Of Mice and Women

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Summer officially arrived the day my daughter, Kristina, came home from college dragging a semester’s worth of dirty clothes behind her. She wanted home cooked meals and movie marathons on the sofa, soul searching conversations and the chance to sleep late in her childhood room. It was also the same day my husband went out of town for work and I leaped at the rare opportunity to give my youngest my undivided attention, to be a mother again.

She plopped down her bags and looked around wide-eyed, as if seeing our home for the very first time. “It looks so big!” She ran her fingertip across the countertop. “And clean. My roommates are pigs!” She skipped over to the pantry and flung open the door. “Do we have anything to eat? I’m starving!” Her eyes lit up when she saw all her favorite snacks lovingly displayed on the pantry shelves. “Thanks, Mom!” She pulled out a bag of Oreos and tore into the package. “There’s no place like home.”

My heart filled with joy. I couldn’t wait to feather my empty nest again. We listened to Motown and cooked her favorite dinner, talking long into the night about her hopes and dreams. We binge watched Shameless on Netflix, horrified and humored by the dysfunctional Irish family living in squalor. Finally, we drifted off to sleep secure and safe on matching sofas. Home sweet home.

The mommy-moon ended the next day when I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Still bleary-eyed with sleep, I reached into the breadbasket for the English muffins. Unbelievable! She’s no better than her roommates.  I held up the package in disgust. Instead of untwisting the tie like a civilized person, my ragamuffin of a daughter in a carb frenzy had torn open the bag from the bottom and grabbed a fist full out of two of them, leaving their gnarly remains behind. “Kristina!” I yelled at the sleeping form on the couch. “Did you do this? You might live like this in college, but at home we don’t act like animals!”

My daughter slunk into the kitchen with a scowl on her face. “What are you talking about? I didn’t do that! Besides, I like bagels better.” She dug around the breadbasket for the brand new bag of Everything bagels I’d bought just for her, pointed to a huge hunk torn out of the side of the package, and glared at me accusingly. “Really Mom? I thought these were for me!”

It was then we heard a rustling from the darkest corner of the pantry followed by the tiniest of squeals. We dropped our baked goods, screamed in unison and dove at the pantry door, slamming it shut.

“Mom! Do something!” Kristina was already frantically scrolling down the screen of her phone. She thrust it at me.

The Orkin lady who answered was painfully calm, no doubt from years of dealing with hysterical women. “What makes you think you have a rodent issue? Have you seen droppings?”

“No, I haven’t seen droppings.” I flung open cabinets with my free hand, searching for a sign of an infestation, not really wanting to find one. I threw the muffins and bagels into the trash, repulsed at the sight of them. “But something has attacked our bread!”

“Let me see.” Her tone was unconcerned, like a woman who had all the time in the world and kept her bread products in the refrigerator. “How about next…” She paused. “Thursday?”

From the corner of my eye I saw a flicker of movement from under the pantry door. I screamed into the phone in response.

Kristina and I sat on the kitchen table. She threatened to move back to Lubbock while I left manic messages on my husband’s phone. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the doorbell rang and I ran to the entrance, never happier to have a visitor, even if he was carrying a clipboard.

I needed a hero. I needed Hercules with poison pellets and steel traps to purge my home of the pests within.

Instead, I got Willard.

I read the name on his starched white shirt and examined the man before me. His skin was mousy brown and his nose twitched slightly as he looked up at me. I outweighed him by at least fifty pounds.

“May I come in?” He spoke with a mild stutter and had already slipped blue paper booties over his shoes.

My heart sank. This man couldn’t kill a fly. I felt the need to protect him, to feed him, but then I remembered I was never going into my pantry again. I told him about my bread and he shook his head. “Don’t you worry. These things happen. We’re going to take good care of you.” He disappeared into the pantry and shut the door behind him.

Kristina and I returned to our perch on the table, trying to ignore the crashing coming from behind the pantry door. “I’m staying at Emma’s tonight,” she informed me.

Willard emerged, a triumphant look on his face. “I found some droppings. They’re large so I think we’re looking at more than mice here.” He pointed to a collection of chocolate colored morsels on the pantry floor.

“I thought those were Oreo crumbs,” said Kristina.

I leaned my head down as far as I dared. “They look like chocolate chips to me.”

Before I knew it, Willard was in the utility room, pulling the dryer out from the wall. “We have to figure out where they’re getting in.”

I watched in horror as he squeezed himself into the tiny space behind the dryer where all the lost thongs live. The humiliation was too great. I leaned over to Kristina and whispered in her ear. “If he asks, we’re telling him we’re house sitting for a neighbor, got that?”

