Caveat Emptor: Gertrude


The cage, a rich mixture of chicken wire, two by fours, and nails, was big enough that we could have hosted a small garden party in it.It stretched from the air conditioner pad to a tree, halfway down the length of the house. A grown man could enter the cage, and walk upright and proud throughout. After a week a large tree limb was installed.

My brother instigated the whole thing and I never thought to ask why.

For children, most things were simply accepted back then. Much as malaria and small pox were accepted in their day, in our world, parents and teachers, school and homework were questioned little and seen as the necessary evils they were. There was no need to challenge anything really, as it accomplished little and life with all its components had an existential flow that no one could escape.

That being so, the established prison of life simply grew with one’s experience. One lived as best they could, becoming accustomed to their fate as they went, whether it was good or ill.

One minute you would be in a mimosa tree, the next moment you would be carried off to a hospital with a broken arm. “Why?” even when asked voraciously, was not really a very important part of the whole thing. After a week or so, my brother did inform us as to the purpose of the cage.

The cage was awaiting the arrival of a flying squirrel, or maybe two. Hearing this, my sister and I also awaited the arrival of the flying squirrel. It was as simple as that. One minute you were not awaiting a flying squirrel the next minute you were.

This must have been ok’d by my father and mother, but not being part of that negotiation; I knew nothing of the fine print.

In the weeks ahead my brother, my sister, and I would run through the cage from time to time and we continually looked at the magazine with the advertisement for the flying squirrel. It was always on the last page of the magazine and we were blessed with multiple issues, all with the same last page.

After a while an official looking letter arrived, informing my brother that the company was temporarily short on flying squirrels. The company seemed apologetic, as well they should be, but no reason was given for this circumstance. Perhaps there was a wealthy person who had cornered the market on flying squirrels for financial gain of some kind.

Or maybe the dreaded disease hydrophobia (which was often discussed amongst children in those days) had struck the animals down cold. Whatever the reason, in the lazy swamp that was both life and early spring back then, these things happened. We then became a family with a really big cage in the backyard and nothing to occupy it.

Soon after the letter arrived, my brother grew tired of looking at the picture of the flying squirrels in the magazine. His resolve was shattered. And my sister and I followed suit. In fact, my parents too seemed to grow tired of waiting. And with a perfectly good, newly built cage lying fallow in the back yard, something had to be done.

There was no Craig’s List in those days, and the closest thing to it was found once a week in the Sunday edition of the local paper. Advertisements in general and particularly the classifieds contain a coded language that can give great insights into the heart of American culture.

And sifting through the detritus that was for sale on any given day brought a sort of comfort that the magnanimity of the universe was intact. I read the Sunday classifieds religiously for most of my formative years, and the junk that was for sale both edified me and deepened my faith.

But who knew that pet raccoons were advertised in the paper?

Reading the notice my brother, my sister, and I reasoned that a pet raccoon was after all a necessity for all life to exist, and if we got one, it could live quite nicely in the palatial cage in the backyard. Everyone also agreed a raccoon is far superior to a flying squirrel, or even a whole family of flying squirrels.

Gertrude then entered our lives.

The phone calls were made and we all went to Gertrude’s house where we were properly introduced. We were cautious at first, and a strange quiet settled over us. Perhaps it was the suppressed anxiety of the owners that colored the mood. But something was amiss. We sat motionless and silent while our parents made small talk with the raccoon’s owners.Gertrude wore a red collar and was led in on a leash.Then one by one we were allowed to pet Gertrude and give her some Kellogg’s Sugar Pops, which we were informed she loved to eat.

Had we been a bit more prescient we would have realized the sinister underpinnings of all this. A relationship of a raccoon with a particular brand of cereal is unnatural if not perverted.But at the time we took it all in stride and naively assumed that the key to Gertrude’s (and our) happiness lay in a healthy supply of Kellogg’s Sugar Pops.

Now that I think about it, the adults involved in this transaction (my parents) were also dangerously naive. Or perhaps, as I often suspected, they were preoccupied with the intricacies of life and at some level just wanted the whole damn thing over with.

But in any case our parents seriously failed us.Even if children could not challenge their world, adults should be able to see their way clear to do so and question things at such critical junctures in life. Yet that question “why?” never arose.

And “why?“ as in “why was this perfectly good, Sugar Pops loving, raccoon being offered for sale in the first place?” was indeed a crucial question. It might have been just the question that allowed for better judgment to prevail.

The owners said nothing about moving to a place where Gertrude would not be welcome. They appeard to have enough money to supply the needed Sugar Pops, and they also seemed to be on good terms with the raccoon.

Perhaps they liked children and were motivated by altruism in its purest form. But if so they did not look the type.There were no other good reasons that came to mind for them to part with a creature like Gertrude.

The answer to this important question would come, but we could have been spared some harsh life lessons if only someone asked it earlier in the game. It is one thing for children to fail to ask “why?” and it is quite another for adults to engage in the practice.

So after our initial meeting with Gertrude, she was bundled into the blue ’56 Ford and driven off to the cage that had been waiting in our back yard.

