We all have irrational fears, don’t we? Fear of tight places or open spaces, fear of heights, snakes, spiders. Some induce a mere tingle in the spine, some incite full-out panic. Such fears are inconvenient for those who suffer from them, but they can have their uses. I found my wife’s fear very useful.
Claudine had musophobia, an extreme fear of rodents. A mouse the size of your pinkie finger would cause her to levitate, screaming, to the top of whatever furniture was handy. She couldn’t even look at a dead vole when she nearly stepped on it in the yard. But rats…rats induced a panic so great that Claudine lost her mind.
It was unfortunate for her, then, when a new subdivision was built across the street from our house. The bulldozing and grading destroyed the natural habitat of the creatures living there. Like any displaced refugees they desperately sought new homes. Our home.
I returned from work one freezing January day to find a shoeless, coatless Claudine shivering on the front porch.
“Oh, Jack, I saw a rat, not really saw it, but I saw the droppings in the basement. Right by the washer and dryer. It could be anywhere in the house, I can’t go back in there, you understand, can’t close my eyes in that house while a rat might….” She broke into sobs.
“Get hold of yourself, Claudine. We’ll call an exterminator. Come inside and get warm,” I said none too gently.
To be perfectly honest, Claudine had been getting on my last nerve for some time. All the delicate little helpless ways that I once found so attractive now drove me crazy. I day-dreamed of being free again with endless possibilities open before me. There had been so many pretty women available once. What had possessed me to choose this one? I longed for the chance to start over. I’d be more discerning next time around.
The exterminator tried to keep the rats out, setting traps and putting down poisoned bait. But they were more determined than he was. At night, we’d hear their thumps in the attic over our heads. Claudine would shake the bed with her sobs, which I ignored. She lived in a state of terror, losing weight and developing dark circles under her eyes.
Opportunities come along rarely in our lives. It’s a wise man who has the courage to seize them when they present themselves, don’t you agree? I saw my chance and took it.
Claudine nodded listlessly when I said I’d be working from home for a few days. I bought a live trap, baited it liberally with peanut butter and placed it in the attic. When I checked next day, I’d caught a foot-long Norway rat, a truly hideous specimen.
“Claudine, I need you to deliver these papers to our lawyer tomorrow afternoon. You’ll have to sign some documents, so I can’t do it for you. It has to be done tomorrow, and the only time he has is at 5:30. He’s staying late to work you in.”
“But that means getting on I-285 at rush hour,” Claudine said. “You know how I hate that. Can’t you take me?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. If you didn’t drive like an old lady, it wouldn’t be so bad. Just keep up with the flow of traffic. And no, I can’t take you because I have to be on a very important conference call. One of us has to earn a living.” I let my voice drip sarcasm. Claudine’s eyes filled with tears, but she made no further protests.
I fed the rat two of Claudine’s Valiums crushed into more peanut butter. While she was getting ready, I placed its sedated body under the front seat of the car. If my plan worked, it would awaken and scuttle out onto her feet when she was traveling 70 miles per hour.
I watched her drive off, her knuckles already white on the steering wheel. Then I paced. A lot could go wrong with my plan, which seemed less brilliant with each passing moment. What if the rat never woke up? Maybe I’d killed it. If Claudine made it to the lawyer’s office, she’d have some tough questions about why he wasn’t there to meet her. Or what if the crash only injured her? I wanted my freedom, not a job as a nurse. An eternity passed before I heard the doorbell.
Two solemn young policemen stood on my doorstep. They were very kind. “We don’t know why this terrible accident happened,” one of them said. “It appears your wife drove straight into the concrete median wall at a high rate of speed. My deepest sympathy, sir.”
Sure enough, the pretty women were still out there, but they turned away disdainfully when I tried to chat them up. A beautiful redhead said, “Get lost, Grandpa.” Her friend sniffed the air and said, “I smell a rat.” Their laughter followed me out the door.
At home, the rats took over the house. They didn’t even try to hide anymore. I admit I was – not afraid, exactly – but their constant scurrying made me nervous. Then one bit me while I was sleeping. The wound turned putrid with infection.
The nightmares began then. I barricaded myself in the bedroom, but I could hear them gnawing, gnawing in the walls. It was hard to sleep. I lost weight and developed dark circles under my eyes.
We all have irrational fears, but real ones – they’re different. Aren’t they?