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13th & B.

The rats that play up and down 13th Street are dog-sized, but even they don't scare the drug dealer off our corner. Or the countless bridge and tunnel kids that come to our block seeking that new kind of heroin, the strong stuff, strong enough to snort. The dealer wouldn't be a problem, except one day as I unlock and push open the front door to our building I nearly run into the asshole and his side kick as they are coming out. I run up the stairs past the first floor apartment where a junky lives. Loud music blares. I think, Fucking Maria. She must have buzzed him in to score. That's just stupid and suicidal. Even I know that you shouldn't buy so close to home.

From that day on, the asshole and his sidekick hang out on our stoop among the rats, the trash, and the shit.

Our apartment is in a corner building and it's pretty spacious, for a two bedroom in the East Village. I'm a slob and Tina is neat, but she tolerates the mess that creeps out of my bedroom and makes its way into the common living space. She accepts the mold I inadvertently grow at the bottom of dirtied coffee mugs and the old plates of bow tie pasta slowly turning green. The East Village was built up quick and fast, tenement housing, on swampland. So everything about our building was cheaply made and is still ill cared for. It has beat up hardwood floors that tip to one side and mice inside the walls. When I close my eyes at night, I can hear the shifting sound of drywall as the mice play and look for entrance holes. Sometimes I hear a skirmish, when two or more of them cross paths.

We are the only apartment without cats. We are also the only tenants complaining to our landlord about mice. An exterminator comes once a month to spray the cockroaches. He's young, probably 20, tall and thin with bleached out hair, hair almost as bleached out as mine. I imagine he dropped out of college, and moved to the city to play guitar in a band. He most likely doesn't know more about pests than what his boss told him in his interview or what he read about in some instructional pamphlet about how to get rid of roaches. But for now, he's all I've got. I watch him stick his metal hose into every crack of our kitchen and bathroom. As he does so, he explains to me that our problem isn't just that we don't have a hunter living with us. He says, Sure, your neighbors' cats kill the mice that get inside, but mice have a good sense of smell, too. The mice smell the cats and stay away. They come in here because it's safe and warm. He says, You're lucky. It's probably just mice living in these walls. Not rats.

How do you know they aren't rats?

You would know if you had rats. Trust me. They aren't scared of nothing.

But they're really, really loud.

You'd see their markings, the scratches and teeth marks.

Teeth marks?

I think about Monique, who lives south of Houston. She woke up in the middle of one night to pee and found a rat on her table eating a package of ramen. When she turned on the light, it just looked up at her for a second and then kept right on eating. She felt like it was pissed because she was disturbing it.

I ask, How big do the rats really get? I swear I've seen them on our block as big as little dogs, you know, lapdogs.

Well, they can get as big as medium-sized dogs. The roof rats can.

Roof rats?

Yeah, you've got three kinds of rats in the city. First you've got your sewer rats. They never come up. Then there are the common city rats. The ones that live in the basements, the ones you see in the subway. They run around on the street and eat your trash, crawl in your walls, eat through your floorboards. The third kind, you don't want to mess with. That's the roof rats. They live on the roofs above us, hopping between the tops of buildings, surviving off of what they can find up high. They're the meanest.

I ask, The roof rats don't come down into the building?

He sees that I'm a little freaked out.

No. Not really. But you, you've got mice.
                             ------- 


A few blocks south of us, on Avenue B, there's a small vacant lot that needs some attention, that's tucked between two buildings. One night, when Tina and I head south on B, we hear squeals and screeches coming from this lot. When I turn my head, squint, and try to make out where the sound is coming from, I see broken concrete, growing, moving, quivering, with dirty brown and grey fur. I see concrete scraped by long reptilian tails. The walls move. The abandoned couch in the corner moves. My eyes finally find focus in the yellow dim light. Rats play, jumping in and out of the abandoned trashcans. They crawl over each other and the couch. They scurry over the broken bits of concrete cluttering the lot. Hundreds of rats. Thousands.

I grab Tina's hand. We scream and sprint past.
                             --------- 


Another night, when I ride my bike down 13th, I see what I think is a poodle running next to me. He's playful and reminds me of riding my bike as a kid with dogs nipping at my heels. As this memory washes over me and I wonder what kind of person lets their dog play outside, all alone on the street, I see that it's not a poodle at all. It's a rat, skipping. This is the game he plays when the sun goes down in the city.
                              --------- 


On garbage night I'm sitting with Evelyn on our green couch. I've invited her upstairs for some wine. She's my downstairs neighbor on the second floor, a woman I knew in college. She was a comparative lit major, but now she works as a dominatrix in a dungeon on Wall Street. I complain about our mouse problem.

