The difference between apples and rats

by Carleton Whaley

The difference between apples and rats

by Carleton Whaley




Sunday: The Year the Apples Fell


No one knew why, but they were everywhere, split open and oozing, flattened and spread under foot to the size of pie tins, or faces. Their skin, once gleaming burgundy, was beaten and black. Rot atop bruises.​​ I gently touched the bruise on my own face. How far we fall, little apples.

Perhaps the tree was as confused as we were. It had never given fruit before, and maybe it didn’t know what to do with its children. Like a rodent with its first brood, why should the tree care whether these​​ apples​​ should rot​​ on the branch or the ground?

I tried saving some.​​ Gathered them in a small wagon before they could decompose, but then, what​​ to do with them?​​ So, they decayed there instead, in the rusted Radio Flyer. I only bothered because we were up for inspection on Friday, and had to convince the town that our house was inhabitable, or even inhabited.​​ 

There were rumors that we were a cult, or a small colony of homeless. ​​ We​​ let​​ our beards grow to apostles’ lengths,​​ and​​ Scott and Lewis​​ burned incense​​ in the night,​​ which rose from the back porch in curling plumes.​​ I smoked while they did this.

That morning as I gathered the apples, Lewis wiped sweat from his forehead and said, “I didn’t sign up for this,” as he swung a machete at the long wheat grass. Scott and I agreed. Most landlords hired people to mow lawns, fix the house, make sure the students hadn’t burned it to the ground. Ours was, instead, a shadowy figure across the country to whom Lewis mailed our rent once a month. And behind that shadow loomed the Town and its inspectors.​​ 

The neighbors watched us uneasily.​​ I can only imagine what they thought. The bruise on my face, the cigarette dangling from my lip, the machete I swung at the tall grass.

We didn’t want to use the machetes.​​ Scott had tried to fix the lawnmower. Scott spent most of his time trying to fix things. He had tried to fix the smoke alarms, the burnt area behind the front door, and the railing that was about to tear off the wall. And trying, here, meant​​ looking at each problem for several hours, only to shake his head,​​ crack his knuckles, and continue to stare.​​ 

I​​ got to see it myself one night. I came home late (I always do).​​ After my car crunched over the gravel driveway, I hopped out and landed in a mess of burst fruit. I weaved my way around the splattered orbs in the driveway, over the stepping stones buried in knee-high grass, and finally onto the stained kitchen tile beyond the doorstep. My eyes swept over the beer bottles stacked and lined up on every counter, as well as the wine and whisky bottles on the fridge and in the cabinet.

And then there was Scott, stroking his beard and staring glassy eyed at the ceiling.​​ We’d known each other our whole lives, but living under the same roof it seemed like we had retreated further into ourselves and away.​​ 

I didn’t say anything​​ when I came in.​​ Just looked where he​​ looked, at​​ the lifeless smoke alarm. He popped the knuckles in his right hand, clenching his thumb over each finger.

Then his left.

Then his neck.

Then reached up, a single finger extended. God trying to reach Adam’s heart. As he pressed the ‘test’ button, a single, shrill beep screamed out of the yellow plastic puck hanging limply from the ceiling. I leaped back, smacking into the wall and sending beer bottles shattering to the floor.

We waited in silence, waited for every single bottle and railing and apple to somehow fall at once, tear free from their holds and fracture themselves on the ground.

“Maybe it needs new batteries,” Scott said, “Maybe.”​​ 


Last Thursday:

O salutaris Hostia

Quae caeli pandis ostium

Bella premunt hostilia

Da robur fer auxilium

We sang as the smoke drifted upward, smelling of sage and myrrh. The wax candles burned in the darkness, and I was alone. There were​​ voices​​ around me singing, but I was alone, and maybe I​​ had​​ looked forward to the Blood of Christ too much, because I was already drunk. I hazily followed along, half remembering to translate the Latin so it would mean something to me, because prayer without meaning is—well, that should be obvious.

O saving victim

Who opens the gate of Heaven—

But I wasn’t taught well how to Adore. The priest knelt before the monstrance, the keeper of the Body of Christ, and we all said:

Blessed be God.

Blessed be His Holy Name.

Blessed by Him in His Angels and in His Saints.

