by Liana Vrajitoru Andresen
“Melvin, they said someone’s waiting for you,” the secretary said. At the same time, she was nodding encouragingly, for him to continue.
“Give me one minute.” Melvin leaned loosely on the glass of the secretary’s booth, his arm pliant like dough under the pressure of his large body. “You see, frogs just can’t throw up. If something is so bad in their stomach that they get some retching reflex activated, they will vomit their whole stomachs out.”
“That’s horrible, Melvin! Do they die?” The voice of the financial assistant came from the office’s open door.
“Leave him alone,” the secretary shouted toward the hallway. “He makes it sound fascinating. So, Melvin, you were telling me about those temples, where they worship the rats.”
“It’s not worship, really. They pay their respect to the rats. There are tens of thousands of them in some temples, and you’d be surprised how big they grow. People come from far away to see them, and they believe the rats are just waiting to reincarnate as people. They’re treated like royalty. I’m sure you’d get used to rats if that was your culture, Shirley.”
“You give me too much credit.” The middle-aged secretary twirled her hair. “I’m not that open minded.”
“You give people a chance, they get used to anything,” he said. “You don’t give people a chance, they wither. Am I right? Did you know that rats can have nervous breakdowns if they’re left without their packs? And we think we’re the only social creatures. You know what I mean?” His eyes wrinkled slightly as he smiled.
That was Melvin’s signature smile. It made his broad face even broader, like a benevolent moon-creature, a beardless, giant gnome. Whenever he smiled, he looked fully in the eyes of the beneficiary, as if to press that good will past the surface, into the person’s volition, until a smile came back in response.
Melvin wore his hair in a ponytail, quite long for all the formality of his job, yet never greasy or breaking loose. The shirts he wore were a different color every day, though there was no pattern in the repetitions. Coworkers at the company liked the unpredictable nature of the colors, and loved to speculate: will it be lilac today? Will it be gray because it’s raining?
His boss used to be happy about his dexterity with numbers and allocation tables. Error resolution was once Melvin’s forte, and his export files used to be impeccable. After a series of personal dramas, coupled with getting older, his mind wasn’t as sharp as it had once been. While his smile had grown bigger with the years, sadder in its earnestness, it did not compensate for his forgetfulness. Numbers no longer fell in place for him, and it became clear after a while that he could no longer work as a financial analyst. Yet, he was not laid off: he was just made assistant to the financial analyst. Mostly, people liked to have him around. He was the kindest soul.
In the lobby, the thin, thirty-ish woman looked at her watch. She had been waiting for a good ten minutes, trying not to attract too much attention as she sat on the hard chair. Pale-faced and dark-haired, she turned her head many times to look at people coming in or going out of doors. She smoothed her skirt and gripped her knees with her hands. The clerk smiled at her.
When he came into the waiting room, Melvin was still laughing, saying something to those behind him about the number of vertebrae in the giraffe’s neck. The laughter dwindled to a stop as he saw who was waiting for him. He stood in the dividing door for a few seconds, the smile—now a grimace—slowly receding. He stepped toward her, then stopped again. He touched his forehead, pointed a finger at her, then his fingers retreated into a timid fist that he hid in his pocket.
“It’s good to see you,” he finally said. Another waiting woman and the receptionist looked away, but their faces had the awkward immobility of discreet intrigue.
“Hi, Dad.” The thin woman stood up, moving as if to hug him, but she didn’t.
“Let’s talk in my office,” he said. His broad smile came back. “But I’m terribly busy, Ella, I’m afraid it has to be a short visit.”
She followed him quietly, not trying to keep up with his large steps as they crossed from one end of the hall to the other. She nodded at people. Right before reaching his office, he turned his head to whisper to her: “My office may not be safe. It could be bugged.” She lowered her eyes to the floor.
As they came into his small, starkly decorated office, Ella sat down on the leather-covered bench. She looked at the windowscape darkened by rain clouds. Her father sat across from her, at his desk, and leaned over.
“So Ella, baby, why did you come here? It’s against company policy, you know that.”
As her eyes fell on the large man, framed by the window, they lost the shadow of the clouds she’d been looking at. They sharpened, turned greener.
“I wouldn’t have, if you’d only returned my calls,” she said.
“I don’t like phones, Ella,” he whispered. “You never know who’s listening.”
She rolled her eyes and looked out the window again. He changed his position.
“Baby, you really are worried about me?” he asked.
She sighed, her eyes returning on him, softer now.
“I’m always worried, Dad.”
“You know I get by,” he said, playing with a pen on the desk. “I’ve been fine. I just get so busy, you know.”
