The last I saw of Low Gear and Minus they had given up the plan to live off the land after the pig-butchering accident in the backyard. They had been friends a long time but as Low Gear’s leg slowly healed from the gunshot hole and the powder burns that resulted when Minus tried to put a clean shot exactly behind the pig’s ear, so there would be no pain whatsoever—PLAN A: one minute she’s here, the next minute she’s gone, she never knows what’s happened—the old friendship began to wear thin. Minus began to see the wisdom of his mother’s pleas—both of their mothers’ pleas—to go their own ways. That whenever they were around each other with time on their hands, somebody always got hurt.
The pig incident, for instance. The reason Low Gear got shot in the knee was not, as you might think, that the boys got wild and drunk and decided to shoot the pig. It was part of a plan. PLAN B: Buy a baby pig and eat it when it’s big. And they did not go out into the backyard to shoot the pig because they were drunk, they got drunk because if they were going to eat the pig somebody had to shoot it, but by now they had included the shoat on more and more of their outings, and developed sentimental attachments. PLAN C: Hide the .22 caliber rifle behind Minus’s leafy pants leg as he approached, where the pig couldn’t see it, and where if it had not got caught up in the excess material it is very possible that nobody would have gone to the emergency room that night with a gunshot wound in the first place, and thus brought the Tarpon Springs Police Department out to visit.
The police interviewed the boys separately, good cop and bad cop, and in the end Minus pleaded guilty to one count of discharging within city limits while the more serious charge, cruelty to animals, was dropped when the boys’ lawyer argued that it was precisely because they could not bear the thought of hurting the animal’s feelings that Low Gear ended up taking one in the leg to save the pig.
The judge in the case saw that Low Gear and Minus were sorry—this was when Minus famously told the court, That scream, it sounded so human… and sincere, but before he let them go—Minus got six months’ probation, a mere slap on the wrist, said the disappointed prosecutor, across whose desk the names Minus and Low Gear had passed before—he told them that in his experience: There were certain people, well-intentioned, intelligent people… and here he stopped, and rephrased…certain well-intentioned people, who for their own good and society’s, should not be in each other’s company. Who act as accelerants to each other’s cockeyed ideas.
Reasonable people who did thoughtless things. And he suggested that the boys might be better off apart, each in his own living quarters, so as not to act as accelerants to each other’s cockeyed ideas. Low Gear, who was still on crutches—he had an unbreakable habit of picking at scabs, and every time the gunshot wound crusted over, he peeled it open, and kept all his wounds mildly infected and crusty until he wore out his body’s defense system and patience, and it healed scabless but with white flaky stuff in its place—Low Gear assured the judge that he and Minus had learned their lesson. No more ideas.
And having thought over no more thinking, the boys split up, Low Gear moving to Miami Beach to chase skirts and then on to become a world traveler, and Minus to rural Mississippi, where he began a career in newspapers.
I do not know what happened to the pig. The truth is, I only hear from the boys once every 30 years, and I got excited and forgot to ask.
In any case, Low Gear has married many times in many countries, possibly divorced some of the wives, but probably not, and Minus waited for the right girl to come along. And this is where we pick him up, in rural Mississippi, married to a girl who was not even born the last time we talked, and the father of a 5-year-old child, a little girl.
The child turned 5 on July 19. The hamster was a birthday present. As you probably do not know, there are many types of hamsters and this was the most popular, the classic golden, which came with a soft, beautiful golden coat and white splotches like an ink blot test. Minus had once failed an ink blot test, by the way, when he was applying for a job with the Tarpon Springs Fire Department, and at that time—before he had a regular public defender—I had advised him not to pursue the matter in the courts. I have often wondered what it is like, being Minus and Low Gear’s attorney.
In any case, Minus’s daughter named the rodent Brutus. It turns out Minus had married an English teacher, and yes, it is a strange world. A week or two passed, Brutus ate and grew. A wheel had been installed in his cage but Brutus was not much of a runner, and he began to put on weight. A week or two passed, Brutus ate and grew, grew and ate. One of the things he grew was an enormous set of testicles, which within a week or so of their appearance hung like Christmas ornaments through the bars of the cage. This is the kind of thing that has followed Minus and Low Gear around all their lives.
The testicles clearly affected the rodent’s mobility. Minus said it was like watching a fat guy running through the airport totin’ them suitcases on wheels, one in each hand.
Besides the wheel in his cage, Brutus also had a clear plastic ball that he maneuvered through the house, touring room to room. This was late in the afternoon, as he slept most of the day, as hamsters do, and ate most of the night. At bedtime Brutus went back in his cage and Minus’s daughter went to sleep listening to him crunching broccoli and seeds and lettuce. She began to love that hamster, and took conscientious care. Cleaned the cage, changed the water, fed him enormous amounts of broccoli and celery and seeds and lettuce—all the things it told her to do in the book, You and Your Hamster, that had come with Brutus as part of the present.
There was nothing in You and Your Hamster about testicles, and Minus’s daughter began to worry that Brutus’s testicles were tumors. My hamster has cancer. She could not be talked out of it, and the truth was Minus himself noticed the hamster seemed lethargic. Still, there was a principle at stake too, which was that Minus was not about to take a 20-dollar rodent—cousin to rats and mice—to a 75-dollar veterinarian because the hamster was depressed and had no energy. As Minus pointed out, Brutus still had his appetite. He could stuff half his weight in vegetables inside his cheeks, which by the way seemed to extend beyond his head to somewhere around his shoulders, and nobody with cancer ever felt like stuffing themselves like that. It was a medical fact.
Next, Brutus bit the family dog, Ajax. Ajax stuck her nose between the bars to smell him, and it happened.
And next, later in the week just after Minus’s little girl had dropped off to sleep, Brutus was out for a roll in his plastic ball and the little exit/entrance door fell open and… how to put this? Ajax bit him back.
In the morning, Minus told the child that Brutus had gone to the vet.
The kid wasn’t buying it. When?
He said: In the night. It was an emergency.
And while his daughter went to pre-school that morning, Minus went back to the pet store and asked to speak to a male sales associate, knowing that describing a hamster’s testicles to a female clerk can lead nowhere good. Before he went to the store he had written down as much of a description as he could from memory and the little bit left of Brutus, still lying more or less in more or less in a clear plastic lunch bag in the freezer. You might say he died like he lived. Or you might not. Minus studied the intricate white-golden pattern of his coat through the frost-covered bag, the little feet, the pink toes, the jagged ear that he’d gotten early in life, before Minus brought him home, a mutilation probably from some sibling rivalry. There was no male clerk available and he told the story to the young woman. He wondered how she would react to being asked if she could bite a little off the ear.
She did not think she had enough in the way of description. She took him to the hamster cage and showed him everything she had—the entire stock of golden hamsters. He could tell she was getting impatient. He weighs her impatience against knowing that by uttering just a few words more about what he is looking for, she will be dialing 911 two seconds after he is out the door.
Well, anybody look familiar?
And he stood a long moment, gawping at a square yard of sleeping golden hamsters, not for the first time wishing that Low Gear were here to tell him what to do.