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       Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, p.1

           David Sedaris
 
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Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary


  ALSO BY DAVID SEDARIS

  When You Are Engulfed in Flames

  Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

  Me Talk Pretty One Day

  Holidays on Ice

  Naked

  Barrel Fever

  Copyright

  Copyright © 2010 by David Sedaris

  Illustrations copyright © 2010 by Ian Falconer

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

  Little, Brown and Company

  Hachette Book Group

  237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

  Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

  www.twitter.com/littlebrown.

  First eBook Edition: October 2010

  Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Acknowledgment is made to Public Radio International’s This American Life, on which the following stories were originally broadcast in a slightly different form: “The Cat and the Baboon,” “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk,” “The Cow and the Turkey,” “The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig,” and “Hello Kitty.” “The Cow and the Turkey” also appeared in Holidays on Ice.

  Photo credits: surgical glove hand (p. 48) by Burke / Triolo Productions / Brand X Pictures (RF)/ © Getty Images; hand with syringe (p. 48) © Fotosearch / George Doyle and Ciaran Griffin; hand throttling chicken (p. 57) © courtyardpix / Fotolia

  ISBN: 978-0-316-13127-8

  FOR MY SISTER GRETCHEN

  Contents

  Also by David Sedaris

  Copyright

  The Cat and the Baboon

  The Migrating Warblers

  The Squirrel and the Chipmunk

  The Toad, the Turtle, and the Duck

  The Motherless Bear

  The Mouse and the Snake

  The Parenting Storks

  The Faithful Setter

  The Crow and the Lamb

  The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat

  The Cow and the Turkey

  The Vigilant Rabbit

  The Judicious Brown Chicken

  The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig

  Hello Kitty

  The Grieving Owl

  About the Author

  About the Illustrator

  The Cat and the Baboon

  The cat had a party to attend, and went to the baboon to get herself groomed.

  “What kind of party?” the baboon asked, and she massaged the cat’s neck in order to relax her, the way she did with all her customers. “Hope it’s not that harvest dance down on the riverbank. My sister went last year and said she’d never seen such rowdiness. Said a fight broke out between two possums, and one gal, the wife of one or the other, got pushed onto a stump and knocked out four teeth. And they were pretty ones too, none of this yellowness you find on most things that eat trash.”

  The cat shuddered. “No,” she said. “This is just a little get-together, a few friends. That type of thing.”

  “Will there be food?” the baboon asked.

  “Something,” the cat sighed. “I just don’t know what.”

  “ ‘Course it’s hard,” the baboon said. “Everybody eating different things. You got one who likes leaves and another who can’t stand the sight of them. Folks have gotten so picky nowadays, I just lay out some peanuts and figure they either eat them or they don’t.”

  “Now, I wouldn’t like a peanut,” the cat said. “Not at all.”

  “Well, I guess you’d just have drinks, then. The trick is knowing when to stop.”

  “That’s never been a problem for me,” the cat boasted. “I drink until I’m full, and then I push myself away from the table. Always have.”

  “Well, you’ve got sense, then. Not like some of them around here.” The baboon picked a flea from the cat’s head and stuck it gingerly between her teeth. “Take this wedding I went to—last Saturday, I think it was. Couple of marsh rabbits got married—you probably heard about it.”

  The cat nodded.

  “Now, I like a church service, but this was one of those write-your-own-vows sorts of things. Neither of them had ever picked up a pen in their life, but all of a sudden they’re poets, right, like that’s all it takes—being in love.”

  “My husband and I wrote our own vows,” the cat said defensively.

  “Sure you did,” countered the baboon, “but you probably had something to say, not like these marsh rabbits, carrying on that their love was like a tender sapling or some damn thing. And all the while they had this squirrel off to the side, plucking at a harp, I think it was.”

  “I had a harp player at my wedding,” the cat said, “and it was lovely.”

  “I bet it was, but you probably hired a professional, someone who could really play. This squirrel, I don’t think she’d taken a lesson in her life. Just clawed at those strings, almost like she was mad at them.”

  “Well, I’m sure she tried her best,” the cat said.

  The baboon nodded and smiled, the way one must in the service industry. She’d planned to tell a story about a drunken marsh rabbit, the brother of the groom at last week’s wedding, but there was no point in it now, not with this client anyway. Whatever she said, the cat disagreed with, and unless she found a patch of common ground she was sure to lose her tip. “You know,” she said, cleaning a scab off the cat’s neck, “I hate dogs. Simply cannot stand them.”

  “What makes you bring that up?” the cat asked.

  “Just thinking,” the baboon said. “Some kind of spaniel mix walked in yesterday, asking for a shampoo, and I sent him packing, said, ‘I don’t care how much money you have, I’m not making conversation with anyone who licks his own ass.’ ” And the moment she said it, she realized her mistake.

  “Now, what’s wrong with that?” the cat protested. “It’s good to have a clean anus. Why, I lick mine at least five times a day.”

