“Looks like you’ve got a rat problem,” said the exterminator.
He wore a blue and white surgical mask and stood at a safe distance in Deb’s living room.
Her landlady, Janet, had made the recommendation. She’d needed him last summer when she had an ant problem. Everybody used him in the neighborhood.
“Ants would be easier,” Deb said, her own mouth hidden behind an identical mask.
“Not always,” he said.
The patch sewn into his shirt said Todd.
“The thing about rats is once you figure out where they’re coming in, they’re easier to manage.”
Todd found the dead rat up in the attic. There had been a smell. A really bad smell. For days. Deb tried to ignore it. But like everything you try to ignore, it just got worse.
“First is identifying the problem and we’ve done that,” he said. “Now we just gotta figure out how to stop them.”
Deb had lived in the backhouse on Janet’s property for over ten years. The best part was that Janet hadn’t raised her rent. As a lecturer at the college, Deb hadn’t had a salary increase in all that time.
Todd sealed up a couple small holes (“about the size of a half dollar”) he found and laid some glue board traps with peanut butter up in the attic.
“Rats are always interested in new food sources. We call these bait stations,” he said.
How many times had her body felt like a bait station for something deadly during this pandemic? When had she last left her house? Besides her landlady, Todd, the exterminator, was the first person to enter in months.
“And these traps are more humane,” he said. “The rats won’t even know they’re stuck until it’s too late. I’m gonna need to come back every Monday and check them for you.”
Every Monday? What did a rat look like after a week stuck to a glue board?
Todd had nice green eyes though. Did he have a handsome face beneath his mask?
“For how long?” she asked.
“We’ll see how it goes, but a month ought to do it,” Todd said.
A month of rats. The only other visitors she’d had this year.
“They’re probably getting in from those telephone wires.”
Todd pointed to the poles behind her house. All those unnecessary telephone wires left in the world. Did anybody use them besides rats? She found her own food through an app. Didn’t rats know about apps.?
“They go right down onto those trees and get into the attic,” said Todd. “The question is where.”
He came a little too close when he spoke. Deb stepped back and pinched the top of her own mask tighter around her nose. Todd realized his error and retreated.
“What you don’t want to do is ignore the problem,” he said. “Rats can be crafty. Then you get an infestation.”
He looked to be in his fifties, wedding ring on his left hand. What kind of woman married an exterminator? All those years coming home from work telling her what he killed. Deb had never been married herself. That was one trap she managed to avoid. In fact, she’d been the exterminator in every relationship she had. Now she didn’t even own a pet.
Todd handed her a clipboard to sign. Was Janet supposed to sign it? She signed it anyway.
“Nice day,” he said, after Deb handed him back the clipboard.
Yes, Todd was right, it was a nice day. You’d never know it was November if you lived anywhere else but Southern California. Not a cloud in the sky, 72 degrees. Sometimes she got sick of it, honestly, craved a little rain. Especially, when all she could do was stay inside.
After Todd left, Deb removed her mask and lit a cigarette. She sat in a patio chair in the backyard to let her place air out, not thinking about all those papers left to grade. Janet didn’t like Deb smoking in back, but she had left town to stay with her kids during the holidays, despite the mayor, the governor, and everybody’s recommendations not to travel anywhere. Not that Deb had anywhere to go even if she wanted to break the rules.
Back inside, she checked her work email. With only two weeks left, she expected to hear from students messaging with last minute inquiries about grades or finals, but was relieved to find nothing. They’d last been discussing “Hills Like White Elephants” in her beginning literature course.
It’s really a simple operation, Jig.
Peanut butter, that’s all you need.
Sometimes students stayed online and trapped her after class, just to chat about whatever story they were reading, when all she really wanted to do was go outside and smoke.
It had been nice being back in school this semester though, even if only online. Deb hated to see it come to an end. Last summer had been long. Though she griped and complained about her students sometimes, she usually felt a void after finals.
That night she couldn’t sleep. She lay awake listening for rats. She remembered being a kid and seeing her mother standing on the chair with a broom in her hand and a little mouse in the living room.
