King Rat

The Window at Molly’s, the street (Decatur) unusually quiet, with notebook, vintage Esterbrook fountain pen, and Molly’s frozen Irish Coffee

“There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets. . . when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.”
― Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man

This summer, at the New Orleans Writing Marathon I found myself at the window at Molly’s at the Market trying to think of something to write about. I decided to put down on paper the struggle I had against a rat infestation and the King Rat behind it all. It didn’t seem very interesting (and a little embarrassing) to me, but when we read everyone seemed to like it.

So, I’ve typed it up from my notebook. Without further ado……

Molly’s At the Market
July 10

I live in Texas so every now and then there is a rat in the house. The most common are the tree rats – smaller grey slick-looking – they resemble large mice with longer tails. They are arboreal and often enter a house by dropping onto the roof from an overhanging tree. Like all rats and mice they can squeeze through any tiny, impossible space. Less often seen are the big ugly sewer rats, black and spiky. I’ve never seen one of those at home – but I live alongside a wooded creek – with my garage facing the trees so I’ve always had tree rat invaders.

Usually one or two – and handled with a trap or a bit of poison – which would leave a dead critter putrefying in the wall – stinking things up until the really warm weather arrived.

One summer, however, I had an infestation. I don’t really know how it happened – maybe I ignored the early warning signs – maybe I was lazy – but eventually I realized that there were rats everywhere.

I was feeling emotional so I read up on the most humane way to exterminate rats – even looking on Buddhist websites for ways to deal with vermin without destroying your Karma. Poison was out – too cruel. Some people like live traps but if you don’t release the trapped rat more than a mile away – they will come back. Rats are very territorial – if you take them beyond their territory they won’t last a day.

So the Internet recommended the old-fashioned snap trap – it kills, but it kills quickly. The big problem is that we have two dogs and any traps had to be kept away from them. Our dogs were old, blind, and lethargic – useless as ratters, but we didn’t want them to get hurt by a trap.

I bought a big jar of peanut butter and a collection of snap traps – a few old school wooden ones – though I had better luck with the modern plastic traps that have a platform for the rat to step on. I arranged these throughout the garage and in some spots (behind the refrigerator, inside drawers, and in the hot water heater cabinet) where the dogs couldn’t set them off.

And the slaughter began. My morning routine would be to carry traps with rats across the alley and let the limp body drop into the thick weeds under the trees. One morning there were two rats in the same trap. The bodies were always gone the next day – I guess the coyotes were coming up at night for a quick snack – a rat buffet.

I killed… maybe thirty rats. Over this time, they were getting smaller and smaller – until they looked more like mice to me.

We have hired a frighteningly effective exterminator at my work. He rid our million-square foot building of rats in a couple months. We call him, “The Rat Whisperer.” I asked him the difference between tree rats and mice.

“How long are their tails? Are they longer than the rest of their body?”

“Yes.”

“They are rats.”

I explained how the rats were getting smaller and smaller – and how I thought that soon they would all be gone.

“What you don’t understand,” the rat whisperer said, “Is that there is one big smart King Rat. He is sending those other rats out to bring food back to him. You will kill all the others until he is the only one left. He will be almost impossible to kill because he is so cautious and smart. That is how he became the King.”

The Rat Whisperer was exactly right. The traps were empty every morning but there was still an aggressive rat in the house. I would put, say, a strawberry down with four snap traps surrounding it and in the morning the fruit would be chewed or gone and the traps un-fired.

I decided that I had no choice but to bring out the big guns.

I spread talcum powder on the kitchen floor and looked for tiny footprints in the morning. There was a tiny gap in the molding by the dishwasher and the prints always lead to or from there. I put up baby gates to keep the dogs out of the kitchen and a big sheet of a sticky trap in front of the tiny hole. I woke up in the middle of the night to a tremendous racket. It took me a minute to get the nerve to go look – and that was too long. The sticky trap was in the living room, beyond the barrier of the baby gate, and covered in rat hair.

No King Rat.

And for weeks there was no sign. I figured he had been injured or frightened enough to go elsewhere. I was wrong… he was waiting me out.

So after a long time, he was back. Again, no food was safe – he nibbled everything that was not sealed up tight. So, again with the baby gates… again with the sticky trap – I went out and bought an ultra-strong professional premium version this time. Again, three in the morning, a huge racket from the kitchen. I ran to the sound, snapped on the light, and there was the biggest rat I had ever seen with the sticky trap on his back, trying to get back into his little hole.

