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One cloudy Monday afternoon,
I came home and found my family gathered in the garage. I'd been pedaling my bike around the neighborhood after school, pretending that the bike was a horse I was racing around the cul-de-sacs. I'd ridden so hard through the soupy Virginia heat that my short bangs were glued to my forehead and my knobby knees were shaking as I dismounted the bike and walked it up the driveway.
My brother Donald raced outside when he saw me. Donald was eight years old, skinny and quick and so blond that he looked bald in most lights. It didn't help his looks any that Mom buzzed his hair like a Marine's, which only called attention to the fact that Donald's head was so long and narrow that everyone, even our parents, called him Picklehead.
"Dad got boxes from Air Express," Donald said. "Now he's opening them!"
I dropped my books and lunchbox down on the cement floor of the garage and went to stand between Donald and my mother, who carried my little sister, Gail. We stood close together in the dim oily cave of the garage and watched in silence while my father-a methodical man who never went anywhere without a list, a map, and a pocketknife- unpacked the boxes with his usual precision.
As Dad slid out the contents of that first box with the help of a metal ruler, I saw that it was a plastic cage with a wire top. The wire top had two dips in it, one for a water bottle and the other for food. Dad held the cage high up like a holy chalice to admire its contents. Through the opaque bottom of the cage, I could make out two dark, round shadows that skittered this way and that. My mouth went dry with excitement.
"What do you think of them, Sally?" Dad asked.
Mom wrinkled her nose. My mother was thirty-two years old that summer, but she often dressed in shorts that showed off her figure and tied bright scarves over her short brown curls. She was girlish and lovely, like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, but without the scary violet eyes. "They look like rats to me," she said. "Look at those awful tails."
"What are they, Dad?" Donald asked.
There were four cages in all, in four separate Air Express boxes. The process of meticulously unpacking the boxes and examining their contents took Dad so long that by the time he'd lined the cages up on the metal shelves installed along the back wall of the garage, Donald and I were giving each other Indian burns and Mom was on her third cigarette.
At last, though, the gerbil cages were on the shelves and I was able to stand on tiptoe to peer into them. Each plastic bin held a pair of palm-sized animals with long tails. The tails had tiny black tufts at the ends, like miniature lion tails. The gerbils were a warm sand color with creamy underbellies and shiny black eyes; their eyes looked just like the buttons our grandmother Keach sewed onto sock monkeys for her gift shop in Maine. I wanted to put a gerbil on my bed and kiss it.
"Where did you get them?" I asked.
Dad handed me a catalog from inside one of the boxes. It was Creative Playthings, a toy catalog that Donald and I routinely fought over until we reduced it to confetti, even though we knew that Dad would never buy us anything from a catalog except school clothes from Sears. The gerbils were advertised in the "Discovering Nature" section for $5.50 a pair, a fortune.
Donald yanked the catalog out of my hands and asked Dad why he hadn't gotten the Tom Thumb greenhouse or the egg incubator, too. I pushed my face close to the plastic side of one cage. The gerbils inside it surprised me by bounding around on their hind legs like tiny, caffeinated kangaroos.
"Can I hold one?" I asked, tugging on the pocket of Dad's khaki uniform pants. He had taken off his brass-buttoned Navy shirt with the bars and stripes, but the pants were still cinched tight around his white undershirt with a shiny black belt that matched his shiny black shoes. You could see your face in those shoes.
"Not yet," he said. "Let them get used to us."
We left the gerbils and went inside to have supper and watch TV, all of us oblivious to the fact that Dad, with one whimsical purchase from a toy catalog, had charted a new course for our family's future.
Winter must come to Virginia, but in my memory Virginia was always hot. It wasn't the sort of sunny hot that you'd want to bask in, either, but the sticky sort of hot that makes your skin feel like it's melting off your bones. If there was ever a breeze, it stank of dead crab and rotting marsh grasses, and the lawns were hopping with chiggers and ticks and fleas.
A few months before the gerbils arrived, we had moved to Virginia Beach from Annapolis, Maryland, where my father was teaching at the Naval Academy before becoming captain of the USS Grant County, LST 1174. We lived in a housing development of uninspired brick ranch houses with minimalist landscaping, shiny avocado appliances, sunken living rooms, and long hallways perfect for sliding races in your socks. Southern Point jutted into Wolfsnare Lake like the thumb of a mitten; I suppose the mucky smells must have been the result of living not on a real lake but beside a glorified swamp created by damming up a piece of the Chesapeake Bay. All around us, new houses were going up so fast that we were surrounded by wooden skeletons.
Still, as bad as it was outside, it was better than being in school. There were more than thirty kids in my fifth-grade class and most were Navy, with fathers stationed at Naval Station Norfolk or Naval Air Station Oceana. Like me, they'd lived in different countries and different states, and had moved every year or two with their families. School, for us, was always a place where we had to reinvent ourselves, a parade ground where you had a chance to show your colors.
One boy managed to set fire to a trash can every day. The ceiling was covered with so many sticky paper spit cones that it was like sitting in a cave thick with stalactites. One of the girls frequently climbed outside and stood on the second-floor window ledge until the teacher next door noticed her face at the window and came running over, her dress damp with sweat beneath her armpits.
I was not a bad kid, nor an especially good one. I chose to remain invisible. I spent most of my school days reading horse stories inside my textbooks and pretending I was breaking mustangs in Wyoming or running with the wild ponies of Chincoteague, while at the same time wishing for a friend. So far, the only person who spoke to me with any regularity was the school bus driver, a skinny old man whose breath smelled of coffee and bacon, and who tucked my school picture into his bus visor as part of his collection of carefully combed children.
