Tommy’s Rats: The Old Woman Tries to Make Herself Useful

Patricia Canright Smith Click to

patsmithphotoPatricia Canright Smith’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Short Story America (awarded third prize), Jabberwock Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mason’s Road Literary Journal (2014 Contest winner), and others. Her essay” 83 Problems, A-Z” was a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays, 2014, John Jeremiah Sullivan, editor.


The old joke about Tommy was she was a social scientist without the social. Now she’s gone feral. She watches herself with detached interest, as though she were a subject in one of the studies she used to quantify. In her mind, she is simply an extreme version of herself. Living like this is her only option, a way to keep going until she can come up with a plan to kill herself. Of course Tommy can see the absurdity. She doesn’t care.

Circumstance forms truth; context, reality: suicidal obsession, like malware, colonizes the hard drive. Rule out asphyxiation. Putting a little plastic bag over your head is awkward, and do you try to tie it? Anyway, that reflex makes you tear it off. You must also rule out hanging. A method that can leave you alive but brain-damaged…even if you were “functionally dead,” do they really know what goes on in there? No, they do not. Only God knows. Give it up for God.

Ropes, knots. No.

It had been Tommy’s idea to retire. Harry was not yet 59 but Tommy was 71, so they left their posts at the University of Washington for San Juan Island, where Harry converted an old beach shack on a knoll above the Puget Sound into a dogtrot house, their dream house, two identical saltboxes connected by a wood-planked breezeway. Now Tommy has ruined its symmetry by putting a roof over one of the decks.

“Feral: in a wild state, especially after escaping domestication.” It was Harry who escaped. He died on Sunday, April 1, 2001. April 1. Tommy’s brain kept trying to make it a Fool’s Day joke. Harry had fallen from his bike, was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and then released. In the parking lot, he collapsed in Tommy’s arms. The official cause of death was “bilateral pulmonary thromboemboli.” There was no joke.

Tylenol. Shot liver, multiple organ failure, awful way to live. Barbiturates with vodka, Marilyn Monroe, lots of them—but where is the resolve? There must be resolve. Like those girls who starve themselves. The unmoored mind has its own logic.

There were neighbors—Laura Sparks, the Simmonses, Bev Gunderson—and in the beginning they stopped by often with quiche, carrot soup, muffins. Tommy thanked them and then returned her gaze to the horizon. I am a Martian now. I am a cat. After an awkward pause they would take their offerings into the kitchen and leave, saying she should call any time, anything she needed, please let them know.

Tommy stalks down to the shore or marches along the highway above her house. She sits on the deck and watches orange-and black-tankers the size of strip malls ply the leaden expanse of the Sound. When she notices it’s dark she lugs out pillows, the comforter, and the egg-crate foam pad. Sleep is incidental. If the breeze is weak and the Sound dead calm she might hear a faint cry and then the magnificent whumpf-whumpf as an owl lifts off and flies across the highway dangling a limp body.

Most days rabbits work the grass on the edge of the gully where the cats live. Turkey vultures circle, an eagle sentries from a bleached snag, and at dusk, a little red fox trots across the meadow. Every day a rat runs along the deck’s lattice, across the gravel walkway, and down the hill through heathers and lavenders. Usually Tommy spots it just as it ducks under a bush. It pisses her off.

Sylvia Plath, the white enamel oven, the kneeling woman. Tommy thinks, But I’m no poet, and it makes her snigger. She’s the opposite of a poet; Isaac was the damn poet. Beautiful Isaac Woolf from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, who read Dostoevsky, who looked like Humphrey Bogart and smoked Pall Malls—of course she gave herself to him. Would she do it again? First lover, the father of her children.

Don’t forget dear Virginia Woolf, picking up rocks, putting rocks in pockets. Were they rough against her ivory fingers? Did they dirty her linen?

Isaac drank too much. So did Harry.

One morning Tommy walks to the edge of the deck to toss an apple core and the rat stops and looks over its shoulder, tiny mineral eyes locked on hers. Tommy launches the apple; the rat disappears. She storms down the steps, snatches up the core, and heaves it again. Afterward, for hours, she cannot calm her hands.

