Squirrel in the Kitchen

The reward at the end of the eight hour drive is immediate. I pry myself out of the cramped car and stand up in the soft needles splayed across the dirt driveway, feel the breeze enfold my bare arms and listen to the sighing trees. No visual cues are needed.  Based on these lesser senses alone, I know that I am now officially on vacation. So do the dogs.  They joyfully sniff their more pungent smells, scramble out of the car and rush around our legs.

There are no lights on in the family cabin in front of us, so I use the car lights to guide us in.  Nick and I each dump a couple of loads in the mud room – luggage, fishing rods, hiking gear, dog food, and a loose collection of books, magazines and crossword puzzles. It isn’t until I start moving the luggage into the living room that I notice the note from my brother on the kitchen counter.

“It looks like a squirrel has found its way into the cabin, probably through the utility closet. We couldn’t catch it before we left. Good luck.”

I wonder how hard he has tried to catch the squirrel; I know that I would be seriously tempted to leave this annoying chore to the next family member to arrive. There were plenty of summers when the cabin was plagued by raccoons arriving in the middle of the night– smearing old picnics, eggs or coffee grounds across the kitchen floor, and then tracking the detritus through the house. As a teenager, I would cover my ears when I heard the raccoons ransacking the kitchen, reasoning that if I couldn’t hear them, nobody could claim that I should have been the one to chase them out of the house in the middle of the night.  In the morning, I would carefully avoid the kitchen. If I didn’t see the mess, then I wouldn’t have to clean it up. Apparently my strategy was not unique – I think that all members of the household held their collective breath during the night in the hopes that someone else would finally get out of bed and risk coming face to face with an aggressive raccoon. I wondered if the same philosophy was at play with this squirrel.

The squirrel seems fussier than a raccoon. There is no upended garbage can or smear of food.  In fact, the only evidence are tiny teeth marks at the edge of a wooden cabinet. Inside there are several jars of peanuts. I admire the hard working squirrel and his exquisitely sensitive nose. He is so close to scoring the mother lode of food, enough to tide his entire family over the upcoming winter.   However, starting tomorrow we will try to kill him.

The next morning after breakfast, Nick turns to me and says, “What are we going to do about the squirrel?”

“I’ll see if I can borrow a Have-a-Heart trap,” I say.

Our cabin is in a remote housing association along the shore of Lake Superior.  There are no nearby stores so I know I will have to borrow a trap. As I walk over to the housing association office, I think about our unspoken technique of assigning chores that has evolved over the thirty three years of our marriage. At home, setting a mouse trap would be Nick’s job, perhaps based on the long established gender-based role of the hunter. But here in the northern woods, I know it is my job to catch the squirrel – even though this rodent is several rungs higher on the food chain.

The key difference is that I need to borrow a household item – a chore which sits a bit more on the female end of the spectrum – compared to borrowing a hammer, for example, which could be considered a more manly chore.  Also I know our neighbors better.  Another other subtle factor is that the cabin is really not our cabin, rather it is shared among my siblings, and Nick has wisely stepped aside from all household decisions (except for that one time when he heroically unclogged an obstinate toilet).  No discussion is needed.  After a few inquiries, I come back to the cabin with a Have-a-Heart trap.

have a heart

I investigate the utility closet and find scat and urine stains on top of the water heater.   I imagine that the squirrel has burrowed into the house, climbed up a stack of cross country skis in the corner of the closet and then hopped on top of the water heater, luxuriating in its warmth before his foray into the kitchen.  “This squirrel really has it going on,” I think as I set the trap with a smear of peanut butter.  We gather up the fishing equipment for our planned day at a nearby lake.  I fully anticipate a caged squirrel by the time we get back in the afternoon. “What should we do when we catch him?” I ask.

Mine is certainly a simple question, similar to his earlier query about what we would do about the squirrel, but in our marriage, the use of the word “we” generally means “you.”  If Nick tells me, “I think that we had better respond to this invitation,” I know that he is giving me a friendly reminder.  If I say, “what should we do about the leaky faucet,” he knows that I am reminding him to call the plumber.  Even though the Have-a-Heart trap is designed to harmlessly trap an animal, the name is really an oxymoron because once we catch the squirrel, someone will have to dispose of it.  Even if we try to relocate the squirrel, it is probably smart enough (or dumb enough) to come back.  My mother once had a pitched battle with a woodchuck that was ravaging her garden.  She eventually caught him in a Have-a-Heart Trap, but was then perplexed on what to do next him.  After all that effort, she was just not going to let him go, but felt conflicted about killing him, or rather how to kill him.  She thought about inviting a friend over who had a shot gun, but ultimately she opted for a watery death over a bloody one.  She heaved the Have-a-Heart trap along with the woodchuck into the pond.

