The Year of the Rat

Novel Excerpts by Faraaz Mahomed

The Year of the Rat

What woke him was the sound of a fist on the front door, a thumping that signified in its speed and its impertinence that his landlord was coming to collect the rent again.

The scar tissue wasn’t healing well, so he was constantly in pain. Clad in just boxers and a vest, Bill winced as he took the five steps from his bedroom into the living room, crouching and running his hand down his uncovered leg, feeling the bristles and the indents, soothing himself.

‘I don’t have the rent Mr. Lee.’

‘You said Friday. It’s Friday.’

Mr. Lee’s expression displayed neither malice nor affection. A wizened man, he’d survived the Great Chinese Famine and McCarthy’s Red Scare. Once, when Bill had just moved in and they shared niceties, Mr. Lee told Bill, as though he knew him personally, that Mao was a man of great intellect but also, on account of his undescended testicle, great insecurity.

‘Maybe,’ he said with clinical distance, ‘he was impotent. An impotent man will kill hundreds of thousands just to prove that he is still a man.’

Often Mr. Lee would say axiomatic things that made him seem more like an orator than a fishmonger. He seemed to assume that no one would know that some of his proclamations were lifted out of the canon of Tolstoy or, on wistful days, Emily Dickinson. Bill always knew.

The fishy smell made Bill take a step back, like he was about to shut the door in Mr. Lee’s face.

‘I’m starting a new job,’ he lied, turning his gaze downward, ‘I’ll get it to you next week.’

Mr. Lee took pity on him, mostly because of the ravine of stitches in his legs. He didn’t say anything, walking away with a hint of a military march in his gait.

Bill sipped on green tea, bought from the sweet lady on Eldridge Street, as he watched Fox and Friends. The anchor with the short blond hair was chiding someone, a governor, for his political correctness after he’d apologised to the people of his state for a comment about Muhammad.

‘I don’t think Governor Stone should have apologised. He was merely stating what most people take as fact. Muhammad married and impregnated a number of teenage girls.’

‘It won’t be long before we have no first amendment rights at all,’ another anchor, with a sleepy voice, said.

Bill flipped to another channel, and a talk show host appeared. She was svelte, and Bill thought her attractive. The show was about the murder of a freshman student at a college in the Midwest. In quick succession, women with solemn faces and harrowed voices emerged to tell their own stories, in between spots for Tide and Chevrolet.

When his tea had turned tepid, he limped towards the bedroom again, a small closet-sized bunker in which a pinkish sunlight shone because it travelled through the red curtains. He pulled on a pair of beige slacks and a golf T-shirt with intermittently dark and light blue stripes. On the nightstand, he collected a small brownish tube and, with his right hand, held the opened top to the palm of his left, letting a small white tablet roll out. In the kitchen, the pipes made an earthy noise when he opened the tap. He took a sip of water with his pill and readied to leave.

There was a clamour on the sidewalk at the entrance of his building. People were rushing to collect orders of meat from the butchers and cakes from the bakers in anticipation of the Chinese New Year. At the Grand Street subway station, he slipped momentarily but didn’t fall as he went down the stairs.

*

He didn’t like the sound of the clanging teaspoons and the tossed dishes in the diner, much less the endless battles of wills between children and their parents.

‘Put it down. Put it down!’

The boy, with a seraphim face and a cheeky smile, was holding the jug of syrup up to his mother threateningly, intimating that he might make a mess or stain himself, becoming a sweet, maple-scented anthroform that would laugh and run around under tables or between waitresses. Bill watched their game, the coyness on the boy’s face, then the film of regret at having taken a lark too far, followed by a soft retreat.

He liked the diner itself, because of their sweet potato waffles and their vanilla-flavoured coffee, and because of Maude, whose friendship was one of his most treasured achievements.

She sat with him for a few minutes. Some people, like Mrs. Wilson, her face with lines like a chequer board, and Stuart, with his Christlike long hair, wondered, in glances and in susurrations, if they were fucking. It would have been weird if they were, considering the two-foot height differential, not to mention the sixteen years between them.