  “And I admire you for it,” the baboon said, “but you’re not a dog.”

  “Meaning?”

  “On a cat it’s… classy,” the baboon said. “There’s a grace to it, but a dog, you know the way they hunker over, legs going every which way.”

  “Well, yes,” the cat said. “I suppose you have a point.”

  “Then they slobber and drool all over everything, and what they don’t get wet, they chew to pieces.”

  “That they do.” The cat chuckled, and the baboon relaxed and searched her memory for a slanderous dog story. The collie, the German shepherd, the spaniel mix she claimed to have turned away: they were all good friends of hers, and faithful clients, but what would it hurt to pretend otherwise and cross that fine line between licking ass and simply kissing it?

  The Migrating Warblers

  The yellow warbler would often claim that she was fine until she hit Brownsville. “Then—wham!” she’d tell her friends. “I don’t know if it’s the air or what, but whenever we pass it on our migration, I have to stop and puke my guts out.”

  “Indeed she does,” her husband would say, laughing.

  “An hour or two’s rest is all I need, but isn’t it strange? Not Olmito or Bayview or Indian Lake, but Brownsville. Brownsville every time.”

  The birds she was talking to would try to sound sympathetic or, at the very least
, interested. “Hmmmm,” they’d say, or, “Brownsville, I think I have a cousin there.”

  From the southern tip of Texas, the couple would fly over Mexico and then into Central America. “My family’s been wintering in Guatemala for as long as I can remember,” the warbler would explain. “Every year, like clockwork, here we come by the tens of thousands—but do you think any of those Spanish-speaking birds have bothered learning English? Not on your life!”

  “It’s really horrible,” her husband would say.

  “Well, funny too,” his wife would insist. “Horrible and funny. Like one time I asked this little Guatemalan bird, I said, ‘Don day est tass las gran days mose cass de cab eyza?’ ”

  Here her listeners would cock their heads, confused and more than a little impressed. “Wait a second, you speak that stuff?”

  “Oh, I’ve picked some up,” the warbler would say in that offhand way of hers. “I mean, really, what choice do I have? I guess I’m a pretty quick study. At least I’ve been told I am.”

  “She’s terrific with languages,” her husband would boast, and his wife would raise a wing in protest: “Well, not always. In this particular case, for instance, I thought I’d asked where all the big horseflies were. A reasonable question, only instead of cob ayo, which is “horse,” I said cab eyza. So what I really asked was ‘Where are all the big head flies?’ ”

  Thinking that this was the end of the story, her listeners would quake with polite laughter. “Head flies, oh, that’s rich!”

  “But no, wait,” the warbler would say. “So the Guatemalan bird makes a motion for me to follow him through the thicket. I do, and there in this field are, like, three hundred heads rotting in the afternoon sun. Each one with about fifty flies on it. And I mean huge, the size of bumblebees, every one of them.”

  “Oh my God,” the listeners would say. “Rotting heads with flies on them?”

  “Oh, they weren’t bird heads,” the warbler would reassure them. “These belonged to humans, or used to anyway. Flesh bubbling off, hair all tangled with bits of goo in it. I don’t know what they’d done with the bodies, burned them, maybe. Then they used the heads to make a wall.”

  “Actually, it was more like a counter,” her husband would say.

  It was a wall if ever there was one, but what could you do, ask everyone to stop up their ears while you and your ridiculous mate—someone who had never even seen a counter except in pictures—scream at each other for half an hour? No. It was best just to breeze over it.

  “So we see this wall, this counter, be it, made of human heads, and I mean to say, ‘This place stinks like the devil,’ but what I actually say is…” And here, snorting with laughter, she would pass the baton to her husband.

  “What she actually says to this small Guatemalan bird is ‘The devil smells me in my place.’ Can you believe it? My mate, Ladies and Gentlemen, or, as we like to call her south of the border, ‘Satan’s sexy stinkpot!’ ”

  The listeners would crack up, and the warblers, husband and wife, would enjoy the sensation of having an audience right where they wanted them. This was the reward for spending three months a year in an inferior country. And when the light fell a certain way, when the laughter surged and melded into a harmonious song, it almost made up for all the hardships—the stomach flus, for instance, or the times when, rather than uniting you and your mate, the strangeness of another culture only made you feel more separate, more despicable and alone.

  Back in their element, the two warblers were a well-oiled machine. “You want funny, try getting work done down there,” the husband would say, opening the door to their hilarious tales of lazy natives, of how bumbling they were, how backward and superstitious. This begged the question “Why go in the first place? Why not winter in Florida like everyone else?” The warblers would then explain that despite the incompetence, despite the language barriers and the severed heads, Central America was, in its own way, beautiful.

  “And cheap,” they would add. “Cheap, cheap, cheap.”

