The Year of the Rat
They laugh about it now, in their pajamas, feet up on ottomans, Prosecco in hand, watching late-night nonsense on TV seven floors up in a modest but well-run elevator building. At least, he laughs when people ask, and he tells them, how the two of them met and courted. She smiles. It’s a knowing smile, a pleased smile, the smile of a patient naturalist from whose hand the wild creature finally accepts a morsel.
* * *
They sometimes ran into one another on the stairs in the early morning, Sondra returning from work, trudging up the four flights to her tiny apartment, Zak trotting down the three flights from his loft, out of cigarettes again. “Hi,” they say to one another. He’s careful not to make full eye contact and keeps on trotting down. She pauses on the stair and wistfully watches him disappear, his bristly, black cowlick, blue eyes, sensual lips and all. She waits until she hears the front door open and close before continuing her ascent.
One morning, as they cross on the stairs, Sondra says, “Watchit!”
Zak ducks. “What?” he asks when nothing falls on his head.
“It’s comin’ atcha! Another boring day in paradise!” she says, giving him a wink.
She figures afterwards that it had been a stupid way to try to start a conversation, so, on another morning, she says, “Hungry?” He looks at her as if she’d said something in Amharic. She amplifies: “I could make you some breakfast before bed.”
“I just got out of bed,” he answers.
“That’s why I didn’t offer to make you dinner,” she says.
He shakes his head, mumbles “Thanks,” and takes the rest of the stairs two at a time.
In her colorful but confined quarters, Sondra tells her best friend in the mirror, “You’d have thought I was Eve offering Adam an egg over easy!” Her best friend shakes her head in go-figure wonderment. The mirror is the only mirror. It hangs on the wall over the kitchenette sink. The sink, sunk between a counter-top, two-burner camping stove and a microwave, is situated in a closet. It is the only sink. Beneath the counter top are a mini refrigerator and an unlikely relic of some previous tenant with delusions of grandeur: a Lilliputian dishwasher.
His loft beneath is spacious, bare and shabby. It has bits and pieces of found furniture, a sleeping alcove with a curtain, and behind the curtain a mattress on the floor next to a plastic crate with some books and a flashlight. Standing proudly against one long wall, however, is an old but gleaming upright piano. Zak has burnished its wooden surfaces to a warm luster, taken impeccable care of its crisp, black-and-white keyboard. He knows how to replace the felt pads on its hammers and how to keep it finely tuned. He is a broke, would-be song writer. The piano is his best friend.
Sondra makes him nervous. She both radiates self-assurance and strikes him as off the wall, flaky even. Or is one or the other just a pose? Handsome rather than beautiful, with gray eyes set far apart in a broad face, she attracts him, but he finds the attraction unnerving. Her clothes are obviously bargain-basement variety, but she wears them with a flair for shape and color and pattern. He feels at a disadvantage; she seems to have her act together and he hasn’t.
Their block is as shabby as his loft. Their building is small, six stories and narrow, sandwiched in between taller, wider examples of urban decay. These grand ruins, unlike the plucky runt between them, are unoccupied and present to the street grimy, broken windows. Despite their building’s small size, neither Zak nor Sondra has any idea how many other inhabitants it shelters. Neither of them has come to know any of the wraithlike figures, three times their age, who appear on the stairs from time to time, and who return polite, cheery hellos with furtive syllables swaddled in muffled, baffling accents. So, when Zak one afternoon, having ravenously gobbled a street vendor’s 25-cent pita pocket stuffed, possibly, with a lamented, missing Chihuahua, finds himself in imminent crisis and out of toilet paper, he dashes upstairs, hammers on Sondra’s door, blurts an explanation, seizes the roll she thrusts at him and bolts back to his bathroom, achieving a squat just in the nick of time.
“Sorry about that,” he says when, after the crisis has passed, he goes back to say thank you. “I’ll get you another roll, I really will.”
“A cup of coffee some time,” she says. “Fair trade. Come in for a minute?”
Disinclined but beholden, he does. “Thanks. For just a minute. I’m kind of in the middle of . . . an idea.”
“How’s it going?” Sondra asks.
He shakes his head. “Don’t ask.” Then he adds, “The piano bother you?”
“No more than the rest of life,” she answers. “Less in fact. Don’t worry about it.”
“What kind of work do you do, anyway?” he asks. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is. I mean, I’m not on the vice squad or anything, and I’m cool.”
“A hooker I’m not,” she says regretfully, “although we keep the same hours. They have more fun and make more money. I clean banks.”
“Hey,” he says, “everyone’s gotta do something, right?”
“I know. Like what am I gonna do if I don’t clean banks?”
“Nothing to do is the worst,” he says.
“The pits,” she agrees.
“If you ask me, that’s why people do things,” Zak says. “Like the way people read newspapers. Who wants news? What’re you supposed to do with news? They want something to do, that’s all.”
