Some books and authors discussed in this episode:
James Joyce: Ulysses / Dubliners / A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Originally published in Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal
Mama believed what we heard that night was a rat. The incident happened in late August of 1950, right before I entered first grade and not long after Daddy returned from his construction job on the Island of Okinawa. He’d been away for an entire year. While he was gone, we moved from Georgia to a small town in the foothills of North Carolina. The name of the town was Quicksand and we settled right in the heart of it—close to the school, the dry cleaners, the grocery store and the Methodist Church. The white frame house we moved into had two bedrooms, a breakfast nook, a big backyard with two water oak trees and rollaway stairs that led to an attic.
Mama rarely threw anything away for fear Daddy would call for it and this included moth-eaten clothes, outdated detective magazines, broken tools, pieces of fishing tackle, empty tobacco tins, work boots, belts missing buckles, buckles missing belts, burnt out bulbs from flashlights and anything else a person could imagine. When we moved, she brought all that stuff along and stored it up in the attic. We learned later that the attic was rat infested. Whenever Mama pulled down the rollaway stairs, I would scamper up behind her. In spite of the fact that I knew rat flea bites could prove fatal, I felt it was worth the risk to search through the cardboard boxes scattered around. To my neverending delight, photographs, letters, receipts and report cards had found their way to the attic along with my sister’s old evening gowns, empty pocketbooks, run down high heel shoes and outgrown bathing suits. Some boxes held dark secrets. My Grandfather shot himself through the heart but I might never have known if I hadn’t discovered the yellowed newspaper clipping hidden at the bottom of Othermama’s jewelry box that she’d stashed up there for safekeeping. Our attic could’ve been fun if it hadn’t been for the rats. Mama was scared to death of them; nobody else liked them either. The previous tenants reported that some grew as big as cats and dogs.
We were still trying to get used to Daddy’s return home. He’d never had a lot of patience but it seemed to me like everything got on his nerves. We’d all gone to bed that night and the house was pitch black. I slept in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. Snuggled up to Mama (we slept together in a double bed), I was almost asleep when I heard shuffling noises coming from somewhere above.
“Mama?!” I whispered.
“Shhh!” she said. We waited but didn’t hear anything else. I was almost asleep when the noises started again. I heard what sounded like somebody walking across the attic in heavy shoes. I heard each footstep come closer and closer. Under the covers, I grabbed Mama’s arm. Suddenly, I heard breathing. Someone or some thing was standing by our bed.
“Mama? Daddy?” a voice whispered. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was my big brother Jake. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “I think somebody’s in the attic.” Daddy slept on a single bed not far from the foot of Mama’s.
“Hush!” Daddy whispered, “listen.”
“Oh my God,” Mama whimpered, “Could it be a rat?”
“If it’s a rat, he’s wearing Daddy’s old work boots,” Jake said.
For a minute or so the only sound in the house was the beating of my heart. Then the noises started up again. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Now the footsteps seemed to be right overhead. I held on to Mama’s arm for dear life.
“D.W., should we call the police?” Mama whispered. Daddy’s answer nearly caused my heart to stop beating.
“Cut it out! Cut it out!” He screamed. Daddy had the loudest voice of anyone in the whole world. He could’ve been an opera singer or perhaps, as Othermama suggested, a hog caller. Following his shouts, the footsteps stopped and I felt safe—whatever was up there must’ve feared Daddy, too. Daddy ordered Jake back to bed. Mama started to say something but Daddy said, “Go to sleep now, goddammit.” As far as Daddy was concerned, the matter was closed. Why did he have to yell? I wondered. Why did he have to scare the footsteps off? Why didn’t he go up to see what was going on?
The next day my other brother Ben and I scouted around the house looking for tracks. A hard summer rain had fallen the night before and the ground was still muddy. The only tracks we found below the attic windows looked like a small dog had made them. We showed the tracks to Othermama. Recalling a ghost story that Gaga, my paternal Grandmother often told, I said, “Maybe these are cloven hoof prints.”
