Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2011.
by Vinnie Hansen
My dad was a schemer. In a different time and place, he might have been an entrepreneur.
He lived by barter, the reason we sometimes had odd items in our lives, such as cases and cases of Dunk ’n Donuts chocolate syrup, a product so nasty that even us sugar-deprived kids wouldn’t eat it.
In 1959, a man who owed Daddy a thousand dollars for sign work persuaded him to take chinchillas in trade. The deal sounded okay to my dad.
And my mom had married daddy because “he was the most interesting guy around,” although in our family history she has written: “I have the impression that 1959 was a worse than usual year.” She was forty years old with ten children, ages three to twenty. Her father-in-law died in July and her only brother drowned in August.
The man who owed my father a thousand dollars said, “Listen, Mitchell, a fellow can make a mint. Feel one of these little buggers. Softer than mink. They make great fur coats.”
In 1959, there was no PETA. Fur was an unstained symbol of luxury. Women yearned to fling a stole over their shoulders like a movie star. They longed to swaddle themselves, to stroke the softness about their bodies.
However, before one could turn chinchillas into cash, one needed to buy cages and water bottles and pellets. We didn’t have any money, but nonetheless, Daddy managed to fill our cellar with dozens of large wire cages.
Descending into the earthen cellar for a jar of pickled beets or potatoes from our bin, I heard the scrabbling rodents against the dark, far wall, frightening wheels of fortune. Money smelled of damp fur and droppings.
At first my dad was like a religious fanatic. Every day he ported fresh water down the steps. He inspected each rodent as though it were a newborn baby.
But the daily routine was far less thrilling than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The chore of changing the newspapers in the cages fell to my brothers, and, when they failed to do it, to my mom.
For some reason, though, the chinchillas didn’t reproduce.
“It’s all these Goddamn pounding feet,” Daddy said.
We all took to walking slowly and lightly about the house, at least when my dad was home.
In the meantime, the chinchilla food attracted rats. They brazenly entered the house and scurried across the wooden floors in search of tastier morsels than the raw potatoes and hard pellets in the cellar. They flashed from behind the stove. They peeked through the banister of our staircase at the table where my sisters sat giggling with their dates from the air force base.
One day daddy brought home John Cowan for dinner. John Cowan was an anachronism even in 1959, even in Philip, South Dakota. He was a tall, stoop-shouldered old guy with bristly whiskers who rode about town in a horse-drawn wagon. He resided in a hole in the ground, not some little cave, but a grand hole, like someone had scooped out a cellar for a house and then never built it. He must have had a lid for the hole, something to prevent it from becoming a dam during rain or a snow drift during winter, but the only time I ever saw John Cowan’s home, it was wide open to the virginal blue Dakota sky.
John Cowan scrounged in the dump for a living and, of course, rumor had it he was rich.
In those days, before daddy cut off his index finger with a power saw, he used to fiddle songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and old John Cowan would dance jigs in our living room with footwork that would put Sammy Davis, Jr. to shame.
On this occasion, a few rats showed up for the performance.
“What you need for them rats is an owl,” John recommended. “I know where there is one.”
And indeed, in a few days, John Cowan appeared at our house with a stinky blanket wrapped around a bundle. A bag covered the owl’s head.
Given that an owl’s beak is a flesh-ripping instrument, how he’d caught the bird was, for the moment, another John Cowan mystery.
My dad let John Cowan carry the owl to the top of the cellar stairway.
“Get back!” he shouted at us kids, but being only five, I was able to press in under daddy’s arm.
John Cowan plucked off the bag and whipped off the blanket with a flourish. With an enormous flutter the owl disappeared into the darkness.
No stench emanated from the cool cellar to alert us. And the boys had become so lazy with their chores that days passed before they discovered the first bodies.
My brothers, in a panic, asked John Cowan if he could catch the owl.
“Nope,” he said. “Something, maybe a coyote, dragged off my leg trap. Besides, that owl only has one leg now, so it would be twice as hard to catch it.”
Eventually, the owl did eat rats, but first it feasted, one by one, on chinchillas, all those plump, conveniently caged morsels.
Yes, 1959 might qualify as a “worse than usual year.”