Monday, September 21, 2009

Possums and marbles

The thing most people don't know about possums is that they're hoarders. Worse than pack rats. Worse than magpies. Your magpie will go for shiny things—gum wrappers, engagement rings, what have you. Your pack rat likes soft, fuzzy things, along with seeds and objects with handles.

The world's record pack rat, found in a den in Texas, had a burrow full of suitcases. Valises. Gladstone bags. Steamer trunks. They had no idea how the rat got all that baggage into the burrow, because the opening was only rat sized. But the pack rat is well known to be the most determined of the rodents. Like the expression, you know: "He'll stick to that problem like a pack rat."

There's a paper that finally explained it. Measured the string-theory vibrations of pack rats in eleven dimensions. It's a lot of math and graphs, but you can really sum it up by saying pack rats can push things through walls. Shuffle the spaces between the atoms like riffling a pack of cards together, and the suitcase comes out the other side. Atomic interlacing, they call it.

Possums, now, possums like to collect round things. Baseballs, eggs, croquet balls, and ball bearings.

Al had a truck that he parked over by the laurel bushes. Took it out on the freeway one day, and all four wheels fell off at the same time. The truck skidded along on its belly, tossing up a rooster tail of sparks, until it finally stopped in the middle of the left lane.

It turned out a family of possums that lived in the bushes had stolen all his wheel bearings. He found them when he went to trim the bushes, piled up in one of those pyramids they pile up cannonballs in. Shiny, bright, with all the grease licked off them. Which also explained why he could never catch the possums. They were too fast with all that bearing grease inside them. You know the expression: "Faster than a greased possum."

Possums always look surprised, with those big, white circles around their eyes. "Yikes!" they say. "Look at all those ball bearings! So smooth and round. Gonna take those home and put them in the bearing pile." They pack their little possum pouches full of bearings and waddle home, dragging their lumpy bellies on the ground.

Possums like marbles, too. They don't really care what they look like, as long as they're round. Not like little boys, who have a marble hierarchy. Or at least I did.

Bottom of the list—and this is what's attractive to a second-grader, which is where my marble-appreciation sense is frozen—were the solid ones. Sure, they have interesting swirls and things. You might appreciate them now, but back then they just weren't cool.

Then the cat's eyes. More interesting. Colored patterns inside clear glass.

"You know where they get those?" said Rick.

"No," I said.

"From cats. All the cats at the pound, all those cats in the labs. They take one eye from each. Can't take both. They'd be blind."

"That's not true at all," I said. "That's gross."

"Okay, I was just pulling your leg. They make them for cats. Glass eyes. Cats lose eyes all the time in those fights you hear in the middle of the night. You take them to the vet, and they pop one of those marbles in. Sometimes they don't have a match. That's when you see one of those cats with two different-colored eyes."

Next in the hierarchy: clearies. Glass all the way through. Best were the clear clearies, just glass-colored.

Then the very most valuable marbles: steelies. Now I know they were just ball bearings, and they're not so interesting.

Eric had one of those Newton's Cradle toys. Five steel balls hanging from Vs of fishing line. It's a momentum transfer toy. You pull one ball back, let it go, and it knocks one off the other end. Makes the click-click marble pendulum noise I can hear right now, writing this. Pull two back, let them go, and two pop off the other side. And so on.

It's a toy that's interesting for maybe ten minutes, then you're done with it. Forever. Sort of like those magnetic Wheel-O toys. And the spinning, fly-apart metal Christmas trees with the Santa in the middle.

Anyway, one day Eric dropped the Newton's Cradle on the floor, and one of the metal balls popped out of its plastic retaining ring. It bounced and rolled across the floor. Eric chased it down.

"Hey!" he said. "That's a steelie!" He got a screwdriver and pried the other four steelies out of the Newton's Cradle. That was five more steelies than I ever had.

But then one day, crawling around in the laurel bushes, I found a whole pile of them. Stacked up in a little pyramid like the ones cannonballs get piled up in. Gleaming steelies, all licked clean by possum tongues. Almost better than the time I found the waterlogged Playboy. But at least I could take the steelies home.

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