And I realized I had not thought about this enough beforehand. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to touch the rat – he was way too big and mad and scared and would surely bite me if I got too close. If I did nothing he would soon yank himself off the sticky trap (like he must have before) and escape… and I didn’t want to go through this any more.

My mother in law had this grabber thing she used to pick stuff up without bending over – I fetched it from the closet and used it to grab the rat. Of course the sticky trap stuck to the grabber. I threw the trap, the grabber, and the giant rat into a bucket we keep to mop the floors. The sticky trap now, in addition to the rat and the grabber, stuck to the inside of the bucket. The whole mess shook with the struggle of the rat… every now and then a rat head would stick out the top and snap its rat teeth.

I gingerly hauled the whole mess out to the creek and threw it into the water and watched it move downstream and slowly sink in the moonlight.

It’s been a year and a half now and I haven’t seen sign of a single rat. We have new dogs now, they are more aggressive and larger and probably scare any new vermin off.

I am still haunted by nightmares of a giant skeletal ghost rat, the specter of the King, with a rusty bucket and a broken grabber stuck to his bones, shambling up from the creek, returning for his revenge.

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I Build a Writing Machine

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

My Raspberry Pi writing machine sitting on top of my secretary. The top folds shut holding the wireless keyboard and mouse inside. I still can use the secretary for handwriting, note vintage Sheaffer Triumph nib fountain desk pen, ink bottles, and stack of filled Moleskines on the left.

 

I am always involved in a quest for writing machines. I have a couple of laptops (one Linux, one Windows) that I use all the time. But they have web browsers, graphic programs and all other sorts of diversions and I wanted something that would work perfectly for writing first drafts – a distraction-free environment that gives me what I need and nothing more.

A little over seven years ago I bought a secretary and have been using it for handwriting ever since. I used to have a laptop concealed within – but that gave out years ago and modern laptops tend to be too big to fit. I was trying to think of the best way to add digital writing to my secretary, always plotting. I’m poor too, so the solution had to be cost-effective.

And then along came the Raspberry Pi – more specifically the Pi 3. For a small price you can buy a functional computer about the size of a pack of cigarettes – now with builtin WIFI and Bluetooth. It won’t play the newest games or display complex websites, but it is more than adequate for, say a word processor.

Exactly what I needed.

So I set to work. First the Raspberry Pi itself in a cheap ready-made case – attached to the back of a cheap, used monitor that I bought at Goodwill for ten bucks. The key is an USB powered HDMI to VGA converter to make the Raspberry Pi work with the old monitor. Then I bought a small plug strip with USB outlets and glued that to the bottom of the monitor stand. That runs the Pi, the converter, and the monitor itself (I bought a very short cord for the monitor) – so I can move it  all as one unit with only one power outlet.

The Raspberry Pi has four USB ports – two are used for USB thumb drives – one for data storage (I don’t trust MicroUSB cards – so I store all my data on the thumb drive and swap it out periodically) and the other to move files off when I’m done writing. Another USB port is used for a wireless keyboard/mouse combo.

And that’s it for the hardware. The native Pi software, Raspbian, is more than adequate for this task. The Pi has an ethernet port, but since I rarely connect to the internet, the WIFI is fast enough. So far, I don’t even use the Bluetooth, but might set up a wireless file transfer eventually.

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ attached to the back of the monitor. You can see the HDMI adapter cord,the two USB thumb drives and how it is powered by the small white plug strip. Underneath the shelf is the Microsoft transmitter for the wireless keyboard and mouse.

The machine is fast enough to use any one of several Word Processors. I use Emacs Org Mode for todo lists, outlines, and planning – it’s great (will have to write about that sometime).

For first draft writing, however, I’ve settled on FocusWriter. It provides an efficient, full-screen, distraction-free writing environment which I’ve customized into white text on blue (like WordPerfect 5.1 in the old days – the best writing environment I’ve ever used). Best of all, in the status bar it displays time, word count, and percentage of the daily writing goal completed – which is more than cool. It really makes it easy to crank out the daily number of words.

I do also run a thesaurus and can check Wikipedia if I need to, though the idea is to stay off the web. It really works well – a creative space optimized for cranking out first drafts.

Editing? That’s the tough thing… and a topic for another day.

Nanowrimo Day Twelve

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 20,004 words

Words written today – 1,862

Words written so far – 16,591 words
Words to goal – -3,413

“Game shows are designed to make us feel better about the random, useless facts that are all we have left of our education.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

These villains creep – Deep Ellum, Texas

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

Didn’t know if I could get anything written today. I was extremely tired after work, but took a nap and sat at my writing machine and hammered out a bit more than my daily goal.