Could she hear them gnawing? Through the floor. Through the pipes. It was probably a matter of time before one got into her apartment. She thought of a story her friend told her about living in downtown LA with his ex-wife and how they had an infestation. How they could hear rats sometimes under their bed.
“What are you gonna do?” she’d asked.
“Move,” he said.
It was right at the end of their marriage, he just hadn’t known it yet. They’d heard them in the walls too. Chewing their way in.
All of this needed to be gone by the break. If it were warm enough, she’d spend as many days as possible outside in the sun, soaking up Vitamin D. Maybe she’d be brave enough to leave the house.
“Nope,” Todd said, the following Monday. “Looks like the little critters got in and ate the peanut butter but avoided the traps.”
He laughed and shook his head. It wasn’t his place. They weren’t his rats. Sometimes, when she got bothered by some of her students not doing the work, she reminded herself it was their life and not hers. She admired Todd’s passion though. He cared about his job. So few people did anymore. She felt bad no rats had turned up. If he were her student, she would give him an “A” for effort.
“Usually the rat population is larger than expected,” he said. “Can take a while for the
rats to get used to the traps and get caught in them. I know you don’t want to hear that.”
His mask slipped down beneath his nose as he talked. Maybe he wasn’t that handsome. What did he do on his days off? Did he talk with his friends about this stuff?
“Good trap placement is essential,” he said. “The key is to place them near the walls. Rodents love to run along walls to avoid detection. What you want to do is maximize the chances of rats having to cross through the traps. Some are more cautious than others.”
By the third week, Todd was a little less cheery. The situation frustrated him. Deb felt like it was her fault. Like something she did during the week caused the rats to take extra precautions.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s your house,” Todd said. “I’m just doing my job. Everything will go back to being how it was before you know it.”
Everything had been pretty dull. She started to look forward to Todd’s Monday visits. That morning, she’d even pulled out her favorite yellow dress, rather than the same old gray sweatshirt and black leggings she’d worn for months, just to sit at her desk prepping for her classes, while Todd checked the attic.
She understood his frustration. Sometimes, she felt as useless at her job, ended class like nothing she’d done or said caught the attention of her students. She always tried to give one hundred percent. She always read every word of her students’ papers.
“I mean there’s always the nuclear option,” he said, after he climbed back down.
“Nuclear option?” Deb asked.
Todd ran his finger along his throat.
“Snap traps,” he said. “I don’t like to use them because they’re less humane. But it’s been three weeks and to be honest, they get the job done.”
“Ah,” said Deb. This was the trap her father had set in their house when she was a kid.
“No more stealing peanut butter and getting away with it,” Todd said. “It’s a bit longer process doing it the humane way, to be honest. If you really want to, I mean, and if there’s still an issue by next week, we can try it.”
It sounded kind of violent, but what other choice was there?
“You’re my only hope,” Deb said.
Todd needed to succeed for them both. It must’ve been a hard job. So many people terrified by these disease-ridden critters. The original plague carriers. So many people looking for a hero like Todd.
“Watcha reading?” said Todd, noticing the Norton Anthology on her desk.
“Oh,” said Deb, “it’s for my class.”
“Class?” he asked.
“I’m a teacher,” she said.
“What do you teach?”
“High school?” he said.
“College,” she told him, wondering if maybe her change in appearance had caught his attention.
That night in bed, as she stared at the ceiling, Deb imagined little pink feet tapping along the floor above her, little wire tails, stripped of fur. Was that something knocked over? There wasn’t much up there. According to Todd, the landlady had left a few items, a broom and dustpan, a chair, a box of books that had apparently been chewed through. Maybe the rats were readers. Maybe they could take her class. Did rats like Hemingway?
Eventually, she fell asleep.
At some point in the night, she sat up again. Definitely something moving up there. She lay awake, jumped every time she imagined some rodent crawling on her.
She was a zombie in her online classes the next morning.
“Nuke ‘em,’” she told Todd that Monday.
“You know I don’t like to do this, but sometimes you got no choice.”
“You’ve been very accommodating,” said Deb.
“Ungrateful pests,” Todd said, laughing.
