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Volume I, Number 1 (Summer 2006)
ISSN 1934-4324

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NEW-CUE, Inc. is a non-profit, environmental education organization founded primarily to assist writers and educators who are dedicated to  enhancing  the public's awareness of environmental issues.

 

 

Ratzo

Rachel Cann

I finally told the ugly neighbor off even though I know she has a gun. "Thanks for getting me evicted, I said, glaring, as she hobbled up the driveway on her cane. In her spare hand was dry cleaning. My upcoming hip surgery would cost me 80 bucks a day to board my dogs. If she hadn't complained about a little pee smell wafting into her kitchen window, I wouldn't be getting evicted and the other neighbors would be minding my dogs for free.

            Naturally she claimed innocence and put the blame on me. "After what you did!"

            "I did nothing," I countered. She disappeared around the corner of the front porch; the very same porch that needed repairs after the housing inspector had paid his annual visit to my apartment.  Why waste words on a mad woman? Why scream vulgarities into the breeze the way she had after the entire El Salvadorian army had moved in, propping an aggregation of child-sized  bicycles along the fence,  blaring Spanish music from their windows?

            "I'll kill them Spics," she screamed, even though she was right next to me.

Six o'clock in the morning, I was out on my verandah, a concrete patio about 10 by 10, combing my dogs with a wire brush. dalmatians are wicked shedders.

              I put my finger to my lips. "Shhh!"

             "I don't care who hears me. I'll shoot every last one of them illegals."

             "Why? Do you have a gun?"

            "Not yet, but I know where I can get one!"

            Well, of course she could, this being Somerville, Massachusetts. Winter Hill to be exact. The building I'd been living in for 3 years had once been a church, although more recently, as local lore has it, it had been headquarters for the infamous Winter Hill Gang. Hoodlums and gangsters and thugs like to rub shoulders with pretty girls.

            Not all the little pretties ended up well. Howie Winter's girl, Debra Davis, was found buried somewhere under the Big Dig. I didn't exactly know her but I'd met her. After the big media stink about FBI collusion with the mob, her mother sued the government, showing her face on television, wearing rhinestoned pink eyeglasses, sobbing about how she had lost her only daughter. Her whole family, all those Irish boys, had been up to their necks in corruption and she knew it since most of them ended up in jail. They had a Bull Mastiff to guard the swag: ( televisions, fur coats, and drugs) in the basement of the gas station where I used to gas up my car.

            But this "piece of work" I unkindly call Quasimoda (because of a hump on her back) went upstairs later that morning, assaulting one of the women. My Spanish is spotty so I was never sure if it was a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat. Most probably the weapon of choice was the cane. There they were on my steps, knocking on my door, huddled masses of trembling, the spokesman twirling a finger to indicate telephone dialing. "Polizia, por favor." The first call I made was to the landlord who is married to a Chinese woman.  I couldn't wait to rat out Quasimoda.

            "Why did she do that?"

            "Number one she is crazy. And number two, she's racist."

            Not only did I start getting harassing phone calls from my landlord's intimating that I was leaving my television on too loud on purpose, Quasi also complained to my other abutting neighbor, Kathy, that the sound of the cats scratching in the litter box was driving her crazy. The super who lives way up where the steeple must have been, or where the Winter Hill Gang stashed its armory never got a single phone call though Quasi had complained to him about his television too.

            "Don't worry," he said. "They'll get tired of her complaints. I get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and I shut my TV off at 9 every night, so what the hell!" My super works for the post office and the apartment he lives in is illegal. He's a big, beefy guy who's lived in Somerville all his life. We get along fine. From him I found out the landlord is friends with the housing commissioner, that the girl before Quasi was known throughout the town as a hard core heroine addict, a part-time prostitute, and a really mixed up kid.

            This lady made last year miserable. Hang up calls in the middle of the night were the least of my worries. Strange men knocking on our doors by mistake all hours of the night and some with pizza deliveries we didn't order. My neighbor, Kathy, and I never knew if she would nod out and catch the place on fire, she was always so stoned. We went to the police station to pull the stats on our address: 4 pages of reports of break-ins, rapes, and restraining orders. The walls were so thin, she could tell when I was running a bath and I could tell when she was taking a shower. She snuck in and stole my partial that I always take out of my mouth before I go to sleep. Of course, when things like these happen, you never know. Maybe it was one my dogs, but I doubt it. Anyway, the teeth cost 150 dollars to replace. My side door was jimmied and I'm someone who never locks the front door, anyway, so absent-minded I often forgot my keys and I've had to crawl through a window or two to get back in. Not easy for someone in my condition, needing new hips, new knees and back surgery too.

            But I've been blessed with good friends. Every stick of furniture I own came from someone's sidewalk. One friend put my name in a lottery and I won one of the last section 8 certificates in the state. It's a government program for disabled. Pre 9-11, no one would rent to someone with dogs. I was living in my car, applying for apartments for a whole year. People were asking outrageous prices and showing apartments only on Sundays to as many applicants as showed up. Things were looking pretty dismal with one week left on my certificate. Then the planes hit and foreign nationals were being called home in droves. The owner was a handsome, tall Chinese man with a PhD. He didn't ask for a credit report. I had to scurry to gather the deposit, run all over town borrowing, and I didn?t dare tell him about the dogs.

