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Warning: Exactly 88 lines down in this column, you will encounter an intricately detailed description of one of the most traumatic events of my life. And although this foul, disgusting, grisly, stenchy, awful, why-me-dear-god moment is intended to be amusing, I must advise that you not be (1) eating, (2) planning on eating anytime soon, or (3) digesting food that you ate in, say, the last three days while reading this. Thank you, and enjoy the story.
I used to work out with a rat who lived in my walls.
When Rodney (anything that large deserves a name) would commence those scritchety-scratchety laps around his personalized YRCA track in my ceiling, I would scare the hell out of the jogging rodentand probably a few neighborsby cranking the most obnoxious rock ‘n’ roll in my CD collection. Whenever the puckish pest felt like burning off some steam, I’d join in, boogieing around my English-basement shoebox until Rodney, apparently not an AC/DC fan, sought refuge elsewhere.
Our impromptu exercise regimen continued for weeks”It’s a just a tiny mouse,” my landlord chortled, before putting out poison; “I’m never coming to see you again,” my girlfriend voweduntil one evening, as I cued up some Stones for our scheduled sweat session, I realized that I didn’t hear Rodney. But I sure could smell the dirty little bastard.
After a somewhat somber investigation, I realized that the death-rot odor was wafting in from the hall outside my door. Case closed: Rodney had run himself into an early grave. (Lesson No. 1: Jogging is bad.) He did, however, leave a legacy: My clothes stank for days, my neighbors started smiling at me againand, without the exercise, I quickly added about 15 pounds to my already chunky-but-funky 6-foot-2 frame.
OK, let’s jump ahead eight months, to summer’s end. (I’m telling you: Drop that sandwich right now.)
Upon returning from a weeklong trip to Southern California, I was greeted at my door by a nostril-scorching stench that was all parts piss, poop, barf, and clam dip. But it wasn’t the memories of dearly departed Rodney that got my heart pumping. It was the subsequent realization that the hallway didn’t reek this time…but my dinky apartment sure did.
I lit a few candles, cranked the rotating fan (and the bathroom fan and the oven fan), and smeared a big glob of Ben-Gay on my ample belly to mask the stink.
In the morning, however, the putrid odor was even worse. That’s when I really started to worry: While the weather in California had been 77 degrees and breezy, it had been the usual armpit gloom back in the nation’s capital. Not exactly the best weather for corpse managementand I wasn’t even sure what kind of corpse it was.
Flashlight in hand, I commenced a tentative search. Behind the fridge? Under the sink? Smothered beneath the mountain of unwashed chamois shirts?
No, no, no: I couldn’t find a body anywhere. And I didn’t have much time left to look, either. It was a Friday night, and in an hour I was due to board a MARC train to meet my girlfriend in Baltimore. So I picked a semiclean dress shirt from the dirty pile, dusted off the iron, and reached for the outlet behind my CD rack.
Sweet Jesus. Checkpoint Stinky had been located. (Lesson No. 2: Ironing is bad.)
I shined the flashlight beam slowly along the cobwebby baseboard andall too soonspotted a hulking gray lump perilously close to my Dylan discs. Yes, indeed: That’s either one big-ass dust bunny, or things just got interesting.
I pulled the CDs away from the wall, not so much whistling as I worked but chanting, “OhgodohgrossohjesusohGAAACK.” How in the hell was I supposed to get rid of the thing? Buying some time, I opened both the front door and the alley door, to give myself options. Over clammy, shaking hands, I tugged on a pair of entirely unfashionable Members Only ski gloves that had been properly buried at the bottom of my closet. I grabbed a big tattered beach towel (“Go Patriots!”). I even pulled some salad tongs from the drawer under the microwave.
I could delay the moment of reckoning no longer. Now it was just me and the gray-brown lump: a tubby 6-inch rat sprawled on his back. You gotta be kidding me. I wasn’t entirely sure if I could stomach feeling the dead weight of the vermin in my handsnot to mention the possibility of that long, pinkish tail curling around my wrist or of hearing the dreaded crunch of brittle bones.
But as I peered closerall the while mulling over an alternate plan: leave immediately, steal a car, drive to New Mexico, never speak to anyone againI noticed that the rat was breathing.
Well, not breathing really. More like pulsing. Squirming. Bubbling.
Summoning up couragenot exactly Indiana Jones courage, mind you; more like the Don Knotts varietyI knelt in front of the rat and scooped the sloppy, saggy corpse into the towel.
And that’s when I found something considerably worse than expired rodentia.
Crawling, wriggling, writhing at my knees were about 40 bloated maggotssome bloody, some dustyfleeing in every direction. And these weren’t those cute rice-sized maggots you see on TV, either. These things were as big as Bugles snacks.
At that point, I do believe I uttered something to the extent of “Urp.” But I was beyond puking. This was new territory for my body. In order to keep my heart beating, Mr. Brain dug into a previously untapped superhuman reserve only talked about in the back of medical journals. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t sprout wings and fly awayor at least run outside and hoist up a car.
I high-stepped it out the back doorIfeeltheratIfeeltheratdumped the towel con carne into an alley trash can, ran back insidedontlookatthemaggotsdontlookatthemaggotsand threw myself into the bathroom cabinet. Not good: My poison options were Dep styling gel and Comet. Seeing as how maggots are not particularly hirsute, I grabbed the Comet and started dusting the suckers.
Big mistake: The maggots couldn’t get enough of the stuff! Maggots love Comet! Who knew? It was like a maggot fiesta down there. I think I even heard one of them singing.
Unless I wanted to miss my train, there was only one thing to doand do immediately: I fumbled for a roll of paper towels and a garbage bag and started picking the high-strung larvae off the carpet. One by one by one; maggot by maggot by maggot. And no matter how thick those ridiculous gloves were, I could still feel the tubby white worms popping like bubble wrap in my hands.
The whole cleaning process took about 20 minutes. When I was done, I carried the maggot bag out to the trash can, handling the Hefty like a nuclear-waste container. I then struggled to get the slimy gloves offlooking, I’m sure, like a serial killer punching out for the dayand dumped them in the trash. I even fetched the salad tongs, and although I hadn’t used them, they were just as guilty as the towel and the gloves, so I tossed them, too.
Then I took a shower, bathing violently until my original epidermal layer had been properly scrubbed off.
Somehow, despite the crushing Friday night commuter crowds, I made the train on time. Maybe people saw the shellshocked look on my face and just steered clear. “Maggots,” they whispered. “Give him room.”
When my girlfriend picked me up in Baltimore, she went in for a kiss but stopped short: “Jesus, what in the hell happened to you?”
So I told her. I told her everything. Well, almost everything. I left out the Members Only part. That’s just embarrassing. Sean Daly