When my new girlfriend called and said that a rat had taken residence in her apartment, I thought she was testing the relationship waters. Would I kick down the door and lay waste to rat-kind, or would I tell her to call the Orkin man to take care of her pest problem? Let me tell you a secret: I have never seen a rat in the wild. Or in the urban, suburban, or rural. Mice, sure, but never rats. Rats lived in sewers and grew up to be small alligators that nipped at your ass when you sat on the toilet. Rats did not habit the apartments of newly found girlfriends.
I told her that I would come over, and when she answered the door, she seemed disappointed that I was not carrying a bazooka. I mean, it’s just a rat. The Marines or the National Guard would be a little heavy.
“Thank you for coming,” she whispered. “It’s in the closet.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, stepping through the door, “it can’t hear you.”
She led me through her apartment which, embarrassingly, was only vaguely familiar. We had met outside of some shit bar. I was waiting for a bus and she was waiting to pass out. We hit it off immediately. Her name was Racquel, she lived somewhere along the 72, and had very little standing time left. I was feeling charitable, or a little drunk, and offered to escort her home. She accepted and promptly fell asleep on the bus. Like a gentleman, I dragged her up the stairs and threw her into bed. I let myself out.
A few weeks and a few dates later, we were somewhat steady, and I was her rat-killer. It was only the second time I had been in her apartment. It was neat and tidy, like her sober personality, and her manner was businesslike as we stepped into the bedroom that I had once drunkenly left her in. She turned to me with urgency.
“It’s in there,” she pointed.
I grabbed the handle and slid the door away. Dresses, blouses, and pants were stuffed to the rafters, and a neat but overpopulated shoe rack sat on the floor. There was little room for a rat.
“Are you sure-”
The door clicked shut and I heard her padding away.
I nodded slowly and realized the task at hand. This was a battle in the Coliseum, a fight between beast and gladiator, and the winner would have the young girl’s heart. The loser might not have to worry about death, but loss of respect and tainted integrity was just as deadly in a young relationship. The failure of this test would bring certain peril. I brought a hand to my mouth and rubbed the stubble. Should I kick it to death?
I dropped a knee to the carpet and cocked my head to see under the clutter. The need for a vacuum was clear. Dirt, grit, and bits of gravel dropped from the shoe rack pebbled the nap, but there was no rat. None that I could see, anyway. While I was looking, I wondered if I would find any dirty secrets: bones of lovers past, a mountain of soggy bar coasters, the eleven herbs and spices for KFC chicken. No such luck. Just shoe boxes and balled up socks. But it gave me pause.
Some of the debris on the carpet was shredded bits of cardboard. That’s when I knew. The little bastard was inside one of the shoe boxes.
My tolerance for creepy-crawlies is very low. Fortunately, it’s not a standard question on date night. “So where do you work? Can you kill spiders?” I would rather burn down the house than stand toe-to-toe with a spider – could you pass the pepper? I’m sure insurance companies work that into their premiums. Oh – are you going to the bathroom? You’re leaving?
When I was a young child, my family spent a week in the Maine wilderness shacked up in a lonely cabin by a lake. Every night, we all stared at the ceiling while constant scratching, scampering, and other stock horror movie noises kept us awake. We discovered that a cloud of bats was living in the walls. At dusk, at least two dozen of the little devils flew out of the eaves, and my folks went to work on plugging every hole they could find. Their efforts were premature. The bats that stayed in for the night were very angry when they found that their egress was destroyed. We spent the next hellish night fighting for our lives with brooms and wiffle ball bats, swinging violently at flapping black baseballs and beating the tarpaper walls as little lumps scurried down.
I decided that I needed a weapon. With one eye on the closet, I tiptoed to the door and cracked it. She wasn’t there. “Racquel?”
“Did you kill it yet?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, and now I’m wearing its head as a hat. Do you have a baseball bat or a broom or something?”
She crashed into a closet and rumbled around. A yellow handle poked through the open slit. I pulled the door a little wider and caught a glimpse of her ashen face before she disappeared again, and it assured me that my own ridiculous and irrational fear was validated. I eased the door shut and brandished my weapon, a ten dollar corn broom from the local hardware store. The worn bristles swished as I hefted it.
There it was. The Rat King.
I really didn’t know what I was expecting, but there it was, in all its glory, and I stood there feeling like a thief caught in the act. I couldn’t kill that. It looked so pitiful and defenseless. It’d be like killing my mom’s cat for raiding the pantry.
The rat regarded me with its needly black eyes, and the whiskers quivered as it sniffed in my direction.
I cracked the door again. “Racquel?”
“Can you stand by the front door and open it when I tell you to?”
“Sure…” she said, with a little hesitation.
The rat hadn’t moved. I laid the broom on the carpet, with the bristles resting just before the little beast. I waited. The rat still didn’t move. Very slowly, I approached on the side, taking great care not to startle it. The rat bobbed its head and followed me with shaking whiskers.
Also very slowly, and with great trepidation, I stuck out my shoe, and nudged it in the butt. The rat obliged and stepped onto the rigid head of the broom.
I carefully and firmly grabbed the handle and hoisted the rat into the air.
“Open the front door.”
I heard the deadbolt turn down the hall and I made my move. Curled my foot around the door, pulled it away, stepped into the hallway. The rat stuck out on the head of the broom like a hood ornament. Racquel turned around and her eyes blew out of her head.
“FUCKING SHIT!” she screamed, and disappeared behind a slamming door.
I carried my cargo down the hall with short, deliberate steps, and when I crossed the doorframe, flung it down the hall. The rat landed on its feet and turned back, insulted. There, I thought. Someone else’s problem. I slammed the door and addressed my other problem.
“Racquel?” I called, knocking on the door. I assumed it was the bathroom.
“Is it gone?” she screeched, still in the grip of hysteria.
“It’s gone!” I announced, throwing some extra cheer in my voice. “Can you come out now?”
The lock clicked and a ghost appeared. I felt like a lion standing next to this puddle of despair.
“What did you do with it?”
“Threw it into the hallway. Your super can deal with it now.”
“So, you mean,” she said, with a trembling finger pointed at the door, “that it’s out there?”
“Ohhh,” she moaned. “How am I supposed to leave?”
My patience collapsed. “I don’t know,” I said. “Call your super. I gotta run.”
“No! Stay a while! Let’s have some dinner or-”
“Sorry, I gotta go,” I said, and shoved past her. I felt her panicky stare even as I closed the door behind me. Immediately, as if it were possessed, the deadbolt popped and the chain slid into the runner. I sighed as I walked away, and waved to the rat on my way out.