By Suzi Lewis Pignataro
I’m gently palpating Chilean avocados in Whole Foods when I receive the text: “Mom. There’s a dead rat in the pool. WTF.”
“Rat!” I exclaim.
The woman standing next to me fingering Israeli tomatoes yelps and flings her body against the display stand. Mashing a pulpy orb in her fist she cries, “Where?”
“Not here!” I yell. “In my pool!” And as proof, I hold out my cell phone and point to my son’s text. It doesn’t matter; clutching her heart, she staggers through the greengrocer section like a hunted animal, red tomato guts staining her left breast.
I shouldn’t be surprised by my son’s message. Eight years ago, the city annexed acreage adjacent to my small neighborhood, and the tidal wave of construction that followed left at our doorstep the flotsam and jetsam of rodents displaced by $800,000 homes. My cocker spaniel, Roscoe, picked up the first scent of the refugees. He tore at the walls, scratched at the heating vents, and tried to squeeze between the washer and dryer in the garage. I hadn’t yet learned of the rodents’ mass exodus from the fields. I attributed my dog’s antics to the neighbors’ retriever being in heat. It wasn’t until the rats made a bold move that I realized their presence. Having grown up on an island (Coronado, California) invaded by their Norwegian cousins, I knew exactly what the late-night skittering and scratching in my bedroom walls signified: a mama and papa rat were moving in, building a nest, and making babies. And if Roscoe smelled them in the heating vents and garage as well, there was more than one family of squatters. This called for action.
Led by Roscoe’s nose, Sieg, the Swedish rat catcher, followed the rodents’ trails and laid eight traps over and under our home. Within a few days, he’d caught an equal number of the largest rats I’d ever seen, even fatter than my brother John’s pet rat Elvoid, who defied even R.J. Crumb’s perverted imagination. We celebrated the catch by treating Roscoe to a filet mignon and mashed potato dinner.
I arrive home from Whole Foods to find my son flanked by two bikini-clad, navel-pierced girls on the den couch. They wave their hands in greeting, delicate fronds floating through the warm Indian summer air. My son, his arms crossed over his chest and hands tucked under his armpits, grunts. Clearly, the rat has spoiled his plans. Taking in the lack of clothing on his guests, I’m not sure if I should feel sorry or thankful about that.
The heavy taffeta curtains have been conspicuously drawn against the offending sight in the back yard. I can’t blame them; a dead rat under any circumstance strains one’s sensibilities. I draw back the fabric, open the sliding glass door, and venture outside.
It’s floating face down in the deep end, near the row of volcanic rocks laid down by the original owner of our home. I walk over to them now, and sitting on the largest one, I study the body more closely.
An adult female – no well-endowed male this one – she measures approximately one foot, from head to tail. She’s black and noticeably emaciated. Her delicate feet dangle below the surface of the water, suggesting that she’d been swimming and then… what? Grown tired of the effort and given up? Considering her undernourished state, she might have lacked the strength to save herself. Her mouth hangs open, not with a scream but a whimper. Something about the expression on her face tells the story of her last moments before swallowing the water that took her life. Despair? Regret? Worry?
“What happened to you?” I ask her. “How did you end up like this?”
“Mom! Seriously? You’re talking to a dead rat?”
My son’s voice startles me and I nearly fall into the water. Shaken by the thought of landing on a drowning victim, I leap off the rock and walk away.
“Aren’t you going to take it out?” he shouts after me.
“No,” I reply. “I’ll let the pool guy do it.”
“But, he was here just yesterday!”
“Don’t worry,” I call out as I enter the house, “the week will go by quickly.”
Ten days after the extermination of the eight rats, I came home to something fetid in my bedroom. I thought it was the toilet in the master bath. Holding my breath, I opened the lid, peered inside – and let out a gust of relief. The bowl was full of clean water. Nevertheless, I grimaced as I depressed the handle, expecting feces to gurgle up from beyond the drain like some creature rising from a murky lagoon. But, no, the water swirled down, disappeared briefly then bubbled back up, all with punctual, pristine efficiency.
When the odor failed to dissipate, I called for Roscoe, whom my husband had dubbed, “The Nose That Smells All Things Unmentionable.” When he didn’t come, I went searching for him and found him in the side yard engaged in terrorizing a vole. His front legs had disappeared into a hole he’d dug. His muzzle was covered in clumps of moist dirt and flecked with grass.
He looked up at me, not with guilt but with a deep resentment that made me take a step back. I’d interrupted him and he didn’t appreciate it. “Come on,” I coaxed, patting my thigh, “let’s get you cleaned up. Your hunting skills are required elsewhere.”
