Eek, a mouse!
[ fiction - february 05 ]
When people know you write the occasional story, they will often tell you they have an idea for a story you must write. They almost never think that they themselves ought to write whatever it is they believe has such great literary value. “Oh, no,” they say when you suggest they do the scribbling, “I can’t write.” Then they press on with their gem of a premise and often with particulars - the unspoken agenda being to establish that their life and whatever they observe during it is as interesting to commemorate as whatever yours is and whatever you’re observing. Maybe even more so.
The horrible truth is that most writers - if I can generalize from specific experience and from, well, from other commiserations - don’t find the notion they’ve just had handed to them on a silver platter worth considering. If sometimes they do hear one with potential, writers will confide, they still don’t work up enthusiasm for it, because what they’re writing at the moment takes precedence or what they’re hoping to get around to writing will always be higher on the list of priorities.
Having said that, I will say a few more things about story ideas promoted by family, friends and, more often than you might imagine, complete strangers. There are often stories they tell you about themselves and people they know without mentioning that the accounts could be fodder for stories. Often these are the stories with actual possibilities. Ironic, no? They just don’t hear it - are too close to it, too angry and hurt about the recent experience they’ve just survived to stand back far enough to see what a good story it would make.
Also, and more pertinent at the moment, every once in a while someone coming at you with a story is absolutely right about the impulse - although the person to whom they’re unfolding the tale may not be the ideal author. I can think of two stories that fit the latter category. Years ago, my mother’s friend Madlyn, who owned and operated a lingerie shop called Chez Elle (and very la-di-da the name was for Trenton, New Jersey), insisted that what went on in the store on a daily basis had the makings of a funny book she wanted to title ‘Special for Today Only’. After she lined out a series of anecdotes about women never satisfied with the size brassiere shown them, I had to agree she had a funny chapter there, and there were probably many more to go with it. Madlyn herself laughed controllably through the history of a five-foot-four woman who had her heart set on a certain pair of bell bottom trousers, but by the time the pants had been shortened for her, there was no more bell. I told her it was likely she did have a book, but that I wasn’t the one to write it. I said she was. “Oh, no,” she replied, “I can’t write.”
Which brings me to the second story that arrives by way of my pal, Edgar Simon. He called one day at least a year or more ago to say he had the makings of a story I had to tell. He’d just lived through it. He was so certain it should be a story that he’d even made notes. I’d heard it all before, of course - not the particular story but that there was one to be written pronto - and a resounding “no” instantly clicked in my head. All the same, I could hear in Edgar’s voice that he needed to talk about whatever he’d just endured. So I told him to come around with whatever he had.
Edgar, a film maker with several short films to his credit, is a tall guy who could stand to lose a pound or two, can’t get his hair to obey a comb, always seems to leave patches of whiskers on his face when he shaves, dresses from Army-Navy stores. Unkempt Edgar is nevertheless likeable in the way of people whom God always seems to be protecting, if not entirely favoring. When he got to the apartment at about two in the afternoon on an unseasonably warm fall day, he was out of breath even though I only live on the second floor. After I’d got him out of his second-hand officer’s greatcoat and his North Face backpack, had him settled and breathing normally on the sofa and tanked up with diet Cola (I’d laid some in, since I knew it was what he preferred), I said, “So?”
I knew “So?” was all I need say to get him going. And it did. What he began to talk about was his love life. Little surprise to me, who’d known him for some time. Edgar was relentlessly unlucky in love. Or that’s how he saw it. Those of us conscientiously kept abreast of his romantic disasters felt the bad luck was of his own making. If you continually pursue unlikely commitment candidates, how unlucky are you when the candidates ultimately refuse to commit? A fair rhetorical question, I’d say.
Anyway, Edgar had recently met someone called Harlan Stallock, an editor at an engineering trade magazine. It was an online meeting - “And before you pooh-pooh it,” he said, “you ought to know that everything about this guy appeals to me.” I wasn’t about to pooh-ooh it; I was listening with neutral ears. With more than neutral ears. Not a whiz at romance myself, I thought I might pick up a few pointers from Edgar on the process, if not the prowess.
