By Josip Novakovich

On Columbus and 106th opposite from a hotel on whose yellow neon sign a green monkey leaped and hung by its tail during the summer, near a burnt down cancer ward, I shared an apartment with three Juilliard students. At first, there were five of us-my ex-Soviet roommate’s brother was there. The two ex-Soviets, fresh from the exile camp in Vienna, spoke no English and didn’t dare to leave the apartment. They spent the whole summer on a floor mattress, wrapped in a white sheet, embraced, gazing at a small TV we had found in a garbage heap on Upper East Side. The antennae, sticking out like a V sign, could catch only one channel, which shifted up and down, and trembled. When the summer was over, the ex-Soviets stood up from the bed, speaking fluent English. The brother moved out and opened an ESP therapeutic center in Chinatown.

A French violinist slept on the floor in an Alpine sleeping bag. Whenever he woke up, he rubbed his sweaty and hairy chest with a thick towel, and his blood-shot eyes stared at us as though we were the Andean cannibals, cooking him for supper. As we had no air-conditioning, on hot days he woke up in puddles of his own sweat.

I slept on the carpet from a rich man’s garbage heap. The only one of us who had a real bed was a Swiss cellist, who shaved twice a day and resentfully looked around him at the chaos the rest of us created from our clothes, papers, bread crumbs, utensils, shoe-shine boxes, toothpaste tubes, records. I easily got used to the bohemian atmosphere, and paid no thoughts to how different it all was from what I had expected my stay in America would be.

But as my roommates and I ran after a rat through our apartment, stumbling over ashtrays, beer cans, unwashed plates with dry and cracked yolks, it occurred to me: Is this the way to live? Where are the cats?

I didn’t wish to chase the rodent; he looked like a veteran of many battles, and that he was in the predicament of having a crew of Juilliard musicians after him was no doubt a result of his observing us for a while, and correctly assessing us to be a bunch of wimps, whining day in and day out. He used to enter the kitchen at noon, charge the trash bag like a small boar, biting straight through the olive plastic for cheese crusts. We bought gourmet cheeses-since we snorted no coke, we had to have some wasteful recompense-which tasted the way cow dung, horse shit, a pigsty and freshly cut grass smelled: strange how you grow to like the foul taste, but the fouler, the tastier. The Frenchman scoffed at us for liking the cheeses, which, according to him, were bland. The stench of cheese must have thrown our rat back to his rural roots.

In the rat’s first appearances, it was enough to set your foot in the kitchen, and he’d scurry off, squealing for life. But after he had heard us playing Schubert string quartets, his caution was gone. Now he languidly rummaged through our garbage, looking fat and well-established, and with an air of dignity, he strolled into the living room for the afternoon intermezzo.

Schubert moved him. I read somewhere that Bach moves plants. Schubert rooted our rat to the spot, making him tremble to the harmonics of minor keys, raising his hairs, so that he resembled a hedge-hog. Now and then he stood on his hind legs, put his paws together like a squirrel preying for a pistachio. Perhaps he would have clapped his paws but didn’t dare out of piety for the music.

Der Tod and das Maedchen was his absolute favorite. We used to play it sometimes just to tease him. Then he’d come quite close to the cello, his little beady eyes shone with tears, his upper lips twitched, with his little incisors pinching his lower lip. If he hadn’t been so scrawny, his ears so small, his tail so thin and wet, he could have passed for a squirrel and would have been quite likable. But Lord knows, he was not likable. Perhaps he wished to be. Perhaps he wished to make friends with us, and would have been proud of us. Perhaps he was proud of us. He may have even loved us. But we didn’t appreciate him as the audience-after all, playing to entertain a rat is not what you’d call a lustrous career. Yet his listening always humored us and put a joie de vivre, otherwise so hard to come by, into the strings.

But we had to make a stop to his growing more and more brazen. Soon he would have been jumping on the table and dining with us. He would have grown so attached to us that he would have followed us on our dates, and certainly, he would have been unstoppable if he had known Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony would caress the walls at the Avery Fisher Hall though I should think he’d have preferred it at Carnegie Hall, where walls, old and sandy, must be easier to bite your way through.

We discovered that he feared Bartok. I don’t know why he feared Bartok; maybe he hadn’t been educated well-enough to take the stresses of modernity in music, though he kept up with other modernities and post-modernities as a NYC rat. Though Bartok made him run helter-skelter for shelter, we couldn’t keep playing Bartok just to keep a rat away.

Alone, none of us could have handled the little Ayatollah. But united-a Frenchman, a Yugoslav, ex-Soviet, and a Swiss-we dared to attack him. Actually, the Frenchman was away on a date with a woman from the fourth floor. He had preferred a woman from the second floor, but one floor of elevator time was not enough for him to let her pick him up-that’s how he described it. Three floors of elevator time sufficed for a woman to pick him up. So, the three of us intervened, like United Nations Blue Helmets of sorts-and if the Swedish anti-communist and anti-feminist elite had given us a Nobel prize for peace, we could have done even better.

