‘These great truths need no bucking up from me’

Read Steve Rubenstein’s feature for what’s not there

Every once in a while you find lessons in short stories–I mean, really short stories. Here’s one by Steve Rubenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, which won best short feature in the recent American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors’ contest.

'These great truths need no bucking up from me'

'These great truths need no bucking up from me'

This is an example of a writer (1) seeing a story where most people wouldn’t see one, and (2) being smart enough to get out of the way. Steve’s story is 512 words. Most people would have written it at something like 712 words, with more quotes or more outside observations. Steve is a former columnist, and you can see the virtues of that experience as he pares out every extraneous word in this slice of life about the death of a pet rat.

S.F. KIDS SPEND RECESS TOASTING THE BEST RAT WHO EVER LIVED
By Steve Rubenstein
November 12, 2002

They raised their grape juice cups at Lakeshore Elementary School in memory of Jupiter the rat.

“He was a great rat,” said fourth-grade teacher Rich Mertes. “Possibly the greatest rat in the world. And he never bit anyone.”

Jupiter was so great that more than 100 kids elected to skip recess Friday in order to attend Jupiter’s funeral, held inside Room 106 at the school on Middlefield Drive in San Francisco.

Jupiter died Thursday of old age in Mr. Mertes’ arms, moments after the dismissal bell rang. He was 2.

For the funeral, the door of his empty cage was left open. The purple tissue box inside that was his home was vacant. On top of the cage was a letter to Jupiter from the class of fourth-graders.

“If you can read this, Room 106 is very sad. If you could read this, I will miss you. I hope I will see you again. I hope God will help you.”

Nearby on a table, Jupiter’s body lay in state, on a paper plate, covered with purple flower petals and a single green leaf. A candle flickered alongside.

Students gathered around, shoulder to shoulder, gazing in silence. Some cried. There was no pushing.

The eulogies were many. Students recalled how the gray-and-white rat was fond of sitting quietly on their shoulders or having his stomach rubbed. He also liked to race his twin brother, Oreo, through a cardboard maze fashioned from an old refrigerator box. Jupiter usually lost those contests.

“He was a more mellow rat than Oreo,” Mr. Mertes said. “He took things easier.” Each morning, while the students sat on the carpet in a circle to discuss the events of the day, Jupiter would be passed among them. Occasionally, he was kissed.

“If a child had a tough day, or a bad dream or some other problem, holding Jupiter would help,” said Mr. Mertes. “He taught us about warmth and compassion.”

The overflow crowd of students, teachers, parents and school principal who attended the service said they did not mind giving up recess to do it.

“You can play ball anytime,” explained Gregory Reznik, 9. “But Jupiter was really special. I really liked him. I wanted to be here, to say goodbye.”

And then the students, accompanied by Mr. Mertes on the guitar, sang an Irish ballad of farewell, and the cups of grape juice were passed around.

“It’s appropriate when someone passes on to drink a toast,” said Mr. Mertes. “So please raise your cup of grape juice, in memory of the best rat who ever lived. He was my friend, and he was a fine companion. To Jupiter!”

“To Jupiter!” the kids replied in unison, and they drained their juice cups.

Jupiter is survived by his brother. His body will be buried in the Room 106 planter box on the playground, beneath some sage.

I asked Steve where he found the story, and how he envisoned it while he was reporting it:

“I was dropping off my third-grade daughter at school in San Francisco and was just about to drive away when I heard the principal announce to the students over the loudspeaker that Jupiter the rat had died and that his funeral would be held at recess. I figured I better stick around, because I had never attended the funeral of a rat.

“You ask what sort of story I envisioned. I try not to do too much envisioning. Usually, a reporter cannot envision anything as good as what happens.

“I could talk about how rats speak to the human condition, and how love transcends the human-rat prejudice, and how children understand the world better than grownups, but such talk would be a waste of time. These great truths need no bucking up from me. Covering the death of a rat is like covering anything else. The reporter writes down what he sees and hears, looks for details, keeps quiet and tries to remember that, at a rat funeral, a dead rat is much more compelling than a live reporter.”