A short story about a man finding a rat in his kitchen, but a rat not there to steal food but to bring him back memories thrown in the trash.
“Nothing ever escapes,” I told the rat caught in the trap on my kitchen floor. It was a pale tile that covered my floor, far from the cries of linoleum in a tiny apartment. The rat ignored me as I approached. I bent my knees, lowered my head, and whispered to it, “nothing ever escapes.” I very much badly wanted to follow it up with, “you little beast” or some other insult. The mouse was caught and that was that, and I won the day. The mouse was dying now. Staring, the mouse had a bit of red in its fur, that wasn’t blood. Like tiger stripes. I lifted myself. I struggled to carry two arms of groceries was troubling work for me—why make two trips when one would do just fine. The garage door led into the kitchen so carrying eight bags on each arm I hadn’t far to struggle.
I went about my days just fine without much notice of business around me, except the mouse—rat. An officer one year ago visited me at work, I remember. He came in through the office door of my prestige law office at Miller and Sons but slowed his pace as if that sudden notice of traffic before stopping your foot as soon as it lifted off the curb and into the street. He was a broad sort of man, Officer Romita was on his chest. His chin would make Bruce Campbell proud. He stared, and I stared back waiting for his word. He lifted his cap off his head, not paying no mind to the water dripping on my carpet. That irritated me very much. I took careful work in having my assistant take time out of his day to clean my office, even though we had a janitor that did so each and every night. I had the sort of respect for our clients to keep the office cleaned, keep it professional. And this officer trashed it like it meant nothing to me. But what he had to say was very much important. He said “um” before he spoke.
“I’ll stop you right there.”
No, that is not what I said. But I wanted. Nothing good comes after those words, I’m sorry. Nothing at all and nothing ever will. I wanted to tell him to shut his mouth, clean my carpet, and go on about his day. But he did not. Instead, he said, “Your wife and child have been in an accident.” My eyes never left his for all of ten seconds. It seemed an eternity to be sure.
Now, the very next thing that would be most appropriate to say would be, “how?” or maybe funny enough, as if I could not hear or did not wish to hear, “I’m sorry?” As in a question. Those that have said that always had and always will, have heard what was said but just want that follow-up in case of any sort of miscommunication. The officer spoke and drawn on about the accident, the terrible accident, but the discoloration of the carpet caught my eye and my mind’s attention. I could not figure out why it was turning from that boring pewter to a crimson, a pure red like the water that dripped off the officer’s hat had been blood. A clink and a twitch caught my eye followed by a squeal. Something smelled awful. Something rotten like food left in the kitchen trash can for far too long. The kind of smell that made your eyes watery like freshly cut, rotten, onions. It made me sick. I felt my stomach turn.
The rat was still alive. It’s body pulsed with deep breathes in and out. I could hear the huffing, even from a tiny beast as it was. The chewing of its teeth on the wood trying to escape. It was a desperate prisoner that would do anything to escape. To free itself. Somehow, I could hear the scraping of its hairs in its coat rubbing against each other. It’s scream echoed off the curvature of the kitchen walls. I can hear it always.
I looked at the rat as I separated and organized my groceries. Not that I had much to do—I went to Penrose Supermarket with a list that separated my grocery list by aisle and then in the category, and finally alphabetically. It was a system that allowed me to shop most efficiently and quickly. I was always in and out and never spent time looking for an item off the shelf or wondering what I needed next. No, I wasn’t one of those types. Another reason I only ever use self-checkout. Any bagger or cashier will mix up my bags with all sorts of things. I scan and bag according to what cabinet, shelf, and location everything will go. I thought once should I color coat? Red with reds, blues with blues, yellows with yellows. And so when I was home it was all too easy to open up my bags and place the stuff where it belonged. Which gave me ample time to think about the rat on my floor while I stocked. And pity the thing. It squeaked and squealed, and I very much wanted to put in some earplugs and considered adding them to my grocery list for next time. Earplugs to drown out the dying screams of the rat on the kitchen floor.
The officer spoke up about my wife and child. “She was at Shady Grove and Parkway, a man witnesses described wearing a brown overcoat, and a baseball cap came to her and tried taking her car keys. The man wrestled with her until she fell to the ground, he grabbed the keys and took off. We have officers looking for the vehicle as we speak.” He went on and on and on. I wasn’t listening. The rat, though, captivated my attention. The stench of dying flesh—what was that? Dying flesh, how could dying flesh have an odor? Somehow it’s not dying flesh, its burning charcoal. How? Why? It smelled of a summer barbecue but burnt. But alas, there it was like a poison gas filling every crevice of my kitchen. The quick actions of its tiny legs twitching like being tased.
My wife hated rats. She very much was more than displeased with them. If she saw the thing, she would have us move out immediately to have a pest control company come to take care of the little beast or the very most burn our house down. Which surely she’d do if it were a spider. That was much too money to spend on such a service when I can lay out traps and trap the little beast myself. And now I have. The rat in the kitchen is dying as I slip out my groceries one by one, put them all in a corresponding spot on my kitchen counter to quickly transfer them straight across to the adjacent cabinet or refrigerator. It was quick and efficient. And the red-striped beast on the trap dying would just have to wait until I was finished.
