Tuesday I killed a rat. Our end of the street has been plagued with the damn things. I believe there may be a nest of them under our patio-deck, which stands only a few inches above the level of the lawn. Last month, after we came back from China, Rosie saw one making his way across the grass. A big, fat one, she said; presumably confident of his unchallenged territorial mastery after our six weeks' absence. She commanded me to do something.
I didn't want to use poison because of the dog. We have a fenced-in yard and our terrier mutt, Boris, has free run of it, with a doggie door so he can come in and out of the house at will. If I lay down poison he might find and sample it — we all love Boris, but he's not the smartest dog you ever met. Or a rat might eat the poison and come into the open to die, and Boris might eat him and ingest poison that way. I don't like the old-fashioned U-bar traps, either. A tough little critter like your average rat is just going to get his back broken and his innards crushed by the bar and lie there in agony till someone finds him. I'm no fan of rats, but they are God's creatures and I won't inflict unnecessary cruelty on them. So I got a cage-type trap from Chinatown. It's a big wire box, 12 by 5 by 7, with a hinged door on a stiff spring. There is a catch to hold the door open, hooked to a trigger that you can bait inside the cage. Rat comes in, tugs at the bait, door slams shut.
I baited the thing and set it outside the fence where Boris wouldn't interfere with it, near the garbage bins. For three weeks nothing happened. The bait — a succulent lump of Jarlsberg cheese, my personal favorite, with rind on for tugging strength — dried out and turned brown. Rosie grumbled. The kids jeered.
Then, Tuesday morning, I got up and went downstairs with Boris. Standing at the kitchen sink preparing my breakfast, looking out the window into the yard, I saw that Boris, whose usual habit is just to take a leisurely inspection tour of his dominions at this point, was up against the fence, his nose pressed between the pales. I called him in for his own breakfast, but he didn't move. Boris is a dog who likes his breakfast, so I knew something really had his attention. I went out and looked over the fence where he was sniffing. The trap had sprung, and inside the cage was a large brown rat, whimpering in panic at the smell of Boris, whose inquisitive nose, pushed between the pales, was only an inch from the cage. I picked up the cage by its handle and looked at the rat, who looked back at me. A rat, seen up close, eye to eye, is about the meanest-looking creature there is, except possibly for a shark. This one was scared, terrified in fact, yet even in his terror I could see he hated me.
I saved my prisoner to show the kids when they got up. They promptly named him Basil, after the rat in that Fawlty Towers episode, which we had watched just the week before. "He's cute," said Nellie, 8 years old. "Honey," I replied, "he's a rat."
"How do you know he's not a mouse?" asked Nellie, a suburban kid raised on Tom and Jerry cartoons.
"Too big. Wrong color. The fur too bristly," I said vaguely. Rosie came out to look. Raised in a Third World country, she knows all about vermin. A rat, she pronounced firmly.
"What are you going to do with him?" asked Ollie, aged 6.
"Drown him. Most humane method."
Nellie wailed. "That's so cruel. He hasn't hurt us, has he?"
"No, honey. But if I don't kill him, he'll make a lot of other little rats. Soon they'll be swarming all over, and sooner or later one of them will bite you, and give you a horrid disease."
"I know! Let's just drive out of town and let him loose."
"They live off human stuff, garbage and so on. He'll find his way to some farm, or someone's house. So then I've just dumped my problem on someone else. That's not fair, is it? We've talked about that. You've got to deal with your own problems, not hand them off to other people."
Rosie went off to work. The kids wanted Basil kept alive a while, so they could show their friends. This was Rosh Hashanah and the kids' school has a lot of Jewish teachers, so the town had given everyone the day off. Soon the street was full of kids. They all got a look at Basil. I began to get the feeling that some bonding was going on, especially on Nellie's part. She had put a fresh piece of cheese in the cage, I noticed. Time to close down the show. I got an empty plastic drum, one of those my driveway sealant had come in, and filled it with water from the garden hose. Then I dropped cage and rat into the drum, and put a brick on top to hold them down.
Nellie, her voice not very steady: "Will he suffer?"
"Only for a few seconds, honey."
Ollie: "Cool! Can I take him out of the cage when he's drownded?"
"No, son, I'll do it. I'll drop him straight in the garbage."
When Rosie came home she asked about Basil. I did one of my Godfather lines: "Basil? You won't be seein' him around no more!" Then I added: "Nellie was a bit upset."
"It's not the rat. It's all this stuff that's been happening. You know. It's just finding its way out."
"Well, let's hope she learned something, anyway."
Yes, let's hope so.