I am not afraid of much these days. I have long eviscerated the dungeons of my untapped soul of fear. I’m not saying I’m a stoic fortress of courage, but life experiences haven’t left room for many tangible unknowns. When you feel, you’ve seen it all and done it all, there is a certain calm that exists in the darkest alleys on the darkest nights. When you’ve been through the worst of things, you know fear is nothing but a hesitation to do what must be done.
The first fear I ever had was my fear of rats. When I was a toddler, just about the age when kids learn to use the toilet, I was alone in the bathroom doing my business when a greasy haired mouse entered through a hole in the baseboard. This wasn’t a cute and cuddly mouse. He struggled to squeeze its body through the half inch hole a few feet away from my dangling ankles. In an instant he pushed through and scampered below me as he made his way across the floor, leaving little brown drops of rat shit each time he reversed his course. I jumped to my feet, kicking the contents of the potty to the floor, and screamed “Mousey! Mousey!” at the top of my lungs. My mom darted into the bathroom, then lifted me into her arms in one fell swoop. I pushed tears from my eyes pointing to the mouse, now trying to dig its way back into the hole. She reached into the hallway and grabbed a straw broom then stabbed it in the back as it continued to dig. I was screaming directly in her ears as I clenched onto her like a baby gorilla holding its mother in the jungle. ” Did he bite you?”, she asked, as she separated the tail from the rats body. The rat screeched and hissed as it retreated its body back out of the baseboard. It turned as if it were going to attack, but before it could do a complete 180, my mom began to spear it with the other end of the broom. In a matter of jousts the rat stopped moving and blood began to leak from its belly. My mom dropped the broom and it made a heavy sound as the wood hit the toilet seat on its way down. The next thing I remember is crying myself to sleep.
I started having nightmares about rats. Some were simple visions of rats chasing me for hours upon hours in a never ending maze before sinking their claws into me. Other nightmares were elaborate works where I played a captured prince poisoned by the bite of the rat, dying a horrible death on a table in some dark lair. My father and mother save attempt to save me but the rats take them and I wake up, sometimes covered in piss. In my waking hours, I kept my eyes open for rats. I hated being closing the bathroom door. To make matters worse, Chicago had a rat infestation, at least in my neighborhood. Whenever you walked through an alley, you would see bright neon and orange posters hung on light posts warning just that. I was happy I was too young to be in the alley alone. But the crudely drawn rat staring down from the poster was no less menacing.
When I was 5 years old, I conquered my fear of rats. My family celebrated my 5th birthday at the park near our house on 63rd and Parnell, on Chicago’s South Side of town. A few kids from the neighborhood joined my cousins and I, and we took turns swinging the bat as my dad took turns pitching to us all. Though I’ve never played on a team, I’ve always been a natural at the sport of baseball. Well, maybe not always. On that day, I couldn’t get a hit. My dad lobbed the ball gently for the girls that took a swing at the bat, and he seemed to take a little off for my other neighbors too. Sure he was pitching to my cousins just as hard as he was to me, but they were a few years older and it was my birthday. I pouted more and more as the game went on. It didn’t help that my cousins were instigating to make me cry. They thought I should have a pinch hitter.
“He swing like a sissy.I bet he strike out.”, Shohn said.
“Yeah. Move in close. He won’t hit it far.”, John added.
“Well, you’d better hit one soon. Its getting late and I gotta these guys home. We can’t be here all night.”, my dad said.
I felt the heat steaming from my neck to my nose. I felt the air rushing in and out of my nostrils. I tried to focus on the pitch.