The Tin House was a bipartisan place, not always jovially or amicably so, but the line between Democrat and Republican, between hawks and doves, was a bit dotted, like the broken fences between the smallholds and the marshes, so sometimes people crisscrossed. The two of them tried hard, really hard, not to talk about it, knowing it would only wedge them apart like the splintered halves of a sugar pine log.

‘I heard they’re reversing the no guns rule,’ she said.

‘About time.’

They were talking about the state fair. Bill didn’t carry a gun, so it didn’t really change anything for him personally, but he felt he owned a slice, a small smattering of the victory of freedom.

There was a couple looking for a booth, so Maude left Bill to read the Pocatello Cryer and sip on his coffee. When there was just a brown puddle in the bottom of his cup, he stood up. He left a ten-dollar bill on the table and shot a quick wave at Maude, whose white matron hat was tilting on her blond head.

Across the street from the diner was the Bermuda Bar, with its red and blue flag, almost offensive enough to be banned because of its stars and crossed lines, but still so vague that it wasn’t clear what exactly it meant. He looked inside at the burly men with blond beards, drinking beer in the mid-morning. He carried on walking, up Main Street and past the Taste of Nepal and the Old Town towards the house on West Bridget that he used to share with his mother.

Bill thought that Pocatello – some people pronounced it with an ‘ah’ at the end – ‘Po-ca-tell-ah,’ was charming but boring, a rusted Toyota Camry of a town. Most days, he was hunched uncomfortably on his front lawn tending to his mother’s dying bougainvillea. She’d spent the last eighteen years propagating them, filling the yard with their crimson and violet colours. She was kneeling over, spade in gloved hand, when her body seized and slowly curled into the ground.

A large man, he couldn’t sit down all the way, and so a few peeping weeds stayed where they were, as if to taunt him. From afar, he could see Sherry and her brother carrying bags of charcoal and tossing them into the back of his pickup. He stole a glance but didn’t want to make eye contact, so he lowered his head.

*

On the train, there were about thirty people in his carriage. He stood at the pole in the middle, tilting to avoid pressure on his leg. Most people had their headphones in or books in their hands, but some had neither. A man wearing overalls was sleeping fitfully, probably on his way home from a night shift. When Bill arrived at Herald Square, he thought about getting the bus, but decided against it.

A furious man, dark-skinned and with lunacy in his eyes and spit rolling down his chin, was talking to no one at the exit. Had Bill been in Pocatello, tall and proud, he would’ve said something, a string of disapproving words and a shaming glare. In New York, he thought twice. Boldness and forthrightness often reside in places familiar. When people enter a new reality, complete with parabolic arcs in the native accent and gestures that seem edged with sharp serrations, they shrink.

Along the way, he had to stop because of a mild, blunt pain that he felt just above his right knee. The Percocet had dulled it, but it was still lingering, like a shadow just before it gets dark. Sweat was pooling on his back, and he felt his T-shirt cling moistly to his flabby skin.

*

His ploy to avoid Sherry didn’t work. When she saw him, she understood by his posture that he didn’t want to talk to her. Even when she texted, with words so formal that they seemed cloistered, he usually never responded, or only responded with statements that had the hardened texture of wood. But she walked towards him regardless, shading her eyes.

‘Hey.’

‘Hi, nice to see you,’ he said, climbing into a fully upright position.

‘Thanks. You too. It’s been awhile.’

‘I know. I’ve been meaning to call you back,’ he turned his head to look away from her, ‘it’s just been busy.’

His mother’s death, and the ensuing pile of administrative paperwork that it had elicited, meant that he often spent the afternoon at a lawyer’s office, or at a bank, or at a realtor. For the majority of these errands, he’d go by himself, but sometimes his brother would fly in from Princeton.

‘How are you?’

Bill felt a twinge of anger when she asked him, not a torrent of rage, just a minor, caustic droplet of rue.

‘I think I’m doing okay.’

From the anticipating, wanting look on Sherry’s face, she’d hoped for more, a trinket of detail that made it feel like they were still a part of each other’s lives. He didn’t offer one.

‘I’d better go…Lots o’weeds to gut.’

‘Yeah, we’re gonna get going too. About to start up at the lodge again.’

‘Right…well seeya.’

