Creatures of the Night

Jake Christie has a lot in common with the mouse that’s moved into his apartment: they’re both small, scared creatures, working the night shift, trying to survive.

Photo by glee13

The mouse and I were very much alike.

For example, mice, like myself, are nocturnal — most active at dusk and through the night. We both tend to find warm spots to live where food is readily available. We are both fairly omnivorous. We both spend a large part of our waking hours moving things around (a mouse might move detritus to their nests, wood pulp from the wall to the floor; I work in warehouse distribution, so I move boxes from one place to another and wood pallets from the wall to the floor), and although these tasks are monotonous and tiring for the both of us, they also allow us to eat. Finally, we can both be an annoyance to homeowners and tenants, but we are mostly harmless.

Unlike me, the mouse was dead.

I called my building superintendent around three in the afternoon, on my way into the night shift, to tell him about my sighting twelve hours before.

“Shit,” he said, “we’ve got mice?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I gotta get some traps on your counter,” he said. I could almost hear him crunching the numbers in his head. Cost of traps, time to put them in, possible number of mice.

“I’ll be at work ’til after midnight,” I said. “Just let yourself in.”

I hung up the phone feeling guilty, though I wasn’t sure why. Surely it was my responsibility as a tenant to inform the super of a mouse in the building. I flashed back to a documentary I’d seen with scenes of a grain silo that was infested with mice. A farmer lifted a piece of metal siding to reveal a mass of mice like maggots, like a swarm of locusts, more like a single bubbling blob than hundreds of little animals. A female mouse, they said, can become pregnant at five weeks old and will give birth to a litter of around half a dozen young less than a month later. When you take it into consideration that a mouse can do this ten times a year, and each new female will repeat the process a month after she’s born, the multiplication becomes staggering.

When I have to explain the operations of the loading dock where I work, I usually postscript my description with, “It’s not rocket science.” A large amount of the work is based on paying attention to numbers, matching and counting, and staying focused. I work the night shift, however. Nocturnal workers do the same thing as the diurnal workers, but the unnatural cycle of somebody sleeping in the light and working in the dark makes one uneasy. The darkness of night changes something. Perhaps this kind of work attracts a certain kind of person. For instance, the night shift is awash with long hair and sideburns, tattoos and beards, hair buns and thrift-store t-shirts. It is the subject of television documentaries and psychological disorders.

You may find yourself wondering why, exactly, these night shift people won’t — or can’t — work in the daylight with everybody else. You may find yourself wondering, despite the fact that you’re a very understanding and open-minded person, what lack of sleep and quarantine from the sun could do to the human mind. You may even find yourself wondering if you have anything in common with these people — the differences, after all, are so obvious — or if they belong to another species that travels at night, repeating little tasks, moving things around in their frenzied and unnatural way before they retreat from the sun to find a warm spot to sleep.

While “crazy” and “sane” are loaded terms, there’s an amount of pride about the weirdness that seems to be a commonality between everybody on the midnight shift. It may be masked in jokes or self-deprecation, but when you’re in the walls of a warehouse chasing boxes while the rest of the world sleeps, you often feel like you’re in a kind of Schrödinger’s box of sanity, existing as both the craziest one and the sanest one in the room at the same time.

In truth, warehouse distribution is really not that different from rocket science. Following steps, paying attention, repeating tasks — it’s the same principle whether you’re a scientist learning rocket physics, a distribution laborer learning locations, or a mouse learning to run a maze.

For decades I assumed that price tags appeared on clothing and boxes by the selfless grace of benevolent machines. I couldn’t fathom the idea that all the millions of little paper tags in a mall or a department store could be placed by human beings. Something so monotonous and tiresome had to be done by something mechanical and unfeeling.

Last year I put 32,000 tags on 32,000 pieces of merchandise. It took me 240 hours.

