There is a teeny tiny dead mouse on the back porch. He died about three days ago and looks corpsier every time I pass by. Days are long, life is long, everything is destined to decay, et cetera. If I still lived in the sunny south, this little mouse would be a fried steak by now. In the Chicago chill, he is a cold hunk of Colby. I guess flies like Colby. They started going after him this morning and by the time I was home from work, noticeable chomps had been eaten from his body. Chomps, like a cartoon. Poor baby mouse body, dined on like eatza pizza. It scares me. I twist my key into the lock so fast I think it is going to break. From the sofa, I think of ordering a pizza of my own, or maybe Chinese, but I cannot eat with the thought of this dead mouse. I have no appetite and whenever I blink, the image of dead mouse flashes. Sometimes the image — it’s morbid. In this moment, I do not think of mice dying on sidewalks, but of mice being snapped by traps. Mousetraps literally crush the body of living things in seconds. Lungs compressed, heart smushed, suffocated. I imagine a human trap – a large piece of metal snapping and crushing me. Inhale. Exhale. Donezo.
I live above Urban Veterinary Care but dead animals scatter the sidewalk. It’s some kind of epidemic. They must die trying to crawl to safety. Just before reaching their last hope, croak. I told this to Patrick, the leading veterinarian, and he thought I was blaming him.
“We can’t just treat every animal here at Urban Vet, Claire. Especially not those without owners and insurance. This isn’t an emergency room,” he said. “We are not here to save the wild.” He is really annoying. For weeks, he bummed cigarettes off me, coming outside every time I walked past. Then, he was on top of me in my apartment. We fucked one afternoon — and I say fucked because the sex was primitive — but ever since, he speaks to me like a medical professional. Maybe it’s because he is a medical professional. But suddenly I feel stupid around him. I don’t know if he’s trying to impress me or shake me off, but either way, I can’t say anything without some sort of over-dignified backlash. Not impressed, Patrick. He said part of the Veterinary Oath when he peaked. It was quirky. I giggled in the moment, but now I feel irritated when I think of it. Aggravation. He stinks. All the same: Why doesn’t he want to sleep with me again? I miss him, as I lie alone. It takes a lot of energy to miss someone I hardly know at all.
I told him about Rascal, my late dog. Rascal was an unlucky Golden Retriever who was fed too much spaghetti and saddled by too many prepubescent girls. Twenty years should be enough time to get over a dead dog, but not for me. It’s not that I really love dogs or even that I really loved my dog. It’s that I like clutching sadness to my chest like an issue of People. The headline would be like, “Claire Duncan: ‘I Will Not Get Over It!’” When I see the dead mouse, I am reminded of the sex I’m not having. I’m reminded of Patrick, and of Rascal. If Patrick had been the lead vet that day Rascal was in the pet emergency, maybe he would have been saved. Unfortunately, that would make Patrick an adult during my childhood. If there is one thing I’m thankful for, it is that Patrick is an adult while I am also an adult. If nothing else, we relate in age.
The dead animal problem isn’t really being taken care of. Edward, my landlord, assured me desperate measures are being taken. He has made a fine investment on traps and barbed all the hot spots. The problem is, Edward’s traps are only killing the living. The system produces more bodies and does not excavate them. But my problem, I told him, isn’t with the living. It is with the dead. To this day, I have not seen a live mouse on the premises. The bodies are everywhere. Methinks I am the only one who gives a rat’s ass and everyone acts so catty about it. It is not only the mice that are dying. There are pigeons, crows, squirrels. They freeze, they drop. They block my path and can’t even help it. Cold concrete — it’s what kills them.
But Patrick told me Edward is insane. Last week, he apparently bagged one of the mice up in a Ziploc and dropped it smack onto the desk of Cheryl the receptionist. The story is that he raised his fist, pumped it into the sky and shouted, “Clean up this mess!”
