Friday, February 3, 2012

Bananas, Bread, and Schadenfreude

     It's Friday morning, and I am expecting a visit from the exterminator. It's just a routine visit, with no creepy crawlies or critters to speak of, a service which our landlord generously provides. Being a landlord myself, I provide a similar service for my tenants. Although I hate the idea, as well as the smell, of pesticides, it's a necessary evil, as being accused of "slumlordery" would be an even less palatable option. We live in an old building downtown, and according to the exterminator, we are lucky not to have pest or rodent problems because lots of businesses on Broad Street do. I'm hoping none of the restaurants we dine at are included in that observation! Living in the South most of my life, I've had my own share of palmetto bug and rodent misadventures, the hair-raising memories of which are still just as fresh and icky today as they were then.
     Before we were married, my first husband, Jim, and I rented an apartment in a quadraplex. It was located in the Emory area, just off of Briarcliff Road, and from the outside, it looked like a cool place. We were on the ground level, part of which was subterranean. Mr. Charles Smooth, a sleazy DJ at a nightclub, lived in the upstairs apartment, and he and his girlfriend's clamorous lovemaking kept our ears very busy in the wee hours of the morning, their bedroom being right above ours. But, soon, we began hearing another kind of noise, a persistent scratching and plodding. This dreadful noise was coming from our own kitchen. Something was nibbling at our bread and bananas, and it was then that Jim calmly informed me we had a rat. He'd suspected it for awhile, but hadn't wanted to alarm me. He knew I would totally freak out about it, and he was right.
     Rats, I learned, are extremely clever. They have compressible bones which enable them to squeeze through crevices no bigger in diameter than your little finger. They can also open and close cabinet doors and climb vertically. Reminiscent of the famous food orgy in Fellini's "Satyricon", I envisioned these pesky nocturnal opportunists, lazily feasting atop our kitchen counters, peppering all available surfaces with pellet-sized droppings, the filthy mementos of their ridicule and blatant disregard for our living space. Because one of our neighbors had a cat, Jim was concerned about using rat poison. This wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was true that if the cat ate the poisoned rat, the cat might also get sick and bleed to death. He'd determined that the rat was entering through a cabinet, next to the dishwasher, and that the cabinet and dishwasher were contiguous with the crawlspace of the building. We baited some spring-loaded traps, and waited.
     A few nights went by with complete silence, but I didn't sleep well, knowing that somewhere, that rat was lurking in the shadows. Early one morning, there was a terrific SNAP!, accompanied by a shrill scream, followed by violent clacking and thumping. I was literally frozen to the mattress. Jim dutifully went to inspect the situation, and it was probably an hour before he returned to bed. The kitchen, he said, resembled the theatrical set of a horror movie, with bright red arterial blood spattered all over the counters, floor, and refrigerator. There was no sign of the rat or the trap. Based on the trail of bloody footprints, he surmised that the fatally injured beast had fled to the crawlspace, exiting under the dishwasher. He was able to clean all traces of the rat's blood, except for a few spots which had stained one of my recipe cards, tacked by a magnet onto the refrigerator door. Our moods were strangely celebratory, the rat's demise having prompted in us a queerly justified sense of Schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others). Soon after than incident, we bought a house, and I mistakenly assumed I was finished with rats forever.
     I lived in the second house we owned, the one in Marietta, from 1990-1997. Jim and I separated in the fall of 1992, leaving me as sole head of the household, as well as the single mother of two year old twins. In the spring of 1995, I hired a live in babysitter named Alicia, who was very fond of animals. She had a pet rat, which she kept in a cage. Alicia, as it turned out, had a lot of problems with personal hygiene, and her bedroom smelled like a zoo. Despite this, she kept that rat's cage clean as a whistle. One evening, Alicia told me she thought she'd seen a rat, running down the hall, assuring me that it most definitely wasn't her pet rat. Knowing that she possessed a somewhat overly active imagination, I took this information with a grain of salt. Alicia, at times, exhibited what I'd call delusions of grandeur, claiming she knew famous people and had lots of guys chasing her, when the reality was that she was quite unattractive, disheveled, reclusive, introverted, and rather bizarre. Although she'd come highly recommended by a doctor friend of mine, it wasn't a good fit, and I was actively seeking her replacement. In the meantime, I ignored her reports of a rat.
