Fiction
Fiction

Buffalo

Glen Pourciau


 

I’ve been looking without success for more regular work, but to make ends meet I earn money by watching houses for people on vacation. This one guy whose house I’ve been watching is the biggest jerk I’ve ever worked for, the reach of his rapacious and mean-spirited nature stretching all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Our agreement is for me to drop by his place on Wednesdays and Sundays while he travels Europe for six weeks, and he’s provided me with a highly specific to-do list that shows he wants to leave as few decisions as possible to my discretion. It includes the exact number of windows I should check, all the places I should search on all fours for leaks, the number of times I should flush his toilets, which day of the week I should start his Audi, and how many minutes I should let water run from his faucets and his shower and tub. He has friends who’ve hired me so he must know what my rate is, but he’s one of those guys who likes to grind you down to get the best deal, to exploit an angle against you.

 

The day we met to discuss the job he said he’d talked to one of his friends who knows where I live. My house was closer to his house than Charlie’s, he argued, so I’d spend less on gas working for him, which in his mind meant I shouldn’t charge him the same price, though their houses were less than a mile apart. I said if I charged him less it could get back to my other customers in town, who could in turn want a reduction in their rates. But he didn’t care in the least about my end of it and he kept at me, saying our deal would be more long term than my usual deal. I replied that his assumption was incorrect, that I often worked for people for months at a time, and without pausing for a second he said he wanted to know whose houses I’d watched for months so he could call them to verify the facts. I stared at him, resenting his attitude, and then I said he could take my rate or leave it. I didn’t want to tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about and it was none of his business calling up my customers and asking them how long they’d left town. I needed the work and didn’t want him complaining to his friends who’d hired me, but I wasn’t going to let this guy buffalo me. One more word out of him, I muttered inside my head, and I’d be out the door. If he did complain to his friends I’d explain that he wouldn’t accept my terms and there was a personality conflict between us. But he didn’t say that one more word and he agreed to the price I’d quoted him. Still, I could tell he didn’t like it and never would. I’d learned from Charlie that he worked as a negotiator for a living, and I could easily see him skinning people alive at every opportunity. He’d try to get back at me, I figured, and I resolved to be vigilant with Mr. Buffalo.

 

So I go about my duties after he flies off, following his detailed instructions, standing at the toilets after each flush until the water stops running and so forth, and I’m thinking as I look over his things of all the tips he’s shaving from European service people. And because he’s such a prick I go to his walk-in closet to catch a whiff of his smell. I find that everyone has a closet smell they leave behind in their clothes, but in his case I want to identify the smell as something I don’t like, something I’ll notice whenever I stick my head in his closet and can curse as a somewhat intimate substitute for cursing him, which for business reasons I could never do out loud. But I go no further with the invasiveness and stick with the items on my list. I don’t rummage through his desk or bedroom drawers or turn on his TV and watch adult channels through his cable service. I turn the engine over in his Audi and let it idle for six minutes as requested, let the water in his shower and tub run for two minutes, check the thermostats, blah blah blah, business as usual, until one Wednesday I see a folded sheet of paper in his mail, no envelope, dark lettering showing through the back of the page. I carry the stack of mail into his house, enter the alarm code and take the mail to his kitchen counter. 

 

The note is unsigned and written in uneven letters with a black marker. It says that rats are congregating in the guy’s backyard. The note writer says he’s seen them crawling under the back fence, and a few times he’s put his foot up on the rail near sunset and peeked over the pickets and seen them skittering across the yard. As far as he can see, no traps or bait stations have been put out, though this pattern of activity has been going on for weeks. The rats are a menace to the neighborhood, he says, and action should be taken. IT IS YOUR DUTY! the note concludes.

 

I take a look out back and notice rat turds on the patio and on the stone border around the flowerbeds. I go back inside and pull out my phone and email the information about the note and the rats to Mr. Buffalo. He’s asked me to email him once a week with a report and I’ve sent him two messages before this one saying everything’s in order, but he apparently hasn’t had a chance to acknowledge receipt of either message. I picture him ignoring his phone, sitting at an outdoor café enjoying wine and cheese and breathing second-hand smoke, but as I walk through his house, checking windows and making sure nothing has sprung a leak, my phone rings.

 

It’s him, agitated and wanting to know how I plan to deal with the rats. I ask him what he wants me to do. I’m not going to set the rat agenda and have him object to it when he gets back and say he’s not paying for any traps I purchase. I can sniff right away that he has no rat experience and after he admits it I offer to buy a few traps and put them around his backyard. He wants me to use humane traps and I don’t have a problem with that, but I ask him to agree to reimburse me for the traps and my time. I remind him we discussed that any unforeseen duties would require extra payment. He hesitates, but he’s got an international-long-distance tab running and for that reason he lacks the patience to haggle. He agrees but has an attitude about it, and he abruptly hangs up on me, as if I’m to blame for putting him at a disadvantage. After he cuts me off I talk to my phone like I’m still talking to him, speaking his part and answering myself, and I begin to think what I’ll do if I catch rats alive.

