Rattus Frugivorus Rafinesque
bed bugs uptown
What a mess this town's in tatters I've been shattered
My brain's been battered - splattered - all over Manhattan
“Shattered,” music and lyrics by Mick Jagger and Keith Richard
From “Some Girls,” the Rolling Stones, © 1978
With apologies to Mssrs. Jagger and Richards, this is not the West Side of Manhattan, but the East End of Ventura. And yet the rats are the same.
This will be a story without any pictures. This is a story so gruesome that you will do just fine with your own ghastly imaginings of how it went down. In fact, this is such an ugly tale that I’m not even going to write it [on my Facebook page]. If you want to read the rest of it, you’re going to have to click through to my blog, over here, to do so.
But this isn’t really about the gore so much as it is about the butterfly effect that led to it. In fact, this is pretty much a perfect fucking storm of butterfly effects, all of which had to line up just so for it to happen at all.
And first, Imma haffa axe yua qwetchun...have you ever been just really happy to find out that your flight got delayed an hour? Because I sure as hell was.
OK. Now I’m going to describe all the little building blocks that had to line up just so to end up in rat brains splattered all over the place.
First, you have to know something about Little Miss Vector, my about-to-be three-years-old granddaughter. We are now in the business of finding things that we both like to do together. This week, it’s “jumping,” which involves finding any two flat surfaces one of which is several inches higher than the other, stepping up to the upper one, and jumping off onto the lower one, all the while cackling like complete idiots. This can go on for hours.
But another one is feeding the birds with two bird feeders that we have hanging from pine branches in the back yard. Little Miss Vector just LOVES feeding the birds. Every time we fill the feeders, a regular goddamned Mary Poppins moment it is. And this involves keeping a couple of twenty-pound bags of bird seed in the garage, right out in front of the godz and everybody, where one could easily see if they had been tampered with, as in ripped open by the yearly invasion of rats that like our attic just fine when it gets cold, as it does enough even here in Southern California during the winter months, and I imagine pretty much everywhere else too, except where it doesn’t and then I imagine that you just have rats year round.
So why was I happy about the flight delay? Well, I had a red-eye to catch out of LAX for Detroit Metro Thursday night. And what, I can just hear you thinking, kind of complete fucking moron would be flying to Detroit in the middle of winter to begin with? Well, it’s like this. I’m Vice-President and general counsel for a national martial-arts association, and one of our instructors, Mrs. van Z., a most excellent and loyal and true member of many years, was testing for her Seventh Dan certificate, which in our organization marks one’s ascendency to the status of Master, and being as how she has been a most excellent and loyal and true instructor, it doth behooveth me to show some respect by being there for her testing. Even if it means flying into goddamned Dee-troit in the middle of the goddamned winter.
So I had left myself plenty of time. Jump on the bike by 6:45 p.m. and motor down the 101 to the 405 and get to LAX by 8:15, a good two hours before my flight. So I run some errands, swing by the office to pick up the mail, and I’m back home shortly after five to finish packing and it’s out the do’ to the liqua’ sto’. All the time in the world.
So here’s the next little building block. Lupe, the girl (yes, she’s probably forty, but in Mexico we call them “chachas,” short for “muchachas”) who helps tidy up the house, is on her way out, and...she manages to snap off her only key to her car in the ignition switch. But she also manages to get both pieces out, so now I’m shifting into I-better-hurry-the-fuck-up mode, and do something about this. So I get her in the car and off to Green Thumb, the hardware and gardening store a few miles away, because now it’s quarter after five, and I can’t even think of the nearest real locksmith that might be open. And of course we hit every goddamned red light on the way, when twenty years ago we didn’t even have most of these traffic signals in this end of town.
And Al, the guy who works the key machine, Al is a damned miracle worker. He manages to strap both of the broken pieces in and cut what looks like a pretty good approximation of the dead one, and off we go. Because of course there’s no way to test it, because the stricken car is four miles away. But we get home and lo and behold, it does open the door and it does turn in the ignition, but no it won’t start the car, because of course it’s a “chipped” key with an anti-theft transponder, and I thought that just having the broken key next to it on her key-ring would be close enough for it to talk to the computer, but apparently it wants that chip right down in the damned key well, and I suppose that there are worse things to be wrong about, but now it’s twenty to six, and Green Thumb closes at six, and...
