Hamsters

Marlene Olin

Turning your head, you assess your home. The carpet’s filthy, the bed’s unmade, the toys scattered. When you look down, things get worse. Your clothes are stained, your skin’s blotchy, your hair’s limp. In fact, everything’s limp. Your sex life. Your prospects. Your possibilities. And now the icing on the cake is that goddamned hamster.

A shaky hand punches in the number. After following the prompts, you get a voice. “I need to return a pet. How do I go about returning a pet?”

The little boy, his eyes puffy, his nose red, is pulling at your sleeve. “Tell them that Sweetie Pie bites, Mommy. Tell them that she’s mean.”

While one hand holds the phone, the other curls into a fist. Circling the carpet now, the little boy nipping at your heels. “Uh huh. Uh huh….I see…I see…I could have sworn there was a money-back guarantee. You sure there’s no money-back guarantee?”

“I wanna new hamster!”

You eyeball the cage, the wheel, the tiny toys, about $50 worth of accoutrement. “So the animal has to be dead.” Your voice is getting higher now, rodentlike, as squeaky as the wheel. “Let me get this straight. What you’re saying is I have three days, and in three days my pet has to be dead.”

“We need to kill it? We need to kill Sweetie Pie?”

You think of your unfettered friends in their ultrasuede offices, of their nannies who sip herbal tea. The air’s thick. Your throat’s closing. You gulp big fat globules of air.

“You see this hamster is very mean,” you hear yourself say. “It claws. It scratches. It bites. This animal is the hamster from hell.”

“I WANNA NEW HAMSTER!”

Click.

“It’s time to get your jacket, Mikey.” Holding the handle of the cage with one hand, you snag the car keys with the other. “Sweetie Pie is going back where she belongs.”

Fifteen minutes later, you shuffle into the store like a war weary veteran. A clerk at the counter (cracking her gum, inspecting her nails, like her day can’t end soon enough, a piece of shit boyfriend, a piece of shit job) greets you. The boy’s cheeks are spattered with tears. The baby’s in the stroller. Lord, you almost forgot the baby.

“This is a bad hamster,” you say. “A reject. We need a new one. Here’s the receipt. I know it’s not dead but making it dead is an option.”

You consider herself a nice person, a good person, so when the clerk sticks her hand into the cage you mumble. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

You hear the familiar sounds. The foraging. The rearranging of shavings. The little feet pawing the ground. The tension is unbearable. The boy glances at you. You glance at the boy. You both know what’s going to happen seconds before it does. When the clerk extracts her hand, Sweetie Pie’s extracted, too.

“Jesus Christ!” the clerk screams.

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The hamster has clamped onto her fingertip with its razor sharp teeth. And no matter what the clerk does, the hamster won’t let go. Up down. Left right. The clerk shakes her hand, waves it, bangs it on the ground, pounds it on the wall, and still the hamster clings. If there were circuses for hamsters, this hamster would be in it. Everywhere the clerk moves, a trail of blood moves with her.

“Stick your hand in a freezer,” you mumble. “That seemed to work for us.”

***

A half hour later, you’re home with a new hamster. This one you’re calling Buster. You have no idea whether it’s a male or a female but being seasoned hamster owners you’re prepared for anything.

The boy is happy. He feeds it rodent kibble. He watches it spin the wheel. He gently strokes its back then listens to it purr. No longer does he hugs his baby sister until her face turns blue. Instead he’s soft and gentle– just like his hamster.

Then two days later, Buster is gone.

A shaky hand punches in another number. “Remember that hole in the wall behind the dryer? The one the repairman left when he disconnected the exhaust hose?”

Your husband is speechless. Fixing the hole in the wall was on his list. The list that’s five, six years long.

“Mommy, I think I hear Buster. He in the kitchen now. Behind the oven. No, no, he’s near the fridge.”

The dryer burned out three times before you solved the problem. Now when it’s laundry day, the machine vents into the utility room. Lint flies like snowflakes on your hair, your clothes, your sheets. At first you were worried about intruders…cockroaches, mice, who knows what kind of vermin could find their way in. You never imagined emboldened escapees finding their way out.

