Hundreds and Hundreds of Gerbils by Richard Seltzer

Bobby, Heather and Mikey persuade their father to get pet gerbils in Richard Seltzer's gentle comedy.

Bobby knew that fathers are pushovers when it comes to pets, especially gerbils.

Sure, Dad talks tough. "There will be no pets in this house ever. And that's final!" But just warm him up a bit with a trip to the zoo, then a visit to a friend with some brand-new baby gerbils. All it takes is preparation, timing and technique, and suddenly he'd be saying, "But just one gerbil would be so lonely all by himself."

Dad would be the one delighted at the birth of new gerbils and unable to let any of them go. He'd be the one running to the store for more pet stuff.

Bobby had heard all about this weakness of fathers from his friend Jimmy at school. He had seen Jimmy's house turned into a maze of pet cages and tubes. And he knew he could make the same thing happen at his house.

Yes, nine-year-old Bobby was quite proud of himself, sitting in the car with his sister Heather and brother Mikey on their way to the zoo. He knew just what to do and how to do it to start a whole gerbil adventure.

"Didn't you just love the baby bears?" asked Heather.

"I liked the baby elephant," said Mikey.

"And the baby chimpanzee," added Heather.

Bobby just smiled. They couldn't have done better if he had given them a script to read.

"The children love animals so much," Mommy said.

"Mommy, can we have a dog?" shouted Mikey from the back seat, "Please Mommy! Please!"

"Perfect," thought Bobby, "just perfect."

"No, Mommy!" protested Heather, pushing Mikey aside. "A kitten! We want a kitten."

"A dog! Mikey and me want a dog!" insisted Bobby, laughing at himself as he said it.

Mommy leaned close to Daddy and whispered, "Maybe we should, dear. They do so like animals."

"Baloney," said Daddy. "The kids themselves are more than we can handle - a four-year-old, a first-grade girl, and a third-grade boy. And you want more than that?"

Bobby leaned over from the back seat and quietly suggested, "Just a little pet."

"Look, you have a dozen fish, a huge frog, and, at last count, 213 ants. That's plenty enough pets," insisted Daddy.

"But, Dad," Bobby whined, in his most pitiful, annoying voice. "That's just not the same."

"Yeah, Daddy," Heather agreed. "They aren't furry like kittens are."

"Yes," added Mommy, in a soft convincing voice, "you can't expect them to hug ants, can you?"

"Or frogs, either," said Heather, with a grimace.

"Never!" Daddy bellowed.

Mommy moved away. Mikey started crying.

"He hit me," whined Heather.

"Who?" asked Daddy.

"Mikey."

"Why?"

"Because I hit him."

"Why?"

"Because he hit me."

"And you want pets?" Daddy asked Mommy.

"Forget I ever said anything," Mommy answered coldly.

For the rest of the ride, the car was perfectly quiet, except for a few whines and cries and tickles and tussles in the back seat.

Then Bobby innocently asked, "Could we stop and see the Buckners?"

Daddy couldn't help but feel guilty for being so mean to such perfect children and such a wonderful wife, so of course he said, "Okay, why not?"

Heather piped up, "Oh, good! Jimmy has the cutest gerbils. Bobby took me over to see them just last week."

Daddy was so glad that the family was happy again that he wasn't at all suspicious and didn't even notice or try to figure out why Bobby would have had taken his little sister to visit at his friend's house, and why he now wanted the whole family to visit there.

Heather was the first inside the door and the first to run to the gerbil cages - room after room of gerbil cages. Soon she had one brown and white furry creature cuddled next to each cheek. Then Mikey, then Bobby, then Mommy were cuddling more of them, too.

There was no way they could leave that house without bringing home gerbils - three gerbils, one for each child.

They made a quick trip to the pet store for food, a 10-gallon fish tank and a screen they could put over tank to make it a cage.

Then all the kids could talk about or think about was gerbils.

Daddy, who was in the mood to play video games, was a bit put out when no one would play with him.

But Mommy insisted, "It's good for them, dear."

They named the brown and white gerbil "Chester". The two all-brown ones, who were impossible to tell apart, the kids called "Frick and Frack".

Chester was the fastest. They found that out the first night when Bobby dropped him.

"The gerbil's loose!" shouted Heather, as if she were announcing the sky was falling.

Bobby dove and missed and bumped his nose against the leg of a chair. He started crying.

Mikey was delighted. He jumped on Bobby's back, like riding a horse and hollered, "Go gerbil! Go!"

