Averyell A. Kessler
Three days after my birthday, a squirrel came down our chimney and disappeared into our Laurel Street house. I saw him first, sitting on the fire screen in our living room, a small Disney-like creature with a fluffy tail with glittering eyes. Certainly, this was Dale, of Chip and Dale fame, coming to visit one of his biggest fans -me! I was sure he knew Bambi, Thumper too, maybe even Annette Funicello. 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 napkins she’d taken down from the backyard clothesline. 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. The squirrels on TV.”
“They’re cartoon characters, sweetie.”
“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 resting by the back door.
“Where’d he go?” Mama growled.
For the next hour, we searched every room in the house, upending furniture, running the broom handle under our beds, sifting through the hangers in the closets and closing the doors tight. 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.
“But he was so cute.” I wailed.
“A squirrel is a wild animal honey, 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 room, 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. Steam from the roaring shower was drifting into my room.
“He crawled inside your father’s pajama pants.”
For the next few days, we tried everything. Daddy purchased a racoon trap at the hardware store and baited it with cracked peanuts. No luck. Dale was smart enough to extract the peanuts without being caught. He was a phantom, 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 stray egg went missing from my Easter basket 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 went into effect. 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, Ella Mae Clarkson, our neighbor 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 conjecture. Heavy binoculars and a Kodak Brownie were her best friends. So far, she’d exposed a man with two wives, a teen-age beer and make-out party on St Ann Street, and a neighbor attaching an expired Lousiana 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. I came over to check.”
“Yes,” Mama said breezily. “Just airing out of house before spring cleaning.”
We walked inside. Ella Mae trotted behind us, like a nose-to-the-ground Catahoula tracking wild boar. ”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 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!”
Mama rarely lost her temper, but on this day, she did. “Yours?” she hissed, shaking her finger in Ella Mae’s face. “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 mantle behind a brass candlestick, his tail swaying like tall grass in the wind. He focused on Ella Mae and squealed like a pig as he made a graceful swan dive and landed on her shoes. Ella Mae screamed. She turned and dashed though the front door, running faster than Road Runner ever imagined. 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.”