One summer during high school I took a job that required me to trap rats.
The bank my mom worked for hired my sister, my best friend Dan, and me to clean up one of their foreclosure properties before they put it up for sale. The house was enormous and tacky, a sort of Floridian nightmare with semi-gloss salmon walls and faux-gold fixtures. Even the cobwebs on the glass chandelier were tacky, like 99-cent-store Halloween decorations put up out of season. The desperate, suburban misery of the place made me profoundly uncomfortable, and a little sad.
The work was hot and unpleasant, but we were young and powered by cassettes crammed full of loud, hostile music we knew would piss off our parents. We weeded the yard, swept the floors, dusted the bannisters – and killed the rats. On this particular day, we rock-paper-scissored for rat duty: sis won the first round, and then Dan papered my rock. I left my cohorts to bake under the July sun and hack at the ragweed lawn with rusting machetes while I reluctantly entered the house, alone.
I could hear it squeaking as soon as I shut the front door.
We didn’t have the kind of traps you’re picturing – you know, the kind where you put a geometrically perfect wedge of swiss cheese under a spring-loaded wire bar and wait for the cartoon mouse to snap his opposable thumb in it. Nope. We didn’t have those. Instead, they gave us these sticky traps. The idea was that the unsuspecting rodent would step onto this tacky glue pad in an attempt to seize a tasty tablet of chemically engineered, pheromone-rich rat amphetamines, and then it would find itself permanently stuck. What the rat was supposed to do after that – die of boredom? – was not explained by the directions on the box.
As I approached the hall closet, the squeaking stopped, and there was only silence. No scratching, no scrabbling, no sound of any kind from within. So I opened the door. In the narrow bar of light that spilled into the pitch black closet, I saw the rat. It crouched there, stuck to the rectangular plywood trap, all four paws ensnared in thick, gelatinous glue. It was straining to get free, the little muscles on its back twitching with panic. One of its hind legs was bent at an unnatural angle, as though it had been dislocated during an early attempt to escape. I stood there motionless, watching the rat struggle, and I was embarrassed when the first tear fell from my cheek to splat on the terra cotta tile.
It was only a rat.
I shut the closet door, crossed the cavernous living room and went out into the back yard. I stood on the patio for a while, sort of hugging myself, and then my shoulders started to shake, and I couldn’t stop them. I stood under the rotting patio cover and cried for a long time, trying to muffle the sound by shoving my face into the crook of my arm. After a while, I stopped crying. I heard a hawk cry – they were common up in the canyon, before the fire – and then I went back inside to find a broom.
I clubbed the rat to death with the back of a stainless steel dustpan. I didn’t know what else to do. It took four blows before it stopped moving. I meant it to be a mercy killing, but it was the most brutal thing I had ever done. Still is.
I don’t even know if the house is still standing; most of that neighborhood burned in the Triangle Complex Fire that consumed over ten thousand acres back in 2007.
I still dream about the rat sometimes.