When the cold weather forces you to shut the windows, it is time to clean the gerbil cages.
Experience has taught me that the two events are related. In the summer, when the kids' bedroom windows are open, the fresh air makes the aroma of gerbil cages virtually undetectable. But when the cool nights arrive and the windows are closed, the eau de gerbil overpowers even the aromas of sweat socks and sneakers. That is when the gerbil cages, rectangular structures with glass walls, are carried out to the back yard and washed.
People who live in a gerbil-free environment might ask, "Why would you willingly bring rodents into your home?" My answer is, they are less trouble than dogs. Moreover, unlike cats, gerbils do not feel the need to "mark" your one good rug. Gerbils, in other words, are compromise pets.
For some years, one of our kids has wanted large pets. The way the kid sees it, a pack of large dogs would make ideal companions. In an effort to quell this big-dog sentiment, my wife and I have agreed to allow a series of small, well-confined critters to live in our home.
For several years goldfish swam on our kitchen table. They lived in a large, glass goldfish bowl, which, during the first few weeks of their stay, was cleaned by me and one of the kids. Soon I was the only one interested in this duty. For a time we also had canaries in the kitchen. I did my share of bird-cage cleaning as well.
Of course, having pets teaches the kids about the cycle of life. For a while we specialized in the dead part of the cycle. We told the kids our feathered and finned friends had gone to the great beyond, even if their carcasses could be found buried in the garden.
For a while we were a pet-free household. That ended when a kid extracted a promise from me that if he finished the fourth grade without a felony, he could get a gerbil. The kid remembered that promise -- kids always remember promises involving pets and toys -- and we ended up getting not one, but two gerbils.
The people at the pet store, which was going out of business, told us that, unlike hamsters, gerbils do not make noise during the night. They also told us that both gerbils were male. Did they see us coming or what?
Both statements turned out to be wrong. Now, during the night, my wife and I will be awakened by a strange sound coming from the floor above us. Is it a cat burglar? Is it a serial killer? No, it is the &*$ gerbils clanging around in their cages.
The gerbil called Iced Tea should have been called either Iced Tina, or Mother of Many Gerbils. Now, as a safeguard against further propagation, the adult male and female gerbils have separate quarters.
About all the gerbils do, at least all they do when I am looking at them, is chew. Give them cardboard spools from spent rolls of paper towels and before you can say "PEPCO-BGE" these once-distinct structures have been reduced to an indistinguishable mass. It makes me worry about what would happen if the gerbils ever escaped from their cages and got their incisors on the household wiring.
So far, the closest the gerbils have come to free-ranging is when they ride inside the rolling-rodent ball. This is my name for a plastic ball constructed for the purpose of letting rodents roam. It, too, was purchased at the going-out-of-business pet store. You put the gerbil inside the ball. You screw a special cap on the ball. Air gets in. The gerbil can't get out. When the gerbil moves its legs, the ball tips and rolls in the general direction that the gerbil has lunged.
I encountered the rolling rodent ball the other night shortly after I stumbled into the kitchen. My wife was cooking supper. The 14-year-old was reciting the names of the books of the Old Testament, "Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers" to a rap beat. He said he was studying for a quiz. One aromatic gerbil cage and its resident sat on the floor. The other gerbil cage was out in the alley, where, having been emptied of its litter and its occupant, it was being sprayed with a hose by the 10-year-old, the nominal keeper of the gerbils.
Armed with a pistol-grip nozzle and a bottle of dish soap, the 10-year-old was repeatedly filling the gerbil's home with oceans of soap suds. Then he would dump the suds down the alley and repeat the process. I don't know if anything was getting cleaned, but more water was flowing than the Mississippi at flood stage. Meanwhile, the gerbil whose residence was being washed was busy spinning around the kitchen floor in the rolling rodent ball.
Eventually the gerbil residences were hosed down and made ready for their occupants. Night fell, the temperature dropped. The whole crew, the hose operator, the Old Testament rapper and the occasionally aromatic gerbils were inside the house. The doors and windows were shut. It felt like fall. I surveyed the scene and sipped a beer. This, I told myself, could be a long season.