Terse Brown Mouse by Anne Calcagno


I wake in my sea of bed, hand slamming the alarm, curtain a hazy saffron projection of tap-dancing leaves. I lift my laden self to my duties. Shower, dress, caffeinate. I crawl into my green Honda cocoon, unlikely to metamorphose.

Squinting at the lane divider lines, I’m on course:

squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash

My fears, however, are rampant. Billboards slice the sky. My every move pleads for a weather advisory, unclear stamina will get me through. Spot a woman, suited up at the bus-stop, hair in a ponytail. She turns sideways; she is a man. Only yesterday, a man bounded into the intersection, zealous brillo hair illuminated by an errant sun ray. His blue heels disclosed he was a woman. The past offers lessons, yet still I go astray.

You are missed. You sprung me into pain so cutting my breath strafed. You arrow!   Even the stupid roof was wounded; leaking rain into the kitchen, scrivening the ceiling; cracks bubbling into pustules clattering to the linoleum floor.

 A roof should last more than ten years. The indignant roofer’s ballpoint pen tintinnabulates.

How about a marriage? I want to ask.

We’ll patch it along the seams, replace tiles that popped loose, add two more vents. You might have too much condensation.

Tears curled into my ears, dripped on the sheets; they ran horizontal! And maybe condensed.

Any other problems?

The roof —?

Thousand minimum.

Here I am batting a thousand.

 Rush hour striated by peach clouds, I slot into a checkerboard of cars. An enraged driver ahead of me gestures at a white van ahead. Many are furious, road rage endemic. He yanks off into the left lane, giving me his place. Four small faces grin out the van’s back window, waving madly now at me. Once, my sister & I were midget gigglers, doing everything to get a stranger to signal back so we’d know we moved the world like a spinning top. One day you stop waving. When is that? I palmate. A wild frond. Hey, hey quadruplets, hold the spell.

 I don’t love you.


I probably shouldn’t have said that.

 I fucked a man for whom I became the equivalent of a saucepan. Mouth wrapped around him, pulsing, my hands on his buttocks like ours was the answer to end all loneliness.

A common nightmare is to be naked in public. Small potatoes compared to being skinned alive by you.  Skin, the largest organ of the body. Skin any other animal and it dies.

The parking lot elevator plunges all the way down.

Today’s option same as yesterday’s: burn, baby, burn. Simmer, blister, char.   Ever since our children boarded the yellow school bus ages ago, I’ve burned years here. Nose to the grindstone, I tongue my cup of coffee, eyes aqueous in the computer’s shine, checking wills for probate. Professional imprimatur. Give me death, I finalize. On a bathroom break, I nod at Jack and Troy and Susan over their cubicle half-walls, faces glacier-blue. Each end clamors for documents: triple-copied, consolidated beyond contention, spinning thread out of the labyrinth.

Lunchtime, the city pummels rain. I trawl the public park. The cement shimmers with puddles. I gasp in the cold. My umbrella bleats: tuh! tuh! tuh!   Leaves slick as oil plop into a gold carpet, a fall festivity of dying. A red sign:



From what?

Rain’s hand drags across earth’s flanks, but she shoots him off, spewing rain over the sidewalk lip, diving onto asphalt.   Cars jettison by, spraying haste.   A drenched plane shivers out of the clouds. Sparrows tip-tap the soaked gold. Squirrels flick sleekly, rocket up trunks.

Once, in late pregnancy, I became, O, a rolling whale, gorgeous heft bouncing in the aquamarine pool. These days I sink, dropped too fast and hard. Reserve impossible to sustain on an incline.

I skirt a bench, where once I heard someone sob. A girl cuddles, cradled in her lover’s lap, both gazing at the big graywhiteblue, graywhiteblue. Patches of blue spring free, even as it drizzles; skyscraper windows wink and flash this cerulean undergarment. My favorite word; indigo, toss that up. Hawthornes arbor over me, red berried. A man in a raincoat hurriedly sets up his tripod, pointing: Look! The sky!

