“These mice were fully alive but also model systems, with as much of the complexity, diversity, and spontaneity of life eliminated as possible; they were bred to be as close to a test tube as a living thing can be.”
–John M. Berry, The Great Influenza
In no particular order a parent’s duties, I guess, are to love and protect. And that’s why we moved to the house in the up-and-coming neighborhood of the no longer rural but not quite cosmopolitan county outside the big city. You know, the place with the good schools and community pools. Our kids weren’t quite old enough to use either, but we made the move with the future in mind. In fact, we did everything with the future in mind.
After paying an ordinary moving company to pack up our stuff in the city, drive it out of the city, and unload it into a large house in the not-yet-city, we set about doing ordinary things. We hung pictures of ourselves on the walls to remind us of where we had once been and the emotions we had once felt. We arranged furniture according to the HGTV patterns and diagrams. Then we rearranged furniture. We installed clever ways of creating more storage space within what was already ample storage space. We called our parents on the phone. We watched the children in the yard. My father-in-law asked what I planned to do with the yard. I looked at the green grass underneath my children’s bare feet and said, “Um, water it.” He told me that was a good idea. He told me when he visited he would give me some watering tips, maybe he would even help me winterize the garden. I said, “We don’t have a garden.” Well, he said, then that’s something we’ll do too, when we visit that is. I felt helpless and alone. I could stand between my neighbor’s house and my own and with my modest wingspan touch his house and ours. But I still felt helpless and alone. That’s why what our neighbor Jeff, short for Jefferson, said about his own father-in-law really comforted me the first time he invited us over for a neighborhood gathering.
“Drew, I’m telling you, man. My father-in-law is the exact same way. ‘Have you done this? Have you done that? Here let me show you how. Want a beer,’ he says. We drink a beer. We look at some IKEA piece of shit we spent the day engineering. We sip the beer. That’s it. We water the grass. By the way, you want another beer?”
“Sure,” I said.
“What do you want?”
He opened the fridge door. I stared into the vault. Everything had its place. Our fridge was the same model, but not so well-organized. I needed to organize things like Greek yogurt and beer better. He had so much beer. He offered me IPAs from a dozen different states. I said I would take one of the IPAs. I tasted it.
“How is it?”
“Good,” I said. I wondered if it tasted just like the last one. “It’s hoppy.”
“Yeah, they get their hops from Oregon. It really tastes of that Northwest ruggedness. Lewis and Clark and shit. Those were some tough dudes. When you finish that one, we should try the ones I have out in the garage. We could do the whole trail without leaving the house.”
“Sounds good.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted any more hoppy beers, though. I wasn’t sure I even liked hoppy beers, but I didn’t want to waste the cultural opportunity to broaden my horizons. I took another sip and thought, seriously, Oregon tastes the same as Virginia and Massachusetts.
“So,” Jeff said as he sipped his Oregonian IPA, “Have you and Jen found a pediatrician yet? Have you looked at the local preschools? My father-in-law says it’s never too late. I thought you guys would probably be looking because your father-in-law sounds a lot like mine. I think that happens to people.”
I blinked. I thought I saw something white scurry across the floor. It may or may not have been wearing pants. I remembered when our current house received a home inspection just before we bought it. The inspector told us we might have a pest problem, that he’d seen wooden mousetraps in the attic and underneath the sinks. I tried shaking the image of that wood and metal contraption from my memory, but it was difficult not to hear my father-in-law instructing me to leave the traps in place, in the attic and under the sink.
“What’s that, Jeff? What did you say happens to people?”
“You know, people of the same age all end up knowing the same jokes and stories. They judge time in the same way. Like our parents all know where they were when Kennedy was shot or the Berlin Wall came down.”
“And for us it would be like 9/11.” I wanted to show Jeff I could follow along.
“Yep.” He finished his beer. I turned my bottle towards the ceiling. I rushed to catch up.
“Well, I gotta go to the bathroom. Where is it again?”
“Just use the one at the bottom of the basement stairs. I want to show you where the pool table’s going.” Jeff opened the door to the basement steps. “Meet you down there in a second. I’m going to grab those St. Louis beers.”
