|Jan/Feb 2016 Nonfiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's striking, if savage, observation in a letter, that intellectuals are a nuisance like vermin—and should be treated like vermin— echoed down the corridors of the 20th century he helped ruin. His was policy followed today by most countries of the world. For myself, however, as one tempered by a democratically-compassionate heart, I have usually treated vermin like intellectuals.
When we last lived in New York, in a rebuilt brownstone on the upper West Side, we had a mouse. That wee, sleekit, timorous, cowerin' beastie, as Robbie Burns apostrophized him as he spared his life and nest, caught our attention because of his appetite for the dog's cereal, a tasty wheat and corn and soya preparation in five-pound waxed double bags. He was a giant poodle who'd joined us some months before our first child was born. The dog and child, we had reasoned, would get along wonderfully. I had forsaken that intellectually-inspired habit of fear and trembling of my youth for simple domestic bliss.
When I was in college a friend, a beginning poet, used to read Kierkegaard and mutter about Angst. He didn't need it, since he should have had enough anxiety learning to write poetry. Yet a year or so out of school, he'd given up his sad lyrics to fret over the blurred image of his own face in the age-speckled mirror of his Barrow Street cold-water apartment. He probably had mice aplenty because he left his garbage loose for weeks. Not that he cared. It wasn't long before they took him away and administered some rounds of electro-shock. Nothing really tragic. He came out of Bellevue and settled on a bench in Washington Square Park for life. He didn't care about vermin because science had treated him like one of them. His anxiety was gone.
For a good while we didn't know we had a mouse. But when I'd pour the dog's cereal into his dish, there were drippings. At first I was surprised by my clumsiness. I even grew anxious. The third time, I found the real cause: a neat, bullet-sized hole at the bottom of the bag. Only a mouse could be responsible; although I wavered a few days, loath to accept my deduction, until my mouse (a city mouse) proved such a damn fool as to leave the cupboard and dash across the kitchen floor in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. He might have been more patient or less guilty or braver. Even so, he was so fast I glimpsed only a blur out of the corner of my eye. Could it be a mouse? I knew it really was. Unlike my friend, I cared: we didn't need him.
I bought two simple, snappy traps. Apparently he used two runways on either side of the sink to break for his goal. I say "he," because I thought of him as a clever and free little bachelor. I set the springs and baited them with a sprinkling of the pup's food he liked. What did that apocryphal tycoon mean in pronouncing that a better trap would bring the world to your door—could anything be simpler, cheaper, or more effective than these little pieces of wood with their delicate tripper and smashing spring? I pushed them carefully up his two narrow runways. A mouse wouldn't think about the pleasure principle: he was all hunger and desire, unable to pass temptation by on his journey to paradise without stopping to nibble at what he could get. He wouldn't be warned by the people smell on the trap, living in the world of our plenty. He wouldn't be anxious but happily complacent. And he wouldn't ever comprehend what hit him. Lenin obviously knew something about traps for intellectuals.
The best-laid plan is seldom as simple as hoped, though. About four the next afternoon, we were in the bedroom playing, when—snap! The sharp crack was accompanied by squeaks. My wife had been quick enough to demand traps; but now, like most innocent people, she wanted no part of the filthy job entailed. I had to do it; and so I went out, excited and repulsed. One trap was gone. I fetched a wire clothes hanger, straightened it and poked it up the runway. There came rattles and squeaks. He was struggling behind there under the sink. He was trying to drag the trap after him, but was unable to wriggle into his hole. He screamed as I poked the wire about. It was a frightened little shriek—For the love of God, Montresor! I thought, Poor Fortunato!
When there was no more sound, I stopped thrusting about. Maybe he was dead; maybe he was keeping still. I reckoned we were free of the nuisance. What are you going to do now? my wife asked. What can I do? I said. He'll dry out, I think; he won't smell; he'll crumble into dusty fur, little dry bones; he'll be a ghost of himself. She didn't like it. What else could be done? I breathed deeply to compose my mind, and forgot about him.
