Tracy Meehleib, Photograph of cancel rent sign, 15th & Fuller Streets NW, Washington, DC (September 27, 2020). Credit: Library of Congress / CC BY-NC-ND

The following passage is an excerpt from the novel Year of the Rat by Marc Anthony Richardson (University of Alabama Press / FC2, 2016). Used with permission.

The room is dead, Medusa; immured in dilative dark, my darling, I have become transparent; in bed I lie unmade by the migraines by the cluster of brown bats, a bed for she has brought me a bed a twin-sized bed that can’t even support my entirety: the feet hang off the edge as boredom, garra rufa, nibbles away at the dead cells on my toes. Sleep is the reward of feeling. I am tired of sleeping. I was the dream, Marie, the customary nightmare, I was losing my teeth: masticating I had stopped to test a tooth to wiggle it and wiggle it until—horror of horrors—out came a canine between thumb and forefinger like a calcified drop of semen, an augury anchoring that cantankerous root to my heart, that mandragora which will cry and kill the woman who rips it out; and when I pulled out several more I was eating pudding or soup or sucking on a peach pit in pull-ups, so that now inside of this parody of a body I have become so transparent and obscene as to fall through a wall. I am a dead rat in the wall. Now the room is rank. Yet the downstairs apartment will be available soon: the veteran neighbor is in a chrysalis and to this side of glory he is not expected to return—although the grandson will hold the lease for the two more weeks. After years of taking these steps she will no longer have to; however could this have been the foremost fitness circulating the blood and keeping her vertical? With the ex-husband’s construction pension and a good portion of the last-born and the second son’s inheritance (the firstborn being a family man), though she wasn’t able to procure a new one, she has ridded herself of the subcompact for a secondhand sedan, satisfied some arrears, met the teenage granddaughter’s educational costs, supplemented her medical coverage for medicinal purposes, and purchased a few incidentals for her sons’ and her sake, for she is bound to this city for eleven more years until the second son’s sentence is up, or until he can be paroled and placed into another place besides this one (ex-convicts being denied public housing), a place that will no doubt come to her as yet another last-minute reprieve. He can take care of her; he can take her weight. And with the few thousand I have left I can continue with the studies, here or elsewhere. It is September, not far from the anniversary of her birth, and if I do not make a decision soon, in the dead of winter, I will surely find myself buried beneath these floorboards in a downstairs apartment.

Comparison is the root of all pain, my love, a suffering choice a schism of the heart: I should’ve never revisited you—you who never knew. Last winter I should’ve heeded the warnings of nostalgia, reopened the wound. Out west every palm was a promise of no snow a rainbow, and after years of reliving this city this natal city I feel the way the second son feels about prison and picking up litter along the interstate: once you’re inside you should stay inside until you’re out for good, no sense in torturing yourself with glimpses of what you already have to forget. The Pacific. I forget it. Making love to you, Medusa, inside the gutted mother of a redwood only to reemerge covered in charcoal from that burnt-out womb. I forget fucking on the edge of an ocean cliff: the tall rippling sea of yellow grass, the marine clamor against your perpendicular spine, and the jangle of your bracelets as you were rolling over me like a breaker, spuming, with the sun shouldering your significance while shining about that buoyant silhouette of kelp curls—or could I have been basking beneath the free-swimming sexual form of a subumbrella, being stung obliviously? I forget not seeing your face of death. All I could see from under your ass was the silhouette of a medusa saying, Someone’s coming someone’s coming, and then a long guttural sigh, some release by way of my removal of that long yellow screw in your thigh (for rarely did you arrive like this with me inside of you)—for in this upright epilepsy, in this trancelike state, you had pushed away my hands as though I were interfering and when I went stiff and hoisted you… I could feel the cool ocean mist as I tasted the saltiness of my sea… I forget the pleasure of crossing the Golden Gate, of taking the longer drive, of how at an intersection in the city of Saint Francis you pointed towards one of the dispossessed seated upon an isle, and I was first struck by the robbery of her teeth, by the jutted register of her mandible, and then by her hands that were clasping something big and furry, wet and black: it had a semi-prehensile tail that nearly snaked a forearm like an opossum’s or a cat’s, but it was a gargantuan rat’s—and she was stroking the beast as it nuzzled her bottom lip; she was crying manically as the rat was kissing her, as though it were trying to offer some great comfort during a greater time of torment and I forget asking you, later over the bay, if love was an emotion, and you said that you can’t divide the indivisible any more than you can divide the individual—individual, you said, such a tragic misuse of the word: one who is undivided… I forget the necklace of lights wrangling the Lake of Merritt at night, that tidal lagoon over the bridge dividing the bay and that newly constructed cathedral, a fortress of belief a glass vulva refracting the sunlight inside the atrium; I forget the sundry population of aquatic fowls ducking their domes beneath the feather-skinned soup like upside-down periscopes combing for food, the school of waddling geese stopping traffic like a field trip, the meek inheriting the earth without a care or a clue, the great white virgin pelican flying its star-like gourd, the black-crowned night heron balancing upon its solitary stilt, with its spearhead pointing towards the antediluvian inlet of the lake, letting in the estuary, just as indiscriminately as its beady red eyes would wait for a morsel of meat to plop out of the backside of an aluminum-enwrapped Burrito truck. I forget the weird and twisted ground-crawling pines, reclining old ladies in floppy virescent hats, inspiring growth beyond timberlines, the fewer people and the ghost town-tumble weed feeling compared to here, the palm fronds fanning the easy laughter of the blacks, the parched and rainless mouths of the summer months, the blue hills and the verdant terra firma, the cows and the whiff  of their coprophagists-covered dung trailing the breeze, the long-mane steeds—the ambassadors of legroom—taking in the deep bucolic gulps of their hair, the highway being miles away and the speed boat, a jet engine, trailing the white frothy wake across the patch of cloudless waters… I forget our star easing into the ocean for that slow-motion submersion, inspiring applause while silencing the hands of a haiku death poet, for he would clearly hear the hiss could the ears be plugged with the gist of it; I forget the chilly summer fog rolling over the steep hills of the city of Saint Francis, a terminal city on the edge of the night of the world it seems when crossing the bay, and whose elite are always absorbed by the fog of their prosperity; I forget the look on the mother’s face when she was visiting once, when she saw the city’s sewage plant surrounded by blacks and Samoans and the orange nighttime lights of an oil refinery—yet when we stood on a Hunter’s Point hill, near that cesspool, even I had to concede its spectacular view; I forget the magnificent Pacific lapping her ankles for the very first time the only time: it took us twenty minutes to cross Stinson sands and another twenty for her to rest upon a wet log, yet as soon as the breath was abated and the pants were rolled up, like a pudgy pelagic bird, she was out there wading into the tongue. And I forget the sorrow of seeing it. She was so free… I forget those everlastingly living redwood groves, those giant sequoias, the largest living things on this rock past or present, those towering Methuselahs indestructibly held up by the strength of their interwoven roots, fused together as they grip fog drip, fog which sometimes crosses the bay only to dissipate before the borders of your city, the Cradle of the Panther: for in times of indecisiveness, when the ground is most fertile, it is very important to not be afraid of being afraid…

Excerpted from Year of the Rat by Marc Anthony Richardson (University of Alabama Press / FC2, 2016). Used with permission.

This excerpt is part of a spring 2023 Public Seminar special issue on rats, curated by senior managing editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham.

Marc Anthony Richardson is an artist and novelist from Philadelphia. He is the author of Year of the Rat (2016), Messiahs (2021), and The Serpent Will Eat Whatever Is in the Belly of the Beast (forthcoming)He teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.