“The rats are everywhere,” the exterminator says, rolling up the blue sleeves on his overall.
I tell him he doesn’t have to take off his shoes, but he quickly reprimands me: “You don’t wanna know where these have been.”
He walks inside and starts looking in the corners, tapping here and there against the wall.
“But… Where are the rats?” I ask.
If they are everywhere, then why can’t I see them? Are they all hiding? Have they migrated? Did they suddenly become invisible? I don’t understand.
Before, once in a while, the occasional rat would dart across the sidewalk and disappear into a hole. One time, I saw a rat crossing the intersection of Shattuck and University in broad daylight, dodging the traffic, darting past the unsuspecting feet of innocent pedestrians, to disappear into a sewer underneath McDonald’s. But now…
“I haven’t seen a single rat in Berkeley since… since… since the election,” I say out loud.
The exterminator pays no attention. He keeps on palpitating the walls of my apartment, letting out an occasional “hm” and “hah.”
The property management company sent him over. There has been some complaint from one of the tenants. Perhaps from the delirious lady at the far end of the hallway. One night I woke up hearing her scream: “Aagh! Un raton!” She wouldn’t stop screaming and finally somebody called the police. But when they knocked on her door, they found her completely normal and sane, which made me wonder where the noise was really coming from.
“Thank you,” the exterminator grumbles as he walks to the door.
“So, did you find any rats?” I ask.
“No, sir. But just in case, I’m gonna give you a couple traps to set out. Here’s a list of instructions in case you catch one.”
He hands me a sheet with the print half faded, like the copy machine ran out of ink. I read something about “latex gloves” and “disposing.”
“Gimme a minute.”
He walks downstairs to his van and comes back with a stack of pretty large-looking traps.
I shiver. My apartment is so small. I would think I would have noticed a creature that big buy now. And if he just said there are no rats in my apartment, then why the traps?
“Here’s what you bait ’em with.”
He hands me a pack of peanut butter with a picture of a rat on it. In big yellow letters it reads: “Magic Bait. One rat in ten says it tastes delicious after the first bite, but the other nine didn’t live to tell the tale.”
I shiver. I thank the man for his traps, shut the door, and shove them far into back of the closet.
A knock on my door. It’s my friend Bonnie. She said a big hairy man with a blue overall and mustache let her in. She didn’t have to ring the doorbell.
Bonnie is nineteen. I used to be her French teacher. She was in my French 1 class two semesters ago and decided we should become friends, much to my reluctance. Bonnie is gay, but her family being Mexican and deeply religious, she had a hard time outing herself. I was one of the first people she told. She would hang around my office hours, making small talk, telling me all about her brothers and sisters and her annoying roommate who always leaves the lights on in the bathroom and sprinkles everything with sage.
“You’re not supposed to sprinkle it. You’re supposed to burn it,” she says, tossing her hands up in the air. “Hello-oh.”
She screws up her eyes behind her thick glasses and adjusts her army-green jacket that loosely hangs over her hunched shoulders.
“So, are you ready?”
Her lower lip droops in a pout. Sometimes I can’t tell if she’s about to cry, or if it’s just the way she talks.
“I’m ready,” I sigh, although I don’t know what on earth I’m doing.
I’m nearly done with my dissertation. I’m on my Fellowship year. I should be smoking at a bistro in Paris, with a glass of wine and a cutely jaded French girl, talking about Baudelaire and the general meaninglessness of life – in a cool, nihilistic sort of way.
Instead, I’m being dragged to a protest by a dorky teenager against some neo-Nazi douchebag who’s giving a speech on campus.
“They say it’s free speech,” she says. “But it’s not. It’s hate speech.”
“So what does he do exactly?” I ask.
“He comes to these campuses, and gives this speech against Muslims, gay people, feminism, minorities … He singles people out, projects their picture in front of the whole auditorium and ridicules them. A transgender girl at the University of Wisconsin had to leave campus because she was getting death and rape threats after this guy projected her picture before the whole audience. People actually come to those rallies to network with other neo-Nazis. It’s not about the proliferation of ideas. It’s about inciting to violence and gaining a political platform to recruit young people.”
“Sounds pretty disgusting,” I say, still unable to really believe that there could be so many neo-Nazis crawling on our Berkeley campus.
“Where are these guys coming from?” I ask.
