It was the Spring of 2016. Earlier that year, in the midst of breaking our lease on our first Madison apartment to escape bedbugs and a hostile landlord, Marissa and I learned that we also had a surprise baby on the way. We bought a house on the opposite side of town.
Everything happened so quickly. After moving in, we relished in our newfound independence. Even though we had almost no furniture left from our infestation, our dark, dingy, and empty house tucked behind a Burger King was ours, and the mere fact that we didn’t have to answer to a landlord or building manager made it special.
Nesting instincts took over, and we got to work fixing what we could before Rodney arrived. Ollie made a habit of patrolling the backyard, pacing along the back fence with his hackles up, watching for squirrels and birds. Sometimes he would stand motionless, staring at the narrow space between our shed and the fence.
“I think there’s something back there,” said Marissa. “Ollie is acting weird. He senses something.”
I chalked her paranoia up to nesting, but to appease my painfully pregnant wife, I grabbed my cheap android phone with a cracked screen and took some closer pictures.
I saw dried up sticks and dirt. Holding it all in like a damn was a broken piece of old door, propping up the garbage pile from spilling into the back yard. Then I saw it - I caught the glimmer of two beady little eyes. A fat black rat was sitting in the mound of garbage in broad daylight.
I crept around the other side of the fence to get some pictures of the Burger King dumpster. Sure enough, it was in terrible condition. The back of the dumpster was chewed out, and the ground was slick with grease. Garbage lined their side of the fence.
“You finally saw one, but I was seeing them before that,” recounts Marissa. “I saw three of them just chilling there in broad daylight.”
Marissa asked a Burger King employee if they had issues with rats.
“Oh for sure,” said the girl behind the counter. “We hate throwing garbage away, they’re just everywhere back there.”
That upcoming weekend, we had a “baby moon” planned. We were heading to Chicago for a live podcast viewing, spending the night in a hotel in the loop before visiting the Shedd Aquarium where we got engaged. “We’ll deal with it when we get back,” I said. “This is about celebrating our last few weeks without a baby.”
The weekend in Chicago was fun. The ancient Shedd voucher we saved was no longer accepted, so we had to settle for just waving at the site of our engagement from a distance. Sure, we could have coughed up the sixty bucks for two new tickets and spent the day there, but we were living pretty cheaply.
We spent the rest of our time in Chicago eating pizza and tooling around the touristy part of Chicago. Marissa fondly remembers a sassy crossing card cat calling her as she waddled across Michigan Ave, saying “C’mon big momma, move it along.”
After returning from our last hurray, things got serious. I suited up in a mask and gloves, breaking first ground after pulling away the make shift barrier.
The mysterious mound of dirt behind our shed already began to give up its secrets. There was a large tunnel system behind the door. I knew things were about to get serious.
With a shovel, I got to work moving digging the garbage out. It was worse then it looked. Beneath the dirt and dried up sticks were booze bottles, rusted scrap metal, old paint cans, lead pipes, and fast food wrappers. The rats darted past my ankles as I dug.
My neighbor Everette peeked his head around the corner of the shed.
“Oh hell yeah,” he said. “Let’s do this.” He took a long drag of a cigarette, grabbed a shovel from his garage, and jumped into the wreckage.
As we dug, we found several rat nests - little pieces of plastic wrappers teased together in mattresses. We followed the sounds panicked high pitched squeaking - baby rats shivvering, huddling together. The rats had been thriving there.
The other side of the shared garage was even worse. Buried in the rank dirt was a coiled up chain link fence. It took us an entire afternoon to resurrect it. I have a vivid, chilling memory of standing the fence upright and shaking it, watching the rats just fall out of the top and sides.
“It’s like a luxury rat condo,” I laughed.
A common theme with all the battles we’ve had with pests and parasites is survival. When I battle a parasite for long enough, I can’t help but grow to respect it on the grounds of pure survivorship. What appeared to be a harmless garbage pile behind our shed was a fearfully and wonderfully made fortress. A nursery. An empire. Who knows - maybe if they didn’t get so cavalier with the mid day sunbathing, they could have remained behind my shed for years to come.
And rats are fast. Paradoxically, the bigger the rat was, the harder it was to catch. As Everette and I dug, rats would emerge from beneath us - like something out of a horror movie. You would catch a brief glimpse of their pink feet poking through the ground, and than they were gone.
It took an entire week, but we managed to dig out the garbage and dirt. We took our share of the garbage to the dump, and I piled the rest on the landlord’s side of the shared driveway.
With a bucket and a shovel, I moved the dirt to a neat pile in our driveway and covered it with a tarp. It would take a long time to fully dispose of it a few scoops at a time.
All that remained behind our shed was a flat bed of dirt and sticks. Even the dirt looked fresher. There was something undeniably symbolic about the entire week. Digging through the garbage and clearing out the rats nest, I felt in some way I was digging through a heap of all the painful memories and neglect lying dormant in our hundred year old house nestled behind a Burger King and a busy road.
Later that summer after Rodney was born, we found a guy on craigslist giving away rocks. It took another week to make trips out to the west side and, one trunk full at a time, turn the strip of dirt into a rock bed.
More people with rat infestations came forward. The neighborhood was on high alert. We even got featured in the local paper. Around work, I jokingly started referring to myself as the Rat King of the East Side.
What does it look like now? I snapped this photo just a few minutes ago, standing on Rodney’s playhouse while holding my coffee mug.
We finally replaced our flimsy trellis divider with a real vinyl fence. The rock bed is still there, now covered with leaves and walnut shells. Now, we let Rodney pee back there if he’s playing outside and too dirty to tramp his way to the upstairs bathroom.
And why shouldn’t he pee back there? We fought hard for that little strip of dirt behind the shed. It reminds me of a time of unspeakable horrors and filth, but also of a time where we learned how to harness our own instincts to get through a turbulent time in our lives.