|EDDIE AND LARRY AND PHIL|
By Richard Dokey
Eddie Montgomery had two rats he named Larry and Phil. Larry and Phil were not domestic rats. They were wild rats, the kind that nose about garbage dumps, abandoned warehouses and the hovels of desperate refugees. Larry and Phil occupied the tiny apartment when Eddie moved in after getting the job as night man at the Wales Hotel on 92nd Street.
Eddie was sure that they were Larry and Phil and not any Phyllis or Lorraine. A female rat had that look about it, a kind of always pudgy, resigned anticipation. Larry and Phil were loners. They had no place, apparently, in a rat world. They were Larry and Phil, rat brothers with no home. Eddie figured that it was just Larry and Phil and not any Tom, Dick or Harry Rat, wandering in and out, because Larry had a slash across his left ear and Phil had no point to his tail. Maybe that was why Larry and Phil were there in the first place. They had fought the fight and dropped out. It amused Eddie to think this. Eddie understood where Larry and Phil were coming from. Larry and Phil Rat, up to here with the Rat Race. It worked, so Eddie left them alone.
Larry and Phil were likable rats. They did not do the usual rat things. Eddie never found them on the kitchen counter or on the refrigerator, where he kept the bread box, or under the sink after the basket he lined with newspaper for refuse and empty cartons. Larry and Phil were judicious rats. Though Eddie was curious how they got that way—so unratlike—all that mattered, in day-to-day living, was that was how Larry and Phil were, which relieved Eddie’s anxiety about rats and what rats did and how he would deal with rats.
Larry and Phil were usually under the stove when Eddie got off work at eight in the morning. It seemed they needed to see Eddie, and, after a time, Eddie decided he needed to see them when he opened the door to an empty apartment. Larry and Phil enjoyed looking at Eddie because Eddie demonstrated that he was harmless and hospitable. Come to think of it, Eddie enjoyed looking at Larry and Phil because these were not your every-day, run-of-the-mill rats. Eddie and Larry and Phil often sat for a time, looking at each other and enjoying each other across a colorless linoleum floor. Then, surprisingly, Eddie came to truly like Larry and Phil, and, however appropriate it is to consider a rat anthropormorphically, Larry and Phil truly came to like Eddie.
At first Eddie threw them scraps from the table, bits of fried meat, the whites of boiled eggs or the crusts of pumpernickel that Eddie never ate anyway. Then Eddie decided to experiment and fed them things rats don’t normally eat. He bought a box of Whitman’s chocolates at Walgreens and, by trial and error, determined that Larry liked the dark Bordeaux with the caramelly centers, while Phil preferred the milk chocolate cordials with the creamy cherry centers. This amazed Eddie because, didn’t rats eat anything they could get their claws into? And here they were, wanting one thing over another. It was the same with the Ritz crackers and the Triscuits. Larry liked the Ritz with his cheddar. Phil liked the Triscuits. Neither one ate the Fritos.
So Eddie began to amuse himself by pretending that he was a gourmet rat chef, preparing a gourmet rat menu for two gourmet rats named Larry and Phil. Eddie did not set a table. He set the linoleum floor, with tiny paper doilies, tiny plastic cups for water that he seasoned with sugar, plastic forks and knives that he had saved from Burger King and, for napkins, the shredded halves of a paper towel.
It pleased Eddie to discover what Larry liked and to serve Larry that and to find what Phil liked and to serve Phil that. Eddie made a game of it at work. It was a great game and passed the time. He thought of so many menu variations that he was able to come up with three-course
meals, after which he served a desert of rat cake or rat pudding or sweet, rat bread with raisins or anything sweet he could find, for that matter. Eddie wrote everything down in a spiral book. Larry wanted this. Phil wanted that. Larry never grabbed what Phil was eating. Phil never took what Larry was eating. Larry squatted at the linoleum table, whiskering into what Larry liked, while, right next to him, so that their fur mixed, Phil whiskered into what Phil liked. It was delightful. Eddie enjoyed it immensely. Here he was, grooming two rats to be perfectly satisfied, happy, non-competitive, new-worldly rats, rats without envy or greed or jealousy, two brotherly rats named Larry and Phil. Eddie marvelled that he could successfully tamper with the forces of nature.