So I tell Lupe that she’s going to have to take my car and drive back there and buy a new transponder key, and have it cut like the one that was just done, and programmed, which Green Thumb does for fifty bucks, which is a hell of a deal, as the dealership will charge you about three hundred. But of course, as soon as she’s on her way, I call Al and find out that of course they don’t have that blank in stock, so I call Lupe and tell her to turn around, and she can drive my car for the next few days because I’m off to LAX on the motorcycle, until she can go to the “swami” on Saturday to get a new one, which is not some kind of guru but what Mexicans call the swap meet. But by the time that we take all of my golf stuff out of the trunk and put it in the house, and Lupe, who has been calling her husband all this time but he doesn’t answer and then she finally gets him on the phone and they decide that he’s going to come pick her up and she isn’t going to borrow my car after all...now it’s like 6:15 and I’m beginning to get concerned about what’s going to happen if the 405 turns into a parking lot because after all, the nice weather lady on Channel 2, pretty and buxom as all TV weather ladies are now required by law to be, said that it might rain next week, which is the previously-agreed upon signal for drivers everywhere in Southern California to start smashing their cars into each other.
Now this isn’t really rush mode, not calling for true multi-tasking, like used to happen when I’d finish teaching one of the children’s classes out at the old studio in Goleta, and in order to take my place under the conductor’s baton in the pit orchestra at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara in time for the downbeat, I’d have to change out of my dobok and into my tuxedo while flogging my old Fiat Spyder at the kind of speeds one has to flog said Spyder at to get from Goleta to downtown Santa Barbara in about seven minutes. But I was, as we might say, on the clock at this point.
But now we need another piece of the puzzle. Over the holidays, mi novia’s son had come to visit. With his dog. And whereäs if he were flying solo, he could just stay in one of the perfectly serviceable guest bedrooms, with the dog, it was decided that he’d be happier in the little room off the garage, where no one would worry about the dog making a mess and shedding all over the place and scratching the hardwood floors. Which involved exiling mi novia’s new car from the garage to the driveway for the duration, so that the garage could be filled with all of the clothes and other things that should have gone to the thrift store ages ago, but which now live in the little room off to the side.
And this, in turn, meant that the two twenty-pound sacks of bird seed could be buried in said clothes, where no one would see the rats chew holes in them, apparently allowing their number to increase overnight from two or three to like two or three hundred, or so it seemed from listening to their little feet go pitter-pat at night, over the kitchen.
So I started setting rat traps, and collecting rats. Now, as it turns out, rats at our house like to be harvested best on Wednesdays and Thursdays. This is due to the fact that the trash goes out on Wednesday mornings, so unless you want a pretty good stench worked up by about Saturday, you have to throw them in a plastic bag and throw them in the freezer, in plenty of time to forget to take them out and put them in the trash the following Tuesday evening, so that you can have a freezer full of dead rats for weeks at a time.
So I realize that I better check the traps in the attic one more time. Sure enough, another one for the freezer, neck snapped clean through, so then I re-set the trap with a big smear of peanut butter and fold up the stairway ladder into the ceiling, and grab my suitcase and head for the door.
And I’m only about twenty minutes late at this point.
Now we’re close to the last few little Lego blocks we need to build this beast, and it’s time to select a couple that are specially coated with pure stupidity. First, the phone rings. If it had been an out-of-state number on the display, I would have let it go straight to voicemail, probably just some asshole salesman, but it’s a local number, so like a complete idiot I answer it. And it’s an old client that I haven’t spoken to in sixteen years, and he has a problem that I’m sure that I can help him with, but it takes me several minutes to get across to him that I’m late for the airport, and I can’t advise him until he faxes me various docs, etc.
And now I am good and late, but I can still make it up with the help of the godz and a good radar detector. So obviously, what is required is to pull out some truly military-grade stupidity. And I am just the guy to do it, and boy howdy do I know how. I hear the unmistakable “chUNK!” of a rat trap going off. So–do I say to myself that I’ll be back on Sunday, and it won’t have started to stink so bad by then? Do I resolve to call Lupe on the way to the airport and ask her to come deal with it? Oh, no. No sirree. It’s time to whip out the weaponized stupidity, so down comes the stairway ladder and up I go.
