I have rats, which I suppose is another way of saying that I have a place for rats to be, a fact for which I am surpassingly grateful. Once you’ve experienced even a casual acquaintanceship with the condition of houselessness your perspective shifts and all the granted-taking-for of a roof and four walls, presuming you did not grow up sleeping rough, that you learned in childhood goes right out the window as you spend the rest of your life in a condition of Damoclean readiness. If I have to share my bed and board with a few creepers from the lower orders, so be it.
I have nothing against rats, either per se or personally; quite the reverse, really, having kept several as pets over the years and finding them affable, intelligent, and charming companions. My first was procured shortly following my 11-year-old obsession with the book and movie Willard (the obsession did not span 11 years; I was eleven years old), and if there’s anyone out there in the Flynniverse who doesn’t remember the early 1970s, it was first an actually good movie featuring Bruce Davidson and Elsa Lanchester before the dry wells out Hollywood way brought up another bucket of dirt and said fuck it, let’s just slap a coat of paint on another old one. Those idiots won’t know the difference. Bwah-hah-ha-ha-ha! The fact that they’re right doesn’t make it right, if you take my meaning.
I’d read The Ratman’s Notebooks (as the book was originally titled) a couple of years previously, and the reason that slim epistolary took such a firm grip on my supple young mind was that for a boy so disturbingly preoccupied with revenge fantasies, this stuff was meat and potatoes. When the film was released I camped out in my usual seat at the theater (left side, sixth row from front, third seat in—I still sit there, if it’s available—and watched all three showings the first day. It took three more visits to the theatre before I’d had enough of watching Ernest Borgnine, whose grotesquely grinning pan had been giving me nightmares since watching Marty at the age of 5, fall to the marauding rat army as Willard gave the chilling command: Tear him up. I gleefully envisioned my own furry death squad stripping the living flesh off my stepfather’s bloated wineskin of a body as I laughed in triumph and righteous fury.
That first rat was named Socrates, after the real hero of the movie, Willard’s first pet and the leader of the good faction, the entire cadre having split into two over creative differences (actually, Socrates was content with being a kept rat and taking orders, while Ben wanted to take charge and make his own decisions) and entered into a circa 2016-American-legislative-body level of antagonistic polarity. I was furious on learning it was Ben, the rabble-rousing wobbly who couldn’t leave well enough alone, and not Socrates, the sophisticated and tasteful rodent whose general mien was as sensible and elegant as his namesake, who was chosen to headline the sequel. Socrates may not have captured the fancy of Michael Jackson, which could convincingly be argued to be a clear step in the right direction, but a movie about a disciplined, obedient army of man (and bully)-eating rats emptying my bete-noir inbox would be miles more satisfying than the same old tired formula of Good v. Evil and significant event, conflict, apparent failure, regroup, battle royale, and eventual victory leavened with sacrifice. Ben was a traitor, a scoundrel, and, yes, a rat. Calling an actual rat a metaphorical rat even though the rat in question is a fictional rat is yet another example of the sort of linguistic legerdemain for which they pay me the big bucks.
So I went to the pet store and chose the most Socrates-resembling in the seething pile of rodents, a piebald male with a set of balls like an Arabian stallion (two equine descriptors applied to a rat in one sentence: another rabbit out of a hat) and the usual accessories, cage, cedar chips, water bottle, exercise wheel, etc. Socrates II proved worthy of his namesake, though, and was clearly a genius-level creature, as he made it clear from the outset that he would not be caged, thank you very much, but would instead enjoy the run of the house and the specials of the day. No rat chow for this discerning gourmand. He showed no inclination to absquatulate beyond the confines of the cage, though, trotting room to room, climbing on shoulders and poking his snout inquisitively into ears (which habit more than once surprised and terrified unsuspecting guests) and napping in laps. One of his more impressive accomplishments was figuring out and using the cat box, and if his life had been concordant with the age of smartphones and YouTube, the sight of him taking a dump while the cats sat around the box looking quizzically at him and each other would’ve been viral in the extreme.
The cats and dogs presented no problem, as not only would he not back down, but in most confrontations he was the aggressor, hurling himself headlong into the face of whoever dared question his claim to the grounds. One lush of a dog, named Beer Puppy for obvious reasons, decided he’d had enough after a bowlful of Coors and went for Socrates in earnest, losing a significant chunk of nose in the process. I believe he took the pledge after that and joined AA.
Most notable and even difficult to credit were his orienteering skills. My sister took him to a party one night in an effort to expand his social circle, and two weeks later he showed up on the front porch of the party house unaccompanied. It was on the same street, but eleven blocks away. My sister and brother and I were all at school, and it’s a lucky thing that someone at the destination recognized him and brought him home. I still find it hard to believe, but as I said, this was no ordinary rat.
Names being what they are and Socrates being a little unwieldy an appellation, he came to be known simply as Mr Rat to everyone but me, still holding out hope for my squadron of vengeance, waiting for the day I’d find Soc II in the backyard drilling his recruits.
He simply disappeared one day, never to be seen again, and while the odds of him coming to some sort of bad end are overwhelming, I clung to romantic notions of him eloping with some fine-ass sewer rat or stowing aboard a Med-bound steamer. He left a much larger than rat-sized hole and to this day, whenever the family assembles and gets to reminiscing, the legend of Mr Rat comes nostalgically up.
My current rats are about twice Socrates’s size, big gray greasy buggers who host, from the sound of it, nightly orgies and wrestling matches. Still, I have no problem sharing my space with them except when they get into the fruit bowl and chew divots out of the apples. The landlord takes a different view and is intent upon their eradication, daily bringing over traps and poisons of escalating complexity and toxicity and mystified as to how they seem to work everywhere but in my pad. I shrug and make vague comments about the shrewdness of rats in general and mine in particular, but as God and the memory of Mr. Socrates Rat is my witness, no rodents enjoying my hospitality will depart this earth by any but natural means.