Patrick McGuire

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					                       Of Mice and Women

My sister Katie hated mice, snakes, pigeons. Mice scared her, snakes disgusted

her, and pigeons annoyed her. To say she was squeamish is to call Everest tall.

She couldn't tolerate even cartoon mice, saw nothing cute in their snouts and buck

teeth, nor in their bulging black eyes. She loathed even snakes in the

encyclopedia—as if they could suddenly hiss off the page and into her lap. Rubber

snakes she thought almost as bad as the real things; they were cold, slimy, jiggly

things, and they made her scream when she came upon one unexpectedly. I used

to put them in her books to replace her page markers, in her rolled socks, in the

bathroom medicine cabinet, on the doorknob to her closet—anyplace where she

would be relaxed and vulnerable.

       She hated pigeons because she despaired that our front door would ever be

free of their droppings, for they sheltered themselves beneath the brownstone

lintel in fair weather and in foul. Katie was besmirched by their leavings on more

than one occasion.

       "But it's good luck," I told her.

       "No," she said, "it's birdshit, and my raincoat will now have to go to the

cleaners again."

       Her raincoat was blue, and there was no disguise or remedy for the

grayish-green stain—no matter how hard she scrubbed—other than the magic

wrought by one-hour Martinizing.
       Now, there never were any mice or snakes in our house. Once a pigeon

flew into an upper window and broke its wings on the metal venetian blinds. It

hobbled around the floor of my brother's room until my mother swept it into a

brown bag from the A & P. Then she folded the top and neatly placed the bag in

our trash can while we children watched. Katie stood triumphant and hard-hearted

while Jimmy and I couldn't believe what was happening: our gentle mother was

sending a bird to its death. We knew the bag and other trash would be carried off

the next morning by our garbagemen and crushed in the sanitation truck.

       No mice or snakes in our house, but an occasional long worm would turn

up in the yard. I showed Katie one such spaghetti-like creature one day. Our yard

became drenched in shade some time around two-thirty on summer

afternoons. Katie would take the long beach chair and unfold it in her favorite

spot, facing the house but beneath the tall oak tree at the rear of the yard. Well, I

found this creature under a pile of the previous year's dank leaves. With a stick

from a tree, I managed to wrest it from its place. It hung from the tip in equal

lengths and it wiggled helplessly. I approached Katie, as she sat behind her book

(a novel by Helen MacInnes, if I remember rightly). I held the branch a few inches

from the book cover.

       "Katie, put down your book."

         She looked at my face over the top and then lowered her book.

         "Ahhh," she screamed. She jump and ran toward the house, leaving her

book on the ground beside the chair. I was tempted to toss the creature at her

head, but I held back, aware that she was bigger and faster and meaner than me. I

might get her now, but she'd get me in the end.

         Later, at dinner, she retaliated.

         "Daddy," she said, "could you ask Joseph to stop sticking ugly things like

worms in my face."

         "Joseph, stop sticking ugly things in Katie's face." He winked at me.

         "I'm serious," Katie said.

         "I know that, Kitten."

         "I think it is serious," my mother said.

         "Joseph," my father said more forcefully, "stop sticking ugly things in

Katie's face."

         I said nothing.

         "What ugly things are we talking about?" Mom asked.

         "He stuck a worm, a large, disgusting red and white worm about three feet


         "It was about twelve inches," I said.

       "But," said my father, "it was a worm and it was ugly and it was

disgusting, and you did put it in front of your sister's face. Am I right?"

       I said nothing.

       "Okay," my father said, "for the next week, Katie's chores are your chores,

and your chores are still your chores."

       I said nothing.

       Each time I cleared the table and wiped the dishes, I vowed revenge. Katie,

I felt, had broken the laws of the Geneva convention: she had squealed to an adult.

I never once squealed on her; for all the pinchings and the whacks in the back of

the head, for all the times she hid my baseball glove and ripped up my homework

to get me in trouble in school, never once did I squeal on her. When she stole my

milk money, I never turned her in.

       We had no mice in the house or snakes, but we did have water bugs. Water

bugs are like cockroaches, only they're bigger. And our water bugs were large

water bugs. They crackled when you stepped on them and left an ugly yellow puss

on the sole of your shoe. Katie always turned on the lights and made a lot of noise

whenever she went into the basement. But water bugs weren't only in the

basement. Sometimes these crunchy sojourners travelled to higher realms, like the

kitchen or the upstairs bathroom. If you'd tiptoe and carry a plastic bag, you could

catch them scurrying around. I caught one, one afternoon when I was home alone.