Perhaps this is a comment on the veterinary hierarchy. Rich Chicagoans spend thousands of dollars to have their dog’s tailbone cosmetically shaved. All the while, homeless animals are dropping in the streets. The homeless are dying. It’s just a thought. Unfortunately, Edward the landlord probably isn’t smart enough to have thought this through. He dropped the mouse onto Cheryl’s desk only because he is an angry power monger. “You may have a DVM, but I own your building.” One day, Edward came up to my apartment to unclog the sink. He plunged and Drain-O’d, blathering on about what his wife planned to fix for Christmas, and I stared at him intently. I wanted to know if he was a good person. He unclogged my drain, so I accept him. If I told Patrick this, he’d have some conspiracy theory about it. He may tell me I’m selfish, and too quick to judge. That’s the way it goes with Patrick.
To tell the truth, I have a conspiracy theory about Patrick. Sure, he’s stunningly handsome (well practically, anyway — satisfactorily), but I don’t know what the hell he’s doing. He is too passionate to be a veterinarian. Not only a veterinarian, he’s the lead — he’s got the business card and the scrubs to prove it — but he has a ponytail. A really long one. Once I told him he should drop out of the clinic and start a band somewhere. He very sincerely asked if I thought that would be good for him. He told me he’s always wanted to just give up, drive down to Austin with some friends, and start making music. That’s stupid. I won’t give him any more cigarettes because he’s better than that. I’m not, but he is. No cigarettes for Patrick. I, on the other hand, am hit-it-and-quit-it material. I smoke myself silly. I think I’m smart, but wonder how far unpractical knowledge could go. I only think clearly when I’m smoking. Patrick made it through school without cigarettes. If he wanted to quit, he could. If I wanted to quit, I couldn’t. Some things are ball and chain. For me, the ball is a heavy dead mouse. It’s attached to my leg. It drags behind me everywhere I go.
After spending all night brooding about it, I’m really curious to look at the mouse. I leave my apartment, step onto the porch, and kneel by him. He is the smallest creature I have ever seen. I imagine his teeny tiny heart in there, his teeny tiny little ribs. I imagine his furry little chest moving up and down with breaths. That happened once. This mouse did breathe. He was alive. Live things breathe. His hands are flexed open toward his mouth as though he made a Scream face right before he died. Maybe he did. What if he made a Scream face now, like if I went to grab his little hand and he just started screaming? I jump at the sound of a voice over the fence.
“You gonna eat that?” a homeless man says. He points at the corpse.
“Funny. Do you need a fork?” I ask.
“I’m serious,” he says. “It wouldn’t be so bad. I heard they’ve been — they’re serving rat’s meat over in the China anyway. Big hullabaloo. Will you let me in?” He’s drunk. He’s homeless. My patience will only go so far.
“My apartment? No.”
“Behind that fence. I just gotta pick up that mouse.” Just gotta, he says, as though picking up a mouse is an errand he needs to run real quick. “Give me that mouse.”
“I’m not going to give it to you. I’m sorry.”
He looks hurt. “You think it’s unsanitary.”
I feel a little bad. “I don’t think it’s unsanitary, I just don’t want to give it to you to eat because this mouse was my pet.” A lie. “I don’t want anyone to eat my pet.” A dash of more lies.
“I understand. But we should take it inside, then. Prepare it for a proper burial. It died and you just dumped it out here for the falcons.” The falcons of Chicago. Okay.
“Well, bye,” I say, my hand already on the doorknob.
“If you love him, love him.” The homeless man says. He stands with his hands still wrapped around the fence and watches me tensely, one eyebrow raised. If you love him, love him. I know he is talking about the mouse, but I can’t help but picture Patrick. I scoop the mouse into my hand like a crouton in a salad spoon.
I’m in the stairwell. Door closed. The second I reach privacy, I freak out. I shriek and fling the mouse from my hands. It lands about four stairs up and bounces to the bottom, like a cartoon. I imagine him break into several pieces. He is still totally intact: his eyes still open, his hands still flexed, and his tail still in one slender piece. The body is so tightly knit, I can’t imagine anyone dining on it anyhow. When the body was alive, the bite would probably be chewy, but now that he is dead, I imagine it staler. Crisp. Crunchy. Impossible.
