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M.M. DeVoe

Plague Mice


I live with my husband and three year old son, one single city block from Ground Zero. Itís a normal life, punctuated by construction noise and orange alerts. My kid goes to day care two blocks from the siteóevery morning, I push him in the stroller through the throngs of tourists, some weeping, some posing for pictures, most looking at maps because now that theyíve hit Ground Zero, they have about thirteen minutes to make the next boat to the Statue of Liberty. One overcast Thursday morning, when the local morning newscast included a brief item about six plague-infected mice gone missing from a laboratory in Newark, my thoughts (as is usual, if you live one block from a missing complex of buildings) turned to terrorism.

"How easy would it be for some schmo to buy a dozen mice from PetCo and set them loose on a bus or an airplane?" I said, zipping my preschoolerís backpack.

The newscaster assured his listeners that the risk to the public was slim to none since the mice were sure to die or be dead already.

My husband, who like most Post-9/11 New Yorkers knows entirely too much about scary subjects, laughed at the ignorance of the reassurance. "They still donít exhume the graves of plague victims in London for fear the virus might still be alive."

With that, he kissed me and went off to work.

I walked our son to day care, returning to write, as I always do, past Ground Zero, to see how the construction is progressing. (The construction is progressing imperceptibly, and still there is scaffolding, noise, and bulldozers on every possible square inch of barren property). Then, right at my feet in the middle of the rush-hour crowded sidewalk, there it was: an eviscerated mouse.

Okay, Iím thinking, roadkill. I see this all the time. No big deal. So itís in the center of the sidewalk. So itís weirdly skinless, so itís on a really busy street corner at rush hour in Ground Zero. So what?

I made a vain attempt to hold my breath, avert my eyes, and pass on by, but as I walked the block to my home, I was haunted by the image of the small dead rodent, mostly flayed, with its innards spread in a small circleóand the dozens of morning commuters who had already passed by as they hurried to get to work before 9am.

Unable to shake the feeling of necessary duty, I called 311 (a city hotline our current mayor wisely instituted to give New Yorkers someplace to call to complain about minor grievances) from my home phone. A very friendly operator listened to my story, and to his credit, did not laugh.

"Iíll patch you right through to the sanitation department."

A minute later, Michelle answered.

I told her my story. Michelle repeated my complaint in disbelief. She hadnít heard the news story. I repeated it as I had heard it.

"Oh. Okay. I see. A dead mouse. On the sidewalk. Might it have been a rat?"

"It might have been. I didnít stay to check. I just thought with the whole missing mouse thing in Newark, you might want to clean it up sooner rather than later. People might panic."

So far, the only panic had been mine, in getting up the nerve to make the phone call. But the operator was also a Post 9/11 New Yorker.

"Iím going to conference this call with 9-1-1," she determined.

"Is that really necessary?" I asked, feeling like an utter fool. Was a dead mouse a terrorist act these days? Did it require the police?

"It never hurts to doublecheck these things. Donít worry. Iíll introduce you first."

The 9-1-1 operator answered the phone, all business, and the Michelle efficiently announced her department and identification number and recited my home telephone number from her caller ID. I waited, feeling very exposed.

"9-1-1. Go ahead."

"This is going to sound stupid," I admitted. "There was a news story this morning about six plague-infected mice gone missing from a lab in Newark. On my way back from daycare, I passed a flayed and eviscerated mouse on the sidewalk near Ground Zero."

"This is about a what? A mouse?" The operator sounded jaded and irritated simultaneously. No sense of humor or irony. None.

"Yes," I sighed. "I think it might be terrorism, or at least it could be construed asó"

"Name. Address. Phone."

I gave her everything she wanted and hung up, relieved it was over.

But it wasnít.

At 10am my home phone rang.

"This is 9-1-1 dispatch," I heard, "Did you make a call about a dead mouse?"

Yes, I admitted, I had.

"We need you to go to the street corner in question and show the cops exactly where the mouse was discovered."