"The gerbil's loose! The gerbil's loose!" Heather repeated, stretching herself sideways across the door so it couldn't get by her.

"What!" shouted Daddy, rushing to the rescue, tripping over Heather and sliding belly-first across the floor.

"Here, Chester. Here, Chester," coaxed Mommy, offering a handful of food.

But Chester wasn't interested. He was having too much fun, dashing from one end of the room to the other - right between Mommy's feet, right over Bobby's arm - pausing to lick Heather on the nose and then hiding under the sofa.

Mommy and Daddy lifted the sofa. Chester sat next to the wall watching them.

They put the sofa down in the middle of the room, then turned to get Chester. But he ran right past their feet and under the sofa again.

They moved it again, and he ran under it again.

They had to take the sofa out of the room, but to do that they had to take the door off its hinges, and they had to move furniture in the next room to make space for it.

Piece by piece, they moved all the furniture and all the toys out of the living room.

A little after midnight, Bobby cornered Chester and caught him.

"I did it! I did it!" he shouted, with all the pride and excitement of an Olympic gold medalist.

"Gosh, Mommy, that was fun," said Mikey. "Can we do that again?"

"Yeah, that was fun," added Heather.

"I bet I could get him even faster next time," boasted Bobby.

"Go to bed!" bellowed Daddy.

"Now, now, dear, don't lose your temper," cautioned Mommy, petting Chester as she put him back in the cage.

The next night, just at bedtime, Heather shouted, "The gerbil's loose!"

"How in creation?" asked Daddy. This time he saw Heather stretched across the doorway and stepped over her carefully.

"Mikey did it," said Bobby, with a satisfied smile on his face.

"Bobby told me to," said Mikey.

"But he did it," said Bobby grinning. "And now we have to catch him."

"No, we don't," said Daddy. "To bed with all of you."

"But what are you going to do, dear?" Mommy asked.

"Leave some food and water in the middle of the room and shut the door. We'll worry about catching him tomorrow. Right now it's bedtime."

But the next day, there was no sign of Chester, and the food was untouched.

"He's gone, Daddy. He's gone," Heather sobbed, shaking all over.

"That's all right, honey. Don't you worry," Mommy comforted her. "Daddy will find him."

"Daddy will what?" Daddy asked.

Mommy glared at him.

"Okay, okay," he gave in. "Everybody to bed. I'll take care of this."

Daddy put a board across the doorway - tall enough so the gerbil couldn't jump over. And with Mommy's help, once again he removed all the furniture and all the toys from the room. Only this time, without Bobby to help, they found no sign of Chester.

The next day, Heather wouldn't talk to Daddy; she wouldn't even look at him.

Mikey whined even more than usual.

And Bobby walked around with a grin on his face as if to say, "Okay, gang, when are you going to let the pro get to work on this case?"

That night Daddy gave in, "All right, Bob. See what you can do."

Bobby walked straight to the tightly-packed toy closet and opened the door. Stuffed animals fell all over the floor. Bobby picked them up and threw them to the other end of the room, then took out more and more, emptying the closet.

Daddy shut his eyes in despair.

Mikey started playing with the stuffed animals.

Heather picked up one, hugged it, and started crying, "My Mickey Mouse. It's broken. My Mickey Mouse."

"Let me see that," said Bobby. "Just like I thought," he added, doing a Sherlock Holmes imitation. "That's an animal bite on the foot. Either Chester's in that closet, or we have mice."

"Mice?" asked Mikey. "Can we have mice too, Daddy? Can we? Can we please? I'll take care of them. Honest, I will."

"Mice?" asked Mommy. "You think there might be mice? I just remembered I have to do the dishes tonight." She left in a hurry.

They found three more stuffed animals with bite marks. Then Bobby lunged and shouted, "I've got him! I've got him!"

"My hero," exclaimed Heather, giving Bobby a big kiss as he put Chester back in the cage.

"Now let this be a lesson to you," Daddy began to lecture. "Don't let a gerbil out on purpose because next time we might not be able to find him. And he could die, do you understand?"

Right then Bobby took the lid off the gerbil cage again, reached in and pulled out Chester.

"What do you think you're doing?" yelled Daddy.

"They were fighting, Dad, fighting. Look they're all bleeding already - Chester the most. They ganged up on him Dad. I couldn't just let them kill him."

"What are we going to do, Daddy? What are we going to do?" asked Heather.

