The Rat

September 30, 2021

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Yohanca Delgado is a 2021-2023 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from American University and is a graduate of the Clarion and VONA workshops. Her fiction appears in The Paris ReviewNightmare, One Story, A Public Space, and elsewhere. Two of her short stories will appear in the Best American Fantasy and Science Fiction 2021, guest-edited by Veronica Roth. You can find her online at yohanca.com and @yodelnyc.
Content Warning(s):
Animal cruelty or animal death

For New York at 6:48 in the evening, this building is strangely quiet. The one working light in the hallway flickers every ten seconds across the goosebump layers of glossy beige paint on the walls. I ring the bell again and let my finger drop as a weak chime echoes feebly, then dies somewhere beyond the door. A distant thud tells me to wait a few moments longer, and I look down at my scuffed sneakers against the black and white tiled floor. I’m hot in my ridiculous corn-yellow blazer and my shoulder slouches from the weight of my Kutco-issued messenger bag. Is it just me, or does this hallway smell like trash?

I place my forehead against the wall and let my mind wander to where it always goes, to my mother. I’m sitting on a dresser in her bedroom in Flushing, legs hanging over the edge. She’s wearing a black dress with a swishy skirt and heels. She’s leaning over me, painting my lips with the careful, whiskery strokes of a lip brush. Her perfume envelops me, that lace of roses, honey, and tobacco that smells different on my skin, no matter how many times I spray it.

Here, in this dark hallway, I sniff my wrist and let it drop. I’ll never smell her again.

“I’m coming!” calls a voice from somewhere in the bowels of the apartment, and the memory evaporates.

“Okay,” I shout back. I think about what I must look like in this ill-fitting suit, with its skirt that turns sideways no matter how much I adjust it, and the button-down that keeps untucking itself, and the blazer that bunches at the shoulders whenever I shift the messenger bag. These clothes are trying to free themselves from me. Can I blame them?

Throwing my shoulders back, I widen my smile, which I hope looks less like a grimace than it feels. If I can sell three knives, I’ll break even today. If I sell any fewer than that, I’ll be struggling for the rest of the pay period, a dark, gaping thirteen-day yawn.

The door whooshes open and a tall woman in a gray silk robe looks me over and then extends her hand. She wears a full face of makeup and cocktail rings on every finger, but she’s barefoot.

“Thank you for coming,” she says. “I’m Consuelo.”

“I’m Samanta,” I say, shaking her hand, which is surprisingly cool. “Thank you for signing up for a visit. I’m excited to show you the new spring collection.”

She nods without enthusiasm and leads me down a long, bare hallway to a kitchen just large enough for a fridge, a stove, and a small table.

“Make yourself at home, Samanta.” She starts opening and closing cabinet drawers, her large, bare, manicured feet moving gracefully across the small kitchen floor. Her hair is an improbable shade of blonde that looks salon-fresh and sits in a tousled pile on her head. I sit at the table and struggle to read the room: the air is vaguely musty, but the little gingham curtains that cover the barred window are clean. The floor has crumbs on it, but matching potholders hang near the sink.

A cuckoo clock ticks on the wall. This woman seems harmless enough, so why am I reminding myself that I’m the one with the bag full of knives?

“Are you hungry?” Consuelo says into the fridge.

I’m on the wrong side of the door and can’t see what the fridge contains. “Nothankyou,” I trill. “I’m excited to talk to you about Kutko’s latest off—”

“Here’s some snacks,” she says. She dumps a juice box and four wrapped string cheese sticks onto the table and sits down. I finally get a good look at her. She’s youthful but older than I first assumed, maybe in her sixties, skin feathering around her eyes.

My mother looked nothing like this woman, but my mind is pulled back into the undertow of her anyway. I see her in the days before she died, her shrunken frame nearly swallowed by white bedding and overstuffed pillows. She sits up as if she’s just remembered something. “Pass me my lipstick,” she says. Cherries in the Snow. Even without a mirror, her hands are steady and she draws on the red pout, smooth and sure. She blots her lips together and says, “That’s better.” Says, “Take a photo to remember me by.”

