WARNING. This post contains graphic descriptions of a vermin infestation. If you're squeamish about such things, you might want to skip this one.
A few years ago, my family and I swapped homes with a German family for our summer vacation. A lot of my friends think this was a brilliant idea and are constantly asking me about it, wanting to hear about how fabulous it was to vacation in Germany for free. The truth of the matter is that it was a traumatic experience for me and one I am not likely to repeat soon. While we had a great time, the Germans absolutely hated our home and our neighborhood - so much so that they filed an official complaint with the swapping organization upon their return and managed to get us banned from ever using that agency again. They also complained loudly and at length to my neighbors about how awful my home was. I was mortified and traumatized. I am still nervous about having anyone over, even my closest friends.
The problem was that we live in an historic 150-year-old Victorian house that always has something wrong with it. Shortly before the Germans arrived, we had a major plumbing disaster that required a total remodel of our only full bathroom. The contractor worked two days later than he was supposed to, which meant the Germans had to stay in the local Marriott for their first two days, at our expense. Though the brief hotel stay (in luxury digs) cost them nothing and they had the use of a brand-spanking-new bathroom for a month, beginning on their third day, they were infuriated. At some point later in their visit, our clothes dryer broke down, and one of the benches at our kitchen table broke as well. (The Germans freaked; we called a neighbor, who ran over with a screwdriver and fixed the bench for them. They had to hang their laundry to dry for the rest of their visit, though, and this made them very, very angry.)
We are used to these everyday disasters and manage to take them mostly in stride. We just cope with them as they come along and, except when they cause us great expense (like the bathroom or the new clothes dryer), we usually don't give them much thought once the urgency has passed. To use a hackneyed phrase, we've got bigger fish to fry. The psycho German lady who hates me, my old decrepit house, and my neighborhood ("too noisy") hardly ever crosses my mind anymore. At least, she didn't cross my mind until this week, when something happened that would have absolutely sent her into the stratosphere of Teutonic house-angst. I am enjoying thinking about how she'd react to this one.
One of my dogs, Trixie, had been spending an inordinate amount of time staring into a remote corner of our basement and occasionally lunging at an unseen foe. I was writing some papers for the Supreme Court in another corner of the basement, so I mostly ignored her. But then, on a recent evening, my husband was watching a football game on the kitchen television late at night when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a rat sidle up to the dogs' water dish.
That's right. A rat. Sidling. In my kitchen. Dear God.
Sam jumped up and grabbed a broom with which to whack it to death, but the wily creature vanished into the night unharmed.
I called the exterminator first thing in the morning. She told me it was probably a mouse. I assured her that my husband, who grew up riding the New York City subways and currently works in the Bronx, knew a rat when he saw one. It was big enough to drink from a dog's water dish, for heaven's sake. She said she'd send someone that afternoon.
That someone showed up as promised, but he had been told he was most likely looking at a mouse infestation, so he brought only mousetraps. One look at the corner where Trixie had been spending her days convinced him that he was dealing with a more formidable quarry. He apologized and said he'd be back the following morning with bigger traps and poison.
In the meantime, over my whiny girly protests, my husband and my intrepid housekeeper laid glue traps all over the basement. I am fundamentally opposed to glue traps because I am fundamentally opposed to witnessing death whenever I can avoid it. I want the rats to disappear without any mess or suffering - on their part or mine. (I don't think this is unreasonable. My husband, however, rolling his eyes skyward, says, "They're rats, Jennie." He has hated rodents of all sorts ever since he suffered an unfortunate hamster bite as a child.)
Back to real life, I dragged Trixie out from her hiding place under my bed, extracted her paw from a glue trap she'd stepped in, and settled in at my basement desk. I heard the scurrying and gnawing. It was everywhere. I felt like I'd been trapped in a Poe story or a Hitchcock movie. At any moment, an evil Rodent of Unusual Size would appear out of the shadows and lunge at me, biting me and injecting me with plague-infested rat saliva. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn't concentrate.
Nothing happened for a long time, until that evening, when Bobby, 12, and I were alone in the basement. Bobby came to me at my desk and announced, "There's a rat in the trap by the dryer."
I gasped. "Is it alive?"
He peered at the trap. "Yeah. It's struggling. Do you want to see it?"
"No!" I hastily texted my husband and the housekeeper. "THERE IS A RAT IN ONE OF THE TRAPS. AAAAAAAAA."
The housekeeper texted back in a flash. "Don't panic. I'm on my way."
God bless her. While I covered my ears and closed my eyes, she got a shovel from the garage, scooped the trap out from its hiding place, and took it outside, where she dispatched the rat and disposed of the whole mess. I heard the rat squeal, but I didn't see a thing. Super Housekeeper then washed her hands and went home for the night. I can't pay that woman enough. I am in awe of her.
The exterminator came back and placed traps and poison. The following day, he returned and confirmed seven kills. He refilled the poison baits and reset the traps. He'll be back tomorrow. Sam spent today clearing brush near the garage, disassembling my compost pile, and discussing the problem with one of the neighbor guys while taking a break from mowing the lawn. (I stayed far away, planting some mums in the front yard and then taking a long nap in the afternoon. Denial and avoidance are my specialties. Sunday afternoon naps, too.)
It seems the crisis has passed, or is passing, at least. I don't know why it happened. The suspects include the crew of guys who are currently working hard to paint the exterior of our house - maybe they disturbed the status quo somehow with their ladders and sent these critters fleeing into my basement. (I doubt it, though.) Or it could be my compost pile, conveniently located until today right by the kitchen door, full of tasty treats for rodents. (A better theory.) Or - and I think this is most likely - it could be one of those fluke things that just "happens" to us. In a few weeks, like the German house swap, it will be a funny anecdote that we remember with a mixture of amusement and horror.