Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of Mice and Me

Through my high school years I did laundry at a motel. Every day I washed every sheet from every bed. I was a fast folder, and my reward was to have a few minutes between each load to do absolutely nothing but watch the huge drums of the gas dryers twirl. It was all the entertainment my 16-year-old brain needed.

Around sunset, when all the maids, maintenance men and managers had gone, I had the place to myself—sort of. There was a big hole in the wall that had once been a window, now just a portal between my laundry room and the recently added garage. The windowsill was now a viewing platform for the motel mice. Three or four would come out of the wall each evening and rest their pointy chins on their rice-thin forearms, their tiny black eyes, small and dark as poppy seeds, watching me work. For them it was happy hour, before they moved on to their jobs.

I was glad for the company. They didn’t judge my work and wouldn’t interrupt as I told them stories of my day. I didn’t try to approach them. When I was finished for the day I would look up to say goodbye, but always they were already gone.

They worked hard through the night. Every morning the manager came in, ranting about the “infestation.” He would enlist me to help brainstorm on trap design and placement. I love gadgets, so I greatly enjoyed devising clever systems to entrap the greedy, and imagining irresistible places to lay traps. More so I enjoyed making the rounds after the manager left, tripping all the trap triggers, leaving the cheese or peanut butter booty for my mini-uns.

My affection for mice sparked when I was thirteen. The pet store had a sale on mice: one for a dollar. I had a dollar. I asked my mother if I could have a mouse, that I’d pay for it myself and feed it and care for it and . . .”

“No.”

I bought one anyway. I named him Henry as I carried him home, hidden in a little box in my coat. I slunk up to my room and dropped him into my empty wastebasket, a metal cylinder brightly painted to imitate a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can.

Immediately the mouse began leaping to unimaginable heights, and I slammed a book over the can to contain him. The book didn’t quite cover the hole, so I flipped the can over. It worked until nightfall, when the mouse began leaping again, now smashing his tiny head into the bottom—now top—of the can, which bonked like a tin drum. Mortified that my mother would hear, I put the book back on top, and a blanket over that to muffle the noise. By morning Henry the mouse was quiet again, dead of a broken neck.

I never felt worse about myself than I did then, selfish and dishonest and cruel. I feel that again now in the recollecting. Since then I have viewed mice with an affection and tenderness born of my guilt, as if Henry had been a little mouse Jesus, whose death saved the lives of many mice after him whose sins have been forgiven.

The closest I came to having another mouse was in college. I took a class in Expermental Psychology, which trained students in the scientific method by having us teach a rat to press a lever. We were issued a lever, a chart, and a rat.

It was a Charles River rat. They are not so named because they thrive along the Charles River, but because they come from the Charles River Rat Factory, a business that supplies rats which are specifically prepared—or more accurately, specifically unprepared—for experiments. They are pure, white as innocence, with eyes red as candy. Once each rat has been used for a single experiment, he cannot be used for another because, having learned how to learn, he is now tainted, no longer a blank slate. I didn’t ask, but I presume they were recycled to Biology 101.

As I worked with my rat, whose cage was in the middle of all the other neat columns of stacked rats, I daydreamed of setting them all free. But I too was tainted, and resigned that it wouldn’t change anything. I got an A.

Every morning my motel manager would wander into the laundry room, whistling or perhaps singing outright, his lovely tenor voice a gift to man and bird. He was a deeply spiritual person, young and full of sunny optimism. At the sight of the flipped, empty traps he would stop mid-“hallelu . . .” and go silent. A Yosemite Sam fury invaded him.

His religion didn’t allow dancing, much less cursing. He didn’t believe it was okay to substitute a safe word for swear word, like “Jeepers Bucking Cripes.” Stomping and flailing were dangerously close to dancing, so he was rendered inanimate but for his bulging veins and quivering pupils.

It was a motel after all, and we had serious cleaning gear, so it wouldn’t have been an insurmountable mess if his head burst, but I would step back anyway. The quietest quiet falls when you are expecting an explosion and don’t get it.

To this day he doesn’t know of my complicity in the debacle, and he never will. He died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-three, an otherwise lucky number. He was a motocross racer, and his bike had come apart. There were rumors of tampering, but I kept quiet, knowing only that he stored his motorcycle in the new garage next to my laundry room.

1 comment:

What do you have to say for yourself?