You close your eyes, white knuckle the phone. You’re so angry you spit the words. “Remember when you promised to fix it? No problema, you said. A little plaster. A little paint. Why bother to hire a handyman when yours truly is around.”

The boy has emptied all the pots and pans on the floor. Then ducking his head, squeezing his elbows, and tucking in his knees, he wedges himself into the small space. Before long his entire body is jammed into the cabinet, save for his bright red sneakers and little round bum.

“The hamster’s in the walls, Harvey. The hamster’s in the fucking walls.”

The husband’s smart enough to stay quiet. He knows to stay quiet when his wife is on a rant. But the wife’s no fool either. Somewhere a script exists floating in the ether. He’ll tell you how hard he works, how his work consumes his life, how it eats up all his time. Then you’ll remember the hours he spends on fantasy football, the three hundred friends he follows on Facebook, the clever little tweets he posts morning, noon, and night.

Meanwhile, the hamster tortures you. It scurries up the walls only to fall down seconds later. Up down. Up down. The boy taps the inside of the cabinet in a private Morse code. Up down. Up down. Tap. Tap. Tap. Finally you think screw the dryer repairman and screw Harvey. You’re getting that hamster out yourself.

Inside the garage you find the fancy toolbox/wedding gift that’s never been used. There’s some sort of saw, a cute saw, a saw that seems destined to save cute rodents. You take one of the boy’s markers and draw a red circle on the wall inside the cabinet, stab the circle five six times with your best carving knife, then work the saw through the plaster. It’s incredibly messy. The plaster falls off in chunks. The dust flies everywhere–on your face, your arms, your hair. Finally, a hole the size of an orange appears.

Spackled in white, enveloped in a cloud of plaster dust, you walk over to your computer. Sure enough, the Internet provides the next step. You locate the piece of rope that you use to strap the Christmas tree onto the top of your car and slather the end with peanut butter. Then snaking the rope through the hole, you call the hamster. The boy looks at you. His mouth is open, his eyes are popping of out his head.

“Are you a real ghost,” he asks, “or a Scooby-Doo kind of ghost?”

Moments later, Buster races out of the cabinet happily twitching his nose.

“Buster! Buster! Buster!”

Now you’re faced with two large holes. You put the children to bed, shower, pamper yourself to two classes of wine. Then you sit back down in front of your computer. You have no idea what your husband will eat for dinner when he finally comes home. The pots and pans are still on the kitchen floor. The vacuum sits in the closet. But before the night is through you’ll have a list and a plan.

“You’re doing what?” your husband will say.

“Can I help, too?” the boy will plead.

“It’ll be a disaster,” your friends will smirk. “A plan. A list. It always is.”

You’ll be at Home Depot as soon as it opens. You’ll fill your cart with drywall, joint compound, and paint. Then you’ll tackle whatever measuring and cutting, filing and sanding, compromising and coercing, your future has in store. Be it big or small you’re ready. Lost toys and lost minds, dead pets and demanding parents, missed calls and missed opportunities, passed jobs and pissed lovers, dazed nights and desolate days. Let them come.

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “Hamsters”


So much of this story is true. My daughter, now grown, has always been an animal lover. Over the years, we’ve had dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, birds, and assorted reptiles. Not to mention the half-eaten squirrels and rats our dogs used to bring us as gifts. But the hamsters really drove me crazy. One was an escape artist. The other was mean as hell.

Maggie is our longest living pet. A miniature poodle, she just reached her sixteenth birthday. I spend around five hours a day writing, and she sits beneath my desk curled into a ball. Her once black chin is dotted white while her eyes are cataract cloudy. Her hind knees–stiff and arthritic–manage a straight-legged hop.

I’ll be lost without her.

This story was fun to write. I experimented with point of view and think the distancing works well. So much of motherhood is an out-of-body experience. At the end of the day, you sit back and think–did that actually happen? I find a sense of humor always helps…