Jamey Genna

Rat Stories

Rat #1 was clearly dead

            I found it in the back of the basement in a very secluded corner of my new house. The former owner, Harry Canet, had put up shelves all along the walls down there. The shelves were nailed together without a t-square. One section of the basement had a dirt floor. Another had a huge oil spill. There was a toilet down there behind a homemade, wooden privacy booth. The rat was glued to the floor next to the toilet with his own bodily juices. His smile creaked back across his face. There was a little fur left. He had probably ingested rat poison. I had to get him up with an old straight-ended shovel, the kind used to get ashes out of a fireplace. I knew Harry’s name so well because I kept getting his mail for the years after he was dead. His second wife owned the place until she died and then they put her big dogs down. Harry had also put in a new sink and cabinets in the kitchen in the 70’s—made out of brown wood paneling—and a counter that looked like fake wood paneling, too. He had bolted a small metal plate on the side of the counter that read:


In Loving Memory of my wife, Dolores.
Harry Canet.

            This counter connected to a lower, swirly-gray linoleum counter, the original whitewashed grandma cupboards still there. Before we ripped all of that out, I used to like to lean on the gray part of that counter and read Harry’s plaque for his first wife and think about his dogs, and his second wife getting too old to kill the rats. How he’d put in this god-awful sink for his wife after she was dead and couldn’t appreciate it.

            Marilyn, the woman across the street, bought the house when Harry’s second wife died—then sold it to me and my husband. Marilyn comes over from time to time to investigate what we’re doing to her house. I think she’s the one who put out all the rat poison.

Rat #2 was dead, too

            I found him in the wall. I was tearing some crappy white sidewall out of the basement bathroom and behind it was a huge rat’s nest full of yellowish blonde hair balls, a 1960’s newspaper torn up, fat little dry rat turds everywhere, and the skeleton of this rat stretched out in the middle. I picked him up by his tail with my yellow rubber glove and slung him in the garbage can. In his nest, there were also three or four big long bones that looked like steak bones. The kind in a t-bone. Harry’s wife must’ve fed her dogs with her steak bones, or else Marilyn, the next door neighbor, brought bones across the street for the dogs. That’s how Marilyn is, brings leftover prime rib over for my dog and steak bones and milkbones. She doesn’t have a dog, but she’s a dog lover from way back. She’s a people lover too. She let a homeless woman come and live in her basement for a week one time.
I kept imagining this rat, shouldering the bone and bringing it home. Resting up in the wall, chewing on the remnants of steak. I started doing rat imitations for my kids at school, showing them how this rat humped that bone home.

Rats #3 and 4, dead

            Outside, in the shed, there were stacks of rotten lumber, and I decided to throw those out, even though Marilyn insisted I’d regret it. She said that Harry was a pack rat and kept everything—that that lumber might come in handy some day. I wondered who the pack rat really was. Maybe the second wife just couldn’t lift the boards and carry them away after Harry passed. I loaded them up in the back of my gray truck and some of them fell apart in my hands. They had the white spots on them that come from dry rot and termites. In the very center of the woodpile, there was a family of dead rats, not yet decomposed, lying on top of each other. I started to worry Marilyn may have put too much poison out—that there might still be rat poison floating around the yard that my pets could eat. My sister’s dog had eaten rat poison once, that’s all it took, and died. My sister used to live next to a grain elevator in a trailer across the street from the K-Products—a hat factory where she and my mom worked back in Iowa. The people who owned the grain elevator put out the poison without telling her. One day she came home and there was her sweet little miniature white Akita, twitching, trying to suck air.

             I started scanning the property for the small brown chocolate-like squares of poison. I asked Marilyn if she was sure she got them all, but she wouldn’t admit to even putting them out. She said the former owner must’ve done it, but Marilyn had the property for over a year before she sold it to us. She bought it to give to her niece, but her niece used to drink, and they got into a huge argument, so Marilyn just decided to sell it. I’m not sure what the argument was about, her niece’s drinking or taking care of the place. Marilyn doesn’t have any kids of her own anymore, that’s why she’s such an animal lover. They have birds and cats over there. A big parrot that Marilyn keeps in a cage in her living room. She comes over to our yard, which is like an orchard, and she feeds peanuts to the squirrels in our oak tree. She drops corn over the county fence to the creek bed that borders our property and feeds the deer. She and I saw twin fawn in the trees and the brush one time.

