Today is World Rat Day. It’s a pity this holiday didn’t exist when I owned the Sea Gull. I’ll admit to holding certain prejudices against rats, but I’ve learned to keep them to myself since World Rat Day was established over a decade ago. Before rats got their day of celebration, I behaved much differently.
One quiet summer day I was confronted unexpectedly by one of the Sea Gull waitresses, Sue Rack. She walked into the restaurant with a rat on her shoulder. She was not coming to work, nor was she a customer. She simply wanted to drop by to show us all her pet rat, Merle.
I was standing by the register with my young (at the time) son. He was fascinated by Merle and not in any way afraid or uncomfortable standing next to someone with a rat on their shoulder. I, on the other hand, was horrified. I looked around nervously. I was afraid the customers would see and complain, but no one seemed to notice.
My son was excited and full of questions. What does Merle eat? Mostly fruits and vegetables and sometimes rat pellets. Will he bite me? Not unless you frighten him or hurt him. How old is he? He’s getting a bit old for a rat, almost 4 years. Can I hold him? I answered this question myself. NO !
What is it about pets that makes some people, especially women, ooh and aah and revert to baby talk? Do animals provide better emotional support than human beings? Are pets less confrontational or demanding? Are they better listeners? Are they more trustable? I wouldn’t know. I’m not a pet person and definitely not a rat person. That puts me in the minority.
My son was captivated, enthralled.
“I want to touch Merle. I want to hold him. Please dad, please!”
Hoping to get over this incident before things got out of hand, I relented. A chill went down my spine when Sue put Merle in my son’s hands. Pictures flashed through my brain from George Orwell’s 1984 novel when Winston Smith was about to have his face eaten by rats in Room 101. I thought of the rats described in Camus’ The Plague dying in the streets of Oran: “In the mornings the bodies were found lining the gutters, each with a gout of blood, like a red flower, on its tapering muzzle; some were bloated and already beginning to rot, others rigid with their whiskers still erect.”
Was it irrational to think that my son might catch some fatal disease? I was relieved that Sue didn’t completely let go of the rat. She understood my fear and she was protective of her pet. It lasted only for a second or two. She put Merle back on her shoulder and walked into the kitchen to show him to the cooks.
This was too much. There would be no rats in my kitchen, not Merle, not any. Rats might be a staple in the Cambodian diet, barbecued on sticks by roadside vendors in parts of Africa, or even at one time an ingredient in the paella recipe of the Valencia region of Spain. But, they were not on the menu in Mendocino, not in my restaurant.
This line of thinking was ridiculous. According to Natalie Angier in The Creature Connection, “the elevation of an animal to pet status removes it entirely from the human food chain,” but she wrote that long after my experience with Merle. How was I to know?
All the waitresses ran into the kitchen to take their turn with Merle.
“Look how his little pink eyes are shining with love.”
“Look at his cute little nose sniffing the smells in the kitchen.”
“I’ve heard rats reproduce like rabbits.”
“No, they reproduce like rats, ha ha!”
I was growing ill. What if the Health Department were to show up? What if the customers knew what was going on and complained? Would they close me down? What if someone got ill? I didn’t even want to think about it. A sudden case of musophobia pushed me over the brink. My arms flailed about and I threw my hands into the air.
“Stop! All of you just stop. That’s enough, Sue. Take Merle out and go. I’m sorry but I can’t have a rat in the restaurant, pet or not.”
I didn’t realize I was screaming until I saw the tears rolling down my son’s cheeks. He was standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He tried to speak but the words came out as unintelligible sobs. I tried to calm him down. I projected my best Anthony Perkins “wouldn’t even harm a fly” look.
“I … I … I LOVE MERLE. I want to go with Merle.”
Sue knew what to do. She had coal black hair and white skin and pointed features. It’s true some of the employees thought she was a witch. But, she was soft spoken and knew how and when to be funny or serious.
“It’s okay honey, you can see Merle again. It was wrong to bring him into the restaurant. It’s not a good place for rats. Next time I’ll let your dad know when I’m coming and you can come outside and spend all the time you want with Merle.”
He was over it. Sue left. Things went back to normal for awhile. We all forgot about Merle. All except my son.
A few months later when Sue came in for her shift, he walked up to her and asked.
“So, how’s Merle.”
He had a big smile on his face.
“Well, I’m sorry to say Merle died.”
His smile turned to shock and confusion.
“Yes, honey. He’s gone. He left for a better place.”
My son didn’t say a word, but I could see the mill grinding in his head. Later, in the car, when we drove north to Fort Bragg, he asked me.
“Why did Merle die, Dad?”
“Why? I don’t know. Maybe he just got old.” It wasn’t the right thing to say but it was all I could think of.
A few minutes later he told me.
“I know why Merle died, Dad.”
“Well … why?”
“Because that’s just the way life is, Dad. It’s just the way life is.”