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A Meditation on Mice and Rats
Gary Fincke

In the Bakery

There was good reason for me to learn the habits of mice and rats. My father owned a bakery. The adjoining building was a feed store. Even though the feed store patrons did not much care whether or not they noticed mice and rats as their trucks were loaded, my father’s business depended on vigilance, killing every intruder and disposing of them while hoping nobody ever saw one while they purchased bread and rolls.

There were mice in the bakery, but my mother tried to make sure I didn’t worry about confronting any form of rodent. “You could spend all day here and never see one,” she said. She told me that mice rarely go farther than twenty feet from their nests. Most importantly, she said, “They’re afraid of everything, so they stay out of sight when people are around.”

Just in case, there was one lone trap under the display case closest to the door to the back rooms. My father didn’t want the bait to lure mice to where the customers shopped, but he knew there were plenty of tempting smells, and the single trap acted as a guard. The rest of the building was more heavily patrolled. There were traps scattered throughout the work rooms—under the steam cabinet, the refrigerator, the sink, the workbenches, especially in the back room where one hundred pound sacks of flour and sugar were stacked. Because our mother sold baked goods in the front room three afternoons a week, my older sister and I played on those bags until she started first grade. After that I played alone, making up fantasy games about mountain climbing and ­fighting in wars while she opted for books and drawing pictures in the front room where our mother worked. At home, when we played school, I let her teach me to read and do simple arithmetic, but in the bakery I preferred recess, steering jeeps and tanks over the dusty sacks. The traps were underneath the wooden pallets. I was told never to reach underneath them, and I obeyed.

Three Blind Mice*

In first grade, during music, we sang rounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” We used hand motions when we sang. We rowed with our arms. For “Three Blind Mice,” we wiggled the fingers of our left hand and threw it forward to run from the carving knife wielded by the farmer’s wife, and all of us loved slicing the air with our right hands to cut off their tails.

“The three blind mice,” my Aunt Margaret said. “I’d like to give their tails a good going over,” meaning the three men who drank on the Kordesich’s porch across the alley from her house, one of them playing a concertina to accompany the songs they wailed in Croatian. “The old stews and their squeezebox,” she’d say while my grandmother, who lived with her, clucked her tongue. “I’ll take the broom to them if they cut through the yard.”

But no matter what Aunt Margaret said, outside of the bakery mice were fun. “Hickory Dickory Dock” was recited, not sung, but it had hand motions as well, our six-year-old fingers climbing the air until the clock struck one and knocked our hands down. Mice were the heroes in cartoons like Tom and Jerry. They saved the day like Mighty Mouse. They were lovable like Mickey. Until I was seven, I never saw one.

I was playing on the flour sacks while I waited for my mother to close the bakery when she stepped into the room and said, “You need to be careful back here. We’ve had visitors lately.” As if she’d planned a demonstration, she poked ­underneath a pallet with the tip of her broom handle and slid a trap into view. A mouse was caught in it, the metal bar pressed against its neck. “See?” she said.

I climbed down and waited with my sister in the front room where the cookies and cakes that hadn’t been sold were sitting securely inside glass cases, the ones I’d been told never to leave open. “Now you know” was all she said as she tidied up and turned out the light. “Your father will take care of it before he starts baking.”

The Pied Piper

During first grade, I was a ball in the school musical, singing “Bounce, bounce, ball” over and over while my classmates and I tried to hop in unison. We had rehearsed for weeks, and the colorful, striped, ball-shaped sandwich-board costume was bulky and scratched under my chin every time I landed. I was thrilled to be on stage in front of hundreds of adults, but I was also happy to take it off. During second grade, though, I was a rat and wished I could wear my costume for repeat performances.

Being a rat was special. My classmates and I had whiskers, tails, gray body suits, big noses, and ears. The PTA mothers were extraordinary in making us look the part of vermin. Some sixth-grade girl, because she could play the flute, was the Pied Piper. None of us had speaking parts unless squeaking counted, but I loved being bunched up on stage with twenty other seven-year-old rats in a pack that was mesmerized by the music that girl dressed all in green played on her flute. We scrambled after her, clogging up near the wing while the audience laughed, and then disappearing off stage to get out of our costumes so we could return in white shirts and blouses in order to be lured away a second time as the children of cheapskate parents, the smallest boy in our class hobbling on crutches and saved from disappearing a second time by being crippled and falling behind.