He turned to leave, carrying his rusted shears in one hand and a battered water jug in the other.

‘I need to give you your ring.’

It made him turn around and squint his eyes to adjust to the glare. The droplet was amassing, accumulating into a little puddle of anger and damp sadness.

‘Okay.’

‘Okay.’

‘Well, where is it?’

‘Oh…I don’t have it with me.’

‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘it’s yours.’

He listened for the rustle of the river when he was in the backyard. Sometimes he could hear the beat of the current, but on that day, there was mostly just silence, interrupted only by the scathing sound of his garden shears.

*

In the waiting room of Dr. Kaufman’s office, he scratched at his wiry beard and stared at the painting of a marina, littered with aspirational-looking sailboats and yachts, moored in their jetty like fireflies waiting for darkness, their jibs creased by a mollifying wind.

When the receptionist, a salty woman with a whistling space between her two front teeth, called out for Bill, the combination of the Percocet and the phantasmal painting rendered him unaware.

‘Mr. Shepherd…Mr. Shepherd.’

Bill was jarred back to the room.

‘I don’t want to interrupt you or anything, but Dr. Kaufman is ready for you.’

Dr. Kaufman was a short and nasal man, younger than Bill. He had sunken cheeks and a pleasant, but slightly detached manner.

‘Does that hurt?’

He ran his fleshy fingertips against the contours of Bill’s undressed leg, over the plate in his knee, towards his groin, across the surgery scar.

‘A little.’

‘How’s your mobility?’

‘I can walk up and down the stairs in my building.’

He held in a shunted breath from the discomfort of Dr. Kaufman’s poking.

‘Great to hear…most people don’t even try to climb up stairs.’

Bill hadn’t anticipated that he would be trying either. He expected to be back in Pocatello by now, maybe even taking long haul jobs, stopping at truck stops to read Underground Memory or fall asleep in the driver’s seat to the sound of rattling wheels.

‘Yeah, well…no choice I guess.’

‘You can put your pants on…Wait, I thought you were living with your family…your brother, right?’

Dr. Kaufman clicked his pen a few times, his thumb pressing strongly on the cap. He sat at his desk and waited for Bill to follow him in.

‘Not anymore. I didn’t want to be coming in from Jersey for delivery jobs.’

He didn’t want to get into it with Dr. Kaufman, who he thought didn’t need to know the ugly details, just the bare bones. Dr. Kaufman could sense it, from the grotty silence that landed between them.

‘How’s work these days?’

‘I don’t really have any work right now, but things might pick up.’

‘It’s a hard time, huh.’

Bill, his hands on his rough chin, half-nodded.

‘Have you ever been treated for depression?’

‘What?’

‘Clinical depression, major depressive disorder, dysthymia?’

‘No.’

‘You may not want to hear this, but I think you should get an assessment. You’ve been through a lot, and often people in your situation need a bit of help getting back on their feet.’

It made Bill uncomfortable to have Dr. Kaufman, the antiseptic surgeon, peer into him and find the contents so tragic. He felt a bit pathetic to have, a few months before, been potent and steely, and now to have to have this man, with his cuspidate nose and tremulous voice, reflect to him his weakness. He felt humiliated, and wilted some in his chair.

‘I have something that might help,’ he said, as he pulled out a piece of paper from under the notepad with yellow pages.

Dr. Kaufman scribbled a number.

‘Here’s the number for a friend. A psychiatrist.’

Bill’s hesitation was self-evident, like a luminous beacon in the middle of an otherwise dim ocean.

‘You can get an honest opinion. Don’t take my word for it Bill, but you’re an unhappy man.’

*

On days when he had work, he’d grab a coffee to go, and walk the half mile to the truck terminal on West Cedar Street, crossing where the old Elk Lodge used to be.

It was a crisp morning. He’d slept through the three alarms on his phone, and he was still dozy when he arrived. A few trucks were turned towards the exit, ready to depart, and his was one of them; a collection of ball bearings, H hinges and Cam Gaskets, a superabundance of metal all headed to Portland.

