Martha and Bruce spent the morning cleaning the house. They were expecting another couple, Jack and Susan, to spend the day visiting with them out by the pool. They tossed shoes into closets. They vacuumed cat hair off the furniture. They gathered glasses from various rooms and washed them. They shared the house with a cat and dog. They were comfortable with a certain level of clutter and cat hair, but they assumed that visitors wouldn’t be.
“Maybe they’ll cancel,” he said, with a flat tone.
“Not likely. Anyway, we need to get this place cleaned up, might as well finish now.” She sighed and reached for the bleach spray.
Eventually Bruce deemed the house clean enough and they went outside to the pool to wait for Jack and Susan, who arrived an hour later.
Martha was floating on a raft in the pool relaxing in the bright sun. She had a plastic glass full of beer and a book. Their dog, a white German shepherd with one floppy ear circled the pool, waiting for a chance to give her a lick when she got close enough to an edge. Bruce was tapping a keg of beer.
Jack and Susan let themselves in. Jack immediately removed his shirt and sandals and dived into the pool before Bruce even realized they had arrived. Jack swam to Martha’s float.
Martha was always attentive to Jack. Bruce would watch Martha’s face when Jack told stories. She focused on him to the exclusion of anyone or anything around her. She would quit drinking and moving. Sometimes she didn’t seem to be breathing.
“You splattered my book!” Martha pretended annoyance, but she wasn’t good at it. Bruce could see that she was enjoying Jack’s presence.
“Why are you reading anyway? Come swim with me.” Jack started shaking Martha’s float until she was seriously in danger of falling in. She laughed and broke away. She paddled to the side of the pool and deposited her drink and her book. She slid off the float in to the water.
Bruce and Susan were chatting about the weather, the pool temperature, and the beer. He poured her a glass from the kegerator. Every few seconds Bruce’s glance would slide from Susan to Jack and Martha.
“Jack, come get a beer, man,” Bruce said. He could see Martha frown for a second as Jack climbed out of the pool.
A few clouds drifted by. The four of them swam, rested, and drank. The conversation shifted to politics, not a subject Jack and Bruce could discuss without arguing. Martha winced.
“I’m telling you, they shouldn’t recall him at all. The voters elected him. It’s like on your wedding day saying you can always get a divorce if it doesn’t work out.” Bruce folded his arms.
“But Bruce, how can you not vote for Schwarzenegger? You can’t tell me that you don’t think he’d do a better job than Davis? Especially since you know he’s going to work as hard as possible so he can jump to the presidency next?”
“Jack’s got a point,” Martha interjected. Bruce didn’t seem to hear her, but began to argue more loudly.
She and Susan started talking about how stubborn men were. They both spoke loudly in an attempt to distract Bruce and Jack. The dog, lying near the kegerator, lifted his head up.
Jack didn’t reply to Bruce’s last point. Instead he was staring at the corner of the patio.
“Look at that,” he said. “There’s a rat!”
Martha inhaled sharply. Susan and Bruce stared at it. Martha didn’t want to see it, but paddled over.
“I think it’s trying to get dog food,” Bruce said.
“I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen any rats here before.” Martha’s hand was covering her mouth. She could see it now. It wasn’t that bad. It was small for a rat, light grey and almost cute.
The rat stood very still for a few more seconds. Instead of making a run for the dog food or leaving, it stared back at them. The dog noticed and ran after it. The rat dove off the edge of the deck.
Martha, Jack, and Susan began trading rat stories. Susan talked about having kept a rat as a pet, and how affectionate and smart it was. Jack told a story about shooting rats with a b-b gun when he was in high school. Martha and Susan made noises of disgust, but laughed at Jack’s exploits. Bruce was quiet. His face was slightly flushed. He got out of the pool and wandered to where the rat had been. It was gone.
“It’ll be back,” Bruce said. “I’ll have to set up a trap. I can’t poison it because the dog might eat it.”
Martha ordered some pizza. When it arrived, Bruce answered the door and paid for it. When he came back out, Martha was leaning on a lounge chair with Jack sitting at her feet. Bruce asked Martha to help him with plates. As she got up, Bruce saw Jack’s hand brush her foot.
After the visitors left, Bruce and Martha cleaned up. Bruce talked about the rat and tried to get Martha’s opinion on how to deal with it.
“I think it’s gone now. It probably won’t come back,” she said. “The dog scared it off.”
That night, Bruce heard the dog barking as he brushed his teeth. The next morning, Bruce put on his swimming trunks and went out for a morning swim. The dog was standing on the other side of the pool and didn’t come over to greet Bruce. Bruce could just make out a brown furry lump that the dog appeared to be guarding. He walked around the pool and discovered the body of the rat. The dog was sitting next to it. It looked unscathed but unconscious. He prodded at it with his foot. It appeared to be dead. He picked it up by its hairless tail. Holding it at arm’s length, lips pursed with disgust, he walked over to the garbage can, opened the lid, and let it fall from his fingers. He made certain that he had put the lid back on securely, in case the rat wasn’t really dead.
When he went back upstairs, he washed his hands and told Martha that he didn’t want to have Jack over again. Martha nodded, but Bruce could tell that she wasn’t listening.
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