Jason Olsen currently teaches at Utah State University-College of Eastern Utah in Price, Utah where he teaches literature and writing. He has had work appear in Haydens Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, and Indiana Review, among other places.
I have twice in my life seen women with gray mice on their shoulders and both of the mice in question were as delicate and well-behaved as any creatures I had ever seen. Both sat on their respective owner's shoulders almost motionlessly, moving only often enough to reveal that they were neither stuffed nor dead.
I saw the first mouse four years ago. I was living in Arizona, working at a J.C. Penney's department store in the Tucson Mall. When I saw that mouse, I was riding the bus to work because my car had died and Stacy—the woman I was living with at the time—refused to drive me, angry about one thing or another. I don't recall what that fight was about, but thinking of me and Stacy and Tucson and where we were at that time both geographically and emotionally, the fight could have been about anything.
Two or three rows ahead of me on this bus, two people were talking—a young man and a young woman. He was clearly in his teens and she probably was. Considering his complexion and haircut, I would have guessed him to be 15; the girl was a couple of years older and, though I couldn't tell with the two of them sitting down, she seemed considerably taller.
The two were talking about something and it was important. I didn't have any idea what it was but it was their excitement and passion about their subject matter that encouraged me to eavesdrop.
That and the small gray mouse that sat on the girl's shoulder, almost hiding in the fold of her sweatshirt's hood. She held what appeared to be a briefcase in her lap and mentioned something to the kid beside her about not qualifying for the national competition. He ran his fingers nimbly through his hair and said it was okay, that she'd get another chance.
And she nodded, agreeing she would and so would he—and wouldn't it be great when the two of them finally made it because, wow, the people they'd get to meet, the stage on which they'd finally be able to stand. They started trading names of people they clearly admired and they released these people into conversation as if their names were delicate crystal held in calloused, unworthy hands. These people were celebrities to them but, to me, their names meant nothing.
The two kept talking about competitions and trophies and I'm not sure if it was the novelty of the bus ride, the mystery of the mouse, their cryptic conversation, or something else, but I was running out of stops before I reached the mall and I had to know what they were talking about, what the deal was with the mouse, and what was in the case that she kept moving her hands so softly against. I just had to know the answer to at least one of these things. I was in the dark about so much at that point of my life that I needed to know something. And it had to be this.
I was completely unversed on bus protocol, but I felt there must be some occasions where you were allowed to break down the barriers between bus seats and look at that particular person and acknowledge them. I have to be able to say, yeah, I've been listening in and look, I just have to know.
The boy rang the bell for his stop. He got out of his seat and the bus slowed and he told the girl goodbye and the mouse remained still. Not once did he gesture to or speak of the mouse and, as he left and I looked out the window and the bus started again, I saw my opportunity for finding out more pass with every streetlight because every street drew us closer to the mall and my department store with my mid-managerial responsibilities and my children's fashions. I looked at the back of my hands because I had nothing else to do—the veins were larger, it seemed, than they ought to be, so I worried about that and I added that to list of things that had been plaguing me for weeks. Frankly, there wasn't much I wasn't worrying about during my time in Tucson.
And then this girl with the mouse on her shoulder who had been sitting quietly since the boy left, did the unthinkable. She touched the side of the case again, but this time with a clear and obvious purpose. She lifted a latch. She opened the case.
There are these moments in our lives where time essentially stops, when the mice on our shoulders collectively take a breath and wait for the life-defining clarity that sits on the other side of the moment. There are these revelations that hit you at the most unexpected times: walking in the mall during a lunch break and seeing six women—none of whom are the woman you're living with—and realizing you'd rather be with any one of them.
Suddenly there was no fight with Stacy, no regrets over moving to Tucson to fulfill the wishes of a woman that, more and more, it was clear I did not love.
There was only this eighteen or nineteen-year-old girl with an auburn pony tail and a University of Arizona sweatshirt and a mouse on her shoulder who had a briefcase with the potential to answer one of the great mysteries of my life or at least the last ten minutes of it.
She had opened the briefcase. She was looking inside.
I craned my neck so I could look inside with her. Inside sat three yo-yos resting comfortably in silver foam.
I saw the second mouse two weeks ago while on a date with a woman I had met at the Sahara West library in Las Vegas while she was studying for what was clearly an important multiple-choice psychology exam and I was looking up books about golf, a sport I figured I should know more about and possibly one day even play. It was cold outside, Las Vegas-in-winter-cold, and the library was pretty active. It was a Wednesday afternoon during the week in-between Christmas and New Year's.
This girl and I kept looking up at each other and eventually I said hi. So did she. Then she explained the importance of this exam to both her immediate and long-term future and I told her I worked at a bookstore and had never been to this library before. I asked her to dinner. She said sure. I spotted no gray mice at any point during our library encounter.
The bulk of our dinner date consisted of me trying to think of the least conspicuous way of slipping my “$20 Off Your Entire Bill” coupon to the waiter as my date told me about her father. Evidently he is (or was) a scholar who spent the bulk of his life and career tracking the lives of the minor American presidents. He was especially taken with John Tyler and had written a seldom-read book about Tyler's role in the annexation of Texas.
Her stories at dinner were passable though hardly captivating and I'm surprised I remember as much as I do, considering how hard I was concentrating on not saying or doing anything stupid. Perhaps it was all of these preoccupations that made it take longer for me to see the mouse than I would have expected. The mouse—one could argue it was exactly the same mouse I had seen on a different shoulder four years earlier—was resting within the stray strands of her dark hair, its feet planted firmly in the fabric of her turtleneck sweater.
There it was, sitting and staring at the older couple who sat in a booth to our left, eating from each other's plates as if they were one person sharing two tired bodies. I thought of the boy on the bus and how he never said anything about the mouse he was a few feet away from and while I once thought this was out of familiarity or some kind of politeness, I now realized, trying not to look at this mouse, that it was much more complicated than that. It is more than politeness at stake when the sanity of the other and the sanity of the self are what stand in question.
My date's name was Stacey, which concerned me at first since I had been doing everything I could to get away from the memory of the previous Stacy, but when she spelled her name above her phone number on a piece of the library's scrap paper with a golf pencil, I realized she had an extra e in her name, and that somehow made things more bearable. And I thought, if things went well, maybe when someone mentioned the name Stacy, regardless of spelling, this would be who I would think of first.
But it was just a first date. And she carried a mouse on her shoulder, which concerned me, even if it was a mouse so well-behaved it was as if Stacey had told it before the date, be extra good tonight because this could be important.
And, honestly, if the success of a first date can be measured by the desire and likelihood of a second, it was pretty successful. We went to a restaurant inside a casino on the west side of Vegas that was new enough to save our clothes from the instant saturation of smoke that happens so inevitably while walking through the older casinos. She didn't mention Star Trek once, which pleased me because it gave me hope that similarities to the other Stacy ended with their names. She also seemed very passionate about small, unexpected things—the napkin holders, a recent movie about the Queen of England, my shoes. I found this endearing, though I worried this quality would be one of those quirks that is charming at first but becomes one of the first things that grate when the relationship starts to dissolve. You, I may find myself saying, need to start worrying about the important things in life and stop talking about shoes!
But, again, this was a first date.
I came back to Vegas a year ago when I got a job as an assistant manager at a Border's books. I grew up in Vegas and had always assumed I would go back but even though I had visited a couple of times a year to see family, how much the place had changed—how large it had gotten—didn't hit me until I moved back. It was amazing, the number of faces I didn't recognize. There were all of these people who had come to my city during the few years I went away and they walked and drove around like this city was theirs. And I wanted to get angry because, well, this wasn't their city, but then I remembered I had no reason to care. I walked away from it. I was having to earn it back.
Then I saw the familiar faces—the girls I once dated, the guys I went to high school with—and I realized that in some case very little had changed. I graduated from high school ten years ago, but these people had the same jobs at the Barbary Coast receiving dock and the dairy and they were making the same amount of money, hanging out with the same people, doing same exact same things.
But Stacey with the extra e was something new, at least to me. She was from Vegas, 24, and was looking for an opportunity out. She wanted to go back to school, to get a degree in psychology.
When I asked her what exactly that meant, she told me a story about the time she took a career analysis test that told her she ought to be a pastor and how she became fascinated by how completely misguided the result was and how it inspired her to go about getting into a field that could help her get it right for other people. Somehow that led her to Industrial/Organizational Psychology and an overriding desire to attend Michigan State University.
We had talked on the phone twice after that date before she surprised me on a weekday afternoon by stopping by the store. She told me she wanted to browse through the books, but that she just also kind of wanted to surprise me. It was odd, the obvious degree of affection Stacey was showing for me. I wasn't used to anything like this and, even more odd, I wasn't sure I was completely comfortable with it.
Clutching my electronic book counting device and hearing the phone on my belt clip ring, I told her I had to go, had to take care of some work, but that she should find me again in a few minutes and I would take a break and we could chat. She smiled, said that sounded good, and walked away.
I noticed the phone call was internal and I answered it. It was Jon, one of my co-workers who I had told about Stacey.
“Is that her?” he asked me. I couldn't tell whether his tone meant he was impressed with this woman or baffled that I would go out with her at all.
“Yeah,” I said. “That's her.”
“What's with the mouse?” he asked.
The mouse. I didn't even notice. I told him I didn't know and he asked me how I could go out with this girl, talk to her several times, and still never ask about the mouse.
“It just never came up,” I said and I felt this was pretty true.
Several minutes later, after I had digitally scanned and sorted a shelf of books in the teen fiction section, Stacey came over and told me good-bye. The eye contact made between the mouse and me was negligible.
The day I saw the first mouse on the bus was a terrible day. At work, the computers went down and I spent the better part of the afternoon either stuck on the phone waiting to be told what to do or listening to customers tell me how unhappy they were with having to wait longer than usual.
So by the time I took the bus home that evening, I was pretty out of it. I was disappointed I had to take the bus because I was hoping that Stacy would have had a change of heart and driven over to pick me up. I should've called and asked, but I figured things would work themselves out.
They didn't. When I opened the door to our apartment, it was quiet and more than a little untidy, with some of Stacy's clothes and belongings tossed across the floor. I found a Wizard of Oz snow globe sitting on the couch near where she had left a note and I picked up that snow globe before I even looked at the note, and thought about her thought process, this act of leaving and deciding what to take and what to leave, why this snow globe seemed so important for a second or two and then, in the frenzy of the moment, became something that could be left behind. I stared into the globe and the Wicked Witch of the West stared back at me.
The note was what I would have expected it to be. Nothing flashy—just I'm leaving. It was not end-of-the-world, I'm never seeing you again stuff; she was going over to her mother's and would be there for as long as she needed to be. She didn't know if she was capable of dealing with me anymore.
It didn't take long for me to feel lonely and I didn't like it so I made a call—to Amanda, a woman I had worked with briefly at J.C. Penny's several months earlier and had told me once that we should hang out. I had never been particularly attracted to Amanda, but that didn't matter much to me now. I needed to do something destructive and I didn't have a lot of options. Inviting a woman over to our apartment hours after Stacy had vacated it seemed to me an aggressive act.
Amanda was wonderful that night, mostly unattractive yes, but comforting and helpful, telling me that I didn't need to be down about this break-up, that Stacy simply wasn't worth it, that tonight needed to be about me.
And the funny thing is, when Amanda and I started kissing—and I was fully aware this would happen at every point in our phone and face-to-face conversation—I wasn't thinking of Amanda at all, and I wasn't visualizing Stacy as I assumed I might. Instead, as Amanda's tongue touched the inside of my ear and felt my body clench around hers, I thought of the girl on the bus with the mouse and I imagined it was her tongue and her body and I really hoped that the girl on the bus actually was eighteen because, based on the way I was unbuttoning Amanda's top and she was unbuckling my belt, it was obvious that my fantasy moment with that girl and her mouse was about to heat up and I didn't want anything to disrupt my ability to enjoy it.
Yesterday I cleaned my apartment as well as I could and, last night, Stacey came over for the first time. I made dinner—a pasta dish that I've come to refer to as the “date dinner” I make when I need to impress.
And after dinner, with garlic and artichoke still on our breaths, watching a movie about bears, I moved in to kiss her for the first time and she smiled and stopped me with a finger on my lips.
“Wait,” she said sweetly as she picked up her purse and removed a piece of plastic opened into a collapsible box. She lifted the mouse gently off her shoulder and placed it inside. She looked back at me while closing the lid and keeping the mouse secure. She slid back into her previous position beside me on the couch and we kissed and, with the rattling of the mouse against the sides of the plastic box sneaking into my ears, we continued to kiss.