On Thanksgiving Day we’ll again host my brothers and their families for the annual orgy of turkey and pumpkin pie. I expect that all appetites will be more robust than they were last year when a dead rat lay decomposing under the floor.
May I share?
On Halloween night, my daughter Wendy, age 10, dumped her trick-or-treat loot onto the living-room floor and arranged it into a magic carpet of candy. The next morning, half of it was gone. Tearful accusations and indignant denials flew around our house like rabid bats as Wendy unsuccessfully prosecuted her sisters and parents.
The following morning, we found a raw potato in the middle of the kitchen floor. The morning after that, there was a wisp of insulation sticking out from under the refrigerator. Then we found the missing candy. It was under the couch, half gnawed up in a revolting nest of papers, clothes and droppings. Nearly gagging, my wife said, “We have a RAT!”
My wife and daughters are all feminists – but not when rodents are involved. They turned to me and said, “Do something!” I bought a rat trap and put it in the cellar. But the rat ignored it and his depredations continued.
When my wife and I set out to have a family, raising children among filthy disgusting rats was not part of the dream. It was just too creepy to contemplate. Something had to be done.
So I told the children to pretend it was a beaver. We named it Earl (from the old Dixie Chicks song “Earl Had to Die”). But even in the Communications Age, pretence and denial go only just so far. So I bought poison. The bright blue pellets were contained in a little tray. My 13-year-old daughter Sally added some diced cheese. We called it Earl’s Party Mix and set it down near the cheese-baited trap, in a sort of all-you-can-eat Buffet of Doom.
A couple of days later Earl seemed to have left. Yes, his party mix had been sampled. And on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the dining room and kitchen smelled powerfully of dead rat. Earl had departed this life, but not this house. The stench, so thick you could almost see it, emanated from the cellar.
There’s no good time to have a rotting rat hidden in your house, but with a
houseful of relatives about to arrive for Thanksgiving, the timing was especially bad. I would’ve liked to move the feast to my father’s house, but we had sold it a couple
years ago and strangers live there now. It just wouldn’t work.
The day before Thanksgiving, my brother Steve arrived with his entourage, including his little black terrier. We took Lucky downstairs to find the rat, but after much joyous sniffing, the dog seemed to have no opinion whatever except that the air down there was like a thick, delightful liqueur.
As a stop-gap measure, I propped a big attic fan in the cellar window to suck the foul effluvium away from the dining room. That sufficed for the holiday. Over dessert, I asked my archaeologist sister-in-law how long it takes a dead rat to change into an unscented form. She guessed about six months to become bones, 2 million years to become a fossil. I decided to search for the carcass the next day.
None of my girls would help me. But then Sally’s 14-year-old boyfriend Alex showed up. “C’mon down the cellar; I need your nose,” I told him and explained the situation.
At the foot of the cellar stairs, he said, “Wow! I can really smell him.” Alex’s natural enthusiasm made a nauseating chore into an adventurous game. He sniffed all parts of the cellar before he picked a spot and said, “It’s strongest right around here.”
With a claw hammer, I ripped a hole the size of a dinner-plate in the old plaster-and-lath ceiling. Alex gave it a sniff. “Nope.”
I broke another hole between the next pair of rafters. “Nope.”
A third hole, and Alex said, “This could be it.” I enlarged the hole so Alex’s head and a flashlight could fit through. “Yep, he’s in there,” said Alex.
Yes, Earl had been decomposing about 10 feet from the dining-room table all that time. Wearing rubber gloves and shuddering with disgust, I got a stick and poked
the body out of the ceiling. It was about the size of three hamsters.
We dug a hole in the back yard and put Earl into it. Wendy gave the eulogy: “Thanks for stealing my Halloween candy, you jerk!” and that was it. Alex, none the worse for his aromatherapy, received $20, provided that he tell no one about my girlish squeal when Earl fell out of the ceiling.
Repulsive as it was, the Earl experience has its up-side for me. Alive and dead, the rat had provided me with a meaningful hobby. Also, any man with three daughters is always glad to find a new use for boyfriends. * * *
Rick Epstein can be reached at