We hunted the rats because we were so poor.
Years later, and I can still see them bolting out from that dumpster at the end of the alley, dozens of rats, squealing and scurrying. They’re on fire. Roman and I are watching from the fire escape four stories up, these burning rats darting all over the place and yelping. “Burn harder, you rat-fucks!” Roman screams. He has this deranged look in his eyes, like a boxer who just got knocked out and is coming-to. It’s dark out, so it’s almost pretty, all these burning rats scampering in every direction, like a meteor shower in the alley, and I almost say so but I decide not to. Instead, we just watch, open-mouthed, two young kids in awe of this cosmic power we’ve just unleashed.
The rats came from this pub on the garden level, which our landlord owned. We called him Old Irish because he had this thick brogue which sounded like a different language. Dad said that his skin was so pale it smelled like potatoes. That was Dad’s one joke, which he told whenever Old Irish knocked on the door and said he had to raise the rent again. His pub served a Guinness and black pudding breakfast, that’s it, and Old Irish made it all on site every morning, and so every afternoon, right before he closed up the kitchen, he tossed out a trash bag full of leftovers into the alley, a mixture of congealed blood, torn casings, and suet drippings, which is like Oreo cheesecake for rats. Old Irish didn’t live in the building, so it wasn’t his rat problem.
Dad threatened to call the health inspector one time after Roman woke up in the middle of the night with a rat gnawing at a scab on his knee. Old Irish stepped close, pointed a fat finger in Dad’s face. “You’re so cheesed about rats, maybe you should move to Brooklyn with the fancies.” Dad got real quiet and just walked away. Mom was already sick then, never even got out of bed anymore and always had that hollow-eyed look, like a porcelain doll. Dad couldn’t risk eviction, and Old Irish knew it.
He made his tenants rent everything: the refrigerator, the kitchen table, light bulbs, the plunger. We couldn’t afford to buy our own, but we couldn’t do without. Old Irish knew exactly how to get people on the hook, and he knew how to keep them there, flopping around in the shallows. “It’s not like he was always rich,” Dad told me one time. “I don’t know why he has to treat us like that.” Dad was a kind little man, and thing about being kind is that if you don’t surround yourself with other kind people, you get exploited constantly. I think on it now, and I can’t imagine the humiliation Dad must have suffered, negotiating a ten-minute rental of a toilet augur, all because he had two young boys who ate too many grape-jellied meatballs at the school picnic.
For the longest time, Mom had worked first whistle and Dad worked second, which meant one of them was always gone, and one of them was always asleep. Which meant Roman and I did whatever we wanted with the understanding that we didn’t have any money for bail or hospitals. But then mom got depressed all of a sudden and wouldn’t leave the apartment, so Dad started covering her shifts, too. His boss told him that maybe Roman or I could slide into the job when we turned sixteen if Dad worked it for a quarter-rate until then. Dad was one of those guys you’d see on the train wearing a dirty white jump suit, elbows on knees, not making eye contact with anyone, just bushed-out because of the way his life ended up.
All of this made us easy prey, which turned me quiet and submissive like Dad. But it made Roman mean. He wanted to get even. He stole bikes from the Catholic school up the street and rode them straight down to the East River, jumping off at the last second and letting them glide on into the water without a sound. He picked fights before the other kids even had a chance to hassle him, always aiming for the nose because, he said, he liked to see rich kids cry. Some kids are poor but don’t ever know it because everyone else is poor, too. We knew. Bottom of the food chain poor, and the way the food chain works is there’s a pecking order, you can hunt anything below you, and the only thing below us was the rats.
Jesus, the rats. They were everywhere, always just eating and chirruping their little mating calls, mating constantly, quick and violent, always making more rats like it was the most ruthless sort of addiction imaginable. It all had something to do with the way the sewers had been dug out, too shallow, lots of sewage that wouldn’t fully drain, and it attracted rats. Rumor was that for every human in the South Bronx, there were two rats. You’d think we were safe because we lived up on the fourth floor, but we weren’t. They climbed up through the walls, especially when it got cold out. You could hear them at night, clawing at the plaster and chirruping. We set traps, killing one or two at a time, which was like shooting a tank with a pellet gun. What we needed was needed more firepower, a full-out rat jihad.
Then one Friday afternoon, Roman showed up with a canister of potassium permanganate and a jug of antifreeze.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“Motherfucking napalm,” he said.
“Bullshit. Where’d you get all that?”
Turns out potassium permanganate is just a chemical people use to clean out wells and cisterns. Mix it with antifreeze and you’ve got trouble. As he explained it, I remembered Roman’s uncharacteristic interest in a lesson at school. It was about the moon landing, how NASA engineers developed this hypergolic engine that mixed two chemicals, and poof, the engine lit right there in the middle of space. No oxygen necessary.
