That Damned Rodent

Maeryn Lamonte Copyright ©️ 2024

You never expect Hollywood to get it right, do you? I mean not in the slightest. Because why let reality get in the way of a good story? Pure escapism, which isn’t to say pure rubbish. I mean we all need to get away from the real world every now and then.

So anyway. Time loops. More common than you might think.

Quite what possessed me to visit Punxsutawney I’ll never know. I mean okay, it was the end of January and I’d arrived in Pittsburgh for a writer’s conference a few days early. The Steel City has never struck me as a tourism focal point, and I’ve never much liked cities anyway, so with Punxsutawney just an hour and a half’s drive away – practically in the back yard – I figured what the hell.

I didn’t really figure on there actually being a hell involved.

February second was due to fall on a Friday, so I decided to hire a car and spend the weekend. That way I could be back in civilization in time for the conference on Monday morning. And here I apply the term civilization very loosely, of course. After all, America was once famously described as going from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization in between.

Actually, that’s another piece of fake news worthy of Hollywood. The quote seems to have originated in a French nineteenth century text on 'The History of the Progress of Civilisation in Europe’ by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, where it was directed towards the then ruler of Russia. Of course, that didn’t stop it from being rebranded in the twentieth century by any of a number of more famous individuals with decidedly more pronounceable names, and if the shoe fits...

Contentious issues to one side, my own personal opinion about civilisation is that it is more likely to be found in rural backwaters than the racy, cutthroat dog-eat-dog environment of cities the world over. So, regardless of location, cities and civilization run in counterpoint to one another in my worldview.

Anyway, I’m off piste here. As luck would have it, I only had to phone five B&Bs before I found one with a cancellation. I should have expected something like Groundhog Day to draw a crowd, especially since the film of the same name tends to be resurrected in rerun limbo around this time every year. So I counted myself lucky even to find even two stars on trip advisor and booked it immediately.

I’ve stayed in worse places. Had to on my budget. Past experience has taught me always to pack my own sheets and never to examine the room in too much detail.

My Rent-A-Wreck came with a working heater, so the drive out through Pennsylvania’s snowy landscape took place in comfort. I headed across on the Thursday, since the ceremony on Gobbler’s Knob was due to take place good and early on the Friday.

The B&B proved to be a pleasant surprise. Run by an elderly couple by the name of Meryl and Bob and situated within a healthy walking distance of anywhere worth visiting. I don’t know what they did to earn the low rating, but I planned to change that for them.

Friday brought the expected early start. Celebrations at the Knob start before sunrise, though there’s not much point in getting there too much earlier. After all, there has to be something in the sky to cast a shadow before the repugnant rodent is sent looking for one. I set my alarm for six, giving me enough time to break my fast and walk over to the site before the sun came up.
It all felt hideously commercialised, but then I’ve grown cynical and bitter over the years. It happens when you make sacrifices to fit into the world and nobody notices. I’m reminded of a friend who once told me, ‘I don’t mind the suffering so much, but I do object to suffering in silence.’ We stoics do prefer it when we are recognised for the sacrifices we make, but the solitary result of all my efforts simply made me anonymous in the world. And without anyone to notice the effort I made every day, the best outcome I could hope for was quiet frustration.

Still marginally better than being lambasted an pilloried on a daily basis, even if it didn’t feel like it.

Hang on. I’m sure the main path was around here somewhere.

Yes, commercialism. Happy, cheerful people wandering around eating overpriced junk food and buying authentic local souvenirs with ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom, waiting for a bunch of guys in top hats and tails to do something unnatural with an overweight squirrel.

I wasn’t really in the spirit of the thing, you can tell.

Anyway, the moment came. Punxsutawney Phil was held aloft for everyone to cheer at – everyone except me; I don’t do cheering – before being placed in front of two scrolls so he could sniff each one with indifference until one of the men in black decided he’d actually made a choice.

The scroll was handed across and unrolled with all due pomp and circumstance, which is to say none at all.

