I had never before had a pet that was all mine. Then, at eight, I got a hamster for Christmas. It was a boy. Dad said I should name him Butterball. But before committing, I examined him closely. He was round and yellowish. I agreed. From then on, I called him Butterball.
Sometimes I shared Butterball. I mean I let my brother, Eric, who was six, look at him while Butterball crawled around in his plastic ball on the floor. I also let Eric pet him a couple of times.
Butterball was a lot of responsibility. I took care of him all by myself. No one ever helped me. I fed him in the morning, filling his food bowl with his special hamster food of mixed seeds. He liked seeds. Right after I set the bowl down in the middle of his cage and pulled my hand out, he climbed on top. I watched him pick up one seed at a time with his tiny hands, nibble it, turn it, and then nibble it some more. I think he only had two teeth on the top and two on the bottom, so it took him awhile. Then he stuffed a bunch of seeds in his cheeks. In seconds, half his food was gone. And his cheeks were really big. I think he was worried I might take it away. I wouldn’t ever do that.
In the morning I also gave him fresh water from the bathroom sink. I put it in his water bottle and reattached it to the side of his cage. It was a little tricky unhooking and hooking the metal latch, but I figured it out.
On Saturday, I cleaned his cage. It was my least favorite part about having Butterball in my life. His cage smelled a little. But not that bad. I dumped his poop pellets and pee-soaked wood chips into the trashcan outside. Then I scrubbed the plastic bottom of his cage clean. It didn’t take long.
Butterball lived with me in my room. I mean we lived together in our room. His cage was up against the wall opposite my bed. I watched him clean himself as I drifted off to sleep. One time, a few hours after I’d fallen asleep, a continuous rattle woke me up. It was coming from Butterball’s cage. I got up to investigate. Butterball was jogging. His exercise wheel was rattling. He didn’t look at me. His eyes showed no emotion. I wondered if he was sleep-running.
“Butterball, wake up,” I said, shaking his cage just a little.
He stopped running and came over to look at me. I think he was annoyed that I interrupted his workout. After a moment of calm, he went back to his wheel. The rattling began again.
One Sunday morning, during a commercial break from Lost in Space, I got Butterball out to watch the show with Eric and me. I held him. But he didn’t want to sit still. He didn’t want to be petted. He didn’t want to watch Lost in Space.
“It’s okay, Butterball,” I said softly, trying to calm him down. I patted his head. I ran my right pointer finger over his round furry body. “It’s okay.” But he didn’t like my cuddles. He wiggled and squirmed out of my hands. He ran up my left arm. I caught him with my right hand. I put him back on my lap and tried once more to snuggle him.
“Let me hold him,” Eric said. “I want a turn.”
And so I did. This time, I gave Eric a turn. To tell the truth, I was a little frustrated with Butterball. He wasn’t behaving. It was a bit of a relief handing him over.
Eric took him, but didn’t hold him. Butterball jumped off his hand to his legs, and ran over to the couch. He was coming back to me, I thought, but then he made a quick right at the crease between the cushions. We couldn’t stop him. Butterball had already scampered to the back of the couch where he dove into the center T made by two vinyl cushions and the back.
Boy, was he fast. He immediately found a hole in the platform fabric of and connected to the cushions. The hole was a secret entrance into the structure of the couch. Once he discovered it, he squirmed his way through. When I found the hole, I stuck my hand in as far as I could, but there was no Butterball.
I was too late. Butterball was long gone.
“Oh no. Oh no,” I said, jumping backward off the couch. “Butterball’s lost in the couch.” I looked around, at Eric, at Mom making breakfast in the kitchen.
“I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault,” Eric whined.
I looked at Mom. “Go get your Dad to help,” she said.
So I ran outside to get him.
I found Dad on the side of the house, mowing the lawn. “Dad, Dad,” I yelled over the roar of the mower. “Something’s happened to Butterball. He’s in the couch. You need to get him out.”
Without turning motor off, he said, “I will, once I’ve finished.”
Back inside, Eric and I put our ears on all parts of the couch to locate Butterball. He was still tunneling his way through the stuffing in the back cushions of the couch. We followed his every move.
“He can’t breathe. I know it,” I said. Eric stood next to me and nodded.
Our hands were tied. We had to wait for Dad.
Dad eventually came in. Eric and I were standing in front of the couch, staring at it, hard. “Dad, Butterball’s in there,” I said, pointing at the back of the couch. “He’s in that cushion. We can hear him.”
Dad looked at us and then at the couch. He didn’t say anything, just scowled.
“Do you want to hear him?” I said.
He looked at the wall, against which the couch was pressed. He then began shimmying the couch forward. First he moved the right side, then the left. After he’d moved the couch forward about two feet, he got behind it and crouched down.
