All Our Whiskered Idols

Grandma Dinah died just after my tenth birthday. At the grief camp my family schlepped the cousins to, kids huddled together in the craft tent, sketching mothers and grandmothers smiling down from heaven in yellow crayon.

I grew up without a god, caught between a lapsing Jewish mother and a bold agnostic father, and by the time I turned ten it was too late to take comfort in a storybook.

“That’s not true,” I said, smashing my finger into cousin Lisa’s crayon portrait’s face. “Grandma’s in the ground. She was in the box we buried at the funeral. Mom told me!”

For the third time that day, Lisa burst into tears. I started crying too. Great Aunt Ruth bundled us up in her arms and lugged us across camp to the cafeteria. Lisa and I held hands while she nagged the staff into giving us ice cream, and we both ate it salty as tears and snot dripped onto our spoons.

Even then, I knew I was going to die someday. When it happened, every thought and memory would be snuffed out like a yahrtzeit candle. The kind my mom never managed to light. I wouldn’t be an angel shining on high; I’d be a pile of metal fillings and decay.

“Vey is mir!” I imagined my mother would gasp when I was gone, one hand flying up to cover her mouth and the other to smack the side of her head. “I forgot to light a candle for Tehilah! Next year; next year for sure.”

In the next twelve years, Mom only remembered to light Dinah’s yahrzeit candle twice.

By then, I lived in a university-owned apartment in Lower Pacific Heights, nestled between Temple Sherith Israel and the First Church of Christ, Scientist. I tried not to stare at worshippers. They sort of scared me.

When Great Aunt Ruth died, I turned my back on those temples and schlepped to Chevra Kadisha Mortuary in LA. Aunt Ruth loved synagogues. She liked the stained-glass windows, and would stand in beams of colored light, twisting her arms to shape new patterns of shadow. Sometimes she’d take my hand and we’d dance through shades of blue and yellow.

People stood in line to bury their grief with Aunt Ruth. After each sniffling relative scooped their clods of dirt onto the casket, they impaled earth with the shovel and stepped aside. I stood in the back of the crowd fingering the edge of my black ribbon. When I got tired of hating the Rabbi, who hovered behind the grave marker and recited the Tziduk Hadin, I took turns resenting my extended family. They floated around the cemetery with matching placid smiles, comforted by faith and duty.

On the way out, someone set up a basin for us to wash our hands of impure spirits. Uncles and grandchildren hovered around it whispering praises to god. Watching them, I felt ghosts gnawing through my stomach. I pushed past and let my hands stay dirty.

We all ate at Canter’s Deli the next day, because Aunt Ruth loved their pickles, and cousin Lisa spent lunch crying into her soup.

“She’s in a better place now,” Aunt Lieba whispered, rubbing Lisa’s back with a fat-fingered hand. “She was suffering.”

I left the deli clutching a take-out container. Halfway home, my clenched fingers tore through the cardboard, and I slammed it into the garbage, dripping pickle juice.

Aunt Ruth loved Earth, suffering included. She wore heavy jasmine perfume and ate chocolates straight out of the box. She taught me to sing loudest in my row on Shabbat so everyone in front would compliment my voice. Every time her high school class sent an announcement of another classmate’s funeral, she’d crow, “That’s another one I’ve beaten!” Even as her memory failed, she’d ask me to “push this chair a little faster, motek!”

My parents raised a girl who couldn’t explain loss as a transformation of the soul, so I missed Aunt Ruth like someone had bitten my left ear off.

A week after the funeral, I was back at school, waiting for the bus with my earbuds jammed in deep.

I only spotted the rat because she moved. She was big. Bigger than any rodent I’d ever seen, her fur slick and glossy, her stomach fat. She snuffled around the iron legs of the bus stop. Crumbs of discarded Twinkie clung to her whiskers.

When the bus dropped down to meet us, she skittered along with the crowd.