“Hear ye, hear ye. Now on this February second, Punxsutawney Phil, the seer of seers, waffle, waffle, waffle. Dreadful rhyme, waffle, waffle. Gratuitous marketing, waffle, rubbish.

“But what this weather did not provide is a shadow or reason to hide. Glad tidings on this Groundhog Day, an early spring is on the way.”

I suppose they have to do something to drag it out, but it’s still a bit of a let-down after all the effort getting here. Not just that, but with blue skies brightening above, I didn’t think much of Punxsutawney Phil’s eyesight. I gave the oversized rat a look of deep disappointment.

He returned my gaze for an instant, and I’d swear his eyes flashed briefly red.

Very slightly disquieted, I made my way through the crowd, as ever feeling like the only fish in the river swimming upstream. Unfortunately, it happened to be the direction to my accommodation, and I was in need of a little local knowledge to help me fill the rest of my day.

A short discussion with my hosts informed that, if Pittsburgh had next to nothing for the discerning tourist, then Punxsutawney had less than nothing. They gave me directions to places where I might eat, drink or find something approaching entertainment, and I headed back out, once more on foot.

Unlike most places in America, Punxsutawney does make some provision for pedestrians. The area around Gobbler’s Knob didn’t have any, clears throat distastefully, sidewalks – sorry, I detest that word. At least none that I noticed, but it's pretty much closed to traffic for the weekend, so it’s safe to walk on the roads. The centre of town not only has paved pedestrian walkways but also quite a lot of open grassy areas – currently hiding under the snow. My home for the weekend was about a half hour’s walk from either, so I braved the chill and marched about the place in search of amusement.

The weather discovery centre used up some of the afternoon, but it’s geared more to kids, so I lost interest quickly enough. The rest of my time involved hunting out and exploring the three shopping malls I could find. There were a few clothes displays that caught my eye – unusual for me since I don’t often care for American fashions – but understated by those same standards, which meant quite attractive by mine.

Backwater places in America often come with strict and outdated opinions. Traditional they might call them, but still setting low tolerance levels I didn’t feel like testing, so I walked on by.

I found a place for dinner which was clean, tasty and not altogether too tacky, and ended up making friends the instant I open my mouth. It is truly amazing the way barriers melt away in the presence of a British accent, and mine’s posher than most.

My day ended at the Sandfly Brewing Company where I enjoyed a few drinks before heading back to my digs. My timing couldn’t have been better, as one of the locals left about the same time, and offered me a ride. Since my alternative was quite a long walk in the cold, I accepted.

Saturday I’d planned to lie in before heading off in search of a quiet country trail or two. Somehow my alarm went off at six again, despite my having turned it off. Half an hour later there was a quiet tap on my door.

“Sorry to disturb you dear, but didn’t you come for the groundhog ceremony?” my hostess asked through the door. “Only you’ll have to hurry if you want to make it in time.”

“I thought the ceremony was on Friday,” I answered through a muzzy haze.

“But it is Friday.”

No, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. I reached for my phone, which told me I was wrong.

“If you hurry, Bob can take you down there. He has a few deliveries to make, but you’ll have to ready in the next ten minutes.”

So, I climbed into my clothes and headed downstairs where a mug of coffee and a couple of English muffins – or as we call them, muffins – awaited me.

Two stars, my very shiny heinie!

Bob shook his head at me as I climbed into his truck, as if to say, ‘City folk!’

I mean I’m not city folk. I said as much already, didn’t I? And I already went to the ceremony yesterday. Except yesterday was today.

“Early spring,” I said conversationally.

Bob looked up at the clear, star-spangled sky. “Nope, reckon not.”

Yeah, well. I’d show him.

We made it with five minutes to spare. I didn’t have time reach my vantage point from the previous day, but I could see it from where I was. It remained vacant through the whole dull ceremony. I did catch the rodent’s eye shortly after the prediction was given, and could have sworn the evil little monster winked at me.

