House of Squirrels

by Anna Schmitz

I didn’t know that I was moving into an apartment that was infested with squirrels. It was the summer after my first year of college and I had no intention of ever moving back home again. My best friend, Matthea, had been living with her boyfriend and found out that he had been cheating on her with one of her closest friends. Her response was to smash his CDs and DVDs and pour lube in his guitar. She then called her mother, who helped her put all of her belongings in the apartment’s spare room and put a lock on that door. Her mother left the boyfriend a note informing him that he would need to move out, which he did. Matthea was suddenly looking for a housemate.

I moved in immediately. The apartment was on the third floor of a rickety wooden building perched on a highway access road. It was a warm June day in Minnesota and the temperature rose noticeably with each new flight of stairs that we walked up while holding garbage bags of clothing. My mother refused to help me move because she wanted me to live at home over the summer. I was completely drenched in sweat by the time I had moved all of my belongings. The combination of heat, humidity and cat hair from my best friend’s obese cat, Reggie, made breathing in the apartment feel like I was breathing with a mouth full of marshmallows.

I could hear a scratching sound as I moved some of my things into my bedroom from the living room. Matthea nodded. “Yeah, there are squirrels that live in the storage closets.” She gestured to two small doors facing each other on opposite sides of the living room. “Just don’t ever open those doors because then they’ll run out.” I nodded. It was my first apartment and I didn’t know anything about squirrels yet.

We began to learn about squirrels when we first saw one in the kitchen. There had been a few days of being gaslit by the squirrels — hearing tiny claws skittering across the wood floors, or seeing bushy tails out of the corner of your eye, but assuring ourselves that all the squirrels were contained in the storage closets. They were not.

The thing about squirrels is that they can’t be contained. They can crush their tiny squirrel bodies and sneak through improbably small spaces. They can hang upside down from the metal bars of live traps, held up only by their tiny claws and determination. They will chew tiny holes in your bag of almonds and leave half-eaten almonds all over the kitchen counter. Squirrels refuse to be stopped.

We waited for a couple days before telling our landlord. I would call her a slumlord, but she was also a nun, and it seems like you have to be one or the other. Matthea occasionally organized her prayer cards to make extra money. Because we were 19, we had declined to inform her that I had switched places with Matthea’s ex-boyfriend in the apartment. She discovered this after several instances of seeing me enter the apartment with a key and eventually sat us down for an old-fashioned scolding and lease-updating. We also had hosted a housewarming party in which our friends had stolen a dozen traffic cones from a nearby construction site and scattered them around our house, and we had to hide those before she could come up to our apartment. Because of these circumstances, we waited before telling her about the squirrels.

We went downstairs to her apartment and knocked on her door. She opened it, revealing a hallway stacked high with piles of books on both sides. There appeared to be even more junk looming just past the hallway. She asked if we had been locking the front door when we left, which was a topic of constant concern from her. We told her that we had and also that we had to talk to her about the squirrels. She nodded as though this was no surprise to her, probably because it was not surprising to her; it was as if she had known all along that the squirrels would eventually infest our apartment. This was a cynical thought to have about a woman with entirely white hair who was about five feet tall but it seemed to be the truth. She told us that she would leave some traps outside our apartment. I assumed that this was standard protocol for a squirrel infestation — sort of a DIY approach.

Our nun slumlord was as good as her word and the next day we woke up to find a small metal cage outside our door. It was a live trap, so you put a small amount of peanut butter on a lever mechanism on the inside of the trap and when the peanut butter lever was pressed it would swing the door closed and the squirrel would be trapped inside.

We were reluctant to use the trap at first, worried about the thought of dealing with the wild, possibly rabid animal trapped in our own apartment. But then I walked up the stairs to our apartment to find a squirrel sitting on the counter, nibbling on my almonds without shame. Matthea walked into the kitchen on a separate day to find another squirrel on the counter. The squirrel stared her down, then made a beeline for her bedroom, where he scampered into her closet and peed on her clothing. It was war. After our usual routine of drinking fruit-flavored vodka and watching The O.C. in her air conditioned bedroom, we set up the trap.

The first squirrel we caught was novel. It scampered around the cage in manic circles, tiny beady eyes darting around the room. We threaded the broomstick through the handle of the cage to pick it up because being too close to the animal seemed unwise.

Equally unwise was our decision to let the squirrel out of the trap immediately outside our front door. We did this with each squirrel we caught. The sleazy 24-year-old who Matthea was sleeping with at the time regarded this with disdain and encouraged us to drown them. One morning I woke up to the skittering sound of claws on metal and padded out into the kitchen to find a squirrel in the trap. The trap had our small whiteboard on top with “KILL IT” scrawled on it in boy handwriting. I went back to bed.

After a few weeks of this approach to squirrel hunting we decided to change direction. We inspected the apartment for any possible squirrel entry points, sweating profusely while crawling around on the floor of the living room. We identified two small holes and blocked them off with two-by-fours. We spent the rest of the summer listening to the squirrels scratch from within the storage closets and shrieking whenever our friends came close to knocking over the wood blocking the squirrel holes. The nun slumlord informed us at the end of the summer that she was selling the house. I moved back into my college dorm. It was squirrel-free.

This story is part of our Real Estate Month series.

Anna Schmitz tweets for a living for a web application and tries to dress for the weather in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Photo: Shane Pope

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