He crouched to look at the guinea pig. “So that’s Baxter, huh?” I tried to conceal the quick look of shock, but he saw it anyway. “Yes, Lola, some dads can actually still squat,” he smiled. “No, not that, I’m just surprised you know his name,” I said, feeling the colour creeping into my face, starting at my cheekbones. He noticed the blush, motioned towards the cage. “You have a tiny wooden sign with ‘Baxter’ written on it right next to the cage, Lola. I’d have to be much more tired, stressed and old than I actually am to not see it.” I nodded, in the usual way, where more of my head than my face is visual.
“So you got another guinea pig?” I asked the children. They were eating applesauce and whispering amongst themselves. “You know what happened to the other guinea pig,” Lexie told me, eyes widening like we were sharing a secret. Yes, I knew. “Hopefully this guinea pig won’t leave,” Clary said, nodding for emphasis. “I love Red.”
“His name isn’t ‘Red’ Clary it’s Baxter!” hissed Lexie. “Don’t lie to Miss Lola!”
“I wasn’t lying! I changed my mind and now his name is Red.”
“He isn’t your guinea pig. You don’t get to name him. We had a, a . . . ”
“Vote?” I supplied. All such school decisions are settled by vote. She nodded. “A vote. His name is Baxter.”
“I just love bunnies,” Trixie cooed, squinting at the cage from across the room. She’d mistaken the guinea pig for a rabbit. “It’s, ah, mm,” I didn’t really know how to inform her it was a guinea pig. “I love them when they’re little, so little, so soft, so sweet . . . and then they grow up,” she said with a frown. Running her fingers through her long straight hair, she sighed and continued. “It’s so saaaad . . . they become these useless lumps of furry flesh, you know? Might as well just kill them then you know.” She laughed. I pressed my lips together. This was a joke, right? Or – a test?
“Oh Lola you’re right, I’m being too practical, aren’t I?” She laughed again (it’s a deep laugh, enough so to engender idle talk of perhaps-Trixie-is-a-transvestite).
When I affirmed that you could crash on my couch for a night or two, it was implicitly understood on my part that you were not to turn it into a Jamaican dance hall. Also the game of what-is-in-this-cupboard? Amusing to none but yourself.
“So the guinea pig bit it?” I asked, looking at the empty cage. “Hmm?” asked the director, not really listening, looking over the month’s lesson plans. “Guinea pig,” I pointed to the cage. “The sad sot finally bit it, huh?” She gave me a look that implied I was heartless. “Oh come on,” I protested. “There aren’t any kids here right now and it’s like ‘guinea pig the 15th’ so one gets a little, you know, inured to small rodent death.” A new thought struck me. “Can you even remember its name?” She put the papers down. “Of course! It was . . . George?”
I shook my head. “No. Bonnie.”
“Oh yeah Bonnie of course I was thinking of the, um,”
“Hamster. George was the, well, hamsters.” I wonder if she noticed the plural. She didn’t seem to be in a very good mood.
“So what did you tell them happened to it?” I said, hoping I could steer the conversation away from the sudden chill. “Oh!” she smiled. “I told them he’d gone to see his grandma.”
“Grandma?! That’s novel.”
“Well you know how right now the parents are discussing whether it goes to Heaven or it just dies? I thought it would be best to just say something no one could argue over. So: grandma’s.”
“Did the kiddos buy it?” She brought the papers in front of her, stood them up and aligned the sides. “Not at first. They said they’d never heard of a guinea pig having a grandma. Then I told them ‘You know how all of you went on vacation for Christmas? So did the guinea pig. And you know how all of you came back to go to school? Well the guinea pig didn’t.”
It suddenly stuck me a little sad. “That guinea pig is a callous bastard, you know.”
“I covered that too,” she continued. “I said that ‘oh, the guinea pig doesn’t want you to be lonely, so he’s going to send his cousin,”
“Her cousin,” I corrected before I could stop myself. She glared at me momentarily. “The children corrected me as well. Anyway,” she sighed, “then they were all excited to meet the guinea pig’s cousin.”
“Great story,” I told her. “But where’s the guinea pig cousin?” She looked at me blankly, then quickly at her watch. “Shit! I have to buy a little furball don’t I?”