Monday, September 15, 2008

Of Mice and Men

“Aw Lennie…I ain’t takin it away just for meanness. That mouse ain’t

fresh.” From Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

I have made the acquaintance of many mice, a few I considered friends. My mother was liberal in her view of pets and my brother and I took advantage of her relaxed attitude to experience a wide variety of the animal kingdom in pet capacity. Rodents were small, easy to care for, inexpensive and brimming with personality and interest. They were also remarkably forgiving and sturdy.

I have a vivid memory of seeing my brother Nick’s hamster, Han Solo, floating in the living room in a mini hot air balloon my brother had devised from a paper cup attached to a helium balloon. The hamster seemed nonplussed, but showed less reaction than when he was an unwilling but lively passenger in toy trucks or electric trains. He was finally lost when we decided he might enjoy the real experience and tied kite string to our mock hot air balloon. The string slipped from my fingers in a gust of wind and he went sailing off into a galaxy far, far away and into the annals of rodent history.

Peaches and Herb were my favorite hamsters until I came home from school one day to find that Peaches had killed and devoured Herb. I couldn’t stand the sight of Peaches after she murdered her mate and was glad to hand her off to a friend who admired her and was unaware of her cannibalistic past.

In college, I had an obese black mouse named Gus who enjoyed traveling in my coat pocket. Occasionally, I would forget he was snoozing in my clothes and rush off to class with him curled asleep in my pocket. He seemed to enjoy the lectures on Egyptology at the U of I and would listen attentively long after I had lost interest. He acquired an appreciative fan base of young, neighborhood children who would pound on my apartment door and ask if he could come out to play. Gus lived well past normal mouse longevity- almost 4 years and when he finally expired, he was totally bald and blind. I buried him in a matchbox with a few crumbles of gorgonzola.

When my three sons were younger, they naturally gravitated to the mouse and hamster section of the pet store. When Ben was 4, he brought home a white hamster he named Ed. Ed was extremely adept at escaping. Frequent frantic cries of “Ed is gone!” could be heard throughout the house. Searches would ensue, and Ed would be located scampering down a hallway or crouching in the closet. He would be returned to his cage and various mean of securing his home would be mounted- tape, cardboard wall reinforcements, all to no avail. Ed was a minute Houdini. One day, I was busy about the house when I hear the familiar cry announcing that once again Ed was on the lamb. Within seconds I heard a shriek and ran to the living room. Jerry, the rat terrier was sitting on the couch and Ed, or what was once Ed was next to Jerry. Obviously, Jerry, ever helpful, had located Ed and in a friendly yet extensively damaging gesture, carried him to the couch. Jerry, in terrier fashion had secured Ed’s head in his jaws and this manner of transportation had caused Ed’s eyes to bulge gruesomely in a manner not conducive to life. Ed died with a particularly horrified expression on his whiskery face. Ben, unfortunately, had come upon this spectacle and after a momentary stunned silence, screeching commenced. Clearly disgusted at our lack of appreciation for his pest killing abilities, Jerry fled the scene, and I tried to calm an inconsolable Ben who, by now was cradling the dead, bug-eyed Ed, (the mouse really looked exactly like a rubber stress squeeze toy). Ed was buried and weeks later, Ben was still sensitive about the tragedy. One afternoon, Jerry sniffed out the rapidly decomposing Ed and came trotting inside with Ed’s mangled remains in his jaws eliciting another round of trauma.

Recently, we experienced an interesting rodent adventure with my youngest son Sam’s hamster, Vern. Vern was anti-social and perhaps even a pathological hamster. Disgusted and bitter towards humans, he escaped from his cage and after a thorough search of the house; we all braced ourselves for the inevitable discovery of dog mangled rodent. A week passed and there was still no sign of Vern-dead or alive.

While sitting at the computer one evening, I heard a scraping noise above me in the ceiling and looked overhead to see a large hole growing before my eyes. Vern was alive and well-surviving in the sub ceiling of the basement on a diet of ceiling tile. Attempts to corral him were futile and while I tried to work he chomped noisily overhead and sent a steady cascade of chewn material raining down on my head. He would craftily retreat when I tried to grab at him. Each morning, when I came down to work, I would fume at the ever growing holes in the tiles. Sometimes I could feel beady eyes watching me and would look up to find him staring at me from above. It was unnerving. I even took his picture to send to disbelieving friends. As the holes grew ever larger, I began to feel he was mocking me and grew irrationally angry and frustrated at my inability to corner him. I declared war with Vern-o.

I used every weapon at my disposal to flush him out, but he was too wily. He finally escaped via mysterious channels into the outdoors and I miraculously spied him once lurking in the front yard. When I approached, Vern reared up on his hind legs like a miniature grizzly bear, growled (I swear) and came at me in a threatening manner. He had turned feral. I slowly backed away. The last I saw of Vern he had joined a pack of voles and was leading vicious attacks on their sworn enemies, the shrews.

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