I have often said that distractions are one of the biggest challenges writers face in planning, writing, and finishing a manuscript. Life is messy and could care less about book deadlines. People, pets, family, random strangers, and Mother Nature are all lurking out there, ready to knock us off course when we least expect it.
Since mid-March, when I blazed a path out of state to enjoy a vacation and recuperate from the stress of teaching scene structure to young, resistant minds, varmints of several types and varieties held a meeting and decided to focus on distracting me as much as possible. Some have been amusing; others, not so much.
In short, I have been wrangling critters. My mind has focused more on waging war in real life than in my fiction. And my work in progress has fallen behind schedule as a result. Steven Pressfield, author of THE WAR OF ART, would call this a sure sign that my manuscript is worthy of continuance, since so many factors have been hindering it. Let’s hope so!
Distraction #1: Squirrels invaded the attic. Moved in. Set up a little family. Called it good.
I found myself suddenly hearing thumping and scratching noises above the ceiling, usually over the head of my bed. Awakening to this, aware that something was up there, and suspecting initially that a colony of mice had taken over, I veered from thoughts of How did they get in? Where is the hole? to How much does a pest company charge? to Who can I talk into sprinkling poison in the attic? to Will the poison’s off-gassing make me sick? to Should I move? to If a poisoned mouse staggers into the yard and my dogs find it, will they be poisoned as well? to Should I move? to Am I a wimp? to Of course I’m not moving!
As the crashing, thuds, gnawing, and romping grew daily louder, I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Trapdoor.” A woman suddenly notices a door to her attic that’s never been there before. After her initial surprise, she convinces herself that it’s always been there. In a few days, she hears noises in the attic. She calls an exterminator. He goes up to investigate, but he never comes down. And finally, whatever is up there gets the protagonist.
Such stories should never be read by people with over-active imaginations. I had to take myself firmly in hand.
I was busy with work and writing. I procrastinated as long as possible. Given that the noises began at 8 a.m. and I left for work at that hour, I was mainly able to ignore the situation.
Then one day I found a tiny acorn in my lawn. It was partially chewed, and I knew that I had squirrels instead of mice. I don’t know who on my street has an oak tree. Only in the past few months have squirrels entered my subdivision at all. We are treeless, raw, new. We are not a good environment for tree dwellers. A few of the oldest houses have achieved normal-sized trees. Everyone else has saplings tied with stakes. However, since the winter there have been squirrel sightings. Like soldier ants, only slower, the squirrel invasion has been coming.
I picked up the acorn and laughed at it, and thought to myself that the bushy-tailed rodents were probably romping across my rooftop.
Not a problem! I like squirrels. I find them pretty and their antics amusing. I used to live in a historic area endowed with enormous pecan and oak trees. Squirrels swarmed everywhere and raided my bird feeders like gymnastic pirates. We co-existed just fine. Squirrels will give my dogs something to do, I thought.
Then the semester ended, and I sat down in the quiet peace of my home to read and evaluate student novel manuscripts. The noises bounced all over the attic. I couldn’t ignore them. And I knew I had been kidding myself. They weren’t on the roof. They were under it.
This time, when I raced around the house to check, I found their access hole. A broken screen to a soffit vent, right over the gate. How convenient for them.
How alarming for me.
I thought of chewed wires and a destroyed air conditioner. I thought of fires. I thought of having to hire electricians to rewire my house. I thought of my scrawny savings account that couldn’t cover such expensive repairs. Did my homeowner’s insurance cover squirrel damage?
It was time for reinforcements.
My handyman fixed the broken screen, and thumped around in the attic in an attempt to scare them out before he nailed the screen back in place. He is not a young man. I had visions of him perishing of heatstroke and/or falling through the ceiling. He managed to get down safely, but the squirrels hid in my fluffy insulation and went nowhere.
Now I had a new problem. Squirrels sealed in the attic.
“They should have left. Now they’ll die up there,” I declared.
“Yep,” agreed the handyman. “The heat’ll get ’em sure.”
He drove off, leaving me vacillating between murderous glee (a squirrel in the attic is like a weed; it has to be eliminated!) and compassion (poor things; I don’t want them to suffer).
I thought about dying squirrels and the stench to come. I called the pest control people. “Get them out!”
They told me what it would cost for their subcontractor trapper to come and get them out.