As he drove through, and then out of, the Fort Hall reservation, he registered the scent of empty fields and cindered grass. There were no buildings or people for a few miles, just a long and demanding routeway and rows of crops that danced in rapidly changing directions as the breeze stiffened and loosened.

He felt comforted by the sense of aloneness in the truck, by the feeling that there was plate glass between him and the world. But it also left him time to wonder about Sherry and if she regretted calling off their engagement. Somewhere around the state line, in the beating rain that seemed to signify Washington, he felt a pang of grief for their relationship, a lapse into regret about his recalcitrance.

‘I can’t stay in Pocatello forever.’

‘I didn’t say forever. Just until I know what’s happening with my mom.’

It was a constant in their lives, this persistent threat that Mrs. Shepherd’s mind, having been on a slow and uneven decline, would give in before her body did.

Two years of ‘minor vascular incidents’ followed. His mother would take hours, sometimes days, to recognise the shape of his face, the pattern in his voice, the affection in his words. She remained like that, in a cloudy looking-glass world where nothing made sense, and so everything made sense, until she keeled over that day in the garden, like a sapling in a storm.

Sherry had anticipated a short bereavement, but, in the six months that it took Bill to come to resemble himself again, the same six months in which Maude became his best friend, her patience waned, and then extinguished itself in the back of Cal Pryce’s Ford Raptor.

The rain started to ease a little, and Bill felt a surety that he’d continue for a few hours, at least until the day started again. He preferred the drive through nighttime; a quieter, more hermitical experience.

Under the blue-black sky of the night over Gopher Flats, he noticed what seemed like a flash of lightning that seemed to repeat itself like a note on a guitar. But he knew that he wasn’t looking at lightning when the light kept reappearing in metronomic glimpses, each time with a more vigorous blast.

When it started to approach him, coming from the reservation in abrupt pulsations, he accelerated. In a quick, shrill burst of sound, he felt his hand slip off of the wheel at the same time as a bullet penetrated through the windscreen and a flare of the same flashing light exploded before rushing away. The truck swerved while he struggled to breathe until he regained his grip, but only momentarily.

His last memory of that night was of being lifted into the air in a circular motion, glass fragmenting like loose stars ripped out of a galaxy, some shards landing with speed and force in his skin.

*

A small and austere parade celebrated the Chinese New Year, with none of the extravagance that was usually afoot. And so, there was a dragon in red and gold livery that shuffled down Canal Street, legs peeping from under its silken silhouette, under the light of festive lanterns that didn’t burn in the daylight.

Behind the dragon was a grey mass with a sharp front, atop which were two ovular slits of fabric, and a long black protrusion that trailed behind it. Bill had seen a few posters and had had a word with Mr. Lee about the Year of the Rat. There would, according to his landlord, be disarray, coupled with dextrousness and ingenuity. The Year of the Rat, he’d been told, was a famously entropic period, in which energy had little direction to guide its expenditure. The chaos of everything preceded a moment of reorientation, not into order or harmony but merely into a constellation of new designs born from hasty quick-wittedness.

‘Rats survive,’ Mr. Lee had told him, ‘it’s what they do.’

He went on to explain the logic of this balance. It served no purpose for the individual. People were wasting their time, Mr. Lee thought, if they expected the agility of the rat to cultivate for them a new life. Actually, he would say, the rat is shy and scared, but he tends to survival with his guile like a lion does with his brutishness.

‘The famine took place in the Year of the Rat. Many people died. But the rat survived… The revolution happened during the Year of the Rat too.’

‘Many people died,’ Bill said, and remembering the words of Mao, repeated them, ‘but war can only be abolished through war.’

‘That is the rat. It restores, but it sacrifices.’

The long tail wiggled its way down Canal Street, spilling off of its float. Someone, a small man with a loud and threadlike voice, emerged from inside the body with a leap and a scream that elicited laughter. Bill thought it annoying, unnecessary.

He struggled up the stairs in his building, stopping at each landing to huff a little. The Percocet had since worn off, and Bill could again feel the vicelike pinch in his leg, underneath which was the beat of a bashful pulse.

*

He woke up in Bellevue with a sore throat and a dryness in his mouth. His brother, Alan, was sitting in the chair next to his bed, reading the New York Times. Just his forehead, with his receding hairline, and the steel tops of his glasses, were visible.

