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MY RAT KING
RAT KING: a freak occurrence whereby a number of rats become tied at the tail and happen to die that way: all circled out like pie slices.
I found one of these in my cramped studio apartment.
...my vision is of getting the hell out of here and leading troops of teenage hipsters in search of the rat kings of the world, minions donning miner's hardhats with those lights that stick off of the front edge. Like picture a subway tunnel, crawling with rats, a troop of kids each in his/her own pair of waist-high wading boots and these hats, walking, lights bobbing, in search of the prize.
I'm thinking of big shows, world tours... and rat king would be all the rage! The New York unveiling would set firmly in the mind of the world the blessed union of contradictions my proposition endorsed. The thrill of the hunt, the individual experience combined w/ a beautiful and redeeming apprehension of collective purpose, whole troops and minions of others donning the miner's hardhat and the fly-fisherman's waist-high wading boots in romps through the subway tunnels of American cities, through infested Bombay alleyways, the sewers of Rio. I would have developed an oratorical style suitable to this proposition. And the New York show likewise would have reinforced my conviction that this style was to be well-received, a buzzing bee-swarm of praise ridden thence to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, hitting them all w/ the unitary force of the message. I would have developed the perfect style, in short, would come across as the flesh-and-blood visionary-honed, perfected, driven, put into practice complete with vocalisations of a sonorous depth my previous inveterate smoker's creak-and-cringe of a whine could never have reached. I would have deemed the old voice irrelevant through months of chanting the definitively American English language of my childhood in the midst of my oneroom studio, on the toilet even; the booming of the sound rising from my lungs, I would find, aided in the expulsion of whatever little waste had accrued in my bowels over the course of a few days, as I ate very little. The little one-room, where I'd spent my previous ten years, where I'd found, right here on the floor in the corner, surrounded by droppings and flecks of rat-blood and little balls of ripped and torn hair and fur, other signs of struggle, the rat-king itself. It eventually came to have the appearance of something prefabricated, manufactured, a product of a middle American factory, an abjectly nonartistic sculpture, like maybe a hair-care product or hemorrhoid remedy.
My particular rat king: at first I had no idea what I was looking at. The year was 1995; the only record I hadn't sold for quick cash-an old relic Jim Croce thing my father had given me as a teenager-was on its last legs, having the sound and appearance of a well-worn washboard or other folk instrument. I was turning thirty in two weeks. I had gone to bed early the night previous, suffering from a perpetual headache brought on by a nightly consumption of substances of various molecular structures (mainly alcoholic), and of a volume that could only lead to something disastrous. My boy Jurgen I'd left that night at our regular spot, a bar just down the way (he was making eyes with the magnificent heifer of a Southern-American bartender who'd recently moved onto the scene there, Margaret, and I didn't want to be a bother, etc... ). So I left the two-embalmer and bartender, respectively-to their in-turn respective designs and dogmas, went home early and lay down and was thinking quietly and for the hundredth time how very absurd was all of this, this continual and perpetually daily ascent to the night, how we build it up and build it up through the mornings, afternoons in our cubicles (I worked for a long-since-deceased German airline in a managerial capacity, monitoring the call-progress of minions of customer servicers who truly hated their positions, believe me, as did I, this position being the outgrowth of a bachelor's in Marketing, bought from a Southern-American school supposedly rich in that tradition). We sit in our cubicles, these days, dreaming the coming glory of the evening in stars and burning comets, only for it to turn out so very banal and horrible and deadly depressing. That night I fell asleep quick, to wake with a rat king on the floor, in the corner across from my bed.
Rousing myself, I sat up, swung my foot over the side of the bed, halting the progress of the padded, bare sole just an inch shy of disaster: looking across the room, the singularity of the situation is immediately apparent. I'm paralyzed. My leg hangs there from the bed, now tense, rigid; I sit looking over an expanse: my tight studio's cracked wooden floor covered in brown pellets; a stink to high heaven, as my mother would say, like the pall around the alley garbage bins four stories down; my only little trashcan toppled over, a ripped-up banana peel from a banana I ate yesterday scattered in fragments around the room.
