by Justin Teerlinck
Senior Gordo sat motionless in his 5 x 5 cage staring through air thick with the ammonia-tinged scent of his droppings. Occasionally, he lumbered clumsily through a trail of shredded newspaper and droppings to suck on a water bottle affixed to the side of the cage with a piece of wire. A giant peered into the cage from above. One of his chubby fingers was dripping blood. The giant had attempted to offer the vile creature a piece of artificial beef kibble. What had he got in return? The damned ingrate had bit the hand that fed him. The giant could almost hear the little monster mocking him. “Where’s Laura? I like her bedda.” The giant rose to his feet, still peering into the cage, his finger still releasing drops of blood. “My girl loves you more than me, you dirty rat,” he said.
Three years ago Laura and I went to Fancy’s for dinner. We could only afford to go to my favorite steakhouse once a year or so. “I have something I need to tell you,” Laura said, putting on her People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals v-neck. After all these years, is she finally ready? I wondered. I watched her putting on lipstick as her back was turned. I smiled to myself, slipping the little black box from Dynasty Jewelers into my pocket. This is it, I thought to myself. The diamond was certified cage-free inorganic, and its production caused no harm to any animals…except for forced servitude, anarchy, ecological degradation, tribal warfare, colonialism, black market gangs, and crack-addicted child soldiers.Wait a minute, humans aren’t animals. Not animals that counted anyway. If it had been chimp slaves in the diamond mines, that would be a different story. No worries! It’s go time. On the way out the door, I leaned down and patted Mrs. Bendy, my one-eyed Boxer dog on the head. “Wish me luck ‘ol pal.” Mrs. Bendy licked her chops in response, giving no indication she had understood.
“Okay hon, I’m ready,” Laura called out. “Did you put your dog away?”
“Yeah.” I winced as I heard these words. I had hoped that after five years “your dog” would become “our dog.” But Laura had never taken to the brain-damaged canine. It annoyed her the way the one-eyed dog kept bumping into door frames, and the way Bendy followed her around ceaselessly, often nudging Laura with her wet, dirty, personal-space-violating, chop-licking, flappy snout. Laura acted as if Mrs. Bendy’s glances from her one good eye were accusatory, even, at times, menacing, and that the dog shadowed her, not because she liked her better than me, but to keep her away from me. But what’s not to love? Her blank, intimidating stares, her nighttime bathroom visits to the couch, her raunchy dog farts, her hours of obnoxious chop-licking—well, Christ, what was the dog supposed to do? She had been shot in the head, lost an eye and survived. I think that would entitle anyone to have a few eccentricities. She damn well couldn’t help it. “She can damn well help it.” That’s what Laura said. It was time for things to change, and change they would.
When we got to Fancy’s, I ordered The Bull. “Do you want the 48 oz. or the 72 oz.?” inquired the waiter.
Laura sighed. “Do you have to get that? I mean…really?”
“But this is a steakhouse.”
“I know, but you know I’m vegan.”
“Right. Sorry. I’ll get the Little Heifer with a side of ranch rustler sauce, please.”
This time the sigh was more audible. “Dude, come on. That’s almost as huge as The Bull. Besides,” she said, nodding to my paunchy panda belly, “you know you need to start watching what you eat.”
I lowered my eyes toward the menu. “Fine,” I said, defeated. “Just give me the Kid’s Calf with a side of Sneaky Pete’s lick-a-licious cactus fingers.”
“I don’t think so,” cried Laura. “I won’t let you eat a baby veal calf in front of me, mister!”
The waiter’s eyes were darting back and forth helplessly during this exchange. He cleared his throat. “Actually,” he said with some hesitation, “the Kid’s Calf is made with beef from the Stalwart Steer Platter. That’s an adult cow.”
“Why do they call it a calf then?”
“I guess because ‘calf’ sounds kid-friendly and it’s a smaller cut of beef.”
“Oh. Okay. Fine. I didn’t know that,” said Laura.
I threw up my hands, completely emasculated. “You know what? Fuck it. I’ll get a goddamn baked potato, as dried out as a mummy’s cunt. Hold the sauce of any kind. Hold the spice. Hold the beef. Hold the liquid. Hold the butter. I think that’s just about as politically correct a meal as I can order. No, wait a minute. Hold the skin. Hold the starch. Jesus Christ, you know what? Fuck the potato. Fuck the fucking potato. I think I’ll just eat my fucking napkin.”
“Why are you doing that? Just get your beef. You’re so immature sometimes. And I can’t believe you said the ‘C’ word at Fancy’s. What the hell are you thinking? I told you before I think you have undiagnosed Tourette’s. The tics? The swearing? It’s time to get real. You need medication, baby.”