“Yeah, maybe the Devil came to visit,” Ben said. Othermama threw back her head and laughed. She had a laugh that everybody loved—it came from somewhere way deep down in her round belly. “He doesn’t have to come visit,” she said, “the Devil lives here.” Ben and I didn’t laugh.
Soon after we heard the noises in the attic, Mama got the phone book and called an exterminator. He put poison down and told her that her worries were over. The next morning, neighbors started calling. Estelle Jordan was the first to phone. Othermama said, “Calm down, Estelle, I can’t understand a word…but why should I shut the windows?” Next, Lenora Boovy called, sobbing. Lenora was an animal lover—took in the town strays. She also took too many Goody Powders according to Othermama. She had been known to house as many as thirty-five cats as well as ten dogs at a time—in addition to cages full of love birds, hamsters, parakeets and anything else that needed a place to stay. Estelle and Lenora claimed they witnessed rats diving out our attic window. My sister Rosebud shrugged at the news.
“I can’t blame those rats,” she said, “nothing in its right mind would want to live with us.” But of course, we all ran to see. We were looking up at the attic on the west side of the house when something that could’ve been a squirrel with a long skinny tail appeared in the window. It seemed to pause a moment as if thinking before it leaped off the ledge. Everybody screamed and jumped back but Ben. My brother never seemed to sense danger and didn’t jump fast enough. The rat almost landed on his head. By mid-morning, Jake had hauled six lifeless bodies in the wheelbarrow to the garbage dump for burning. Estelle and Lenora wanted Mama to call the police but instead she called the exterminator and begged him to please, come quick.
Estelle and Lenora, followed by a small crowd of neighbors, gathered in our yard that afternoon to hear what the man had to say. Othermama brought out a pitcher of iced tea and served it with a tray of her homemade lemon drop cookies fresh from the oven. The exterminator, a tall, skinny man who wore thick glasses and a hearing aid, explained in a loud voice that the poison he used kills fast and makes its victims gasp for air. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of a trembling hand. “This beats all,” he shouted. “I’ve been exterminating for years—thirty-five years, and I never knowed rats to commit suicide.” We waited silently while he gulped the rest of his iced tea. “My advice,” the exterminator concluded, looking up expectantly, “is to steer clear of them windows.”
“Damn, I could’ve told you that,” a neighbor standing behind me mumbled. Then the exterminator added, “I swear, I think this country’s headed for another combustion.”
“What’s a combustion?” The same neighbor mumbled. After the exterminator left, Mama explained to those still standing in the yard stuffing themselves with lemon drop cookies that he probably meant we were headed for another “depression.”
Rosebud, who had dressed up in a pastel pink pedal pusher outfit with matching sandals to hear the exterminator speak, wanted to call the newspaper with the story but Mama made her put down the phone
“You just want to get your picture in the paper,” Mama said. “I don’t need a reporter sticking his nose in our business.” Othermama always had the last word where Mama and Rosebud were concerned and she said, “In the name of Almighty God, let the rats die in peace.”
Although Daddy didn’t allow us to discuss it, I couldn’t help but worry about the visitor in our attic. Questions haunted me. Why had it come? Where did it come from? What did it want? Did the thing eat the poison, too? Had it jumped to its death and been hauled away and burned? Or, had it escaped? I never told anybody—not even Mama—but I suspected that whatever walked in Daddy’s boots that night might still be alive—hiding behind a box in the attic or hovering in a dark corner—listening—waiting to make its next move.
Actress and writer Diane Kimbrell has lived in NYC for many years, but was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. A list of her literary credits include The Raleigh Review, The Green Silk Journal, The Battered Suitcase, Dew on the Kudzu, and Deep South Magazine. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she also attended Columbia University and was awarded six Woolrich fellowships in writing. She also attended New York University earning credits towards an MA in Drama Therapy. Her cat’s name (a magnificent Russian Blue) is Athena.
Image: Flickr / Freaktography