One for the Rodent

I wouldn’t have been the first person to go mad in a New Jersey traffic jam. To me, Jersey people were more apt to part with their sanity than their toll change and, with every Turkpike merge, I expected someone to leap from their car and bludgeon me with their car jack.

But on that day I wanted it. I would have welcomed any roadside abuse, any punishment would have been an improvement to my day, to my life. And I was just as ready to deliver the pain. With foot hovering over the gas pedal, I was ready to demolish the first car that honked in my direction. Sometimes the tense, dead calm of urban traffic can spur these private eruptions and they are largely hard to justify. The reason for my own private misery was pathetic at best.

I was under attack by critters.

They were not in my car, mind you, but their recent invasion never left me. My tiny suburban bathroom was overrun by a bionic breed of ant. Was an ant problem big enough to force me from my car onto the New Jersey Turnpike to scream like a wet baby? At that point I believed it was.

I’d been living and working in the New Jersey suburbs for nearly two years and the pace and attitude of the urban northeast had worn me down, left me cold, and made me homesick for the South more than I realized. As a novice documentary film editor, I was up there with the intention of breaking into the entertainment industry while lazing in the comfort of creative and fulfilling work. The longer I labored on the project—when the 3-month gig became a multi-year sentence—I became less fulfilled and felt certain that our little film would never grow up to be “entertainment.” The job was dull and interminable and North Carolina seemed like an uncharted island on an undiscovered planet.

One would think that the appearance of some ants would’ve provided something constructive to focus on besides the gloomy string of future workdays; instead, their arrival felt like an apocalyptic sign. This particular breed was fast. It multiplied at will. It was nearly indestructible. I couldn’t sit on the toilet without having to ceremoniously dispatch a dozen ants that were marching across my face soap and through the bristles of my toothbrush. And why is it never just one ant? It’s always multitudes, straight lines or platoons of them invading and exploring. Ants will file up your neck and crawl into your dreams if you let them. Every dark speck I saw began to move and my head was constantly darting from side to side, always hunting ants, with my index finger shooting up like E.T.’s, ready to squish squish squish.

But it wasn’t just the ants. While they seemed content in taking over the tiny bathroom and my subconscious, the kitchen was the habitat of the mouse. I saw him for the first time when I was on the telephone cooing into the receiver to an old girlfriend back home. Dinner had been finished for a few hours, the dishes cleared and pots soaking, the kitchen aromatic and quiet. He must have felt comfortable enough to make an appearance. I saw movement under one of the front eyes of the stove and thought it was just a shadow—then I saw his head, hunched shoulders and dumpy little mouse body. I stood up, dumbfounded by his indifference to my presence, and approached. He scurried back down into the depths of the oven, probably crapping as he ran, leaving a trail of turds unreachable by hand and unseeable in the poor light with undetectable diseased vapors to taint every future meal.

I’d had a mouse before, back when I lived in the wooded boonies of South Carolina. But at the time I was living alone in a barn apartment so mice seemed like part of the deal. Once in awhile I’d find droppings by the split baseboard in the bedroom or hear faint scampering when I’d come home late. But I never physically saw the mouse so I wasn’t bothered by our cohabitation. I could even enjoy the idea of a mouse nearby. It was like a quiet, secretive roommate who kept to itself and reminded me every so often that I was not alone out there in the woods. When I finally left that apartment, on the last day of the move actually, there was one corner of the bedroom with a few rows of boxes and some bags of trash still left to be taken out. As I removed the final bag, I noticed the mouse sitting in the corner blinking up at me. He didn’t scurry away fearfully or make a rabid lunge at my shin—he just sat there, calm and confident, and watched me take out the last load, leaving him the apartment once and for all.

For some reason I’d never expected anything like mice or ants in New Jersey. Believing the “Garden State”-designation was some leftover moniker from the American Revolution, I thought Jersey would be paved and industrialized and that nothing except rude people and cockroaches could survive there. So the appearance of the new mouse, all those years later, was somehow more unsettling. I had been burglarized a few months earlier and it felt like another home invasion when that mouse showed up. But this time it wasn’t cash and security that were taken; it was the feeling of peace. My simple apartment was almost all I had and even it was a vulnerable disappointment. The mouse became the ultimate symbol of my displacement. He didn’t sneak around and try to stay in hiding and didn’t leave clues for me to discover. He simply walked out of my oven, looked at me from across the kitchen and on cue sent out the telepathic, “how YOU doin’?” like a typecast goombah in a Sopranos cartoon.

Calling the landlord and complaining about pest control was sure to be a waste of time. I discovered early on that the tenant-landlord relationship has a different dynamic in the densely populated northeast. When I first moved in, he’d informed me that parking in the driveway was off limits unless I did all of the landscaping for the property. Tenants were also responsible for upkeep of the heating system—a belching relic of a boiler that would frequently break down and leave everyone in the house garbed like high-altitude mountaineers and tinkering with useless thermostats. Even when I was robbed he never came by and even told me “not to go crazy” with improved security. Knowing his assistance would be minimal at best and figuring there would be a full infestation before he ever sprung to action, I sought other solutions.

