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A Tail of Treachery

This essay originally appeared on Salon.


I’m on their list. It doesn’t matter where I am, sooner or later my name comes up, the dispatcher checks my location and they arrive, frequently with suitcases in hand. The fact that I am stalked by my biggest (irrational) fear doesn’t seem fair. But there you have it. They have tracked me down at restaurants, high school gyms and the Virginia Department of Health.

My phobia sensors are so acute that my eyes slam shut before obligatory rat scenes in scary movies. My ankles tingle near dumpsters the way arthritic knees forecast a cold front. Needless to say, unexpected rodent sightings send me right over the edge, particularly when they occur at home. My first domestic encounter unfolded like some deranged scavenger hunt. A stray cat pushed past me as I carried groceries in the front door. It marched purposefully into the pantry, squeezed behind gallon jugs of apple cider and came out with a mouse in its mouth, the skinny tail going full tilt like a metronome on speed. “Mickey?” my preschooler wailed.

The next time was worse. This odor, something like decomposing broccoli and poultry, began wafting from the kitchen so thick you could almost see it. No amount of searching produced the source. So we just lived with it, accustoming ourselves to breathing through our mouths. It wasn’t until my daughter’s friend came over and had to play Barbie one-handed so she could hold her nose, that we realized we could no longer pretend it was getting better.

My husband took apart the plumbing beneath the sink to see if some remnants of Thanksgiving had gotten stuck down there. It wasn’t my cooking. It was a rat whose journey north had ended mid- pipe. My spouse dealt with the problem and that, we assumed, was that. But it turns out there is no such thing as a single rat. No Henry David Thoreau-dent living off by himself, seeking solitude. No, where there is one, there are many. Soon after the air cleared, I encountered the deceased’s buddies on top of the refrigerator, carting off a loaf of bread. They were working as a team.

An exterminator came. My rescuer, who looked like an extra from “Deliverance,” would corner me on every visit, spewing forth rat trivia that left me weak in the knees. With a sick grin he informed me of things I never, ever wanted to know, like: Rats can compress their bodies to the size of quarters; they leave grease marks on walls; they swim with alarming frequency up from the sewers into toilets, putting a significant number of men (you get the picture) in emergency rooms. Shortly thereafter our landlord dropped by to announce that he was selling and wanted to offer us first dibs. I could barely keep a straight face.

I thought I could leave the problem behind — that was before I realized it was personal. My next encounter was a mere week after we moved into an old house across town. My husband was away (the rodent dispatcher is always aware of his schedule), the children were sleeping and I was unpacking pots and pans. All of a sudden my ankles started to tingle. I turned, heart pounding. There in the doorway was something just this side of an anteater, with a disgusting, bristly, rope-ish tail curled into a huge C beside it. I screamed, jumped on to an ancient ladder-back chair and promptly fell through the wicker seat. I was stuck and had to shuffle across the floor with my legs wedged inside the barbed walker. The rat laughed as it lumbered into the broom closet.

A new exterminator was hired. He discovered the rodents were coming up through what was once an enclosed sink and water closet, or gardener’s bath, on the back porch. We sealed it off, causing the rats to start coming up through our neighbor’s first-floor toilet. But it wasn’t long before the enemy returned. They announced their homecoming by chewing through the alarm system wiring, triggering frequent false alerts. I couldn’t help but think their tactic was part of the endgame, designed to desensitize me to the incessant screech of the smoke detector. When the second floor really did catch fire, I was sure of it.

We boxed up our remaining belongings and eventually landed in a burgeoning planned community with fake lakes and an abundance of angry field mice. Apparently the houses that sprung up dislocated entire villages of rodents. Just going outside was like being in one of those Hidden Picture drawings. All you had to do was peer between the blades of grass and you could spot a mouse shaking its fist. But I figured field mice stayed in the fields. As far as I was concerned they could have the backyard. Then one evening I reached into a bag of nacho cheese-flavored chips and pulled out more than I bargained for. The thing landed on my foot, took stock for a moment, juked to the right and tore ass under the refrigerator. I have almost recovered.

We’ve recently moved to the country. I expect the miniature moving van to pull up in front of the kitchen appliances any day now. In the meantime I’ve spotted snakes. I don’t like them either.

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