We’d made it most the summer without the air, but at last we break. It’s August, and rather than another night spent sweating in sheets, I reach toward the register, flick the switch from “Off” to “Cool” and wait for the welcome hum of the air conditioner.
Only this time the hum is a rattle – a sound hardly welcome at all.
“What’s that?” my three-year-old shouts when I return to his bedroom. I’d interrupted story time to take swift AC action, but already, the rattle is posing a larger problem than the heat.
“That’s the air,” I shout in reply, though I know this rock-in-a-tin-can rattle is surely more than air.
“Here, find Waldo,” I say, handing him the nearest book. “I’ll be right back.”
I excuse myself to the backyard to investigate, leaning over the edge of the deck to peer into the air conditioner unit’s fan whirring just a few feet below.
After a glance, I find the source of our rattle: a beady-eyed mouse with his head jammed tight in the grate. He’s freshly dead, though his positioning – claws gripping the bars, body dangling – gives the impression that he’s still somehow clinging to life.
My response is audible, and since the rattling has come to a halt as a result of the mouse having been hurled out of blade’s reach, I can only imagine what my neighbors must think of my squeal.
I avert my eyes, and as I do, catch a glimpse of my son through the blinds of his bedroom window. He’s hunched forward in his Packers pajamas – committed to finding the always-elusive Waldo, and blissfully unaware of the life and death drama playing out just a window away.
The next day, while cleaning gutters, I’m forced to face that mouse again. By now the flies have gathered, and it’s more than I can bear.
I descend the ladder, reach for the broom, and begin prodding at her still-stuck head with its bristles. At last she drops, only to be cradled in the now-motionless fan blade. Though there is no outward sign of injury, I’m aware of my role as inadvertent executioner. After all, I’m the one who flicked the switch that started the fan that led to that poor creature’s death. There’s no getting around it: I have mouse blood on my hands.
A few hours later, I find my family playing in the sprinkler beneath the backyard pines.
“She came back,” my wife whispers, nodding to the air conditioner unit. “I turned on the air and the fan shot her right back into the grate. I had to push her back down again.”
I nod solemnly, wondering how long this can possibly go on.
There’s a way to tell this story so that we might laugh. Not the one where the cat came back, but the one where the mouse came back, instead. The one where that post-mortem vermin scared the bejesus out of me every time I dared turn on the air. Call it what you will: poetic justice, just desserts, another mishap between mice and men.
But in my household we don’t laugh because that’s not the way I tell it.
Last night before bed, I regaled my son with a story about Waldo and his new friend, Mrs. Mouse.
“Dad,” he interrupted mid-way through, “it’s hot in here.” I nodded, sighed, and opened the window a little bit wider.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds. In spring of 2018, his latest work, The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, will be published. Hollars is the director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and an associate professor of English at UWEC. He lives in Eau Claire with his wife, their children, and their dog. For more about B.J. visit www.bjhollars.com