A Better Mousetrap

By Robert Starr

Duncan Fitzpatrick made a final adjustment, straightened up and looked at the doorbell fastened to the lawn chair in his garage. It’s done, he thought, it’s finally finished. A poster was tacked to the wall above the chair; Duncan stared at the old man’s grey uncombed hair and the moustache covering half his mouth. He’d copied his college hero’s moustache once , back when he had a full head of hair, but he shaved his lip when the moustache felt silly, after his hair started to fall slowly out into the bathroom sink.

"Thank-you," he whispered to the poster, tears welling up in his eyes, "Oh, Thank-you." He left the garage and locked the door behind him; he went inside the house, took the spare garage key off his ring, and left it on top of the hallway banister. Then, he took his hat off ,put it over the key, and went upstairs

His wife, Greta,was out; he went to the bathroom and started the faucets to enjoy a hot shower and some time to think. The water felt good on his face and he opened and closed his mouth, spitting down to the drain. Greta had said she wouldn’t be long and she said it in a way she said everything to him: she grimaced, spoke through clenched teeth, and never looked at him making Duncan wonder if talking to him at all wracked her with pain.

He imagined her bloated face, with cheeks that looked like she’d been hoarding food like a squirrel, and the water got too hot and pounded on the back of his neck. Depressed, he turned the faucets off and stepped out.

Duncan was towelling off when he heard the front door open and Greta drop some bags in the foyer. He imagined she waddled over them and stood in front of the hall mirror at the foot of the stairs with her fat hands on her hips.

"Are you awake up there?" she said and Duncan was sure no one in the entire neighbourhood could sleep after hearing that voice.

"What the hell are you doing up there?" she said and her voice was raspy to him as though her vocal chords were rusty metal pipes. "I’ll bet you’re getting ready to shower again- that hot water you’re so fond of costs money, y’know."

Duncan stayed quiet; he heard her walk though the foyer passing the foot of the stairs and he tensed, waiting for the familiar diatribe.

"I cook and I clean and work, day in and day out! And for what?" (She’d have a hand on the banister and a foot on the first step by now, ready to charge up the stairs), "For more waiting, that’s what! Waiting for the first great inventor of the millennium to put some food on the table. Well, Mr. Einstein, I brought the bacon home again,"she said.

She stopped and Duncan held his breath until he heard her foot steps fade into the kitchen.He stayed upstairs listening until he was sure she was too busy putting the groceries away to harass him anymore, then slipped downstairs and out to the garage.

He pulled the door closed behind him with two hands; then turned and looked at his latest invention. He brushed his fingertips gently over the doorbell. It was salvaged from a failed attempt at an automatic dog washer and he was very careful not to push it; he glanced quickly at the wires running to the electronic panels as if they had abruptly called him- they were leftovers from the electric toilet bowl cleaner that didn’t sell. Finally,he put his hands on the lawn chair’s armrests and looked up at the equation under the old man on the poster.

How revolutionary, he thought, that three letters and the number two could, if everything went well, change his life forever. He was dreaming, for the first time in years, of the adulation and money his invention would bring if it worked, when Greta opened the garage door and stepped inside.

"I might have known I’d find you here," she said, slamming the door so hard the wall shook and trying to look over his shoulder.

Duncan hunched over the lawn chair

"How’s the better mousetrap coming along?" she said coming up behind him and laughing. "How’s big man doing?" she said leaning into his ear and poking a finger into his back..

"Just fine thank-you," he said his voice shaking and his face burning red. He looked back over his shoulder: "I’m almost finished here," he said, "I’ll be all too glad to show how it works later."

"How it works!" she said heading back for the door, "How it works? That’s rich-something other than me that actually works around here! Ha!" She slammed the door again on the way out, and the poster rippled on the wall.

Later , Duncan snuck in and heard her on the phone in the kitchen:

"He’s just a failure, mother, a –no-account-grade-A-number-one-loser and I’m stuck here with him."

