Jacob M. Appel
Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novel, The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up, and the forthcoming short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper. Jacob's fiction has appeared in over two hundred literary journals, most recently including Sonora Review, Pleiades and Subtropics. He practices medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and teaches at the Gotham Writers' Workshop.
In my mother, the woodchuck found a fierce and steadfast ally.
My father's frustrations with the inexorable varmint came, over the years, to embody all of his life's disappointments—his stagnant career in public television, his ill-timed forays into the stock market, his unapologetically unremarkable daughter—but they proved no match for my mother's love of a fellow living creature. She'd yielded once, when he'd wanted to move from Manhattan to Laurendale, although Mama often described our upscale suburb as “a coffin with lawns”; she'd yielded again when my father opposed a second child: the exact expression he had apparently used was, “Let's quit while we're behind.” Yet on the subject of glue traps for mice, and steel snares for raccoons, and, above all else, any of the lethal schemes my father hatched to rid his vegetable garden of the groundhog once and forever—many worthy of Rube Goldberg or Wile E. Coyote—my mother refused to bend. “If you hurt Mr. Whitman,” Mama warned every June, calling the animal by one of her distinctive pet names, “I swear I'll take Molly and go to my sister's.” By the summer I graduated from junior high school, I'd accepted this impasse—and the relentless bickering that accompanied it—as the price of love between two deeply incompatible people. So I was as shocked as Mama when, one July 4th weekend, my father proposed a truce.
We were barbecuing that evening on the patio: my father painting garlic butter atop sirloin, while Mama charred squash and eggplant for herself on a separate section of the grill. Our mood was somber. Earlier that week, PBS had cancelled production on “3-2-1-Cocktails,” my father's effort to bring “the fine art of distilled spirits” to a national television audience. It was his second consecutive flop, following on the heels of “Cigar Chat,” leaving his future at the network uncertain. Out in the yard, rabbits scrambled to complete errands before nightfall. And then, as though to mock my father's failures, the woodchuck poked its shaggy brow from one of its countless burrows and ambled brazenly alongside the barbed fence that ringed the garden.
I braced for a slew of profanity. Instead, my father merely squeezed more juice from the steak with his spatula. “Let the bastard have his fun,” he said. “I'm not getting myself worked up anymore over a damn whistle pig.”
I glanced at my mother, who was preparing a lesson for her fifth graders. She raised her eyebrows, perplexed.
“It's too late to salvage anything this year,” added my father. “Bastard's already taken the tops off all of my tomatoes and peppers… I know when I'm beat. But he'd better enjoy himself now, because this is the end of the gravy train….”
“Warren?” When Mama said his name in this tone, her pitch rising like a dagger, it generally meant the onset of domestic warfare.
“Hear me out,” said my father. “I got a ride to the station with Ed Sucram this morning—and somehow we ended up on the subject of gardening…He tells me there's a company that will relocate backyard pests without hurting them.”
“Or so they claim,” snapped my mother. “For all you know, they butcher the animals or abandon them in the gutter like road kill.”
“Nope. Not these guys. They're animal welfare nuts….Their varmints go to nature preserves or state parks. They'll even send you a photograph of the animal in its new habitat—for a small fee. I looked them up at work: They've got an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.” My father served me a hunk of steak, then returned to the table with a bowl of baked potatoes wrapped in tinfoil. “Everybody wins, Jill. The whistle pig gets a safe new address free of cars and pesticides and exasperated green thumbs. And we get fresh, home-grown vegetables.”
Mama eyed him warily. “But I like having Mr. Whitman around,” she said. “Besides, what if he's homesick?”
“He has a brain the size of a walnut. How is he going to be homesick?”
“To tell you the truth, this makes me very nervous,” answered Mama. “Our lawn is the only home the poor fellow has ever known.”
“Come on, Jill,” said my father. “I need some good news.”
“I don't know what to tell you,” said Mama. “Let's sleep on it.”
My father finished his steak and potatoes in silence. Mama offered him a taste of her squash, but he shook his head. Her husband had grown up in a cramped cellar apartment, the child of Belgian refugees, and he valued the idea of home-grown produce far more than he actually liked eating it, much as he relished the idea of family vacations without enjoying long car rides or beaches or tourist attractions. His life's dream, I suppose, was to host dinner parties at which he would inform his A-list guests that he had hand-grown the salad on his own little patch of prosperity.
