The spring before he turns fourteen, while the war is on, among other problems such as a disintegrating environment and the rising cost of stamps, Frankie's family believes mice have taken over the cupboards. Every few mornings, sandstorms of crumbs appear on the kitchen floor, on the countertop. Their first infestation. "If you think of the house as a nation state," Frankie says, because he had recently begun to read more than just the sporting section of the Globe, "then this is guerrilla resistance."
"I prefer to think of it as just a house," says Frank Sr.
The house, a simple building with two floors and a screen porch behind, had been built on a filled-in marsh just blocks from the ocean and, especially after storms, which come now with greater intensity, or in the heat of summer, the ground feels soggy and unsettled. A man visited once to see about installing a cellar. They couldn't afford it but Frank Sr. likes to have goals. Before stepping out of his truck, through the rolled down window and over the shouting radio, the man said, "You all are sinking," and then dipped a yardstick into the mud at each corner of the house to prove it. (An inch and a quarter on the northeastern end had been lost, probably more by now.) With the heat and the marsh, then, they had become accustomed to the mosquitoes. They learned, because of raccoons, to bungee tops to the garbage bins.
But this mouse has everyone in a state.
Claire refuses to take breakfast in the kitchen. She eats standing in the doorway, eyes to the floor, scanning. William, the youngest, had peeled the leaves and offshoot twigs from all but the soft top of a long branch. He likes to crouch on the stairs around the corner and dance the tip gently over Claire's shin and foot, trying to scare her. William too, though brave enough to sit at the table, eats his cereal with milk dripping over the corduroyed slopes of his knees. The same knees that, ten years later, would be taken off by a homemade landmine along a mountain pass in Asia Minor, a path from which no mouse could divert him. But this story's not about William's knees.
Neither is it about a mouse or family of mice, in the strictest sense, though not all of them know it at the time.
Frankie's mother Mary sweeps up the crumbs beached on the floor, pulls a pair of rubber gloves up to her forearms to scrub the low cupboard shelves. A rag over her mouth and nose. Frank Sr. sets mousetraps with small strips of cheese as lure. Frankie thinks they should put crackers in the traps since that's what the mice are eating.
"Mice only eat cheese in cartoons," he says.
"But this is fine cheese. From France. From Bordeaux," his father says. "In France." The skin on the underside of his forearm rippled from jumping off a bridge during low tide. ("Always lead with your hands, boy, not your noggin.") He sets the mousetrap with the strip of cheese and pushes it beneath the sink. "They really know from their cheeses in France. Only a fool of a mouse would turn whiskers up at this."
"And only a fool of a man wastes a piece of cheese on a mousetrap," Mary says. She has a strange relationship with food, Mary, eating a single meal each day just before going to bed. Even times when they have the stock to spare. What it did was keep the weight off, no exercise required. When Claire offers to share cookies Mary half smiles and says, "Oh, but one bite and I'll just blow up," which no one believes, given her proportion of bone to flesh, the way her arms look outlined by the sun through the sleeves of her blouse, but when they argue she says, "I have the pictures to prove it. Someday, when you're in the mood to be nauseas, maybe I'll show you." The cookies wind up, as ever, out of Claire's hands and in one of the boys' stomachs. "Men look healthy with a touch of roundness to their bellies," Mary says.
"Would that our boys ate as well as a rodent," she says.
"You have to spend something to make something," says Frank Sr. "It's an investment. Spend the cheese, catch the mouse. Catch the mouse, calm the family."
"Spend the lives, secure the peace," Mary says. "You're as bad as the whole lot on television."
"And Joseph," says Frankie, indexing finger pointing skyward, which makes his father laugh.
Then in the morning, more crumbs.
"I think this proves my theory," Frankie says. "Real mice don't even like cheese."
The trap beneath the sink went undisturbed not because mice prefer crackers but because Frankie's grandmother does and anyway has hips bad enough to keep her from ever bending over to retrieve it from low beneath the sink. She is eighty-eight years old and lives on a hospital bed behind a curtain in the pantry off the kitchen. Moved there when a hurricane chewed up her house in Florida and stuck her with the bill. The bed is positioned to cover a hole in the pantry floor. Frank Sr. had gotten it from an Army friend who worked night security at South Shore Hospital. It cost him two cartons of menthols stolen from the pharmacy where he worked, and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red.
