Rats Left, Rats Right

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A loner in the big city soon discovers that his new dilapidated apartment holds interesting roommates.

Submitted: July 31, 2012

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Submitted: July 31, 2012

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Rats Left, Rats Right

 

 

 

I knew the landlord was cheating me the moment he almost fell through the foot wide hole in the middle of the floorboards. Didn’t help matters that he had covered it up previously with a dusty faded rug. Being old, short and not that bright (I‘m talking about the man now, not the rug), he walked right into it, and I had to help him out of it, dropping my two suitcases to the floor. The second time I knew this pint-sized penny-pincher was chiseling me was when he raised the rent right there on the spot from sixty dollars, as his enthusiastic ad had proclaimed, to a whopping eighty-five a week.

“What are you, crazy?” I asked him.

“Pal, you must be crazy to want to stay here,” he said. “Take it or leave it; here it is.”

Gorden, I told myself, what the hell are you getting yourself into?

Gorden, another portion of me thundered, You are a bum. You have no place to live. This is your best bet.

I looked around at my new living quarters. Not the best side of town, but certainly the quietest, and that was a perk. Counting my blessings, as small as they may be, is one of the first things I do when I have to live with something. The apartment was basically two rooms. There was a spring wire-frame, low to the ground mattress wedged next to the door and to the right, a doorless bathroom, and one broken window. Under the windowsill sat a miserable looking stove, which didn’t work, and one rust-covered frying pan.

“Got to fill this place. Want it or not?”

“What’s the rush?” I asked, placing my fists on my hips.

“Five other people are interested.”

“Bull.”

“Would you believe three?”

“I wouldn’t believe two.”

“Please!” he begged.

Gorden Maple, my father’s words echoed around my brain, You fool! You’ll settle for anything, won‘t you?

“I’ll take it.”

 

* * *

 

I cooked scrambled eggs my first night in my new place. Nothing to write home about, until later when I found bits and pieces of the pan mixing with my eggs. I plucked them out where I could. I would have loved to have a new frying pan but just couldn’t afford it.

I was a bike messenger for a publishing company called Harmon and Sons(established 1905). This apartment provided a closer commute, but really I had to get out of my parents’ house. Had to get rid of my father’s ringing in my own ears. The only cure for that was to tread out on my own, even if it did mean cooking my own crappy food on questionable second-hand pans.

As I scooped some more eggs into my mouth, I combed over the newspaper and found the classified section. The city was infested with second-hand shops. I found a nice sturdy oak bookcase in one my second day out of the apartment. When I reassembled it, I finally unloaded the forty or so books I had brought with me.

By mid-afternoon I had all my books stacked and alphabetized. The bookshelf wasn’t even half-full. That would change with time. I decided to alphabetize by title rather than author. As I was just putting away Wuthering Heights, I paused as I heard a faint, but sharp intake of breath.

I turned quickly to the apartment.

Not a sound.

I noticed a new crack had formed in the window.

That could have been the culprit. Cracks always grow slowly at first. So slow you wouldn’t even notice it. But the cracks make sounds if you listen carefully. Gorden, I heard my father say, This place is not for you. You will fail if you go out on your own. I won’t support you. Not even if you came back on all fours, begging for shelter. Do you hear me, Gorden?

I did.

I chose to ignore it anyway.

My place, my rules.

My father, owner of a string of successful pizzerias, always thought I’d work for him. That I would immerse myself in the business of owning a restaurant. But it just wasn’t in me. I was more inclined to live my life in my new apartment.

I became quite familiar with my living space as the week progressed. The electricity would go out at odd times, always when I was heading toward the bathroom at night. Then, there was the morning my hot plate blew up. While preparing pancakes I was crossing the room to bring a proper book to the table when Kaboom! The thing up and jumped off the kitchen table and flew right through the window, the plug dangling behind it like a dragons’ tail. The pan fell to the ground, spinning like a coin until it tapped against the table leg. The shock of the clatter was enough to scare me, but I also heard a faint shriek, like a woman being struck by something. I charged to the window and peeked out, eager to see if my rogue cookware could have caused the screaming. I was careful not to be seen because what could I do then? Blame it on the previous tenant? I knew nothing of the previous tenant.

