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Rats

The boy walked across the field with his grandpa.  The old man carried a large dented gasoline can, the old timey kind, rounded on the top and probably older than the boy's dad.  The boy liked being around his grandpa, liked his silence and his tolerance of the boy's questions. The boy was quiet for the most part, studious, and curious and interested in learning, so his questions were never the inane kind, but usually of the how does that work, why do you do it that way, can you show me how variety which the old man appreciated and approved of.  The boy liked his time with the old man and he liked when one of his questions would make the old man pause and he could tell he had said something that had made his grandpa think about something in a new way or from a new angle.

 He looked over to their destination, the storage shed, large and dark, filled with the smells he associated with summers out here, dust and grease.  There was something special about the air, the boy had decided. It was fresher than the air by their home in the suburbs, but that wasn't it, really, the simple lack of car exhaust. Even the air in his house was filled with artificial smells, his mother's candles or the somehow used taste of the air from the air conditioner. Here, the boy decided, the air was slower, and older, and more real in a way that he couldn't quite describe.

He could hear the matches in the old man's pocket, a smallish box that the old man had produced from some cupboard in his cavernous shop where he spent the bulk of his time.  The boy looked over at the old man's hands, scarred and rough from years and years of work, laboring in the fields nearby, planting and harvesting and clearing the grains year after year.  They were the hands of a man that had worked for everything that he had, and worked every day to keep it.  The boy looked down at his own hands that were soft from books and computers all fall and winter and spring, but that were now crusted with a little grease from when they had fixed the rototiller, and with a small blister that he had developed while shoveling gravel to fill a pot hole in the long driveway. It was painful, but it brought him a touch of pride, too.  He had earned that blister.

Now they walked in silence, the gas in the can making a slow quiet slosh, the matches in the old man's pocket rattling with every step, the slightly overlong grass whispering on their boots.

"Are we really going to burn it down?" the boy asked, breaking the silence.

"We are," the old man said.

"But why?"

The old man walked in silence for a few steps, considering. The boy knew that he was wondering how to say what he had needed to say without divulging too much.  Last year the boy had seen Max, the male hound that the old man took hunting sometimes, engaging in what looked like an attempt to get a piggyback ride from Daisy, the female.  When he had remarked on it, old man then laid out the biological facts plain as day and when the boy was asked about what he had learned that day at the dinner table, he laid those same facts out until he saw his granny's face had seemed to harden into stone.  He had heard them "having quite a discussion" that evening, and since then the old man was a bit more thoughtful about the things he shared. "We have rats," the old man said finally.

The boy nodded, and thought about that until they arrived at the storage shed. The two of them stood there looking at it for a couple of moments.

"What about traps?" the boy said.

"I did traps for a while," the old man said, "and they work, but only if you have just a few rats.  If you get them early you can trap them.  If there's too many though, you can't keep up. They reproduce too quickly, the traps fill up, and the rest of them roam free."

"Poison?"

"We eat the grain in here, use it to make bread. We use it to feed ourselves, and our animals.  If we fill the shed with poison, we will always be afraid we are harming ourselves."

"But I like this shed," the boy said.  "It's always been here, and it still works right? We still have food, don't we?"

"I like it too," the old man said. "I built this shed with your daddy a long time ago, him and me together just like you and me are here now. He complained a lot more than you, of course. A big complainer, your daddy was when he was younger. And yes, we still have food, but the the thing about rats is this: they're greedy little bastards, and don't tell your granny I said that, they're greedy, and they just can't eat enough, they just gobble grain until they are fit to burst and then they eat just a little bit more, and maybe that is something I can tolerate for a while, maybe a farm is always going to have rats, and that's just something we will have to live with, but word gets out, and the rats all hear about this great store of grain here and every damn rat in three counties is in our shed just eating everything in sight, and it gets to the point that we end up working hard, and all we are doing is feeding rats."

The old man picked up the dented old gas can and unscrewed the cap.  The boy smelled the diesel instantly, acrid in the warm summer air.

"Will they get out?  When it burns, will they go?"

"Some will, for sure," the old man said. "If they are smart, they will smell the smoke and head for the hills.  Some are too lazy, too full of grain or have grown too fat eating up all our hard work that they will just burrow deeper, try to hide from the fire. But there's no hiding from fire. The ones that don't go, they will die."

"I feel bad for them," the boy said. "They don't know any better."

"Don't ever shed a tear for rats. Listen,there's plenty to go around, right?  We plant and harvest and clear the fields, we bring the grain in, and there's plenty for everyone, for us to sell, for the chickens and even a for few rats there's plenty.  The trouble is the rats. They can't stop eating and eating like the greedy little bastards that they are, taking more than they are worth, taking more than they ever earned themselves. If the rats could just control themselves I would never even know they are there,  but they can't. They take and take and add nothing, and now we've got to burn the whole thing down."

The boy stood there as the old man walked the perimeter of the old storage shed that his father had helped build, watched as the old man sloshed diesel around the base of it.

"It seems a waste," the boy said when his grandpa rounded the final corner and came back to stand next to him.  "It's a waste. It works, and we're just going to burn the whole thing down?"

"It did work," the old man said, "until we let the rats in."

"So where are you going to store your grain now?"

The old man gestured over to a tarp that covered something nearly completely, but the boy could see the bright cream of new lumber peeking out. "Tomorrow, you and I are going to build something new, something better.  It isn't going to be easy.  Maybe we will get some splinters, but in the end we will have a new shed, and hopefully we do a better job at keeping the rats out this time."

The boy liked the idea of spending some time building a new shed, one that he would be able to come back and see and know that he had helped build it.  "Okay," he said, and nodded. "I'm glad we're getting rid of the rats, and this time for good, huh?"

"Son," said the old man, striking a match, "I'm afraid there's always more rats."

Still Writing,

RP 3-24-19


Hey there stranger! I have been wondering what it would take for me to shake this stagnancy and general malaise, and it turns out "Global Pandemic Accompanied by Near Complete Social Isolation" was the answer. Obviously these are strange times, which works out great for strange people; we finally feel at home in the world.  Like, 'I'm the freak?  Buddy, you have six hundred and fifty rolls of Charmin in your garage; I just write dumb stuff on the internet.  One of us is the weirdo, and for the first time in my life it ain't me. Anyway, I am on a media cleanse right now, but usually I am best found on Twitter @RDPullins, and email dissent . within at gmail.com, or comment here. I'm on Instagram, but that's mostly reserved for lowbrow art, socialist propaganda, punk rock, and spoon carving.  Care for each other, call your loved ones, even those that you haven't talked to for a while: forgive or ask forgiveness, whichever is most appropriate. Be kind, all we have is each other.  Peace. 


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