Frankie helps his mother bag lunches in the mornings before school. Because he's the oldest, she says. Really, though, she doesn't like to be alone with Nana. They work quickly and mostly without talking, Mary switching off the radio as soon as the news comes on. ("We've got enough to get through a day on our own without them reminding us every ten minutes how poorly the rest of it's going.") She could hum just about any tune in the catalog.
When she wakes in time, Nana helps too. Her hands are shaky and her fingers poke through the bread. "Look Mary," Nana says with sliced wheat humped over her curved knuckles. "Finger food." She has a dry coughing sort of laugh that sounds painful and restores shocking color to her cheeks. You could forget how pale she looked until she laughed. Frank Sr. says that's just the proof, in case anybody is at all interested, hot blood still runs the course. He tries to make her laugh every day for just that reason. "Uh-huh," he'd say, peering into her tearing eyes. (Most members of the MacAbee clan, befitting the times, tend to leak tears when laughing.) "No need to call for the wagon just yet, Mother."
Mary pulls the bread from around Nana's fingers, holds it up to her face and peers through the gash, sticks out her tongue or blows a raspberry.
"Just so," Nana says. After a while her face shrinks back into its etched lines.
Mary uses the punctured pieces of bread to make Frank Sr.'s sandwiches.
Most days mother and son try to finish the lunches before Nana is out of bed. They aren't hard to make. Cheese sandwiches usually. Or bologna. Saltines. Sometimes a piece of chocolate.
Tommie Dunn's family lives next door and just sent their eldest overseas to fight. Their grandfather had been a marine, their father had been a marine, and one day Tommie would be too. No war could pass without the Marshfield Dunn's doing their part. This time it's Tommie's brother's turn. He wants to fly airplanes but wears glasses an inch thick and winds up an infantryman sitting behind a machine gun mounted on the back of an armored jeep. The glasses help keep sand from his eyes.
Recruiters have a table set up beneath a glass case filled with athletic trophies in the front hallway of Frankie's high school. Numbers are down, they say and offer up a bowl full of hard candy suckers to passing students. Frankie collects attendance sheets from the classrooms in his wing and walks them down to the office each morning where he hears them talking. When a group of football players in leather sleeves rumble by, the recruiters start up a story, make their two hands into the outlines of rifles. Bang bang bang! Sister Mary Kate stands next to them and taps a wood ruler against her leg, listening for swear words so she can kick them out.
Frank Sr. was in the Army too. "No better feeling than giving yourself up to something bigger. Real sacrifice. Playing for a team. Not that we really had much of a choice back then. But what did it matter? No way in hell could I have ever been a Canuck anyway."
When they bring home Tommie's brother, Frankie and his father stand on the outside of a solemn crowd gathered in the parking lot of the post office across the street from their house. Men sweat through their shirts, shuffle up to the plain box, kneel in the dust and mumble some words to God. The Dunn's, like much of the town, had wanted to avoid the parish after the disclosure of indiscretions at the rectory. They stand in an arcing line beside the casket and accept hugs and reached out palms. Frank Sr. turns to and observes his son staring at the family, misinterprets his expression, says, "Not anything you'll have to worry about for a long time." He wants to pat his son's shoulder but doesn't know quite how to manage it and, in a more tender gesture than intended, ends up brushing fingertips along his neck.
"Not true," Frankie says. "Something I will have to worry about for a very long time." He studies the family, tries to catch Tommie's eye, wonders how this might change his friend.
"All right, boy," his father says at length. "I think we've seen about all we can. What do you say we get out of here, check out how the Sox are doing. Two-to-one says they're up. I've got one of those feelings about this season..."
Afterwards, Mary meets them on the steps coming in. She wants Frankie to go back to the post office for a sheet of those two cent stamps ("I'll give the post office my two cents all right") so her envelopes will finally have the correct postage, bills will stop being returned. She'd go herself but has been cleaning again and doesn't want to change her clothes.
"But it's only across the street," Frankie says. "What do you need to put on different clothes for?"
"A person becomes what they think they are, Frankie," she says. "And I think I am too good to wear rags in public."
