“The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
“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
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?”
“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.
“The statue was of a nude woman playing a slide trombone. It was entitled, enigmatically, Evelyn and Her Magic Violin.”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., The Sirens of Titan
“Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”
“Yes, every once in a while.”
“Do you know that in about thirty- five more years we’ll be dead?”
“What the hell, Robert,” I said. “What the hell.”
“It’s one thing I don’t worry about,” I said.
“You ought to.”
“I’ve had plenty to worry about one time or other. I’m through worrying.”
“Well, I want to go to South America.”
“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”
“But you’ve never been to South America.”
“South America hell! If you went there the way you feel now it would be exactly the same. This is a good town. Why don’t you start living your life in Paris?”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
“…and there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.”
― Herman Melville
What are you buying when you get on a roller coaster? Not risk… but the illusion of risk. Being hurled to the edge of danger but knowing that you’ll never have to cross it. … Think of Alaska as one big theme park.”
—- Limbo (movie), John Sayles
I particularly enjoyed the artwork hanging on the walls. On our trip across the river to Algiers, we discussed a dark painting that I remembered. You couldn’t see much – only a snow capped mountain line and maybe a bit of an orange glow. When we returned for the evening, I took a photo of the painting with my phone and was surprised to see that there was more visible in the picture than there was in real life. There was a row of mountains and a small boat in the foreground that you could not see with the naked eye. I was particularly taken by that subtle orange glow behind some trees on the right hand side.
The staff from the Beuregard-Keyes House said that the painter and even the date of this particular canvas was unknown. I talked to the others that had been at Algiers with me and realized I had the wrong artwork – they had been discussing a nearby painting of Venice at night by George Loring Brown.
That didn’t matter to me, I still was fascinated by the dark line of snowcapped mountains and still water. The next day at a nearby breakfast place I decided to write a flash fiction based on the painting (changing the mountains into volcanic peaks for dramatic effect). Inspired by one of my favorite films, Limbo (see it at your risk, I loved the film but the others in the theater stood up and cursed the screen at the end – Christopher Null said, “I can forgive many things. But using some hackneyed, whacked-out, screwed-up non-ending on a movie is unforgivable. I walked a half-mile in the rain and sat through two hours of typical, plodding Sayles melodrama to get cheated by a complete and total copout finale.” – He is completely wrong, the movie ended the only way it could….), left the ending… somewhat unresolved.
Typed up from my handwritten notebook:
July 11, 10:30 Croisant D’Or, New Orleans
The darkness was so all-encompassing it felt as thick and liquid as the saltwater they dipped their paddles in. The four canoes and single small skiff moved in a rough line. Sam could almost see the skiff ahead – more of an impression than actual vision – rowed by the four on board – its sails useless in the dead calm night.
Beyond, the unseen moon hidden by an invisible line of cliffs to the right illuminated the snow capped upper slopes of the volcano. Its torn cone glowing in the sky – visible, but selfish with its cold light.
The paddles and oars clumped up and down the line, with an occasional weak splash. The men were all too exhausted with effort, fear, and lack of sleep to work efficiently and the sound of wood striking gunwale or skipping off the water at the wrong angle was a surprise to these skilled seagoing men – but they were so numb – the embarrassment passed.
They worked in silence. Sam wondered if the other men’s minds were silently exploding within – as his felt. The humidity thickened the darkness. The only breeze was provided by their paddling – the heat was broken every now and then by invisible lenses of cool air that fell down the slopes from the snowfields miles above. They passed through a bank of sour sulfur mist from the fumaroles along the shore. The paddling increased to move through that foulness as quickly as possible.
Sam saw something new – coming to life out of the ink. At first it was barely visible – a dark dull rust-colored patch ahead, quickly heating into a dark but distinct orange glow.
It was a bit to the right of the skiff, along the shoreline. Sam realized this was their destination, their camp. There was a line of dunes and behind them a swampy area before the land rose quickly up the mountain. They had pitched camp atop a series of grassy hummocks above the brown stagnant drainage, but still protected by the dunes from being seen from the sea.
At first the glow heartened Sam and the others as their rowing increased a little more in pace. They were almost back. Sam thought of a bit of a rest – of a stout drink around the campfire before they had to start the hard work of unloading the rifles and ammo boxes from the canoes and the skiff. Sam even thought beyond that, of crawling into his tent for sleep. That seemed the end, he couldn’t get his mind past the imaginary sensation of letting himself falling limp and snapping his eyes shut.
But as they approached at a frustrating pace, weighted down by all that steel until the tiny waves lapped at the gunwales, the orange glow began to grow and spread.
Soon, it was all-encompassing. They could even see yellow licks of flame flicking over the tops of the dunes. Long tongues of red light reached up the sides of the mountain above, moving and interspersed with long ominous purple moving shadows.
Shouts, curses, and desperate cries peppered up and down the line of little boats. Sam kept silent though, and continued to paddle with desperate hopeless effort. They all did, still moving straight into the growing conflagration.
They had nowhere else to go.
Sam thought, “I am mortal. We are all going to die… but when? Is it going to be tonight?”
“Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement.”
― Aldous Huxley, The Art of Seeing
In the City of New Orleans there is a fantastic arrangement of sculpture along Poydras Street. Walking down and back from my son’s apartment to the Running of the Bulls I took photos of a few of them that I’ll share with you.
“My sculpture is kinetic, meaning that it moves. The elements are derived from nature, and I borrow natural elements — wind, water, magnets — to set them in motion. The rhythms are influenced by infinite variables: the points of balance, the normal frequency of each form, the interruption of the counterpoise. I juggle, juxtapose, and adjust to achieve the dance or pantomime that I want. Then the sculpture takes over and invents a fillip of its own.”