Issue 2, Summer 2007


My Small Murders
by Ron Tanner

The Problem

Year before last, my wife and I were catching mice in our apartment. As many as three or four daily. We used every kind of trap on the market, as well as dish towels and buckets, grocery bags and brooms. Some catches were painless, and the mice released unharmed to the out-of-doors; others were gruesome, sad sights of broken bodies. . . .

It had started simply enough, with a single furry visitor--a pretty creature, we thought, its dark gray fur lustrous from meticulous grooming. (One book on mice describes their hygiene as "fastidious.") We joked: People pay good money for mice at pet stores, don't they? And we joked some more: If we made available an exercise wheel, would this one give it a spin? It was remarkably brazen, wandering into the living room to browse and sniff while we sat nearby and watched in disbelief.

Alas, where there is one mouse, there are many more. Soon we found ourselves startled by a furry fleeing flurry whenever we flicked on the kitchen light.


Teri has never liked animals. This should have given me pause when we first met, and now it’s not clear which one of us was more deceiving or self-deceiving, she in her pretense of liking Celeste, my fat aged Tortie, or I in my blindness to her obvious discomfort. Her allergy didn’t seem a serious allergy. After we moved in together, she—I thought—had accommodated herself to a compromise of sorts.

I wanted to make her happy. So eventually I gave Celeste to a cat-needy family. Teri resented that I had waited so long. Since she had never owned a pet, not even a fish, there was no way I could make her understand the difficulty of losing what was, in essence, a member of my family.

All of this is by way of saying that, soon after Celeste's departure, our place was overrun by mice, though only once had we seen Celeste catch a mouse--which I took from her and released into the alley.

A Man's Job

Although I said "we" were catching mice, the truth is that Teri refused to take any responsibility for their extrication and/or extermination. She didn't have the stomach for it, she said.

I didn't either. But somebody had to take control.

"You make a project of everything," Teri had often complained because I am capable of tremendous, sometimes obsessive, focus when I undertake a task, as when I spackled and painted the apartment in a single weekend. My projects could be intrusive and irritating, I admit, but this was one instance where it seemed Teri didn't mind my "project mode."

No need to get into the touchy gender-typed assumptions we make about hunting and trapping. Suffice it to say, if I were successful--and I would be successful--I would prove to Terri that she had married the right man.

Why did I feel the need to prove anything?

By this time we had been married for only two years, after a dizzying one-year courtship. Friends and family had warned us to slow down because both of us were coming from recent divorces. Our first marriages we put down to youthful ignorance. This, our second, was sure to last. We were both painters, after all: she oils, I acrylics, she still-lifes, I landscapes. She painted in the bedroom, I painted in the front room, the apartment reeking of turpentine, linseed oil. . . . Still, there were conflicts and misunderstandings we had to negotiate, as every couple must. Our small apartment—bought with a loan from her father-- increased the stress of living together as each of us worked our day jobs, painted in the off-hours, sent out slides of our work, and fretted about getting a gallery or a show.

Mice, those small surprises at every turn, only made things worse. Their sudden, startling appearances were like cruel practical jokes


As I began trapping—first with Sav-a-Lives--I kept count of the catch. It seemed a kind of game. But then my captures and later my killings became so numerous that, in disgust and dismay, I stopped counting, with thirty-one dead mice on my conscience. If heaped together, they would have filled a bucket.

Our Co-op manager sent over his exterminator, a middle-aged fellow who reminded me of former heavyweight world champion boxer George Foreman.

I heard him before I saw him, thumping laboriously up our six flights of stairs. One of his legs was prosthetic. It was a hot August morning and I felt badly for him.

"You got no weight on you," he said by way of introduction, meaning, I supposed, that I was slim enough to take the stairs lightly or I was wasting away, maybe from worry over mice.

I introduced myself with a polite nod (Does one shake hands with one's exterminator?). George nodded in return, smiling his benevolent George-Forman smile, sweat streaking his hairless scalp.

"Mice, you know,” he said, “got no bones, they slide right under the door, you can't keep 'em out, you've got to discourage them."

"No bones?" I echoed.

"You want to find them," he continued, "you look for their drippings."


"Like so." With two large fingers he pointed to the baseboard under the living room window.


Teri and I found a trail of them every morning along the edges of our kitchen counter, which I wiped down with bleach before attempting breakfast.

"You mind?" George raised his thin brows at me and nodded to the open bedroom door.

I motioned him forward, though I must have looked skeptical.

He reached into his plastic garbage bag and retrieved a small black plastic box the size and shape of a covered butter dish. He then filled this with poison that looked like bright blue, powdered laundry detergent. The hole at either end of the butter dish would accommodate even the fattest mouse.