I reconsidered and drove to the ranch supply place to buy myself a trap. Yes, instead of writing a book or grading papers, I was standing in a store stacked with chicken feed, horse toys, and live-animal traps. There were two sizes in stock: huge, tunnel-shaped contraptions designed for raccoons or foxes, and squirrel traps. I picked up the latter box, which announced the trap’s capacity for holding 15 squirrels.
My imagination grabbed that and ran with it. Just how many squirrels were in my attic? I could have conducted a Google search to discover how many squirrels are typically in a litter, but time was wasting. I had a trap to set.
The process was simple. I positioned the trap–a flat wire cage about 30 inches square and six inches tall, equipped with entry doors and a release door in the top. This thing was designed somewhat like the Hotel California in that old Eagles song. Once you’re in, you can never leave.
I baited it with fat, prime pecans from my freezer and after much thought, a tuna-fish can of water.
The next morning, at 8 a.m., bam! Commotion, crashing, banging, rattling. Yessirree, I had me a squirrel.
Call me Trapper Deb.
I fetched my leather gardening gloves and climbed the attic stairs. As my head came even with the attic floor, I found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with my captive.
I had caught the mother squirrel.
She was huge, maybe twice the size of the OU campus squirrels I’ve become used to, with a fine pelt and a luxurious tail. Although the pest control people assured me squirrels were easy to handle because they were “skittish, and just hide at the far side of the trap,” this I immediately found to be untrue.
Mama was as fierce as the Queen in the movie Aliens. She was soaking wet from having splashed her way through the dish of water. Skittish was the last word in her vocabulary. She was feral. She was a wild creature. She was defending her young. And she aimed to get me if she could.
Every time I reached for the handle, she charged my hand. Having no desire to lose a finger to this snappish rodent, I cautiously determined that she couldn’t quite reach me. Even so, she remained on the warpath while I carefully lowered her from the attic.
I had laid my plans. Not wanting to haul her in my car, although I knew she needed to be taken a far distance before release, I had decided to carry her to the back of my subdivision where new streets had recently been cut. There was a pond there and trees.
It seemed easy to do. It wasn’t. She wouldn’t be still. She charged here and there, hissing and chattering at me. She lunged at me. She glared. She climbed back and forth. She tried to leap through the openings of the cage, skinning her nose in the process. The farther I walked, the heavier she and the trap became. The morning grew hot. I rested. Finally she rested. I walked. She lunged and fussed.
At last I reached the spot. I laid the trap down and waited until she’d zoomed to the far corner of the trap before gingerly opening the release door. She wouldn’t leave. She was so focused on glaring at me in full killer-squirrel mode that she didn’t realize she was free.
It was squirrel standoff.
Finally I circled the trap and stood on the opposite side. She rotated to keep her beady eyes on me. In doing so, she realized her head was free. In a flash of brown fur, she streaked across the grass to the trees and was gone from sight.
Did I take her picture? Duh, no. I was focused on the reality of the experience, instead of a virtual moment.
Sighing, I picked up my trap and trudged home. Mama was likely to beat me back, depending on the size of her babies. I set the trap again and waited.
Next morning, at 8 a.m., crashing, thundering banging, whumping. I had caught another squirrel.
Except I had two. Fine sassy fellows, larger than I expected. They were simply wild, not fierce warriors like their mama. Half-grown and plenty big enough to be weaned. Although they weren’t fighting me, they were crazy-active. One even got cute and hid for a moment under his tail. Even so, I decided I wasn’t quite up to the task of carrying them out of the attic.
My handyman fetched them down for me, and since he had a pickup we loaded them in the back and took them for a drive until we found a spot away from houses, with trees and water nearby. Then he opened the release door and shook them out.
I reset the trap once more, feeling confident that Trapper Deb could do the job. Pecans and water. Everything in place. The pest control people told me that if nothing came to the trap for a couple of days, I had them all. This time, I promised myself, I would take a picture.
The next morning at 8 a.m., silence.
I climbed the attic stairs. My trap stood empty. Yet all the bait was gone. Even the nuts inside the trap had been taken.
That was weird. How had the critter done it without getting caught?
Aha, I had a sneaky, wily squirrel.
I fetched more pecans and placed them carefully. I checked the water in the tuna-fish can. Everything was set.
Next morning, silence. I checked the trap. All the bait was there. And is still there, after several days of puzzled checking.
I’ve found no more broken screens. I’ve heard no more scratching and thumping overhead. I’ve smelled nothing amiss. All is quiet in the attic.
Except what ate the bait? Ray Bradbury, why oh why did you write “Trapdoor?”