Bigrat: Episode Two - By Howard Schneider

Later that evening, after the stew his Lucille had made and shared with the other homeless campers, Travis set out eleven traps. The next morning, every trap held a rat, and the rat man bought them all. With part of the money, Travis bought a roasting chicken and marked-down, bruised vegetables for Lucile's soup. Between her culinary talents, his trapping expertise, and an unlimited supply of rats, along with someone willing to buy them, Travis and Lucile felt things were heading in the right direction for the first time in years. 

The routine Travis followed most days was pretty well established. He laid out traps in late afternoon or early evening and collected the rats the following morning. Once in a while he’d give some to Lucile for a stew, but most times he’d sell them all and use the proceeds to buy bargain ingredients for her to work magic with. The rest of the day he wandered the city aimlessly or hung out at the camp under the bridge with whoever happened to be around. The squatters liked someone to always be there to prevent druggies from stealing their stuff. Travis liked talking to Darko and his girlfriend, a short woman with diabetes named Belinda, although that happened only on days when Darko and Belinda weren’t at the intersection they'd claimed, holding up their cardboard signs and hustling handouts. Or with the elderly Cambodian widower, Yun Leng, whose house had been repossessed a year earlier because of a reverse mortgage scam. Yun spent most of his time volunteering at senior centers and shelters in exchange for breakfasts and lunches. Occasionally, Travis would pass the time with a lady named Roberta, although she mostly stayed in the pallets-and-tarp shelter her husband Tony constructed. Tony said she suffered from depression and liked to be alone. Tony spent most days pushing a shopping cart, collecting enough bottles and cans to make the five dollars a day he said they needed. 

Evenings at the camp were spent sharing Lucile’s cooking and maybe a cheap bottle of wine, sometimes passing around a joint, and telling stories. Occasionally, the stories were about good times, but mostly they were about how hard it was living the way they did. Once in a while, Jack played his guitar and sang a few songs, even though he wasn’t all that good a musician. He didn’t make much performing on the sidewalks downtown, but he kept trying anyway. Jack said life on the streets, as rough as it was, was still better than living at home where his every move and thought was controlled by his hyperachieving lawyer father. It helped that he talked to his mother occasionally with the cell phone she'd given him, but he still felt homesick sometimes. 

One morning a few weeks later, when Travis was checking his catch, he could hardly believe his eyes when he retrieved the last one. It contained the largest rat he’d ever seen. Most of the brown rats (Norway rat; Rattus norvegicus) he’d come across weighed about half a pound. This one must have been at least three or four times that. He'd planned to sell everything that morning, but something about the big one made him decide to keep it. What was special besides its size was its eyes; how it stared at Travis so intently, as if the rat knew who he was. 

Back at the camp, Travis released the giant rodent into the cardboard box. “Damn. You are a big rat, ain’t you?” he said as he watched the rat explore its unfamiliar environment. Except for Roberta asleep in her shelter, Travis was alone since the other campers were out scrounging, panhandling, hanging out somewhere or doing whatever they did during the day. About an hour later, sitting near the smoldering burn-barrel, he heard his name called out. He looked around, but there was nobody in sight. After it happened again,  he realized it must have been the rat. 

Travis jumped up and rushed over to the box. The rat was running here and there, jumping up onto to the sides of its cardboard prison, although not high enough to clear its walls. When the rat saw Travis, it stopped moving, sat back on its haunches, and looked up. 

“Hey. Did you call me?” Travis asked. 

The rat didn’t respond, but it didn’t move either, or take its eyes off Travis. 

Travis was mesmerized by the rat’s penetrating stare. “I know you can talk,” he said. Then, after a moment, “What kinda rat are you, anyway? You’re different than the other ones I catch. Your color’s darker and your ears are bigger. Your face is kind of pointy . . . Wait a minute! . . . you look like . . . pa? Is that you? Come back as a rat?” 

When Travis stopped talking, but didn’t move away, the rat suddenly sprang straight up into the air, did a perfect back flip and landed squarely on its feet. It then did a series of somersaults around the periphery of the box floor. Back where it began, it sat on its haunches again and looked up at Travis. Its ruby-red eyes glowed like hot coals. 

“Good Lord in heaven! I never seen anything like that before,” Travis said. 

The rat opened and closed its mouth a few times, but otherwise remained motionless. 

“Are you trying to say something? What do you want?”  

“Food!” Travis heard loud and clear. 

Travis knew the rat must have said it, even if its mouth hadn’t moved. 

“Hold on. I’ll get something,” Travis said, glancing at the wooden box where Lucile kept her cooking supplies. “Try this,” he said, dropping a piece of apple and a crust of bread into the box. 

The rat sniffed the offerings, then began eating them. When finished, it nosed around the floor a while, then went to a corner, curled up and closed its eyes. 

Travis returned to his seat by the barrel. He soon came to believe that he actually possessed a talking rat, and that it was an acrobat as well. The longer he thought about it, the more he came to believe that the rat might be his own pa. He got up and went back to the box and the sleeping rat. 

“Pa? Have you come back from your grave to help me in my time of need? Like when I was a kid and you showed me how to get by in the woods? To shoot and trap? Live off the land? I know it’s you. Don’t worry none. I won’t let nobody hurt you. I promise.” Then he returned to his spot by to the barrel. 

 “I gotta give him a name . . . I sure can’t call him Pa. The others wouldn’t understand,” he mumbled as he sat staring into space. 

Travis was jolted out of his trance a little later when Lucile sat down next to him. 

“How ‘bout getting that fire going? It’s cold under this bridge,” she said. “I gotta get dinner started. The rest of ‘em gonna be back soon.” 

Travis got up and broke some sticks and twigs into smaller pieces and laid them on the coals, then grabbed some short 2 x 4 pieces and placed them on top. Soon a good fire was going. 

“I need to name that big rat I got in the box,” he said after he retook his place next to Lucile. 

“What in tarnation are you talking about?” Lucile asked, giving Travis a worried look. “Why on earth would you want to name a big rat?” 

“That’s it! Bigrat! . . ..  Pa would like that,” Travis said, nodding his head and smiling. 

“Your pa? What’s he got to do with anything?” 

“Never you mind,” he said before suddenly snapping his head towards the box. 

“Did you hear that?” 

Lucile glanced at the box, then at Travis. “Hear what?” 

Travis jumped up and went over to the rat. Lucile got up and followed him. 

When Travis appeared over the box rim, the rat stopped nosing around for crumbs, raised up on his haunches and returned the stare.

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