With relief, I saw that the hot plate was resting on the scaffolding across from my window. I looked down and saw a small sprinkling of glass in the alleyway. I looked for the source of the scream, but saw no one. A cool breeze fluttered in and tickled my face. All was good. No one stopped on the sidewalk; they continued to walk on, scurrying this way and that with places to go, people to mug, fancy dumb gizmos to buy. Not a care in the world. Rats left, rats right, I said to myself.

Then I heard something scamper across the floor.

Of course, the moment I looked back, I saw nothing. No trace of any living thing or anyone.

From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something lying next to the doorway of the bathroom. I slowly made my way to it, convinced it was a scrap of toilet paper. I picked it up and brought it to the toilet, reminding myself that I would need to get a new window and install it myself when I noticed the feel of the paper. Hmm, I thought. It felt grainy. It had much more texture than I gave it credit for.

I held the small triangle of paper in both hands, bringing it back into the light. Dots. Dozens of dots with random spaces. Not like a napkin, but these were lined like…like text.

I held in my hands a scrap of Braille.

Braille from an old book.

When I prepared myself for a day’s outing, I talked with my landlord on my way down, asking him if the previous tenant was a blind man.

“First a blind man, now a psychic,” was his reply. I frowned and gestured to the scrap of Braille paper in my hand. I wasn’t used to talking in a rickety stairway to a man I had only known a week, but the intense power of curiosity had driven me to it. Life in the city has a way of making you do things you wouldn’t normally do, finding a new shell for yourself.

He held the scrap of paper up and sniffed it. Why he needed to sniff it, I had no idea. My best guess would be that it made him look more inclined to know what he was talking about, like an antique dealer giving you a thorough appraisal. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Mr. Kristofferson. Old Kristo, I called him. Yeah. He lived here a few months before you. Used to sell insurance door to door.”

“When did he move?”

“Passed, son. Died of heatstroke up in your place.”

“That’s comforting.”

“Hope you’re not too squeamish about ghosts.”

“I don’t believe in them.”

“Well, that’s good. Sturdy fella. I like that. By the by, you’re due for your eighty-five. You got it?”

I shuffled a stash of bills from my green tweed coat pocket. “This should cover it. I don’t plan moving or dying any time soon.”

The landlord thumbed through the bills, licking his fingertips as if the bills were hot. It was a little steamy in the stairway. “That’s fine, son. Stay as long as you like. Just pay on time and we won’t have a problem.”

I turned to leave, but he tapped me on the shoulder, forcing me to turn back to his ugly mug. “By the way, you hear that explosion a while ago? I’m still trying to figure out where that came from.”

“No, sir,” I said nervously. “No idea.”

“Hope I never hear it again. Made me pinch a loaf in mid-shower.”

 

***

 

Throughout the day, I felt the Braille paper in my pocket. The little spark of curiosity burned something hot within me. I was always a curious child. It very much led to my father giving me a stern eye whenever I asked questions or poked around in places that should not have been poked, namely the secret rolls of film my father kept under a loose floorboard in the closet. It was a film of dancing burlesque ladies. The memory of finding the film was still fresh in my mind, what happened after is still patchy. All I knew was that I blacked out. When I came to, my father sat me in a chair and told me that I fainted when he caught me gazing at the roll of film. I remember having a bit of a headache but not much else. My father never brought it up again. But he always kept an eye on me, after that.

I couldn’t help my curiosity or the questions that would come with it.

Many of us in this life are busy trying to answer questions. I get tense and itchy if I’m not busy answering several. It’s just my nature, always wanting to get something done and wanting to know everything.

I was on the corner of Hearst and Belmont, eating a falling-apart-falafel when I remembered my landlord telling me I should take the scrap to a friend of his at an antique shop on Hearst. I quickly backtracked and was able to find it.

