Friday, April 25, 2014

Hero of Car Seven

By Bettyann Moore

You’ve probably seen the video. It went viral within hours, though I don’t quite understand why. It had like a gazillion views in the first week, second only to the opera-singing 2-year-old. You know the one. Then came the one where that foreign princess denounces her husband, crown and country – in that order – at her own wedding dinner and that topped them all for at least a couple of weeks. That’s a long time in Internet fame terms.

Of course, you can’t really tell it’s me, which suits me just fine. All you see is the inside of the packed subway car and people jumping up on their seats or holding their legs straight out so as not to touch the floor. Then you see the rat, doing what rats do, scurrying along the side of the car, under the seats, then out in the middle, confused. People are either laughing, crying or screaming. And there’s one who’s mouth is wide open and if you’re watching the video, you think there’s something wrong with the sound at first. Her face is red, her neck muscles taut; tears stream down her face. This is some serious screaming, you think, and you’d be right, except there’s no sound coming out of her mouth. I wondered if maybe she’s a deaf mute. It’s eerie and unsettling, and that’s why I stepped in when I did.

You just see the back of me, wearing a tan overcoat over gray sweat pants and carrying one of those dome-shaped gym bags with the holes on the ends. All the better to share the sweaty stink of your work-out clothes and shoes with the rest of the world, I guess. It wasn’t what I used it for, but it worked.

There’s too much commotion to hear what I say to her, the non-screaming screamer. You see me set down the bag and hold out a hand to her. I gently touch her arm, though what I wanted to do was throttle her. I put my mouth close to her ear.

“Can you hear?” I ask. She nods. “I’ll get it,” I say. “But I need you to relax a little. Can you do that? Will you take a breath and let me take care of it?”

She looks down at me from the seat she’s standing on, tears streaming down her face. Her face crumples, but she nods and shoves a fist into her mouth. People are watching by now, and the car goes quiet.

I reach into my side coat pocket; you can see the outline of my hand through the pocket. I kneel down, holding out something (it’s a cheese and peanut butter cracker, but you can’t see that in the video).You see the rat come close, closer, sniffing its sensitive rat nose. Then, boom, I have it by its tail, unzip my bag and drop the surprised rodent in and have it zipped back up before you can say “wow,” which is what a lot of people said on the train. I’m that good.

Then there’s a bunch of cheering even as the subway pulls into its next stop and people make for the door, including the person taking the video. And the non-screamer. The subway waits for no person.

You’d think that would be the end of it, wouldn’t you? As far as the video goes, it was, but there was more. Oh, so much more.

A week later I was back in the same car at around the same time of day. I probably spend more time down in the subway than most homeless people or commuters. I’m neither.

Anyway, I’m just hanging onto a strap, with my duffel between my feet, and I feel this tug on my sleeve. I didn’t look down, figuring it was just a panhandler; they’ll go away if you ignore them. I clamped the duffel tighter between my feet. They don’t give up, though, and I hear this slightly squeaky voice say “You’re him, you’re that guy. Oh my god, it is you!”

People have been known to mistake me for a younger Tom Cruise – no seriously, I’ve even signed autographs just to make them go away – but I’m not in the mood for it. I put on my “Who the hell do you think you are?” face and look down.

At first, I didn’t recognize her. Without the swollen eyes and the snot running out of her nose, she was kind of cute. It was the non-screamer, of course, all five foot nothing of her, smiling up at me. I had to bend down to hear what she was saying.

“I never got a chance to thank you,” she said, “you know, for getting rid of that awful creature?”

“It was just a rat, but you’re welcome,” I said.

“It wasn’t just a rat to me!” she squeaked. “You saw what it did to me. I couldn’t even scream! And it was huge! It was a hideous, disease-carrying specter of death!”

She actually talked like that. The rat wasn’t that big anyway.

“I take it you’re not fond of rats,” I said, stating the obvious. She shuddered cutely.

“I loathe them,” she said. “I wish they’d all get a rat plague that would wipe them all out!”

“Not likely,” I replied. “Rats and cockroaches would probably survive a nuclear blast.”

“Don’t say such things!” she cried, holding her hands over her ears. “That is the stuff of nightmares!”

I have to admit I was rather enjoying myself. I was about to share some of my vast knowledge of Rattus Rattus, when she tugged on my sleeve again.

“Seriously, though,” she said, “I really want to thank you for what you did. There’s a great Indian restaurant at the next stop. Can I buy you lunch?”

I knew the restaurant well. If she had any idea how many rats could be found just outside its back kitchen door, she’d probably swoon.

“You don’t have to, really,” I said. “Your thanks are reward enough.”

“Oh!” she cried, blushing. “I hope you don’t think I’m coming on to you! But if you’re married or something and think it would look bad ...”

“No, not married or something,” I said. I had things to do, but what the hell, huh? “Okay, sure, let’s get a bite to eat.”

The skin around her small, dark eyes crinkled up with pleasure. I have to say it made me feel pretty good.

“I’m Minerva Ratliff,” she said as we walked the couple of blocks to the restaurant. “And don’t say it.”

