My grandfather spoiled a family party by bringing a dead rat into the house. He was pretty proud he trapped it in one of the barns.
The rest of the family was horrified. Me, too. I was just a kid. It cemented my fear of rats.
I recalled that experience when I began rereading Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. In the first scene, Bigger and his brother, Buddy, try to kill a rat in their city apartment. Their mother and sister were frantic about it. From Wright’s description, I know he had trouble with rats.
“He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat’s head, crushing it, cursing hysterically: ‘You sonofabitch!’ “
More than any other animal, we associate rats with poverty.
The rat at the family party wasn’t the only one concerning my grandfather, Manny. He hid dollar bills in the chicken barn, a few hundred, by my father’s telling. One day when he went to get the money, he discovered rats ate the money.
The slum apartment I had in college was infested with rats. I heard them fighting in the walls. At night I suspected they made their way inside, and I finally had proof when a rat fell into an uncovered pot of beet soup. Large, red paw prints were everywhere in the kitchen. The landlord didn’t care. I did. I moved out.
In Mexico, where Hank and I rented a small house, rats raced across the tin roof and down the fireplace’s chimney. We stored our food in a thick wooden box we put inside the car, but still the rats searched. Hank kept a flashlight and hammer beside the bed. He blinded them with the light, and then smashed them with the hammer. The rats didn’t stop coming.
In a house we rented in a small town in western Massachusetts, rats got through a drainage pipe in the basement and climbed into the kitchen. Our cat killed the first. Hank fixed it so more couldn’t get in. We heard him yelling in the basement when a rat stuck its head through the hole.
We haven’t lived with rats again. I suppose that means we are no longer poor. Mice? I don’t like them either. That’s one reason we have a cat.