“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?”
“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:
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.”