My first job was as a cashier at one of the many world renowned Albertsons premium grocery stores. At 16 years old, I applied at a computer terminal, took a drug test, and was then whisked upstairs to a dark backroom where I watched hours and hours of training videos. Despite my protests, my manager forced me to watch a music video depicting hundreds of employees singing and dancing around a grocery store — a peek into an eerie Cancerverse where bitterness must be concealed with the dead-eyed glee of the damned. This video is to hopelessness what The Ring is to evil ghost girls. Its continued dissemination to human beings is a stain upon reality. But this story isn’t about that; it’s about rats.
If I made a list of my favorite things about grocery shopping, you know what wouldn’t be on it? Rats. Why? I guess it’s partly my own media driven prejudice against them, but the rest comes down to: bubonic plague-type diseases, sharp teeth, smelly rat poopy. Also, when I eat my foods, I like to think they’re untouched un-nibbled virgin foods, as opposed to soaked in hot rat saliva. A carbonated beverage called Hot Rat Saliva will not sell well. Fill up a public pool with hot rat saliva and I promise no one will swim there. Hot rat saliva is so terrible it’s only fit to be the name of a ska band. The other day, I saw a rat chase down a bunny, bite its throat, and devour it alive in my neighbor’s flowerbed. With this in mind, let’s move forward.
A few days after being hired, I received a call from my manager late at night. “Hey Brad, would you mind coming by and helping clean some, uh, stuff?”
“Sure!” I answered cheerfully. I said this because I assumed, as I usually do, that I would not end the night with an apron soaked in rat blood.
When I arrived at the store, the manager handed me a hammer and a roll of paper towels. “You will need this to kill the rats and this to scoop up the corpses and throw them in the trash.” This is a real thing that was said to me.
Evidently, a health inspector or someone important was coming by to check out the store, so the whole place needed to be cleaned — which meant confronting the thriving ecosystem beneath the cat food shelves. Over the decades, cat food had been steadily falling out through rips in the bags, down through little holes in the shelves, all the way to a dark four inch high crevice at the bottom. Once there, it caked onto the floor, fossilized, and like a coral reef, became the home/food source for multitudes of species. My assigned task was to use an ice scraper to carve away the layers of cat food from the floor while hammering the brains out of any protective rat mamas that lunged for my soft throat meat.
As this was my first job, I accepted the task, thinking, ‘This must be what grownup work entails.’ I did not ask certain key questions like, “What about an exterminator?” or “Where is God?” Instead, I got down on my hands and knees to scrape fossilized cat food for I was part of the Albertsons Team, and I would not shirk my duty. I pulled off the panel covering the crawlspace, and a cloud of stale cat food, rat poop, and rat corpses trapped in sticky goop wafted into my open mouth, seeding my lungs with tumors. While I scraped, shadows scampered just out of sight. When a rat came close to my fingers, I bashed its head in with the hammer, scooped it up with a dustpan, and deposited it in the trash. The soft crème brûlée crack of the little skull, the desperate squeaks of outrage at a cold unfeeling universe, and my own, “Oh God oh God oh God,” — all the while, I’m barely whittling away at the cat food, which has somehow hardened like concrete. When I discovered a nest filled with wriggling pink rat babies, I did not falter; I scooped it up and dumped it all in the garbage. Then I buried the babies under a mountain of old cat food.
After four hours of this, I went home. I thought they would’ve called an exterminator to take care of the rats, but during a shift a few weeks later, I noticed a strong aroma emanating from my register. It was a familiar smell, a sepulchral one. I peered in through a little crack in the counter under the conveyor belt, and of course, it was a dead rat lying on a mountain of candy wrappers and fruity pebbles.
I called over the manager. “I would like to switch to a different register please.”
“Why’s that? What seems to be the problem?”
“There’s a dead rat in my register, and it’s filling the air with toxic fumes.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! None of that talk where customers can hear you!”
“Fine. Whatever. Need to get away from this smell now.”
“The thing is, Brad, all the other registers are full.”
“And we’re extremely busy right now.”
“So there’s nothing I can do right now.”
“Gloria, you can’t leave me here, inhaling death with every breath.” (I am your fellow human being on this earth, bitch.)
“I’ll see what I can do in an hour or two to move you, but I’d appreciate it if you just toughed this out like a big boy.”
She, of course, never returned from her office. I’d like to drop this woman into a squeaking writhing ocean of rats, watch her sink, sink, sink through endless fur and teeth and claws. Maybe that’s an overreaction. Probably I’m overreacting. Strangely, it never occurred to me I could just walk away from this place, that any other minimum wage job wouldn’t have rats everywhere. I thought: ‘This must just be the way of the world. Horror. Never-ending horror.’