The bell clinked over my head as I walked into the shop.

Silas was a half a head shorter than me. I could tell he was a rabbi. He sat behind a long counter with a chessboard in front of him that had five black pieces and four white ones. I knew nothing about the game. What struck me as odd about the scene was that there was no opponent; no one sat in the stool on the other side of the board. Not a soul was in the store except for that old man. As for Silas, he didn’t even notice me. Silas reached out his hand and felt the top of what I assumed to be his king piece as his eyes stared up to the far corner of the room.

I suddenly understood: this man was sure to help me with my Braille mystery because he was blind himself.

“Hello, there.” I said.

“Terry? You left. It’s your move. I got you running.”

“Oh,” I said, breathing in stale air that reeked of death. “Sorry, sir. I’m not Terry. My name is Gorden. I’ve come to see you about something.”

He turned his head, his eyes still anchored to the spot in the ceiling. “Not Terry, eh? Come here, boy. Let me get a look at you.”

Hesitantly, I made my way to the stool wondering what he meant.

“Sit down, please.” The man said.

I obliged.

Still staring up into the corner, his hands rose to my cheek. With delicate motions, he traced the linings of my face. His crusty fingertips moved over my brow bone, my hairline, and my laugh lines. Then, in a motion that took me completely by surprise, he gave me a good stiff smack across the cheek.

I stirred out of my seat.

The old man began laughing; bringing his hands up to his mouth in amusement. “Silly boy, I’m not blind. I’m just having a little fun is all!”

A firm tightness held its grip somewhere inside my chest. I thought the man was senile. Or could he just be bored with living in a shop where the new dust gathers onto the old dust?

I was ready to leave when he ushered me back over. “I’m just having fun, crackerjack. Don’t get so serious on me. You came here for something, might as well come out with it.”

Still rubbing my cheek, I fished the scrap out of my pocket and laid it on the table. He unfolded it gingerly and felt the bumps on the page. While he was doing this, he stared up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes.

“Why would a man who can see read Braille?” I asked.

He continued to feel his way around on the tiny scrap. “Because I can’t just read the words. I have to feel them. I have to feel the words coming alive inside my head. It’s better with the eyes closed. You get a clearer picture that way.”

I had never thought of that before. Even as I was nodding my head dumbly I saw scores of books behind the man, works of James Joyce and Charles Dickens all translated to Braille.

Silas chuckled as he felt the last bumps on the page. “Always liked that one.”

“Liked what?”

“This happens to be part I of A Voyage to Lilliput.”

I shrugged.

“It’s from Gulliver’s Travels,” he said. “Jonathan Swift. Ever heard of him?”

“Heard, yes. Read, no.”

“Well, you should pick up a copy. It really is quite good. This is a small scene where the Lilliputians, a miniature community of people, are caring for Gulliver, even entertaining him, until they accuse him of treason on the charge of public urination. As the story goes, he is sentenced to be blinded and to slowly starve to death.”

“Gruesome.”

“Oh, he escapes. By the way, where did you find this paper?”

I shuddered a bit. “I’ve been hearing things inside my apartment. As I understand it, a blind man lived in the place before me. Died of heatstroke, I was told. I found that scrap in the doorway of my bathroom.”

Silas cackled loudly.

“Well, ain’t that a pisser! Whoever is pulling your leg is one smart soldier. Good luck, son.”

 

***

 

Later that evening, after scraping enough change to get a bagel on 75th street, I walked back up the stairs and back to my seemingly lowly apartment. I didn’t bother to turn the lights on since the sun was down and I needed a nap. I was dead tired. During the night I dreamed Mr. Kristofferson was living in the apartment again. In the dream I was going about my daily routine of making eggs, reading the paper, reading a novel, sitting on the bed, staring at the wall. At the same time this old translucent figure of the now dead Kristo went his own way dressing himself, cooking sausages, reading Braille. Both of us acting as if the other didn’t exist.

