Skittering next to a dirty brick wall in Carolina Lane, he made certain to stay in the darkest part of the alley. Asheville, North Carolina in the 1970s had alleys that were still used for deliveries in the daytime and other commerce after dark. It was nearly two o'clock in the morning. He moved quickly. He stopped. He moved. Each time he stopped he sniffed the air. His steps were short and rapid. He was The Mouse. He wasn't Mouse. That would have been a kind nickname. The Mouse was named in one of his many foster homes by one of his many not so nice foster brothers. The name reflected his smaller than normal stature, his timid nature, dark eyes, and sharp nose. The Mouse had been called this for so long he had to think just a bit to recall his birth name if asked by some government official. No one else bothered. The Mouse rarely talked to anyone. People never really noticed him and he never was the first one to speak. If someone did notice him The Mouse tried to run away and hide until he was the anonymous, unseen little man again. Most nights he scurried around in the dark, sprinting through shafts of light from streetlights or light coming out of bathroom or kitchen windows overlooking the alleys that were his streets and boulevards. That was fine with The Mouse. He didn't have to expend extra energy getting away from people: people who might hurt him.
I need to talk out loud to myself once in a while so I know what my voice sounds like.
Each night The Mouse scrounged through garbage cans for the freshest trash to eat. He had no job. He had no skills to get a job. He had no one to turn to for help. It was just him. There was no one else. As dawn approached, The Mouse started moving back to his little room or whatever place he'd decided to use as a den that morning. He loved the early morning light but knew he needed to be out of sight by the time people started moving around for their morning coffee, runs, or going to work.
Some days he got a bit of sleep in a small room in the basement of an old hotel now being used as a rooming house. The custodian had been one of his foster brothers years before and they had always felt a close bond. The custodian didn't feel sorry for The Mouse. He just worried about him and considered it much better for his peace of mind to have the little guy close by.
Around three o'clock most days The Mouse went to his other sanctuary, the public library. He would leave his room, walk to the basement door near the library's loading dock, and go up the steps to the second or third floor. He had a few preferred places to read; all of them were near windows so he could daydream of another life.
The Mouse loved being in the library. Here he was surrounded by thousands of books and was hardly ever noticed by others using the library. He could travel the world. He could solve mysteries. He could read about people he'd never heard of before. He kept up with the news, especially the local news through newspapers he found there. He enjoyed the smell of the books in the library. He had once tried really hard to put a description to the smell but all he could find to describe it was: history.
He usually spent several hours reading and then left through the same basement door to find some coffee and something to eat. Always using a back door or basement door- never a front door or main entrance. The Mouse had several cafes that would give him some leftover food from time to time. None of these people, mostly women, bothered him or asked questions other than trying to determine how he was from time to time. Mostly they gave him a bag with a couple of pumpernickel bagels with jalapeno cream cheese or egg sandwiches and coffee. They'd smile; he'd smile, and out he went. The Mouse had developed a second nature when he moved about. He always walked next to walls and he always walked quickly, stopped frequently, and looked about to see if he'd been noticed. After getting his food and coffee he went back to the library.
In the years of foster care, he'd found a way to escape without running away as others did. The runners nearly always got caught and then went somewhere else: somewhere most likely worse. He started his escapism by reading the entire Hardy Boy mystery book series. Then he found biographies of people he heard teachers talking about when he'd tried school. The Mouse could get a book and hide under a bed, in the basement, or crawl space. He could be anywhere in the world in minutes and he could stay away for hours.
His other life consisted of avoiding people and gathering what he might need to stay alive. He found clothes, discarded food, magazines, and sometimes even books. But he specialized in gathering things people said about other people or about stuff they did. The Mouse learned that people bragged, people gossiped, and people threatened. If they drank beer or whiskey they talked louder and later either pretended they'd never said anything or didn't remember doing so. He always heard things because no one ever noticed him and if they did he was immediately disregarded as a nothing, a two-legged rodent. Hearing and seeing were the only things in his life that mattered except time spent in the library.
One rainy afternoon The Mouse had climbed the steps to the third floor in the public library. He was sitting at one of his favorite windows and had picked up Bleak House to leaf through. The book was so long that he didn't think he would ever finish it if he started to read it so he began thumbing through the pages. Many of the pages had one character: Inspector Bucket, a police officer. As The Mouse stared out the window his mind began to wander then focus. He read some pages and saw that Inspector Bucket was nearly a one-man police force: he was always on the street. Too bad the cops he saw around him were rough, no bullshit, men whom he rarely saw smile. He stood and left Bleak House on the table thinking he'd maybe read it one day. Maybe.
He went down the steps, out into the alley behind the library, and into his domain: the dark, dirty areas around and behind the beer joints. Places where hookers made their money. Places where dark secrets were whispered. These were where he always heard things: most often the darkest side of both men and women and these were the secrets that The Mouse loved to hear and write down. He'd never do anything with what he put into those journals. He listened; he wrote; he then catalogued the notebooks. They were his journals; they were history, and he kept them hidden in his room. On evenings when he didn't feel like leaving his room he would pull out a notebook and read, stopping to recall the weather and the feeling he got from whomever he overheard. Were they scared or proud or bragging or angry? Of course, they were usually either stoned or drunk, or both. Most really good secrets came from the straight-up, honest anger humans seemed to spit out from time to time. Honest anger spilled out of a person with no filter, nothing but truth. Most times it was dark truth followed by a terrible act.
