Mouse Highway


David Plumb

Bullet never saw Mouse. Neither did Tony until the manager decided they should clean the tops of the refrigerators. Who had time to see anything? Everybody worked too many hours. No end to the work in this joint. And the pay? Whew! Who could keep up, never mind make a living? You needed two jobs just to stay afloat. Tony decided, the manager must have dreamed up the new cleaning routine during his vacation in Mexico.

    Tony stood on a three step ladder looking at the tops of the three refrigerators where we stored the cartons of hot dog and hamburger rolls. Two dozen packages of six rolls each per box, three deep, three abreast. How many for a lunch hour? Box and a half? Two? Three?

    Tony passed the cartons down. Bullet turned them over to Leticia, who could barely hang on because she had a gauze bandage on her left wrist from a grease splatter the night before. She went in the bathroom and didn't come back. Tony moved the ladder, slid the boxes off top of middle fridge. He handed the first box down to Bullet, then the second. Bullet was working up a pun for hot dog rolls.
    Customer: "Are the rolls fresh?"
    Bullet: "Only if you turn your back"
    Bullet beat everyone to death with," What'll you have sir?
    "I'll have the bockwurst," the customer replied one hundred and fourteen times a day.
    One hundred and fourteen a day Bullet answered, "One of our worst."

    Tony stuck his tongue out at Bullet and reached back for the third box. Then Tony saw it. Four legs spread, tail curled to the right, head back and to the side. Whacked! Mouse stuck right in the mesh of the 2x1 screen covering the window just above the fridge. He passed the box down to Bullet the punster without taking his eyes off Mouse.

    He sniffed. No dead mouse smell. Just hung-up Mouse. He'd been out there on Mouse Highway. Zip. There went Mouse. On his way to the Mouse Supermarket. A slew of kids every other week. Mouse had to move. Thin mouse. Never had a chance to put on weight. Hustle Mouse. Zip. Down for some bread crumbs. Over to the grill after hours for a grease fix, maybe a burned German frank that rolled under the grill. Tony imagined another mouse called 911 but nobody came.

    Tony understood. Mouse out on the highway. Fast but careful. Had a regular milk run across the back of the fridge. If Mouse had taken the time, Mouse could have scooted out between the boxes to the front of the fridge to check things out. Mouse would have seen all the way across the metal fridge, down onto the dim morning room to the desk covered with papers, receipts, invoices, telephone bills and over to the spice shelf, napkins, stir sticks, plastic forks, spoons, paper cups, Styrofoam. That is, if Mouse had stopped to look.

    You'd think Mouse might have sensed it. The front door opening, exhaust fumes blowing in, maybe stale beer stink from across the street at the Pearce St. Grill. Or the bread man's early neck sweat, his coffee breath, or the fresh bread he hauled down the aisle.

    But Mouse didn't have time. Mouse couldn't just get off on a side road and check out the field mice. He couldn't stay out there on a senseless search for Mouse America. He couldn't ride in some woman's suitcase from Liverpool, New York to Albuquerque on a whim. No Titmouse in Cash, Texas, no Gray Mouse on Federal Street in New Brunswick, Maine. No cool cellar full of grain fed mousettes in Charlotte, North Carolina. Not for Mouse. Mouse had a last minute appointment.

    Just before dawn. Zip. He hits the opening. Tony could almost see the tiny puff of smoke around Mouse's feet. Falooey! Smackadooo! The anonymous bread man, arrives just before daybreak, slides the box in just as Mouse makes his pass. Whackadoo. Up on the screen. Never knows what hits him. No health insurance, no life insurance, no worker's comp, no veteran's benefits for a wife hundred and forty kids plus. Wife Mouse (lover Mouse) thinks maybe he just left town. Bad checks? No mouse welfare. No mouse food stamps or child support. No Unsolved Mouse Mysteries. No rewards. Nada mas.

    Now Mouse wife schleps a hundred and forty kids along the bread-boxes. Little meeses driving her crazy. Zipping all around her. Hanging on every last frazzled hair. Chewing her tail. Never enough teats to go around. Grandpa Mouse has some bird seed stored just down the wall and under the floorboards, but she knows he won't part with a grain. Not a speck, an ort. A helluva grandpa he is.

    She drags the kids right by Mouse impaled up there in the mesh. Mouse can't see her. Mouse can't see anything. Mouse just hangs there for months behind the oncoming and outgoing breadboxes, the sweet smell of early morning bread, the simple vacant smell of cardboard, cobwebs, the intermittent hum of the refrigerators, the days, the nights. Mouse just hangs there.

    Tony squinted over the top of fridge. In the dim light he saw the slight shine that remained in the bulging berry eyes of Mouse. Mouse out on the highway. Mouse minding his own business. Taking a little here, a little there. Taking what's left over. Sometimes had his teeth in something he shouldn't. Always on the move. Almost trapped, glued to the floor, poisoned, drowned; Mouse was survivor. .Until now.

    If this was Mouse Land destiny, Mouse heaven, hell, or whatever; what was the point? Tony felt terrible looking at Mouse. There ought to be a memorial service for Mouse. A few words spoken. But what?
    "God bless Mouse," he said.
    That was the least he could do. What else? Should he pry Mouse off the window screen and bury him? Should he quit before he ended up like Mouse? Maybe he should shoot for manager?

    Tony stepped down off the ladder. He felt tired and worried. There weren't enough hours in the day to think things through. Not good, he whispered. The tops of the refrigerators still had to be scrubbed. Tony looked at the top of the fridge. It was too high to see the remains of crucified Mouse.
    He heard the customer out front say, "One frankfurter please."
    Bullet said, "Franks a lot!"