Mo lowers her pink, cotton panties and is about to sit on the toilet, when she hears a swoosh. A rat is swimming in the bowl. Mo violently slams the lid and flushes, flushes and flushes. She runs to the super's apartment, uses his bathroom and begs him to come up right away.
"There's no rat here," says the super, carefully opening the lid and standing back. In the evening, the tenants downstairs complain of a stopped up toilet.
Mo is crouching on the window sill, grasping the rusty bars, trying to catch the attention of a man across the street, who is leaning over a blue Toyota. The man is wedging a wire through an opening in the window. This task demands concentration. Though there is a sign on the window, stating that there is no radio and no valuables inside, he knows that behind the taped cardboard, is an expensive radio. The man earns his living by selling car radios to an auto-repair shop. He prides himself on working neatly, with minimal damage to property.
"Please, sir, help me!" cries out Mo.
The man can no longer ignore her. She may attract curious passersby, and moreover, she has already broken his concentration.
"What is it?" he asks gruffly, looking at Mo through the bars.
"There's a rat in the room!" she sobs, "please break down the door!"
"I can't do that."
"Call the police!"
"I can't do that either."
"Then please call my husband Bo! He's two blocks away, a graduate student at Columbia! Please, please!"
After more pleading, the man agrees.
"Come back right away, don't leave me, stay with me!" she calls out as the man walks away in search of a working public telephone.
Fortunately, Bo answers the phone.
The man talks soothingly to Mo as they wait.
Bo finds a small body under the kitchen sink. "It's a mouse, not a rat," he says, "and it's dead."
They offer the man some lunch and Bo goes out to get cold cuts and beer. The man strokes Mo's arm, saying, "There, there." She is still sobbing, though quietly now. A well of protective feelings swells up in the man's breast. He considers taking Mo in his arms, kiss the tears away, when Bo returns with the groceries.
"You ought to look into some therapy," the man tells them as he spreads mustard on the corned beef. "It can be quite helpful." He knows. In prison, he had daily sessions. He's been cured of assaults with deadly weapons.
This is not the last of the rodents for Mo and Bo. Every day there is at least one crossing the living room floor, later to die in a corner or under the sink. The next door neighbors are having the same problem. They decide that someone on the upper floors is spreading poison and the half-drugged animals are fleeing the building. Bo and Mo move out, renting an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, on the ninth floor. They vow never again to live on the first floor.
Mo, Bo and Joe are walking home at four in the morning on a Sunday in June. They have spent a long evening visiting Stephanie and Zack, where they all smoked and drank too much.
Joe is playing "Home on the Range" on his harmonica and Bo is singing very loudly, "Home, home on the range, where the deer and the ah, ah. . . roam!" He can't remember what animal comes after the deer and keeps repeating the same two lines.
Mo is singing "How much is that doggie in the window? Ha! Ha!" She stops and does a quick jig. Mo is purposefully singing the wrong song. She wants to irritate Bo and Joe, especially Joe. Although she has a strong, clear voice, she is consistently off key. For over a month now, Joe, who has quarreled with his wife and who is a graduate student in the same department as Bo, has been staying in their living room. Mo is beginning to think Joe has no intention of moving out. Bo feels she is not sufficiently hospitable. Joe's sheets have not been changed once, and she has resolved to throw them out when he leaves. Joe tries hard to entertain Mo with jokes and playing on the harmonica. Lately he's been casting pensive glances at her. In the mornings, he gets up after Bo has left and announces that he'll stay for breakfast only if Mo serves it to him. He says this in a nice way, trying to convey the message that it's her company he's really after. But Mo, who has already eaten, tells him she's late for class.She's grateful that she's not in the same department with Joe. In fact, she is not in graduate school. She's still an undergraduate at City College. She should have finished several years ago, but didn't because she dropped out for awhile.
The two men think she's very entertaining and allow her to carry on. Occasionally they stop and look at the store windows. Most of the stores are not lit up, but some have a low-wattage bulb in the back. On Broadway and 145th Street they approach a store ablaze with lights. Three fat rats are licking the counter and the knives. The store is a butcher shop and appears to be spotless.
"Get a load of this!" exclaims Joe.