So, not a hoax. I’d so hoped someone was messing with me. I mean maybe that was the reason for the low rating. Maybe Bob and Meryl were pathological pranksters who’d snuck into my room, hacked my phone to reset the date and turn on the alarm, then driven me down here for the ultimate gotcha, but everything was the same.

I felt the ghost of Occam glowering at me in disapproval, and yes, I’ll admit it was an unlikely scenario. And there was no way they’d go to the extent of recreating the whole ceremony, crowd and all, just to punk a jaded and only vaguely successful British writer, would they? Okay, so the scrolls were probably the same script every year, but the inflections matched so precisely my head ached by the end of it.

Then through the rest of the day, the same minor little details. I tried to do the same things, go to the same places at the same times, and all the half-forgotten details repeated themselves. Same squeal of brakes, same screaming kid, same overheard snippets of conversation, all recorded by my subconscious only to reappear at precisely the same times.

I wasn’t much of a fan of TV and radio, at least not the way it’s done in this part of the world where there’s more commercial than program, but again I caught hints here and there which seemed to be exact repeats of the previous day. An image popped into my mind of Bill Murray answering questions on Jeopardy before they were asked. I knew I’d go mad before I reached that stage.

The day ended at the same bar with the same lift home, after which I went straight to bed, anxious to see what the following day would bring.

My alarm went off at six. My phone told me it was Friday. Again! I went down to breakfast. Same coffee, same greasy, filling breakfast I’d enjoyed on my first day. I didn’t bother going to the ceremony but headed straight into town, arriving before any of the shops were open, apart from this one coffee shop that refused to acknowledge the local nonsense.

“You ain’t from around here,” one of the coffee shop’s two elderly regulars commented in my direction.

“What gave me away?” I asked. “I’ll bet it was the accent.”

I was treated to a toothless, wheezing laughing.

“He’s wondering why you didn’t go down to the ceremony,” his companion asked.

“I’m allergic to crowds,” I said. “Besides, early spring.”

“I’ll take some o’ that,” the shopkeeper said. “Twenty dollars says he sees his shadow.”

It felt dishonest taking the bet, but there were still a lot of things I couldn’t know for sure.

“You’re on.”

He turned on the radio and we listened to the pronouncement, now for the third time for me.

I took the guys money and asked if there was anywhere else in town that would take a bet like that this early in the morning. There wasn’t, but there were a few online gambling sites that covered bets on the vagaries of an obese rodent. I filed them away for future use, assuming the future continued to repeat itself.

It began to occur to me that I could do whatever I wanted. I mean, I needed to repeat the experiment a few more times with varying parameters to be sure, but if I was genuinely, and against all odds, locked into a repeat of this day, I could do anything I wanted and even if things went horribly wrong, all I’d need to do was wait until the end of the day for everything to reset.

I varied my activities for the rest of the day, and once more went to bed early.

Five more repeats, then another ten with increasing degrees of variation. In the last one, I smashed a shop window and hung around until a policeman turned up.

Harvey his name was, and he spoke with a Texas accent. He had the swagger and the supreme self-confidence of someone who’s convinced he’s right regardless of evidence to the contrary.

I decided to make his life easy, admitting to the vandalism, and surrendering into his custody. I spent an uncomfortable night in a cold cell and woke up in bed back at Meryl and Bob’s with my phone alarm going off.

In various iterations, I smashed my phone, only to be woken up by it at six the following morning, I tried leaving for Pittsburgh, by car, bus train, only to have it breakdown within a few miles of the town. I didn’t try walking though. I could never get further than a couple of hours walk from Gobbler’s Knob. It seemed that whatever bubble of time I was trapped in also had limiting dimensions in space.

A couple dozen times round the merry-go-mad convinced me I was going to have to do something drastic to break out, but just what I couldn’t figure out.

That didn’t mean I couldn’t have a little fun while I was working it out though.

I found a betting site that offered five to one odds against an early spring and bet my life savings on it. It made me feel sick to the stomach to do so, but if the fates disapproved then at least I’d be out of the bubble.