Wasn’t sure what to write, so I typed out some dialog between two characters sitting in a hotel room. I find that random dialog is a good way to fill out word counts, simply imagine the two characters in some normal (or not-so-normal) situation and think what they would say to each other. It isn’t Tarantino quality dialog, but eventually you discover the personalities of the characters and sometimes they say something interesting, sometimes they say something unexpected. I started with them looking at the television in a cheap hotel room and talking about the game show that is on.

 

Snippet of what I wrote:

“What show is that?” asked Bernard.

“Price is Right,” said Willard.

“What’s the point?”

“What? of us watching?”

“No, I know there is no point in us watching. I mean what’s the point of the game? What are all those idiots doing?”

“That guy picks one of those old biddies and then the woman tries to guess how much shit costs and if they get close enough they get to take it home.”

“Man, that’s lame. I guess those old women have spent their whole life buying shit and must know a lot about how much it costs. Hey, what’s to keep them from looking it up on Amazon… like from their phones?”

“I don’t think they would allow that. Besides it’s MSRP… ‘Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price.’ I think Amazon sells it cheaper, so that wouldn’t help much. It’s a real ripoff anyway. The companies’ give the crap to the show for free, for advertising, so it doesn’t cost them squat – they’re giving away free shit. Plus the poor saps that win it have to pay income tax. They have to pay to take away a bunch of free crap they never wanted in the first place.”

“Are you sure? That seems really stupid.”

“Yeah I’m sure. And it is really stupid.”

“Well, then why do you watch it?”

“I don’t usually, but there’s nothing else. Besides it makes me feel better. I may be a hopeless loser, but at least I’m not as bad as all those dumb assholes.”

“Hey, that guy doesn’t look right. I remember my mom watching this, isn’t that guy supposed to be Monte Hall?”

“No, Monte Hall was on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ another show… though it’s kinda like this one. You’re thinking about Bob Barker, and he’s not on it anymore. That guy’s Drew Carey.”

“Bob Barker? Yeah… I remember. Didn’t he get in a fight with that actor dude… Sandler? Adam Sandler?”

“Bob Barker and Adam Sandler? No, they were in a fight in that golf movie, ‘Happy Gilmore,’ but not in real life,” said Willard.

“You sure seem to know a lot about this stupid shit,” said Bernard.

“I’ve had a lot of spare time during the day,” said Willard. “So have you.”

They both let out a long rolling chuckle.

“Yeah,” said Bernard, “I guess the two of us share a strong dislike of going to work, don’t we?”

“Nobody likes going to work.”

“But not too many hate it and avoid it as strongly as we do. The two of us work harder at avoiding work than anybody I know.”

“That is a true statement,” said Willard.

Nanowrimo Day Eleven

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 18,337 words

Words written today – 3,064

Words written so far – 14,729 words
Words to goal – -3,608

But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.

—-John Updike, A&P

Kids love the reflecting pool. The water is less than a quarter inch deep.

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

I have fallen behind, missed a couple days (too tired when I came home from work – fell dead asleep) and wrote too little on a couple days. But I had a good day today (a little over 3,000 words) and more importantly, have worked out a nice way to work.

I’ll do a blog entry on my writing machine and explain it in detal – but in essence is is a Raspberry Pi microcomputer mounted on the back of an old monitor, hooked up with a wireless keyboard and mouse. I run a program called Focuswriter set up to look like the old Wordperfect 5.1 – you know, that sharp white text on a blue background. It’s a distraction free full-screen experience, but I do have a bar on the bottom of the screen that gives me my constant word count and the percentage of the way to 1.667. This makes it surprisingly easy to crank out the words and get to the daily goal. We’ll see how it works combating the exhaustion of the workday (and I do have to work late several days this week).

Today I hammered out some bits of backstory and filler for a few hundred words. Then, looking for something that I could string out for at least a couple thousand, I looked in one of my books of writing prompts, The 3 A.M. Epiphany Almost immediately I came across a hint that suggested borrowing from a trusted source. The one in particular suggested taking a favorite story and rewriting it, giving it your own voice and changing what you want. I immediately thought of what might be my favorite of all time, A&P by John Updike (read the story here).

I hammered out my version – changing it from three girls to two (characters already in my story), from an A&P to an IGA, and told it from the girl’s point of view. It’s odd… I didn’t re-read the story (to try and make it my own) and haven’t looked at it in years, have forgotten many details, but made the bag-boy named Sam – in the story it’s Sammy. The name must have been stuck in my memory.