Eric and I were pressed up against our floor-model woodgrain TV.
Dad made a small grunt. His head popped up as the back of the couch tilted up and over. His face was red and the veins in his neck bulged. Dad came out from behind, stepped back, and examined his work. The couch was in this new position. Its back was now on top, parallel to the linoleum floor and its seat cushions perpendicular.
Eric and I stayed quiet. We watched Dad, wondering what he would do next.
“Well, that’s enough for now,” he said, clapping his hands together up and down.
“But what about Butterball?” I said.
“Like I said, that’s enough for now.”
He raised his eyebrows and bugged his eyes out toward me.
I got it. Not another word or I’d really get it.
With his job done, Dad went out onto the back porch. I watched him through the sliding glass window. He sat down on the lawn chair next to Mom. He swung his legs up and then adjusted the back of the chair. He picked up a section of the paper from the porch floor and settled in for a long read.
Eric and I stayed next to the couch. We sat under the back and leaned against the seat cushions. We watched TV. First, we watched the Abbott and Costello show. Every time Costello said, “I’ve been a very bad boy,” I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t. Butterball was suffocating.
At the commercial break, we checked on Butterball. We heard him munching on couch filling. I felt a little better. He was in the top left corner cushion, alive.
I went to see if Dad looked like he was getting ready to come inside to rescue Butterball. I pressed my face against the sliding glass door to see what he was doing. He was sipping his glass of lemonade, reading. Mom was napping next to him.
I returned to Eric under the couch. We watched Tarzan swing on vines, rescuing Jane. I usually liked Tarzan’s yodeling, but now it just made me ache inside. Even Cheeta wasn’t enough to make me forget that Butterball was choking on synthetic stuffing in the couch.
At the commercial break, we checked on Butterball again. He was still there, but his nibbling was slowing down.
Now I was really worried. Soon Butterball would stop munching. He’d already stopped tunneling. Before long, he’d stop living.
I went back to the sliding glass door to peek at Dad. The newspaper was spread across his chest. His hand rested on top. His other arm hung down over the side of the chair with his hand on the porch floor. He was out cold.
I was done waiting for Mom and Dad. They weren’t ever coming in to get Butterball out of the couch. I needed to figure out a way to get him out myself. In no time, I came up with a plan. We would cut along the stitching of the top cushion, pull the fluff out and rescue Butterball.
I got the scissors from the kitchen and came back to Eric who was keeping watch over the couch and Butterball. I handed him the scissors.
“I’m not cutting it. You,” he said.
“It’s your fault he’s in there,” I said, handing him the scissors.
“I don’t want to.” He took the scissors.
“Cut here,” I said, pointing at the seam.
He cut. I watched over his shoulder and counseled him.
I heard the door slide open behind us. I turned around. Mom stood in the doorway looking at us. Her eyes widened, her nostrils flared and her jaw went slack.
She began screaming. “Hal. Hal. Oh, my god, Hal! They’re cutting my couch!”
Dad strode inside from the porch with large steps.
Eric dropped the scissors and started babbling. “She made me do it. She made me do it.”
I said nothing. It was true. I did make him do it. But something had to be done.
Dad grabbed both of us by our arms, hard. He tugged us to the back room. He let me go at the door and dragged Eric to the green tweed couch. Eric was still mumbling, “It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything.” Dad sat on the couch and pulled Eric over his knees and beat him.
Next it was my turn. He called me over, told me to bend over his knees. Then he spanked me, too.
I didn’t feel a thing.
An hour later, Dad finished what we had started. He pulled out the stuffing, reached his hand deep in the top cushion and found Butterball. He wrapped his hand around his round yellowish body and pulled him out of the couch. It was four o’clock in the afternoon when Butterball was finally pulled from the couch. He’d been in it since nine.
Dad put him in his cage and moved it into Mom’s and his bathroom. Butterball sat in the middle, shaking.
Later, Dad took me to the grocery store to distract me. I followed him around, sobbing. He pulled a jar of pickles off the shelf in one aisle and then a box of Grape Nuts in another. A mom with her boy seated in the front of the cart stopped and watched me. I whimpered and sniffled and didn’t care that they saw my snot dangling.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asked.
“Butterball is going to die,” I said. I knew it.
“Everything’s going to be okay.”
The next morning, I went to check on Butterball. He was still in the middle of his cage. He hadn’t moved from the night before. He was no longer quivering.
Michelle Kendall has enjoyed writing creatively for years now. Her formal training is in literary criticism, and she received her PhD in French Literature from UC-Santa Barbara in 2012. Her critical essays have appeared in the Journal of Haitian Studies (Vol. 17, No. 2 & Vol. 19, No. 1).
Her ranslations include Paul Demiéville’s “Buddhism and War” in Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2010).