Ode to the Rode(nt)

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On my drive home today down Roswell Road in Atlanta from what was supposed to be a one-errand stop that turned into an all-day affair, filled with one serendipitous event after another, I spotted a dead rat in my lane – in the middle of my lane – lying face up with its entrails worshipping the sun.

Why, you might ask, would I even bother to bring up such a thing? Well, I bring it up because I realized that, over nearly five decades of driving, I had never once seen a dead rat lying in the road.

Because Atlanta is basically a city carved out of the trees, squirrels naturally abound. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Atlanta resident who’s never seen a dead squirrel in the road.

Possums, the only marsupial in North America, are a rather squat and slow-moving creature, who, when encountering bright car lights while crossing the road, will stop and confront those lights, thereby making the dead possum a common sighting as well.

But that rat…that rat got me to thinking: Why are rats such reviled creatures?

Like the rat, a squirrel is a rodent, yet we draw tremendous enjoyment from watching them climb trees, leap from limb to limb, bury and seek their food supply. It’s a special event in a populous city when a squirrel takes food from a human’s hand. The term, “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” was inspired by this adorable, frenetic creature. Still, the squirrel is a rodent.

But the rat? No. The rat inspires fear, loathing, disgust. In fact, the rat – like the crow – is a rather intelligent creature.

I recall an incident some years back when, one evening, while sprawled out on the living room sofa watching tv, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a slight movement of the curtain which separates the living room from the storage room.

Something was there because that curtain had never, ever moved before. I turned down the tv and locked my eyes on it, waiting to see what might happen next.

Not more than 30 seconds later, I sat stunned at the sight of a rat drawing back the bottom corner of the curtain, peeking her head out and looking directly at me. Our eyes met and my skin crawled.

As for her? Just as quickly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

It’s a sickening feeling when there’s a creature in your house that’s supposed to be living outside. And, yes, I was sickened, until it dawned on me that that little rat drawing back the curtain and peeking out at me to see if the coast was clear was the cutest thing I’d ever seen one of God’s creatures do. In my own house, anyway.

Because she was highly intelligent, she was able to take in a world of information from that one-second peek of a highly-lethargic human planted on the sofa. She was standing behind that curtain, calculating (correctly) that because I was at least 250 times bigger than her, she could likely outrun me.

So you might imagine my shock and horror when, a minute after she disappeared behind the curtain, she came back out, running at top speed along the living room wall, in the direction of the back bedrooms.

By this time, my nervous system was buried in the red and maybe she wasn’t so adorable anymore. Until this smart little rodent was either captured or somehow directed outside, all of my mental energy belonged to her.

Would she crawl up onto my face while I was sleeping and go after my eyes? Would I open my kitchen cupboard and find her food shopping in there with a list in her hand? Would she find her way into the plumbing – specifically, the toilet – and seize upon my private bits during a wee hour pee?

When I went to bed that night, I barricaded my door by stuffing a towel so tightly in the space between the bottom of the door and the carpet that even I wouldn’t be able to escape that room. And what if she were already in my room? Why had I assumed that she went into the other bedroom?

Over the next day, there was no sighting of her. My anxiety mounted while my friend and I discussed setting rat traps with a variety of toothsome enticements. “That wasn’t exactly a small rodent,” I offered. “She could eat us out of house and home before we capture her and kill us both in our sleep.”

On Day 2 – a warm summer morning as I recall it – I had walked into the kitchen bleary-eyed to make the French press coffee that would unbleary my eyes, and that’s when I saw an object sitting on the counter which was profoundly familiar, yet, at the same time, utterly baffling.

The night before, I had put my bunch of bananas on top of the refrigerator, figuring that my rat friend wouldn’t climb that high – even though rats live in the tops of palm trees, as I found out later.

Sitting on the kitchen counter was one of those bananas. And it was a big banana, about eight inches long. The banana part was the familiar part.

The part that wasn’t familiar was that it was hollowed out, just like a canoe. It was a banana canoe. Yes, that smarty-pants, ratty pants, had been sitting on my kitchen counter throughout the night, symmetrically carving out and consuming the innards of that banana – peeling and all.

It was such a remarkable act of sculpture that I considered turning the kitchen into an art installation as a nice little side hustle.

But no! There was a rat in the house and something had to be done! She might be carrying god-knows-what diseases. We had to take swift action! We had no idea where she was hiding out. And, although I did respect her artistic skills, she was a little too bold, even for my taste.

My friend and I decided to go over to the Ace Hardware in Virginia-Highlands for some professional advice. While she drove, I held the banana canoe on my lap, marveling at the mastery that created it.

When we got out of the car, I gingerly held the banana canoe at both ends with a deep reverence that possibly replicated an archeologist’s discovery of the first human skull.

While walking from the parking lot into the store, we came upon an Ace employee who looked exactly like a younger Morgan Freeman. His eyes widened with curiosity and reverence as well. Suffice it to say that Morgan Freeman had never seen anything like this, so when we brought up the subject of a rat zapper, he stridently agreed and led us over to aisle D14.

Now, rats are nobody’s fool (until they are) so we had to “bait” that little gal for a couple days by putting a piece of cheese inside the electrocution chamber so she’d get used to going in there at dinner time.

In the late morning of Day 3, my friend went to check on the situation. Sure enough, Le Rat le plus intelligent du monde, was lying on her side, melted cheese dangling off the corners of her tiny, smiling mouth.

Ever since that day, there has never been another rat sighting in this house. And yes, I did just knock on wood.

Now before I sign off for the night, I want to tell you about Rachel Rosenthal, a legendary performance artist with whom I had the honor to study some years back while living in Los Angeles.

Madame Rosenthal had a storefront theater, the theater part being situated in the back, off an alley. One day, she came upon a rat in her theater, and instead of fearing it, fleeing it, or fighting it, she befriended it.

Yes, that’s right. She named her Tatti Wattles and brought that rodent with her everywhere she went, housing her in one pocket or another, squiring her around town through every aspect of her life. She even wrote a book about what had become an important inter-species relationship.

The book’s title?

           Tatti Wattles: A Love Story


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