Her things, which I rescued from Flushing in white Hefty bags, are piled high in a corner of my bedroom now. I’ve sat on the floor and leaned against them just to listen to the whisper of their quiet squelching. I’ve applied the lipstick using her compact mirror. On my mother, the shade was glamorous. On me, it’s gaudy and clownish.

This far out, I am past the point of crying. Now, I have a new pastime: I go to Walgreens and buy a tube of Cherries in the Snow. At home, I toss away the box and unspool the lipstick to its full length, then break it off into my palms, where I crush it into a rich paste, relishing the powdery smell and the long, focused minutes it takes to wash the pigment off with soap, to watch the red drain away, leaving oily traces all over the bathroom sink. Rinse and repeat. There are at least twenty empty lipstick husks scattered on the floor of my bedroom.

In Consuelo’s kitchen, the clock ticks and ticks and ticks. I swallow hard and focus on unpacking my carrying case, launching into a patter I have memorized about the power of Kutko knives to dice vegetables and debone various animals. “These knives will be heirlooms! Passed down through gen—”

“You are sad and you are angry,” Consuelo says. “And you’ll stay that way for a long time.”

She watches me, unblinking. What is this woman, a fucking soothsayer? I close my eyes long enough to picture my bank balance. We can play fortune-teller if she wants. My job is to be agreeable, to ingratiate myself enough to sell these overpriced knives.

“Yes,” I say. “My mother died two years ago.”

“Two years ago is a long time to still be so sad,” she says. She leans back in her chair as if to survey me better.

“Maybe,” I concede. “Have you seen our deluxe steak knives?”

“How old are you? Twenty-five? You have a boyfriend?”

“Twenty-eight and no,” I say, unsheathing a butcher knife and letting it catch the light. “Twelve inches,” I say.

“Of course you’re single. Not a nightmare to look at, but that grief is coming off you in waves. I can smell it.” She unwraps the little plastic straw, punctures the juice box, and pushes it across the table.

I take a long drag and feel the sugar rush of elementary school recess. My mother marching across the playground barefaced, in her waitressing uniform and flip-flops, to pick me up after I punched Roy Jimenez in the face. The red shame of not being believed when I said he tried to pull my pants down on the jungle gym.

In Principal Berger’s office, my mother—who had never so much as darkened the threshold of my school in anything other than heels and full makeup—smoothed her uniform with her palms and began to ask questions in her broken English. Who had a record for misbehaving? Was it her daughter, or was it this disgusting boy? I’d never seen her do anything but nod deferentially at my teachers, her head slightly bowed and her hands gripping her leather handbag. Why would a girl, she said, waving a crimson manicured hand in my direction, lie about something like this? One reason, please, she said, glancing at her watch. She had time, she said. She would wait.

After Principal Berger agreed to move Roy to a different class, I begged my mother to let me go home with her for the day. “The other kids will see that I was crying and laugh at me,” I said.

She walked me out to the linoleum hallway of PS 172, put her hands on my shoulders, and squatted down to look me in the eye.

“So what,” she said in Spanish. She wiped a thumb across my tear-stained cheek. “You’ve had a bad day. You think all those snot-nosed kids in your class don’t have bad days? There’s no shame in suffering, the shame is in giving up.”

“But I need a break,” I whined.

“Me too,” she said. “But for now, we’re both going back to work. We’re a team, right, Sammy? You and me?”

An hour later, I was back in class, head bent over my spelling assignment, two kids snickering in the row behind me. When the tears threatened to come, I pictured my mother, all done up and glossy-smiled, taking down an order at the Cuban diner. I clenched my jaw and, in my neatest handwriting, wrote out the word kneel.

In Consuelo’s kitchen, I look down at my lap so she can’t see my face. I silently count to ten, then I resume taking out knives and laying them on the table, next to a glossy photograph of the matching knife holders and wooden butcher blocks available for order.

“Unlike your standard knife with porous wooden handles, Kutco knives—”

“I’ll buy a set,” Consuelo says, leaning across the table and putting her hand on mine.

I fight the urge to pull my hand back. “Really?”

“I’ll buy the whole kit,” she says.

“But that costs over a thousand dollars,” I hear myself say. How can I be so bad at this job?