I was startled awake by a squeak and a peck on my ear.

In the darkness I shuffled, thumping my back against the wall, grabbing the nearest thing, my thick copy of Oliver Twist and slammed the book down, killing whatever was offending me.

I breathed heavily, wiping the sweat off my face.

I combed the wall for the trace of the light switch and twisted it on.

Near the edge of my bed on the floor, the book stood hovered a little ways off the hardwood floor. Jutting out of the side was a faint hint of a paw, a tiny pink paw, and a tail and some syrupy white liquid collecting underneath.

Across the floor from the dead mouse was a group of twenty or so more, standing full upright, conversing with one another, and pointing towards the book which had smacked their friend.

The last thing I remember was one of them pointing and asking,

 “Not not light reading…?”

I fainted dead away.

 

***

 

When I wearily came to I remember it was still night out, judging by the still-darkened window. Something near my chin handed me a cup of water.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then the cascade of water erupted from my mouth and onto the five white, furry mice that had tried, as a team, to give me drink.

“What is this?” I screamed as I shoved them of the bed.

They landed on their feet, shaking their heads in dizziness.

One mouse, out of the growing community of more than fifty, came through the crowd and looked up at me on the bed. His little paws were outstretched in a plead of calm.

“We not scare you.” It said with it’s little mouse lips.

“How can you speak?”

“Slow-ly.”

I let out a nervous snicker then shook it off. “No, what I mean is, how are you speaking? How? Why are you able to talk to me and no one else.”

“We have talk others before.”

“Who?”

“Kri-sto…” They said in unison. “Kri-sto…”

“He-he taught you how to speak?”

“Slow…ly…”

“This is impossible. Where do you come from?”

The mouse leaned his head down to the floor, considering this question for a moment, biting the little nails on his paw. Finally, he spoke again, “It was white it was lab it was scary…”

“You came from a lab?”

“Escaped from lab too scary…”

“All of you?”

“Brother…sisters…five hundred…”

I paled at the number. As I was busy digesting this number, my attention went back to the floor. The book, the dead mouse, all traces of him were gone.

“Where’s the one? The one I killed?”

Stupidly, I pointed to the spot on the floor where I knew he had laid.

“He Jessup. He too old. Wanted…out.”

“Wanted out?”

“Wanted out of life too tired health…bad…”

“You mean, he wanted to be hit knowing he would die?”

“We tried stop he not listen too tired…”

I pressed my knees to my chest, listening intently.

“Where is he now?”

“Funeral. Big pond with chord.”

They must’ve meant the toilet. I had thought I heard it flush as I was coming to. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

“It fine he wanted out if master thinks time to go we go…”

“I’m not your master.”

“Kri-sto was…”

“Did he swat any of you?”

“Only when we sick or dying. Mercy…hand…”

“Oh. Well, I don’t think I’m the right one to be doing that. I’m just living here on my own, really. I mean, I thought I was living here on my own. Didn’t expect guests.” I took a breath. “What do you want?”

The head mouse, who I later learned was Phillip, ushered a group of mice who had just pulled a book down from a low shelf and were carrying it high above their heads. They shuffled and diverted a few times but still were able to make it to the bed.

I leaned forward and gently took the book from them.

It was a copy of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.

I did not own a copy of this, I was sure of it. Perhaps, they had it hidden?

“What do you want me to do with this?”

“Read to us please. Kristo read to us…every night…”

Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, I read.

In exchange for room and board, they did things for me.

Over the next few weeks they helped me find lost pins, buttons and keys. They’d keep my spirits up and I gave them bread, cheese and water.

I read them many books. Many were books I’d read for the very first time. I worked through Tolstoy, Joyce, and Melville. I sometimes carried a line of the mice down my arm as I paced back and forth, books outstretched, feeding their little minds with big thoughts.

One mouse, Tanner, a tough one of the bunch who always had his paws crossed, asked me a question the third month I had been reading to them. He interrupted me, in fact.

