The rats live in holes under bushes required by the city. In Chicago, when you smash a house to make a parking lot, some percentage of the freed land must be earth, and in the earth must be plants—trees cabled straight plus some tidy and soon neglected undergrowth. Rats are incidental, neither necessary nor desired. They find their way there instead, ambling in some hidden moment toward fresh and valuable territory.
The alley next to the parking lot runs beside a restaurant and rows of dumpsters. Waste from the kitchen crowds the dumpsters’ interiors. A streetlight illuminates the gap between the rats and the outdoor space on the sidewalk where, in nice weather, diners sit.
The rat my wife and I encounter on our way to the gym is gray, his tail bent by injury to the point of appearing almost jointed. I tell her this gives him character. She knows I’m joking. We pretend affection but never get used to his appearance. He’s an interloper, however natural his scooting across our path may be. Though he might represent one of nature’s models of efficiency, he needs too much getting used to, and we don’t. He’s timid and unobtrusive but never invisible enough. In his rippling gait we recognize a sense of purpose we don’t appreciate. He pauses sometimes—nose sniffing our coming near—and doesn’t sense he’s unwelcome. His expectations unsettle us.
The other day I saw him deeper in the alley nuzzling a second rat. He leapt left and right over her nose, stopping her advance. She seemed to oppose his attention, but I felt paralyzed. Some situations demand action and elicit none—I considered rescue but instead wondered what exactly I was feeling. Do more than rats sit outside my concern? Why is some kindness so willful?
“They’re rats,” I thought, “whatever happens with them or to them belongs in their world.”
After my wife and I pass the rat holes in the morning, they quickly fade. If some shadow image remains it’s of a dark hole, some hidden intelligence lurking, another world to haunt the day. Later I may see something empty to bring those holes back, but I try to forget having seen them.
More often I think of rats’ history, dim genealogies stretching back into antiquity. A host of begets and begats brought them to my neighborhood, the unrecorded lines thin and pulled to vanishing. Our rat may be descendent of a plague carrier, a son’s son to a clan of way-back immigrants.
However hard I try to ignore him, he’s present still. For all I know, the gray may await me, his familiar if unconscious start to the day. Perhaps he looks at me as I do him, a presence out of his control, like the sun, like the weather, like the season.
And perhaps he’s mostly imagination. Who can say? Who can know and who avoids feeling he does?