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The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

Chapter 2: Sauerkraut and Mace

As it turned out, Paul had gone shopping for more than breakfast.

She watched from the window as he wrestled something from the trunk of his car. Under a clearing sky, a newly minted object threw its shadow onto the walkway, coffin-shaped, about two feet long.

“Oh my god, a trap?” she said, at the door.

“It’s my stated goal to keep pests out of our lives,” he announced, and she thought nervously of her mother.

“What if we don’t agree on what’s a pest?”

“Veb, I got no sleep last night. You should be glad I didn’t get the guillotine kind.” The packaging boldly proclaimed:

Humanely TRAPS, not KILLS: 
and other Nuisance Critters!

“I hate the word critters!” Veblen said, displacing her negative feelings onto an innocent noun.

He persisted, pointing to the fine print. “Look at this.”

Squirrels can cause extensive damage to attic insulation or walls and gnaw on electrical wires in homes and vehicles, creating a fire hazard.

“Paul, don’t you see, that’s propaganda to motivate you to buy the thing.”

“But it’s true.”

“This morning it came to the window — I think it wants to befriend me,” Veblen said, quite naturally.

“You can make other friends. This squirrel isn’t a character in a storybook. Real animals don’t wear shawls and top hats and write poetry. They rape each other and eat their own young.”

“Paul, that’s an excessively negative view of wildlife.”

Nevertheless, he seized the wooden chair from beside her desk, took it through the bathroom door, and dumped it in the bathtub, to stand on it and shove aside the square of white, enameled plywood covering the opening to the attic. She provided him with the flashlight from her bedside drawer. His thighs flexed like a warrior’s. A strange little riddle began in her head:

The man pops squirrels, the man pops mice — 
(What man? Not Paul?)

With a riddle‑me‑ree he pops them twice; 
(Twice? Isn’t once enough?)

He pops his rats with a riddle‑me‑ree 
(Oh no, it is Paul!)

He popped my father and he might pop me. 
(How terrible! Was Paul experimenting with squirrels?)

“Nesting materials in the corner,” he yelled. “God. Looks like fur on the beams!”

Was this the stuff married life would be made of, two people making way for the confounding spectacle of the other, bewildered and slightly afraid?

“Paul, did you know, the year Thoreau spent at Walden Pond, he spent a lot of time totally enchanted by squirrels?” If squirrels were good enough for Thoreau, after all, what was Paul’s problem?

“No, I didn’t.”

“Have I told you about the great squirrel migrations of the past?” She steadied the chair.

“You must have been saving it up.”

“Yeah. Squirrels are actually one of the oldest mammals on earth!” she told him, with curious pride. “They’ve been in North America at least fifty million years. That’s a long time, don’t you think? I mean, people brag about their relatives coming over on the Mayflower in 1620, so I think squirrels deserve a little respect, don’t you?”

She could see him scanning the corners of the attic for entry holes, and he didn’t reply.

“Anyway, settlers and townspeople across North America wrote in their diaries about oceans of squirrels that would flood through the fields and over the mountains, as far as their eyes could see! Can you imagine it? It was like an infinite gray blanket. At times, whole tides of them were seen swimming across rivers, like the Hudson, and the Missouri, and the Ohio. Even Lewis and Clark witnessed a migration! In 1803. In southern Illinois in the 1880s, it was reported that four hundred fifty million squirrels ran through this one area, almost half a billion!”

“This is true?”

“Yes! It’s very well documented.”

“Sounds like a Hitchcock movie.”

For the record, she wished he’d said “Wow!” or “Amazing!” or something flavored with a little more curiosity and awe, because those mass migrations had always represented something phenomenal to her.

“The solidarity is what I love about it, all of them deciding it was time to go and then setting out together,” she tried, for she loved Richard Rorty’s writings on solidarity and had no trouble applying it to squirrels.

“Probably in a blind panic, burning with mange.”


“I don’t have the same feeling about squirrels, Veb.”

This was upsetting for some reason. Although Paul wasn’t the only person who thought squirrels were nasty, furry bastards with talons like birds and the cold hearts of reptiles.

Even Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, a classic of children’s literature, by an introverted woman who generally adored small animals, offered up a pesky idiot-squirrel who riddles a landed authority figure into a fury. But was Nutkin as frivolous as he was made out to be? She had a few theories about that.

“Thorstein Veblen would say people hate squirrels,” she called up to him, “because that’s the only way to motivate expenditures on them — such as buying traps or guns. It’s the same with stirring up patriotic emotionalism, because it justifies expenditures for defense.”

“Uh, what?” He took the sleek apparatus in his grasping hands, then was back on the chair stuffing it somewhere in the dark close to the hatch. He said, “I’ll check it every day, you won’t have to think about it. I’ll take it up in the hills where it will live happily ever after. Okay?”

“Whatever, just do it!” she said, biting into her arm.

In addition to biting herself, another way Veblen dealt with emotional distress was to fixate on ideological concerns.

Unhappy that Paul was stuffing a trap into her attic, registering a loss of control that would come with a growing relationship and further compromise, she began to think bitterly about how phenomena in the natural world no longer inspired reverence and reflection, but translated instead into excuses for shopping sprees. Squirrels = trap. Winter’s ragged hand = Outdoor World. Summer’s dog days reigned = Target. Same with traditions — marriage was preceded by the longest shopping list of all, second only to the one after the birth of offspring.

“Paul, take this trap. You impute it with awesomeness because you acquired it and you now believe it’s the crystallization of your desires.”

“Can you bring me a piece of cheese or something?”

She trudged into the kitchen, to look for a snack a squirrel might not enjoy. She had an idea.

“Veblen?” he called.


“A piece of bread is fine.”

“Okay, just a minute.”

Shortly, she carried in a plate with her offering.

“What’s that?” asked Paul, peering down.

“Sauerkraut sprinkled with mace.”


“I hear they love it,” said Veblen.

She heard him set the plate into the trap with a clap.

Read more about Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel The Portable Veblen here: