(the only good mouse has a single testicle)
When I was in college, I sometimes had to miss class, and not always because I was hung over or because Hart to Hart was on tv (I loved the way Max the butler said, “When dey met, it was moida” in the opening credits).
Sometimes, I had to miss class because, while tripping along to the English building, musing about how Milton was a genius of a poet (or, more accurately, about how Chuck Woolery was a genius of a gameshow host), I would encounter a squirrel along the pathway.
And if there was a squirrel on the path, Milton and Chuck be damned. I was going no further. In fact, my body would switch directions fairly dramatically, as I hastened back to the dorm, away from Nut-Cheeked, Fluffy-Tailed Evil.
I have this little borderline phobia, you see. It involves all rodents and even a few members of the polecat family (watch this space for an upcoming post about my life with a ferret).
For me, this phobia works not only as a personal shriek-inducer but also as a general character-tester. Some people learn that I have this deep-seated and profound fear, and they think it’s funny—a chance to put me in situations where I come face-to-face with the thing that petrifies me most: “Hey, look, Joce, here in this shoebox full of fossils; it’s a mouse skeleton. Come hold the skull!”
Such people have no place in my life, and, due to their willful cruelty, I make certain my dense and chewy molasses cookies never cross their lips.
Then there are those who understand that fear is not a thing to be mocked, that fear does not have to be rational to be real, and that they don’t need to be the instrument of my gradual desensitization: “Hey, look, Joce, here in the kitchen. I’ve just let loose a mole for our mutual fun. Now, you try to catch it with this colander, and if you do, you’ll have faced your fear, thereby diffusing it, which means you’ll never again have to avoid the hamster section of the pet store!”
Rather, the Wise Samaritans accept that a very specific fear is a part of who I am; they become my benign enablers, and they are amply rewarded with molasses cookies AND butter-rich chocolate-chip scones for their tolerance. In my worldview, fear, whether legitimate or irrational, deserves respect. Those compassionate enough to get that a magazine photo of a gerbil elicits in me weak knees, shortened breath, and choked screams, well, they get their laundry folded for life.
Don’t get me wrong—I hate to feel crippled by anything, fear especially. My intellectual mind is well aware that a mouse or bat won’t really crawl down my throat while I sleep, and a rat won’t actually swim up through the toilet hole while I’m, em, evacuating, but, as it turns out, my intellectual mind is very rarely at the helm.
In my better moments, those rare seconds when intellect has grabbed hold of the wheel, I have tried to get to the roots of this thing, to see if I can figure out why I’m petrified by small, timid furballs.
I remember when I was five, while my mom watched General Hospital in the background, seeing a fuzzy blur (“It’s a bumble bee,” I yelled) whip into a mousetrap that we had set in our house. The trap caught Stuart Little but didn’t kill him immediately, as it only snapped onto his leg, and for some moments afterward, I stood, rapt, as that mouse dragged the trap around behind him until finally petering out, tortured beyond any interpretation of the Geneva Convention, even an interpretation with the breadth and convenience of George W. Bush’s. Moreover, to this day, I can never hear the surname “Quartermaine” without needing to whimper a bit with rodential anxiety (and I don’t mean just because the actor who plays Alan Quartermaine is a total weasel).
I remember when I first started reading the Little House on the Prairie books, and I encountered the scene where Pa woke up in the middle of the night with a mouse gnawing at his hair, ostensibly gathering material for a nest (in actuality, this minion was planting an early pioneer version of a mouse GPS device into Pa’s scalp, so the Mouse King could track Pa’s every movement as he plowed; with such technology, the mouse kingdom would know the second the corn harvest was in, by Jehosephat). In the book, Pa roused from sleep and grabbed the busy mouse from his head and tossed it into the wall, where they found it, dead, the next morning. As Pa casually tossed the corpse out into a field, the Mouse King despaired of ever again finding such an easy target for his machinations. But then that simple Grace Ingalls came of age, and she was all new fodder for the Mouse King’s evil plots (well chronicled in the tome These Happy Mousey Years).