I hung near the back of the line and watched her pause at the curb cut. No one else, not even the driver, saw her spring up onto the bottom stair. With a quick hop she was inside. I followed, holding my breath, sneaking glances at the other passengers. No one screamed “Rat!”

I crept through the aisles. The rat and I were in on the same delicious secret.

She nestled under a row in the back of the bus, clutching a chunk of granola bar between her trembling paws. I took the aisle seat. The fabric under my thighs came alive, rippling like fur.

I was breathing hard enough to hear it through my earbuds. I popped them out, straining for the quiet sound of crunching, but all I caught was her toes tapping the floor. I kept thinking I felt her tail brush my ankle. Each time, I looked down and found her crammed into the corner, holding her chunk of oats like an old woman with a purse on her lap.

My stop came too early. I dragged myself off the bus, stealing glances over my shoulder to see if the rat would follow.

She didn’t. Still, she ruled my mind all day. During class, while the professor lectured about Art Spiegelman like we hadn’t read the book, my head reeled with visions of her.

In my mind, she perched on the bus seat beside me holding a whole granola bar. Every time my lecturer clicked over to a new slide, I imagined it was my rodentine seatmate snapping a cluster of oats.

I spent a week in agony. Every leaf twitching on the wind was a rat’s tail, every shoe tapping under a desk was a furry body huddled in shadow. I kept a candy bar squirreled away in my pocket. I’d scared her off before, but maybe I could earn her trust with food.

Straining to be close to her, I went back to the bus stop. I waited two hours for something that never came.

It was dark by the time I walked home. Usually, out late at night, I called Aunt Ruth to chatter me along. Instead, I scanned miles of gutter, hoping for a flash of fur.

The next day, a pink tail peeked out from under an empty bus seat. I wasn’t sure if it was real. I wandered to the back of the bus in a daze. Crouched under the padded seat was my chubby brown rat. She stretched a piece of iridescent blue fabric between her paws.

A scarf? I wondered as I curled into the seat above her. A belt? Grinning, I raised my eyes to the ceiling, picturing a little brown rat with a head scarf tied under her chin. I fingered the candy bar in my pocket.

She brushed my shoe as she scuttled out of hiding, and I jumped up to follow.

We shot down the steps and followed the sidewalk. I dodged shitstains and chewed clumps of gum. She did too, fabric clutched between her teeth, and I wondered if all rats avoided filth on the streets. Until I met my rat, they’d been their own kind of city dirt to me.

We rounded a corner onto a deserted residential block. She ran to a manhole cover in the center of the street. Nose twitching, she circled it three times, then scuttled into the gutter. She disappeared down the storm drain.

“Oh, come on,” I whispered after her.

I turned my attention to the manhole cover. It was ajar, which was a safety hazard, and yet another sign that I was meant to follow my rat. Still, it was over a hundred pounds of iron. Eventually I heaved it aside, exposing the first few rungs of a maintenance ladder. “Hello?” I whimpered into the black hole.

A squeak rose up out of the dark. That was all the encouragement I needed.

The air inside the manhole was thick. I breathed in through my mouth, tasting something foul. Warm underground moisture hung around me like fog. The ladder rungs were damp. Scrubbing my hands clean would loosen my grip, so I swallowed bile and kept climbing.

When I slid off the ladder into a slick of stagnant water, I was alone. I craned my head from side to side, listening for her skittering. In the distance I heard squeaks. With one reluctant hand trailing the concrete wall, I followed the noise. Mildew collected on the pads of my fingers.

There was a dim light in the distance, growing with each step. At the end of the tunnel, I was bathed in weak sun streaming through another manhole grate.

The rays illuminated a throng of rats.

City rats coated the floor, some fiddling with their whiskers, others scratching their nails against stone. Hunks of discarded food trembled in their paws.

A pile of junk loomed over them. Atop it sat a single rat.

She was more beautiful than any pampered pet rat. Her patchy fur made a perfect mantle of black on her head, leaving a soft white underbelly. Heavy whiskers twitched in time with her nose. Her tail was lithe and flexible, light pink.