I went to the bathroom, sat down, crushed some ants and made a plan. The next day during my lunch break I went to a local hardware store and purchased a couple of wooden mousetraps and cheap ant poison that must’ve been quite funny to the hordes of ants inhabiting the bathroom. It was so irresistible to them that—according to the label—they were supposed to break the waxy glob into pieces, take the chunks back to their nest, throw a poison food party and decimate the entire ant population. From what I could tell the poison made them faster and more plentiful. But at least with the ants, periodic squishing trips in the bathroom felt like progress. With the mouse I had to rely on this simple invention to trap and kill him. I knew hovering over the stove with a rolling made as much sense as waiting for the landlord to come over and make everything right.

Once the mousetraps were opened, I had to reacquaint myself with the operating procedure. I’ve never been much for surprises or sudden noises. Afraid to unite fuse and flame, I was one of those shaky, timid little boys who could barely light a firecracker without wasting all the fuel in a lighter and angering the expectant crowd. So the hair-trigger death bar on the mousetrap filled me with fear and awe. I decided on peanut butter for bait—it was right there in the pantry, after all—and setting the trap led to several humiliating moments where I tripped the mechanism early and the bar slammed down and I’d eat a spoonful of JIF to calm my nerves. But I knew I was a grown man and if other grown men could shoot guns and fix their carburetors, then I could catch a frigging mouse. With held breath and a skilled surgeon’s touch, I armed the mousetrap and set it down behind the oven.

Nothing happened on the first night. I woke up the next morning and peeked around the range but only saw the baited trap. There were fresh droppings on the kitchen counter between the coffeepot and the toaster so I knew he was still around and getting even bolder. I brushed the little pellets up with a moist paper towel while the coffee was percolating and imagined the mouse gaping at me from some invisible vantage point, bored and waiting for me to go to work so he could casually pop sugar grains into his mouth and shit on the silverware.

The following evening I went up to the neighborhood tavern to have beers and listen to the local drunks yell towards the Yankee’s game on the television. Once in a while I felt at home in New Jersey, when a conversation with a stranger or a stiff drink would transport me to another place, a nameless oasis untouched by expectation or stereotype. That night was particularly pleasant since Clemmons was on the mound and Sly-The-Reptile-Guy had brought his baby python to the bar and was buying Absolut shots for anyone who’d hold it. So my mood was cheerful when I cashed out, wandered home, strolled into the kitchen and nonchalantly glanced behind the oven.

I’d caught the mouse.

While I was thrilled that the plan had worked, I was floored by the gory spectacle of the miniature crime scene. There were tiny bright puddles of blood leading to the trap that was now wedged almost entirely underneath the stove, all signs of a grim struggle. When I bought the trap I assumed that death for the hapless mouse would be quick and painless. I even imagined that he would die happy with the free offering of peanut butter laid out for him alone. Like he’d quietly stumbled upon his own sweet smorgasbord and maybe even had a little taste before the bar dropped and the lights went out. But this was obviously no expedient demise. Once the device was tripped, the bar came down and hit the mouse in the middle of his snout. Given the speed of the bar’s release and the small surface area of the point of impact, I figured his nose would’ve been sheared completely off his face. But the bar held fast and the poor thing must’ve gone mad with pain and confusion trying to shake it loose.

I held the small picture of death up to my face. I felt sick and guilty and my nose itched the more I thought about its last dying moments. Using the end of a pen, I pried the bar off of his snout and nudged the body into the trashcan.

That night I set a second trap under the pantry that never caught anything. For several weeks I’d bend down to investigate the trap, expecting blood and a fresh body, but I never saw anything except a hardening glob of peanut butter. The droppings failed to reappear. My unlucky victim must’ve been a solitary mouse trying to keep warm during the last bitter month of a prolonged winter. I couldn’t help feeling like I killed a drifter, a wily opportunist just trying to get by in that hard, unforgiving place.

Meanwhile, the ants persisted and had to be professionally wiped out. The exterminator suspected they were thriving in some standing water behind the tiles of the bathtub. When the hot water faucet was disconnected from the wall, hundreds of angry ants swarmed from their disturbed nest and were quickly drowned in a monsoon of Raid. The hole of the nest was sprayed repeatedly and the faucet was replaced and recaulked, leaving the few insect survivors buried alive.

The new tenants of the house probably think nothing of what lurks behind the shower’s hot water handle as they step naked into the dingy stall. Checking the rump roast, it’s doubtful they consider the hidden network of pipes leading into the oven. Babes in the Jersey woods, I guess, with bad people looking through their windows at night, browsing for things to steal.

I am now back in the South, flirting with adulthood in a town that is the Fountain of Youth for guys like me. Guys who know bars, with the sweet skin of college life still clinging to them like outdated fashions. The film is done and is just another project on another shelf waiting for an audience to glance away from the explosions of the multiplex long enough to notice it.

I have unloaded my belongings into a new rental nest and settled into a new life, complete with a good girl and wiser ambitions. And on those melancholy nights when I’m home alone, when the kitchen is serene and twilight is at hand, I’ll give my oven door a little kick and listen for the quiet, hopeful stir of footsteps.


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