She says, Geri, we've never seen a mouse. We hear them in the walls, but they don't come inside.

You don't get droppings or anything?

No, never.

She asks, Do you want to borrow Ava's cat for a couple of days?

Ava's her roommate.

She says, Maybe if you get the smell of a cat in here they'll be scared off.

I consider this option but know I need a more permanent solution.

Thanks, I'll think about it.
                              -------- 


Instead, Tina and I live with the mice and they make their way into our kitchen, chew their way into the bags of bread on the counter, and shit inside our cupboards, between our coffee mugs and glasses. We find mice droppings everywhere, inside boxes of cookies and at the bottom of the empty sink. Tina carefully gathers these droppings and discards them. She is methodical, using one paper towel to do the pickup and another to sterilize every inch we imagine they have scurried across. We set up wooden traps, the kind my parents used in our basement for the lone mouse that found its way into our house, seeking warmth from the Michigan winters. Country mice are cuter than city mice but not as smart. Night after night, Tina and I set up several traps, with various food to attract the mice. Morning after morning, we wake up to find the food gone, yet the trap isn't set off. We even wrap a piece of ham around one of the baits. The next morning it's all gone, not a trace of ham. The trap hasn't been triggered.

One night while Tina and I are watching TV I feel something rub against me. I look down and see a baby mouse, lost, meandering across my arm. From the direction it's traveling, and my position on the couch, it must have come out of the gap between the green seat cushion and the armrest. It travels, without purpose, onto the back of the couch, next to my head. I lunge forward in my seat and turn to watch where it goes. I'm in shock as I watch the fur ball casually make its way back into the frame of the couch, through a hole in the upholstery.

I stand up and scream. I'm not scared, as much as I am horrified that a litter of mice must be living in our couch.
                               --------- 


Turtle Tim, our super, is standing in our grubby kitchen. He's tall, a sculptor who has a graduate degree from a fancy art school in South Carolina. Like lots of us in New York City, he has found a way to make a living that has nothing to do with what he studied at school or what he really wants to do in life. He's wearing a pair of jeans with splashes of paint all over them--from painting walls, not canvases. If he weren't such a terrible super, I'd consider flirting with him.

I'm excited to tell Turtle Tim about the baby mice living in our couch. Tina lets me tell this part of the story solo.

I point to the traps, So we laid them down here, where we saw the droppings. We bought them from the bodega on the ground floor.

I pick up one of the wooden traps with the metal gate that snaps when a mouse steps on it. It's been licked clean.

So we first started with the obvious, Swiss cheese, holes and all. When that didn't work we moved onto peanut butter, the smooth kind by Jiffy.

Turtle Tim says, Peanut butter is good.

The mice walked off with all the cheese and even licked the trap clean, of every atom of peanut butter.

Yeah, New York City mice aren't like other mice. Neither are the rats. They're smart.

He says, It's all the poison they've been given, for generation after generation. If we want to trap the mice, glue traps are the way to go. Or even better, I can drop poison down.

I ask, What happens with the poison?

He says, Well, they digest it and then they go back to the nest and die. The other mice come along and eat the poisoned mouse, and that's how you get the whole colony.

He seems most pleased with this strategy. I think back a couple of years, when I took a semester off and lived in New York City for the first time. We had mice in that apartment on 7th street. It was way nicer than this place, but what I've learned is that most places in the city get rodents. I once came home to that apartment to find a sleeping drugged out mouse on my pillow. He was cute, all curled up in a ball. At the time, I thought he was sick, some sort of mouse flu. Now, I think, that must have been poison.

I say, So there will be dead mice floating around in the walls. And what if they don't make it back to the colony in time? Well be finding dead mice in our cabinets?

Tim says, Maybe.

Tina asks, What about the glue traps?

He says, They're real sticky, industrial glue. I'll put them down along the molding on the counter, where they run, or find an open hole in the wall and get them when they come out. The mice run along it and they get stuck.

I say, That's horrible.

Tina asks, Do they ever drag the traps?

She's so practical. I wouldn't have thought of that.

He says, No, not usually. The traps are big enough, they usually get fully stuck and aren't mobile. If they do move them, it's not far. The more they move, the more they get stuck. Don't worry, you'll find the trap.

I ask, Then what?

I want him to tell us to give him a page.

He says, You dispose of it.

Tina says, Dispose of it?

Yeah, throw it away in the trash.

I say, You mean pick it up and put it outside, in the trash cans?

Yep.

I say, They can't get your fingers can they? Don't mice have rabies?

