The year my youngest child entered fifth grade, the headmaster of her small school talked me into teaching science to the eighth and ninth grade. The job was supposed to be part-time, but partway through the year it took over my life leaving me with little time to cook and even less time to clean. As the weeks turned into months, my house got so dirty it attracted vermin.
Perhaps vermin is too strong a word. If they had been caged, I might have thought they were cute with their soft gray fur, round ears, and liquid black eyes. Yes, mice.
At first, I shrieked, “MOUSE!” whenever one scurried by. But soon I ceased to do more than give a little start, and turn drone-like back to writing lesson plans and grading lab reports.
My youngest daughter thought the mice were adorable, so to appease her I put out humane traps–oblong plastic boxes, a muted shade of gray, which were supposed to catch the mouse live and unharmed. I baited these with crunchy peanut butter and sugary cereal, the kind of cereal that my kids crave, but are only allowed to sprinkle, as a topping, on bowls full of plain Cheerios. The kind my husband eats by the bowl full when I am not at home. But apparently Frosted Flakes do not draw mice they way they draw my dear ones.
Late at night, when we were lying in bed, I would try to goad my husband, Sam, into doing something about the mice! He would ask me what I thought he should do, then while I was formulating a plan, he would roll over and begin snoring.
After a month or so, a scurrying mouse would only garner a slightly lifted eyebrow as I hunkered, down on the sofa. I was too tired, too inert for action. But this was a mistake because the mice soon grew to be so comfortable in my house that when I was home, they looked at me as if I were the unwanted pest and they were the lords of the manor. They did not seem remotely frightened.
During Christmas break, I coerced Sam into dragging the oven out from the wall so I could clean and discovered a cozy nest, made of strips of The Washington Post. I threw out the nest, but within days it was back.
There was a trail of little black nuggets–mouse droppings–that marked their country road behind the sofa in the family room and more nuggets on the tops of cans in the pantry. There were nibble holes in bags of lentils and boxes of crackers. I erected a barricade on the pantry’s lowest shelf by stacking cans of Progreso soup, tuna, and black olives to block their ascent, but the mice turned the cans into a climbing wall and used it to keep themselves in top form. I night I was sure I heard their little rodent teams cheering each other on as they scaled higher and higher.
I furtively purchased traps that were less humane. The small wooden boards with spring-loaded wires, the kind that makes a sharp crack when triggered. These will do the job, I thought, with a sadistic smile, while testing them. But the only thing I caught was my thumb, which turned a lovely shade of purple.
I do not know why I had so much trouble with these traps because I had used these with great success some years before when I was in my early twenties, living in Palo Alto, California in an old house just off the Stanford campus. I remember once evening when my little brother had the extreme misfortune to be dining with me and my three female housemates. We were enjoying a tantalizing meal when a loud crack filled the air. We froze, forks poised in mid air, everyone’s eyes shifting around the table to see who looked vulnerable, who could be guilted into emptying the trap. Our eyes landed on my little brother. With one voice, we ordered to him to extract the mouse. He looked aghast. His face seemed to say that we could not seriously expect him to deal with this. He may have been only 13, but he knew that he was our guest. But one glance around the table let him know that he was outnumbered and outmaneuvered. My brother pushed back his chair, and as we called instructions from a distance–It’s in the broom closet! Pick it up by the tail!–he fetched the mouse. As he passed through the dining room, wearing an adolescent smirk, he swung the corpse–with the trap still dangling from his neck–out over the table, then carried it out to the trashcan.
This had not been my only encounter with mice. About five years later, I was cross-country skiing with two girlfriends in Yosemite and staying in one of those little tent cabins with wooden floors, dirt streaked white canvas walls and lumpy beds.
After a long day of skiing, I went to pour a drink of water from at large plastic pitcher that I had filled that morning. As I tipped the pitcher, I spotted something floating in the water. I leaned forward and peered in. There was a large brown mouse, suspended, its arms stretched up in vain for help, its nose just millimeters beneath the surface.
I nearly dropped the pitcher as I screamed in shock. My friend Cindy, a woman who today is a prominent dentist, a model citizen who owns an entire dental building in Fresno, hopped on the nearest bed screaming, “Get rid of it! Get rid of it!” as she jumped up and down.
Why me? I wondered a bit miffed as I stepped outside and heaved contents of the pitcher into the woods. When I stepped back inside, I plunked the pitcher back onto the dresser. I hope they wash those pitchers in between guests.
Now, twenty years later the mice in my kitchen were winning. In one desperate moment, urged on by my sister-in-law, Sharon, I purchased glue boards. I lined these up behind the sofa, along the Mus road confident that I would catch the wee travelers but a tad queasy over the thought of finding them still alive and stuck fast. My worries were unfounded because the boards only caught end of the vacuum cleaner, electric cords, computer cables and phone lines that we absent mindedly dropped behind the sofa. I finally got rid of the boards when I heard Sweetie, my daughter’s cockatiel, squawking loudly, pinned to the boards by a thick layer of goo. She was outraged and tried to bite my husband as he pulled her free. When we got her off, the board had more feathers than the bird.
A few months later, I had a terrible night that began with gigantic hives and chest pains and proceeded to my first ride in an ambulance, and an evening in the emergency room hooked to an IV. When we stumbled in the front door at 3 AM, we found a mouse in the middle of my kitchen floor. He paused as if to greet us, then startled when my husband gave chase. He was used to my inert fatigue.
One day I had had enough. I was cooking dinner when a mouse ducked out from under the refrigerator and began to nibble on a leaf of lettuce I had dropped while fetching the makings for a salad from the crisper. The mouse was less than four feet away. I upended the wooden salad bowl and lobbed it Frisbee-like in his direction. In my mind I pictured the bowl suspended in air, settling gently over him, but in my haste, I threw too hard and the bowl bounced off the wall and back towards me, landing on the mouse’s neck. I froze, too horrified to move. His body gave a few sharp twitches. I lunged forward and tipped the edge of the bowl over the furry creature. It remained there for several hours until my sixteen-year-old son, Sammy came home from school.
“Slide this piece of cardboard under the bowl,” I instructed carefully. “There is a mouse under there, and carry it outside.” He looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “Is it alive?”
“Yes, I am sure it is.” By now I had lost all touch with reality.
He obediently slid the cardboard under the bowl and walked outside.
“Mom, it was dead,” he said shaking his head.
I felt a pang of guilt for killing one of God’s creatures, but within seconds I was doing a little jig.
“One down,” I crowed, pumping my fist in the air.
But that was the last mouse we ever saw.
My husband thinks that it is because we were renovating the basement and the noise scared them away. But I am certain that in mice language my house is marked with the words, “Beware: occupants unstable with violent tendencies. Appear friendly and welcoming, but will lure you into the open with tantalizing lettuce then snap your neck with wooden missiles.”