I held my hands to my mouth in prayer, smelled the incense along with my breath. Frankincense—wine—smoke—sweet.

What do you ask when you pray for a soul?


Monday: The Gypsy Moths

It was the caterpillars’ fault, to my understanding. Well, maybe not, but it seemed too much of a coincidence. The apple tree, which we didn’t know was an apple tree, was the only one the caterpillars hadn’t devoured, after all. Everywhere we looked, trees were bare as winter. It was now the dead of spring.​​ Now,​​ it seemed​​ that even the scourge was dying. Crabapples and caterpillars made a​​ light rain around us as we walked under the barren boughs.​​ 

“What are you doing?” you asked when I pulled out my phone and took pictures of the caterpillars’ dried husks clinging to the sides of trees.

 “Research,” I said, “The University is doing a study on these things. If you look here,” and you did look, you followed the trail of my finger pointing out each desiccated length of gray, lifeless worm, “you see how this one is dried up in a straight line, but this one is hanging in sort of a​​ V​​ shape?”

“You​​ didn’t answer my earlier question, you know.”

“Oh, yeah. What were we talking about?”

And I knew what you had asked,​​ so what’s up with you and your roommates, but it took me too long to think of an answer. What do you say about people so far removed from the rest of the world. What could I say, being the only one trying to cling to my old life? But I took too long, and when I turned around you had gone. I scratched another tally of the dead Gypsy Moths. Gypsy Worms, really. They hadn’t lived long enough to sprout wings.


Tuesday: Black and Gold


Another late night​​ with​​ coffee and whiskey.

The trick is to drink more coffee: about a full pot for every glass of whiskey. That way you don’t get too tired. ​​ From the whiskey, that is. Or tired of typing. Tired of ignoring calls and texts asking why you​​ hadn’t been at Daily Mass.​​ Tired of ignoring not getting calls or texts from you.​​ 

Thoughts of caterpillars and apples drifted through my head. No keys clicked, no mouse moved. I wondered if this research was even valuable. Maybe we could develop a way to kill the caterpillars without resorting to pesticides. But I still wasn’t typing.

I started thinking about how whiskey made in Scotland is spelled​​ whisky,​​ no​​ e. And how codified all of that is, Islay and Speyside, how bourbon can only come from Kentucky, and only in fresh oak barrels,​​ or maybe walnut.​​ How tequila comes​​ only​​ from Jalisco, champagne from Champagne. I should add footnotes. Would my professor appreciate footnotes? Two different things were killing the caterpillars—but how many were killing me?​​ 

I typed a few feeble words, then held down the​​ a​​ key for a minute​​ until it​​ looked like a scream.

I got another mug​​ full. Didn’t even bother to drink it. Up from my chair, I looked around. Kitchen. Scott had cleared some bottles up. Lewis had drunk more to replace them. He​​ was probably in confession right now. I looked at my watch.​​ No, already confessed. He and​​ Scott were probably going through the Divine Praises.

Blessed be God.

Blessed be His Holy Name.

Blessed be Coffee and Whiskey and their Holy Union, and maybe if I left the last half pot of black, bubbling brew they’d appreciate it when they got home. Or I’d​​ just​​ drink it in the morning.

I stumbled up the stairs, careful not to touch the railing, still held on by two screws and a prayer. Walking shouldn’t be hard work. Added too much whiskey. I’d come back down later and finish​​ the essay​​ (I’m pretty sure no one could really tell when I wrote drunk).

The bathroom lights hummed before they burst to life, the pipes rattled before water burst from the shower head. The thing with night showers is that, if you fall asleep right afterward, your hair gets all messed up, so there’s some incentive to staying awake and getting your work done. That’s what I told​​ myself. I pictured you laughing when I told you that. Cold showers wake people up the best, you told me.

“Just take a quick, cold shower. You know you’ll just fall asleep if you take a hot one.”

Steam washed over my face,​​ stinging the bruise that should have been gone by now. Water dripped from​​ my beard. I’d been avoiding this for almost a week. I let my hair get oily, and my skin grew thick with the weight of dead cells. I had too much to do, and when I slept, I always slept too much, so I didn’t have time for the luxury of cleanliness. I scratched all over myself in the shower, raking up dead skin under my nails and​​ letting these parts of me wash away.

