A Brief History of Rats

Moon Man 1
By Larry Duncan

The exterminator says they came in through a crack in the foundation.

“They can squeeze through a hole the size of a dime,” he says.

The fires drove them in.
You remember
that fall
the season everything burned.
Entire subdivisions
lit up like burning glyphs
while men in sandals
sprayed their roves
with garden hoses
the nearly laughable
steams of water
arching over rooftops
as fields of flame
leapt over the interstate.

They came in droves,
driven to safer ground
by the snapping tongues of fire
and the strange, electric pulse
of the Santa Ana winds.

Some of them came here.

At night,
I get drunk
and listen to the frantic
click and chatter
of their nails and teeth
gathering in the walls
around my room.

The exterminator set traps
but I don’t believe they’re buying it.
I know they’ve nests already.

I pace the room.
I can feel them closing in,
Tightening the noose
I get the crazy idea that they’re coming for me.

I decide to go old school
pull the typewriter down from the closet shelf
finger the missing keys
and prepare to go to war.

I get deep into one of my kicks,
pounding the keys
in time with cadence of the rats.

Deeper still
tearing at the pages
I pick them up
and throw them down,
loading the pages—
one by one—
into the chamber,

loving the feel of the slick, metallic click.

I’m a madman,
like in the old days,
like in Chicago,
when I was thin,
thin as I’ve ever been
thin like the sick,
like the dying,
like a catholic christ,
and everywhere I looked the world bleached bare white bone.

I thought I’d be an genius
if I could just learn to smoke
and stand like James Dean.

Every night,
I cleaned shitters,
vacuumed the halls
and waxed the immaculate lobby of the high-rise,
then walked the streets
from Lakeview Drive
down Michigan Avenue
to Clark and Elm
and the bars on Division,

the bums assaulting me all the way
for nickels and dimes,
dollars if you had them.

and once, a girl I didn’t know ran up
and wrapped her arms around my neck
whispering, “Your beautiful,
you’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen,”

and it was all the same

nickles and dimes,
dollars if you had them.

There were still Chicago rats—
the size of small dogs—
crawling along telephone
and electrical wires,
deep in the sewers—
impervious to radiation and biological warfare.
They would survive.
They would flourish.
They would eat what we left behind.

Someday, the rats would have us.

But, it was alright
because I had the nights
and some nights I had it,
bounding through me
like the electricity beneath the rats
through my eyes
in my veins
arcing in my blood
and I’d run into the streets,
into the speeding cars,
“This is it.
This is it”

the horns of history blaring

but it was all the same
nickels and dimes
dollars if you had them.

Now, I ride the bus,
in a city as far west from Chicago as I can get,
back and forth,
from my little job
to my little life:
pound the keys,
fall asleep,
wake up,
back to work
and the bus,

the exterminator is wrong.
The rats didn’t come in anywhere.
They were here when I arrived.
They’re not coming for me.
They already have me,
and you
and history.

It’s their world already.
We just haven’t realized it.

An earlier version of “A Brief History of Rats” entitled “Living with Rats” previously appeared in BankHeavy Press: Don’t Forget the Chapstick.

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