So, did I cheat by stealing from Updike? I don’t think so – it’s more of an homage.

 

Snippet of what I wrote:

Teresa knelt beside Beth’s chair and squirted the oil on to her back. She spread it out and rubbed it in until it disappeared into Beth’s skin.

“I’m thirsty,” Beth said in a luxurious voice, enjoying the afternoon, the sun, and, though she would never admit it, the feel of Teresa’s smooth hands sliding oily across her skin. She closed her eyes and thought of Sam and how his long, tight, sinewy body felt against hers, even her back, while they were in the pool at night. She was seized with a sudden desire to see him, in the daylight, and for him to see her, like this.

“I’ll go get some iced water, refill the pitcher.”

“No don’t,” said Beth.

“I don’t mind.”

“I don’t want water, not only water. I want some more of that drink we had earlier.”

“I made that, it was orange juice cooler, just orange juice and champagne.”

“My mom still has at least five bottles of champagne in the cupboard, leftover from my sister’s wedding,” said Beth.

“But…” said Teresa, before Beth cut her off.

“She doesn’t mind, she told me we could drink some, as long as we didn’t get hammered, as long as we left some for her.”

“No, it’s not that. We’re out of orange juice.”

“Oh?” said Beth. She sounded like she already knew they were out of orange juice.

“We could just drink the champagne.”

“No, I want some orange juice,” said Beth, “It wouldn’t be the same, it’s so hot today, champagne alone wouldn’t be refreshing enough.”

“Oh, where could we? I guess I could run down to the IGA and get some orange juice,” said Teresa.

“Yeah… I mean no, I’ll go.”

“Why don’t we both go?”

“Sure,” Beth said, “Let’s both.”

Nanowrimo Day Seven

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 11,669 words

Words written today – 1,865

Words written so far – 10,854 words
Words to goal – -824

“Sometimes I wish for falling
Wish for the release
Wish for falling through the air
To give me some relief
Because falling’s not the problem
When I’m falling I’m in peace
It’s only when I hit the ground
It causes all the grief”
― Florence Welch

Trinity River in the Fall,
Dallas, Texas

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

Well it happened. I skipped a day. There is no day six.

It was inevitable, I had been too busy, missed too much sleep. I came home from work, actually had planned on what to write but I made the mistake of pausing a bit – watched the first half of the Kansas Basketball game (college basketball is my sport – KU is my team, I did go to school there) and when I stretched out for a second at halftime, to rest my eyes… suddenly it was morning, time to go to work.

Missed a day, no big deal. Went from a bit ahead to a good piece behind. The important thing is to never skip two days in a row. So on day seven I was able to pound out some words. They came easily, I had time to put a firm vision in my head. When I’ve done that, I can write as fast as I can type. Didn’t finish the scene – which is a good thing – it gives me a good place to start tomorrow.

The weekend is coming soon, will have to catch up then, get out ahead a bit.

What I wrote today was more conversations between Craig and Odette.

Snippet of what I wrote:

“I’ll tell you what,” said Odette. “I’ll make a deal with you… I’ll give you something… a gift.”

“Really? What?”

“Don’t get excited bucko – it’s not anything big.”

“Not something expensive.”

“Not worth a nickel. But rare nonetheless.”

“Now you have made me curious.”

“OK, here’s the thing. First, you don’t know me so you don’t really know whether I can give you this gift. But, if you did know me, knew me well you’d know that it isn’t only possible, it’s a gift I can give easily. Understand?”

“Not at all,” replied Craig.

“Never mind. This is my gift. I give you permission. Permission to say anything to me, anything at all. You can ask me any question at all. Since I don’t know the question, I can’t promise I’ll answer it in any particular way. I can’t promise if I’ll answer at all – there are unanswerable questions. I can’t even promise I’ll tell the truth if I answer, though I do promise to try not to lie, if possible. What I do promise is not to judge you in any way. You can ask anything, and I mean anything, without me getting upset.”

“OK.”

“I’m not done. You can ask me to do anything. Anything at all. Again, since I don’t know what you will ask I can’t promise that I’ll do what you ask, only that I won’t judge you, I won’t get upset that you asked. For example, you could ask me to jump out of the moving car right now… and I wouldn’t do it. I’d just say ‘no,’ but I wouldn’t get all pissed about you asking me to kill myself. OK?”

“OK,” was all Craig could think to say.

“Now, here’s the hardest part. You’re afraid to tell me why you wanted the car. I give you permission to tell me, tell me, again, anything, and I won’t judge you. This is hard, because I don’t know what you are going to say, but I promise I won’t get mad or won’t judge you in any way.”

