Mouse, or: The Botched Mercy-Killing

by

12/16/2006

St. Mark's Pl & 1st Ave, NY, NY 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

Of the millions of New York City’s undomesticated rodents, only one has caused me grief. I was raised in suburban Los Angeles, and so pre-war apartment living with pre-war apartment problems are new to me—and mice, specifically, have never threatened to pester me in my home. As summer turned to fall, however, my roommates and I began to notice tiny rodent droppings on the hardwood floor of our living room, gathered along the walls, by the trash can, behind the couch—collections of miniscule dots, like the black mist of spilt ink. At first, I was slightly amused: how authentic, to have mice in one’s apartment! How New York! This sentiment didn’t last long, though; the instant I actually saw a mouse—the mere flash of a golf ball-sized shadow, streaking across the floor—my blood ran cold. It was late at night, and I was alone in the living room, watching television. Instinctively, I pulled my legs up off the floor and brought my knees to my chin; I darted my eyes from the stove to the TV stand, hoping to catch (or rather not to catch) another glimpse of the intruder. After a few minutes I mustered the courage to leap from the couch and run to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me so quick you’d have thought some invisible monster was after me.

I have heard that, long before the plagues of the Middle Ages, rats and their ilk carried diseases so deadly that evolution instilled in man an innate repulsion from rodents, in order to keep ourselves at enough of a safe distance. Those with the random disposition towards rodent-fear and thus rodent-avoidance survived future generations, while those without did not. Attempting to keep rodents out of one’s apartment, then, seems quite normal, and after my late-night encounter, I approached this venture with a methodical zeal.

I crammed tufts of steel wool into every corner and crevice I could find; I built a wall beneath the stove, insulated the pipes of each radiator to fill the irregularly-shaped holes cut into the hardwood floor, even plugged the tiny dents a half-inch from my doorframe where no piece of wood would have fit. Not long afterwards, an exterminator arrived (others in my building must have complained to the super), and he wedged some poison under the refrigerator and left me a stack of cardboard glue traps. Encouraged, I supplemented these with the old-fashioned, snap-the-thing-in-half kind. I was going to catch a mouse.

By this point, I’d seen mice in my apartment on a few separate occasions, and, though it was never pleasant, I was no longer paralyzed with fright at the sight of one. In a way, it almost became sport: I strategically placed obstacles all over my apartment—sticky-traps and snappy-traps and poison—and my opponent, in order to earn his prize, had to navigate his way safely through the minefield. If he did so successfully, he’d win, and if not, well, I would—and he’d be dead. In accordance with the traditions of battles of wits, or even wars of attrition, I would feign disinterest, going days without actively watching for mice and stepping over traps without giving much thought as to why they were there. For a while, no more mice showed up, though never did I think they’d surrendered and gone home.

Late one night, a few weeks after I saw that first mouse, I was watching television with my roommate, Mitch. Our third roommate, Pat, had just gone to bed, and after the replay of “The Daily Show” was over, we intended to do the same. By now, our enthusiasm for catching a mouse had dwindled (it was perhaps inordinately grand at first; we were like schoolboys getting our first peak at a Playboy), and the traps littered all over our apartment were beginning to seem more like a nuisance than ugly-but-necessary floor ornaments. At about two-thirty that morning, the room quiet but for the roar of a studio audience enthralled by political fart jokes, there came from the direction of the kitchen a shriek so loud and high-pitched that my heart leapt into my throat. I knew instantly that we’d caught a mouse (at last!), though I thought it must have been gored to death by a snap-trap; only something so violent and sudden as that could have elicited a scream so primal.

A little giddy, Mitch and I flipped on the lights, and were shocked to see a tiny little mouse, stuck on a glue trap, in the corner of our kitchen by the stove. Stuck! On a sticky-trap! What about being slowed by a glue trap—okay, stopped—could have terrified this mouse so completely? It was as if the mouse had realized its fate in that instant. Pat was now back in the living room, having been roused by the mouse’s shriek and the commotion that followed. For a few minutes we all just stood around and looked at the mouse and at each other in turns, with surprised smiles. In all of our discussions about catching a mouse, and certainly in my own imaginings of it, there was plenty of excitement involved—something akin to victory, thrilling and triumphant. The practical matter of ridding our apartment of rodents had been overshadowed by our desire to catch and kill one. What we wanted, in our own little way, was to exert our dominance over nature, and in our eagerness to do so we had been blinded to any of the practicalities we’d face if we ever succeeded.