Seconds later he called out to us. “Here’s where they’re getting in.” He pointed to a pile of droppings on the floor next to a lacy black pair of panties. “Mice are stupid, but rats are smart.” Willard crammed wire mesh into a hole he found by the vent. “We have to trick them into coming into our traps.” He held up a small white sticky board. “When they try to get out, this trap will stop them in their tracks.”

I mentally compared the paper-thin piece of cardboard he held to the bite mark on the bagel. This flimsy film of flypaper wouldn’t stop a flea, much less what I was sure was a raccoon size creature in my pantry. It was like no mousetrap I’d ever seen. When I was younger, I remember my dad putting a Cheeto on a contraption that would snap a mouse’s head and kill him dead. But that was in an era when husbands didn’t travel and the world hadn’t decided to build a new and improved way of solving an age-old problem.

Kristina poked her head behind the dryer. “I don’t get it. How does that kill the rat?”

Willard hung his head as if he hated this part of his job. “It doesn’t kill it. The rat gets stuck on it.”

“Then what?” I demanded. I cursed my husband under my breath. Where was he when I needed him? No doubt living it up at some Holiday Inn bar while my daughter and I battle Bubonic plague at home.

Willard looked up at me, his eyes full of emotion. “Then you call me. I’ll give you my direct number. I’ll come back and…” He hesitated and lowered his voice. “Dispose of it for you.”

His calmness was contagious. I trusted the little man and allowed him to hide thirteen traps throughout my home. He made his way up the stairs, pausing every now and then to scoop something up into his gloved hand. “Droppings,” he said.

“All this time I thought my carpet had black specks on it.”

“Your carpet’s white.”

I walked him to the door and fought the urge to embrace him. Gone was the timid man who had entered my home an hour ago. In his place stood a confident killer. Don’t leave me to run this rat race alone!  Stay!   I’m not really a bad housekeeper! 

He paused on the porch and handed me his card. “Call me anytime, except Sunday. I don’t work Sundays.”

I felt flushed as I watched him swagger out to his van, on his way, I imagined, to rescue another damsel in distress. His skin took on a bronze tone in the sun and I watched the bulge of his bicep as he pulled a pair of dark sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on his face. Before my eyes he transformed from a mild mannered mouse catcher to the Ex-Terminator. He turned to me and his voice dropped an octave as he spoke. “I’ll be back.”

I almost felt sorry for the rats.

A long weekend dodging droppings and dying rats was not what I had in mind for Kristina’s first few days of summer. Still, I was thankful to not have to face the rodents alone. My daughter would give me moral support and a strong shoulder to scream on if the nasty little creatures decided to brave the light of day. We would get through this tough time like families do, together.

Just then, Kristina came barreling out of the house holding a duffel bag. “I’m out of here!” She waved at me as she hurried to her car. “Sorry, Mom, but I didn’t sign up for this.” She threw her bag in the backseat, jumped behind the wheel and screeched off before I could beg her to stay.

I forced myself to go back inside.  What are you, a mom or a mouse?   It would be dark soon and the party in the pantry would be in full swing. But this was my house, after all, and this roach hotel had a no vacancy sign. It would take more than a tiny little mouse problem to scare me out of my own home.

First, I would make myself something to eat. I tiptoed to the kitchen so I wouldn’t wake any mice and stared at the pantry door. Cookies and crackers and chips called my name. I heard a faint rustling from inside. Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry anymore.

Woman loses 30 pounds in one night by cutting carbs on the new Ratkins Diet. Call your exterminator for details.  I settled for a bottle of water from the fridge and went into the family room. I figured a little Shameless would help me forget my own problems so I settled onto the sofa, tucking my feet up under me to be safe.

In the middle of episode five, my husband called. “So, how’s the rat problem?”

I rolled my eyes. The carefree sound of his voice grated on my last nerve. “Come home and find out, if you’re so concerned.”

He poked the bear. “I’ve been telling you for years to get rid of the clutter.”

I cut him off. “Good night! Sleep tight.” How dare he insinuate the furry little things had invaded just to nestle in my collection of old magazines and bags of slightly too small clothes. Hope the bedbugs bite! 

I was considering hurling my phone across the room when I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize.

Just wanted to check on you. How are things at the house?

Suspicious, I typed back. Who is this?

Willard.

Willard? I sat up straighter and fluffed my hair.

Have you heard anything?

I smiled to myself.  Not a creature is stirring. What kind of woman flirts with her exterminator? I was as shameless as the characters on my TV, and just as desperate.

