AH, FALL. The time of year when the mice I chased out in the spring move right back into the house.
Tasha Tudor and Beatrix Potter illustrations suggest the unlikely but charming notion that domesticated rodents run around on little mice freeways directly beneath our feet, commuting up and down between layers of floors as though they were high rises filled with little mouse beds and mouse larders and mini-mouse schoolrooms. Mouse grandmothers setting tables with thimble bases filled with flower buds and dinner plates crafted of paint chips, mouse mothers knitting dryer lint into baby’s quilts, mouse fathers stacking up toothpicks like cordwood, mouse children clamoring for another treat from the cookie crumb jar.
These sorts of utopian mice communities, I imagine, went out of fashion in the 1960s. As the nation lost its sense of innocence and its firm belief in the problem-resolving omnipotence of nuclear family life, so went the animal kingdom—at least the various species that chose to dwell among us, lurking in our sock drawers and leaping out from under our laundry cabinets. Maybe mice were sweet and homespun once, but that was back when all you needed to clear a household of four-footed mini-mammals was a cat and a good broom.
Today’s mice do not linger in postcard-sized feather beds dreaming dreams of windfall feasts from a wandering toddler’s saltine or a sloppy dog’s dinner dish. Modern mice are proactive little monsters with nasty attitudes three sizes larger than the meager physical space they consume while scooting around the kitchen floor on their elbows trying to fit under the stove. I asked a pest control professional—rat catcher—how mice got into most houses in the first place. “Oh, just like people,” he said. “They walk right in the door.” Takes a certain rodent savoir faire, that does.
A mouse and I surprised each other in my hallway one night. I was headed downstairs for a drink of water; it seemed headed for the hole in the floor around the radiator water pipe. We both froze. I rolled the magazine I was holding in my hand into a tightly curled weapon, but then discarded that plan, doubting the mouse was going to hold still while I strolled over and bonked it on its head. I stepped cautiously down to the final stair, but then laughed at myself for trying not to startle it. What good would a relaxed mouse do me? Volunteer to leave peacefully? Spill the location of all the other French Resistance mice living in the basement? Offer to move their headquarters outside to the spruce hedge?
While I was debating the best course of action, the expression on the mouse’s face changed. You might wonder how I discerned any original expression at all, at 10 paces in the near dark—especially given that the expression was on a face the size of a postage stamp, and a face without eyebrows, at that. But I swear to you that thing looked startled when it first saw me. And then, that startled look was gradually replaced with a dawning caginess. It was sizing me up, and not finding me particularly threatening.
Its whiskers stopped twitching and settled into more of a sneer, and I suddenly realized that I recognized its expression as that of one of nature’s most dangerous animals, a 13-year-old daughter on her way to the mall, traveling with inappropriate friends, wearing too much eyeliner, and arguing vehemently against curfew.
“So?” The mouse seemed to be thinking as it stared. “You aren’t the boss of me.”
How could I argue? I didn’t. I have no mice armies at my command. I thought for a moment about wresting a Tchaikovsky’s CD out of the rack and playing the Nutcracker Ballet’s “Death of the Rat King,” but before I could wage psychological warfare, the creature cockily circled the radiator hole once, then twice, eyeing me disdainfully the whole while and taking its own sweet time, and then slipped down into the nether regions of the house with a twitch of its tail.
So they’re back from summer vacation now, my temporarily exiled mouse roommates. They probably hang out around the furnace with other bad-seed mouse friends, rifling through jeans pockets for tobacco crumbs, meeting under the water heater to sniff wine corks, and scribbling graffiti on the concrete block.
These guys would never pose for Tasha Tudor or Beatrix Potter. Keith Haring, maybe.
This appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, October, 2002, p. 190.