“Now that is impossible. I can say anything?”

“It’s not only possible, it’s not too hard. Notice, I’m not giving you any permission to do anything, that’s something that would be impossible. But permission to say anything? All that takes is a tough skin, and I have the toughest. After all, sticks and stones….”

“I’ve always thought that old saw to be a complete lie.”

Odette ignored him.

“This is a valuable gift. Think about it. There is a person in your life now that you can ask any question, ask any favor, or tell anything to without fear.”

“OK,” Craig said again, overwhelmed.

 

Nanowrimo Day Five

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 8,335 words

Words written today – 1,880

Words written so far – 8,980 words
Words to goal – +645

 

“Horns sounded from the trapped vehicles on the motorway, a despairing chorus.”
― J.G. Ballard, Crash

1957 Thunderbird

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

Another tough day – was at work for twelve hours and really too tired and shook up to do any writing.

I did it anyway.

Decided on a way to bring Craig, my anti-hero, and Odette, the girl, together.

Snippet of what I wrote:

He called Meridian’s car salesman and negotiated an offer. It was high, but Craig was able to get him down a bit, mostly in order not to raise suspicion. It never looked good to appear too eager.

“I told you that price would become an object.”

“Just want things to be fair, that price is still high enough. One more thing, I’m going to pay in cash.”

“Cash? That’s nuts. Nobody has that amount of cash hanging around.”

“My client does.”

“So does mine. Cash will be fine. What did you say your client did out in California?”

“I didn’t say.”

“Fair enough.”

And that was that. He put together the proper amount and drove it halfway, meeting the dealer at a designated crossroads in the middle of nowhere. The paperwork was signed on the hood of Craig’s rental.

“Well, that’s that,” said Meridian’s agent. “Are you sure you don’t want to put half down and the rest on delivery? That’s how we usually do it.”

“Nope, this is fine.”

“Guess you trust us.”

“Of course, I know where you work, I know where you live, I know where your wife works, I know where your kids go to school.”

A quick, strong shiver went up and down the agent. He had worked for Prime Meridian for a couple decades and knew the kind of man he was dealing with. He walked back to his SUV, opened the back, raised the floor, and put the case of cash in the back, carefully hiding in the space the spare tire used to be. He put everything back the way it was.

Nanowrimo Day Four

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 6,667 words

Words written today – 1,722
Words written so far – 7,100 words
Words to goal – +433

Oak Point Nature Preserve

From this picture you would think I was out in the country somewhere, cruising the Great Plains, rather than in the heart of the urban, tony suburb of Plano, Texas.

 

“I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.”
― Woody Guthrie

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

This was a tough writing day. Since I was off work, I wanted to really spend some time and maybe double my word count in case I needed a day off this week (which looks awfully busy). But shit happens and a good bit of it did. I managed to write a couple hundred words at lunch and didn’t think I’d be able to get a lot done at night, but I managed to sit down and hammer out my quota.

I’m not to happy with what I wrote, but it is what it is. I wrote the backstory of a new character – I originally intended him to be killed early, but now that I’ve spent so long on his backstory I might keep him around for a while – maybe make him an antagonist. He is a nasty piece of work with an odd name – Prime Meridian.

I started out with the story of how his grandfather, Isaac Meridian, established the start of the family fortune by foreclosing on the misery of the  people of the plains during the great depression and the dust bowl. Too much exposition – but this is Nanowrimo, so I keep typing.

Snippet of what I wrote:

Each little town had its own movie theater, city hall, and carefully tended town square. Every weekend there would be picture shows, dances, and even traveling entertainment – tiny circuses, barnstormers, or small concert orchestras – moving from town to town earning what they could – which was usually enough. People would travel from town to town enjoying the times, making friends.

Nobody ever thought the good times would end. Until they did.

It all happened with horrific speed. The rains stopped. Nobody had understood that the rainy time was the rare exception, not the rule. The land quickly reverted back to what it had always been – a wind-blasted near desert. The crops died and then the soil began to blow. Vast dust clouds began to form as millions of tons of topsoil were blown off barren fields and carried for hundreds of miles.

Walls of dust, moving mountains of dust, shot across the plains, devouring everything in sight. To be hit by this was like walking through a storm of razors. People caught in their own yards would be forced to grope for the doorstep. Cars were forced to a standstill, and no light in the world could penetrate that swirling murk. They lived with the dust, ate it, slept with it, and watched it strip everyone of possessions and the hope of possessions