No, Duncan thought with a little smile , you’re not stuck here. I’ve been stuck here, stuck listening to you and watching your waist grow and you even blame me for that.

He thought about all the promises he’d made to her ten years ago when he met her at the university- he was a promising physics student and she worked in the cafeteria; the two should have been like oil and vinegar, but opposites, at their own peril, can attract. He’d wanted then to stand apart and he thought he could become a success without finishing school , but after a decade of failed inventing, almost all his promise was gone and he realized he didn’t have anything more concrete than his partial degree could provide. So, he’d been kept by her practical blue collar sensibility, and their attraction had become repulsion like magnets with his failures, and he watched their marriage sour like an orange left on a windowsill in the sun.

No Greta, you’re not stuck here, he thought. If everything works out, I’ll still be here, but not stuck with you.

He tip toed through the foyer to the banister, stopping to check under his hat to make sure the spare garage key was there. He knew she would find it: she always nagged him about putting the hat away in the hall closet. When he got to the bedroom, he laid down , staring at the ceiling and listening.

She went to the refrigerator and opened it; then she slammed the door so hard he heard the magnets on the door rattle.

"Grade -A -loser," she muttered and he heard her walk through the foyer. It got quiet; he imagined her standing at the banister, angry his hat wasn’t put away and got excited, but then he heard the television flipping through the channels. When it clicked off and the front door opened, he sat up in bed. He strained to listen for, and finally heard, the key slide into the lock of the garage door and he took the sleeping pill he’d put on the nightstand and rolled over in bed. Duncan didn’t want to go out to the garage- curiosity killed the cat, he thought-and his stumbling across her snooping around out there might spoil things now.

He woke up wide awake and excited; he listened but heard nothing- no foot steps in the foyer, no doors slamming, and her voice, the one that came up through flakes of rust, was gone too. He got up from bed, put his robe on, and walked down to the bathroom whistling . He reached in over the bathtub ,turned the faucets on, and stepped into the shower. Duncan stood, squeezing his shoulder blades together as far as they would go, and letting the hot water run down his back. He tilted his head back and ran his fingers over his head. He turned the hot faucet up and looked straight ahead to the tiles on the far wall– he tried to imagine his wife’s face but couldn’t.

Duncan turned around and faced the nozzle; the steam and the water felt good and he tried to picture his wife’s face again. He shut the water off, pulled the curtain back, and smiled: he could only see steam in the bathroom.

On his way downstairs to make breakfast he put his hand on the banister at the bottom of the steps where his hat and the spare key had been and touched only the wood

"Touch wood," he said out loud to the empty house and giggled. "Touch wood! Touch wood!" he said, squeezing the banister and looking at the front door. Then, without taking his eyes off it, he walked across the foyer and outside.

The garage door was unlocked- he held his breath and went inside.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, then he saw the lawn chair exactly the way he’d left it. Duncan’s heart sank and he looked behind him for Greta: he thought she might be waiting in ambush , having figured his plan out. Then the doorbell caught his eye and he moved closer. Duncan gasped, put his hands up to his face, and smiled a boyish grin of delight- it had been pressed.

He looked around the garage for some evidence to give him away but found nothing-not even so much as a wisp of smoke or charred spot on the floor. He knew he must dismantle his most successful invention: he pried the doorbell off the lawn chair and it fell on the floor; he gathered up the electronics and put them in the trunk of his car.

With almost everything gone, he stopped and took a final look at the poster. He took the tacks out and began to roll it up slowly, starting at the unruly grey hair, down past the moustache and then, finally, past the three letters and the number: E=Mc2

"Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, eh Mr Einstein…?" Duncan Fitzpatrick said, "Only transferred"

In this case, it really didn’t even matter to where; it was marvellous to know how to build a better mousetrap and he put the poster away in his trunk.Then, he picked up the doorbell-the fall from the chair had re-opened the switch- and he pushed it and laughed, nonchalantly putting it in his pocket. It hadn’t make a sound- it only made a staccato click when it was hooked up and he smiled thinking that would have been the last sound Greta heard. On the way from the garage, he almost tripped over his hat on the floor. What a strange irony, he thought, that Greta should carry it from the banister to here- so far from the closet where she demanded he keep it. He picked it up and put it on: the afternoon sun would be unbearable without it.

