The Saga of Murray the Rat / By Al Martinez

Al Martinez

We sing today of Murray the rat, smarter than human, wiser than cat.

He entered our lives some weeks ago in our utility room, which is a room attached to the house, but closed off from it; where we keep the washer/dryer, the freezer and those items we intend to fix or throw away someday.

Murray actually is a rat, not a Mafia hit man who testified against the mob or a back alley gambler from a Damon Runyon story. I named him Murray, I don’t know why, but at least we know now that he has a specific identity.

Evidence of his initial presence was the usual rat pooh-pooh we have become accustomed to after many years of living in Ratville, U.S.A., and also materials that he laid in a line on the utility room floor: a small paint brush, straws from a broom, a plastic candy wrapper, some twigs and a nail.

They were placed in a precise pattern, more like elements of a Druid ritual than scattered debris. After a few days of this, we hired Jose One to search through the utility room and close up any entryway that might be utilized by an outdoor rat. He’s called Jose One, by the way, because he has a brother who is also named Jose who is Jose Two.

This accomplished, we declared our house to be Murray free and celebrated with a martini. Well, I celebrated with a martini while my wife, the non-drinking Cinelli, had the pleasure of lecturing me on the dangers of alcohol and wondering why I couldn’t be like other no doubt wiser husbands who only sipped a little white wine on celebratory occasions instead of those awful martinis.

Reference to such a pleasurable drink in such a hostile manner would have generated a bar room brawl on other occasions, but for now I simply accepted the criticism in my usual genial manner and finished off the martini.

It wasn’t the end of Murray. The next night he laid out his usual pattern, which indicated he was either still finding a way into the house or was trapped in the utility room. We put our cat, Ernie the Assassin, in the room one night and all he did was yowl to get out. Either he was terrified of Murray or had searched for him without success.

Back in the days when our yard was heavy with ground covering vines we had rattlesnakes, but very few rats, because the snakes ate them. We got rid of the rattlers by chopping off their heads and now the rats were back, led by Murray, whom a rodent expert at UCLA determined was a wood rat, better known as a pack rat, a label often attached to women who buy shoes they never wear, hoarding them in a closet the way Imelda Marcos once did.

Since importing dangerous snakes was out of the question, our next effort was to trap the rats but not kill them. We borrowed a metal cage built to trap them alive and move them to a new location, such as near your house. We tantalized Murray with walnuts and peanut butter, put the food near the trap’s trigger and, voila!, the next morning there was a trapped and forlorn Murray, looking every bit like Bernie Madoff in the first days of his prison sentence.

We carted Murray down to another location and figure that was the end of our pack rat problem. Not so. Two nights later, there were the same ritual signs of a pack rat on the utility room floor. Either it was another rat or Murray was back. At a session of my writers workshop, members suggested that pack rats always returned to their original territory. They were homing rats, battling larger predators and chaparral to go home again. Asking writers to solve a domestic problem is like relying on Sarah Palin to lecture on international law, but I nodded politely and thanked them for their theory, however absurd it seemed.

We just put the trap out again … and again … and again. Murray is still there. He has figured out how to get into the trap and eat the bait without stepping on the trigger that would have slammed the door shut and thus imprisoned him. We have hired Jose Two this time to search for ways Murray might be sneaking in to the utility room and laying out the holy artifacts of his Druid ritual.

If we ever catch him again, I will ship him cross-country to the Pentagon where the military has ways of dealing with undesirable mammals. By the time they’re done with him he’ll think twice about returning to Ratville.