Spring 2013, Volume 14

Fiction by Susan Taylor Chehak

Mouse Wars

This isn’t even a house, strictly speaking. It’s just an old rundown shack in the woods on the creek, passed down from father to son to son to me. A getaway from the feminine constraints of duty and decorum, a place where a man could be a man, my dad said, having heard this from his dad who had heard it from his dad first. Play cards. Fish. Hunt. Drink. The jolly old camaraderie of all that. I held onto it more out of laziness than anything else, never guessing that Jimmy’s change of heart would one day provide me with the privilege of calling this place my home.

The land around here once was wild and vast, but now they’ve taken down most of the trees and cleared the brush all the way down to the creek to build a tract of new homes there. Real houses, those are, meant for husbands and wives with jobs and cars and kids. Before the money dried up, that is. Before the builders called it quits. Now it’s just another half-ass tract gone bust in the real estate balloon.

Consolation: it’s not just me, on these hard times.

I have this one room; that’s all. Kitchen at one end, cot at the other, dining set in the center, chair backed up beneath the window beside a standing lamp. Toilet tucked behind a curtain, along with a single shower stall. Booze in the cupboard. Shotgun in the corner. Pantry stocked with food. Plus an unmatched array of glasses and dishes, pots and pans, flatware and utensils, all swiped from other kitchens or picked up at garage sales. Everything you could need or want and none of it costing me a cent except the water and the power and the firewood I’ll use to heat the place come fall.

He didn’t think I’d have all this. He figured I’d go to a motel. Or a homeless shelter. Or the street. He’d have liked that all right, seeing me shivering on some corner one morning on his usual bustle around town in that little car we bought just before he put his foot down. Saying I was lazy. Calling me a liar.

He didn’t figure on the shack or the cash or the credit cards and the bank account. He never reckoned I’d have seen it coming and been prepared. Didn’t expect I’d find a way to look after my own interests at least as well as he was looking after his. Just waited for that last unforgivable infraction so he could file the papers and change the locks and call it all my fault.

My first night here, I was feeling the full freedom of the situation. Me letting go of him and he of me so then it was just myself and the dog and nobody to say yes or no or maybe, maybe not. Simplicity, all right. Silence too. Peace, at last. I was thinking I could find God that way, maybe, and how about that.

Bottom of the bottle and I was asleep and dreaming something complicated, with passages and caves and crawling around in the dark, but it was a sound that brought me to again. Thought at first it was a prowler. Gripping the bottle by the neck and raising it up in case I had to defend myself. The dog didn’t even notice. She’s old and deaf and, sure, he let me have her because she was already mine anyway. A nuisance, he said, letting her out the back door. Leaving her there in the yard, in the rain, with the gate open, and it was as if he wanted her to run away.

They took out the trees to make way for those new houses, so what were woods now are fields and that accounts for the mice. Not one or two, but a full-out infestation. And not just me, but everybody. A record year for vermin, they say. Everybody has them, fancy house and simple shack alike.

I listened to the skitter all night. A squeak. The rustle of cellophane, paper, tiny teeth gnawing through wood or nut or seed.

And now this morning, in the light of day, there was the evidence, which must have been there all along except I didn’t notice. Cracker crumbs on the counter. Mouse droppings. A hole spilling kibble from its bag. I’d left the dirty dishes in the sink. Why? Because I can, though that was always more Jimmy’s style.

He hoped I’d get sick. Something fast and brutal and then I’d be gone and it wouldn’t be his fault. Didn’t happen that way. Sorry. I’m not the sickly kind. My dad lived to be eighty-five, and then it was not disease, but the shotgun that got him. He made his own choices.

I’ve picked up seven traps at the hardware store. Along with supplies. More whiskey. Crackers. Cans of soup. After my dad passed, my mother lived on frozen food, and that was good enough for her. A microwave and a balanced meal in a plastic tray. The women in the family are stronger, that’s just another trait, and Jimmy should have figured it before he said I do. Whose mistake was it then? His or mine?

These are the cartoon-type traps—wood and metal, red lettering stenciled on, and peanut butter for bait—though they also tried to sell me a new contraption that I hadn’t seen before. No less inhumane, it’s got a baited glue-pad. Simple concept: the mouse is hungry, he steps in, he gets stuck, then rips out his own guts trying to get away. You can let him die like that or just toss the whole thing into a bucket of water so he drowns. One way or another, the job gets done.

I passed on that thing. Baited the others; snapped my thumb and howled. The dog snooped around the peanut butter, but backed away like she knew it wasn’t meant for her.

Another night and again there was the scurry and the creep, punctuated this time by the snapping of the traps; while on the floor beside my cot, the dog dreamed on, unaware. Seven traps, six snaps that echoed like bomb-bursts in the stillness of the shack. So quiet, I could hear the rush of the highway, miles off, like someone’s sweetheart whispering in my ear. Music came and went too, faintly. From the development, most likely, where you can imagine wayward kids are up to no good together in the empty rooms of those half-built homes.