In the middle of the night, journeying through a light, agitated sleep, I awake. Squeakings. Rattlings of chains. Fortunato lives yet! Shivering in pajama tops, my feet cold in cold slippers, sans eyeglasses, I steal back to the kitchen, turn on the light. The rattling comes, desperate now, from behind the stove. Has he returned to get at the cereal for a last supper? What is the pain-crazed creature thinking of! I search for a pair of pliers. The 20th century is pitiless: I can't risk touching him, for the lice on mice may be as fatal to me as I shall be to him. My compassionate heart's hemmed in by hygiene. Of all centuries to play it safe, with a mouse yet!—we who have bombs and strontium 90 ticking in our marrow; 30-second nerve gas (odorless, colorless, tasteless); virus rarities to drop in a mailbox. Carefully kneeling, peering around the corner of the gas range, I see the edge of the trap showing. I reach in with the pliers, pincing subtly. I have it! I pull gently, and with the trap, scrabbling futilely on the linoleum for a hold, piping in terror, out comes my poor Fortunato.
After my guilty imaginings, to see that he's only a tiny, really tiny, little, little mouse. Caught by his left hind leg. Why didn't you gnaw it off, the way wolves do? But wolves are wild and free; my mouse is a gentle, domesticated creature. I hold up the trap. He wriggles terribly for a minute, then relaxes as his blood rushes down to his head. His heart is beating quickly, a panicky pittapattapitta. His bright black beady eyes are rolling. The dog approaches softly, wary, curious. I let him sniff the mouse without violating its helplessness. Sanitarian, Utilitarian; my hope is that the dog will act up if he smells another mouse some time, though of course he's as used to mouse smell as the mouse was to dog.
What to do? If I release him, he'll only rush for his hole, lame or not, and I'll have to catch him again. What will I have suffered for? But I need my sleep; in a few hours I have to get up, leave for the office. I must resolve this dilemma: I'm freezing in my pajama top. Lenin's decisiveness is the only answer; yet before doing what I shall do, a few alternatives no longer possible come to mind.
Suppose I were very much younger, say an unhaired boy, I might play scientist. Play! Empirical boys drop cats from a sixth-storey window to test their reflexes; they strip flowers and break branches from trees to check if nature retains her fabled regenerative powers. A boy might even take up a kitchen knife, summarily hack off the mouse's head or pierce for the heart.
Suppose I were not so young, but adolescent, I might pretend to be religious, a Jainist perhaps. I'd be so stark scared of death and of living's impractical imperatives that I would grasp at whatever opportunity to assert the right of all things to life. I would even call this madness "reverence for life." A pseudo-heart, generous, full of fresh blood, seeking charity in the name of love's absolute, and in this lovingness agonizing over my mouse. There would be reasons for this heart to find: even to eat rice we must kill paramecia, hence ... O, youth! Health gone ascetic, unreconciled to the necessary fist, pride and power restrained from their imperatives. I might, being so rapt with my sensibility, even say with Robbie Burns, "Go on about your mousy affairs; you too must live as best you can." Philosophical to rationalize the waste of youthful strength on a dream of equity: that liberal adolescent would soon enough be depressed by the unexpected reality of his thirties.
But being where I was at that moment, what did I do? I looked at myself, my householding self that groaned in its chains like the sea. I must have clean shirts, clean food. I have a wife, a child, a dog, yet I stand here with a doomed mouse who hangs upside down, his heart ticking faster than a timed bomb, dangling from a dirty little trap, a pink hind leg with pink little toes like fetus fingers, the trap suspended from a pair of pliers, the pliers held in my steady hand.
It's chill on Riverside Drive in December at four in the morning. In his last years, Dylan Thomas woke fretful and sick in the morning. He had his mouse. I sighed, I shivered. I went to the bathroom, opened the toilet. I didn't want him swimming about in the bowl—too much to permit even luckless Fortunato—so I plunged the trap harshly down. As he hit cold water he squeaked for the last time. And he struggled, tried to come up for air, his little paws dabbling upwards. But—after all. A stream of tiny bubbles issued from his mouth. Not much air in him. I held him under until he gave his last twitch. Then I released the trap's spring bar and flushed him down. Once, twice, again. I waited. He didn't come back. I dreaded his resurrection—it has happened. I hoped he wouldn't stick. I didn't want the plumber coming to fish him out, or my landlord shouting, Who the hell puts mice down a toilet? Where else in the middle of the night, where the hell else?
I returned to bed. The dog curled up at its foot, yawned once, and fell asleep. My sleeping wife turned over, embracing me, never noticing how icy I was from the waist down. The child in her room slept. Before long I slept, too.
As an intellectual, committed humanist, I had taken care of my vermin. V.I. Lenin would have approved.