Thursday, August 25, 2022

My First Rat

This is a true story. 

I was living with my parents and six younger siblings in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. My bedroom was a curtained-off corner of the basement. My bed was a an old door topped by a thin horsehair mattress, four feet off the floor, suspended from the rafters by chains. I was negotiating a bleak, ascetic, existential phase, reading Sartre and Gide and Beckett and Camus. Being seventeen, I felt simultaneously both stupid and brilliant, both fearful and capable of anything. I was paralyzed by the hopelessness and immensity of life, and overflowing with ambitious optimism. I contained multitudes. 

Late one January night I was reading The Plague by Albert Camus, a 1947 novel set in Oran, Algeria. The novel opens with rats—a lot of rats—emerging from the sewers and crevices and dying on the street. The invasion of dying rats is shortly followed by a plague, the city is sealed off, people die by the thousands, and so forth. It’s a sort of slow-motion horror novel; it kept me up well past midnight. 

As I was reading, I became aware of a faint sound from the cinderblock wall a few inches away from my pallet. A scratching sound. A gnawing sound. An animal sound. It went on and on. I imagined a rat chewing its way through the cinderblock, attempting to invade our safe suburban home. 

Reading became impossible. I got dressed, put on boots and a parka and gloves, grabbed a flashlight and a jar of peanut butter, and went out to the garage. It was snot-freezing cold, well below zero. After a few minutes of searching I found my old Havahart live trap underneath a deflated wading pool. I baited the trap with the peanut butter and placed it alongside the foundation, right outside where I calculated the head of my bed would be. I went back to bed. I opened my book. I listened. The gnawing sound stopped. Eventually, I fell asleep. 

By morning, the temperature had dropped to -18°F. I checked the trap, not really expecting to find anything, but inside the trap was a rat. The first rat I had ever seen in the wild. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. There is Significance here, I thought. What were the chances that this rat should arrive just as I was reading The Plague? Especially considering that I had never seen a rat in St. Louis Park, or anywhere else outside of a pet store. and I had always associated wild rats with big cities, not squeaky clean suburbs. What could this mean? The rat was smaller than I thought a rat should be—about the size of a chipmunk—and it was frozen popsicle solid. I had to pry it’s claws (they looked like little pink fingers) off trap’s wire grate. 

After disposing of the ratsicle, I reset the trap.  

That night, the gnawing resumed. 

In the morning, I had another small frozen rat. 

And, again, the next night, more gnawing. And a third frozen rat in the morning. There was no audible scratching or gnawing on the fourth night. I finished reading The Plague. Good book. When I checked the trap in the morning, I found the queen rat. She was twice the size of the others—a good nine inches long, not counting the tail. She, too, was, frozen, although not quite rock hard like the others. 

I continued to set the trap every night, but never caught another rat. 

That’s it. That’s my first rat story. 

My second rat story can be found here:

1 comment:

George Sorensen said...

When I lived in New York City for a year after college, I rented a space in a SOHO loft. This is before SOHO was all smart shops and nifty restaurants. The space was owned by an artist and art teacher and I had a room in back, no ceiling of my own. We shared a high ceiling.

During the summer the artist went West to visit family, and got two Yale students - women who talked a length into the night - and one morning it was evident something large was gnawing the bottom of the kitchen trash can. I having little money, I scraped together enough to buy a large rat trap. Put cheese on it an in the morning one of the Yale women said, "There's something in YOUR trap." As if the trap were only mine and the fact it was in their sleeping area should be forgotten.

Gratefully, the trap was upside down on a rat the size of a small horse with a yard-stick long slick horrible tail.

Garbage bagged it and tossed in the trash on my way down the street.