The psychology tower was poorly named. Five stories of brownstone, the tower was nowhere near towerlike in appearance or construction. It sat on the end of college row, a string of ivy-covered buildings on the top of a moderately sloping hill, at the foot of which lay the main street of a small, economically stagnant college town.
Professor Nutmeg was drunk again. He wobbled into the office in a track suit, these days his regular teaching/drinking/sleeping attire. Nutmeg’s research assistant David was there minding a rat on a miniature treadmill. The rat’s head was shaved, scalp split with scalpel, holes drilled in skull, hollow saline filled glass electrode pumping current somewhere hopefully near the hippocampus.
I’m stuck, said Nutmeg, I’m stuck in a tiny room. And everything I say is repeated, and the resonance of the room accretes on the wave form of the original. And now, I can’t hear anything but noise. Maybe I could just quit speaking. Why not just stay silent and watch, and let everything sit quietly just where it is? You could write the papers.
David remained silent, unexcited by the option and feeling he had heard this monologue before.
I’m tired, said Nutmeg. Aren’t you tired? Why don’t you go home, have a drink, go to bed, try to, to…
Thanks, said David, his eyes never leaving the rat, But I need to run fifteen more rats by end of term. That way, we’ll have a good sample size for this batch, and be in good shape to write and publish in time for next year’s deadlines.
Nutmeg bent over and put his hands on his knees, his face making the third point of a triangle with David and the rat. His breath smelled like clams and alcohol and filled the space between them.
I love it when they run, he said. I just fucking love it when they run. It gives me a little peace, it makes a little point in my mind. Sometimes I wish, I wish I could target my own brain the way I target the brains of these animals. I wish I could think the way I want to think, I wish I could think something new, something that reaches out instead of in…something…out! and Nutmeg spread his arms in a gesture of expansion.
What do you think David, if I lay down in front of you, could you drill into my brain, put an electrode in, and start me thinking again? Nutmeg lay his head on his desk and pointed to his skull.
No, said David. I assume I would kill you with an infection if nothing else.
I’ve studied motivation for forty years. And I haven’t gotten any better than this, this spike in a rat brain. I think about having simple control over people. I could have made so many things happen. And I wish I could make the kid at Porky’s Munch Hut cook my hamburger correctly. Every time I say medium and I get well done.
Uh huh, said David.
Nutmeg retrieved a bottle of scotch from his lower desk drawer and walked to the window. He exhaled, took a pull from the bottle, looked at the pavement below then up at a tree in front of the tower. It was beginning to lose its leaves.
I think you’ll need to go a bit further upstream from the hippocampus, said David, if you want to motivate humans to, whatever.
Indeed, said Nutmeg, sounding serious. Further upstream.
I mean why, said Nutmeg, maybe if I just had more money and less time to think…I should have been an investment banker.
David spun the small wheel under the rat’s back legs. He pushed a button. The electrode depolarized, current flowed through the saline. The rat’s two back feet pattered weakly one two three times on the wheel, then stopped.
The rat on the wheel, said Nutmeg, it’s straightforward, crude even, but, but how far…
How far, picked up David, can we go back in the causal chain, and still reliably initiate the cascade?
Yes, said Nutmeg, how far…
Nutmeg paused a moment, swigged from the bottle. He listened to the wind, tried to breathe it in, failed, exhaled.
The end of the semester was a month away. David didn’t want to spend break in the lab running pick-up rats to fill the gaps from duds earlier in the semester. Nor would he have to. Nutmeg, one night not long after his musing re persons and action, plunged from the Psychology Tower roof to the pavement below, landing on a pro-lesbian/vegetarian sidewalk chalking that read “Eat Pussy Not Cow!”
David was roused from deep sleep by a phone call informing him of the professor’s demise.
It looks like suicide, said the voice on the phone.
Don’t worry, I’ll mow the lawn, I said I would, said David.
David, wake up, wake the hell up, Professor Nutmeg just killed himself.
Wait, wait what? Said David.
He’s dead, Nutmeg is dead!
David placed his feet on the floor and rubbed his eyes. Sleep pushed on him. He stood, attempting to shrug it off, gained his balance, and made way to the living room of his small apartment. Once there he turned on his television and lay on the couch. The local news spoke of a college professor committing suicide. David, his head resting on a pillow embroidered with a scene of monkeys in trees, fell back asleep.
Asleep he dreamt the sky was purple. He stood on a concrete sidewalk, an asphalt road to his right. To the left of the sidewalk and right of the road, maple and chestnut trees. There was no wind. He needed to go, but he couldn’t remember where. He was panicked and starting to sweat. He tried to run, but could not. His limbs should have been moving fast, but were not; they were barely moving at all. Slowly and with great strain he lifted his hands before his face. They were covered with blue dust. With difficulty David lay face down on the sidewalk. He breathed the air near the ground and in his mouth felt the grit of dirt. He reached straight out with his arms and gripped the concrete with his fingertips. Then he pulled himself forward, dragging his paralyzed body across the concrete, faster than he could run.