I wrapped it in a sandwich bag and put it in the freezer, hidden well behind the

frozen leftover meats that my mother stacked so carefully. After several days, I

retrieved it and placed it frozen inside a compartment of an ice cube tray. That

tray I put at the bottom of the stack.

         On Saturday evenings, dinner consisted of sandwiches we made ourselves

from deli meats: cold ham, roast beef, turkey, American cheese, bologna, and

salami. Saturday was a television night, and Mom always bought soda for the

evening. When Katie asked for a refill, when I was going from the living room, I

feigned such resentment about being her slave that my father stepped in.

         "Do the courteous thing or I'll whack you. Get your sister a refill of her


         "And a little ice," she added with intentional snootiness.

         I breathed in and breathed out my well-controlled resentment.

         When I returned, she had her glass of root beer and I awaited my revenge.

         When she screamed, it was the loudest scream I had ever heard. And she

tossed her glass in the air as well. I was in vengeance heaven.

         Mother and father acted as if a mad person had been released into their

midst. My father shook Katie by the shoulders, but she would not stop screaming.

Then Mother retrieved the glass, which lay empty of all except some ice, on the

side chair. She saw that a water bug, waving its antennae, had half emerged from

an ice cube. My mother is no fool. She turned to me. I played innocent as best I

could. Mother said nothing until Katie was quiet. Then she accused and I denied,

but no-one believed me. Katie was grievously upset and I was the cause; that's all

my father, my mother, my brother and sister could see. My words meant nothing.

Katie was sixteen and I was eleven, and she held all the cards. Each time I looked

her in the face, she started sobbing again.

       More chores for a month. She was on vacation and I was on permanent

kitchen patrol. Added to that was my having to sweep and scrub the stairway from

upstairs and the front hall that ran parallel to the living room and around back to

the kitchen. I worked these chores with a growing resentment, but I had learned a

clear lesson: revenge must be complete and I could not be linked to the ordeal that

Katie would suffer.

       I imagined greasing down the tile floor of the bathroom so she could slip

and break her spine, but that was a little exaggerated. I didn't want to kill her or

even maim her; I wanted to scare her out of her wits. And I wanted to do it and

still appear blameless. I imagined setting wires from a large battery to her bed and

then attaching her sheet to a bucket full of water, but that seemed more in keeping

with a cartoon than with the electric chair.

       While sweeping a dust ball in the back hall near the bathroom, the plan

came to me in one bold image. I was so taken by the picture that I shivered and

felt goose bumps on my arms. It was electric, and it was the first time I felt what I

later learned to relate to the sexual impulse. What I was feeling wasn't exactly

sexual, but it had the same psychological depth and power as when I'm about to

do something crazy and cruel, like scaring my wife and girls in the car when I take

a turn too fast or drive over a hundred: You start to do it and you know you

shouldn't, but the feeling's got the best of you and you do it anyway. Whenever I

thought of this plan in the next several weeks, I became excited.

       One Friday night a little before Jimmy's bedtime, when Mom was in the

basement putting on the last load of laundry and Dad had escaped to the bathroom

and Katie was in her bedroom changing because she was allowed to stay up late to

watch a Cary Grant movie, I picked a fight with my brother. He was eight at the

time and would fall in with wrestling and slow-motion boxing whenever I tempted

him. I was finishing my regular chore of rolling the family's socks, so naturally the

fight I picked was a sock fight. He was reading a Hardy Boys book and suddenly

was hit in the head, not too hard, by a pair of rolled socks. Boom!

       He looked up and grinned because I was grinning. I gunned the socks at

him quickly while he ran for cover behind Mom's velvet wing-chair. Then he

started collecting ammo and began tossing the socks at me. We went back and

forth with all the socks several times. He knocked over a lamp, and I called time

out to set the lamp straight in case Mom walked in, which is exactly what I


        When she did come in, she said nothing. Her look was enough to stop a


        "Pick'em up and go to bed, the two of you."

        "But it's not my bedtime yet," I said as I unloaded socks into the basket.

