99 Problems

Published on November 29th, 2017 | by Maggie Downs

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IF YOU GIVE A RAT A COOKIE… On Parenting Vs. Vermin

Lemon bounded down the stairs, and that was my first indication something was wrong.

Lemon is my dachshund, and she was born both blind and deaf. Bounding is not in her nature.

It was slow going for me to follow, as I had an aggressively nursing baby slung across my chest, and I didn’t dare disturb him. My child was a sour and grumpy thing, like Morrissey in a diaper. The doctor swore colic ended by six months, but my son was just over one year—so the perpetual crankiness was either a rare, extended bout of colic or his personality. I chose to believe it was colic.

By the time I caught up with Lemon, she was clawing at the bookcase.

That’s when I saw the rat. The creature was pinned between a shelf and one of my son’s toys, a hefty wooden activity cube, but working toward wriggling his way out.

The rat was long, either dark grey or brown; hard to tell in the dim light of the living room. His eyes were glossy and black, like the round heads of decorative pushpins. I squinted, realizing I didn’t have my glasses on yet. That’s how early it was.

You know that instant when Clark Kent transforms into Superman? That was me, leaping into action. With an infant under one arm and a dachshund under the other, I dashed upstairs. The baby I put in a crib. The dog I locked in a bathroom. Thank goodness I didn’t screw that up.

Back downstairs I hauled everything big-box from Costco out of the pantry: Boxes of bottled sparkling water, boxes of granola bars, boxes of canned baked beans. Boxes of boxes. I piled cardboard skyscrapers around the bookcase, effectively trapping the rat.

 

Finally I texted my husband, who was already at work.

ME: There is a rat in the living room. What should I do?

HIM: Get the rat out of the living room.

 

While my son howled the entire Smiths discography, I set to Googling, “What should I do with a rat in the living room?” The responses were a list of horrors. Glue traps, poison, even setting the rat on fire.  Everything short of stocks and a Catherine wheel.

I didn’t want to be cruel to the animal—this was simply a little guy who took a wrong turn. I live in the desert, and my house is situated alongside a large field of scrub bushes and shaggy palm trees. The rats make their homes there, as do coyotes, jackrabbits, and roadrunners. And me. We’re neighbors.

The baby was launching into “Viva Hate,” so I bounced him on my hip while I called a rodent control company. Two places didn’t answer. The third call connected me with an actual human, but it was the national dispatcher.

“One of our guys can be there by 10:30, ma’am,” he said.

“But it’s 7 a.m.”

He instructed me to relax and make sure the rat stays put.

One more thing, I said to the man on the phone. I don’t want to injure the rat. Is it possible to remove the rodent from my house without hurting him?

“Of course,” he replied. “We are professionals.”

So began my three-and-a-half hour rat security detail. I paced the border of cardboard city, broom in hand. Whenever the rat scrambled up the sides, I tapped the broomstick against a box, making enough noise that the rat scurried back down.

Meanwhile, Lemon whined in the bathroom. I jogged upstairs with bowls of food and water, quick enough that I was back downstairs before the rat ever had a chance to escape.

The baby, I tried to quarantine on the other side of the living room, far from rat germs. I gave him blocks, bananas, blankets, stuffed toys—everything a baby could possibly want, except he didn’t.

He wanted boxes, of course. He could see the boxes. Each time my son toddled forward, I scooped him up and ran with him like a football, placed him on the floor, dashed back to the boxes, thwacked the broomstick, BOOM. Repeat. It was like a video game, if there were a fucked-up game that involves keeping a baby on one side of a room and a rat on the other.

This was what most days felt like as a new mother anyway. I mean, the rat was a new addition, but the rest of it—the dashing, the flailing, the anxiety, the sense that I was barely holding the seams together—had become routine.

Morrissey Baby

I’m new at this, I told myself as means of reassurance, but I didn’t believe it. After all, I’ve already had months of on-the-job training, acquiring the tasks and skills necessary to keep my son fed, bathed, clothed, and snuggled into his crib at night—but each day remained a struggle for air.