Bill tried to speak, but released only a puff of air. It made him cough, which caused a rush of unbearable pain in his chest and abdomen. Alan was jolted up, lowering the newspaper, putting his hand on his brother’s and getting up to call a nurse. His loafers made a clunking noise on the linoleum floors.

Bill remained speechless most of the time after that. The pain in his throat and in his chest subsided after a month, but a shard of glass and metal had left a gash so thick that two surgeries were needed to repair the femoral artery in his left thigh. He was suspicious of Dr. Kaufman, and it exasperated Alan.

‘He’s one of the best surgeons in New York.’

‘Why am I even in New York?’

‘Because I can’t be in Pocatello.’

Alan had shed the drawl and the romance of Idaho in his tone and accent. What remained was an upright sounding East Coast tenor, urbane and hurried.

When he was well enough, they moved Bill closer to Princeton, to the rehabilitation wing in St. Francis, where he thought Debra, the Trinidadian physician’s assistant, smelt of sweat and goat. They had a tug of war each time he resisted, her strong arms willing him to keep moving, telling him with a frankness that he wasn’t accustomed to that it was for his own good.

On weekends, Bill stayed in the guest bedroom in Alan’s house. His sister-in-law, Abby, was a wispy woman who taught fine art. To Bill, she seemed so unlike Alan that it actually all made abundant sense, because to find oneself in one’s partner was like finding a rock inside a cave. There was, he felt, no reason for it.

Abby and Bill circled around each other uneasily. She’d see him in the mornings, her with a goji berry smoothie and him with bacon and eggs. He’d struggle to move with his frame and made porcine grunting noises that seemed to repulse her. Often she would say a polite, reluctant, hello and then exit quickly.

He stayed in his room mostly, working his way through the novels of Sorokin. Something about Russian literature, in particular, spoke to his own experience. It had a bleak but also bitingly comic quality that spoke to the trueness of tragedy but rebelled against it with laughter and with scenes of natural and physical beauty. The characters, Bill thought, found some manner of thriving in loneliness and struggle.

On those weekends, he would call Maude from his bedroom, to ask her if they’d rebuilt the Larkhouse Inn after the fire, to check if there was any news about Sherry and Cal, to say in an unspoken way, by the gape of his pauses and the longing of his reminiscences, that he missed her. She missed him too.

‘Waylon’s thinking of closing down the diner.’

‘The Tin House…that’s awful…I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah…no one’s coming, Pocatell-ah’s closed for business.’

The remainders of those conversations, once the news of the town had been conveyed and the regulars at the diner mocked, would be tentative circles around the singular chasmic word, ‘Trump,’ or meaningless descensions into conversations about the best new series on Netflix.

‘I’m coming home soon.’

‘You need to talk to your brother about that.’

Bill wasn’t sure what that meant, but he didn’t like the sound of it. So, after a few weeks at St. Francis, when Bill had become restless and had decided that he could go home to Pocatello and leave Abby and Alan to their lives of symposiums and installation openings, he decided that he would talk to Alan. On a Sunday evening, just before his last week at St. Francis, he told Alan he was ready to go back to their mother’s house.

Alan was chewing on corn flakes, warmed with milk in the microwave, in lieu of dinner. A stain of milk dotted his bottom lip when he stood up, hands in pockets, and told Bill that the house had been sold.

‘There was no one to tend to it, and we didn’t know if…’

He was about to say that he didn’t know if Bill was going to survive, but it seemed callous, even for their fragile relationship. Bill knew what he meant.

‘What about the money?’

‘A hundred and forty-five thousand dollars.’

Alan pulled out a bill from the backpack that he carried to work.

‘We paid about ten thousand dollars to Mom’s lawyers, and almost eighty thousand to the hospitals… Your health insurance didn’t cover the grafts or the rehab, and you didn’t qualify for Medicaid back then.’

Bill didn’t ask about the remainder. And Alan stayed silent too.

A brief, aggravated call with Maude followed, in which Bill raged at her for not telling him.

‘Your brother told me he’d tell you himself, when he thought you could handle it.’

