I saved a life once.
His name was Leonard and he was a rat. That’s not a judgment call on his character – he was, in fact, an actual member of the rodent family. Now, before you get too squeamish (and stop reading), I should inform you that this was not your average garage-type, grey-haired vermin. Leonard was an attractive (and well-groomed) two-toned (half black/half white) member of the species, sometimes called a “fancy rat.” He looked like this:
Now, isn’t he fancy?
How can you be squeamish of something this cute?
It was never a dream of mine to save the life of such a maligned member of the animal kingdom. But sometimes in life, moments are thrust upon us that demand action. I found myself in such a position my junior year in high school.
I was an actress at the Our Lady of Sorrows Church community repertory theater: a high school kid among waitresses, a cab driver, housewives, and the unemployed. I did props and understudied the ingénue roles. Harvey Marx was a traveling salesman and our producer, occasionally playing the comedic second banana. He lived in a hotel by the beach that was run-down and filled with pensioners. Harvey was 34 and a long way away from a pension. In-between marriages, and befitting his occupation, he was alone a lot, whether on the road or at the aging residential hotel. Needless to say, Harvey was lonely, and he decided he needed a pet.
No, his pet was not Leonard.
It was a snake.
Now, at the risk of losing many of my readers, I must assure you that there will be no more references to any other kind of phobic-inducing critters. But for the moment, we must spend some time talking about this guy:
This was the most harmless-looking reptile photo I could find. Honest!
He was the garden-variety type – innocent, and totally safe. Why Harvey chose him to be his pet, I have no idea. Except I have to admit, he did look like he was low maintenance.
On one fine early evening in summer, when Harvey’s car broke down in Lompoc and was in the shop, he needed a ride to rehearsal and he asked me to pick him up at his hotel. And so I did.
I walked into the room and was shocked by the sight of…(for the squeamish among us – including myself, any reference to the reptile in question will be written like this:) …the s****. Even though he was contained in a small aquarium, (with decorative rocks and plastic foliage) I must admit I wasn’t thrilled to meet him. But what happened next was even worse.
As Harvey grabbed his coat and script, and we headed to the door, he suddenly remembered something.
“Wait a sec. I got to feed the s****.”
He went into the bathroom and returned with a Chinese takeout carton. Opening the top carefully, he dumped the contents into the aquarium.
It was Leonard.
He wasn’t actually named Leonard at that moment. His christening would come later. But there he was in his entire “fancy rat” splendor: a little black and white ball of fur huddled in a corner across from the s****. Now as innocent and friendly as a garden s**** can be to humans, to a fancy rat it means a hungry customer. The one benefit to being the dinner of such a predator is that s***** are not known for their speed. There Leonard sat, and at the opposite end of the enclosure reposed the s****, motionless. It could take hours before the two ever met. I decided to seize the moment.
As Harvey shut the aquarium top, tossed the empty Chinese food carton into the wastepaper basket, and headed for the door, my feet refused to move. I watched the s**** and the fancy rat, and wondered how I could let this happen.
I yelled, I screamed, I cajoled, I pleaded, I begged, I cried.
“It’s just a rat!”
I took my stand: I refused to move. Either he gave me the fancy rat, or I wouldn’t take Harvey to rehearsal. One thing was clear to me – I was not leaving that room knowing that rodent was about to die.
“It’s Nature!” Harvey assured me. “The survival of the fittest!”
I wasn’t buying it. Or at least I wasn’t going to be a part of it. If Harvey had just waited, and emptied that carton into the aquarium after rehearsal, I would’ve never known. But I was there, and I felt a part of it. And for that, I would not stand. I took the Chinese takeout carton from the wastepaper basket, and with the courage that only a mother has to lift a truck off an injured child, I put my hand into that aquarium and scooped up Leonard (before he was named Leonard) out of the death trap, away from that s****, and back into his cardboard sanctuary.
Now that I had him, I wasn’t sure what to do with him. I couldn’t release him – he was too young and tiny. He’d never be able to fend for himself. How could a fancy rat survive in such a scurrilous world of the everyday rodent? I had no choice but to take him home.
The sight of the Chinese takeout carton was intriguing to my family until I opened the top. My mother screeched, my father just shrugged, and my 13-year-old brother, Jim, said, “Cool.”
Clearly, I had found an ally.
I thrust the carton at my brother and drove back to rehearsal.
Since we were in-between pets, (Streaky-the-cat had disappeared into the foothills with fate unknown), we decided that the little ball of black and white would live in a cage in the garage, against much protesting from my mother:
“I’m not cleaning up after a rat!!!”
She was overruled and we named him Leonard Bostwick III. I have no idea who the other II were, but the name just seemed to fit.
I had definitely saved his life.
And it wouldn’t be the last time either.