        "Jimmy was throwing socks and you were throwing socks, so the two of

you must be the same age."

        "Then you should let Jimmy stay up an extra half hour so he can be like


        "Bed," she motioned with her thumb.

        In my room, I listened. It took a while but my sister went downstairs. Then

a little later my parents came up. I lay in bed pretending to be asleep when my

mother came in. She kissed my head and covered my shoulders. She left the door

slightly ajar.

        I listened to their getting-to-bed sounds: gargles and flushes and the lid of

the laundry chute slapping shut. The television wasn't loud, but, with my ear on

the floor, I could make out Cary Grant's voice and Audrey Hepburn's. I put my ear

to the wall. Mom and Dad were whispering, but I couldn't make anything out. A

little later, their bed started squeaking.

        I sat on my bed and waited. I held a pair of rolled grey socks, my father's. I

had hidden them weeks ago waiting for the right moment to present itself. Now

was the time. The house grew more quiet as the night got darker and the traffic

outside became more and more intermittent. I listened at the wall again. My father

was snoring. I waited a few minutes more. I listened again.

        A spot outside my door creaks whenever anyone walks on it. I avoided it

by taking a huge stride. I had to reach back to pull my door to the precise opening,

as if I were still in there. The stairs were easy except for the fourth step. Holding

the rail, I moved from the fifth to the third. Everything was going well. When I

reached the hall, I felt unsure. So I chose crawling in the dark instead of tiptoeing.

I moved slowly. And though I was aware of the sounds from the television, I

heard nothing. All my attention was on the act of crawling. When I reached the

kitchen, I had to be poised in case a commercial came. Katie might come to the

kitchen for some ice cream or something, and all would be ruined.

        I waited for a commercial, and Katie didn't budge. When the ad was over, I

knew I had ten to fifteen minutes, but all I needed was one. I worked my way to

the arch so I could have a clear view of Katie and the sofa and the television

across from her. I breathed a few times to compose myself, for I knew this was my

only chance. I was ready.

       I aimed and shot the rolled socks between Katie and the television. The

socks moved hard and fast on the floor, and Katie must have caught sight of them,

as I had hoped, and she jumped to her feet and on to the couch and all the time

was screaming: "Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahhh!" Her screams were so loud that Mom and

Dad were on the steps and coming down in no time. I was waiting for them to

enter the living room at the other end, and then I dashed through the hall and up

the steps, quietly, three at a time. Upstairs, I moved on tiptoe to my room and left

the door ajar again. I put my ear to the floor.

       "Calm down, calm down" I could hear my father saying over and over.

"It'll be all right." Then someone turned off the television.

       "If it's a mouse, we'll catch him and get rid of him."

       Katie kept sobbing, and Mom apparently was holding her.

       "Here are my gray socks."

       That sent a quiver through me.

       "Are you sure you didn't mistake these for a mouse?"

         "No, Daddy, the mouse was moving, running in front of me like it was

terrified by something. I thought it was going to climb on the chair and it was big

and disgusting."

         "Well, I hope it wasn't a rat," Mother said.

         That set off another set of Katie's screams.

         After they had calmed her again, Dad spoke.

         "I still don't understand how these got here?"

         "Oh," Mom said, "the boys had a sock fight."

         "A sock fight?" my dad voiced not curiosity but incredulity. After a long

silence, he spoke again.

         "Maybe the mouse mistook these socks for another mouse, and fell in


         "It's not funny," my mother said.

         "I agree," my father said. "I'll pick up some traps in the morning. You go

back to your movie."

         "I can't watch my movie," she was crying again. "It's ruined."

         "It was only a mouse."

         "We hope," Mother said.

         "Ahhh!" Katie was screaming again. When she stopped finally, Mom said,

       "That's enough. We all know how you skeeve at these things, but you are

in no danger now."

       "Why don't you sit with her awhile," Dad said.

       "I don't need anybody. I'm going to bed."

       I heard Katie coming up, so I hastened under my covers and pretended to

be asleep. Then Mom came up and while she was in the bathroom Dad came up

and came straightway to my room. He opened the door. And I closed my eyes.

       He spoke in a low whisper:

       "I know what you did and how you did it, and I don't approve of it, I

certainly don't excuse it. It had better not happen again. But I'll also say, chalk one

up for the men's team."


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