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Authors: Tom Llewellyn

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BOOK: The Tilting House
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“To a coin shop. Mr. Daga gave us a rare coin he wants us to get appraised.”

“Mr. Daga? The rat?”

“Yes, dear.”

“And he collects coins?”

“Apparently so.”

“If you get his coins appraised, will he stop pooping in my cupboards?”

“It’s complicated.”

We were walking out to the car when Dad stopped and stared at the duplex next door.

“What?” I asked.

“Place has been vacant awhile,” he said, nodding in its direction. Then, without saying another word, he got in the car and we drove to the coin shop.

When we showed him the dime, the man behind the counter gave a low whistle. Then he looked in a book and went to the back room to make a phone call. When he came out, he told us he would pay $1,450 for it.

The next morning, Mr. Daga spoke to us again through the bathroom fan vent. “So? What’d ya find?” he asked.

“You were right,” said Dad. “How many of those do you have?”

“That’s the only 1897 Barber dime,” said Mr. Daga, “but I got an 1857 S Double Eagle twenty-dollar gold piece. It’s worth about ten grand, accordin’ to the book. It’s the pride of the Daga collection. We got a whole bunch of coins, includin’ some—”

“Wait!” Dad said. “I have an idea!” He ran from the room. By the time I said goodbye to Mr. Daga and went downstairs, Dad had left. He came back home around lunchtime, rattled off something to Mom about the electricity coming back on soon, and ran upstairs to the bathroom. I arrived behind him in time to see him yelling up to the vent.

“Mr. Daga! I’ve got news for you. I think I found a house for your family!” We heard those tiny feet and smelled that rat smell.

“Tell me the news,” said Mr. Daga. He sounded excited.

“Well,” said Dad, still trying to catch his breath, “it’s the duplex next door. Since it’s a duplex, it has room for two families, but the owner hasn’t managed to rent either the upstairs or the downstairs for about a year and a half. I talked to him. He said he’s losing money on it every month and is willing to sell the whole thing for a good price.”

“A duplex, huh?” asked Mr. Daga.

“Yes. You could live in the top floor and rent out the bottom, if you wanted. It’s next door, which would make relocating much easier. I would help you buy it with the proceeds from the sale of your collection. If you rented out the bottom floor, you’d have income for paying taxes, insurance, and other upkeep costs.”

“Yeah, a little extra dough would be okay. And it might be handy to have humans around, so long as they stayed downstairs. And didn’t kill us or nothin’.”

“They would. Stay downstairs, I mean.”

“Humans mean food. Cereal. And hotdogs. I hope they like hotdogs. So you’d help us buy this house, right, Peshik?”

“I would.”

“When can I see it?”

“The owner said we could look at it anytime.”

“How about now?”

“I can’t do it now. I’m on my lunch break. My boss, Mr. Stevens, will throw a fit if I’m back late.”

“Sounds like a swell guy.”

“You have no idea.”

“How about tomorrow? Say eight
A.M.
?”

“Eight
A.M
. it is. Now how about fixing our electricity?” But all we heard were his tiny, scratching footsteps.

The next morning at eight, Mr. Daga stood waiting for us on the bathroom counter, leaning against the cold water knob with his tail curled around his feet. I had forgotten how bright his eyes shone and how bad he smelled up close. On the mirror I saw the words
rattus rattus
again above his reflection. They read like a caption.

“Since yer so stinking big,” Mr. Daga said to Dad, “I’ll let you carry me in your shirt pocket.” Dad nodded and held out his hand. Mr. Daga climbed on easily. He jumped into Dad’s pocket, rearranged himself, and poked his nose and eyes out. His whiskers twitched left, then right. “This’ll work,” he said. “Move it.”

At the end of the tour, Mr. Daga said he thought the duplex would be “an okay joint, with a little work.” Over the next few days, he and Dad made numerous trips to the coin collector in town, as well as to one in Seattle, with Mr. Daga hiding in Dad’s shirt pocket. By the end of the week, they’d managed to collect just enough money to buy the house.

That night, right as I climbed into bed, all the lights came on. “Hallelujah,” Mom shouted from downstairs.

