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.