“So, how’s the job search going?” Woodward asked as Santamaria carried an armload of wooden traps with metal snaps to the register with him. He figured seven would do it. He hoped so.
“Same old, same old. You hiring here?”
“I’m afraid not, Santamaria.” At one time, not so long ago, they would have been joking, ribbing each other.
After the hardware store, Santamaria drove fast down the long straight roads of rural, southern New Jersey, a town called Buena, pronounced Bue-nah not Bway-nah, although Mexicans had staked a pretty large section of town now. The fields were dying or dead, plowed over or under, the trees had lost all of their leaves, and the sky had the bleached look it would keep until spring came back around. Santamaria hated to think about the prospect of another winter at home, unemployed. When he saw a small gang of vultures hopping around near the roadside, he pictured millions of them darkening the skies, plucking at his eyeballs and ribcage. I’m still alive, guys, he imagined screaming, but they didn’t pay any attention to him.
Now there were three mice in the bedroom, and the cat looked dizzy and tired. He was an adept hunter, a skilled mousekiller, but he had his paws full. Santamaria cheered him on, surprised by his own voice. “Get ‘em, boy. Come on and get ‘em.” The cat didn’t even look at him. He had turned completely feral now. You can tame a dog or a bird, but you cannot tame a cat.
As he made lunch downstairs—a grilled cheese sandwich, the cheese bright orange because he had bought the wrong kind at Shoprite—he listened to the skittering and crashing of the cat upstairs. Every sound sent ripples of disgust through him. Eating, he tried not to think about hairy, diseased mice or their headless carcasses, but his mind had a mind of its own. He imagined hundreds upon hundreds of the little bastards scurrying over the bed while he and Leidy tried to sleep. He imagined them in Ramona’s hair and coming out of Leidy’s mouth. Somehow he was able to finish the sandwich. He read the sports page and the comics and then skimmed the front page.
Since the cat was still working in the bedroom, Santamaria took his iPhone into the bathroom to masturbate to internet porn, hooking into his neighbor’s wi-fi. This was about the only thing he did with the iPhone anymore—he wasn’t about to check the few stocks he still owned and see that the absolute bottom was even lower than he’d expected—and he’d become adept with manipulating the thing with his left hand while manipulating himself with the right. Afterwards he was filled with overwhelming sadness, remorse, and self-disgust, but then he flushed the soiled Kleenex and washed his hands and had nothing else to do for the day.
There were four, possibly five mice in the bedroom now. They scattered when he came near. He baited the traps with orange cheese, laid them around the edge of the bedroom and waited.
Sitting on the couch in the living room, he looked at the front yard. After a while the cat came down and stared at him, as if the traps had absolved him of his responsibilities. The cat was mostly black with little bits of white on its chest and paws. He was Leidy’s cat, but since Santamaria had been laid off, they had developed a kind of relationship. Once in a while the cat let him pat it, or curled up on his lap, a warm bundle at his crotch, but now the cat just stared at Santamaria. He imagined that it was sucking out his soul, like some kind of feline witch. If you thought about them in a certain way, cats were about the spookiest thing in the world. Upstairs, it sounded like a mouse convention was underway. They were partying, wearing little hats, falling into the punch bowl. He waited for the snap of a trap, but even after a half an hour, it had not come.
It was amazing how many people frequented a casino at two o’clock in the afternoon. They looked like they didn’t know whether it was day or night, and didn’t care. Some of them looked like they hadn’t left the casino for weeks. They had the worn-away appearance of refugees.
Santamaria sat at one of the old-fashioned slot machines watching Leidy from a distance. She wore a gold miniskirt, her strong, long legs on full display, stiletto heels, a gold top that dipped in the front and back. Sometimes after she came home, he would rub her feet for her. Heels were like medieval torture devices, she told him, but they were sexy as hell. Some of the men at the slots were watching her too, but she was just one of several waitresses exposing too much of their bodies. Santamaria was jealous and proud and turned on and pissed off. She made more as a cocktail waitress than he had ever made at any of his jobs. He had worked his way up from file boy to production artist to middle manager before getting canned. He didn’t have any skills to speak of—beyond Excel and PowerPoint. He had scheduled work for the art department, a glorified secretary.
He fed his credit card into the machine and began playing—what the hell, why not. Maybe he’d win twenty thousand and they could pay off their credit card debt. The machine still had an arm, but it had been retrofitted with buttons. He couldn’t stand the newer machines with their cartoon interfaces. He preferred big red, white, and blue 7s and cherries, rollers that actually rolled.
“Can I get you a drink, sir?” Leidy asked, her slightly husky voice—she had smoked for almost twenty years before he’d finally convinced her to quit—flirtatious, but changing quickly when he turned around and she recognized him. “What are you doing here?” she said, her voice taking on the accent it always did when she was angry. His Colombian princess. Avenging angel. Her hand went automatically to her hip.
“Calm down,” he said. “I figured I’d apply at the casinos. There’s nothing else around.”