It came to pass, then, that Eddie might touch Larry and Phil, just at that spot on the head between the furred, pointy ears and the lustreless, empty eyes. At first, of course, Larry and Phil leapt back, hissing a ratty hiss and raising ratty claws, bristling hair and flashing ratty teeth in a spontaneous return to the wild. But, almost immediately, Larry and Phil went counter to everything rat and, just as Eddie had hoped, accepted Eddie’s finger against that vulnerable center, where the brain hides, and even to anticipate Eddie’s finger and to set aside any compulsion to surrender to an earlier world, where they merely growled and grasped. They came to enjoy Eddie’s finger, raising their pointy snouts from their meals for Eddie’s finger, pushing their heads higher to maximize the sensation of Eddie’s finger, sometimes lifting their claws from the floor so that Eddie glimpsed their soft, fattened bellies.
Eddie wanted no part of picking up Larry and Phil. He imagined what might happen if Larry and Phil lost all contact with the earth. He had no desire to hold Larry or Phil. He had no desire to pet them. Larry and Phil were Larry and Phil. Eddie was Eddie. Eddie was content to touch the wire that led to a selfless world. He was overjoyed that two such disparate realms could meet over a three-course dinner he had planned. Here was Eddie and Eddie’s world. There was the world of Larry and Phil. Now here were Eddie and Larry and Phil in a higher world they made together. It was religious. It was certainly metaphysical. Eddie had never been more happy.
Eddie told Wilmer Steadman, who was the day man at the Wales Hotel and who liked to stick around for a while and talk because his wife was a shrew and there were no more surprises. Wilmer was impressed, but somewhat disgusted about rats and gourmet meals and staring at each other across a bare linoleum floor. Eddie said it was all a point of view, to which Wilmer agreed, because Wilmer saw the comparison. Every man should know his limitations.
Eddie did not tell Mrs. Threlson, who was a permanent resident of the hotel and sometimes got hysterical when she came down on the elevator and did not know where she was, and Eddie had to ride her up to the seventh floor and open her apartment door. He did not tell “Tender Ted,” as he was called, who had had the life beaten out of him from twenty years at the state penitentiary, or Mr. Abramovitz, the retired tailor, who made cotton peasant shirts on the black Singer he had kept from the old days. Mr. Abramovitz never sold a shirt or gave a shirt away. Eddie wanted to own one or two of the shirts, but Mr. Abramovitz would have none of it. The shirts piled up in the closets and on the floor of Mr. Abramovitz’s room. They were leftover Mr. Abramovitz. Anyway, no one truly could appreciate what Eddie had done. Eddie was all right with that. Live and let live.
Elsie Cantor was on the fourth floor. She had been there forever. Eddie did not tell Elsie, and he certainly did not tell the Nelson brothers, who had grown old living on the twelth floor—the highest they could go—playing the 1812 Overture to all hours of the night. He did not understand why, particularly, he had told Wilmer Treadman, except that Wilmer had a resolute look about him, and to Eddie that was an appealing thing.
Eddie did have to tell it, though, if only to Wilmer Treadman. Eddie told it straight out to Wilmer. He embellished nothing. He hid nothing.
Here was Eddie Montgomery, night man, on his knees, feeding rats. There were Larry and Phil, visitors from a different world, humanized by a linoleum floor for a table, a paper towel for a cloth, tiny plastic bowls, hammered aluminum plates for China and a menu that taxed Eddie’s ingenuity to the limit and was unrivalled by any embroidered menu at, say, Chez Louie or The Golden Spear. Eddie came to the point of exhaustion with Larry and Phil, but it was a joyful exhaustion. Larry and Phil were now more than rats. He had fashioned Larry and Phil out of whole cloth. Larry and Phil, creatures of a nether world, creatures that snouted through garbage and the swollen remains of dead tissue, repulsive, disgusting, ugly, vicious vermin that terrified children, spread the plague and laid waste to millions.
Eddie did not love Larry and Phil. One does not love rats. But he respected Larry and Phil. It was a matter of duty, an obligation to push on higher to wherever Larry and Phil might go. Larry and Phil had left everything to join him, their glassy, unreasoning eyes focused by what lay before them upon the kitchen floor, rotating eyes that fixed upon him, like the eyes of lighthouses or the eyes of freight trains hurtling through the dark. Eddie’s mind soared with discovery. Here was no amusement. He could never abandon Larry and Phil. He could never cast them out as a simple exercise. It was no complete world without Larry and Phil.