After giving him a quick bath in the kids’ tub, I placed Roscoe on the floor and picked up the dirtied towels to put in the washer. He followed me out to the garage, and as I loaded up the machine, he stuck his muzzle in every nook and cranny. When he got to the furnace, he growled and began scratching at its wooden platform in earnest. I crouched down to his level and smelled it, too: the same fetid odor I’d caught a whiff of in my bedroom.
“Right,” I said, feeling slightly nauseated. “Let’s get this over with.” We headed into the house.
Upon reaching my bedroom, Roscoe went nuts. I had to hold him back by the collar to keep him from breaking into my husband’s closet. I sat down beside him, our bodies tense and still. Together, we stared at the louvered doors, one of us anxious to have them opened, the other anxious to keep them shut.
I was sure there was a dead rat stuffed into one of my husband’s rain shoes he’d crammed in the back of his closet at the beginning of summer. We must have missed this one and the one whose scent Roscoe had picked up in the garage. Obviously, they were dead and decomposing.
There was no way I was going to be the one to open those closet doors. I grabbed Roscoe and carried him out of the room. He voiced his objection. I ignored it in favor of my own opinion on the matter.
“Let’s call Sieg.”
She calls to me. Day and night, as if by an invisible force, I find myself being drawn to her, a dark, cold, hard magnet in the pool; a negative attracting my positive. The oil in her coat joins the water in creating rainbows too pretty to be dancing upon a corpse. In the insomniac hours of the night, she disappears into the shadows of my neighbor’s redwood trees; yet still, she pulls me in and I stand at the kitchen window with strained eyes. My mind seeks her out, restless and disturbed. “Who are you,” I ask, “and why did you have to die in my pool?”
For three days, she floats, still and silent, unmoving even when the late afternoon wind tickles the surface of the wat
Then, she’s gone.
“Oh, no,” I groaned, burying my face in my hands. “Not that.”
Sieg pulled off his cap, scratched the thatch of graying blond hair on his perfectly round head then tugged the cap back in place, nice and snug. We stood in front of my husband’s closet. Roscoe sat by the tall Swede’s leg, his face taut with anticipation. He was in for a big disappointment
“There’s nothing we can do,” replied Sieg. “Well, nothing that makes sense. I mean, you could get a contractor in here and open up the wall, but – ” He finished his sentence with a shrug. “It only takes about three weeks for the whole process, and you’re already into it by almost two. Might as well save your money and wait it through.”
Three weeks. That’s how long it would take the orphaned baby rats, stranded inside the closet wall and behind the furnace platform, to starve to death and decay into benign sacks of dried tissue and bone. This reality assaulted me, and not just through my nose. Sure, I had the right to protect my home and family from disease-carrying “vermin,” but to sentence baby anythings to days of abandonment, fear, and starvation ran against every fiber of my being.
Sieg saw the remorse on my face. He gave my shoulder a sympathetic pat, while giving the same to Roscoe’s head, and left.
We were imprisoned in a mass grave. The sense-around stench of death repulsed us; our bodies instinctively sought to repel it, but the circumstances lent no means of escape. Winter was coming and the nights grew frigid. The forced-air heating system blew the decomposing scent into every room. We were bathed in rot. I couldn’t sleep, knowing that just yards away babies had met their death because I had taken their mother’s life. My vocation was all about saving children, no matter what the nature of their parents. Wiping out entire families ran counter to everything I stood for. My son thought I was overly sentimental, and just a little bit crazy, equating rats with humans, but my husband understood. He, too, found the infant rats’ fate upsetting. We lay awake at night, holding hands and silently sharing the blame.
As Sieg predicted, after three weeks fresh air once again circulated through our home. With all of the outside vents and crawl spaces now fortified by heavy mesh and wood, we no longer shared our house with uninvited guests. Soon, we forgot all about the deaths, and the stone of guilt lodged in the back of my throat slowly dissolved into minute granules of absolution I could easily swallow and shit out.
It’s the need to be free once more of all culpability that drives me to the delusion that the rat in my pool has been resurrected. Some deity has chosen her to carry out its grand design to bring the end to the human race through the destruction of our Babylon – board by board, wire by wire. Raised from the dead, she will walk among her kind, collecting disciples, establishing congregations and recruiting soldiers to do her bidding in a holy war against the infidels determined to exterminate them.
“Here she is,” shouts the pool guy, pointing to the bottom of the deep end. “She’s just sunk is all.” He dips a long-poled net into the water and I turn away. I can’t watch. I’m so disappointed.