I knew you’d worry if you knew I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wished I had brought some whiskey upstairs.

I thought about the dead trees. I thought about you. Lewis had spent all afternoon sawing a limb off the apple tree. He looked at me in a strange way and talked about pruning trees. A limb​​ had to​​ be removed, he said, because the whole tree will bleed itself dry to feed that one, incorrigible branch. But this kind of maintenance had always been foreign to me. At least I was awake. Still feeling the whiskey, but awake.

I sat down, hugged my knees to my chest. I should have been working. I should have been downstairs, finishing the research, cataloguing the dead scores of caterpillars and not thinking about every passing second as it sinks from my lips.

I​​ shaved,​​ dried myself off,​​ and went to bed.


Last Thursday, Again:


Shouldn’t have stumbled when I went up to receive. If the Body touches the floor, it must be dissolved in holy water and buried in the earth. I don’t know what they do if the drops of Blood fall. Does someone lap it up? Do they slowly, painstakingly dry it, then burn the cloth on the altar?

But still shouldn’t have stumbled. Father Branford knew I was drunk, that’s why he was talking to me now, after everyone’s gone.

“You must have a clear mind—know what you are doing, the gifts you are receiving. Do you understand, son?”

“Yes, Father.”

“I know that you’re going through a difficult time. One of the others told me—”

“Sorry Father, I gotta go.”

“My son, I’m trying to help you.”

“Gotta go.”

Shouldn’t have stumbled. Shouldn’t have walked away still stumbling. Father thought this was the turning point, thought if he didn’t say everything then, I’d be lost. Maybe it would’ve​​ been ok, maybe if he hadn’t grabbed me by the shoulder, if I hadn’t grabbed his collar, if he hadn’t shaken me—

“Listen to me—”

“—when I’m saying—”

Shouldn’t have punched him, made him stumble.

Shouldn’t have expected him not to punch back.


Wednesday: Least, Last, Lost


“It’s not your fault,” Lewis told me​​ when I brought it up,​​ “It’s sad, but most of those people are druggies. You have no idea what they’d do to you. Besides, that’s what the Church is there for, to help people like that.”

I had asked him about the homeless people nearby. What were we supposed to do when we saw them on the road? I was tired of my only reaction, which was normally a sense of fear and shame as I repeated “I’m sorry” while driving past them.

“What about the guy the cops dragged out of the church basement?”​​ I asked him.

“Well, he was crazy.”

It was getting harder to talk to Lewis.

When I​​ asked​​ Scott, he didn’t say anything for a while, then—

“You know,​​ there was a guy who​​ used to give his clothing to the homeless. He’d give them the money he was saving to buy a train ticket, then he’d have to walk home across the countryside.​​ He’s been Beatified, and actually—”

When I asked you, you showed me an article on your phone.

“There’s this guy with a gas can who’s been scamming people. He seems dangerous. I love how caring you are, but you can’t save the world.”​​ 

Three opinions, and one man with a gas can on the side of the road. Heavy-set, tall, his skin black like wet soil, his eyes small and focused. The only place my skin matched his was the dark swelling under my eyes, which should have gone down by now. But some wounds last longer than others, it seems.

I drove by him every day.​​ 

Last winter I had​​ been stuck on the side of the highway, out of gas, freezing as I waited for a tow truck.​​ A few months ago, I​​ had to refill my car​​ in the middle of a cemetery.​​ I didn’t have a gas can, so I walked a mile to the closest station, and the​​ attendant gave me an empty soda bottle​​ saying, “Just don’t shake it, man.”

So,​​ this time​​ I​​ pulled over.​​ Gas-can man looked up to the sky and held his namesake to Heaven, as if he’d just been in conversation with God.

“Thanks brother,” he said, getting in my car and moving the pile of letters, books, and paper coffee cups to the back seat while I apologized, the way everyone with a messy car lies and says “it’s not normally like this.”

We drove in silence for a minute until he told me his​​ father had just died.

“What was his name?”


“His name.”


I don’t know why, but it seemed like the most important question in the world. He told me Steve was in Heaven, he knew that, and by the way just drop him off at a commuter lot, not the gas station.