Entering her massive cage for the first time Gertrude seemed right at home making a sweet guttural sound. We interpreted this to mean, “I am content with this massive cage”. And as in the early days of a marriage when all is right with the world…. all of us were content…. at least for a while.

Within days, several shelves of the pantry were stocked with boxes of Sugar Pops and soon ours was the neighborhood backyard where children congregated and festive events occurred. They all wanted to see Gertrude as she roamed about the cage looking friendly and cute.

Soon the guttural sound seemed to emanate more frequently from Gertrude and she proved able to modulate that sound to great effect.However some key elements must have been lost in the translation from raccoon to the English language.

After a week or so of Gertrude being at home in the cage it was decided that she had been properly acclimated and it was time to invite her into the house.

Fortunately no adults were around to argue this point or to cast doubt on its veracity. My mother was out running errands and it was purely a decision arrived at by my brother, my sister, and I. Laura, who kept an eye on us, was busy with some project and we chose not to rile her up with unnecessary information.

A crowd of the neighborhood kids was also there, and they too agreed with this decision. So after some quick planning, we formed two human walls to guard against escape as we coaxed Gertrude from the cage in to the back door with small piles of Sugar Pops. The wall of children worked quite well, as did the trail of Sugar Pops, and soon the raccoon made its way through the house and settled into the dining room.

We all gathered around her and began to feed her with boxes of the stuff.

Many years would pass before I would become fully acquainted with the world of angry females. But fate, which is sometimes accorded female attributes, was about to provide me with a rare glimpse of what was to come.

We began though, where many good things begin, by marveling at the diversity in the animal kingdom and we were soon transfixed by the wonders of the natural world.

Raccoons use their paws much as we use our hands and they love to wash things in water. They are obviously very smart and are fascinating to watch. Within minutes, raccoon, children and cereal seemed to meld into the warm glow of a new form of inter-species interaction. And gradually some of the barriers between mankind and animal, which had built up over the centuries, began to break down. A sort of trance fell over all of us and we felt a profound sense of well being while sitting in the circle around the raccoon.

Suddenly without warning Gertrude let loose a guttural sound unlike anything we had heard before. This could not be misinterpreted. It bore no relationship whatever to “contentment”.

Her eyes narrowed and her lips curled back, exposing her teeth, which would have gleamed in the moonlight had there been any. Spittle and evil intent gleamed as well, and her fur rose straight up on her back. Effortlessly Gertrude rose along with it to what I perceived to be a commanding height. The raccoon rocked back then reared up on her hind legs and made ready for a full-fledged attack on the circle of children.

Suddenly Sugar Pops were strewn across the floor and crushed by the feet of fleeing children. Yet even in the hysteria that would follow, a single thought permeated the crowd: “Quick, give her some more Sugar Pops!” Before anyone could offer her more of the stuff and act on that unlikely premise, my sister screamed, “run for your lives!” But the movement of the mass of children had already begun, leaving my sister’s words echoing far behind.

This raccoon had changed and clearly wanted blood, not Sugar Pops, and speculation began that perhaps children and ferocious animals don’t mix.

Bedlam, or something very like it, quickly descended upon the House of Gertrude. The normal blood curdling screaming ensued, but the decibel level was greatly elevated. Laura, however, if she even heard it, chose not to respond. Within minutes some child made it out the front door. Like lemmings the rest of us followed, though the routes chosen were many and varied.

The shock of silence hit us once we were outside the house, and none of us wanted to look in each other’s eyes as guilt and shame slowly surfaced from the depth where it resides. What had we wrought? Gertrude was so cute….how could she turn on us this way? The sound of heavy breathing, which seemed certain to last a long time, was interrupted by my mother’s arrival in the ’56 Ford.

With all of us talking at once we had made clear with a jumble of facts and figures that Gertrude was unreasonably mad at us and loose somewhere in the house. Laura too, was in danger of being ravaged and killed by this vicious animal.

“Go get your big brother,“ my mother said to Karen, and Karen headed to her house next door.

The cloud of confusion and fear seemed to lift just a bit, but other more intangible emotions lurked in the corners.            Adults were never really welcomed into our world unless something dire happened, and this we had handily accomplished. The guilt, that we had somehow failed to be the good children we once promised to be, rose above our internal horizons, along with its counter that we might get off the hook; so with sighs of relief, we accepted the arrival of an adult and we shed our responsibilities, allowing our mother to take them on.

Surely no one could blame us for Gertrude’s unfortunate disposition. After all we had given her plenty of Sugar Pops. And although no one said we could let Gertrude into the house, no one said we couldn’t either. As best as I could tell, we were in pretty good shape as far as punishment goes. I was adept by then at figuring the odds on such things. And I had long calculated that the greater the catastrophe the more likely a child was to escape consequences.

Karen’s brother, Allen, was an honest to God teenager, so although we didn’t see much of him, his existence was duly noted and he had been appropriately categorized. He arrived armed with a quite unnecessary crab net and some very useful heavy gloves. I believe he also carried a Boy Scout pocketknife with him.

The still heavy breathing crowd of children made way for the brave lad that had come to quell our foe, and we parted much as the seas had parted, allowing Moses to cross into the Promised Land.