Edgar told me he’d been seeing Harlan for close to three months, and everything was humming along - movie-going, apartment visits, sex. Everything. He could talk to Harlan about no matter what. There was never a conversational lull, but if there was a conversational lull, neither of them felt he had to fill in the silence. They liked the same restaurants, read the same papers, shared the same politics right down to having jumped early on the Howard Dean bandwagon. What’s more, they became disenchanted with Howard Dean at pretty much the same time and over the same issues. They laughed at the same things, both couldn’t stand David Letterman but loved Jay Leno. “And how many people you know can you say that about?” Edgar asked. Which means when they watch late-night television, there’s no argument about what to watch.
Or “there was no argument,” Edgar said, emphasizing the past tense and then pausing.
I picked up my cue. “Past tense? ‘Was’?” I said.
“I think it’s over,” Edgar said. I thought I saw a tear bulge in the corner of his right eye and threaten to course down his pudgy right cheek.
“Over,” I said, giving the sometime preposition extra stress. “Why?”
“Therein lies the story,” Edgar said, as if he were a cat pouncing on a mouse. I deliberately use the mouse metaphor, because that’s what Edgar’s story nominee involved: a mouse.
It seems that Edgar and Harlan were lying in Edgar’s queen-sized bed the night before, watching Jay Leno interviewing Jerry Seinfeld. Suddenly, Harlan bolted upright as if electricity had abruptly surged through him. “I just saw a mouse,” he said, “running along the wall.”
“Oh, yes,” Edgar said out of no surprise whatsoever. He launched into a short mouse discourse. “I get them every once in a while. We bring the exterminator in once a month, and it usually keeps the mice at bay, but every once in a while they return. There’s been some construction next door, and that could be making the mice look around for other quarters. I’ll call the exterminator tomorrow and have him come in.”
When Edgar finished his little speech, he went back to what Leno and Seinfeld were saying to each other and figured Harlan had done the same. After a few minutes, however, he noticed that Harlan wasn’t laughing at Leno and Seinfeld, nor was Harlan laughing or what Edgar was saying about Leno and Seinfeld. Harlan seemed preoccupied. “Are you all right?” Edgar asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Harlan replied but added after a few seconds, “Would you mind if I didn’t stay over tonight?”
Edgar was taken aback but said - after giving it a moment’s deliberation, “I suppose not, but I’d like to know why.”
As Harlan got out of bed and immediately began to dress, he replied, “I guess it’s the mouse. It makes me kind of uncomfortable.”
Edgar couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He thought Harlan was pretending. “Scared of a tiny rodent, are we?” Edgar asked as if going along with the joke. “Are you going to jump up on a chair and say, ‘Eek, a mouse’?”
“Not exactly scared,” Harlan said. “I’m just not crazy about mice.”
Edgar realized Harlan wasn’t joshing. He meant every word. From somewhere inside, Edgar felt himself getting upset - as if something poker-hot was coursing through his body. “Even the best buildings in Manhattan get mice,” Edgar said by way of what he considered unnecessary explanation. “You can’t avoid ‘em. You should be glad it was a mouse. It means there are no rats anywhere around. When rats show up, they send mice scattering.” He instantly knew it wasn’t the smartest tactic to put Harlan in mind of rats in addition to mice.
“I know, I know,” Harlan said, “but I don’t have anything like that in my place, and I’d just like to go home. Just for tonight.”
This worried Edgar, and so he said, “Are you telling me that because of a mouse you might never stay here again?” He raised his decibel level. “Because of a mouse?”
“I don’t think that’s what I’m saying,” Harlan said. “I’m just talking about tonight.”
“Because if you are,” Edgar went on, “if I have to feel there’s something wrong with my apartment and therefore with me, it’s going to affect my feelings for you.” As he said it, he realized his feelings had already been affected. His stomach was sinking towards his feet.
Apparently, Harlan had nothing more to offer on the subject, and between that moment and Harlan’s walking out the door, the two of them said very little to one another. Afterwards, Edgar spent a sleepless night, unrelieved by Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld or any other weisenheimer paid fabulous sums of money to talk late into the night on the tube.
“This is where the story picks up,” Harlan said to me, after a short pause during which I figured he was reliving the pain of Harlan’s defection and the ensuing sleepless night. “My inclination was to call it quits with Harlan. Wouldn’t you? I mean, how much can you respect a man who’s frightened by mice? How much regard can you have for someone who expects you to come to his place all the time because he refuses to come to yours?”
