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OF MICE AND MEN


When you step outside my front door, your feet touch what feels like a mirror, an oiled mirror that was made for you to slip on, perhaps even crack a rib or fracture some part of your hip. I advance to this door and look down with a certain dread at the faint blue gleam of this ice floe. I'm sure a polar bear would want to skate on it and relish the possibility of finding a walrus in the next thawed pool of ice. But I'm not a polar bear. I'm a bit of a geezer, with my wool fedora pulled down above my eyebrows, my scarf wrapping my neck tightly, my down jacket zipped up to my unshaved chin. I'm ready for the wind, but I'm not ready to go sprawling into the half foot of stiffened snow after a somersault on the front step. The cause of my misery is the eave over me, which drips a few icicle drops onto the marble slab that is my threshold and prepares a death trap without letting on about its sly humor. Well, we know each other well, so I am a rickety Ichabod Crane when I go out for my daily adventure in the subzero daylight.

If reality is this fluid medium in which grief, tragedy, rumors of war seem all too familiar and dreary, then the weather is its chief metaphor, a realm of uncertainty that toys with your mortality and makes a mockery of all your precautions. People around here can only smile when weather is brought up. What that smile means is hard to say. They are native Vermonters who have battled winters all their lives; they don't begrudge the ice its brief time to emote and take the center of the stage. Vermonters are ironic in their tolerance; they may not like the cold and are resentful when a water pipe bursts from a deep freeze. They may not like the high fuel bills that come once a month from the kerosene dealer. They may miss the birds and the music that used to fill the maple trees. But they have no vision of what lies beyond the weather. It is too powerful to question, and too pervasive to think there might be some means of escaping its malice.

Since I spent much of my time in warm climates like Texas, I have a more differentiated sense about the world -- that beyond these dark blue hills and frozen marshes lies a place where people are sitting fanning their faces with a newspaper to endure a heat wave. It's a land where there are smells of ripening hay and dazzling seas of white cotton growing in river flats and savannahs. A place of open markets with men and women calling out their wares of hot tamales and bowls of rice and beans, a fruit drink sweating in a tall glass, placards loaded with sunglasses and straw hats. Right now, just not right here.

So when I gaze out of my window at the gray snow lying there from last week's snowfall, I impose upon it a vision of girls in sundresses, boys playing basketball at the park, a few families having a picnic on a grassy knoll. I see my old tennis racket lying in the corner gathering dust. When I was way down south all those summers, I would grab that racket, a can of balls and head out to the high school courts to play with my old tennis buddy. The sun blinded us; our arms glistened with sweat, our socks were soggy after two sets. We looked forward to sitting on lawn chairs in the den with the fan aimed at us on high speed. We might lean over to the tray and take a sip of gin and tonic and then sit back with a vague smile, a feeling of profound contentment that nature was on our side.

But not here. You stand up and the dust stirs around you. The cold finds a gap in your shirt and worms its way down to your chest to make you shiver. Nature is in a coma all around you. The animals have all retreated to their burrows. Everything that could be accomplished during the frantic summer months has been done and the shovels and hoes and rakes are all put away in a corner of the shed or at the back of the garage. You are alone in this world that has sunk its charms into an aspic of sluggish air. You feel a bit light-headed as you move around, going off to brush your teeth, to check the pimple that has sprouted at the end of your chin, to examine your finger nails to see if they need clipping. When I went into the kitchen just now to put a glass in the sink, I was startled to find a field mouse nosing around an empty pickle jar. It was on the counter, a puffy gray ball of fur, unaware of my footsteps or of my face looming over it. It was obliviously preoccupied with the thought of getting a snack before returning to some cobwebbed recess of the attic. When I slipped a bowl over it, there was no sign of panic. The tail stuck out an inch or two, and indicated no movement under the bowl. None.

So I hunted for a piece of cardboard and when I found it, I had no trouble sliding the bowl onto it and headed for the door. The icy threshold was lying there in a streak of heartless gray treachery. But I was careful as I held my mouse bowl in one hand and performed a kind of Nureyev maneuver to lower out the door and slam it shut. I walked up the road about a hundred yards, enough distance to make finding a way back home more difficult. I flung open the bowl and out flew the mouse, or to be more accurate, down came the mouse onto the snow. It was dazed, not quite aware where it was, half buried in the frozen otherworld of outside. But this is nature, I thought, as I stood there. It will know what to do; there are wires built into the mouse's brain to inform it how to burrow, how to find the earth below in which to dig a new home. I hoped so. I wasn't mad at the mouse for having freeloaded on my largesse all winter, but I was happy that it would now have to wake up to the reality of January's Spartan kingdom. I got back home and locked myself in and stood there with the bowl in my hand. It was empty, unmarked by the mouse's body. The poor creature was as dopey as me in this dreaded bottom of the year.

There will be other mice to venture out from their hideaways to nibble at the breadcrumbs and the drops of raspberry jam from breakfast. Who could resist such manna? It may be my little orphan will make it back to the basement and use the available tunnels to return to the kitchen in a day or two. I won't know how to tell if it's him or not. They all look pretty much the same at this time of year - bulked up from overeating to stay warm, goofy in their drunkenness as they wandered about the counter. Who knows how many such drifters are holed up in this boarding house?

I remember some years ago when a friend took me to a squat in Berlin, an elegant old building covered in graffiti and with flags representing various factions of social rebellion. We entered a dark hall and climbed some steps. The doors were open, and inside were small groups of longhaired kids singing along to a guitar. I envied them. I felt I had missed something growing up in America. I hadn't joined a commune and experienced an alternative way of living. I had come close a few times, as when my first wife and I ventured out to Sausalito and considered joining a group refurbishing an old ferryboat for future use as a restaurant. We were promised free board and room while the project lasted. But it wasn't enough to lure us away from our menial jobs in San Francisco.

But I felt bad not throwing myself into a gypsy world. What would that freedom be like, I wondered. Lots of kids were eager to get to work there, and welcomed up aboard as if we had already singed up. But we walked away and sat on the edge of the bed of our tiny bed-sitting room and pondered the future upon hearing of Kennedy's assassination. It was the end of Camelot. The end of a kind of innocence, of youth itself. Washington would return to the rule of old white men talking war and throwing out sops to the poor. We didn't realize how close we came to living like field mice on a ferryboat tilted on its keel and offering a Utopian escape for kids with guitars strapped to their backs and one change of clothing for the future. On what counter would I have come out to nibble on the largesse of the pantry, and sing a few Bob Dylan songs before going back to my bedroll? Who knows? But if that mouse returns, I'll ask him what being a vagabond is really like. I'd like to know.

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