I want to call Patrick for help, but it’s one of those weird things where I don’t have his phone number. I was scared to ask for it, too scared he might have read my inquiry as a too-soon romantic advance. When more time passed, I just didn’t. Unfortunately he’s a run-into-on-the-street kind of guy, not a sit-around-the-TV guy. I picture him on my sofa and it isn’t so bad. He seems like he would be a high maintenance guest, though. I would say, “Would you like some water?” and he would say, “No, but do you have any bourbon?”
I shelf books at the community library. I can’t afford bourbon. I’m alone in a stairwell with a dead mouse and of all things, I’m thinking of myself. I’m thinking of my missed career opportunities, of my loneliness, of my inability to maintain long relationships. I’m thinking of the pimple on my chin that just won’t pop, but wells, and ruins my entire face. I’m thinking of how i need antiperspirant and not just deodorant because I’m the kind of woman who sweats a lot, even without much physical activity.
There was a pear tree in my front yard when I was a kid and I picked all the flowers before they even became pears. Every spring, my mother thought it would finally be the season for fresh pears and I picked every last one of them. There is still tension at holidays because of this. There is tension everywhere I go and it is entirely my fault. I don’t hear very well, and people get so tired of my asking what? what? on the phone that no one calls me. I can’t have a pet because I can’t afford one and I don’t have enough love to give. There is a dead mouse laying at my feet and it isn’t even mine. I hit the wall and scream. It’s too dramatic.
On cue, Loraine the neighbor opens her door. “Can you keep it down, Claire? our daughter is sleeping,” and, “Whoa. What the hell is that.”
“A mouse,” I say like I am about to cry. “Could you please wake your husband to help me excavate the body?”
“What happened to it?” she says.
“I dropped it.”
She tells me to hang on and returns with Lawrence the husband. He immediately recognizes it as the mouse that died outside. “Edward has got to do something about this or he’s losing us.” He starts babbling away about how their daughter could get diseases going in and out of the building. It’s flu season, I think. She could get diseases anywhere. Of course I don’t say that.
Loraine butts in. “She’s eight years old. She knows not to touch a dead animal.”
I’m thirty and I touched it. I’m stupider than an eight year old. And then I realize I’m using the hand that touched the body too normally. Have I chewed my fingernails, rubbed my eyes? Whatever killed that mouse may infect me now, may go into my bloodstream, may kill me. I hope he died of frostbite. No rabies.
Lawrence the husband goes into his den to get a pair of rubber gloves, two trash bags, a shovel, a container of gas, a metal can, and bleach. He sprays the body with bleach — so many squirts, probably eleven or twelve — and then drops the soggy body into a double bag. Loraine and I follow Lawrence into the alleyway. He drops the bags into the metal can and showers them in gas. Then, he throws a match into the mix. The air is hot like a mouse is cooking. A mouse is cooking. If only that homeless man were here to eat it, medium well. If only Edward the landlord were here to evict us all for starting a fire on his property. If only Patrick were here to list the hazards of cremating animals.
“You coming in?” Loraine asks, face pinched.
“No, I think I’m okay,” I say, voice cracked.
“Goodnight, Claire. Take care, okay?” says Lawrence, almost inaudibly.
“Maybe we could all get together again sometime. Some dinner or something,” I say. This is the only time I’ve ever spent with my neighbors. They are nice, and I am looking for friends.
“I don’t know, Claire. We probably won’t be around much longer.” Door closes. Locks.
I zip my hoodie higher around my neck. It’s December and it’s cold. I walk through the alley in no particular direction. It smells like a campfire. I go to the front door of the veterinary health care and check the hours. 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Patrick was here three hours ago and he will be back in eleven. What details of this story will I change before I see him? I want to make it even better. I want to make it really good. I tell stories that are half lies because I am really sad. I think of what is waiting for me upstairs in my apartment. Nothing. Nobody. Nobody waits for Claire Duncan. I walk through the gate and back into my yard.
There is a teeny tiny dead mouse on the back porch.