            Marilyn had a son the same age as my husband, but he died. He came home from the Vietnam War and was living in their rock shed in the back of Marilyn’s property. The gas heater broke and he inhaled the gas. She had put a smoke alarm in every room of our house when we bought it from her. I think she sold us the house because my husband is the same age her son would’ve been, although my husband didn’t get drafted.

Rats #5 and #6

            Alive. My cat Elvis hauled them into the house, through the dog door, on two separate occasions. Elvis is a good shy cat. He doesn’t have black hair, he’s yellow, he’s just named after the fact that I got him on the anniversary of Elvis’ death. After the basement was remodeled, I went down there one morning to shower in the new spa. As I was going into the bathroom, I caught the flash of something black and moving out of the corner of my eye, in the central part of the basement—the great room. When I went in there, I saw something scurrying in that half figure-eighty way rats have of curving in and out in snaky arcs. It saw me and scuttled under our new TV cabinet. I ran upstairs. Then I went back down to get my daughter out of her basement bedroom. That same day, I went to Home Depot and bought a rat trap. On the way home, I thought about if I were a rat, where would I go hide? So I put the trap with some peanut butter under my bathroom spa, and sure enough, he was snapped up by the next morning. I closed my eyes and grabbed the trap, hauled it out to the trash bin and dropped it in whole—rat, trap, and all, which was wishful thinking on my part—I should’ve held onto that trap.

            Marilyn wasn’t too happy about how my husband and I ripped out all the cheap, beige, apartment-style carpeting she put in to get the place sold. I think some people have a way of thinking about decoration that goes way back. For her it was about practicality; for us, it was about restoring the reality of the house. We torched up the brown tiles Harry Canet had tar-cemented to the original hardwood floors and we hand-sanded the whole floor with an edger to bring back the original oranges in the wood. Around the edge of every room upstairs there was a beautiful artisan-style pattern laid horizontally against the vertical planes of the floor. Marilyn said that Harry would’ve turned over in his grave if he could see what we had done to the house, which didn’t hurt my feelings a bit.

            The dead rat on the floor in the dining room was probably alive when Elvis brought that one in: Its body was fat and bulging and, just looking at it, it seemed warm. Its head was missing. I never found its head. My five year old daughter came in the dining room and said, “Ugh, what’s that?” And I tried to keep her from seeing it, but she really wanted to look, so I let her. She found it fascinating and wanted to know if Elvis had eaten its head. I said, probably. Its headless body bled into my newly renovated wood floors, left a dark stain, which if it hadn’t been rat’s blood, woulda’ been interesting to behold.

Rat #7: The one under the stove that my husband had to kill

            While we were remodeling the kitchen, a wily rat got under the new stove. We bought the stove first, before we started in on the kitchen, just because my husband’s a great cook. Marilyn didn’t like the stove because it was gas, but this didn’t make sense to have electric because the hot water heater was gas. She bought us a gas detector for the kitchen. A few weeks after we installed the stove, we could smell something, like urine, only not like human urine or cat urine. It smelled bad—heavy and mean. I moved the stove several times trying to find it. Then finally, I put out a mouse trap, hoping that’s what it was—just a little one, but knowing better.

            My husband came home from work at the bakery at three in the morning and the trap snapped while he was fixing himself a bologna sandwich. I was in bed and didn’t get up. I heard him pounding at something in the kitchen and cussing. I put my head under the covers and tried not to listen. Then he was finished. I asked him the next day, was it a mouse, and he said hell no, and that he’d had to kill it because it had only gotten partially caught in the trap and wasn’t dead and that it kept flopping the trap over trying to get away from him. I rinsed the straws of the broom over and over again in the hose water outside.

            “Marilyn,” I said, “what’s up with all the rats around here?” And she said that the realtors were building in the field next to our house and the rats were scurrying into the dry creek bed by our house to survive. She showed me an article about it in the paper. Then she started in about how my husband and I should go in with her to complain at the town meeting because this new development was taking away everybody’s view. Our house was down in the creek gully, and we didn’t have a view so we didn’t go.

            I kept picturing that rat up under my stove like some rat from Rambo, clinging to the inside grill, his legs and arms spread wide in an X to keep from dropping down while I was looking for him. After he was killed, I turned the oven on high and baked it clean for about six hours.

Rat #8: The possibility of further rats

            These weren’t in my house. The next door neighbor Betsey asked me if I had heard any scuffling noises in my attic. She said she thought they had roof rats and I said, what the hell is that! She said they were larger rats than regular rats and they climbed up on your roof and if they got in your attic, they made nests up there. When we first moved in, I had climbed up into our attic and had thrown down all these crappy brown drywall planks and material Harry had stored up there. I put in some fresh pink layers of insulation. I told Betsey, I’d only found a couple of bird skeletons up there and was grateful. The birds must’ve gotten in through this old stove pipe hole we blocked up, and the roof had recently been redone, so it was pretty secure, but Betsey said, they didn’t need a very large hole to squeeze into.

