Priscilla Good Henley, Episode 2 - By Howard Schneider 

Waiting to pay for a pound of mushrooms, Goody responded with anger when she realized a young woman was running off with her canvas bag near full of the fruit and vegetables she'd purchased that morning. "Stop her!" Goody yelled, "she stole my bag." A security guard happened to be nearby and after a short chase caught the thief at the exit gate of the farmers' market and held her until Goody got there seconds later. Goody took the bag from the woman, looked at her for a brief moment, then turned to walk away. She didn't want to make a scene—the thief could deal with being caught on her own. 

"I need that food more than you do," the woman yelled when Goody had taken only a few steps. "Let me go," she then snapped at the guard, slapping his hand where he held her arm. 

Goody stopped and turned to the guard. "Leave her be. I'm not going to press charges." Then she looked at the woman again, this time taking in what she was, who she was: a medium-height black woman, maybe in her twenties, thin but wiry, wild hair, an attractive but dirt-smudged face with intense intelligent eyes staring directly into Goody's. "Are you that desperate, or are you just a common thief?" 

"I'm hungry. That's what I am. And I don't have any money. Don't have anything. My stuff was confiscated yesterday—chased out of where I was camping—I've got nothing besides these clothes I got on." She held her arms out toward Goody, showing her the filthy sleeves of her thin shirt. "Least you can do is give me one of those apples. You wouldn't miss it. Not rich as your must be," the woman added bitterly, glancing at Goody's expensive purse and elegant jacket. 

The woman's truth caught Goody off-guard, striking a chord she was ill-prepared to hear. But being the kind person she was, her first thoughts was, She's right. I should help this unfortunate woman. I must help this unfortunate woman. But then her practical nature prevailed. But how? Money or food would only be a temporary fix. There must be better way—a permanent fix. As her brain continued to process the situation, a new thought surfaced: A fix that would serve our mutual benefit? But how? That's the dilemma. But  supposed to be solved? Then it came to her, Treat her as an equal. After all, she is. She's just facing monumentally different circumstances. "Let me treat you to breakfast," Goody said. "If I'm going to help you," as if that were already an established fact, "I need to know more about you. Who you are, what you need. Come on. I know a good breakfast spot on Halsey. We can get to know each other. My car's parked on the next block." 

The thief took another step back, confusion clouding her face. Help me? What the hell does she mean by that? She was taken aback by Goody's offer. But knowing an old lady like her was no threat, she said, "All right, but you better not try anything funny." With no response from Goody other than a friendly smile, the woman followed Goody out the exit without further comment, wondering what this take-control, elderly white woman might be up to. 

Their orders given to Mary, a waitress she'd known for more than ten years of patronizing this café, Goody looked across the red and white-checkered tablecloth and ask, "What's your name?" 

"Jackie. What's yours?" 

"Priscilla. But everyone calls me Goody." 

"Why do they call you that? They think you're that good?" 

"No, of course not. My middle name is Good, after my maternal grandmother. It's just a nickname, that's all." 

"Why'd you bring me here?" Jackie barked, changing the subject abruptly. 

Goody was quiet for a moment, then said, "I'm not sure. Maybe just to help a fellow human being in need. I really don't know." She took a drink of her coffee. "Tell me about yourself. How'd you end up living on the streets?" 

Jackie hesitated, wondering if she should share the horrendous events of her life with this stranger—an old woman maybe so lonely she's grasping desperately for any source of human contact, even if only from a scruffy, homeless black woman like her. But looking into Goody's eyes, she recognized sincerity, and compassion. "It ain't a pretty picture," she said, tears suddenly welling up in her dark eyes. 

Goody reached across the table and placed her hand on Jackie's. "Tell me. I want to know. And don't worry. I've dealt with some tough events in my life. I assure you I can handle it, whatever it is."

Priscilla Good Henley, Episode 1 - By Howard Schneider 

Priscilla Good Henley, known to her friends as Goody, had spent a year and two months mourning the death of Clarence, her beloved husband of fifty-three years. With impressive fortitude, she successfully made it through the usual shock and then the denial stage of grief, helped by staunch inner strength she'd relied on to survive other catastrophic events in life, like losing two young children and her first husband in a horrific boating accident. But it had been very difficult for her to move past the intense anger that followed denial, especially since his premature demise could have been avoided. If only she's been able to overcome Clarence's stubborn insistence that shortness of breath and occasional heart-burn was nothing to worry about. Difficult also because their marriage of fifty three years had been as perfect as she could have imagined, full of love and adventure. She hated the loss of that perfect union, of sharing the joys of living with the person she loved so deeply. 

But as time passed, and she had to accommodate the pressing day-to-day ups and downs of life, she gradually progressed to grief's bargaining stage and the horror of his absence lessened as the possibility of life without him emerged. After all, she was still alive, her health was excellent, her mind was intact, and she had no family encumbrances. And for frosting on the cake, Clarence's life insurance settlement was exceedingly generous, and when combined with their joint investment accounts, her own monthly PERS payments and social security survivors' benefit, a big, mortgage-free house in a highly desirable neighborhood and vacation cottage at the coast, she realized she was quite well-off. But also, more than just well off, she was single, attractive, and still had her wits about her. The fruits of wealthy widowhood were there for her to puck. 