“Awesome.” I journeyed down the cavernous steps in the dark. I sniffed the air. Huh? Was that straw? I sniffed again. Maybe it was the aftertaste of Oregonian hops. I entered the bathroom. I flicked on the light. I lifted the toilet’s lid and took a piss. As I washed my hands, I noticed what resembled small animal droppings on the counter. I pinched a pellet between my finger and thumb and held it to my nose. The pellet held a greenish brown hue. I sniffed. Definitely shit. I dropped the turd into the wastebasket and wiped up the rest with a square of toilet paper. I washed my hands with a wild fury. When I walked back into the wide, vacuous space of the basement, the smell of straw—not hops—erased the memory of shit from my nostrils.
I looked around, but Jeff had yet to arrive. I rounded the corner. A television flickered on the back wall. Two of Jeff’s older kids sat on the couch. The younger two were with mine out in the backyard, under the watchful eyes of their mothers. I felt awkward approaching these two adolescents in the dark. I glanced around the room. Impressive. Framed jerseys hung on every wall. We bought our house with an unfinished basement. I was, for a moment, made small with jealousy.
“Awesome basement, guys,” I said to the organisms on the couch.
They did not respond.
“What are you watching?” I was not afraid of one-sided conversations. My children were still of an age where either they did not understand most of what I said or I could not understand much of what they said. I could deal with silences too. “Cool,” I said.
The one on the end of the couch flashed his eyes at me. In the light of the large flat screen, they struck me as ruby red sparks. The kid turned his head back towards the screen and made a sound like he or she was sucking at its front teeth, like a Ttt-ttt-ttt sound. “Cool,” I said, but with less confidence. In the light of the television, the kid’s hair flashed white.
“So. . . as I was saying.”
I was pleased to hear Jeff’s voice. He handed me a St. Louis beer as I turned towards him.
“We’ve got an excellent pediatrician. He’s really good with vitamins and shots and everything. He’s ahead of the curve on everything, and he’s really in tight with all the psychiatrists and psychologists around here. Really helped all our kids adjust to all the different grade level changes, mentally and hormonally. Parenting’s tough. A real adventure. You really only know you’re doing it right if you listen to all the experts.”
I sipped the St. Louis beer, which tasted just like Oregon, which tasted just like Virginia. “Jeff, if you don’t mind me asking, how many kids do you have again?”
“Oh, I don’t even know, Drew.” He laughed. “Just kidding. We’ve got like a half dozen or so.”
“Wow, that’s a lot.”
“Yeah, we might try for one more.”
“Really? I think we might be done.”
“Yeah, I can see that. I just feel like Sally and I are really good parents. You know, our oldest is in the running for Valedictorian.”
“Oh, wow, that’s great. Congratulations! I didn’t know you had any kids that old.”
“Yeah, she’s not home right now. You might see her later. Great kid, though.” He poured the last of the St. Louis microbrew into his throat. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I could go for something a little different. Maybe mix it up.” He jerked his fists forward and back.
“Um, sure, I guess.”
“Just follow me.”
I followed him. On the couch, red eyes flashed away from the screen and over the coffee table. In the shifting gray light, the second face looked like it had whiskers. “How old are the two on the couch, Jeff?”
“Oh, they’re just finishing up elementary school.”
“Is the one shaving already?”
“Ha! They’re both girls, Drew. What, you think they have whiskers or something?”
I didn’t answer the question. The way Jeff asked he almost made it sound like he was rooting for his daughters to have whiskers. I finished my beer.
He stopped in front of the door. “I keep this room locked.” He took out a key ring that only a school janitor or a medieval monk might carry. “Ah, yes, this one.” He unlocked the door and turned on the light. I followed him into a room with a concrete floor. While Jeff walked over to a workbench and cabinets on the wall, I couldn’t help but stand in awe of the wooden maze taking up the entire floor. In between the plywood walls, straw and sawdust lined the narrow corridors.
“Did you build that?”
Jeff looked up from pouring whiskey into shot glasses. “Oh yeah, the kids love it.”
“Do their pets use it?”
He laughed as if the question itself was ludicrous. “Their pets? You’re a funny man, Drew. No, in this day and age, you can never start them too young.”
“What do you mean?”
