Little Rat-Feet

          You worry I sleep too much.
          I don’t worry. I say that afternoon naps clear my head to work into the dusky hours past dinnertime and PBS Newshour. What work, you ask. All the work I forgot to do the day before—bleaching the kitchen, pasting photos onto cardstock, knitting Archie’s little dog coat.
          You ask me if I remembered to buy a present for your son, my grandson, for his eighth birthday. I didn’t, but I tell you, of course.
          You hear the lie through the telephone and say it’s okay if I forgot, or if the Social Security check ran out, you bought a gift for me to give. I insist that I have a present and try to think of what in my house I can give up.

          You ask me out to breakfast at IHOP. You say you’ll bring the kids. When I say no, you ask if I’m still asleep. You don’t consider that I am not in the mood for sticky pancakes high on sugar or rubbery eggs. My eggs are better.
          Why don’t you come and join me, I ask. I’ll wake up early and go down to the market stalls only open from dawn to noon on weekends. I’ll get us fresh eggs just laid that morning, still warm from the mother hen’s body, never yet having undergone that terrible chill of preservation.
          You tell me it’s already afternoon.
          Tomorrow, then. I’ll get the eggs tomorrow.
          Today’s Sunday. The market’s closed.
          Closed?
          You slept through it.

          I sit outside in the lawn chair that smells faintly of Archie’s urine. I tell him not to pee there, and he obeys when I’m around, but sometimes I leave him in the yard on his rope and he does whatever he wants. He caught a rat once—or maybe it was a vole. It was digging tunnels toward the house, and Archie was proud of his kill. I try to imagine why he wants to kill small, furry creatures not so different from his own small, furry self. I tell myself it’s because Archie is smarter than other dogs and he somehow knows that rats carry disease. Knows that rats remind me of growing up poor with too many holes in the cellar foundation for them to crawl into the house and ruin the food stored there. I bleach my cellar here, my floors, my kitchen—everything in bleach to keep it clean and rat-free.
          The air feels heavy, moisture condensing, bonding into a warm blanket. It settles on my skin and keeps me sprawled there. I am supposed to knit Archie’s dog coat, but my hands feel weak. I am supposed to watch Archie. He’s been jumping the low bunny-wire fence into my neighbor’s garden and pooping there. She hates that he poops on her carrots. Dog poop isn’t fertilizer like cow poop, she says.
          Moisture beads on my eyelids, weighs on them, feels like when you used to bury me in sand at Myrtle Beach, layer upon layer on my chest and arms until a delicious heaviness made each breath seem important.
          My eyes drift downward.
          Three months ago, I drove into town after dark and hit a deer. It came up over the grill of my Subaru, rolled up the hood and smashed into the windshield before hobbling off somewhere. The airbag ballooned into my face and gave me deep bruises that lasted for weeks.
          The police came. You came. They took away my license even though hitting a deer happens to everyone—you hit one two years ago. It put a dent on your fender you still haven’t fixed.
          You took me home and called me the next day, asking me to put together a list every week of what I needed from the store. I put down, fresh Colorado peaches and you came back with a tin can. I asked you for Archie’s special diet the vet recommended for his joints, and you came back with Ol’ Roy.
          I bought a bus pass.