Now, before we meet our next contestant, this might be a good time to discuss the state of the art in rat traps.
Your two-dollar rat trap, like your Victor Easy Set or Metal Pedal, or your basic Tomcat or Catchmaster Rat Wooden Snap Trap 610PE, is made out of wood, and has a steel rod that goes over the killing hoop and into a pocket of some sort on the bait-carrying trip plate. And these are manufactured with approximately the tolerances of the bodywork on a ‘72 Ford Pinto, pursuant to a design that is every bit as reliable as the gas tank on that same vehicle. Meaning that if you don’t snap it shut on your fingers while trying to set it, or if it doesn’t go off from the vibrations attendant to walking it across the room and setting it down on your favorite rodent freeway, it’s probably not going to go off at all, no matter how madly the rats dance on it.
Ah, but here is where design, manufacturing and marketing converge to menace the local rodent population. As the saying goes, create a better rat trap, and the world will beats its brains out smashing in your door. Or something like that. What you need here is your five-dollar rat trap, like the Kness Big Snap-E Rat Trap, or my personal favorite, the Victor Powerkill Pro M144. These have a setting mechanism that keeps your fingers away from the business end, and a reliably calibrated tripping mechanism. And it is this type that I’m buying these days, because I like my fingers and I don’t like rats. At least not in the house. And these really do work much better. But not perfectly, which explains why this story exists in the first place. It has been noted that the problem with trying to make things idiot-proof is that they keep making better and better idiots. (That would appear to be a sub-text of this account, in fact.) And it seems that improvements in rat traps might be breeding faster, smarter rats.
We should probably also discuss the name of this story. There are two common rats in North America, the black rat, Rattus rattus, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus. Both are endemic in Southern California, which is no surprise because they’re endemic pretty much everywhere in the world. The black rat is also known as the tree rat, as it is arboreal, and typically enters houses through roof openings, preferring the attic. The brown rat, AKA the Norwegian rat, typically enters the house at ground level, and generally prefers staying at that level. But it’s not a hard and fast rule, and I’ve seen our rats both in the attic, and on the garage floor. And the names mean nothing; both species are found in every possible rat color. So one must look at secondary clues–the black rat is in general more slender (especially in the face), and has a relatively longer and more articulated tail. But the most obvious one is that the brown rat has smaller, more streamlined ears, whereäs those of the black rat tend to be considerably larger.
Judging by the corpsicles in my freezer, these are black rats, and of the three common subspecies, these seem to most match the description of Rattus frugivorus Rafinesque, the fruit rat, rather than the Alexandrine rat, Rattus alexandrinus Geoffroy, or Rattus rattus Linnaeus, also called simply the black rat, due to their coloration. (A good layman’s explanation of these distinctions can be found at http://animals.mom.me/difference-between-roof-rat-norway-rat-8818.html.) And this makes sense in that we’re surrounded by orchards here–mainly citrus and avocado. Of course, it’s also entirely possible that we have tree rats in the attic AND Norwegian rats in the garage. A regular multi-cultural Rat Jamboree. And every last one of them is smart and strong and fast. And slippery.
Now we approach the grim part of the story. But first we need one little more piece of the puzzle, which explains why I couldn’t find my little .177-caliber air pistol, which I have used to dispatch rats in the past.
When this subdivision of tract homes was built in the early ’70s, on a landfill on the side of a hill, they decided, in their infinite wisdom, to save at least fourteen cents per house by burying the copper water supply lines directly in the concrete slab.
