King of the Rats


Paranoid—From the greek: Paranoos, “distracted” from “para” irregular and “noos,” mind.

There are rats in my garage.

Boot-sized ones that run straight up the walls and then tiptoe along the roof beams. In the wall or the attic, they sound like a newspaper being crumpled but out in the open they are silent as a mannequin’s hand. When I go out there—the laundry basket in front of me banging through the kitchen door—I feel them up in the rafters, lording above me, disease-eyed and smiling down.

A “Rat King” refers to a group of rats whose tails have knotted together. In January of 2005, an Estonian farmer named Rein found one. After Rein’s son killed the sixteen rats, they found out that the rats had been bound together by frozen sand.[1] Imagine a Ferris-Wheel constructed from rats and the carnie at its controls. Beneath the wheeling assemblage of rats, there are, underneath the grandstand, smaller rats, nubs of stale popcorn, chunks of taffy, in their sharp mouths.  Inside these rats there is even more—garbage and blood and guts.

In January of 1971, Black Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid was released in the US. Two of the band’s biggest hits are on the album: “War Pigs” and “Iron Man.” An anti-Vietnam song, “War Pigs” was the band’s choice for album title, but Vertigo Records thought it too volatile.[2] Rolling Stone has often called Black Sabbath “the heavy-metal kings of the 1970’s.”[3] I have bought T-shirts, seen posters that said as much: Kings of Heavy Metal. In high school, we’d go “gravel-jamming” on Iowa’s backroads—we’d get lit-up and drive around listening to Blizzard of Oz, lost, hour after hour of the Lizard King. The future’s uncertain and the end is always near / Let it roll, baby, roll.

I will turn 33 in January. Elvis Presley, “the king,” or the “King of Rock N’ Roll” died 33 years ago.[4] He was also born in January. As was hall of fame pitcher, Nolan Ryan[5] and advocate of torture Dick Cheney.[6] When I think of Elvis, I think of the movie Leaving Las Vegas and pills and sweaty mutton chops. Nolan Ryan was almost bald when, as Robin Ventura charged the mound after being beaned in a major league baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox, Ryan put Ventura in a headlock and punched his head, over and over again.  Dick Cheney was thirty-seven when he had his first heart attack.[7]

Counting each bone in my coccyx, I have 33 vertebrae in my spine—a spine that was slightly curved in my youth. A spine that ladders up to a brain that has been observed, kicked, kissed, cut into, swollen, photographed, punched, fallen upon, head-butted, dashboard smashed, beaned by a curveball, broken windows, split apart, x-rayed, beaned by a fastball, held, injected with dye, concussed, massaged and prayed over.

33 is also the atomic number for arsenic. In a study published in Epidemiology in 2003, a group of five scientists found that pregnant women who are exposed to arsenic through drinking water will have children with lower birth weights. Arsenic’s effect on pregnant women is similar to that of tobacco smoke and benzene.[8] Lewisite is an organoarsenic compound named after the American chemist Winford L. Lewis. “A dark, oily liquid producing an irritant gas,” Lewisite was developed by the US Army for use in chemical wars in the early 20th century.[9] It causes blisters similar to mustard gas, but is more effective because it seeps into the skin. It is sometimes odorless and can appear amber if it’s unpure. In “Why Not Gas Warfare?” a 1939 op-ed piece in support of the use of chemical weapons, Winford L. Lewis argues that “the advantage in this mode of warfare goes to that country which is more highly developed in chemical industries.”[10]

The crows swoop and dip, tornadic in the drafts between the bluffs. It is 2004 and my back is numb—I’ve only been laying down on this rock for ten minutes. Above me, the birds, dark commas, whirl. A pickup chugs off in the distance, out on the horizon, maybe that’s Arizona. A dog barks. A door slams. The rez dogs that chased me—from the old Uranium mine equipment up to this bluff—danced below me while I clambered up  the rocks. They jawed and snapped at each other. Then drifted off to a spread of snow and trash in the culvert below—torn garbage bags, an old Clorox jug, like an enormous busted tooth, two pieces of a sink, some PVC piping. Each dog is covered in sores and mange. One noses into a bag and a black flash streaks out of it. While the three dogs chase the rat, I watch two others inch out of the white plastic. And then they’re gone, invisible into the ditch’s dried grass. I hold my stocking hat on to keep it from the wind. The wind that above the cemetery yesterday, had hundreds of US flags straightened and flat out as if they’d been pinned to the air. One of my gloves is already gone, sinking into the icy slush in the ditch below. I’d wanted to get a closer look at the mines but the dogs wouldn’t let me. The article had said that, for a long time, many Navajo worked in the mines without much, if any, protection from the Uranium. So, there’s generation after generation of sickness and death and very little help. And the dogs are back. One has the rat hanging limply from its mouth.