“No problem,” she says. She rises and comes back with an expensive-looking leather wallet. She takes out an Amex card and puts it on the table.

“Will selling a kit make your life better?”

“Yes,” I say automatically.

“Well,” she said. “There’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time that will make my life better.” She looks away from me and picks up a napkin. She starts folding it with her bejeweled fingers.

I look at her dumbly, then back over my shoulder at the front door, which is barely visible at the end of the long, dark hallway. My underarms start to sweat.

“It’s not dangerous,” she says. With steady fingers, she folds the napkin in on itself, over and over, until it’s a small, fat square. “I want to take your grief out,” she says, then says it again when it’s clear that I don’t understand.

“H-how?”

She unsheathes a butcher knife from its crisp paper sleeve. “In your wrist,” she says. “Your grief, I want to cut it out.”

I jump up and back, catching my foot in the strap of the messenger bag and knocking over the juice box. Red liquid dribbles onto the table.

“I’ll buy two sets of knives if that will help you decide. What’s that, two thousand dollars?” Her voice is low and soft. “And I’ll demonstrate on myself first. It won’t hurt. I’ll show you first and you decide.”

Pulling the chair an arm’s length from the table, I sit back down, holding my messenger bag in front of my body.

A bird pops out of the cuckoo clock behind Consuelo and we wait while it performs seven pealing, pathetic cuckoos.

Consuelo picks up the knife with her right hand and shows me her left wrist, which already has a thin vertical strip of a scar on it about two inches long. With the tip of the knife, she applies enough pressure to make the scar a wound, a narrow red line. I expect the blood to pour from her wrist like something out of a horror movie, but the cut seems impossibly thin as if drawn with the tip of a pen.

“I don’t have grief,” she says. “Someone took it out for me. I can take yours out, too.”

I am anchored to the kitchen floor. I look at the inside of my wrist and then I look back at her. “What’s the small print?”

“No small print,” she says, holding out her wrist for me to see again. “I take the grief out and then it’s no longer yours. It’s gone.”

“What’s in it for you?” I say, watching the thin red line begin to darken. Is it already healing?

“Making the world less sad,” she says, opening and closing her palm slowly on the table as the line darkens to scab-maroon. “Someone did it for me once, and I want to pass it on. Isn’t that what you want?”

I watch as my arm drapes itself across the small table, my palm turns upward, and my wrist presents itself to her. She cradles my hand and uses the knife to draw a thin, sure line from me to her. I look away from the cut and focus on the vertical lifelines of my palms, the whorled tips of my fingers. I don’t feel the knife.

She nudges the cut open with the tip of the blade and shifts the point around until she finds something just beneath the skin. An object the size and shape of a grain of rice sits on the tip of her knife, coated in blood. I feel a sense of release in my belly that I’ve never felt before. I feel as if I could float up, up, up in Consuelo’s kitchen, and touch the ceiling.

“You don’t need that anymore,” she says brightly. She turns the knife and lets the grain of rice drop to the table with a faint plink, then brushes it to the linoleum floor with the back of her hand, where it bounces and disappears amid the crumbs. Consuelo gets up to rummage around in what appears to be a junk drawer, then returns with a box of medical gauze and a roll of bandage tape. She deftly wraps my wrist in a bandage before wrapping her own.

I take my wrist back and place it on my lap, afraid of reopening the wound. My rib cage blooms.

Consuelo buys $2,000 worth of knives and I swipe her credit card on my Kutco phone attachment. I pack up, unsteady, but relishing this new, delicious weightlessness. Everything feels the same, but easier, somehow.

When Consuelo walks me to the door, though, I see a small shadow run across the far end of the hallway. A fat, rodent-sized blur.

“Oh, don’t worry about the rats,” says Consuelo behind me. “They don’t hurt anyone.”

Reason returns for a split second, a chill thin as thread: I have just allowed a stranger with a rat-infested apartment to perform a bizarre amateur surgical procedure on me in her kitchen. I wrap a hand around the bandage and pray that the wound doesn’t get infected.