I was enjoying my habitual second coffee with Harold and Bill along with Greg, the coffee shop owner when my phone buzzed to tell me my meagre fortune had increased in size by a factor of five. I’d stopped taking Peter’s money after the first time round. Now out of appreciation for the idea of fleecing a company of legalised thieves, I bought everyone a doughnut.

I asked if any of them had ever had any experience of deja vu, and earned myself a good cackling.

“I had an experience of ooh la la once when I visited Paris,” Harry said. “I wouldn’t have minded some deja vu back then, I don’t mind telling you.”

“Yeah, my name may be Bill,” his companion crowed, “but I ain’t no Bill Murray.”

They wiped their eyes over what must have been a rare joke for them, and I learned not to ask the stupid question next time around.

Still, nothing ventured...

Venturing brought me to the entrance of Girl Friends a while later, the moment they opened their doors. This was one of the places that had caught my eye window shopping on my first day. I asked the girl at the door to follow me and led her to the window display that interested me.

The weather was cold for a dress, but peal on jeans weren’t going to work for me. Even if I bought a loose blouse to cover the bulge in my crotch, the tight denim would have caused havoc with my delicates, and that would be no fun.

I showed them the dress I was interested in and asked to be measured for it. There was a fair bit of uncertainty and tittering, but a sale was a sale and the customer was always right.

Once they’d furnished me with an appropriately sized garment and the necessary boots and thick tights to make it survivable in the sub zero temperatures, I parted with a small chunk of my winnings and walked out of the shop feeling like a million dollars.

By the time I’d made it to the end of the street, I had a small gang of unsavoury youths closing in on me, calling out gentle insults and filling me with dread.

The blip of a siren caused my entourage to scatter down various side streets. I breathed a sigh of relief, but it wasn’t over yet.

“Ma’am,” Harvey greeted me with barely concealed distain.

“Thank you for your assistance, officer.” It always pays to show a little respect to the law.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I can’t allow you to walk around the streets looking like that.” If he could have spat the word Ma’am, he would have.

“Excuse me, have I done something wrong?”

“Well, I don’t know how you folks go about your business in Ingerland, but we ain’t so free and easy around here.”

His attitude was significantly frostier than the weather. Maybe showing a little respect didn’t always pay, not when you found yourself a bigot in uniform.

“I thought Pennsylvania law supported LGBTQ rights.” No sense beating about the bush. With all the best will in the world, everyone could see what I was under the frills.

“That’s as maybe, but not when you go about disturbing the peace...”

“Exactly how was I doing that?”

He stepped out of his car and took hold of my arm. “When you dressed all provocative like. Now, if you’ll just step into the back of the vehicle...”

I looked down at myself. Provocative was not a word I’d have used to describe my outfit. Pretty, yes. Conservative, possibly. I certainly wasn’t showing any skin.

“Are you arresting me?”

“Yea Ma’am. Pennsylvania law requires me to address you this way, but I consider the way you’re clothes to be conducive to the incitation of violence, and as such am reprimanding you into my custody in the lawful pursuit of my duties.”

I was stunned. Never mind the horrendous mangling of my mother’s tongue, but surely this had to be abuse of privilege.

I heard a metallic clink as he took hold of my wrist. I looked down at the handcuffs, then at him

“Seriously?”

“I thought a gurl like you would appreciate a fine piece of jewellery.”

“Hey Harvey, what ya doin’?” The speaker was a slender black woman with a seventies afro. Her arms were crossed under an ample bosom, and she stood with her hip cocked provocatively.

“Never you mind Clarice, this here’s police business.”

“Since when did harassing tourists become police business. What you arresting her for?”

“Dressing provocatively. Now don’t you make me come over and arrest you too.”

“You don’t have the guts.” She had her phone out and was pressing and swiping as she walked towards us.

“Now what you doing Clarice?”

She ignored him, but spoke to the phone instead. “Good morning, Daddy.” It’s always amazed me how quickly some women can change their expression. Clarice had switch from dangerously annoyed to radiantly cheerful in less time than it takes politician to lie.

“Clarice, it’s a little early...”

