By Con Chapman
Ray was chief of police and Sue Ellen was his wife; Duane was their only son and Sandra their only daughter. When he was younger Duane had learned how to keep himself company while his dad worked for long stretches of time. He took up hobbies that didn’t require a playmate, such as coin collecting and building model cars, which he pursued while he waited for his dad’s day off. When that day came, Duane hoped they could play catch or, better yet, that his dad would pitch to him. If the latter was the case, they would drive over to Veterans Park and his dad, in his undershirt and smoking a cigar, would throw batting practice until his right shoulder was stiff. Those were the best days, but there weren’t that many of them.
When Duane became a teenager, his mother worried that he wasn’t social enough and encouraged him to join a club at school or go out for a sport so that he’d meet new people and make some friends. Duane said no, he was fine.
“You oughta get a job, you’re old enough,” his dad said, but Duane had a different idea.
“There’s an ad in Model Car Science where you can send away and learn how to raise chinchillas in your basement. I’d like to try that.”
His mother didn’t like the idea of a bunch of rodents in the house, even if they were locked in cages.
“We never go down there anymore,” Ray said in support of the boy’s idea.
“Maybe you don’t. I have to do laundry every day.”
“We could move the washer up into the room off the kitchen.”
It had been one of Sue Ellen’s hopes for a long time that they could eventually afford to move the laundry upstairs so she wouldn’t have to walk up and down the basement steps everyday, so she agreed that Duane could turn the basement into his chinchilla farm.
Duane sent off the money to the address in the ad, which read “RAISE CHINCHILLAS AS A HOBBY. Fabulous profits. Small space in your basement, garage, or extra room is all you need.” Two weeks later he received a male and a female in a cardboard box with airholes in the sides, and put them in the pen he had built in the basement.
“I figure I can keep up with them,” Duane said when his dad would come down into the basement to see how he was doing with the cages. “I can swing a hammer pretty good,” and his dad thought, yes he can, unlike some of the guys he had worked with when he was a line manager out at the recreational vehicle plant before he became chief of police. He had to let a lot of them go after a week or two.
Sandra didn’t like the smell from the very first. She complained to her mother that she couldn’t have friends over for cheerleaders’ practice or yearbook meetings. “It stinks up the whole house,” she complained, and her mother had to agree, it certainly didn’t stop at the basement door.
“Maybe he could open up the windows down there,” Ray would say when his schedule gave him a chance to have dinner with Sue Ellen.
“They’re little basement windows. I don’t think that’s going to get the smell out of there.”
“Then he just needs to clean the cages more often.”
“You talk to him.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s down there now.”
Ray went down the stairs and found Duane building cages. “Hey there,” he said.
“Hey,” Duane answered.
“How’s it going?” his dad asked.
“Pretty good. I’m up to 12.”
“Wow—that’s great.” He didn’t know whether it was good, bad or indifferent.
“I want to get up to 200.”
“And then what?”
“Sell ‘em and make a bunch of money.”
“Sure—that’d be terrific.” He paused, then asked “What are you saving up for?”
“I want to buy more.”
Ray considered this for a moment. “I don’t know that we’ve got that much room down here.”
“I can put a wall of cages in the furnace room, too,” Duane said.
“We could do that, I guess.”
“I need some more plywood and screen wire. Can I charge it down at Cash Hardware?”
“How much is it gonna be?”
“I figger forty dollars.”
“All right. But let’s set that as your limit.”
“I don’t want you getting in over your head.”
His dad walked back upstairs and said he’d talked to Duane.
“And he understands?” his mother said.
“Yep,” his dad said, and settled down to read the paper.
Two weeks later there were nine more “chins,” and the new cages that Duane had built were full.
“It smells worse,” Sandra said to her mother.
“Can’t you just go down and yell at him? I want to have Cindy and Donna Lee over for a slumber party Friday.”
“That’s fine. I’ll talk to your father.”
When Ray got home Sue Ellen lit into him before he even took his jacket off, asking him what his deal was with Duane.
“We set a limit. He was gonna build some more cages then sell them off.”
