Family members and blogging friends are writing to tell me about the passing of their beloved pets. Mrs. Chatterbox and I are between dogs right now, but as I think about the loss and pain these people are feeling my mind turns back to the first pet I gave my heart to.
Her body was white, her head was black, and her eyes shone like melting chocolate chips. She was a Japanese black-hooded rat, and for reasons I can no longer remember I named her Yamaguchi. Yama rode on my shoulder, listened patiently to my blathering and kept all my secrets. She didn’t mind that 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 I brought Yama home from the pet store—Sunday, February Ninth, 1964, the day the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. My older brother David had recently succumbed to Beatlemania. When word came that the Beatles were scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, David was screwed because that Sunday it was my turn to pick the evening’s TV programs.
I wanted to see the Beatles as much as David, a fact he was unaware of, but I told him I’d chosen Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, even though we had yet to purchase a color TV. He went red in the face until I told him I’d reconsider if he gave me a ride on his bike to the pet store and didn’t tell Mom and Dad about my purchase. He agreed and we wobbled down the dusty El Camino Highway, David struggling mightily to keep the bike in motion with me precariously balanced on the handlebars of his Schwinn.
Along the way he asked, “Knowing how Mom feels about pets, you’re going to bring
home a rat?”
“Rats are flushable. I can have flushable pets.”
“Who told you rats are flushable?”
“Randy White at school told me a rat climbed out of his aunt’s toilet. If they can climb out of toilets, they can be flushed.”
He grunted, “If Mom lets you keep it, have you thought about where it’ll 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 traded me one for some comic books.”
“I think you’re asking for it, but it’s your funeral. Where’d you get the money?”
“Raking leaves in the neighborhood last fall.”
The pet store was several miles from home. To prevent David from abandoning me the minute I hopped off the handlebars I threatened him. “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.”
I had him over a barrel and he knew it.
Inside, the pet store was heavy with the intoxicating smell of rodents, fish, birds, reptiles, and of course puppies and kittens—a mind-controlling menagerie scent that is for young boys what sex pheromones are for older ones.
In the rodent corner 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 bumpy-faced clerk approached. I pointed at the rat cage and said, “I want that one!”
“What kinda snake ya got?” he asked.
“No snake. Why do you ask?”
“Rats and mice often get bought for snake food.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
He grinned a mouthful of crooked teeth. “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 new pet 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 going to be here all day?” he asked.
“Can I borrow a buck and a half?”
“What do you think?”
The clerk came to my rescue. “You can feed her carrots and fruit for now. 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 pocketful of change, and became a proud pet owner.
On the ride home David said, “Don’t let Mom or Dad see that thing until after the Beatles are done. I’ll catch it for taking you and neither one of us will get to watch TV tonight.”
Back home I slid Yama and her cage into my closet. That night 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 her cage was finally noticed in a corner of my room. By then I loved her too much to give her up, even when my parents insisted. Standing as tall as I could, I told them that if Yama had to go, then so would I. There might have been a twitch of amusement on my mother’s face. Yama was permitted to stay provided she never left my room, her cage was kept immaculate, her water bottle filled and I did chores to pay for her food.
I played with Yama every day, letting her out of her cage to explore the wonderful sights and smells of my room. But it was inevitable that worlds would collide. One day Yama squeezed through my partially closed bedroom door. She and my mother confronted each other in the hallway outside my bedroom.
I saw the encounter from the far end of the hallway. Yama rose up on her haunches and studied my mother, much as Perseus must have gazed at the Kraken. My mother pointed a finger down at Yama and said in terms clear enough for a rat, “Get back in your cage this instant or there will be HELL to pay!”
Yama let out a terrified sqeeeek, dashed back into my room as fast as her tiny little legs could carry her and leapt back inside her cage. Their worlds never again collided.
Another time a cousin I disliked was visiting with his family. He insisted on playing with Yama, but he played roughly with my things and frequently broke them. I didn’t want him squeezing Yama to death.
He went straight to my mother and complained. “Stephen won’t let me play with his rat!”
“Let your cousin play with that darn rat!” she ordered.
I had no choice but to obey. My cousin gloated while we walked back to my room. We sat on the floor Indian-style and I opened the cage. Yama hopped out and paused in the small arena formed by our legs. She studied my cousin for a minute, then looked at me, and went back to studying him. Then, like a furry heat-seeking missile she launched herself up his pant leg and chomped down on his nuts. He shrieked, jumped to his feet and yanked down his pants. It was only a nip, but he carried on like Yama had assured him a permanent place in the Vienna Boys Choir. Yama scurried back into her cage. My mother and aunt arrived to see what the commotion was about.
“The damn thing bit me on the nard sack!” my cousin blubbered.
I was relieved when Mom said, “Then you’d better leave it alone.”
Yama lived in a cage at the foot of my bed for three and a half years, a long time I’m told for a rat. The Beatles certainly enriched my life, but when I hear Paul McCartney sing Yesterday it’s Yama I think about. We buried her in the backyard in a cardboard casket made from a round Quaker oats carton. Many from the neighborhood were present when she was lowered into the ground.
Including my mother.
What was your first pet?