Main | Thursday, January 06, 2005

Charlie & Buttercup

When I was 9 years old, I had a pet chicken. His name was Charlie.

Charlie T. Chicken.

The 'T' was for 'The.' Just like Smokey Bear's middle name. I thought it was very clever.

Charlie The Chicken used to chase the children of our trailer park if they ventured anywhere near our yard. You see, Charlie hated feet. Kids' feet, to be more precise.

Charlie would erupt from his sentry post under our front steps in a furious explosion of brown feathers and machine-gun pecking, as terrified toddlers screamed and attempted to bat Charlie away from their offending toes. Next door or across the street, mothers would wearily pull themselves away from their washlines or their 'stories' and yell at me.

"Joey, you GIT that dang bird offa my Ellen!"

And I'd put down the bullfrog that I'd been attempting to feed bits of my Moon Pie, and go shoo Charlie back under the front porch. Charlie never went after MY toes. That bird knew where HIS seed was scattered.

My sister, age 7, was insanely jealous of Charlie. She begged my mother for her own pet at every opportunity. Mom would scarcely turn her head away from the sink

"You already have a pet, honey. You have Bridgette." she'd say with finality.

Even a 7-year-old saw through that old trick.

"Moh-om!" Janet would plead. (Always with the hyphen when she was whining.)

"Don't be stupid! Bridgette is our dog. I want my OWN pet!"

From the back bedroom of the trailer my father would bellow, "I had better NOT have just heard you call your mother STUPID!"

Janet already knew better than to tempt the back of my dad's hand, or more commonly, a flying copy of the TV Guide. She'd pout and stomp off outside.

Then, to add fuel to the whining fire, Janet's best friend Amber got a hamster for her birthday. Amber named her hamster Crimson. But not because of its sinister beady red eyes. Crimson was named after Amber's favorite song, "Crimson And Clover" by Tommy James & The Shondells.

That's when Janet decided that she absolutely had to have a hamster. And her hamster was going to be named after her favorite song, "Build Me Up Buttercup", by The Foundations. And just to annoy me, she ripped off MY pet name, saying her hamster would be 'Buttercup The Hamster.'

"Mom, are we going to go get Buttercup The Hamster today?"

What a wily child she was. Naming her pet before she even got it, personalizing it, giving it an identity, a presence in the household it had not yet seen. I think hostage negotiators do the same thing with kidnappers.

"Mom, it's really cold today. Do you think it might be too cold at the store where Buttercup The Hamster is?"

Mom would just give her a flat look.

"Go feed YOUR dog."

But finally, as we knew she would, Mom caved. On a Saturday afternoon, the day before Janet's 8th birthday, she picked me up from Little League and we went hamster shopping.

There were no pet stores in tiny Newport, North Carolina. We'd gotten Charlie at the local feed store, where their primary sales items were cow and chicken related. So Mom and I drove to nearby Morehead City, where they had two department stores, K-Mart and Roses.

Both K-Mart and Roses had small pet departments located in the rear of their stores, buried behind the gardening supplies and lawn chairs. You could usually find parakeets, tropical fish, hamsters, turtles and snakes. All caged in 20-gallon aquariums. All in a state of manic escape attempts, or listless why-bother-ness.

It used to depress me immensely to watch the hampsters. They'd all be in position at the edges of the aquarium, each of them furiously, desperately, endlessly pawing at the glass. It bothered me that they never realized that they weren't actually making any progress. One time I leaned over and shouted into the hamster aquarium.


The hamsters paid me no mind, and the mothers nearby worriedly herded their kids away from me.

Mom first drove us to Roses. But since Janet's birthday fell close to Easter, Roses had no hamsters but lots of rabbits. The rabbits were darn cute and Mom was leaning towards getting one until I pointed out that 'Buttercup The Hamster' would be a awfully dumb name for a rabbit.

Over at K-Mart, there were only four hamsters for sale. I pointed at the one running in the wheel. "What about that one?"

Mom bent over and wrinkled her nose. "He looks mean, he probably bites."

"Mom, hamsters can't look mean. They don't have expressions."

"I can just tell." She pointed at the two that were scratching at the glass. "What about one of those?"

Just then one of the two leapt onto the other's back and began fucking it. I wanted to die. Just die. Mom stood up straight and looked into her purse. Trying to divert my mother's attention, I pointed at the fourth hamster, "That one looks good!"

Hamster #4 was a huge slovenly creature and was lying on its back, scarcely moving.

Mom frowned, "Ugh, that one looks like it's half-dead. Janet wouldn't have much fun with THAT!"

She checked her watch. "OK, let's go back to Roses and get a rabbit. It'll have to do."

At the door of K-Mart we could see dark thunderstorms gathering on the horizon. Mom hated to drive in the rain. She looked down at me.

"Let's go back and get the fat one."

We raced home, barely ahead of the thunderstorm, with Hamster #4, the soon to be 'Buttercup.' We hid the cage in my bedroom closet, and in the middle of the night Mom slipped it into Janet's room and left it on her dresser.

At 6AM, we all awoke to bloodcurdling screams. It was Janet.

Mom and I raced into Janet's room. She was standing on her bed pointing at the cage, screaming over and over. These were not screams of joy. I peered into Buttercup's cage.

During the night, 'fat' Hampster #4 had given birth to approximately 67 babies. Actually, we couldn't tell HOW many babies there were, because the entire cage, from end to end, was strewn with the bloody half-eaten corpses of Buttercup's progeny. She must have been birthing and gnawing continuously through the dark night. The amount of hamster blood was only equaled by the spectacular array of discarded parts. Buttercup had eaten relentlessy but randomly, leaving a head here, a leg or two there.

Buttercup was sitting in a corner of the cage, chewing and staring at us with her red murderous eyes. And she STILL looked hungry.

Mom threw a towel over the cage and rushed it out the room. Janet sat on the edge on her bed sobbing.

Down at the feed store, Mom gave Buttercup away to some kid, gory cage and all. She came back with a baby duck, the sight of which dried Janet's eyes immediately. She named him 'Dudley The Duck', after her favorite cartoon "Dudley Do-Right."

For awhile, Dudley The Duck lived under the front porch with Charlie The Chicken. Later however, Dudley decided he really preferred to roost on the top of Dad's Buick.

Roost and crap, that is. The amount of disgusting watery crap a single duck can create is really mind-boggling. My dad's famous talent for cursing was sorely tested by that duck.

Dudley The Duck did not survive Christmas dinner.

Under the tree, Santa left Janet a kitten.

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