portion of the artwork for Roger D'Agostin's short story

Rats
Roger D’Agostin

“The rats are in the drains,” Dad says. He follows the exterminator, Joe, through every room. Joe points his flashlight in corners and baseboards and the back of kitchen cabinets and mutters, “No droppings,” like it’s a bad thing. He says he’ll set some traps but doesn’t think it’ll do any good. That’s when Dad tells him he needs to see this and leads him into the bathroom. He points at marks near the bathtub drain. “Rats.”

Joe scratches his head, and looks at his name patch on his shirt as if he has forgotten who he is, then asks Dad if he has seen any rats. Dad lies, says he saw one shake off a trap like a wet dog. “I hear their claws against the pipes.”

Joe places squares of poison in the corner of every room, and asks us twice if we have pets. He explains how rats take food back to their nests, so these squares will kill all of them. “But it will take some time.”

Dad tells Joe these rats are smart. “They probably won’t eat the poison.” Joe says the only other option would be to spray, but we’d have to leave the house for three days.

* * *

I tell my therapist, Dr. Ross, about the rats in the shower drain. He nods, then says, “That’s impossible. Rats won’t invade your house through the shower drain.”

For a while we were on this “is it not possible or impossible” kick and what the difference is. He repeats, “Impossible.” Then he wants to go through a brainstorming exercise of what the scratches in the tub can be a result of since it is not the claws of a rat. “I’ll start. Maybe it was a spider.”

“A spider won’t scratch porcelain.”

“Perhaps a clump of black hair that backed out of the drain.” He gestures at my head. “Possible? Definitely not impossible.”

“Hair doesn’t scratch porcelain. Hair doesn’t scratch anything.”

Dr. Ross suggests we end early today because it appears I’m a bit a less than willing to do the necessary work.

I shrug.

My high school mandated I see a therapist once a week because of my suicide journal. I didn’t attempt to kill myself, but wrote about the possibility, and accidentally handed the wrong journal in to English class. Dr. Ross didn’t mention the journal until our third session. I explained to him that rats can fall from a height of 50 feet and not get hurt. They can tread water for three days, too. “So you understand my problem?” I asked. “I’m going to hit puberty soon.”

* * *

I tell Dr. Ross rats are able to reproduce at three months and have a litter every two. He asks about my mom. I ignore him and state that in the wild, female rats usually produce two or three litters before they die.

“Do you think you have siblings?”

I tell him juvenile rats could certainly fit up a drain. They can squeeze their bodies through a hole the size of a quarter. With a skinny mom and dad, a whole family could crawl right up into our house.

“Do you think she’s dead?”

I remember her stroking my head. I don’t say this. But that’s what I remember and I think that’s why I grow my hair long and enjoy combing it. But if I tell him this he won’t let up. Every session will be about mom, or my hair. So I lie. “I’m sure she’s dead.”

Dad now makes me shower with the stopper in the tub. He siphons the water off into a bucket and dumps it down the drain by the curb. “Keep the drain dry. All we pour down now is bleach.” One morning the stopper was gone. Dad’s pale. He says he’ll leave a small amount of bleach sitting in the tub overnight.

When I tell this to Dr. Ross he says it might be best to have a group session. But since we still have time left in this session I let him know: “Rats have a bellybutton, but no tonsils. It is estimated there are as many rats as humans in the lower 48 states. Norway rats invaded the United States 300 years after Christopher Columbus discovered America, but most likely a few adventurous rodents set down roots at the same time. And just like the Europeans they took over. There’s a reason it’s rarely mentioned that the diseases which wiped out the Indians could just as well be attributed to rats. It wasn’t an accident.”

My therapist stares blankly before declaring my dad will be joining us the next session. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”

“Custody disputes are always difficult,” I say before leaving.

* * *

“I should explain,” Dad says. “I’d been using for almost five years at that time. And then my girlfriend switched to meth. That’s an odd switch, heroin to meth. But anyway, we stopped seeing each other. Of course, every once in a while, she’d stop by. Need some junk to come down.” Dad shrugs. Like he’s telling Dr. Ross about how he lost a job and just can’t catch on with a new one.

“There was a lot of coming and goings in my place. I just assumed when I found him in the tub. No diaper, no crying, head terribly misshapen. Had to be hers.”

Dr. Ross says he is unaware of these details and asks my dad to continue.

My dad says he may have had it all wrong. He asks Dr. Ross if he is familiar with the infinite monkey theorem—that an infinite amount of monkeys typing will eventually create a masterpiece. When the therapist explains that the problem with the theorem is the infinite—you have an infinite amount of monkeys and an infinite amount of time—my dad nods and says, “Precisely. I jerk off in the shower three times a week on average.” Dad jabs a finger at the therapist. “How many men of masturbation age live in New York City? Now add condoms flushed down toilets or tossed at curbs or sewer drains.”

He looks at me and I nod. “It’s not impossible.”

Dr. Ross shakes his head and says, “I know what you’re insinuating. But sperm don’t swim and crawl like little bugs and enter random vaginas.”

“But it only takes one. It only takes one aberration,” my dad counters. “Do the math. How much semen runs down those drains a week? Sewers have been in New York City for how many years? Like I said, it only takes one. A billion monkeys typing randomly will eventually write something.” He looks back at me, then the therapist. “Some have estimated there are five times as many rats living in New York City as people.” Dr. Ross holds up his hand, signaling my dad to stop. “There are certainly a million. Probably two. All that semen. All those rats.”

Dr. Ross chuckles. He shakes his head and crosses his legs before looking down at the yellow pad in his lap. When he looks up his expression is somber. “We have a very serious matter here.”

“Rats can chew through concrete, aluminum, steel and even glass,” my dad snaps.

That’s when I leap and bite the desk. Not a leg or corner but right on the edge, in the center. I close my eyes, gnaw and pull as the blood runs down my throat. But I don’t stop. I can’t stop.



Roger D’Agostin’s Comments

This particular story started as a horror story. I just wanted to write a horror story. But I don’t read horror stories and don’t like horror movies, and I don’t think I’m very good or will ever be very good in this genre. I wrote a lot that was eventually cut—beginnings and endings. So what you’re reading is about 10 percent of what I wrote.

When I write a story, I like to write the first version, or, rather, pre-first version, on an iPad in Notes. I have tried writing by hand, but I write so fast and sloppy that unless I return to it immediately I have difficulty figuring out what I wrote. So I tap feverishly, then go back to it eventually. That’s when I copy it over to Word and get a final first version. Then I edit. I edit a lot and try to save every version. I also go through spurts. For example, I’ll edit a story for a month then let it sit for another two or three months before editing it again. I find this valuable. I don’t know of a better way of seeing one’s story from a fresh light other than letting it sit. I have tried other methods, such as changing the font, but I still think the best method is time.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 55 | Spring/Summer 2020