Listen to a podcast of Jan reading this here.
On a gorgeous Friday afternoon, as Mary-Mary-not-at-all-contrary began Day 2 of muralizing my 100-year-old garage, I stood at the threshold of the back door, open to the sun, so I could watch her dabbing color onto the stucco.
She is painting a garden because I asked her to, bit by bit, a profusion of greens on a pink base, under a happy yellow half circle standing in for the sun. I have long admired Mary’s art, since she was my student on the college newspaper, the graphic design goddess who laid out the paper when we still had a paper and magazines both journalistic and literary that could be held in the hands. She’s a multi-talented artist, Mary, who sat on the big blue tarp on the ground, her brush dabbing one color of paint into another in the big roller tray, transforming from forest green to purple to aqua.
From behind Mary across the grass trotted Diego, my big orange tabby. Mary looked up from her paint tray to call, “He’s got a mouse!”
Diego beelined toward me, ready to bring his prize in the house, because for some reason dumb humans don’t understand, it’s always better to bring the rodent inside and bat it around until you maul it to death and then maybe nibble on its head.
But thus warned, I grabbed the doorknob and began to close the door behind me as Diego looked for an opening. Unthinking, my right foot jutted out and connected like a champion goalie deflecting the ball. The slight push was enough to startle him into dropping the mouse, who wisely scurried under the fence to the driveway.
Diego, who will never be the brightest thing on four paws, looked around like a cartoon cat—where did he go? where did he go?—confused at the deflection, and by the time he decided to scoot out the open gate to the driveway, the mouse had reached the profusion of new violets blooming outside the kitchen window.
Dani—my ace assistant who has helped me revise my life and house week by week over the past year—knelt on a blue foam rectangle, cleaning up a patch of earth rife with winter weeds, preparing it for wildflower seeds, because hope springs eternal, especially as spring approaches, and last year’s poppies have nicely reseeded themselves and are already blooming their fool heads off across the driveway.
Diego startled her as he leapt into the violets. “Whaaa??” she began.
Dani knows Diego well. She feeds him and my other cat Poki when I leave town. She is well aware that he’s a first class doofus, but she had not seen him in action as a champion mouser.
I think of it as his pandemic hobby. On the first day of lockdown last March, he trotted in the house with a gray furry mass in his mouth, tail drooping pathetically. He let the creature go in the kitchen as I hollered, which scared the rodent, who made tracks for the space under the fridge. This is not the first time this has happened, but given the upset the world was undergoing — along with the fact that I knew I would soon be sent home like a misbehaving child, expected in a matter of days to somehow teach a half a semester online with no idea how to do that — I took it out on the cat.
“What are you DOING?!” I hollered.
He ooched his butt a little farther from me but did not give up his seat on the floor near the fridge.
“You can’t DO that! Mouse is outside animal, not inside animal!”
As if he hasn’t heard this before. I yell it at him when he insists otherwise, but instead, Diego flattened himself on the floor, ready to wait it out, nose at the space under the fridge where the mouse had compressed itself and disappeared, as the little shapeshifters do.
“You are SO PISSING ME OFF!” I hollered, opening the back door, ready to toss him outside, wondering, not for the first time, why I hadn’t insisted on making him an inside cat. Answer: Because Poki is an indoor-outdoor cat who, I learned early in our relationship, literally climbed walls if I kept her inside. I’ve had cats who were perfectly content to live forever in the house; she’s never been one of them. She likes to decide for herself whether she’s feeling in or out. But she doesn’t leave the yard either, preferring mostly in her old age to go outside to pee or, on good days, lie in the sun on the back deck.
Consequently, I couldn’t keep Diego inside all the time either, except at night when I put the barrier in the pet door to the back yard.
I don’t remember if he nailed the mouse that night, but given time, a dead rodent appeared on the kitchen floor—thankfully, not on my pillow—and I disposed of it, proud of myself for doing so. I remember when a husband had to do that, when the sight of a dead thing made me nauseous. After the husband died 20 years ago this month, I had to woman up and pick up dead things, intact or not.
It’s been like this all year. I’m home more so maybe Diego thinks he’s obligated to provide more regular rodentia. By my count we’re up to at least 22 mice or rats (I often can’t tell, but he seems to go for the bigger ones with longer tails) in the last 12 months. I should’ve put hash marks on the pet door flap.
And now, on the anniversary of the world’s shutdown, with two young women who are doing amazing work to improve my life, Diego decided to offer another contribution. I think he was showing off for the girls.
I ran outside after Diego who was stirring up the violets in search of his prey, when the prey decided to literally climb the wall to the kitchen’s outer windowsill, its sides heaving, having eluded certain death. I don’t know how many lives rodents have, but this critter definitely lost one of them today and lived to tell the tale.
Speaking of tail, him/her/it/they had a really long one, making me wonder if this was not a mouse but a young rat. I was torn between knowing that it would likely make its way back to the ivy of my backyard or into my next door neighbor’s generous foliage, and I sighed.
After the (mouse/rat/mat?) caught its breath and I confined Diego to the house, I persuaded the creature to leave its perch with a gentle tap of the broom. It swan dived (rat dived?) gracefully into the newly blooming violets below, making a swift getaway. I just couldn’t bear the potential carnage on a beautiful, almost-spring afternoon.
Some might say, Just let it happen. What’s one less rodent? You know they’re reproducing like mad out there in your ivy. Cats are gonna cat. And because you played God, headed Diego off at the pass, he didn’t bring it in the house. Count it as a win.
We would all live another day—Diego, the mat, Poki, asleep on my bed, Dani who weeded and planted and watered, Mary who painted purple wisteria into the glorious garden on the garage, and me, who got my first COVID vaccination two days ago, me, halfway through the last semester of my last year as a college writing professor.
Because it’s March, and here is spring rearing its lovely head again, as it does, even when the world feels as if it’s falling and contracting at the same time, and, after a year of confinement, of a planet upended, the panic of the pandemic is beginning to ease, and we here in this space will all draw breath after blesséd breath on this day and another and another, god willing, bless us all, amen.