‘You should have told me.’

‘I wanted to. I really didn’t know what the right thing to do was.’

After a minute of weighty silence, she asked him what he wanted to do.

‘I can’t leave. I might need more skin grafts.’

‘Just as well, McCauley’s has shut down…the terminal’s been closed.’

*

Every two weeks, he would do a run for Chang and Sons, driving their truck to Bay Ridge to pick up pig carcasses. The Changs were a big family, three sons and two daughters. Their youngest daughter, Way, was running the company these days. She was a brusque woman in her twenties, who had taken a dislike to Bill, maybe on account of his suspicion of her.

When he arrived that day, Way was picking up wooden pallets and moving them to the basement by way of the trapdoor outside. She had a small frame, and so she struggled to make her arms reach as long as the chunky pallet. Her thick ponytail bobbed like a pendulum as she made clumsy jitterbug motions.

‘Good morning.’

She dusted her hands and said hello, waving her hand for him to come inside. They sold mostly meat and other deli foods, but recently, Chang and Sons had also started selling what they called ‘American products,’ cans of Spam and boxes of Jell-O that seemed altogether out of place among the sweet-and-sour pork innards and deep fried Rushan.

‘We have two orders for you today.’

‘Ok, where?’

‘First, go to the warehouse in Bay Ridge and pick up my pork,’ she said while she scribbled on a hastily torn piece of paper, ‘then go to this address.’

It was a butcher’s in Little Neck named Angeles.

Bill weaved through a small knot of traffic before reaching the Gowanus Expressway. He could mostly see where he was driving, but his vision was slightly occluded by a blurry cloud, like thickened glass, that he sometimes saw in random patterns after taking a pill. Other times, there was no blur at all, no grogginess, no pain.

The truck was smaller than he used to drive back in Idaho, and it made a shaky rattling noise. The radio was turned to a talk radio station, and the host was bellicose with anger at the extension of the H2A visa scheme.

‘Over 30 million unemployed Americans and this administration is bringing in foreign workers, who are supposed to be temporary. Now folks, you know these people ain’t going back. We don’t need no foreign labor, period… If America’s going to be open for business, we need to be closed to migrants.’

Bill felt roused, in a way that made his back arch upright and his shoulders widen.

At the Chang and Sons warehouse, Way’s brother, whose name was Li Jun but he called himself Todd, greeted Bill with a firm handshake. He was an athletic man, with large biceps and a muscular chest. On his head, he wore a white baseball cap.

‘How are you?’

‘Not bad. Still waiting for my leg to recover.’

‘Bastards.’

As they walked, there was a moment of commonality, but it faded like an eclipse when Todd started speaking to his crew in Mandarin. Bill pulled back, the arc of his eyebrows lifting.

After two hours, when the carcasses had been wrapped and loaded, Bill, diminished by the frailness of his body, and cowered by the Percocet wearing off and leaving what seemed like a renewed pain, struggled his way into the driver’s seat.

His legs trembled a little, and he could feel a weakness traveling down his body as he regained feeling.

Todd bounced lithely towards the truck, coming to say goodbye.

‘I guess I’ll see you in two weeks?’

Bill struggled, but regained his composure as Todd reached out his hand for a handshake.

‘Yeah. Your sister asked me to go to Angeles to pick something up.’

‘Oh right! Look at you,’ he said, ‘two jobs in one day. Nice job, buddy.’

Bill heard something underneath what Todd said, roots in the ground that were less pretty than what could be seen above the surface. He wasn’t quite sure, but thought that he could feel it, sharp like a cutlass, but slow, flanked by lifetimes of patience and sometimes aimless agility.

As he joined the Parkway, he turned down the radio to gather his thoughts. His hands started to slip, and he began to drive a little recklessly, thinking to himself that there was little hope in order or safety, not now, not in the Year of the Rat.

About the Author

Faraaz Mahomed

Faraaz Mahomed is a writer and human rights researcher from South Africa and based in New York. His writing has appeared in Granta, adda and the Sunday Times. In 2016, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the African Region for his story, The Pigeon, and in 2020, he was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Inaugural Toyin Falola Prize. He is currently working on a novel.