“What if someone happened to mix both chemicals?” Roman had asked. “You know, just for yucks.”
“I imagine it would be very bad, Roman,” out teacher said.
“Fuckin-A, it would,” Roman said and grinned that mischievous hyena grin of his. He could already see it.
We sat on the fire escape all afternoon, looking down at the back door of Old Irish’s pub, waiting for him to toss out the sausage slop. Roman got this calm look on his face, like he was in a trance, like you hear about guys getting just after some totally jungle firefight.
“So how will we—?” I started to ask, but Roman cut me off.
“It’ll work,” he said. “It’s science.”
Truth is, the antifreeze probably would have killed them on its own, but that lacked style. Food chain: we outranked the rats, so we reserved the right to humiliate them.
Dad stopped home for a few minutes in between first and second whistle to check on Mom and get an apple for supper. He went into the bedroom to see her, and then he popped his head out the window. He hadn’t shaved in a couple days, which made him seem older and weaker. “You boys want me to make you some eggs?”
“No thanks,” I said. “We’ll eat later.”
“Roman?” Dad said, but Roman didn’t seem to hear him.
“Love you boys,” he said and squeezed my shoulder.
“What if they don’t eat it?” I asked later, even though we both knew it was a stupid question. Rats will eat anything. A rat will eat beef so rancid it’s turned blue. A rat will chew through PVC pipe just to get at the raw sewage inside. Imagine the most disgusting thing possible—a pile of decaying coyote intestines, rotten eggs mixed with baby vomit—and rats will eat it.
Roman just kept glaring down at that door like a sniper waiting on his mark.
Finally, it burst open and the trash bag came flying out. It plopped on the asphalt next to the dumpster, but Old Irish didn’t even bother to come out and move it.
“We’re up,” Roman said.
We sat at the kitchen table with the sausage slop, separating it into two trash bags. In one bag Roman poured a heap of potassium permanganate, which was these little purple crystals about the size of shucked sunflower seeds. In the other bag I poured the antifreeze, almost the whole gallon. “Now mix,” he said, and we dug our hands into the bags. I mixed the one with the antifreeze, and it felt like a bag full of eyeballs and mud. “Keep to your side,” Roman said.
Mom poked her head out the bedroom door. She looked exhausted but also like she just woke up. “Boys, what’s that smell?”
“Just a little science homework,” Roman said. “Go back to bed.”
“Just be careful now,” Mom said and disappeared again.
Roman finished mixing up his bag and looked over at me. “Let’s pick it up.”
“When do you think mom is going to get better?” I asked. She just sort of vanished from us one day. That was the hardest part. Nothing specific seemed to trigger it. She just quit, which I think we both took to mean we did something wrong even if we wouldn’t admit it to each other.
Roman walked over to the sink to scrub his hands. “Never. But there’s nothing wrong with her in the first place.”
I didn’t agree with that, but Roman seemed so strong and mean right then that I didn’t want to say so.
“Fucked in the head. No fixing that.”
“Well, Dad thinks—.”
“Dad’s on his own now.”
“Out of juice. Kaput. Car with a dead battery.”
None of it seemed right to me. What could make a person just quit like that?
We went out onto the fire escape again. Roman tossed the first bag over the rail, the one with the potassium permanganate. I was getting ready to toss my bag over when he grabbed my arm. “Be patient.”
The rats came. We couldn’t see them, too dark, but we could hear them tearing through the plastic bag, ruffling like it was caught up in the wind. And they chirruped their angry little mating chirrups while they ate the sausage slop and potassium permanganate. They really will eat anything.
We looked down, unblinking, even though there was nothing to see. It was like standing in the middle of a field when it’s blackout dark, no moon, and the wind is blowing. All that movement which seems to be coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once. You feel this awesome sort of power the world has, which also makes you feel small and weak.
When the sound died down and Roman was satisfied that they’d eaten up the first batch, he pointed to me, and I tossed the second bag over. I don’t know what I expected, but time seemed to slow as we waited. The rats ate and chirruped, still as hungry and horny as ever. I could see small sliver of Roman’s face in that light, and he just stared, didn’t move or blink, just stared down at the alley. When the noise stopped again, nothing happened, and I was about to start asking him questions that were really more accusations, and that’s when the little poofs of fire started, and before long they were all over the alley, gliding around like a hundred Japanese lanterns. They squealed these pathetic little squeals, more distinct and pathetic than their usual chirrups. Nothing quite so helpless as an animal in pain, even a rat.
Roman laughed like a madman. “Burn harder, you rat-fucks! Welcome to the Bronx!”