I’m perfectly happy to catch the squirrel, but once the squirrel is rattling around the in the trap, I want Nick to know that disposal will clearly be his job.  I say, “Once I’ve caught the squirrel, I think that we’ll just have to kill it. ”  I’m confident that he knows that my “we” means “you.”

There is a moderate breeze on the lake so we load in two sets of oars just in case, but I am the sole rower as Nick fishes.  Nick likes to tell the story of how I did a bait and switch during the early days of our courtship.  He was excited to think that I shared his passion for fishing, but then was astonished when my interest totally evaporated once we got married.  While there is an element of truth to the story, in my defense I would point out that I have always been a willing rower.

I also like to think that I have defied the gender-based heavy-lifting male role.  I have moved furniture, pushed cars out of a drift and carry my own luggage.  Rowing is a particular pleasure.  I straighten my back to get the optimal leverage and find a steady rhythm with the oars that balances the breeze and the slow pace of fishing along the shore.  The blade slips into the water and emerges dripping, creating expanding ripples that trail behind the wooden boat.  As we inch forward, I close my eyes and listen to the soothing gurgling sound of the water percolating beneath the bow.

Suddenly Nick’s rod tip bends.  I immediately revert to the stereotypical female role, squealing and yelling as he brings the fish into the boat.  I yell, “Get it out of here.  What are you doing?  Get rid of it.”  I move to the bow of the boat while Nick wrestles with fish flopping in the stern.  My knees are drawn up to my chest lest one drop of the fish’s slimy scales land on my leg.  Nick expertly gets the hook out of fish’s mouth, but I shudder as the metal barb scrapes against the stiff gills and grimace at the disconcerting spot of blood on the bottom of the boat.  Nick returns the fish to water, gently rocking it to create a little current across its gasping gills.  When the fish regains its bearings, it disappears with a flash of its tail.  Only then can I relax and resume my rowing.

There was one occasion when Nick caught a fine trout, and I rowed over to the shore where he cleaned and cooked it over a fire.  As he finished the meal, Nick said, “This is the essence of manhood.”  While cleaning and cooking game might have been the woman’s role in Native American culture, I was in total agreement with his more contemporary gender assignment.

When we return to the cabin, I rush in to check on the squirrel.  The peanut butter has been wiped clean and I imagine the triumphant squirrel prancing in excitement over his deft touch.  Time to up the ante.   The squirrel was probably too light to trip the trap, so I experiment with different combinations of small stones to create a hair trigger.  I rig the trap so that the slightest movement will set it off.  Something as trivial as a puff of a properly aimed fart from an overfed squirrel will certainly slam the door shut.

The next day we head off on a hike and Nick packs up a small backpack with binoculars, lunch and water bottle.  If I was entirely consistent with my gender assignments, I would carry my own backpack, but I just hate its tug on my shoulders.  My work-around is basically not to eat lunch, or pack something so diminutive, like a few sticks of carrots, that it would make no sense to have a separate pack.  The biggest issue is water, and I make sure that I only take a few sips of Nick’s.  I do notice that he has started to carry a larger water bottle but I don’t ask why.  I know I’m on a slippery slope here, but off I go with my head held high.

When we return, I am utterly astonished that my squirrel trap has again been wiped clean. I feel like I am heading into Roadrunner/Wiley Coyote territory.  Perhaps a clever squirrel is lurking above me eager to drop an anvil on my head.  Nick glances up from his Forbes magazine as I sputter and swear, but says nothing.  Time to find something more vicious; a neighbor lends me a menacing rat trap.  The kinder and gentler illusion of the Have-a-Heart trap is gone.  I tremble as I bait the trap with fresh peanut butter, fearful that the serrated jaws of death will sever my pinkie.

rat trap

The next day we hike to Trout Lake, glassy calm in its seclusion.  Nick doesn’t need rowing help, so I remain on my perch of overlooking rocks while he takes a lap around the lake.   I see the oars rising, dipping and then pausing as one stroke is enough to propel the boat along the shore.  Nick rarely catches any fish in this hopefully named lake, and I immediately spot the reason why.  Resplendent loons bob in the middle of the lake, dive and pop up yards away.  Supposedly a loon will eat some 600 pounds of fish in a summer.  No wonder there are such slim pickings for a fisherman blindly throwing a lure into tangled snags.