"Mice run in here for eats," George explained, "then go off and die."

By the time he was done, he had set those little black boxes of poison along baseboards, in closets, behind furniture, and in every corner of the apartment.

I wondered: Is this blue powder universally appetizing to rodents? I mean, there must be some persnickety feeders out there, a few of the fittest who will survive this attempt at genocide. I imagined mice languishing in the walls of my apartment. The stench of death.

I found George peering behind the gas stove in our tiny kitchen. "Here's where they're comin'." He nodded at gas-pipe hole in the wall.

“But it's so high,” I protested.

He laughed: "Mice can climb."

Jesus Christ, I know nothing about mice, I realized.

George stuffed the hole with steel wool, something mice can't chew through, he informed me.

"That should do," he said. The sweat dripping down his face didn't seem to bother him.

He thumped out of the kitchen. He hadn't been in the apartment for more than ten minutes.

"You got more problems, I'll come back," he promised.

After he left--I was surprised at how well he took the stairs (going down looked harder than going up)--more questions occurred to me: How long does the poison last? How long do I keep the black boxes in our apartment?


The way George described them, mice seemed as relentless as cockroaches. Our cockroaches, by the way, those fig-sized waterbugs that occasionally found their way up from the basement, had disappeared. Mice eat roaches, though they’ll leave the antenna and legs.

Mice, in fact, will eat just about anything. Chew the insulation off your wiring, the bindings off your books, the laces off your shoes, eventually bring the whole damned house down around you. Some of the stunning facts I learned after a little research: mice can live without water. In times of famine, they will submit to a quasi-hibernation. Or they will eat their own excrement.

More Mouse Advantage

Contrary to what George-the-exterminator said, mice do have bones, but are capable of remarkable compression. A half inch may be enough for mice to slip through. More disturbing is their prodigious climbing: aided by tiny toe nails, they easily clamber up lamp cords, curtains, couches, chair-backs, you name it. Which is why we found "drippings" on window sills, desk tops, bookshelves. Most disturbing of all is their rate of reproduction. A mature mouse, two months old, can have five to twelve pups every month. Which is why the Romans used to say, "It's raining mice."

Fading Hope

The poison seemed to have no effect. It got to the point where Teri would make plenty of noise before entering a room--she didn't want to see little leathery tails coiling into the darkness or furry humps skittering across the kitchen counter. I tried to be braver than she but, no matter how I prepared myself, a glimpse of a fleeing mouse was always the most unpleasant surprise, like seeing a severed hand wriggling on the floor.

These aren't visitors, I decided, these are parasites. They would keep coming, in ever greater numbers; they would nibble and chew and gnaw and scratch and climb and piss and shit every minute of every hour of every day, the apartment seething with their inexorable, inexhaustible scampering and scavenging until, drained of all resources and patience, Teri and I would flee in terror. The only good mouse, I concluded, is a dead mouse.

My research told me the same. "Mice are a viral reservoir!" cautioned one expert. They carry one of the deadliest of the new hemorrhagic plagues, the Hanta virus, which may be spread through the air. A disturbing thought when, every morning, I was wiping up those little black bullets of excrement from the kitchen counter with a damp paper towel.

New Art

I started putting mice in my paintings. It wasn’t a plan, exactly, it was more an impulse--a way of exorcising them.

“Is that a dead mouse?” Teri asked, standing behind me as she surveyed my new work.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Does it look dead?”

“Yes,” she said.

I had depicted, in very crude strokes, a mouse lying on a napkin. Its eyes lacked definition. Maybe that was why it looked dead.

Teri said, “So you’ve moved to still life?”

This gave me pause. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said.

Did she think I was going to compete with her still-lives of moldy cheese? She had a series of eight and was planning more.

Then the irony of my new work struck me: maybe I’d do a series of mice—we could have a joint show, my mice, her cheeses! I was smiling now, about to suggest this, when Teri said: “Nobody’s going to want to look at dead mice.”

Since when had we been worried about what people would or would not want to look at? I dabbed at the canvas, then rubbed off the dab with my rag. “Do you mind?” I said. “I’m working here.”

The Truth About Freedom

During the few months I was freeing my captives, I didn't know that mice have a remarkable ability to find their way home, nor did I understand that, since stray mice are not accepted by other mouse families, I was sentencing these strays to an unfortunate end. So, in my ignorance, I accomplished nothing: either the mice returned to the building, then to our apartment (following the scent trails of their predecessors), or they were killed by predators or by other mice. After learning this much, I had to accept my role, finally, as exterminator. This was easier than I'd like to admit.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

I often lay awake at night waiting for the snap of the traps. Nothing worked as well as the old fashioned, triggered trap. I could bait it any number of ways. Mice prefer peanut butter to cheese, I learned. I was making a science out of killing.