“Say what?” I asked, all innocent, though I was cracking up inside.

“I know you want to,” she said. “Everyone does. I’ll say it for you: ‘Ratliff? Perfect name for someone who hates rats!’ Am I close?”

“Well …”

“Trust me, I’ve heard it all. And, no, no one calls me Minnie … not if they want to live.”

Now I was really dying inside.

“What about you?” she asked.

“What about me?”

“What’s your name?”

“Oh, Beau, Beau Anderson.”

“Bo? Just Bo? Short for Bowen? Bob?”

“No, not that kind of ‘Bo,’” I said. “B – E – A – U, like Beau Geste or boyfriend.”

And, as unlikely as it may seem, that’s exactly what I became: Minerva Ratliff’s beau … or Minerva Ratliff’s Beau, if you prefer. And most days I felt like I was her possession, which wasn’t a bad thing.

We took it slow, got to know each other. I confessed that I had a thing about nose hair. Drove me nuts. She revealed that it wasn’t just rats that set her off; any creature that moved swiftly, with intent, could do that. Spiders, snakes, rats, mice, centipedes … it was pretty wide open. I told her how much I loved Spam. She liked to gorge on processed cheese. We both shared a love of high thread-count sheets and down comforters. They got a lot of use.

For a number of reasons, I was reluctant to bring her to my flat. My lousy housekeeping, for one. I work at home and I guess because I’m used to living in sweats – boxers in the summer – I’ve become what my mother would call slovenly. Whatever. There’s my hobby, too, which would send my dear Minerva running for the hills, non-screaming all the way.

So, I hired a cleaning service. I did, however, lock the door to the second bedroom. Only I would clean in there. I told Minerva – sorry, but in my head she was always Minnie Rat – that it was my office and that I was too embarrassed to let anyone see it. She seemed cool with that.

The very first time Minerva came to the house, she hit it off with Mrs. Gleason, my landlady. She’s blind. I always feel pretty clumsy in Mrs. G’s company. I guess I want to help too much. She doesn’t want, or need, help with most things. Right off the bat, Minerva knew that, and Mrs. G knew that she knew that. Turns out that Minerva had a blind brother who died when she was 12. When she told me that, I figured she’d tell me some horrible tale about how a rat ate out his eyes or something. If that was the case, she never said.

If I’m guilty of anything, it’s stupidity, I know that. Doesn’t make what happened any easier to live with, but I’m sure no one – excuse the cliché – gives a rat’s ass about that.

It was my birthday and I was in a hurry. Minerva had a surprise planned for me and we were supposed to meet at a bar a few blocks away. I might be a slob about keeping my own home clean, but one thing I’m completely scrupulous about is keeping my pets’ homes clean. I was in the middle of that weekly chore when the phone rang. She might not need my help maneuvering through her world, but it’s not uncommon for her to require some help on a household chore.

“Beau?” she said, in that creaky old voice of hers. “Beau, I need your help.”

“What’s up, Mrs. Gleason,” I asked. “What can I do?”

“My ring,” she says, giving me no information at all.

“Your ring?”

“Yes, my diamond ring, the one that Mr. Gleason, rest his soul, gave me on our 40th wedding anniversary!”

Blind, old lady, I thought, reminding myself to be patient.

“What about your ring, Mrs. Gleason?” I asked, trying not to let my voice betray me. She’s got the hearing of an owl, that woman.

“It’s gone missing!” she cried. “Can you help me find it?”

I glanced around the room, thinking I should be able to give Mrs. G a hand, finish up what I’m doing, grab a shower and be down at the bar in plenty of time, if I hurry.

“I’ll be right down, Mrs. G,” I said. I put down the phone, closed the “office” door and headed down the stairs, taking them two at a time. She was waiting for me at the door in a house dress and apron, wringing her liver-spotted hands.

“Oh, Beau, thank you, thank you!” she said. “I won’t be able to rest until I find it. I’ve never misplaced it before.”

“I’m sure it’s around here someplace, Mrs. G,” I said, coming inside. She kept the place like an oven, but it was clean and neat. I wondered, briefly, how she managed to keep it that way. It was also very dark. “Could we turn on a few lights in here?” I asked.

“Certainly, certainly, dear,” she said, walking straight to a light switch and flipping it on. Outside, Mrs. G uses one of those white canes, but in her own place you’d never know she was blind.

“Where was the last place you remember having it?” I asked.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” she said, wringing her hands again. “I only take it off when I wash the dishes. I put it in a little cup every single time, but it’s not there!”

I headed to the kitchen, flicking on another light as I went. The little cup was perched on the edge of the sink, empty. “Did you knock it over by accident?” I asked. “Wash it by mistake?” Naturally, I peered into the drain, but it was too dark to see.

“I’ll need a flashlight,” I said. “I’ll go get mine.”

“No!” she cried. “I have one right here.” She pulled out a drawer and handed me a small mag-lite.

I shone the light down into the disposal. “Did you run the garbage disposal?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “I always do that after washing the dishes.”