But, as we all know so well, sometimes life can deliver big surprises. For had it not been for a chance encounter at her local farmers' market one summer Saturday morning, Goody might very well have passed from the bargaining stage of her grief on to depression before then finally attaining a state of acceptance, as is usually the case for people facing great loss. But instead, this chance encounter abruptly interrupted Goody's predictable completion of the five stages of grief and diverted her into a whirlwind adventure so bizarre that even the most imaginative fiction writers would have been at a loss to invent what followed. 

To be continued.

Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part Four - By Howard Schneider 

It had taken Harm a couple of weeks to make enough money for bus fare to Corvallis, where Barney Sieglitz lived, another haircut, and buy a new shirt and jeans—he didn’t want to look like a bum when he met Sieglitz again. He’d made an appointment through Tercel Washington to see Sieglitz at noon on a Wednesday. He'd been apprehensive how a visit might go, but as it turned out, it was the day when it finally came together for him—when he finally experienced a glimmer of hope that he wouldn't have to be trapped in futureless homelessness for the rest of his life. Here’s what happened. 

For the first few minutes after Sieglitz admitted Harm into the single car garage that served as a jerry-rigged recording studio, Sieglitz was demonstrably distanced, apparently torn between anger about his stolen harps and a side of him that wanted to help a guy get off the streets. He couldn't help but be skeptical that this street bum and thief might be everything his good friend Tercel had said he was, remorseful that he’d stolen the harmonicas and, that he had a sincere commitment to learn harmonica—even showed potential talent. But he trusted Tercel’s judgement and felt obliged to give Harm a chance. 

”Do you have my harps?” Sieglitz asked brusquely before saying anything else. 

Harm opened the red backpack and took out the case and handed it to Sieglitz. “I took good care of them, only played the A and C ones. I practiced with them just about every night." Then, looking Sieglitz in the eye, he said, "I’m sorry I stole them from you.” 

Giving Harm a curt nod, Sieglitz unzipped the case, ran his eyes over the row of harps, smiled almost imperceptibly, then took out the C. He cleaned the plates and hole openings with an alcohol wipe, tapped it a few times on his pant leg, then raised it to his lips. The sounds he made sent shivers down Harm’s spine. Notes, chords, twists and turns he’d never even come close to creating, that had no idea were even possible. He was moved by the powerful feelings elicited by Sieglitz’s spontaneous riffing, emotions that rose deep from within him. 

Sieglitz stopped playing after a moment, put the harp back in the case, then stared at Harm for a long moment. Finally, as if having make a decision, he said, “Practiced? What do you mean by that? What’d you do?” The previous sharp edge of anger in his voice had softened, replaced by a what might be a hint of compassion, or was it just curiosity? 

“At first, I just blew in and out, randomly playing holes up and down, back and forth, low up to high, back to low. After a while, I figured out how by puckering my lips I could play one hole at a time. The sounds were cleaner, like single notes. I gradually picked out tunes I remembered from old TV programs, like cartoons and stuff. But I don’t know where to go from here, how to play like you just did. But I want to.” 

“Why? Why do you want to play harmonica?” 

Harm hesitated, unsure himself why he was so determined to play this instrument other than as a way to a better future. But as he thought about Sieglitz's question, he realized there was more than just that. “I like it," he finally replied. "More than anything I’ve ever done before. I know I want to make music—it makes me feel good, like an escape. It’s like a language I can use to express who I am—how I feel. That I can be more than a just another throw-a-way, dead end no-account with nothing to give the world. I want to be somebody, somebody that contributes, not just wander aimlessly from one day to the next, then die without anyone ever noticing or caring that I even existed. The harmonica will let me do that.” 

Sieglitz was quiet for a while, moisture clouding his eyes. Then he stood and went to the other side of the room and opened a drawer in an old cabinet and took out two harmonicas. “Here. Take these. An A and a C. They're important keys for blues harp. You’ll need them when you start working with Tercel. 

The End

Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part Three - By Howard Schneider 

By this point in the story, the reader knows that Harm's only goal has been to make it through each day, stay safe at night, and be ready to start again the next morning. But with his decision to become a musician, he confronted a different kind of goal, one he knows nothing about, a long-term goal rather than just immediate survival. But he needed a plan—how someone like him—homeless, broke, no assets other than a bunch of stolen harmonicas—can achieve such a drastic change. Nonetheless, to him it's his best option, and he's determined to succeed. That's when he realized he needed a teacher. Someone to help him be good enough to make a living playing harmonica. 

Barney Sieglitz was one of the best blues harmonica players in the Oregon. He'd been playing clubs and bars up and down the West Coast for thirty years and adamantly maintained that as a Jewish musician he had a right to play the blues as much as anyone else. Especially since his people had experienced plenty of prejudice, just as others had, like the blacks who’d historically dominated harmonica blues. It's no surprise that his name was mentioned frequently when Harm asked around about possible harp instructors. So, when one night after his last set at North Portland’s Star Lite Lounge and the robust applause died down, Harm approached him where he stood near the edge of the low stage and said, "Mr. Sieglitz, sir, do you give harmonica lessons?" 

