When Roy was five years old his mother took him to Chicago to stay with his grandmother while she went to Acapulco with her new boyfriend, Rafaelito Faz. Roy had been told that hell was boiling but when he and his mother flew up from Miami and arrived in Chicago during the dead of winter he decided this was a lie. Hell was cold, not hot, and he was horrified that his mother had delivered him to such a place. My mother must hate me, Roy thought, to have brought me here. I must have done something terribly wrong. The fact that his grandmother was there already was proof to Roy that she, too, had committed an unforgivable sin.
Roy’s mother stayed in hell only long enough to hand him over. Rafaelito Faz would meet her in Mexico. “He’s very rich,” Roy’s grandmother informed him. “The Faz family owns a chain of department stores in Venezuela.” Rich people, Roy concluded, did not have to go to hell. His mother had shown him a picture of Rafaelito Faz clipped from the Miami Herald. His hair was parted down the middle and he had a wispy mustache that looked as if it might blow off in the Chicago wind. Underneath the photograph was the caption, “Faz heir visits city”.
When Roy’s mother returned from her holiday, she was wearing a white coat and her skin was as brown as Chico Carrasquel’s, the shortstop for the Chicago White Sox. Roy did not tell his mother that he was angry at her for dropping him off in hell while she went to a fabulous beach in another country because he was afraid that if he did she would do it again. Roy asked her if Rafaelito Faz had come to Chicago with her. “Forget that one, Roy,” she said. “I don’t ever want to see the rat again.”
The next time Roy went to Chicago to visit his grandmother, he was almost seven and it was during the summer. His mother disappeared after two or three days. Roy’s grandmother said that she had gone to see a friend who had a house on a lake in Minnesota. “Which one?” Roy asked. “There are 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, Roy,” his grandmother told him, “if you can believe what it says on their license plate, but the only one I can name is Superior.”
While Roy’s mother was in the land of 10,000 lakes, there was a sanitation workers strike in Chicago. Garbage piled up in the streets and alleys. Now the weather was very warm and humid and the city started to stink. Big Cicero, the hunchback with a twisted nose who once wrestled Killer Kowalski at Marigold Arena and now worked at the newsstand on the corner near the house, said to Roy’s grandmother, “May they rot in hell, them garbagemen. They get a king’s ransom as it is just for throwin’ bags. Cops oughta kneecap ’em, put ’em on the rails. The mayor’ll call in the troops soon it don’t end, you’ll see.” Roy’s grandmother said, “Don’t have a heart attack, Cicero.” “Already had one,” he said.
One afternoon Roy looked out a window at the rear of the house and saw rats running through the backyard. A few of them were sitting in and climbing over the red firetruck his grandmother had bought for him to pedal around the yard and on the sidewalk in front of her house. “Nanny, look!” Roy shouted. “Rats are in our yard!”
“His grandmother came into the room and looked out the window. The rats were climbing up the wall. She grabbed a broom, leaned out the window with it and began knocking the rats off the yellow bricks. They fell down onto the cement but quickly recovered and headed back up the side of the house. Roy’s grandmother dropped the broom into the yard and slammed the window shut. Rats ran up the windows. Roy thought that they must have tiny suction cups attached to their feet to be able to hold on to the glass. He could hear the rats scampering across the gravel on the roof. A flamethrower would stop them, Roy thought. If the mayor really did call in the army, like Big Cicero said he might, they could use flamethrowers to fry the rats. Roy closed his eyes and saw hundreds of blackened rodents sizzling on the sidewalks.
By the time Roy’s mother returned, the garbage strike was over. Roy told her about the rats sitting in his firetruck and climbing up the wall and his grandmother swatting them with a broom. “Not all the rats are in Chicago, Roy,” she said. “They got ’em in Minnesota, too.”
“And in Venezuela,” Roy started to say, but he didn’t.