Sharp black eyes watched me from her throne, a tangle of pizza boxes and clothing scraps. A pair of hot pink panties hung like a war banner.

The Rat Queen, I knew without thinking. Rats clustered, chirping, all around me. Fur brushed my ankles. I didn’t flinch, too consumed by the tapping of her clawed toes.

She looked right at me. With a twitch of her nose, she acknowledged my presence. She gave a demure squeak.

The rats that packed the room surged towards her, carrying their offerings of crumbs and meat casings and chocolate-slicked wrappers. My fingers clenched around the candy bar in my pocket. I inched closer to her throne, shaking with anticipation. For once, I could be a believer.

I’d never been so close to something holy.

Her worshippers dodged my ruinous feet. Easing to my knees at the edge of the pile, I split the candy’s wrapping. A chorus of approving shrieks heralded the first glimpse of chocolate. I peeled plastic from my sacrament and raised my gaze to hers, searching for approval.

Surging up from her seat like a splash of rancid water, she skated down the hill of boxes. I bent my head and stretched the candy out for her to take.

She grasped it with her paws. After a long sniff, she dug her teeth into the corner. Gnawing through the chocolate, crushing caramel and nougat and peanuts between her jaws, I thought I’d never seen anyone eat more gracefully. Not even Aunt Ruth at Canter’s.

There was a restrained satisfaction in the way she ate. Her eyes shone like methane fires and her tail jittered, but she chewed slowly. With only a quarter of the bar gone, she dropped it. It slapped the cold cement.

She clicked her claws. High-pitched mewls poured from a thousand open mouths and bounced off the cement walls. If every drop of rain pouring from the clouds made a sound like a baby bird being crushed to death, a typhoon would sound like that.

They converged on the candy with reckless glee. Crumbs of chocolate flew through the air as sisters and brothers scrabbled for a taste.

I opened my mouth and joined their wailing chorus. My voice broke over and over again, rubbing my throat raw with exultation. I was swept up in a haze of warm air, echoing shrieks, and a sense of total unreality. Thrashed by waves of noise, I decided there was no reason for a rat to fear death. We were a collective. We would eat our dead, and they would never disappear.

Regally detached, the Rat Queen paced back up the pile to her seat. Ruckus quieted under her gaze. My candy bar was gone, every crumb licked up by starving mouths.

I watched her, rapt and adoring.

She nudged a pizza box out of place. It slid down the stack and stopped at my feet. It was an empty box from Luigi’s Pizzeria, labeled on the top in sharpie: XL pep, 2x cheese.

An empty box. I’d been overstuffed at a dozen family tables—I knew the way you fed people was always a kind of test. I picked the cardboard up and pressed it to my chest.

She streaked down the back of the trash pile and was gone. The congregation of rodents exploded around me, scampering down the tunnel or disappearing into cracks in the stone.

I sat alone in a dark sewer.

The smell of waste crept into my nostrils again, and I wrinkled my nose shut. Hard cement pushed into my knees. I staggered to my feet, ignoring the wet patches on my jeans, and wandered back down the tunnel.

The manhole cover was still ajar, and I was gripped by the fear that someone might walk by and see it open. A water management authority would rip through the Rat Queen’s tunnels like a blaze of sterilizing fire.

I heaved myself up the ladder and onto the street. Midafternoon sunlight seared my eyes and skin. I cowered back against the manhole, head reeling with red and white flashes. The distant echoes of voices and thrumming engines assailed my ears. Far from her musty throne chamber, the air brimmed with loud scents of gasoline and hamburger and hot asphalt.

The pizza box covered my face. I breathed through damp cardboard and waited for my eyes to adjust.

That walk to Luigi’s Pizzeria was the most fulfilling pilgrimage I’ve ever taken. I was buoyed forward, city sidewalk turned to airport moving walkway. The Rat Queen gave me a mission. I would buy an extra-large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese for her followers’ feast.

