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Rats

It was an old, working-class neighborhood of large brick houses of the style built in Cincinnati before the first world war, close together with tiny front yards, many of which were enclosed by wrought-iron fences. There weren’t many garages, since when the neighborhood was built nearly everybody rode street cars to work. Most of the big houses had been converted to multi-family dwellings, and parked automobiles lined the tree-shaded streets.

We lived there in 1952, when the post-war boom was just getting started. Ike Eisenhower would be elected president later that year. I had returned to my home town following my discharge from the Coast Guard, and lived with the family of my old buddy, Don Fox. Five of us shared a dilapidated frame house someone had built at the back of the property of one of those old homes. Without a basement, it stood on pillars of concrete block, the crawl space under it hidden behind a skirt of wooden latticework. Five rooms, two stories. My buddy and I shared a bed in one of the two rooms upstairs, while the rest of the family slept in the next room. The floors throughout the house were covered with linoleum. To say the least, it wasn’t fancy.

Rats were a problem. We could hear them scurrying around in the walls at night when the house was quiet. The food cupboard was raided several times. We set out Decon, a poisoned grain, near the holes that they made in the baseboards. We could tell that it was working, from the smell when they died down in the crawl space. Don and I pulled a section of skirt away from the building and went in on our bellies to find and pull out the corpses. Still, there were more rats. After a while, we took them for granted; they were simply part of our environment.

That’s not to say we liked them. Don’s mom complained vehemently about them, especially when they managed to get into our food. His seven-year-old brother was terrified.

One evening, after listening to the rats play in the walls as we sat in the living room reading, Don went upstairs and returned with his pellet gun. It worked with air pressure from a hand pump and fired little lead pellets. It wasn’t lethal to people, but he had killed a few small animals with it.

He pumped up the gun and lay on the sofa, waiting for a rat to appear at one of the holes in the baseboard. After a few minutes of no activity, he went to the kitchen and brought back the box of Decon. Pouring a small pile of it just outside a rat hole, he returned to the sofa and waited some more. His patience was rewarded within minutes. The rats really liked the bait.

He managed to hit several of the animals, but they withdrew into the walls, so it was hard to tell if he had killed any. He tired of his sport after a while and announced that he was going to bed. As he left, he tossed the pistol onto the sofa. “Be my guest,” he said.

I was never a good shot, but I assumed his sniper position, and waited. Sure enough, gleaming, beady eyes soon appeared at the hole. I shot several times, and heard a commotion behind the wall. But I still couldn’t tell what damage I had done. Eventually I, too, gave up and went to bed. The rest of the family was asleep.

In those days I usually slept soundly. So I was surprised when I awoke some time during the night. I felt the hair on my arms standing up. A faint clicking sound came from the stairway that opened into our bedroom. Suddenly I recognized the sound, and I knew exactly what was happening. A rat was coming up the stairs, its claws clicking on the linoleum, one step at a time. In the short time we had lived in the house and knew about the rats, we had never known any of them to come upstairs. I was immediately wide awake. I thought of nudging Don, who was sound asleep, but I felt paralyzed. Not only was I sure of what I heard, I knew why the rat was coming—he was seeking revenge! Whether he was one whom I had hit with a pellet, or one of its many siblings, he was coming after me. I was never more certain of anything. And all I could do was lie there and wait.

I could tell exactly where he was by the sound of his claws. At the top of the stairs, he crossed the room and jumped up onto an easy chair that sat in front of the window near the foot of our bed. Then I saw his silhouette, atop the back of the chair. Every move convinced me further of his intention. I knew that his next move would be to leap from the back of the chair onto the bed. My heart pounded.

Sure enough, he jumped. As he did, I managed to raise my foot under the covers so that, instead of landing on the bed, he bounced off my foot and onto the floor with a soft thud.

The clicking of his claws told me that he was running across the room and back down the stairs. In my mind I followed him all the way down, and then waited in the silence for what might happen next. My heart was still pounding and sweat ran off my forehead.

I reached over and shook Don. When he mumbled something, I told him what happened.

“Is he gone?” Don asked thickly.

“Yes.” I had expected him to wake up fully from the news, but he didn’t.

“Good,” was all he said, and soon he was breathing quietly again, sound asleep.

I, on the other hand, lay there wide awake for a long time before drifting off.

The next day, Don and I repaired the latch on the door at the foot of the stairs, and made sure it was secure each night before retiring. We redoubled our Decon program, and hauled many more dead rats out from under the house in the months before we found another place to live. Not long afterward, Don got married and moved away, and I found a room in a hotel for young men.

He and I talked many times about the rats in that house, but I’m not sure he ever believed my story about the rat who wanted revenge.

 

June 15, 2006

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