The first time I saw the mouse he was on top of my stove. I heard him trying to move one of my pots. I turned on the light, and managed to catch a glimpse of his backside as he retreated behind the appliance. I froze. Not another sound. He had disappeared.

I hadn’t seen much, but I had seen enough to confirm a couple of things. The mouse was huge. He looked more like a rat than a mouse, big and black and the size of my fist. I imagined him waiting for me to turn out the lights and fall asleep, then crawling out of my stove, across my living room, and onto my bed. There he squeaked ultrasonically for all of his friends and they swarmed out of my stove like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, making their way inexorably toward me. I could also confirm that there was something, someone, living in my apartment with me. After spending nine hours doing heavy labor to pay my bills, to pay the rent for this meager personal space, this could not stand.

It was almost three in the morning. I found a pad on my coffee table and wrote a note in big black letters: “CALL SUPER RE: MOUSE.”

Nocturnal animals compensate for their strange waking hours by developing both behavioral and physical coping mechanisms. Many have extraordinary senses of smell, hearing, or eyesight; mice, for example, can communicate through pheromones, hear sounds outside the range of the human ear, and sense movements in the air with their whiskers.

Humans, as diurnal animals, may have more trouble compensating for night work. Shift Work Sleep Disorder (“Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder” in the DSM-IV) is a condition that afflicts workers on night shifts. SWSD is characterized by the torturous combination of insomnia when one is trying to sleep and sleepiness when one is trying to stay awake, and the condition is often accompanied by irritability, impaired mental acuity, and accident proneness — the perfect combination for operating heavy distribution equipment. SWSD can be treated by either adherence to a strict prescribed “sleep schedule,” by tricking the body’s circadian rhythms with bright light exposure, or with doses of melatonin. Most of my coworkers self-medicate with massive amounts of coffee.

Once the trap was set, I knew that it was only a matter of time before my new roommate was violently evicted. I’d always preferred to live in ignorance about these kinds of household matters. In a previous bathroom, for example, I’d ignored a persistent drip from the ceiling for months, hoping it would somehow suture itself. One night, to no real surprise, it burst in a powerful and steady stream of green and brown liquid. This time I’d done my due diligence in reporting the mouse to my super, but I hoped the giant black mutant might continue to go ignored like past domestic annoyances, and at least confine himself to other dark recesses of the building. I didn’t have the stomach for rocking the boat.

It was nearly 1 a.m. when I got home from work, still awake from physical activity and my heavily caffeinated medication. My dishes were out to dry on the counter, where my super had said he’d be setting the trap. On my way to the kitchen I was plagued by flashes of thought depicting a grim tableau, the rodent splayed out on a pile of knives or in the middle of a plate, squarely and impossibly in the exact center. More fervently, however, I’d begun to entertain the thought that mice were smart and inventive, and any mouse who’d chosen to ally himself with me, even just in terms of tenancy, wouldn’t fall for such a ploy. He’d play Jerry to my super’s Tom, at least for a little while.

The mousetrap was upside-down in the middle of my kitchen floor. It was much smaller than I imagined it would be. In cartoons, mousetraps were always enormous, large enough to snap down on someone’s hand and leave every finger red and throbbing; this plastic yellow trinket was little bigger than a matchbook. I knelt and flipped the tiny device to see what could have set it off prematurely.

My shift had lasted longer than the mouse did. This was him — it had to be — but he wasn’t monstrous, or giant, or even the size of my fist. He wasn’t black, either, but a light shade of gray. His size and stature had been granted in my mind, far beyond anything his similar genes could really achieve. He didn’t even look well-fed. He was just a lone, tiny, pathetic mouse, his eyes wide open and black.

In the same way that the mouse and I had been conditioned to repeat our simple tasks, the trap had performed exactly what it was designed to do: it had snapped the mouse’s neck with a heavy spring-loaded bar. It was a quick death, I hoped, but the rising of this hope quickly gave way to an unexpected sadness and disgust. I put my heavy coat and boots back on and walked into the snow. As I lifted the lid on my dumpster I looked at the word on the bottom of the trap. “VICTOR.”

