By Brian Druckenmiller
The uncle jerry-rigs a leash for Walter, his hamster, using fishing line and the rubber band bracelet his niece wove for him a month before she drowned. The bands have begun to wither, some singeing away like slow dynamite fuses, and the colors have dulled—even the once vibrant teal, his niece’s favorite.
“Teal is my favorite, too,” he remembers saying as she sat cross-legged on her bedroom carpet, alive, fashioning a fishtailed bracelet with her rubber band loom. Using a long plastic hook like a dental tool, she pulled teal on top of black on top of gold on top of teal.
“I thought I was your favorite,” she replied. She set her utensils down and squeezed his hand with her cotton grip.
Walter was originally hers, and she was an excellent hamster parent. Walter’s belly was always full of pellets, his water bottle always topped off, and his plastic cage never lined with soggy, smelly wood shavings. She even gave him a small, bean-stuffed squirrel named Peanut. As she would always say, “Everyone needs a friend or two.”
Once she died, Walter became the uncle’s only friend—the only one who didn’t blame him. Sure, he may have been babysitting, but did everyone forget how much he loved her? How much she loved him? Blame the world. Blame God. Blame the inground pool. The unlocked door. But don’t blame him.
The uncle had to leave, so he snagged his only friend and absconded south.
Now, they live in a low-rent, unairconditioned studio apartment furnished with a stiff green couch on which the uncle sleeps and sits and watches Walter, whose cage rests on the dirty, cream-colored carpet where a television should be. During the day, Walter sleeps under unchanged wood chips, emerging at night to run and run and run on his rickety wheel, his little hamster legs tangling. The unoiled wheel squeaks like rusty playground equipment, so Walter is often placed into a plastic orange ball in which he navigates the studio. If his niece were alive, she’d enjoy watching Walter bump into the refrigerator or the baby blue bathroom walls, laughing so hard she’d forget to breathe.
Today, Walter has run out of pellets, knocking his globe into the front door, as if wanting to go to Pet Supermarket himself. The uncle would love to buy Walter more food, though the little money he had would be better suited for his own diet. He’s being responsible. He truly is. What if the uncle were to starve and die? Then what? Walter wouldn’t stand a chance. Don’t blame the uncle. Blame the economy. The job market. Anything.
But, if Walter wants fresh air, he should have fresh air, right? Why not take him out of the ball and let him breathe a bit? Why shouldn’t Walter have a leash?
If only his niece were there. Why did her mother insist on an inground pool?
The uncle strums the fishtailed rubber, part of him expecting to produce music. The thought of using the bracelet for the leash tightens around his ribs, but, when wrapped around Walter’s chubby, furry frame (a difficult task in itself, Walter being quite squirmy), the bracelet is loose enough to prevent suffocation yet tight enough to serve as the perfect harness. The uncle loops the fishing line around the rubber several times, and they head outside.
Not even six steps out, the uncle sweats from everywhere an uncle’s pale body can. Walter, unaccustomed to actual freedom, takes a few steps down the sidewalk, wiggles his snout, takes a few more, and repeats that process. The uncle tugs Walter along and spots his neighbors, dressed in bright colors, talking behind cupped hands. Words pile into his throat that beg to be yelled, but he doesn’t yell. Let them judge. Somewhere in the sky or perhaps right there with him, his niece is drowning in giggles.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent grass, two squirrels play tag around decorative spruces, their chirps bouncing across the parking lot’s cracked pavement. The uncle feels a tug that pulls the line tight toward the squirrels, until the pull fades and the fishing line droops to the ground. Walter and the bracelet scuttle away. The uncle steps forward to snatch Walter, but retracts, the sweat pasting him to the sidewalk.
Damn squirrels! They clearly egged Walter on, their cheerful chirps sounding like inside jokes. Yet, had the uncle nabbed Walter’s friend before leaving, maybe Peanut’s fabric-softened pelt and bean-filled belly would’ve convinced Walter to stay. “Everyone needs a friend or two,” his niece had said. Now, Walter has them.
The uncle feels a small, soft squeeze on his hand. He can’t see anything, but he knows it’s her. It could only be her. So, he squeezes back. Together, they watch their friend Walter run and stop and wiggle and run through the sunlit grass to his new friends—wrapped in teal, black, and gold rubber that will weaken, snap, and fall off somewhere in the universe where the colors will continue to dull until they are finally dead.