“Hey man, I’m sorry to ask, but can you give me some cash to buy some gas?”

“He’s been scamming people,” you had told me, but​​ I gave him $20​​ anyway.

“Remember, you’re not​​ doing​​ this for me, you’re doing​​ this for Him,” he said, pointing his gas can to the sky.


Thursday: ______


I do not remember this day.​​ 

I’m sure I drank.

In fact, I’m sure I did many things. I might have called someone. There are only so many ways to celebrate the passing of a week, to memorialize an end.


Last Thursday, Again, Again:


“I haven’t smoked in twenty years,” Father Branford tells me. We sit on the front steps, smoke curling out from our lips, orange coals of cigarettes burning between our fingers. They’re running a fundraiser, I remember, for the steps. Something about them sinking into the ground.

“She hated that fundraiser when I told her about it. Said it seemed wrong to solicit money in a church.”

Branford thinks for a moment, taking his time on the drag.

“Well, I suppose we don’t need front steps, do we?”

We laugh. It’s strange, sitting with him like this. We can both feel bruises blossoming. His side, my face. The collar on his robe is ripped. I wipe my face, trying to forget why I had been crying. Not from the fight—it was why I was drunk to begin with.

“Has it finally settled in?” he asks me.

“Ask me in a week.”

“Well, I won’t press you any further. We both know what’ll happen now,” he says, and we laugh again. I drag more smoke into my lungs, breath it out into the still night air. The world has that kind of clarity you get right before you fall asleep, and I know I won’t want to wake up again.

“This isn’t going to be easy, is it?”​​ 



Friday: Burying Rats


Lewis threw the rats outside after the inspector found them. We didn’t even put the traps down, so I don’t know how long they’d been there in the basement. The inspector mostly cared about fire safety, so he just nodded at the three lifeless bodies and said, “Nice.” He didn’t even care about the beer bottles I was supposed to clear out of my room. Scott had replaced the smoke detector in it while I was out, and that was enough.

Lewis and I had a beer when the man left. Scott​​ came home from work and we had some more beer.​​ I had things to do, I suppose, but I kept thinking about the rats.​​ 

I thought​​ Lewis was​​ he was going to do something else with them, because they were right in front of the garage. But maybe he meant it as a message. The​​ thought seemed ridiculous, until I looked outside to see him building a circle around the rats with rotting apples. An offertory, perhaps.​​ 

Scott would throw them out, I figured,​​ but he just stood next to me shaking his head.​​ Apples and caterpillars were rotting everywhere else on the lawn, but rats seemed​​ a bit​​ much.

I waited and watched them, hoping that something would happen. Waited until nightfall.​​ Scott and Lewis had finished burning incense out back. I hadn’t joined them, and instead smoked an entire pack on the front porch.​​ 

Finally, they came inside.​​ I didn’t want anyone to see me. I kept the lights off when I left, and when I grabbed the shovel from the garage. Lewis would have thought I was crazy, or​​ worse,​​ sentimental.​​ I don’t know what Scott thinks anymore.

You might have thought it was something, seeing me scoop rats onto the cold metal shovel, then walk so slowly across the yard so that none of them fell off. I didn’t make a sound until I reached the woods. I didn’t even breathe.

You might have thought I was talking to you when I started digging, how I always talk to you like you’re still here. The hole needs to be big, I said, big enough at least. I tried to dig away from the trees, but their roots wound long underground, so the thin buds at the end got in the way of my steel. I pulled when the shovel snagged, snapping these roots and launching wet dirt up into my face, into my mouth, and you would have either laughed or just wondered how I could care so much for things that I don’t understand.

You would have put your hand on my back the way I remember you doing, the way I still pretend when I walk by myself, when I tell you everything about my day and pretend the dead can answer my questions.

Blessed be God.

Blessed be His Holy Name.

Blessed be these rats, and the fact that the praises fit so well to the tune of my shovel, flattening the earth like someone must have done over you, and all I could think was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as time and the world and I race away from you.



About the Author

Carleton Whaley's prose has been seen in Paper Darts, Occulum, New South, Riggwelter Press, and more. He was the editor in chief of The Slag Review during its run and has a bad habit of walking into poles.

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#thesideshow| Flash Fiction| March 2020