Musophobia

We all have irrational fears, don’t we? Fear of tight places or open spaces, fear of heights, snakes, spiders. Some induce a mere tingle in the spine, some incite full-out panic.  Such fears are inconvenient for those who suffer from them, but they can have their uses. I found my wife’s fear very useful.

Claudine had musophobia, an extreme fear of rodents. A mouse the size of your pinkie finger would cause her to levitate, screaming, to the top of whatever furniture was handy. She couldn’t even look at a dead vole when she nearly stepped on it in the yard. But rats…rats induced a panic so great that Claudine lost her mind.

It was unfortunate for her, then, when a new subdivision was built across the street from our house. The bulldozing and grading destroyed the natural habitat of the creatures living there. Like any displaced refugees they desperately sought new homes. Our home.

I returned from work one freezing January day to find a shoeless, coatless Claudine shivering on the front porch.

“Oh, Jack, I saw a rat, not really saw it, but I saw the droppings in the basement. Right by the washer and dryer. It could be anywhere in the house, I can’t go back in there, you understand, can’t close my eyes in that house while a rat might….” She broke into sobs.

“Get hold of yourself, Claudine. We’ll call an exterminator. Come inside and get warm,” I said none too gently.

To be perfectly honest, Claudine had been getting on my last nerve for some time. All the delicate little helpless ways that I once found so attractive now drove me crazy. I day-dreamed of being free again with endless possibilities open before me. There had been so many pretty women available once. What had possessed me to choose this one? I longed for the chance to start over. I’d be more discerning next time around.

The exterminator tried to keep the rats out, setting traps and putting down poisoned bait. But they were more determined than he was. At night, we’d hear their thumps in the attic over our heads. Claudine would shake the bed with her sobs, which I ignored. She lived in a state of terror, losing weight and developing dark circles under her eyes.

Opportunities come along rarely in our lives. It’s a wise man who has the courage to seize them when they present themselves, don’t you agree? I saw my chance and took it.

Claudine nodded listlessly when I said I’d be working from home for a few days. I bought a live trap, baited it liberally with peanut butter and placed it in the attic. When I checked next day, I’d caught a foot-long Norway rat, a truly hideous specimen.

“Claudine, I need you to deliver these papers to our lawyer tomorrow afternoon. You’ll have to sign some documents, so I can’t do it for you. It has to be done tomorrow, and the only time he has is at 5:30. He’s staying late to work you in.”

“But that means getting on I-285 at rush hour,” Claudine said. “You know how I hate that. Can’t you take me?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. If you didn’t drive like an old lady, it wouldn’t be so bad. Just keep up with the flow of traffic. And no, I can’t take you because I have to be on a very important conference call. One of us has to earn a living.” I let my voice drip sarcasm. Claudine’s eyes filled with tears, but she made no further protests.

I fed the rat two of Claudine’s Valiums crushed into more peanut butter. While she was getting ready, I placed its sedated body under the front seat of the car. If my plan worked, it would awaken and scuttle out onto her feet when she was traveling 70 miles per hour.

I watched her drive off, her knuckles already white on the steering wheel. Then I paced. A lot could go wrong with my plan, which seemed less brilliant with each passing moment. What if the rat never woke up? Maybe I’d killed it. If Claudine made it to the lawyer’s office, she’d have some tough questions about why he wasn’t there to meet her. Or what if the crash only injured her? I wanted my freedom, not a job as a nurse. An eternity passed before I heard the doorbell.

Two solemn young policemen stood on my doorstep. They were very kind. “We don’t know why this terrible accident happened,” one of them said. “It appears your wife drove straight into the concrete median wall at a high rate of speed. My deepest sympathy, sir.”

~*~

Sure enough, the pretty women were still out there, but they turned away disdainfully when I tried to chat them up. A beautiful redhead said, “Get lost, Grandpa.” Her friend sniffed the air and said, “I smell a rat.” Their laughter followed me out the door.