Cleanliness

The health inspector visited the bakery a few months after my mother showed me the dead mouse. My mother announced the visit at dinner, and everyone got quiet. “I kept thinking this would be the time one of our visitors would show himself,” she said. “He walked all around like he was waiting to see something move, but he was mostly interested in that old commode in the cellar. It’s so filthy down there.”

My sister and I looked at our father. Even when it was an emergency, neither of us ever wanted to use that toilet. The cellar was dark except for the light that came through the doorway at the top of the stairs and a single low-watt light bulb that couldn’t be turned on until you found the chain that hung from it in the middle of sagging ceiling. “What’s the verdict?” my father said.

“He wants a sign posted that says, ‘Wash Hands After Using.’ And since the sink is all the way upstairs, a sign there, too.”

“That’s it?”

“For now. I cut up a cake box and taped them up before I closed shop. It seemed like a lot of bother. Anybody who doesn’t wash their hands after being down there is being a fool.”

It turned out my mother was right to be worried. Before that week ended, shortly after she had used that toilet and washed her hands, a mouse darted past her as she sliced bread. “Thank God,” she said, “the customer was too busy looking at the jelly rolls to notice.”

The Mickey Mouse Club

In his essay “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse,” published in Natural History, Stephen J. Gould uses the evolution of Mickey Mouse’s appearance to explain how the shape of faces and the relative size of eyes protect the young by making them appear cute. Large eyes and a round face serve the helpless well—puppies, kittens, human babies. If an adult cartoon character is given those facial qualities, he will appear, even if he is a mouse, eternally young-looking and consistently cute.

Mickey looked more like a mouse in his first cartoon feature. He was more mischievous too. His snout was long and pointed. His eyes were smaller and less round. But little by little he looked younger and friendlier, hardly mouse-like at all. Walt Disney knew what he was doing as he reshaped Mickey’s face.

My sister and I didn’t know anything about the early Mickey Mouse while we outgrew the need to spend after-school hours at the bakery. When I was in fourth grade, our parents finally purchased a television. A year later, both of us became addicted to watching the Mickey Mouse Club at five o’clock, the show ending at six just before our mother came home and made dinner for us and our just-awakened father.

By the second season, I was more interested in the girls who played Mouseketeers than I was in cartoons. My sister, entering eighth grade, stopped watching, but I paid attention to Annette Funicello and Darlene Gillespie when they pranced in front of the camera during the Mouseketeer Roll Call. They looked like girls who walked to the bus stop with my sister half an hour before me because junior high school, grades seven through nine, started earlier than grades one through six. Every afternoon they fueled my fantasies. And though none of my sixth grade friends would admit to liking the corny serials like Spin and Marty, all of us could remember every detail of what Annette and Darlene wore when they were in skits and serials of their own.

Friday Night Work

The first thing my father did every night he went to work was check the traps. I learned this when, during seventh grade, I started working in the bakery on Friday nights from seven to ten. Until then, whether the victims were mice or rats, I had never touched a trap, but now it was obvious to my father that his twelve-year-old son was squeamish when it came even to just looking at the dead. Or worse, the dying, the trap sprung ­without striking their heads or necks, their legs still moving, the sound of feeble squeaking.

Once, when I suggested using poison so the traps didn’t have to be checked, he said, “We can’t use rat poison in the bakery. We can’t have that around food or have them crawl into some hole and die where we can’t reach them.”

“Maybe you should move the bakery into the new shopping center,” I said during my first year on the job. “Leave all the mice and rats behind.”

“You’ll never be a baker,” he said, closing the discussion with what I agreed was the truth.