            I was telling Betsey about how Elvis was pretty good about catching rats and how Marilyn was always claiming not to have put out rat poison. I told Betsey how the county had put out rat poison along our fence line, right up against it where my pets could get at it, and I’d had to ask them to come move their traps back a little. They were these strange octagonal shaped boxes that held a bunch of poison. Betsey said, “The rats can squeeze in—they get a little bite, and squeeze back out again.” I suppose she was right, these rats knew how to get into your house.

            Then Betsey and I were talking about how Marilyn’s son died. Betsey said there was talk in the neighborhood. That it wasn’t an accident—that Marilyn’s son had inhaled the gas on purpose. He’d come home from the military: Vietnam. He was stoned all the time, and he locked himself up in that rock shed. Marilyn’s husband Bill is an ex-fire chief. He’d fought in WWII, decorated, even had shrapnel in his hip that bothered him. He comes over to our fence every once in while with Marilyn to feed our dogs. He’s a large sweet old guy and he talks to our dog in a strangled voice, full of longing.

            When Marilyn’s son died, Bill and Marilyn cemented up the pool in their back yard because it was too much trouble. They also had their son’s dog put down. Marilyn told me that. Betsey told me, “Some people said her son was gay.” That probably didn’t sit too well with Marilyn or Bill. Maybe the son said something to them about it when he got home from the war, the times for coming out and all. Sometimes from clear across the street, I can hear Marilyn’s parrot squawking through the glass, “Aaaawrck!” All her cats are pretty old and pretty near dead. They’ve got skin problems and their fur is coming off in patches. Marilyn says the neighbor on her left side is poisoning them with his weed and grass killer. She may be right. Her neighbor doesn’t like to mow, so he has a dirt yard in the front and the back.

Rat #9

            Elvis laid out another fat black rat on the bricks of our front porch. I don’t wonder why he doesn’t eat them. He’s a well-fed cat and probably just brings them up to and into the house to show us, so we’ll be proud. I heard him outside the window, yowling and carrying on, so I went out there and there was the dead rat. Good kitty, good kitty, I told him, now get away. I had to yell at him a little when he wouldn’t back off from the rat lying on the bricks. I’m getting so sick of picking up these sorry-ass rats. I blocked the dog-door so Elvis couldn’t bring them into the house anymore.

            Marilyn and Bill asked us to housesit for them while they went to Vegas to vacation in their second home. After she and Bill took off in their gold SUV, I went over to their place to scope things out. That picture of her son on the wall next to the fireplace, in his uniform. He looked like a happy soldier. The rest of her house was full of stuff. The living room had a gold hanging glass table in the front window, hard candies in a dish, the house had ceramic geegaws still out from Christmas, every inch of the coffee table covered. Every inch of the dining room, too—tables, papers, vases, plastic flowers in them. There were end tables and computer tables and extra chairs. To get around her house, I was forced to walk in little curving paths. Downstairs, on the ground floor, there was a beauty salon, Marilyn’s business before she retired. The salon had the original green and blue plastic chairs in it and the hair dryers that come down. The shelves were lined with boxes of old hair coloring and bleach, people on the boxes with dippety-do curls. The sinks had boxes in them, too. In another room, she had a bar with the original martini glasses on the counter, a pink and nubby couch, longer than any couch I’ve ever seen. She had so much old junk and furniture that I had to push on the door of every room to get in. She had decorator paintings with gold frames all over the walls of every room. On the hallway walls leading to her bedroom, she hung pictures of her son—a boy in the pictures with straight-across bangs wearing shorts and a t-shirt. In her bedroom next to the bed, there was a boxlid full of all kinds of pills for the pain.

            I went to look at her back yard. In it, at the back, was the shed made out of rocks. I had to push hard to open the door. The shed was full of rusted metal things, an old lawnmower, hoses with holes in them, old tools that didn’t work, stuff rusted shut. On the window ledge of the shed, right next to the door, there was a brand new box of rat poison.

 

 

 

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Jamey Genna teaches fiction writing at the Writing Salon in Berkeley, California. She is a graduate from the Masters in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published in many fine literary magazines both on-line and in print, including The Iowa Review, Cutthroat, Dislocate, Georgetown Review Shade, Storyglossia,and Vestal Review, among others.

 

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