But all Frankie can think about is the mouse on the loose in their home, the little terror. Sacrifice? Is Frankie not willing to forgo sleep, to sit up all hours of the night, keeping watch, defending the defenseless, the innocent, the crackers?
"Oh, I wish that wretched thing never came into our house," his mother says. Frank Sr., who makes no sign of having heard anything at all, follows his son inside, fiddles with the dials of the radio until he finds the game, waits to learn the score.
Soon Frankie begins sleeping on the old couch in the porch behind the kitchen. William complains until he realizes it means he too will have a room of his own. Then he cheers. He stops his little dance a moment and says, because who hasn't wanted it both ways, "But will you still visit me?"
"Be careful out here," Mary says before Frankie's first night on the porch. "Don't stay up all night. And latch the door before you go to sleep."
She hands him an old blanket and a pillow, double-checks the lock on the door. "Practically sleeping outside," she says. "You'll catch your death."
"Haven't you heard?" Frankie says. "The globe's heating up. Polar bears moving down into Canada to meet the butterflies moving north. I probably won't even need this blanket."
The air out on the porch is cooler and more active, but not discomforting. Pieces of plank wood painted white are available to place over the screens, deflect wind, the moonlight, but he doesn't post them. Easier to stand guard with a slight chill in the air.
"A cold's not the only thing he'll catch," Frank Sr. says. "All mice in this house, in the entire neighborhood, are now officially on notice."
"Now listen. There's nothing in this house you can't find during daylight hours. It's not big enough to hide anywhere. Ask your sister if you don't believe me."
"He'll be fine."
"I know he will," Mary says. "It's still my job to worry."
He stands in the doorway after she's gone, arms folded. "Goodnight, boy," he says, flicks off the light. They wait, listening to each other, listening to the house and the night crawling and snorting around it, to the sound of a passing car like a mechanical wave breaking, drawing back out to sea.
Mornings Frank Sr. comes to wake him up. There's no clock, only the accumulating light, a few of Claire's reflective swimming trophies and a shiny swordfish mounted on a wooden plaque. Frank Sr. had caught it in deep water back when he was younger and still did things that could end with surprising results.
"Is our owl's stomach full this morning?" he asks. "No? Well, don't let the nuns catch you napping, but if you rest up during school maybe tonight your luck will change. The food supply of the house depends on it."
His back is a problem so Frank Sr. sits stiffly, awkwardly on the arm of the couch. He wants to talk about gasoline prices. About how unfair it is Mary forces him to carpool, what it's like to ride shotgun beside someone with the personality of a newt in a car with no working radio. But clearly something bothers his son.
"You're not worried about it, are you?" he says.
"I'm worried about a lot of things."
Frank Sr. doesn't know where to begin with a remark like that. Doesn't know where his son's moods come from or what he's afraid of, what can be done about it.
"It's more scared of me than I am of it," Frankie says.
"That's probably right."
"That is right."
"This one I don't think will give you any problems at all."
"It could bite. That's one problem."
"It could. That's a possibility. Unlikely, but possible. After all, it's only trying to stay alive, and things that are scared or threatened and want very badly to stay alive can be capable of almost anything."
"Yes. But not this one. This one's probably not a biter."
"You don't know that."
"Call it a feeling."
Frank Sr. stands and plunges both hands into his pants pockets, rocks up onto his toes and back down again. "Come on, boy," he says. "Help your mother with the lunches. And no poking holes in my bread this morning. I don't think one day with a whole sandwich is too much to ask."
"Oh! Goodnight Francis!" Nana says when Frankie catches her out of bed one night.
For three nights, there had been no sign of mice. No scratching. No crumbs. The cheese on the trap, at one time refreshed routinely, had begun to mold. Then suddenly, sprung from sleep, it was happening. There was more noise than he had thought a mouse capable of making, and Frankie imagined him, this mouse, grown suddenly, mystically large. Maybe eating crackers did for mouse bones what milk was supposed to do for kids. And gorged on crackers he'd grown at least the size of a cat or small dog, the wolf at the door. Teeth just as sharp as ever. Gleaming. Dripping. Perfectly equipped for the separation of boy and finger. Worse maybe.
But no, it had been Nana all along.