The professional “relocator” from Rodent Holiday arrived three weeks later. His name was Jim. He was a lanky, pony-tailed guy in his early twenties—and he looked more like a college kid trying to fund a garage band than an “animal welfare nut.” Above the knuckles of his right hand, he'd tattooed the letters L-E-F-T. His t-shirt, which hung loose over his torn jeans, depicted a cartoon rat, raccoon and skunk—all laughing—beneath the caption: HAVEN'T THEY EARNED A VACATION? The company's box-truck sported prominent dents in both the front and rear fenders. Fortunately, after acquiescing to the move, Mama had gone to watch a Broadway show with Aunt Phoebe. “If I have to see them taking him away,” she'd said, “I know I'll have a breakdown."
Jim did not offer to shake my father's hand. Instead, he walked straight into the house—as though he'd just foreclosed on the place—and through the sliding doors onto the patio.
“Woodchuck, right?” he asked.
“I prefer whistle pig,” said my father.
“Whatever,” said Jim. “Do you know if it's a male or a female?”
“I really don't.”
“Figures,” answered Jim—and he flashed my father a look of disdain, as though any schoolchild could determine the gender of a groundhog at fifty paces. “In that case, we're going to have to use both sets of traps.” He ran his fingers through his greasy hair. “There will be a surcharge.”
The most efficient way to catch a woodchuck, it turned out, was with pheromones—but if you didn't know the gender of the creature in advance, you had to set up separate traps that gave off male and female scents. I waited with my father on the porch while the relocator laid out his wooden hutches in a semi-circle and sprayed them with groundhog musk from a canister. Not that I gave a damn about the groundhog. But I was thirteen, and desperately interested in Jeremy Allen, the sophomore lacrosse player whose parents lived cattycorner to our backyard. I fantasized that he would glimpse me through his window and duck across the hedgerows to say hello. Another two years would pass before I learned that broad-shouldered athletes didn't date plump girls with dull features, and another ten before I realized those plump, dull-featured girls hadn't missed much. But that balmy Sunday afternoon found me preening on the patio for a boy who wasn't looking, who probably wasn't even at home, while my father watched Jim romance his rodent nemesis with a non-existent mate.
The seduction took nearly four hours. Mr. Whitman made multiple sorties toward the hutches, but developed cold feet every time. A black squirrel also poked around one of the traps, but quickly lost interest. My father paced the flagstones as though awaiting the birth of a baby. “Looks like you've got an indecisive one,” said Jim. “Or maybe a bisexual.” It sounded like an accusation—as though poor management on my father's part had muddled the groundhog's sexuality. When the creature finally succumbed to the aroma of lust, a grate sprang shut, letting Jim pick up the hutch by a handle. “It's a girl,” he announced. “In case you were curious.”
“Where are you taking her?” asked my father.
“Miami Beach” answered Jim.
“As far as rodents are concerned, it's as good as Miami Beach,” said Jim. “For a service fee, we can send you a photo.” He draped a heavy canvas over the hutch; the animal hissed from within. “Buy the photo, dude. Trust me. Otherwise your wife will have you on the phone with us two months from now. I've seen it ten thousand times already.”
I don't think anyone else—before or since—has ever called my father dude. Of course, the surest way to convince Warren Hagland not to do something was to advise him to do it.
“The last thing I want is a picture of that whistle pig,” he said. “The minute she leaves here, I'm never thinking of her again.”
“Suit yourself,” said Jim.
The relocator had my father sign a release and gave him a carbon copy, then hoisted the cage atop his shoulder and vanished around the side of the house. He carried the animal with all the tenderness of a meatpacker.
My father placed his hand on my forearm—the closest he ever came to a gesture of tenderness. “The problem with your mother, Molly,” he said, “is that she's sentimental. That's what happens when you grow up with wealthy parents. You don't think twice about sending your pests to Miami Beach or Disneyworld or the honeymoon suite at Waldorf-Astoria.” His face looked genuinely pained. “If it were up to me, we could have done the job with a handful of strychnine pellets—and then told people we'd arranged to have the whistle pig flown to the Riviera or wherever.”