Back at work, I imprint numbers, cementing law. Fibonacci coded laws of math: daisies, artichokes, cacti, all: 1,1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. Yet up until the last, people doubt their number’s up. Those still alive will dispute the clear division of remainders. Foolish people. I’ve triple verified and stamped the final lot. Immutable, O, righteous Fibonacci!

Evening. I forge into the lavender city, dread building. Lately, I’m hard-wired for disaster (hard to know if it’s clairvoyance). This morning, I squeezed into the last parking slot. Earlier drivers had sloppily skidded over both sides of yellow demarcation lines, nothing else left up eight parking floors. I hoisted my bag out the window to the car roof. I twisted out like an octopus. Now, the spot to my left is empty, leaving a commentary, too, in the form of a key scraped along my Honda. I feel so tired. This earth is wrack and ruin. Each day a stab at escaping the odds.

The wet asphalt hisses. Arms and feet swing from revolving doors, crowd at crosswalks: red, red, red, green. Digital screens we have now, count downs. My turn signal clicking, clicking. Then the semaphore speaks: Nine! eight! seven! six! Like: Do-si-do! Change your partner! I lower my window, confirm the semaphore speaks. I once watched a cab fling his arm out his window, waving, urging: hurry! At a blind man tapping his white cane across. For whose eyes? A voice is offered the blind. Previously unimagined.   Possibility lies in wait.

Cars out-maneuver each other, beetles, thoraxes bulging, gouging a route, scuttling:    squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash, squirt/dash

Time waits for no man. Green! The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

O, it happeneth.   It happeneth, I swear. But do silence me.  Radio, save me from myself. Amnesty. Sound the world.


This is BBC News Hour. Libya has been liberated!

Prime Minister Cameron addresses the counter-insurgents:

We want you to tell us how to help. This is your country. Your revolution. We are here to help. But how do you want us to help?

Cameron repeats:

We are here to help. But how do you want us to help?

We are here to help. But how do you want us to help?

Re-iteration dulls obligation.   We shout at the hard of hearing and claim we tried.


Three shark attacks have occurred near Perth!

The scientist explains:

We are talking about the white shark. Humans are the appropriate size target for the white shark. Remember, we enter their sea.

Luminous weightlessness is no guarantee.


The newly elected leader of a free Tunisia announces:


The door opens, the olive branch is proffered. A new pulse beats. Do anything, everything. All in good time.

Exit 41 = Peterson Avenue. Two lanes east spar two lanes going west. Between them a hedge-lined divider with intermittent breaks, permitting turns into residential streets. At the red stoplight, I sight a brown oak leaf skittering back and forth, back and forth, in the turn break. But it isn’t a leaf. It’s a terse brown mouse. She streaks in front of my car. No!   I must stall until she reaches the other side. But the hunched man to my right? I could signal, but what? Green light! Cars heave, every driver a revving motor. My stasis sets horns raging. Nervous fool mouse flicks back, safe in the parkway break. Don’t move!   No listener, she dashes out.   Oh mouse! It’s not just me. It’s all that is to come. Drivers veer around me, to move, move. Brown hide titters; going, going, while earth and man surge against her. Our stillness, her agency. Our pause, salvation. But no one stays long. She races. She’s on the other side, my survivor, running. I sing of her safety, one drop of mercy, this evening, here. The race IS to the swift. Who would’ve guessed?

The thick clouds cabal. Tonight, my roof is solid with new tiles. I open my window. It’s a vast orange-gray sky.


Anne Calcagno’s novel, Love Like a Dog, received awards from the New Generation Indie Awards and the 15th Independent Book Publisher Awards. Her story collection Pray For Yourself, won the San Francisco Foundation Phelan Award, an NEA and two IAC Artists Fellowships. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in a number of publications. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. www.annecalcagno.com