Published May 23, 2005

by John Moss

illustrationEmerson Crabtree climbed into his giant rat suit, post-coital bliss peeling off his glabrous skin with each furry step forward.

Dismissing warm bed sheets and an improvident, daily desire to quit, he had left it all in bed because it was time to dress and that's what men do. It had been there hanging in his closet, right above his white high-top shoes and next to the suits he wore to work each day ... business suits, for his job as an account manager at Raintree, Inc. Businessman by day, manrat by night and weekend, lover, father, and husband all times between. Emerson Crabtree when? Didn't matter, he never developed much interest in anything outside of sports besides a brief embrace of the arts that soughed away into the summer night as sonorously as it had appeared. And anyway, sex with Ginger lately reminded him of the ecstasy and comfortable alarm of their high school years, and his boy Markus had more friends than days of the week. He recapitulated all this as if scanning data to reach some conclusion, while Ginger, nude and laughing after what had been a sweet three minutes zipped up his suit, smacked him on the hairy rear, and sent him off to the garage.

He always waited until outside to put on the rat mask, the last installation of the costume. Brittle twigs crackled beneath his white high-tops as he fed himself handfuls of salty, sour chips, nearly gobbling off his hand each time in the awkward delivery required to avoid the all too real hanging fangs. When first bought the mask pleasantly squeezed his head as the body suit limped to the ground, and now, only one month later, the suit puffed out to accommodate his belly while the mask rippled like jello when his shrinking melon coughed or sneezed. Untouchable were the high-tops though, pristine those white high-top ankle huggers, fitfully embellished with his long ago baseball and basketball numbers, majestic and proudly worn, the only indication his wife and child did not control him completely.

"Who's Ratso?" 

"You, Dad." 

"I'm Ratso?" 

"You are a half-man, half-rat that lives in the sewer. You are a wizard of the Underworld that loves to fix bikes . You only talk to me because I am super sweet. You are an outcast ..."

"Emerson, rats don't wear white high-top basketball shoes."

"That's what I told him, Ma. Can you believe this?" Emerson stood, grinning in his rat suit and white high-top basketball shoes for the very first time, hands on his hips, and laughing the echoing, trailing crow of a man deranged that became so gusty Markus's hat almost blew off.

The garage door momentarily jammed, and with a tap of his foot the hinges loosened, revealing his workshop of tools, bikes, diagrams, paints, and empty barbeque potato chip bags that was now referred to as "The Sewer." A spirited lift of the feet he felt taking the familiar path through the garage to where he sat each night before a mountainous jumble of broken bikes. His wife upstairs sleeping, son away at a friend's, Emerson sat down on his bucket and looked at the broken bikes, wondering just how much would get accomplished tonight.

_______________________

Markus was a ruby, bright gem of a kid with a bad throwing arm and even worse skin. When he used to hop out of his seat to answer the telephone, in the blind hope it was for him, Emerson couldn't help noticing a zit pop on his neck, chin, or nose from the sudden jerk. Or how in baseball Markus would sit on the bench with his right leg crossed over the left, clapping emphatically no matter which team succeeded, leaving Emerson aghast in the stands that the boy did not know better. According to Emerson, a foot is a wheel, a hand a paw, and never no matter what pass over the Boss on the radio. With bad skin, squirrelish features, and an affinity for Big Band, Markus was the kind of kid his father used to laugh at or trip out on recess. Emerson did his best to get Markus on the baseball team the summer before high school, and succeeding in that, it was up to the boy to make something of himself.

In the second week of summer vacation Markus came home from baseball with a teammate's bike he had busted before practice while performing some stunt. Following the long, straight pitch of Ginger's finger Emerson knew it pointed to the garage, and amidst applause from the boy he dragged the bike behind the house into what would later be called "The Sewer." With little effort, and much artistic vision and fluidity he fixed the bike in an hour. The bent frame and twisted spokes transformed back into a working model of transportation. Satisfied and unusually proud, his braggadocio followed him into the house eliciting calls of "Hooray Dad" and more applause from the boy and an unforeseen advance from his wife along the lines of "I've got a break, Mr. Fixit, why don't you examine my parts." Instant household celebrity that lasted exactly one night, as Markus and the bike were sent off to practice the following day, and the following evening Markus came home pushing a broken bike.

"What the hell happened? Didn't I just fix this thing?" Emerson rarely swore in front of the boy, but the injured bike, the tangled mess of metal and rubber before him was an affront on his artistry, on the vision that came to him the night before while the wife and child had watched Jeopardy!

"It's a different bike, Dad. You know Junior Hayden, he lives over by Will's Pond?" Actually, no, Emerson didn't know the kid. Not that there were too many faces and names to keep track of, but rather, not enough.