Now, we had our mouse, only it wasn’t dead. It was very alive, and, truth be told, kind of cute. Mitch, ever the hands-on roommate of the bunch, picked up the trap, and the three of us examined it closely. Suddenly all the images of the one-eyed, football-sized subway rats evaporated from my mind. Gone were those filthy, disease-ridden rodents, those trash-feeding parasites. Gone were the beady-eyed, bucktoothed street prowlers, looking for anything to sink their teeth into and kill. Instead, here was this frightened, clean-looking little thing. It couldn’t have been longer than two inches, and its hair was a glossy grey-brown, resembling that of a shorthaired housecat. In fact, it had whiskers, like a cat (like my cats, at my parents’ house in L.A.) and its nose, though pointy, made the same inquisitive sniffing gesture that my cats make when I extend a hand to pet them.

Upon realizing this, I began to freak out. This mouse was just trying to eat, after all. My plans, on the other hand, had been far more sinister. I’ve never considered myself exceptionally squeamish—whenever one of my sisters came running for me to kill a spider in her room, I would oblige—but for some reason, I couldn’t take the sight of this doomed mouse. Despite all that evolutionarily-sanctioned rodent repulsion, it’s easier, I learned, to humanize a cute little mouse than it is a creepy-crawly arachnid. By now, the mouse had stopped screaming, but was clearly freaked out of its tiny mind, sniffling and trembling, darting its head back and forth, trying to make sense of why in the hell it was stuck and who in the hell these giants were, standing over it and peering with half-mad grins.

This is ridiculous, I thought, as I paced the hallway. This mouse has no idea what’s going on. Why am I pretending like it does? I walked back into the living room, where Mitch was still examining the mouse on its trap, and where Pat was losing interest.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“Kill it,” said Pat.

“Yeah, but how?” Pat shrugged. Mitch looked over, clearly lost in thought. Sensing that this might take a while, Pat headed back to his room. Work was only a few hours away.

I walked over and sat on the couch, a few feet away from Mitch, who was now standing by the window.

“I can’t just drop him,” said Mitch, reading my mind. “This guy is so light, if I drop him I’m afraid he’ll just zig-zag down like a piece of paper.” I realized then that neither of us, now confronted with the situation, wanted anything to do with killing this mouse. It had become a he, and somehow this made sense.

“Yeah,” I said. “Then he’ll just die down there the same way he would up here. Slowly, and painfully.”

“Or,” said Mitch, “he will try to chew his own limbs off. They do that if they’re stuck. They’ll do anything not to be.”

“Jesus.”

I stood again to look at the mouse. He had calmed down, and was no longer writhing on the trap. He was also completely quiet. It was almost…endearing, and the sight of him looking up at us, almost playfully, broke my heart all over again. It’s only a fucking mouse! I wanted someone to yell at me. A rodent! It’s not conscious—it doesn’t think, doesn’t feel, and it won’t suffer if you just kill it. Just do it already!

“What if we took him downstairs to the garbage and killed him down there,” I said. “Like, step on him or something.”

“Alright, but I’m not doing that.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

I lit a cigarette.

“Fuck it,” said Mitch. Then he extended his arm out the window and began flicking his wrist, gently at first, and then with growing force.

“What are you doing?”

“Got to get him off.”

I nodded. Better to send him flying to his death—quickly—than leave him to rot somewhere or, worse, to self-cannibalize in a desperate attempt to free himself. The problem, however, was that with each thrust, the mouse became more stuck to the trap. When Mitch pulled him back in, the little guy was splayed on the trap, arms and legs extended, belly flat, looking like a flying squirrel.

