Walnut House

Oscar Possum was nervous as he knocked on the oaken door at Walnut House, straightening his necktie and readjusting his spectacles for the umpteenth time that morning.  Behind him, a small army of fidgety mice were checking their cameras, testing mics and scanning their phones for emails and status updates.  They were all either too young, too arrogant or too stupid to be nervous about their assignment.  Some of them had even been too lazy to Google their subject.  At the back of the line, his brother Edgar was scribbling notes on a clipboard.  They exchanged a brief glance that told Oscar his sibling felt exactly the same way about the young rodents.

Had they but bothered, they would at least seem a bit interested, Oscar thought.  He glanced again over his shoulder and grimaced sourly.  “Stupid mice,” he thought.  Then he thought that might be speciesist and he got lost in a debate within himself about whether he had meant to impugn all mice or just the ones standing behind him on the branch.  He was starting to lose the argument and admit that, perhaps on some level, he did think mice were generally less intelligent than other creatures, when there was a distinct rustling from within Walnut House.

There was a long moment when they could hear the locks being turned on the inside of the door.  There were three deadbolts and it seemed that it took several tries to get them all to agree with one another.  He scowled at the crew and thankfully they came to life, hefting their cameras and raising the mic set to hover over the doorway.  At last there was a triumphant cry from within and the door swung wide.

Before them stood Little Alice Nuttle, wrapped from head to toe in a collection of old scarves and sweaters, her eyes obscured behind a pair of white, cat eye sunglasses.  “Oh, Oscar,” she said. “You look absolutely darling! Such a little gentleman!  Come in, come in!”

“Thank you, Miss Nuttle,” he said.

“Alice! Didn’t I tell you to call me Alice?”  She waved him inside, pretending dutifully not to notice the mice as they crowded into the foyer.  For their part, the smaller creatures were suddenly dumbfounded.  The once great manor nest of the Nuttle family was a complete disaster. There were chips in the daubing, holes in the upper chambers through which one could see the sky. And all too soon it became obvious there were mites in the carpets.  Despite the itch, they managed to keep the equipment trained on their hostess.

“Where’s Edgar?” she said, her tone suddenly frantic.  The other Possum brother crowded to the front and took her hand affectionately.  She gave him a girlish smile that belied her years.  “Oh, you boys look absolutely terrific! I mean it! I mean every word of it!”

She moved to the newel post at the bottom of the grand staircase, posing dramatically with one shapely ankle turned outward, her tail curling demurely over a shoulder.  “You know, mother darling was worried you’d be late, but I told her, I said, ‘Oscar and Edgar are very professional’. We once had a possum painter, years ago, you see, who was a bit too fond of bark beer, so you can imagine….”

From upstairs, there came a wavering but still quite authoritative cry, “Alice! Is that the boys? Tell them to come up!”

“Coming, mother darling!” Alice cried.

“What?”

“I said we’re coming, mother darling!” She glanced to left and right, “Isn’t it just so vulgar, all this shouting up and down stairs?”

As they climbed the steps, she explained some things to the mice.  “They call me Little Alice and they call mother Big Alice, but it has nothing to do with our size, you see. I mean, mother darling has gotten quite large with age, but then, so have I.”  She stopped and turned suddenly, “Although I have lost a stone since you were here in March, Oscar.  Didn’t you notice?”

Oscar politely said yes.  Alice gave his shoulder a flirtatious squeeze.  “You’re such a darling creature, Oscar darling.” She dropped her voice, “Mother wanted me to come down in a kaftan, so we had quite a fight.”

They made their way along the upper hall and into a room where two twin beds rose up from piles of debris like islands in a filthy backwater.  In one corner, a painting of an elegant squirrel lady leaned against the wall, a small hoard of chipmunks circling it and sniffing the newspapers on the floor.  Between the beds, a soup pot boiled on a hot plate.  Despite its general disarray, it was a sunny room and the mice took a moment to fiddle with the metering on the cameras.  Soon they had them adjusted.

On one of the beds, Big Alice Nuttle was sitting up in the covers, her hide loose with age, but her bearing quite energetic.  She blinked at the crew from behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that made her gaze curiously owl-like.  The mice were disconcerted for understandable reasons.

“Oscar, Edgar,” the older Nuttle said. “You’re early, aren’t you? I told Alice you’d be here early or on time, but she was nervous.”

Oscar gave her a little smile as Little Alice rushed to defend herself.

“I never said any such thing, mother darling,” she said, her nose revealing a scarlet blush. “It was you!”

The Possum brothers thought it wise to steer the mother and daughter away from an argument.  The taller one, Edgar, changed the subject. “I noticed you’ve cleared some things away from the base of the tree.”

“Oh, that was Larry,” the older squirrel said.  “He’s been coming over and working a little each day.”

Little Alice rolled her eyes, plopping down on the empty bed.  Leaning in to Oscar, she said just audibly enough for the mics, “Larry hasn’t done so much.  Most of that stuff blew away in the storm last week.”

Oscar smiled, “I did see him down there this morning, working on it.”