The question caught Sieglitz off guard and for a moment couldn’t think of a response. Then, when the blinding overhead spotlight was turned off, he saw the man who'd asked the question, a tall, slim guy, maybe in his late twenties, with what looked like desperation written on his beardless face. Sieglitz was about to dismiss the guy with a quick, “Sorry, I don’t do that,” but eomething about the man’s earnestness caused him to pause, then say, "I don’t do lessons. Don’t even live in Portland. But Maybe I can recommend someone. Meet me in the restaurant at that Best Western Motel up the street tomorrow morning around ten o’clock and we’ll talk about it." Then he stepped of the stage and headed toward one of the booths along the wall opposite the bar. 

“I’ll be there,” Harm said, as the man walked away. 

Sieglitz looked back and said, “Okay.” He stared at Harm for a moment longer, frowned, then turned and joined the couple in the booth. 

A week later, Harm knocked on the front door at the address in East Portland that Sieglitz had given him for Tercel Washington, the harmonica player who’d agreed to Sieglitz’s request on Harm’s behalf. “You must be the guy Barney called about. Come on in.” Tercel was a small, wiry man, probably in his sixties as judged by the grey of his hair and the lines on his dark face. He led Harm through a maze of cluttered rooms to a small cove off the kitchen, indicating a straight-back chair next to a window looking out onto an equally cluttered, grassless back yard. This is my niece's house—her, her two kids, a meaner-than-shit dog, and me. So who the hell are you.” 

Harm was taken back by Tercel’s abruptness, but it didn’t stop him from plunging ahead with his objective, to learn blues harp. “My name is Harmon Zorn. Mr. Sieglitz said you could teach me how to play blues on the harmonica. Will you?” 

Before I say one way or the other, I wanna hear you blow a few notes.” 

“Okay.” Harm opened the case, took out the “A” harp, and  drew the 3 hole, then blew the 5 and 6 holes.” 

“Bend 3 draw,” Tercel said. 

Harm, not exactly sure what that meant, drew in on 3, changing his mouth shape as he did. The sound lowered a half-note. 

Tercel nodded, then said, “Not bad. Least you can blow a single hole, and there's  hope for your note bending.” Then he stuck out his hand and said, “Let me see that harp.” 

Harm struck the harmonica against his jeans a couple of times to get rid of any moisture, then reluctantly handed it to Tercel. 

Tercel held the harp close to his eyes, turned it over a few times, then handed it back to Harm. “Where’d you get this? he asked, not aggressively, but not lightly either. 

Harm felt the panic of about to be caught in a lie. “From a pawn shop,” he said, louder than necessary. 

“Bull shit! Those guys don’t buy and sell used harmonicas. I’m sure you know that. Let me see the rest of the harps in that case you got there.” 

Harm was no dummy, He knew he’d been caught. “Why?” he said, trying desperately to think of a way he could salvage the situation. Then it hit him—tell the truth. He’d never resorted to that before, but maybe it would work. “Okay. I ripped off a guy a few months ago—stole his satchel from where he was sitting on a bus stop bench. I tried to sell them, but no dice. So, I kept them, then started playing them. Discovered I liked playing them and decided I wanted to get good at it. Maybe even make a living that way. I just want to make a better life. I’m a nobody, but I want to be a somebody. I need you to help to do that. Will you?” 

Tercel was quiet for a moment, then said, “It’ll cost you. You gotta pay the price?” 

“I don’t have any money. I'd have to pay you when I get some work. What would the price be?” 

“The price is up to Barney. It was his Suzukies you stole—his prized collection of harps that had been tuned to his own style and sound. He was on that bench waiting for a ride to a studio where he was gonna record a new album. Funny how karma circles back around, ain’t it. So first, you got to make good with him. If you do that, I’ll make you a harp player.

Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part Two - By Howard Schneider 

It was a typical rainy Portland spring night, cool but not cold, breezy but not windy. Harm had secured the dry recessed doorway of a Covid-closed barber shop on Sandy Boulevard for the night. He sat on a double layer of cardboard with his long legs stretched out in front of him staring out blankly at the passing traffic. He held his scruffy, worse-for-the-wear red backpack next to him, one of only two possessions he still had from his foster home days. It had been given to him by a caring social worker for his eighth-grade graduation. The other was a four-blade pocketknife he’d stolen when he was in sixth grade. He couldn’t imagine surviving without either one.  

His usual hunger had been placated by a beef burrito and a green chili enchilada he’d bought with a generous handout from the driver of a shiny black Audi who must have felt compassion when their eyes met at the traffic light at MLK and Broadway. For the first time in a long while he felt at ease—a full stomach, a dry place to sleep, a couple of bucks in his pocket. But that contentment faded as he started thinking of what the next day might bring—another struggle to survive, unable to see any way out of his dismal existence, no hope for a better life. 