I had to wait for that last trap to go. On edge for it and my thumb throbbing, until intoxication overcame and I drifted off into a dream where a bear was waiting for me in the full-bloom woods, with Jimmy there beside him in his underwear. His muscles never looked like that. His hair is gray, not black. His bare feet glistened in the grass. Then came that one final percussion. With the bear barking and my husband lifted up into the air, so poof, just like that he was gone.

In the morning: seven traps, six dead mice. The live one had dragged himself off into a corner to hide. It took a while to find him there—one leg caught, the rest of him pulled in tight—he was pretending to be dead. I carried him down to the creek and hurled him high, trap and all. Watched him touch down in the dirt on the far side, near a wanton pile of boards. Admired the skeletal silhouette of a partially framed house, collapsed against the sunrise in the early morning sky.

I gathered up the other traps and had to spend some time working out how to let the dead mice go without any physical contact. Their little heads smashed flat. Not much blood, and that was a relief. One had taken a fully body snap that must have crushed its back. Greedy bastard. The smell of peanut butter turns my stomach now. I had to make a choice, decide which was worse: putting my hands in a pair of old gardening gloves or the feel of a dead mouse against bare skin. My thumb was turning black.

In my mind’s eye Jimmy rolls his eyes and shoulders me aside to do the dirty work himself. Dog shit, vomit, baby mess. The time the cat was hit by a car and came limping home, its hind leg broke in half. I’ve never had the stomach for any such as that.

I was swallowing hard as I opened the traps and dropped the dead into a Ziploc bag. Sealed it, then held it up to see what seemed like a true accomplishment, which inspired an unexpected sort of pride. I longed for a chance to show the bag to Jimmy. Seemed like evidence of something. So there.

I showed it to the dog instead. Unimpressed, she merely blinked. Pulled herself up, hobbled to the door, and waited there until I let her go outside.

Two more nights of this, and that was about as much as I could take. Eighteen dead mice from the six traps. This was not a problem; it was a plague. Another trip into town to use the phone to call an exterminator, and I picked up some more supplies as long as I was there.

The dog slept on as the man banged on the door. With his fist, like this was a mansion, and maybe I didn’t hear him from my chair at the table in the kitchen that was the living room that was also the bedroom. When he stepped inside he was big enough to fill the whole place, it seemed. I am not a large woman myself, and Jimmy was just regular size, so we fit together pretty well. Or so I thought.

It didn’t take the exterminator long to figure out what was what. The evidence was clear—droppings, chewed papers, crumbs, and whatnot. They were coming in through cracks in the foundation, he said, or by way of the gaps around the windows and the doors. Following the pipes up from below perhaps.

All the while, he eyed me with some curiosity. Smelled my fear, no doubt. Or recognized my squeamishness, which made him smile. Not afraid of a mouse, are you hon? The name on the pocket of his shirt: George. An ape with hairy arms and his jaw already shadowing blue by early afternoon. I just smiled like it was nothing, turned away, busied myself at the sink and the view out the window at the half-built houses over there.

He kept on talking, to my back, telling me what I already knew. Vermin. They’re everywhere. Especially in a place like this. I turned to see he was looking around, taking it in—my cot, my chair, the table, the lamp, the bottles, the shotgun, the books—and when he looked at me again, it was like he thought he was on to something.

He said I’d have to seal up all the openings, but keep using the traps in the meantime. Glue-pads, too, that he would provide. I had to sign a waiver for the poison, in its black metal box in the yard. It’ll kill that dog, you know. She won’t get into it, will she? No, I told him. Not a chance. No.

The mice will be drawn to it though. Then they’ll just go off elsewhere to do their dying there. A mile at least, maybe more.

At night the development is dark. No power in the empty houses and no moon in an overcast sky, so the shadows are thick. A flashlight beam cracks through them, now and then. Those kids are out there prowling around. Throwing rocks, shattering glass. The dog lifts her head, barks once, then drops chin to paws again. I lie on the cot, listening to all this, my sense of hearing heightened. Added to it is the rustle of the mice and the syncopated snap of traps. Overall, it feels like a solution of some kind, even if it’s only temporary.

You can make a bad choice and not even know it until you’ve gone so far down the line, it’s impossible to trace back from one event to the next to find the starting point. Where did it go wrong, you ask. Or wail. Or whisper. Pour another glass and sit at the table because you can’t sleep while the mice are out there gobbling up poison or struggling on a glue-pad, tearing themselves to pieces in their efforts to get free. While the dog snores and the night is so black and the shotgun in the corner that once belonged to your daddy seems to be calling a special kind of attention to itself.

Jimmy didn’t even cheat on me. That’s how sure he was. When he saw my surprise, he shook his head. What did you think was going to happen? he asked. Did I assume we’d just go on like that forever? There was no other woman. Or man, even. Just…he’d had enough and he wanted me out. He’s there in our house now, on his own because that’s how he wants it and he knows I will do anything for him, including leave him alone, if that’s what he needs, and even this makes him despise me all the more. What do you want from me? I asked, trying to find some hint of something in his eyes.

