A couple summers ago I landed a housesitting gig in north Florida for a retired couple who had moved home to Wisconsin. They granted me full run of the property – an acre of land maintained by a yard guy, ranch-style house cleaned by a cleaning lady, HBO and my own office – all in exchange for cheap rent and a promise to take care of the cat and the pool.
Those sunny afternoons I spent floating on my raft, chipping whiffle balls, and attending to the pool’s chemical balances. A jug of chlorine here, a capful of algaecide there, backwash the filter and dump the basket. I had my routine down.
One particularly sizzling day, I took the lid off the filter basket and found, huddled on the ledge between the filter and the pool, a live rat. Half submerged, its gray torso throbbed with rapid breaths while its rubbery tail bobbed above the basket. I can’t say I was surprised to see it there, because I had recently found feces in the laundry room and had asked the bug man to put down some glue boards. So I knew there were rats on the property.
The day’s pool care, however, had become anything but routine.
I stood back and stared, pitting my urge to rid the pool of impurities against my fear of coming into contact with the nasty critter. If my hand brushed the rat’s tail or, even worse, if the thing bit me, I could catch a disease. I thought, maybe the cat would get the rat. But then I pictured the cat, timid and sleepy, and knew he would cower at the water, vermin or no vermin, and slope back to his shaded siesta. I considered leaving the cover off to let the rat escape, but then remembered the feces and my request for the glue boards. Unless I was a hypocrite, I would exterminate the rat.
I replaced the cover, leaving the rat to starve, drown, or surrender its life. A cloud of guilt passed over me. I had sentenced the rat to death. But my role in this sentencing was only passive, incidental, lacked conviction. I hadn’t thrown the rat in the pool. I hadn’t pushed it into the filter. If I hadn't checked the basket, the rat would’ve died anyway. Did my happening upon this helpless rodent make me responsible for its humane deliverance from the world? Animals die horrible deaths every day. Cheetahs feed on live gazelles. Chimps murder monkeys. Rats eat their young. This death would be no anomaly.
The next day I expected to find the rat’s bloated carcass. Instead, I found the rat still perched on the ledge: vigilant, solemn, waiting to die. For more than twenty-four hours it had sat nose-first to the water that flowed past like moments through a lifetime.
I poked it with a golf club. It looked at me, shivering. Droplets fell from its whiskers. When I saw its eyes, beady and shaking, my disdain melted away. This was no longer a rabid rodent that shat in the laundry room, but a brave and wizened being who had come to understand the ineluctable progress of time.
Call me a hypocrite, but I had to save the rat. I made a plan. I’d get a clay pot from the yard, place it over the filter, get in the pool, stick my sand wedge in the filter’s entry port, and use the club’s flat face to lift the rat up through the hole and onto the portion of the deck enclosed by the pot. Moving quickly, I’d slip a thin piece of wood underneath the pot, hold it tight, flip the pot over – careful not to break the guy’s little limbs – and in one motion remove the wood and cover the pot with cling wrap.
I’d take my makeshift terrarium someplace cool, poke some air holes and drop in some cat food and a cup of fresh water. I’d name the thing Rats Domino. If all went well, I’d get Rats a cage and set him above the washing machine. We’d sing “Blueberry Hill” while folding the laundry, snubbing our noses at those other rats, those free-roaming nuisances.
I went inside to get the cling wrap. When I came back out, I realized that, in my excitement, I had left the cover off the filter. I stormed across the patio, down to the pool deck and, when I looked in the square hole, saw no rubbery flagellum. I crouched, but saw no rat. I plunged the head of my golf club into the basket, fishing through the debris for a floundering rodent. No luck. Ungrateful for my kindness, it had snuck back to its pestilent society, certain to torment me in my daily chores.
I felt like a dupe, deceived by those pathetic dripping whiskers, those shaky eyes. And I swore, beneath a blazing sun, that if I ever found a rat bastard trapped in the pool filter again, or stuck to a glue board in the laundry room, I would take no pity and do the ugly deed.
Disgusted, I fetched a jug of chlorine and shocked away whatever contagion the rat had left behind.