Wanting to dispel those negative thoughts, he opened the backpack to retrieve the pint of whisky he kept for just such occasions. Not seeing the bottle, he grabbed the harmonica case that was near the top of the pack to move it out of the way. For no special reason he paused a moment, then unzipped it and took the first harp in the row out of its slot and looked at it  closely. A capital “A” was stamped at one end, and the name “SUZUKI” was printed on the bottom. Japanese. Must be a good one, he thought. He counted ten holes and wondered how they were organized. He held it up to his mouth and blew into the middle holes, like he'd done in the laurel hedge a few days before, and again he liked the sound. Then he blew into the left side and moved harp past his lips until he got to the other end where the pitch was higher. When he drew is breath in, the pitch was different than when blowing out. Then it dawned on him in a flash: different holes, breath in or out, different sounds, the way to make music. He quickly took out one of the other harmonicas, one  with a “C” on it and repeated what he’d done with the “A” harp. Same progression of notes, only a higher pitch. Over the following couple of hours, he tried the rest of the harps and quickly figured out the differences in sound as the letters progressed from A to G, and how in each case the holes were arranged in increasing pitch from left to right. With that realization, he was hooked, determined to learn how to play like a pro. Later in his quest to become a harp player, he'd learn the letters designated the key in which the instrument was tuned, and that the notes were always arrange as specific scales. But at that moment what was important to him was that he had discovered a possible path to a better future—to become a musician. Maybe it was naïve, but at least it provided a much-needed ray of hope. 

For the next few months Harm stayed out of trouble and worked hard to accumulate as much cash as he could, panhandling six or more hours a day, hunting for cans and bottles when not at his MLK corner, even doing a few building-site clean-up jobs he'd stumbled into. Eventually he saved enough for a of decent set clothes and almost-new shoes from a thrift shop and, for the first time in a long while, a haircut. During all this time, even as tired as he might be, he worked with the harps every night, figuring out on his own how play simple tunes, tunes that came back to him from his childhood when he’d been left alone with nothing but TV cartoons, most with music tracks teeming with unforgettable jingles and melodies. Gradually, as he became able to mimic. more of these tunes, his confidence grew. Then one night he played something that sounded different than just cartoon music. It was a little bit sad, maybe a bit mournful, but definitely something of his own. Something he felt. And with that little melody, even as amateurish as it was, he knew he was ready for the next step in his plan. 

Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part One - By Howard Schneider 

When Harmon Zorn was little the few friends he'd had called him “Harmie.” But by the time he’d made it to high school, the darkness in him had surfaced, and even fewer friends he had called him “Harm,” as if acknowledging his true character. As if they'd discovered his inner core, who he really was, burdened by deep-seated psychological trauma, increasingly manifested by angry rebellion against the harsh world into which he'd been unkindly cast and which he'd had no help navigating. By the age of seventeen he was a textbook case of resentment, hopelessness, and rejection—a lost soul with no future. 

In Harm’s case a major problem was that there'd been a complete lack of support or mental health intervention that could have prevented the destructive effects of emotional deprivation. He’d been on his own from the start, unloved and ignored—an unknown transient father, a homeless, drug-addicted teen mother who died during childbirth, and an abusive and neglectful childhood spent in a cascade of dysfunctional foster homes, an environment that could yield nothing other than a disastrous outcome. 

As social and clinical science has convincingly shown, we all are the sum of our genetic inheritance and our upbringing. For Harm, both of these factors had conspired against him. But a critical question is, how permanent is this seemingly dead-end situation at the age of seventeen? Is there a possibility of psychological salvage? Or is Harm destined for a life of dysfunction and misery, a continuation of the only thing he's known for the entirity of his short existence. And if there were to be any hope, what would it take to change his life for the good? To improve his well-being. 

*    *    * 

A decade later, shuffling along 82nd Avenue, homeless, hungry, on the lookout for a chance to score a few bucks, Harm noticed a small, black satchel on the bench at a bus stop. The apparent owner, a guy who looked to be in his fifties, kinda on the heavy side, was focused on the book he was reading and appeared not all that attentive to the bag next to him. When Harm was close enough, he grabbed the satchel and took off running, cut through the parking lot of a corner strip mall, kept going full-speed down the side street for a couple of blocks, then, when he saw that the guy was nowhere behind him, darted into a dense laurel hedge. He'd been in this spot before, had even slept there a few times. Safe from pursuit and unseen from the street, and after he caught his breath, he opened the bag to see what he'd got. 

The first thing he saw was an oblong, black fabric case, about 12 by 6 inches, 2 inches thick. It was zippered shut. He set the case aside and took out the other things—a couple of paperbacks, a map of Corvallis, a bottle of water. No wallet, no money, nothing of value. He drank the water, then unzipped the case. He was surprised to see seven harmonicas, each held in its place by an elastic band. He'd seen and heard guys playing harmonicas and knew what they sounded like. But he had no idea what they might be worth, what he could get for them from Jake, one of the pawnbrokers on 82nd who'd buy stuff without asking where it came from. Curious, he took one of them out and held it to his mouth and blew into it a couple of times. Then he moved over enough to see along the street. There was nobody in sight, so he blew a few more time, moving his mouth across all he holes. There was something about the sounds he liked. He started to play it some more, but feeling his hunger pains, abruptly put it back and zippered the case shut. He put the case and the paperbacks in his backpack, tossed the satchel and map further into the hedge, and went back to the street. 