He’d brought along three or four of the snap traps, not so much like the wooden ones she remembered as a child, but larger, squarer, steel things with sharp black teeth like the jaws of some robot animal. Poor little rat that might get eaten by one of these. Wasn’t there a third option? Like gently escorting them off the property.
“A nice thing about these snap traps is that they’re easy to set and clean,” Todd
told her, pushing back on the springs to pull the mouth up and snap it in place.
“Clean?” she said.
“Oh yeah,” Todd said. “You can use these things over and over again.”
He’d leave the glue board traps there as backup.
“Believe it or not,” he said. “Like everybody else, rats are wary of too much change in their environment. They have to acclimate.”
For a few nights after, Deb didn’t hear anything. She felt disappointed once again for Todd. Maybe the presence of the snap traps had scared them off.
That week, she gave her finals. In each class, her students had a paper due and a project to present online. She always enjoyed their projects. She let them do something creative, so they could act out a short story or make a video or write a sequel. They had so much promise in them. Some of them. Some thought they knew everything about life already.
“It gets weirder,” she wanted to tell them. “The older you get.”
She’d been told the same stuff by older people when she was younger and of course, she didn’t believe them, and of course, they’d been right.
By midweek, she was tired, relieved, and a little melancholy that her classes were coming to an end. With the semester over, she’d soon find herself with a lot of free time, which both relieved and worried her. What was there to look forward to? Other than smoking cigarettes in the backyard.
With so many things on her mind, she’d nearly forgotten about the rats. She drifted off to sleep after a few glasses of wine when she heard the snap.
Deb jumped out of bed.
Was that a thumping on the ground? Was that a squeal? Or had she imagined it?
Snap. Snap. Snap. Unmistakable. She wanted to call Todd. But it was the dead of night. And she was alone. And there were rats dying in her attic. Could she really wait before he came again?
By Friday afternoon, the warm Southern California weather had baked whatever had died in the attic and the smell nauseated her. She couldn’t wait the whole weekend to take care of it. And if there was no way she could get Todd to come out there on a Friday night—though the thought made her smile—she’d have to do something herself.
Deb needed a couple glasses of wine before she felt brave enough. She also needed a ladder. Todd always brought his own. She knew her landlady must have one somewhere, then found it in the shed by the side of the garage.
With a flashlight, she climbed up into the attic. At first, she saw nothing. Todd was right. A few of the landlady’s items had been stored up there. The book box, and another one that said “Christmas.” It was so quiet. And dark. Deb’s flashlight shined against the wall. She saw nothing. But she had heard the snaps. Had she imagined them? But the smell. Something definitely was dead up there. She moved the flashlight around until she saw it. A trap flipped over and the long, wire-like tail. Disgusted, she took the broom and pushed the cold bloated carcass, covered in ants. Now she had a rat problem and an ant problem. She saw two more traps and more ants and two more rats. Their little necks. Their little feet. Their little paws. What had they ever done? Just trying to survive. Feed themselves. Feed their children. Spread deadly diseases.
“The nuclear option,” she said out loud to no one. It was gross. But it did the job. Almost too good. At least it killed them quickly. Was it really any more humane to have them stuck in a trap? Slowly withering away.
Only one of the traps was still set with nothing in it. That’s when she realized that if they caught all the rats, Todd, the exterminator, would disappear like her students did every semester.
Deb took two garbage bags from her kitchen (double-bag, she read on the internet) and a pair of garden gloves (“always wear gloves”) then pushed the dead carcasses with the broom onto the dustpan, emptied them in the bags, and tossed them in the alley dumpster. Then she climbed back up into the attic, wiped up the remaining ants, cleaned and reset all the traps.
The following Monday, Todd’s mask was properly placed above his nose, which accentuated those green eyes and made him look handsome again, though she could tell from those eyes he wasn’t smiling. She hated to see it. Almost.
“I don’t understand,” he said, “We even tried the nuclear option. I apologize. I’m really perplexed.”
“It’s not your fault,” Deb said. Did he want some coffee? She’d made a fresh pot.
There would always be rats to kill. Rats were everywhere. Todd would never be out of a job.
“Guess I’m gonna need to come back a couple more times if that’s all right with you,” said Todd.
“Of course,” she said, handing him a hot cup of coffee. “I don’t mind.”