THE RODENT PHILOSOPHER
Once the snow melts in Chicago, the freaks come out. One by one, they emerge into the sunlight and stagger around aimlessly. Their spasms and quirks are comically exaggerated, due to the sense of release they experience after months of forced confinement in their apartments. The resulting scenario is bizarre, like the inmates of an asylum have been allowed outdoors for spring vacation. They twitch, dance, yell, and wave their arms at imaginary adversaries.
One warm April morning, I sat beside my boyfriend Mark in his yellow VW. The two of us were running way behind schedule, which was typical. Mark intended to drop me off at college and race to his minimum wage job. We idled at a stoplight near the corner of Clark and Division, and watched the bizarre street parade unfold in front of us.
The bustling intersection was dominated by the Mark Twain Hotel and the adjacent Hasty Tasty Restaurant. These two seedy, crumbling establishments attracted a lively cross-section of humanity—off-duty cops, hookers, students, schizophrenics, and retirees who endeavored to nurse one cup of bitter restaurant coffee for as long as possible while they peered through the dusty window glass.
The stoplight always took forever to turn green, even longer if you were in a hurry. We glared impatiently at the windshield and waited. The light remained stubbornly red, as if stuck there forever. “When you’re late, things always conspire to make you later,” Mark said. He was fond of making pseudo-sage pronouncements, a habit that had increased since he’d started stealing Buddhist texts from the bookstore where he worked. The owner was about to go out of business, so Mark felt no cognitive dissonance about his theft. He would need to take a Zen approach to his impending unemployment.
An ancient man, wrapped in a ragged blanket, stepped into the crosswalk. A cabbie honked at him furiously, but the man took no notice. He stopped dead in his tracks, oblivious to the frenzied car and pedestrian noise. His filthy beard trembled as he slowly hoisted an object towards his head. Once the bundle was at eye-level, the man gazed at it without expression. It was gray and lumpy, with a long, dangling tail that flapped in the breeze. “Oh my God,” Mark gasped. “He’s carrying a rat.”
Now that Mark and I no longer cared about the stoplight, it turned a mocking, radiant shade of green. The cars behind us began to honk furiously. As our vehicle finally surged forward, I spun around in my seat and stole a look at the man. He held the rat steady and continued to stare intently at its face. The rodent remained immobile, beady eyes fixated on its captor. Both of them looked strangely peaceful, as if they were old friends who enjoyed walking together. Theirs was a deep camaraderie, a closeness so profound that conversation was unnecessary.
They say if you gaze into an abyss too long, the abyss gazes back at you. Perhaps the same is true for old men and rats.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks, “Queen of Dorksville” (Crisis Chronicles Press), and “Political Apnea” (Locofo Chaps) and two books, “Allergic to Everything” (Writing Knights Press) and “The Underside of the Snake” (Red Ferret Press). Leah was a winner in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, and a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival. Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Outlook Springs, University of Chicago Memoryhouse, Atticus Review, Open Thought Vortex, Sadie Girl Press, Origins Journal, Quail Bell, Silver Birch Press, and many anthologies.