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The Hunted House

Despite how frequently I use the phrase Somebody needs to slap some sense into that guy, I am a committed pacifist. A dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetic, stick-a-flower-in-the-rifle-barrel peacenik. To wit: I have a visceral revulsion to war, a complete disdain for guns, an intense aversion to physical violence, and nothing but contempt for those who would Whack-a-Mole. I have never in my life spanked a child—though admittedly, since I have no children and society frowns on the spanking of random toddlers, this is neither an extraordinary accomplishment nor a hardship and I probably shouldn’t have brought it up. When I feel rage it is, by my own choosing, of the impotent variety.

That said, I must confess: I am a killer. A repeat and ruthless messenger of doom. Driven to lethal violence by powerful forces outside my control, by feelings my (not-court-appointed) therapist might characterize as “the deep-seated creeps” or “another manifestation of your father issues.”

My only defense is…I’m a proud homeowner.

For weeks, my wife, Lauren, and I would hear the scratching inside our walls and sometimes in the living room ceiling. Always in the evening (but not every evening) and apropos of nothing, the clamor of small, sharp toenails scrambling frantically across the backside of sheetrock would erupt. Each spasm of activity lasted five or 10 seconds, sometimes just once a night but just as often two, three, four times, with varying periods of silence in-between. There were stretches when we heard nothing for the better part of a week, allowing us to convince ourselves that whatever had invaded our home had moved on, found its way out of our walls the same way it had found its way in. But no. Like a boomerang made from the pulverized, reconstituted bones of Capistrano swallows, whatever it was unfailingly came back.

As for what “it” was, at first we interpreted the noise as the tiny, quickly ticking footsteps of a house mouse or perhaps a bored field mouse looking to reinvent himself in a habitat where no one knew him. As time went on, however, it became clear that the insistent scrabbling within our walls wasn’t that of wee, inconsequential nails but something of the more substantive claw class. We also began hearing something new: deep-pitched rumbling-tumbling-thunking sounds, as if rambunctious, bumbling creatures of a certain size and bulk were scrambling about. Yes, I said creatures. Because the mounting sonic data (the level, type, quantity, and simultaneity of disturbance) left no doubt we had multiple intruders. And, worse, that those intruders were—to this day it still chills me to say, shames me to admit—rats. We were living with rats.

I have never felt so gratuitously, disgustingly metropolitan in my entire life.

Lauren, quite sensibly, suggested calling an exterminator. I, quite uncharacteristically, said I’d take care of it. We both, quite instinctively, agreed a cat could help—but who wanted to live with a cat?

I am not an idiot (test results available upon request), so no, I didn’t expect to find an archway neatly cut in the baseboard, à la a Sylvester or Tom and Jerry cartoon. But neither did I expect to spend so many evening and weekend hours laying on my cold, hard kitchen floor shining the beam of a flashlight beyond the removed kickboards, peering beneath the cabinets and appliances. Which is where I’d traced the bastards—or more accurately, this was the one place I’d found evidence that I could get to without taking a room down to its studs.

That evidence—tiny turds, bits of foreign detritus, shreds of fiberglass insulation pulled from the wall behind the sink, gnawed particle board and piping and wires—was unequivocal, though it raised more questions than it answered. How were the rats getting in? Where were they hiding? What were they eating? What were their long- and short-term strategies? How much of the house did they control? Did they carry bubonic plague? Rabies? Typhus? Giant firecrackers? (Unless Sylvester was wrong about that, too!)

But I wasn’t prone on the kitchen floor to speculate on the life rodential. I was there to terminate vermin. With extreme prejudice. Made possible by my recent visit to the hardware store and a journey up its savage Aisle of Death.

I was, frankly, a bit awed by the variety of prospective residential plagues—from ants to wasps, birds to bats, deer to gophers, crabgrass to clover—as well as the range of available solutions stacked chockablock on capacious shelves. Foggers, sprays, spreads, powders, drops, tablets, traps, zappers, repellers, barriers: a veritable corpse-ucopia of everything-icide. This was not the time, however, to get bogged down in off-topic pests and poisons. I had a rat problem, period, and that meant narrowing my focus to the still-impressive arsenal of non-feline deterrents on offer.