I started to answer, but Edgar held up his hand. “But I wasn’t sure I was right to feel the way I did. So I started to ask around. You know, to friends. I wanted to find out what they would have done in my place. I wanted a reality check. So I went after one. And this is what I found out.”
He stooped over to get something from the backpack sitting at his long, blocky feet. What he pulled out was a stack of papers held together with a long paper clip. He held the stack up and shook it at me. It made the percussive sound that a stack of paper makes when it’s shaken.
“These are the results of my quest,” he infoed. I asked something like a dozen different friends and a couple relatives and got a dozen or more wildly different responses.” Again he shook the stack. “And I think there’s a story in them.”
Once more, I started to say something, and once more he held up his hand. “You don’t have to say anything now. Just read through these, and see if you don’t agree with me. Now let’s talk about you.”
I got the message: He was through, wasn’t even going to tell me what happened to Harlan and him. If anything. And after another fifteen minutes, he leapt up, said he had to be going and was instantly on his way in a cloud of whale shit, as another chum of mine used to say colorfully.
What did I do then? Did I head directly to the computer to start composing Edgar’s story? Of course not. I picked up the stack of papers - it wasn’t that thick - opened the filing cabinet in which I throw stacks of questionable paper I’m not ready to toss out, dropped this stack on top of the messy pile and forgot about it for some time. When Harlan mentioned his story idea to me in the following weeks and months, I’d tell him I was still thinking about it. I said as much even after I learned what happened to him and Harlan in real life, which I won’t relate just yet.
I don’t want to tell that part of the, well, story, until after I report that last week, when I opened the filing cabinet drawer to look for a notebook I thought I might have deposited there, I pulled out, among other dormant papers, Harlan’s stack. Uncertain what it was, I started to read it and realized it was the sheaf of notes he’d foisted on me.
But. lo and behold, it was catching my interest. By the time I finished, I’d decided Harlan was right. There was a story there. But I didn’t have to write it. Neither did he. The stack was the story. All that was needed to complete it was the set-up, which I’ve already laid out.
You see, the stack contained Harlan’s transcriptions of what his family and friends said to him about Harlan and the mouse. He’d taken down the advice he’d been given word for word. And if the cornucopia of cheerful earfuls he received doesn’t tell a story about what happens when the average Joe goes looking for guidance from friends and family, nothing does. So, with Harlan’s attributions included, here goes:
Clark Stern, psychotherapist: “I’m with Harlan. Are you kidding? If I’d have seen a mouse, I’d have done the same exact thing. You have to understand this, Edgar, not everyone is like you. People are phobic about different things. You may not be phobic about mice, but Harlan is. It all balances out in the long run. He may not be phobic about what you’re phobic about. But, look, if it doesn’t work out with the two of you, maybe you’ll introduce him to me. We already have something in common - we don’t like mice.”
Rudolph Gettinger, publicist: “Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here, Ed. Am I hearing you right? Are you telling me you’re going to throw this guy over because of a mouse? Because if you are, I’m going to have to boff you on the nose. You’re all the time telling me how you can’t find the right guy and now you’re telling me you’ve found somebody you really like, but he has some aversion to mice and that turns you off. I don’t buy it. I know you, Ed. I may’ve never said this to you before, but you’re afraid of commitment. It’s a cliché to say so, but it’s true. Right now you’re looking for some excuse to back away from the latest heartthrob, because he’s maybe getting too close. I’m telling you, call this guy up, tell him you completely understand where he’s coming from. Or else I’ll personally give you a black eye. You got it, pal, I’ll give you a mouse.”
Baron Ellis, personal trainer: “He doesn’t like mice? He doesn’t like your place? Fuck him and the horse he rode in on.”
Ellen Lawlor, lawyer/cousin: “Why do people expect women not to like mice? The only kind of mice I don’t like are the human male kind. Sometimes I think about calling the exterminator for them.”
Nancy Rafkind, biochemist: “I’m often asked whether, if people catch mice in their homes, I can come over and collect them for the lab. They don’t understand we do all our experiments with white mice - mus musculus - who’ve been bred for the purpose. The common apartment mouse probably is carrying viruses.”
