Of mice and boys
I was snowshoeing with old friends in Vail when my younger son called, full of giggles, to say he and his friends had bought a pet mouse.
The mouse was to be shared, he said, rotated between the four, who had chipped in on its cost. It was in a glass tank that belonged to Alex, which had saved money.
I said, “Roy. No. Mice are what we trap, remember?”
But it was too late. “Stuart”-not that they had any idea of the gender-was in my house, two out of four mothers already having declined.
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Part of me hesitated. We have no pets. My husband is asthmatic, allergic to dogs and cats. This ban has been a secret relief to me, who, between work and everyone’s schedules, wants no more arrangements. It has been a sorrow to our sons; Roy when younger once cried after seeing someone’s new puppy.
But then I remembered Salt and Pepper: mice, one white and one black, bought by my sister Meg at 12. Although at first we admired them unreservedly, soon we began noticing discomfiting signs. Pepper wasn’t looking so good. Bodily slashes appeared and eventually, something terrible befell an ear. Finally Pepper became so wounded that my father, a doctor, took tongs and a bucket of water and ended it. Next Salt, now solo, escaped. His (her?) cage was set in our basement “playroom,” and periodically, as we watched “Flipper,” Salt streaked across the floor.
“Get him, Alison!” Meg would shout, and since she was the oldest, I did. Salt bit me the first time I caught him by the tail, and the second as well, and after that I told Meg she could catch him.
We kids also had a series of beagles and labradors, a cat named Kitty and, once, a raccoon, found on a camping trip to James Island in the Chesapeake Bay, when our group’s dogs chased a mother from her nest.
“Jamie” stumped around our house, and followed my brother, Teddy, then 8, around the neighborhood like a dog. We were always told to gentle Jamie, to pet and stroke him lavishly, tamping his native wildness as he grew.
Jamie and Kitty, then a kitten, became friends, and she would jump on his back and ride around the house, both yowling. My mother would turn with a plate to find Jamie sitting in the dishwasher, chirring contentedly. He would climb onto a chair as we ate dinner and tug on the tablecloth, although one day, like an inept magician, he pulled it and all the dishes onto the floor. But over time, I am afraid, Jamie became snarly. And then Jamie bit, though all these years later none of us is sure whom.
My mother thinks that Jamie and Dad were sitting companionably at the breakfast table when Jamie wanted Dad’s cereal, Dad objected, and was bitten. “Good and hard,” she says.
My brother thinks, though uncertainly, that it was he: “I remember lots of blood and hurting, and seeing something I thought was the bone in my index finger.”
Now nobody much wanted to “gentle” Jamie anymore.
And one day Jamie was gone from his pen outside. My mother believes my father released him to the wild. Yet I remember asking Dad, and he said he hadn’t. And now that my father is gone, that is one of the things we will never know. In any case, Jamie had no skills; we probably should never have brought him home. Returning from Vail, I drove Roy and his friend Tanner to the pet shop in Glenwood, where they gently bade Stuart goodbye, and also forgot the borrowed tank, noting its absence only as we returned to Carbondale. We drove clear back to Glenwood, fetched the tank, took it to its owner, and then were instructed to take it to his stepfather’s house, across town.
The expedition took me nearly three hours, but I figured it was a sort of penance.
Alison Osius (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Carbondale.
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