On the first above-fifty-degrees-day in February, try not to make snarky comments to your husband about your neighbor across the street, R., when he backs the two white SUVs (belonging to his failure-to-launch college-age sons) out of the driveway and parks them on the street, then backs the two white SUVs (belonging to him and his wife, B.) out of the garage and parks them on the street, too. So what, if they prefer American-large and you prefer Japanese-American-small? You’ve known these people for twenty years, if somewhat from a distance. You share a sewer line, mailmen, and garbage collectors. You have a stocked wine cellar; they have a state-of-the-art generator in case The Big One hits and have offered to run an extension cord across the street, in the event that—you know. You could trade them a nice buzz for some warmth. And besides gas is gas is gas and it is spring-like enough today, and R.’s had all winter to look forward to this, and he always parks his fleet of vehicles politely, even at the grocery store when he’s in a hurry. You can just tell.
When you have determined there are at least two Norwegian rats that have survived the snows, living under the house or in the walls of the house, or in a cozy den under the pfitzers, schedule a trip to the agricultural supply store on the west side of town immediately. Farmers and ranchers know how to murder effectively, definitively. The rats are quite fat, you notice, even though it’s barely March, owing probably to the generous quantities of quality birdseed (“At least 50% oiled thistle favored by finches!”) you provide all winter to the ground feeders such as the flock of fifty or so gambel quail and the dozen blue jays and magpies, and the calf manna you put out for the foraging deer, and the leftovers from the cats’ dishes you donate to the itinerant raccoon, and the bunny pellets your husband bought at the pet store for the rabbit that began living under the pyracantha in January. Who knew that wild rabbits would actually prefer pyracantha leaves?
If your assigned neighborhood cleanup window falls in April this year, do not slow the car conspicuously as you drive around evaluating the mounds of rubbish that appear curbside. The city landfill is very accommodating, but don’t even think about putting out any bald tires or cans containing the dregs of hazardous chemicals. There will, of course, be baby strollers (the cheap ones from China) and mattresses stained with years of human secretions, and rickety patio furniture-cum-winterkill. Do not stop and stare, even though there might be an old commode or two in the gutter. Some people have absolutely no sense of appropriate boundaries. But you knew this already.
When the battered pick-up trucks with the rusted-out wheel-wells begin circulating to scavenge the promising refuse—doors, cabinets, appliances that might yet have a life or yield scrap—do not stare out the windows and make deprecating remarks. These people, at least they have a sense of pride. They don’t just take any old thing—certainly not the commodes. They are your neighbors, too; they just hail from another income bracket. Feel inordinately proud of this compassionate thought.
Try to ignore the daylong hammering on the steel flue of the fireplace breaching your roof, the clangclangclangclangCLANG, reverberating, ceiling to floor, issuing from that telltale heart with stout feathers and a biological mission to fulfill, otherwise known as a flicker. He is calling for his soulmate—again this year. Right on schedule. For six hours. Every single day.
How long do flickers live? How long could the maps in their memories survive, generation to generation?: Remember: terrific mating broadcast instrument! Right here! Clangclang!
Sit on your meditation zafu. Try to breathe through it, again, if only for twenty minutes at a time. Try not think about encouraging your husband to shoot that bird’s ass, as he has threatened to do every spring for some time.
On the first of May, the stray cat will arrive. He will strike you as skinny, but not desperately skinny. You will begin feeding him anyway. Next thing you know, he’s hanging out on your deck in the sun all day, like a tourist waiting for his nachos and piña colada. This goes on for almost two weeks, which is when you purchase a break-away cat collar and a name tag at the pet store: fifteen dollars, no small investment. You are a responsible citizen. You have the tag inscribed with your phone number and the name you’ve bestowed on the maybe-stray: Gray. Or Grey, in an anglophilic mood. You reason that if Gray/Grey is in fact applying for a new home, you will not receive a phone call from his actual owner, and that if he is instead a freeloader, you will. Either way, case closed.
After Mother’s Day weekend you will hear from an overwrought cat sitter who has just examined the tag on Gray/Grey and is immensely relieved to know he is alive. His parents will be on vacation for three weeks, and he had sneaked out of the house the second day and disappeared. Thank god. Thank god he found you. But he’s taken off again. Yes, you say, he’s back up here in my living room, asleep on the couch. Shall I send him home?
The neighborhood children are back in the streets, playing, you notice.
“Is it lethal?”
“Is it what?”
“Are you dead?”
When the mock battle is over, you watch them argue for five minutes about who survived the imaginary bullets.
