30 September, 2015

Spiders: Some Thoughts

Eight. That’s how many spiders a person is said to ingest in an average year. The presumption is that everyone sleeps with his or her mouth open, I suppose. (How else would you ingest a spider if not in your sleep?) But even if we grant this much as true, how does a person not feel the tickling of eight little hairy legs picking their way through hills and valleys of facial fuzz? If one were a heavy sleeper, maybe. Otherwise, I’m not buying it. Spiders could, theoretically, descend on silk threads in the dead of night, like Navy SEALs from helicopters, into the pit of a sleeper’s gaping craw, but this seems exceptionally unlikely. Not that their aim is bad. Arachnids like warm, dark places. A mouth also has a dampness factor. Who wants a wet cave when two dry ones — the ears — lie just downhill and a couple of slightly weedy ones — the nostrils — are right next door?

No one touts figures for how many spiders lodge themselves irretrievably in human orifices. We’d all call bullshit if they did. Hospital ERs don’t fill with panicked patients begging for arachnid extractions, and few people sleep with screens over their head holes. The idea that spiders are simply drawn to mouths, in which they’re sleepily pulped and swallowed, sounds silly to me.

I don’t have any particular fear of spiders. This is good, since “they” also tell us there’s always one within five feet of you. Small spiders, even if they had a mind to, lack the mandibular fortitude to pierce human skin. The bigger ones tend not to be aggressive unless you make sudden movements into their territory. Generally hermetic creatures, spiders are content to hide within walls and under floorboards, between rafters and behind refrigerators, for the duration of their lives. I prefer a few spiders around than a thousand insects, so whenever one happens to cross the path of my domestic duties I stop what I’m doing and perform a relocation. Scooping it up (or trapping it under a cup, if it’s a potentially venomous variety) for transplant to an out-of-the-way site is no major operation. I don’t understand the instinct to squash or spray. One leaves a disgusting mess, the other releases toxins into your immediate environs. Neither of these seem preferable to simply knowing there’s a spider over there.

Don’t think this is an effort to brag about how enlightened I am. I once put on a shirt that had been folded in a drawer, only to find every visible inch of my skin suddenly teeming with waves of white specks. Spider babies. I promptly tried to shimmy out of my skin. When that didn’t work, I ran to the shower, fully clothed, and washed the itsy-bitsy spiders out. I left the shirt in a wad under the running water for another twenty minutes before re-entering the bathroom. For years thereafter I had intermittent nightmares about spider-blankets, spider-socks, spider-pillows, and spider-underwear. I habitually turned clothes inside-out before putting them on. I never found anything but lint balls, so eventually I gave up looking.

Of course, I’m fascinated by spiders’ grotesque forms. It’s one of those things — they’re so alien that they’re kind of alluring. Like Anne Hathaway. I can watch their biomechanical motions for hours, rapt with revulsion, and often do. Several have taken up residence in my window, which faces north and catches a decent breeze that blows all kinds of delicious flying bugs into it. The perfect place for a web. At least until a good, driving rain. Like Angelinos, who tolerate the occasional earthquake for the privilege of mild weather and a bit of cultural cachet, the spiders in my window know the first rule of real estate and rebuild accordingly.

The webs that currently enmesh my window have been, for the most part, difficult to see in certain light. Now that it’s mosquito season, though, they are revealed by a bandolier of desiccated husks — a diagonal swath of dead Anopheles like a beaded curtain in the wind. There are too many corpses to count. Other bugs the spiders charge out for, trussing them with the practiced dexterity of long-fingered department-store gift wrappers, then haul the parcel away, out of sight, for leisurely consumption. Instead of feeding on the mosquitoes, the spiders leave them out to rot, like so many unwanted hors d’oeuvres at a banquet, cluttering the tables. Apparently spiders dislike the Winged Plague as much as I do. But that’s a whole other essay.

10 September, 2015

Mouse in the House

Two turds and a drying yellow puddle at my elbow, noticed with a start while I sipped my morning coffee, were the first sign that we’d had an overnight guest. Disgust at finding mouse excretions on the surface that must serve as my kitchen counter, writing desk, and breakfast table took a back seat to amazement: How did the little bastard get up here, anyway? I’d already removed the evidence and sterilized the entire desktop by the time my cellmate woke up. He asked the same question, only I got the impression he didn’t entirely believe me.

The following day I found a single mouse dropping on my left shower shoe, under the bunk. Somewhat perversely, I left it laying. My cellmate got an eyeful as soon as he wiped the sleep away. See, see, I nearly pleaded. There really was a mouse! I suggested he move his packages of ramen from the desk’s bottom, floor-level cubby, into his metal footlocker, at least until we know the rodent threat has passed.