At home, the rats took over the house. They didn’t even try to hide anymore. I admit I was – not afraid, exactly – but their constant scurrying made me nervous. Then one bit me while I was sleeping. The wound turned putrid with infection.

The nightmares began then. I barricaded myself in the bedroom, but I could hear them gnawing, gnawing in the walls. It was hard to sleep. I lost weight and developed dark circles under my eyes.

We all have irrational fears, but real ones – they’re different. Aren’t they?

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Imperfect Stranger

This is the opening of my new book, Imperfect Stranger,  now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.  

Chapter One

It happened right in front of me. Visibility on the narrow mountain road was almost zero in the rain and fog. I heard the crash before I saw it, pulled over and got out of my car.

It’s still there when I close my eyes. The car hanging at a crazy angle over the sharp embankment; the guardrail a twisted pretzel, all that kept the car from falling; the dead deer sprawled on the road. I stood there for what seemed an eon. What do I do? Will my touch tip the car out of balance and make it plunge over the cliff? Should I call for help, wait for reinforcements? Surely someone else heard the crash or saw the crazy headlights pointing to the sky. My paralysis was broken by a tentative little voice.

“Mama?”

I approached the car, careful not to brush against it, and looked through the rear side window. A small face looked back at me. In the front seat, the driver was curled into the deflated airbag, motionless. I could see it was a woman.

My mind bounced between options, none of which were good. Carefully, I tried the front door, but it didn’t budge. The driver’s side window was gone. Reaching through it, I placed my hand on the woman’s neck, feeling for a pulse the way I’d seen it done so many times on television. Apparently it’s easier on T.V., because I felt nothing. I pulled away a hand smeared with blood. The baby whimpered again.

“Hang on,” I said, my voice coming out in a croak. “Hang on, kid. I’ll get you out.”

Holding my breath, willing my hands to be steady, I painstakingly tried the back door. It opened one creak at a time. I fumbled with the unfamiliar straps and latches of the baby’s car seat. Just as I lifted the small body clear, the car lurched sickeningly and resettled.

The baby seemed okay. I sat her on the ground and went back to the woman. Awake now, she was making feeble attempts to climb out of the window. Our eyes met, hers pleading.

“Emmy?” she said.

There was a smell of gasoline, pungent and dangerous. All it needed was a spark. I was out of time. I grabbed the woman’s arms and pulled hard. She screamed as the car pulled in the opposite direction, convulsed and disappeared almost soundlessly. We fell backwards to the ground, to safety, the woman and I. I eased her carefully onto the ground next to her baby, who stopped crying and sucked her thumb, holding a fistful of her mother’s hair. The woman’s forehead leaked blood that almost obscured her face, but her eyes held mine. I fumbled for my cell phone, dialed 911 and gave our location.

That’s when I should have gotten in my car and driven on, but the woman’s hand caught mine and held. I sat beside them and waited.

Sirens and blue lights announced the arrival of the ambulance and the sheriff. After paramedics screamed off with their patients, the cop got out his little notebook and asked my name. My mouth opened to lie. But what I said, sweating, my heart galloping, was the truth: “John Carver.”

If he runs it, he runs it. No point in trying to hide. Not now.

Good Old Mary Beth

“I can’t believe you did this to me!”

Mary Beth held the phone out an inch from her ear. Tom was a yeller when he was mad, and he was mad now.

“I did exactly what you asked me to do,” Mary Beth said, taking a deep breath to steady herself. She’d always been scared of Tom’s temper.

“You’re just messing with me. It’s not good for Tiffany to get upset in her condition, and right now she’s is crying her little eyes out because of you.”

A slow smile spread across Mary Beth’s face. “She’s caused me a few tears herself.”

“Now, dammit, Mary Beth, your little joke’s over. You know we’re counting on that money to get settled. If there’s one thing you are, it’s dependable. So quit horsing around.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing I am, all right, good old dependable Mary Beth, always ready to make your life easier. I’ll tell you again, I did exactly what you asked when you left. You said we’d settle things between ourselves because you didn’t want to pay a divorce lawyer. We agreed I’d keep the house in town and you’d get the beach house. Then you asked me to sell it and send you the money because you needed to get back to Tiffany. And that’s what I did.”