“Well take a whiff, would you?”
Ray sniffed and admitted that the smell couldn’t be ignored.
“I’ll talk to him,” he said.
He picked through the mail, looked out the window over the sink, and headed down the basement steps.
“Hello there,” he announced when he was about halfway down and could see under the basement ceiling.
“Hi,” Duane called back as he continued hammering.
“What’s the update?”
“I’ve got 28, and I’m making a maternity cage to keep the males out after the babies are born.”
“Why do you do that?”
“Otherwise the males get the females pregnant again and wear ‘em out.”
“Oh.” Your mother would appreciate that, he thought, but now wasn’t the time to tell her an amusing anecdote about the sex life of chinchillas. “So who you gonna sell these things to?”
“I sent away for a list of places.”
Ray was silent; that didn’t sound too promising. “Are they pet stores or what?”
“I don’t know—I don’t have the list yet.”
“Well, you’d better get busy on it. The idea was you were gonna sell ‘em.”
Ray went back upstairs. He knew he’d have to start pushing harder, but he felt guilty that the chinchillas were all Duane had. Ray decided he’d do some research on his own. The town library was only two blocks from the police station. Maybe he’d walk over there on his lunch hour—the exercise would do him good.
The next day he went over to the Carnegie Library and asked the librarian for some materials on chinchillas. She picked a few books out of the pets section, showed him the Index to Periodical Literature, then showed him how to do a search on the computer. To get him started, she typed “chinchilla” into a little white slot on the screen, then clicked on a green “go” button, and a list popped up. Ray said thanks to the woman, put his reading glasses on and went to work.
It didn’t take him long to figure out that Duane had been duped. The first article he read was by a state agency in Minnesota that warned people about buying animals to raise for a profit. The attorney general got a cease and desist against one company, and they had to pay a pretty big fine.
So Duane was never going to be able to sell his chinchillas, and Ray would have to come up with a way out of the mess Duane had got himself into. He knew better than to try and press charges against the company that sold the animals; it wasn’t like a breaking and entering case, where the guy was in jail and all he had was a court-appointed lawyer for free. He checked–the company was a long way away, and would have lawyers they paid for. They would wear Ray down, and he didn’t need that at this point in his life.
When he got home that night Ray told Duane he needed to talk to him, upstairs in his room. He sat down in Duane’s desk chair and Duane sat on his bed.
“I did a little research on chinchillas today, which you probably shoulda done before you got started.”
Duane just sat there, taking it in.
“You’re never going to be able to sell those things. I checked into it today.”
“Dad I can sell them . . .”
“I went to the library and read up on ‘em. It’s a scam.”
“A what?” Duane asked.
“They take your money but they don’t come through on their promises.”
“You’re not going to be able to sell them for a lot of money.”
Duane was silent. “I don’t need to sell them. I’d just as soon keep them.”
“We can’t keep thirty critters in the basement. They’ll eat us out of house and home. Plus they’re breeding all the time.”
“I’ll get a job.”
“You should be saving your money for college, not to feed a bunch of rodents.”
Duane said nothing for a moment.
“I’ll work with you to get rid of ‘em,” Ray said. “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it, but we’ll figure out something.” Ray got up and as he moved past Duane into the hall, patted him on the shoulder and said “Live and learn, son—live and learn.”
Ray didn’t see it but Duane started crying once he was gone. Duane felt bad that he was crying—he was too old and his dad hadn’t yelled at him. He didn’t do anything dramatic, like throwing himself on his pillow or slamming his door shut, but he couldn’t stop crying, and it showed on his face, so he couldn’t deny it when Sandra walked out of her room, stopped, and asked why he was crying.
“None of your business,” he said.
“Dad told you to get rid of those stupid rats, didn’t he?”
“They’re not rats.”
“I told you so.”
“You didn’t tell me anything.”
“I told you to get rid of them—same difference,” Sandra said as she walked off.
Duane got on his computer after he had calmed down and started searching for people who would buy chinchillas. After ten minutes he gave up and began to write down the addresses of places that would adopt them. He didn’t know what he was going to do if he had any left over; maybe he could sell them at school.