I respected my wife’s wishes to let others handle the work that needed to be done. I called a repairman for this and for that, as much as I held in my pride to just do the job myself. But my wives green eyes persuaded me to do anything and all she asked and I allowed it. Even letting her put the chicken in the middle of the refrigerator even though it was supposed to belong on the bottom shelf, I allowed it. I had a system for the cereal, but let her keep her favorite box on the right closest to the sugar. Even though one was red and the other was white. She would not have allowed this rat in our home.
My daughter loved rats. Well, to be correct she loved all animals and had the most sincere behavior when confronted with such a creature like this dying little beast on my kitchen floor. She loved frogs. The jump. The hop. The green. She hated flies and anything flying. I loved birds. But if I were being honest I never did mind the flies that stood around a dead animal. Well, I always thought they were just feeding and what was being wasted and what really was all that wrong with that? Nothing I thought. Nothing at all. My daughter’s favorite animal was beavers. She loved how they built their dams, tunneling into their home they built themselves. She loved that. The safety and security of home. But my daughter loved all animals, except if they took flight. So, she really didn’t love them all, did she?
The smell worsened around the dying nearly dead rat on my kitchen floor as I finished sorting out my groceries. “All done, little fella,” I said to the little beast. It huffed and puffed. Or, with a twist of the neck, it could be seen as if it were hugging the metal clamps that kept ground towards the wood.
I opened up the pantry and pulled out the tiny broom and dustpan. “Time to go,” I said as I scooped the rat into the dustpan. I carried it outside, careful not to let the pan dip and the rat and trap fall to the floor. But there was a bit of my daughter coming through and suddenly I didn’t want the rat to suffer anymore. What was there to do, what was I to do? The rat was stuck in the trap and surely it would die, and there was no way it could survive from such a trap. I couldn’t let it loose and into the backyard. It would die. Or, in some insane possibility return. What would a rat do if it were trapped and let loose? I’ve seen too many revenge movies to know, the poor little beast must die.
I opened the sliding glass door, a sound reminiscent of the rats screams, into my backyard, and laid the trap on the cement patio. The fog rushed inside and the light was swept away from inside like I turned off the switch, and outside I stepped into the fog like a knife into butter. Taking a knife, I flicked opened the trap and let the rat fall right out onto the ground. It either showed no interest in escaping for its freedom and life, or it was incapable of such a thought due to a complete collapse of its bone structure. I wish I could ask, “Hey little fella, how’re you feeling?” Instead, I went back inside to grab a piece of cardboard from a shipping box I had lying around. You know the ones, the ones that land on your front porch covered in grass and debris because you’ve neglected cleaning it for so long, the kind of package you receive but you have forgotten what you’ve ordered so when you get it you’re surprised and toss the box in a closet thinking, maybe I’ll need a box someday.
The rat was squirming on the patio. I gently placed the cardboard box on top of the rat. Imagined in my head to say a prayer for the little beast, without every thinking a word—just imaging, and without further hesitation and with a degree of unexpectedness in the rat’s eyes I stomped it as hard as I could.
Looking down I imagined some blood and guts to have sprayed outside the edges of the cardboard box. But nothing happened. I picked the cardboard box up, and that rat was squealing and squirming around like he was a worm, worming his way to freedom. My face contorted to what I pretend was a frown, but I was disappointed. I wanted to stuff the lights out of this little beast like that man had done to my wife and child that rainy October night one year ago.
They call it Autumn, but it’s Fall. Everything falls in October. The leaves. The flowers. My daughter. My love. And now this rat once in my kitchen and now on my patio will have my foot fall upon it, again. It was Fall, a year ago, when that officer stepped into my law office to tell me my wife and child had died. No, they were killed. They were choked and murdered in the street and there wasn’t anything anybody could have done about it. I call it Fall, others call it Autumn. The officer continued talking.
“I was on the job once, and this man, like you, had a pregnant wife. A cute brunette. She was a tiny short thing, very petite, and surprised any of us a small girl like that could have a baby. The man, well very straight out of Cops. He rarely shaved and never trimmed, kept a hat on his head to hide the bald spots caused by all the screaming and stressin’ he was doing. The beer gut was typical. He didn’t like her very much. She complained and was too needy, he claimed. He smacked her once or twice bad enough to have her, or more often a neighbor calls us. We’d come, she claims she fell or it was an accident. We’d file a report and that was that. If she didn’t want to file charges, we went on our business.
