Someone—and to my dismay I can’t recall who—once pointed out that one of the many things that made Charles Dickens such an incomparable writer was his ability to create unique and multifaceted characters no matter how small their role might be. A man who carries a trunk into a house doesn’t just take his money and go; he flips the coin into the air with his thumb and catches it, palm down, before slipping it into his pocket. Those things, flipping the coin, catching it palm down, make that man, who is onstage only long enough to carry a trunk, as real and singular as everyone is in real life. Which is, of course, the object of the exercise.
With that in mind, I have come to the conclusion that I am married to Betsey Trotwood. Remember Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield? “Donkeys, Janet! Donkeys!” Fierce, implacable, kindhearted, even—as the Oxford Companion to English Literature states—eccentric (“Donkeys, Janet! Donkeys!”), she is one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction. The primary difference between Dickens’ Betsey Trotwood and my Betsey Trotwood is that he describes his as, “…a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking,” while I would describe Darleen as, “tiny but mighty, and very beautiful.” Where they are similar is in their characters, unique and multifaceted, and particularly in their eccentricities.
Darleen has declared war on ground squirrels, a war ceaseless, implacable, and merciless. I should point out that my wife is essentially a kind and gentle Buddhist/Catholic girl, charitably disposed to all of nature, the kind of girl who carefully picks up bugs and throws them out of the house rather than squashing them.
(Mankind, however, is in a separate category apart from nature, and where she parts company with the Catholic faith is in her belief that man is most emphatically not God’s crowning achievement. In fact, she subscribes to the conviction that God made far too many people and didn’t do a particularly good job with most of them. Her husband, for example, is a constant test of her forbearance, and that dim watt bulb frequently counts himself lucky he hasn’t been thrown out of the house. Or just squashed.)
But ground squirrels arouse the martial spirit in my bride, and around this time of year the house echoes with the cry, “Ground squirrels, Jameson! Ground squirrels!”
For those of you lucky enough not to share a piece of land with ground squirrels (basically anyone who doesn’t live west of the Mississippi) I will explain that while they are related to tree squirrels they have none of the charm of the Central Park panhandlers, or Fox squirrels, or Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. They are unattractive, loud, obnoxious, and those are their good points. They dig burrows that can break a horse’s leg; they leave mounds of dirt outside the burrow that can break the shear pin on a brush hog; they can do real damage if they dig under the foundation of a barn or house; they can ruin large amounts of hay if they get into a haystack; and—the quality that most endears them to my bride—they are host to the flea that carries bubonic plague. There are over twenty different subspecies (depending on how you count them) and all are endangered on the Parker ranch.
Endangered, but thriving. It’s hard to get rid of the damned things. If you kill one, twenty come to the funeral. Poison works, but it costs as much as I used to pay for caviar. Gas bombs are effective, but because placing them is so labor intensive and slow, they’re probably breeding faster than I can kill them. Shooting is also effective, but I have a neighbor a quarter mile away in one direction and another a half mile in another direction, and an elementary school a mile away across the valley. I know how far a bullet can travel and, inexplicably, some people seem to get annoyed when you shoot their offspring. Besides, I’m trying to earn a living here; I can’t stay outside with a rifle all day long.
So the best I can hope for is a sort of stasis: I keep doing my best, and they keep coming. And the house keeps echoing with the cry, “Ground squirrels, Jameson! Ground squirrels!”