Despite my hippie-dippy, tie-dyed opening declaration, the first option to be ruled out was the humane trap. Reason being, none were small enough to fit under the kitchen cabinets. Another reason being, I can’t imagine where or why I’d release one of these vile, destructive, disease-laden (though, in its own way, perfect, as are all things in nature) rodents.

Whereupon, I got stuck. On what basis, exactly, does the inexperienced assassin choose his murder weapon? Unable to decide, I made the specious leap from kill to overkill, tossing a motley assortment of traps and deadly poisons into my cart. As I checked out, I told myself, “Now is the time to fight. I must face the enemy with courage. This is what men do.” (Clearly, I’m not Hemingway on or off the page.)

At first, my under-cabinet campaign proves unsuccessful. After 10 days, my powerful spring traps, baited not with the classic cheese wedge but, following the recommendation of several online sources, peanut butter and bacon, lie unmolested. My glue traps, shallow trays of glutinous goop designed to immobilize and indefinitely hold anything that walks into them, contain only the carcasses of careless spiders, errant moths, suicidal centipedes. Still, the sight of new scat and other debris tells me the rats remain active in the space.

Again, questions surface: Where are they when they’re not here? Where are they coming from or going to? Why aren’t they taking my bait? Are they not hungry, and, if not, why not? Finally, I ask the big one: How long, Bob, are you willing to lose this battle of wits with a croissant-sized mammal?

Two, three, four weeks pass. The battle, at least my side of it, rages and expands. I’ve inspected the entire outside of our house plus the whole inside of our cramped, stifling attic, searching for points of ingress, filling and fixing tiny cracks, gaps, chinks, holes—any opening larger than a dime, the supposed size through which any self-respecting rat is able, nay, duty-bound, to squeeze its plastic, malleable bulk. This process has, in effect, made our home so rat-, water- and airtight I fear that if someone sneezes inside with the windows closed, the roof will pop off.

Operations have spread to the basement, too. And in a big way. My housewide sweeps and inspections turned up some rodent pellets in the darker, craggier reaches of this century-old, subterranean sanctum danktorum. In response, I put more traps about, certain my only failure so far has been too little firepower, not too little brainpower. Without intending, I’ve assumed a George-Bush-in-Afghanistan posture: The enemy can’t win if I outspend them.

But my rat-tailed Taliban is winning. Or at least not losing. By not taking the bait. Not perishing. Not yielding nor, finding their once blissful idyll turned into a dystopia fraught with cruelly forbidding bacon and a dozen other mortal perils, retreating. That’s when an ugly truth takes shape in my mind: It is the nature, maybe even the definition of pests to inexorably encroach and multiply and swell, regardless of impediments, instilling feelings of violation and infestation and exploitation, until, finally, they’re all that’s left. Read: It’s them or us.

This realization took me back to the first spring after we’d bought our house. We were new to yard work and lawn care and, because she thought they were “sweet,” Lauren asked that I not pull the violets that dotted the grass and flowerbeds. Fine, I thought, less work for me. (Occasionally the stars align and laziness and laissez faire are interchangeable.) But by the end of summer, violets were everywhere. They’d replaced the lawn, taken over beds, choked out all the smaller plants. Violets, though sweet, were also an aggressive scourge, unwilling to share. (Shouldn’t there be a cautionary children’s book about that?)

Comparatively, our rat situation is far more serious than a few succumbing pachysandra. This is a fight we can’t afford to lose, but also one I don’t have the skills to win. It’s time to make the call. The one Lauren’s been advocating for weeks and that I’ve resisted out of male pride and hard-wired parsimony. I dial—dun-dun-DUN!—The Exterminator.

The Exterminator comes, listens to my story, evaluates my strategy, reviews my tactical installations, assesses my weaponry, then says, “Yer doin’ all the same things I’d do. I can’t do anything else for ya.”