Duncan spent the afternoon gardening in the back yard: he planted row after row of perfectly straight seeds, not noticing the twilight until a mosquito bit him. He slapped at the insect, picked up his gardening tools, and started for inside. Time for another shower, he thought, studying the dirty palms of his hands.

Inside, he took the doorbell from his pocket and put it with his hat, on the shelf in the hall closet, promising himself he’d throw it out in the morning.

"There you are Greta," he said, "right where you always wanted it."

It was dark outside when Duncan turned on the faucets for his shower; he turned the hot faucet all the way up and got inside. With the hot water running down his chest he realized he hadn’t thought of Greta all day long- he could feel the steam and the water on his face and he bent down and reached for the shampoo and….


It was Greta’s voice and he froze and stood straight up- He turned his head around slowly, keeping his body facing forward, and looked at the back of the shower for her.

"A no-account-grade-A-number-one-loser."

Duncan ripped the shower curtain open - he saw only steam. He smiled,drawing a deep breath,shutting the curtain, and leaning back into the hot water. He was reaching for the shampoo again, confident his mind was just playing tricks on him, when the water went ice cold. Duncan jumped from the bathtub and wrapped a towel around his waste; he looked at the faucets-the hot tap had been turned all the way off.

"Hot water cost money, Duncan," she said and laughed.

Duncan flung the bathroom door open so hard it dented the wall and started to walk down the hall.

"Greta… are you here?," he said, wet, shivering, and looking at the walls and ceiling. He was leaving footprints on the rug behind him.

"Yes…I am here," she said.

"Where?" he said, opening a closet door , pushing aside the clothes ,and sticking his head in so his voice was muffled : "You can’t hide from me forever."

"But isn’t that what you wanted? To hide me somewhere?" she said.

Duncan heard the front door slam and footsteps in the foyer- He ran to the top of the stairs, turned the light on, and looked down.

His hat had been moved back to the banister but the foyer was empty.

"What the hell are you doing?" Where are you?", Duncan said.

"I’m here…I’m there…. I’m everywhere, Duncan," she said. "You’ve finally invented something I can be proud of you for."

Duncan started down the stairs.

"You really found a way of doing it, Dunc old man," she said. "The whole thing was just a slight tingle- no worse than accidentally sticking your finger into a light socket. And to think! Pushing a common doorbell can change someone into this!"

The lights in the foyer flickered.

"Where the hell are you?" he said, now at the bottom of the stairs, looking left and right.

"I’m right here, Duncan," she said and a fat sweaty hand grabbed him and spun him toward the banister- he looked behind him in the mirror but could only see his arm twisted behind his back.

"You finally built a better mousetrap," she whispered in his ear. "You finally got rid of me, dear," she said, " but its much easier to get back from where you sent me," and his hat flew up off the banister and dropped on the floor, " than from where I’m sending you. You’ll excuse my getting your hat out from the closet, won’t you? I saw you finally put the hat away, but I thought ‘Its your house now’ and moved it back for you." Duncan looked at his hat then up at the banister where the doorbell from the garage sat- the switch had been reopened.

He felt another hand tighten over his and force it toward the doorbell: he tried to struggle, but his arm was held rigid with the fingers extended out.

"Push the bell, you grade-A- loser," she growled in his ear and a finger poked him in the back, "one push and no one will ever know how successful you were-Do it now, big man."

Duncan closed his eyes just as his finger pushed the doorbell. It clicked once.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Robert Starr

Bio:Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's.After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.

His previous contributions to Aphelion include Little Ed which appeared in April and Indian Rubber Balls last month.

E-mail: StarrShdr@aol.com


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