“Why won’t you talk to me?” she asked, lowering her voice to a whisper. Her hands retained an imperceptible shaking. “I’m still your… daughter, right?”
“A daughter over the phone?”
“Do I have a choice besides the phone? I would come over—I mean, you know I’d come over but I can’t— And you said I shouldn’t.”
“No, you shouldn’t be in that house. It would just—It would make it worse. It would be giving you ideas again.” He watched her, as if looking for a trace of denial in her eyes. The frail woman seemed to be shivering. He cleared his voice as she looked away. “But I’ll visit you more often. How is that?”
“More often than once or twice a year?”
“Well… It’s easy to lose track of time.”
Her eyes fell to the level of his hands. “Dad?”
“Why are you wearing gloves?”
He laughed. She did not laugh with him.
“I’m allergic to fresh ink.” Beads of sweat were forming on his face.
“Dad, you’re not depressed, are you? Are you depressed again?”
“Oh, come on, Ella. It’s been years now. I’ve been—I’ve been seeing some ladies.”
Her pale face briefly lit up, a vague smile brushing her face.
“I told you, I have a life,” he said. “If you don’t trust me, ask around. See for yourself.”
“And you’re not afraid I might actually do that?”
He pressed his wrist with his gloved hand.
“You just wanted to see me then?” he said.
“Obviously. You don’t call, you don’t answer my calls. I thought maybe you needed to see your therapist again and you didn’t want to.”
“Baby, I’m happy. I have friends from work visit me. And I have lady friends. I’ve been managing great with the house and all.”
“I can try to make myself go see you there,” she said, her face darkening.
“No, don’t come. It will make you run away again.”
She gathered her shoulders in.
“Dad, I’ve seen therapists too. I’m much better, I’ll have you know. Why won’t you sell the house and move out of there? There’s just too much in that house. Have you even taken down the pictures, put them all away?”
He looked at her blankly. Then his broad smile returned:
“Of course, I took a few down, in the living room. I only kept the ones upstairs.”
“So you never take your—lady friends into your bedroom?”
“Actually, no. Why would you ask such questions, Ella?”
“Give me one example of a lady friend you say you have. You’ve been on an actual date? She’s come to your actual house?”
“Sofia, a nice—veterinarian.”
“And that’s not a lie? Just tell me, have you even bought a new washer and drier?”
“Of course I did. All these years, what do you think?”
“You should have let me buy them for you. Now I’ll have to come over to see if you’re telling me the truth. You didn’t even let me pay for someone to clean once a week. Once a month, for God’s sake.”
He looked at her with narrow eyes, sighing. His eyes dropped to his watch.
“Ella, honestly, I’m doing great. And you can’t stay here any longer. Let’s have breakfast tomorrow, okay? Or dinner. How’s dinner? We’ll catch up and all.”
“Sure, dad. I’d love that.”
He stood up, relieved. For the first time since they’d started talking, he managed to look paternal. He opened his arms wide. She hugged him, her face pressing against his shoulder. She patted his shaven cheek, her palm resting there a while. Her eyes were filling with sadness, so she turned around to leave.
“Pick up the phone tonight,” she said and closed the door behind her.
She came out of the building. She walked fast, with purpose. Her black strands flew in all directions and she winced from the cold city wind. She checked the meter and got into her car, shaking her head.
“You wish I’d call first,” Ella muttered under her breath. She took a key out of her pocket, an old key. She stared at it for a moment as one would at an old friend turned enemy. With quick, angry moves she attached it to the key ring, and started the car. She had not used the key in four years.
Late that evening, Ella drove to his street, and parked two houses away from his. Walking silently, trying not to let her heels make much noise, she reached the cement path where tufts of grass were now growing from the cracks. She climbed the two steps to the door and stopped. She put her hand on her chest and breathed, then stepped away from the door. She looked down, clenching her teeth, shaking her head. She stepped up again, lifted her finger to the doorbell, and kept it in the air a few seconds. Her arm dropped to her side, without ringing. She wiped a tear and quickly took out her keys. She pushed the old key into the lock and turned it. It worked. Yet she did not push the door open. She waited a few more seconds, then rang the bell.
There was some commotion deep in the house. Waiting, she kept her breath slow and quiet. No one opened the door. She knocked, rang the bell again.
“Dad, are you there?” she said, leaning toward the door.
She looked around for a few moments, and finally stepped down and went to the window.
It was hard to see through the blinds, but they were not completely tight against the light, so she could make out some shadows. One shadow, tall and moving. There were mounds in the room, of clothes, maybe. Then the shadow moved, or something about it moved. The mounds moved too. Small shades of darkness burst around the bigger shadow, and Ella jumped back, afraid to think what it was that she was seeing.