“It didn’t make any strange noises?”

“Not a one! It ran smooth as silk. My Bernie put that unit in for me just two months ago; it’s wonderful. He’s going to get another one to put in your sink as well, isn’t that nice?”

“That’s nice, Mrs. G,” I said, shining the light down the other side of the sink. The strainer wasn’t in the drain opening. It, too, was perched on the side of the sink. A ring could easily slip down there. My heart sank.

“I don’t suppose you have a pipe wrench?” I asked, hoping she didn’t. Her Bernie, being such a plumbing expert, could handle this, I figured.

Her wrinkled old face lit up. “I do!” she cried. “My Bernie left his toolbox here to do your sink.” Then her face crumpled again. “But, oh my, do you think it could be down the drain?”

I eyed my watch; just 30 minutes until I had to meet Minerva. This could take awhile. I’m not exactly Mr. Fix-It. I pulled out my phone and tried to call. No answer, so I left a message. She loves Mrs. G so much, she’ll understand.

“Could be, but if it is, it’s probably in the drain trap,” I said to Mrs. G. I’d heard of drain traps before, and hoped that was what they were for – trapping things.

Her face brightened again. I wondered if I’d ever get used to the fact that her eyes remained stone-dead cold no matter what the emotion.

“The toolbox is in the pantry,” she said. “Oh, Beau, you’re such a lifesaver! No wonder Minerva likes you so much. Our hero, Beau, to the rescue!”

I probably blushed, but it was wasted on Mrs. G.

It doesn’t matter how clean a person keeps their house, drains are gross. I pulled out all the cleaners and stuff she had under the sink and set a bucket under the drain. Turns out I didn’t even need a wrench because the trap was made of plastic and the nuts turned easily. I pulled it all apart and let the gunk fall into the bucket. I stirred it around with a screwdriver that was in Bernie’s toolbox. No ring. I hoped it hadn’t gone past the trap and into the pipes. That would mean bye-bye ring for sure.

“Sorry, Mrs. G,” I said, screwing everything back together again, “your ring isn’t in here.”

More hand-wringing. “Oh my, where could it be?” she wailed. “Could you use the flashlight and look around the house?” she asked.

I looked at my watch again. I was already late and there was no way I’d even have time to shower, let alone finish my chore.

“What time is it, Beau?” Mrs. G asked, rather eerily I thought.

“It’s 6 o’clock,” I said. “I better give Minerva another call.”

Again, there was no answer. I left another message, hoping she’d understand and that the surprise she had waiting for me could keep. The apartment was small, so it shouldn’t take too long, I figured. I picked up the flashlight and started scouting, starting with the kitchen.

“Please feel free to open any drawers or cupboards, dear,” Mrs. G said.

I groaned inwardly. I wasn’t planning on looking in drawers or cupboards, just on the floor and counters. I moved as quickly as I could while Mrs. G stayed out of the way. By the time I’d checked the kitchen, bathroom and living room, another 30 minutes had gone by. I was already an hour late. Why hadn’t Minerva called back?

“I’m surprised that Minerva hasn’t called you back,” Mrs. G said, reading my mind again. I was on my hands and knees checking beneath the bed while she hung out by the doorway.

“Me too,” I said. “It’s not like her.”

“But it’s after 6, right?” she asked.

“Long after,” I said, moving to the closet. Mrs. Gleason was back to wringing her hands.

I was in the process of turning shoes upside down and shaking them when Mrs. G cried out.

“Oh!” she said. “Here it is!”

I looked around and saw her pulling her hand out of her apron pocket. She held the missing ring up. Well, shit, I thought.

“I’m so sorry, Beau! I had it all along!”

By then I was up and headed for the door. I had to get back to my pets and maybe drag a comb through my hair.

“It’s okay, Mrs. G,” I assured her, though I was steaming inside. “I have to go, though.” I squeezed past her, ran out of the apartment and scrambled up the stairs. Imagine my surprise when I found a dozen friends, laden with presents, standing on the landing just outside my door. They were just as surprised to see me.

I got the full story afterwards and pieced together the rest, but I think I was sedated at that point.

Minerva and Mrs. G had hatched a plan to get me out of the apartment in order for Minerva to put together a party for me. Mrs. G – and she’ll never forgive herself for this, so I can’t be angry – even gave Minerva a spare key. So, while I was ostensibly looking for Mrs. G’s “lost” ring, Minerva was supposed to be upstairs decorating. She never got a chance to. That was my fault. In my hurry, I forgot to lock the spare bedroom door.

She was either just curious, or she heard something inside. We know she screamed, but it was one of her silent screams. We know because we found her – the party-goers and I – on the floor, her mouth in a permanent scream, her eyes (and none of us will never forget this), popped out of her head and lying on her cheeks.

It was Ana who did it. I had left her out while cleaning her cage. Ana, the anaconda, all 18 feet of her, my most prodigious consumer of rats.

Minerva must have froze and Ana, really quite an affectionate sort, wrapped her full, muscled length around my poor little Minnie Rat and squeezed the life out of her.

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