By now the rats are everywhere. They cover the pipes and the lightpoles, they gather in ragged crowds on the subway platforms, they move off the sidewalks in furry tides when the buses approach, they even watch you when you walk past them, and they’re looking you right in the eye. Sometimes you think they’re about to attack, and sometimes they do.
Nobody can explain their sudden numbers. The garbage that piled up on the sidewalks is long gone because the city government is back in business after the shutdown. So the rats are eating the feral cats that used to torture them all night, or they’re moving elsewhere on the food chain.
That’s what my neighbors say, anyway, they say the rats are breeding the cats and raising them on farms in the sewers and the subway tunnels. They’re feeding the cats the garbage they used to eat, that way they can harvest meatier calories. There’s an agricultural revolution going on underground. Sooner or later, my neighbors say, the rats will come after us. So they stay inside.
They’ve designated me the building’s shopper. I collect their lists floor by floor, Monday is the first floor, Tuesday the second, and so on, it’s a small building, just six floors. I walk the block to the C-Town, fill up a cart, pay the guy who brings it to the building, and then distribute the groceries.
My tips pay the rent, but the super who collected it every month has disappeared. He lived in the basement. I used to watch TV with him when I was doing my laundry, but I don’t go down there these days, and nobody else does either.
The younger people in the building are more friendly than the older folks, they’re always asking if I want to stay a while, have a beer—this is a big deal, most of the bars in the neighborhood have closed—but I always beg off, they all have cats, and I can’t stand the smell of litter boxes. Besides, I don’t drink anymore.
The older folks invite me inside to put away the groceries because they don’t like lifting cans of soup and cartons of milk and boxes of rice, so I do it, but they don’t say much.
One day, though, Miss Rawlings, the oldest of them all, she asked me about the weather.
“How is it out there today?”
“It’s rainin’, Miss Rawlings, but it’s warm,” I said. “You got a courtyard window, you could look out, get some air in here, not that it’s stuffy or anything.”
“I don’t use that window anymore, got the blinds down all the time. Don’t want to look out, see them, see those animals crawlin’ all around.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. “You been fixin’ the place up?”
“I been gettin’ rid a things, things I don’t need, been puttin’ ‘em in the hallway, somebody takes it away.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said, “you getting’ ready to leave?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Where you goin’” I say, “if you don’t mind me askin’.”
“Another place, someplace else.”
We were standing in her kitchen. Or I was standing, she was bent over something on the stove. Then, still bent, she hurried to the hallway and looked toward the back of the apartment like she was waiting for somebody. I walked over and looked, too, but all I could see was that courtyard window with the blinds down.
“Aren’t you afraid of ‘em?”
“You mean the rats,” I said, and she turned her head away, but she nodded.
“When I was a little girl,” I said, “I was afraid of mice, I was afraid of all the things that were supposed to scare me, but these, uh, these animals, they don’t bother me, not yet they don’t.”
“But they’ve taken over everything.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, all due respect, ma’am. Like I said, they don’t bother me.”
“Why not, they’re filthy, and they’re everywhere, do you know they caused the plague, the bubonic plague, it killed millions of people?”
“I can’t say that I do,” I said. “Are we all about to come down with some kind of disease because of these rats?”
“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, because I actually believe it. I was hoping she was wrong about the rats, though. I wanted to be afraid of them if that was the Lord’s judgment. I had a couple more deliveries to make on the second floor, anyway, so I just held my tongue and left.
I went out into the hall where I’d parked my shopping cart. I found it thirty feet from where I’d left it, past the elevator, turned over and emptied at the top of the stairs. I looked down, at the bottom of the stairs I could see two piles of groceries. They’d already been sorted by carbohydrate content, all the boxes of rice were in one place.
“Sometimes they do attack,” I said out loud, so everybody on the second floor could hear me. “But this is not a violent crime, and it’s not a crime against a person. All right? I’m going to the C-Town, be right back.”