She remained at the window awhile, aware that she was being watched. There were noises she could not understand, and she started to cry like she’d used to, long ago, when her father would be late from work and she’d think he was dead. That same feeling returned, that her father may die on his way home, may never reach the steps to the front door. It was as if all the years in between, with the loss they’d brought, had never really happened. She could not tell what was worse: that fear she had lived with, as a child, of losing her parents when one of them stormed out after a shouting match, or the loss that really happened, with the precision of a trigger, the one she could not wish away by burying her face in the pillow. Hiding her fists inside her sleeves, she looked at the window and felt, as vividly as long ago, that her father would never make it home. She turned and ran to the car.
She didn’t call him. She let two days go by, and she came back to the house in the morning, before she had to get to work, knowing he had to be home, still. She parked a few houses away from his—and waited.
The house was silent, like the other houses. Then the garage door opened and her father came out. She lowered herself behind the wheel, straining to see. Objects were amorphous in the garage, but from what she could tell this wasn’t where he kept his car. It looked like a room. It even had a table with a chair. There were clothes hanging in rows, on a wire. Ella’s hands shook on the wheel, and she looked at the key on the keychain. She turned on the engine and drove slowly to the house.
Her father saw the car and rushed out of the garage, blocking her way so she would not get into the driveway. Ella had to stop abruptly. She opened the car door. The big man pushed it with his hands. Little muffled screams came from inside the car, like those of the little girl he’d once locked in the storage room because she went biking without permission.
She rolled down the window, trembling.
He was panting, his face drenched in sweat. His ponytail was loose and sticking to his face.
“I don’t even… recognize you!” his daughter yelled. “How can you—”
“Shh, baby, it’s all right.”
“It’s not all right. It was never all right when you said it was all right! Say something else to me, something that makes sense, or there will be no reason left for me to talk to you!”
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Ella. Just think of what you’re saying. You left this house,” he said, his voice low. “You left me here. Now I don’t want you to come here. I beg you, don’t come here.”
She looked at him, shaking her head desperately.
“You have rashes on your hands!”
“What?” He hid his hands around his back.
“What? What? Dad, you’re sick! You’re so sick you don’t even know you’re sick anymore.”
He stepped away from the car.
“Please, baby, go away. Go away now.”
“I can’t give up on you.” Sobs were shaking her small body. “But—” She looked at him with new anger in her eyes. “But I can see why she did. You just don’t get it. It wasn’t fair to me when she put that gun to her head, was it? Or did you think the world was made just for the two of you, Dad?”
He turned around and went into the garage, his head bent, his whole body bent as if he’d suddenly aged two hundred years.
It was late that evening when she came back. She did not hesitate to go up the steps this time. She went straight to the door, put the key right into the lock, and turned it. She pushed the door wide open.
Neighbors inside their houses would have heard the scream. Screaming still, she stood in the door, unable to look away from the middle of the living room. The memory of the small gun with the ivory handle flashed before her eyes for less than a second, as she looked at the carpet. The painful remembrance was swept away by the sight in front of her, by what was left of the living room. In the very spot where her mother had fallen in an instant pool of blood, her father lay now, flat on the floor, on the old, red carpet covered in strange droppings and food, and a pile—a hellish mound of gray and white rats—were swarming all over the man’s body. There were rats on the carpet, startled, scurrying with both slushy and squeaky noises to and away from her father’s body, while more rats were climbing on the table, the stairs, and virtually every space that was available to climb. The living room was unrecognizable, even if the rats hadn’t been there, and the dreaded image of her parents wrestling for the gun was forever smothered under the piles of new and aging clutter.
Ella’s voice had broken into a cough, and her gaze seemed lost, as if she’d just woken up. She looked around the blurry room and noticed that her now prone father was watching her, his eyes even more startled than hers. A rat ran over her foot and she jumped in place, backing up and almost losing her balance before she found the door. She slammed it behind her.
Her father stood watching her from the window, as she ran to her car.
“Baby,” he said quietly, pleadingly.
She did not call for more than a week. Even looking at the phone made her cry, powerless to erase the image of her father among the rats. The phone did not ring. It did not ring, that is, until the following Friday when someone from his work who’d found her number asked her if she knew why he hadn’t been there in days.
Ella could not go back to the house alone. With enough probable cause for a search warrant, the police allowed her to come along.
She faced again the door to the house where she used to live, where she had found what was left of her own mother in the living room that cold day, five years ago. She did not know if she would be able to step inside. With her hand on her chest, she pushed back the pounding of her heart. The officers called for her father, and when they did not get a response, they opened the door with the daughter’s key.