“Or smoke cigarettes,” she says. “You got one by any chance?”
“Nope, fresh out. Yeah, who really wants to smoke cigarettes? It’s something to do. When there’s nothing to do. I bet that’s why Shakespeare did what he did. You think he really wanted to spend his life in a cold little room with stone walls, sitting on a hard wooden bench, squirming around on his hemorrhoids and wearing out quill pens? Shit no. He did it so he’d have something to do when he wasn’t with what’s-her-name. In her cottage.”
“That was Robin Hood,” Zak corrects her, “who went around robbing from the rich to give to the poor so the poor could get rich and then he’d be able to rob them. That way he’d always have something to do.”
“You ever thought about that?”
“Robbing the rich?”
“Getting a Maid Marion. There’d be more to do if you were living with someone. Cleaning and cooking and arguing and stuff.”
He didn’t like this swerve in the conversation. “Maybe there’d be too much to do. No time to yourself. To do nothing. Hey, my bitch of a muse is calling. I gotta go.”
“A coffee. Remember?”
“You’ve got it. Anytime I’ve got it.”
Now they know each other. Sondra is pleased that they’ve made it all the way from zero to one, a distance she knows is far greater than going from one to two. Her best friend in the mirror gives her a thumbs-up.
The next time they meet on the stairs, he pauses. “How’s the banking business?” he asks.
“It’s weird out there.”
“Like there’s one teller at Citibank. She leaves horny notes for me. She’s convinced I’m a guy.”
“Maybe she’s a guy. A homo.”
“Arlene? Don’t think so.”
“A lesbo?” he offers.
“My bet’s a nympho. Weird. Speaking of banking, that coffee debt’s earning interest, you know. Soon it’s going to be two coffees.”
“Clean forgot!” he says, slapping his forehead. “I’ll get some.”
“For tomorrow?” she asks, pressing her advantage.
“Uh . . . yeah, sure. But if you need milk and sugar . . .” He shrugs helplessly.
The next day she not only brings milk and sugar, but also a cellophane bag of chocolate macadamia cookies.
“Wow,” he says. “You didn’t have to do that!”
“I’ve gotta buy something now and then at Zaybar’s. I get a free breakfast there almost every morning.”
“All those little plates of samples. Cheeses, patés, salamis, smoked fish. Yummy. Besides, we’re celebrating.”
“We are? What are we celebrating?”
“The cosmic shift.”
“The planets have shifted us from strangers to friends.”
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” he says.
Sondra hesitates before asking, “Do you ever go out? You know, like on a date?”
“Going out means spending money. Which means not going out. You?”
“Who’s going to ask me to dinner and a disco after work? At seven in the morning?”
“True,” he concedes.
“You could ask me. If you’d like to,” she suggests. “I promise I’d say no.”
He thinks for a moment how to change the subject. “A least you get to get out, see people.”
“I hate it out there!” she confesses. “It’s like I’m off balance. No way to know where it’s gonna come at you from.”
“You gotta keep looking over your shoulder,” Zak agrees.
“Yes,” says Sondra. “And that’s when it slams you from the front. I need a guide. I don’t know the rules anymore.”
“There aren’t any,” he says.
“There used to be.”
“These days, you make ‘em up as you go along,” Zak tells her.
“Hey, that’s something we could do,” Sondra responds brightly. “Go out together some afternoon and make up rules. And it wouldn’t cost anything.”
“Yeah. Some afternoon. When there’s nothing to do.”
One morning, which begins much like any other, he is working away at a song, trying out chord sequences and melodies for a first line: I brought you this though all the world seems bleak and gloomy . . . .
There is a tentative knock on the door. Lost in his concentration, Zak doesn’t hear it and goes on trying sequences: Can’t seem to break this losing streak, rent overdue, so let them sue me . . . .
The knock repeats, but still not loudly enough to get through to him. He continues: Shoes worn out, nowhere to go, but take this gift.... He pauses, stuck how to go on. This time he hears the knock and goes to the door. It is Sondra in mauve with a bright yellow ribbon holding her straw-colored hair in a ponytail. Her hands are behind her back.
“Hey, Sondra!” Zak says nervously. “What’s comin’ down?”
“Like, I mean, what’s up?”
“Him.” From behind her back she brings a rat the size of a guinea pig. “In heaven. Or wherever.”
“At least he ascended all spruced up and shiny.”
“To meet The Big Cheese in the sky?” says Zak. “Yuk!”
“And lightly poached,” Sondra adds.
“Poached. He went through the dishwasher cycle.” She lays the rat tenderly on the top of the piano and scans the ceiling. “No leaks?”
“No new ones,” Zak says. “Why?”
“I turned on the dishwasher when I went to work last night, and when I came back this morning, the water was out in the corridor. A hole in the back of the dishwasher the size of a bagel.”