She shrugs. Her guess is as good as mine.
“Have you seen them?” I ask again.
My question is answered pretty quickly when we arrive on campus. It’s lunchtime and Sproul Plaza is filling up with students having their lunch on the benches along the tree-lined strip, huddling and meandering along the tables of various student organizations.
The members of the KCCC (Korean Campus Crusade for Christ) are strumming their guitars and shaking their tambourines, singing songs of peace for our salvation, not far from the table of the Korean Pre-Health Association. At the half empty table of the BLB (the Berkeley Backgammon League), a guy in a green rain jacket is eating a taco he bought from the Hermanos Unidos stand close-by, while the girls from Alpha Delta Pi are selling donuts for humanity.
In front of it all, some twenty feet away from the other stands, like an island on its own, stands the American Flag tent of the Berkeley College Republicans. A “Make America Great Again” banner is waving in the wind, flanked by a tall blond Aryan specimen in a grey suit and a blood-red Donald Trump baseball cap, hands in his pockets, like a businessman at a convention.
“I want to go talk to him,” I say.
“Don’t.” Bonnie holds my arm. “There’s no reasoning with those guys. It’s best to leave them alone.”
“Their stand does look awfully empty,” I say, observing the little clique of three or four guys high-fiving each other, but generally ignored by the rest of the student body that just casually walks by without paying much attention.
I content myself with looking up their website.
“Berkeley College Republicans,” it reads. “The Best Party on Campus.” It sports a picture of a group of boys and girls in a classroom, standing next to their chairs in some kind of salute, hands on their hearts, in what I presume is a pledge of allegiance to America (and not to the box of pepperoni pizza gaping at them from the table by the blackboard), albeit with a somewhat eerie touch of Hitler-Jugend.
“Who we are,” it reads further. “The Berkeley College Republicans are a diverse group of independent minds who think critically about issues involving politics, philosophy, and civil service. As the premier political organization at UC Berkeley, we take our role as campus activists and thought leaders seriously.”
“Wow,” I raise my eyebrows.
Bonnie nods at me knowingly, her lips pursed in that familiar pout, lower lip slightly trembling, as if anytime she’s going to burst into tears.
She never does.
“Look! There’s even an article! ‘Life in the Political Closet: A Glimpse into the Berkeley College Republicans.’”
Bonnie shakes her head. I can’t help but click on the link.
“People are intimidated to come out as Republican at Berkeley,” said the club’s chair, a junior majoring in political science and classics. “You can’t directly compare it to (coming out), but it’s somewhat similar in the respect that you have an environment, a culture that’s against or openly hostile to you.”
“Look. They’re turning it all around,” Bonnie points her finger. “Now they’re using queer rhetoric to make them seem like victims against an intolerant liberal majority.”
“Oh, wait. You’re right. Here it says they ‘held an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” in protest of the passage of California Senate Bill 185, which aimed to reintroduce affirmative action admissions policies, by satirically selling baked goods with prices based on race and gender.’”
“Yeah. Well, that’s what that sleazebag who’s speaking tonight did. He calls white men a minority and started a college fellowship for white men.”
“Well, I guess, if you see it that way…”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, scholarships should be merit-based, shouldn’t they?”
She throws her hands up in the air and makes the same face as when she talked about her sage-sprinkling roommate.
“Okay. Okay. I get it.”
I feel the impulse to burn some sage myself, for fear of having been infected with neo-Nazi ideology.
“The power of rhetoric, I guess.”
“They fuck your brain, dude,” Bonnie punches me with her elbow.
“I see your point.”
She punches me again.
“No. We’re not having a debate. It’s time for action.”
We walk into the English lounge where people are holding a letter writing decompression session. Silence reigns throughout the room. People are hunched over the tables writing letters to – I presume – their Congressmen.
“So what do I write?” I whisper, afraid to break people’s concentration.
Bonnie hands me a piece of paper with a list of pre-ordained topics, ranging from climate change to stopping some guy with a last name that looks like Gorbachev if it were pronounced in the language of Mordor – Gorkshush… Gorschhuck? – from becoming a Supreme Court judge.
Fondly remembering my childhood spent in the greenery of the Belgian countryside, I decide to go with the environment.
