Sometime during their fourth year in the one-bedroom apartment, the women had created a madness. They first saw it in September, peeking out from the cabinet under their sink, but it seemed to have been growing for some time. Neither of the women knew for sure that the other had seen it, and they each hoped the other had not. They tried to ignore it at first, humming or running water as they applied their make-up or brushed their teeth, each afraid the other would hear its scratching and they would have to open the cabinet and see it in full view. When it became clear to each woman that the other had seen it, Ruth Ann began halfheartedly joking about the lax landlord and Ira mentioned sewer rats. Perhaps they would never have to open the cabinet, the women thought. Ruth Ann hoped the madness would die without food.
Instead it grew bigger and braver. It began to leave the cabinet under the sink for short jaunts through the bedroom when the women were out of the apartment or asleep. They could not ignore the droppings it left in their shoes under the foot of the bed. Ira began to find newspaper articles and Internet statistics about area rodent populations and share them with Ruth Ann before either had eaten their breakfast.
One day they returned from a shopping trip before the madness returned to the cabinet, and it attempted to streak into the bathroom but found itself blocked by Ira, made wider than usual with the department store bags hanging from her hands. The madness ran into one of these bags and fell backwards, in full view. The women could no longer pretend to ignore it.
So the women did as they had to. Each put on her best face of surprise and sympathy. Ira, her mouth in a perfect O, knelt before the madness as it crouched down in front of her. Ruth Ann remarked on the mange in its coat and the size of its paws. It must be almost fully grown, she said. Ira agreed and remarked how strange it was that they hadn’t seen it before.
The women adopted the madness with as much enthusiasm as they could muster. They bathed it when it began to smell. They restocked the cleaning supplies below the sink that it had been taking as food. They even tried to feed it peas, as if it were any bit like a baby, but it turned them away from with an air of indignity. It began to eat their shoes.
The women had a short conversation about what to name the madness, but they both knew that to name it would be to decide to keep it, and the conversation dissolved between Henry and Zeus. Instead they agreed to think about it, make lists of suggestions, and reconvene to decide on a name when they had returned from their separate workplaces that evening. Ruth Ann stayed at her office late, text messaging an apology with a tag about deadlines, and the Ira came home and drank a bottle of wine. The women never suggested naming again, even when friends adopted new puppies or found themselves pregnant. Both avoided the subject entirely.
By December, the madness’s paws and old-man nose finally looked proportional to the length of its body and the width of its neck. Ruth Ann decided that the madness had grown to full size. Ira baked it a cake.
The coming-of-age party was a disaster. The women, knowing that they could invite no company, had tried to make up for the lack with streamers and balloons. When the madness came out of the bathroom for its evening television shows, they jumped from behind the yellow wall divider between the kitchen and living room, tooting plastic kazoos. Ira moved more carefully than Ruth Ann for once, because she held the madness’s cake.
The madness did not look surprised. It glared at the cake for a moment and proceeded to walk a circle through the living room, popping each balloon with a claw, before it retired to its cabinet early. The women felt embarrassed and did not speak or look one another in the eyes while they pulled down the largest of the decorations and went to bed. They slept turned away from one another. When they woke in the morning, they found that the madness had cleaned the apartment, disposing of every scrap of colored rubber and every piece of tape. The trash, double-bagged, sat by the door. It was the first magnanimous deed the madness had ever done. Ira took out the trash while Ruth Ann cooked the madness a breakfast of sponge. The women, for breakfast, both ate cake.