She stands naked in front of the stove. Frankie has never seen a naked woman before. Veins show through the skin of her arms and legs and chest like the map of Europe hid just beneath her surface. A tattoo her skin has grown over. Long pubic hair swirls into a puffy tangle. Long breasts resting on the round of her stomach. Armpit hair. Crackers spilling through her trembling hands.
"Couldn't sleep?" she asks. She makes no move to obscure her exposed body. "Do you want me to sing for you? I can remember a time you refused to sleep unless you could hear me singing. Once in love with Francis. Always in love with Francis. The hours I sat at the end of your bed. Oh, my throat hurt."
It says Francis on his birth record but the nurse who jotted it down might have been the last one to call him that. Frankie sets down the broom he'd been clutching for protection and asks if Nana is all right.
"Yes," she says, smiling. What a simple question. Ask me another.
"Can I get you something? Your gown?"
She gestures towards the stove. One of the burners is lit. "Wait another minute. I'm just warming some tea. Would you like some tea with milk?"
The teakettle, cold on the counter, has not been filled with water. She raises her arm and lips up crumbs from her cupped hand. Most of them splash to the floor in between her feet.
"You've always been a good boy, Francis," she says when he steers her towards a chair, fetches a blanket to drape over her shoulders. "Parents don't have favorites. You would have been in the running though."
Frankie is happy to find her asleep when he turns back later to set the steaming mug on the table before her. "Oh! Goodnight Francis!" she says again when he shakes her awake, helps her to bed. He pulls the curtain across the doorway to the pantry, pours her tea out in the sink, and washes and dries the mug. Sweeps the floor. And before turning out the light, kneels down by the sink, removes the piece of moldy French cheese from the mousetrap and throws it off into the dewy grass for the scavengers to find.
Nana's voice wakes him in the morning and he can hear his father quieting her. Through a gap between the curtain and the wall Frankie sees him helping her dress. Lifting and buttoning and smoothing. Folding the blanket. Frankie goes back to the couch and pretends to sleep until his father comes to wake him. He sits next to his son, perched on a cushion, though he doesn't lay his hand on him or call his name. After a while, Frankie opens his eyes.
"The owl stirs at last. Must have had a hard night," Frank Sr. says. "Is his stomach full?"
His eyebrows move halfway up his forehead. "The cheese is gone."
Frankie opens his mouth and looks at his father and wonders how he can explain that the threat comes from within. That the infestation, the guerilla resistance is nothing more than his own mother, a woman who can no longer distinguish one generation from the next.
"Completely," his father says. "And the trap unsprung. And no crumbs anywhere. No crumbs and no cheese."
"And no mouse."
"No," he says. "No mouse." He did know—probably knew all along. Or did he? Frankie, finding and deserting his father's eyes, can't tell. Frank Sr. says, "You must be disappointed."
"I guess. A little."
"Don't be discouraged," he says. "A good hunt takes time. At least we know we're on the right track, eh? I told you those mice would eat it," he says. "That cheese. That fine French cheese. Who could resist?"
Frankie doesn't say anything right away, in case his father is making this into a joke. Frank Sr. liked to say Mary married him for his sense of humor. "It certainly wasn't for my cooking," he says, "or my Brahmin family name." But his father's face gives up nothing.
"You were right," Frankie tries, keeping a close watch on his father's expression. "This mouse isn't anybody's fool."
Frank Sr. nods, waits.
"Maybe it got tired of crackers every night."
His father has a package of cigarettes in his breast pocket which he pats but does not remove. Voices leak down through the ceiling. A door slams.
"You look tired," Frank Sr. says after a while. "Better not let your mother see you like this. She'll have both our necks. Hup to and splash some water on your face."
He stops in the doorway on his way out. Lots of important business in their family is conducted from doorways. Mary, only months before, had stood one night this same way, in the door to Frankie and William's bedroom, and told them Nana would be coming to stay. And later, at the back door, the porch light glowed behind her head. Frankie had missed curfew, hadn't once thought of it until he was already late. It's not just the rule broken, Mary had said. There's trust, there's the people and the feelings behind it. Consequences.
Now, from Frankie's vantage on the couch, just his father's face and sloped shoulders are visible past the doorway. "Maybe tonight," he says. "Maybe later your stomach will be full," Frank Sr. says. "Someday soon, I hope." Eyes small and unfocused. Smile all lips. "Until then it's more of the same. More cheese and more crackers. And too many growling bellies."
