This morning, I’m trying to shake a nightmare containing a 20-foot alligator, some wobbly docks, and a whole lot of not being able to run. I blame last night’s movie: Jumanji. Usually, with the morning comes relief, but as I peek out the window, my backyard looks exactly like … you guessed it, Jumanji.
My home, like most in Central Florida I suppose, serves as a bed-and-breakfast for moths, flies, gnats, ants, roaches, centipedes, and the occasional lizard.
Considering that we unwillingly entertain so much wildlife, how is it that so many people have the courage to invite other creatures into their homes as pets? I draw the line at plants. I check ours daily, so they know I’m keeping my eye on them.
I remember pets before moving to Jumanji. About 20 years back, my wife thought it’d be cute to get me a pet to keep me company. Ah, the blissful early years of marriage, before children – the bigger, exotic pets that wake up begging incessantly for food, groan all day about snack scarcity, and proceed to “die of hunger” until they finally go to sleep.
My wife dragged me to the pet store, and we picked a tiny, little rodent called a Russian dwarf hamster. The clerk assured us that it was indeed a “he” and that he would be easy to take care of. This proved one of many moments I wish I’d had special agent training to sniff out the tell-tale signs of a bold-faced liar.
We took him home, and I monikered him Tony. At the time, I’d been prank calling my wife’s work with an Italian accent, so naturally, mobsters were on the brain.
A few days later, I found Tony huddled in a corner of his cage, a little puffball of immobility. I knew something was wrong as he was usually a blur of fur in motion, spraying up wood chips as he scampered on his wheel and through toilet paper rolls.
Being a sensitive kind of guy, I thought I’d help a brother out by repeatedly poking him with my finger. His subsequent bite got my wheels turning about his gender.
I called the pet store and asked for the manager. His voice sounded reassuring and confident as he coached me through determining Tony’s gender. Turns out, Tony felt very private about that sort of thing. Wham! Tony dug his canines into my digit while I shook my arm and said a few things I can’t remember. The manager hung up on me.
Truly alone now, I was to learn a lot about hamsters. Lesson one: Pregnant hamsters bite when put on speakerphones with pet store managers. Two: Hamsters can reproduce at a remarkable rate. Three: Baby hamsters look like tiny, naked old men. All eight of mine did. Four: Mother hamsters, knowing the rigors of child-rearing, will eat two of them just to even the odds. Five: Six baby Russian dwarf hamsters can waltz through regulation-size hamster cage bars, one finding freedom and never being seen again. Six: Keep an eye on the albino one who’s scrawny and appears weaker than the rest. He’s hiding keen intelligence, opting for hunger over getting eaten by mom.
Lessons not at all learned, I would later realize that giving them all Italian mobster names, save the albino named Pablo (come on, how many Italian mobster names do you know?), may lead to trouble. For most mobster family sagas, particularly ones involving Russians, things proceeded to get interesting.
Not at all liking the confines of their cage, most of the mobsters snuck out every night. I remember searching the apartment every morning and finding tiny old men under the sofa, in my shoe, and sniffing my wife’s toothbrush.
Around this time, my wife and I decided to take a weekend getaway, so she could talk about work as I wrestled images of sniffing, scrabbling and cannibalism from my brain.
Upon return, I learned some lessons on mobster families. Lesson one: You should keep an eye on them at all times if you like being alive. Two: Don’t keep too close an eye on them if you have a weak stomach. My baby hamster population had scampered from five to two.
When Pablo’s mother began showing signs of pregnancy again, I’d had it. I sent Pablo’s mother, Tony, straight back to the pet store. They weren’t surprised. I’m pretty sure Tony had seen the inside of this storefront more than once. Days later, Pablo’s sister died “mysteriously.”
Then, there was one. Having eliminated all competition, Pablo turned out to be a great pet. Always down for a snuggle, he only bit me occasionally to see if I was edible. I even trained him to swing across the bars of his cage using just his fore-paws.
Eventually, he went the way of all the living. And shedding a few manly tears in my parents’ back garden, I dug down six centimeters and laid his body under mossy turf and a river pebble. Etched upon pebble with sharpie, the words read, “Pablo: Rascal, Acrobat, and Friend.”
I hoped his little bones would rest there for the duration of time. But my parents decided to rearrange the garden and carelessly overlooked his sacred grave-site. Knowing what I know about hamsters now, his bones are most likely between the cushions of their couch, and every night, his ghost dances jigs upon their toothbrushes.
I’ve bravely soldiered on in life without Pablo, even attempting to feed my children. And now that I think about it, having nightmares about 20-foot alligators and poison ivy creeping in to join the league with our houseplants isn’t so bad. I could be dreaming of Russian dwarf Italian mafia hamsters.