Bigrat: Episode One - By Howard Schneider

“Hey! Travis! That sack looks alive. Must’ve been a good catch,” a run-away-teenager named Jack yelled when a tall, hatless man in his mid-thirties appeared in the misty morning light from around a bridge abutment. Travis had longish red hair, a scraggly red beard, and wore a dirty, over-sized mint-green ski parka. 

Jack was sitting next to a rusty, fifty-gallon metal barrel with a scrap-wood fire shooting tongues of orange flame into the cold November air. A small woman, who looked to be in her late fifties, sat next to him on a piece of dirty cardboard. She had an ancient army blanket wrapped around her. In contrast to wispy strands of lusterless, gray hair snaking to her shoulders, her blue eyes were clear and bright. She was smiling at the man walking towards her who was dragging a writhing gunny sack behind him. 

Travis acknowledged the boy with a friendly nod, then stopped in front of the woman and let go of the sack. 

“Morning, Aunt Lucile. Here’s dinner.” He then moved close to the barrel and stretched his long arms out to warm his gloveless, chapped hands. “I’ll gut 'em after I warm up.” 

Before Lucile could respond, a scruffy-looking man, known only as Darko, walked over and prodded the sack with his foot. “That ought ‘a do,” he said. 

He looked at Lucile. “You cooking tonight?” 

She looked up and nodded. 

“Here’s some half-way decent vegetables.” He set a five-gallon spackle bucket on the ground then stepped closer to the fire. 

That night, Travis Hightower slept soundly for the first time in weeks, even though the damp sidewalk next to the bridge ramp was hard and a brisk wind off the Willamette River rattled the shelter he'd jerry-rigged from odd pieces of plywood and blue tarps. His stomach was full, and he was warm under his pile of blankets. He felt safe, as well, in spite of having been off his meds for the past month and hearing the voices again. Lucile huddled next to him, snug under her own blankets. 

“You still awake?" he asked. 

“Yes. But I need to sleep now. I’m plum tuckered out.” 

“Well, I just wanna' say how good your stew was, that's all. They liked it. Maybe we should stay here a while. It ain’t a bad place.” 

“That's okay with me. They seem like nice enough people.” 

“I’ll make some new traps and catch more tomorrow night. I can sell some of em' to a guy I met by the river this morning—said he could sell everything I catch. Sells them to people from countries where they eat em. But I’ll keep enough for another stew. Gotta admit, that meat’s pretty good—tasted like gamey chicken, don't it.” 

“Yes, it does. Now hush up, honey. Go to sleep.” Lucile pulled the blankets tighter around her neck and rolled over to her other side. 

By late the next afternoon, Travis had six new traps he'd made from discarded wire-fencing and odds and ends he’d found at construction sites and in rubbish piles. He used food-scraps from trash cans outside a Burger King for bait. The idea to trap rats had come to him when he saw them scurrying around a dumpster in downtown Portland. They reminded him of when he was a kid in East Tennessee and his pa brought home forest-rats, squirrels, possums, and any other kind of four-legged critter he managed to trap. They all went into the Brunswick stew that was always simmering on his mother’s wood stove. Back then meat was meat, no matter what the source. He couldn’t think why he shouldn’t do the same his daddy had done. Especially since de was fed-up with empty sermonizing that often accompanied free meals at shelters and panhandling for spare change and digging through garbage cans for what others threw away. The constant struggle to survive as a homeless street-dweller was getting harder and harder, and he yearned for a way out—for a normal life. But how to manage that? That was the question that perplexed him. 

When Travis collected his traps the following morning, one contained two rats and the others one each. Taking stock of his catch, he couldn’t help but think about his daddy. He took comfort in talking with him. 

“It’s a good haul, ain’t it, Pa? Remember how you taught me about rats and squirrels and such? Well, that’s coming in handy now,” he said out loud as he transferred the rats to the gunny sack. 

He sold six to the rat-man for a dollar apiece and took six back to Lucile. She was standing near the barrel fire sipping the last of the coffee. 

“You gonna kill them things? And skin and gut 'em? I ain’t gonna do it,” she said when Travis started to walk away. 

“I did yesterday, didn’t I?” 

“All right then. I wanna get to a shelter for a free lunch. How do you kill em, anyway?” she asked after a brief moment. She hadn’t watched him do it the day before. 

“It’s easy. Didn’t you never see Pa do it?” 

“No, I never did. I was living with Virgil up in Blairton from when I was 17. You know that. I was glad to get away from my pa. He was a bad one. Bad as they come. Specially with us three girls. Never went back neither. Never wanted to. Well? . . . you gonna show me or not?” 

“I’ll do it now. Come over here so you can see.” 

Travis opened the sack and dumped the rats into a sturdy cardboard box. It had high sides so they couldn’t get out. After they settled down, he reached in and grabbed one. 

“See? Grab ahold of its body, real tight. Close to the neck so it can’t bite ya.” 

He placed the rat belly-down on the ground and pressed hard to prevent its front legs and head from moving. Its long, scaly tail whipped around, and its rear legs dug in the dirt. 

“Now pinch down on the back of its head with the thumb and finger of your other hand, like this,” he said, showing her. 

“Yank back on its body, like this.” He pulled hard. 

She heard the sharp snap of the rat's spinal cord separating from its skull. It died instantly and lay unmoving in Travis’s big hand. 

At the sound of the snap, Lucile had gasped and looked away. 

Noting Lucile's discomfort, Travis began laughing and waving the dead rat in the air. Then he jumped up and down and spun around in circles. 

Lucile tried to grab his arm. After several tries, she succeeded and managed to quiet him down. She laid her hand on his cheek and said, “Calm yourself, Travis. There’s no need to carry on like that. It don’t do nobody no good.” 

He stared down at the ground for a few seconds, then looked at the woman and grinned sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Aunt Lucile. I didn’t mean no harm. I guess I got too excited. Like I do sometimes. I’ll be better. I promise.” 

That night Lucile’s stew was once again praised by their fellow campers and they told her they hoped she'd make it again. She and Travis were happy that they’d been accepted and were becoming part of this little group of homeless squatters—that they were earning their keep. Something they hadn’t done in a long time. They’d been drifters living on the streets for the past six years, ever since Travis’s father died. 

Because of only sporadic attention paid to the psychiatric condition that emerged in his early twenties, eventually diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder but wasn’t treated properly, Travis was never able to hold a job. The hallucinations, the voices, the wild mood swings, they all made life near impossible for him. And there wasn’t work for Lucile in their little mountain town after the coal mine had played out. To make things even worse, she'd been a widow since her husband Virgil died of black lung. With no alternative, she'd  moved in with Travis and his father. But then Travis's pa died, and a week after his funeral the payday loan company repossessed their trailer, tossing them to the wind with no place to go. That's when Travis and Lucile set off together to find a better life for themselves, a goal so far they'd been unable to reach.

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