As the rat strolled into our bathroom, we exchanged conspiratorial looks. It was too much; now he would like to share our toilet! The ex-Soviet jumped and shut the bathroom door, swearing in Russian. The Swiss and I grabbed the table, the plates sliding and crashing on the floor. We barred the bathroom door with the platform of the table against it. Then we opened the door. Over the edge of the table we aimed blows at him with a broom-stick, a baseball bat (through which we had tried to Americanize ourselves), and an unscrewed table leg. Only two of us could fit in the door frame at a time, so we took turns. Mostly we missed. The Swiss struck him first with the broom-stick, despite its being thin-I guess, Swiss precision, but let’s stay away from national stereo-types. The blow surprised the rat and incensed him. He shrieked gorily and jumped toward us, nearly the full height of the fence. I got goose-bumps from the shrillness of his voice. We were almost ready to beat a retreat and sign a peace treaty, wherever, Geneva, if need be. But we were too ashamed to retreat.

The rat jumped again, right up to the edge of the table. As he was falling down, I struck him with the baseball bat, which brushed his back and squashed his tail on a tile. The tile breaking in half. Hardly a second later the table-leg struck him, blowing him off the floor; his body hit the heating pipe. Now he jumped without any order, like a panicky frog, in such high leaps that he could have jumped over the fence. He jumped left, and right, and then backward. He fell into the bath tub. He leaped but couldn’t jump out of the slippery tub. We flung the table aside, the Swiss squealed Ya’ohl, and we all jumped forwards. From the side of the tub we aimed blows at the rat. Blood squirted. The enamel of the tub cracked in many places.

He was all torn and smashed but still twitched. Cats have nine lives, rats ten. When he was finally dead, instead of triumphant, we were ashamed; we didn’t look into each other’s eyes. Slowly we swept his remains onto a Sunday New York Times Magazine and put it all into three olive garbage bags. We threw the package into a large rusty iron box of garbage, in a somber, funeral mood. We washed the tub for days with all sorts of soaps, until it shone. We threw away the clubs; henceforth our table had only three legs. None of us took baths anymore, but only showers, which of their own accord changed from hot to cold to hot.

If we had hoped that after the assassination we would be rat-free, we were wrong. A chap similar to our murdered friend began to appear-so similar that it spooked us. But he didn’t care for music. We bought rat poison and put it in cheese. Either it didn’t kill him or another rat indistinguishable from him replaced him. At night there were constant noises coming from the walls: scuffling of rats in their love, work (tunnel and road construction), and debates in muffled squeals.

One night a fire alarm went off. We didn’t bother to get out of our beds; the alarm went off so often that it always seemed a prank. But when hollering reached our ears and smoke our nostrils, we looked out the window. Pointed blue and orange tongues of fire licking the walls above windows like tongues that roll over upper lips after a greasy meal. We grabbed our passports, diplomas, money and instruments-leaving behind pictures of families and girlfriends, suits, records, music scores. In long underwear we ran down the smoky stairways out of the building, into the slushy snow. Rats leaped out the windows and thumped against the pavement and scurried away.

Waiting for shelter, I got such a frostbite on my large toe that for a while it seemed it would have to be cut off, and probably would have been if I’d had a good enough insurance policy to visit a doctor. I still can’t feel anything in the toe. An orange school bus took us to shelter, and some shelter it was! People sick beyond repair, derelicts, drunks, drug addicts, lunatics, failed thieves who were still trying. We ran out of the stench for our lives and spent the night all rolled up in a bundle on a grating in a stream of urinated heat.

Several days later, the Frenchman, the ex-Soviet and I moved back into our apartment. The Swiss cellist moved back to Switzerland. Although the building was now all sooty with the windows gaping black, our part was nearly intact. There were no rats there, not for a year, when we filed a claim against our landlord in a small-claims court, demanding to be paid back several months of rent because there had been no hot water and heat. Although the landlord didn’t show up in the court, he won the case and evicted us.

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About Josip Novakovich

Josip Novakovich moved from Croatia to the US at the age of twenty. He has published a novel, APRIL FOOL’S DAY (in ten countries), three story collections (INFIDELITIES: STORIES OF WAR AND LUST, YOLK, and SALVATION AND OTHER DISASTERS) and two collections of narrative essays. His work was anthologized IN BEST AMERICAN POETRY, THE PUSHCART PRIZE collection, and O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Ingram Merrill Award, an American Book Award, and he has been a writing fellow of the New York Public Library. He teaches in the MFA program at Penn State University and is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Nevada.

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