She lays the French knives on the glass-tiled counter. Fillet, boning, slicing, carving, paring, utility, bread, steak, cleaver. Surgical, as though it were a repair. Clean. She puts the bread knife and the steak knives away: serrated, not clean. She puts the cleaver away. Too big. Tommy has no interest in chopping anything off. What kind of act is that?

Circumstance forms truth; context, reality: the rat has thrown down the gauntlet, seizing Tommy’s brain to press it into high alert. She perches at edge of the deck so she can shout the instant it appears. She scours the ground for little rat-pellets, like little taunts. How can she win? She throws her shoe and then has to go get it. The rat never turns, nor does it speed up. How can she win this? She can’t use poison, it might kill the fox, cats, birds. She wonders if they still make BB gins. Tommy still has a scar where that idiot Richard Kinney
shot her in the butt from three feet away when she was ten.

Harry liked her butt. What a nice man.

As a child Tommy read The Jungle because Sister Bernadette claimed the book was redemptive, but the rats had horrified her. When she was nineteen, they saw rats in Venice Beach, but it was 1950 and she and Isaac had run away to California; she didn’t worry about rats then. Now she thinks it must crawl on her when she sleeps, and her skin itches.

Tommy wanders in the dark, down to a stand of madrone by the beach where she listens to the tidal slosh. Sometimes it starts to rain and she can hear droplets tick the leaves, bump the dirt.

This was not supposed to happen. Tommy had already lost Isaac, little Eleanor, and her oldest son, James. Harry’s death defied probability—but of course probability is random.

Harry. The last thing she had wanted in 1983, the year after James died of AIDs, was someone to love. But this CalTech guy who consulted to her group at UCLA, who was only 41—baby, she said; prime number, he countered—would not leave her alone. It was a diversion, a holding action. Tommy was having sex again, she was dancing in discos; just a fling, nothing more. Except when Harry didn’t call one week, Tommy literally fell to the floor, her knees useless. That’s how it works, even in a broken 53-year-old. Love is love.

One day—it’s somehow become July—Tommy heads up to the Westside highway and marches along the guardrail picking up Satsuma-sized stones, rocks in pockets for a river or the rat.

It would be a shame to send the sweet Subaru over the cliff.

When she gets back, the front door is ajar and Tommy bleats “Hey!” and charges down the driveway. Inside, stuff is strewn everywhere. A honeyed breeze blows through the wide-open deck doors, and for a crazy minute she believes the rat did it.

Tommy strides through the bedroom and sticks her head into the bathroom. The medicine cabinet is gaping, there’s crap on the floor. Is it? Literally? Who does this, how does this come about? Choking, she crosses the kitchen and stomps to the other house. The casement windows are smashed. She’s never unlocked Harry’s doors, but they took his boots from the stoop. This makes her sit down and cry.

Finally, Tommy gathers herself and marches back to clean up. First the bathroom, then the rest, papers, crushed glasses, a bra, broken dishes. The laptop is gone, her sleeping pills and rings, and James’s diamond stud. Her purse has been relieved of its cash. And God damn it: her grandmother’s hand-stitched quilt, the quilt James lay under, is on the floor, sticky and soiled. Tommy crams it into the utility sink and runs hot water, punching it down like bread dough until her hands are scalded and the quilt stays submerged.

She heads outside. She does not sleep.

Circumstance forms truth; context, reality: Tommy’s order is entirely corrupted now. She cannot stem insistent images of guns, .22’s, shotguns, 30-30’s, Glocks—the uglier, the better. She is avidly reading her New York Times again, listening to her little radio, to watch them, not only thieves and perverts but climate change, the Gary Condit affair, the anti-science President cutting taxes and taking a nap. Tommy had always found politics vexing, but once she’d had a decent remove.

