©Flickr Image, "Vermin" 2010

A Brief Prologue: Once Evan, the most astute editor, pointed it out to me, I realized that I had not made clear who Ed is in the following incident.  He was an 80 year-old gentleman, in the truest sense of the word, with whom I lived for a year in the mid-90’s.  In exchange for a room at his house, board, and a small stipend from the county Agency for Aging and Adult Services, I acted as a part-time cook, driver, and caretaker for Ed.  Impaired by Alzheimer’s, he had become a ward of the county


Chicken: A Story of Fear, Rats, and Retribution

I woke to the sound of rasping in the wall between my bedroom and the kitchen.  I walked softly into the kitchen and flicked on the ceiling light. Grey Cat sat erect on the counter, her green eyes fixed on the cupboard door, her tail twitching, a growl rolling in her throat.  We had a rat.

I hate everything about rats: the implacable black glass of their eyes; their thick raw tails thrusting through their fur like mutant growths; the flash of their bodies across one’s peripheral vision, a motion as incongruous and repulsive as a snake’s. With loathing and a fear bordering on nausea, I opened the cupboard door.  What if the rat behind it, rasping the wood as loudly as a dog gnaws a bone, leaped at my face, slashed my cheek, injected me with rabies?  God!  He was right there, at the front edge of the shelf, his shiny eye inches from my face.  I slammed the door and rattled it against the frame, hoping that even a powerful rat, an arrogant and supercilious rat, would turn and deliberately pull himself into the hole in the wall that was his base, drawing the segments of his tail with slow clicks across its ragged edge.

The next morning I opened the cupboard.  The brazen beast, a large, light brown rat bigger than an indulged squirrel, stepped straight toward my face.  I slammed the door.  Reassured by silence, I opened the door again to see his tail, pink and horrible, disappearing over the edge of the shelf.

I called Earl’s Pest Control, and their man drove out.  His name, Rob, was monogrammed in red on the pocket tab of his gray uniform shirt. He tore back the perforated covers of boxes of poisoned bait, revealing green rectangles like miniature bars of Irish Spring, and laid the boxes in the basement, on top of the exposed rafters in the garage, in the linen closet in the hall off the kitchen, and in the kitchen cupboard.  He said that in four or five days, I would begin to find rat bodies.  I smiled at the image of them lying on their sides, their claws like birds’ feet clutching their bloated stomachs, their eyes wide and their teeth bared in the rictus of sudden death.  Rob honked and waved as his white van descended the driveway.

I began my vigil.  Each morning I opened the cupboards, set up the stepladder in the garage and scanned along the rafters, shone a flashlight in the basement.  There were no bodies, but neither did I hear my rat filing his way out, as patient as Abbe Faria digging through the stone walls of the Chateau D’If with a spoon.  On the night of the fourth day, though, when he should have been shivering with chills and doubled over by stomach cramps, the rat rasped again behind the kitchen cupboard door.

Earl’s guarantees results.  I called in the morning and asked them to again send someone out; we still had a rat. When he arrived, Rob took off his square-billed cap and scratched his temple.  “I don’t know what’s happening.  The poison pellets usually work. But let’s try traps this time.”  He brought four traps from his truck, each with a base as white as balsa, a copper plated coil spring and attached rat-crusher bar, and a dark blue, life-sized silhouette of a rodent painted on the wood.   “This is one stout trap.  It’d break your finger just like that.”  He snapped his finger for effect.  Maybe, I thought, it might even dent the rat’s neck.

The trap in the kitchen was sprung the next morning.  The Rat had eaten most of the peanut butter bait and yet must have jumped clear before the bar snapped.  Wicked and invulnerable, a rodent Rasputin, he had to be destroyed.

Rob drove out again, rebaiting and resetting the kitchen trap.  “It’s gonna work this time,” he said as he got into the van.  When I checked in the morning, the finger-mangling trap was still cocked; the untouched peanut butter still coated the trigger.  The Rat, I knew, was toying with us, leaning against a two-by-four somewhere between the walls, smirking, taking slow, deep drags on his cigarette.

I found his body in the kitchen cupboard.  The trap’s bar must have snapped across the back of the Rat’s neck as he fed, though I have recomposed memory to see him lying on his back, his eyes bulging, his yellow fangs clamped on his lower lip, his forepaws drawn up, impotent against the force of the bar that crushed his chest.  Ed had heard the trap snap and then the frantic slamming against the door.  In a moment of startling lucidity in the early stage of his descent into Alzheimer’s, Ed said that the rat’s thumping and bucking against the door reminded him of how the salmon that he had hooked thirty years ago had fought on the line.

Rob returned to dispose of the body.  Holding the trap with its stiffened corpse at arm’s length in his gloved hand, he whistled.  “That’s the biggest wild rat I’ve ever seen!”  I felt taller as Rob climbed into Earl’s van.  I rolled my shoulders back, expanded my chest, raised my chin.  I had stood face to face with the biggest rat in San Mateo County, quite possibly in northern California, and prevailed.  I swaggered toward the house.

Tom Dunlap, 2010

Tom Dunlap is an alumnus of the 1993 BAWP summer invitational program, a devoted regular at the spring writing retreat, and a teacher in the Young Writers’ Camp for several summers.  He taught English in Nebraska and California for 18 years before choosing to go solo as a tutor for high school and middle school students in English, math, and test preparation; he also substitute teaches.  He loves his wife and children, writing, humor, and his gifted dog Satchel.

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