Unless you’ve worked in the trades, you probably have no idea what shit workmanship went into these shit cracker boxes. By comparison, we own a little rental house across town, that was built in 1946. The walls are plumb, the corners are square, and when you open a door, just a crack or all the way or anywhere in between, the door stays wherever your hand left it. But your ’70s tract home shares none of these desirable features. The walls aren’t plumb, the corners aren’t square, and open a door partway and chances are that it will swing open or slam shut. I had a chance to see how this worked in the early ’80s, when I was a union sheet-metal worker. I worked mostly on the industrial and military side of HVAC, where we were expected to pay attention to the way that we built things, but every once in a while, when a major job wound down and there wasn’t another one to go out on yet, I would get sent out on a residential crew, where besides HVAC I would often be called upon to do “architectural” sheet metal–roof flashings around chimneys and other penetrations, and of course rain gutter. So one time I’m getting ready to hang some gutter, and the foreman sees me pull out a measuring tape to get the length exact. And he yells at me...”what the FUCK do you think you’re doing?” When I explained, he informed me that Rule Number One of residential construction was: “Slash, gash, and dash. And NEVER look back.”
So when they built this subdivision of tract homes on a landfill on the side of a hill, and put the copper piping directly in the slab, well, of course the concrete slabs of the entire subdivision have been slowly surfing downhill towards the Pacific ever since. A process only hastened by the occasional earthquake. Even ones not big enough to feel–of which there are many–cause the copper and concrete to work against each other. And this is not a battle that favors the copper. Especially when the hard water we have here in Southern California is eating the pipes from the inside.
So the August before last, I feel a very warm spot under the hardwood floors which we had recently put in at great expense. And in about the time it takes for me to realize what that means, I realize that the hardwood floors are floating on a sea of heated water, as the glue dissolves. In a short time the wood swells and begins to burst up. Luckily, this is covered by insurance, but it means that the first thing that has to happen is that ServiceMaster has to come and pack up pretty much everything that we own, and truck it across town to some warehouse, so that the crews can come in and tear up the entire hardwood floor, and start over again. But first this process requires me to hear probably the dumbest question I’ve ever heard from an insurance adjuster. And trust me, as a lawyer who represents injured people I’ve heard some doozies. If we want them to dig up the concrete at the break, patch the pipe, and re-bury it in concrete, well, that’s all covered by insurance. But if we want to kick in four hundred bucks, they’ll cut off that pipe where it enters the house in the garage, and run PEX up through the attic and down through a wall to a manifold where the broken pipe originally was connected, which is where it distributes the hot water to the two bathrooms.
Now let me get this straight...over four hundred bucks, you want to repair a tiny piece of a rotted pipe, and re-bury it, and put in new hardwood floors, so that in about a year it can break six inches away from the repair, so that we can do this all over again?
So of course we go for the PEX, but it takes them a year to replace all of the floors and get us moved back in, and six months after that, we still have about a hundred boxes to go through. Which is why I have no idea where the air pistol is.
So up the ladder I go, turn on the light, and there is one very dazed but very alive rat, with nothing caught in the trap but one front paw. And yes, he is holding his head kind of funny at an angle, and yes, it does look a bit misshapen, like maybe the killing bar whacked him good and hard on the way down, and maybe he was about to die anyway. But what I can’t have is him reviving enough to yank his paw out and crawl off to die somewhere where we’ll never find him. Except with our noses. And I have no idea how long it might be before that happens. So I realize two things. One: I need to kill this poor bastard right fucking now, and two: I need to do this in as quick and painless a manner as possible. For the rat, I mean–I’ve already got a pretty good idea that “painless” is receding pretty quickly as a descriptor for the rest of MY day. Oh, actually THREE things...did I mention that I have a plane to catch, sixty-five miles away at LAX?
So...I go to where I think the air pistol SHOULD be, but of course it isn’t. And this is where we get hardcore stupid. I immediately think of getting a .22 LR target pistol out of the safe and shooting him between the eyes. But we have neighbors close all around, and the last thing I need as I’m making my escape is the cops knocking on the door, and smelling burned powder at the same time that I’m steadfastly denying any “discharge of a firearm in a populated area,” which is what they call that particular misdemeanor in these parts. Which is, of course, a best-case scenario. The way cops are these days, I’m more likely to realize that they’re here from the rumble of a diesel engine as they park their APC, followed shortly by the sound of breaking glass, and a flash-bang or three. Although that might be a bit melodramatic, seeing as how it’s mostly white folks that live around here.