“Pushing the joke too far, Drew. I’m telling you my kids run through the maze. My oldest was great. The second oldest was about average, as are the two on the couch out there. But the twins, who are out in the yard with your two, well, let’s just say they’ve shown more promise than all the others combined did by their ages. I mean, we might be able to throw around the word prodigy and not be lying.” He slid one of the shot glasses toward me. “We gave them Dr. McCarthy’s serum earlier—I think that’s what did it. Anyway, cheers!” He downed the shot and poured another. “You give them that serum on a regular basis, and it really makes parenting much easier. They don’t fuss. They don’t complain. If they’re anxious, you just run them through the maze or hand them some string cheese. You don’t have to break out the fancy stuff, you know, with the really strong odors until they’re much older. When they’re really young though, they’ll settle for anything. I mean, you just give them the Cheez-its or goldfish and slip a little serum in their sippy cups. That’s all it takes. I am like blitzed all the time now!” He gulped down the second shot glass. His eyes rolled around and trembled side to side, almost as if he had a concussion.
“What’s this serum?”
“Oh, it’s totally FDA approved. Started in Park Slope or some shit. They were the only ones who could afford it. You know, those trendy Brooklynites. Then it went out to places like Orange County and Arlington. We were the first in this neighborhood to use it with all our kids, but I think everyone’s doing it now, even that Pakistani family two houses down from you and the Nigerians are on it too. I think the Nigerians gave it to all their kids, but the Pakistanis’ oldest didn’t get it until it was too late. He’ll probably end up at community college or a public university other than UVA. Dear God! Can you even imagine?”
“I went to a public university other than Virginia.”
“Well, me too, Drew. Me too! But that’s not good enough for the children. Think about the goddamn competition of the future. I mean, we might send our kids to UVA, but TJ wouldn’t dream of it these days! He’d have his eyes on Stanford. Why do you think the Louisiana Purchase happened in the first place? For the children’s children’s children.” He took another shot while I emptied mine into the sawdust of his basement’s labyrinth.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right! Want to do double shots or sample some of my double IPAs?”
“Um, probably not the double shot.”
“Lightweight? That’s fine. I was too, but I’ve really been working to outdrink my father-in-law. The dude is a lab experiment gone mad!”
“Yeah, I should probably go see about Jen and the kids.”
“You do that, Drew, but when you come back inside, I say we run through the maze. Loser does a double shot!”
“Sounds good, Jeff.” I backed out of the workroom’s light and back into the dark flicker of the basement. Jeff’s kids no longer sat on the couch. I could hear the teeth sucking sound from earlier, but I couldn’t see his kids. I tiptoed out the basement door and into the backyard. Outside, Jeff’s youngest kids and my kids ran around chasing one another in unstructured patterns. I tried to understand the rules of the hunt, but they were beyond me. I made a concentrated effort to make eye contact with Jen. I pointed at my wrist. She nodded.
“Well, kids, it’s time we headed back across the street! Say your goodbyes.”
My children followed me in silence, as if I had killed a world of fun. If anything, they were obedient. Behind me, I could hear my wife saying thanks and goodbye for them. “Madison and Ashton were really glad for the opportunity to come over and play. They wish you many thanks and many goodbyes, even if they’re not saying so themselves, they really do mean them.”
Sally answered cordially and with all sincerity, “Oh, I know they do. Such sweet little critters. They’re all so precious and dear. They don’t really need to speak in order to be heard. Our oldest is always so quiet. She communicates through her phone and that’s it. She just paws at that little touchscreen and the world is hers. I had my doubts, but Dr. McCarthy says it’s just a generational thing. Eye contact makes them nervous. I had my doubts, but she’s going to be Valedictorian—I just know it!”
The argument happened in our kitchen, which was a mess because my wife planned on reorganizing it for a third time in two weeks. This time the exigence for doing so was that we needed to create space for the serum formula mix and a serum dispenser. Jen said that Sally had said that Dr. McCarthy had said the best way for the kids to receive their nutrients was to train them so they wouldn’t even have to ask. They could just walk up to the counter, raise their chins, open their lips and suck the syrup from the nozzle. At this, I had said, “Dear God no! Dear fucking no! My children are not sucking syrup from a nozzle.”
“But Drew, all the other parents are going with this arrangement. We’re already behind them.”
“Isn’t there some other way to catch up? I’ll build the maze in the unfinished basement, but I’m not installing the nozzle syringe thing right here in the kitchen! We’ve got to draw a line somewhere.”
“Sally says that the maze isn’t as important as the drugs.”
“Well, Jeff seemed to think an awful lot about the maze. I bet he’s running the kids through it right now.”
“Well, Sally also says that sometimes Jeff pushes a little too hard.”
“You think I don’t know that, Sally!”
“I’m your wife, Drew. My name’s Jen!”
“I know what your name is, and I know that I had more to drink tonight than I would have had if your parents had come over!”
