Shanghai Squirrels: Poison's Poses and the Pioneer

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I want a squirrel tail for my hat.  Southwick is taking me on a tour of back-woods St. John’s, deep into Tommy County to find out what uses they have found for a permanent Pacific Northwest resource: the common squirrel.  The residents there say the county line is 50 feet around the nearest cop.

Southwick tells me that Ella used to work at Waterfront U.  There was a scandal about embezzling that Ella got caught up in, and that Tommy was instrumental in keeping Ella out of jail.

Ella has small house near a wildlife preserve.  Ella laughs a lot. Weird laugh. She is small and shriveled. It looks like a life of cigarette smoke has sucked her vital essences and replaced them with creosote. She could be 75, she could be 45. Impossible to tell. There is a bench and vials of odd chemicals, tools and jigs for carving, shaping and mounting.

Ella has a notebook of photos of her work. The squirrels are in many poses.  There is a "moments from history" section -  Washington Crossing the Delaware, Lincoln’s assasination, raising the flag at Iwo Jima, theTriangle FireandMajor King Kong. Serious stuff.  Most, though, are riding in cars or on motorcycles. A few are in Kama Sutra positions. 

She talks taxidermy: “I still use the old formulas. It’s hard to get arsenic and mercury any more, but Tommy can get anything. Toxic Tommy!” She picks up a syringe and starts poking it into her work. She cackles. She starts to wheeze.

I ask her about the old formulas: "Arsenic and mercury are really nasty poisons that keep on killing, how can you use them so close to the nature preserve?"

Ella replies: "Where do you think Tommy gets the stuff from?  This is the Willamette!  He hauls out a ton, and I put back in a pound.  It’s cap and trade, baby.  It’s sustainable." 

Southwick pulls the package from Tommy. Ella opens it: a group of squirrels enjoying Da Vinci’s ‘last supper.’

She reads the note: “Tommy says it’s too high-brow to have them on chairs. He thinks he can sell it if I put the squirrels on motorcycles. Tommy’s been real good to me, what a great guy. He really helped me after that awful business over at Waterfront U.”

She asks me if I want anything, and I ask the price of a squirrel’s tail.

She replies: “No, I only sell the whole pelt.  I got a reputation, you know. I tell you what I can do, is to mount one on the front of your brim. I do good work.” She points to one with squid tentacles where its head should be.”

Me: “Nice work. I’ll pass on a hat mounted stuffed squirrel. I just want the tail for a hat-band.”

Ella: “Nope, not much call for a squirrel without a tail.  I got a reputation.  The whole thing or nothing.” She starts cackling and wheezing repeating: “a squirrel without a tail!” and “the WHOLE thing” over and over like it is some sort of in-joke. Mercury in the brain, I guess. She starts to wheeze then straightens up, and asks me: "Would ya fight for one?  You can get into the ring."

I’m confused: "Fight? Who? What?"

Southwick gets one of those "I’m gonna tell your mommie" looks on his face and says "Oh, no, Animal Fights? That’s horrible".

She looks me in the eye.  She says: "This is why we don’t like outsiders.  We don’t talk about things to outsiders – Are YOU an outsider?"

I notice the syringe needle in her hand and I put my voice into ‘soothe the beast’ mode and walk slowly backward: "Uhh.  No.  I’m totally OK.  Southwick is cool, you know him.  He’s my good buddy."  

She goes on: "Tommy says Southwick can’t do any harm, so he’s OK."  She explains: "You can fight any animal you want in Pioneer’s Pit. We have it on the last thursday of the month.  Man against Nature.  No guns allowed."

I’m a bit stunned.  "Pioneer’s Pit? No guns? How does that work?"

She goes on: "You get five minutes in the pit.  Squirrel, nutria, raccoon – your pick. Max points going into the pit barehanded.  When I’m judging, I give extra points for skin exposure."  She winks at me.

I reply, "What kind of match is it?"

She starts to rant: "Pioneer! That’s what men were like in the old days.  Fighting the wilds of nature: Man to Grizzly. With only a knife.  That’s not sustainable.  We just don’t have enough grizzleys to go around, and most of the men today are such wimps that they couldn’t take on a pack of wolves let alone a puma.  We gotta get back to that good pioneer spirit.  The city-fied geeks over in Intel-town are lining up to get their scars with squirrels. It’s gentrification! It’s sustainable."  She has a fury in her that would last about 10 minutes for any audience.  Just long enough to get consensus.

"Think you can take on a raccoon?  I tell you what.  Nutrias are the easiest. You go in with this syringe, I guarantee it.  You win the fight, I’ll give you a big discount on mounting it on your hat." She shows me the squid-head thing again.  She looks me up and down and says: "Like I said – I give extra points for skin exposure.  You go in completely bare, and I’ll give you anextraspecial discount. On mounting."

I thank Ella for her time, explaining that I’m scheduled for heart surgery on the last Thursday of every month.  For many months.  We leave.

Southwick tells me he needs to make one more stop with his case of frozen squirrel.

that's all--