on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community



by Rachel Haas

The hedgehog is in a cage on top of the piano, next to college photos of me and my brother. Mother leads me to it first thing—past the dogs bowing and cowing by the door, past the cat on the dining room table, past Father asleep on the sofa next to a box of empty chocolate wrappers.

"It eats meal worms," she whispers.

With a pair of white work gloves, she scoops up the spiny, huff-puffing ball that spits in intervals, like a tea kettle. We wait, wait, for the hedgehog's face, and then there it is, barely—not ghoulish and silly as I expected, but open and simple and, because of the heart shape the hair and quills make around it, almost pretty. On the coffee table, there's a book: Hedgehogs. On the cover, a hedgehog face, magnified three times—an almost human face, long-nosed and open, simple black eyes in a bonnet.

"They won't eat cold food," Mother says. "So I heat the meal worms in the microwave for her."

Meal worms in the fridge again. I remember now—they stay cool and alive that way. Father used to use them as fish bait, stored them in a small, skittish container next to the lunch meats, in a plastic cup like the delis put their coleslaw in. Mom's worms now.

"There's a breeder in Canada," she calls from the kitchen.

The dogs are confused. They sniff my legs, circle me, bump into each other, follow my mother into the kitchen, return to me. Same, but different. Same, but different.

The cat, who has not moved from the center of the dining room table, has been spying on us through slitted eyes. This, she says, is how it has always been. I squint back at her. There were never nearly so many blue wooden angels with straw hair, plastic wrap with holly leaves on it, country-print cloth place mats, snowmen with pantyhose faces—nor this cat. Before this cat was another, a Siamese, who still lives here but barely, who stops me when I go upstairs to unpack, howling at me as if for her life. She has not been herself since my brother and I moved out and the dogs moved in. She hides all day in Mother's bedroom. Father's bedroom, too, of course, but to the cat, it was always Mom's. She meows and meows for my hand and retreats from it when I offer. I remember when she had more rights to the reclining chair than I had. Now her fur is greasy and unkempt, her face round and fat. Her eyes no longer gaze from icy calm cat depths, but flit vacuously from side to side. She never, Mother says, leaves the room except to pee.

The new cat leaves her post to follow me, to show me her intimate knowledge of my room. She snoops in my suitcase, dives under the bed, reappears in my closet. "Cat!" I say. But she and I will probably spend many nights together, for we have a common appreciation for the cool, blue room.

The older dog, too, has followed. He peeks shyly around the corner. He remembers I sometimes don't like him in my room. And other times I feel generous and invite him in with a slap on the knee and a welcoming squeal. He peeks shyly and disappears.

The room is full of my mother's things. Quilts, sheets of cotton stuffing, poster board, a giant cut-out pumpkin with open-shut panels on it showing the different phases of growth, sewing machine, a stack of five denim pillow cases, glitter glue, stationery box painted with blue flowers in my mother's hand. It's the influence of the other school teachers. They swap crafts; they wear them as pins and necklaces. The kids can sense it and buy them more. Country crocks and earth-baked mugs, glass apples, and pig-faced potholders. Downstairs, it almost overruns Father's deer heads and squirrel tails, collectors' rifles, and knives mounted on velvet.

From the edge of my bed, I can see all the way down the hallway, down the stairs, and into the living room, where my mother sits in the recliner chair. She is cradling the hedgehog and plopping a still meal worm in the crook of her arm before its nose, which wiggles slightly beneath beady eyes that stare in fear, while she murmurs to it, waiting for the eyes and nose to warm up and move towards the food.

"Did you know Matthew was interviewed by US News and World Report?" Mother asks about my brother, who can't make it home.

"His platoon was testing a new telecommunications device in the field," Father says, then laughs. "When the reporter asked him what he thought of it, he threw the equipment on the ground."