Toward the end of July, the Vice President refuses a Freedom of Information request for the membership of his Energy task force on the grounds that the Vice President is not part of the executive branch, and so does not fall under the Freedom of Information Act’s purview. Tommy’s brain stretches thin, like piano wire. It’s the illogic more than the arrogance: the Vice President is not part of the executive branch? The legislative branch, then? The judicial? What, is he his own shadow government, right in plain sight?

He thinks we’re stupid. Bastard. She lurches out of her chair to hurl a raspberry at the rat. Bastards.

Without her laptop, Tommy has to go to the library to stalk the Vice President, and it’s there, as she’s hunched over the keyboard in the deserted, wood-paneled reading room sneering at his five draft deferments, that she is invaded by the image of the rat. Then lots of rats. Lots of dead rats.

A plan materializes and Tommy straightens. She’s been ensnared in her own little rat-war while the Big Rats wreck the country. Clearly, it’s time to take it up a notch. What did Mother always say? Make yourself useful.

It delivers something akin to calm. And what luck, she can get all the dead rats she needs from Harry’s old lab pal, Joe. No, she’ll steal them. Stealing feels necessary, a balancing of the books. Criminals, everyone.

Tommy withdraws cash and packs a bag. No time to do anything about her hair. She enters Harry’s house. Aside from the shards of glass, it’s as he left it: cameras, tripods, Guns, Germs and Steel spread-eagled on the end-table. She strides to the closet, lifts out his .22, grabs the box of bullets. She considers his Outback hat, then slams the door and locks it.

She loads a sleeping bag, backpack, garbage bags, Coleman coolers, the .22, and a few other necessities into Harry’s Toyota pickup. She hurls one last rock at the rat and yells Have at it, bastard. She gloats: the rat will become overconfident and the eagle will finally get it; somehow she will know, and be happy. But as soon as she thinks this, Tommy is twisted in regret. That rat has been a constant, the closest thing to a companion she’s had since Harry died.

Okay. Good-bye.

Her heart is pulsing, voltaic shocks, as she steers the truck up the driveway, over the hill and onto the ferry for the first time in four months. She can’t figure out why her fingertips would hurt.

Tommy always hated the lab, a wretched mix of disgust and pity; could never understand how the men could sit in Joe’s office with beers as if unfazed by the lighting, the skritching, that smell.

But Joe is happy to see her. They all are, solicitous faces, lowered voices.

You made it off the island, he says.

I did not think I would, she says. Not alive. Let’s get something to eat.

Where’re you headed?


Joe doesn’t question it. Being a widow is like having a terminal disease, people don’t ask.

They go out the back way; Tommy notes that the putrescible waste is stored in molded-plastic bins for morning incineration right beside the exit. The metal doors click behind them.

You have security guards now?

Because of the PETA attack. It screws up my budget.

Little PETA freaks. If they had their way we’d all be vegans. And die of horrible diseases for which a cure could have been found. Tommy pokes around in her purse. Hey, Joe, did I leave my sunglasses in your office?

Joe has lit a cigarette; he looks at it.

Tommy holds out her hand. I can get them.

Inside, she slips Joe’s key-card into her wallet and clips Harry’s old one onto Joe’s lanyard.

Joe pockets it.

The nighttime guard waves her in. One of the rewards of being an old lady, you look like Pale Anybody, even a balding man. Tommy strolls, shoes squeaking on the Excelon, through dim halls to the waste bins. She extracts from her purse a black, heavy-duty garbage bag and snaps on latex gloves. She opens the bin. Looking away and breathing through her teeth—hair, tails, feces, bleach—Tommy reaches in, and her stomach lurches. They are fresh, their bodies are soft.

She transfers surprisingly long, heavy rats into the garbage bag, periodically hefting until she has about as many as she can carry. Forty-one. Of course, the prime number. Hoisting the load over her shoulder, Tommy slips out the back. No alarm sounds.

Twenty miles east of Seattle Tommy stops in Issaquah to stock up at the QFC and eat two egg burritos. She imagines the rats liquefying—it’s the word putrescible. She’d sprinkled kosher salt when she layered them into the coolers but she’s not sure, really, what the salt will do. She never paid attention when Harry preserved salmon, just that it involved lots of salt. Or maybe that was the brine for the turkey. She transfers ice into gallon-sized zip-lock bags, lays them over the salted rats, and latches the lids.