  

Jake the pawnbroker was a scruffy old guy in need of dental work and a bath. His apparent lack of concern for personal hygiene carried over to his lack of concern about how a prospective seller came to possess the objects they offered him. All he cared about was their resale potential and the profit he could realize. He barely glanced at the case of shiny harps Harm showed him and said, "I don't buy harmonicas. People don't want to put used stuff in their mouth. And new ones are so cheap there's no reason to buy used ones. What else you got?" Disappointed but not showing it, Harm reached into his backpack and took out the two paperbacks. Without bothering to check the titles, Jake said, "A buck each." Harm gladly took the two dollars, put the harmonica case back in his backpack and left. When Harm was out the door, Jake tossed the books into a trash can and returned to his TV set.

Bigrat: Episode Six - By Howard Schneider 

The following week, Travis and Lucile received good news from one of the Multnomah County agencies that works with homeless people—they'd qualified for a two-bedroom rent-subsidized house in southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood. Jack's father had helped with the application and gave them a glowing recommendation, They could take possession the following weekend. 

Saturday morning, Jack came to the campsite up with a friend’s van to help Travis and Lucile transport their meager belongings to the house. As they drove east on Hawthorne Boulevard on their way to the rental, they stopped at an intersection for a red light. Lucile suddenly pointed at a disheveled man standing on the opposite corner. He held a cardboard sign that described his state of desperate destitution and requested a handout. 

“Ain’t that Darko over there? Sure enough looks like him." A second later, she said, "That woman across the street. Ain’t that his wife, Belinda?” There by the bus stop?" 

Jack and Travis looked where Lucile indicated and saw a heavy-set woman sitting on a milk-crate holding a tattered, barely-legible cardboard sign. A frayed straw hat shaded her puffy face. Then they shifted their gazes to the man. 

“Yeah, that's them all right,” Jack said. 

“Yeah, it is,” Travis agreed. 

The light turned green, and Jack continued on. He glanced into the rearview mirror and watched Darko and Belinda disappear in the swarm of traffic and the glare of Portland’s bright summer sunlight. 

Jack, Travis, and Lucile spent the afternoon searching thrift and consignment shops for furniture, dishes, pots and pans, and other things needed to set up housekeeping. They bought new mattresses on sale at a department store and pillows and bedding at Target. They stocked up on food, beer, and Lucile’s favorite white wine. Thrilled with this turn in their lives, they took great pleasure in their hunting expedition, and in each other’s company. Travis and Lucile were finally off the streets and would have a roof over their heads, a full pantry, and a growing bank account; Jack was happily back home and had been accepted by the college he'd applied to. All this good fortune because of a rat. Who would ever believe something this strange could actually have happened? But Travis wasn't surprised—he knew it was because his pa, in the form of a big rat, had made it happen. But he knew to keep that knowledge to himself—that the rest of 'em wouldn't believe it, even if it was as true as true can be. 

That evening they celebrated in their new home. Travis ordered pizza, Lucile made a salad, and Jack bought mocha-almond ice cream for dessert. Sadly, it would be their last night together since Jack was leaving for college the next day. They had a much-deserved celebration late into the night, recounting the good times and rejoicing in their good fortune. 

Sitting in the living room around the mid-century modern coffee table they'd purchased at Rerun that very day, Jack had just finished cutting up the second pizza when Travis suddenly jumped off the sofa. “I’ll get it,” he said. 

“Get what?” Jack asked, then took another pull on his freshly opened IPA. 

“Someone’s at the door. Didn’t you hear that holler?” Travis replied as he stepped around the table and headed towards the entryway. 

“Lucile? Did you hear anything?” Jack asked, a questioning look on his face. 

"I didn't hear nothing,” she said, watching Travis disappear into the hallway. 

When Travis opened the front door, he didn’t see anyone. Then he looked down at the porch deck. “Pa?” he gasped, staring in wonder at a large, sooty-gray-colored rat standing on its back legs with its glowing red eyes boring into his. “Is that you? What happened? You don’t look the same.” 

“You must be Travis, right?” the rat said in a gravelly voice. “Relax, boy. I ain’t your pa. But don’t worry none. He’ll be along in a while. He’s gathering up the others.” 

Before Travis could say anything, the rat dropped to all fours and dashed between Travis's legs and into the entryway, paused for a moment to look around, then darted into the living room where Lucile and Jack waited to see if someone had been at the door. 

“Oh my God!” Lucile screamed when the foul-smelling rat leapt onto the sofa and edged close to her, twisting its mouth into a shape that resembled a leering grin. 

Jack jumped up and yelled, “What the hell? Travis! Get in here! Hurry!” 

When Travis entered the room, he halted and looked closely at the rat, which by then was reaching for a slice of the pizza with its outstretched front legs, it's long, finger-like toes and sharp nails grabbing one of the pieces Jack had just cut. 

“Grandpa?” Is that you?” Travis croaked. 

“Damn right it’s me! Who’d you expect, Mickey Mouse?” The rat took a bite of the pizza slice it held in its front paws and began chewing, slowly and mechanically. Jack and Lucile watched the rat in silent horror. 

After a final swallow, the rat looked up at Travis. “You gotta nice place here, Travis. And this pizza’s damn good! But you better order some more. Your pa and the whole pack should be here any minute now. Just make sure it’s pepperoni—that's all of 'em's favorite." 