Around the table, my family is silent, waiting for me to defend this "new technology," since I live and work now in Silicon Valley. But I am a techie only to them. In Silicon Valley, I am a technophobe, a writer of manuals who yearns for a world in which new gadgets require less rather than more of my explanation. Like a teenager who has nothing to say of what she learned in school today, I say nothing.

My grandfather makes the save.

"Those ... phone salespeople," he says. He shakes his head. "They speak so fast, I can't understand a word they say."

My grandfather can turn any conversation to telemarketing.

"You should tell them your 75-year-old brain just doesn't think fast enough," my grandmother says.

"I ought to start speaking to them in Pennsylvania Dutch, is what I ought to do," he says, trembling with emotion.

"Rachel," Mother says, "that's what you should do when that happens to you in California. Speak Spanish! You still remember it from college, don't you? Oh. Well, I guess that wouldn't work in California," she says sadly.

My uncle detests his wife. Everything she says, he wrinkles his nose at. When she asks him a question, his response is a sharp "What?" or "I don't know. Jees!" But she continues, talking and asking him questions. She never gives up. He never finds his patience. It is clear to anyone who has not seen them for years: he hates her for still loving him, long after they've both gotten so fat.

The process of getting to know the cousins again has not changed. Everyone is shy at first. When we were younger, I suppose we hid behind our mothers' skirts or kicked a ball around until someone was bold enough to join in. Then the giggling would begin, and the re-acquaintance was complete. It's like that now, only now we wait for Luke, the oldest cousin, to tell one of his funny stories to warm us up. To our relief, he can still tell them. He is married and has a baby. He has a beard that looks like Spanish moss. He talks very slowly and wears overalls. It is part hillbilly affectation, part real. His sister, Sarah, has become her father's daughter. She has fun with him, jokes with him, and he enjoys it back. He lavishes all the love he no longer has for his wife on her.

Sam, the youngest, has completely grown up. Certainly he is now the biggest of the three. And the least hairy. Quiet. Not as much an outdoorsman as the others. I caught him—just a glimpse—giving me one of those looks he used to give me more regularly and more clearly when I was in college and he was still a growth spurt. It is only a glint now, something in the back of his head that is barely there—but there. A look like he knows I'm his cousin, but I sure look like one of those city women on TV.

My boyfriend calls, and my mother passes me the phone. Chris met my parents when they visited California and impressed them with his knowledge of his home state. He does not join me for the holidays because, "the thought of traveling in the air, on the holidays, only to be driven four hours from the airport in a snow storm to sleety mountains where you can't even ski, trapped inside an overheated house full of dogs while your father chain smokes one after another," is not his idea of a good time. "I love you," he says and I say it back, blurting it into the silence my family creates by looking down at their plates and eating, but being respectful. Even Sam.

During dessert and coffee, Father becomes animated. A cop and a quiet man, he used to frighten my friends when I brought them home. Now, in his retirement, his grizzly gray hair, which he has taken to growing long and wearing in a ponytail, is reminiscent of the Siamese cat's flailing, crazy locks. (Later I learn from a friend in town that when Father and the volunteer firefighters helped out in Oregon two years ago, her husband saw him running through the burning forests, shouting, "We've got to save God's trees! We've got to save God's trees!")

He pops a cassette tape into the radio, turns up the volume, and looks to me, whom, since picking up the clarinet at age ten, he has dubbed the musical member of the family.

"Steve Earl," he says. "Have you ever heard of Steve Earl? Listen. Are those bagpipes?"

I don't know.

"It sounds computerized," I say.

After dinner, Mother shows me a software program she bought to learn sign language. "It's supposed to be animated, with sound and everything, but look." On the screen, the shadows of hands in a sea of blue and red grains look like a color blindness test.

"I called the software people, and they told me it was a problem with the sound card in my computer. So I called the computer people, and they helped me change all the settings on my computer, and it still didn't work. So they said to call the software people! Now I don't want to call them back. Will you call them? Maybe you know better than I do—you know, the magic words."

When I finish with the man on the phone ("It should work," he says finally, weakly), I meet my mother in the hallway and, into her hands, transfer the software CD. "Return it," I say.