Five days later, decay wafts into the garage, hitting me like a kick to the womb. I jump off the treadmill and run into the house, holding my breath and forgetting to turn off the machine. For the rest of the day it hums blithely to itself, diligently counting miles covered and calories burned, until my husband comes home and unplugs it.
Her face haunts me. Despair, regret: now I know what her last thoughts were. They were about her offspring waiting for her return that night in their nest behind the furnace. Her emaciation I know well: nursing does that to a mother’s body as the babies suck the calories out of her. Most likely, she was just trying to nourish herself when, weak and exhausted, she slipped off one of the lava rocks and fell into the pool. The water level was summertime low, the tiles a slick impediment to finding purchase. She didn’t have a chance.
I avoid the garage as I would a death camp. Laundry piles up in hampers. Floors accumulate dirt and dust bunnies as mops and brooms hang neglected on the garage wall. My car sits parked at the curb, exposed to the elements and bird droppings. Roscoe scratches at the garage door with indefatigable will, and I pull him away by the collar. We go through this mutual exercise in frustration at least five times a day, until my son announces that the garage no longer stinks.
Some weeks later, I’m sitting at my computer in the den when my son calls out from his adjacent bedroom. “Mom! Come in here!” “What it is?” I ask. “Just come in here!” he shouts back. I open his bedroom door and peer in. He’s standing on his bed.
“There’s a rat in my room,” he says, pointing to the space behind his bookcase.
I slam the door shut and keep my hand firmly on the handle. When my son pulls on it from the other side, I resist with the strength of Hercules.
“Mom! What the…? ”
Roscoe sits on his haunches at my bedroom door. He’s incensed that Sieg is laying traps at the back of the house while I confine him to the front. He turns to me, white-eyed and curled-lipped, begrudging me. I lie on my bed pretending to read, but, really, I’m holding my own court, with me in the dock and a judge and jury of rats ready to hang me. A gallery of rodents, all teeth and nails and whipping tails, squeal and squeak at me, the traitor.
When I’d finally let my son out of his room, he’d accused me of child endangerment and quickly shifted some clothes and bedding into the den so as not to spend the night with something capable of scampering over his unconscious body. A moment later, he screamed from the den, “There’s another one!” As I tore through the house to barricade myself in my bathroom, he called out, “No! It’s the same one!” This didn’t improve my state of panic; nor did his addendum, “It might be a mouse!”
“Okay! I’m finished here!”
I drag myself off my bed and join Sieg by the front door. The Swede attempts to mollify Roscoe with a chin scratch and words of encouragement. “Don’t worry, buddy. If I catch it, I’ll let you have a good sniff.” Oh great.
To me, he says, “It’s most likely not a mouse but a young rat who got into the house and now can’t get out. He’ll either go for the peanut butter in one of the traps and die, or find his way back outside and live.” As he heads for his truck, he shouts over his shoulder, “I bet it was his mother in the pool!”
I consider self-flagellation.
We avoid checking the traps. My son walks around his room with his eyes averted. I do the same in the den, which is also my office. We pretend. We close our eyes, ears and noses to the possibility of murder inside our home.
A week goes by and we haven’t seen, heard or smelled anything to either suggest a rat living with us or a corpse lying squashed in one of Sieg’s instruments of torture. I tell my husband and son that I’m going to take a look. They ignore me in their respective chairs, hunched over computer keyboards, plugged in and tuned out.
With false bravado I peer behind the bookcase, file boxes, chair and plastic bags full of clay in the den and my son’s room. No rat. I call Sieg.
“That’s good news!” he enthuses. “The little guy escaped!” I want to ask Sieg how can he do his job when he’s secretly rooting for the other team, but I decide to spare him the same moral challenge I’ve been grappling with. “Go ahead and collect the traps and I’ll come by later in the week and pick them up,” he continues. “And tell Roscoe better luck next time,” he adds with a chuckle.
I give my family the “All clear!” and walk back into the den to retrieve the first trap.
“AHHHH!!! HOLY HELL!!!” I’ve trapped my own thumb.
The doctor assures me that nothing is broken. I’ll lose the blackened and crushed thumbnail, but a shiny new one will grow in its place. For now, I use it as a reminder – no, not to be careful when picking up a set trap, but never to lay one again. It’s the most poignant comeuppance of my life.
Another reminder sits on a stack of hot-pink post-its on my desk. My son makes a face each time he sees it and asks me when I’m going to throw it away. I tell him perhaps when my nail falls off. With something akin to maternal pride, I say that it’s a message not to be forgotten from a child with heap-loads of chutzpah.
He says it’s just a friggin’ rat turd.