She adjusted her turban, glancing at her mother, “Well, he works at it now and again, but mostly he seems good at climbing up here around supper time.  That’s what his talent is – sniffing out supper.”

Oscar laughed, “Well, he is a mole.”

Big Alice said, “I can hear you, Alice.  I don’t know what you have against poor Larry.  Or any mole, for that matter.”  The older Nuttle tapped Edgar’s arm and sniggered, “I know what her problem is.  She’s in love with Larry.  That’s what the problem is there.”

Little Alice jumped up as though the bed was on fire.  “That isn’t true!” she said.  “Mother darling, you are absolutely out of your mind. I think you have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Oscar, Edgar, I think she has Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. From the chipmunks.”

The cameraman wisely cut away to take in the small pets, one of which was at that moment pissing on the gilt-framed portrait of a younger Big Alice.  The old squirrel noticed it, too.  “Alice, look at what those chippies are doing?  Isn’t that a shame?”

“Don’t try and change the subject, mother darling,” Alice said.  She was warming up to her indignation more and more by the moment. “You’ve no right to say things like that in front of the boys.  You’re the one who’s in love with Larry! It’s you!”

Just then the mole stepped into the room.  He seemed quite nervous, curling his claws to scratch at his chest, but Big Alice seemed nonchalant about the awkwardness of the moment.  She motioned for him to come and have a seat on her bed.  “Larry, you want some boiled acorns?” she asked.  Turning to the mice, her spectacles flashed in the sunlight, causing the sound mouse to drop a stool in terror.  She appeared not to notice, saying only, “Larry always likes the way I do my acorns.”

The younger Nuttle left the room and, gesturing to the second camera mouse, Oscar followed her out.  They climbed to her room on the upper branches, where she began to scramble through a wardrobe.  “You okay, Alice?” Oscar asked.

“I can’t stand the way she makes such a fuss over that mole,” she said, her voice muffled inside the furniture.  “It’s absolutely humiliating.”  She emerged from the piles of old opera capes and carnival masks with a small bag of sliced bread.

“I’ve got to go feed the birds,” she said mournfully.  They followed her up the stairs.  As she tossed the bread out to a family of titmice who were slowly tearing apart the third floor of Walnut House to build their nest, she explained her sudden blue mood.

“I was very happy living in Washington Square Park,” she said.  “We have everything you could ever want in The Village.  Beatniks, poets, thinkers.  There was even a raccoon from overseas – royalty, I think – who wanted me to marry him.  But people don’t approve of such arrangements and anyway mother got sick after father left her, so I had to come back here.”

“You were a dancer back then, weren’t you?” Oscar prompted.

This memory cheered her up. “Oh, yes, I was!”

She rushed back down to her room and rummaged again in the wardrobe.  Oscar and the camera mouse followed closely.  In a moment, she cried out in excitement and held up a pair of small flags.  She motioned to the mouse, “Will you turn on that record player?  It would be absolutely darling of you, mouse dear. I’m sorry, I don’t know you’re name.”

The mouse somehow managed it and in a moment, a lively marching band seemed to be high-stepping it through the house.  Alice laughed like a school squirrel as she paraded back and forth for them, waving the flags and giving the camera come hither looks.  There was a cry from a far corner of the house as Big Alice heard the commotion.

“Is that you, Alice?” the trembling voice called.  “That’s it, Alice!  Now try a little tap.  You were always so good at dancing….”

Alice pretended not to hear over the marching band record. When her dance came to an end, she was flushed and laughing.  Rising awkwardly from what had attempted to be a split, she tossed aside the little flags.  “That was marvelous.”

Later that afternoon, Edgar brought some of the crew out onto the porch to catch up with the younger Nuttle.  She had changed into another outfit and was reading her horoscope through a large magnifying glass.  “Beware the Scorpion male,” she said ominously as they approached.  “You aren’t a Scorpion, are you, Edgar darling? What about Oscar? No, don’t tell me. I think I would die.” She peered at them through the glass and her eyes were as owl-like as her mothers had been earlier.  The camera mouse crossed his legs tightly.

Without waiting for a response, she sat aside the book and glanced out over the forest with a melancholy air.  “Winter’s coming,” she said.  The woods were windy that day, and the forest floor littered already with brown leaves.  “Such a sad place in the winter.”

“Oscar told me what you said to him earlier,” he said. “Ever think of going back to Washington Square?”

She shook her head, “Oh, no, Edgar darling. Who would take care of mother if I left?  There’s no one. The boys have abandoned her and father is somewhere in the Redwoods with that skunk.  I’m the only one left who cares.”

From inside the house, as though on cue, they could hear Big Alice calling out for her daughter.  For a moment the younger Nuttle seemed not to hear, staring out into the browning woods.  Then Big Alice tried again, “You’re going to miss the radio program, Alice! Don’t you want to have some ice cream and listen to the radio program?”

Ruefully, Alice Nuttle rose from her rotting chaise lounge and turned to peer into the dark hall of Walnut House.  She glanced back at Edgar Possum once more, tragically, before vanishing into the grand old nest.

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