"There's a rat in mi kitchen, what am I gonna do"
When Regan MacNeil’s actress mother Chris heard scratching
in the ceiling, she was certain it was rats in the attic. Scurrying
across beams, chewing through plastic-coated wires and drywall,
pissing on insulation. Pregnant with pups and plague. But she was
wrong about the scraping overhead, on the other side of the wall.
Haunted as a house, eyes wide and watchful; mothering instinct
kicking in at the sprawling Georgetown property at the corner
of Prospect Street and 36th Street NW. Hunted Regan was both
the source and the designated victim. Most of us know how
it all ended, unraveling between jump-scares, trauma of puberty,
horror movie special-effects, flickering and flashing lighting
techniques, destined for classic status and imitation.
Why am I the only one who hears the rasping in the ceiling above
the light fixture, the corners where walls meet? In our Fort
Lauderdale house, less ostentatious than the McNeil’s, more than
a thousand miles south of theirs. Loud enough to wake me nightly
between three and five a.m., but no, not the dog, not Rick, both
tucked under quilts and into dreams. The only one who heard
the muffled and mysterious thud behind the closed louvered
doors concealing the washer and dryer. The only one, mind you,
for whom the swift, slick black rat made a guest appearance, sprung
out from under a tight space with flexible grace, took a bow, then
slammed into and bounced off a cabinet base before disappearing,
quick as sleight of hand, a dark early morning illusion.
Call an exterminator, not an exorcist. Set traps, oversized and cartoony,
cruelty-free, if possible. I swear I am not possessed, although I know
I have too many possessions. Thousands of novels and memoirs, even
more compact discs and albums. Photos and negatives, cloth bags full
of cloth bags, obsolete electronics, pens and unsharpened pencils, tear
sheets and clippings, souvenir ashtrays, correspondence, yellowed report
cards and yearbooks. I winnowed down my vintage trimline phone and
typewriter collection to one each, but is that enough to keep unwelcome
visitors away? To keep from gaining a hoarder reputation? The rodents
don’t care. They have many mouths to feed and foundations to erode.
Is this winter cold snap to blame or is it the high fever, chills and
aches that precede the Trump broods’ exile in West Palm Beach?
Where will the peafowl of South Middle River go
during this active and deadly November hurricane
season? I’m thinking of Murphy, the young peacock
with the shimmering, green-feathered neck. The one
who follows us as we walk down the street, at our
heels like a dog. The one Brian hand-raised, named,
when it was abandoned in the rooftop nest by its
mother. The one who perches on Brian’s arm
like a proud, plumed corsage. The one that pecks
at our screen door, causing Rick’s blood pressure
to soar like a bird in flight. The one who has
survived the plump feral neighborhood cats;
the oversized Siamese who likes to torture the brown
and green anoles and the house geckos, Brian’s orange
tabby, the grey twins who never separate when stalking
prey. Murphy avoids the other peacocks and peahens
who have also discovered our street. When a flock, led
by the two albinos, paid a surprise visit, Murphy never
let them get too close, clung to his human kin. None
of this matters to Eta. Drenching Broward County
as a tropical storm, leaving behind a foot or more
of water, snapped branches and other debris, before
continuing on its devastation path. Our street was
spared, allowing Murphy to forage through the few
downed palm fronds. Before we can get too comfortable,
Theta has formed in the Eastern Atlantic, reminding
even climate change deniers that Mother Nature
is a force, far more powerful than any mythological
beings, new or old testament gods, challenged only
by a competitive virus, not looking for a companion.
Of course, it’s bright pink vinyl. What other color
could it possibly be? The purple label with her
signature and the irresistible invitation to “Dance
With Dolly” at your own private Studio 54.
The RCA logo makes me dizzy, delirious as it
spins on the turntable and I spin around, dancing
to the song as I have for more than 40 years. I have
blazed many miles, left burn marks on clothing
and furniture, in cities. Smoky trails like Dolly’s
Great Smoky Mountains near Pigeon Forge where
we made a pilgrimage to pay homage to her. Sure,
we were disappointed that there wasn’t a D Cups
ride, but how many people can say they got stuck
on a malfunctioning log flume at Dollywood?
The first of two such events in one summer. “Baby,
I’m Burnin’” always playing in my head like
a broken record. But that 12-inch single never broke,
carefully packed and transported, it transported me
everywhere I lived, in every romantic relationship.
A hymn to him and him and him. Heating up
the coldest winters, the sweatiest summers in Boston
and Washington, DC and Chicago and Fort Lauderdale.
Surviving the Disco Demolition and the AIDS crisis,
drowning out the Bible-beating protestors that surprised
me, Denise, Julie and Angie outside the BB&T Center
before the concert. Once inside, we felt safe, wrapped
in Dolly’s grace, her voice more powerful than prayer,
extinguishing the flickering flames of hatred.
Even here in South Florida, where hunkering down
is an annual occurrence during hurricane season, the main
streets were bustling, not the ghost town drags reported
on the news and the internet in other cities, other countries.
Notoriously bad drivers didn’t suddenly drive any better.
Respect and courtesy remained as out of reach as a COVID-19
vaccine. The man on the forklift obstructing traffic while
talking on his phone was just one example of thousands. What
made you think people who never covered coughs and sneezes
before would suddenly start doing so now? Consider inventing
new methods of killing time without killing yourself. Count
hearses. Calculate the square root of self-quarantine. Divide
by curfew. Stop touching your face; let the tears roll down
your cheeks, pool in your lap until you can see your own
worried reflection. Boredom and loneliness were side effects,
as the Supreme Court delayed hearing oral arguments, religious
services streamed online, and 401(k)s shrunk to the size of Donald
Trump’s hands or vocabulary. Several weeks into the pandemic,
the population of West Virginia was virtually untouched. Maybe
smoking and snorting crystal meth was good for something after all.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). Recent lit-mag publications include RFD, Gargoyle, Limp Wrist, Mollyhouse, Impossible Archetype and Dissonance Magazine, as well as the anthologies This Is What America Looks Like (Washington Writer Publishing House, 2021) and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology From Middle America (Belt Publishing, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.