Since I had no friends, the gerbils provided a welcome distraction. After school I'd go right into the garage and sit on a stepladder in the relative cool, breathing in the heady scents of motor oil, pine shavings, and the slightly musky odor of desert animals. Gerbils were far more entertaining to watch than my brother's ill-tempered hamster, which remained curled in a tight fist of fur all day and reared up to bite if you tried to stroke it with a finger. Gerbils didn't sleep during daylight hours, but scurried and bounded and sniffed with great purpose. They thumped their long back feet when frightened or sat up on their hind legs to stare at me with their black button eyes. (I suppose I served the same purpose for them as they did for me.) The gerbils were frantic diggers, too, constantly clawing at the corners of their cages as if certain that an entire maze of freedom tunnels lay just out of paw's reach.
The gerbils seemed to cheer my father up. Dad went to his ship every day the way TV dads went to their offices, and the stress of his new post as the commanding officer of a ship had made him humorless and stern, like the despot of a small, unimportant country. Now, instead of sitting at the dinner table with his cigarette and sighing with his head in his hands, as he'd done nearly every night since our arrival in Virginia, he put on old clothes and went straight out to the garage to tend his new livestock. The gerbils ate little and drank even less, so there wasn't much to do, but Dad kept a gerbil journal and jotted down his observations.
On Saturdays, my father let me fill the water bottles for the gerbils and drop handfuls of green pellets onto their cage lids. But no matter how many times I asked if I could hold a gerbil, he said no. "These aren't your pets," he said. "Not like Donald's hamster or your guinea pig. These are my pets, and I just want to watch them."
"Can't I at least show them to my friends?" I asked. I didn't have any friends yet, but I was certain that showing off our gerbils could get me some. A gerbil was much better than those miniature dogs and monkeys advertised in comic books, always photographed in silly teacups. And there was just no comparison between a gerbil and a sea monkey. Sea monkey ads showed grinning creatures costumed in tiny dresses and suits, but anybody who'd ever been tricked into buying them knew that sea monkeys were only ant- sized brine shrimp that arrived as dried eggs in tiny envelopes.
But my father would not relent. "Don't you dare touch my gerbils," he said. "And don't you let anyone near the garage, either. Those are strict orders."
"Yes, sir, Daddy, sir," I said.
When my father looked straight at you with his blue eyes, you had to say that. You also had to square your shoulders and lift your chin, the same way the sailors and Marines looked at Dad when they were saluting.
My father was six feet tall, thin and muscular and handsome. The year we moved to Virginia, he was only thirty-five years old but already nearly bald, a fact that he claimed was due to us kids making such a racket that he couldn't even hear himself think, so how could we expect his poor hair to grow?
At home, Dad liked to be our captain just as he was captain on his ship. To prove his point, he sometimes made us eat "square meals" like he ate when he was at the Naval Academy. "It's good discipline for plebes," he'd tell us as we lifted our forks straight up and moved them at right angles to our mouths, dropping food along the way, especially Jell-O with Cool Whip, Mom's favorite new easy family dessert.
Also, before we left the dinner table, we were expected to say, "May we please be excused from the table, Daddy, sir?" and wait for him to say, "Permission granted, plebes."
Now Dad ordered me to keep the garage door shut good and tight, too. "The neighbors don't need to know our business."
Later, when I asked Mom why the gerbils were so top-secret, she sighed. "Raising gerbils in your garage is very un-Navy behavior," she explained. "Just do as your father says."
"But doesn't it bother you when Dad goes out to the garage every night after dinner?" I asked.
"Not really." Mom shrugged. "Some men have golf. Mine has gerbils."
No matter how closely I watched them, I could never be sure when the gerbils were having sex. One would jump on top of another and there would be a scramble, but that could as likely happen in a cage of young males vying for leadership as it could between a breeding pair in the mood for love. I just knew that the gerbils were making babies. Within a month, all but one of Dad's original pairs had a litter; within two months, they'd bred again and Dad was setting up cages for new pairs out of the first litters.
Telling the difference between male and female gerbils was easy, Dad said. One Saturday, while I was helping him fill water bottles, he held a pair of gerbils up by their tails to show me how the females had two touching buttons and the males had theirs separated with a bulge to either side. It didn't seem to matter which one you picked as a mate for any particular gerbil, either; any couple would happily make a nest together.
What would make a Navy officer sitting on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea consider raising gerbils in his garage? By late spring, when the shelves along the back wall of our garage were half filled with cages, it finally occurred to me to wonder.
"Why do you want so many gerbils, Dad?" I asked one morning as I helped wash his car, taking care to scrub dirt off the wheel wells with a toothbrush just as he'd shown me. My father cared for his cars the way he cared for his ship: everything had to be spit-shined and tuned up and sparkling. Unfortunately for his family, we were his only crew.
"Oh, I don't know," he said absently. "I might sell some as pets, or maybe write a book about them. You know, I can't find a thing about gerbils in the library."
I reported this exciting news to my mother later. She was in the kitchen with her mother, Maybelle Keach, and she was not impressed. Mom was such an animal lover that we'd had pet mice, turtles, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, dogs, cats, and even lizards through the years. Yet she still couldn't find room in her heart for gerbils.
"It's those damn rat tails," she told me. "I just can't overlook those tails."
My mother had graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in Romance languages and was offered jobs with the UN as an interpreter and at Pan Am as a flight attendant, but she'd chosen my father instead. She was determined to make a go of being a wife and mother and threw herself into every domestic task with an overabundance of energy and intelligence.
At the start of our lives in Virginia, she had gone on an antiquing kick, painting our furniture Colonial blue and then streaking it black. On the morning that I spelled out Dad's plans for writing a book about gerbils, hopping from one foot to the other in my excitement, Mom was engaged in a brand-new hobby: decoupage. Each day, another piece of furniture in our house was graced with a magazine picture shellacked to its surface.
From the Hardcover edition.