3 books forming Chicago Literary Hall of Fame logo
3 books forming Chicago Literary Hall of Fame logo

A City of Two Tails

We have a rat problem. It started in the alley—I saw a bunny rabbit-sized rat scurry from a neighbor’s trash can and disappear in a debris pile living near the alley of an Austin Avenue three-flat. Then I spotted another rat—maybe the same one, or one on an identical diet—flee my yard through a crack in the fence. And then there was a smaller rat prowling near my bird feeder. Finally, my auto mechanic informed me that rats were nesting in my car engine.

My first thought was, “Fuck!” That was also my second thought. And third. Come to think of it, that was all my thoughts.

It’s not my first go-around with rats. They’ve been here before, and they’ve been in my niece’s apartment, and I occasionally notice them going about rat business in the city. Rats have sharp teeth. Wicked claws. They’re fast, resourceful, and jump like Olympians. I once saw a rat racing sideways on a brick building. Sprinter speed, and not on a ledge, on the actual side of the bricks. And of course there is no such thing as “a” rat. There are only lots of rats. See one, and it’s certain rat friends are nearby, doing rat things.

A few years back, maybe five years back, my son Dusty and friends were in the yard. From the porch, I heard clink, clink, clink. Clink, clink. Upon further investigation, Dusty and gang were propped on top of old milk crates, flinging rocks from our side of the alley to the other. “What are you guys DOING?” I wanted to know, though I could see that what they were doing was throwing rocks.

“There’s a squirrel in the garbage can,” Michael noted.

“We’re trying to hit the squirrel,” Max added.

I looked over the top of our fence. Banging and scratching noises were coming from a closed plastic garbage can maybe five yards away. “Did you guys see this squirrel?” I asked.

“No, but we can hear him,” Andrew said.

“Stay away from the squirrel,” I said.

I knew this was no squirrel. A week before, and then several days later, I’d called the village of Oak Park to report rats I’d noticed in the alley. Both times, the village reported back that they could find no evidence of rats and therefore could not help. I grabbed a nearby big stick. I walked to the source. I lifted the garbage can lid with the big stick, and peaked over the top. There on the bottom, apparently trapped, was a rat. Big rat. Kind of rat you could saddle and ride. Its eyes were electric red, and its body expanded and contracted in frightened breaths. It looked at me, I looked at it. Then I dropped the lid.

“Get me a board, guys,” I said.

In my head, “Gonna Fly Now” played. Or maybe it was the Superman theme song. In any event, I had a plan. If the village needed proof that we had rats in the alley, I’d give them proof. I’d impale this fucker with a huge board and leave the carcass for the rodent control people. In the process, maybe my son and their friends might witness some real Dad work being done.

I tiptoed back to the garbage can. With my left arm, I used the big stick to lift the lid, while I stood poised, Warrior style, with the big board cocked above my shoulder. The boys were all draped over the top of our fence, cheering me on. Once I inched close enough to shove the board down the garbage can, the rat…..LEAPED. It had apparently plotted its own counter-attack, and just as it soared to about belt high, I dropped the lid, dropped the stick, dropped the board, and ran like a sissy.

Thankfully, this was before Dusty had a cell phone, so don’t bother youtubing Rat Makes Daddy Squeal.

So here we go again with the rats. The droppings near the bird feeder, which I noticed only after the rat itself, are the size of champagne corks. As I stooped under the feeder, the sparrows and cardinals, the grackles, the mourning doves, they all watched from the fence top, the neighbor’s tree branches, the telephone wires. No doubt they expected me to refill the feeder, as I’d been doing since early last fall, all through the winter and spring, until now, nearly summer.

Even the squirrels, two or three of them, wagged their tales from a safe distance. Ah, the squirrels: rats with bushy tails. Why do these rodents get a pass? I thought back to my son and his friends and silently appreciated their unbiased treatment of all rodents, no matter shape, size, color, or origin. The Oak Park way, if you don’t count their intent to maim a living creature.

I once drafted a children’s story in which a gang of rats engaged in a psychological warfare with a happy-go-lucky band of squirrels. In my story, the rats were exacting revenge for the neighborhood’s unjustified coziness with the squirrels. The rats stole the squirrels’ nuts; wore fake bushy tales; framed the squirrels for misdeeds like gnawing the ears off garden gnomes; and so forth. It was called, “A City of Two Tails.” It turned out, though, to be a sort of how-to on bullying: lots of mocking and sneering and belittling, and when I re-read it I realized that my imagined toddler readers were being asked to cheer on the rats.

No more. The rats are now my sworn enemy.

But what can one Don Evans do against a whole gang of rats? Rats are terrorists—forget the Wayfarers and goatees I’d planned to instruct the illustrator to give them. Terrorists.

So here were my six moves:

  1. Had my mechanic, upon his suggestion, grease my engine, which, if successful would at least save me hundreds of dollars or whatever it costs to fix chewed wires which go who-knows-where and do who-knows-what.
  2. Tossed some expired kitty litter around where we park the car. This was the tip I acted upon after discarding other helpful online suggestions such as rubbing Irish Spring soap around the wheels.
  3. Called the village, which came out and left a black box that the rats immediately identified as “RAT TRAP” and thus avoided.
  4. Let out my male cat, Batman, who rolled in a pile of mulch, ate some dandelions, and threw up in the yard.
  5. Collected seven good throwing rocks and placed them near my back porch chair, both because I think rats understand violence and, like my son and his friends, I figure it will be a fun game.
  6. Cleaned up the dropped bird seed and stopped feeding the birds.

Number six was the hard one, especially since a green monk parakeet just spent an afternoon in our yard. I like the sparrows. I like the grackles. I like the cardinals and mourning doves and the robins. It thrills me when the occasional American goldfinch family flits around out back. This green monk parakeet visited on the last day of feeding. He looked out of place in my yard because, well, he’s a parakeet. In a yard just back of the #126 Jackson bus terminal. This parakeet is no doubt part of the storied monk parakeet flock that began their Chicago life near Harold Washington’s old apartment building and more recently have been seen hanging out in Columbus Park, just barely to the east of my house. He seemed at peace, got along just fine with the sparrows, and generally had that look like he might be back. But not without seed in the feeder and on the ground.

That’s what terrorists do. Disrupt life as we know it. Cause us to lock our doors and check our bags and look over our shoulders. These rats—hey, I realize they’re trying to survive, just like me, but I don’t want them to. At least not here. I don’t aspire to eliminate the entire breed, just persuade them to move along. I suppose at first hint the fuckers consider themselves indoor rats, I’ll need to call our exterminator guy, who looks exactly like what an exterminator guy should look like. But he just charged us a buck sixty to get rid of some black ants so I don’t even want to know the juice on a bunch of rats.

So now I wait, rocks at hand. I suppose at some point I’ll have to consider co-existing with the rats, like I do with the squirrels. Get the rats to accept certain boundaries, like NO CAR ENGINE, STAY OFF THE PORCH, and DAYLIGHT HOURS ARE MINE. I’ve brokered other such détentes with raccoons, who clawed a hunk out of my house’s northwest soffit, and possums, who nested under my porch. I even had to discourage the mourning doves from invading my back porch, which they did in an attempt to eat a bag of fertilizer. (Are you kidding me, mourning doves?) The best I can hope for, really, is a moment of rat enlightenment, when my rats realize the garbage is better over by Madison Street, where there is a bakery, or the Harrison Arts District, where there is a pie shop and an Italian restaurant.

Come to think of it, maybe the squirrels, too, would prefer a little pie to my scraps. Wouldn’t the arts district, anyway, make a better setting for “A City of Two Tails”?

Hannah Jennings Design