Rich Esmond, computer programmer: “You think that’s bad? I went out with this girl once - Rina, I think her name was - who got down on her knees after we’d done the deed to retrieve a stocking from under the bed and saw a dust ball. You should have heard the carrying-on. She’s allergic to dust, she sez. She could have a seizure. What kind of person am I that I don’t clean under my bed. What else might she find there? I couldn’t get her out of the house fast enough, which was fine, since she was only so-so in the sack.”
Donny Warshaw, dentist/cousin: “When I was a kid, I had a snake that ate mice. So I had to keep a steady supply. Mostly, I got them from the pet store, because when we set traps around our house, we never caught any. I think our cat, Fizzy, got to them first. Anyway, it all ended one day when the snake somehow got out of its tank, and my mother said that was the end of that.”
Barbara Eaton, women’s wear buyer: “What you need to do, Edgar, is find out why Harlan doesn’t like mice. More likely than not, he was traumatised by one or more when he was a child. Perhaps a mouse got into his crib. At that age, a mouse could be very scary. Maybe if you got to the root of the problem, you could help him get over it and maybe even get to like mice. When you think about it, mice are kind of cute.”
Henry Wallace, physician/cousin: “This is what you do, Edgar. You find where the mice are coming in from - usually somewhere near the pipes in the kitchen or by wherever the radiators are in the house - and you get yourself some steel wool. You fill the holes with steel wool, and - trust me on this--that’ll be the end of your problem. Then you invite this Harlan guy back to the house, you show him what you’ve done. He’s relieved, you’re relieved, and you go on from there like nothing ever happened. That’s if you’re really interested in him. He sounds like a bit of sis to me.”
Gilly Gibson, stand-up comic: “That reminds me of a limerick I know about a mouse. “There once was a foolish young mouse/Who moved into Herr Schultze’s house/Herr Schultze got upset/He’d no room to let/So he said in his loudest voice, ‘Raus!’” It isn’t dirty, but it’s the only limerick I know about mice. I know a really filthy one about a rat, though. Wanna hear it?”
Wally Oscard, social worker: “Where do you find these losers, Edgar? I sympathize completely. With you, not him. You’re right. What kind of real man is scared of mice? Me, I’d pick up the freakin’ thing and wring its neck. You ought to be looking for someone like me. Only gay.”
Pauline Robbins, music business executive: “What kind of name is Harlan? Is he Jewish?”
Everett Simkins, critic: “I’m trying to think of the number of times mice turn up in literature or on the stage. Perhaps the most brilliant use recently is Art Speigelman’s ‘Maus,’ in which the mice represent Jews, and the cats are Nazis. I’d say that more often than not mice are symbols of benign forces. Not in ‘The Nutcracker,’ of course, where they’re the marauding army, but in, say, the nursery rhyme ‘Three Blind Mice.’ They run after the farmer’s wife and she cuts off their tale with a carving knife. There, they’re only doing what they do by nature - and they’re blind into the bargain - but they’re punished for it. Then there are the country mouse and the city mouse. And we haven’t even mentioned Mickey Mouse or the couple of evocations of mice in “King Lear.” I never really thought about it before, but mice turn up all the time. There’s probably a dissertation in it. Maybe it’s already been done. Thanks for bringing them to my attention, Edgar.”
Adeline Cohen, housewife/aunt: “I remember when mother - your grandmother - once saw a mouse in the kitchen. She picked up a broom and started chasing it around. I think she startled the poor thing, because it couldn’t seem to find its hole. It was just cowering in a corner. Finally, she opened the back door and shooed it out into the yard. Later on, I saw her moping over the stove, and I said, ‘What’s the matter, Mom?’ She said she was thinking about the mouse. What if she separated it from its family, and it was out there unable to fend for itself. I said that was the law of the jungle, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. She said there was and that no law of the jungle prevailed in her house. You know what she did? She left the back door open, so the mouse could come back in. I don’t know if it did.”
Izzy Cohen, shopkeeper/uncle: “Funny you should bring up mice, because there’s another one right over there. Ha-ha, made ya look.”
So that’s the story. As for Edgar and Harlan, they got over it and are living happily ever after. Or at least for the next however-long-it-takes to come up against something truly insurmountable, which seems to happen regularly to too many couples for reasons I can’t begin to fathom.