In June R. hires contractors to excavate and replace the garage floor and the driveway. You think about archaeology, about T-Rexes, about what measure of carbon footprint you yourself might be leaving. At any rate, there are days of jackhammers sending shockwaves through the bedrock and the relentless machine-whine of a Bobcat rounding up the debris, and you and your husband discuss the disintegrating cement in your own garage and driveway and decide to let entropy take its course. Meanwhile, your neighbor installs an elaborate system of tubes and sensors in the driveway that will ensure it stays snow-free all winter long. And you realize—embarrassed over your ignorance in a way every budding Buddhist must on the way to enlightment—that because R. has MS, it would follow that shoveling the drive in the winter has become impossible. Workers coat the new ice-rink smooth surface of the garage with fire-engine red paint, the flagship color of the local college football team, where the neighbors’ two sons are no longer enrolled.
On the fourth of July, having had too much wine, you retire after the fireworks. The neighbor to the north begins setting off bottle rockets in the street with his three sons at eleven p.m. Fireworks are not permitted in the neighborhood owing to its proximity to the tinder-dry, scrub-oak laden foothills nearby. This neighbor is a cop. You a) roll over in bed and try to ignore the disturbance; b) throw on your sweat suit and go out into the night to confront this idiot. If b), the cop will get in your face because 1) you have embarrassed him in front of his young sons and because 2) he’s an asshole. He will accuse you of threatening him (you weigh a good seventy-five pounds less than he does). You will say, Threaten you? My next move is to call the police.
That’ll get him.
Smile that smug gotcha smile. Remember then how the cop’s sons like to build an improvised luge run in front of your house on the steep street in December when it snows hard; how much you enjoy watching them with their inner tubes. Their cheeks red and smiles white. Then turn on your heel. Hear him call you a bitch.
Return to bed. Hear your husband tell you that you are scaring him. Bad.
Finally in August you have to do something about the rats. They might outnumber the quail at this point. You wonder at the reproductive persistence of nature. You have given up on the local raptors and predators—the goshawk, the occasional golden eagle, the coyotes—for vermin control. You have ordered the Havahart two-door, no-kill trap for some ridiculous amount of money and baited it with peanut butter as instructed. The rats, it seems, queue up outside the trap when you aren’t looking, share a toast and have a laugh. Your neighbors across the street—really, they are good-natured. You’ve told them you’re gearing up to effect the inevitable and necessary slaughter. B. has left an anonymous gag gift on your doorstep: a box of small plastic rodents from the toy store with a note: You’ve been good to us. Thanks for the memories.
One day, you hear a knock on the door. It’s Borg the postman. “Do you know you have RATS?,” he says. You assure him you are aware of this. “I mean, not just a rat. RATS,” he says. “Hundreds.” Yes, you say, you have the poison now. And almost the will.
You call the city’s Division of Environmental Health for, what? Moral or immoral support? You leave a message: There’s a problem here, uh, rodents. You need advice. A few days later a sweet-and-young-sounding agent named Jessie calls back. She’s a Buddhist, too, it turns out. In fact, she has designed and built some low-cost, no-kill rat traps to solve her own infestation problems without ruining her karma. You know this is a moment of truth. Or something. Here is what you whisper into the receiver: “It’s just that there are so many now.”
I know, she says. You can tell she’s sympathetic. But that’s why she’s going to have to alert all of the neighbors in writing within a half-mile radius of This Situation. She’s sorry. Your address will not be specified, but the truth is, once you start The Eradication, the rats will pack their little rucksacks and move elsewhere. Say, across the street. The truth is, you’ve had more attention from Jesse this afternoon than you’ve had from your own GP in years.
That night, you tell your husband it’s time. You cry, you do, crazy as some would think it. And this is how you know you’ll be married forever: he hugs you.
It has been reported to the Health Department that one or more rats have been seen in your neighborhood. This brochure will provide you with information that you can use to protect your property against rat infestation.
- Rats can gain access through a ½ inch hole. They climb both horizontal and vertical wires.
- They can climb inside of vertical pipes and conduits 3 inches in diameter.
- They can climb bricks or other rough exterior walls offering foot holds.
- They climb vines, shrubs, or trees to gain access to upper stories of buildings.
- They can travel in sewer lines, even against a substantial current, and dive through water plumbing traps.
- They travel approximately 300 feet to obtain food, water, and shelter.
- They are attracted to bird feeding stations.
- They are attracted to dog and cat food bowls.
Also at this juncture, resolve weakening, you investigate websites devoted the humane elimination of rats:
“I have caught a rat under a bucket with a rock on top. It is not very lively, but still alive. It is illegal for me to release the animal alive. The council’s rat exterminator has a two week waiting list. I would like to desptach [sic] it without causing undue stress to the animal.”
“Kill it. It’s a rat.”
“Obviously starving it to death will be highly stressful for it. Rat poison slipped under the bucket? Make a hole in the top and kill it by carbon monoxide poisoning from your car?”