Every pedestrian I pushed past looked miserable. Their faces were buried in phones or glued to concrete sucking them down like it was still wet. My feet were light pink-clawed paws.

The city was made new. Every stinking alley was a site for worship, cradling its overflowing dumpster bounty. My chest was bursting with brilliance that threatened to blow through my teeth and blind passing cars. I lived in a beam of sunlight streaming through an open manhole.

At Luigi’s, the boy behind the counter saw my brilliant grin and stuttered.

“Extra large pepperoni, please,” I declared. “Extra cheese.”

“Got big plans?” he squeaked, pawing at the register.

“Yes!” I replied. It was the most I’d said to a stranger in the past two weeks.

While I waited, a pigeon outside destroyed a hot dog bun. I admired the way its feathers glinted iridescent in the sunlight. Flashy and crass, I thought, but beautiful in its own way.

Endorphins overflowing, I navigated the maintenance ladder one-handed. I found the chamber empty. Awkward, I waited in the center, holding the steaming pizza box.

A squeak came from the throne of trash. Skittering claws sounded behind me, and a quartet of rats appeared in the mouth of the tunnel. I set the box on the floor and backed away.

They leapt on it, rending cardboard like flesh. The four rats worked as a team, sinking their teeth into the crust and dragging slices away. Some to a pit draining wastewater, some down the maintenance tunnel, some into holes left by shut-off pipes.

I watched them with respect. Trusted, valiant workers of the Rat Queen.

When I was alone in the room again, a single slice sat untouched in the torn box. Something rustled in the Rat Queen’s throne. I set the box on top of the pile, dispersing stray cardboard shreds at its base, and opened what was left of the lid to display the final slice. I backed away and got to my knees.

Hesitant, the Queen emerged from her nest. She was just as regal without a rodentine army at her feet. Ignoring the slice of pizza, she clutched something from the pile in her paws. I kept perfectly still as she padded in my direction.

At my feet, she laid a single square of dirty silk. I took the scrap.

I stood, and she turned and retreated to her nest. My next mission was clear: clothing fit for her royal regalia. I left the sewer stinking of waste and grinning so hard my teeth hurt.

I wracked my brain over where to find clothes. There was always the thrift store, the donation bin, but I needed something nicer—something I couldn’t get on a student’s budget.

The answer came that night, when for the first time in days I checked my calendar.

On Saturday, the cousins were meeting at Lisa’s house to paw through boxes of Aunt Ruth’s keepsakes, which she’d driven home from LA. Without visits to the sewer to mark my days, the week floated by in a haze of missed due dates and microwaved meals.

I was late to Lisa’s house because I spent all morning in bed, smelling my own sweat and wondering what the Rat Queen’s favorite color was.

Cousin Lisa’s apartment was in a nice neighborhood. On the walk over, I passed Wise Sons Deli. Lisa liked to take me there after class when I first moved to the city. It reminded us of after-school trips to Aunt Ruth’s.

She would heave open the loaded refrigerator door. “You want eggs?” she’d call over one shoulder. “I’ve got potato salad, some lox; we could make toast. How about some juice?”

“We already ate lunch,” Lisa would moan.

“Just a little snack! I made cake. You want some coleslaw?”

We always ate everything.

A wave of disembodied family greetings rang out from Lisa’s crowded apartment. Aunt Ruth kept all her things sparkling; cleaners came by every Tuesday and left the house spotless. Cousin Lisa liked her place just as tidy.

I tried not to flinch from the bright white walls. A tangy, acrid scent hung in the air.

Perched on the couch, Lisa’s friend Osnat breathed deep. “God, it smells like your aunt’s lemon cleaning spray in here. Liz, is that from you or did it come with the boxes?”

Most of the artifacts and heirlooms had already been divvied up and shipped off to their keepers. In my own apartment sat an untouched box of pictures, two dancing musical teddy bears, and some books Aunt Ruth set aside for me. I wasn’t interested in that kind of finery.

I pushed past people clustered around jewelry boxes and scrapbooks. My destination was the box Lisa packed from the infamous walk-in closet.