Overhead a bald eagle circles lazily, then swoops down, plucks a startled fish from the water and lumbers off with the fish’s head firmly in his talons.  The fish gives one last flap of his tail and the spray of water dimples the lake’s surface.  The eagle settles in a pine tree and quickly rips the fish asunder; little bits and pieces of fins and scales drift down and speckle the water below.  I wonder if there is another violent death occurring in our kitchen at this very moment.  I envision the squirrel poking its head into the trap, reaching toward the tantalizing peanut butter, and then SNAP, the jaws of death crushing its little neck.  I am only a little uncomfortable in hoping that my wish comes true.

My thoughts drift to our unspoken rules on household chores.  Many are divvied along traditional lines.  Nick takes out the garbage, deals with the cars and pays the bills.  I make the beds, fold and put the laundry away and clean the inevitable clutter from the counter when guests arrive.  However, it is in the area of cooking – that iconic role of women – that I am a complete outlier.  I don’t mind cooking for special occasions, but balk at everyday meals.  I have always worked full-time, and while I enjoy the intellectual stimulation, the income and the identity that comes with it, I truly value the free pass it gives me on the day-in, day-out grind of making dinner.  Now that we are empty-nesters our usual routine is for each of us to make our own dinner – I may have a bite of Nick’s and he might have a bite of mine, but we rarely fully share.  I am currently winding down my medical consulting business and one of my trepidations about retirement is that without a job as a handy excuse, the balance of chores will shift.  I could start taking out the garbage, but the kitchen is the most obvious place where I could take up the slack.

Nick returns empty-handed and we head back home.  The utility door is open, so when I walk into the back door I immediately see the beckoning trap, but the peanut butter is gone.  I explode.

“That god damn fucking squirrel.  He is really asking for it now.  He comes when we’re gone and then steals our peanut butter.  Who does he think he is?  I have twelve years of higher education, and his brain is no bigger than the clenched fist of a fetus.  He’s just mocking me now, just mocking me, and I won’t stand for it.”

I can rant all I want, but I know these are just empty words since I have no plan B for a squirrel who can outwit a rat trap with a hair trigger.

Nick is ahead of me in the kitchen and yells, “I’ve caught him in the act.  He’s is on the counter.”

“Get him, get him,” I scream and we both chase the squirrel through the living room into the screened porch.  Nick slams one door and I rush outside to slam the other door.  He’s trapped.

We spot the anxious squirrel behind the couch and look at each other with an unspoken question of “what next?”  Now is not the time for our carefully coded messages of “we.”  “What do you need to kill him?” I ask.  “I’ll get you a tennis racquet and fishing net.  That way you can either club him or scoop him.”

Nick carefully slips into the porch with his weapons.  It is now mano à mano, hunter vs. prey, husband vs. squirrel with wife anxiously peering through the window of the closed door.  Nick whirls around, brandishing first the fishing net and then the tennis racquet while the squirrel leaps from one screen to the next in an impressive acrobatic display.  I think that at this point the squirrel must know he’s doomed, and perhaps regrets his smug triumph over the rat trap.  Will the squirrel decide to go out in a blaze of glory with a lacerating and vengeful leap at Nick’s face?  Will I then have to watch Nick die a frothy and spittled death from rabies?  I almost rush to the outside door to let the squirrel out, but with one agile mid-air move Nick nets him.

He takes him to the outside porch and holds up the tennis racquet as the instrument of execution and I nod.  I rush off to the linen closet to get an old towel, but this is just a cosmetic touch so that we won’t have to witness splattered brains as Nick pummels him.  A small splotch of blood seeps through the towel and the thrashing stops.   We are astonished by this sudden display of violence, but I think that the squirrel has given us no choice.  He could have heeded our warning flare of the trap, or had the good sense to choose a quick death in the rat trap.  What else were we supposed to do?

“You know this isn’t that different from the eagle shredding the fish to death,” says Nick.

“Yes,” I say “But there is a key difference.  I am not planning to eat this squirrel raw.  What should we do with it now?”

There is that indeterminate “we” hanging again in mid-air, but the least I can do is be executioner’s hand maiden.  I recalibrate and go with the first person, singular.  “I’ll take care of it,” I say.  “I don’t want to put the squirrel in the garbage.  That’s too undignified.  Can you keep the dogs away?  I don’t want them to play with him.”  I scoop the squirrel up in the bloody towel and carefully rest him in the woods far behind the cabin.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

 The division of labor is based on cultural mores,

There are task for women and then there are **** chores.

I can do the laundry or make the bed, that’s no big deal

But I defy convention when I balk at cooking a ****.

A full time job has been my handy life saver,

But it’s really just a **** excuse for my lazy behavior.







Answers: male, meal, lame

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