I wouldn’t let them get to me on my birthday, I kept thinking to myself after every swing and miss. Any day but today I thought. Especially not in front of the kids in my neighborhood. I dug my heels into the dirt and waited for the pitch as everyone relaxed, expecting me to miss it again. The seams were driving to the ground and I could see them twisting in a pattern as it rolled through the air. I wasn’t sure if he’d thrown it far enough and I didn’t swing until it was nearly too late. But somehow, I connected. I smashed the ball over everyones’ head. It landed on top of a viaduct at least a quarter of a block away. My dad feinted the sounds of a crowd in a big stadium as I circled the bases, biting my lip, trying not to burst open with laughter and joy. I had to act like it was nothing, though deep inside, I felt like I’d body slammed Andre the Giant. With no ball to continue playing, the game was finally over, and to the delight of everyone, we ate chocolate cake and ice cream as the sun began to fade on the day. I fell fast asleep when I got home. The sound of the train rumbling down the tracks shook the back of our house and I awoke to find no one moving but me. My mom was in her room watching television, but my dad and everyone else were gone. Guided by the light from the television, I made my way into the bathroom to take a shit. I was sitting on the toilet in a nearly darkened room when I heard the digging and scratching from beneath me. I didn’t need to see it to know. I felt its presence. A rat was there. I jumped to one foot and turned on the light, hoping the rat wouldn’t attack me. When the light came on, I saw he wasn’t behind me, but right at my foot as I was about to plant it back to the floor. I nearly stumbled into the bathtub trying to get away and gain balance. The rat didn’t move. He just waited, hoping I’d lower my flesh low enough to attack. Bits of dirt and oil were in its hair and it looked identical to the big gray rat I’d met before. Its small jagged teeth probably felt like nails. I felt my body welling up to cry, but instead of pouring tears, I held my reserve. Instinctly, I grabbed the whiffle bat from the hallway and hovered the rat, who was still trying to dig a bigger hole into bathroom floor. His persistence was his downfall. He turned and hissed at me again. The moment I saw his face, I chopped down on his face like my bat was an ax, smashing the skull of the rat in one swing. It was still making noises as it scurried wildly about, blindly bumping into the door and wall with its bloodied head. I swung and smashed down on it again, before finishing it with deadly jabs from the straw broom. The broom’s bristles were covered in blood, guts, and sinew when I finished bludgeoning the rat to death.
I left the broom, bat, and rat in the bathroom, turned off the light and went to bed. I was just asleep when I woke to the sound of my dad slamming the backdoor shut. My mom and dad argued over the rat and the macabre mess I left by the toilet.
“Well you didn’t have to leave it there in the bathroom once you found it.”, my dad said.
“I’m not cleaning that shit up. I’m tired of living with these rats and roaches. When are you gonna do something about it? When one of your sons gets bit? You clean it up. Be lucky he didn’t get bit. Who’s gonna pay for him to get a shot in his stomach if he did huh?”, my momma said.
“What you want me to do about it now. He already killed it. I’ll put some poison down tomorrow. You still could’ve cleaned this shit up.”
“This ain’t funny, Richard. Stop trying to make light out of it, cause its not a fucking joke. You need to do something about this house before I do something about you.”
“You not gone do shit.”
“I will take the boys and move out of this hell hole. I bet I do that.”
“Whatever. Stop complaining and do something to help then.”, my dad replied mumbling. He always had to get the last word in.
They argued like that from time to time. Not always about rats in particular, but almost anything and sometimes everything. The condition of our old house was an easy point for either side at any time. Something was always broken or damaged. There was a hole in the kitchen floor that invited wildlife indoors and in the city the only wildlife that exists are rats and squirrels. The staircase in the basement was rotten and bound to be the death of somebody sooner than later. The refrigerator leaked water all over the floor. There was always bickering. But the argument they had after I killed the rat was the first time that I’d heard my mom threaten to separate us from our dad. I knew she hated the house, but I didn’t know she had already planned an escape route. After their argument the night of my birthday, my fear of rats was usurped by the fear that my family would separate.
Every time I lay in bed and hear them going back and forth, I dreaded awaking the next morning. I always expected bags to be packed and my mom to have moved out. If I overheard my mom talking to my grandmother, I automatically assumed they were talking about whether or not she should stay with my father. If my dad took me to his mother’s house to be watched, I wondered what he was doing while I played with my cousins, worried he was moving his things far away from my mom and me.
I wanted to do something to keep my family together, but I knew I was too little to handle any of the big problems they argued about. I did my best to not become a problem myself, hoping that my good behavior mitigated the circumstances they both faced trying to raise a family in a ghetto neighborhood. But it wasn’t long before they did split. My mom did move closer to her mother, and my dad was busy with other women whenever I was left with my grandmother. They both gave up on the family situation. It became obvious that neither were committed to the misery that is being a young poor family. My mom moved into an apartment around the corner from her mother in a neighborhood on the north side of the city called Rogers Park. We moved in the middle of the night, while my dad was at work. We left with next to nothing.
I stood in the bathroom of the new apartment holding a wet toothbrush, frozen by the sight of myself in the mirror. The moment was surreal. The fear of being separated from my dad, the dread that replaced my fear of rats had come to be. I didn’t panic or get excited like I did when I saw the rat hissing at me in the old bathroom. I just stared into the reflection of my eyes, looking to see some signs of fear in the sullen stare looking back at me. I could feel the sadness in my stomach and I was waiting to cry, but I didn’t. The pain wasn’t what I expected it to be. I kept staring into the mirror until a big brown roach crawled down the side and onto my toothbrush, breaking my trance The roaches followed us. I didn’t have any more fear of rats, but I still had trouble sleeping.