LETTER from TERRY BERKSON
A Christmas Story
One Brooklyn morning many Decembers past, I heard a scratching behind the wall of my work place in the attic. I glanced out the window and spotted a squirrel emerging from a hole between the rain gutter and the shingles on the roof.
He looked at me with a smug expression as if to say, “I moved in and I’m stayin’.” The intruder jumped to the leafless maple in back of the house and was gone.
I’d heard stories about squirrels destroying houses as they chewed through walls and lead plumbing and electric lines. The thought of a critter storing his acorns under my rafters was too distracting. I shut the computer and descended to the kitchen for coffee.
On the phone an exterminator quoted a painful price to set a Havahart trap that would catch the animal for transport to Prospect Park. “It’s time consuming,” the man explained. “We’re not allowed to kill them.”
When I didn’t jump at his services he offered to sell me a trap for $75, but I thought a bird cage we had in the cellar would serve just as well.
Walter Haskel, my editor, had called the day before to remind me about a deadline on a story. I felt I’d do a better job if I didn’t have that squirrel to think about. Peanut butter for bait worked well for mice, so why not for this guy? In my yard he was a squirrel but in my house he was a big rat.
I used a chopstick with twine attached to it to hold the cage door open and a Ford accelerator spring to slam it shut. I placed the cage near the base of the maple and ran the twine to the door of our back pantry.
The advantage of using the exterminator’s trap was that it would catch the squirrel automatically. But it was expensive and I was sure my bird cage would get this rodent without losing too much time.
When my irascibly pregnant wife Alice came home from work and saw my set-up she asked, “Get much writing done today?”
I explained the gravity of the invasion.
“Should’ve hired the exterminator,” Alice said.
Late the next day the squirrel made his way down the tree and jumped to the ground. He approached the cage and when near pressed against the bars to smell the peanut butter. Then he stuck his head through the door and I was about to pull the string, but a stray cat appeared and frightened him off.
The next day Alice arrived home and was getting out of the car with her arms full of Christmas packages when she spotted me idling at the window. “Told you to get the exterminator!” she called. I obliterated her from view by fogging the glass with my breath.
In the morning, I spotted the squirrel slowly creeping down the maple. I ran down and out to the pantry and took hold of the line as he once again poked his head into the cage – but not his whole body. I wasn’t wearing a jacket and soon began to shiver.
Inside the house the phone on the wall rang. It continued to ring as I shook from the cold. Through the glass in the back door the caller I.D. showed that it was my editor Haskel. I was supposed to be working.
The squirrel entered the cage cautiously, his hind legs holding on to the outside of the bars. I waited as he scooped paws full of peanut butter out of a birdseed cup. The more he ate the more his body advanced. I looked in at the phone which was still ringing. “Remove all distractions,” Haskel had said on another pressing assignment.
When I turned back, the squirrel was completely inside so I yanked on the twine and the door snapped shut. I had him! He was circling his cell in a frenzy. To calm him I covered the cage with an old blanket that Alice had draped over an antique chair in the cellar. Soon fat snowflakes began to fall.
After drinking a celebratory eggnog, I went upstairs and flipped on the computer. My heart sank when the screen came up blank. I checked a backup file but it too was empty. The deadline! How could I face Haskel – or Alice?
My wife showed up just before dark and followed me out to the cage in the backyard. When I removed the snow and lifted the blanket to show her my prisoner, she said, “So, now you’re going to let him loose in the park without his acorns – that he’s been gathering all year. How would you like it if somebody separated you from your work?” The squirrel sat there looking pathetic.
“Yeah,” my wife continued. “He’ll be panhandling, getting chased off by other squirrels.”
“After all this work,” I protested. “You want me to turn him loose?”
“It is Christmas Eve,” she said matter-of-factly.
Later that evening as Alice prodded me on, I walked out to my prisoner with some walnuts and water. Then I replaced the cover. I had a restless night thinking of editor Haskel’s advice, my computer problem, and the squirrel panhandling in the park.
On Christmas morning, I awoke to a cranked up rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Alice was curious to see how the squirrel had fared, so before opening presents I dressed and waded through a snowdrift to the cage.
When I lifted the blanket it was empty. The door was shut tight and there were no breaks in the bars. Two faint snow blown tracks were nearby.
“Well?” my wife called from the window.
“Did you let him loose?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” she said shaking her head.
That evening, after pushing aside plum pudding, I grabbed my coat and gloves and went outside to shovel the sidewalk. Later, I crawled up to the attic and once again heard rustling behind the wall. That squirrel was back. To add insult, the task of resurrecting my lost work looked impossible.
When I turned on the computer, the mouse seemed curiously warm in my hand. Then the screen lit up and there to my joy and amazement appeared my story! I could hear Alice laboring up the stairs.
“How’s the work going?” she asked as she reached the top step.
“Fine,” I answered suspiciously. There was some chatter behind the wall.
“Well,” Alice said looking towards the noise. “He’s home for Christmas.”
“A good ending,” I imagined editor Haskel saying.
“At least he won’t be panhandling in the park,” Alice murmured while putting her arms around me.”
“I met her embrace and realized, “And neither will I!”