 

At home, I decide to write down everything that’s happened, trying to keep my thoughts straight, and I read over the copy and adjust it repeatedly. I shop for traps online, scanning reviews and watching video demos, and I order three wire-mesh traps designed so that a metal door closes behind the rat, leaving it trapped in the cage. If I catch some other animal I can raise the door and release it. I forward the receipt to his email, and several days later the traps are delivered. I take them to his house and put two on the patio and the other on the edge of a flowerbed.

 

I consider buying more traps, but I don’t know if he’ll balk at paying more or if he’ll pay me anything if I don’t catch any rats. And it occurs to me that if I catch some rats and drive somewhere and release them he could say I’m lying just to take his money. Should I drown them and put them in his freezer so he’ll know I’m not faking? But then he could claim I trapped them somewhere else. I become furious thinking how he could twist the story to create a reason not to pay me what I’m owed, and I make up my mind that I’m not driving to his house every day to check the traps. I can’t assume I’d be compensated and I don’t want to have that conversation with him, even over email. So to hell with him, I’ll check the traps on my regular days.

 

But the next day he emails me for a rat update, and I reply that I’ve set three traps that catch rats alive. He emails back, asking if I’ve had success catching any yet.  I remind him it’s early in the morning where I am and besides that it’s not one of my scheduled days. I wait for an answer, but nothing comes and I stick with the idea that if he doesn’t want to pay for more visits I’m not going to make them. Maybe he thinks I’ll go over without checking with him, but I’m not falling for that one.

 

Next visit, I see some fresh rat turds on the patio. The bait’s been nibbled in one of the traps and I see a few rat turds inside its door, but the door remains open. I go inside and email this news to him, and I receive his reply within minutes. He’s annoyed to be worrying about rats while he’s on vacation and he’s wondering if I’ve made up the story of the rats and the anonymous note to provoke him because of our minor disagreement over my fee. I could have written the alleged anonymous note myself, he raves on as if he’s convinced that’s exactly what I’ve done, and made up the story about finding it in his mailbox. I send him a message denying his fantasies are true, and he replies again, demanding to know how he can be sure how many rats I’ve captured, assuming for the moment, he writes, that there are rats in his yard. Do I expect to be paid by the animal and, if so, how will I prove how many I’ve caught? I don’t answer, not wanting to invite another reply. From the look of his backyard he never goes out there, no grill and not a single chair on his patio. These rats could have been running around inside his back fence for months without him knowing it, and now I’m stuck dealing with them and his escalating paranoia. I decide that I’ll do my job and make my weekly reports, but until he returns the subject of rats is closed.

 

Two more rat messages from him follow, but I don’t answer either of them, and a week later he sends an email threatening to get even with me if I neglect my duties or damage his house in any way. I continue with my reports without reacting to his comments, and on one occasion he sends a reply suggesting that I’m fabricating the reports and that I’m not watching his house at all. He asks me to sign and date a sheet of paper whenever I visit and leave the sheet on the kitchen counter. I don’t tell him that I’ve removed the traps from his yard and stacked them on a table in his garage.

 

Despite ignoring his messages, inside I’m seething. Is he purposely fabricating a scenario that will allow him to argue he owes me nothing for trips to his house he’ll say I never made or for trapping rats he’ll say never existed? Even the log he’s asked me to sign could have been made anywhere, he could claim, and then brought to his house and placed on his kitchen counter. Does he want me to fear the damage he could cause to me if he tells this story to his friends?

 

The week before he returns I put the traps in the yard and place strips of raw bacon inside them. The following day I make a trip to the house to check the traps, and I see rats pacing inside two of the cages as I approach. I carry the cages in the house and set them side by side on the kitchen floor. I raise the cage doors, the rats bolt free, and I take little notice of where they run. I leave the pantry door open a crack and also open one of the cabinets under the kitchen sink. I take the traps outside and set them again, and before I leave the house I walk into his closet and curse him and his smell, picturing rats prowling his shelves and curling up in his shoes. 

 

On my last visit I perform my duties, and though the rats don’t show themselves I see tiny turds they’ve dropped on his floor. I laugh as I think of Mr. Buffalo coming across them and later being spooked by the sound of rats stirring in his bedroom while, exhausted from his flight, he tries to sleep. I imagine him dreaming of rats crawling over his ear, sniffing his skin and breath, their toenails scratching at his temple, and even if he refuses to pay me a dime for watching his house these images will more than make up for it.

 

I can’t sleep thinking of his anger when he realizes rats are in his house.  He’ll call me, maybe in the middle of the night, demanding an explanation, his pulse racing like rat feet in his head. Rats can squeeze in through the smallest openings, I'll tell him. You may never be able to say for sure how they got in.


 

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Photo by Sam Gummelt

 

Glen Pourciau's collection of stories Invite won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, the Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, the Paris Review, TriQuarterly, and other magazines.

 

This story was originally published in Issue #15 of The Literarian.