Ella held her breath. She let the officers go inside and find what they were meant to find. Would she feel immense pain, or immense relief if the knowledge of that moment, the whisper of that dead house was telling her the truth?
Officer Garner, a middle aged woman with a ready face, stepped among rats and rat excrement without as much as a wince. She turned to the door: “Miss Evans, please don’t come in. I will come back outside to take you to your car. Officer Kalb, will you begin recording? I’ll join you afterward.”
The man in uniform stepped in, speaking into his recorder.
“We are observing a body,” he said, “a dead body among what appears to be a swarm of rats—anywhere between seven to fifteen hundred visible rats. Some are pet store rats, some look like the wild kind. Note the ammonia smell, indicative of an accumulation of animal waste.” He stopped only to lift the camera that rested on his chest, and he took a picture. He waited, looking at the door, as if Officer Garner may actually return in that short a time. “Note a few carcasses of rats at the closet door. Note the maggots on the rats. Probably dead long before the man died. I am drawing closer to the body. Note the empty bags of rat food. There may be rat nests in the mounds of dirty laundry. Rats are going underneath. There are many piles of household objects and some unidentifiable items.” He pulled off the camera from around his neck, looking at the door again. “I am with the body now. Cause of death unknown, but there are no visible gun wounds, or signs of struggle. Only rat bites, though they appear to have been made posthumously. The rats were probably hungry.”
When Officer Garner returned, she started taking the pictures. Pictures of massive heaps of plastic containers, milk cartons, rotting paper bags and chair carcasses. Pictures of rats nesting in clothes so old that they stuck to the floor. Old appliances, serving as nests. Soiled magazines and shoes with the leather gone, gnawed off. Holes in every wall. Scared creatures with beady eyes, waiting for order to be restored.
And in a cleared up space in the corner—a sweater, faded green, spread on the floor like a rug. In the middle of it, a phone.
The officers continued their recording. From the outside, nobody could see Ella in her car, for she had collapsed onto the passenger seat.
The officers did not record that the little animals nibbling at the man’s flesh were joyful, not sad. That was to be the rats’ last declaration of their worship and love, as they accepted his—for only gods and lovers will give their bodies so completely, unquestioningly, returning it to that source where everything life comes from, in endless, organic flows.
The cause of death was to be officially established as rat fever.
She could not have known that he had often talked to the ringing phone, without picking up, knowing she was at the other end. Yet for some reason she could not explain, the last time she went to the empty house, long after she buried him, she took the phone with her. It was a small comfort, looking at it sometimes, as if his voice would reach her from beyond the grave.
If I could talk to you, Ella, I would tell you that it all started with seven rats from the pet store. It was an idea the therapist planted in my mind: that it would be good for me to give care to something outside myself, since I was so bad at giving myself that care. She wanted me to have a link to the outside world, or else I’d withdraw even further into my torment. She said a small soul to care for would draw me out, and I’d eventually reconnect with you, my baby daughter, since I did so wrong by you after your mother died. The therapist said that before I could be a father to you again, I should start small: a fish, a bird. I chose rats, because they seemed playful at the pet store. Manageable.
Then, unnoticeably, it turned into love.
If you could only see how a mother carries her tail in her mouth, to her nest, before she has babies. She nurtures herself, like a pup, so she can nurture her own babies better. How can I turn back time and tell your mother that she did not love herself enough to be a good mother? I watched these small wonders, thousands of them as they went from birth to death with so much heart, you wouldn’t believe it. Other females will help a mother raise a litter, and sometimes a male will help. Only a few mothers will eat their own, if something close to tragic happens to them. If their mate was killed by an aggressive male, if the food was scarce for a while, or if they were hit before giving birth. But even if she can eat her own babies, a mother rat will never take her own life. Do you see, my baby, why it is good to watch the small world before you can live in the big one?
Why, Ella, how could you ever think that I was to blame for her pulling that trigger?
I’d tell you something funny, if I could: I’ve learned all their chirps, their peeps, their squeaks and their squeals. I can call them to me, like that. Do you hear me? I am one of them. They tell me that when they chatter their teeth in my ear, like purring, and their eyes bulge with relaxation.
Rats are brave. They will fight for a female, and they will not stop when the rival rolls on his back. But fights aren’t always doom and gloom. Sometimes they fight right on top of me, like children. They will end by licking each other, and they will lick me too. They like the salt on my skin. I like the purity of their small tokens of love. I’m just a big rat to them.
I’ve learned to love so I can love you again.