“Oh man,” said Mitch, and we both laughed, for the first time in a while. It felt good to laugh. It lightened the mood. This doesn’t have to be so serious, I thought.

“Why don’t you just, I don’t know…smash it against the wall?” I asked.

“I can’t do that.”

“Well, I don’t know what to do. It’s been like an hour. Neither of us want to kill this thing, but we have to.”

Now it was Mitch’s turn to shrug.

I can’t account for what went on inside Mitch’s head over the next ten minutes, while he stood, trap and mouse in hand, by the window. I, for one, paced our short hallway, feeling helpless and guilty and most of all foolish. This mouse was not going to survive the night, I knew. We could either kill it or let it die somewhere, but there was no way we were going to set it free; for one thing, it was so stuck to the trap that to separate the two would probably skin the mouse alive, and for another, it was a fucking mouse. Who were we kidding.

When I came back to the living room, Mitch was still holding the trap, mouse and all. We looked at each other, and something clicked. Then Mitch stuck his arm back out the window, one final time, and let go. The deed was done.

A minute or so later, Mitch peered out the window, facing downwards.

“What happened?” I asked. Mitch brought himself back inside, his face a little screwy.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “The mouse fell, one floor, and then got stuck on an air conditioner.”

“No fucking way.” I went to the window and looked down. In the darkness below I could just barely make out the rectangle of the air conditioner, and atop that, a smaller rectangle. And it was moving. The mouse had fallen and landed face down, and was flopping around. He hadn’t died.

Now, of course, we had a few problems. There was the issue of the very probable cruel death of the mouse, who had, ridiculously, survived the fall, and there was also the issue of our neighbors below us finding—either the next time they peered out their window, or when they decided to take in their air conditioner—a decomposing mouse corpse and a trap, stuck, and dropped from above.

“This is crazy,” said Mitch. What had started with simply catching a mouse—as we’d wanted—had snowballed into some version of a wild-goose chase, complete with humor, unexpected sympathy, questions of if or why we should care about how the mouse died, whether that even mattered, and now we had this absurd practical predicament concerning how to manage a mouse stuck to our neighbors’ air conditioner—and we hadn’t even left our living room. For a while we sat and smoked cigarettes.

Eventually, we concocted a plan to duct tape a broom handle to a Swiffer, and Mitch, tall and long-limbed, hung out the window like a crazy person, defying gravity, and trying to dislodge the mouse and be done with it. These glue traps, we were reassured, were indeed sticky. In the darkness, and while hanging upside-down, Mitch managed to lift one side of the trap up off the air conditioner and swing it over the edge. The mouse was now face-up, but hanging. We could do no more.

Close to two hours after we’d initially caught our mouse, we went to our rooms. When I woke up the next morning, a Friday, I went to the window and peeked outside. In the daylight I could make out the trap, hanging there—half-on, half-off the air conditioner. But there was no mouse. For the little guy’s sake, and for my own, I tried not to think about why not.

That night, we had friends over for drinks before we went out. While everyone was getting good and drunk, I began to recount the story of the previous night. For the next fifteen minutes, I told the story with the flair of a raconteur, with Mitch interjecting and embellishing here and there; by the time we’d gotten to duct-taping a broom handle to a Swiffer, we were gesturing wildly, with the girls present gasping in faux-horror and the guys laughing hysterically and egging us on. It was as if our crisis from the night before—so real to us then—had been nothing but a conceit, a transient mini-catastrophe filled with amusing missteps, in the guise of a moral moment, when a simple interaction between man and animal forced us to consider big issues—nature, suffering, life and death—and which were then forgotten about as quickly as they arose.

Our friends thought that the incident was the funniest thing and, not twenty-four hours removed from the event, so did we.

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§ One Response to “Mouse, or: The Botched Mercy-Killing”

  • Mike Kilgore says:

    Dear Arik,

    Quite a story! It has the ring of truth to it. Are you a professional writer or a amatuer? I have rats in the old house that I live in. They are clean, social animals that just want to live.

    Mike Kilgore

§ Leave a Reply

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