Attack of the Poisonous Mongoose
Leaving the city at mid-morning, we headed east. I rested on my stomach facing to the front, sprawled contentedly on a pile of camping supplies our father had packed behind the rear seat. From my spot in back, the heads and shoulders of two younger sisters framed the three adults sitting abreast in front. Father drove while mother sat between him and her brother, Otho.
Inching forward slightly, I whispered,
Donna shot me a dark look before turning to huddle up against her window. She drew both knees to her chin, and a wordless scowl on her face told me the hateful taunt still worked well.
“Stop it, children!” Mother called from over her shoulder. I saw my dad’s eyes flash in his mirror, and I scooted back. Alma looked over at Donna and put on her feigned expression of shock, while Otho, with one arm draped across the top of his bench seat, attempted to talk seriously to my dad in his loud voice.
“I was just thinking, Allen, what you should do…”
Ever since my dad had hired him, my uncle felt a need to offer new plans and strategies for improving the family business. I knew my mother sat staring straight ahead with a pinch-lipped sneer on her face while listening to him drone on and on, for ever so often she would scoff and puncture one of his wild ideas with a sharp burst of air, and then slowly shake her head as he kept rambling.
Otho somehow managed to ignore this when he was sober. Father, however, always humored his brother-in-law. In fact, he seemed to encourage him good-naturedly. But around every third time she made one of her hissing sounds, he’d retort,
“Oh, Thelma, be quiet now.”
Like that was going to happen. Alma broke out her make-up case and I rolled over on my back and found a high place to rest my head. As the miles rolled by I poured over a new copy of Mad Magazine while the adults carried on with each other up front. The girls stayed silent for the first half of the trip.
The hour’s drive to reach the edge of the Texas caprock takes all the joy away from looking at passing scenery, comprised mainly of endless stretches of flat and bleak plains. Whatever catches the eyes lets them go in a hurry; distant trees, all greenish-gray, massed together in small groups and set on far horizons, and then mile after dulling mile of fast-passing rows of wheat or cotton. An irrigation pump close to the road might slide by quickly, but scattered farm buildings, set so far off the highway that they appear as lackluster specks, pass slowly from view.
Even signs are rare along this route, showing up more on the outskirts of far-apart settlements. Otho ran out of steam as we approached the first one, and I smelled the odor of pipe tobacco.
I stowed my magazine and scooted forward to stick my head over the seat back. Giving Donna a buck-toothed and cross-eyed look, I made the slightest of sounds.
The girl snorted, and then she snarled and jerked her legs down. Alma put her hands to her face and giggled while our dad pulled into a gas station.
She always reacted this way, our youngest sister. For some never-explained reason, she hated a particular song included among the many we played over and over as children. And when we discovered how much she hated it, we played it more.
I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea
Throughout the years we honed the sing-song phrase down to fish, and if we timed it right, only the first hissing sound of the word would bring us instant feedback.
She, in turn, eventually pared her angered response of “Leave me alone!” to an explosive guttural noise.
Father twisted and stretched, standing beside his opened driver’s door. “You kids want to get out for a minute?”
Otho and mother stayed behind, but we ran inside the front door to a waiting soda machine. After elbowing for first place, I turned around while chugging on my cold drink, and as the girls decided what flavor they wanted, I saw a long wooden crate setting on the counter near a cash register.
On one side, crude red letters spelled out Danger! Poisonous Mongoose!
I remembered reading stories about these strange snake killers from India, so taking another sip, I stepped up closer to see one first-hand.
A heavy mesh screen covered the top half. After peering down inside and shading my face with one hand, I could make out one small water bowl on the floor of the cage, along with a half-eaten corn cob, some scattered kernels and a gnawed chicken bone. No dangerous animal waited inside to growl up at me. But then I spied part of a furry tail.
“Hey, ya’ll come here quick and look.”
The three of us then leaned our heads close together.
“There’s nothing there,” Donna complained.
“Yeah there is. See? Look in that hole over at the one side.”
The second half of the crate was enclosed, but from a small opening leading out into the empty chamber, some coarse silver-and-gray hairs of a tail could be seen. Donna craned her neck and asked,
“What is it?”
“It’s a mongoose, and they are poisonous.”
“Ooo,” Alma said, and then she pointed out,
“But he’s not moving.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, he’s asleep, silly. Mongooses are mostly nocturnal.”
“I want to see. Move over some.”
A large shape then stepped inside the office.
“You kids better get away from that there box. Can’t ya’ll read none?”
A gruff gas attendant hovered behind us, wiping his hands on a shop towel, so we backed away quickly, fearful of his stern look. He stepped in between us three kids and up to the wooden crate, and then while stuffing the rag in a back pocket, he leaned over slightly and glanced down in the cage.
“I ‘spect ya’ll do want to see the little fellow, huh.”
We all three took a small step closer, nodding as one.
His face kept a somber expression as he placed one hand on one end of the crate and his other at the opposite side when he warned,
“All he does is sleep during the daytime, and these critters are hard to wake up. Ya’ll stand back some, ‘cause he gets awful moody after I rouse him.”
And then he began to shake the crate.
He jerked it once, sharp and hard, and then he shook it twice. By the third move I could smell the gasoline on his work shirt as we three crowded up closer to his side. We gave each other little expectant grins as he jostled and rattled the heavy box, and then at the very end, he brought the entire thing up off the counter a few inches, and then he slammed it down hard.
This mongoose is going to be mad as hell, I thought, but the man lifted the container even higher than before. The crate landed on the counter top again, making a loud thud when it landed, and in a flash, the top flew open with a bang.
In a split second, the wild mongoose leapt out and jumped so hard that he flew over my right shoulder, and both girls began screaming and started fast-dancing in place. My eyes could barely follow the gray blur through the air, but both of my thighs went weak at the sight.
While the two sisters cried and clung to the legs of the stranger, I gawked at a lifeless pile of fur laying on the other side of the room, and when I looked back up at the man, he had one hand on a shoulder of each of them, plus a huge gap-toothed grin had crawled on his face.
Father happened in through the doorway just then, holding his fat wallet. The gas attendant went over to the register, laughing hard as he rang open the drawer, and told him what just happened, so of course dad forced him to do the trick all over again. The ratty coon skin cap looked pretty tame during its second flight, but both of the men enjoyed it well.
Then dad’s eyes sparkled next when the man told a quick story about a burly truck driver who dashed through his plate glass window one time, knocking the big cash register off the counter in the moment of escape. They both acted amused over the fate of the poor man. Father then opened his wallet once again, and he handed the attendant one of his business cards before we left.
"If your machine there ever gives you any problems..."
Otho never mentioned anymore grand business improvement ideas for the rest of our trip, realizing dad had already thought of a few on his own.
Next, Otho attacks his trousers.