And they did burn. They scampered and wailed and burned, and we watched, mouths open at what we had done, what we were now capable of, each of us feeling some new power that had not existed in the world until that moment, not for us anyway.
“Would’ve worked better,” Roman said, “if we added a third part, diesel fuel or kerosene, something like that to sustain the burn.” I hadn’t realized until that moment how much time Roman had spent researching.
Mom opened the window. She looked down into the alley with us, confused like she usually was, more probably, but then she said, “My God. It’s so pretty I could cry,” which was the strange sort of thing she was always saying. She hugged her body as if she was cold even though it was normal Bronx September, which meant everything felt like armpit.
Then she started talking. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “you know we lived over on Whittier Street, right next to that scrap yard. It was the dustiest, smelliest place I’ve ever been. They were supposed to stop working at ten p.m., but they never did. The owner installed these huge sodium lights and they worked all night through. All the diesel fumes and rust smell. All that screeching metal and shouting. No quiet way to crush a car.”
Roman and I both turned to Mom, who hadn’t spoken so many words out loud in a year.
“Those were rats,” she said, shaking her head at the memory. “We got them mixed up with cats a lot of times, that’s how big they were. Sunday nights, the owner would shut things down and send his workers on out to hunt with shotguns. They stalked around the scrapyard with these spotlights which caught the reflection of eyes, and all night we’d hear shotgun blasts and squeal with terror while we hid under the bed. In the morning, there’d be a pile of the carcasses by the entrance, and people had to drive past it to sell their scrap. Then the owner would douse that rat pile with diesel and burn them up, and that smoke drowned the whole neighborhood. Everyone had to close their windows. Then they all went back to work, and then Sunday night came around again, and they went out into the yard to hunt. It never ended.”
The alley had gone quiet, no more burning rats. They lay down there, charred up like potatoes tossed in a fire.
“When your father and I got married,” Mom said, “we were so happy to get out of that neighborhood and into this one.” With that, she turned and went back inside, and we didn’t see her again for almost a week. It wasn’t clear what she wanted us to take away from her story. That we were lucky? That she was sorry there were so many rats around? I think probably she was just talking, or trying to talk, the way people do sometimes.
“The fuck was that?” Roman said.
When Mom left, this thick, suffocating silence draped itself over us. Nothing moved or squealed. No shuffling or scampering, no fire. I was suddenly desperate for the smallest squeak, the tiniest indication that perhaps two of the rats were still eating or still mating. It wasn’t guilt exactly, but a strange hollow feeling, and the vast hush that hung over the alley magnified everything. When you live in the middle of the city, quiet isn’t a concept that ever occurs to you, it’s white noise and shouts and honks all the time, and right then was the first time I’d ever noticed the quiet.
I didn’t say much else to Roman after that. It was clear that he was satisfied, but something felt wrong to me, nagging like a stubbed toe. I collapsed onto our bed and closed my eyes and waited for the antenna in my brain to start picking up on the white noise of the city. It was there, but those screaming, burning rats toggled some switch, and I couldn’t hear any of it. Just dead silence that tried to swallow me in one huge gulp. Pretty soon, I would relax, find my regular breathing pattern, start hearing all shouts and honks, the vast hum of the city, and only then would it feel like things had slipped back to normal. Then I started hearing the rats again, their sad little cries, their claws on the asphalt, the same noises we’d dealt with for years, like my brain was punishing me for what we’d done.
Roman came into bed soon, still breathing hard. I’m not sure if he’d been running some victory lap or if it was just the adrenaline of a mission accomplished. “Pretty badass,” he said.
I pretended to be asleep, but he wasn’t buying it.
He stripped down to his underwear and lay down next to me. “Must have been at least three dozen. Could have been more, won’t know until tomorrow. But man, it worked, like really fucking worked.”
“Right,” I said. “It’s science.” All I could hear was the rats, louder than ever before. It’s an unmistakable sound.
Roman’s breaths seemed to get louder and louder, each one rocking the entire bed. I wasn’t going to sleep anyway, but it bothered me.
“Roman,” I said, “relax. Breathe.”
“Can’t,” he said. “No way.”
It was a strange sort of comedown he was dealing with right then, that lonely feeling that clings to you after you’ve accomplished something big and impressive. Now what? So the rats were gone? What would we do now, what would we hate now? What you don’t realize is that hatred is like any other addiction, and when it’s gone, you actually crave it. Without it, your world doesn’t make much sense.
I hung in a dreamy state, not quite awake but not asleep either, until Dad came into our room after second whistle. “What did you boys do?” That’s how I realized that the noises weren’t in my head. They were back, little rat zombies. You don’t get rid of rats, not ever. Maybe that’s what Mom was trying to tell us.