            I thought I'd be crafty. Park up the street, leave the dogs in the car. Walk back to give him my deposit. But Mr. Lee was craftier. Maybe he'd seen some dog hairs on my clothes; I don't know. Maybe he owned other property in the neighborhood. My hand was still on the ignition key, when he appeared at my driver's window. Precious, my big Alpha dog had his head hanging out, big paw on my shoulder from the back seat, impossible to hide. Mr. Lee patted him on the head. I could feel my face go white the way it will just before I faint. Chelsea, my female, smiled, happy to be in the passenger seat.

            "Beautiful," he said, before he gave me a stern look. Not all Orientals are inscrutable. "But I think we have issues." 

            I heard the cock crow, began the biggest lie of my life. As a rule I hate liars. I'm kind of purist like that. I hate being lied to. Worse, being found in a lie. But this was a matter of life and death. New England winters are cruel.

            "Issues?"  The blank look on my face, a Blanche Dubois kind of face stared at him with lash-batting sweetness. I might be old, but I have this smoldering charm, sometimes, a residue from my "hottie" days.  A southern drawl might come inadvertently. "Why whatever do you mean?"  Then I laughed, tossing my hair back, as if I had all the time in the world to play and not as if I were one step from sending both dogs to the glue factory. "Oh, these dogs don't belong to me. My car is in the shop, and my girlfriend lent me her car. The dogs came with it."

            And I was so grateful to have an apartment I practically stayed in bed for a year.  The super and my neighbor, Kathy, convinced me I couldn't just leave the dogs in the car, that Mr. Lee seldom came around. A young working couple lived in the apartment next door. Never a sound or a complaint.

            Then came the junkie who gave Mr. Lee some grief and he sold the building rather than deal with her, took the easy way out. I never complained to the new landlords who claimed to like dogs. If I didn't have Venetian blinds and did my Pilates in the nude, who would care? The place was that private. If there were no outdoor lights, I would tell my friends to be careful when they came up the steps. No doorbell? They could climb up the bulwark to the cellar and bang on the window. Easy enough unless someone slipped and fell. If I were infested with mice, as I had been, the dogs could earn their keep or I could afford the snappy things and the glue traps.

            But when the rat appeared, shortly after I found out my lease wouldn't be renewed unless I gave up the dogs, I'd had enough.  I immersed myself in brochures from the Attorney General's Office. Disabled people have rights. My dogs were companion animals, certified by my physician. They kept me sane. They helped my cholesterol. They do innumerable things besides give unconditional love. I would find something to fight them with.

             The landlord had the right not to renew my lease but he was required to keep my security deposit in an escrow account, the one legal thing I could pin him on. Where was it? Where was my interest, which should have been paid to me after the first year? I retained a hungry young lawyer who sent a demand letter, registered mail. "You have ten days to respond," the letter said, "and please, please get rid of the rat." When they didn't respond, my barrister filed suit about the deposit.

            The landlord dropped off some glue traps. He's about my son's age, maybe a little older. Not too happy about being sued. "You'll get your security back," he said. "I don't understand why you don't trust me. I'm not evicting you because of you. It's just the dogs."

             They indeed had an escrow account with 1 percent interest but they refused to give what is called "a reasonable accommodation," so I could have my hip replacement and then move. I'd stayed in bed so long my muscles had atrophied. The letter back to my attorney referred to an "alleged rat." We were in the courthouse about to file an indigency affidavit so I wouldn't have to pay a filing fee. My earnest attorney dressed in full suit, with a snappy briefcase, had a check for my security deposit, plus a pittance for his fee. "You can take this," he said. "Or you can wait a year and a half and see what the judge will say."

            "I will show them no mercy," I answered. "I'll take my chances. Maybe I'll get triple damages and take a trip with the windfall. And what is this "alleged rat" business all about. They think maybe I'm making this up?"

            "That's in case it ever comes to court," the lawyer explained. "You would have to prove there really was a rat." He was quite calm, a look on his face as if even he had doubts about my rat. After all, he wasn't living with something that could jump 4 feet and chew on your face while you're sleeping. 

            It would come out each night and drink from the dog's water pail, ragged tail hanging down like a piece of limp hemp. From my bed some 10 feet away, some nights later, from a different view, I could see a black face and a pointy nose, similar to many marsupials. If I moved, even a little, he would jump to his feet and scurry in the direction of my sink. Excellent peripheral vision.

             One time I ambushed him in the middle of the night, and he charged right out from under the toilet where I was sitting, brushing my bare foot as he went by. The glue traps didn't faze him and full rein of my kitchen followed.