“You apply online, dummy. No wonder you can’t get a job.”
“You know I’m trying.”
“And what are you doing playing the slots, moron? You know you can’t win, right?”
He hit the button and won twenty dollars, electronic blips tallying his credits, looked at her and grinned.
“Go,” she said. “Just go.” He watched her walk away, her hips swaying. Her ass was almost nothing at all now. She worked out too much, didn’t eat enough. There was something both sexual and asexual about her body. Why couldn’t he have married a schoolteacher or something? What was she going to do in a few years when no one wanted to look at all that skin except for him? What were they going to do?
The Atlantic City library was jam-packed with people, many of whom did not speak English. A number of local African Americans were at the computer kiosks. English tutoring sessions were in progress at many of the tables. It was the most crowded and claustrophobia-inducing library Santamaria had ever seen, like the casinos without the electronic jangling or the delusion of winning. He put his name on a long list of people waiting to use the computers, found a magazine, and waited to grab one of the chairs in the magazine and newspapers room. Finally an old woman wearing a white winter hat grabbed her plastic bags and left. Her odor—a kind of vegetable rot—permeated the chair, and he imagined thousands of tiny microbes invading all of his pores. Still, the chair was comfortable and he became accustomed to the smell quickly enough.
These are your people now, Santamaria told himself, looking at the locals. He didn’t want to look down on them, but part of him did. He had been raised in a suburb of Philadelphia. His family had never had a lot of money, but they had always had some. He had been strictly middle class—Italian but not Italian Italian. He’d gotten the job at the merchandising company, worked his way up. Everything had seemed easy and inevitable. His middle manager wages allowed him to play with stocks, and he had hit on some, big time. Then everything had crashed, he lost a bundle, and here he was. The heady scent of body odor escaped from the sleeping man beside him. A Chinese grandmother stared at him from across the room, probably waiting for the chair. His skin crawled. He imagined that the five mice had turned into a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, back at their house. He imagined five hundred mouse heads lined up on the stairs, staring at him. He wondered where that first mouse head had gone. Did the cat eat it?
Finally, he got his half an hour on the computer—time enough to fill out one application for Caesar’s. The application process included a lengthy questionnaire that asked questions about what he would do in certain situations and which of two things—honesty or reliability, say—was more important, a questionnaire about his values. He felt violated but answered the questions the way he imagined they wanted him to answer them, without attending to his beliefs.
Back at the house, Ramona shot him a look of pure hatred. She sat at the kitchen table, a shoebox in front of her.
“Hey, bud,” he said. “How was school?” He had never needed to take a shower as desperately as he did now.
“Mousekiller,” she said.
“This was the only one that was alive,” she gestured at the box, opened it. Inside, a small gray mouse limped around. Vermin was the word that came to mind. “I already buried the other ones in the backyard. How could you?”
He shrugged, feeling monstrous.
“We should really put him out of his misery, Mona” he said. Ramona pushed a piece of wilted lettuce against the injured mouse’s face. It seemed to look up at them in anguish.
“I’m going to nurse him back to health.”
“Sweetie, listen. He’s going to die. If not now, then soon.” It felt rotten, but also kind of good, to be imparting life lessons to his daughter. It felt fatherly and grown-up. "Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. He’s going to die real soon. Let me just put him out of his misery.” He pictured himself pressing a tiny pillow against the mouse’s face, holding the pillow there while the mouse struggled for breath and life. He pictured stabbing the mouse in the chest with a tiny dagger. He hoped Caesar’s would call him. Even a shitty job as a security guard would be better than this. Not another long winter.
He listened hard but heard no skittering mice that night—not that he could sleep anyway. From Ramona’s room came the sound of the injured mouse struggling to escape the shoebox. He pictured the box scraping across the hardwood floors, an inch at a time. He was tempted to take the box and throw the mouse outside, but he knew that Ramona would never forgive him. Eventually the thing would die all on its own. The cat mewled outside Ramona’s room. Santamaria felt fur replacing his hair, tiny mice teeth replacing his real teeth. He was itchy. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw mice and tiny little bacteria. He wondered how many organisms had been living on that library chair he had sat in, how many germs were on the keyboard he’d used. Leidy had not had sex with him in three weeks, and she showed no signs of needing or wanting any ever again. Was she cheating on him? She had seemed awfully upset when he showed up at work. He pictured her with a Mexican bus boy in the employee’s corridor of the casino. He would have to do something nice for her. If she hadn’t cheated on him yet, she might any day. Flowers? Dinner? He couldn’t afford anything. Maybe he could write her a poem.
In the morning he pretended to sleep,
listening to the two women in his life get ready and leave for school and work.
When he was making the bed—Leidy would be impressed—he found the mouse’s head.
It was a tiny, hairy ball. He picked it up with his fingers, not nearly as
disgusted as he would have expected. He held the head up to the sunbeam coming
through the window. The eyes of the mouse were open, staring out with animal
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