“I don’t want the—” I hesitated—“the stupid beef any longer.”
The waiter fidgeted and rolled his eyes. “If you guys need a few more minutes…”
“I’ll have the baked potato and that’s that.”
“Fine. If you want to pout that’s your business. Just don’t act like I said you couldn’t have your beef, because I didn’t. You just demonstrated good self-control, by the way.”
“Yeah. Right.” A giant neon sign in my brain flashed the words FUCK THIS two-hundred times.
“Sir, would you like the ranch rustler sauce with that or the smokin’ Sally’s Texas Fire?”
I shook my head with disgust and got up to go to the toilet. When I returned I found a Little Heifer adorning my plate. Laura was smiling. I raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry,” said Laura. “Let’s not fight.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said, and immediately commenced to stuffing my sagging, doughy face. We eventually relaxed, and our conversation became affectionate, almost flirtatious. I remembered the black box in my pocket—as if I’d ever forgotten it. My sweaty, sausage-like fingers crept into my trouser pocket.
“I have something I need to tell you.” We both said it at once. After an awkward laugh, I said, “You first.”
I wasn’t prepared for the words that came out of Laura’s mouth. “I think we should adopt some rats.”
My chubby, nervous digits released the box containing the animal cruelty-free engagement ring back into my pocket, my overstuffed, cartoony hands growing cold and clammy. The words of my friends echoed in my ears: “You will never go out with someone as pretty as her again. She doesn’t even have herpes. You need to do whatever it takes to hang on to her because, like, maybe you’ll find someone else, but not like her.”
Not as hot as her, was what they meant.
“Rats?” I said, nearly involuntarily evacuating the contents of my large intestine into my uncomfortably tight-fitting under-drawers. Clench, clench hard, damn you! I ordered my nervous sphincter. “What do you mean?”
“I just think…there’s so many rats in the world without homes, completely abandoned.”
My eyes narrowed to unbelieving, disapproving slits. Was this really happening? Was this some sort of beef deprivation hallucinatory state? Maybe I did have Tourette’s, Tourette’s and schizophrenia. “I’m sorry,” I said, slowly, clearly, “but rats are vermin. They carry disease. Jesus Horatio Christ Laura, rats bite!” I could feel my ire rise, uncontrolled, unchecked. “Damn it! I will never live with a rat. Rats? Rats! Are you kidding me? Fucking…hell…Never!”
“I knew you’d say that, and” she added, “I also knew that would be how you would say it,” she said, jamming in the spear point. I could see she’d had her pitch all planned out from the very beginning. Dinner at Fancy’s, letting me eat meat at the table…however reluctantly—it was all a goddamned setup. For what? I was about to ask her to marry me and she just wanted to bring rats into our house. My cynical thoughts already envisioned a bleak future in which I pictured myself running back to Dynasty to sell back the ring and then purchase a quarter pound—that’s right P-O-U-N-D—of weed in order to start dealing again. That’s right. See what she thinks of that. Ha!
“Rats aren’t all bad, just partially,” she said. “They can be trained to be good. They’re naturally very smart.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes and sigh. She paused and went on. “Do you know how hard it was for me to not have kids? I’m doing that for you, baby.” Kids? I was fuming. She was actually playing that card.
“I know,” I said, completely unable to respond.
“Well, sometimes it’s just that I want something to cuddle with.”
“What about me?”
“I need something furry, and childlike.”
“Mrs. Bendy loves to cuddle. She loves you. What more do you need?”
“Your dog follows me everywhere, baby. Mrs. Bendy is obsessed with me. Look, I know she’s old and…”
“And what? She has a disability.”
“Yeah, she has a disability and…well, she’s really weird. She farts constantly and…”
“Uh huh? Please, continue.”
“You know what I’m going to say. She’s gross. She’s dirty. She licks her own ass like it was going out of style. I know she’s your dog and you love her. I would never tell you to get rid of her. I just can’t relate to her the way you can.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. First she was talking about rats and now she was talking about getting rid of Mrs. Bendy, as though that was ever an option. “Rats huh?” I said. “You’re going to cuddle with rats. Clean, normal rat cuddle? Your babies are going to be beady-eyed rat babies?”
“You’re such an asshole. I would never have thought you could be so cold.”
“I’m sorry you hate Mrs. Bendy, but I love her and I have to think of her well-being. She can’t defend herself. What if your vermin—”
“—I wish you’d stop calling them that.”
“What if your rats attack her? What then?”
“Oh come on. They’re not monsters. They’re really cute and tame. Once she meets Bless You and Senior Gordo—”
“Oh no, no way. You bought the rats already. Tell me you didn’t bring them home.”
Laura tried to look guilty but her excitement bubbled over. “They’re not home yet.”
“They’re in the car.”