Late afternoon in Coeur D’Alene she eats a tuna sandwich on a bench beside the paved trail that skirts the glittering lake. She feels invisible, as if sequestered behind a two-way mirror. The parading tourists resemble rats. Or maybe it’s lemmings. A clot of shaved-bald men in jeans, suspenders, and combat boots, each leading a calico woman, struts by.  White supremacists. Hyenas.

It’s hot, and Tommy frets about her rats. It occurs to her that there must have been more than one rat living at her place, just as there is more than one Rat running the country.

The next morning Tommy finds an Army-Navy Surplus and purchases a camouflage shirt and trousers. She decides the green beret is excessive. She lays fresh ice over the rats and pats it flat.

After checking into Four Winds Motel in Jackson Hole, Tommy washes up and walks to a pub called the Mangy Moose. At the kitchen door she bums a cigarette off the cook, a long-haired snowboarder and would-be writer. She tells him she is transporting human tissue for the University of Montana; she’s not sure when they’ll call; she’s worried about the heat. He’s fine with her storing the coolers in the walk-in.

The cigarette makes her dizzy.

Tommy’s plan presupposed a private little airstrip in the forest, but the cook says the Vice President does not have a private airstrip. He did land Black Hawk helicopters at Puzzleface Ranch one time but it caused a big stink because of fragile habitat. Normally they hold traffic at Jackson International while Air Force II touches down, breaks open its belly, and disgorges five or six black SUVs, which speed away over the air cargo road.
And no, the Vice President does not live on a ranch. He lives on the golf course over at Teton Pines. He’s there now.

Tommy sits at the maple desk in her room and stares at the blind TV. How could she have been so simpleminded? She had just assumed Wyoming meant ranch. She had depended on that ranch; it meant the Vice President was a competent outdoor man, with that thread of steel in him, that bit of dirt; ranch made him a worthy opponent. No, this man would not make it without his cushion of privilege garnered on the backs of others. He is less than a rat, he’s an insult to rats.

An no private airstrip. Tommy had gone over and over it in her mind: a guard with a German shepherd, and she would reconnoiter by pretending to be lost and then sneak back through the trees to set up near the runway. And she would trap the Vice President in her gaze as he emerged from his chickenshit private jet, she would behold his snarl and his fear, she would pick up one of the stiff, smelly rats and the secret service would shout Stop! Drop it! Stop! and raise their guns and she would draw her arm back—Stop! Drop it!—and heave, and the guns would discharge with a deafening roar and a barrage of bullets would slam into her torso and she would crumple to the grass beside her blasted rats, her thin white hair staining red.

A photographer from the New York Times would get the shot. The headline would read “Grandma Threatens Vice President with Dead Rat, Killed by Secret Service.”

Vice President would look very, very bad.

Grandma. As if she had grandchildren.

Tommy gathers the bedspread, sleeping bag and feather pillow, and heads out to the field behind the play area. The stars are brilliant, but too sharp.

This time Tommy shops for golf attire, a striped polo shirt made of some god-awful petroleum-based fiber, navy pedal pushers with deep pockets, and a white visor. At the pharmacy she picks up lipstick and fancy sunglasses adorned with little gold circles. She rents a silver Lexus SUV.

At the gate she chirps “Kirkpatrick” in her most girlish voice and bares her teeth. The guard pretends to look at his clipboard, then smiles and waves her through. Still invisible. It would be ridiculously easy to embark on a life of crime. On the clubhouse patio Tommy orders a Cobb salad and a coke and strikes up a conversation with the four old duffers at the next table, glad they can’t see her threadbare eyes behind the preposterous glasses.

Oh yes, the Vice President’s house is on the tenth green, the one behind those noble firs there. He likes to get out at first light so he can get in nine and get off before anyone else is even awake.

It seems too easy.