A lesson for Mom in assertiveness.

On the bookshelf behind the computer are books I never realized I grew up with: Contact, by Carl Sagan; Armor Attacks: The Tank Platoon—An Interactive Exercise In Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership, by John F. Antals with a foreword by General Richard E. Cavazos, U.S.A Army (ret.); Trapping And Tracking, by Clawson; and Snakes—Three Full-Color Pull-Out Posters Inside.

I try to recall some of the books on Chris's parents' shelves: Chinese-English, English-Chinese Dictionary; Dealing with a Genius Child; Best Women's Short Stories; and Organic Chemistry.

My grandmother's gift to me is a Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook. At first I feign interest, but soon I begin to read. A recipe for "Homemade Bologna" calls for 50 pounds of beef, 10 pounds of pork, and 2-1/2 ounces of salt peter dissolved in warm water. The directions: "Make bags from new muslin. With seams on outside, fill with bologna mixture. Smoke."

There's even a recipe for "Squirrel Pot Pie." I thought my grandmother made that up herself. And I remember the meat now—gray and pleasant and mild, like a squirrel's fur.

My grandmother watches me and, before I can thank her politely, says firmly, almost tearfully—as she often does when she says something heartfelt to her reserved, German family—"I'm not going to let you forget where you come from!"

She is actually sitting under a hex sign. It's hanging above the fireplace. She must have half a dozen in her own home, but in my parents' there is only this one. Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs are used to ward off evil spirits from houses and barns. They usually hang outside, above a doorway, beneath the awning where the roof peaks. They are always round and symmetrical. Two flowers bending in towards or out from each other. Two bird figurines, arcing in or out. The colors are primary—blue, red, yellow. There are two of everything, two leaves, two petals, two curlicues, mirrored. I should ask my grandmother why they are always round and symmetrical, but I don't feel like it. Isn't it better a mystery? It has something to do with evil spirits.

Next year, Chris comes with me because we're engaged. And because it's summer. The mountains are blue and green, the skies are confused. I had forgotten. He takes to the hedgehog. There was a Wall Street Journal article about the new "hedgehog" craze, and he finds it amusing. But he has always liked little creatures. ("Then why do you like me?" I tease him.) He pulls out the hedgehog every evening, when it's awake, holds it in his hand and waits and waits for it to smooth itself and become animated. It walks across his folded arms, into his lap, along the couch.

One night, he says, "Its nails need to be trimmed. Let's trim its nails."

"I don't think that's a good idea," I say. He has not grown up with animals; he doesn't know not to meddle in such things. The last time one of the dogs that Father rescued from the pound tangled with a porcupine for the third time in a row, Father did not take it to the vet. He grabbed his pistol and walked with it to the woods. The dog twisted its head this way and that as if trying to rub the quills out on the ground, while Father pulled it along.

"Oh, come on," Chris says. "I'll hold its little leg, and you clip."

"No way."

"Come on. Let's just try its back feet then. Look at those things. They are really long."

I roll my eyes and look for the nail clippers. The hedgehog is calm and animated, but when Chris grabs its spidery paw, it curls up into a softball and hisses. It is hard to see where its toes end and the nail begins. I snip off the tiniest amount I can. "I'm not going for this," I say and snip again.

We stop, and Chris waits for the ball to unfold itself again. It has a short memory.

Each night, Chris pulls out the hedgehog and takes it for a stroll along the couch while Mother takes pictures and exclaims how calm it looks.

A few weeks after we return to California, my mother writes ("say 'hello' to Chris!") and postscripts that Prickles has died. "The vet thinks it was some infection on her leg. Anyway, they only live six years in captivity, and I think she was four."

She says she does not plan on getting another.

Rachel Haas is from a small town in western Pennsylvania. She has lived in the Silicon Valley for six years and works as a technical writer. Her hobbies include cross-country skiing, road trip vacations, and taiko (Japanese drumming).

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