Sometimes, horror of horrors, the trap only maimed one. I came to dread the mornings when, half blinded by the kitchen light, I stumbled in to clean up the mess. At my most gruesome, I wondered if leaving the corpses out would serve as a warning to other mice, like Vlad the Impaler posting heads of his victims in front of his castle. The most heartbreaking sight I came across was a two-mouse massacre, where one mouse had apparently followed the other into the killing field, perhaps drawn by the sounds of the other's distress.


A pest is a creature we can neither use nor accommodate.

The Way In Is the Way Out

George-the-exterminator's discovery of the hole behind the stove sent me on an expedition to find more. I spent a day working in the kitchen, seeking these out. I spent another two days sealing the rest of the apartment. When I was done. the place felt as tight as a new sail boat.

A Surprise

Not long after this, Teri announced that our marriage was over. It seemed a cliché, her telling me she needed "space." She felt claustrophobic, she said.

“You mean our apartment’s too small?” I asked.

“Our marriage is too small.” Having packed her bags, she was going to spend the weekend with Colleen, a friend in Hampden. Now on my fifth mouse painting, I was holding one of my long brushes.

I said: “I know we’ve been tense lately, ever since the mice—“

“It’s got nothing to do with mice.”

“The mice haven’t helped,” I insisted.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

“Jesus, Teri, it’s not like you’re trapped—I mean, what I have I done?”

She stared down at her carry-on and pensively wheeled it back and forth as she spoke: it wasn’t me, she said; it wasn’t another man; it wasn’t like we’d done anything wrong as a couple—

“Fuck that,” I blurted, “something’s gone wrong!”

“Yes,” she admitted, “I’ve gone wrong. I shouldn’t have married you. It just all happened so fast and . . .”

“And what?” I wailed.

“And I’ve realized that I’ve loved you only . . . as a friend.”

That brush upright in my hand like a useless wand, I gaped at her. I hadn’t heard a line like that since I was in high school.

It took Teri two hours to explain that our marriage had been ill advised from the start. At last she said, “Give me six months and we'll see what happens.”

It had taken us at least six months to realize that we had a mouse problem. And more than six months to rid our apartment of these pests. What could I possibly expect of Teri in a mere six months?

Friends No More

Teri and I tried to go out "as friends" but I couldn't manage it and, in anger, I broke off relations. Then we tried marriage counseling, which she broke from, also in anger because she didn’t like the words the therapist used: “dysfunction” . . . “transference” . . . “pathology.”
Now we are negotiating our divorce.

I know--and I suspect she knows--that our mutual anger is a product of our profound dismay in ourselves and in each other. It's surprising, and frightening, how much wrong we can find when we look for it.

The Apartment

The apartment is now up for sale. One of its great selling points is that the place is mouse-free. "You should know," I tell prospective buyers, who tolerate my tour with admirable patience, "that all of these old buildings downtown have mice. There's no way of getting rid of them, you can only shut them out.” Then I recount the many, painstaking steps I took to achieve this. "Nothing can get in," I conclude proudly.

And nothing can get out either, I tell myself. The place is like a tomb.


I can't helping thinking it was emblematic of our relationship that Teri refused to have anything to do with the mice, while I was relegated to the role of their executioner. Here I thought we were building something and all the while she saw things crumbling around us. Although, obviously, the mice had nothing to do with the demise of our marriage, the synchronicity of their demise and ours seems too tidy for comfort.

As for my series of mouse paintings—which I stopped at lucky number seven: a few respected galleries downtown have expressed interest but at this point it remains a matter of nibbles, no bites.

Me and My Shadow

Here's a sure-fire way to check for mice after you've moved into a new place: open up the top of the stove and look under and around the burners. See any droppings? Clean them out, then check again in a week. I have done this in my new apartment and have learned that the droppings do return—so I have mice. But my new cat keeps them at bay. Whenever I notice him crouching on the kitchen floor and staring intently into the dark gap between the stove and the dishwasher, I know there's a mouse back there, in the darkness, contemplating the possibilities. I try to view this as an acceptable compromise. Just last night, though, I dreamed of seeing a fat mouse darting across the stove top. I had the sense that my life will never be as settled or predictable as I would like. Now, when I think of mice, I imagine them running in exercise wheels, hundreds, thousands, of mice wheeling round and round, and I am appalled at their tireless energy, at their endless turning, as if together they were the world's engine, the strength of their lowly multitude joined in a single, mindless task.