“Gorden what were you talkin bout with rats that one day?”

I was puzzled. I thought about if for a moment and came up with the day. It was the day that my hot plate launched itself out the window. I remember I said the phrase “Rats left, rats right.” I explained to him that I was just angry. That it was just a phrase I said because I had nothing else to say. I was referring to how people can be like an aimless heard of rodents, not caring for one another but rather scampering all over.

“Are we rats…?”

I looked out at the rest of them.

Some of them were.

You could tell from the teeth and fur, and the pointed ears.

But I didn’t want to tell them that.

So I just looked back down at the little tyke and said, “No, Tanner. You are special. All of you are quite special.”

With that, a chorus of delightful squeaks erupted.

I shushed them emphatically, not wanting anyone to hear us. It was bad enough I had to black out the windows for all of them.

It would be some time, though, before I realized just how special they were.

In the course of twenty-two months I had read them all of the books on my book shelf, the last being the Bible (that one they wanted me to read twice). Such a peculiar thing for a little mouse to have such faith…but, then again, what were we humans but a herd of mice running through the maze called life?

During those twenty-two months, they revealed that they were part of a project in trying to cure some disease I wasn’t familiar with. The blood in their veins was white and designed for better circulation and improved motor skills, which also helps with memory and, oddly enough, sense memory. They were part of a group experiment to make their brains more receptive when it comes to retaining and storing knowledge.

We had grown close in all that time.

Even though I was single I always wanted children. Now I had four hundred and twenty. Some passed due to illness and though I did not mercy kill them as Kristo had, I did stay with them till the end and stood at every funeral. I gave so many eulogies.

Then it all seemed to fall apart when my landlord said, “Sorry, kiddo, the building’s condemned. I ran out of money to keep it sticking straight up. Wrecking ball is coming any day now.”

I couldn’t have that. My new friends meant the world to me. I had to find a way to keep our home.

I called my father day and night, begging him to buy this little scrap of property.

“What are you going to do with a waste can like that?” He thundered.

“Well, I always wanted to…own my own restaurant. Maybe I can start one in the lobby. This building has…history. I just need the chance.”

He pondered it for a moment. I heard the brushing of his chin hair, which he always does when he’s considering something. “Son, I don’t delight in your failures, but I guess being your father I still have to pay for them. All right, I’ll give you your fool’s money. But that’s the last favor I do for you.”

“Thanks, pop.”

“Don’t thank strangers, boy.”

I hung up the phone knowing we’d never speak again.

Melanie, the smallest of the group looked up at me. “You can’t protect us forever Gorden …”

But I tried.

That’s the only true thing I ever wanted in life: to help a family.

Though they were rodents, they were still smart, funny, and loyal. They were the best friends you’d never meet. They were my family now. If they faced the wrecking ball then they accepted their fate, but I couldn’t.

 

 

***

 

Twenty years later, after the restaurant closed and the wrecking ball was rearing its head again there were only five of them left

They gave me a spy glass as a parting gift.

It had once been Kristo’s. He had it when he was a boy aboard his father’s ship. He gave it to them and they, in turn, were giving it to me. It was dusty, but ice cold water cleared the lens right out. Phillip, Tanner, Margaret, Gerald and Hayseed, the last of my family, saw me off.

I bent down after they asked if they could hug me. They tried desperately to wrap their little arms around me. I could hear them sniffling; my heart broke. I suggested that they hold hands, linking like a chain, and try that way. They did. It was close enough.

I left, knowing that the wrecking ball would take my friends, but also knowing that in a rats left, rats right world, you could only do so much. The rats were right, so I left.

As I adjusted my bag, I looked up at the window of my old apartment to see a line of rats, holding their tiny rat paws up to the glass. I brought my spyglass up to my eye and focused it on the window. I waved to them, as cheerfully as I could muster, but they knew and I knew it was time to go. I caught something in my view, ten tiny eyes gleaming at my departure. Mice can’t cry, can they?

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Roberto Scarlato. All rights reserved.

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