Everyone loved mechanical mice, according to Yazzi—tiny white creations, a wind-up motor covered by faux white fur, a leather tail and button eyes. The old mice were powered by a key and metal spring, but contemporary versions used tiny batteries and computer chips. Yes, cats loved them, kids loved them, those sweet, furry toys rolling across the floor in imitation of their natural counterparts—so why not build a more robust model?
That’s how it started—he really made it sound as if he were fabricating something delightful.
I only saw him occasionally, usually in passing as I entered or left my house, but once or twice he’d let me down into his basement where he crafted his projects. Today was one of those special occasions. All the parts to his current project lay waiting for assemblage: coils of wire, tiny gears, copper pinions, pieces of bent metal. Pliers, scissors, solder, and a pair of drills lay next to these items, a collection of materials that had assisted in the creation of some pretty bizarre toys.
Billy Yazzi was a true loner. His parents were dead, and he seemed oblivious to the existence of any other relatives. We’d gone to high school together, but after graduation he embraced seclusion and avoided higher education. I’d always thought his parents must have left him a decent inheritance, some financial means that supported his self-concept as a man of leisure. Still, we were friends of a kind, mostly because of proximity—I lived in the house next door, having decided to play the role of caretaker after my own parents retired to Sarasota. I was still an undergraduate—strictly community college—and the lack of responsibilities, save for the upkeep of the lawn and general maintenance of the house, let me pretend I was a minimally more upstanding citizen than Yazzi.
“Why a rat?” I asked him as I prepared to drink from the can of beer he’d given me when I entered the basement. A rat is what he’d said he was building, not a mouse; mice, it seems, were thematically outré.
He gazed up at me from his seat at the worktable. His eyes gleamed through the lenses of his glasses, and a gap-toothed smile suggested he was in a playful mood. “Why not?” he said, tapping a screwdriver on the edge of the table.
“Mice are cute, if annoying. Rats are insidious creatures.”
“Insidious? You have a way with words, Stanley. A poor one.”
“I’m an English major, remember? I’m paying good money to learn how to have a poor way with words.”
“What a profoundly useless major.”
I frowned at the remark, mostly because I was afraid he was right. “Be that as it may, rats are still hideous creatures.”
“But that’s not true. People buy rats from pet stores all the time. Just because they come from a store doesn’t mean they’re any more relatable than a rat from the wild.”
“There’s a difference in temperament, isn’t there?”
He shook his head and returned his attention to the springs on the table. I sipped my beer and watched, though there really wasn’t much to see. Sometimes I thought Yazzi intentionally sought out strange pursuits to reinforce his own bizarre lifestyle. He possessed a morbid personality even when young, which made him universally unpopular in school. Someone floated a nasty rumor that his parents orchestrated their own deaths simply to escape caring for him—my parents never visited Yazzi or his parents, and tried their best to keep me from associating with him. I ignored them, of course, as would any child who automatically defied his parents. Yazzi was harmless enough, just odd, and oddness shouldn’t be a sin.
“You’ll see,” he said, slowly winding a coil around the jaws of a pair of pliers. “Mine will be a beautiful creation, a work of art.”
“A mechanical rat?”
He gazed up at me again, his eyes shining but his lips as straight as a flat-line on an EKG monitor. “I’ll make it beautiful.”
Yazzi quickly became lost in his labors. After I finished my beer, I decided it would be rude to break his concentration, so I left him to his artistic reverie. He was always a wizard with mechanical devices, and I had no doubt he would create something, but I didn’t have the time to wait for its genesis. I had an exam the next day, and hadn’t devoted a single minute to studying for it. So much for being minimally more upstanding.