“You know, you always blame them, but I think you like drinking!”
“And what if I do?”
“Then you’re just like the rest of us!”
I wanted to yell back something clever and smart, but I couldn’t think of anything in the midst of all the beer and liquor forcing its way from my stomach and up through my esophagus. I stumbled to the sink area like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, like I had been sewn from dead body parts that were now learning to walk together for the first time. I flung open the door under the sink and rolled out the trash can. We were so lucky to have installed the storage rollers as my mother-in-law had instructed. We were so lucky to have everything we owned. These lives were so very, very fortunate.
I puked out an entire night’s worth of beverages into the trash bag, which I should note came scented with vanilla to cover up the smell of trash and puke and such undesirable refuse as modern humans produce. When I stood up somewhat straight again, I tied the bag’s red drawstrings in a knot I may have learned from the Boy Scouts. Why couldn’t my children just compete in Pinewood Derbies? Why did they have to suck syrup from a straw? “We’ll talk about this later,” I said and staggered out the kitchen with the vanilla-scented trash bag over my shoulder.
In the garage, I dropped the bag into the large plastic bin and rolled it under the automatic door. I rolled it all the way to the end of our driveway, where the boundary of our settled green space in the up-and-coming territory met the frontier of the curb and the wilderness of the neighborhood. I stared out over the dark asphalt. The moon rose full and white above me. I swayed clumsily in the cheese-scented breeze. Some strong and petulant variety. You know, the expensive stuff. I looked towards my neighbor’s house. At the end of the driveway sat a bold yellow cheese wheel basking in the light of the full, white moon. Then I heard the patter of paws on the sidewalk. A rather large white mouse scurried toward the cheese, stopped just short of it, lifted its nose, sniffed, and darted its red eyes back and forth. Feeling that everything was clear and good—that I was somehow not a threat—the mouse pounced onto the cheese wheel and sunk its front two teeth into the yellow dairy flesh. The nibbling stopped momentarily at the sound of a front door opening and shutting. Out walked Jeff, an IPA in his hand. He lifted it to me in a gesture of friendship. I nodded back.
“My oldest,” he said. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
I watched her lifting a chunk of cheese to her teeth with pinkish paws. “She is that,” I said, knowing nothing else to say. “Is she happy too? They ought to be happy.”
“Damn right she’s happy,” he said. “She’ll be at Stanford this time next year. Why wouldn’t she be happy?”
I raised my arm to wave goodbye in Jeff’s direction. “Good night.”
I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of the serum, but I was willing to listen. I looked back at the large mouse gnawing the moonlit cheese one last time. Then I hit the button to close the garage door. I would need to do some research. Maybe I would have one more beer as I Googled the life expectancies of mice versus humans.
If we died first, who would provide the cheese at the end of the maze?
Feeling my way through the dark hallways of our house, I found my way back to the kitchen. Jen wasn’t there. She must have gone upstairs to bed. I walked around the island. The trashcan sat on the kitchen mat. The door to the cabinet under the sink was still ajar. I bent over to pull out a box of vanilla-scented trash bags and unfurled a ribbon of white plastic.
Then, making a fist, I pushed my arm into the bag and placed it inside the trash can. But, as I started to place the trash can back underneath the sink, I heard the dampened whip of metal on wood.
My body slowly stiffened. The trash can fell from my hand and toppled on its side. A dark truth corkscrewed through me: that sound! I lowered myself onto my hands and knees and crawled underneath the sink, where, in the darkness, behind a row of cleaning supplies, was a freshly slain Minotaur. Its cold dead eye, lidless as the orb of the moon, stared back at me in silent accusation that I had broken some ancient and immutable law. My response: acidic juices bubbled again at the back of my throat.
Wrapped around the white rat’s front paws and hind legs were a pink sweater with buttons and a pair of blue denim pants, as if knit for a tiny doll living inside a tiny house. I reached out with my finger and stroked its tiny nose, still wet with the dew of being alive. I could see my monstrous shape looming in the saucer of its never closing eye.
Bryan Harvey is a graduate of James Madison and George Mason Universities. His writing appears in The Shocker, The Florida Review, The Cold Mountain Review, BlueStem Magazine, The Harpoon Review, and The Rufous City Review. He blogs for The Step Back and constructs NBA fan fiction at You Can’t Eat the Basketball. He lives and teaches in Virginia, but tweets @Bryan_S_Harvey.