Around midnight I turned off the TV. Clearly, I was worried about nothing. The little incident in the pantry was an isolated event and my fears were foolish. It was time for bed and I rose from the couch.

Then I heard it. The domino effect started with a thumping in the pantry, followed by a crash. Then a metallic clang rang out from the utility room, like something was caught in the tiny space behind the washer and dryer. Upstairs in the loft something dragged across the carpet, trapped and frantic. The squealing and screeching of tortured rats almost drowned out my screams. These were sounds of Nutcracker proportion and I envisioned man-sized mice wielding swords, fighting for their lives. I ran to my bedroom, slammed the door and stuffed a bath towel under it.

Willard!  I punched his number into my phone. Willard?  I held my breath, waiting for a response, but there was no answer. I looked at the time on my phone. 12:06 AM. Sunday.

Willard’s day off.

I got into bed, covered my head with my blanket and squeezed my eyes shut. Somehow, I got through the night. The next morning with the sun streaming into my bedroom window, I could almost believe the night before was just a dream. I put on shoes, crept across the room and put my ear against the door. Silence. I cracked the door open and waited. Stillness. I went into the kitchen to investigate.

I glared at the pantry door. It’s time to face your fears, pack- rat to rat- pack.  I grabbed a carving knife from the wooden block and inched open the door. Not a mouse was in sight, but at my feet laid one of Willard’s white sticky boards, stained and covered with droppings. The message was loud and clear. Stick this in your trap, lady!

Willard said he’d never seen such a sight in his life, and he’s been in the business for 30 years. He’d also never worked a Sunday before but he showed up in his church clothes and discreetly disposed of five unwelcome guests. Three perished behind the dryer, the blind leading the blind in a futile escape. One met its maker upstairs near a pile of Kristina’s unwashed laundry. Finally, the overweight ringleader that masterminded the invasion was stabbed to death in the dark corner of the pantry. Willard said he was missing his tail.

I signed a ten-year contract with Willard and we text often between visits, just to keep in touch. We’ve grown to be friends as people often do when they’ve shared a traumatic event. In fact, I’m inviting him over for Thanksgiving dinner.

I can’t wait for him to meet my husband.

He’s been a real pest lately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baby Steps

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My daughter and I have a love-hate relationship. She loves to interrogate me at length about my past, her favorite subjects being my most embarrassing moments and the opposite sex. She lectures me on being an overprotective parent and tests how high she can raise my anxiety before I detonate.  She feels I should be honest and thrilled to share my most private thoughts with a 16 year-old who promises not to utter a word of what I confess on Twitter, Instagram or to her best friend, Madeline. She, on the other hand, hates reciprocating. If I dare ask about her day at school, she stares at me vacantly, retreats to her room with a bag of Goldfish and slams the door.

When she announced one day after school that she had big news, my first reaction was shock that she was initiating a conversation with me. At last, I thought! An A in Algebra, a perfect score on the dreaded SAT, perhaps she was being inducted into the National Honor Society.

“Yeah, so I’m having a baby,” she muttered as she walked by me, checking her text messages. “Do we have any food in this house?”

“What?” I shrieked, glaring at her tummy. “How did this happen?”

“I don’t know why you’re freaking out,” she said. “It’s my life that’s totally screwed.” She grabbed a bag of Oreos from the pantry and headed towards her room.

Panic overcame me as I raced after her. “What are we going to do?” I cried to the locked door. My daughter could not even remember to charge her cell phone, much less take care of a baby.

“Please open the door!” I yelled, trying to make myself heard over Lana Del Rey. “We need to talk.”

She shoved a piece of paper under the door.

“Child Development Assignment,” I read with teary eyes. “Students will learn proper parenting skills by adopting a computerized baby for a three day period. Student will learn the proper care of newborns and infants, including their physical, mental, emotional and social development.”

I wiped my nose on my sleeve and whispered a prayer of thanks.

She brought home her 10- pound bundle of toy the next weekend. “Isn’t she cute, Mom?” she gushed. “I named her Evi. She has her own car seat, diaper bag and milk bottle.” She smiled down at the infant, proud as any new mother and rocked her in her arms. “Want to hold her?”

“Uhm, sure,” I answered and she gingerly placed my new granddaughter in my arms.   I peeked at the plastic face. “What a…doll!”

“Can you hold her while I go to the bathroom? Just be careful with her!” she warned eyeing me suspiciously.   “Support her head. She’s very delicate.”

I forced myself not to roll my eyes at her instructions. Babies are actually stronger than we think. I recalled the time my older daughter fell off her changing table and hit her head on the corner of the bedroom wall, leaving an egg shaped hole in the sheetrock. She was unharmed, never brought an illegitimate baby home, computerized or not, ended up graduating high school with honors, and was currently a freshman in college.

