So there I was. There had been the alarmed summons from up the stairs, repeated over and over again until it finally woke me; the dash for the bathrobe (the one that still had its belt), and then, finally, me down on my hands and knees at three in the morning, fighting sleep and (drum roll) stalking the wild gerbil.

The gerbil's name is Cacciatore and it arrived just last week. It is the second gerbil to join our household, and since its sex is known only to it, God and another gerbil, it could not join the first, Fuzzy, in the same cage. Their keeper told me that if they were of the same sex, they would fight and if they were of different sexes they would, "you know, Dad," which would produce, you know, more gerbils. So Cacciatore was placed in a 10-gallon tank ($14.95 incl. tax) and books were placed over the top so he/she could not jump out. But he/she did.

Its keeper left the books off the top, so Cacciatore bounded out of the tank, went down the hall and entered the room of the housekeeper, a person from Guatemala who thinks--and why should she not?--that the English word for gerbil is "Fuzzy." This is why at 3 a.m. I heard a Spanish-accented voice call, "Meester Cohen! De fuzzy es loose en mi room!"

Now in truth, she had to say this over and over again. In drowsiness, I thought I was dreaming that someone was saying, "Meester Cohen. De fuzzy es loose en mi room." I ignored it, since I thought I could not possibly be hearing what I was hearing. I am often awakened in the middle of the night by Max the Wonder Dog who, when he gets the urge, approaches the bed and puts a paw squarely down on my mouth. I then get up, tell him how good he has been, and let him out. This, though, was different.

So now I awoke from the repeated sound of "Meester Cohen, De fuzzy es loose en mi room" and groped to the closet for my bathrobe. My wife stirred, asked what was the matter and said, "That's nice, honey" when I told her "de fuzzy es loose." Then she went back to sleep with a sweet smile on her sweet face.

I climbed the stairs and entered the housekeeper's room. There, standing on the bed, was the housekeeper. She was dressed in her robe and armed with a bedsheet. As soon as the gerbil poked its head out from under the couch across the room she, in the manner of Manolete, threw the sheet at it--ole!--and missed.

"Put down el sheeto," I said in Spanish.

She did. Then, on my hands and knees, I crawled toward the thing. It came out from under the couch and, for some reason, looked bigger than it did in its 10-gallon tank. Maybe, I thought, it was not a fuzzy. Maybe it was a mousie--a rabid one at that. Still on my hands and knees, I shifted into reverse and when I got to the door I stood, bolted from the room and ran to check the 10-gallon tank to see, perchance, if it was occupied. To my relief, it was not.

So I returned to stalking the wild gerbil. I learned some things pretty fast. Your basic gerbil is fast as hell. That's the least of it. It also can read your mind. If you so much as think of, say, reaching for it, it dashes away. If you think you will move to the left, it moves to the right. All this was made all the more frustrating by someone giggling in Spanish while standing on a bed, armed to the teeth with a bedsheet.

But your basic gerbil is also a dummy. After tiring it out by chasing it on my hands and knees, I went and fetched the 10-gallon tank and put it on its side. Then I waited for the dumb rodent to enter. After some feints and what is known in the stalking biz as "talking the gerbil in," it did. I then righted the thing and had, at last, my quarry.

There is not much more to the story than this. The gerbil's keeper later swore on a stack of Bibles, etc., that he had in fact made sure the tank was covered, but he never woke up and never, really, did his mother. The dog, however, did wake up, but that was later. As for me, I lay in bed thinking of the out-of-town newspaper editor who had told me a couple of days before that the trouble with Washington columnists is that they lead lives unlike anyone else's.

You're telling me.