Then my mother wisely stayed outside with us as Allen headed through the front door.

Time, which passed very slowly, still managed to pass, and though we listened intently we heard not a sound from Allen. Laura, or what was left of her, would need to be carried out on a stretcher and that would mean we needed to summon more adults to accomplish that. And a stretcher might even be needed for Gertrude.The tension grew until we could wait outside no longer, and led by my mother we crept quietly into the house.

Having been fed on cheap horror movies, I fully expected things to jump out suddenly causing me to collapse on the floor and foam at the mouth. But sadly that was not to be. While going from room to room we saw no sign of either teenager or raccoon. We did come across a deserted crab net, however, and an oblivious Laura who was out on the porch still working on something.

Once we got to the hallway though, we figuratively entered what must have been the south door of the Coliseum and mentally took our seats, becoming the bloodthirsty audience as a fierce battle raged. The participants were apparently midway through the match. Gertrude, the ferocious raccoon, repeatedly charged at him but Allen stepped nimbly aside. Then, manned only with a large bath towel, he threw it over her, and stepped back, gesticulating that he was the conqueror.

Caught beneath the dreaded towel the raccoon was helpless as Allen half swung and half pushed her through the bathroom door. He shut the door and the show was over until the next act.

The victor and the audience then congregated in the living room where we were given details of the harrowing battle that had occurred before our entrance.

Suddenly, (and if you notice a significant part of this story happened suddenly)my brother ran into the room and announced “Gertrude flushed the toilet!” We all headed back to the now closed bathroom door that stood between the formerly cute animal and us. We could hear the noises of a distraught raccoon wreaking vengeance on us by destroying the bathroom.

Its strange how some of life’s scenes and events imbed themselves into our consciousness. And some take on significance far outweighing their importance in our lives. No doubt one of the last voices I will hear at my demise will be my brother’s as he said, “Gertrude flushed the toilet!”

We left Gertrude alone in the bathroom in hopes that she would eventually calm down, and also in hopes that nothing further would occur before my father came home from the office.

The main drama being over, all of the other children vacated the premises. Allen earned $3 for all his labors; he picked up his gloves and his crab-net and he and his sister Karen walked next door to their home.

Laura was informed of all that she had missed, was thanked for keeping an eye on us, and she went home as well.

When my father arrived and was properly advised of the situation as well as his rights, he proceeded to put on his duck hunting waders and grab his crab net. No one in our family would dare think of advising my father that the crab net would not be useful. In fact no one in our family would dare advise my father on anything.

However hearing the story of the teenager who quelled the raccoon, he also took the hint from my mother and got another large bath towel. All who remained watched as he bravely strode into bathroom and approached the vicious foe.

Gertrude though, was fast asleep. My father found a leash, and after setting down the crab net, simply attached it to Gertrude’s collar and together they walked out to the cage in the back yard.

The bathroom was in shambles.

The shower curtain was down and torn into pieces and the bath towel ripped to shreds. The hot water was running and overflowed the sink, so all was a soggy mess. Tubes of toothpaste were chewed and torn to pieces, rolls of wet toilet paper were everywhere, and the contents of various drawers were strewn about.

Gertrude had evidently used the toilet to wash her cute paws as well as my mother’s underwear.

It was surprisingly quiet the rest of the evening, which leant credence to my theories on crime and punishment.My brother stayed up later talking to my mother and father while I went to bed, so I prayed that since he was the oldest,the ax would fall on him.

I was close to drifting off to sleep when my brother came in and said “Get up, we need to do some business.” He then proceeded to offer to sell Gertrude to me, his only brother, for $20.00.

Wide awake and happy at my good fortune I rummaged through my drawer. "All I can find is 16 dollars and 37 cents,” I said.           He grudgingly agreed to take it and let me pay the rest later.

I had never been happier. It truly had been a great and wonderful day.

The next morning, before I had a chance to tell my mother or father the good news that Gertrude was now my raccoon, a sort of informal meeting was called. My mother was more adept at talking at these events than my father. His expertise was in silently looking either serious, or glum, or both.

“We had a long talk with Richard last night, “she said, ”and we all agree that unfortunately its time to get rid of Gertrude…”

I wasn’t sure I was hearing this correctly.

”I checked into it and the zoo will take her, and she will live happily with a lot of other raccoons.”

My head was spinning and I don’t think I fully comprehended what was happening. My mind went on autopilot.

I vaguely remember getting into the back of the ’56 Ford with a new box of Sugar Pops, then driving with the family to the zoo. Gertrude sat up front with my father and mother, wrapped in a towel.

I also remember looking down at the zoo’s raccoon pit, which was littered with raccoons and had a nice tree. I waved goodbye to Gertrude, even though I wasn’t at all sure which raccoon she was.

In the midst of all this I remembered the business deal I had made with my brother the night before, and I swore that hell would freeze over before I ever gave him the remaining three dollars and 67 cents.

And so, as they say, life went on.

Much like the Satis House in Great Expectations the empty cage languished for years in our backyard. The passing of time brought it to its knees, delivering it softly into ruin. The tree limb having rotted years before, the enclosure slipped decisively into its ultimate estate.