Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy# 15


My mother lives alone in a subsidized apartment in another part of
Levittown, only a short distance from me.  Her apartment complex is a home for the elderly, the euphemism being Golden Agers, where the residents are still able to dress, clean, and cook for themselves.  In my mother’s case, she can also dance the waltz, fox-trot, mazurka, tarantella, czardas, hambo, schottische, boogie and the Argentine tango for hours on end, and late into the night.  She has killed three men by dancing the Russian
two-step with them, while more line up for the privilege.  She is remarkable for her strength and independence, characteristics she has only recently acquired upon escaping my father a dozen years ago.

On this particular morning, my mother had just come out of the shower.  She entered her small kitchen, where she had just mopped the linoleum tiled floor.  It was now dry, so she unrolled the small rug she keeps in the kitchen, and happened to notice some dark object on the floor that she thought might have fallen from the counter.  She reached over to pick it up, and only after coming into contact with its soft fur did she realize it was a dead mouse.  She went screaming into the development’s parking lot wearing only her bathrobe.  She waved down passing cars begging them for help.  The first declined, not appreciating the seriousness of the matter in my mother’s imagination.  The second driver proved more of a gentleman.  And while my mother waited in the safety of a neighbour's apartment, this gentlemen did dispose of the body.

Until this late date, I never realized my mother so dreaded mice, so like a caricature of the suburban housewife in cartoons, who are portrayed standing on chairs and waving brooms at the tiny beast.  I cannot say that I understand it.  Yet she has no fear of Boris, our oversized Newfoundland dog.  She adores Boris, is not averse to getting on the floor and nuzzling him.  She doesn’t take into account that if Boris was otherwise, he has the teeth and jaws to rip out her throat or snap her spine at the neck.  And how was it she ever tolerated my owning a pet hamster, later a guinea pig, when I was a kid?

The mouse in her apartment was an aberration.  It was the apartment upstairs that had the problem.  They laid out poison.  It remains a mystery how this poisoned mouse found its way into my mother’s apartment to die.

When my house had mice, we would not resort to the cruelty of crushing traps and slow poisons.  Although we have a cat, he prefers to hunt out-of-doors, and then only killing the babies he has robbed from nests.  We set live traps out and they worked exceptionally well.  A piece of dry dog food was all we needed.  A mouse stepped in, the plastic box tilted, and this slight shift was enough to drop the door which locked into place.

The first time, I couldn’t believe the trap held a mouse.  There are no little holes in the trap through which you can look in, or the mouse stick his nose out.  The mouse inside was so light, I couldn’t detect its weight. I even tried shaking the trap to see if I could feel the shifting weight.  I could not.  The panicked mouse must have been bracing himself against the sides of the trap.  I should have noticed the missing rattle, the piece of dry dog food now cushioned in the rodent’s digestive tract.  That first time, it wasn’t until I held the trap on its side, and the mouse’s urine leaked out into my palm, that I was convinced it was occupied.  I rushed to the sink to clean my hand, and almost, inadvertently, drowned the mouse.  In my hurry, I had placed the trap in the sink, and almost didn’t notice the drain plugged and the water rising around the trap.  That poor traumatized creature.

Later, when I had walked far enough into the neighbouring woods, I opened the trap’s door and the mouse dropped out.  On the ground I could see that he was soaked.  He didn’t immediately run away, but paused to stare up at me.  He then, slowly, made his way into deep foliage, pausing to look at me with contempt.  Well, I did my job, introducing a healthy mouse back into the natural food chain for some predator.

Besides live mice, there have been other bodies that needed to be disposed of.  When my children’s cat, Hashbrown, died after losing a spirited game he played with automobiles, he was buried in the backyard.  It is a touching memory.  My son used a cardboard box for a coffin, sacrificing a pillow so that Hashbrown could be comfortable.  Decorating the walls of the box like an Egyptian tomb, my son also included a bronze swimming medallion that he had won in school.

It is against the township regulations for us suburbanites to bury pets in our backyard.  Still, I never got over the regret that I had not ignored the law and buried my previous dog, Jason, an Old English Sheepdog, in his favourite spot beneath the tree.  It would have been proper to have him near.  I would have been grateful to have his ghost still guarding the house.  So it was, with the courage of Antigone, we broke with the law and buried Hashbrown.

A year later, unaware of Hashbrown, my neighbours buried their parakeet in the adjacent corner of their backyard.  This became a private joke for my family, who envisioned Hashbrown having the pleasure of hunting my neighbour’s bird for the rest of eternity.

When my father died, there was little money with which to attend to his funeral.  My father had been bad with money his whole life.  He squandered all his savings and was deeply in debt.  My mother left him to save herself. The court would not give me control of his money.  They deemed my father irresponsible and not incompetent.  A subtle difference, I suppose.  After he was dead they tried coming to me to pay his debts.  But I loved my father, and for a child growing up, it was not important that he was bad with money.  Even this Atheist has to visit his father’s grave to assuage grief and keep part of him alive inside me.  His grave is a ten minute drive from here.

The Roosevelt Memorial Park is an open expanse from which no distant horizon can be seen.  Steel towers carrying high-tension wires divide the cemetery in half.  It is easy for me to find my father’s grave, even though it is still not marked three years after his death.  The small, ground-level bronze plaque is expensive, and there is always another priority for the spending.

To find him, I point myself at the giant billboard, built of plywood panels, lifted aloft on three I-beams from which the black paint is peeling to reveal the rust underneath.  My father’s grave is at the foot of this billboard, which, when I was visiting just yesterday, was still bare wood and no advertising for the moment.  My father’s is the grave in the southern most corner of the cemetery, save for one other grave.  A wall of arborvitae bushes demarks the perimeter of the cemetery in this corner.  A Toyota dealership has the adjacent corner.  My father’s grave is right up against the arborvitae bushes that separate him from the highway, U. S. Route One, which is less than ten feet away.  How they were ever able to excavate the hole so close to this row of bushes, indeed, up against them, is unimaginable.  There is the constant noise and rumble of traffic.

In this corner the wind collects all the light trash it has gathered from the rest of the cemetery.  Wind storms have played havoc with the jury-rigged billboard and I have visited my father’s grave to find it littered with broad sheets of plywood covered in torn advertisements.

Of course, none of this bothers my father.  But for me, the visitor, I find it spoils the mood which serves these occasions.  It is my own fault, for not having more money at the time of my father’s death.

When I visit the cemetery, I light a large cigar, and starting at my father’s grave, wander about the grounds to conclude again at my father’s grave when the cigar is finished.  Except that it is our habit, cemeteries are a curious way of disposing of bodies.  My father wanted to be buried in a field, wrapped only in his shawl.  He wanted to be returned to the soil, quickly, and complained that embalming, coffins, and cemeteries are a waste of fertilizing nitrogen.  Cemeteries strike me as a waste.  Still, we need a place to come to focus our tribute and serve our psyches.  I would have
cemeteries and botanical gardens combined in shared purpose.

My wife and I have discussed the unavoidable.  Neither of us wants to take up valuable space in this shrinking world after we’re dead.  We have decided on cremation.  Whoever survives will take possession of the ashes of the one who died first.  In time, when we’re both finally dead, we want our ashes mixed.  And then . . . .

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fifteenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.