Loss of a Pet – Willie Smith

When I was ten, I got two things I dearly wanted – a BB gun and a pet hamster. I kept the hamster in a cage at the foot of my bed. After a while, I bought a girlfriend for him. But they started to copulate and so we decided to move the cage down into the basement. That’s where I had my BB gun range.
At the range I shot baseball cards, toy soldiers and newspaper pictures of famous people I didn’t like. I remember shooting Francis Gary Powers completely to shit. He was the guy in the spy plane who told everything. How the hell were we supposed to beat the Russians with finks like that? As I fired away at the few remaining shreds of his gray forehead, I thought vindictively of Benedict Arnold, righteously of Nathan Hale.
I also enjoyed shooting that traitor de Gaulle and photos of all bald people in general. The shiny domes made keen targets.
The hamsters were up on a workbench at the opposite end of the basement. I kept waiting for babies, but nothing ever happened. It seemed likely there was something wrong with Dale’s juice. His girlfriend didn’t have a name yet. I was toying with Ellen or Gretchen or Gwendolyn. But it was hard to come up with one that stuck, she was such a nondescript, mousy little thing. I knew for sure her name wouldn’t be Chip or Minnie. That would belittle Dale’s name, making him nothing more than a TV rodent.
And Dale had lots of personality. That was his main problem in life – he was a total asshole. He stole all the food from his girlfriend. He also hogged the water bottle. He bit the dog on the nose once when she was sniffing him. Dale’s girlfriend was terrified of the dog. She’d run and hide under their newspaper-scrap nest everytime the dog put her paws up on the workbench to say hello. But not Dale. He’d climb up on his side of the wire mesh and stare right at the dog, as if to say, “What are you doing in my frontyard, you big blacknosed bitch?” After he bit her, the dog contented herself with merely whining, her tail hung in an anxious arc, as if she couldn’t decide whether she was cowed or in the throes of bloodlust.
It wasn’t necessary to get up close to sniff Dale out. That was another thing about him – he smelled. The whole basement smelled like Dale. And I knew it wasn’t his girlfriend. Because the cage smelled just as bad before I bought him his shy, retiring female companion.
The smell of Dale was something like a cross between moldy sawdust and rancid dishwater. Only magnified and spread all around, the way a dead skunk penetrates the highway for miles and miles.
One day I came home from school and I was feeling bored, mediocre and angry at nothing in particular. So I went downstairs to say hello to Dale, then pop off a few baseball players, wreck some toy soldiers and maybe shoot the eyes out of that prettyboy Kennedy, who was just then getting up the nerve to threaten our own Vice President Nixon.
On the way down the steps, noticed Dale was hunched over something in the middle of his cage. Usually this time of day he’d be sucking on the water bottle, or else cramming his jowls with sunflower seeds, dried corn kernels or birdseed.
Went over. Peered through the wire mesh.
It was his girlfriend. Her eyes were open. She was dead. He was eating her brains out.
I was appalled. Sure, I’d seen Dale beating her before, nipping her butt, kicking her aside so he could worm his way into the nest first. Like I say, he always ate all the food and drank most of the water… but, murder? Murder compounded with cannibalism?
As I looked on in horror, Dale continued gnawing. Her ear was gone, the skull punctured, his pouches bloated with the pinkwhite of her thinking parts – whatever wishy-washy thinking it
was she’d done during her brief dime-store existence. I stared hard at her extinct eyes. One thing was obvious: Dale had to pay.
Walked over to the range, picked up my gun. Took a few practice shots. Drilled Harvey Kuehn, Mickey Mantle, Minnie Minoso, Whitey Ford. Spattered a plastic sergeant eternally reaching for his automatic. Got that whore Jackie on the cheek, just below the sunglasses. OK, I was ready.
Presented arms. I was allowed one shot; less than a second to aim.
Counted to ten, silently. Deep down inside, knew I’d miss.
Whirled, aimed (he had climbed up on the wire to see what was doing, see if there was anything in it for him)… fired.
It was thirty-five feet across the basement. According to the manual, a BB gun is accurate up to no more than fifteen feet.
Dale was thrown off the wire he had been gripping with his four feet. His body thumped across the corpse of his girlfriend.
Dropped the gun. Ran up to the cage.
He sat up, digging desperately at something stuck in his head. Out rolled the BB, revealing a bloody hole between his eyes. He fell back over, then dragged himself off into the nest, trailing a zigzag of blood leading back to his half-eaten girlfriend.
I was sickened. He’d gone in there to die. Now I, too, was a murderer.
Knees shaking, creeped upstairs, locked myself in the bathroom. Tried to vomit. It wouldn’t work. Nothing came out. All afternoon everything had gone wrong. Nothing was working. Why hadn’t I done something bad at school, so I would’ve stayed after? Then none of this would’ve happened. I’d come home just in time for supper. Probably get bawled out, for doing whatever it was to merit staying after. Then sent to bed early. Wouldn’t come down to see the hamsters till tomorrow afternoon. By which time Dale surely would’ve gobbled all the evidence. I’d figure his girlfriend had escaped. Hard to imagine how… I’d search the basement for a few days… maybe a little unjust suspicion would fall on the dog. But I’d wind up deciding she’d slipped out in the backyard. Run off into the woods to live the life of a field mouse. Instead, I’d been treated to Dale with egg on his face, the corpse clutched in his paws; and then I’d gunned him down. Now I didn’t have any hamsters at all.
What would I tell Mom? That I’d surprised Dale dining on his girlfriend and subsequently shot him between the eyes?
Well, I didn’t tell her, or anybody else, anything. For three days I walked around with knees knocking, wanting to vomit, disgusted by my face in the mirror. At last, Saturday morning, when I knew Dad that afternoon would be using his workbench and I was certain he’d discover the bodies, I sneaked into the basement, heart racing like a Waring blender on puree.
Strangely, no carrion stink.
The girlfriend was gone. All of her.
If a hamster could grin, there, before the wire, sat Dale grinning at me. A concave scar pocked his forehead. He was completely recovered. His coat gleamed, his beady eyes glistened. He looked well-fed.
I smiled back at the murderer, the pigged-out cannibal. I wasn’t a killer – it was OK! I loved my little hamster – he was tough, healthy. And he didn’t like the weak, the empty, the colorless, either.
Went over to the range and thoughtfully pumped a few rounds into a target with black circles. Every BB hit the bull’seye. Several of these targets had come with the gun. Up until that Saturday morning, I had always considered them too abstract to be worth shooting at.

