“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.