A flock of mourning doves skimmed over the peonies, settling on the burrow-scarred grass that bounded the garden. I gazed at the small birds across the naked lawn, and suddenly, I felt a pang of loss for the departed woodchuck.
I cannot ever remember my father—before or since—in as good spirits as he was those first few weeks after Mr. Whitman's departure to “Rodent Miami Beach. ”He doubled my allowance that evening, adding a $20 one-time bonus. He kissed my mother on the forehead at the breakfast table the following morning, and each subsequent morning, a gesture that had evaporated years earlier. At night, through the sheer wall between our bedrooms, I heard the unfamiliar sounds of their intimacy. My father even raised the prospect of adopting a puppy, although the plan never advanced beyond a scouting trip to the local ASPCA shelter. What was most amazing about my father's good cheer was that, on paper, his life was unraveling. I'd overheard Mama unburdening herself to Aunt Phoebe on the telephone, so I knew that my father had been “reassigned” at work, which was basically a face-saving demotion, and that the personal checks he'd written to keep “3-2-1-Cocktails” afloat had largely wiped out our family savings. Two days after he paid to relocate the woodchuck, he'd been forced to cash out his retirement fund to meet our delinquent property tax bill. And yet after work every evening, he wandered the backyard with his arms folded across his chest, poking his boot-tips into the groundhog's abandoned holes, and beaming. By the following weekend, he was promising fresh tomatoes and eggplants to the neighbors—a year in advance.
“It's not just about the damn whistle pig,” he declared as he flipped hamburgers on the grill. “It's about having control of one's destiny. Honestly, Jill, we should have done this years ago. Live and learn.” He took at deep breath, savoring the twilight; the air smelled of maple pollen and sizzling beef. “I'm going to invite Ed and Terri Sucram over next week to celebrate,” he said.
“I'm glad you're so happy,” replied Mama. “But to tell you the truth, I actually miss the little fellow.”
“You're a crazy person,” said my father.
“You're welcome, crazy person,” he said—and then he wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and ran his lips up the side of her neck.
For a fleeting moment, my parents were once again the affectionate couple preserved on 35-mm slides of their European honeymoon. They'd met on the set of my father's first production—my mother had a college internship at the studio—and he'd asked her out a dozen times over several months before she finally agreed to a date. Even in grade school, I remember wondering what had made Mama yield. She was already struggling with her weight back then, so I guess she didn't have many offers. But in the wake of the woodchuck's departure, it was possible to imagine more than acquiescence between them—to see them as love-blind and enraptured. And if my father could fall for my mother, I told myself, Jeremy Allen could as easily fall for me.
Three days later, before my father had an opportunity to display his woodchuck-free lawn to the Sucrams, the first of the letters arrived. He'd picked me up from one of my summer babysitting gigs on the way home from work that evening—Mama, the quintessential Manhattanite, still hadn't learned how to drive after nine years in suburbia—and, as I had raced to retrieve the day's mail from the curbside box, secretly hoping for a love note from Jeremy, I was the first to handle the letter. It arrived in a standard business envelope, bearing a first class stamp postmarked Pontefract, my father's name and address printed in firm block letters. In the upper left-hand corner, the return address read simply: WOODCHUCK. I placed the strange envelope on the kitchen table along with the day's slew of bills and charitable solicitations. When my father opened it, several minutes later, he actually grinned.
“Very funny,” he said. He slid the letter across the table to my mother. “I don't suppose you know anything about this.”
I read the letter over my mother's shoulder.
DEAR MR. HAGLAND:
I DO NOT IMAGINE YOU EXPECTED TO HEAR FROM ME AGAIN, AND I AM SORRY TO BURDEN YOU WITH MY PROBLEMS, BUT I AM IN DESPERATE NEED OF HELP AND I DO NOT KNOW WHERE ELSE TO TURN.
I AM LONELY AND HOMESICK AND MISS THE LIFE WE SHARED IN OUR YARD. IF YOU CAN FIND IT IN YOUR HEART TO TAKE ME BACK, I WILL BE FOREVER GRATEFUL.
PS: THIS PLACE IS NOTHING LIKE MIAMI BEACH.
Firm block letters in black ink. The nondescript handwriting reminded me of the ransom requests from television mysteries.
Mama did not find the note amusing. “You don't think he's actually homesick?” she asked. “I mean: this is obviously a gag, but that doesn't mean there isn't any underlying truth.”
An uncomfortable silence descended upon the kitchen, punctuated only by the hum of the refrigerator. I could sense the gears churning inside my father's head as he struggled to contain his frustration. “I thought we had put this business behind us,” he finally said. “Now I want a straight answer, Jill. Yes or no. Did you or didn't you have anything to do with this letter?”
“Absolutely nothing,” replied my mother. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
Pontefract was a bedroom community several towns away. In order to mail a letter from there, my mother would have had to change busses twice.
“Are you sure you didn't write it yourself?” asked Mama. “Maybe you're weighed down by unconscious guilt and you wrote it in your sleep.”
My father ignored her. “I don't need this,” he said. He crumpled the letter into a ball and deposited it in the kitchen garbage. “I suppose it could be Carl Henry's wife. She didn't seem so thrilled when I told them about the relocation….”
Dr. and Mrs. Henry lived next door to Jeremy Allen. It was hard to imagine her taking time away from her two-year-old twins to impersonate a groundhog, but I understood that nothing good would come from voicing an opinion.
“I knew this was a bad idea,” said Mama. “Can you call the company and ask them how Mr. Whitman is doing? I thought they were supposed to send a picture….”
“I could,” answered my father. “But I won't. I'm done with this, Jill. If you want a picture, Molly can draw you a picture.”
But my father was far from done with the woodchuck.
Another letter arrived the next day, and then another, and another, until retrieving the rodent missives became a part of my afternoon routine. I'd finish babysitting for the Garbers or the Pastarnacks or the Arcayas in the early evening, then my father would drive me home and I'd retrieve the rodent's correspondence for him. All of the envelopes came from Pontefract, painstakingly block-lettered. In each, “the woodchuck” pleaded for assistance in returning to our yard. I CANNOT COME BACK ON MY OWN, wrote the author. I DO NOT KNOW THE ROUTE. In one letter, the creature described her efforts to conceal herself in the rear of a gardener's truck, hoping to comb the neighborhood for familiar landmarks—but the Portuguese driver discovered her and sprayed her down with a hose. In another, she wrote of missing her baby sister and nieces, who apparently lived beneath the azalea beds of Mrs. Steinhoff down the block. Increasingly, the letters darkened my father's mood. He even wrote “return to sender” on one unopened envelope, but the postman refused to accept it—as “Woodchuck, Pontefract” was not a valid address. By the third week of daily letters, my parents had returned to their chronic squabbling and contempt.
“If I find out you're behind this—either of you—I swear I'll….,” my father threatened one evening over supper.
“You'll what?” demanded Mama.
“Whistle pigs don't write letters,” said my father. I had heard him pacing the veranda for several nights, as he'd done before Mr. Whitman's relocation, and his face wore the haggard look of rumpled pillow. “Someone—some human being—is behind this. And it's harassment. And I don't have to take it anymore.”
Forty-five minutes later, a young female officer from the Laurendale Police Department was seated in our dining room. She had a chubby face, but carried her weight well, and she wore a wedding ring; her finger nails, trimmed short, were lacquered fuchsia. As she read through the most recent letter, I could tell that she was biting her lip. My father and I sat opposite her; from the kitchen drifted the sound of my mother clearing dishes.
“You say you've discarded all of the others?” asked the officer.
She flipped open a leather-bound notepad.
“It was a mistake,” said my father. “I'll keep them from now on.”
“What makes you so sure you'll be getting more of them?”
The officer's voice brimmed with suspicion. Maybe she actually did think that my father was sending himself mail. After all, people do some rather crazy things during domestic disputes.
“I'm not sure,” said my father. “Obviously, if you can stop them, you won't hear any complaints from me."
“Anybody have a grudge against you?” asked the officer.
A comprehensive answer could have filled her entire pad. My father's existence was a long series of skirmishes over finances and property lines and perceived social slights. I'm sorry simply wasn't part of his vocabulary. His own sister—my Aunt Angela—wasn't on speaking terms with him.
“Minor disagreements now and then,” he said. “Nothing like this.”
“And your marriage? How is it between you and your wife?”
“It is just dandy between me and my wife,” said my father—imitating the officer's diction. “All peaches and cream.”
“I'm sorry,” replied the officer. “I have to ask.”
“So you asked. Now what are you going to do about the letters?”
“Can't help you there, I'm afraid,” said the officer. “There's nothing threatening here. Nothing obscene. It's probably some teenager playing a prank. The best thing to do is to ignore him until he tires himself out….”
“And what if he doesn't?” demanded my father. “Can't you trace them?”
The officer returned her pad to her duty belt. “Obviously, if the letters do become threatening, you should let us know immediately,” she said.
She smiled at me. “Anything to add, young lady?”
I shrugged. “I like your nails,” I said.
“Thanks, honey,” said the officer. She turned to my father: “If you want my personal opinion, Mr. Hagland, I think you're far too worked up over this. If this isn't a prank—if someone really harbors a grudge against you—you're giving him exactly what he wants.” She lowered her voice. “If I was getting these letters,” she added, “I wouldn't even bother to open them.”
The officer was hardly out the door when my father's criticism started. “Did you really have to comment on her fingernails?” he demanded. “Honestly, Molly, if you're not going to say anything helpful, you ought to learn not to say anything at all.”
“But she asked.”
“And you had to answer?”
At that instant, Mama stepped into the foyer. “Are you two fighting?”
“I'm just giving your daughter some helpful advice,” said my father. “So she doesn't make a fool of herself in the future.”
“It sounded like fighting to me,” said Mama. “What did the cop say?”
“Nothing useful. Lazy bitch,” grumbled my father.
“Nice language.” My mother, still wearing her cooking gloves, sat down next to me on the stairs and gave me a hug. “Why don't you do everyone a favor, Warren, including yourself, and have them bring back the groundhog? Honestly, you wouldn't be so upset about the letters if you didn't feel guilty….”
“Nobody feels guilty, goddammit.” He cupped his fist in his palm. “Jesus Christ, Jill,” he shouted. “I can't believe you want the damn whistle pig to win.”
My father stepped out onto the front porch and slammed the door behind him, sending a shudder through the woodwork. The house still felt like it was reverberating from the blow ten minutes later, when he rang the bell: He'd forgotten his key.
Another two weeks of letters arrived before my father called Rodent Holiday. I can't say for certain whether he was driven by guilt, or exasperation, or an irrational fear that the woodchuck was actually writing him letters. What I do know is the man who picked up the telephone that evening, his cheeks dark with five o'clock shadow, the flavor of cognac heavy on his breath, was a shadow of the creature who'd criticized me for complimenting the policewoman on her fingernails. He'd avoided opening the letters from Pontefract for three straight days, but eventually he gave in, and I suppose reading the three successive pleas in succession proved enough to unmoor him. “You win, Jill. You win, and the whistle pig wins, and everyone wins except me,” he cried as he searched the yellow pages for the relocator's number. “To hell with fresh tomatoes. I just want to put this bullshit behind me.”
“Hello? Rodent Holiday?” he said. “May I speak to Jim?”
Unfortunately for my father, Jim no longer worked at Rodent Holiday.
“So, look,” he explained to one of Jim's replacements, “I had you guys relocate a woodchuck from my property in early July, and now I want her back….”
My father twirled the phone cord between his fingers.
“No, I don't have a photograph,” he said. “Yes, I do realize I could have purchased a photograph for a small fee.”
The exchange deteriorated from there. They relocators were willing to attempt to retrieve Mr. Whitman—for twice what it had cost to remove her—but they couldn't make any promises. In the wild, woodchucks faced all sorts of hazards: septic tanks, organophospates, predation from hawks and foxes and domestic cats. According to Rodent Holiday, the odds were 50-50 that Mr. Whitman was already dead. My father did not inform them that he was corresponding with the animal.
“What a racket,” he groused. “Six weeks ago, they were sending the whistle pig to Miami Beach. All of a sudden, it's like they sent the bastard to Siberia.” He crossed to the sideboard and poured himself another glass of cognac. “It's price gouging. I swear I should report the assholes to the state's attorney general.”
Yet my father was nothing-but-grateful when the box truck from Rodent Holiday pulled into our driveway three days later. Our new agent, a morbidly obese thirty-something named Chet, sported a ragged t-shirt from “Fat Kids: The Musical.” He flashed me the knowing and too-familiar smile that overweight girls come to expect for lonely, overweight men. “One female groundhog,” he announced, removing the canvas from the hutch with a flourish. “Dinner is served.”
My father examined the creature cautiously, one hand jiggling coins in his pocket. He did not smile. I avoided eye contact with the relocator.
“That was a joke,” said Chet. “I know you're not going to eat her.”
“She doesn't look right,” said my father. “How do you know this is our woodchuck? You could just be bringing me some random animal….”
Chet laughed—a high pitched squeal. “We keep careful track of where we deposit the cargo,” he explained. “We picked up your woodchuck only yards from where we left her. Now I can't prove this is your animal, but the odds are strongly in favor of it….Needless to say, Rodent Holiday makes no guarantees….”
“Of course, it doesn't.” My father held up his thumb and index finger in front of the hutch as though he were measuring the woodchuck. “She looks kind of small... Can you at least tell me where you deposit your cargo?”
“I'm sorry, sir, but that I cannot do. Proprietary secret.”
My father inspected the woodchuck again. He even poked his index finger between the bars of the hutch, but withdrew is quickly at the groundhog's approach.
“Okay, we'll take her.”
Chet mopped perspiration from his broad forehead with the bottom of his shirt, revealing his bare paunch in the process. “That will be cash only,” he said. “No refunds or exchanges.” After my father paid him—retrieving the money from my mother's pocketbook—he opened the hutch; the woodchuck ambled onto the yard. Then he turned to me and asked, “Do you want to see the raccoons and the badgers? I got a whole batch of cargo in the truck.”
“No, she doesn't,” answered my father.
Chet eyed me with sympathy. I didn't want to be rude, but the thought crossed my mind that Jeremy Allen might see us together—and I ran into the house without another word. From the bay windows, I watched as the relocator's truck vanished around Mrs. Steinhoff's rhododendrons, and then as my father followed the groundhog in her jaunt across the grass. I couldn't help noticing that—like pet owners who grow to resembled their dogs or cats—my father and his rodent nemesis had somehow acquired similar manners of walking.
When the mail arrived the next afternoon, none of us were surprised to encounter another envelope postmarked Pontefract. Mr. Whitman had likely mailed the letters several days earlier, my father reassured himself. Nor was he particularly alarmed on day two or day three. But the letter than arrived on day four actually drove my father to tears. He sat at the kitchen table, weeping in frustration, while I read the letter aloud to Mama.
DEAR MR. HAGLAND:
A TRUCK FROM RODENT HOLIDAY ARRIVED THIS MORNING, AND I HOPE YOU CAN UNDERSTAND HOW THIS RAISED MY EXPECTATIONS. ALAS, MR. CHET CARRIED OFF ONE OF THE WOODCHUCKS WHO LIVES IN A NEARBY BURROW.
NEVERTHELESS, THIS INCIDENT GIVES ME HOPE THAT IT IS POSSIBLE TO RETURN TO MY HOME ONCE AGAIN.
PS: THE FORAGE HERE IS AWFUL. I MISS YOUR GLORIOUS TOMATOES AND PEPPERS.
It impressed me how much the letter actually sounded like the voice of a groundhog.
“If I ever find out who's behind this,” said my father. “I swear I won't be responsible for my actions.” He lit a cigarette—the first cigarette I'd seen him smoke in several years; the smoke drifted toward the skylight like a plea for help. “You don't think that company is sending these, do you? As part of some scam?”
Mama opened the window, letting in the muggy August air. “I thought they had an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.”
“Fuck their rating. I swear I'm getting our damn whistle pig back.” My father pounded his fist on the Formica tabletop, rattling the vase that my mother kept freshly stocked with forsythias. “I don't give a rat's ass how much it costs. I don't give a rat's ass if I have to stake out their fucking office and follow them to their cargo deposits. You two may not care if we're publicly humiliated, but I'm not going to stand for it.”
Since Rodent Holiday refused to exchange the new woodchuck, and since my parents were running short on cash, my father decided against relocating the unwanted creature before he made another attempt to lure back Mr. Whitman. “What's the difference between one whistle pig or two?” he demanded. “Or ten for that matter? Let them fight over vegetables for a change….” So when Chet arrived with another female groundhog the following Monday, our rodent population doubled. But the desperate letters kept coming. By the third week of August, we were up to four groundhogs. The creatures sunned themselves in the yard, or scampered playfully in the chrysanthemums, seemingly oblivious to the strife they were caused inside our house. My mother made the mistake of observing the four animals could play a hand of contract bridge-and my father threw his brandy snifter into the plate glass window, shattering both. When Chet arrived with the fifth woodchuck, the elderly Italian lady who lived next door watched us doubtfully from the head of her driveway. Earlier, she'd complained to my parents that their “menagerie” was grazing on her tea roses.
“So this is your last change, Mr. Hagland,” said Chet.
He displayed yet another caged female woodchuck. I followed the proceedings from behind the bay window curtains.
My father frowned. “What's that supposed to mean?”
"We're closing up shop for the autumn soon,” said the relocator. “But more importantly, my boss says we can't keep bringing cargo into a residential neighborhood.”
“You cannot be serious,” objected my father. “There must be ten gazillion whistle pigs in this neighborhood—and you're afraid to bring in one more. This is total bullshit. I should sue the pants off you for discrimination.”
Chet endured this abuse impassively. He held the final hutch in one hand; his other tiny hand rested on his chest. I knew I should feel compassion for the poor guy, but I found myself despising him.
“Maybe you'll get lucky this time, sir,” he said.
“Maybe you should mind your own business,” answered my father. “You better hope you've got the right varmint—or you'll be hearing from my lawyers.”
The creature who exited the hutch was not promising. She looked far scrawnier than Mr. Whitman had—and she favored her left side when she walked, as though she'd suffered a stroke in her absence. Since Labor Day was fast approaching, several of my babysitting gigs dried up, so over the next few days, I was able to watch the crippled animal from the patio. It crossed my mind that Rodent Holiday wasn't retrieving groundhogs from their original destinations at all—it was merely bringing us animals relocated from other yards. For all we knew, they circulated groundhogs from community to community in a giant rodent ponzi operation.
“It's her,” said my father. “I'm sure it's her.”
“Don't count your groundhogs,” warned Mama.
“Screw you,” snapped my father. “I'll count what I want to count.”
When the mail arrived the following afternoon, I was waiting to retrieve the letter emblazoned WOODCHUCK from the box. My father took the envelope—unopened—and burned it with a match over the kitchen sink. He did the same with Wednesday's letter. And Thursday's. But on Friday, for the first time in two months, we received nothing postmarked Pontefract. By Saturday, without another rodent missive, my father was ready to celebrate: He bought six pounds of choice tenderloin and fired up the grill. My mother went to the movies with her sister.
Out in the yard, our five woodchucks engaged in various feats of rodentine gymnastics and frolic. One was supposedly Mr. Whitman, while the others were impostors, but it was impossible to tell them apart.
“Look at that, Molly,” said my father. “There's a lesson in all this. Winning is important—damn important—but it's also important to be flexible.” He spread discount barbecue sauce atop our expensive steak. “Your mother means well, but she's not goal-oriented. That's the difference between us. I want to be remarkable. She's willing to settle for mediocre. Now that you're old enough to start thinking about your future, you should be asking yourself, Do I want to be remarkable? Or am I going to settle for something less?”
That was the last time I remember my father happy, in those final days before he lost his grip on the future. My parents would be separated within three months; by year's end, the Laurendale house—woodchucks and all—would be sold to a developer and divided into flag-lots. I'd never date Jeremy Allen; in fact, after I moved back to the city with my mother, I never saw him again. But that evening, looking out at the cheerful groundhogs cavorting in the twilight, I didn't regret those long bus trips to Pontefract or the pocket money I lost on fewer babysitting hours. To this day, writing those letters is the only truly remarkable thing that I have ever done.