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This is the time of the year when I should be making ketchup, going crabbing or thinking about fall housecleaning. But, no. It's early September, and it's time to address the rats.

This is not a new hobby. I've battled these rodents for decades in a war that can only be declared a draw. Anyone who wanders around Baltimore late at night knows our rat census.

The battleground is my garden, which is now getting ready to put on a show of goldenrod and mums, while the current display of black-eyed Susans, zinnias and hyacinth vine is getting ready to say farewell. In short, I relax in my flower beds and don't like sharing them with darting gray creatures that make an unsettling rustling sound underfoot.

I scored a smashing victory in the late spring when I snagged a long-tailed visitor that had taken up residence under my side porch. This rat got on my bad side by being a morning rat. This is to say, it had the bad manners to dart around well after breakfast, well after the sun was up and in full view, right along the garden path.

It was also a glutton. I baited six rat traps with peanut butter and it feasted off the stuff for several days. To make it worse, I had no catches, only plenty of snapped springs. One evening, after I'd baited all six, I sat in my kitchen and listed to a symphony of snapping traps -- Bang! Bang! Bang! I'll say this: He was elusive and adept at cadging a free meal.

The traps proved useless, but were fun to hear. They provided sound effects, but nothing else.

Taking a cue from the Agatha Christie films I've been watching this summer, I turned to poison -- in little white bags and in waxed bars that resemble humans' high protein cereal snacks. I inserted the poison into black plastic exterminator boxes that I soon began calling my chain of rat hotels.

The hungry rat had competition. The garden worms really like the stuff that holds the poison within the bait. They, along with various insects, seem to be making a picnic of all my offerings.

Then, one day in early June, I scored a rat death. On this morning, the traps had all been sprung; the peanut butter was gone. But there was a dead rat (the poison obviously worked), 6 inches from the series of traps I'd put out. Lucky for me, it was a garbage collection morning. Mr. Rat was off to the refuse cemetery before breakfast.

I was temporarily puffed up by this victory. I had a rat-free July, and thought August would be the same. I got as far as this past Wednesday, when a sighting occurred. It gets dark early these nights and just at the Jeopardy! hour, a large one shot through my crimson zinnias.

The next morning, I made a tour of my Charles Village digs to check on things. I walked through the alley past my back building, a former stable where another family lives. Karin, the lady of the house, has applied her artistic talents to decorating its exterior walls with painted ivy and flowers in a nice mural.

She also has a sense of humor. In paint, Karen decorated the rain drain opening with a fancy miniature awning. Atop it, she painted two wonderful words I needed to hear: "Ratz Ritz."


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