Evi whimpered and I reflexively began to jiggle her in my arms. I unwrapped the pink blanket and peered into the tiny face. A shiver ran through me as I was met with a vacant stare. The whimper turned into a wail. I was clearly having a difficult time bonding with the new addition to our family.

I examined the screaming infant. She was hairless with perfect toes, clearly taking after the other side of the family, and odorless. I smiled as I recalled my sweet babies born with full Elvis sets of hair and adult sized eyebrows, smelling faintly of pee-pee perfume. I bet this baby made perfect poop pellets. No explosive diarrhea for little Evi.

“Mom! Do something!” my daughter screamed from the bathroom, shocking me back into the present. “If she cries too long I get an F!”

“Me do something? You do something!” I cried in frustration as my daughter burst from the bathroom holding her iPhone. “And you better hope there’s an app on that phone for how to be a good mother!”

She snatched the baby from me juggling her phone and the milk bottle. It occurred to me that as accepting as society was becoming, the only thing deterring a teen today from an unwanted pregnancy was the inconvenience of holding a baby and texting at the same time. When I was younger, there was no practicing motherhood with maybe babies. Sheer terror discouraged me from coming home pregnant, never mind the fact that I had never had a boyfriend. In fact, death from parental wrath would have been my first choice of punishment. It was more merciful than banishment to a remote village in Greece where I would be forced to lie that I was a widow, wear black for the rest of my life and raise my baby in shame.

My daughter held the bottle to Evi’s lips and instantly the crying was replaced with small sucking sounds of contentment. “See, she just needed a bottle,” she explained, suddenly an expert on motherhood. “It’s easy. Next I’ll burp her.”

See how easy it is doing that on two hours of sleep wearing cabbage leaves in your bra, I thought, as I retreated to my room. You wouldn’t be feeling so perky if little Evi had been pulled out of your body with an angry pair of forceps after 12 hours of labor. See how many Instagram selfies you shoot when your stomach takes on the consistency of an underinflated waterbed.

That night her friend Madeline came over to see her precious “niece”. The girls took great pains to feed and bathe Evi and change her perfect little diapers. They took her to the park and for ice cream and posed her for a thousand photos in each of her outfits. Auntie Madeline even offered to sleep over to help with the nightly feedings. The three fell asleep watching movies, one big happy family. It was all fun and games until 3 AM when the girls were exhausted and baby Evi wanted to play. I put a pillow over my ears to block out the crying, which by now was not only coming from the baby, and willed myself to go to sleep.

The next morning my daughter stumbled down the stairs wearing saggy sweatpants and a baggy, wrinkled t-shirt, her hair frizzed into a massive mane around her face. She squinted at me from behind a pair of crooked glasses, dark circles rimming crescents under her eyes. She had aged 10 years overnight. She looked manic, menopausal, murderous. She looked… like me. I could hear Madeline snoring from the couch upstairs.

“Rough night?” I asked.

“I literally hate my life,” my daughter moaned. “Babies suck.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “I did everything for her, fed her, burped her, changed her diaper but she just kept crying. I can’t go anywhere this weekend. I don’t get why anyone would even want a baby. What do you get in return?”

I pulled her to me and rocked her gently in my arms. “Poor baby,” I crooned. “It gets better.”

We did not dare go to church that Sunday. Neither of us wanted the whole congregation to think one of us had just given birth. I could imagine the scandalous whispering in the pew. “I noticed the mom had packed on a few pounds, but I just thought it was middle age spread… Isn’t that the girl who’s always on her phone? She seemed like such a nice girl. It must be the mother’s fault…”

Instead we stayed in and watched old home movies, laughing until we cried.  My daughter made fun of my perm and shoulder pads, while I grew melancholy watching her take her first steps across the TV screen and stumble right into my arms.  We took turns holding Evi one last time.

“Motherhood sure is tough,” my daughter decided as the movie ended and she looked down at the peaceful baby in her arms, “but I almost hate to see her go.”

The shrill ring of her phone broke the mood and I watched her face light up as she recognized her big sister’s voice.

She glanced at me. “Yes, she’s sitting down. Why?”

I waited expectantly through the pregnant pause that followed.

“You have big news?” she asked.   “What is it?”

Adrenaline took over and I bolted from the room.

No news is good news. The life I was born to lead in a secluded Greek village high up in the mountains was long overdue. I would catch the first flight out. I could play a convincing role of a grieving mother.

And black, after all, is so slimming.

baby