He awoke several hours later, groggy and unrested.
The only thing we ask of you, said the Psych department director, is that you dispose of the remaining test subjects.
The rats? asked David.
Yes, the rats, said the director.
How? David asked.
Don’t we have policy for how?
No, said David, it’s usually up to the research assistant.
How did the last research assistant do it?
I don’t know, said David, I came in after she had left.
Well, call the ASPCA. They should take them.
ASPCA won’t take research animals under these circumstances. It’s their policy.
Well don’t call PETA. They may know we experiment on animals here, but I don’t want to remind them. I don’t need that shitstorm.
Any way you see fit, the director said.
Ok, said David, but I’m not sure how.
I have confidence you’ll figure it out, said the director. Though David harbored no such confidence in himself.
David stood in the rat room amid pink eyes and rattling floor-to-ceiling cages. One hundred and thirty three, he thought to himself, all awake, nibbling food pellets, licking the little metal ball at the tip of their water bottles to quench their rat-thirst. The easiest thing to do would be to seal up the room except for a gas tube running under the door, and flood it with a lethal dose of CO. But the lab didn’t have such a large dose. Moreover, that plan was dangerous on account of potential leakage—the room wasn’t designed for such activities as mass rodenticide.
How then, to decide on a means of rat execution?
He could throw them off the roof, by their tails, three or four at a time, yielding death in the fashion of their dear professor. This, however, would no doubt cause a stir on campus, an investigation even, leading inevitably to him. Too much attention for a middling action. There was the combination of gas and shots, just shots, just gas, starvation, drowning, freezing, bludgeoning, paying someone else (but where would the money come from?), set them free (a form of starvation, really), put a predator, perhaps several feral cats or rapacious snakes, in the room and let them feed?
All the ways to kill something. How did Nutmeg decide on his?
David realized he lacked a way to make the decision. There had to be some procedure, he reasoned, that would allow him to decide on a way to dispose of the animals. He could choose any way he wanted to do it, but how does one choose between all possible options? David could not figure out a way to get from his mind to the world.
So, his mother asked, When is the funeral?
Day after tomorrow, replied David.
David’s parents lived three towns away from his place of employment and cooked dinner for him once every two weeks.
You taking care of the odds and ends at the lab? asked his father, cutting into a piece of meat.
Yes, said David. I need to figure out, I need to figure out how to kill all these rats.
How many? asked his father, chewing.
Over a hundred, David replied.
Yuck, said his father.
You should do it a little at a time, his mother offered. A couple, twenty a day, say, then in a week or so you’ll be done.
I know, but I need to know how. Normally, we inject them with a lethal dose of sedative, so they fall asleep and don’t wake up. But that means I need to inject a hundred plus rats. One at a time. I don’t have all that sedative on hand. And even if I ordered it…
He looked at the pale half chicken breast on his plate and imagined picking a rat up out of its cage. It wiggled and kicked, squirmy and warm as it hung in his curled fingers. He could see the needle sinking into the rat’s belly, silver metal sliding into pink flesh, making the creature tense, soon to relax as the plunger depressed.
Do you feel sad? David’s mother asked.
About the rats?
No, about Nutmeg.
I know I’m supposed to feel sad, said David, more than anything I feel like I should feel sad. But I can’t make myself feel sad.
You could feel angry, said his mother.
Generally, in experimental procedures, once the rat was just several weak heartbeats away from death (this proximity to be determined by the trained eye of a rat experimenter), the rat’s chest would be split open, its small ribs cracked and removed, and a tube of fixative inserted in one of the ventricles with the hope that several of the remaining beats would circulate the fixative through the vasculature, eventually reaching the brain, making it firm and easy to dissect. Simple killing would spare this step, but still, the act would be multiplied over a hundred times, by hand. This would be both tedious and personal, and while these thoughts did not make David nauseous, he feared the action itself would.
I think Nutmeg wanted to stop, said David.
Stop what? Asked his mother.
Stop everything, said David.
Oh, said his mother.
David went to the funeral. For some time he stared at Nutmeg’s closed casket.
David, said the department head. I don’t understand. What are the test subjects still doing alive?
I’m still not sure how to terminate them.
Well, please make a decision. It does no good having them around. They just eat and shit and need to have their cages cleaned. Nutmeg’s grant money is pretty much exhausted, and we can’t keep paying for the food and upkeep, even if it is nominal. Moreover, I want to move Simmons into the lab as soon as possible. She’s been on my ass for the space for a solid year now. Doesn’t another department need some rats?