Then a frisson of pure delight and forgetting washes over me, and all I think is how crisp and cool the air feels in my lungs. I pull my shoulders back to breathe deeper and remember that my rent is now paid for two whole months. My eyes crinkle at the corners when I smile at Consuelo, and my chest feels like it will burst open to release a thousand birds. I thank her and briefly squeeze her hands in mine, then bound towards the door as if my shoes are made of springs.

My pleasant fog practically carries me out of the subway, up the stairs, and down Broadway. In my apartment, I flutter directly to the tower of white garbage bags filled with my dead mother’s things.

Possessed by an unfamiliar clarity, I dump one of the bags onto the bedroom floor and pick out the things that might be useful to keep: the angora sweater I loved, her costume jewelry, her makeup, a photo album. I sift through the piles with ruthless fingers, the drugstore pressed powders two shades too light for my skin, the photos of her dancing in Cuba as a girl, a sequined blouse she must have worn before I was born.

Efficiently, I work through all of the Hefty bags and throw away everything except a handful of items, and these I put away among my things, cleaning and humming as I go. I also throw away all of the empty lipstick tubes. As I scrub the remnants of red lipstick from the bathroom sink, I catch my reflection in the mirror and realize that I have not stopped smiling since leaving Consuelo’s house.

In the kitchen, I open a window and let in the summer night air while I wash the dishes in the sink. The sounds of the city bubble in from the street: car horns, a distant radio, sirens, shouts of kids playing. Tomorrow, I think, and for the first time in a long time, the word expands before me like unmarred snow.

When the apartment is clean, I change into pajamas. On my back, I spread my arms and drift, weightless and cradled, on the sea of my bed. I sleep like a baby, my mind blank, pristine.

§

I wake up with the sun and float around my apartment, getting dressed. I go to two appointments downtown and sell two sets of knives. At the second appointment, the woman says, smiling, “You seem so happy. You must really like your job.” On the train home, people smile at me, and it’s as if I’m emanating something beautiful and pure, something people want more of.

A memory surfaces, unbidden, of the day after my mother died. How I had visited the funeral home to choose her casket and then cried on the subway, my head in my hands, a Hefty bag of her belongings stuffed between my knees. How people had looked in the other direction and sidled silently away as if sadness were an airborne disease you could catch.

I let the memory go and focus instead on a cute guy sitting across from me. I catch his eye and smile. He flushes and smiles back. My stop is next and I walk home, awake to the electricity of the city. I turn onto my street and see a rat standing in the middle of the sidewalk, waiting. I give it a wide berth, shivering with disgust as I enter my building, where I spend the evening lounging on the couch, imagining new jobs, boyfriends, and tropical vacations.

§

The next morning, I raise the blinds of my bedroom window, and a rat is perched outside on the air conditioner, watching me. I scream even though the rat can’t touch me, even though we are separated by a thick pane of glass. The rat doesn’t move. How did it get there?

The rat watches me as I cower behind the bedroom door and peer out at it. After a few tense minutes, I finally do what I do best: I scurry across the room, yank the blinds down, and hope the problem goes away. I spend the morning army-crawling around my bedroom like an idiot, trying to get dressed without—what? Alarming the rat?

I briefly consider dislodging the air conditioning unit and pushing the entire thing out the window, letting it drop three floors into the airshaft below, but then I imagine the rat running up the slope of the air conditioner and onto my arms as I push. I’ve seen YouTube videos of New York City rats scaling the facades of apartment buildings.

Its stolid, determined rat silhouette is still visible through the blinds when I leave for my first house call. I comfort myself by deciding that I will call an exterminator if the rat is still there when I get home. I put my headphones on and walk towards the subway. It’s eight in the morning and the city’s already in full swing. I let my attention rove over the street vendors and the schoolteacher walking a caterpillar of toddlers on a giant leash.

I stop to wait for a light and there it is, next to me. A woman standing nearby screams and a man shouts “Rat!” and stomps to scare it away. The rat doesn’t run, and the man pulls a leg back and kicks it as hard as he can with a heavy construction boot.

I wince at the thud the boot makes against the rat’s body, and then sigh in relief when the rat flies through the air and disappears behind a pile of trash bags waiting for pick-up. I run down the steps, onto the subway platform, and jump onto the 1 train right before the doors close. The car is nearly empty. I put my headphones on with shaky fingers as the train pulls out of the station.