Dad, Aaron, and I helped the Daga family move the next day. Grandpa said he wanted no part in dealing with rats, so he stayed home.

I had no idea rats kept so many things. Most of their belongings looked like garbage to me—bunches of seeds and wads of toilet paper and stashes of rotten food. Some things made no sense, like a sandwich bag stuffed with bird bones and feathers. Some were beautiful: tiny polished stones; old photographs of people who looked like my Grandpa, with the corners of the photos rounded off by tiny teeth; bits of metal and glass. I asked if there were any more coins, but Mr. Daga said they’d been forced to sell every last piece of the collection to purchase the duplex. “Nothing left of the collection but pennies. I miss the other coins a little,” he said. “They were nice to look at and touch, but that kind of thing ain’t worth much to a rat. That’s human stuff.”

The last thing we moved was a bundle about three inches long, wrapped carefully in a piece of old corduroy that had disappeared from Mom’s sewing drawer. Mr. Daga told Dad it would be good for his soul if he’d carry it to their new home, explaining that it was the body of Jimmy, the young rat Dad had killed with his shoe. I stood back, watching the quiet faces of the rat family, thinking how I would feel if that were my little brother’s body.

Dad set the bundle in a corner of the new living room, as instructed. Mr. Daga quietly explained that rat custom was to leave the body of a loved one wrapped in cloth until the flesh had completely decomposed and the bones lay clean and white.

Once everything was moved in, the young rats ran around the duplex, exploring every nook and cranny of the rooms. Mr. Daga looked like a proud homeowner, sharpening his whiskers with his tiny claws, slapping his belly, and breathing in the air of his new home as if it smelled better than the air in our house. It did—it wasn’t covered in rat droppings. At least not yet.

The upstairs unit of the duplex still looked empty by human standards: no chairs, no couches—just a few cardboard boxes here and there and mounds of paper shavings in the corners. The counters stood empty. The mantel over the fireplace was dusty but uncluttered.

That mantel caught Dad’s attention. “Do me a favor, Josh,” he said to me, and then whispered instructions in my ear. I nodded and ran home. When I came back, Dad met me at the door and carried the mantel clock into the Dagas’ new living room.

“I think this would look good in your home,” he said, setting the gift on the mantel.

“Tilton’s old clock,” Mr. Daga said. “Nice touch, Peshik. You sure you want to give that away?”

“We have no fireplace and no mantel,” Dad explained. “And you do. Besides, you should have a housewarming gift.”

“Thanks,” said Mr. Daga. “I like it real good. Someday maybe I’ll show you how it works.” I wondered what he meant by that. It would be more than a year before I found out.

“Do you think you’ll be happy here?” asked Dad.

“I think so,” Mr. Daga said. “I’m almost sure of it. Heck, you might even end up thinkin’ I’m an okay neighbor. After all, I know even more about yer house than you do.”

“I believe it.” Dad smiled.

Mr. Daga smiled back. “You should. Remember, no one knows a house like a rat knows a house. Oh, and if you ever have trouble with your electricity, just let me know.”

T
HANKS TO
G
RANDPA
, it wasn’t long before the Dagas had rented the bottom floor of their duplex. A broken hip had recently forced Grandpa’s old fishing buddy Mr. Natalie into a wheelchair, so he and his wife had been looking for a house with all the rooms on one floor.

On the day the Natalies moved in, Grandpa settled himself onto our porch swing like before, smoking his pipe. Aaron and I sat next to him, waiting for the moving truck to arrive. Mom had told the Natalies that we’d help them with the boxes. The three of us stared across the street at the Talker, who was chattering away to no one in particular. “Sometime I’m gonna sit down next to
that man and just listen to him go,” Grandpa said. “Why, for all we know, he’s reciting the cure for cancer.”

“Dad says he’s crazy as a loon.”

“Watch it there, Josh. One of these days your dad’s gonna start talking that way about me.”