"I have to go there?" I thought of the manuscript I was working on, and how many hours had already been lost to this ridiculous stab at Post-9/11 Citizenry. "Iíd rather not."

I gave explicit details of the location (one thing New Yorkers know how to do is identify precise street corner locations), but he said again that I should meet with the cops. I balked.

"You know what? On the off chance that it actually is infected with the plague virus, I honestly donít want to go near it."

"You wonít have to go near it, maíam," he said. "The cops will come to your building. Where on Broadway are you located?"

I suddenly felt harassed. Did they think I was calling in a bomb hoaxóthat isóa plague mouse hoax? Did they need to see me to decide whether to arrest me?

"John Street," I said, being as vague as only this city allows. "Broadway and John."

He said to expect a squad car, thanked me, and hung up. I grabbed my keys and went outside to wait. Once on the busy Financial District corner, I realized I had given no description of myself, nor been asked. I didnít even have a wallet or a cellphone. And in Lower Manhattan? Police vehicles drive by every three minutes.

First, a police limo with dark windows. Then two trucks from ĎSpecial Servicesí. Convinced these were my guys, I waved, but they kept driving. A few cycles of the traffic light later, a red squad car marked NYC Sheriff turns onto John Street. I flag him down, only to discover heís not the one.

"Iím a Sheriff, not a cop, and today, Iím being a mail man," he laughs, pointing to a small package on the passenger seat. Next, he tells me, he has to go pick up a mental health somesuch thing. I tell him to come back afterwards and if Iím still here, have me committed. Two squad cars screech to a halt beside one another in front of the old ATT building, and I interrupt our tÍte-ŗ-tÍte. A third squad car takes the turn fast and drives past my favorite department store. No one has noticed me. I feel like Iím approaching the scene of NYPD Blueóall thatís missing are the cameras.

The four officers are talking to one another through open windows. I walk up to the closer of the two cars and ask if they were sent by 9-1-1.

"Sorry. Weíre not City cops. Weíre Trade Center cops."

A stereotype of serious beat cop got out of the other squad car: 5í11í, 30s, short dark hair.

"Are you the car that 9-1-1 sent?" (I hope.)

He narrows his eyes. "What's this about, miss?

I turn beet red, shuffle my feet. "A dead mouse."

I seem to have passed the test. He nods. I proceed to tell the whole stupid story again, and then it starts to rain. He climbs in the car and tells me to wait a minute. It starts raining harder. I point to a nearby awning and he says, "Get in the car."

I do, feeling incredibly weird. The driver (a tiny but very fierce Asian woman) immediately pulls away from the curb, explaining they want me to show them the place the mouse was. Now I'm thinking--if by some horrible longshot it IS a plague mouse, I am being forced by the police to enter the plague site again. Great. And the wind has picked up.

 We get to the spot and of courseótwo hours have passed since the initial callóthere is no mouse body.

"It was right here," I stammer, pointing to a very clean spot on the sidewalk in front of a vendor of crystal WTC statuettes that light up if one pays extra for the base. "Ask the vendor."

"We did, Miss," the male cop said, "No one but you has seen a thing."

"No one sees anything around here," I replied. As if in proof, I spot a set of keys on the sidewalk nearby. "Look." The Asian cop is very polite as she tells me I have done the right thing and to have a nice day. The cops and I stare at the lost key chain, then I turn to walk home in the rain. They leave the keys in the rain and drive off. The City is safe again.

M. M. De Voe is a prize-winning author, whose short fiction has been published in PRISM: International, The Spectator, SLANT, and Bee Museum. Her translations of contemporary Lithuanian fiction are forthcoming in anthologies in Canada and the European Union. Her YA novel, Burn in our Hearts, was a finalist for the 2004 Bellwether Prize; she is at work on another. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her story "Overheard" appears in the forthcoming anthology Stirring Up a Storm: Tales of the Sexual, the Sensual and the Erotic, (Thunderís Mouth Press, Oct 2005) alongside works by Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. The story has been nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize.

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