I don’t know what to write, though. Something about the polar ice melting, perhaps? I saw that documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio, about the bad state of global warming, and how it’s not a joke, and how almost half of Miami was under water not long ago, and how almost the whole of the Netherlands would flood (a fact that, being from Belgium, I acknowledged with a touch of glee).
“I just can’t believe that people debate global warming,” I turn to Bonnie, who is diligently penning away.
“Shhhh,” she slaps me on the shoulder.
“I mean, when I went to elementary school in Belgium, that was one of the first things we learned – that, and how we mistreated the indigenous people in Congo.”
“Shhhh,” Bonnie slaps me again.
“How we were a bunch of racists fucking up the planet, basically,” I whisper.
Bonnie turns her back to me.
“When we were six years old,” I add.
This alt-right guy is starting to make sense to me. He seems to think racism is not our fault, that we shouldn’t be blamed for the mistakes of our ancestors. What I don’t understand, though, is why anyone should care – least of all those Trump boys in their baseball caps out there on Sproul Plaza. It’s not like anyone is making them pay for the mistakes of their ancestors. And I bet they did recycle that pizza box I saw on their website, even if they claim to be on the fence about global warming.
I decide to do some research. I google the guy’s name.
Apparently, I misspelled it, because Google is showing me the results for a corrected version.
I am hit by a wave of instant nausea as my pupils are trying to adapt to the unnaturally fluorescent light that seems to emanate from his bleached hair. As soon as my eyes get used to the bluish-white permafrost, they are assaulted by the kitschy bling of a gold necklace – the kind generally seen in rap videos or the Russian mafia.
With its slightly upturned nose, his face has something distinctly piggish – yet the murderous glint in his eyes and the glossy pout on his lips make me feel as if he is going to jump off the screen and cut my throat while giving me a blow job. It’s too much of a combination. I have to look away for fear of going blind – much in the same way I can’t look directly into the sun.
“This guy seriously fucks with your brain,” I say to myself, remembering an article about how Adolf surrounded himself with many a burly SS-officer.
It’s all starting to make more sense to me… Those Lost Boys in their baseball caps, afraid of girls, seeking a role model who is immune, invincible, leading them to spoils and conquest, to all the women they could want – they, white and superior – all while impersonating the two things they want most… until they can no longer tell whom they’re in love with: the warrior, the woman, or themselves.
“I’d almost be impressed if it weren’t so evil,” I say to myself out loud.
Bonnie pulls me by the sleeve and drags me out of the room.
At six o’clock we arrive at Sproul Plaza. The protest is underway. A sizeable group of people is gathered around the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building where the talk is going to take place.
People are chanting to the beat of the drum. A floodlight casts a liquid glow over the crowd, like a white glacier melting over our heads. A large white dove spreads out its wings against the pinkish sunset. The silver letters “NO!” accentuate the falling darkness. The columns on the building opposite the Student Union are in the colors of the rainbow flag. Two armed policemen stand atop the balcony.
A loud bang startles me. Over my shoulder on the lawn I see two teenage boys, one with a handkerchief over his nose, lighting some kind of fireworks.
Bonnie shakes her head.
“They shouldn’t do that. Two weeks ago someone got shot at a talk like this. The shooter, a neo-Nazi, claimed self-defense.”
I shiver and try to scan the crowd for pieces of flashing metal. Perhaps I should go home after all. Maybe it’s not really my place here.
Bonnie grabs my arm, as if she senses my thought.
“Shut it down! Shut it down!” she chants with everybody else.
Before I know what’s happening, a group of masked kids are running at the fence line and tearing it apart. They hurl fireworks at the windows. Something explodes. Once in a while, one of the black figures runs out into the open space in front of the building and hurls something at the windows.
“Where are the fascists! Where are the fascists!”
A heavy guy with a ponytail and a checkered jacket is walking through the crowd, ready to punch someone. I assume he is one of us protesters, fighting guerilla neo-Nazis hidden in the crowd. But he looks angrier than your average protester.
“I hope nobody shoots at us,” I say to Bonnie.
She crosses her fingers. She looks scared too. Her big round eyes are no longer so puppyish. What used to be the brownish hazel of confusion and lack of direction has now turned into fear – not fear about what to do with her life. Fear for her life. Fear that she may not continue living.