"Well, for now, young lady, you're going to bed."

While the kids got ready for bed, Daddy sat beside Bobby on the playroom floor, with Chester bleeding in his hands.

"They eat cardboard, so a box won't do," Mommy thought out loud. "But we could put him in a punch bowl with a tray on top, just for tonight. And tomorrow I could pick up another cage."

"I will not spend another penny on gerbil gear," Daddy insisted.

"Then what are you going to do, Dad?" asked Bobby. "They don't recognize each other anymore. If you put them together, they'll just fight each other like they were strangers and enemies."

"Recognize?" said Daddy. "Yes, that's it. They recognize by smell. Frick and Frack have the smell of the wood chips in the cage. And Chester smells like stuffed animals. We've just got to give him a chance to get his old smell back."

So Daddy used a piece of perforated plastic to divide the gerbil cage in half. It was the same plastic that he had used to divide a fish tank to isolate a fish that was chasing and biting the rest.

The next day Frick and Frack snarled and scratched at Chester through the partition. By the second day, they didn't pay much attention to Chester. And on the third day, Daddy took the partition out, and they all got along together fine.

"My hero," said Heather, throwing her arms around Daddy, and sitting on his lap on the sofa.

"My hero," mimicked Mikey, sitting on his lap, too.

"Not bad, Dad. Not bad at all," admitted Bobby.

And the whole family spent the evening sitting on the sofa watching the gerbils play.

"You see," said Mommy. "Getting gerbils wasn't such a bad idea, after all, was it, dear?"

"You're right, as always," he admitted, petting Chester and kissing Mommy on the cheek.

But the next morning Daddy exploded, "Good grief! Didn't Jimmy say these gerbils were all boys?"

Bobby had to work hard to stop from laughing. Everything was going according to plan.

"You mean?" asked Mommy.

"Yes," answered Daddy, "Frick or Frack just had babies."

"Babies!" shouted Heather. "We've got babies!"

"Eight. I count eight," Bobby announced.

"I thought they were only supposed to have three to a litter," grumped Daddy.

Bobby smiled innocently.

"Well, I guess we were extra lucky," said Mommy.

"How long before we can get rid of them?" asked Daddy.

"Not until they're weaned - several weeks at least," answered Mommy.

"Get rid of them?" asked Heather.

"Give them away," explained Daddy. "We'll find new homes for them. You could give some to your friends, and the others we'll give to pet stores so they can find homes for them."

"You're not going to give them away, are you, Daddy? You're not going to let him do that, are you, Mommy? They're just the most beautiful, wonderful little gerbils in the whole world."

"They go," said Daddy.

Daddy sounded very sure of himself, but Bobby could tell he was softening. At a moment like this, all it would take would be a few words - just the right words, words Bobby had already prepared for the occasion.

"But Dad," added Bobby, "they're pretty neat. They're all red and hairless like little hot dogs. Why don't we keep them, Dad?"

"Why don't we keep them, Dad?" mimicked Mikey.

After a week, the babies started to grow hair. One turned out to be brown and white. They named him Chester, Jr. The seven others were all brown, like Frick and Frack. They named them after the seven dwarfs in Snow White. But they looked so much alike that the kids kept arguing about which one was Dopey or Doc or Bashful or Sneezy.

A few days later, Heather woke up Mommy and Daddy, racing into their room, sobbing, "They're dead! They're dead! Somebody killed our gerbils! Why did you let somebody kill our gerbils?"

The exercise wheel had fallen on Chester's head. Beside him lay the dead bodies of three of the seven dwarfs.

"It must have been a freak accident that killed Chester," Daddy tried to explain. "And maybe the mother smelling the blood, in panic and confusion in the dark, hadn't recognized her own babies and had mistaken them for enemies. I really don't know, but it could have happened that way."

Bobby stared in disbelief, "Nothing like that ever happened at Jimmy's."

The whole house was depressed.

That afternoon, they buried Chester and the three little brown ones in a cigar box in the backyard.

The mother refused to nurse anymore, and the other five babies, including Chester Jr., died the next day.

"I hate her," sobbed Heather. "How could she do that to her own babies?"

Mommy and Daddy tried to console her, tried to explain that gerbils aren't people, that gerbils deal with one another in different ways than people do, that you can't judge gerbils by people rules.

"How can you defend her?" Heather sobbed. "I hate her. I hate her. I hate her."

Daddy said, "Maybe it would be best to give away Frick and Frack."