When I came back inside I washed my hands three times in two different sinks, but they didn’t feel like they were getting any cleaner.

The day after the mouse was gone I got a call from my super on my cell phone. I paused before accepting it.

“Any luck?” he said.

I hesitated. “Yeah, caught him last night.”

“Did you reset the trap?” he asked.

“No,” I said. My hands still felt dirty from simply picking the trap up. “I threw it away. With the mouse.”

He sighed, the tiny microphone distorting his breath. “Okay,” he said, “I have to set another one.”

“I actually got another one,” I said. “It’s one of those humane traps.”

The previous night the sudden loneliness in my studio apartment had prompted me to recruit a stiff drink for company, and I’d felt compelled to do some research on house mice — shooting first, asking questions later. I read about glue traps, that leave mice starving and trapped for days; poison traps, that kill mice slowly and painfully; and snap mousetraps that fail to function properly, injuring mice but leaving them alive. Humane traps, which cost only slightly more, capture the mouse alive for later release. As long as you release the mouse at least a mile from your home, the trap promised, he won’t return. Out of sight, out of mind, and even on the receiving end of a hearty meal.

My super sighed again. “Well,” he said, “those snap ones are the only ones I’ve used that actually work. Now that we caught one we need to get all his little brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles—”

“Okay, I’ll get one of those,” I lied.

I hung up the phone and the same feelings I had after our last phone call returned. My super had mentioned to me that the building had a mouse problem a year or so before. The mice had populated the basement and learned to avoid all the clever traps he had bought. Eventually, when he found a brand that worked, he caught more than a dozen of them. Again I pictured the blob of mice in the grain silo, the flood of rats in Last Crusade. One mouse was nothing, but two mice could mean four mice, and four mice could mean eight, and eight could mean sixteen, and…

As much as I would have liked to see the tenants and the mice as Toms and Jerrys, as black — or gray — and white, I couldn’t convince myself that my super was being cruel or cavalier. Like the mouse or myself, he had a job to do. He just did his job in the daytime while we did our jobs at night.

The humane trap is essentially a small box with a weighted see-saw at the entrance, and once a mouse walks over it he can’t get back out. According to the box, the trap can hold up to four mice at once, though I can’t imagine they’d find that very comfortable. I baited the trap with peanut butter and granola and placed it on my kitchen counter. For all my imaginings of dead mice and rodent swarms, I can’t think of a reason it wouldn’t work.

My super has set more mousetraps in the building. If there are any more mice, their choices aren’t very appealing: either meet their end with the snap of a trap, or find their way to my apartment and end up outside, a mile from home. It’s a catch-22 that many of us humans are caught in too, simply from being born in the wrong place.

I’m at an impasse as well. On the one hand I’d like there to be more mice in the building, mice that I can catch and free to atone for the rodent I ratted out. On the other hand, if my mouse was the only one, no more will be caught in my super’s traps. Maybe the ultrasonic squeaks that have emanated from this place in the past will serve as a warning: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

As of yet, there have been no more mice to confirm or assuage my guilt. Every night when I go to work to move my own materials, and find my own food, and repeat my own programmed tasks, I wonder if a mouse will find his way into my trap. But we strange nocturnal creatures are wily and wary, and if we don’t leave any signs, it sometimes isn’t obvious that we’ve been about at all. We do our work under cover of night and darkness and hide from the world, doing what we must, tethered together by the rhythms of the sun and the moon.

Photo by glee13

Jake Christie grew up on a farm near the New England coast and now lives in Portland, Maine. He has a Media Studies degree from the University of Southern Maine and his work has appeared in such varied venues as Yankee Pot Roast, Word Riot, 365 Tomorrows, Blue Lake Review, and Weirdyear, among others. More info about his work and current projects can be found at on his website.