I look to Tina.

I say, In Michigan they carry rabies.

Turtle Tim says, No, they're stuck. They can't do anything.

I ask, Then what happens?

What do you mean?

I say, Once they're in the trash can, what's next?

Tina and I listen very carefully to this part of the plan.

Well, they could get crushed in the trash, or if they survive the drive to the garbage heap, they eventually starve to death. But most likely, a rat will come along and they'll become dinner for the rat.

Tina and I decide to go for the glue traps.
                            --------- 


Turtle Tim sets them up for us. They're five inches by ten and made out of heavy-duty black plastic. He pulls the protective covering off and places a couple on the counter and a few on the floor, near the floorboards. I delicately touch one, and discover that my finger sticks firmly to the sticky side. It hurts to pull it off. Turtle Tim takes off, leaving us a half dozen extra new traps. When I ask why so many he explains that we'll need to keep setting them out, as you usually only get one or two mice per trap.

He says, That's why the poison is a better method.
                            --------- 


The next morning when I wake up, I hear the faint sounds of a squeaking metal fan coming from the kitchen. At first I think maybe it's the refrigerator fan. After a moment of lying in bed, I remember the mice. I remember the traps. Walking into the kitchen, before I can see what we've gotten, I make out that the high-pitched squeal is coming from the corner of the counter. I look and see that the trap has moved a few inches. A gray mouse ball of fur is stuck. One little foot dangles off the non-sticky plastic edge. The rest of him is glued tight.

He looks at me. He isn't moving, just squeaking in my direction. I wonder if he thinks I'm coming to help him.

Tina's still asleep. I knock on her door.

Tina, We got one. There's a mouse on the trap. It's crying. Well, screaming.

Tina, still half asleep, drags herself into the kitchen to look.

She asks, What now?

Tina, we can't leave it like this. We have to kill it.

I rummage under the sink and pull out my new hammer, a Christmas gift from my dad.

I say, We have to smash its skull. It's only right.

There can't be that much blood. But we can put it in a paper bag.

It won't make a mess and we don't have to look at it.

But how are you going to aim?

She's thinking this through carefully. I just want it to stop squeaking.

We both just stand there for a moment, looking at the gray ball of fur. It has stopped squirming.

I say, I got it. You go ahead and get ready for work.

While Tina goes into the bathroom to shower I slowly pick up the trap by the corner, the one furthest away from the mouse. I'm careful not to touch the stickiness with my fingers. I don't want to get a pinky stuck next to the mouse. The little guy is firmly stuck on his side, his tail making a perfect S shape that contrasts with the trap. I slide the trap in a thick paper bag and hold the bag from the bottom, flat, like I'm holding a pizza. I walk slowly, steadily, like a little girl carrying a stack of books on her head. I stay focused on the bag, trying to remember where its head is. I'm going to do my best to hit him in the head the first time. I can do this.

I gently place the bag on the ground, visualizing where the mouse is in relation to the bag.

I need music for this. I turn on the stereo. I've never killed anything before. I peek into the bag, making sure that the trap, really his head, hasn't shifted. I can barely look at him. He's still staring at me. I quickly close the opening trying to visualize the position of his head through the brown paper. I sit down on the floor, cross-legged. I lift the hammer, turning the head flat, parallel to the ground, to get more surface area. Then I position the metal head a few feet above the bag.

I let it hover in the air, the way black belts hover their hands above a brick before they karate chop. I tense up my arms and start swinging, directly onto the spot I hope is his head. I stop a couple of inches from the bag. I go to Tina's door and knock hard.

She opens up and I see that she's almost ready for work. She's wearing an ironed pencil skirt, matching blazer, a white button up shirt, nylons, and black leather flats.

I say, I can't. I can't do it. I'm sorry.

She sees my set up. The hammer on the ground rests by the paper bag.

Tina walks over to the bag and bends to the ground. She kneels like she is about to pray. Her legs easily fold underneath her. She picks up the hammer. Without flinching, she slowly aims and then taps the bag, once, twice, then a third time. She strikes the paper bag with the hammer like she is easing a finishing nail into some delicate piece of furniture. With each hit there is a solid thud of hammer hitting mouse, then plastic, then wood. She puts the hammer down and stands up, smoothing out her skirt. She finishes getting ready. I watch her put on her olive-gray peacoat and throw her leather satchel over her shoulder.

I say, I'll throw it away.

She heads toward the door.

I'll kill the next one, I add.
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Article Details
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Author:Ulrey, Geri
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2015
Words:3534
Previous Article:If This Is the Little Death.
Next Article:Introduction to the artwork.
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