It turned out that “fancy rats” make excellent pets, and in fact, they have their own organization: National Fancy Rat Society. Many people consider them to be clean, affectionate, gentle, quiet, curious and highly intelligent – the perfect pet for the whole family. They are often thought of as “tiny dogs” without all that barking, pulling on the leash, and messy clean up. Leonard was no exception.
Under my brother’s tutelage, young Leonard thrived. The little critter grew to handsome proportions, with a sturdy tail, and a shiny coat. He loved to settle on my brother’s shoulder and watch the world go by. Occasionally, he would even give Jim a little kiss. And when it was time to explore the world, my brother would lower his arm, and Leonard would use it as a stepladder, letting himself off gently at the tips of Jim’s fingers. When my brother ate lunch on the bar, overlooking the living room, Leonard sat patiently off to the side of the plate that held a bologna sandwich until Jim would offer him a Frito. Leonard would politely take it from him and the two would share a lunch together. Afterwards, Leonard would painstakingly clean up his face, whiskers, and paws, and wait for his step-ladder to unfold where he could regain his perch again and survey the world.
Occasionally, my mother would enjoy a Manhattan before dinner.
The uniquely shaped cocktail glass that held the ruby-red drink fascinated Leonard. He once crawled off of my brother and over to mom’s unattended stemware. Within the blink of an eye, Leonard had settled himself on the lip of the glass, looking oh-so sophisticated. It soon became part of Leonard’s performing repertoire.
Leonard’s trick was much cuter. He had more class. Like this fella…
Needless to say, Leonard easily became part of our family. He didn’t seem to mind that when nighttime came he was placed back inside his very spacious cage, and returned to the garage until morning. It just became routine. But when summer ended, and deep autumn started to bring colder nights we worried about our little friend.
“He’s fine. He’s a rat!” Dad reminded us, with his fatherly wisdom. We knew he was right, but we draped another heavy towel over the top of Leonard’s cage just to be safe, and to keep him warm and toasty. And Leonard seemed fine with that arrangement.
Until one very cold morning in the middle of winter.
It was a Sunday and we were heading off to 8 o’clock Mass. Before we left, my brother went out to the garage to say good morning to Leonard. What he saw there was not a happy sight. He brought the cage indoors and shared the sad news: Leonard was dead. There he was at the bottom of the cage, his body stiff, and unmoving. It had been a bitterly cold night, and it was obviously too cold for Leonard.
We felt terrible.
We had grown so used to the little guy and now he was gone. The question was what to do with him? Obviously, just throwing him in the trash was out of the question. This would demand a proper burial, perhaps out in the rose garden, with a Hail Mary being said. But the proceedings would have to wait until we returned after Mass. My brother took an old shoebox and gently placed Leonard’s body inside of it. Closing the top, he set it on the dining room table – placed there to be waiting for us when we returned.
We went to Mass, went to breakfast, and then, came home. The cold morning frost had given way to a bright, sunshiny, chilly day. We all trooped into the dining room to gather up Leonard’s remains and begin the solemn task ahead of us. The drapes in the dining room were open, and the sun was shining brightly on the corner of the table where Leonard lay so peacefully in his Converse shoebox coffin.
I picked up the box and peeked inside for one final look at Leonard.
That’s when I noticed it: a tiny fluttering at Leonard’s chest. I put my face closer, unsure of what I was seeing. Was I imagining it? Or was there something happening, a quivering in the little guy’s body. I reached inside and touched him, and he seemed not as rigid. His body felt warmer, and that’s when I realized: the Converse coffin was in the center of a patch of sunshine. Warm rays from the sun were spilling directly on to the cardboard box, with Leonard inside of it.
I told my brother, and together we watched and waited.
Slowly, like Sleeping Beauty being awakened by a kiss, the sun warmed Leonard up, waking him from his hibernation. His eyes popped open and he sat up from his sawdust bed. His whiskers began to twitch, and he pulled himself up to stand at the edge of the Converse shoebox.
Like Lazarus, Leonard was back.
He was one lucky rodent, that’s for sure. Whether he knew this or not, I couldn’t tell for certain. But in my mind he did seem a little more clingy than usual, staying planted at my brother’s side for the rest of the day. And when nighttime came, we made sure to keep his cage in the service porch where he could always be warm.
We all shuddered to think we were about to get the shovel and bury Leonard. If I hadn’t looked so closely, or opened the top of the shoebox, we would have done it for sure. It was the second time I had saved Leonard’s life. And you know what?
That little rat never even said thank you.
© 2012 Written by Darlene Craviotto
© Ellen Van Veelen (Rat with Saxophone Photo)
© Robin Joy Andreae (Rat in Top Hat & Tails) http://needlefeltedart.blogspot.com/
- Celebration of the rat at Ratapalooza 2012 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)