Gray/Grey’s real name is Syd. His real family, the one that lives three blocks away and has long been back from vacation, has not been able to break Syd of his vagabond habits, his desire to vacation at your house more or less everyday this summer. Not that you’ve discouraged his attention. By now, you know the facts: working father, working mother, one child, five, one new baby. Syd is not, obviously, getting the attention he needs. When you call to report what you suspect is an ear infection afflicting Syd, the female voice at the other end sounds quite tense. This is a woman with more than enough on her hands right now. You wonder whether to spirit Syd off to the vet on your own dime.
It takes ten days to kill sixty or so rats. Incredible. For ten days, the quail mill around wondering where the seed is. The black plastic death chambers containing the Warfarin, which have been strategically located on your property, have apparently done what they’re supposed to. You expect to smell death. You don’t. This makes it worse. One afternoon, sweeping the sidewalk, you see the desiccated shell of a rat that something has dragged out of the pfitzers. You think about the other forty or fifty or sixty creatures, whole families, that had the dignity to hide themselves from you.
Its eyes are slits, commas, caesuras.
Here’s the rub: Warfarin is a synthetic derivative of a chemical occurring naturally, in licorice, for example—a substance deadly to rats and to mice discovered by one University of Wisconsin scientist named Karl Paul Link and patented as premier poison in 1948. Three years later, it was determined that this same substance (brand named Coumadin) was not only harmless to humans, but in fact when used as an anticoagulant, saved the life of President Dwight David Eisenhower. It may, however, have killed Josef Stalin and, not incidentally, advanced human civilization as we know it. (Save the grainery!)
History is so strange. How would you choose to die, should you be able to choose? Asphyxiation? Hemorrhaging? The A-bomb or H-? A car crash? Aboard a highjacked plane driven into a fallow field or a postmodern stele where you traded stocks? A forced march to some less contested place for refugees housed in tents (tents if you’re lucky) dying of starvation or dysentery or simple homesickness? In your sleep, without suffering and enlightenment on your mind?
Hit the zafu.
In September you begin pruning away the deadwood that will go out with the other rubbish on the next neighborhood cleanup day. You’re finally getting rid of the cedar benches that have fallen into disrepair; they were built as accessories for the multi-jet hot tub maintained at 104 degrees year-round, so that you might rest upon them your margaritas and wine glasses while you soak. So that you might, with the least expenditure of effort, moisten your palate while the steam rises around you.
The city gives very clear instructions: “Refuse must not be placed on the curb sooner than two weeks before your scheduled pickup.” This fall, though, everyone seems antsy; the shedding begins in earnest well before it is legal.
When you get home from the grocery store, your neighbor, B., is standing in the street with Gretchen, another neighbor half-a-block north. Gretchen’s SUV is running and her driver’s door is hanging open.
B. waves you over. “Missus M., we were wondering what these are.” She points to the benches. Ten years of winters have pried the joints apart, stripped off the finish, grayed the russet stain, worked the wood into not much more than good kindling.
“Gretchen thought they looked like…”
“You know, little altars of some kind,” Gretchen says.
“You must mean priedieu,” you say. Pray God. You have no idea, really, why you know this word, but it is one of those moments when you wish you had a friend nearby, as your neighbor does. One who might stop in the street on her way somewhere else to visit or to gossip idly about you and your life.
In late September, you hear something strange: a voice at your screen door on the deck where Syd has spent most of the last few months.
The screen door scrapes in its aluminum track. You do not a) go for the gun or b) dial 911 and go to the safe-room you husband has designated, the bathroom with solid-core door and the lock. Why? Why?
Instead, you go to that sound. “Hello?”
Hi. He is Syd’s dad. He has come to collect his cat for a vet’s appointment. Would you be so kind as to remove that collar you’ve given him, the one they haven’t removed themselves?
Yes, of course.
Oh, meet my son.
(Ian, or Nathan, or Josh, or Seth or something, says,) Here kitty-kitty. Five-year-old fingers flutter.
(Gray/Grey/Syd retreats into your arms)
“He was a forest cat, you know,” says Syd’s father. “A survivor, tough guy. I found him starving in the woods when I was a ranger.”
You remove the collar. You hug Syd goodbye. How do you know? How do you know: Two weeks later you drive by Syd’s house. There is a for-sale sign at the curb. You walk up to the front door and ring. Nothing. You look in the window. The house is empty.
October: when the neighbor across the street, R., cleans the floor of the garage, probably for the last time until next spring, you think, Chop wood, carry water. First he backs all of the SUVs out the way. Then he sweeps, then he mops the beautiful red floor, then he hoses down the driveway. That floor is cleaner than your kitchen floor, cleaner than your soul.
Then comes winter.