Monday, November 26, 2007

The naked truth

Guilt is a powerful emotion.

And long-lasting.

About twenty years ago, I did something that still haunts me.

Back then, I worked an evening shift -- 4 to 1 -- at the St. Petersburg Times. On this particular weekday, it was around noon, and since my wife worked a day shift and both my young daughters were in school, I was alone at the house.

Our washer and drier were in the garage. I had just gotten out of the shower and was starting to dress when I realized that I was out of clean underwear. But no problem. The previous evening, my wife had done a load of underwear, and it now was sitting in the drier, waiting to be folded. Since no one was around, I dried myself off and walked naked into the garage.

The bare cement felt cold on my feet. Halfway to the drier, I sensed movement in my peripheral vision. To my horror, a rat came charging out of nowhere. And then, to my even worse horror, it attempted to run up my leg.

If anyone at that moment had had a video camera and had filmed what occurred next, that person would be a millionaire a dozen times over. I did the Jim Melvin version of the Wattusi, hopping and squealing as the rat attempted -- with great deliberation -- to clamber up my bare leg. Finally, it gave up and skittered away, hiding itself amid my shovels and rakes. Somehow I managed to rush to the drier, grab the underwear, and then escape into the safety of my house. It might well have been the closest I've ever come to having a heart attack.

The next day, I was in the garage -- this time fully dressed -- and the rat charged out and again tried to climb up my leg. I hopped and skipped and escaped.

The day after that, I heard my wife squeal. This time she had been attacked.

It was time to draw the line. The rat had taken control of my garage, and I needed to get it back.

Being a good American, I bought rat poison. Lots of it. And put it in several places. Soon after, I discovered that one of the boxes had been "tampered" with.

The next day, just before my family was to sit at our dining room table for a meal of roasted chicken, potatoes, and salad, I discovered the rat trembling in the center of the garage, in almost the identical place of the original attack. He was dying.

Only ... he wasn't a rat. Now that I could get a close look at him, I realized that he was a gerbil. And quite a cute one at that. My young daughters were horrified. As was I. Later that evening, I buried him in our back yard.

Two days later, there was a knock at my door. A well-dressed dad and his young daughter were standing on my porch. The little girl spoke first. "We live in the house behind yours. My pet gerbil, Hermy, got out of his cage. Have you seen him?"

"Uh ... no."

They left.

To this day, I'm not sure what's worse. Killing the gerbil. Or lying to that little girl.

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About Me

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Clemson, SC, United States
I was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla. I graduated from the University of South Florida (Tampa) in 1979 with a B.A. in Journalism. I now live in South Carolina near the Blue Ridge Mountains, a pleasant setting for writing, to say the least. I was an award-winning journalist at the St. Petersburg Times for twenty-five years and I currently work at the Charlotte Observer. I am married with five daughters.

The author

The author
Jim Melvin, a veteran journalist, debuts as novelist.