Mouse house

IT looks as if we'll be keeping the old station wagon for a while longer after all. In addition to all its other uses, it has suddenly become our contribution to solving the local housing problem. We've had it eight years or so, and the odometer has gone around once and now registers 117,000 miles. The wagon is beginning to look very much like what people in our town call a ``Cape Cod car.'' A Cape Cod car is an elderly vehicle that has been preserved with rust, dents, bashes, and all, with or without fenders and hubcaps intact, but is kept in service as long as its engine keeps growling. A Cape Cod car looks at its best with a large dog in the passenger seat and a bunch of fishing gear thrown around inside it.

Our old wagon is socially acceptable -- even desirable -- in our community, although we do have a couple of spiffier vehicles for visits to Boston and suchlike. But we've begun to have qualms about how much longer it can keep running. Charlie, our local auto repair man, mutters ominously each time our wagon chugs in. He disapproves of our leaving it out ungaraged and considers the ravages of the salt sea air a personal affront.

The wagon was a good car to leave at our local airport when we made trips by air. But even the 48-mile round trip to the airport has begun to be a high-risk venture, so now we use the wagon mainly as a dog car and for short hauls to the local dump.

Although our wagon is, so to speak, running out of gas, it has had a memorable past. When we owned small newspapers of our own, it carried many of them to the post office at 4 o'clock in the morning. It has hauled sand to fill in bare spots on our beach. It has transported logs and lumber and countless loads of sofas and mattresses and other items of furniture, both inside and strapped on top.

It has gone off to college for periods with two children, groaning under loads of outgoing sports gear and incoming laundry. For some years it regularly moved a cat with a strong aversion to car travel, who expressed herself in dramatic, screeching fashion.

Not surprisingly, after all this, the car contains some sentimental memories.

Now crusted with rust, there is the trailer hitch my daughter bought me one year in the local PBS station's auction. The carpets have never quite gone back in place, and the radio is still slightly askew, following my son's homemade wiring of the wagon for rear-end stereo that would keep patrons of a smallish discoth`eque happy. There are the remnants of college parking lot stickers on the windows, and bumper stickers supporting various college teams. There is even a kind of 1930s fire engine siren which my son installed, and which I tell my wife I never use.

And so, as Linda Ellerbee would say, it goes. As a matter of fact, we thought the wagon had about gone.

But this week, as I was driving the dog to the post office, there was a dramatic development. As we were chugging along, from the well that houses the windshield wipers, there emerged a gray field mouse. The car is not in daily use, and he seemed perplexed to find it in motion. He explored the base of the windshield and took a turn or two across the top of the hood. We were careful going around curves not to throw him off balance. When we got to the post office, he retreated happily to the windshield-wiper well to await the return journey.

Because, despite Charlie's disapproval, the car stands outdoors, that well fills up with pine needles which apparently make a comfortable lair for a field mouse bedding down for the winter. Ordinarily, I clean them out every few weeks or so. But now they'll have to stay, and I guess the wagon will too.

The engine may give up one of these days, but in the interim the mouse seems happy riding around with the dog and me. It looks as though the wagon has gained a reprieve. It's become a house for a mouse.

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