A few months later, Dale kicked off. It was the water bottle that got him. By then I was eleven and outgrowing the BB gun. I found him dead when I came down into the basement one afternoon to sneak a cigarette. It was only the fourth or fifth cigarette of my life, so I was very excited.
Bloated, stiff, he lay on his back in the middle of the cage.
He had somehow (feet and teeth were his only tools) widened the mesh around the water bottle and dragged the metal tube down to where he could gnaw the stopper. He must have been fascinated by the vegetable odor of its rubber. Or maybe he was bored with life in a cage and knew damn well if he ate enough of that black gummy stuff it would kill him.
I lit my Camel and contemplated the remains. Had Dale been human, he would’ve been a mongrel of James Cagney, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Jimmy Piersall and that rat Francis Gary Powers. Unwanted. A loner. A rebel without scruple. A back alley Dracula. He would’ve been a chain smoker, a whisky drinker, a trencherman – the silent type with a ten word unprintable vocabulary.
Finished my cigarette. Ground it out on the cement.
Gave up guns. To hell with the military. Spit on the Government.
Although, especially after the debates, Kennedy seemed to be looking better and better, resolved I wouldn’t vote for either him or Nixon. It suddenly seemed immaterial whether the Russians, the French or the New York Yankees became our future masters. Lit the half-dozenth Camel of my career.
Maybe it was Dale’s girlfriend’s fault there were never any babies.

Nothing Doing, by Willie Smith, coming soon from Honest Publishing.

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