          I wake and Archie is gone. There are too many birds near the feeder. Archie would have chased them away—he’s a rat terrier who thinks that rats evolved wings and feathers sometime in the sixty-three days he was in his mother’s womb. He woke and his programmed ‘kill-the-rat’ gene included these rat-birds who thieved bread crumbs and defiled the porch railing with their streaky poops.
          I heft myself up and walk barefoot through the growing tufts of my yard. I cross the divide into the rigidly buzzed shards of Mrs. Norris’s lawn and knock on her back door. Her son came last week and painted it a fresh coat of white. You promised to repaint mine a pretty green color—you say it’s on the list.
          Through the door, I hear her mouse-eared television blaring the five o’clock news. Is it already that late? Mrs. Norris mutes the sound and cracks open her door, fixing me with milky blue cataract-stricken eyes. She opens her door as if she’s expecting fugitives. Our neighborhood is five miles away from the county prison and she watches movies like Shawshank Redemption where the inmates dig their way under the walls. I used to make fun of her, until some fugitives in New York really did that.
          We’re the same age. I look younger.
          “Helen,” she acknowledges.
          “Where’s Archie? Did you take him?” I wouldn’t put it past Mrs. Norris to tie Archie up in her kitchen and force-feed him mushy vegetables meant for seventy-year old stubs of teeth. Lucy, the fluffy, raccoon-striped Persian, would keep guard.
          A rat-terrier’s second-worst nightmare—the cat-devil.
          Mrs. Norris purses her lips. “I don’t have your dog, Helen. Did you lose him again?”
          I don’t believe her. I try to peer through the crack in her door, but she’s taller than me and I can only see the faded pictures on her walls over the television.
          “Archie! Archie, are you in there?” I call, whistling.
          Now Mrs. Norris is annoyed. “I told you, I don’t have him.” She begins to close that sliver of light, and I push back against the door, scraping the paint. It doesn’t matter, Mrs. Norris is bigger. She shuts the door and I hear the deadbolt thunk into place before her television starts up again.
          I realize she’s probably telling the truth. Archie would have chewed through any of Mrs. Norris’s constraints. Rat-terriers are fierce like that.
          I go back to my small house. My feet feel heavy. I want to lie down, but Archie is still missing. The skyline is turning a dark, leaden gray as clouds swallow up the daylight and I shiver without my jacket. Archie must be shivering, his breath huffing out in visible puffs, all alone without his knit coat. I worry he cannot survive the night without me and that he is lost.

          I call you.
          I tell you I need help—I need someone to drive me to the Kinko’s at the strip mall to make copies of my poster—‘FIND ARCHIE’—in big, black markered letters. The bus goes by Kinko’s, but it is a Sunday, and late, and the bus only runs until eight.
          Archie might be outside the town limits already.
          You say you can’t help. You tell me he isn’t lost, he’s misplaced.
          A dog isn’t a sock or a wallet that gets lost like that, I say.
          You tell me to search the house first and then call you back.
          I hang up the phone hard, the long red curls of the cord swinging against the wall. You told me last year you were going to put in a cordless, but it’s still on the list, too. I think about cutting you out of my will, but you probably wouldn’t care anyway. You don’t want the small, chipped circus animal figurines that decorate my mantle, and you don’t want my entire collection of Louis L’Amour books, the pages yellowed with age. The most valuable thing I have is Archie, and I’ve lost him.
          You wouldn’t want him, either. He sheds in the summer, spring, and fall. You wouldn’t put up with that—you’d send him away, find a different home and say he was better off there with strangers caring for him.

          I decide to catch the bus on one of its last runs. I take the bundle of soft yarn, thinking I’ll knit Archie’s coat on the bus. As I go downstairs, I feel invigorated, my joints lubricated with anxiety. I feel the energy of Archie’s little rat feet propelling my own as he beseeches me to find him. As I walk toward the bus stop, I think perhaps Archie went this way. Onward, out past Mrs. Norris’s fence, past Mr. Johnson’s, and finally the Dennis’ big corner yard where Archie always stops to pee on their cherry tree.
          I reach the end of the community’s cul-de-sac and walk two more blocks to the small, plexiglass bus shelter positioned before the four-lane highway. The air currents churn with cars and trucks whooshing past and I wonder if Archie crossed the highway. Wonder if he darted across a road that smells like exhaust and oil, wonder if trucks swerved to avoid him. Beyond the highway, beyond the gas stations and car dealerships and ugly strip malls to the forest, a state park preserving wildness.
          Archie likes the forest. I don’t take him there as often anymore because the tree roots trip me. Maybe he ran away to seek out the forest and the squirrels that he likes to chase. Only Archie has never been in the forest at night.
          I am nearly at the bus shelter when I realize I’ve forgotten my purse, that all I carry is the wool for Archie’s coat, currency the bus driver won’t take. I heave myself back up the two blocks and up the gentle rise of the road into the living community. My hip twinges by the time I let myself back into the house, and I lean heavily on the railing as I go upstairs to get my purse, full of loose change.
          I pass the pantry on the way out. There’s a weak scratching sound, like tiny nails ripping plastic. I pause.
          Little rats. Or maybe voles? Or their half-domesticated relative, the mouse. The scratching intensifies—a pack of little rats and mice. Archie’s need tears at me and I know the bus will arrive soon, but I think of what might happen if I let the rats stay there, molesting my pantry, ripping open the instant potatoes, the saltine crackers I dunk in my tea. And the sugar—all the pristine white grains getting trampled under black rat feet doing a wicked dance.
          Rats caused the plague.
          I can’t have sickness in my house. Archie will understand the delay.
          I unlatch the pantry door and step into the dark, dry room. Little rat feet scamper over my toes, cold noses press infected drool into the pores of my leg and they’re squeaking at me.
          The purse in my hand becomes a weapon. I reach back and whale it upon the rats. Again, and again. I hear them yelp in pain and it invigorates the aging muscle of my arm.
          Yelps?
          I pause.
          I look down, my eyes adjust. I realize the rat feet on my feet are big, more like rat-terrier feet.
          Archie lets out a pitiful high whine, filled with pain and accusations. There are no beady black rat eyes, only my Archie’s soft brown ones, tinged red. A cut drips down across his eyelid.
          My old body crumples to the linoleum. The purse falls forgotten. Archie slowly crawls into my lap, and his rough tongue darts out once toward my chin as if checking to make sure that it is me and not some imposter wearing my clothes that hit him. Except it was me. Tears leak out from my eyes and roll down my cheeks and it is Archie who licks them away, each lick a sign of forgiveness. He curls into my body.