After that we promptly forgot all about it. Until Tuesday night.

We’d just watched my guiltiest of TV pleasures, America’s Got Talent, and I was rising to change over to The Daily Show when my cellmate blurted, “There’s that damn mouse!”

I looked down from the top bunk just in time to see a drab little shadow dash diagonally across our floor. It disappeared into under-bed dimness beside a Rubbermaid wash basin.

“We need to catch him,” I said, “and put him outside.”

With his legs retracted up to the mattress and a startled look on his face, my cellmate practically squeaked. “Be my guest. I ain’t touching it.”

A middle-aged man in a maximum-security prison, terrified of a two-ounce ball of fur. Stereotype: obliterated.

Someone might as well have soundtracked the slapstick scene that followed with a frantic Vaudeville piano score. I shuffled, enormous and ungainly, from one side of the cell to the other, in pursuit of the four-legged blur. At one point it hid beneath the sole of my empty boot at the food of the bunk. I should’ve been able to snatch him up then but was a millisecond too slow. He careered between my legs, darting across my foot as he went for an exit — the two-inch gap under the cell door. In my flailing, a fingertip grazed his sleek coat.

“You petted him!” laughed my cellmate, but nervously. Our tiny tresspasser remained at large.

Next it was my turn to be greeted with unbelievable news first thing in the morning. “I thought I heard a noise,” he related to me before emerging all the way from under his covers, “so I opened my eyes and, sure enough, there he was, that little fucker. He climbed right up that leg of the desk and crawled onto your shelf. So I laid here and watched, and after about a minute he came over and sat there, at the edge of the shelf, staring.”

“He crawled up the desk? You mean right here?” I pointed, skeptical. But when I pulled every item out of my cubby — from soapdish and cotton swabs, to saltines and Folgers — I discovered the evidence. One package of chili-flavored ramen noodles, all the way at the back of the shelf, bore a mouse-sized hole. Its contents, the brick of dry noodles, had been eaten half away. Now it was personal.

I improvised a barrier out of a couple of old file folders and scavenged Scotch tape scraps, which I folded over my cubby’s entire front opening. The trap I set was a cleaned-out peanut butter jar with a single dollop smeared across the inside bottom. I propped it horizontally on its lid so that, whenever our nocturnal visitor scurried in for a nosh, the jar would tip and make a small hollow bonk. As light of a sleeper as I am, this was sure to wake me. I could then leap from bed to seal him in his holding cell until morning. The plan was as foolproof as my folder-barrier was mouseproof.

Red digits on the clock radio glowed 12:46 when my eyes shot open. Had I dreamed it or had there actually been a plastic clattering just a moment earlier? Stealthily as possible, I took a raptor’s vantage point high above, stepping not onto the floor, where any mouse would flee the sight of my tremendous foot, but onto the stool near the center of the cell. I strained to see in the dark. Propped there like a ridiculous statue, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, I waited for movement.

It didn’t take long. The mouse appeared at the corner of the desk and sped into my cellmate’s cubby. But there was no longer any ramen there. I descended into my slip-ons and grabbed a rag in which to net him.

He launched himself in an arc and hid behind the trash can. I moved the can. He darted to the opposite side of the desk. I pursued. The chase went on for several minutes. At last I decided on a different tactic — that of the patient cat. Squatting near the door, where I had an unobstructed view of most of the cell floor, I held very, very still.

If you’ve never seen a mouse loose in a domestic environment when it thinks it’s not being watched, you would be surprised at the athletic prowess such a creature has. Also at its daring. For nearly two hours I hunched in the shadows and watched a small furry acrobat walk electrical-cord tightropes, scale sheer vertical surfaces, leap headlong from heights more than ten times his body length, and fearlessly tread wide-open spaces, in the spotlight of the cell window. Multiple chances to seize him presented themselves, yet I kept waiting to see one more trick, to avail myself of the next moment he made himself vulnerable. At some point, I even sat down on my footlocker and leaned back to enjoy the show.

The overhead light flicked on at the 2 AM custody count. The two guards probably thought I was smoking, flicking ashes into the toilet bowl, because why else sit near the door, half naked, in the middle of the night? When the fluorescent glare went out again a few seconds later, I’d gone blind.

Unable to see, I had my first chance to think introspectively about all this. What was I doing? Not that I had anywhere to be that morning; I’d committed to Sunday being a rare sleeping-in day. But how desperate was I to catch this mouse, if I was willing to forego large quantities of rest in favor of exorcising its presence? Was this mouse the white whale to my Ahab?

