Monday, August 31, 2009

Of Mice and Tea

“Do you hear that?” Angel asked. I listened. “That scratching sound?” I answered. “There it is again.” she started scanning the kitchen. It continued to scratch, not from above, not from below, but at just about ear level. Our moderately powerful binaural sense of hearing able to locate the direction of the sound had us both looking directly at the oven. Our oven is a built-in, the top at chest level. It’s a fairly old one, maybe from the early eighties. The dials and always-incorrect clock are analog, nothing fancy at all.
The scratching was definitely coming from the oven. I prepared to open the door to see what charred food bits had perhaps come back to life when Angel let out a giggle. I followed her eyes to see what would cause that reaction. Above the oven door and below the controls is a vent built in to the face of the appliance. It’s about one inch tall running the entire width of the face, nothing more than small slits cut into the steel. A small pink hand reached out from one of the slits… a few whiskers and a pink nose from the one beside it. Angel was now giddy with delight.
“How did he get in there?” I asked no one in particular. Angel was of course trying to calm it, or pet it. The mouse was not as amused, sniffing, retreating then quickly returning. We pulled at the oven, it did not budge. I examined the top and bottom and discovered about a hundred screws, a few dozen of them probably to hold the unit in place, the others serving no apparent purpose whatsoever other than to add a sense of symmetry.
It was late on Friday night, about eleven thirty, and we had consumed our evening wine. We were in no shape to be undertaking a rescue mission involving live rodents and sharp tools.
“We’ll get it in the morning” I announced. “He’ll either still be there or will have found his way back out by then.”
Many years ago Angel and I agreed to not say anything important, make big plans, or bring up any new business after nine or ten at night. The reasoning being quite solid, we don’t always remember what was said after a glass or two of our favorite fine boxed chardonnay at this late hour, just moments before slumber. This rule generally keeps us out of trouble with each other.
In this case it meant that by Saturday morning, we had completely forgotten about the mouse in the oven, completely forgotten.
We went through our normal Saturday routine, Angel starting around seven thirty with the inevitable harmonious howling of the dogs in the basement. ( at which time I grabbed her pillow and put it over my head to block out the insidious sunshine that dares to burn through my eyelids) I slept until eight thirty or so. Angel had a ten o’clock class and spent the morning rotating our four permanent dogs, the one long-term foster, Brady, and the large bloodhound, Howie who was in for a week of basic training . By ten o'clock all had been fed, allowed playtime and were back in for a nap. Though I had been up for over an hour by then I really was not quite my normal, charming and brilliant human self yet.

I made lunch. Ten A.M may sound early, but you’ll notice I didn’t mention having any breakfast. On weekends I tend to have two meals per day, one at ten A.M. and dinner around five P.M. Call the first meal whatever you like. Sometimes it’s waffles, pancakes or other breakfast fare, most of the time it is much more lunch-like. This Saturday morning I cleaned up some leftovers; Enchilada salad with catfish and hushpuppy croutons. Basically a small salad of lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, onions and bell peppers serving as a bed for a thawed out and re-heated homemade enchilada form earlier in the week, and sprinkled with the crumbles of two small catfish strips and two hushpuppies left over from Thursday’s, or Wednesday’s dinner. There was not enough fish to make a sandwich, and nothing else Mexican leftover. Of course I made my fabulous iced tea.
A few months back we were celebrating something, the refinance or the new job, I don’t recall, but we decided to celebrate in style. I declared that I wanted a good steak. We were in Festus (so it must have been the re-fi) and looked around at our options. There overlooking the interstate and just a quick drop down from Lowes was a ‘Ruby Tuesday’s’. I had never eaten there, Angel said she had and though she never had the steak she insisted that they looked very good.
I scanned the menu and chose the combination that I have had several times since. A nine ounce sirloin, RARE, or as I have been known to order it ‘Barely Legal’. With this they offered Broccoli which I completely and with stoic malice rejected, and demanded they replace it with something actually edible, like green beans (with onion straws). The creamy mashed potatoes sounded just fine, and of course, unsweetened iced tea.
For the past few years I have only had tea in restaurants. At home a pitcher of unsweetened (as I like it) tea goes cloudy and sour before I can drink it all and with our heavily mineralized well water takes on a peculiar, almost unpleasant taste (our water is also largely responsible for having eliminated coffee from my daily life).
The salad bar was well stocked and fresh. It was all I could do to not gorge myself on its offerings alone, but I moderated. Angel and Adam fought and fussed over the dark squishy croutons that I did not find the least bit appealing.
The tea arrived. It was lovely. It was so clear it actually seemed to sparkle. The brandy brown color was perfect, the taste, oh the taste was heavenly. I remarked on this point several times, apparently to the dismay of my family. “It’s just tea dad.” Adam would say repeatedly.
“This is not ‘just tea’ son, I’ve had plenty of ‘just tea’, and this is something altogether different!”
Angel lowered her head into her hands as she does when she is very, very proud of me. Adam stared at me with his mouth hanging open in what I assume was awe and reverence. He knew I was right, he also knew I was not just making a deal over something inconsequential.
The tea was spectacular, truly wonderful.
The steak arrived, still mooing as I had ordered it. The potatoes turned out to be exceptional, and the beans, pan fried to a perfect al dente with just a few slivers of crispy onion straws. I absolutely loved this meal, savoring every bite, but it was the tea that I thought about and talked about for several days. (and sent an email to the company about)
Angel suggested that even though she was not capable of actually discerning its specific grand wonderfulness with her obviously inferior and unrefined taste buds, she did at least think it was Luzianne rather than Lipton or some other low class swill. I demanded she purchase some immediately. She laughed of course as she does when she is cowering in fear at the forcefulness of my commands.
She did get some at her next grocery run. I pulled out the dusty tea kettle and rinsed it out. Then instead of just filling it at the tap I had a revelation. I dried the kettle out, popped open a bottle of water (which we keep at all times due to the unfortunate taste of our well water) and poured it into the kettle.
I let the kettle whistle just long enough to drive the family and dogs insane, and then looked around for options. Yet another brilliant thought occurred to me. I reached up into the cupboard and found my long abandoned French press. It was dusty as well. I cleaned and dried it and dropped one teabag into it, then poured the whistling water on top. I pushed down the plunger enough to completely submerge the bag, and let it set until it took on a color just darker than perfection. In the other cupboard I found a large beer glass, tall, thick and wide. I filled it to the brim with ice cubes and poured in enough of the steeping tea syrup to fill the glass. Much of the ice melted quickly, the rest cooled the tea to a brilliant frosty temperature. I sipped, and sipped again. “Eureka! I’ve found it! “ I shouted.

