WHILE I WAS cleaning a mouse nest out of my car engine with a bent wire hanger one afternoon—hang on, I’ll get to that—I began to philosophize about the relationship between women and rodents.
First of all, let’s abolish the myth that women freak at the site of four legs and fur. If this were true, none of us would wear lynx. And if beady eyes were a problem, a lot of us wouldn’t be married to a lot of you. I propose that the real reason we scream when we pull a mouse out of the Rice Krispies is that we know we are going to have to do the impossible: convince a man that the furry thing really did trespass in the first place.
“A mouse? In my home? Nah!” And back to reading the sports section. Apparently, fear of the excellent hunting and trapping capabilities of the human male alone keeps miniature rodents at bay, quivering in fear 40 feet outside the boundaries of any man-inhabited residence. Men don’t have to entertain thoughts of how to eliminate mice. Denial works nicely and you don’t even have to get up out of your chair.
Something with gnawing teeth lived in my fireplace once, and my now ex husband (let that be a lesson to you) absolutely refused to believe in its existence. It squeaked and scuttled about boldly all night, but he blamed me, the bedcovers, the children, and the neighbors rather than investigate and be proven wrong. He maintained his position even after I produced evidence. One evening, the hapless thing got its nose stuck in the fireplace grate, so I lifted the entire grate out and presented it to him, critter dangling by its snout from iron grid work, waving its little, stunted legs in the wind.
“That’s not a mouse,” he pronounced with dignity untouched by doubt. “It’s a shrew.”
So I guess he was still right. We didn’t have mice. We had Shakespearean visitors.
When we lived in the country, many specimens of nature appeared on our doorstep: turtles, birds, newts, salamanders, giant spiders. They were usually done in by the intrepid bands of children underfoot at my house, captured in Cool Whip tubs and left to dehydrate on the deck. The calling cards of mice were also discovered by my young explorers, but dismissed by their father.
“Probably just some mouse that traveled through here all by itself and is gone already,” and back to ESPN.
All by itself? A lone mouse? Paladin, the rodent? What would drive a mouse to set out alone for the uncharted suburbs, avoiding commitment and shunning family ties?
“If you see one, you’ve got 50,” my mother used to say. Women know.
I invited the mouse terminator to visit. He drove up in an unmarked truck, and inspected my sofa cushions ( think about that one the next time you curl up to watch television) and my crawlspace wearing a helmet with a headlight on it. Really.
“These the things have no morals at all,” he said. “Disgusting. Brothers breed with daughters, sisters with brothers. They don’t care.” So now I don’t have enough to worry about thinking they’ll chew their way through my electrical wiring and start a fire, I have to worry about mouse incest in the furnace room. I could go on Oprah.
My then-husband did not believe the rodent assassin, so I planted traps alone. And, since, of course, we didn’t actually have any mice (we caught and killed 37), I had to dispose of each one myself. The recipe for this is: 1 quart-size Ziploc bag per corpse and one pair of stainless steel spaghetti tongs, dedicated to this specific purpose. He refused to look at any of them.
My finest hour in feminist rodent removal came the day I located what looked to be their outside entry point. I brewed myself a pot of tea and mounted surveillance by the patio door. Sure enough, along came a fat gray thing trying to wedge itself between the siding and the cinderblock.
I called for backup and grabbed my tools. In a moment, I had the hindquarters of a large field mouse firmly grasped in my pizza pinchers, Ziploc bag at the ready, and an audience of 16 awe-struck children.
This came back to haunt me months later when, during a lull in the conversation at a formal school reception, my son, hair slicked down and parted neatly, wearing a navy blue blazer and a handsome red tie, announced to the prim group: “My mom tonged a mouse once.” I am legend among the PTA.
With all this history, it did not shock me when the air coming from the heating ducts in my car dashboard started smelling a bit, well, musty. Fuzzy. That tenth-grade biology class odor. In fact, I had been reminiscing rather fondly of my old high school lab partner while driving lately, and now I knew why.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon, my mechanic tells me. It’s cold in the garage and warm in the engine, so they climb on up there and build little nests.
“Nests? Nests?” I hear the men asking. Women know this, they don’t need to ask. Yes, mice build nests out of paper and bits of foam and hair and other wonderful crud that looks like it came up from the drain clog.
So after I dropped the kids at school, I parked the car in the driveway, popped up the hood, unbent a wire coat hanger, and started to fish the mouse house out, bit by shredded bit.
The mailman came by and asked what I was doing.
“Mouse nest on the engine block,” I said.
“Mice? Mice in a car? Nah!”
This appeared in the Star Tribune, December 6, 1993.