“Wow. Something must have smelled good in there.”
“Maybe to him. I only use the thing for doing my laundry.” Sondra goes to the rat and strokes it caringly. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
“No. Not even after a bath and sauna.”
She peels back the rat’s upper lip, exposing dazzlingly white teeth.
“Don’t do that!” Zak exclaims. “You want to die? They carry, you know, that plague stuff!”
“An ad for Rembrandt toothpaste. God, I wish I could afford to get my teeth capped!”
“I wish I could afford anything,” Zak says.
“What are you working on?” she asks.
Zak shrugs. “I’m supposed to meet with a guy tomorrow. Trying to work up something for him.”
“Can I hear?”
“There’s not much to hear yet.”
“Hey, if it’s private, that’s okay.”
“No, no. It’s public. That’s the whole point, right? Here’s what I’ve got.”
He plays and sings: “I brought you this though all the world seems bleak and gloomy. Can’t seem to break this losing streak, rent overdue, so let them sue me. Then something like this: Shoes worn out, nowhere to go, but take this gift . . . . That’s as far as I’ve got. And no idea what the guy’s bringing his gal, or where the song’s going.”
“Thud,” says Sondra.
“What do you mean thud?”
“The song’s just kinda lying there.” She points to the rat. “Like him. But not so lively.”
“Like if he rolled off the piano. Thud”
“Now I’m really motivated!”
“That’s the thing,” Sondra says. “The guy just doesn’t sound motivated. He’s just wimping around, moping, feeling sorry for himself.”
“So what’s he supposed to do?” Zak counters. “He’s broke and got nothing to offer his girl.”
“He’s got himself. His love. “
“If he doesn’t know that’s the biggest gift of all,” Sondra admonishes, “then he’s too dumb to be singing anyway. Maybe he should be playing the harmonica in the subway or something.”
“You’re right. Shit.” Pointing to the rat, he asks, “What’re you going to do with him anyway?”
“Your call,” she says.
“Hey, he’s your rat.”
“Oh no, nothing to do with me!”
“He belongs to the building,” Sondra points out. “Our building. Got any wrapping paper?”
“No, I haven’t got any wrapping paper!” He rummages through a box under the sink and hands her a large black garbage bag. “Here.”
“Haven’t you at least got a nice little white one?” she asks. Zak rummages again and finds what she wants. “Thanks.” Sondra carefully and precisely wraps the rat into a neat package. “How about ribbon?” she asks.
“Ribbon, she says! No. No Hallmark Card either!”
Sondra pulls the ribbon off her hair and secures the package with an immaculate bow. “There!”
“That’s very pretty.”
Sondra looks around the loft with an appraising eye. “I could make this place look pretty, too. I could do the housekeeping, do the shopping. I wouldn’t mind.”
Zak’s hands go whoa! “I’m sure you could,” he says. “It’s just that--”
“It’s logical,” Sondra insists. “I’ve got more money than you have, and you’ve got more space than I have. Perfect roommates.” She notes his scarcely quelled panic. “Relax,” she tells him. “I know, logic is the crutch of the feeble-minded. Got a marker?”
Zak finds her one. “Gonna give him a name?”
She shakes her head. He looks at what she is writing: May angels tend thee. “That’s sweet,” he says. “You’ve got a very sweet side to you, you know that?”
“That’s what they all say,” Sondra says. “After they’ve slept on it. Before they go home.”
“Yeah . . . well . . . .”
“You gonna go on trying to write songs forever?”
“If I don’t die first,” he says. “Like I said, it’s something to do.”
“That’s why it goes thud.”
“The song. You don’t care about it.”
“‘Course I care about it!”
“Not enough to die for. That’s what it takes.”
“Then why am I sitting here starving to death?”
“Oh come on!” Sondra says. “What do you care about having nothing but love to bring a girl!”
“So what do I write?”
“Something you know about. Maybe more of a . . . Time on my hands kind of song. You know, And you in my arms. Find something you care about, that you really want to live for. So much you’d die for it.”
“Like he did,” Zak says, pointing to the rat package. “An old sweaty sock.”
“Something,” she says.” “Or someone.”
Zak nods to the rat. “He’s gotta go.”
“He’s already gone,” Sondra says.
“I mean outa here.”
“We could bury him in Sheep Meadow,” Sondra suggests.
“I told you, I need a guide out there.”
“I gotta a song to write.”
“You gotta find something to write a song about.”
“I’m busy!” Zak protests.
“Come on. Put on some shoes,” Sondra insists.
“Haven’t got any shoes.”
“So put on whatever. You can’t pass up something to do, something that doesn’t even cost anything.”
“We’ve got nothing to dig with!” Zak says.
“Bring a spoon. It’ll take longer.”
