This is a story about rats. Once upon a time, I would sit in my hot tub at dusk, warm water up to my neck, stars brightening up above, dog chewing on a log from the woodpile, and I’d see something scurry from the deck to the fence. Something dark, something small, something that was probably a rat.
This went on for months, maybe years. In my childlike way, I thought he was cute. I welcomed him to the family, naming him Ratatouille. Ew, rats, people said, but I think everything’s cute until proven otherwise. Remember Sal the Salamander? Ned the Newt? Gary the garter snake?
One day, I found a dead rat on the lawn. No blood, just a black rat corpse. Did Annie kill it? I’ll never know. Grieving the loss of Ratatouille, I carried the corpse out to the woods. Bye, bye rat.
Now at the same time, also for months, maybe years, I was aware of a missing vent cover at the base of the house, over near the fence. Annie noticed, too. Every time she went out, she ran over to sniff its cool darkness. Got to fix that one of these days, I thought. The old metal cover had disintegrated in our coastal wetness, so critters could get in. And out. I never imagined they’d back up the U-Haul and take up residence.
It turns out Ratatouille was not alone. One night as I was washing the dishes, I started hearing noises under the stove. It sounded like something was chewing at the underside of the floor, trying to get out. “Annie!” I called to the dog. “Listen!” Her ears pricked up. She stared at the floor and began to whine. Rather than save me from this marauder, she snuggled against me for protection.
It chewed and chewed. I opened cupboards and looked behind things, afraid something would jump out at me, but it didn’t. I stomped the floor hard, and the chewing stopped. Maybe it was gone. That night I dreamed it was a litter of kittens. The noise came back again and again, under the table, under the toaster oven, under the hallway. The morning it woke me up chewing under the bedroom, I stomped the floor and said, “That’s it.”
I called a company out of the phone book with a name that sounded humane and ecologically sound. When the guy arrived in his VW bug decorated with pictures of ants, it was not a good time at the Lick house. It was 91 degrees in Newport, about 30 degrees hotter than usual. Confused bugs swirled around my head. My back had gone out and I was hurting from my morning trip to the chiropractor. I was also preparing for a trip to California to help my dad, who had fallen and broken his hip.
The new dog sitter had just come to meet Annie. Harley, the giant Lab from across the street, had come to the door with her. Annie, seeing her buddy, had whooshed out the door and run away.
“Uh, that was the dog you’ll be taking care of.”
“Well, she looked nice. Hey, there’s somebody else here.”
Rat guy. While Annie romped in the woods, I showed the exterminator the crawl space in the master bedroom closet. A man of size, he blanched. Small doesn’t begin to describe the space under my house. Or so plumbers and house inspectors have told me. He squeezed himself down, looked around for a minute and popped back up, brushing dirt and rat poop off his jeans and shirt. Ya got rats, he said, an infestation of rats, droppings all over. They have shredded your insulation so it looks like a cave full of stalactites. For the equivalent of two mortgage payments, plus a car payment, we will put out bait, remove the corpses, remove the polluted insulation and sanitize the whole thing. I’ll get one of my skinny young guys to crawl underneath.”
I was in shock. “You kill them?” I had had visions of the rats being lured into a box and being driven to someplace nice to start new lives. Meanwhile, where the heck was my dog?
“Well . . . I’m heading to California to take care of my dad who broke his hip. How about if I let you know when I get back?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid. “You want to wait two more weeks? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Which is how I ended up writing him a check for most of what was in my checking account and letting him place bait/aka poison under the deck and under the house. In two weeks, Rat Guy will return with his crew to remove the corpses and ruined insulation and sanitize the area under my house.
As we walked out the front door, Rat Guy pointed out a rustling in the trees west of my house. We listened. In a minute, my big yellow dog emerged, panting, tail wagging. I snapped on her leash and hugged her hard. “You brat. You scared me.”
She smiled her doggy smile.
I turned to Rat Guy, who was laughing at my worn-out dog. “You’re sure she can’t get at the poison? She’s sneaky.”
“I’m sure. She’ll be just fine.”
After he drove away, the rats were eerily silent. Annie lay exhausted on the lawn. I cried awhile about the devastation of my finances and my inability to keep up with everything that needs taking care of at this oversized house. I grieved for my dead husband, who left me to manage everything alone. Then I ate a piece of cake and moved on.
When I talked to my dad on the phone later, he said he would have put bait out himself. It shouldn’t cost much. So, was Rat Guy just trying to help or was he a great salesman? All I know is I’m not crawling under my house for any price.
Ah, Ratatouille, you rat.