            As I began to move my possessions, filling floor space with boxes, he got thinner and thinner. I'd packed up the pantry and emptied the cupboards of anything loose. My dogs will eat every kernel of rice I put down for them, like pigs to the trough, and I began to gain a certain sympathy for the rat?s gnawing belly. I didn't have the heart to kill him even though my sleepless nights had become like the Showdown at the OK Corral. I'd snap awake after drifting off briefly to see these bright beady eyes with a thousand yard stare. As long as the dogs slept in my room, there was a modicum of safety.

            Mice never come into Kathy's apartment. They  smelled her cats. She used to wear nothing but black, the way old-school Italians do once they are widowed. She is younger than me, but struggles with a rare form of ovarian cancer. When she was 11, a juvenile judge ordered her to DSS custody. She had a split lip, requiring stitches, and a black eye from a beating by her policeman father.  The "F-U!!" she screamed at the judge when they carted her away, showed a spirit she still had.

            The landlord approached us one day, in the yard, asking me to turn my radio off when I went out. Quasi must have complained again. Kathy flew at him in a rage. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!"

            Kathy is moving out too. And so is the super who has asked for paint which they never bring. Kathy has seen the gun and is terrified. Quasimoda has stirred up a hornet's nest, all beyond my control. The market for rentals is down, though, so after a few rejections, I find a pet-friendly landlord.  I will have 2 closets instead of 1 so I don't have to have clothes hanging from every door. I will miss my lion-claw bathtub, however, the cure for my muscle spasms. I will make do with a shower.

            A final insult before the move was the transformation of my kitchen into a steam room from an overhead pipe that needed to be capped. When the steam hit the walls they began dripping rusty water. Even the air conditioners full blast didn't allow for easy breathing. When I opened the outside door, to let in some cold air, the smoke detectors went off, the shrieking enough to rouse the dead. The landlord arrived the next day to survey the damage.  

            "We spent 15K on plumbing, and never tested it," he said. My kitchen was now a disaster area. I salvaged what I could and called the Board of Health to put pressure on housing to get rid of the rat. 72 hours later, the fumigator came. I closed my bedroom door to contain the dogs.

            He was a tall, thin black man with a gold tooth, carrying a bucket of blue granules I assumed to be rat poison.  The landlady was carrying her baby, a year-old pudgkin with

two bottom front teeth poking through her gums. The first place he crawled was under the sink. ?You don't have rats," he declared. "I found a few mouse turds."

            Then he began drawing on a piece of paper, showing me 2 pencil marks, one small, one big. "This is the difference." I did not tell him I have 2 Master's degrees and even if I hadn't been living with a rat for 6 weeks, I could tell the difference. I'm working on dissolving negative bad habits. Nobody likes people who show off how smart they are.  I love the common man. But now the man seemed to be accusing, as if the rat were my fault, as if I were responsible for inviting him in.

            "You have dogs," he said. "You can't leave food around."

            I kept my silence. He moved the stove and sneered in my direction. "Spices back here," he said, shoving the stove back into place. One frying pan on the stove with yesterday's crust told the tale of my housekeeping, never something to brag about. There are dirty dishes in my sink, too. I'd have to take Vicodin to stand long enough to wash them and I don't want to be addicted so I have a housekeeper in twice a week.

            Then he looked in the bathroom. Pee papers everywhere on the floor. I am too crippled to walk my dogs like most people. I pick the papers up every day and there is barely a smell. "Papers," said the fumigator, "attract vermin. They use them to make nests."

            Then he wants to look in my bedroom! I have no choice about this it seems. The landlady gives him permission, but he is afraid of the dogs. "Stand here," he directs me, to the threshold, as he peers over my head, qualifying the place where I sleep as sufficiently rat proof. The futon is all tumbled with bedding, my favorite blanket I've had for years, given to me by a Moroccan woman when I ran a non-profit for homeless women. "Don't give this blanket to anyone," she'd said, kissing both my cheeks. I'll never forget it. "It's special and it's for you!"  I probably broke some law by following her wishes, but my blue fuzzy blankie is older than my dogs, who are both 12.    

            The open kitchen door and the outside door agape as well create a big January draft, and the cold draws the rat out from hiding. The fumigator is placing a poison trap under the sink and his back is turned when ratso makes a run for the outdoors, waddling, waddling from side to side as if he's been feasting for weeks.

            Both my hands go flopping up by my ears as if I'm waving bye-bye as the kitchen fills with my blood-curdling screams. The baby wails, poor thing; her mother jiggles her up and down to calm her. I proffer an apology to the Chinese landlady. "I couldn't help it."  I see the edges of her tight lips rise a millimeter, an inadvertent smile, which she clamps down on immediately.

            "It wasn't a rat," she says. "It was a mouse."

            The rat's tail is 3 times longer than any mouse's body. I ought to know. When mice die, they diminish in size, once the air is out.  The air is out of me too. I am leaving Somerville, whose zip code, I am told, is home to more writers than any other city in the country. The Somerville Arts Council has rejected my grant application 3 times. Why bother arguing?

             The fumigator lays covered plastic rat traps in the corners of my kitchen. I thank him. But he wants to save face and just before they leave he says: "Keep this door closed. It's going to get cold and he'll be waiting outside like a mugger or a rapist to get back in!" 

   
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