“In the car? When did you?”
“Darcy and I planned it to…surprise you. I thought you would love this.”
“I can’t believe you did this. I was. I was going to…”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
We argued further, with me expressing my irrefutable—and strictly scatological—disappointment at the nasty trick Laura had pulled on me. Then, with an air of finality she said, “I’m sorry baby but I need something to cuddle. I don’t know what else to say. It has to be you and me and the rats…or me and the rats. Just say yes okay? We could have a family. I don’t want you to move out.”
Fuck. It’s me…or vermin, I thought. Vermin wins.
“Say ‘Hi,’ Bless You. Say ‘Hiiiiiiii.’ See how cute he is? He’s just a little lover man.” Mrs. Bendy and I stared into Bless You’s beady eyes, looking for signs of love.
The next day, I found my favorite t-shirt half-eaten, with strips of cloth made into a make-shift nest at the bottom of the closet. There was no sign of Bless You, but the nest contained a small pile of ebony, pellet-like feces. When I confronted Laura about the situation, my girlfriend replied, “Oh, look. It’s just a t-shirt. He probably likes your scent! Isn’t that cute?” If Laura thought “cute” was ripped clothing and a pile of poo, then I wasn’t sure if Laura really understood what cute was.
I carried the remains of my shirt to the garbage can, recalling the last time I’d encountered a “cute” animal. Five years ago, when Laura had been a veterinary nurse, a work colleague had begged her to take a sick bird off her hands and adopt it. The poor bird was dying, mainly because Laura’s coworker was starving it to death out of neglect. “We just have to take Mrs. Flappyfeather! We just have to! We just have to!” I was informed that it would be my fault if they allowed the bird to starve to death. Never mind that I was terrified of caged, winged creatures. Never mind that I said no. Never mind that I never said “fuck” when I said no. After much pestering and guilt tripping, it was decided that the only way to finally be allowed to refuse the offer was by a face to face meeting with the starved, winged demon, to see if there was any chemistry, to see if we would bond.
Laura was certain we would hit it off.
I had entered the room where the bird and its maximum security bird prison were kept. I immediately noticed that the bird engaged in a strange, repetitive behavior, bobbing and dipping its head back and forth, as though in time to some unheard beat. Then, periodically, the bird would pause, noticing an image of itself in a dirty, pink, plastic-framed mirror wired to the exterior bars of its bent, rusted cage. Upon seeing itself, the bird ran to the mirror and began furiously pelvic thrusting against the bars of the cage closest to the mirror. “Ohhhhhh, isn’t that sad?” Laura had exclaimed, as though the bird was a refugee from a war-torn country suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. I had to wonder: would a barefoot, crack-addicted, AK-47-wielding child soldier forced into a life of illiteracy, internecine tribal warfare and cannibalism generate the same level of pity from Laura’s tortured conscience? I doubted it. “Somebody’s lonely. Look who needs a friend.” When I pointed out that adopting a nymphomaniac, sexually deviant bird had never been part of the bargain, Laura hushed me with reassurances that this was a behavior that birds only engaged in sometimes when bored. Finally, the moment came when the bird was unleashed to begin bonding with me. I prayed that the it would shit on my head so that I would have irrefutable evidence of failure to achieve rapport. But no, the bird defiled me in a far more wanton manner: it immediately flew to my head, perched there and began thrusting away as though the world would end in the next five minutes. After much flailing, loss of feathers an bowel control, Mrs. Flappyfeather was escorted to her home in solitary confinement.
Now here was Bless You and Senior Gordo. Bless You indeed. “I should rename you ‘Fuck You’,” I muttered.
Laura made sure the rats were spayed and neutered, effectively tripling their already lengthy lifespan.
I leaned into Bless You’s cage, offering him a piece of processed rat kibble. The beast greedily snatched and devoured it, staring the entire time at the giant standing before him.
“Maybe she loves you,” I said to the rat, “but I’m bigger than you, and I don’t.” Old Mrs. Bendy stood beside me. She let out a long sigh, and licked her malodorous chops in agreement. “It’s maximum security confinement in a cell full of shredded newspaper and clear, orange-tinted tubes for the rest of your long, healthy lives. I do hope you little, plague-carrying monsters enjoy your stay with us. Please, let me know if you need anything…like euthanasia.”
I gingerly placed another kibble nugget through the bars. With the speed of greased lightning, Senior Gordo snatched the kibble and tore a gash in my finger. As I retracted my finger, a small spurt of blood dripped between the bars of the cage. This was quickly lapped up by Bless You. I now knew that the fiends had a taste for human flesh, and were my mortal enemies.
Laura suddenly came up behind me. “Oh look,” she cooed. “Bless You loves you! How sweet!”