I’ve decided to get a jump on my New Year’s resolution to be more proactive about submitting stories and seeing one published next year. To that end, I’m reworking and submitting this tale to a publication looking for stories about pets. I first posted “A Flushable Pet” in 2011 and some of you might have missed it.
For several years she was my constant childhood companion. Her body was white but her head was black with eyes that shone like melting chocolate chips. She was a rat, a Japanese black-hooded rat, and for reasons I can no longer remember I named her Yama. She rode on my shoulder, listened patiently to my blathering and kept all my secrets. She didn’t mind I was overweight and was probably glad I wasn’t popular since that left me more time to play with her.
I’ll never forget the day when I was twelve and brought Yama home from the pet store—Sunday, February 9th, 1964—a day burned into the memories of millions of baby boomers. This was the Sunday The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. My older brother David had set aside his Ricky Nelson and Everly Brothers records the instant he’d heard the strange new music. He couldn’t wait to see the Beatles on TV that night.
But it was my turn to select the evening’s TV programs. I had no intention of boycotting The Beatles and wanted to watch them as much as my brother, but for the first time in my young life I had power over him. I let it slip that instead of the Ed Sullivan Show I was leaning toward Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, even though our parents had yet to cough up for a color TV.
The pet store was an hour walk from our house but twenty minutes on a bicycle. The chain on mine was broken so I extorted a ride on David’s Schwinn. My legs were too short to reach the pedals so he had to accompany me. He struggled mightily to keep the bike in motion with me precariously balanced on the handlebars. Along the way he asked, “Did you clear this with Mom?”
He was pedaling behind me but I’ve little doubt a shit-eating smile was on his face. “Knowing how she feels about pets, you’re going to bring home a rat?”
Our mother’s rule concerning pets was simple: If you can flush it down the toilet when it dies you can have it. “Rats are flushable,” I said.
“Who told you rats are flushable?”
“Randy White at school says a rat climbed out of his aunt’s toilet. If they can climb out of toilets, they can be flushed.”
He grunted something I couldn’t make out, along with, “If she lets you keep it, where will it live? You can’t lock it up in your underwear drawer and let it drop turds on your socks. You need a cage, and they cost money.”
“Jimmy Posky across the street gave me a hamster cage he doesn’t need anymore. It’s hidden in the garage.”
“I think you’re asking for it, but it’s your funeral. And why a filthy rat? Why not a hamster or guinea pig?”
“Jimmy says rats are more fun than hamsters and guinea pigs, even if they won’t run around in a wheel. And they cost less, about two dollars.”
“Where did you get two dollars?”
“Raking leaves in the neighborhood last fall.” The sycamore trees in our neighborhood were a Godsend.
The pet store was in a strip mall next to a pool hall. I anticipated David riding away the minute I hopped off the handlebars. “If you’re not here when I come out it’s Ludwig Von Drake on Disney, and you can kiss John, Paul, George and Ringo goodbye.”
David rubbed the bulging vein in his forehead, but I had him over a barrel and he knew it.
Inside, the pet store was heavy with an intoxicating menagerie smell, a mix of rodents, fish, birds, reptiles, and of course puppies and kittens—a mind-controlling scent that is, for young boys, what sex pheromones are for older ones. I drank it in, felt a surge of adrenaline that could only be satisfied by pet ownership, and headed off to the rodent cages.
I trotted past the kittens and puppies, any one of which I’d be forced to return. In the rodent section were squeaky hamsters, mice and Guinea pigs of various colors. And a cage of Japanese black-hooded rats. Five of them were curled into a furry ball. I studied them for a long time, until one disentangled from the rest and seemed to acknowledge me when I tapped the glass.
A gangly pet store clerk approached to see if I wanted anything. I pointed and said, “I want that one!”
“What kinda snake ya got?” he asked.
“Why do you think I have a snake?”
“Rats and mice are often bought to feed pet snakes.”
“That’s disgusting!” I said.
He grinned, his teeth as yellow as those of the caged creatures surrounding us. “Everything needs to eat, but I don’t need to tell you that.”
A slam on my weight. I didn’t care as I watched him reach into the cage and grab my rat. “You’ll need a box of pellet food.”
“I only have two dollars.”
“The rat’s $1.98. A box of food is $1.49.”
I hadn’t noticed David entering the store. “What’s taking so long? We gonna be here all day?”
“Can I borrow a buck and a half?”
“What do you think?”
The clerk came to my rescue.” You can feed her carrots and fruits until you buy the right food. Rats will eat just about anything but she’ll live longer on pellet food.”
Yama was taken to the cash register and placed in a paper bag. I handed over a crumpled dollar bill and a pocket full of change, and became a proud pet owner.
On the ride home David said, “Don’t let Mom see that thing until after the Beatles perform. I’ll catch it for taking you and neither one of us will get to watch TV tonight.”
So that night I slid Yama and her cage into my closet. I was so distracted by frequent visits to see her that I missed the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I couldn’t keep Yama in my closet forever and my mother finally noticed her cage in a corner of my room. I had no intention of giving up my pet and braced for war.