That evening she goes back to the Mangy Moose, consumes a buffalo burger and a beer, and informs the cook it’s time. Back in her room she transfers rats from the coolers to a garbage bag. Some have gotten damp; they smell like ammonia and wet dog, and it makes her mad. Zip-locks are supposed to be air-tight, shouldn’t that also mean water-tight?

Before she goes out to bed Tommy dials the Jackson Hole News & Guide and leaves a message.

Four a.m., what to wear? The god-awful golf attire does add a certain element of mockery but she likes the fatigues. She likes being a soldier. She wishes she had bought that green beret.

Tommy drives beyond the gate house to the service road on the north side of the course and turns in, dousing her headlights. After about a quarter-mile she parks beside the new construction she’d glimpsed from the highway. The temporary chain-link is well-secured but the bulldozed earth is friable, and Tommy scoops out a trough and squirms under like a badger, observing with amusement her lifelong repugnance to getting dirty. James was the same way. She pulls her purse, the garbage bag, and the .22 through, swipes at her shirt and trousers, shakes out her hair, and hoists her load. She feels so light now. She feels alive.

For a minute she thinks it’s her owl. It wouldn’t be Harry, Harry was the goddamn eagle.

Ah, Isaac. Isaac was an anarchist, Isaac would approve. Tommy is suddenly rinsed in grief, as though every cell is weeping, a shivery sheet of tears trickling from top to bottom. She has lived so long without Isaac.

The owl lands near the top of a fir and folds up.

Tommy can smell pine and grass and something metallic. Fertilizer? The sand in the kidney-shaped cavities? It reminds her of White Sands, James and Sam sliding down the dunes. James had found a stick and made a big heart in which he wrote “Tommy.” Uh-oh, he’d said, people will think it’s a boy, and they’d laughed. People always think I’m a boy, she’d said. At twelve, did James already know he was gay?

The stars are fading, the sky lucent; she’d better to get moving.

On the tenth green Tommy dumps the rats. Their stench evaporates into the alpine chill as she builds a pyramid. White bodies, pink eyes, yellow scimitar incisors—little rat-torpedoes with scary faces, like those World War II Japanese fighter jets, aimed right at him.

This is better. She would have had to rush at the airstrip. The rats would have been a jumbled mess. This is good. She is humming a Beatles tune, Michelle. Tommy strips off her latex gloves and folds them into her purse. She pulls out a flag, a black rat drawn with a Sharpie on a square of sheet, and tapes it over the gold-crested Teton Pines pennant. She steps to the edge of the green and studies her work. What color would you call those teeth, ochre? The owl glides the fairway and lands above the house.

Tommy stoops and spreads the garbage bag beside the rat-pyramid, nuzzling the edges. She lays the .22 on the black plastic and lowers herself. She wants to sit Indian-style, straight and tall the way the kids always sat for stories—it’s so unexpected, how much she’s been mooning over those little kids—but her knees and hips can’t manage Indian-style so she folds her legs to one side and leans on one arm. Then she straightens, scrubs her hands along the spongy turf, wipes them on her dirty trousers, scrubs them a second time, rubs them along her sides, tucks her purse in beside her, and nudges the rifle two inches forward.

A rat stirs. Then another, and another, until the pyramid trembles and melts, rats dropping off, standing up, stretching. They shake, little flurries of salt, and then stagger-step—march—lope across the grass, their numbers multiplying until a legion of dead rats are running to the Vice President’s. Time to get up.

She won’t shoot him, of course. But they don’t know that. Tommy settles again on her arm and waits for first light. Wide awake, ready, something like happy.


One Response to Tommy’s Rats: The Old Woman Tries to Make Herself Useful

  1. Marysu Bennett says:

    What an amazing tale beautifully woven together! I love this story, the writing, and the truth of it. It bears rereading very well also. I could be Tommy or she could be one of my friends. My war is with the nightly raccoon(s) on the porch and they are somewhat like giant rats. Plus our political leanings seem similar! I simply love this treasure of a story and I fantasize the lucky editor who first read it, then ran to the next office to say, “Wait until you see what came to my desk!”

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