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The Rat, The Mouse, and a Happy Thanksgiving

When this piece was originally written,  I was too many pounds lighter, my mother was still alive, and my Facebook feed was still filled with political posts…different stuff…same anger.  I was getting ready to write something about this Thanksgiving, but as I read this one, I thought a lot about my mom.  If she were here, she would be telling all of us who are currently losing our minds to calm down, see what happens, and then deal with it like grown-ups.

Originally published at Coachnobody.com: November 27, 2014

When I was ten years old, a large disgusting rat started milling around the back room of our basement late one evening. Dad was out of town on a annual fishing trips to Canada, and mom stayed home lone with her two young sons. Staring at the mealy-eyed rodent in the middle of what had once been the family room, Mom did what anyone in her position would do: she screamed, shook, generally freaked out, and told me to grab my gun.

The “gun” in question was my recently bequeathed Crossman Air Rifle. With a fairly handy bolt-action loader and a mostly maneuverable rocker-arm pump, I could deftly fill the chamber with deadly compressed air in seconds and put any bird, empty pop can, or paper target to rest in one shot (provided the target was stationary).

Fortunately for Mom (and hell, for the rest of us, too), the slithering vermin in the back room was also not moving, deeply engrossed by one of our plastic army men, probably the one holding his M-16 in that awkward charging pose.  Even as a kid I remember thinking it was a stupidly vulnerable way to try to bayonet one of the bad guys. The room’s lights were out, but enough of a glimmer shone in from both the front room and the house’s wide stairway that I could make out the critter’s form. Resting the barrel of the air-rifle on the banister, I sighted him and pulled the trigger.

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The most fascinating visual effect produced by bb-guns is the sight of the little copper ball streaking out of the muzzle and disappearing into the air. I saw the bb zip into the back room, I observed the rat pause, and then gratefully watched as he slowly rolled over on his side and lay still.

For the next 34 years, my exposure to little rodents thankfully never went beyond picking up the dead ones the cats left on front stoop every so often. So, last week, when Wendi (while working in the kitchen on the first of several Thanksgiving meals) “lost it” mid-sentence and pointed to a furry little varmint slipping under the refrigerator, I knew it was time for the gunslinger to dust off his trusty partner and rise to the call of duty once more. The funny thing is that I still had the same Crossman rifle, now over 33-years-old, in the garage. Aged and worn, dented and scratched, needing 30 pumps instead of three, it was still a reliable household pest remover. Only last spring I’d used it to clear out an unwelcome nest of sparrows who’d settled into our storage room under the deck. That had gone down as an ugly, cold-blooded affair which resembled a slightly botched mafia-hit, but the rifle did as designed.

By the time I’d found the gun (that was itself another story involving failed searches under the deck umbrellas, the folding chairs, the workbench, outside around the landscaping, and along the edge of the woods…don’t ask…), “Jerry” had zipped back and forth between the fridge and pantry enough times to qualify for the Indy 500-mini-marathon. After a furious round of 30-35 pumps, I had the little booger cornered in the pantry behind the white crock-pot. He peeked out his schnoz a few times, and I sighted a bead on him once, but I hesitated. When he finally decided to dart from behind the crock-pot and head for the zip-up cooler in the other corner, I hurriedly pulled the trigger.

Click! Nothing.

For the next 15-minutes I pumped and clicked, pumped and clicked desperate to get a bb to fly out of the chamber. Alas, the gun was finished.  The lingering bits of rubber which had sealed just enough for so many years was done. Now, it was just me and the mouse…mano y mouso.

I was terrified.

Sighing, I turned to Wendi and announced that I’d run to the store, tomorrow, and grab a few traps on the way home. It was pushing 11:00, and we both had a long Friday ahead of us at work.