I remember being around age ten and wearing a pair of sassy bamboo flip-flops when I stepped out the back door of my friend Carol Darnielle’s house, right onto flattened mouse remnants that the cat had been playing with.
Oh, and to answer your question: YES, mouse husk does stick, quite determinedly, to the bottom of a flip-flop, even when you hop around on that flip-flop, screaming, for a few minutes before trying to rub the mouse off the bottom by scraping the flip-flop against the edge of a concrete step. When, at frigging last, the mouse jelly releases its grip, it is not, even in a famine, something you want to spread on your sandwich for lunch.
I remember our neighbor Randy Rupert bringing his two guinea pigs outside one day in their cage and leaving them on the sidelines in the blistering August sun as we all played cops ‘n robbers. Some hours later, we discovered they’d gotten horribly sunburned—not pink, but red, piggies going “ouch, ouch, ouch” all the way home. And they did go Home, to the big guinea pig cage in the sky, later that night, when they died from their neglectful roasting.
You need more?
I remember taking on the flattering burden of hamster-sitting my next-door neighbor and great pal Lisa Mackin’s two fluffballs, while her family took off for a long weekend in Vegas. I did not love the hamsters, but I was still at a point where I could be in a room with them, if they were caged. And I was willing, for the friendship, to go to her house every day in her absence and throw food into their habitat. Much more than friendship was required, however, when I went over the third day, only to discover Big Hamster sitting and smirking inside the carcass of Smaller Hamster, wiping its bloody chops.
I’d never been gladder to have a big brother than that day, when mine did the clean-up for me, as I dry-heaved in our bathroom back home.
When Lisa came back from Vegas and tried to gift me with a stuffed animal from Circus, Circus (mercifully, not a hamster), I had to refuse, on the grounds that I was a Pet Killer and deserved no swag.
Honestly, this litany could go on and on. I could take you on a trip down my memory’s Rodent Avenue and tell you tales of two white mice living in the wall by my waterbed when I was a teen…of me hovering under a dining room table, screaming with my cousins while my uncles shoeboxed a bat against the wall…of my dorm room freshman year (imagine me there, having skipped class, tuning in to Chuck Woolery on Love Connection in an effort to decrease my elevated “squirrel on path” heart rate), where my reverie was disrupted by a mouse in the garbage can…and I could take you back through this already-recounted story of calling the police when a bat flew into my house and started trying on outfits for the prom…I could take you to my aunt’s house in South Dakota where mice run in the walls and perch on the edge of the bathtub…and I will take you, in a future post, into our kitchen, where a rat set up shop for some weeks, leaving feces in the drawer under the stove and developing an affection for bananas…
Summarized, though, my point is this: people have called this fear “irrational” or have acted dismissively towards it, and I get that, logically, a rodent ain’t gonna kill me. But I would argue, dear Judge and Jury, that there is clear, comprehensive evidence that I am entitled to yelp, even cringe, when I see the cover of a Littles children book.
And before I leave you to fret about every little rustling in your cupboards, let me tack on this post-script: I started writing this post more than a month ago, but never got back to finishing it or posting it. There was a reason–a new agitation yet to come.
Four days ago, it actually stopped raining, Praise Noah, for a brief period. So I jumped out onto the deck, eager to set up shop at the lovely glass table there. I would blog; I would sip a frosty beverage; I would lounge, at least for seven minutes until the next downpour. In full tra-la-la mode, I noted that the sun was actually shining and so ducked my head and torso up inside the closed patio umbrella, which is what it takes to open the huge thing. Wreathed inside it, in the darkness, I pushed on the innards, and the umbrella popped open.
It also took all of two seconds for my ennervated heart to pop open. There, on the table, having narrowly missed landing in my hair (becoming entwined there for all of eternity, gradually gnawing away at my scalp), was a bat. At first it crawled along the tabletop dopily, drowsy and bewildered, muttering, “Duh? Where umbrella haven go?”
Then Satan appeared in its eyes, and it gained focus and purpose
as it climbed into my open, screaming maw
and slowly crawled down my esophagus.