The rat flicked its long tongue at the grease congealing on its bristly lips. As it lapped up every last bit, the guttering candlelight danced across its sharp over-sized teeth, glittering like July 4th fireworks exploding in a clear summer sky.

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.

Bigrat: Episode Four - By Howard Schneider 

“It was Bigrat! Didn’t you hear him?” Travis said, as he approached the box where he kept the rat. When he reached it, he looked over the edge, then gasped, a look of shock distorting his face. 

“Pa!” Travis screamed, then beckoned Jack with a yell and a frantic wave of his big hand. “Jack! You gotta see this! Get Aunt Lucile, too! Hurry!” 

Jack found Lucile, then ran to where Travis was staring at the rat, which was standing up on its hind legs in the middle of the box floor, its mouth opening and closing like it did when it wanted food. Lucile joined them and scanned the interior of the box. 

“What’s wrong?” she asked. 

“He was Pa a second ago. Now he’s a rat again,” Travis said, looking back and forth between Bigrat and Lucile. 

“What?” Jack asked, having no idea what Travis was talking about. 

“He was my pa. He called me. Didn’t you hear him?" Travis's frustration was evident in his near-panic demeanor. "But by the time you got here he'd already turned back into a rat again.” 

“Holy shit,” Jack said, then stepped away a few paces and motioned Lucile to join him. “What’s going on?” 

“It’s alright, Jack. Sometimes Travis hears and sees things the rest of us don’t. But there’s no harm in it. He just needs to get back on his medicines. We’ll see to it tomorrow.” 

Lucile turned toward Travis. “You’ll go to the clinic with me, won’t you? You’ll wanna be good in your head when get your circus going, won't you?” 

Travis ignored her question. “It was him, Aunt Lucile! I know it was. I recognized him. I saw his face. I’d know him anywhere. He’s come to help me and Jack. And you, too. You was his favorite sister, even if you did leave when you married Virgil. You know Pa never did like Virgil. Said he stole you away from us.” 

“Never mind all that. All’s I know is your Pa would want you to be as strong as you can be. Remember how he always told you to take your pills?” 

“Yeah . . . I remember. I remember he looked after me real good after Ma died.” 

Travis was quiet for a moment, then added, “That’s why he come back as Bigrat. To look after me. And you, too.” 

“Travis, honey, I ain’t gonna tell you what to think. But I do want you to come with me tomorrow to the clinic. Will you do that?” 

 “Okay. But you gotta talk to the doctor. They make me nervous. They never believe what I tell 'em, either.” 

“Don’t worry. I’ll be with you all the time, and I'll do the talking. We’ll go first thing in the morning.” 

Later, when Jack was alone with Lucile, he said, “Are you sure he’s gonna be okay? That stuff about the rat talking and looking like hie father freaked me out.” 

“He’ll be fine when he’s back on his medicine. There ain’t nothing for you to worry about. I promise.” 

“I sure as hell hope not. I got a lot riding on this rat circus. This is my chance to do something. To show my old man that I’m not a total screw-up like he thinks I am.” His eyes moistened and he looked away. 

Lucile stepped closer and placed her hand on his arm. “Jack, you ain’t a screw-up. You’re a good person, no matter what your pa says. Just do your job as good as you can, and I’ll do mine. I guarantee, everything’s gonna turn out just fine. You hear?” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“All right then. Let’s dish up some of that stew. It's chicken—no rat meat this time, in honor of Bigrat. Smells good, don’t it?” 

By nine o’clock on a clear morning three days later, Jack had the six-foot-wide, colorfully-painted and decorated plywood performance space assembled and ready. It was eliciting curious glances from walkers, runners and riders passing by on the path, many of whom stopped for a closer look. A sign advertised the show times: 

Bigrat 

The Miraculous Acrobatic Rodent 

See it to believe it! 

Every day at 10 a.m.  2 p.m.  6 p.m. 

By a quarter-to-ten, two dozen people were gathered around the untended arena—strangers chatted amongst themselves as Portlanders are inclined to do whenever an appropriate occasion presents itself. A few black Labs, Australian Shepherds, and Blue Heelers eyed their masters, impatient to get on with their morning runs. But curiosity kept the onlookers hanging around, as if reluctant to miss out on something that might contribute to keeping Portland weird.  

At precisely ten o’clock, Travis, adorned in a purple cape fashioned from a well-worn beach towel Jack found at Goodwill, suddenly materialized from behind a nearby bush and approached the arena. A cage dangled from his left hand and he held a two-foot-long, gold-painted stick in the other. Jack followed behind him, a red rag wrapped around his head like a turban and a look of confidence on his clean-shaven, youthful face. Then came Lucile, furtively surveying the crowd, an impish smile softening her weathered face. She carried a child’s sand bucket in one hand and a fistful of printed flyers in the other. 

Jack stepped around Travis to a grassy spot in front of the crowd, which had grown to about thirty people by then. More passers-by continued to join as they came along the riverside macadam path. 