But Wendi’s gaze changed those plans, so I trundled into my winter garb and drove to the store. By 11:20 I had the mouse cornered again behind the same crock-pot with four of those traditional, wooden traps surrounding him. Seeing the poor critter get slapped and crushed by the little brass hinge would no doubt be gruesome, at least once we had him I could avert my eyes, dangle him from the tips of my fingers, get him out of the house, and go to bed.

But when “Jerry” flew from behind the crock-pot, he slipped between the traps, turned left for an inch or two, then turned right again and headed straight for us. I distinctly remember hearing Wendi scream, but she had already let that sound out two or three times already. My own cry of terror, however, was strangely disorienting. Out of an instinctive need for security, I was holding my now useless bb gun, flailing my other arm back, and crying out with a long, single syllable of pure, unfiltered fear. If I could have jumped into Wendi’s arms and had her cradle me, I would have done it.

These are pretty odd reasons to be thankful, but the smallest creatures we share this planet with sometimes have a way of reminding us how lucky we are to be living in such relative comfort.

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“I told you to get the glue traps,” Wendi said, the irritation and stress oozing out of her voice with the thickness of cold paint in the bucket.

By 11:45, I had returned from second trip to the store, and a row of noxious-looking black trays filled with tacky glue surrounded the fridge, “Jerry’s” last-known “20”. After several minutes reassuring Wendi that a trip to a hotel wasn’t necessary, we went to bed. Everything now hinged on the results in the morning.

Seeing “Jerry” stuck in the trap, his legs splayed out in the glue, his head resting over the lip of the tray, and frozen ripples in the glue marking his struggle proved the most upsetting part of the entire episode. At first, he lay still, and thought that maybe, somehow, the glue contained a toxin that “osmotically” entered his bloodstream and ended him. But when I picked up the tray by the corner, and the mouse started twitching in yet another frantic effort to break free, I dropped him and retreated to the den to collect myself. Sighing, I accepted the inevitable: I was going to have to walk in there, pick him up, and dispose of him.

How to kill a mouse? That’s the question. Were my bb gun working, I would have taken him out the yard and popped him in his tray. My other option was to take a page from my late, benevolent grandaddy–a gentle farmer who bludgeoned a trapped chipmunk with four feet of two-by-four, a serene grin on his face, and a fresh L&M dangling off his lower lip.  I had a bundle of 1×1’s in the garage, and I suppose if my granddaddy could do it, I could too.

Except that I couldn’t. Shooting a bird, or a mouse, wasn’t pleasant, but it was at least quick. In the end, I opted for the most cowardly, most squeamish route and threw him away. But a week later I still can’t get that mouse of my mind, and as I sit here joining in with the rest of the country as we collectively express gratitude for what we’ve been given, I keep thinking that I should probably pass. In a way which is difficult to label, I’m not sure I’ve earned the right.

Nonetheless, if Wendi, my kids, my parents, or my students happen to ask me what I’m thankful for anyway, the incident with “Jerry” has given me some answers.

First, I’m thankful that I live in a clean home rarely infiltrated with pests. The showdown in the kitchen gave me pause to think about the billions living on the planet in poverty and squalor, sharing space with mice, fleas, and other creatures because the wax-paper covering the open windows of their one-room shack will never keep them out. I’m also thankful that I don’t live in world where I have to surreptitiously slink in the shadows scrounging for food and risking a violent death simply in order to eat. Seeing the mouse stuck in that trap gave me pause to contemplate the millions throughout history who’ve had to risk everything to put a scrap of food on the table, always existing in a state of perpetual fear. Finally, I’m thankful that I have my life. As morbid a death as the mouse’s was, I have come to terms with the fact that part of our mortal contract is an equally mortal exit. It’s all part of the journey, and because of where and when I’m living I have a better than even chance of leaving this world peacefully and with dignity in the presence of my loved ones.

Yep.  These are pretty odd reasons to be thankful, but the smallest creatures we share this planet with sometimes have a way of reminding us how lucky we are to be living in such relative comfort.

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Photos by Marley Haltom.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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