“Months later without hearing from her we received a call from a neighbor about yelling and thrashing at the couples home. We rushed over there, expecting to hear the same old story. You know the one, ‘He didn’t mean nothing by it, I fell, I’m okay, he still loves me.’ You know the story. The same cliche crap you see on television. My partner and I weren’t too much in a hurry to get there, we’ve seen and heard it all before and this was gonna be about the same. Before we even turned the corner of the street, that sad dreary kind of street that was hit too hard by poverty and gangs, the kind of street couples like this never dreamed of but inedibly found themselves on, a brightness hung above like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“Before then we didn’t even have our lights on, we weren’t in any kind of hurry like I said. Same old story, same outcome, what’s the point? But we flipped on those lights and sped down the street avoiding parked cars too close to each other on both sides and basketballs rolling down the street from kids playing hours earlier before the darkness crept.
“The woman, with quite the belly on her, surely that gave an aching to on her back, stood outside staring at the flames blazing inside. Her eyes were glued to the flames, and when we stared at her asking her questions I still now can see the reflection of those fires of hell, and surely they were, in her eyes. God tested her, maybe tested her too harshly, but tested it her as sure as he did Job, and perhaps she failed. She burnt that sonuvabitch like roasting a pig.
“Now that’s not what she told us, later on, that night at the station. She had bruises and stuff that told us otherwise, but from her, it was all an accident. He did it to himself, cooking and God willed it so. She burnt that sonuvabitch, and ya know what? We didn’t care to investigate too much into it. That was between the Lord and her, and he’d decide what to do with her as she decided what she did to her husband.”
I tossed the cardboard box back on the little creature like tossing out the trash. No thought to it just grace. Let the wind do the work. And when it landed so did my foot. I imagined hearing bones splinter and burst. I imagine and sudden degree of silence like that sound of an airplane door being opened but in reverse, or simply hitting mute on the television. I imagined all those things.
But the rat was alive.
Maybe the cardboard box was bent and protected the little creature. Maybe that was it. Maybe I had to stomp out its life face to face. I no longer pitied the rat, but contempt for its protection when there are those that have none. I stomped again, and again, and again, and again until my foot felt like it was bleeding within my shoe and my knees popped. And then I stomped more. I screamed and yelled for the little demon to die, to die!
That day my wife and child died, I was at my office doing lawyer things that I thought at the time were important. We had an important case, a retail company, pretty well known, was being sued by an employee who was fired for, what they claim, was job abandonment. The employee claims it was discrimination. The details don’t matter, but the well known retail company lawyered up dragged the employee through the mud and threw an avalanche of lawyer fees and paperwork upon that little employee until she hung herself from a bridge near her home. And here we are, defending her dead honor. And there I was, sitting in my office staring at the officer’s shoes on my carpet as his blood water dripped onto my carpet staining it, possibly forever. I was insulted, and I didn’t hear the officer tell me that my wife and child had died. Or the story about an abused pregnant wife. But I heard it later. or remembered it later. The mind has a crazy way of pulling out memories forgotten. Neglected memories. The officer said something.
“Are you okay?”
“No, your face, the black eye, the bruises, are you okay?”
“It’s not blood.” The officer wasn’t here, I was outside on my patio.
And then I looked down at the rat on the cement, and heard it say, “it’s not blood.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Guilt, you say? For what?”
“Killing the wife and child.”
“The man, the man choked them. On the streets. He stole her car. My car. The officer said so.”
“You sued them into death, and she took the child in her, and threw herself off the bridge. The baby. Her spit. It rained blood on the cars below.”
“But I had not done that to my wife.” Somehow my voice dropped its tone, raising the volume.
“Not your wife, the woman. The pregnant woman.”
“The abused pregnant woman?”
“Vengeful pregnant woman. She left the police station. Buried in bills and bruises, she jumped.”
“That is none of my concern. My wife—”
“Your wife, she’s here. Still. It’s not too late to ask—”
I ignored the rat, leaving it outside in the fog, and went back into my kitchen, closing and locking the patio door behind me. The air felt full, unbreathable. Outside the fog, but inside the darkness prevented me from seeing. I turned on a light but only some lit.
All of my groceries were out of the cabinets and refrigerator, and completely disorganized on the counter. Everything was mixed and in the wrong categories, nothing in alphabetical order. Others lived in such a state day in and day out and I have no idea how they stand such a life. But now, everything was in disarray. But the dust.
The dust on the cabinets. The dirt on the knobs. The cobwebs tying the ceiling lights to the counter. Everything is as it has been for such a time and nothing disturbed. A quiet and peaceful kitchen, abandoned. The tiles littered with crumbs. The burnt light bulbs. The kitchen lay in half-darkness.
And then there was a rat in the kitchen. On a new trap. Squealing and squirming. Like it had all before. I studied it, picked it up, and tossed it in the trash. I had no time for this and didn’t feel much in putting thought into it. Nor thought about the ginger covered face with green eyes staring up from the trash on which the rat landed. The smell. That awful, rotting smell. It’d take days to air out of my house of that. But the rest of it was tightly packed in the garbage outside and none would be any wiser to what the smell was. It was nice having a bit of it close inside, just enough to make it truly feel like home, but now was time to go. And so I tossed the rat in the trash and with that, all my problems went away.