“Welcome to the first public performance by the phenomenal Bigrat,” Jack announced, “the most talented rat in the history of the universe. Master Travis, Bigrat’s owner and trainer, will direct the amazing rodent in a demonstration of remarkable athletic prowess. Miss Lucile,” Jack said before bowing towards Lucile, “in due time will circulate among you with a collection vessel into which you may deposit your expressions of appreciation. Although we willingly accept coin, the silence of folding money is far less distracting and will be looked upon with great favor.” 

Travis then stepped forward, silent, standing tall, barely acknowledging the spectators. He held Bigrat’s cage over the roofless, low-walled arena for a brief moment, just long enough for the audience to gauge the size of the giant coal-black rat. Then, with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a button and released its latched door. Bigrat paused at the opening and glanced around at the people staring at him, then without fanfare he leapt in a graceful arc into the waiting performance area. 

Gasps, tittering laughter, and cries reflecting surprise or amazement erupted spontaneously from the crowd when Bigrat made his dramatic entrance with the precision of an Olympic athlete. He landed solidly on the trampoline, bounced high into the air, executed two flawless backflips, then came down onto a croquet-size, garishly-painted wooden ball. After a fraction of a second to gain his balance and adjust his feet to maintain his position on top of it, he rolled the ball completely around the circumference of the green-felt-covered plywood floor of Jack’s magnificent arena. The crowd clapped and hooted, clearly astounded by the rat’s surprising abilities. The whistles and yells were deafening, but Travis and Bigrat ignored the wild response and carried on with the performance without missing a beat. After thirty minutes of tumbling, rolling, twirling, prancing, and flipping, the crowd’s expressions of wonder and awe were even more raucous. 

After the final stunt, Travis set the open cage on the arena floor and Bigrat entered it at once to claim the well-earned reward of Tillamook aged cheddar cheese adorning gluten-free quinoa-meal crackers. Travis took a single bow to acknowledge the prolonged applause, retrieved the cage, securely latched its door, and walked off, leaving Jack to fold up his handiwork and Lucile to circulate among the crowd and hand out the flyers advertising the “Bigrat Circus.” It wasn't long before Lucile’s bucket was nearly full. 

As Jack and Lucile were walking back to the camp, pulling the cart he had made to transport the arena, Jack asked, “Is something wrong with Travis? He’s so . . . I don’t know . . . quiet. It’s like he wasn’t that involved with the performance.” 

“He’s okay. The medicine he’s on just needs to be adjusted. It always takes a few weeks to get it right. We go back to the clinic next week for a tune-up. Don’t worry none. Everything’s gonna be okay. We've been through this before.” 

Back at the camp, after they had eaten most of the pizzas Jack bought to celebrate their big day, Lucile reported that their take from the three shows was $369. They were thrilled with their success. As the celebration continued, each of them pondered the hope that the circus really might provide a path to the better future they so desperately longed for. 

When the beer and wine were gone, and they'd all eaten their fill, Travis opened the remaining pizza box and said, “I’ll give the rest of it to Bigrat. He loves pepperoni. It always was his favorite. Ain’t that right, Aunt Lucile?” 

Lucile looked at him with alarm but said nothing. 

Later that evening, 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 show. His father said they would stop by the following morning but told Jack that he was skeptical about a “rat circus.”

Bigrat: Episode Three - By Howard Schneider 

When the big rat stopped nosing around for crumbs and rose up on his haunches, Travis said, “I heard you.” 

"I didn't say anything," Lucile said from where she sat near the burn barrel. She got up and went to where Travis stood next to the box. 

"It was Bigrat," Travis said in a  hushed voice. 

Lucile looked at the rat, then at Travis. “What are you talking about? That rat can't talk . . . are you hearing them voices again?” 

“Sometimes. But this is different. I can tell.” 

I’ve got to get this boy back on his meds, Lucile thought to herself. 

As they were talking, some of the other squatters, Darko and Belinda, Jack, and Yun Leng, came into the camp and drifted over to Travis and Lucile to see what the attraction was. Noticing the little gathering, Roberta and Tony joined them. 

“What’s going on?” Darko asked. 

 “I’ve got an acrobatic rat. Wanna see?” 

“What the hell are you talking about?” 

“I’ll show ya. Aunt Lucile, would you get me a piece of bread or something?”   

A moment later Lucille handed Travis a few stale crackers. 

“You all watch this.” Travis held out one of the crackers. “Do a flip, Bigrat.” 

Much to the amazement of the onlookers, the rat jumped straight upwards, turned head-over-tail in mid-air and landed on all four feet. Then he sat up on his haunches and opened and closed his mouth. 

“I’ll be damned,” Darko said. 

Travis dropped a cracker into the box and Bigrat devoured it immediately. 

“Now watch this,” Travis said, holding out another cracker. 

 This time the rat did somersaults across the bottom of the box, from one side to the other, then back again. The onlookers gasped  in amazement. 

After the little group settled down, Darko said, “You got yourself an unusual rat there, Travis. Whaddya' gonna do with it?” 

“I don’t rightly know. Got any ideas?”                                              

“Maybe. I’ll think about it,” Darko said, then walked over to his tent, sat down in his lawn chair and withdrew a pint bottle from his coat pocket. 

Travis and Jack remained by the fire, talking quietly late into the night. 