They stand looking at the rats, who, in turn, momentarily look them over, before resuming the licking. Bo knocks on the glass, but the rats pay him no attention. "They're smart. They know we can't do anything," he says.
"What a sight," says Mo and thinks, "this is going to be one of life's unforgettable experiences."
Mo has just taken a shower and is towel-drying her hair in a hotel in Ottawa. This is the first time they are staying in a reasonably decent hotel with their own private bathroom. She looks over the clean, well-lit room with pleasure. There's even a diamond-patterned, beige-brown carpet that comes up almost to the door. Under the door is a shaft of light. Suddenly the middle of the shaft becomes black.
Mo stops drying her hair and whispers to Bo: "There's someone at the door."
Bo is lying on the bed, reading an assortment of hotel-provided literature on Ottawa.
"What? What are you talking about?" he says, looking up at Mo.
"Someone's at the door, probably looking through the keyhole," she whispers.
"God, you're always pressing the panic button. You must think that a rat's trying to come in!"
He gets up grudgingly and walks across the carpet in his bare feet, then forcefully jerks the door open, revealing a kneeling man in a white shirt and khaki pants. The man's big blue eyes momentarily register surprise, but he quickly gets up, saying, "Sorry, this is not the right room," and disappears down the hall.
Sheila and Mo are waiting at an intersection for the light to change. They've just had hamburgers and French fries for lunch and are returning to work. It's been raining for several days and in the puddle to Mo's left, she sees a rat drinking.
"It always amazes me how calm and unafraid the city rats are," she comments, pointing out the drinking rodent to Sheila.
"Yoiks, how disgusting!" exclaims Sheila. "I've lived here in New York for twenty years and this is the first time I've seen a rat."
"Not me. I see them periodically. Mice, too," says Mo.
A block further, they see a dead, mangled rat, probably run over by a car.
"Two in a row! I hope it's not an omen or something," Sheila says.
The rest of the day goes by uneventfully.
A rat darts out from behind an apartment building on Park Avenue, startling a woman walking a poodle. She stops and says to the building's white-gloved doorman, "This city is going to the dogs."
The doorman replies, nodding his head in agreement, "Maybe, to the rats."
An expectant rat is on the platform at the 23rd Street subway station during the evening rush hour. As it boards the #6 local, several seats are quickly vacated and a circular space is created around the soon-to-be mother, but the rat stays on the floor near the exit.
Mo is lying in bed with her eyes closed. Next to her Bo is reading the newspaper and eating an apple. He puts the core on the night table and closes the book.
"Don't leave food next to the bed," Mo says.
"You think some animal is going to go after the core?" Bo says sleepily, "all right, I'll put it in the waste basket." He gets up and deposits the remains in a blue plastic bin at the other end of the room.
This is the first night in a week that they are sleeping in a bed. They have been camping in Shenandoah Park. It's been damp and foggy, but this evening, it actually began to rain and they had to pack up their tent and rent a cabin. Luckily for them, there was still one vacant.
As she's falling asleep, Mo hears a rattling noise. It's coming from the waste basket. She wakes up Bo, who turns on the light.
There is a furry animal running in circles, unable to get a grip on the plastic to climb out. As Bo picks up the waste basket, the animal begins to give out a high-pitched screech.
"What a weird noise," he says. "We better put a bag over the top. It's so wild and frightened, it could bite."
Mo empties out a plastic bag containing dirty laundry. Bo puts it over the top of the bin, opens the door, places the container on the side, then pulls it toward him, dislodging the plastic bag. The animal flees into the bushes.
"I think it was either a strange mouse or a mutant rat," Bo says, turning off the light.
"Probably a mouse. Rats are supposed to be very smart. If it had been a rat, it would've figured out how to get out. Remember your father's story?"
But Bo is fast asleep. Mo recalls the story that Bo's father, Boris, senior, had told his son. During the 2nd World War, one night, as Boris was trying to sleep in his cold, one-room apartment in Moscow, he listened to the familiar scurrying across the floor. Every night the rats came out of the walls in search of crumbs. Everybody was hungry. Boris had obtained five eggs that day and to prevent the rats from getting them, had placed them in a bowl, in the middle of the table, taking the chairs away. The moon was very bright that night and Boris watched the rats gather around the table. He felt pleased with himself at outsmarting them. The rats proceeded to form a living pyramid, then one rat ran up the pyramid onto the table and coiled its tail around an egg. Gingerly it went down the pyramid, uncoiled its tail, then repeated this procedure, until all five eggs were brought down safely to the floor. Boris was so fascinated, that he just lay still, staring, not even considering, scaring the rats away.
