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ralph robert moore
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rolling in place
february 1, 2013
I wake up in darkness most days, usually around four a.m. Check to make sure Mary's doing okay, even exhales, eyebrows relaxed, then make my way through our downstairs rooms to the staircase. Up in my study, I sit down in front of the computer, light my first cigarette of the day, listen to the frantic scrabbling above my head.
I don't know what's up there. Could be squirrels, could be rats, could be little mice working on a tiny cupboard to hold their cheese. All I do know is there's more than one of them, and they don't always get along.
Button, one of our cats, who's always been a cat who walks alone, even though there are other cats in the house she could play with, took to lying in front of the grate at the bottom of one of the bookcases in my study. I guess she could either see or smell or sense that there was something living in the shadows on the other side of the grate. She didn't behave like she wanted to kill whatever it was. She almost behaved like whatever it was could be a potential friend only she had, not a real friend, but a friend that fit her personality, where they were aware of each other, but could never actually interact. I don't know if she's lonely. How could you tell? But if she is, maybe it made her less lonely?
Being out in the country, of course, we live with a lot of wildlife.
In the Spring, possums climb up on the windowsill outside our bedroom, noisily eating the seed we strew on the brick ledge for birds. I've sat on the carpet at one o'clock in the morning, with some of our braver cats, watching the possums' profiles through the screen as they munch their way through the scatter. They look ugly as all get-out, but there's something about their shyness, the way they keep lifting their forward-pointing snouts to check for safety, that nothing's creeping up on them in that backyard darkness, that makes me feel tender towards them.
In the Summer, we get snakes. Whenever we've had someone over, and take them out into our backyard garden for a beer under the trees at the rear of the property, the first thing they always ask is, Are there snakes back here? Well, of course there are. We live in Texas. But we always lie. Because we know they won't be able to relax if their pupils are shooting around the whole time, expecting to be bitten or swallowed. (The biggest snake we've ever seen in our backyard was about five feet long. And boy, could he slide along the ground at a fast clip. Faster than us.)
The scariest animal I've ever seen around our home wasn't a snake or a rat.
I was working on a story one day when Mary said, There's a big spider in the garage.
I went out with a rolled-up magazine. How big can a spider be?
Gentle Reader, it was a huge, fucking spider.
And you know what really scared me about its size? It wasn't its width, which I would have thought would have been the scariest aspect.
It was its height. How high its head was raised off the concrete garage floor on those eight brown legs.
Plus it seemed intelligent. Its legs, to me, looked like they were at a slant, ready to run if I approached. In other words, it was so big it was aware of my presence. Unlike other spiders.
So what do you do when you're frightened?
That's right. Act without thinking.
Big brown and orange puddle of ex-spider on the concrete. Too big to pick up with a Kleenex. I don't know if I'd even want to pick it up with a square of asbestos.
I didn't give much thought to killing it, to be honest. I was glad it was dead. That size, it may have harmed Mary, or me, or one of our cats.
There are two animals I regretted killing.
My maternal grandparents lived right on Long Island Sound. The ocean (an inlet of it) was in their backyard. One time when I was a kid my grandfather, a tall, rail-thin guy with a shock of white hair who always dressed in black, even during the heat of Summer, as if he were in mourning for his life, and who always had a flask of whiskey in his sagging back pocket, decided he was going to teach me how to fish. Got a fishing pole going for me, curved a nightcrawler on the hook, and helped me cast. It was a lot of fun. Then sitting on the grass by the embankment overlooking the sea, waiting. Finally, the tug-tug-tug of the line, Morse code against my fingers. I hauled the struggle in, yanking up over my head at the last moment, like my grandfather told me to. And out of the mysterious ocean, sailing over my head, a fish. It landed on the lawn behind me. I whirled around, to see what I had pulled out of the sea. A good-sized fish, silver and black, flapping on the grass, suffocating. Obviously, in great distress. Pulled away from all it knew. I watched it flip back and forth, ignoring my grandfather's slap on my back. You see so clearly when you're young. I felt really bad at what I had done to this poor fish. Never picked up a pole again. (But fishers and hunters, I have absolutely no problem with what you do. None whatsoever. It's just not for me.)