Walter Godfrey, who was our closest neighbor because he lived above the feed store, always had an unlit cigar in his mouth when he came inside the bakery Friday nights around eleven, buying day-old doughnuts and sweet rolls my father sold him for half price because they went stale so quickly. Godfrey chewed on that cigar while he talked, depending on the time of year, about football, basketball, or baseball, always saying, “It’s time for my movie” before he left just before 11:30.

“It’s a blessing having Godfrey live upstairs over there,” my father would say every time Godfrey left. “He keeps two cats, and they make it hard on the mice.”

Inside the bakery, what made it hard on the mice were those traps. The bait, I learned, wasn’t always cheese. Usually it was peanut butter, but just about anything would do.

For entertainment, during lulls between the simple things I could help with like greasing pans and cutting bread dough into portions, I played a form of basketball with a rolled up paper bag and a #10 can my father nailed to the wall of the room where the ovens demanded a higher ceiling.

My father, once or twice a night, would play a game of “horse” with me. From time to time, before he joined in, he would say, “You remembering to check first if that bag rolls under the steam ­cabinet?”

Beginning in ninth grade, I worked from 10 pm until 5:30 am. My mother dropped me off, went home to sleep, and returned to drive me home before she reversed herself and opened the bakery at six. Eventually, when my father and I returned to the bakery on Saturday afternoons for special orders like wedding or birthday cakes, I was expected to dump the victims of those baited traps into the trash and walk them outside to the burn barrel. They went up in flames generated by the thick paper from the flour sacks and damaged boxes and whatever other refuse that could be burned. My Aunt Margaret, who helped my mother sell on Saturday afternoons, would wait for me to return, saying, “You wash your hands with soap and scalding water. Don’t you dare touch a thing until then.” She loathed them. She called all of them rats even though, I was happy to note, rats were rare in the bakery.

Rats, for sure, were villains in stories I loved during high school. Late at night, I watched the movie made from the novel 1984, despairing as the would-be hero Winston Smith is re-educated by the forces of Big Brother, but hopeful as he holds onto his love for Julia. All along I wondered what would be in Room 101, where his worst fear was waiting. And when it turned out to be a cage full of rats, the threat of being covered with them, I didn’t blame him at all for pleading, “Do it to Julia.” For days I imagined rats in large numbers, the sound of their squealing, the scrabble of their claws. The next Friday night I felt so much as if it was my first night of having to check the traps in the bakery that I skipped half of them and hoped my father would believe that any victim he found was fresh when he checked again while my mother opened the store in the morning.

My fear, though, made the stories better. By itself, the title of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” made me uneasy, but the scariest of all was an illustrated story in a comic book. The title and author are long forgotten, but the final panels are still vivid: a woman being tortured, a rat under a metal bowl on her stomach, the bowl being heated until the rat, the torturer explains, will have nowhere to go but inside her. I reread that story more than a few times. I thought about that rat under the bowl, how that woman would feel. What I didn’t do was pay any attention when, while I was in tenth grade, France sent the first rat into space.

But Aunt Margaret did. She told me the rat’s name was Hector, and he was supposed to have helped France learn new things about space flight. “God forbid we use anything learned from a rat,” she said. “We’ll all end up in hell.”

Neither she nor I ended up with any idea of what the French learned from Hector. The feed store closed before I finished high school. A few years later, so did the bakery. The rats and mice must have moved on, probably to hang out near the bars on either end of the block, the only businesses left after the shoe store, the jewelry store, the drug store, and the hardware store closed as well. 

The Feats of Mice and Rats

A pair of brown rats can produce 2,000 descendants in one year.

Rats’ front teeth grow up to five and a half inches per year, so they must constantly gnaw on whatever is available to maintain the proper length.

Mice can squeeze through a space the size of a ball point pen’s width.

A rat can tread water for three days.

Rats can survive falls of fifty feet or more.

Mice, when hungry enough, can survive on paper and soap or whatever is available.

Rats can come into a house through drains or toilet pipes.

Rats can be domesticated. They are friendly to handlers.

A National Mouse Club was founded in England in 1895. It sponsored shows and contests for domesticated mice.