What a fantastic story! But there were details that weren't clear to Mo. She wished she could ask her father-in-law, just exactly how the rat got down the pyramid with the egg in its tail? How did it keep its balance? Did it move head first or tail-egg, first? How many rats formed the pyramid? Was it the same rat that got all the eggs? But Mo had never even met Boris. He died in an industrial accident in a factory, shortly after the family came to the United States.
She dreams she's six years old and during the night, she is feeling something crawling up her leg. She wakes up screaming. Her mother and father rush into her bedroom. Her pet cat, Sprinkles, has caught a mouse and brought it to Mo's bed to play with. Her mother takes her in her arms, strokes her hair and talks gently: "Our little Desdemona, sweetheart, hush! It as just a little gift for you, a knight bringing a trophy for his princess!"
Mo doesn't wake up. She knows that she is remembering in a dream something that happened a long time ago.
"Aren't they adorable! So sweet!" croons Mary.
Mo looks at the delicately pretty, perfectly shaped four baby mice, trembling on the yellow, poison-baited, sticky tape in Mary's hands.
"What are you going to do with them?" she asks.
"We'll put them outside," answers Mary.
"They're not an endangered species. Why not flush them down the toilet -- the men's toilet," suggests Francesca.
"They look awfully weak. Maybe we should give them vitamins before putting them out," says Mary. "I'm afraid we're contributing to the homeless population."
There is all around giggling, some uncomfortable. Outside it's freezing January weather and the mice have come inside into the Legal Aid division that specializes in preventing the eviction of poor people from their homes. Mo is working there temporarily as a volunteer attorney.
"It's very cold outside. If they free themselves, they'll be right back. . . These are babies. There must be a mother around," Mo says.
"Just like society. Mama is around, but nobody even expects Papa to stay around," says Tamilla.
Tamilla is a word processor, a woman raising two teenage children by herself. After finishing at Legal Aid, she types for a law firm from six to ten in the evening and all day Saturday.
"I'm going to look for Frazier. Let him put them out. It's a job for a man," says Mary, going off with the mice, to look for Frazier.
Bo and Mo are in a movie theater, waiting for the film to start. They have seen the movie from the middle to the end. Bo wants to leave, but Mo insists that they stay and see the beginning. Though most movie theaters don't allow entry in the middle of the film, the cashier of this theater didn't care. Bo hates to stand in linWhen they were growing up, the theaters had double features and one could come in at any time.
While they're sitting alone in the theater during the interminably long intermission, several mice appear and start running between the rows of seats, eating popcorn and lapping up soft drinks. The floor is strewn with popcorn boxes and is sticky with spilled sodas.
"Isn't it amazing, rats in a midtown movie theater!" Bo says.
"Mice, not rats. And it's disgusting." Mo puts her feet up off the floor and over the front seat. "Certainly a feast for them here."
Bo is hoping Mo will want to leave. But Mo is older and wiser now. Twenty years have passed since the day she crouched on the windowsill, pleading with a car thief for help. She insists on staying until the exact moment of their entrance. Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley are on a mission to steal sea turtles from an aquarium, and release them back into the ocean. It's an interesting film and should have been seen from the beginning.
Since the theater is full, Mo has to remove her feet from the front seat. She is uncomfortable, with only the tips of her shoes touching the floor.
"They were mice, not rats and they're gone now. They come out only during the intermission," Bo tells her reassuringly. He feels sorry for Mo, sitting in such discomfort.
Mo walks out of the theater on her toes, with her eyes scanning the floor. Outside there's a long line of people waiting to purchase tickets to the next performance.
"That was quite a show we saw there and we wouldn't have seen it if we didn't go in in the middle of the movie," Bo says, looking at the long line.
"True. Why don't we have some ice cream to clear our minds? I feel I need something to settle my stomach," Mo suggests.
"Good idea," Bo agrees.