Sustaining life requires an incredible amount of performance and balance, not unlike these leaning towers of boxes separating one wild thing from another. And while motherhood seemed like something that should come naturally, I felt as clumsy and awkward a year into it as I did on day one.

At 10:30, the rat guy knocked on the door. He was cheerful. I wasn’t.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked, brightly.

I led him to the living room and gestured at the cardboard towers.

“There’s a rat by the bookcase, but I put these boxes here to contain him.”

The man took a step backward.

“Rat? I hate rats.”

I assumed it was a joke. Then I noticed his face was pale and his hands shook.

“You’re the rat guy,” I reminded him. My son was at my feet again, and I picked him up. His soft, sticky body clung to mine.

“My company works with a full spectrum of pests,” the man said. “I don’t go on the rodent calls if I can help it.”

We were silent for a moment.

“But you drive a car that has mouse ears and a tail on it,” I said.

“Yep.”

I’ve heard the term “deflated” to describe a person before, but I never saw it in action until that moment. The man went concave.

My child’s scream broke the spell. “Dis!” he hollered and pointed at the rodent’s nose, whiskers twitching over the edge of a canned tomato box. I banged the broom, and the rat BASE jumped to the bottom of his bookcase cave.

“Just … do it,” I said to the rat guy.

I whisked my child to the other side of the room again and sat down on the floor with a chunky foam puzzle. While I helped my son insert a foam giraffe into a giraffe-shaped hole, the rat guy moved one stack of boxes aside. I barely even noticed as he placed a black box, about the size of an adult shoebox, on the floor.

“Can I get a little help here?” he asked. He pointed to the box and said if I nudged the rat forward with the broom, he’d scoop the rat up.

Animals, like babies, don’t necessarily go where you want them to go. As the rat chattered and squeaked, dashing this way and that, I glided and swept like a member of an Olympic curling team. We circled the living room, into the dining room and back again.

When the rat skittered into the black box, I was just about to lift my arms in victory when I heard the snap. It was loud. Definitive. The chattering stopped, and the wake of silence was cold.

My rage was quick, and it hung stormy and thick between all of us—me, the bumbling pest-control guy, my cranky baby, the dead rat. My fury was almost blinding.

I was angry at the whole affair, but even more so at the fact that this is the home where I try so hard to nurture life—and somehow I couldn’t manage to help this one tiny, vulnerable, literally lost soul. The notion that I couldn’t care for another living creature throbbed through me. The carcass at my feet was proof.

“Can I borrow a trash bag?” the man asked.

I don’t know what I expected. A rat funeral? There had to be a more dignified means of putting this rodent to rest, but my addled mind couldn’t conceive of what that would be. Besides, I still had to get dressed, go to the grocery store, pick up food for lunch, change a diaper or three. All the tedium of life. So I stomped to the kitchen and grabbed a Hefty from under the sink. “You can keep it.”

The man placed the deceased creature inside. He held it toward me.

“Can I put this in your garbage?”

“No.”

He carried the bag to his car—the one shaped like a mouse—and returned with a bill. $250. I thought of it as a bribe to get him back out of my house.

As I sat at the kitchen table and wrote the check, the man pulled up a chair.

“I’d like to talk to you about a rodent management system,” he said. “When there’s one rat, there’s usually more.”

“I’m not interested.”

After I handed over the check, he headed to the front door and paused. He turned to look at me. In the background, the dog barked, and my son whined. My desire to hold my child, draw him close, had never been more powerful. I gathered my beautiful baby in my arms and inhaled the musky, beastly scent of him.

I wondered about the mother rat and the last time she had snuggled her baby.  I wondered if it was natural to feel this clumsy and this vulnerable as a mom, clenching with constant dread in the face of a world that’s all too wild.

“I’m sorry about the—you know,” the rat guy said, and I nodded. I did know.

He continued, “I’m new at this.”

That’s when I gave the rat guy a hug, because I understood that, too.

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About the Author

Maggie Downs

Maggie Downs is a journalist and essayist in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet’s True Stories From the World’s Best Writers, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among other publications. When she isn’t spending time with her baby or vermin, she is at work on a memoir. 



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