Averyell A. Kessler
A troubling game of hide and seek occurred last week inside the Mall of Louisiana in Baton Rouge when Cara, a Burmese python, escaped from her cage at the Blue Zoo Aquarium. I saw her photo on the front page of the Baton Rouge Advocate while visiting my family. She’s a 12-foot yellow and white giant with deadly pin dot eyes and lethal jaws. Am I planning visit to the mall? No! Not while Cara is on the prowl. I imagine that no one else will be popping in either. I hope she’s caught before swallowing the entire inventory of Red Lobster or squeezing the life out of another hapless critter.*
Another gentler game of hide and seek occurred in Belhaven during my young years when a squirrel came down our chimney and disappeared into our Laurel Street house. It was a definite breach of domestic tranquility as described in the Constitution. Three days after my tenth birthday, I saw him sitting on the fire screen in our living room, a small Disney-like creature with a fluffy tail with glittering eyes. I said hello, but he didn’t answer. Instead, he leaped to the floor, scampered across the rug, and darted into our long center hall. My mother was in the kitchen folding laundry. I couldn’t wait to tell her. “Dale’s here,” I said.
“Dale? Who is Dale?” she asked tossing a handful of wooden clothes pins into a wicker basket.
“You know, Chip and Dale on TV. They’re squirrels. ”
“They’re cartoon characters, sweetie,” she replied.
“But the real Dale is here!” I said. “He came down the chimney like Santa.”
Mama’s face clouded. She pushed back her chair and picked up her weapon of choice, a straw broom stationed in our pantry.
“Where’d he go?” Mama growled.
For the rest of the day, we searched every room in the house, upending furniture, running the broom handle under our beds, sifting through closets then closing the doors. Nothing. Dale was the invisible man of Belhaven’s sizable critter menagerie. Finally, Mama saw that the bathroom window had been raised a few inches, not much but enough for a frightened squirrel to escape.
“He’s gone,” Mama said. She closed the window and locked it.
“No,” I wailed. “He was so cute.”
“A squirrel is a wild animal, not a pet.”
When Daddy came home from work, he inspected the house also. “All clear,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
In the darkest part of night, my father suddenly cannon-balled from his bed, whooping like a tornado siren. The hall light flashed on and Daddy charged out of his bedroom, waving his pajama bottoms over his head as he galloped towards our tiny bathroom. “The squirrel,” Mama explained, as she sat at the foot of my bed, breathless and gasping. “He’s still here!”
“What happened?” I asked, as a cloud of steam flowed out of the bathroom and drifted into the hall.
“He crawled inside your father’s pajama pants.”
For the next few days, Daddy tried a variety of techniques. He purchased a trap at the hardware store and baited it with cracked peanuts. No luck. Dale extracted the peanuts without being caught. He was a phantom, a ghost, an invisible creature living in luxury on Laurel Street.
The idea of poison flicked through Daddy’s brain, but he remembered last Easter when a yellow glitter egg went missing and the house smelled like boiling sulfur for days. Dale, a member of the rat family, might be worse, especially if we failed to locate him after he entered the great squirrel nest in the sky.
The following Saturday, operation good riddance occurred. We opened every door and window in the house and drove to the zoo for a long afternoon watching the monkeys scamper around their island castle. Surely, Dale would find his way outside. When we returned home, our neighbor Ella Mae Clarkson, was standing on our front porch. Mama’s heart fell. Ella Mae was a neighborhood nuisance who focused her poached egg eyes on everything and everyone. Nothing escaped her notice or hindered her ability to dust the truth with supposition.
Heavy binoculars and a Kodak Brownie were her best friends. So far, she’d exposed a man with two wives, a teen-age beer party on St Ann Street, and a neighbor attaching an expired Louisiana license tag to his new pickup. Unfortunately, Ella Mae lived across the street.
“Y’all ok?” she asked when we climbed out of our Chevy. “Your front door is wide open.”
“Yes,” Mama said breezily. “Just airing out of house before spring cleaning.”
As we walked inside, Ella Mae trotted behind us, like a nose-to-the-ground Bloodhound. ”I called the police,” she continued. “Better safe than sorry.”
“The police!” Mama wailed. “Go un-call them.”
“I can’t. They’re on the way.” Just then, a JPD cruiser appeared in our driveway and a young officer got out.
Mama met him before Ella Mae had a chance to intervene.
“Nothing’s wrong here officer. As you can see, all our doors are open and every window is raised. We were just airing out our house.”
“Yes ma’am,” he answered. “Just a routine check. There’s no crime in Belhaven. Most folks don’t even lock their doors.”
Mama, who rarely lost her temper, cornered Ella Mae after the policeman left. “You should mind your own business, Ella Mae.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But this neighborhood is my responsibility!”
“Yours?” Mama hissed. “I don’t recall asking you to shoulder such a burden!”
“Your new here,” Ella Mae explained. “You don’t know how we do things in Jackson…………” She was interrupted by a strange noise.
Kuk,Kuk…. It was a soft cluck near the ceiling. Kuk, kuk………….It came again.
We looked up and there he was, our pal Dale hiding on the top shelf of a bookcase, his tail swaying like tall grass in the wind. He focused on Ella Mae, then made a graceful dive and landed on her shoes. Ella Mae screamed. She turned and dashed though the front door, running faster than Road Runner in 5th gear. Dale followed, hissing, and scrabbling at her heels. In an instant, they both disappeared.
“What a bargain!” Mama laughed. “Two pests gone, for the price of one.”
“Yes,” Daddy answered. “Pests tend to stick together.”