Rats never bothered me much. A neighbor where I used to live kept one as a pet--I'd see them out for a walk sometimes on my way to work, the rat snuffling along the sidewalk pulling his smiling master by the leash. Happy together, they even looked alike. A small community of rats used to gather in the garbage bags at the restaurant where I tended bar. I was supposed to put the garbage out at the end of the night, and sometimes I'd do it, other times I'd get a customer to do the job for me. Most of them knew enough to stamp their feet before starting, to give the rats a chance to spring out of the bag. It's a drag picking up a bag with a rat in it, but one night loudmouthed Louie forgot, and a couple of rats used his arm as an off ramp. You could hear him scream from the bar to the river. We all laughed our asses off, and I gave him an extra beer for his pains, which mollified him.
When I first found evidence of rodent activity in my attic last spring, I thought we had squirrels. They were eating the insulation and pissing on my old clothes. Noting a hole in the wall, I thought they must be coming down from the roof. After an exterminator told me it's against the law to kill squirrels in Chicago--"They're wildlife," he chuckled sardonically --I bought some heavy screen and steel wool to block up the hole. But it didn't work. By summertime, bored with the taste of insulation, the squirrels were pattering down the stairs to the kitchen, gnawing their way through a wire-mesh childproof gate, and munching whole loaves of bread left on the table. "These are the boldest squirrels I've ever seen," I thought. I asked the landlord to loan me a squirrel trap.
Squirrels are just rats with furry tails. I'd said it often enough, and I believed it too, until a few hours after the trap was set. I caught a not very large, greasy gray rat, maybe nine inches long including his slimy tail; he bared sharp choppers when I shone a flashlight on him. I turned off the flashlight and went to call the landlord. I wasn't getting near that thing. There were large spaces between the bars of the trap, not large enough for a squirrel to get his snout through but plenty wide enough for the rat.
The landlord wasn't home. I left a message and went off to work, leaving the rat in the trap. My wife was home when the landlord called back, and he recommended a course of action to her: "Have Jeff drown the rat in the bathtub when he gets home." She ruled that out. "My kids take baths in that tub," she said. "Well, OK, if you don't like that, you can get a plastic bag, stick the cage in it, tie the open end to the tailpipe of your car, then give it the gas." I ruled out that idea, ingenious as it was. The rat was granted a stay for that night.
The landlord came over the following day. He had two kill traps with him, like mousetraps only larger. He didn't have any particular plan for what to do with the live rat, but he was adamant that I shouldn't call an exterminator. "It'll cost me 50 bucks, and for what? They'll put down some poison and set some traps. I can do the same thing for nothing."
"How am I ever going to know if the place is rat-free?" I asked.
"When we stop catching them, you'll know," he assured me, putting on heavy gloves.
The rat hadn't eaten for a while, and as soon as it spotted the landlord, it leapt for meat. The landlord swung into action; snatching the handle and holding the cage at arm's length, he took it outside to the carport. I followed.
"Well, what'll we do now?" he wondered aloud. "You could asphyxiate it with your car," I suggested. He looked at me like I was crazy. "Just trying to be helpful," I said. He looked around the carport. "Look, smartass, it seemed like a good idea at the time."
"I'm going to get a brick and smash its head in," he promised. But the rat had other plans. Jumping at the bars, it wouldn't let him anywhere near the cage.
"I'm going to have to slow it down somehow," he said. "Any suggestions?" I recommended he go get some poison. "No, I don't want to do that, but," he said with sudden inspiration, "I've got bug spray in the car. It's got poison in it." He opened up the trunk and took out a can. It wasn't Raid or Black Flag, it was some brand I'd never seen before. Or it might have been generic. Whatever it was, the stuff that came out of it was unlike any bug spray I'd seen, white and foamy like shaving cream. The landlord sprayed the rat right in the face.
Blinded by the foam, the rat was stunned for a moment, but as soon as the landlord got close, it wiped the stuff off with its paws and jumped, furious. The landlord spritzed it again and again, making the rat whiter, wetter, and madder, but no slower. Frustrated, the landlord shoved a stick through the bars, admonishing the captive: "Now cooperate, Mr. Rat." Mr. Rat grabbed the stick in its mouth and broke it in half. I couldn't watch anymore. I went inside.
Sometime later the landlord yelled that he was leaving, he was done. I went up to the attic and brooded about what a tough year it had been. The car had broken down twice. One of the kids came home with head lice, and the infestation spread to the rest of us. Everything in the house was washed and combed with a fine-tooth comb, over and over, for weeks. (I'd read that the estimated combined weight of all the fleas in the world was now greater than the estimated combined weight of all humans. The explanation had something to do with the popularity of shag carpeting.)
Anthony Young of the Mets, my son's favorite pitcher, had shattered the major-league record for consecutive losses. I kept telling my son you gotta believe, but he'd started rooting for the Cardinals anyway. There was a hole in the bathroom floor, probably where the rats had come in. The refrigerator was broken. Health care reform hadn't begun yet. I was broke, and the IRS had just sent me a bill for back taxes owed from 1989, a year in which my total earnings were something like six thousand bucks. My place was a dump. At least it was a cheap dump. The country seemed cursed. I heard a trap snap.
At least this rat was already dead. I took the trap outside and dropped it in the garbage can, then called the landlord. "I got another one about ten minutes after you left," I told him. "I'm probably going to need a couple more traps."
"Why?" he asked, incredulous. "What did you do with the one you caught the rat in?"
"I threw it out."
"Why'd you do that? That was a perfectly good trap."
"You wanted me to remove the corpse and reset the trap? It's got rat blood all over it!"
"Oh, I'm sure it doesn't," he purred. "You know, Jeff, you're getting kind of weird about this."
The thing is, he was probably right. Seeking an explanation for all the mysterious pestilence and bad luck, I went out and bought a book on numerology. Numerologists had predicted last January that 1993 was going to be a bad year : 1 + 9 + 9 + 3 = 22, and 2 + 2 = 4, a very bad number. The worst. It means hard work, hard times, crumbling foundations, and confusion. That seemed about right.
Using a chart in the book, I added up the numbers corresponding to the letters in the word "rats." They added up to 13, and 1 + 3 = 4. (Except for 11, 22, and 33, all numbers in numerology are broken down by adding them together to create single digits.) Anthony Young added up to 62, which breaks down to 8. Eights, according to the book, are either big successes or massive failures. Eight is four doubled, so for Anthony Young, an eight in a four year, last year was double trouble.
It was all starting to add up. There were four of us living in the place. It was a particularly bad year for athletes. The word "athlete" comes out to eight. George Steinbrenner was back in baseball, always a bad sign. His name added up to 101, which I wasn't sure how to break down, so I just added up Steinbrenner, which, like Anthony Young, came to 62. Another eight! (Incidentally, there's a Puerto Rican insult--majon--which means "big shit," like one you can't get rid of in one flush. There really ought to be an English equivalent. How about "Steinbrenner"?) And what of the United States? The U.S. came out to four.
My head spinning from all this math, I went out to the hardware store and bought two more traps. They were $1.79 each. I caught only two more rats, which brought the total to four. I read in the paper that the White House itself was rat-infested. The story said, "Some 165 traps have been set in various locations, but so far little relief." Michael Jackson was also in the paper, and one of his biggest hits, "Ben," was a love song sung to a rat. In China, 1993 was the Year of the Rooster, but that's China. Here, pestilence had rarely been so hairy.
What does 1994 add up to? Five. The number of sex. We'll be better off in bed this year, as long as nothing's scurrying around underneath it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.