Aunt Ruth kept her clothes more pristine than her home. Each dress or coat was freshly dry-cleaned and wrapped in a plastic bag—not that it mattered, with everything stuffed into a cardboard box. The nicest pieces were gone, but at the bottom sat a pile of scarves.

It was just what I needed. Handfuls of silk and cashmere glossed over my grubby fingers. Nearby was an empty shoebox, and I stuffed it with my hoard of scarves.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I flinched like I’d been bitten.

“Tehilah?” Cousin Lisa asked. “Are you going to take all those scarves?”

“Do you want any?” My voice must have been edged with desperation, because Lisa pulled her hand away and twisted her fingers together.

“No, they’re all yours if you want them. But you never really liked wearing them. I thought maybe you’d rather take some gloves.”

“Okay, well, it’s not about what you think. I want these.” I held my box of scarves close to my chest, certain she was trying to steal them from me. They were exactly what the Queen needed, and I wouldn’t let her touch them.

Lisa took a small step back. Blood rushed to my face as her eyes filled with a sticky emotion halfway between pity and fear. “That’s fine! Everything in the boxes is up for grabs.”

“Fine,” I snapped.

She dropped her voice. “Are you feeling okay? I know you took Aunt Ruth’s death hard—we all did—and I know that you weren’t interested in grief counseling with the Rabbi, but maybe…”

“I don’t need to talk to any Rabbis!” I didn’t give a damn about our family’s stares. “I’ve got my own community, okay? Stop trying to force yours on me!”

“I’m sorry, Tehilah, I didn’t mean that you should go! I was thinking instead we could—”

Her hand drifted towards mine. I yanked the box away. My eyes burned. Cousin Lisa was right—I’d never liked scarves for dress-up. But I needed them for something more important.

“Leave me the hell alone,” I choked, and hustled out the open door.

Tears trickled slowly down my cheeks on my way back to the bus stop. I got on with aching eyes and salt-crusted cheeks, but the bus driver didn’t comment as I fished three floating dollar bills from my pocket.

She wore a high-collared blue shirt in soft jersey knit. I wondered if the Queen would like it. I realized when the driver made eye contact that I’d spent too long in front of the machine.

“That’s a pretty shirt,” I blurted.

She gave me an indulgent smile. “Thanks, sweetheart.”

I kept my head down until my stop, avoiding eye contact with strangers. I held the box of scarves against my side and hurried through a familiar tangle of side streets.

I put my burden down to shift the manhole cover aside. I wasn’t sure how to navigate the ladder, so instead I closed the lid and dropped the box into the sewer. I scrambled down after it and found it right-side up in a quarter-inch of standing water.

My merciful Queen wouldn’t mind.

The sound must have echoed, because when I entered the grand hall, dozens of skittering feet paced the edge of the room. I waited by the door until their leader graced the top of her nest. Every step full of ceremony, I made my way to the center of the chamber.

I turned the box upside down and let Aunt Ruth’s scarves cascade onto cement. Dregs of sewer water seeped into silk. The rats held back, awaiting their Queen’s will.

She tiptoed off the stack of pizza boxes. One of her claws caught the edge of a fine lace scarf. She considered it. With her usual elegant pride, she dug her teeth into the fabric. A strip of off-white finery came off in her mouth, and she turned to me, allowing me to tie it.

My fingers trembled against the soft fur on her throat. I jittered through the movement of a bow. Lace sat tight against her fur, and she looked more regal than ever.

The holiest of holies lay before me. All I had to do was open my heart and be part of it.

The moment that thought washed over me, I realized it made no sense. Wasn’t I already part of it? I’d carried offerings to her altar, I’d squealed my praises along with the horde. In front of me lay the proof of my dedication. A bundle of fabric, silk and lace stained with rank water.

In that moment of doubt, something fragile and iridescent snapped.

I missed my Aunt Ruth. She wouldn’t like the sewer.