Way over in the corner they were, pulsing, from this distance just a furry heap, this distance, length like being somewhere and wanting to just be home in bed and not having the slightest clue how you're gonna get there. In my horrified eagerness I forgot the floor was covered in their droppings: I stared them down, kept my eye fixed on the pulsing heap. Now relatively sure that it wasn't going anywhere, I let my left foot fall. The feeling was overcooked sauerkraut, cold beach sand squeezed into the crevices between your toes. On an East Coast American shore. But, of course, nothing so nice as that. The horror of the fact-that, indeed, there was what felt like fresh, hot ratshit stuck in these crevices-sent me into a skin-crawling madness. I hopped on one foot to the bathroom setup on the east side of the room (directly across from the west-side bed), sought refuge in my tub, pristine but for the dark ring of my own old dirt. I let the water run over my embattled foot so hot that it left the toes purple and throbbing, pulsing like the pile in the corner adjacent. My head pounded. I spent an hour determining how it was they'd even gotten in-that and where they'd come from-for I'd never had a rat problem before. I spent most of the time hunched down under the lip of the tub, trying very hard not to stare at them. But yes, that hour passed, then another with me figuring how I would get out of the tub without dirtying myself or catching some dreadful plague. From the rim of the tub I could just reach the telephone; it sat on the floor by this corner, and I had to hold its edge under the hot water to wash a pellet from its surface. I watched the nugget swirl toward one of my feet, which I raised, then circle the drain before disappearing quietly into the hole. I remembered a television show I saw in college about crack-team Atlanta crime-scene cleaners, bio-waste specialists, superspeed sanitizers. I dialed Jurgen. "Hey boy," I said, "I need help." As I explained the situation, Jurgen got progressively excited. I felt like vomiting it smelled so bad.
"... and it reeks in here!"
"You've got dead rats?" Jurgen said. "How dead?"
"Well, they look like they're dying actually, in a pile in the corner."
From this vantage point I could make out the particular structure of the pile. "Ooh, shit. Man, they're like tied at the tail. Like eight or nine of them."
Silence on the other end of the line. And just then one of them stood, hobbled a little, rolled over on its side with a surprisingly fluid motion, then stood back up, hopped over one slowly-breathing specimen and seemed to be attending to the next one with a pink tongue. I squeaked something into the receiver. "Hello?" Jurgen said. The one rat was free, I saw, attending to his compatriots. I squeaked once more, horrified; again the appeal on Jurgen's end of the line. "Fuck, man," I went on, "One of them's like fucking alive! And's helping the others, looks like." When I spoke the fully live one twitched, turned and stared hard at me with those beady, black eyes. I watched the tail of this particular specimen slide slickly across the pulsing body of one of the others. I shivered and, crouching again in the tub, hid my face from view.
Jurgen told me to sit tight, an acute silence following on the line echoed in my other ear so even the slightest sound rang forth w/ excruciating clarity. I could hear two things. The first-through the handset a familiar female voice way in the background, American-accented, Southern, asking if everything was all right. "You old dog you," I muttered in a drawl and Jurgen responded "What?" The second: a sound I couldn't very well ignore, a quick scuttle, a rasping scratch as of rat-toes across a wooden floor long in need of a lacquer coat. A sound drawing progressively nearer like an approaching reality in a dream, the impending doom of a horror lurking around the corner, behind the closed door like of a closet, a leprechaun wearing a sarcastic grin that says, "Hey, you're stupid! HaHa!" and gleams from the darkness under your bed. I pressed the handset off, peeped over the lip of the tub and looked directly down and into a depthless pair of eyes, straight into a being whose front choppers were visible, bared as if in a smile, its front feet propped against the edge of the old tub. I locked eyes with the brave little fucker and my stomach knotted and my head took on a quality of like melting ice cream that threatened to send me reeling backward, off of the balls of my feet and splayed full length in the tub. But I didn't move. My hands were eagle's talons, form-fitted to the rounded edge of the tub.
And so how to perform it: maybe a conversation between myself-sitting in a tub not unlike my own-and a mechanical rat whose voice booms out like that of the great Christian God in one of these visions people are inevitably having in movies or, better yet, a wooden puppet-rat and some beautifully high-minded and egotistical puppeteer who could speak this w/ a nasally, almost-Southern drawl, maybe throwing in a slight German accent for greater comic effect... the wooden puppet-rat telling me a story about another rat, who on a dare tries his best to jump up into a garbage can, but can't make it. And the puppet rat, "like this," he says, starts aping the movements of the rat trying to get into the garbage can, flinging his wooden self against the edge of the tub. "Like this." Thwack! "Just fucking like this, flinging himself right up against the can." Thwack! "Like he didn't know any better." Thwack! "Over and over and over... " Thwack!
Todd Dills has been to see the explosive musical "tap dogs." He is currently, unintentionally growing his hair long-only in the back, thank you.