I see her first outside Forster’s, smoking a cigarette and eating a nectarine. She’s squinting through the drizzle, watching midmorning traffic on 15. It’s not really her, though. That night, I dream I’m being devoured by white rats in a white room.
Next morning, I can swear she’d been eating the cigarette and smoking the nectarine. I fall asleep in the elevator. Forster’s burnt down eight years ago last July. A multi-level parking garage went up in its place. My uncle’s company did the work. At least, they started it. They found his body half-submerged in the foundation concrete a week into construction.
That night, I hear the mouse trap in the pantry spring. Chair scraping the linoleum, I push myself up from the kitchen table and peer in.
It’s empty, save for a tuft of white fur.
Katie, who tends bar on the weekends her boy is with his daddy, warns whoever will listen that everybody is gonna look out for themselves in the end. She says this often. Katie smells like Lucky Strikes and grenadine and knows too much. But Katie does not know her.
It’s windy all night, and the big pine brushes its yellowing boughs against the house. It’s dying; it’s been dying for years now. A man from the township stopped by, once, and mumbled about the safety hazard, but nothing ever came of it.
The needles scraping the siding sound like tiny claws.
She’s eating fruit again, black cherries this time. Grandpa Angus called them rum cherries. She takes a drag from a stiletto-thin clove cigar, and I know I’m dreaming because she’s smiling. She never smiled. In the dream, it looks like her gums are bleeding.
I see her first outside Forster’s, smoking a cigarette and eating a nectarine.
I phone the township and Dr. Chopra in the morning. The coffee has a metallic taste.
In all likelihood, the physician assures me, it’s nothing to be concerned about. His grin gleams under the examination bulbs like the hunk of white fur still lying in the pantry at home. Across the room, my illuminated x-ray stands sentry. I wonder how my mouth can fit so many teeth. The grin refers me to a specialist.
Mennonite girls are riding in from the fields with the day’s last wagonload of sweet corn. We used to eat it raw, Shep and I, sitting in the back, the first summer we worked for old man Zaner’s stand.
“You’re eating all the profits!” he’d scream as the wagon crested the hill, his cigar flapping between lips.
I remember his teeth were a little caved in on one side from clenching around that cigar for so many years. A flash of crimson catches my eye. One of the girls raises a rosy fruit to her mouth. I imagine her breaking the skin with her incisors all the way to the stone and force my gaze back to the road before I can recognize the slope of her shoulders, a dark curl trailing from her bone-white bonnet. The air-conditioning is thundering in the ancient Buick, but my steering wheel is slippery with sweat all the way home.
Later, I drink gin and tonics until my teeth go numb, and I must fall asleep in the armchair, because that’s where I wake, muzzy head pounding, a strange taste in my mouth. The mantelpiece clock reads 4:52 am. Birds are stirring in the dying pine. After a long moment, my bleary eyes focus.
The floor is littered with tiny bones. I gape wordlessly at the carpet, brain churning.
“Cat brought it in.”
My own voice startles me, gravelly and thick from gin and disuse.
On my lunch break, I call my sister. “Absolutely torn to bits,” I laugh into the receiver. “You’d think I don’t feed the furry little bastard.” Static. Sara’s not laughing with me.
“You don’t have a cat.”
Summer feels eternal until the first cicadas sound their death rattle mid-July. I stop laughing to try to remember if I have a cat. If I have ever had a cat. I’ve entertained the notion, at least, surely?
The floor is littered with tiny bones.
I leave work early for the first time in twenty-two years with a pounding in my temples, cringing like a nocturnal creature in the parking lot against the afternoon sun reflecting cruelly off every reflective surface.
All the way home, I smell something burning. This piece of shit won’t last me another thousand miles.
Amid the haze of dust settling after I grind the Buick to a stop in the drive, I let myself into the cool, dim relief of the farmhouse kitchen. Glass of water. Four aspirin. Inhale the scent of laundry soap, day-old raisin bread and, more faintly, the damp wood of the house’s gradually rotting beams. The Weather Channel mumbles indistinctly about the record-breaking humidity. For the rest of the afternoon, the Northeast and I convalesce under our respective muggy blankets.
Dusk, and I’m halfheartedly pulling up weeds out under the dogwood when the pain in my head flares without warning. My vision disappears in an instantaneous spike of light. Panicking, I grab wildly at the white rose bush behind the toolshed. Blinded and whimpering, palms stinging from the thorns, I hear their naked tails sliding through the grass.
The katydids are so loud I can’t even tell if I’m screaming.
I wake in the dark, stiff and congealed. Gritting my teeth, I prop myself on my elbows and flex my fingers, thorn puncture wounds stretching and splitting. Knockout roses, Grandma Aida called them.
The moon is rising like a ghostly peach, speared by the evergreens that line the drive. I am due to see the specialist tomorrow morning, I think mechanically. The hallucination, while disturbing, is surely a common symptom of my condition. The specialist will prescribe me a medication.
Hauling myself to my feet, I lurch toward the house. Unexpectedly, my stomach rolls. I lean over and vomit into the marigolds.
In the moonlight, I can see a sodden cigarette butt and the gnawed pit of a stone fruit.
Before the Razor
Inside the Creative Process of “Mouse Trap”
Frolicking on the cusp of dissociation in the midst of a severe depressive episode piqued my curiosity on the following subjects:
- the characteristics of dreams, specifically their frequent tendency to seem more defined and vivid than reality
- return to waking life after such a dream being comparable to having one’s glasses knocked off in gym class dodgeball
- the tenuous and subjective nature of consciousness in general, resulting in amorphous and multifaceted truths
I’m a poet. I don’t write fiction. The story of how Mouse Trap came to be is still somewhat of a mystery to me. Withdrawal from psychiatric medication may have been a contributing factor. Just as likely, though, it was my uncomfortable propensity for sitting alone in public, staring into the middle distance and reflecting at length on the treachery of perception.
My favorite literary device, in principle, has always been the motif. “Mouse Trap” began as a harmless writing exercise designed to put into practice my own ability to create and sustain motifs in a narrative.
However, the Experiment escaped my artistic authority with freakish autonomy and immediately went scurrying off to secret itself away under the floorboards of my mind, just out of reach. I hammered at it in disbelief and exasperation for the next several weeks, feeling woefully underprepared. The poem, in its natural habitat, is generally smaller and more easily domesticated than any work of fiction. But, as any writer knows, you must make peace with your works indiscriminately, in whatever way you know how. So I ceased my combative efforts and let the Experiment come to me as an equal.
With chronic mental illness comes faith that suffers perpetual shaken baby syndrome. I think “Mouse Trap” wrote itself. To explain what I couldn’t. I know now that it meant well all along. My perception was just skewed.