A few stops later, a gaggle of teenage girls boards. By the time we start moving again, they’re applying lip gloss and tittering and TikToking videos of themselves making faces and doing stupid dances.

My heart rate slows as I watch them and think of all the friends I let drift away. Who would want to hang out with someone who can barely keep it together for a dinner without crying, anyway? I’m ashamed of my old self’s weakness.

For the first time in a long time, I can keep my thoughts away from my mother. I think of the friends I might call this weekend instead. I scroll through the contacts on my phone. I can do dinner now; I can feel it.

The girls have gone quiet and they’re looking in my direction. Oh, God. What is it? I look for stains on my hideous yellow suit, and the girls start screaming and leap up onto the orange and mustard-colored seats of the moving train. They’re clinging to the metal bars and pointing to my left. I follow their eyes and fingers. There, four seats down from me, its long tail hanging over the edge of the seat like a whip, sits the rat.

I scream, too, and sprint to the door on the other side of the car, where I cower near the girls until the train stops. When it does, I run out onto the platform and, heart pounding, take the stairs three at a time to escape to the street. I run through the first door I come to, a bank. Inside, it’s quiet. A line of customers waits for the teller.

“What can we do for you today?” a woman at the information desk asks.

The rat waits outside, watching me through the glass, seemingly indifferent to the throngs of people walking up and down Broadway.

“Um, I’m not sure yet,” I say, pulling out my phone. I google “animal control.” I google “rat disease.” I receive a call from Kutco about the house call I am scheduled to make. The client is expecting me, the operator says, and wants to know if I’m running late. I say yes, I am, and apologize. I hang up and book an Uber.

The rat watches me scramble into the car, watches me slam the door hard behind me.

The house call is a bust and the woman seems incredulous that a company has employed someone as untethered as me to sell knives. I pack up my wares and nurse the cup of herbal tea she’s given me, just to put off leaving. I do leave, eventually, but I don’t see the rat again until I approach my apartment building after two more failed house calls. It’s waiting a few feet from the entrance, its fur glimmering in the streetlight.

When I open the door, it doesn’t try to dart into the building with me, and for that, I mumble a grudging thank you as I pull the door shut with trembling hands.

The next morning, the rat is waiting outside my bedroom window again. I finally gather the courage to look at it straight on.

It’s ugly, even for a New York City rat: about the size of a squirrel, gray with bald spots, and scars. One of its ears is missing. Its tail is as long as a ruler and its eyes are beads of gasoline.

I snap the blinds down again.

§

The next morning, I take the bandage off and throw it away. Then I scurry to the subway station and take the train back to Hamilton Heights. On the way, I look at the healed line on my wrist.

I march down the musty old hallway and rap-rap-rap on the door like I’m the police, like I’m owed a debt.

A woman I’ve never seen opens the door just wide enough to release a flood of soapy, Cloroxy air. She is wearing elbow-length dishwashing gloves and an exasperated look. She tells me she doesn’t know anything about the previous tenant, this slovenly Consuelo. The new tenant looks me up and down, clearly dismissing me as a grubby acquaintance of Consuelo’s.

“She didn’t leave a new address,” the woman says. Then she dashes back into the apartment and returns with a broom. She pounds it on the tile floor and I realize that the rat has been sitting in the middle of the hallway, behind me. It darts around the corner and out of sight, but I know it hasn’t gone far.

“Fucking rats,” the woman says, breathless with anger. “They’re everywhere.”

§

When I find the rat lingering in the hall outside my apartment the following day, I race past it to buy three packs of rat poison from the deli downstairs. After racing past it again, I mix the poison with mac and cheese. I put this on a plate and set the plate on the floor outside my apartment, where it sits untouched for three days.

It begins to dawn on me that I will not outrun this rat. I google “immortal new york city rat” and get no results. I call an exterminator and they say they’ll come next week. I call next week and they say they’ll come next week.

I begin to pray that someone else—or something else— will kill the rat. In my prayers, a car flattens the rat. In my prayers, some deadly disease vanquishes the rat. In my prayers, a giant cat descends from above with lethal claws and slaughters the rat.