I can only wonder if the rats are listening and, if so, whether they’re toasting an imminent victory.

Before long, however, their imaginary champagne has turned to imaginary vinegar.

Through a series of adjustments on my part (ferreting out and securing the covers of two concealed floor—i.e., SEWER!—drains in the basement) and a single, sloppy mistake on the rats’ part (a piece of kibble dropped in an improbable place leading me to their food source—10 pounds of Iams in a 40-pound bag, rolled-up-tight after our dog died and tucked away in the Hide-This-Because-Seeing-It-Makes-Me-Cry Zone behind the basement stairs), my prospects for a miscreant-free home are instantly brighter. With access to the outside world removed and no meals save Bait in a Life Reduction Sauce available, Rat Mullah Omar is up against it.

The day after getting rid of the Iams, I grab my flashlight and head down to do my regular check of the basement traps. I shine the beam into the dark crevice between washer and foundation wall, move to the shadowy grottoes formed by half-empty gallon paint cans, step over to the narrow corridor created by furnace and shelving unit, until—oh.

Oh, my God. I can’t. It’s. That’s. What? A victim. And not—no, definitely not—a mouse. A rat. A RAT. It’s body, not counting the tail, is about the size of a soda can and has been crushed nearly in half beneath the trap’s hammer (that’s the spring-loaded bar, for the uninitiated). This tableau—shattered spine, off-line eyes, frozen violence—is not pretty, not pleasant. And I can’t escape the fact that I made it that way. Yet: I’m dancing. Not figuratively, not mentally, but literally, physically dancing. A dance of triumph and relief. Une danse macabre et joie.

Why am I dancing? Because for over three months we’ve shared air with this uninvited guest and, as the body count over the next several days will reveal, his six siblings. Concerned about the possible filth, disease, and parasites being carried into our home; apprehensive about an unexpected face-to-face encounter; unsure what clawed, gnawed wreckage they might be leaving behind or what treasured possession might be used as a tooth sharpener—now, with the death of seven rats and one of my core principles, those anxieties could end.

That I used the word “siblings” is by no means arbitrary. About 10 days after my traps started paying real ROI, they stopped yielding. My assumption was that the rat pack had been decimated, that the killing fields of my damp, cold, unfinished basement had tapped out. Or nearly had. Not knowing and not wanting to risk missing a rogue or outlier, I left everything in place a little longer. Just in case.

And indeed, my labyrinth of deadly devices would claim one last victim. The following Saturday, by the half-light of a glass block window, I spotted a long, unmistakable tail sticking out from behind a box, where I knew there was no trap. I froze, afraid of startling it into a confrontation but also determined that it shouldn’t escape. To my left, an old softball bat lay within reach. I gingerly lifted it, gripped it tight and, after swallowing hard, kicked the box aside, ready to club whatever was revealed or defend myself should it charge. It did not. Could not. It just stood there, stiff, lifeless, as if taxidermed. COD: poison.

It was huge, much bigger than the others, measuring 13 inches from nose to base of tail. This was the mother of the other seven. I shudder to think what my (not court-appointed) therapist will make of this.

Flash forward six months. We smell a smell. A fusty, nasty yet unidentifiable odor, concentrated in the kitchen, worse when the weather is humid, with seemingly no specific point of origin. Once again, I find myself spending way too much time laying on the cold tile of the kitchen floor, this time sniffing, trying to lock in on and follow the fetid scent.

After many weeks and countless snuffles of the under-cabinet area, I finally think I’ve found the spot with the highest stink concentration: behind and under our built-in oven. Thing is, there’s nothing there: no obvious odor source and, at the far end of the space, just smooth, unsullied drywall. For no reason other than frustration, I decide to cut into it.

And there I discover the carcass of a desiccated rat—number nine—dry as a furry piece of jerky. Besides being behind solid drywall, it has come to rest between two studs, on top of a solid piece of plywood subflooring, beneath a horizontal piece of two-by-four nogging. In other words, it’s in a sealed box, no way in, no way out. I am mystified as to how it got there. I’m just as mystified about myself.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue.