A Temporary Mouse House

In my first-grade year, I walked three blocks to and from Alameda Grade School, an old wooden building on Freemont Street in Portland, Ore.

Mrs. Gentry's classroom had a counter running the full length of the wall opposite the entrance. Fish aquariums and cages for gerbils and mice lined up side by side like small transparent train cars.

I liked to spend time before class watching the outside world distorted by aquarium water. But my favorite place to be was in front of the cage of a small beige mouse named Larry, who resided in the southwest corner of the room where the library books were kept.

Every Friday, a student from the class was allowed to take Larry home. In order to take the mouse for the weekend, a boy or girl needed to bring a note signed by a grown-up stating that Larry would not be turned away from the house on any given weekend, and that he would be returned, intact - full-bellied, with a reasonably happy heart - on Monday.

The lottery-like selection system was pragmatic enough for first-graders with extremely high standards for fairness. Permission notes went into a large basket. At the end of the week, our teacher would pick a child and off Larry would go.

In September, I carried a note to school affirming our willingness to have temporary mouse custody.

Since my propensity to win anything, small or large, has always been slim, it was February before my name was drawn to take Larry for the weekend.

The winner didn't know until Friday afternoon whether he or she would be a foster pet-owner that weekend. For this reason, a sturdy carrying cage was provided for Larry in case parents could not come to school on such short notice to help transport the mouse.

So it was that I, a somewhat slight six-year-old bundled against the February chill in a thick wool coat and hat, launched off for home balancing Larry, a sheaf of papers, and my brown lunch sack.

Youth carries an optimism that few adults are able to duplicate. Given a healthy, loving environment, children are inclined to believe that mishaps simply don't exist for them.

It came as a complete surprise and shock when half a block from my house, the carefully balanced temporary cage slipped on some of the papers and fell onto the concrete sidewalk.

The cage landed in such a way that the hook holding the door loosened. Momentarily stunned by his recent jostling, Larry stood at the open door, whiskers vibrating. It took approximately three seconds for him to begin running to the corner.

Similarly dazed, I let my papers slip to the ground. I dashed after the mouse that was now making his way to the street corner. I didn't stop to loosen the bulky coat that made me feel as though I were running through water.

Unused to so much space, Larry paused at the end of the street, as if he were expecting a barrier.

Was I worried about Larry? No. I could see only the stern face of my teacher, the disappointed and angry looks of all my peers who had not yet had the chance to have Larry for the weekend. Larry's freedom meant nothing to me.

The odds against catching such a quick small animal as Larry must be great. But I used his pause at the corner to leap with all the grace that a wool coat would allow and cupped my hands over what I hoped would be Larry.

I picked up the trembling mouse. He nestled in my hands in a familiar way. It was only then that I felt a bit sad to put him back into his cage. It was hard to believe, encased as I was so thoroughly in that bulky jacket, that any animal wouldn't rather be set free. For the briefest moment, I considered releasing Larry into the jungle of rhododendrons near the corner of my house.

I focused again on the faces of my peers and securely latched the hook on the cage. I retrieved my papers.

Something had changed with Larry's momentary freedom, and my walk home was slowed by the sudden heaviness of the cage. The latch bumped against the side of my leg, the only bare part of my body.

On Monday, I returned Larry to his cage in the classroom. He disappeared into the shoebox of shredded paper in the corner of the enclosure.

Although I watched him carefully for the remainder of the year, even entertaining images of releasing him into the long hallways of the school, I didn't participate in the lottery to find a home for the mouse during the summer.

Forty years later, my daughter Hallie's hamster turns on the exercise wheel upstairs next to her fish. Next week, we get a puppy. Our old retriever is asleep at my feet.

Since the day of Larry's escape, I've been ambivalent about ownership of anything that breathes. It carries with it so much more responsibility than cleaning a cage or providing food.

And while I continue to struggle with the idea, Hallie is marching in a new population of living, pulsing balls of fur with propensities for escape.

Hallie's hamster sits next to her at night when she reads, whiskers twitching, not taking the opportunity to dash away as my mouse did so many years ago.

Everyone, in fact, seems pretty content here, in or out of cages. I only occasionally have an impulse to slip a latch, but just as when I was 6, I don't do it.

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