          I call you from the emergency vet.
          You ask if I found him.
          Yes, I found him. He needs three stitches. I’ll have the money when I get my pension check, but they need payment now. We also need a ride home—the bus isn’t running anymore.
          You ask me if having a dog is really wise at my age and mention how your son wants a puppy for Christmas. Just think of how much easier it would be without being burdened with a dog, you say.
          But Archie isn’t a puppy. He’s twelve, and sometimes he pees in the laundry room on the blue tiles when he can’t hold it the whole night. You wouldn’t like that—you just redid the floors and carpets in your house.
          You say that’s not the point. That I need to start downsizing so I can manage better—no more car, no more dog, no more house….
          I tell you to get him a real puppy, a Lab or a golden-something. Soft and furry, not like Archie’s stiff, wiry coat. Kids want something soft. Archie’s too old to make big changes.
          I ask if you’ll come and get us. The waiting room smells like vomit and cleaning agent chemicals, like it’s trying to hasten us into our graves. The couch, though, is comfortable.
          You say you can’t come right now, you’re just putting dinner on the table. You’ll need at least an hour. Maybe two. Can they wait that long?
          I ask the girl at the front desk and she says they’re open all night. She nods, and I tell you I can wait. What other option do I have?
          I sit in the comfortable couch, and Archie lays his head down across my forearm. He’s still high on pain medication, and his pink tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth. He drools onto my sweater. I don’t mind. I close my eyes, let them start to feel heavy, start to feel my head drifting back into the wall.
          I drift off.
          “Mrs. Goode?”
          Blinking back fuzziness, I bring the receptionist into focus. She’s standing before me, a small smile on her lips to mirror the smiley faces covering her scrubs.
          “Was I asleep?”
          Her smile widens a little, as if she’s impressed with my ability to sleep here, amongst the funny smells with the door chime jingling, a cat meowing in its box nearby.
          “Yes. It’s nearly ten o’clock.” She picks up her purse from the counter and reaches in for her car keys. “My shift is done—do you need a ride home?”
          I glance back behind the counter where a different girl sits, brown hair cleanly pulled back.
          “What about my bill?”
          “Dr. Gordon says you can come back later this week.”
          I look down at Archie, still asleep, shaved bald over his right eye with ugly plastic nylon poking through the skin to hold it together. Yes, we want to go home. We want to sleep.
          “Yes, a ride would be nice. I’m only ten minutes away.”
          My knees have gotten stiff and protest getting up from the comfortable couch, but the girl holds out her hands to take my elbows. She doesn’t try to take Archie, as if she understands I can’t relinquish him yet. May not ever, now that I’ve found him again. There’s surprising strength in her hands, and she helps me up, then gives a little wave to her replacement behind the counter.
          Archie shivers in his sleep. I wish I had finished his dog coat sooner. I take off my coat and bundle him inside it. The girl holds the door open and we trundle out together, the door chime ringing in our wake.
 

Teri Dederer received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and currently teaches at a private school in the Bay Area. When not working or writing, she can be found hiking and relaxing on the beach with her dog, Ori.

This is Teri's first publication. 

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