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What Are We Going To Do, Emily?

Twenty in Eighteen, 2018 Anthology, Ottawa Independent Writers

copyright Rick Prashaw

On the pillow, in the dead of night, Max heard the unmistakable, surgical snap of the mousetrap in the kitchen, one floor above him. Had he imagined hearing too the final, death bed cry from Mouseland?

Another mouse in Max’s death chamber. Max 1: Mice 0. Max wondered if the mice were keeping score, what their count was. Did they know that they had driven the man downstairs into a permanent fear and loathing of these nocturnal creatures?

Another mouse to carry out in the morning.

The December polar snap this year had the field mice moving indoors early this winter. Max’s Ottawa Kanata lower unit condo adjacent to woods was prime real estate for the mice snowbirds in search of a warmer climate.

Max hated mice. More a hatred for alive mice than dead mice, except his hatred shifted to the dead ones too any morning after their execution. He hated everything about opening the kitchen sink cupboard door, his eyes darting fleetingly to locate the rodent corpse, and it got worse when he spotted legs rigid and skyward. The mop-up routine never varied: Max closing his eyes, the broom reaching blindly to sweep the dead mouse onto the dustpan, marching it at arms length to the condo development garbage bins. Were not my eyes closed the entire walk, he wondered? He wasn’t certain. God forbid if the dead mouse fell from the dustpan. That had happened.

Mice creeped Max out. Their nightly scurrying through his home, dirty, filthy, disgusting, the droppings taunting him in the morning. No matter how his kids mocked his hearing, no matter how little they bothered to listen to his lectures on the distinction between being hard of hearing and deaf, Max knew that he could hear a pin drop during the silence of the nights. A mousetrap popping a hundred feet away was like Canada Day fireworks set off next to his ears. His Kanata condo was an empty nest now, the kids grown up and long gone from the home, but they did know well his baffling hearing prowess in the middle of the night. Family legends told how this ‘deaf man’ could eavesdrop on his kids’ Ottawa Market, beer-fuelled 3:00 a.m. conversations around the fridge.

Their plotting against the local government; him!

“How can you hear us then, in bed a floor away and miss what we say at the supper table?” they demanded over and over again.

“Because there’s five of you all talking at once at the supper table,” Max would answer, growing impatient as he tried yet again to explain his peculiar hearing loss that had to do with background noise, lacking the apparent filter that normal hearing people have in order to listen to what they wanted to hear while disregarding other noise.

When the audiologist showed the hearing-loss graph that looked like the worst day on the TSE stock exchange, that one hearing-capacity line plummeting south off the charts, he wanted to know if Max had worked in a factory or a mine and experienced some industrial accident.

“No,” said Max.

Pressed to identify what could cause it, he said: “Large Catholic Family.” His Irish audiologist, a Doctor Donnelly, had liked that.

Anyway, Max’s repeated explanations mattered little to his children who wanted that hearing at the table, not at three in the morning as they schemed or debriefed from their latest hijinks in the Ottawa Market.

Damn mice. What was it with his fear of them? He wouldn’t be on a chair shaking or screaming at them. That wasn’t manly. And living alone, he would have a long wait standing on a chair in the kitchen. No cavalry to the rescue. No kids here. No Emily now. Max had no choice but to give the mice a good fight and chase. He just hated them. And their creeping him out embarrassed him. Imagine, he thought, one of Ottawa’s top criminal defence lawyers regularly in Ontario Superior Court fighting the good fight of justice against prison and corrections bureaucracies, against a hang-’em-high, punitive, tough-on-crime crowd. Max could sit across from killers and suspected terrorists in visits to the Kingston penitentiaries and not flinch. Now, too, he had a troubling health crisis to soldier through. Courage, in spades, he thought. But none for the mice.

Max switched shrinks when one young psychologist told him that he had an irrational fear. “Jay-sus, you get paid for that analysis?” thought Max, checking the psychiatry degrees on the wall.

“Damn it. Of course, it’s an irrational fear! Aren’t they all? Suriphobia, Musophobia. Max was learning all the professional names for his fear. This young psychologist who told him that mice were small and harmless, seemed to think that he could talk Max out of this crazy fear.

“Is empathy not a course in medical schools anymore?” Max had asked Emily way back when. Like words would assuage his phobia.

There was one counselor who wanted to work with Max, teaching him positive associations with mice. Hypnosis Behaviour Therapy he called it. And they had the gall to bill $250 for this life coaching! Max, the lawyer, knew a thing or two about billable hours. Max had always hated mice. He didn’t want them to be his best friends. He wanted them dead. He knew his fear long preceded the baby mouse that ran across his face on that same pillow the winter earlier. Max had cried out that night, throwing on the lights to catch Minnie on the carpet in the middle of the room. Murphy, the lab retriever, was snoring sound asleep at the foot of the bed, a few feet from this intruder. So much for a guard dog. That mouse wanted to play, too young and not life-smart to recognize an enemy. Max grabbed a broom that night and battered the poor creature against the wall. A short life. No remorse nor confession from this criminal defence lawyer. There was only the blood to clean up next morning.

Another psychologist wanted Max to identify the person this baby mouse represented as he reined his blows on it.


That ended the behaviour therapy and hypnosis.

“Damn it. It’s a mouse! Nothing more than a mouse. And I wasn’t inviting it to move in!”

Emily would have understood.

Emily was the one who truly listened to him.

They married 35 years ago, at St. Patrick Basilica downtown, teenage sweethearts who refused to listen to parents or priests. The surprise pregnancy, their first son Ian, got them to the altar quicker than they had planned. Their white wedding plans were preserved only by the winter wedding quickly arranged in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Everything had worked out, as only crazy in love kids could believe it would. Four more kids, Fraser, Dorothy, Rebecca and Adam, and life flew by.

Too quickly. Her pain in the stomach didn’t seem too bad at first. Jesus, ovarian cancer. The very thing that gives birth takes a life.

“There is a time to be born, a time to die,” intoned the reading from Ecclesiastes at her Celebration of Life attended by hundreds.

Just fifty-four. Gone in three months. Five years ago.

“Jay-sus,” Max muttered.

“Death, where is thy sting,” was another biblical verse Max remembered from that day. Well, Max knew the sting of death here and here and here. Soul, heart and sinew cried out. The shoulders stooped, the face now in a permanent grimace in these years alone. These past few years, since Emily died, Max took some solace sitting with his wife on the deck. She is in her favourite rocker, handed down on her mother’s side at least three generations. On the porch, she’s always thirty-five. Full of life, beautiful. Radiant, yes, sexy. Tossing that auburn reddish hair back with her throaty deep laugh. He fell in love with her the moment he heard her laugh. He had crossed a high school auditorium floor to ask her for a dance. She laughed that night. She laughed many more nights. Max knew crossing that gym floor was the best move of his life.

Emily solved all Max’s problems. Or made them disappear. When Max got into his periodic complaining funk, she intoned her own grandmother’s wisdom.

“No complaining now, you are still here.”

Emily always had a gem to share from her favourite writer and poet, Mary Oliver.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” she would ask him.

She seemed to be asking herself that question too. Hear Em