One night, I drink an entire bottle of wine alone and decide to take care of the problem myself. I unsheathe the large chef’s knife from my Kutko kit, pull on a pair of galoshes over my pajama pants, and stalk out into the hallway, bleary-eyed and homicidal.

The rat is there, waiting, and before I can think myself out of it, I raise the knife, close my eyes, and bring the blade down with both arms. The blade passes through something thin and firm and then connects with the tiled floor. I open my eyes as the rat lets out a keening shriek. It blurs off down the hallway, leaving a thin trail of blood and a tiny piece of its tail behind, no longer than a fingernail.

It is all I can do to throw the knife into the sink, double-lock the doors, and cower in the bathtub for the rest of the night.

§

The next morning, I don’t see the rat outside my apartment door and I don’t see it outside my window. I’m too hungover to be elated. Instead, I pull on a pair of jeans and my yellow blazer. I trudge from apartment to apartment, extolling the wonders of the new Kutco steak knives and showcasing the scissors, which can cut straight through a penny.

On the commutes, I google “new york rat lifespan” (one year). I google “diseases new york rats carry” (all of them). I google “will cutting off a piece of a rat’s tail kill it” (no). I blanch at the thought of the knife that’s still sitting in the sink, inked in the rat’s blood. I google “disinfectant.” I google “sterilizing cleaners.”

§

I get home and the rat is waiting inside my house, in the kitchen.

My rat and I look at each other. She is wary and still as if she is afraid of startling me.

How old is she? She is either an old rat or an extraordinarily war-battered one, with three blooms of mottled skin where her fur no longer grows. The length of my forearm, she must weigh a pound, at least. Her four-fingered paws remind me of human hands. Her front left one is mangled, probably injured in a trap—how she must have fought to free herself. The missing chunk of an ear. The tail, its tip scab-dark, dry, and already healing. She looks up at me, her dark eyes and quivering pink nose track my every breath. I imagine her teeth, sharp and vicious, though I don’t see them.

I walk with halting steps toward the kitchen sink. With a shaking hand, I take hold of the knife. I raise it, knowing somehow that this time she will let me bring it down on her body, she will not run or bite me with those jagged teeth. This time, I won’t close my eyes as I scythe through her.

The rat watches me.

I take a deep breath. I will kill this rat and put her in the garbage, where she belongs. I will piece my life back together. I will move on. I will move on. I will move on.

Instead, I lay the knife down on the table.

I lean against the wall and let myself slide down to the floor. I trace a finger over the scar on my wrist, a thin, two-inch line, ruler-straight. I hug my knees to my chest.

In my memory, my mother picks me up by the underarms and stands me on her dresser. “My big girl,” she says. She helps me turn toward the mirror and then holds me against her torso until I am stable on my own two feet, which are clad in black patent leather Mary Janes. Her makeup is littered across the dresser around my feet, her jewelry spread across small, shallow, glass saucers. I hold still, proud that she’s trusting me not to stumble and kick all these beautiful breakable things.

I look up at us in the mirror. We wear matching dresses: hers a white and red floral sundress with thin straps, mine a cotton shift in the same pattern. It’s summer and both our noses are a little red from the sun. She has brushed my damp hair into a neat braid. My lips are the same color as hers, Cherries in the Snow. She has dusted my cheeks with a hint of blush.

“There,” she says in Spanish. She hugs me from behind, and her hair curtains over my shoulder in blow-dried auburn waves. Her smell wraps around me, that mix of rose, honey, and tobacco. She taps my chin with a warm hand and the gold bracelets on her wrist tinkle. “I’ve done it. I’ve left you my face to remember me by.”

On the floor of the kitchen, I let my grief draw closer, let its sour, rotten odor fill my nostrils. I sink my head into my knees and a searing white pain tightens my rib cage: unbearable, necessary, familiar.

As she nears, the rat’s body radiates a strange heat. She presses her full weight against my leg and I straighten it out. Cautiously, she climbs onto my shin, and I feel her claws through the thick denim of my jeans. I let her perch herself on my knee.

I let her stay.

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© Yohanca Delgado
Originally appeared in One Story #270 (One Story, 2020)

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