That club was expanded, years later, to include rats.

The Bakery Homecoming

Nearly fifty years after I last worked there, I take my father back to the bakery site. He’s ninety, struggling with a walker, a month away from my sister finding him a room in a nursing home, but it seems like a good idea to let him take what might be a last look at what is now a vacant lot that has been paved over for parking used by the residents of apartments formed from the buildings that once housed old businesses. “There’s nothing,” he says. “Even the mice and rats are gone.”

Stuck for something to say, I try, “It’s the year of the rat in China,” but he doesn’t seem to hear me.

“We mostly used peanut butter for bait,” he says. “Cooked corn worked. Leftover macaroni. They went for just about anything, and it cost them. You could buy a dozen of those traps for about a dollar.”

I sense the afternoon going wrong. “All those traps, Dad,” I say. “How many do you think you killed?”

“Sometimes we went for a while without finding any, but you don’t keep track of something like that,” he says. “You just know the traps are empty for a while and hope they stay that way. Especially the rats. They’re the worst.”

“There’s a rat story called ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra,’” I say, and when he struggles to face me, the walker turning in small increments, I wished I hadn’t said it.

“I don’t think I want to hear it.”

“You don’t have to worry about that. The title is all there is to it. Instead of all the words, it turns out to just be called ‘A story for which the world is not yet prepared.’”

My father makes a face. “It’s a joke, Dad. I read it somewhere in a Sherlock Holmes story, and that’s all that’s said. You’re supposed to get that there really isn’t a story except for the catchy title.”

“Rats aren’t funny,” he says. “Who thinks rats are funny?”

The History of Mouse Traps

When I look up the price of mouse traps to check on my father’s memory, I find out that a trap cost five cents in 1900; sure enough, in the late 1950s, when I began working for my father, the cost had risen to only seven cents.

I keep going, reading the rest of the online article about the history of mouse traps. John Mast, the American patent holder, invented a trap that sprung in three milliseconds a few years before 1900. The design has remained almost completely unchanged, so it is no surprise when I read that he sold that business for a hefty profit. And that “building a better mouse trap” is more than a hackneyed saying.

I learn that a humane mousetrap was invented during the 1920s It was called the Kness Ketch-All Multiple Catch, but my father wasn’t interested in being humane with mice and rats, and neither was I.

The Reminiscing about Mice and Rats

When I visit my father in the nursing home, his room is stifling, but he wears a sweater. We play a game called Crokinole that we’ve played since I was a boy, using one finger to shoot wooden rings at each other’s through a circle of spaced pegs. For more than an hour we play, and my father, because he cannot hear what I say unless I shout, barely speaks except to belittle himself for his failing ability. By the end of the hour, though I am wearing a light shirt, I am sweating enough to make it difficult to handle the wooden rings. It is after six o’clock, the common “dinner hour,” but he says nothing.

An aide appears, young and smiling, but she raises her voice to a near-shout and speaks with exaggerated slowness. “Mr. Fincke is a little devil about not eating. If he had his way we’d have to throw his dinner out for the mice to finish.”

“I’ll get him down there in a few minutes,” I say, but suddenly, as she leaves, my father becomes agitated, cued somehow by her broadcast-volume reference to mice.

“She likes to make a fuss,” he says, taking his next shot, tapping the board to insist I keep ­playing.

In less than five minutes the aide returns. “Mr. Fincke, please.”

My father seems angry. “I’ll bring him,” I say. “I promise. We’ll be there in two minutes.” Her smile is forced now. When he doesn’t speak or make a move to get his wheelchair into motion, I point to the three half-eaten cookies beside the Crokinole board and say, “You need more than sugar to keep you going.”

I back the wheelchair from the table, helping him put on an extra sweater because, he says, “They never turn up the heat in the dining room.”

I push him toward the dining hall. “She’s like a little mouse herself,” he says. “Your Aunt Margaret hit one with a broom once. She hated them. The way they scurry around and squeak.”

The room, when we arrive, is warm. The aide gestures me toward an empty seat; my father gestures me closer. “You see how they treat you?” he says. “All that hustle and bustle.”