“Never too early to avert a miscarriage of justice, Daddy. Look what Harvey’s doing.” She turned the phone around to take in the scene.

“Harvey? Care to explain?”

“Yes sir, Mr Mayor. You see, this uh, young wo... She, er, she was inciting a disturbance. Yeah, that’s what she was doing “

“How, precisely?”

“By walking down the street, Daddy, and drawing the attention of Mike Jarret and his gang.”

“Is that right Harvey?” The policeman chose not to comment. “Well, it seems to me a better use of your time would be to go chase down young Mr Jarret and his cronies.”

“Er, yes sir.” He gave Clarice a poisonous look and climbed back into his car.

“Now Clarice, when are you gonna come visit your momma and me? You free tomorrow lunchtime? You can bring your friend if you like.”

“She’s more like some stray bitch I found being kicked around.”

“Clarice, that’s uncalled for. Shall I tell your mother to expect the two of you at one? That’s settled then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The phone went quiet.

“Er... Thanks?”

She gave me a withering look which would have been moderately more effective if she’d had a pair of half-moon spectacles to look over.

“You’d best come in,” she said. “If I’m taking you to meet my momma, you need to look better.”

“I thought I Iooked pretty good.”

“Yeah, er no. Take a seat. You fancy a coffee?”

“Never say no to a coffee.” I looked around me at what was quite evidently a hairdresser's.

“How d’you take it?”

“Milk and none please.”

She put a steaming mug down on a small table beside me and incarcerated me in a nylon gown before turning me to face a mirror.

“Don’t I get a say in this?”

“Nope. I don’t trust your judgement.”

“Er... Okay.” She had rescued me after all. I owed her some level of trust. Besides, it’d all be gone by tomorrow, wouldn’t it?

I picked up the coffee and settled back with my eyes closed. I kept my hair long because it was one things blokes could do these days, and it helped any time I put on a frock. Generally long hair on a man wasn’t that well-kept though, and mine was no exception.

She worked on it for an hour doing things to it I couldn’t begin to describe.

The face in the mirror belonged to a different me. One that I’d kept hidden inside for more years than I could remember. I smiled and she smiled. It was like magic.

“So, no complaints then?” she asked, biting down on a smile.

I didn’t have words.

“You wanna take it further?”

I nodded. Still no words.

She pulled out a makeup kit and showed me a few simple tricks. I watched and did my best to commit to memory everything she showed me. By the time she was done, the only part of me that wasn’t girl, was quietly appropriating a significant fraction of my blood supply. I kept my hands in my lap and willed it to stop, which eventually it did. The soft feeling inside remained though, and I cherished it.

“So, how much is this work of art going to cost me?” I asked reaching for my purse

She looked at me appraisingly for a moment and ran a figure up three figures on the till. I didn’t flinch. I was flush for the first time in a very long while, and besides, the money was as ephemeral as everything else. A morning mist waiting to evaporate into nothingness.

“Next we need to take you shopping, girl.”

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“Nothing if you don’t mind looking like my grandma, which you are not going to do if you’re coming with me to visit my parents this evening.”

“Alright, alright. Where did you have in mind?”

She sniffed. “Nowhere around here, that’s for sure.”

“Okay, but just so you know, weird things have been happening to me if we go more than eight miles from here.”

“What, like you turn into a pumpkin or something like that?”

“Not quite. More like vehicles I’m in tend to break down.”

“Okay, so we take your car.”

“And stay within eight miles.”

“Sure, whatever. I can work with that.”

“And you let me buy you lunch. This,” I swiped my credit card to pay for my makeover, “is business. I still want to thank you for earlier.”

“It was nothing.”

“It was more than nothing to me.”

“Fine, there’s a diner I know, we can have something light because we gonna be eating heavy tonight.”

She had to work, which left we three hours to fill. Made up as I was I attracted considerably fewer angry glares, and those only from people who’d seen me earlier.

I found Phil’s burrow, now with Phil back on display, and asked him if he’d done this to me. He ignored me, choosing to sulk instead. Mind you I didn’t blame him. Ordinarily he’d have another month’s hibernation ahead of him.