This night, somewhere close to midnight he figured, The Mouse stashed himself behind some cast-off wooden crates in an old doorway about halfway down Carolina Lane which ran parallel to Lexington Avenue in Asheville. He was right across the narrow alley from an abandoned pick-up truck that some hookers used to conduct business. Many times he heard some great stuff here. Once he saw Cherokee and one of her Johns, one of her "dates," shoot some of the first heroin ever in Asheville. He was fascinated by the speed of their mutual high and how her date forgot all about getting a blowjob.
Must be some damn powerful dope, there!
The night had turned into a problem for The Mouse. It had started raining and although the buildings blocked most of the wind he heard it gain speed. He heard the faint claps of thunder getting louder and closer. The lightning getting brighter by the minute, acting like flashbulbs for any action in the alley.
No one's coming in here tonight. I should move along but it's not as wet in this doorway and I really got nowhere to be.
As he settled into his little sanctuary two people came running up the alley hand in hand from Walnut Street. He couldn't be sure but he thought it was that new girl from Madison County. Her sister had worked here until a vice cop busted her. She was in prison somewhere right now. The Mouse wished she were out so she could convince this pretty young country girl to go home. She wasn't going to be pretty here for very long. The new hooker and some lanky guy jumped in the old pick-up. With each flash of lightning, The Mouse saw the changes in both faces in the truck. Country girl became terrified and lanky boy turned into a hideous monster. The thunder, the buildings, and the rolled-up window kept her screams from those who could help her. The Mouse heard and he did not move. The Mouse saw and did not move.
"No, no leave me alone!" screamed the young hooker from inside the pick-up. "Leave me alone, please!"
The man just started punching the girl and kept punching her. Blood started splattering the side window. The girl was now trying to fight and The Mouse heard, "you motherfucker get off me! Get off me!"
Then The Mouse heard the young man yell, "I'm gonna kill you bitch!"
A flash of lightning caught the blade of a knife. It flashed quickly and then was dark once again. But The Mouse knew what was about to happen. He didn't think about what he did next; he just did it. The Mouse hurled an empty beer bottle at the passenger window of the truck. Right as the young man looked at the window he got stabbed by the young girl. Using the young man's reaction to the broken window and the stab wound, the young girl opened the truck door, and began running and screaming out of the alley. The Mouse cowered not knowing which way to run. He just knew this mad man was going to come looking. But as he peeked around the wooden box he watched as the young man ran in the opposite direction as the girl. He was bent over and had blood soaking his formerly white T-shirt; he held his hand where she'd stabbed him and was moaning. He ran and stumbled out of the other side of the alley and was gone. The Mouse sat on the asphalt with his back against the building and the wooden box still hiding him. His heart was pounding faster than it had ever pounded before. He was shaking and he was drenched in sweat. The lightning increased and with it thunder. The box in front of him shook each time the lightning flashed and thunder exploded. The Mouse looked up the alley for the young man and down the alley for the young hooker. After he was certain neither was going to re-appear he began his withdrawal. He just wanted to get home.
I gotta get outta here fast! That guy she stabbed is going to come back looking for who threw that bottle. I gotta get gone!
He ran back to his little room and stayed there most of the day. At mid-afternoon, he felt a need to get back outside; back to where The Mouse had defended someone. Back to where he was scared but not so scared he couldn't help someone in trouble. So he went out into the daylight and it was really hard to be as invisible as he usually was. But no one talked to him or even looked at him, not that he noticed anyway.
When he got to the end of Carolina Lane nearest Hiwassee Street he hugged the wall and took a couple of steps in before he stopped dead in his tracks. The Mouse froze. He tried to back out but figured the two cops up at the old pick-up wouldn't see him if he froze in place and knelt. He watched the cops move back and forth in front of the green Paddy Wagon. They looked at the inside of the truck and then the younger cop went over to the wooden box where The Mouse had hidden, from where The Mouse had acted on behalf of someone else. Just as he was feeling good about what he'd done he noticed the younger cop looking right at him. The cop yelled,
"Hey, you..stop right there. Don't fucking move!"
The older cop looked over at The Mouse and said something he couldn't hear. And the young cop turned, shrugged, and got into the passenger side of the Paddy Wagon. The older cop reached in and took a bag out of the Wagon. It looked to The Mouse like he was writing something on the bag. Then the older cop got in the Wagon and backed out of the alley; backed away from The Mouse. After a bit, The Mouse walked and stopped and walked and stopped like he always did. He looked around for danger like he always did. When he got to the old pick-up he saw what the older cop had left. It was a bag with two hot dogs. They smelled wonderful and were still warm. On the bag someone had written: Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised. "Next time you visit the library look up The Hobbit. That's where this is written."Then, "Mouse, you did good. Young Sandra says thanks."
The Mouse took the bag and scurried to a dark corner. He quickly ate the first hotdog and was opening the second when it hit him. He looked at the words on the bag again. It wasn't The Mouse it was Mouse. It was Mouse!
Damn it! He called me Mouse!
As time passed: summer to fall to winter he watched the young hooker become experienced at her profession. She still used the old pick-up as a place to conduct business. She became more and more confident, and more and more hooked on Dilaudid. But she could take care of herself.
Mouse still talked to no one. He still preferred darkness to light. Every once in a while a bag with a couple of warm hot dogs appeared outside his little room. Mouse was still hiding in the shadows but he could smile once in a while now. He wasn't The Mouse anymore.