The aide makes a pushing motion with her hands, and my father shakes his head. “Don’t you ever let yourself be beholden to anybody.”

Hands-on

After forty years of being homeowners, my wife and I discover our first mouse droppings, ones she confirms by finding pictures on the Internet. The thin dark turds are in the cupboard where we store boxes of cereal, crackers, and other vulnerable items. I drive to the hardware store immediately.

The clerk shows me four shelves of ways to rid my house of mice and rats. Immediately I spot the familiar spring trap. The brand name is Victor, and it looks to be a replica of the ones my father used. Some things actually do never change. The company’s location, I marvel, is Lititz, Pennsylvania, the city where Mast lived when he applied for his patent. The price has gone up, but at $1.89 it still feels like a bargain. It weighs almost nothing in my hand. Like balsa wood, I think, but I know, because I’ve researched, that these are made of pine. 

The rat-sized Victor trap costs $3.49. It’s identical except for its dimensions, and the increased size immediately makes me uneasy. The clerk, without embarrassment, says, “This is what I use,” and for a moment I think that the trap she is holding is meant to capture mice alive, but she touches it inside and I hear the familiar snap. The mouse is out of sight when it’s killed. For a few dollars more I can avoid seeing the dead mouse, but it makes me consider how difficult it might be to clean if the kill is messy. Whether the people who buy it intend never to reuse it.

A moment later I learn that if I want to capture them live, I’d need to pay $14.99. Being humane has a price, but what I notice is the humane trap closely resembles my father’s homemade rabbit traps, the two he built and placed in our backyard garden from April to October. He would drive a few miles before he released the rabbits in a field. The one time I rode along out of curiosity, I listened to the terrified animal pawing at the box as we drove, pledging to myself to find excuses not to ride along again.

D-Con is the other main brand in the hardware store. They sell a “No View, No Touch” trap, a quality I imagine many people appreciate. Attracted by bait, the mouse enters an “entryway.” When the owner inspects the trap and the door is closed, the owner simply tosses the whole thing away. There is another type of “no touch” trap that is advertised as “reusable.” The buyer is directed to hold the trap over the garbage can and release the mouse before resetting it again. The world seems to have become as squeamish as I was when I began to work in the bakery.

“There’s some so expensive we don’t carry them, but they can be ordered,” the clerk says. I nod, reading the label on the “Quick Kill Glue Trap.” “Kill mice quickly so there’s no waiting and possibly squealing for days,” it promises, though using glue rather than the trusty spring seems to guarantee the opposite.

I choose two of the cheap spring traps, but I can’t help but look up the Victor website: The clerk was correct. If I want the high-tech Victor traps, I can buy electronic killers for $199. And if I want to communicate with the Victor company, I can “like” them on Facebook where people can ask questions and give endorsements.  When I check, I discover there are currently 4,391 people who “like” Victor.

These days Victor sells ten million traps a year.

In the Kitchen

My wife holds the springs on both traps down while I drop a bit of low-fat cheddar where it looks like bait belongs. The next morning both pieces of cheese are gone, but the traps haven’t been sprung. There is a fresh scattering of droppings.

The second night of baited traps produces the same results. My wife suggests a more expensive trap. “I’ve seen these things work a hundred times,” I say, and this time I risk my fingers and place the cheese exactly in the middle of what looks to be the ideal spot. “There,” I say, as if I’ve shown some sort of battle-tested bravery.

I’m up early the following morning. When I open the cupboard, I see it’s been a clean kill, the mouse caught perfectly across the back of its neck. I carry the trap to the garage and drop it and the mouse into the half-filled black plastic bag, carefully retying it.

Even though I never touch the dead mouse, I scrub my hands long and hard. My wife, before the morning is over, has thoroughly cleaned the cupboard and the leftover trap. She never sees the mouse. She never asks what it looked like.

 

Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.

 

Note

*Credit for the words to Three Blind Mice usually goes to Thomas Ravenscroft, who published the verse for the first time in a book of rhymes in 1609.

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