Authors: Holly Robinson
For my parents and brothers
who believe, as I do, that being normal is overrated.
And for my husband and children
who have shown me that passion, friendship, and love
need not be mutually exclusive.
|Two||The Gerbil Whisperer|
|Three||Even Girls Like Gerbils!|
|Four||A Navy Man in Kansas|
|Five||Doin’ Time in Leavenworth|
|Six||Trading My Bikini for a Horse|
|Seven||Dad Buys Himself a Gerbil Farm|
|Eight||Who’s Going to Marry Her Now?|
|Nine||My Sister the Time Traveler|
|Ten||Welcome to the Poor Farm|
|Eleven||Nobody’s Business but Ours|
|Twelve||Do It Yourself or Die Trying|
|Thirteen||The Man Without a Nose|
|Fourteen||My Mom Wears Jodhpurs|
|Fifteen||A Lady Always Wears Underpants|
|Sixteen||Saving the Blond Gerbil|
|Eighteen||What a Gerbil Farmer Does for Fun|
|Nineteen||The Gerbil Czar Retires|
|Epilogue||The American Gerbil Show|
My son nods. “It looks like a twig,” he says.
Aidan and I are in our favorite pet store, standing in front of a tank of catfish. We come here regularly as a reward after any arduous domestic chore—shoe shopping, food shopping, recycling. It’s not one of the new, supersized pet stores, those wannabe Wal-Marts with their broad aisles, gleaming white floors, health foods, and pet accessories that could double as prom jewelry. This store actually sells pets. There are metal bins of squealing guinea pigs that scatter shavings as they stampede into corners. Ferrets lounge like movie stars in hammocks above a cage of solemn lion-faced rabbits, and there’s an entire room of fish so dimly lit that it feels like we’re swimming underwater, too.
Unlike those cruise ship pet stores, where the sales clerks all seem to be short-tempered men in jobs of last resort after alcohol binges or failed rock-and-roll careers, the clerks here are young and cheerful and tattooed. They have their own flocks of parrots or packs of dogs at home, and they clearly remember being just like Aidan is now: a nine-year-old kid with ant farms, butterfly nets, animal traps, fishing rods, and a zeal
for dissecting owl pellets. Aidan even has a nifty bug vacuum that sucks insects out of tree bark. Because of him, we have two dogs, two cats, two tanks of fish, and two hamsters; it’s a lot like living with Noah without the ark.
“This is a
catfish,” the skinny blond clerk murmurs as she nets one of the wriggling, whiskered twigs and drops it into a plastic bag filled with water. “It won’t give your tetras any trouble,” she promises Aidan. “They’re not nippy like other catfish.”
Aidan is right at her elbow, nearly dancing in place with excitement. When he grows up, he wants to be either a cave explorer or an inventor; either way, he will live in the woods and trap his own animals as pets. He plans to build his house by hand, and his furniture, too. I believe him.
As we make our way into the brightly lit main room of the pet store, Aidan takes my hand and tugs me toward the rodent room. “We have to see Screamer before we go,” he reminds me.
The clerk laughs and leaves our new algae eater adrift in its own private plastic bubble next to the cash register. Then she leads us over to the cages of rats and mice and hamsters, where the white mice are on top of the exercise wheel instead of inside it, tumbling off and then climbing right back on again.
Screamer is in the glass tank above the mice. He’s the most famous hamster we know, so famous that he’s not even for sale. This is because, although he is small and brown and short-haired like most hamsters, he screams every time someone picks him up and turns him onto his back. It’s an ungodly
noise, hissing and shrill at the same time, like the cranky water pipes I once had in a San Francisco apartment.
The clerk tips the hamster upside down, and Screamer’s cries drill through my skull. Then the girl flips the hamster over again and tucks him back into his nest. In the sudden silence, Aidan notices a new tank of animals next to Screamer’s.
“What are those?” he asks, pushing his face close to the glass. “They’re not hamsters.”
“They’re gerbils,” I tell him. “They’re good pets because they don’t use much water, so their cages don’t smell as bad as your hamster cage. They don’t eat their babies, either, like hamsters do sometimes.”
Aidan looks up at me and blinks in surprise. “How do you know so much about gerbils, Mom?”
I bite my lip and consider dodging the question. Our five children know all about their grandfather’s career as a Navy officer. That always seemed like enough family lore to take to elementary school: a grandpa who left his boyhood home in Ohio to go to the U.S. Naval Academy and serve his country for twenty years, first in the Korean War, then as the captain of a ship that transported tanks and Marines, and finally as head of naval science at the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island. We have my dad’s oil portrait to prove it. The painting, which always hung in my parents’ front hall, shows Dad in uniform, his eyes blue and far-gazing, his shoulders square, his features chiseled and handsome beneath the gold-braided cap. He looks like President Gerald Ford on steroids. There is no hint in that portrait of who my dad really is.
Clearly, the way to approach this conversation with Aidan
is nonchalantly, as if I were dispensing some routine edicts from the adult world, the way I answer his questions about sex or why voting matters. Nothing flashy. Just the facts.
“Your grandfather used to raise gerbils,” I tell Aidan casually as we pay for the catfish and start walking toward the car. “I thought I told you that.”
This tactic fails. Aidan looks stunned. As well he should: Aidan only knows my father as a quiet, bald retiree whose favorite activities are reading and Scrabble, so the idea of my father raising gerbils is outrageous to him. I might as well have confessed that my dad was a Broadway dancer.
“No,” Aidan says.
“Oh. Well, he did,” I assure him as I unlock the car and hand the catfish to Aidan in the backseat. “We had a lot of gerbils at one time.”
“Like a whole cageful?” Aidan asks doubtfully.
I put the key in the ignition and turn it. “More.”
“How many more?”
I don’t want to talk about this. I’ve never talked about my father’s other life. As my brother Donald always says, “Telling people about Dad just makes them ask more questions.” But Aidan, of all my children, deserves to know, because there is no child more like my father than this one. “We had thousands more,” I tell him as we head home. “Like, nine thousand gerbils.”
When I glance at Aidan in the rearview mirror, he is frowning hard. It is the same expression he has when we talk about the tooth fairy: my youngest son wants to believe, because he likes finding dollar bills under his pillow. But he doesn’t want
to be the only kid in school whose parents can trick him. “You’re kidding me, right, Mom?”
“Where did Grandfather keep them?” Aidan challenges. “In the garage?”
“At first,” I admit. “And then the gerbils were in our basement, and then he built buildings for them. Big buildings. We had a gerbil farm.”
“Mom,” Aidan says excitedly, “was Grandfather in the
Guinness Book of World Records?”
I laugh. “No. But he could have been, I bet. He raised more gerbils than anyone else in the world.”
“Wow,” Aidan says with a sigh. “But why, Mom?”
By now, we are nearly home. And it’s a good thing, too, because that’s one question that has no easy answer.
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.