Heather cried even louder and ran to her room.

Nobody petted or played with Frick and Frack anymore. Heather wouldn't go near them. Bobby had to take over the chore of feeding them and changing their water and cleaning their cage. Mikey got involved in video games again.

But Heather kept a close eye on them from a distance - staring angrily at them from across the room.

When Daddy suggested that they give away Frick and Frack, Heather burst into tears and ran to her room.

Bobby didn't say anything. He was still in shock. Everything had been going so great before - all according to plan. And now this happened out of nowhere, like in some horror movie.

A week later, Heather woke everybody up at five in the morning. "It's a miracle! A miracle!" she shouted.

"What?" asked Daddy, drowsily. "What could be a miracle at five in the morning? Have you cleaned your room?"

"No, Dad. No. You know that could never happen. It's the gerbils."

"Did they turn into butterflies?" asked Daddy.

"No, Dad. There's six new ones. Six of the cutest little red hairless babies you ever saw. And I saw it happen! I got up to get a glass of water just as the babies were coming out of her. It's absolutely the most miraculous thing I've ever seen in my life."

Once again, one baby grew brown and white hair. They automatically called him Chester the Third. The others all looked like Frick and Frack.

This time there was no talk of giving away babies when they grew up.

Within two months, the babies were having babies of their own, and Daddy had to buy another cage - another 10 gallon fish tank with a screen on top.

Two months later, just as all those babies were getting big enough to have babies, the original Frick and Frack both had more babies. Daddy had to buy three more cages.

"Way to go, Dad," Bobby encouraged him. "Soon we'll break Jimmy's record."

"What is Jimmy's record?" Daddy asked cautiously.

"Twenty-four cages," answered Bobby.

"No way," said Daddy.

But Bobby smiled proudly. He was back in control again.

Then more babies were born, again and again. Buying new cages became a regular event, like buying groceries.

"This is getting ridiculous," said Mommy. "Soon every table and bureau in the house is going to have a gerbil cage on it."

But despite himself, Daddy was getting more and more interested. He and Bobby went off to a pet store and came home with box after box of plastic tubing and connectors and special plastic exercise wheels. For an entire weekend, they struggled with the tubing until it connected all the cages in a vast maze that stretched from Heather's room, through the upstairs hall, down the stairs into the living room and dining room.

Now everybody, including the neighbor kids, took new interest in the gerbils, watching them learn to climb up and down and around. They especially liked to watch gerbil mothers take their newborn babies into the special exercise wheel compartments and build nests for them there.

Three months later, they had twenty-five gerbil cages - one more than Jimmy - and were running out of places to put them.

That was when Daddy decided they had to be firm, that they couldn't just let these gerbils multiply forever. "There has to be a limit," he told Mommy and Bobby. He was trying to build up the courage to do what he felt must be done, even though he didn't really want to do it. And he was practicing lines that he knew would be very hard to say to Heather. "Hard as it may be, we have to set a limit and give some gerbils away as new ones are born. It's one thing to have a gerbil. And it's something else altogether to have hundreds and hundreds of gerbils."

Just then Heather came rushing in to say, "The Harrison's cat had kittens! Three of them! I want the brown and white one!"

"I want the one that's all brown," said Mikey.

"I want the black and white one," added Bobby with a smile.

"Since when do you want a cat?" Daddy growled at Bobby.

"I've always wanted a cat. Haven't I, Heather? Haven't I always said I wanted a cat?" he asked innocently, looking forward to a new adventure.

"Yes, Daddy," Heather quickly agreed. "He did say so. Lots of times he did. We all did. We want all of them. That way they won't be lonely. Can we, can we, please?"

"Yeah," added Bobby. "If each of us has one, we can have races."

"Yeah, races," said Mikey. "I love races. Let's do it now."

3 comments:

  1. Definitely a fun story. I like the fact that much of the humor comes from hyperbole but with a hint of actual possibility. I thought you nailed the kids and family dynamic perfectly. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  2. I can attest that the explosive gerbil fertility and gory gerbil violence described in this tale are only barely hyperbole...we never had 25 cages but we definitely went from 2 gerbils to dozens within a very short period of time when I was a kid, and disappearing baby gerbils was a very common phenomenon. Unfortunately I wasn't smart enough to use them as leverage to manipulate my parents...sigh.

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  3. There is slight hyperbole. Not hundred and hundreds, but dozens and dozens. The dramatic scenes all happened. Back around 1982. Richard (the authors)

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