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Beware the smoking squirrel

Maynard checked his TAB colas in the bottom drawer of the fridge. He righted one, wondering how it flipped since the last time he assessed the cans, five minutes before.

Seeing my consternation, Maynard's stepbrother whispered, "We just like to have a little fun with him. He drinks TAB like fish drink water, and he keeps the cans arranged just-so. We move a can here and again, to shake things up."

When I glanced at him disparagingly, he defended himself, saying, "If we didn't, what would Maynard have to look forward to when he checked the drawer?"

Obviously, Maynard, a 45-year-old bagboy, who refused to sack rice with potatoes - because of a supposed conflict of interest, was off the chain. But I soon learned the entire family's teakettle wasn't whistling.

Smiling warily at my host, I followed him to the den, where his dad busied himself building a fire. The warm Savannah winter had relegated two chords of wood on the pool patio to rot. So, when the temperature finally dipped to 45 degrees, these folks salvaged the kindling.

My friend's father, laying logs in an antagonizingly meticulous manner, approached fire making like Michelangelo approached painting the Sistine Chapel; this gave Maynard three more opportunities to tend his TABs. Meanwhile, the lady of the house nagged, "Honey, haven't you finished yet?" followed by asking, "Do ya'll hear that noise?"

"That's just Maynard shifting cans in the produce drawer," said my host.

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, stop agitating that boy." Then she paused and cocked her head like a hound on a coon hunt. "There it is again. Do ya'll hear that?"

By now, a thin string of smoke wafted up the chimney and the patriarch, a surgeon of soot, barked out commands for more paper, more wood and more lighter fluid - the accoutrements of disaster. And since I now stood passing anything potentially flammable over the shoulder of a man I'd only met an hour earlier, I started to hear things myself. But, fearing that Maynard and I were both being played for fools, I kept quiet.

Breezing back into the room, my friend's mother exclaimed, "Good gracious, it's getting louder. Surely you all can hear it."

A crackling inferno wildly whipped up the chimney, and the master stood proudly with poker in hand, his primitive instinct fulfilled.

Briefly content, Maynard sat on the sofa. My host temporarily exited to twist TABs. And his stepmother stood next to me declaring, "I hear something. It's scratching, scratching, scratching. I can't stand it." She pressed her hands on her ears to obstruct the tell-tale heart.

Quite suddenly, the disturbance became audible to all. Every eye turned to the fireplace as the scritch-scratch chorused with a squealing and scrambling duet.

Seconds later, a black blaze shot out of the fire and up the man holding the poker. Primal impulses now told him to drop the iron and scream like a schoolgirl.

We yelped and dodged, while the screeching fireball slid across the mantel, climbed the curtains, leapt to the sofa, and ran a dramatic, unpredictable, zig-zag course through the room, flames flagging, leaving a labyrinth of damage behind. "Dadgum," someone bellowed, "that squirrel's afire!"

(Maynard tormented over whether to check his TABs.)

Culminating in a horrific scene, as quickly as the excitement began, it died. On a circle of singed carpet lay the charred remains, toenails glowing, tail still twitching. A morose silence hung over us.

"Um," the stepbrother cleared his throat, "I guess the little guy won't move your TABs anymore, Maynard."

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Web posted on Thursday, February 22, 2007

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