At 6:35 this morning I was trying to shovel a dead rat into a garbage can. This is a lousy way to begin a day. My dog, who had found the already dead rodent, watched me stare at it.
There are very few things I dislike more than rats, this is not their fault though. Intellectually I understand that rats are smart, tough creatures but on a deeper level I associate them with filth, disease, the last part of Nineteen Eighty-Four. On top of all that I think they look gross. While I shouldn’t hate another living thing, I hate rats, even dead ones.
My initial instinct was to leave the rat for my wife to pick up. She is tougher than me and nothing in our wedding vows said a damn thing about rats. I thought to myself: “Fuck gender stereotypes I can’t deal with this.”
Inside she was still asleep. I could walk away like I never saw it.
But what if she heard me shrieking when I saw the rat in my dog’s mouth and for a moment thought it was still alive?
As I walked over to the little rodent copse on the bricks in my backyard I thought about someone I don’t think about often: My father’s second wife.
She and my father were a match made in hard drinker heaven. They spent their days working hard and their nights playing music as loudly as possible while getting drunk and fighting with one another. Later they took a detour into parenting after I showed up at their door needing a place to stay.
They both worked road maintenance for the New York State Department of Transportation. Our home life would sometimes be interrupted by a pager going off. They looked forward to hearing the pager because it meant overtime pay. His pager going off meant there was snow in the forecast, her’s meant there was a large dead animal on the parkway that needed to be cleaned up. Yes, my step-mother picked up dead animals for extra money.
I wondered how she did it; but like a soldier who had seen combat she didn’t talk about it, she just did it because it was her job. The only thing she ever said was “People need to take better care of these animals.” and “They can’t bite you if they’re already dead.”
When my father lost his job his wife supported the entire household, in part by picking up dead animals. Her caring for me in that time was an amazing act of generosity. I was not her son and her marriage to my father can at best be described as trying but for some reason she did it.
I went to get a shovel and the trash can.
As I stood over a little dead thing I thought about how my step-mother deserved better than my father. I loved my father but he was a terrible husband and a difficult father. She and I tried to deal with him as best we could but eventually we both had to give up. I moved our first, she stuck it out a little longer before leaving too.
Later I was lucky enough to rebuild my relationship with my father but his second wife disappeared from our lives or perhaps she was erased. My father never mentioned her and I was too afraid to jeopardize my relationship with my father by bringing her up. I assumed that someday they would work it out and we’d all look back on things and laugh.
Sadly it was not to be, they both passed away with a few months of one another and I often regret not finding a way to thank her for taking care of me, even though it meant hauling dead animals it order to pay the bills.
My father’s second wife also appears in this story which is not sad.