The second animal I regretted killing, I was in college. I drove there in the morning for classes, drove back home at night. This particular day, my car was in the shop. So I had to drive my dad's clunky station wagon. And I mean, a station wagon has got to be the uncoolest car a college kid can drive. If I had a Groucho mask, big nose and bushy eyebrows, I would have worn it. And I remember that as I was leaving the college parking lot that day to drive home, I was depressed. I can't recall now, so many intervening events later, what it was that had me feeling so sad, but I do very clearly remember that I was in an upset mood, and then I had to get into this stupid station wagon, while everyone else was ripping out of the lot in these sleek machines, and as I accelerated out of one of the exits of the lot, a bird banged against the windshield, rolled rapidly across the immense front hood, falling off. In front of me, on the curved glass, a few wind-agitated feathers, some dust, red streaks. I had just caused a bird's death. And steering this tank towards the highway entrance, I started to cry. Man, that was a bad day.
For the record, though, I've never regretted killing a lobster, and I've probably killed hundreds by now. There's probably a wanted poster with my stupid face on it rippling gently underwater, attached to a coral reef. If we had any lobsters in our kitchen right now, I'd kill them gleefully, melt some butter.
When it comes to animals living inside our home, rats or mice or squirrels or whatever the fuck they are, we've been tolerant. We'll listen to their scrabblings for months. I'll climb up into our attic to change the air filters for our air conditioning systems, which is scary, poking my face up into darkness, hearing things scuttling around me, see mouse droppings across the planks, and just accept that.
The truth is, rodents cause a lot of damage in a house. They love electricity. They'll gnaw through electrical lines, phone lines, anything else you have up there. Pull the insulation out of the ceiling. Shit everywhere. Chew through the roofline, so it's easier for them to enter the attic and walls, letting in rain and its attendant moisture (moisture to a house is like cancer to a kidney.)
I wanted to put rat bait in both our attics. Mary didn't. Because she loves all animals, and I love her for that.
But. It reached the point where we were hearing scrabblings all the time. On both floors. More and more violent scrabblings. We had just spent almost eight thousand dollars replacing our downstairs air conditioning system. What damage were they doing to it?
So finally, she reluctantly agreed.
We have two attics. First floor attic, second floor attic. I put several rat baits in both attics (the rat baits consist of pretty aquamarine crystals infused with Warfarin, a strong blood thinner that in large doses causes the animal eating them to explode. Mary takes a measured dose of Warfarin, in pill form, every day, like millions of other people, to help prevent blood clots.)
Of course, it's not like once you put the rat baits in the attic, your problem is solved. It takes a while for them to discover the baits, and eat them.
While I wait, walking through the rooms, looking up at the ceilings.
For whatever rodent reason, the ones in the downstairs attic died first. We knew they had died, because we stopped hearing any noises, and a day after that we got a lot of flies in the master bathroom off the entrance to that attic.
The ones in the upstairs attic took a few days longer. Maybe they weren't as hungry. Maybe they were smarter.
I was back at my computer upstairs in my study one 4:00 a.m., waiting for the pc to wake, lighting my first cigarette of the day, when I heard, above the white ceiling, a rolling. Like a small body rolling. But not rolling across the planks up there. Rolling in place. Like, spasms.
My computer lit up. There it was, the whole virtual world, ready to be entered again.
As the rolling slowed, twitched, stopped, I looked up at the ceiling.
Aquamarine blood on my hands, to be sure, but I was glad. Sometimes, you shut down the better part of yourself, to get things done.
Button still went to the grate at the bottom of the bookcase each day, but then, after a week, she gave up on her friend. Does she wonder where it went? Why it didn't say goodbye? How could you tell? How could you explain?