Zak grudgingly gets into some scuffed-up sandals. Sondra picks up the wrapped rat and hands it to him.
“Oh no! No way!”
“Okay,” she says, “I’ll carry. You dig.”
“We take turns digging,” he says. “It was your idea.”
“Then we take turns carrying,” she counters. “We’ll change at red lights.”
“But you get to start,” Zak insists.
“Okay. But you’re the guide,” she reminds him. “You lead the way.” They head toward the door. “Wait!” she says. “The spoon!”
Zak goes to the sink and gets a spoon. He wipes it on his pants and holds it up for Sondra’s inspection. She nods and holds the rat package aloft. It’s as if they are toasting one another. With a little sweep of her arm, she gestures for him to proceed. He marches to the door, holding the spoon ahead of him like a talisman. Sondra follows, bearing the rat ceremoniously in both hands.
“This is a bad idea,” Zak says.
“But free,” Sondra reminds him. “Think up a song. For when we’re lowering him in.”
“O sure! Maybe a sort of Look before you leap into love kind of thing?”
“Sort of,” Sondra says, “but with a chorus that goes Look before you leap, but don’t stand and watch love go by.”
“Hey, neat rhythm!”
“You need a collaborator is what.”
“Hey,” he says disparagingly, “who needs another Follow your heart number?”
Sondra looks at him earnestly. “You. Me. Onward!”
So, through the streets they march, taking turns following one another, the one in the lead holding the spoon aloft, the one behind ceremoniously bearing the beribboned package on outstretched hands. People glance at them and smile; this is New York. They reach Sheep Meadow and stake out a secluded corner for their appointed task. Zak starts the excavation. Scarcely an inch into the earth, the spoon breaks in half.
“Now what?” Zak asks Sondra, exasperated.
“Get centered,” she says. “Meditate.”
“On what, for god’s sake?”
“On the meaning. Where it’s going. Where it’s taking us. Why we’re here. Why now.”
“Aw, come on, Sondra!”
“Hush! Just focus on something and do it!”
With a belligerent sigh, Zak humors her and stares resentfully at the yellow ribbon. Out of the corner of his eye he can see her holding one hand up as if in a salutation, her head slowly moving left and then right like a lighthouse scanning the sea. Her movement stops. For a moment she stays immobile. “Okay, got it,” she says to no one in particular. Then she lowers her hand, picks up the rat and beckons to Zak. “Follow.” She leads the way to a small cluster of park-maintenance sheds. “The Promised Land,” she says, pointing to a dumpster. “Got a song ready?”
Sondra shakes her head. Both a No and a You’re hopeless. “Ta-da!” she says, opening the dumpster lid. A horde of flies takes wing, swarming about the greasy, fast-food containers, orange peels, and unmistakable baggies of tony-neighborhood dogshit. Zak turns away, revolted. Sondra stares into the dumpster as if it were installation art. “Cosmic!” she pronounces, gently laying the fresh-white, yellow-ribboned packet on top of the miasma. Then, in what is somewhere between a song and a recitation, she begins:
You don’t need ribbons or wrapping,
Bonbons or a fancy bouquet
Or a corny card with lovey-dovey stuff
Just the gift is enough
When you’re giving your heart away.
Zak looks at her as if he were Juan Diego encountering the Virgin of Guadalupe on Tepayec Hill. He neither wills it nor resists as he yields to the impulse to take her in his arms and kiss her.
* * *
The music for her lyrics came easily to Zak that same afternoon. The agent loved it. A hot group picked it up and ran with it. Suddenly, Zak was in demand. Sondra traded her night work for a day job at Zaybar’s.
She lifts her Prosecco. “Thanks, oh rat! Rat such as never was! It’s him we owe thanks, wherever he is.”
Zak nods. “In the East River? Out in the Atlantic? Up in smoke?”
“Sort of an offering to the gods he was, wasn’t he?” Sondra muses. “And they heard us. Look at us! Oh rat, I hope the Big Cheese up there was . . . huge and blue and smelly. Hey, sweetie, you hungry?”
“Starved!” Zak says.
“I’ll make us breakfast,” Sondra says. “Before bed.”
“We just got out of bed.”
“So? We’ve got to eat somewhere.”
“You’re so sweet,” he says, giving her a hug. “You know that?”
“Two over easy?” she asks.
“Yup,” Zak agrees, “two over easy.”
“Coming up!” Sondra says. “Two in bed . . . over easy . . . on my sweet side!”
BARRY HEAD is a Brit, ex-patriated to the U.S. where he spent most of his life to date, and now ex-patriated once more to Mexico. He’s a graduate of Oxford University with an M.A. in French and Russian studies which took him nowhere. His non-fiction has appeared in many periodicals, notably Harper’s, and his fiction credits include Redbook, Mademoiselle, Playgirl, and Crack the Spine. He lives in the city of Oaxaca.