“Eureka?” Adam replied “Eureka? Seriously dad?” I started to think he didn’t understand.
“Mom, Dad’s shouting Eureka again!” He called out to Angel who was just at that moment coming in from doing something with some dogs.
“I take it you found the tea.” She said.
“I love you more than life itself, more than is possible for someone like you to ever possibly understand!” I hugged her; she pushed back a little I suppose to be sure I really meant it.
I then explained to them the pursuit, the process and the balance of ingredients and physics that had produced this holiest of nectars. They listened intently even as they walked away.

Here, a couple of months later I made my perfect tea for my Saturday morning enchilada salad with catfish and hushpuppy croutons. The great thing about this tea is that it makes every meal, even a bologna sandwich or a bowl of slightly enhanced canned chili* into a luxurious feast.
After the meal I rested for a while delighting in the after-tea, the second glass that is possible from this process. At some point I did something, checked email and Facebook maybe, responding with cleverness and wit as always. Then I think I did something else that doesn’t require a lot of effort, as that is my style. After all of this and after I had made sure Angel’s class had adjourned I took Bailey out to the woods for a walk. Bailey expects this of me on evenings and weekends and I certainly know better than to disappoint her or throw her schedule off. On our return to the house Angel intercepted me. Curiously there was not a dog in her shadow as there usually is.
“We can leave right now or wait until the two fifty showing, whichever you prefer.” She offered. I looked at her with calm and contemplation pretending to know what she was talking about. “I prefer two fifty.” I answered, though still unsure. Given the choice between right now and a couple of hours later I’ll almost always go for the later time as I generally don’t like doing things ‘right now’.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about do you?” I shook my head and said “The ‘showing’ right?”
“The movie, Dennis, the movie, the one you said you wanted to see this weekend” She answered with love, respect and devotion in her voice.
I nodded my head, and kept nodding till she finally filled in the blank. “Inglorious Basterds!” She shouted. (She thinks I am going deaf, so she tends to shout when she talks to me, it’s really kind of cute).
“Of course! I knew what you were talking about.” I answered laughing.
"Two fifty it is then. That means we’ll have to leave here about two to get there in time in case it’s crowded.” She added “That means you won’t have time for your afternoon nap though.”
“I won’t need a nap, I slept until eight thirty.” I replied, my eyes already getting heavy.
We went into the house and I led Bailey out to the back yard so she could get back to her job, dutifully barking at squirrels, ATV’s and motorcycles.
I sat down in my well deserved recliner and looked at the clock. It was around noon. Angel stared at me, as if she were expecting me to say something. I sat, looked at the clock again…..“I think I’ll go lay down for a bit now if you don’t mind”
She smiled that adoring smile and even giggled a little, that’s how much she loves me.
I awoke from my meditation period around one forty five. I immediately took Bailey out for another walk since I knew she would want one and would be missing a couple later. Bailey was, as always momentarily appreciative. I met Angel in the kitchen as she was repacking her purse. Adam was standing in the living room, just standing. I threw back a swig of cold bottled water just as Angel shrieked and pointed. “He’s back!”
Sure enough the pointy little pink nose and the tiny whiskers were protruding through the vent. A tiny paw grabbed for freedom. Neither Angel nor I admitted to having completely forgotten about him, but we each were silently relieved that neither of us had a more ambitious lunch.