I checked, said David. They’re the wrong age, the wrong type, no, no one else needs these rats.
This whole thing is just too morose, said the director, have them done away with by the end of the week. Please.
I will, said David. The problem is, do you realize all the variables I need to take into account?
There are so many, so many things to consider and they all concern this decision. There is only so much space to contain all these factors, so they get packed in, pressed together, and the problem itself becomes encased in this dense crust of possibility.
No, listen, they’re packed in around the problem so tight, I can’t reach it. Or it can’t reach me. I never make contact with the problem. I can’t touch it.
David, said the Department Head, is Nutmeg’s death bothering you?
No, said David.
Ok, then just find a way.
Yes, you are. Please terminate the rats.
Ok, said David, Ok.
Again David stood in the rat room among the pink eyes and ringed tails. Drinking tubes ticked.
He wondered, what was the position of the sun at that moment? Was it effecting his ability to make a decision? How about the position of Saturn? And his breakfast choices had been varying lately, perhaps that was causing problems. The chain branched fast and brutally, possibility destroying certainty.
During his musing on how to kill many animals of similar construction it occurred to David to spend some time with instruments of animal destruction. This thought drove him to Franco’s Field and Stream. At Franco’s David looked a guns, fishing poles, tasers, knives, air guns, and blow guns (really a kind of primitive air gun).
Fish, he thought, would be easy to kill. Simply take them out of water and let them flop for a while. Sure, he could drown the rats, a large bucket of water, a weighted net or sack. More simply, a several large weighted sacks thrown into the nearby river. But the sack pulsing with rats, the public act of tossing it into the river. It required covertness and that covertness required more of his energies than he could conceive of mustering. Electrocution would be appropriate. A nervous system grown to be probed instead fried, along, perhaps, with several organs. In this case there would be burning fur mixed with the smell of burnt rat flesh, and that would be unacceptable.
Have you finished off the rats yet? David’s father asked.
No, said David. I need to, soon. They’re almost totally out of food.
Don’t starve them, said David’s mother, that’s cruel.
I won’t starve them, said David, but I need to figure out how to do it.
How? said his father, just kill them.
Just get rid of them, said his mother.
Yes, said David, clenching his bottom jaw to the top, his teeth feeling soft against each another. But I need to figure out how.
What are you going to do now? asked his father.
What do you mean? asked David.
What are you going to do for a job?
I don’t know, David said, something similar, another college probably.
As long as you find something else, you need an income.
I realize that, said David.
Because it’s not like we can support you, said David’s father.
I’m aware of that, said David.
Getting a job is difficult in this environment. If you need to, you can always work in food service to fill the gap. You did that when you were younger.
I work in science. I’ve studied and worked in chemical physiology for almost ten years now.
Certainly, you’ve been very lucky, said his father.
I heard we might get snow tonight, said David’s mother.
David drove back to campus that night. Hard pebbles of ice fell from the sky and washed across the road. They bounced off the windshield, making ticking sounds.
He parked his car in the science center parking lot. Sleet was beginning to cling to the trees, bending their branches towards the ground. David realized he would have never gone to college if it wasn’t for his parents. He would have been a mechanic, he thought, a car mechanic.
Walking to the psychology tower, David stopped in front of a tree. He reached out to an ice covered branch, and held it in his hand. Cold, hard, and slippery, the ice caused him pain, but he kept his fist clenched. Water ran through his fingers, down his wrist, under his skin like cold blood. David pulled on the branch. Thousands of soft clicks pooled in the air while thousands of tiny cracks spread throughout the coat of ice.
David entered the psychology tower and headed to Nutmeg’s lab and the rat room. He then proceeded to carry 25 rat cages, five rats in each, to the roof of the psychology tower. From the lab to the roof was a walk up two flights. Still, it took an hour and a half and thirteen trips. He spread the cages about the roof, spacing them evenly, then returned to the lab. He filled a three gallon bucket with cold water and carried it to the roof. The bucket was heavy. At the top, David paused a moment to rest. When he opened the door to the roof, everything was dark, illuminated only by the path lamps and campus call boxes below. Sweat beaded on his forehead, at his hair line. It ran down his temple and onto his cheek. Quickly it became cold and indistinguishable from the loose bits of sleet amidst the hail. David poured the water over the rats. Small hail stones bounced off his nose and stuck in his hair. Three gallons were not enough. He retrieved two more bucketfuls from the lab, carrying one in each hand up the steps, and finished soaking the rodents. Winded from the effort, David stood on the roof and tried to catch his breath. He sucked in the cold, and breathed out warm white air.
Daniels Parseliti is a writer living in Harlem. His short story "Rats" appeared in the June 07 issue of the Rail. [email protected]