Ken O’Steen

Godsent Vermin

She said, don’t think I’m an idiot, I think I’ve been seeing ghosts in the house. I told her, you have, the two of us.

Everybody was dead – grandparents, parents, friends, cats, chipmunks who had lived in the yard. And if they were ghosts too I was happy to have them. The neighbors were ciphers, the town itself stark raving dim, even the country a staggering headless torso. Give me ghosts any day.

We were old. We were alive. And we couldn’t figure out why. We liked the chipmunks, though others considered them a nuisance. They were lightning fast and resourceful, though apparently, not lightning fast or resourceful enough.

Besides ghosts, other things were in the house. Rats. They came up through a hole in the wall under the kitchen sink, and they skittered overhead in the attic. Our instinct at first was to wipe them off the face of the earth. We chose détente. Make friends with them. Counter-intuitive, but what if a rat could be the best friend a man could ever have?

They were hungry, but they were not greedy. They had no reactionary ideological agenda. If on occasion they spread a virulent disease, they didn’t spread lies, or inanities, or hollow titillation for crippled attention spans.

We welcomed them as a buffer against the rest. Beware of Rats, if we’d had a sign in the yard.

We fed them under the sink, cheese, peanut butter, guacamole, bacon bits, Polaner All Fruit. I pulled down the ladder to the attic, climbed up with a box of Raisin Bran and flung it everywhere. If there were old rats, they needed their fiber too.

And then the usual suspects were gunning for Social Security and Medicare. We were lingering too long anyhow, we agreed. If the wife had said it once, she had said it a million times: life won’t end.

A neighbor was the first to knock on the door. The aroma of upward mobility was unmistakable.

“Sorry to bother you. I don’t know if you know this, but the underneath of your house is full of rats.”

“We know.”

“Okay. So you have plans for exterminators to come.”

“We don’t.”

“You don’t?”

“We don’t.”

“Why?”

“We don’t mind them.”

“Don’t mind them? With all due respect, how can you not mind them? There are rats in your house.”

“Actually, rats aren’t in the house. They’re under the house, in the attic, and under the kitchen sink. But that’s it.”

“Oh, that’s it.”

“Yes.”

“Well, we do mind them. They proliferate and migrate.”

“I’ve read about that.”

“Okay, well, they’re showing up at our house. I don’t like having to be an asshole about it, but if this isn’t taken care of soon, I’ll be calling the city to send their inspectors out. It’s a health hazard, and besides that, unacceptable blight in the neighborhood. ”

“Do what you need to do.”

Antisocial? Probably. Creepy? Well, rats.

Still, old folks tend to disappear. Instead, we had gotten their attention. A double-edged sword of course, since now, we were hideous to look at. We had relished being young and attractive. If you didn't mind losing your sexual magnetism you were just an imbecile.

The neighbor was the type who bought shabby old houses in order to live in a vibrant urban setting. His was renovated. Ours was vintage shabby.

Yet the promise of our rats was being realized. They broadened their horizons, taking over the yard from the reigning squirrels. Word went out through the neighborhood: Stay away from that rat house.

No dog walkers bringing mutts into the yard to leave a pile. No religious fanatics ringing the bell.

While no expert on rat happiness I ascertained from the sounds they made that they were cheerful enough, leading vigorous, purposeful lives in the space afforded to them. More than you could say for us.

The COPD made the wife gasp, and wheeze like our old refrigerator. She was ready for the portable oxygen tank, what the enfeebled set do to accessorize. My knees were comprised of jelly. I croaked rather than talking like a human being, and I was always bloated with gas.

For thirty years I owned a bookstore. I’d made it under the wire, getting out of Dodge just as the brick and mortars were becoming obsolete. Creative destruction, the hard shell capitalists would call it, Schumpeter’s Gale, according to the Austrian School economics types. Well up yours.

The wife had worked at Macy’s for thirty years. No such thing as pensions in the brave new world. Gone the way of union jobs, Christmas turkeys, and upward wage pressure.

A bitter old man? You have no idea.

Early one morning the city inspectors arrived as promised. The two poked around under the house, searched across the property, the occasional rat darting between their legs. When they finished, they asked once again if we would consider bringing exterminators in, and we told them no.

“Then we’ll have to send people out to do it ourselves, and the city will have to bill you. The exterminators will be accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy, which is customary in situations such as this.”

“Whatever happened to property rights? Far as I can tell they’re our rats.”

He smiled.

“That’s one way to look at it, yes. But the other is that it’s a public safety and health concern. There are ordinances for situations of this kind for a reason.”

“We feel safer with the rats around if you want to know the truth.”

“You managing okay in there?”

“Well enough.”

“Okay. Good. Do you have any grown children or relatives to look in on you from time to time?”

“We don’t. Our son died in an auto accident when he was sixteen.”

“I’m terribly sorry.”

“Long time ago.”

Before we fell asleep that night, the wife began to talk.

'So we have our guns.'

'Yes, we have our fail-safe guns for getting out should the need arise.'

'What if the need seemed to be arising now? Instead of using them the way we planned, what if we got them out when the sheriff comes? With the exterminators. Make him do it for us?'

The wife was a crazy old lady. Yet crazy enough to know the ghosts were really there. The past, the mortal coil, memory, like a ringing in your ear before a nerve died, and a frequency disappeared forever.

We had a tiny nest egg, and some little investments, enough for a decent facility when the time came. Once that runs out, they toss you into a haunted house excuse of a nursing home. They'd wait you out, let you dry up inside your house like a bug suffocated in a jar.

Besides, truth and lies were kissing cousins now, polar ice was melting, oceans were rising, fall came a month late, winter ended a month early, your air-conditioning ran all of the time, and hydrocephalic numbskulls were letting it happen. Check please.

*

Our rats never saw it coming.

The sheriff was standing in the yard. Exterminators wearing hazmat were invading from every direction. The rats’ perimeters were being breached, and so were ours. The invaders were in the house, marching toward the sink, hauling tanks and carrying hoses, nozzles aimed like laser beams.

We had our guns.

Butch and Sundance to the bitter end.

*

Then, alas, we chickened out.

Cowards to the bitter end.

Life won’t end, the wife repeated for the millionth and one time.

“Dinner at Musso and Frank,” was included in the anthology, “The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking,” edited by Charles Coulombe, published by Citadel. “Prattlegate,” appeared in the June issue of New Pop Lit. “Fierce Bombardier of the Vast Imperial Skies” appeared in the most recent issue of Britain’s The Wolfian, published by the Wolfian Press. “A Few Quirks of Surrender” appeared in the fall issue of Cleaver Magazine. “The Invisibility of Wealth” appeared in the October issue of Litbreak. “Dialogue in a Dead Zone," will appear in the July issue of Connotation Press. “Sex Bomb” will appear in a forthcoming issue of Literary Juice.

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