“No reason to take it out on me though, is it?”

He turned his back on me, very deliberately.

“Ugly little critter, isn’t it?”

I jumped. I hadn’t even noticed anyone was nearby. He was a Native American and stood so still I might have mistaken him for a statue

“Don’t be alarmed. I’m no threat to you. My folks raised me to respect two spirits.”

“Two spirits?”

“People like yourself, born with the spirits of both man and woman.”

“Oh. Am I that obvious?”

“You were earlier, before Clarice took you under her wing.”

“You know Clarice?”

“Everyone knows Clarice. She’s a rare thing in this world. Looks past the skin, into the heart.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about days repeating themselves, would you?”

He laughed again. It was a great sound. Made you smile just to hear it. “Not that ridiculous film again. Hollywood has a way of taking a simple piece of folklore and blowing it out of all proportion.”

“You mean it is based on something?”

“So loosely you wouldn’t believe. My grandfather told me about a spirit in these parts, who makes folks relive the same days until they face up to the thing they’re refusing to see. It would never go on for so long as in that film though. Well, maybe if you were as dense as the guy in the film.”

“So, all you’d need to do to break the loop is to stop living in denial.”

“If it was real, sure, but it’s not. You have a good day, ma’am.”

He disappeared as silently as he’d come. Phil looked up at me expectantly, or so it seemed.

“Oh, so now you look at me?”

He shrugged, and sauntered over to his food and tucked in. I suppose there can’t have been much to life for him, stuck behind glass as he was. Eat, sleep, repeat.

Well, since he didn’t seem to have anything else to say to me, I moved on. As ideas went, it was no more ludicrous than what was already happening to me. It was fairly obvious what I was denying in my life, and if this spirit had any links with the local tribes, maybe their other beliefs factored.

I’d been brought up to believe that what was inside me was wrong, that I had to suppress it and pretend it wasn’t there. Maybe I should be embracing it instead, accepting it as a genuine and valued part of me.

Following a short stop at the Goodwill, which I’d found it on one of my previous journey’s through the day, I headed back to the B&B and the uncertain welcome I was expecting there.

Meryl and Bob were pretty cool with it. They were old enough to have been at the original Woodstock, so maybe had seen and experienced weirder stuff.

Openness and honesty works with kind-hearted folk. I offered to go back to wearing trousers, and they said I should do what made me feel most comfortable. Which, of course, meant sticking with my current outfit. The way my hair and face looked, trousers weren't really an option.

Shortly before one, I climbed into the car, discovering all the logistical complications of driving in a skirt and heels. I made it to Clarice’s salon and slotted into a short-term parking spot, and waited for her to finish up.

The mall she had in mind was a few miles east of Punxsutawney. We reached it without mishap and she proceeded to empty my wallet on a whole lot of things I found I really liked. By the time we were done, I’d used up three quarters of my winnings, but I had a pretty much a full wardrobe to show for it. Clarice picked out something a little less fussy than what I was wearing and had me change into it. Leggings and a knitted woollen dress. I’ll admit it went better with my hairdo, and it was both more comfortable and warmer.

The more I spent on her say so, the more she seemed to open up. It was like my half-hearted, tottering steps into womanhood had offended her, but the more I took her seriously, the more the barriers came down.

She guided me to a diner on the east side of town with the unlikely name of Gimmick’s Restaurant. I’m not sure I did figure out what the gimmick was.

Talk became easier over a light lunch and by the time we’d finished eating we were both smiling.

She had to get back to work, but we set a time for me to pick her up the following day. In parting, she suggested what I should wear for the evening. I liked that she took an interest.

The day had started as an experiment to see what I could get away with, but now I didn’t want to start over. That meant I had to embrace the girl in me. Then and there I resolved to return to Pittsburgh in a dress and maybe share some of my more selective pieces of writing.

Whether or not that would be enough, I’d only find out tomorrow. I changed into my nightdress and settled down for an early night.



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