
But it does not dawn on me what sirloin tip caught on the run and eaten hot that these pussies eat-to-stay-fit until I move from my efficiency apartment to a two-story duplex down the street weeds knee-high in the front lawn and a garage in the back full of junk. I rent the second floor because it has rooms big enough for me and three kids if we put beds in the dining room, because it has a balcony overlooking the street and because for its size it is cheap. Now why is it so cheap? I figure that part of the reason is that the building needs paint the columns supporting the balcony are cracked and the yard is generally run down. And then leroy-the-landlord doesn’t want any hassle, he says — he doesn’t ask much deposit, he doesn’t make me sign a lease, but he says I shouldn’t call him about little troubles, and he makes it clear that little troubles include just about everything short of the building burning down.
Do you have a dog? He asks me. I say no, and he says well that’s good because dogs shed so much. And do you have cats? I say no. And he says well, you might think about getting one, they’re always good to keep the mice down. I don’t think too much about that until I start cleaning out the kitchen cabinets and find a spring trap about a foot long, large enough to cripple a horse. Sure enough, the first night in the apartment as soon as I turn out the lights, a party begins in the walls — squealing and scurrying and scuffling, so loud that I try to translate what I’m hearing. Are they quarreling in there? Are they fucking? Are babies being born?
And the first evening brookie-my-daughter starts supper in the kitchen, she suddenly screams and when I come to see what is going on she is sitting at the table wide-eyed and shaken. I saw a rat this long, she says, she spreads her arms out wide, running along there (she points to a hot water pipe close to the ceiling).
Are you sure it wasn’t a mouse? I ask her.
She says it was a rat.
Are you sure it was that big? She says it was at least that big, maybe it was bigger.
So she doesn’t want to be left alone in the kitchen anymore, and I don’t either, although I still haven’t seen anything myself yet, except for rat turds which I find every morning when I want to fix breakfast all over the cans and boxes in the pantry looking like a black hailstorm is hitting in there every night. I keep cleaning the rat turds away and finding them again when I open the door and cleaning them away and finding them again until I finally say to myself enough is enough! So I get a cabinet from out in the garage which looks all right and bring it upstairs into the kitchen and put all my pantry goods in that. Then I shut the pantry door and nail the very large rat trap I found earlier to the middle of the door. And then above it and below it I paint in purple and black large letters:
DE RAT’S HOUSE
The idea being, of course, that if you knock he’ll scurry away and nobody has to see him. So when friends come over if they say something about the door, I demonstrate how it works. I knock, I open the door and they look at all the rat turds, which I’m not cleaning up any more, and they say polite half-hesitant kinds of things like they’re not really sure if this is art or not, and then usually they don’t say anything else about it.
Now downstairs lives my yankee neighbor simon polli once a european refugee kid come to illinois with his father now to texas talking like he owns the place. Sometimes he comes up to smoke a joint or drink a cup of coffee, and periodically in the course of conversation the subject of the rats will come up. Basically simon says that we should work together getting rid of the rats, he is putting out poison but if I don’t do it too his poison won’t have any effect. And he is also putting out traps, but if I don’t put out traps his traps won’t make any difference. And I know I am subjecting myself to such labeling as stupid, sentimental, careless and naive, but I can’t put down traps and I can’t buy poison and I tell him so. I make it a joke one night: I read in a book, I tell him, that you can get rid of rats by writing to them, you just write a letter and tell them why they should leave your place and where they should go, give them specific instructions. So like I can say dear rats:
Simon downstairs is putting all this poison out and upstairs I never have much around for you to eat anyhow so what you should do immediately is go to the dumpster in back of tom thumb supermarket which is five blocks east and one block south where you will find mounds of delicious over-ripe and half-rotten edibles mixed right for rats
sincerely and with person concern
pat ellis rat-writer
So when you write the letter, you roll it up, tie it with a string, grease it down, stick it in a rat-hole and the rat eats it, see, he digests your words!
But simon doesn’t think this is funny nor feasible, well pat, he says, you tell me when you’re ready to do something real because it isn’t going to do that much good unless we work together.
So have you caught any?
Sure I have, he says.
I’ve caught about half a dozen, he says.
(Half a dozen! That many dead and still so much squealing and scurrying in the walls!) Well, I tell him, I am thinking about it a lot, I am really really thinking about it.
He says I mean you don’t screw around about rats, they carry bubonic plague, fleas, all kinds of diseases.
I tell him I am aware of that. I don’t know why I’m defending the rats. But then I don’t know whether I can kill rats and still be a good vegetarian or if bloodlust for rats might someday bar me from hippiehindu heaven, and the philosophical questions these in-dwelling rats are raising keep me from spending what little money I have after covering the basics on poison and traps and other armaments of rat-war, preferring instead to spend on personal pleasure.
Just wait ’til you see one of these rats, simon says, how big they really are, then your head will clear up fast.
So the first rat I see is behind the refrigerator. I only see his tail, I think it is a rope at first or part of an electrical cord, but then it moves. And the second rat I see is at first a sound that wakes me up at night and then when I raise up I see or think I see a dark shape in the middle of the floor running from one end of the room to the other. Then one evening I really see one for the first time. There is a sliding door which I use for a wall at the end of my room and in front of it is my file cabinet where I put my purse after coming home from work, and this one evening there is an apple in my purse which I had brought for my lunch but hadn’t eaten. So sometime in the night I hear noises loud enough to wake me up coming from that direction, and I turn on the light and there is a louder noise but I don’t see anything. So I turn the light back off again. And as soon as I turn off the light, the noise starts up, and it sounds too loud and immediate to be inside the wall. There is a thump and a scrape and a roll, and when I turn the light back on there is a rat poking his head out of the crack where the sliding door goes into the wall, and in his front paws is my apple! So for an infinite moment we look at each other — me on an elbow, eyes wide, one hand still on the lamp switch, he with his head sideways sticking out of the wall, little ears, little bright eyes, little paws around the apple. Then the wall is suddenly blank again apple and rat inside it. And this was a big apple! A big red delicious.
Now always in the past and up to this time, I have seen little glimpses of rats sometimes, sometimes dead or scurrying or laboratory-trapped, and sometimes I have seen rat pictures and read about rats in stories and have generally breathed in the rat-myth-image we westerners tend to share: the plague-rat (like simon says) who brings death to our homes and chews through the dignity of our coffins (if we don’t line them well enough) and eats our bodies up. But I have never had a rat-vision like this one: the grey face and round ears, peering over the red apple suspended sideways in a moment of still curiosity half-way up the white sliding door, then the sudden disappearance act. And I’m struck half-blind by this revelation for the rest of the night, charmed by a rat rather than vice-a-versa, he has written me a letter in one long look. He has told me he won’t pay a bit of attention to directions to the supermarket dump, there’s no sense in that. He knows there’s a jungle outside these house walls, he knows better than anybody what keeps those outside cats so fat. Besides, he’s lived here for years raising family after family, his ancestors were here when dallas wasn’t, when this was a forest instead of a house. But he doesn’t mind sharing space with me because he’s a vegetarian himself and likes my habits. He likes my apples, he likes my granola crumbs, he likes my marijuana; in fact he has had some grand revelations during his writhings weathering simon’s strychnine out of his system, he himself has seen a time when rats and people will be willing to live peacefully together in the same house. And he leaves his signature with his lightning exit:
rat ellis taylor
author of sounds and turds from