“Mary Beth. You sent me a one dollar bill.”

“Yes, I know. I used my own judgment on the price. The first man who looked at it bought it. He was delighted.”

Mary Beth heard an inarticulate bellow of rage. “Good luck with your new wife and your new life,” she said softly. “I hope she proves to be as dependable as I am.”

Ferdie

(In case any of my real-life cousins read this: it’s fiction! You weren’t that mean.) 

The four sisters got together to put up peaches. It was easier if they helped each other and more fun, too. The kitchen held the talk and laughter of women who knew each other as well as they knew themselves. Their paring knives flashed, their faces reddened with steam as the Mason jars were filled, sealed and lined up like gems.

We cousins raided the wooden bushel basket, made ravenous by the peaches’ tree-ripened fragrance. It was like eating velvet. Juice ran down our chins and stuck our fingers together. There were four of us, too, all girls, stair-stepped in age: seven, nine, ten, and twelve. I was the youngest, doomed always to be the smallest, dumbest  and most gullible. Sometimes my older cousins were nice to me, but often they couldn’t resist being mean. No grown-up would come to my rescue, including my own mother. I was expected to find a way to hold up my end in the cousin hierarchy.

Alice, the eldest among us, was our de facto leader. If she held up one hand, we all knew to shut up because she wanted to tune in to something interesting our mothers were saying. The sisters talked Pennsylvania Dutch among themselves, and Alice was the only one who could understand even a smattering of it.  She was our ears, passing on the latest gossip, usually boring grown-up stuff we didn’t care about. Still, we liked the idea of spying.

We were at Aunt Berta’s house that day, a big white farmhouse floating amidst acres of grain. There were all kinds of things to do on the farm: the sheepdog might let us pet her puppies, or we could chase the chickens and make them squawk.  There were tractors to climb on, a haymow to jump in, and a rope attached to the rafters of the barn from which we could swing. Many of these activities were strictly forbidden for reasons obvious even to us, but the sternest injunction of all was, “You girls keep away from that bull.”

“Come on,” Alice said, “let’s go see Buster.”

Buster was a ridiculous name for the bull, two thousand pounds of total terror. He was kept confined within a stoutly fenced yard where he pawed the ground and bellowed his rage at being kept away from the ladies. I was scared to even look at him.

“I don’t wanna see Buster,” I whined.

But: “C’mon, you big baby!” the cousins chorused. Of course, I went. Babies always go if they possibly can. We’ll risk anything to avoid being left behind.

“I dare you to climb up on the fence.”

“I dare you to throw this peach pit at him.”

At that moment the bull was less scary than my cousins. I climbed; I threw. I had neither aim nor arm, but somehow the peach pit bounced off the soft part of Buster’s nose. It couldn’t have hurt much, but Buster was not one to let an insult slide.

With a roar he charged, knocking into the wooden fence with hurricane force. I flew backward like a cork out of a bottle, landing with an “oof.” Then there was no air in the world. I couldn’t take a breath. I couldn’t speak or cry or move. The cousins gathered around and poked at me. “Get up!” they hissed. “If they find out, we’ll all be in trouble.” Goading the bull was strictly forbidden. Goading me was apparently a different matter.

“We’ll say we told her not to do it,” Alice said, thinking fast. “We’ll say we tried to make her stop.”

Just  as I was able to draw my first painful gasp of oxygen, we heard our mothers calling. “Girls, come on. Time to go.”

“I guess the peaches are done,” Alice said. “Now act natural. Don’t tell.” This last, delivered with lizard eyes, was directed at me.

And just like that, my moment as courageous bull baiter was over. I received no accolades and reassumed my humble role as the littlest. But from that day forward I’ve been known in certain familial circles as Ferdie. Short for Ferdinand. And that’s no bull.