If you walk into a garage in which rats have accidentally chewed open your Lewisite reserves, and the gas is drifting down on your like a comforter, this is what you should expect: “Upon contact with the skin, it causes large, painful, fluid-filled blisters, especially on the extremities, back, and scrotum. It also acts as a toxic lung irritant by causing swelling, inflammation, and destruction of the lining of the airways. The lining may subsequently slough off and form an obstruction in the airway, making it difficult to breathe. It is a systemic poison because absorption of arsenic through the skin causes pulmonary swelling, diarrhea, restlessness, weakness, below-normal temperature, and low blood pressure. A victim feels its effects immediately.” In the 1940’s, the US was making Lewisite in Pine Bluff, Huntsville, and in the Rocky Mountains. At decade’s end, production was halted and the US dumped over twenty-thousand tons of Lewisite into the oceans: “One of the 1948 dumping operations was referred to as Operation Geranium because lewisite has a geraniumlike odor.” In 1991, an Iraqi Prisoner of War said that Saddam had stockpiles of Lewisite munitions.[11]

On May 13, 2004, Steve King, an Iowa congressman, compared the torture at Abu Ghraib to fraternity hazing. In the same press release he references prostitute Heidi Fleiss, serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, Iowa senator Tom Harkin, and says “charred,” “dangling” and “ballpark.”[12] King attends St. Martin’s Church in Odebolt, Iowa.[13]

The day I decide that all the rats must be killed, a bird flies into my open garage and pecks me in the back. I run from the garage but the bird stays. I leave the garage light off and a door open so the bird might know to fly out into the pink Texas twilight. I flip the light on and peer into the ceiling. It flaps down at me, brushing my head. When it sees me looking through the window it yells CrackerJacks. My wife says it is a mocking bird. The garage will be oven-hot tomorrow. If it doesn’t fly off, it will die. All night I check on it.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I had an internship at a television station in North Iowa. Each morning, I’d blearily drive to work. Check in. Get an assignment. Check out a video camera. All day I’d drive a station car—most often a falling apart white station wagon—to sporting events across the state. I’d shoot until I had a few highlights—homeruns, a triple in the gap, double play, backwards Ks—and then it was off to the next town. The next game. That summer I read only Nabokov and often, instead of going straight to the next town, I’d hang a right after leaving town and drive aimlessly down the gravel road. Pick a spot where the corn was tall and bright green, and then sit on the hood, smoking cigarettes and reading. All summer it was Cedar Rapids, Garner, Hampton, Odebolt, Webster City and Aplington. It was also the summer that I began brushing my teeth on long, solitary, drives. The radio up—probably Black Sabbath or Ozzy Osbourne—the windows open to the humid grip of the corn and soybean fields—I’d brush them again and again. The toothbrush’s white whiskers going pink with blood.

Martin de Porres was the first black saint in the Americas.[14] The Saint of the Broom was famous for his work with the poor. Levitation and the ability to appear in two separate places at the same time were among his miracles.[15] November 11, is the feast day of Martin of Tours, who, before being baptized as an adult and becoming a monk, was a roman soldier. In Estonia, the day marks the beginning of winter and the end of all souls.[16] Collectio orientalium canonum, seu Capitula Martini was St. Martin of Braga’s collection of eighty-four canons.

In “The Fox and the Cat,” in the Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the cat is kind and the fox is arrogant. The fox calls the cat a “wretched beard-cleaner,” and, among other things, a “piebald fool.” The cat is the master of one art while the fox knows hundreds and has “a sackful of cunning.” But when the hounds come, the cat, only knowing one way, leaps into a tree’s safety. It yells at the fox, tells it to open its sack. But the fox has already been overcome by the dogs.

Rat Kings are sometimes bound together by a glue of blood. A glue of blood. When I close my eyes to sleep, I see the first rats that were snapped, almost in half, by the traps set in the garage. So filled with maggots, they churn, still alive and the garage is so hot the stench—the unbearable death scent—seems lacquered on me. They rats wiggle, pry themselves from the traps and then drag their bodies across the concrete, leaving a wake of dark syrup. A glue of blood. Maggots, “No one gets to heaven without going through you first.”[17]

So, here I am—in a state where 50 years ago I couldn’t be married to my wife because of miscegenation laws. The state flower is the bluebonnet and it gorgeous. The mockingbird is the state bird. The Gulf of Mexico is our lowest elevation; it’s where they dump. Where everything spills. We are the buckle of the bible belt and everything is bigger. Magnolias. Church steeples. BBQ ribs. There’s been so much drilling for natural gas that there’s benzene in the air and we have the largest uninsured population. The Texas Troubles presaged the Civil War and someday, a biracial child of mine will have to confront that lingering backwardness. Echoes of the voice that put wanted pictures of JFK in the Dallas newspaper the day he was killed. But also, there is Blind Lemon Jefferson. There is Janis Joplin and Buddy Holly and the first black, heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. The live oaks are full and green and throw shade over the backyard and each afternoon a child bikes down my street and each afternoon that child waves and I’m going to become an ordained minister on the Internet and maybe someday soon, I’ll become a father and all of this is so much I often feel like I’m falling into the sun—for it is again and always and somehow, through all of our revolting failures, it might still be beautiful—listening to “War Pigs” on my headphones, I’m always in the oven-like garage, always out there killing the rats.


Epidemiology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Sep., 2003), pp. 593-602

“lewisite”  The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military. Berkley Books, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Texas Christian University.  24 September 2010  <>

The Science News-Letter, Vol. 36, No. 19 (Nov. 4, 1939), pp. 298-299

Yusef Komunyakaa “Ode to Maggots”


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Alex Lemon is the author of Happy: A Memoir (Scribner), the poetry collections Mosquito (Tin House Books), Hallelujah Blackout (Milkweed Editions), Fancy Beasts (forthcoming, Milkweed Editions), and the chapbook At Last Unfolding Congo (horse less press). His writing has appeared in Esquire, Best American Poetry 2008, AGNI, BOMB, Gulf Coast, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Open City, Pleiades and Tin House, among others. He was awarded a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 Minnesota Arts Board Grant. He co-edits LUNA: A Journal of Poetry and Translation with Ray Gonzalez and frequently writes book reviews. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas and teaches at Texas Christian University. More from this author →