Santamaria first noticed the decapitated mouse beside the drain five minutes into his shower, which meant that he had been standing with his bare feet no more than a couple of inches from the dead, soggy body for five minutes. Because the drain was partially clogged with hair from his wife and daughter, the rinse water had backed up, and bacteria and germs from the dead mouse had probably already touched his bare feet. Crouching to inspect the corpse, Santamaria was suddenly aware of his nudity, his balls dangling to touch the smooth white shell of the tub, water running over the knobs of his spine and into his butt crack. In place of the mouse’s head was a red, mangled knot of flesh. Squeamishly, Santamaria lowered a dark blue washcloth over the body, feeling tiny ribs and ill-defined muscles through the nap of the material. He placed it, like a nice little package, on the side of the tub, turned the shower knob to the left for hotter water and, in the ensuing steam, vigorously scrubbed his hands and feet.
After the shower he dressed in gray sweatpants and a henley shirt and ambled downstairs. His wife, Leidy, sat in the kitchen wearing a thin nightgown and patting the cat who perched on top of the table purring and running his body up against Leidy’s hand. The nightgown was open, displaying two long breasts tipped with nipples the size and shape of pencil erasers. Santamaria took note of the breasts, made himself a cup of coffee. Chock Full O'Nuts. He missed the good stuff, but they had cut their expenses to the bone. No more going out to eat, no more Netflix, no more cable or cable internet. He was grateful that he had been able to talk Leidy out of selling his iPhone on eBay—how was he going to take calls from prospective employers if he didn’t have a cell phone?
Santamaria settled down at the table to eat his daily dose of Raisin Bran and drink his coffee, and they both listened to Ramona, their daughter, slam her bedroom door upstairs, then slam the bathroom door. Eleven going on sixteen. Ramona had started menstruating when she was ten and a half, and ever since then it had been watch out. Childhood was already a distant memory, for all of them. It had been bad enough when Santamaria had seen Ramona talking with older boys on the way home from the bus stop, laughing too loudly, but when he had caught her smoking with one of them in the turnaround at the end of the road it had taken all he had in him not to hit her. They were losing her—he was sure of it. Staying home didn’t seem to be helping matters the way he’d hoped it would. A person could get consumed with worry.
The cat was now perched on Leidy’s lap, staring at him, sphinxlike, with two yellow eyes.
“Cover yourself up, will you,” he said.
“There’s nothing here you haven’t seen already,” she said, opening the nightgown a little wider. “Besides, I thought you liked these.”
Santamaria had met his wife at his place of employment thirteen years earlier. She had packed boxes in the shipping department while he had worked in the art department as a production artist. The difference in their stations had given him the upper hand for a little while, not long. Leidy was forty-two now, but looked thirty, tops. He, on the other hand, was forty-five but looked fifty. If either of them was going to have an affair, it was pretty clear which one it would be. Forty-five years old, but still, like a school kid, the sight of his wife’s familiar breasts gave Santamaria an uncontrollable erection. She shot him a sly, sexy smile just before Ramona screamed in the bathroom. It was a no-shit, full throttle scream, sending Santamaria’s paternal feelings into automatic pilot. His daughter was in danger—he had to help her. He shot up, adrenaline giving him the strength of three men, then sat back down.
“There’s a dead mouse in the bathroom,” he said.
“There’s a what?”
“There’s a dead mouse in the bathroom. Your little champion there ripped its head off. I’ll take care of it once Mona’s done.”
“Isn’t he a good little mousekiller,” Leidy said, her tone of voice shifting in mid-sentence, becoming higher and sweeter as she shifted her attention from Santamaria to the cat.
After the two women in his life had left—their hair combed, eyes shadowed, skin moisturized, etc., etc.—Santamaria removed the blue washcloth from the bathroom and carried it downstairs, gingerly. He was not a man who did many things gingerly, but mice tweaked him. He carried the washcloth outside, the mouse body disgustingly perceptible beneath the terrycloth. Bile built in the back of Santamaria’s throat, but his curiosity got the better of him, and inside the shed he placed the package on his workbench and unpeeled the folds of washcloth. The fluorescent tubes flickered, Frankensteinishly. He imagined a reanimated mouse wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. The longer he was out of work, he noticed, the more often asinine fantasies played themselves out in his head. Soon he would lose all ability to communicate with other adults. He imagined the headless mouse scratching blindly at foundations. Really, there was not all that much it could do if it did come back to life.
The mouse’s fur was gray and black, moist from the shower, the skin of the body paler, pinker. Where the head had been was a raw fold of mouse body material. Santamaria pressed the mouse’s belly with his finger, then held the finger away from him. He imagined the crunch of separating bones. He laid the carcass on some window mesh left over from when he’d replaced the window screens, then buried the mouse in the yard, about six inches deep. In a few weeks he would lift the mesh up and all that would remain of the mouse would be a skeleton, sans skull. He had learned this valuable skill in Boy Scouts. His childhood bedroom had been decorated with lizard skulls and snake skeletons and the skeletons of raccoons that he found on the road, dead but not yet squished beyond all recognition. Back then he had been less squeamish, though even as a child mice had creeped him out.
At ten o’clock he went upstairs to the master bedroom, moved the cat out of the sunbeam that fell across the bed, and stretched out on the covers. The house had been a ranch when they’d moved in, but in the mid-nineties Santamaria had made a bundle in the stocks and they’d refinanced and had the addition built. Two bedrooms and a bathroom. Their master bedroom let in light throughout the day—a fact he hadn’t been aware of until last year when he’d been laid off. He curled into a ball and fell asleep.
Fifteen minutes later he was awakened by the sound of shrieking—distinctly miniature shrieking—followed by the clatter of the cat bumping into things in hot pursuit around the bed. Although he felt exposed lying there in the sunbeam, as if the mouse was going to run up the bed and over his face, he didn’t move, merely watched the hunt. The cat was Genghis Khan-cruel, biting and releasing, pouncing, placing the limp mouse in its mouth and sinking its needle-like teeth into the shrieking body. So, an infestation. One mouse could be just one mouse, but two mice meant a shitload of other mice.
Ten minutes later, Santamaria pulled his white Alero into the parking lot of the hardware store, almost empty at this time of the morning. He’d bought the Alero, a mid-level sports car, for Leidy, but she’d never grown comfortable with the stick shift, so every day she drove his Grand Am to Atlantic City where she worked as a cocktail waitress in one of the casinos, wearing not nearly enough clothes. That job would not last forever, because no matter how good she looked now, forty-two was still forty-two.
Behind the counter of the hardware store, Bob Woodward hunched. Woodward and Santamaria had conjoined backyards, but a barrier of overgrown shrubs meant they hardly ever saw each other. Woodward was the same age as Santamaria—maybe a little older. It was the Great Recession, and you were lucky if you had a job, but it was hard not to feel bad for Bob. His eyes shifted downward.
“’Morning, Bob. You having a mice problem over at your place?”
“Nope,” Woodward said. “You?”
“I’m afraid so. You think I should poison the suckers or go old-school with the traps?”
“The traps don’t always kill ‘em. Sometimes you have to finish the job yourself. But on the other hand, when you poison ‘em they find some cozy out-of-the-way place to rot and stink your house up. There’s those so-called ‘humane’ traps that can trap any number of them, just bait it with peanut butter, but you have to be sure to empty those real quick because I’ve seen it that one of them will eat the others and then it’s a hell of a mess to clean up.”
“Right,” Santamaria said. He pictured hordes of headless mice devouring each other. The image was imprecise—how the hell would they eat each other without heads?—but no less disturbing for that.
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