We walked out to the fire escape.
“Jesus,” Roman said, “what the hell?” meaning the sound of them all like a big rat army marching on the South Bronx.
We looked down into the darkness for a few minutes, hoping our eyes would adjust, but it was too dark. Dad shined a flashlight down then, a crummy one he rented from Old Irish, and we could see them all over the place, their flashing little eyes, more rats than ever, and what they were doing was eating their scorched little cousins, just devouring them. All that free protein, no way they’d waste it, no sentiment for a rat.
“Are they—?” Roman asked.
“Jesus,” I said.
Dad peaked over the rail, down into the eerie half-light of the alley. He didn’t say anything or make any faces, just stared.
Roman turned the flashlight off and slumped down, just totally defeated. He’d used science. How could this happen?
And that was it. What I never told Roman, probably because I didn’t quite realize it until years later, when I had my own kids and we lived over in Brooklyn Heights, is that I was glad the rats came back. For me, it was like stabilizing a wobbly orbit, like we needed their weight in our world to stay on track. They belonged somehow, and hating them belonged, too. Hate something long enough, and that becomes the reason you hate it.
We stopped hunting the rats and finished out the school year. Roman got quieter, stopped stealing bikes and fighting so much. When August came, he decided he wouldn’t go back to school, and pretty soon he took over Dad’s job on first whistle, and Dad moved to second whistle. After that, life sped up, almost like we’d been searching for the on-ramp to the freeway, and then once we found it, we just set the cruise and went mile after mile without giving it any thought.
I went upstate for college. I studied engineering and worked in the dining hall and studiously avoided stories about home. In four years, I only came back once. When people asked, I just told them I was from the City. Roman never called, and even when I called him he never really said how things were going. Sometimes he’d mention the Marines, but whenever I
pushed him to go see a recruiter, he would just say, Yeah, I’ll have to do that soon, but he never did. I wanted him to get away like I did, less for him and more for me. I was the prisoner who escapes by standing on his cell mate’s shoulders.
There was a lake not far from campus, and it had a big stock of steelheads in it, so I took up fishing there. I knew a guy with a car and a fishing rod, and he let me borrow both, no rental fees. This was real nature, not a park surrounded by concrete, not the East River, which had the consistency of vegetable soup. Fishing is more like not doing something than it is like doing something. Your vision blurs and time slows and you hear the whir of nature all around, millions of unconnected sounds merging into something almost coherent. I’d sit there for hours, the heat of the sun on my shoulders until it just cooked me red, and I think I craved that sunburn, the way it would pulse and tingle as I lay in bed at night. It was the silence of waiting that I liked. Of course it was. I think we constantly try to recreate important moments, and we constantly fail at it. I was probably waiting there for the echo of that night with the rats, that final reverberation, just waiting for it to rebound through all the quiet, but it never did. It just hung there, like a suspended chord with no resolution in sight. I’d think about home, Roman and Dad passing each other on the way to work, but it wouldn’t seem real, not in the middle of all that nature, and I eventually had to accept that I’d become just like Old Irish: it wasn’t my rat problem either.
Then I started dating a girl from Clinton Hill, and we got serious enough to stop using condoms. That was a fresh feeling, nothing quite like it. She started asking questions about home and family. One night when we were drunk, I started telling her about Roman. I told her about the bikes he’d steal and the fights he’d pick and about Old Irish, and then I told her about the rats, the whole story, which I’d never told anyone else, and all she said was, Well, just thank God you’re here now, as if I’d escaped from some concentration camp. I should have set her straight but I didn’t. We got married a few years later and moved near her family in Brooklyn.
Mom drowned in the bathtub during my last semester, or that was what Dad told everyone. I came home for the funeral, my first time since leaving, and I stepped off the train, and I could just feel the Bronx all around me, the noises and smells. We go off and change, but home always waits for us. Stay away long enough, though, and it starts to feel like returning to the scene of a crime.
I walked the length of the platform slowly, taking it all in. Dad was at the other end, just on the other side of the gate. He was squatting against the column, unshaven, wearing his dirty white jumpsuit, and I thought, That’s awfully nice of him to come meet me at the station right now. His hair was grayer than I remembered, and he’d lost weight, and as I drew closer, I realized it was actually Roman. He had that hundred-mile stare to him, no telling how old he even was anymore, could have gone twenty years in either direction. The world seemed to have burned a hole straight through him while I was away. I stopped walking. For the first time in years, everything seemed to slow down again. I thought about that lake and the trout breaking the surface of the water, the silence, and I wanted to escape to there, all that quiet, because in ten seconds I was going to hug my brother and pull away, and then we’d be looking at each other, and I’d have to say something, but I had no idea what that would be.