In retrospect, what I SHOULD have done is gotten the .22, dropped a chunk of softwood in behind him (because it would be REALLY unfortunate if a ricochet took out the new pressurized PEX behind him), set off the alarm on the mini-van in the driveway, shot him in time with the horn, turned off the alarm, and Bob’s your uncle.
But NO...that would have required effective cogitation. So instead, I think about all of the tools in my giant tool chests in the garage, and I decide that this situation will be best served by a pair of about fourteen-inch channel locks. Grab his neck and snap it with one clean squeeze, right?
Well, short answer: WRONG. Have I mentioned that rats are SLIPPERY? And they really have no particular fondness for being grabbed by the neck. So the first attempt, no matter how dazed he might be, is easily evaded. And the second one launches him on a very pretty arc up in the air, trap and all, and down through the hatch of the ladder I’m standing on, where he and the trap hit the floor eight feet below...which only serves to free him from the trap. A few more abortive attempts with the channel locks, and even I am smart enough to realize that I might need a different tool.
It is time for the four-pound, short-handled, “baby sledge.”
Yes, dear readers, if you’re going to weaponize stupidity, THAT is the weapon that you want to weaponize it with. And really, at that point, what were my options? The chainsaw? The oxy-acetylene torch?
So I run–no telling how long he’ll be dazed–to the garage, and grab the sledge, and a piece of newspaper. I have to make at least some attempt to keep the Technicolor™ bits confined to the theater of operations, yes? I throw the newspaper over him, and WHAM! I nail him good.
This serves to motivate him, and out he comes running. So I whomp him again. Oh, but did I mention that they’re slippery? The hammer catches him good, and yet still it slides off him and makes a nice little crater in the brand-new hardwood floor. And a second, smaller one, as it bounces. Nothing that you would ever see unless you were looking for it, and in a spot where it is usually covered by a Persian rug anyway. In years to come, no doubt, my darling granddaughter will gleefully tell her playmates: “This is where my sweet old Avo* blasted the brains out of a giant rat!”
Meanwhile, I can see him gathering what’s left of his strength to make one more bid for escape, so I line up Mjölnir one last time, as carefully as I can, straight and FLAT this time, and with one last stroke his head explodes and he moves no more.
So this is our tableau. I am holding a bloody hammer over a mostly decapitated rat. There is blood everywhere, on the wall, on the floor, and all over my arms. And we have tenderized brains here and there. One eye lies some distance away, still seeming to be focused on me, his nemesis. And did I mention that I have a plane to catch?
So now things have to happen very quickly. I look for an all-purpose cleaner, like Simple Green, but I don’t find any. Degreaser? Good enough, considering the nature of the residue I need to clean. So I get a roll of paper towel, pick up and toss the larger pieces. The rat? He goes in the freezer with his compadre. (Of course, I’ve been defaulting to “he” throughout this story. But I have no idea what sex it might be; I didn’t dissect anything south of the neck. I just threw him in the freezer.) Then I do my best with the liquid bits. I clean and put away the hammer at the same time. Then some disinfectant for good measure where the blood was.
This leaves only me. The guy who got out of the shower not more than a few hours ago. Back in the shower, where I scrub everything the best I can. I really don’t want to have a little eyeball falling out of my ear when I’m chatting with the good folks at TSA, right?
As I head for the door–again–I remember to turn off the email client on my main home server. And THAT is when I see the last-minute flight-tracker update from Spirit. Flight 709 to Detroit is delayed an hour. Oh, yassuh. Which leaves me time to reset the Victor Powerkill Pro M144 in the attic.
The rest of the weekend went swimmingly. Mrs. van Z. did a great job on her test, as did the other more junior testing candidates. We had a good black-belt seminar and another the next day. And I got to visit with some of my best friends in the world, whom I don’t see nearly often enough.
And when I got home Sunday night, there were two more dead rats in the attic traps.
So, OK, I lied. One picture. This is a four-pound baby sledge, pretty much guaranteed to make any rat, rattus or norvegicus or otherwise, feel Mighty Thor.
* “Avo” is Esperanto for grandfather, and it’s what my granddaughter calls me. It’s also very close to “abwo,” which is how Mexican babies tend to mispronounce “abuelo,” which is Spanish for grandfather.