I dashed out to the garage and grabbed a screwdriver. I began loosening screws around the upper face plate. Though the screws came loose easily, seventy of them I think, the oven’s knobs were left holding the cover plate on. We wrenched them off one at a time. The mouse scurried about in fear or anticipation. We struggled for several minutes until we could pry the mouse side of the cover open a few inches. Angel grabbed a hand towel and tried to grab the mouse. Apparently the mouse was not aware of humane rescue techniques and took the gesture as a threat. It retreated back into the bowels of the vent. We looked at the clock, we looked at the vent. I reached into the drawer and grabbed a pair of tongs. My plan was to reach from above while he was focused on that cursed hand towel. They didn’t reach. The mouse did come to the front again, perhaps more afraid of being trapped than being slaughtered and eaten by us. Angel swept the towel over him again which merely knocked him down into the open oven. This was good for us, not so good for the two-inch long rodent. Unlike him, we knew that he didn’t have any other way out so he scrambled to the rear where he was trapped and snared easily by the hand towel.
If you assumed Angel would rush him out the sliding door to the great outdoors, you would be wrong. Instead she opened the door to the garage and set him free there.
What can I say, she’s an animal lover. The garage is rather porous, there’s tiny openings leading to the great outdoors aplenty. Her thinking, as I understand it is that if taken directly outside that a hawk or other predator would quickly snatch it up and devour it. In the garage, it could choose its own escape. She had given it a rational, responsible, humane opportunity to survive.
We made the movie on time, cheering as the Nazis were slaughtered by a ruthless band of Jewish soldiers. Afterwards we decided to go ahead and get something to eat. We were in the less familiar town of Fenton. There was no Ruby Tuesday’s in sight but there was a knock-off called O’Charleys in the same shopping center as the theater. We decided to give it a try.
I personally was very disappointed. The salad was premade and the cucumbers and tomatoes were too big and had to be sliced. The lettuce was also chopped too roughly. I don’t like fussing with a salad, cutting up a cucumber slice into five more manageable bits, carving tomatoes, hacking through iceberg lettuce, I much prefer to enjoy my salad without having to examine each nugget for fit. I like to mix the different pieces together rather than use up an entire bite for the one and only cucumber slice. I like to be free to think grand and pure thoughts as I eat a salad, not waste time playing human weed whacker.
The steak and catfish arrived shortly. The steak was rare as ordered but hidden within the crust were deep and overpowering pockets of black pepper. None in some bites, an entire overdose in others. This required examining each bite rather than savoring it casually. This was made even more disheartening by the fact that either the steak was of poor quality or our knives were simply too dull, it proved rather tough to cut. The catfish was crispy, but the cost of that crispiness was the fish itself. Too dry. Also a bit too salty. Between the salty breading on the fish and the pepper pits on the steak, my taste buds were soon overwhelmed. The baked potato was no relief. Though perfectly cooked and generously drowning in butter and sour cream, the peel for reasons I can’t possibly fathom was encrusted with salt making it inedible. By the end of the meal all I could think about were my overwhelmed taste buds. (Don’t worry I went online earlier and sent a message to the franchise headquarters outlining this all in great detail, so maybe, just maybe they will change their horrid ways.)
And oh yeah, the tea. It was cloudy, a bit flat, and was apparently not Luzianne. It was like drinking dull, brown, lifeless water. No sparkle, no zip, no taste, no pleasure whatsoever.
I of course fervently and repeatedly mentioned all of this to my family on the way home. They were in complete agreement I assume, though I didn’t ask. In fact they found my detailed critique so alluring they decided it needed a billowing and blaring soundtrack to accentuate it. They turned the stereo up. “Louder, louder,!” Adam cried out. As I once again mentioned the many problems with the tea they even grabbed their heads in sheer delight as the music blared and I loudly declared “We shall never again return to that hideous place!”
We returned home. Outside the garage there were no signs of a struggle, there were no sounds of owls belching, we were satisfied that the brave little brown mouse had successfully escaped and rejoined his little mouse family, and was probably at that very moment telling them all about his high adventures, perhaps even embellishing the tale a little here and there. . .

*Slightly Enhanced Canned Chili recipe available upon request.