Bigrat: Episode Five - By Howard Schneider

We left Episode Four as Jack called his father and told him about what he and Travis were doing. Hoping his parents would appreciate what they’d accomplished, he invited them to the rat circus show. His father said they'd be there the following morning. 

The morning dawned colder than the day before and rain clouds were building over the West Hills. 

“We still gonna do this? Will people stop to watch Bigrat if it rains?” Lucile asked. She, Travis, and Jack were sitting around the fire barrel drinking coffee and toasting bread on sticks held near the flames. 

“I’ll put up a tarp. There’s one over there nobody’s using,” Jack said, then got up and headed towards a debris pile at the edge of the camp. 

Although by nine-thirty a typical Portland drizzle had set in, the performance area was perfectly dry under the big blue tarp. A crowd had already gathered in anticipation of the approaching show-time—even larger than the one at the six o’clock show the day before. News of this bizarre event must have spread, and the air buzzed with excitement. Potent Stumptown, Pete’s, and Starbucks' coffees further fueled the crowd’s heightened mood. 

Precisely at ten o'clock, Jack made his introduction, then Travis materialized with cage in hand and released Bigrat into the arena Again, the show was spectacular, and the onlookers loved it. Bigrat even bowed at the same time Travis did after the finale. 

But as Lucile was passing her bucket through the crowd, and Travis had already started back to the camp with Bigrat, a bicycle-patrol policeman strode up to Jack and positioned himself directly in front of him. After he dismounted his bike, he withdrew a citation book from one of the ample pockets in his navy blue shorts. Then, with focused deliberation, he withdrew a ballpoint from a narrow little shirt pocket designed for pens. 

The much shorter cop looked up into Jack’s face and said, “You people are breaking a lot of laws with this thing,” gesturing dismissively towards the arena with his pen. “I’m only gonna give you a warning this time, but you’re gonna have to close it down. You’re blocking a public thoroughfare and creating a nuisance. I don’t want to see you back here, either.” He opened the citation book and began flipping through it page by page, as if he wanted to make sure the people gathering around saw how many citations he'd already issued. 

“Just a moment, officer!” a pinstripe-suited, gray-haired man said as he walked up to the two of them and stood next to Jack. “I’m an attorney and represent this group. According to Portland City Code, they’re fully within their legal rights. Are you sure this is a citation you want to issue?” 

The officer took a step back, looked up at the tall, imposing man, glanced at Jack’s arena, then sputtered, “Well . . . this thing is a nuisance. Anyway, I wasn’t gonna arrest them.” He took another step back, then looked at the arena again. “I’ll see what my sergeant says. If you ask me, these street people are out of control. It doesn’t help that they have lawyers, either.” He stared at the arena for another moment, then put the citation book and pen back in their respective pockets, adjusted his utility belt in an exaggerated manner, and walked away, shaking his helmeted head as if in pronounced disgust. He remounted his bicycle and peddled off without further comment. 

“Dad! You were awesome!” Jack exclaimed. “I didn’t even know you were here. Is mom here, too?” 

“Yes, she's here,” Jack’s father said, glancing at a well-dressed woman speaking to Lucile as she placed a thick roll of bills into the bucket. “We wanted to see what you’re up to.” Jack’s father stepped over to the arena and examined it closely. “This is a work of art. I remember when you worked on scenery for your high school plays. I had no idea you were this good. Now I understand why you wanted to go to art school rather than law school. I’m sorry it took me so long to understand that—to accept it.” 

Jack was overcome with emotion and tears welled up in his eyes. He stepped closer to his father and said, “Thanks, Dad.” 

“I’m proud of you, son,” the man said, then threw his arms around the boy and pulled him close. 

“Mom!” Jack cried when his mother joined them as his father stepped aside. “Thanks for coming.” 

“I’m glad we did,” she replied. “Although I never thought my son would be hanging out with an elderly woman collecting money in a little tin bucket and fronting for a man sporting a purple cape and conducting the performance of a giant rat. But if that makes you happy, then so am I.” 

That evening, after the last show for the day and they were back at the camp, Jack told Travis and Lucile that he might be leaving for college in the fall but would stick around for the summer. “My dad said he would foot the bill for the Scenic Design Program at the California Institute of the Arts. I applied last fall but didn’t tell my parents about it then. I should find out if I'm accepted pretty soon.” 

“Jack! I can’t do this without you,” Travis blurted out. 

“Oh, come on, Travis. Sure you can. Darko could do my part.” 

“No way, Jack. You can’t leave me. We’re a team. And I’m sure not gonna bring Darko into this. I don’t trust that guy.” 

“Travis! Hush up that kinda talk. Jack helped get the circus going. He done his part. Now he’s gotta get on with his life. We’ll manage just fine. And don’t fret none about Darko. There’s plenty others could take over from Jack. Now calm down and pour me more of that wine,” Lucile said, holding out her cup. 

Life for Travis, Lucile, and Jack continued on a positive track as rainy spring days turned into warm, dry summer weeks, then months. The circus thrived without hassle from the police, crowds grew, and contributions surged. The big rat was a big hit; Bigrat and Travis were featured in a front-page story in the Oregonian and were given extensive coverage by Willamette Week. Even Jack’s acceptance by the college didn’t dim Travis’s optimism, a feeling no doubt helped by his medications being at their right levels. But then, one afternoon in August, a man approached Travis after the two o’clock show and offered to buy him a cup of coffee at a nearby shop. That’s when everything changed. 

“Who are you?” Travis asked before accepting the invitation. 

“Samuel Bern. I’m an epidemiologist. I’d like to talk to you about rats. I’ve seen your show and think you might be able to help us.” 

After numerous meetings with Bern, interviews with his colleagues, filling out forms and questionnaires, and having Jack’s father examine the offer-letter, Travis accepted Bern’s proposal of a full-time job as Special Technician for Rodent Acquisition and Management. So, with a single signature, Travis became a well-paid member of a joint Federal-State Public Health Department team studying health effects of urban rodent populations. A real job, a path forward. 

Travis’s acceptance of the position with the rodent study project meant that the Bigrat Circus would have to be disbanded before he was scheduled to take up his duties two weeks later. But with Jack leaving, and maybe more importantly, recent signs that Bigrat was becoming less enthusiastic about performing, the need to close down the circus actually wasn’t that difficult to accept After all, it had accomplished what it needed to. 

After their final performance, on the last day of August, Lucile caught up with Travis on his way back to the camp. 

“What you gonna to do with Bigrat?” she asked. 

“I been thinking about letting him go. Letting him return to being a plain old rat again, free to go wherever he wants. And do whatever he wants. After what he’s done for us, it wouldn’t be right to sell him to the rat man. I’d never do that! . . . Come on, Aunt Lucile, let’s set him free right now, before I change my mind.” 

A few minutes later they came to where Travis had caught Bigrat nearly five months earlier. When Travis opened the cage door Bigrat scuttled a few feet into the weeds, but then suddenly stopped. He turned back to Travis and stared at him for a short while, gave Lucile a lingering look, then turned away and scampered over to a jumbled pile of broken-up concrete chunks and disappeared into a narrow crevice. 

“So long, Pa. Thanks for everything,” Travis whispered under his breath, too quietly for Lucile to have heard.

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