I finally had it cornered. And there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered animal.
That morning wasn’t anything unusual. It was a crisp, overcast autumn day. I don’t even remember what month it was, to tell the truth. I remember the coolness outside, and the way the day started so chilly. My grandmother called the weather “brisk,” and my mother never stopped imitating it. You should hear someone who’s drunk mock another person’s southern drawl; it’s a comedy classic. Anyway, there wasn’t anything unusual about that day to speak of, as best I can recall.
It must have been either Saturday or Sunday. Maybe it was after school. I don’t recall anymore. What I do remember, though, is the cold of the linoleum floor biting right through my socks and chilling my feet. I completely dressed everyday in those years, for a couple of reasons. One, I never knew what the day would hold. Sometimes the order of the day was “exploring” -- that was my lush mother’s term for getting in the car and getting as lost as possible. Other times, the day was spent watching her get progressively more drunk, belligerent and stupid while the Michelob bottles piled up around the house. On those days, I tried to be outside or somewhere else -- ANYwhere else -- as much of the day as I could. But, during the cold months, my mother spent her days shivering in front of an electric coil heating element that ticked and clicked, glowing red hot from it’s tiny alcove in the lower part of the wall. It didn’t heat much, so she’d stand right in front of it with a sweater or light jacket on, her knees and hands clenched together while she chattered her teeth and bitched about the cold.
On that day, I was doing something with my brother in our room. We were playing with our dolls -- sorry, I mean “action figures” -- or something like that. It was too cold to play outside and not cold enough to snow, so we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We holed up in our room and tried not to pay attention to what was going on in the other areas of the house. My old man wasn’t there, and it was just me, Ryan and my mother.
So when she screamed her blood-curdling scream of terror, we both bolted without thought into the living room to see what was wrong.
She wasn’t there. We passed into the main room of the house, which was the kitchen. There was a tiny gas stove that seemed to date to the Civil War against the wall adjacent to the entrance from the living room, and a diminutive refrigerator beside it on the connecting wall that separated the kitchen from the “spare bedroom“. The old farm-style sink, buried in a bank of rotting and leaning cabinets that seemed to beg for a swift merciful death were opposite the spare bedroom. Against these, pinned like a knife was being held to her face, was my wide-eyed and horrified mother.
“What’s going on?” I said, following her terror-frozen stare into the spare bedroom.
“S-something -- h-HUGE -- ran across -- in that room --” she stammered.
“What was it, Mommy?” Ryan yelled. He got excited easily and had a big mouth.
“A - m-m-m-MOUSE!” she spat, and buried her head in her hands as a case of the willies shook her like a dusty blanket.
“A mouse?” I repeated, suddenly trying to become the “man of the house.” With my dad away, of course, it was my job to address these things. Spiders in the corner, mice in the kitchen, burglars threatening to enter -- these things became my responsibility when my father wasn’t at home. At least, it was in my mind.
I marshaled my entire five-foot-one frame and began to march toward the “spare bedroom.” I never knew how the hell it qualified as being “spare” when my stinking, loud-mouthed, slob of a brother and I had to share a room, but I didn’t make the rules. I strutted into the room, which had always been filled with our “leftover” furniture, boxes that never got unpacked, a big Kenmore freezer filled with frozen meat, and miscellaneous crap that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else in the house. We’d definitely down-graded from the house we had in California, and the “spare room” was actually a storage locker, in retrospect.
Somewhere, among all the crumpled newspaper pages, stacks of battered corrugated cardboard, rippled and stained linoleum, and the one ancient, paint-crusted window, a mouse was hiding.
I waltzed in like a young gunslinger going to meet the local hero in a bad western. I had the freezer along one wall to my right, the window in front of me and the “closet” -- a gap between two interior walls that was divided in half to form a storage space for this room and our room just beyond it -- to my left, along with most of the room. I swaggered in, feeling very grown-up and John Wayne-ish, swatting boxes and rattling stacks of debris to shoo the mouse out of hiding.
“Be careful!” my mother called, another bout of the willies shivering the words out of her.
“It’s only a mouse, mom,” I said, rolling my eyes. How much of a problem can this be?
I’d dealt with mice before. Tiny, with little pink limbs and those bouncing, stiff little tails, they usually were found at the wrong end of a hardware store trap of wood and copper. But, I reasoned, they’re so small a good stomp should do the trick. The brownish little vermin were generally no longer than your index finger and could be driven to a heart attack if you sent them up in a tin can on a kite string. I’d done it with some friends when I was a kid. We caught a field mouse out near the Contra Costa Canal back home, just outside the Dutch Pride Dairy on Railroad Avenue. He didn’t fight much, and we tied a tin can to Barry Watters’ kite up near where the string anchored to the plastic, delta-winged kite. We sent the kite up for a bit; it went wonky a couple of times, but nothing ever fell out of the can. When we drew it back in that mouse was dead, blood oozing from his teeny pink nose. So, this would be no big deal.
I heard the critter scratching around some boxes back in the corner of the room, and my mother wailed and recoiled into the kitchen again. My brother kept pushing his round, fat nose into the room and screaming “Was that it?? Where is it?? I wanna see it!” I kept shouting at him to give me some room and not to let it get out. There was a flash of brown as the mouse skittered out of my peripheral vision, and I whizzed around on my Chukka-boot sole to stomp on it.
What I saw wasn’t a tiny mouse with delicate pink limbs and a bouncing little tail.
I hit the brakes when I saw it, and felt like the slick linoleum might as well have been ball bearings and marbles. I couldn’t seem to stop as I hurtled headlong into the beast’s open, frothing maw, lined with dripping canines and incisors like knives.
I hurled myself back, into a large stack of boxes, sending them crashing back next to the freezer. The beast was the size of a puma, with flaming, glowing ember eyes that pierced my soul and hypnotized me into panic. I jumped up as it stood on its hideous, black hind legs and did something I’ve never heard a rodent do, before or since.
The “mouse” roared at me.
I shrieked like Miss Muffet and jumped for my life when the leviathan charged me, all fangs and matted, chocolate-colored fur, the rabid foam spraying from its mouth as it darted straight for me. I jumped straight up onto a box, which promptly collapsed under my weight with a clattering crash and a tinkling of crushed glass items. My mother screamed again, and not the typical wail of a frightened person startled by a tiny terror, but the bone-tingling, murder-victim screech from the horror movies. My brother twisted around my mother’s legs crying like a pansy, and I freaked again when the mouse came back out from beneath a piece of legged furniture and zipped across the room into the closet. I stomped blindly, madly, frantically after it, elbows and knees flying up like a clown at a hoe-down, trying with all my might to overcome my “fight-or-flight” response that squeezed exclamations of fear from my clenched teeth. Small boxes, paper piles, a terra cotta pot, and the floor were all I hit before the mouse turned again to charge me. I screamed again, hearing the sound somewhere off in the distance, and finally could fight my instincts no longer as I whipped around quick as a wink and outran that mouse to the kitchen. I leapt onto the counter on the far side, pulling my legs up behind me and grabbing my knees to my chest, my saucer-sized eyes staring through my soda-bottle glasses, waiting to see the monster crashing after me.
My mother and brother were huddled at the door of the room, looking at me. I was panting and puffing, a final heebie-jeebie twisting its way up my spine, standing my hair on end momentarily.
“Did … did you -- get it?” my mother asked.