I come home from school with a cage of seven rats my fourth grade teacher won gambling. My mother is on a call, sipping a G&T, making sad hmmmmms and ohhhhhs into our rotary dial phone. Her body hunched over the voice on the other end.
She’s still on the phone, with a third gin, when Dad comes home after work. He pats her shoulders and bends to look at the rats.
“Ms. Woodburn didn’t want them.”
“Beautiful specimens, my girl. Did you name them yet?”
“Big one’s Whiskey. I think he’s a boy.”
Within a month, the other rats are dropping babies. Hairless twitching blobs, which Whiskey sometimes eats. The young that escape being eaten by their father squeeze through the cage rungs into my father’s model train set. They grow into sleek teen-rats, thrumming through the dark tunnels like red-eyed ghosts, chased by electric trains. Tearing their tiny claws into paper mache mountains and glue-waterfalls. Dad I clean up after them. Mom pays them no mind.
Thirty years later, the day after Dad’s funeral, I turn off the power in his trainset. Rip off the veneer of fake rocks and rivers covering advice articles from decades-old magazines:
HOW TO CODDLE YOUR MAN.
Let him have his hobbies.
Give him a home of peace and order.
Minimize the children’s noise.