The next morning, Travis, Lucile, and Jack were sitting near a crackling fire when Darko joined them. 

“Hey, Darko. There’s some coffee left.” 

“Thanks.” Nodding at Travis, Darko poured what was left of the coffee into the cup Lucile gave him, then sat down next to her. 

“I got an idea about that rat,” Darko said. “Train him to do that acrobat stuff and take the act to the street. People will pay to see those tricks. I’ll manage it. We’ll split the money.” 

“I already had the same idea,” Jack said. “Me and Travis talked about it last night after you left. Got it all planned out. I’m even gonna make a performance space—like a circus ring. A place for the rat, Bigrat, to do its tricks, with props and stuff.” 

“Yeah, we already figured it out, Darko. We can handle it on our own,” Travis added. 

“Hold on, buddy. You can’t cheat me outta my idea. Nobody’s gonna steal my idea, especially a hick like you,” Darko said, rage spreading across his stubbled face. He got up and went to where Travis sat drinking his coffee. "You asked me for ideas, didn't you?" 

Travis set his cup on the ground, got to his feet, and faced Darko, his fists slowly clenching and unclenching. “We don't need your ideas, Darko. We come up with our own. And you're calling me a thief. I don't take kindly to that.” His voice had a menacing quality Darko hadn't witnessed previously. 

Before Darko could respond, Lucile jumped up from where she was sitting and quickly moved to where Travis and Darko stood facing each other. “What are you scrapping about?” She edged her small body between the two big men, forcing each one to take a step back. "What’s wrong with you two boys?” 

“I ain't gonna let Darko claim our idea for Bigrat,” Travis said. 

“It was my idea,” Darko replied, appealing to Lucile as if she were a judge, or a referee. 

Looking from one to the other, Lucile calmly said, “Well, as I see it, Travis has the say since it’s his rat. Where we come from, possession is more than half the weight in any dispute. So that’s the way it’ll have to be. Now both of you quit this hollering and get on with your own business. Arguing ain’t gonna do nobody no good.” She looked at Darko, then Travis, then returned to her spot by the fire and sat down on her double-folded piece of cardboard. She picked up her cup from where she'd set it on the cold ground and drank the last of it. 

“Come on, Jack. We got work to do,” Travis said as he walked over to the box where Bigrat slept entangled in a wad of shredded rags that passed for a nest. 

Humiliated by Lucile's firm rebuke, Darko, grumbling under his breath, went back to his tent for his cardboard sign, yelled something at Belinda, then headed up to MLK Boulevard and on to his intersection for another day of panhandling. 

As the days passed, Darko still persisted in his demand that Travis and Jack let him in on their rat circus project. But they resisted his appeals, steadfastly refusing to allow him to horn in. After a week of squabbling, sometimes coming close to violence, Darko finally gave up. Then one morning, without a word to anyone in the camp, he and Belinda took down their shelter and packed their stuff. They were gone by noon. The next morning, two women, appearing to be in their early twenties, pushing grocery carts overflowing with bulging black garbage bags and leading two scruffy dogs on rope leashes, approached Lucile for permission to set up a tent in Darko’s old spot. After they talked a while, Lucile said it would be okay. Abandoned spots for shelters didn’t remain unoccupied for long on the streets of Portland. 

Unencumbered by Darko's harassment, Travis and Jack forged ahead with the rat- circus project. Although Travis continued to trap rats to bring in needed income and for occasional contributions to Lucile's stewpot, and Jack still spent mornings busking for whatever coins were tossed his way, they spent afternoons and evenings over the following month working on a performance space and planning how to use it. Jack used his artistic skills to build and decorate a plywood enclosure that folded up for easy transport. He searched junk shops, recycling centers, and trash piles for materials to make props for Bigrat: a tower to do flips from, a ramp for tumbling, a swing, balance bars, and even a small trampoline. 

While Jack was doing his part, Travis was teaching Bigrat a trick for each prop. A food-reward training method he'd figured out worked well, and Bigrat learned fast—soon they'd developed half-a-dozen stunts. Furthermore, Travis was convinced that Bigrat enjoyed the routines, and even thought he heard Bigrat laugh sometimes when he was doing his tricks. Travis felt that a close connection had developed between the two of them, like a bond between father and son, even though the father happened to be a rat. 

At last the day arrived when Travis and Jack felt they were ready. The performance space was finished, the tricks perfected, and the weather had improved. Jack had assumed the role of manager and was doing most of the organizing; how to structure a show, where to put it on, logistics of setting it up, stuff like that. Travis was responsible for care and training of Bigrat and working out the rat’s performance routine. 

“Where should we start?” Travis asked. 

“I’ve got a spot picked out, a little north of here, on the EastBank Esplanade. There’s enough space and plenty of foot traffic. Lots of bicycle riders, as well.” 

“Sounds good. Let’s do it,” Travis said, grinning with anticipation. 

Suddenly, Travis froze. He looked at the big cardboard box in which Bigrat was supposedly sleeping, then said, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what he said?” 

“Who?” Jack asked, puzzled by Travis’ questions. 

“Bigrat! Didn’t you hear him?” Travis said, as he approached the box. When he reached it and looked over the edge, he gasped and jumped back, a look of shock distorting his face.