The day following, Frankie places a single cracker in the mousetrap beneath the sink. "I just want to try," he tells his father.
At night he chips pieces from the cracker corners to look like nibbles. A savored treat. Frank Sr. is concerned. Picks the trap up beneath his nose. Inspects it. "And you've seen nothing? Heard nothing?"
"It must chew very quietly."
Nana and Frankie continue their mid-night meetings. "Goodnight Francis!" she says each time. "Couldn't sleep?" And Frankie fixes her tea. Some nights she drinks it.
The crackers don't stop either, Frankie still sweeping up the crumbs afterwards. He starts to ration how many she takes each night from the box and breaks them up into smaller pieces to fool her. He counts the pieces out into her cupped hands. They stand next to each other in front of the stove watching the kettle warm. Frankie can't let it whistle and risk waking the house, so the spout cap is flipped up and steam blows out into the room.
They make faces at each other in the surface of the kettle. Nana started it. She really has only one face, her eyes slightly wider (the lids too heavy to lift much further), her tongue wiggling free of her mouth. She leans close to the kettle, her reflection distorted by the rounded surface, and makes her face. Then Frankie has a go, feeling out variations of his face the way a baby first experiments with its muscles of expression. Hoping to make Nana laugh, to bring the color back to her cheeks.
And then she dies.
"Frankie," his father says one morning. His hand smells of many lit cigarettes. "Come say goodbye."
She is on her back on the hospital bed. Naked under that yellow blanket. Frankie has never seen a dead person before. She seems smaller than an adult should be, he thinks. Times like these can take a lot out of a person.
There's barely enough room for the both of them to stand beside her among the brightly colored boxes of cereal and Bisquick, a tin of flavored popcorn, a ragged pile of used aluminum foil squares. Frank Sr. drops his heavy hands onto his son's shoulders and it feels, to Frankie, like he's being driven into and through the floor. A crushing hand. They stand that way watching her. After a while he dips his shoulder, shrinks from his father's grip.
Frank Sr. says, "I should tell Mother." He makes a soft noise like the start of a laugh. "Maybe she'll clap. No? You don't think so? Well, we shall see. If I were a man for gambling..." he says. He takes off his glasses and wipes the lenses with his shirt.
Frankie doesn't want him to tell her. Doesn't want her to prove him right.
"She was pretending too," Frankie says. "Wasn't she? Lying. About the mouse."
Frank Sr. stops in the doorway, the curtain pulled aside. His hand lingers on it. It's impossible to look ahead, he thinks, and know how something will turn out. Too many things change and the plans you make can't keep up. He wants to explain this to his son. How you can decide something now and in a year, hell, in a month, barely recognize it.
"We didn't lie to you," he says. "We misled you. For your protection. For your own good. There's a difference."
Frankie stands in the backyard, tosses a baseball high up onto the roof, waits—palm rubbing the leather of his mitt—for the ball to roll off the ledge. A game he's played for years. The ball bowling over the shingles, the anticipation of when, and from what angle, it might reappear, bits of roof raining down along with it. His father bought him the mitt. They spent months together breaking it in. Rubbed it over with an oil-wet rag, wrapped it closed with rubber bands, a ball tucked inside. He even slept on it, slipped the glove between his mattress and box spring at night, trying to wear in the leather. It fits his hand perfectly now and Frankie squeezes it shut several times, listens to the ball roll.
When Mary steps outside he doesn't acknowledge her. Continues tossing the ball. He tries to throw it so that it lands softly, uses an exaggerated motion, leaves his hand extended in follow-through. Mary says, without annoyance, "You're making a racket."
Then, after receiving no response, tries, "You trying to wake the dead? Cause I believe that takes somewhere around three days and I'm afraid we won't have much roof left by the end. Falling apart already as it is."
"That's not a trade you'd make?" Frankie says.
Mary gives him a look that says Fair enough, wonders how they'd ever had it in mind to deceive him, apologizes.
"It wasn't just the lie, Ma. It was the people behind it."
Up onto the roof again goes the ball, rumbling, like a storm off somewhere in the distance, and Mary and Frankie stand together, waiting for it to fall.
Copyright © Scott McCabe 2007.