One Sunday night, one of our cats began staring at the stove. Like it was a T.V. or aquarium. I laughed, took pictures, posted one on Facebook. Everyone said, “You have a RAT or a MOUSE.” How dare they? The nerve! I’ve been in this apartment three years and my partner, Jenn, ten--we’ve never had so much as a bug. Besides, we have three dogs and two cats--is there a self-respecting rodent that would tempt them?
A week later, the other cat joined in watching the stove. I opened it, looked around it, and finally stuck my head in and listened. I know this probably gives you an image of Sylvia Plath… but I made sure not to blow out the pilot light. And that’s what I figured it was… that quiet sh-sh-sh of the flame. That was when I remembered that the cats also spent a lot of time looking at the heater--it’s a new one, just installed a couple of months ago. It also has a pilot light that whispers sh-sh-sh.
Call me Columbo, Ellory Queen, Miss Marple, Nancy Drew… and why not? I deduced what the cats were interested in--and it made sense! I once had a cat that was fascinated by candles. I’d walk into a room and he’d be sitting on the table next to a candle, his eyebrows and whiskers curled at the ends--as if he was a character meeting Dorothy in the Emerald City. Some cats apparently want to play with fire.
Another day passed. The cats wouldn’t leave the kitchen. With a sigh I started poking around the stove again. I spied a burnt grain of rice. You know what’s coming, right? Not rice. Turd. Ever have that feeling when you know you have mice? If not, I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a sense of exhaustion. It starts in your chest and works its way out to all the extremities that will be doing a lot of furniture moving and live-trap setting. It’s the feeling that you’re going to wake up with a gift on the pillow next to your head kind of tired.
So I got on the floor next to the cats. I opened the door to the broiler and we all stretched our necks out to peek inside. Me and the two cats.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, color drained from her face. Well it drained from mine. I felt it as I looked at a shape in the back corner of the broiler. I didn’t know what I was looking at. It’s like the time my dog was barking at the planters in the yard. I looked in the space between them and saw an interestingly-shaped rock. It was night and the yard light was dim. It wasn’t until I reached for the rock that I realized I was about to grab an opossum’s head. I didn’t. My fingers have thanked me ever since. Anyway, back to the broiler. It wasn’t an opossum. It was, indeed, a rat. A r-r-r-rat. I stared at it a long time--bunched up as it was in the back corner of the broiler drawer, hoping that I couldn’t see it. But I could. Its hairless tail was looped back underneath him. Rat. For sure.
Closing the drawer I went into the living room and told my partner, “There’s a rat in our stove.”
Jenn said, “Really?”
I said, “A rat. In our stove. Rat.”
“Yes. There’s not much we can do about it tonight. Maybe it will leave.”
She’s a scientist. She’s pragmatic. She’s usually right.
But I called Neil, our building manager, perhaps thirty times. He finally called back on his way home from a date or something that he really wasn’t supposed to have when there was a rat in my stove.
While I was waiting for Neil to arrive, I found the rat’s trail of burnt-rice shaped turds--out of our new wall heater, along the wall under my desk (ohmygodwheremyfeetusuallyare), behind the bar that’s pushed against the wall, to the stove.
This next part will sound strange, but I’m a bit OCD and it’s the kind of thing I do when I want proof of things. I used my roll of mailing tape to collect all the turds and stuck them onto a piece of typing paper. Then I put them on the porch because they gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Okay, I’m thinking you’re thinking I’m a wimp. I’m not. Really. I had a pet rat in high school. I got it from the psychology department and named it Toliver. I used to walk around with it sitting on my shoulder; my hair was long so it could make a comfortable nest at my nape. Friends would ask me to lift my hair so they could see if the rat was there when I visited. I’m not afraid of rats when they’re where they’re supposed to be. A pet rat comes from a cage. A wild rat walks on the wires and climbs trees in Southern California. In Chicago they are reputed to be able to chew through steel. I saw one once that was the size of a parking meter.
Neil the building manager arrived. He brought a screen, tape and a plastic bag. As I watched him tape the bag to the broiler drawer I told him about Toliver. He pulled the stove out and asked me to hold the screen across the space between the stove and the wall. I told him about Chicago rats. They’re not like California rats, they don’t say “Dude” and they’re not health conscious. Neil nodded.
Neil’s plan was to shake the stove to make the rat run into the plastic bag. He said he’d take it to the Pollo Loco--there’s a park behind it and he thought the rat would be happy there. Jenn got involved. She held the flashlight while Neil shook the stove. Instead of running into the bag, the rat ran out behind the stove and stood up against the screen that I was holding. His whiskers twitched as he frantically tried to figure out how to get out of there. I was tempted to pull the screen away but I was pretty sure he’d just hide in the bar. Then he disappeared inside the stove and we couldn’t see him anywhere.
We talked about PLAN B. While Neil was tossing out ideas I got the paper with all the rat turds stuck to it under mailing tape. When I offered it to Neil, he just looked at it. I said, “Here.” He said, “I don’t want that.” You know, it wasn’t like I liked pressing the tape down on the turds and sticking the strips on paper. I threw it away. Evidence wasted.
For PLAN B, Neil ran out to get two live traps and two glue traps from his car. Jenn and I were against the glue traps. As he set the live traps I told him about the rats at a factory I worked at a million years ago. I typed up shipping bills in the office. The factory had rats so big that truckers would come in paler than a vampire in a month-long Alaskan night. Neil wasn’t amused. But he smiled anyway and tossed a glue trap behind the stove as well. This made Jenn and me sad. I thought it was bad karma and I took a muscle relaxer to cope.