  The Squirrel and the Chipmunk

  The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about. Acorns, parasites, the inevitable approach of autumn: these subjects had been covered within their first hour, and so breathlessly their faces had flushed. Twice they had held long conversations about dogs, each declaring an across-the-board hatred of them and speculating on what life might be like were someone to put a bowl of food in front of them two times a day. “They’re spoiled rotten is what it comes down to,” the chipmunk had said, and the squirrel had placed his paw over hers, saying, “That’s it exactly. Finally, someone who really gets it.”

  Friends had warned them that their romance could not possibly work out, and such moments convinced them that the skeptics were not just wrong but jealous. “They’ll never have what we do,” the squirrel would say, and then the two of them would sit quietly, hoping for a flash flood or a rifle report—something, anything, that might generate a conversation.

  They were out one night at a little bar run by a couple of owls when, following a long silence, the squirrel slapped his palm against the tabletop. “You know what I like?” he said. “I like jazz.”

  “I didn’t know that,” the chipmunk said. “My goodness, jazz!” She had no idea what jazz was but worried that asking would make her sound stupid. “What kind, exactly?” she asked, hoping his answer might narrow things down a bit.

  “Well, all kinds, really,” he told her. “Especially the earlier stuff.”

  “Me too,” she said, and when he asked her why, she told him that the later stuff was just too late for her tastes. “Almost like it was overripe or something. You know what I mean?”

  Then, for the third time since she had known him, the squirrel reached across the table and took her paw.

  . . . .

  On returning home that evening, the chipmunk woke her older sister, with whom she shared a room. “Listen,” she whispered, “I need you to explain something. What’s jazz?”

  “Why are you asking me?” the sister said.

  “So you don’t know either?” the chipmunk asked.

  “I didn’t say I didn’t know,” the sister said. “I asked you why you’re asking. Does this have anything to do with that squirrel?”

  “Maybe,” the chipmunk said.

  “Well, I’m telling,” the sister announced. “First thing tomorrow morning, because this has gone on long enough.” She punched at her pillow of moss, then repositioned it beneath her head. “I warned you weeks ago that this wouldn’t work out, and now you’ve got the whole house in an uproar. Waltzing home in the middle of the night, waking me up with your dirty little secrets. Jazz indeed. Just you wait until Mother hears about this.”

  The chipmunk lay awake that night, imagining the unpleasantness that was bound to take place the following morning. What if jazz was squirrel slang for something terrible, like anal intercourse? “Oh, I like it too,” she’d said—and so eagerly! Then again, it could just be mildly terrible, something along the lines of Communism or fortune-telling, subjects that were talked about but hardly ever practiced. Just as she thought she had calmed herself down, a new possibility would enter her mind, each one more horrible than the last. Jazz was the maggot-infested flesh of a dead body, the crust on an infected eye, another word for ritual suicide. And she had claimed to like it!

  Years later, when she could put it all in perspective, she’d realize that she had never really trusted the squirrel—how else to explain all those terrible possibilities? Had he been another chipmunk, even a tough one, she’d have assumed that jazz was something familiar, a kind of root, say, or maybe a hairstyle. Of course, her sister hadn’t helped any. None of her family had. “It’s not that I have anything against squirrels per se,” her mother had said. “It’s just that this one, well, I don’t like him.” When pressed for details, she’d mentioned his fingernails, which were a little too long for her taste. “A sure sign of vanity,”
she warned. “And now there’s this jazz business.”

  That was what did it. Following the sleepless night, the chipmunk’s mother had forced her to break it off.

  “Well,” the squirrel had sighed, “I guess that’s that.”

  “I guess it is,” the chipmunk said.

  He headed downriver a few days later, and she never saw him or heard from him again.

  “It’s not a great loss,” her sister said. “No girl should be subjected to language like that, especially from the likes of him.”

  “Amen,” her mother added.

  Eventually the chipmunk met someone else, and after she had safely married, her mother speculated that perhaps jazz was a branch of medicine—something like chiropractic therapy—that wasn’t quite legitimate. Her sister said no, it was more likely a jig, and then she pushed herself back from the table and kicked her chubby legs into the air. “Oh, you,” her mother said, “that’s a cancan,” and then she joined in and gave a few kicks of her own.

  This stuck in the chipmunk’s mind, as she never knew her mother could identify a dance step or anything associated with fun. It was the way her own children would eventually think of her: dull, strict, chained to the past. She had boys, all of them healthy, and only one prone to trouble. He had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but his heart was good, and the chipmunk knew he would eventually straighten himself out. Her husband thought so too, and died knowing that he had been correct.

  A month or two after he’d passed on, she asked this son what jazz was, and when he told her it was a kind of music, she knew instinctively that he was telling the truth. “Is it bad music?” she asked.

  “Well, if it’s played badly,” he said. “Otherwise it’s really quite pleasant.”

  “Did squirrels invent it?”

  “God, no,” he said. “Whoever gave you that idea?”

  The chipmunk stroked her brown-and-white muzzle. “Nobody,” she said. “I was just guessing.”

 
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