It’s one of the most dreaded phrases in the English language: “Check engine.” However, I didn’t know I’d been struck by “Check engine” as I pulled out of my driveway on my way to pick up my son from school recently. When the car stalled in front of my house, a little red light I’d never seen before appeared in the dashboard display. I pondered the possibilities of what the image represented. It looked a little like a helicopter. Or a turkey, maybe.
Clearly I was in no position to diagnose the problem, so the only option was to restart the car and try to get across town to pick up my son, whose school is a few blocks from my preferred auto repair shop. During the 20-minute drive my car stalled at two stop signs and what felt like 840 stoplights. By the time I reached my son’s school I was so stressed out I drove past it, straight to the repair shop. My little boy was finally going to get his wish to go to aftercare with his friends.
The mechanics opened the hood to find the first clue: an armload of pine needles arranged together on top of the engine in front of the driver’s side. Eventually they determined the engine problem: Something was eating wires. Did we live in the country? No. Did the car sit for long periods? No. Well, they said, there was a mouse nesting in my car.
Hmm. I’d never seen evidence of mice around our home, I thought. But, in a panic about the possibilities of further damage, I immediately purchased enough anti-mouse ammunition to wage World War III under my car. Then I bought a bottle of rum. I went home, made a pina colada and then set up a battlefield on the driveway.
Having never been in command of a residential mouse counterattack, I was surprised to see the modern options. Someone did build a better mousetrap. Instead of a little block of wood with mouse-smashing metal attached, the new versions trapped the mouse inside, much like the insect traps where “roaches get in, but they don’t get out.” A little button indicates when you’ve caught a mouse. Still killing, but at least you don’t have to see the gore.
By the end of the week I was ready for gore. Three times a day I pulled bunches of pine needles out of my engine while the mousetraps went untouched. I began to suspect it wasn’t a mouse after all. My suspicion was confirmed when my husband spotted a small gray squirrel in the front yard gathering pine needles. With a mouthful of nesting material, it hopped across the yard to the driveway, headed straight for my car. No wonder the mousetraps sat empty.
This was a bigger problem. They didn’t sell squirrel traps at Publix.
My first instinct was to sprinkle cayenne pepper around the car. I learned from my attempt at organic gardening that squirrels are supposed to hate cayenne pepper. I never saw actual evidence of this since I’ve never been able to grow enough of anything to attract squirrels, but at this point it was all I had. I then checked around online, where I learned that this was apparently common in areas where squirrels were overpopulated, and that there was apparently not much I could do about it. I read post after discouraging post about how much damage the animals can do to a car. A few people suggested putting cayenne all over the engine, so I did that. The squirrel built right on top of it. I parked the car in a different spot. He found it. Three times a day I opened my hood and pulled out a new nest.
I lost any affection I had for squirrels years ago when one of them tried to eat our patio table. This one was pushing me toward a full-on, squirrel-hating, “Caddyshack“-style Varmint Cong mission of destruction. I went to the home improvement store to see what they had in the way of squirrel poison. All I could find were rat baits that didn’t look like something a squirrel would eat. Ironically, they were on the shelf right next to a bag of corn and seeds with a picture of squirrels on it. People are actually feeding these animals? On purpose? The only thing I could find that addressed squirrels was a Havahart — Get it? “Have a heart?” — trap that would supposedly allow me to trap the animal and take it away. I was thinking maybe I would ship it to Australia. I took the trap home, followed the instructions, and then tested it. Despite many attempts and repeated reviewing of the instructions, I couldn’t get it to work. So I headed back to the store. This time, I tried the trap in the store. Same story. No one seemed willing to help me test the product, but they all insisted they’d never had a complaint about it. I decided this trap just wasn’t going to work. My only other option was to try the “Easy Set” version, which was a size up, meant for raccoons and possums. It was easy to set up and it worked. Unfortunately, this small squirrel was too light and even with the trigger mechanism weighted, he came in and out as he pleased, leaving behind only a scattering of empty sunflower seed shells.
By this time, still pulling three nests a day out of my engine, laying awake at night wondering what he was chewing on, I began to get a little crazy. Spotting the squirrel from a bedroom window one day as I was getting dressed, I ran out into the front yard wearing only one of those robes that’s basically a towel and velcro and chased the squirrel to a tree, where I yelled obscenities and threw rocks at him until he hopped over the roof toward the backyard. I didn’t care what the neighbors thought. I wanted that tree rat dead, or at least very far away.
So back to the home improvement store I went. I was going to see if they had any more of the small Havahart traps. They didn’t. I went to two more stores, but no traps. People kept suggesting getting a pellet gun. This was starting to appeal to me. I began to feel my Arkansas roots and could imagine myself sitting in the backyard on a rocking chair, smoking a corncob pipe as I picked off the varmints from the back fence with my pellet gun. However, in a last-ditch effort to save the world from the possibilities of an armed me, I picked up a couple of rat traps — a big version of the old-school wooden mousetraps with the metal wire on top. The squirrel was small enough that a rat trap might work, I thought. If not, I was going to shoot him.
Sure enough, a $1.95 rat trap was what finally did the trick. The squirrel set off the traps twice as he went for the peanut butter and sunflower seeds I’d used for bait. I reloaded and set the traps back under the car. The next morning, we found one of the traps on the other side of the driveway. No squirrel, but he’d apparently been snagged enough to drag the trap for 15 feet or so. I don’t know what happened to him after that. I’m sorry to say that I don’t care. The animal was destroying property and costing me money, and possibly soon my sanity.
I continued to check the engine every day for the next week to make sure he was gone. One day as my son and I were in his room, he suddenly ran to the window. (I’d managed to pass on my squirrel paranoia to my 6-year-old.) We watched together silently as a gray squirrel, slightly larger than the outlaw rodent, made its way down the same tree and into the yard. Then we sighed with relief as he hopped out into the street and over to a tree in the neighbor’s yard.
“Well, Mom,” Trevor said, looking up at me, “I guess you don’t have to buy a gun.”
“No, I guess I don’t.” At least for now.