Continued from a previous post:
Two months later, Cal boarded a plane at Heathrow with the squirrel scene in tow, carefully wrapped. Security, suspecting something dangerous, made him tear off the paper. Taxidermied squirrels, apparently, posed no immediate terrorist or biohazard threat, and while the airport employees were obviously unsettled, they were obligated to let Cal pass.
Cal’s rewrapping job, executed with used tape on a narrow bench just past the metal detectors, was hasty and imperfect. As he carried the glass case to his gate, he noticed that a few lethargic, early morning travelers peered through the gaps in the paper, squinting at the suggestion of a paralyzed paw or startling at a fixed, beady eye.
Back in Virginia, Cal moved the squirrels around his tiny, unimpressive apartment methodically, trying them in different lighting and against various textures, an art dealer trying to place a new piece. Taxidermied squirrels, he concluded, were inappropriate for the living room, as they distracted one from the television set. The kitchen didn’t have enough counter space, and the small, closet-like room Cal used as an office demanded more serious decor.
In a flash of what he thought was inspiration, Cal had hauled the squirrels into the bathroom and attempted to fit the glass case onto the tiny, faux marble vanity that surrounded the sink. Who needs magazines, Cal thought, when you have chess-playing squirrels to contemplate in those quiet bathroom moments? You could study their game, determine which player had the advantage, quietly suggest to the losing squirrel a particularly crafty maneuver. But that only lasted for about two days. The first time Cal had to go in the middle of the night — when he padded barefoot into the bathroom, still foggy from sleep, and switched on the light to reveal the suspended game– he had swiftly relocated the case to the coat closet. Those whiskers seemed to quiver at 2 am.
Eventually, Cal decided to install the squirrels permanently on a wide shelf above his headboard. When he was lying in bed, they floated above his head like a particularly creepy dream made material. Squirrels at chess, competing for possession of his soul!
He had invited Elsie, a friend and graduate student in history, over to his apartment a few weeks after his return to examine the squirrels. Elsie’s declared scholarly interest was economic shifts in nineteenth-century England, but she harbored a serious interest in kitsch. The bookshelves in her own tiny, unimpressive apartment were lined with Victoriana she’d managed to collect from ebay auctions and flea markets. She was particularly proud of a pair of silver salt cellars, each adorned with a round-cheeked cherub, but Cal envied instead her near-complete collection of “Aladdin” characters from a Skelt’s juvenile toy theater.
“It looks like a Walter Potter diorama.” Elsie was standing on Cal’s bed in her tennis shoes to observe the scene from above. She left dusty footprints on the comforter he’d bought for ten dollars on clearance at Wal-Mart.
“Who’s Walter Potter?”
“He was this big-time taxidermist. He was, like, the master of dressing dead kittens in bonnets and petticoats.”
“These squirrels,” noted Cal, “are naked.”
“True. Maybe this is an earlier piece, or the work of a different taxidermist. But it’s worth investigating. Did the shop owner have any information for you?”
“I didn’t think to ask. It was kind of an impulse buy.”