So Pete Upstairs went in to have another part of his tongue removed but before he went he asked me to take care of his pet rats while he was gone. Since I live downstairs and we're friends, he was counting on me to do it.
Now. I am not what you would call an ardent lover of All Things Great and Small. As a matter of fact, I never would have even had a dog, had she not been a border collie, cut me out and herded me into doing it. Never had a guinea pig when young. Sneeze near cats. And of course, spending many years in Manhattan watching rats scurry around the subway tracks on 34th Street did not do much to endear rodents to me.
So of course I said enthusiastically that I’d be glad to take care of the rats, those cute little guys, considering the poor man was losing another significant piece of his tongue, and because he is such an amazingly nice guy and on his own and everything and so he gave me various keys and the next day he went, had the cancer removed and lay there for a week while I took care of the rats.
I’m an organized person but I forget things. Did I take those pills? Did I pick up that cleaning? No short term memory left whatsoever. Burned it out young with overload. So I put a big note on the inside of my front door.
“Have you fed Pete’s pets? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7? "
Every day, after work, I’d go up his stairs, turning on lights, muttering encouraging, rat-friendly, cozy-type words.
“How is everybody? How’re you little guys?"
By the time I got to the Rat Palace of Wire, the entire gang was hanging on the front, thinking dinner. The feeding and watering process was pretty straight forward, but the giving of each a yogurt-covered raisin treat proved to be difficult, since everybody pretty much looked alike. But after a while it all got doled out equitably and each chewed on a covered raisin between the paws. After a few days, the rats seemed a bit chubbier, and that seemed good.
A friend who worked in the Thai refugee camps for twenty years once told me how, every year, a hotshot team of Boston doctors—a fresh team every year—would come to the camp to get a bit of “refugee experience.” They always had ideas for what the people “should do to help themselves." Instead of listening to the needs of the people, they identified what was important to them, the doctors, and made a plan for the people to go along with it.
One doctor in particular, a bright zealot of an intern, decided that there were far too many rats in the camp, and started offering the equivalent of 10 cents per rat tail to anyone who brought one to him as proof of a rat's decease. Well. You know what happened. Every time my friend went into a refugee’s tent, she’d be surrounded by cages and cages of rats. Big, slum rats. Since the doctor never went to the tents, he never saw them. All over the camp, the sound of rats shuffling about in makeshift cages provided a background for every conversation. And when the doctor went back to Boston, well. The profit stopped. So the refugees let them all go.
I saw Upstairs Pete today out for the mail and said an enthusiastic hello, knowing I would get no response. He gave me a smile, a tough thing when you're swollen up like that. I felt proud that the rats had done well, nay, gotten chubby in his absence, so I said a hearty,
"How're the little guys?"
He gesticulated for a pen.
I read what he wrote.
"One died Friday," it said.
I hope the rest of the week will improve.