     About a week later, I came home from my nursing night shift, ready for a good morning's sleep. I scrounged around for a little something to eat before I went to bed, when the terrible, familiar sights of gnawed-on bananas and a chewed-through loaf of bread caught my eye. Alicia hadn't been lying; she really had seen a rat! It all suddenly came together--the relentless scratching I'd heard for weeks in the exhaust vent above the stove hadn't been a squirrel, it was another freaking rat! An immediate inspection of the cabinet which housed the exhaust apparatus confirmed my suspicion. There was a huge hole in the bottom shelf, just above the ventilating fan; apparently, the rat had used this portal to enter the kitchen from the attic. The thought of setting a trap was too overwhelming: what would I do with all the blood and the dead body? I'd always depended on Jim to take care of problems like that. I phoned my sister, Emi, to see if she had any advice. Emi told me that rats love peanut butter, and suggested that I make some peanut butter-rat poison balls, and use those to bait a few glue traps. "The glue traps won't make a bloody mess", she reassured me.
     Following her instructions, I shoved a few poisoned peanut butter balls underneath the dishwasher, which was where I suspected the rat exited after molesting my bananas, and set approximately ten baited glue traps in various locations throughout the kitchen. I went to bed at about 11 pm, thoroughly disturbed by visions of this lurid rat, scampering down the hall to crawl between the sheets with Nick and Rory. The anticipation of seeing a trapped rat, alive and flopping around, was equally as troublesome. I was sitting in bed, reading Stephen King's novel, Dolores Claiborne, when I heard the much-dreaded commotion in the kitchen. Summoning every single ounce of bravery I had within me, I crept down the hall, craning my neck to see what was going on in the far corner of the kitchen.
     It became immediately apparent that the mouse-sized glue traps I'd purchased were grossly inadequate for a rat this size. Never having actually seen the rat at our first apartment, I had no idea how big they were. This rat was about the size of a small squirrel, and had his ass and hind feet trapped in the glue, permitting him to hobble about on his forepaws. My heart nearly stopped upon witnessing this. In a panic, I called my baby brother, Peter, who lived a few minutes away from my house. He advised me to contain the rat until he got there. "Contain the rat with what?" I wondered. Hastily, I ran downstairs for a bucket, but when I returned to the kitchen, I found the trap empty, devoid of all traces of the rat, save for a few of its bristly ass hairs. I could still hear him, though. He was inside the Hoosier cabinet, presumably gorging himself on his favorite box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, which I'd left undisturbed in an attempt to draw him to the trap I'd planted behind it.
     Peter arrived at the kitchen door, fully garbed for rat combat with heavy leather work gloves, a flashlight, and a shovel. Our working plan was to scare the rat out of the cabinet, onto the pre-arranged trail of glue traps which led to the dishwasher, and once he'd gotten himself firmly stuck, we'd throw the bucket over him, shoving a piece of cardboard under this makeshift plastic prison, and dispose of him in the garbage. This plan, seemingly elegant in its simplicity, failed miserably. As soon as Peter started banging on the Hoosier cabinet with his shovel, the rat darted out, running up the wall and down again, completely bypassing the glue traps and me with my bucket, making a clean getaway under the dishwasher. The rat was never seen or heard from again. A couple of days later, I peered under the dishwasher to see if he'd eaten the poisoned peanut butter ball, and sure enough, it was gone. Because there was no odor of death emanating from the walls or beneath the house, I assumed he ate the poison, and went outside to the creek behind our house to find water, dying somewhere along the creekbank.
     I'll be greeting the exterminator in just a few minutes. He'll casually walk around, spraying his toxic chemicals, inspecting for any signs of pest infestation. We'll exchange a few words, and he'll be off to his next appointment. I'll imagine the horrors he sees on a daily basis, hoping that none of them are located within my immediate vicinity. I have to admit, I still keep a watchful eye on my bananas, and I never leave bread on the counter. You just never know when you're going to smell a rat.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, there are much more humane ways to deal with rodent infestations than glue traps, and in writing this story, I am by no means promoting or condoning their use; I am simply recounting events which took place almost 20 years ago. The best way to deal with rodents is to keep them out of your house by sealing off all possible points of entry; once I learned this trick (through the help of the internet, which wasn't available 20 years ago), I haven't had any more rodent problems. I find the hypocrisy of many of the PETA people/animal rights activists absolutely appalling, equally as despicable and inhumane as any other type of zealot. People, by and large, need to take themselves a little less seriously. Opinions are like assholes...everybody has one!