He decided to take a card table to school and set it up in the cafeteria at noon time for a week. One girl was interested—she took the chin out of its portable cage and held it up close to her face—but the next day she told Duane her mother wouldn’t let her. There was one kid dressed all in black who said he might be interested, but Duane didn’t want him to have one—he thought he’d kill it for fun.
By Friday the curiosity of Duane’s chinchilla enterprise had worn off and no one even stopped to talk to him. When his dad got home he greeted Duane with a “Howdy, partner,” as if he was expecting to hear great news. “How’d it go today?”
“Not so great. Still didn’t sell any.”
Stay positive, his dad thought. “Well, you might offer to give a few away, just to drum up some interest. Lots of stores do that.”
“I don’t think it’s gonna help. The kids go home and ask their parents and they say no.”
Ray had known for a while that it was going to end this way. “Let’s go down in the cellar,” he said as he got up, and the boy went ahead of him. Ray reached under the sink and took a trash bag out of the box and followed.
It would be a hard lesson to learn, but it was one he had to teach, he thought.
“We won’t do this all at once, but we’re gonna have to start getting rid of these little fellas,” he said. “Empty out a couple of cages into this bag.”
Duane’s eyes misted up, but he did what he was told, lifting eight chins out of their cages one by one and dropping them into the bag. When his dad said “That’s enough” they went upstairs and into the garage, where his dad took a spare brick, put it in the sack, tied the top in a knot and put it in the back of his pickup truck.
They drove in silence a few miles to a bridge over a man-made lake, out beyond where the houses ended. Ray turned on his emergency flasher, stopped his truck, got out and walked around to Duane’s side. “Get out,” he said as he pulled the trash bag over the side of the truck.
“Here—take this,” Ray said as he handed the bag to Duane.
Duane took the bag and held it in his hand.
“Drop it in.”
“Do I have to?”
“You brought ‘em into this world—you’re gonna have to put ‘em under.”
Duane took the bag and walked over to the rail. He looked down into the brown-green water, felt the life within the bag, lifted it over the rail–and let it drop.
The bag hit the water with a softer sound than he expected, then sank out of sight as the brick pulled it down. Duane watched it for a few seconds, then turned around and looked his dad in the eyes.
“Better get used to it,” his dad said. “We got quite a few to go.”
They got in the car but before they could get started another truck pulled up beside them and the driver rolled down his passenger-side window.
“Hey Ray,” the driver yelled. “Whatcha got there—a cat that needs an operation?”
“Hey Vern. Naw–something more exotic.”
“Chinchillas,” he replied, with an emphasis that made Duane sink down in his seat.
“Oh—can’t you make your wife a coat out of ‘em?”
“Naw—I’m no good at sewin’. This here’s my boy, Duane. He raised ‘em but we got too many now.”
“Oh—okay. Well, I can’t use ‘em neither,” the driver said with a smile. “See ya.”
“See ya,” Ray said as the man pulled away from them.
Ray turned the ignition, put the car in gear and, after checking his rear view mirror out of habit, drove off.
“We’ll come out here every night after I get off work until we’re rid of them,” Ray said.
“All of ‘em?” Duane asked.
“You can keep a couple of males if you want, but you better make sure ‘cause I don’t want no procreatin’ once we’re done.”
When they got home Ray went to the living room to watch the news and Duane went down into the basement. He looked at the stacked cages, and counted the chins that remained—twenty of them. He watched their little cheeks chewing away, and thought of them sinking into the water, which they never would have felt before.
He started at the top left-hand cage–unhooking the latch and opening the door. He moved his hand to the right, undid the hook that secured the door, and continued until all of the cage doors were open. He walked into the furnace room, banged the metal bolt of the bulkhead door to the right, and opened it up. Some of the chins were out of their cages by now, scurrying around without any sense of which way to go. He took them one by one and walked them up the steps to the back yard, where he put them down on the ground and watched as they ran off.
Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer, author most recently of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award from Hot Club de France. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and a number of literary magazines.