“It was not cute,” my roommate said. “I’m not a screamer or anything, but eugh.”
That was the day the large rat made its entrance into our lives. It was an innocuous enough beginning. Nobody, not even my sturdy, stalwart roommate, likes to be faced with a rat as big as a tennis racket is long when going to the garbage room of the apartment building. Seeing them in the subway, running across the tracks and somehow always avoiding the third rail – that’s cute. But having one sit there and stare at you is an entirely different story.
I’m not the kind of guy who thinks of girls as wusses, but I was pretty surprised when my roommate wouldn’t let the subject of the rat go.
“Seriously, Mal, I’m telling you, it was so big, and it was just staring at me. You don’t understand. It had this look…”
“Yeah, okay, but you wipe the asses of old men all day for a living. How is a rat worse?”
She glared. “That’s not all I do and you know it. Look, I know that it’s not exactly sexy, going into geriatrics, but it’s important, okay, like how would you like it if you were eighty and in the hospital and all the nurses kept talking to you like you were four and–”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re too easy to get, you know.”
She swatted me with the kitchen towel and threatened she wouldn’t share her food. The rat was forgotten at least then.
It was my turn to take the garbage out the next week. I pushed the responsibility off by shoving the yuck in the can down again and again with bits of cardboard from the recycling bin (which also needed clearing). When I couldn’t avoid it anymore, I made myself mouth-breathe, tied the bag, and took it down to the absolutely disgusting garbage room.
There are always flies hovering around it, a dark cloud of them buzzing and flying in geometric shapes, over and over again. One night, when I was really high, I speculated that maybe the shapes they made were runes, spells, and that it was flies that kept the earth twirling and going round the sun. The idea stuck with me, unlike most of my stoned babble, and it made me wary of swatting them.
I pushed the garbage room door open and swung the bag back in an arc so I could toss it all the way in without setting foot inside the room. Before I let the bag loose, though, a fat brown rat caught my eye. The bag swung back down and pendulumed a little in my upraised hand. I didn’t really notice. I suppose I kept my hold on it by sheer instinct.
I was mesmerized. This rat – it was positively majestic. It was the Cleopatra of rats. The Henry VIII of rats. The freaking Freddie Mercury of rats. It had a scar across its left eye and one of its protruding front teeth was chipped. Its grey fur was matted but it looked like a coat bought from the Salvation Army, like a vintage delicacy scrounged from the bargain bin. There should have been a soundtrack of a guitar solo going.
It – I have no idea how you tell rat gender – was also slouched sideways, kind of leaning towards one hip. If it had eyebrows, it would only have been raising one. This rat, this cool as a mofo rat, was basically asking me what the hell did I think I was doing, barging into its domain.
There was squeak, the only squeak I’ve ever heard that had a smoker’s rasp to it, and I could swear the intonation was the same as “get the hell out of here,” as spoken by any impatient bartender getting rid of a shoeless customer.
I took the garbage next door and tossed it in their garbage room.
When I got back upstairs, I asked my roommate if she’d thrown the garbage in there with the rat last week.
“Oh come on. You know which rat.”
“…you’ve seen it?”
“Have I. Have I!”
“So you know,” she breathed.
“Why did you pretend to be disgusted by it?”
“What else could I do? Tell you that the King of All Rats is presiding over our very garbage room? You’d have told me I was insane.”
“I guess. But now I understand. I get it. We have royalty here.”
“Yes. And you know what makes us. Courtiers.”
That- that was just the beginning of our involvement with the rat.