The moving truck turned onto our street and before long Aaron, Dad, and I were lugging boxes. Mom was inside helping Mrs. Natalie unpack. I decided I really liked Mrs. Natalie, because she kept telling us what a good job we were doing and how strong we were, and she gave us pop to drink. I didn’t like Nat, as Grandpa called Mr. Natalie, because he yelled at us to stay out of his way. Nat was so fat that he filled his wheelchair side to side and front to back and even spilled over a little. He wore a captain’s hat pulled low over his eyes, and he smoked a pipe like Grandpa. He made a bubbly sound when he talked, as if his mouth were full of spit. I’d heard dozens of stories about Nat from Grandpa—how he’d loved hiking through the woods and fly-fishing in the middle of a river. Looking at him now, it seemed impossible this could be the same guy.

After moving day, we saw Mr. Natalie only when he drove his motorized wheelchair down the porch ramp and around the block. He never said a word, but we could hear the whine of the chair’s motor and see the smoke from his pipe billowing out behind him. He looked like a tugboat. Dad said he always wanted to tell Mr. Natalie that his engine was burning a little oil. Grandpa assured him Nat would not appreciate the joke.

The front yard of the duplex gave Mrs. Natalie space to grow her beloved azaleas. “I am a gardener,” she told Aaron and me one morning, “and I’m going to spend my remaining days transforming this little piece of brown earth into a green paradise. If you boys would like to earn some extra money, I could use your
help. I pay three dollars an hour for good work and four dollars an hour for great work.”

We weeded and planted for her two mornings a week for the rest of the summer. I never did get more than three dollars an hour from her.

It was on the third of those mornings that I first saw the black Cadillac.

We saw fancy cars in our neighborhood sometimes, so I didn’t pay much attention until the Cadillac stopped in front of the Natalies’ house. Even then, Mrs. Natalie stayed on her knees, weeding away. The Cadillac doors opened and two men climbed out: one tall and thin, the other short. They wore matching black suits and narrow black ties. The tall one hunched his shoulders and jutted his chin out, which made him look like a perching crow. The short one shuffled along after him, twitching his ridiculously bushy mustache. They stepped up to Mrs. Natalie’s fence. “Good day, young gentlemen, madam.” The tall, thin one nodded in turn at Aaron and me, then at Mrs. Natalie. “Is this the home of … ahhh—” He turned to his companion. “Give me the list, Ludwig.”

“I don’t have it. I gave it to you on our last call and you never gave it back.”

The other man began to panic. “I certainly did give it back! Check your other pockets, you fool! We’ve only got the one copy!” He pulled out a hanky and mopped his forehead. I set down my trowel and watched as the short, chubby man called Ludwig ran his hands through all his pockets. He finally yanked out a long roll of yellowed paper. Both men sighed. The tall man snatched the list from Ludwig, gave his forehead one final mop, and carefully tucked his hanky back into his pocket. He took a deep breath and smiled at Mrs. Natalie.

“I’m nothing without my list. You could say we live and die by the list. Please be more careful, Ludwig. Now then, where were we?” He ran a long, thin finger down the names. “Yes, here it is: Natalie, John. Is this the home of John Natalie?” Mrs. Natalie stood up, removed her gloves, and said it was.

The man smiled toothily. “My name is Peat. Victor Peat. I believe I represent products and services of interest to you. Let me give you my card.”

Mrs. Natalie took the card and read it out loud: “Victor Peat, Complete Funeral Arrangements.” She tried handing the card back with a simple “No thank you.”

Victor Peat made no move to retrieve his card. “Let me leave you a few of our catalogs. You know, we have a complete line of coffins, from the sublimely elegant to the surprisingly economical. We also offer headstones, burial plots, complete funeral services, hearse rentals, and other related products.”

“Fine,” said Mrs. Natalie, “but none of that is of interest to me. Nobody’s dead.”

Victor Peat smiled again. “Of course not. But please take this information and put it someplace handy. If we ever can be of service, just call. Number’s on the card.”

“Fine,” repeated Mrs. Natalie impatiently. She took the catalogs and watched as Victor Peat and his assistant walked back to their Cadillac.

“Put the list in your inside coat pocket, like I told you,” said Victor Peat. Ludwig obeyed. They climbed in the car and drove slowly away.

BOOK: The Tilting House
4.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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