My mental cost-benefit analysis determined that this vigil was worthwhile, though. I’d woken too many times, on previous nights, thinking I heard rodential noodle-feastings. This could not stand. A man needs his rest, even if that man isn’t doing crap the next day. This ends tonight, I vowed.

While my cellmate slept soundly, I, with renewed vigor, stalked and pounced and scrambled the whole length and breadth of our cubical domicile, driving the mouse under this, behind that, and around that other thing — all to no avail. After he vanished somewhere in the nether regions of the bunk, I sat tensely for a full forty minutes, anticipating his emergence. With no sign of my wily adversary, it seemed my vow had been for naught. So I amended it to: This ends tonight (provided that he reappears by 3 AM to chase down, because, really, I’m too drowsily befuddled to know if he’s even still in here, and may be wasting precious dream time with this Byron the Night Stalker schtick), or possibly some other time.

Thus I turned in and fell immediately into such a deep sleep that my cellmate had to knock on the bunk for me to sit up for the 5 AM count. Blissful, uninterrupted, late sleep was not to be mine, however, simply because I gave up.

My wee nemesis, emboldened by his victory and probably thinking that he had evaded me for good and all, made a critical misstep shortly after 8 AM. I erupted out of unconsciousness to a papery scraping. At first I thought my cellmate was stirring at an uncharacteristically early hour, but when I heard the sound a second time I opened my eyes and, instead, saw him — the mouse — clamber up one leg of the desk and effortlessly slip behind a crease in what I’d naively believed was my impenetrable shielding.

I sprang, thinking, I’ve got you this time, and yanked the folders down. Item by item, again, I cleared everything off my shelf, assured of imminent success. I was coming for him. He had nowhere to run.

He ran. Again, I followed, moving all the same large objects I had before. This time, though, I had the presence of mind to stuff my rolled-up coat under the door. There would be no escaping. Our rapid game of Hide and Seek Tag lasted an hour. All the while my cellmate slept, oblivious to the action going on around him.

Maybe I wore my quarry out. Maybe it was just dumb luck. But when I finally cornered the mouse and flicked my rag in his direction he bolted right for me. He grazed my hand and reversed course. He saw my other hand coming for him. He turned again, confounded by mortal fear, zigging when he should have zagged. My hand came down. I had him.

Soft and squishy, he was breathing so fast that it felt like a vibration in my palm. My fingers closed around him and placed him in the jar he’d visited earlier. I slapped the lid on and took a breath of my own. We locked eyes awhile after he calmed, beady black orbs taking in the horrible sight of his gigantic captor. Did he wonder if I planned to devour him? Did he have any concept at all of what was happening? Do mice understand trapped? I set the jar down under an unwashed pair of pants in my laundry basin so he’d have darkness to feel safer in, washed my hands, and laid back down to sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Later, when I finally awoke to face the day, I made some instant oatmeal and set the jar in front of me on the desk. It seemed like the right thing to do, having breakfast with him, showing that there were no hard feelings. My cellmate, for his part, remained pressed as far against the opposite wall as physics permitted.

Breakfast done and 11:15 count cleared, I pushed our call button and took my captive out to the housing unit’s control module. “I can’t share the cell with this guy anymore,” I told the bewildered guards there. The jar was in my back pocket. “I absolutely refuse. He keeps me up half the night, eats my food, refuses to clean up after himself. You’ve got to do something. Either he goes or I go.”

They blinked a couple of times. One asked, “Are we talking about the same guy here?” They knew my cellmate to be no trouble at all.

I produced the jar. “No, him.”

They opened the front door of the housing unit. I treaded over to the yard’s short grass and crouched. After all this build-up it felt almost wrong to set the mouse loose so unceremoniously. I spun the lid off. He moved right away to the mouth of the jar and sniffed. Although I’d poked several holes in the lid the day before, in preparation, I’m sure the outside air smelled better than the staler stuff he’d been inhaling. Both of us squinted in the morning sunlight. We’d had a long night. I aimed the jar at the opposite side of the housing unit and brought it nearer to the ground. Like a fired projectile, the mouse rocketed out with a kick and bounded three times above the green before I lost sight of him.

We joked that the mouse was so smart that he might find his way back. It wouldn’t surprise me. As a precautionary measure I’ve been leaving my coat along the bottom of the door every night since. I’m taking no chances. Our neighbor spotted a mouse slipping under his door the following morning, and of course I wondered. If it is the same one I evicted, I’m glad he’s found another cell to haunt. I don’t have the money to keep giving ramen away.