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Strange Rain #2: Partly Cloudy, With A Chance Of Rats
by Nathan Cromwell


Palermo is known for sub-par Parmesan disguised as super-par brands, and for rats so numerous that they tumble from roofs. In Chez Borgia’s, the mood is grim.

"I wish reporters talked about our improved cheese-making, not the rat avalanches,” gripes Paolo. “You should tour our cheese factory."

But the prospect of going outside and being pelted by rats deters not only me but the other patrons, who all read their beer residue like tea leaves and see only lives filled with disappointment and vermin.

"With money, I could start millinery store, sell wide-brimmed hats," coos Franchesca, a black-shawled, doe-eyed wisp. "I'm could—how you say—make a killing? Then have enough money to open hat store." Her hand slips under the shawl. "You rich American?"

A scream outside distracts us. Another tourist has wandered into the district and is fleeing through the biting, hairy rain.

As the sound fades, alderman Lago Musolini stomps in, shaking off rats. He greets me like a brother: every reporter who comes to Palermo becomes an instant friend, and everyone who has an enemy. Brimming with forced hope he orders two beers and a sampler plate of Parmesan cheese.

Lago grins. "Last night I had an idea: why not have a running of the rats, like Pamplona and their bulls? Exciting and fun, but no morons trampled." He leans back, smug. A sweating, shirtless man with large swelling buboes nestled in his armpits enters. Iago frowns.

"Marco, shouldn't you be at the tannery?" Marco shrugs painfully and shambles out.

"People keep cute little pet rats, right?" Lago continues. "Why not tell them it's adorable, like showers of gerbils, or sprinkles of hamsters?" Our order arrives. Fifteen minutes of silence ensue as I try to think of something positive to ask. Finally: "I hear your cheese is getting better."

"It has to," he sobs. "Our cheese is a national joke. You know how tourists throw coins into fountains? Well, they think it’s funny to throw our cheese onto roofs. Now we have this rat problem. All your fault, you damned foreigners."

The door opens again and a man guides a rennet-filled wheelbarrow to a booth. He sits, and even before the beer comes he is talking volubly about his work, much to the annoyance of everyone, including me.

"Took me all day to gather these, what with herders chasing me with sticks. They say cows go off giving milk when I'm near, but what can I do? Yanking rennets is all I know." His coaster falls to the floor. "Mind getting that?" When I bend over the room erupts in laughter, as if I’m the butt of some joke.

Franchesca approaches. "I come to your place for interview?" I back away, mutter false promises to Lago, and I am out the door, dodging rats.

I duck into a cheese shop. Soon I'm back outside, hurling local cheese to roofs echoing with happy squeaks.