Not long ago I was embroiled in a pretty intense, laborious case that kept me working hard and traveling all over the place. For just a few months, my life was one of those cliches where every airport, car rental place, restaurant and hotel seems exactly like the one you were last in, and no town is any different from any other. One of those trips was to a collection of airports and hotels known as San Diego. I got there at night, picked up my rental car and drove up the freeway to my hotel. I’ve never been a ‘car guy’ and I doubt I knew that day what kind of car I was driving, and I certainly don’t know now. But it was sort of smallish inside, kind of cozy. The hotel was out in a more open area, with lots of trees and foliage growing up around the buildings. I left my car near a grove of trees and took my stuff up to my room. I came back ten minutes later to drive out and find a place for dinner. When I opened the driver’s side door, a flash of movement by the passenger’s seat grabbed my eye. I saw almost nothing, but what I saw was fast and furry. And it was gone. I looked around underneath the seat a little, but I was also hungry, so I didn’t tear the car apart or anything. I assumed that being next to the wooded area, some squirrel had sneaked in somehow and would be gone as quick as he came.
A great hiding place for squirrels. Right?
After depositions the following day, I drove a couple hours up the freeway to Pasadena. There were a few strange squeaking noises coming from somewhere near the engine. But they always quieted down once I was paying attention. By the time I was driving back to San Diego the next evening it was dark and I was exhausted. I settled in for a mindless freeway run with the radio turned up and my eyes pried open. Somewhere in the middle of that monotonous journey, I became aware that something was touching my knee. My mind told me to be cool; to keep my eye on the road until there was a moment to look down and see what was going on. Two hands on the wheel, I steadied my car in its lane, and looked down at my knee. There in the bleary freeway light, something fat and furry sat on the raised platform between the seats, just next to the gearshift stick. Brushing against my leg. That’s when I panicked. My knee, acting on its own, jerked hard against the little animal, my whole body convulsed, and I had to look back up at the freeway to make sure I hadn’t swerved off it in my seizures of disgust. By the time I looked down again, the thing was gone. I hadn’t gotten much of a look at my little antagonist in the darkness. But now I knew that there was something logging these miles along with me, and there was not a lot I could do to make him go away. Funny how I didn’t have to fight sleep the whole rest of that drive. I sat straight up, my knees pressed into the driver’s side door, and my mind churning through the various ramifications of sharing my car with an overly friendly rodent.
Two days later, it was finally time to go home. There were so many things to think about on that trip that the automotive infestation didn’t always stay at the top of the list. I headed into town to take a quick peek at San Diego before catching my plane. Pulling into town, my car hit a hard bump. Something hit the floor of the passenger’s side with several angry squeaks. It recovered quickly and disappeared up under the dash panel, but this time its getaway wasn’t perfect. A long, gray, loathesome wiry tail hung down in plain view and jerked around in plain view for the longest time as its madly squeaking owner scrambled around for more secure footing. This was the first time I had actually spotted the thing in broad daylight, and I really had never imagined it could be this bad. The thing that had commandeered my car and shared my journey with me, and attempted to take an affectionate nap on my leg was a big fat rat with a huge, hideous tail.
The realization filled me with a kind of shaking anger and deep-running hatred. I slammed on the brakes while the tail jerked around, and started preparing to kill this thing once and for all. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around stepping on the tail of a rat when he’s hiding under the dash of the passenger’s side and you’re over in the driver’s seat. I threw a binder at the tail as hard as I could. Strangely, even though he had remained silent almost the whole trip, the squeaking didn’t stop now. I imagined a nest of them reposing just underneath the hood somewhere, all squeaking in distress at their mother’s predicament. Or maybe all the squeaking was that of just one rat, laughing at how easy it was to hijack my car for four days. I got out of the car just to bend over and breathe. I left it in the street right there and went into a store for a minute. A parking ticket sat on the windshield when I came out three minutes later. Again the rat laughed.
It wasn’t a long drive from there to the rental car place. I dropped it off and waited for one of those super nice, clean cut college kids to come ask me how my trip went. I remained calm and polite and told them that a rat, or a nest of rats, or some sort of traveling menagerie, live in the car they chose for me to drive around for four days. The girl gave me a questioning look and I had to explain the whole thing again- the flash of fur in the night, the groping on my midnight drive, and the tail– the long, sickening tail jerking, writhing up and down. It took her a while to believe me. But when it was time for her to pull my car forward in the line of returning vehicles, she didn’t budge. She made a call down to the garage and some guy in a mechanic’s outfit walked up and pulled it forward for her. She asked her companions if anyone had ever heard of something like this. No one had. The mechanic guy looked all around the car, finding nothing. I told them they’ll need to pull the dashboard off, because, yep, there’s a rat living in this freaking car. The girl kept looking at me really intently, trying to figure out if I was telling the truth. Finally, she handed me two ‘free upgrade’ coupons and sent me on my way with apologies. The people on the shuttle bus to the airport asked me if there really was a rat in my car. I was a little tired of thinking about it now, but I still had to testify. Yes, there was a rat. Living in my car. Touching me. Caressing me. They all stared in amazement as I focused on a spot just outside my window for the rest of the drive to the airport.
A week later, I wrote to the email address on my free upgrade coupons. “Hi Natasha, I just wanted to see if there was any end to this story. Did they inspect the car and find the rat? What happened? Thanks, Ryan.” She responded later that day. “Hi Ryan, we looked all throughout the car. We haven’t been able to find any rat. Sorry! Natasha.”
But there was a rat. I don’t know where he hides or how he does it exactly, but there’s a rat living in that car, possibly a family of them. Or maybe he made it onto the airport shuttle just in time to miss the car inspection. For all I know he’s flying around in the engine compartment of some airplane by now, snacking on airplane peanuts. Wherever he is, I hope someday he crawls just a little to close to a motor fan or engine belt or something. There’s no way he survives in those kinds of quarters for long without catching that enormous, spasmodic tail in something. So long, rat.