I’m not going to look up the statute of limitations on discharging a firearm within Greensboro’s city limits, and I’m not going to look up whether a pellet gun qualifies as a firearm, and I’m not going to say whether or not I actually did this deed quite a long time ago. Though I did. Or, in theory, I certainly could have. It was a pistol, if that matters. A borrowed pellet pistol. Or, if that turns out to be what matters, it wasn’t. And I didn’t do it. But the rat — an actual gray rat — was eating my tomatoes.
This was in my first house, in my first writing shed, at a desk that faced my second garden. My first garden had been out front of the house I’d rented while in grad school: The late, great Jim Clark, my neighbor and the director of UNCG’s MFA writing program, had stood in that garden with me to hold a tarp over our young tomatoes in a hailstorm. Jim loved a tall tale; Jim loved plausible deniability. Much later on, Jim loved my rat story, mainly because neither Jim nor anyone else I’ve ever known can believe that I had the moxie to stake out a rat from the window of a writing shed and then shoot it to death, with a borrowed sidearm, in flagrante tomato. God, I loved Jim.
I was writing my first novel at the time. The rat time. I was doing all of this — writing, gardening, living in North Carolina in the first place — because of Jim. He’d called me during the freak April Boston blizzard of 1997 (I was an Atlanta native, up there chasing an old girlfriend; it was doomed, but we were trying anyway) to tell me I’d gotten into UNCG. I came back down South. Jim was a great teacher: He taught me to plant tomatoes sideways and at night; he taught me to avoid the authorities when necessary; he taught me to think I might deserve something as absurd as a desk in a writing shed.
It was sunny. Summer. I was newly engaged. Something had been eating our tomatoes. Not whole tomatoes — just a bite or two out of each huge Cherokee Purple, half of each Sun Gold. Squirrels, we thought. Or hoped. I was at the desk. Looked up. Something was wrong with this squirrel: It wasn’t quite the right color, and its tail looked sickly. It took a long time for the word to spool itself out on the wall inside my head. Rat.
My buddy said, It’s just a pellet pistol. Same same, I said. No, he said. You’ll be fine. Will it kill the rat? I said. Practice, he said. But yes.
A beer can is about the size of a rat. I laid them on their sides, shot at them in the backyard. Mostly, I hit them. The stakeout, then: I was ready. Writing shed window cracked open, screen removed, me practicing sniper breathing, waiting, waiting. Here came the rat — yes, I thought there was one, only one — along the top of the chain-link. Here he was choosing a cherry tomato. Here he was pulling it from the vine, here he was eating it, here I was squeezing the trigger, and my aim was true …
Hunters and true Carolinians and fuller-moxied persons than I will scoff at what I tell you now: I’ll never do it again. It was horrible. It took time. I changed religions twice while that rat died. I was proud and on the verge of tears all at once. I was sorry. I was triumphant. I hired a professional that very evening so that I could restore the proper distance between the actual moral consequences of my decisions and my everyday life.
Here’s where Jim would tease me: It’s just a rat, he’d say, and then launch into some story about a child-size rodent that had crawled from the sewer quoting Baudelaire, or a herd of rats that came right down the middle of the street after a hurricane, walking in formation. With Jim, you never knew what was true, and that was fine: We were in town — some of us, anyway — to learn fiction. To learn story before truth.
I did, though, I’d tell him. I did shoot that rat.
You? he’d say. You, who turned up in this town wearing khaki pants with your shirt tucked in? No. Not you.
But I did, Jim. I shot our only rat. And you know what? The tomatoes the rest of that summer were delicious. Whole. They tasted like grief and loss and summer and joy. They tasted like impossibility. They tasted like beautiful lies, saved one by one.
Get our most popular weekly newsletter: This is NC