One day Eddie noticed a new scar on Phil’s tail. He noticed that now Larry always moved ahead of Phil when Larry and Phil came out from under the stove to eat. Sometimes Eddie noticed that Phil tried to nudge Larry to get there first, and Larry turned to show miniature, hatchet-blade teeth. Eddie thought there was something more to understand here about the missing tip of Phil’s tail and the slash across Larry’s ear. There was more to rats than meets the eye.
One morning, when Eddie came home from work, Larry was not under the stove.
“Where’s Larry?” Eddie said.
Phil sat studying Eddie with flat, rat eyes.
“Phil, where’s Larry?”
Phil twitched rat whiskers and looked at the place where the food would happen.
Eddie changed his shirt and washed his face. He went back to the stove. Phil was bothering the area on his tail where the new scar had appeared.
“What’s wrong here?” Eddie said. “Phil, what happened here?”
Phil stopped scratching and came forward a step from under the stove.
“Listen, Phil,” Eddie said. “What the hell goes here?”
Phil watched and waited.
Eddie served Phil. He put the food down, but was confused and anxious. He did not know what to make of it. Phil ate greedily, but ignored the sweet bread with raisins that Eddie introduced for dessert. It was Phil’s favorite dessert. Larry liked the litle potato patty with wild honey. Eddie set that down. Phil ate it. Eddie was flabbergasted.
“Phil,” he said. “What’s going on?”
Eddie lost some enthusiasm. It wasn’t the same without Larry and Phil together eating different things. Eddie worried, was Larry holed up sick somewhere or injured? Had Larry run off, which made no sense, because Phil most certainly would have run off with him?
“Phil,” Eddie said the next morning. “For the last time, Phil, what happened to Larry?”
Eddie threw down scraps of leftovers for Phil’s dinner and went to the mohair chair and sat down. Phil sat watching him, spiraling his whiskers, then went under the stove without touching a thing.
Then Eddie remembered that recently Larry had taken to sitting at the left of Phil as they waited for Eddie to finish fixing dinner. There was no reason to it. Larry and Phil sat where they sat, one on one side, one on the other side, back and forth. What did it matter? Rats can’t make anything matter. But there it was. Eddie remembered that Larry always made that adjustment when Larry and Phil waited. Larry wanted to be on the left, so Phil had to be on the right, facing Eddie under the stove, when Eddie came home from work. Larry on the left. Phil on the right. Go figure.
When he considered everything more deeply, Eddie thought that there was no egalitarianism between Larry and Phil. More was here than the fact that Larry had a torn ear and Phil had no tip to his tail, or Larry liked Ritz crackers but Phil preferred Triscuits. Yet they were equal in Eddie’s concern. Eddie’s ways, Eddie’s gourmet menus, Eddie’s kind, tolerant, solicitous eyes rested equally upon Larry and Phil.
The next afternoon, before work, Eddie did not serve Phil dinner. Phil came out from under the stove and sat in the middle of the linoleum table. “Where’s Larry?” Eddie said, and went to work. When Eddie got home in the morning, Phil was nowhere to be seen.
Eddie ate a piece of ham, the heel of his last loaf of pumpernickel and drank a glass of water with a squeeze of lemon. He went to bed.
Eddie lay thinking without knowing what to think about. He wanted to be sad, but how could anyone be sad about a rat or two rats or any rats, for that matter? Like everything else, rats come and rats go. Maybe it was better this way. He had grown fatigued planning menu after menu. Maybe it was just better this way. Larry and Phil had climbed as high as Larry and Phil could climb. Where else was there to go? It was foolish to make life dependent upon rats and what rats could or couldn’t do. Rats were rats. Rats belong where rats belong. That was that, with rats, or whatever. Here today. Gone tomorrow.
After a time, when the sun rose to touch the height of the buildings downtown, Eddie went to sleep.
Eddie awoke to a weight upon his left foot. He sat up. Phil squatted on the quilted comforter Eddie’s mother had made for Eddie when he finally moved out. The bloody, matted body of Larry was on Eddie’s foot.
Richard Dokey’s stories appear regularly in the reviews. They have won awards and prizes, have been cited in Best American Short Stories, Best of the West, have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and have been reprinted in numerous regional and national texts and anthologies. He has novels and story collections to his credit. “Pale Morning Dun,” his collection, published by University of Missouri Press, was nominated for the American Book Award. Stories have appeared most recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Grain(Canada), Natural Bridge, Southern Humanities Review, Lumina and The Chattahoochee Review.