I also called my brother because I had to tell someone else that there’s a rat in my stove. I woke him. He mumbled. I told him about the rat. He said, “Oh. A rat.” I told him to go back to sleep and I think he did before he hung up.
A half hour after went go to bed, I heard a cat jump off a chair and told Jenn that I thought a trap went off. She asked if I wanted her to check. I said, “You don’t have to. But, yes.” She checked. Nope. I slept for three hours and woke when I did hear a trap. Easing out of bed, I crept into the living room expecting something to jump me. I lit a cigarette and sat on the couch across the room from the heater. The live trap Neil set there was closed.
Really, I don’t know what I thought would happen if I got close to it. But it was a bit of a let-down, because when I finished my smoke and went to look only one side was closed. The cats were probably responsible. Did I mention their nicknames are Destructo and Bad Kitty?
Jenn got up because I was pacing and probably shining the flashlight all over the place. The trap behind the stove was shut on both sides so I called Neil, even though it was only six a.m. I think having a rat in one’s stove gives a person a certain inalienable right to call a landlord pretty much whenever they want. And I’ll have to say, he gave me that right as well.
The trap was empty. And Jenn had to go to the observatory so she was going to be gone overnight. It was going to be just be me, our three dogs, two cats, and the rat.
I was actually pretty productive during the day. My desk is beside the wall heater and the bar is along the other wall that leads to the stove. So I worked on my novel all day, occasionally turning around to look at the cats and one of the dogs (who joined in the rat patrol) as they watched the stove. And I’d think to myself, I’m sitting at my desk and there’s a rat in the stove. I called my mom and she thought we should call the rat Templeton. You know, after the rat in Charlotte’s Web.
The trap shut. But it was empty again.
Neil stopped in before going to his night job and told me to call him if I felt I needed to. “But if the trap goes off, just leave it until I get back.” he said. As if I’d know what to do. There’s at least three Pollo Loco’s in the neighborhood.
I watched three T.V. shows before calling Neil and telling him about my great idea. PLAN C. He came over to help me execute it. Actually, he watched me light up my waterpipe and blow marijuana smoke through a green Starbucks straw into the stove. That was my plan. Get the rat high. (And I do have a medical marijuana card, alright?) Neil was good with it. He figured the fellow would brave the apparently oversensitive traps because he’d have the munchies. He also decided to set a trap inside the oven. Every time he opened the door, I blew pot smoke through my straw into it and he set the live trap down and the trap went off. Neil had to take it out and reset it; I smoked more pot and loaded my straw each time. I think he got it on the fifth try. I’d reloaded the pipe twice. I told him that I named the rat Templeton. Neil nodded and repeated, “Templeton.”
I called my brother while he was awake and he told me, “You know, it’s kind of funny.” I said that I was sure it would be later. He said he’d come over and help the next day. I hung up and said goodnight to Templeton and went to bed.
I got up early again. And actually I was pretty hungry. Since discovering Templeton I’d only eaten honey-roasted peanuts. I think it was some sort of rat-empathy. And face it, I wasn’t about to use the stove.
I had another great idea that day. PLAN D. I ground up two of our old dog’s traumadol (pain killers for his arthritis) and mixed it with 85% dark chocolate, cream cheese and bread crumbs. I made a neat little musket ball of it and dropped it beside the live trap behind the stove. I checked every twenty minutes and Templeton hadn’t taken it. I walked the dogs, came home, and checked again. I thought, There really is a rat in my stove. The magic musket ball was gone. I called Neil and told him about PLAN D. Then I called my brother.
Within the hour Neil, my brother, Dave, and his fiancé, Maryke were all standing by the stove. We talked about how often we pull a stove out to clean underneath it. We also decided that Templeton had surely passed out. Dave helped Neil pull the stove out and disconnect it. I held the screen in the larger escape path and Maryke tossed toys because now all the dogs wanted to help. And dogs aren’t really helpful in this way because they don’t have opposable thumbs.
Neil was going to remove the back of the stove and just take the sleeping rat out. But once he started unscrewing the back, we heard it. A squeak. I was suddenly so sad for Templeton. I thought he must be so scared. I was sure only a young, inexperienced rat would become trapped in my stove--and it must be something of a rat nightmare.
Once we realized Templeton was awake Neil created PLAN E. Fetching a dolly, he and Dave hauled the stove out to the street. They’d not even unloaded it when a junk truck pulled up and the guy asked if he could have the stove. “Be my guest.” said Neil.
They came back upstairs and told me that Templeton had gone to the rat version of Disneyland. A junkyard. I picture the little fella (okay, with a body seven inches long, he wasn’t little) poking his nose out of the stove and a whole line-up of eccentric rat characters greeting him. One would probably be wearing glasses and another would be in a mechanic's jumpsuit.
The cats are a bit disappointed. They spent a night staring at where the stove was. But the hole leading to the roof around the heater vent has been blocked. The dogs were happy because we got a new stove and they seemed to think a new rat would come with it. It didn’t. I don’t mind.
Do you know that Rattus norvegicus (aka the brown rat, common rat, street rat, sewer rat, Hanover rat, Norway rat, or wharf rat) can be found everywhere in the world--except Antarctica… and my apartment.