When you buy an old house it comes with lots of charm – which you wanted – and other things, surprising things, that you either didn’t know you wanted or you don’t want at all. Jamie’s and my lovely Dutch Colonial came with hand-leaded windows, chestnut floors, 2 acres of land, a stray cat, and a family of mice. We kept the cat intentionally and named him Taffy after his beautiful coloring, but wanted the family of rodent squatters to leave.
For starters, it wasn’t a Beatrix Potter, nuclear family – widowed Mrs. Mouse and her adorable, fatherless children; it was as if every relative Mrs. and Mr. Mouse had left back home sailed from Mouse Island to the New World searching for a better life in my basement. Taffy viewed it as a challenge to which he rose like a Hemingway character but he soon grew bored and slithered through the cat door in search of bigger game.
“Get snap mouse traps,” my mother advised matter-of-factly when I told her about all of the extra mouths to feed. “It’s quick.”
“Ohhhhhhh, I don’t think so. I don’t want to kill them. I just want them to leave.”
“Well, they won’t leave on their own. Get traps and don’t be so squeamish. They are vermin. I’ll come over and bait them for you.”
“Bait? You mean lure them in under false pretenses and then kill them? That sounds like something the Mafia would do.”
She sighed and hung up the phone.
“Get glue traps,” the man in the hardware store suggested. “No little decapitated corpses with them.”
“Glue traps?” I asked.
“Yeah, they walk across and get stuck and starve to death.”
I fled from the store in horror. I refused to behave like the Commandant of the prisoner-of-war camp in Bridge Over the River Kwai, rodents or not. I called PETA who sold me tiny, plastic Havahart traps which I baited with peanut butter crackers. At first it worked and I caught two or three, but like a Merry Melodies cartoon, the mice soon figured out that if one held the door open, the second could grab the cracker which they could then share.
Jamie came home one day with the advice that we put Mason jars of Karo syrup around. The mouse would smell it, fall in, and then drown.
“Drown them?” I gasped.
“Well, yeah, but they drown in sweet stuff which they love.”
“That sounds like something Mengele would do. Who suggested that?”
“My sister, Margot. She said it works great.”
“She would,” I muttered not quite under my breath.
As I couldn’t bring myself to do anything proactive I ignored the problem for weeks, hoping it would resolve itself. Then one day, opening book boxes, I found a cozy mouse nest created by shredding my autographed copy of Karl Lagerfeld’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Furious I ran upstairs where Jamie was watching the news.
“The little bastards ate my book!” I shrieked to him. “Now they are going to die!” Jamie muted the tv and tilted his head to face me. He was pursing his lips and looking unconvinced. “You won’t kill them,” he said.
“Yes, I will!” I assured him. “When they start chewing books they have come to the end of the line.”
In my fury, I poured Karo pale corn syrup into a Mason jar. It came about halfway up, enough for a mouse to swim in and then get stuck. I put it in the basement pantry cupboard and closed the door.
By the next morning, however, I regretted my rash actions. Before I left for work I checked the Karo but no one had fallen in. “Good, Margot is wrong. It probably doesn’t work,” I said to Taffy. “I will wash out this jar after work just in case.”
But that night I forgot to check; I didn’t remember at all until a few days had passed and I opened the pantry to get paper towels. Immediately I knew something was wrong. Pushing aside the peanut butter I saw a tiny face with panic-stricken dark eyes staring at me. A mouse was caught in the syrup.
“Oh, no!” I howled, dropping the roll. I pulled out the jar and the tiny grey animal struggled to no avail in the sticky mess. “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed to the mouse. “I will get you out of there right away.”
I dashed up the steps to the kitchen and grabbed a spatula from a drawer then opened the back door. I thought I would release the mouse outside in the driveway.
I sat on the curb and ran the spatula around the edges of the jar in an attempt to free the mouse’s tiny pink feet, but the syrup had begun to dry and he was stuck fast. I couldn’t slide the spatula between the paw and the glass and I feared cutting off his little foot. Imagining him with a Lilliputian wooden cane like Tiny Tim, I immediately stopped scraping to think of something else. Watching the terrified animal stare at me punched holes in my heart and I knew I had to save it. Putting down the jar, I returned to the kitchen and filled a pitcher with hot, soapy water. Returning outside with the pitcher and rubber gloves, I poured water a tablespoon or so at a time into the jar hoping it would melt the rigid syrupy rime.
Eventually the mouse’s struggling, combined with the softening syrup, yielded results. He was free. I spilled him onto the grass just as Jamie pulled into the driveway. I didn’t look up as I watched the mouse attempt to flee; he wasn’t going anywhere because the dirt was sticking to his syrupy feet and making Mafia-like cement shoes. I picked him up by the tail and dipped his feet into the hot soapy water.
Jamie sauntered across the tarmac and peered over my shoulder. “What are you doing?” he asked then seeing the pitcher and the rodent he exclaimed in shock, “Are you washing a mouse?”
“Yes, I have to,” I snapped. “Your stupid sister’s stupid idea nearly killed him.”
Mercifully Jamie refrained from stating that killing him had been the point and sat down on the curb next to me and petted Taffy who had sat down next to him and watched me intently. “Look, Taf, your mother is washing cat food.”
“Don’t tell him that! I am trying to save this mouse not prepare an appetizer for Taffy.”
“Why are you washing it?”
“When I released him from the jar the syrup was still clinging to him and it picked up so much dirt it’s like he’s wearing snowshoes. He can’t get away. Take Taffy inside. I don’t want him catching this mouse.”
Jamie picked up the cat and disappeared into the house. In about ten minutes I heard the screen door slam, then footsteps and felt Jamie’s shadow over me.
“How is Cat Food?” he asked, gesturing to the mouse, still frozen in fear or, more likely, still stuck to the ground.
“He won’t go away. He’s frightened and stressed. I am afraid something will kill him out here.”
“Hold on.” Jamie turned toward the back door and entered the house. He returned in about ten minutes carrying a plastic shoebox. “Here,” he said handing it to me.
I looked inside; it was filled with shredded newspaper and a crumbled Chips Ahoy. “Put him in there and stick it in the garage. He can rest until he feels better then he will leave when he is ready.”
It was the best idea I could imagine. “Come on, Cat Food,” I said lifting the mouse by his tail and placing him gently into the pile of newspaper. His whiskers twitched as he smelled the cookie.
I handed the box to Jamie who walked down the sloped driveway into the garage. He placed the box gently on the work bench, turned, and closed the door.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go get burgers. Cat Food will leave when he’s ready.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I asked slamming the BMW’s door.
“Then he’ll live out there with all of the other critters,” he replied starting the ignition.
I never saw Cat Food again. Looking in the box a few days later I saw that both cookie and mouse were gone. I haven’t trapped a mouse since. We had the house’s foundation dug away and restuccoed and the mouse problem disappeared.