Human names have been changed to prevent rat-prisals.
Jan from New York who moved to L.A. sat in a bar in Brooklyn on Thanksgiving day. She told the bartender there are no rats in Los Angeles, and it’s always 70 degrees.
“I bet they live in the fucking palm trees,” some guy yelled down the bar. On the way back to her parents’ house, Jan rolled over a flat rat on her bicycle and it crackled like a soda can.
On the Lower East Side, George with fluff in his eyes walked into the kitchenette. He switched on the coffee pot and went to shower in the shared bathroom down the hall.
Back in the kitchenette, in a terry blue bathrobe, George poured hot black coffee into a heavy ceramic mug. In the bedroom, coffee on the dresser, George pulled his outside pants up, his dress shirt down, and tucked.
Then, George leaned in the doorway to the kitchenette while a foot-long rat crossed the slots of his two-slice toaster, sniffing the chrome.
For two weeks after 9/11, Dev walked with shuttered roll gates on downtown streets. He sat at dawn with the sobering drunks. In the all-night Chinatown restaurant, he choose a chair that faced the door. He ordered vegetable lo mein, moo shu vegetable and fried vegetarian dumplings, doughy and crisp, every night, and ate until it was done, wiping up the last purple of plum sauce with the last pancake shred. He ate the tiny corns like corn. After 9/11, he felt a person should not have to choose which Chinese food he wants most.
More rats ran in Lower Manhattan then, he thought. He thought the C.I.A. could turn on his cellphone like a backwards intercom. He was sure he had seen 200 soldiers in fatigues on Canal Street marching with automatic weapons just before sunrise. Two tender weeks where he walked all night every night. Reality was zoomed in so close to the foreground that the focus was soft.
Which is why in 2016, when Dev saw a thing much larger than a cat, really nearly raccoon-size but with lumps, running fast and so loud across Pearl Street, he thought of how the city smelled like gasoline before the first tower fell, and of the blocks-long line of people outside St. Vincent’s waiting all day to give blood.
He knew it was a nest of rats glued to each other with blood and semen, but he didn’t really know it, you know? Like he knew they didn’t need the blood at St. Vincent’s because everyone was dead, but he stood in line anyways.
One hundred taquitos in the fridge for the benefit party for the newspaper, gone. Who would eat 100 taquitos? Three hours it took for Mattie to make them all.
Mattie’s aunt’s recipe for taquitos for 100: Simmer two big cans of Goya black beans with one small can of adobo chipotle peppers, any brand, and three tablespoons of granulated garlic. Spoon a small row of beans into a corn tortilla, roll tight, place in a pan with one inch of hot oil. Fry until brown. Cool on paper towels. Let sit in the refrigerator until one hour before 100 people arrive.
But there were zero of 100 taquitos left in the refrigerator. And if each of you swear on our friendship and this lease that you did not eat them, then who did?
On the Lower East Side, George bought a rat trap: 18 inches of plywood platform with red paint like runway markers and a bar that took two hands to pry back. George set the rat trap with peanut butter and sprinkle cheese and placed it with ginger hands next to the coffee pot.
In the morning, expecting blood, he stood in the kitchen doorway with eyes half cowered. Then he looked under the counter. In the oven. In the shower. Behind the radiator. Under the bed.
No blood. No rat. No peanut butter and sprinkle cheese. No trap for a foot-long rat.
“Hey. There’s half a taquito under here.”
“I think this is a bean. Oh — ”
“You guys, I think — ”
“Jesus. They can open the refrigerator.”
“One hundred taquitos, my God.”
Paul was just a man fresh off the bus. He put his navy canvas suitcase down on the tile floor of the N/R subway platform. Already, the rat was looking at the old man; already the old man stood closer than Paul thought a person should stand to a rat. But what did he know; this wasn’t Duluth.
Then the old man kneeled down and put out his hand. Then the rat walked over on four legs. Paul thinks the rat is thinking: Old man, hello, is that food you’ve got there?
Then, with a swiftness, the old man sprang up on one leg, booting the rat into the air. Then, with a cry, the old man struck down with one arm, bouncing the rat off the floor. The old man grinning looked at Paul.
In New York City, Paul looked with two eyes at his cellular phone; there was nothing to be done about that.
At potluck dinner parties and book club gatherings in her second-floor walk-up, there were varying opinions about whether the rats liked to fuck in Jessie’s garbage bags because of the G train that ran below the three-story brick building or the neon Chinese restaurant that occupied the ground floor.
The rats fucked in winter and summer. She knew the rats were fucking because she had asked Google: Why do rats scream?
In cold, in sun-bake, in sheeting rain, the black trash bags writhed and rolled like boiling tar because they were having sex on the sidewalk outside Jessie’s apartment.
Then the garbage truck announced itself in air brakes, and one rat whispered to all the others: shh, someone’s coming.
George, in the doorway of the kitchenette on the Lower East Side with a pint of black coffee hot in a ceramic mug, yelled, “Hey!”
The rat looked up then looked away.
George balanced the mug on his palm. He threw it overhand. It cracked in two on the carapace of fur, hot black coffee flying everywhere. The rat looked up then looked away.