And suddenly, I get angry. I get angry at this goddamn UC Berkeley administration who dared to let a fascist speak on campus, who thought nothing of endangering the lives of idealistic nineteen-year-olds who believe in a better future. An administration who, out of cowardice and ignorance, had concocted some half-ass argument about free speech and the first Amendment. Rich pencil pushers with no stakes in the lives of these young people who matter.
“Shut it down! Shut it down!” I find myself shouting at the top of my lungs.
“Shut it down! This has to end. The joke is over,” it screams in my entrails.
All the absurdity of twisted rhetoric and rotten ideas, here in America, in Europe, all over the world, comes flooding over me as the masked figures tear down the glacial floodlight.
A loud explosion, followed by the syncopated drone of the fire alarm.
Smoke is wafting through the building. Smoke comes wafting through the trees. Smoke spreads out like curls of frankincense all over Sproul Plaza. Thick, wafting smoke, like the curtain of the Otherworld, the vapors of a dream.
In the thickness of the smoke, I see Martin Luther King’s nightmare. Hordes of Young Republicans in crimson baseball caps brandishing swastikas are marching on the White House. They chant their songs of white supremacy, hands on their hearts, invincible, each one an exact replica of the other. “Death to Diversity,” their banners read. “Down with Freedom!” “No more truth!” “No more rights!” “Stop killing innocent lies!” And the whole thing goes up in a giant mushroom cloud as they chant their way into oblivion.
“The event has been canceled,” one of the armed policemen on the balcony murmurs through a bad megaphone. “Please disperse.”
Loud cheers from the crowd.
A rain of fireworks is being hurled at the policemen. They bounce off of their shields. The hooded figures just keep throwing them.
“I don’t understand. Didn’t they just cancel it?” I ask Bonnie.
She shakes her head. Her fingers are dug into my arm. We start to walk away. We got what we came for.
When we reach Sather Gate, the whole crowd runs in our direction. A girl screams something about rubber bullets. We run with them until we get to the street.
Helicopters hover back and forth across the disk of the full moon. The sound of sirens.
We walk back to my place in silence. Bonnie looks frozen. She still hasn’t let go of my arm.
We pass by the shoe store, where I stood in line the day before to pick up my shoes.
“There was this Hispanic woman in line in front of me, holding a little lapdog with a pink jacket,” I tell Bonnie, hoping to break the silence. “She wanted to have her purse dyed. The old lady behind the counter gave her this look and told her it wasn’t going to work. She said: ‘the dyes don’t have enough pigment anymore. Everything is becoming so non-toxic. They’ve taken the guts out of the dye.”
“Haha,” Bonnie gives a faint smile. “It’s like the guy at the corner store who asked me if the white chocolate malt balls and the dark chocolate malt balls could go in the same bag. He was, like, ‘yeah, some people only eat white food.'”
“God. They really fucked with our brains, I think.”
I feel compelled to give her a pat on the head. Just then, a large rat darts out of the sewer and runs across the street, dodging the cars left and right.
Bonnie shrieks. She lets go of my arm and sighs.
“Jeez, I so need a drink.”
We walk up the stairs to my apartment. We sip bourbon as we watch the footage of the burning floodlight live on CNN. Apparently, they had to evacuate the guy and his cronies, who are now at a hotel in Fremont.
“They make it look way worse than it was!”
“A mob of violent protesters… Bullshit!”
The guy with the ponytail and checkered vest who was punching his fist into his hand and shouting for fascists is grinning with pleasure in a close-up of his bloody face. He says the liberal fascists beat him up, that they can’t stand free speech. He looks ecstatic being the center of attention.
Pictures crop up all over Facebook that make it look like Berkeley is going up in flames. Bonnie and I shake our heads. Outside, the sounds of sirens and helicopters are still going.
Next to the couch, my eye falls on one of Bonnie’s shoes. I pick it up and throw it at the wall. It sends a thud throughout the room.
“What did you do that for?!”
“Apparently, the rats are everywhere. Shoo. Shoo.”
Simon Rogghe is a poet and fiction writer. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Belgium. After traveling in the US and Europe competing at horse shows as a professional rider, he found a home in the Bay Area. When not working on his PhD in French literature, he also translates French surrealists as well as contemporary fiction. He is the author of Green Lions, a collection of poetry and artwork in collaboration with Zarina Zabrisky (Numina Press 2014). His work is published in over twenty literary journals, including 3:AM Magazine, Gone Lawn, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket and Paris Lit Up.