Dad said, You need to know when it’s time to take your leave of things. Get out graceful. My mother said, Just try not to leave a mess behind for someone else to have to clean up once you’re gone.

In the morning the traps were all full again. I did the disposal routine—plastic bag, gloves, plus a mask that was really just an old ski cap with holes cut out, pulled down all the way to my chin. Like a superhero, I thought, recalling how I’d tied a towel to my shoulders when I was a kid and got myself to believe that was all it was going to take for me to be able to fly, not reasoning further: If I could do it that easy, then why wasn’t everybody else doing it too?

I was ruminating on this and opening the traps—emptying them one by one into the plastic bag and trying not to look at those glue-pads, just dropping them into the pail of water—when a car pulled up onto the grass behind my own. Even before she opened the door, I knew it was Sil, come to rescue me. My sister is younger, but she’s larger than me and she was big as a kid, too, which made her early years bad enough that she grew up to be a woman even larger and with a greater presence, you might say. A barking laugh and broad gestures and clothes that scream on her.

She had on some big dress all full of flowers, with a purse and sunglasses and some kind of strappy shoes that made her look like one of those cartoon hippos dancing on tiptoe. Her face was red from the heat and the struggle she had getting out of the car.

The dog looked up from whatever it was she doing and squinted at my sister. Tail moving cautiously. Sil stopped abruptly. Took a fright before I pulled the cap back to show my face, and then all she had to say was, Honey, what the hell?

I was quick then, with the last of the traps and the glue-pads and the bucket. There was one brave fellow with his hip smashed, and he was swimming desperate circles. Sil was coming up the steps, and I was pulling off the gloves, solemn and trying to make it look like this was nothing. Hi, I said. She was beside me, peering into the bucket, and so together we watched that that one mouse still paddling through the bobbing others, with their eyes popped and their little skulls crushed and their vivid innards turned out.

All I could thing to say to her was the obvious: Mice.

Sil took it upon herself to clean the shack then. Hanta virus, she said. People were dying in Yosemite. Sweating. Her big bare arms flopping around and the dress getting caught up between her legs. She took off her shoes and left them on the porch, then slapped around the place, barefoot like a peasant. She was doing me a favor, she thought. Or said. Or maybe that’s what I was thinking. I didn’t say it. Dishes first. And sweeping. There was no vacuum cleaner there, so she was bending over the dust pan, then dumping its contents in the bin. She checked the doors and told me what I already knew, that I was going to have to seal them. She left and came back shortly with duct tape and wood putty and this foam she squirted into the cracks. A runner for the bottom of the door. The tape was for the windows.

I went out into the yard for this. Sat in a chair in the shade and dozed there. Listened to Sil moving around inside, sealing it all up for me, just so. There was also the hollering of the kids in the tract, busy with some game. And the dog at my feet, too, her chin on her paws, eyes open and alert—she was watching my every move.

When the job is done, Sil comes out onto the porch, her arms full of her supplies. She huffs down the steps and across the yard to her car. A can of Comet drops and rolls and spills powder on the grass, near the poison box. A dying mouse hunkers nearby. I nudge it away, out of sight, with my foot.

Sil is flushed, red-faced, damp with sweat. Glowing. Smiling. She hugs me. Engulfs me in her swamp and then pulls back. You’ll be fine, she tells me. Like she’s thanking me instead of the other way around. And I know that next thing she’s going to start bringing friends by. Inviting me for dinner at her house. Matching me up with this one or that.

I’ll come back to check on you, she says. Pats the dog, whose tail wags doubtfully.

When I go inside, the cabin is clean and fresh. Damp. Shining. The sunlight comes in through the window, sealed now with duct tape. The glasses in the cupboard gleam. The bed is made. Even the tip of the toilet paper has been folded into a little triangle, as in a hotel.

I make a little mess. Throw some things around a bit. The dog, on the rug, scratches and turns, before she settles in.

Saturday night, then, and I’d go out if I had anyplace to go. The development is quiet. Things will stir up there later, after the kids have fueled themselves with their girlfriends, their sticky fingers, and their beer. But now, it’s quiet. And dark enough that you could almost picture the woods still there, feel it in the open timbers of the half-built homes. No moon again and clouds, so there is no light and nothing to see. Sitting on the porch. The mice are gone, it seems. The dog sits beside me, attentive, we watch the darkness. I think about calling the exterminator again. Maybe thank him. Maybe ask him to come by and check the traps.




BIO:  I am a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author
of five novels, including
Smithereens, The Truth About Annie D., and
Harmony. My short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Adirondack
Review, Amarillo Bay, The Chariton Review, Coe Review, Folio, Folly,
Guernica Magazine, Juked, L.A. Under The Influence, Necessary Fiction,
Oxford Magazine, Permafrost, Word Riot, as well as Seedpod Press and Sisters
in Crime 5 anthologies. My short story, “Just So,” won first place in
Folio’s 2012 prose contest. I have taught fiction writing at Antioch
University Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University
of Southern California, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the
University of Iowa.