I started crying. Wailing, tears spraying from my eyes like bus wheels in a gutter. I was hunched over in the rotten dark, breathing in shit-laden fumes, surrounded by skittering rats.

They were tearing apart Aunt Ruth’s beautiful clean clothes.

I grabbed one of her favorite scarves, a pink one with embroidered roses in one corner. I clutched it to my chest, feeling sobs flutter through the fabric. Rats scattered from my jerky movements. The whole sewer was crawling with them, and I panicked, every breath scraping my throat as I stumbled to my feet.

My eyes rested for a second on the one with a bow around her throat. Her tail was slick with grease. Flat black eyes didn’t meet mine as she fled into the trash pile, scared off by a loud human.

Sniffling and gagging on the air those sniffles pulled in, I sprinted out of the room. Behind me, fabric tore, whiskers twitched above squeaking mouths, and I did not belong.

I crawled up the ladder. One of my feet slipped on a damp rung, and I dropped, screaming as my shoulder wrenched. I hung there, crying too hard to open my eyes, until my floundering feet touched metal. When I finally emerged, snot-streaked and panting, I was covered in mildew. Streaks of rust defaced the scarf. My shirt was torn and damp.

Still whimpering, wringing Aunt Ruth’s scarf between my hands, I trudged down the street. My aching legs carried me to the bus stop.

I scanned the gutter. It was all wrong. I should never have followed that rat into the darkness. “Please,” I wheezed to the empty street, begging for someone to protect me from a threat I couldn’t name. Nothing had followed me out of the sewer, but I felt chased.

The bus pulled up. The people who filed off didn’t linger on me. To them, I was scenery. A ragged young woman crying at a bus stop. I could feel the dirt streaking my cheeks.

And the smell—for the first time, I noticed the smell that followed me from the manhole. I stank. Not just like the sewer, feces and mold and metal. I stank like sweat and wet fur and salt.

“Hey kid,” called the bus driver, “you getting on?”

I stood without thinking and wobbled to the steps. Dimly, I realized I had no money. I’d left my purse at Cousin Lisa’s house. Still, I made a show of patting my empty pockets. I wanted to prove I had a reason for stepping up.

It was the same bus driver, still wearing her blue shirt. She waved a dismissive hand towards the seats. “You look like hell, honey. Go sit down.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”

I chose an empty row in the back of the bus. There was nothing under the seat.

Really, I decided, I wasn’t riding alone. A man in a baseball cap slept against his window. At the very back sat a high school student with their face buried in a comic book. Two girls shared earbuds, listening to the same music and giggling out the same window.

The robotic announcement scared me at my stop. “Thank you for letting me on,” I rasped as I passed the driver. “It’s a really nice shirt.”

She chuckled at that, and her laughter followed me off the bus and down the street.

I kept my gaze at eye-level. A man walked towards me on his way out of the First Church of Christ, Scientist. I knew what I looked like, but I stiffened anyway as his eyes darted over my damp jeans and tear-streaked face.

He smiled at me. It was warm and welcoming, probably engineered by pity, but I smiled back as hard as I could. “Have a lovely day,” he called over his shoulder as he passed.

“You too,” I cried back, remembering how to be human.

I made it home, shoulders aching, my eyes wrung out. With every step up to my third-floor apartment I could feel water soaking through my socks.

A beat-up shoebox sat in front of my door. I opened it to find my brown leather purse and a pristine yellow sticky note. Tehilah, it read, You forgot this at my place. I grabbed you those earrings you used to wear for dress-up (front pocket). I miss her too. I saved some gloves and I thought maybe we could look through them together. Let’s get lunch soon.—xo Lisa

I wrapped my purse in the pink scarf, pressed them both to my chest, and went inside. My shades were down. Mold speckled my unwashed dishes, and clothes were scattered on the floor.

Thank you, I texted Lisa. It was all I knew how to say.

I threw the windows open, plugged in the fan, and switched on the radio. With bland pop music blaring from the speaker, I shambled to the bathroom to rinse myself clean.