This is a story that I wrote many years ago when I was sixteen. I include this to show how my writing has changed over the years. It’s a little naive, but I think you can see my penchant for irony in it. Enjoy! -HRC
Officer Dickson glared at the brown Buick as it sped past him towards the river bridge. According to his radar it was doing 89 miles per hour. Some sort of mayhem bounced furiously on the front seat of the speeding sedan, the motions wild, blurry, and incomprehensible. He slammed down the accelerator of his cruiser to give chase. The car in front of him swerved, weaving across several lanes before skidding to a stop on the far right side of the bridge. A small gray object ejected out of the passenger window and over the railing to the river far below. Blood streaked down the inside of the Buick’s windshield and dripped off of the rear view mirror. The patrolman heard a child screaming, and he grabbed a bullhorn from its holster.
“EVERYONE IN THE CAR PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS!”
Let me introduce myself: I’m the screaming child from the passenger seat of the car. I had no real active part in the entire drama, beginning to end, except that final fatal toss after the car skidded to a gravelly stop, though by telling you this tale I put myself out as some sort of protagonist, I suppose, a weak one, and one overshadowed by another who is most active in the total tale. The driver of the car, my father, was also an injured party, passive, just a pawn. What the patrolman saw was the direct result of my mother’s obsession with cleanliness and squirrels, her utter need for complete control and domination. And Mama, although her credentials do stack up pretty well, is far from the hero. The protagonist, hero, and unwitting champion of my story was that fuzzy projectile I threw out of the car window and over the edge of the bridge.
That little gray squirrel was and is the thing that beat us all. That just this common tree “rat” with a fuzzy tail can stir up such a frenzy, draw blood, and successfully escape is proof that he is the champion of the story.
Our yard was large, and the lawn was lush and green. A few tall pine trees were planted around with red azaleas, bordered with pink and white impatiens. Each corner of the lot had a small grove of pink dogwoods with rose beds east and west. The entire garden encircled our white colonial house, bordered by monkey grass and daylilies, brick edging completing the picture perfect image. Mama forced my father into a life of servitude in the yard, moving flowers, replanting small trees, putting the perfect-to-her-eyes decorative fencing around the flower beds. He spent each Saturday mowing, thatching, raking, fertilizing, aerating, sprinkling endlessly.
I watched him from the window of my room, sadly going about his duties as yardman, casting longing glances towards the garage where he kept his golf clubs. He’d slow his march with the Lawn Boy, sigh, and push a little faster. I saw how much he wanted to get finished and play a few holes at the course. But the clubs moldered in their bag weekend after weekend, the carrot Daddy never got to taste. He seemed to give up golf because it cut into yard care time, and Mama was insistent.
Inside was no different from the outside- it all remained under Mama’s control. Nothing escaped her management of my poor sister Kay who was basically her house slave. Folding the towels to place them on the racks at “correct” spots, making the bed ruffle look “just so” by Mama’s declaration, turning all the tassels on the tie backs on the living room curtains to hang at a certain angle (No, no, not that far over. Lift the fringe a little more towards the brown flower in that drapery pattern right there.). Luckily and much to Mama’s consternation and my sister’s frustration, I had no eye for minutiae. And much to my father’s disappointment, I had too many allergies to be mucking about in the yard, so that task fell to him alone.
I sat back and did my part by keeping out of the way and being quiet. The view from my room revealed not only my father’s sacrifice for marital harmony, it showed perfection in the garden. Well, perfection that is until the squirrels came and made The Nest.
Anyone down south can tell you that squirrels like to infest tall pine trees. They make their homes high in the tree out of twigs and straw. The mess they make when they gnaw apart pine cones for the seeds carpets the ground for yards around the home tree. Then of course, there’s fleas. My mother was convinced they came from squirrels, and maybe she had good reason for thinking so.
Mama’s intellectually-and-bladder-challenged fluff-ball dog, Suzette spun around the house like a mad ballerina. She pranced and wallowed everywhere, even on the antique white damask davenport in the living room. My sister pitched fits about Suzette’s freedom to do as she wanted while Kay remained a sort of indentured servant. It was her job to keep that crisp white couch spotless. She chased after the poodle all the time, wiping dog paws after visits from outdoors, trimming her nails, brushing her fur of leaves and twigs. Thanks to Kay’s fear of Mama’s wrath, the furniture remained pristine and Suzette was fairly clean.
The afternoon of the Flea Incident occurred a few days after Mama noticed pine cones shredded in the yard and the beginnings of a squirrel nest in one of the trees that bordered the less landscaped lot the Nagels, our neighbors, maintained like a nature preserve. She had Daddy clean up the mess and tack a sheet of tin around the base of the tree to keep the squirrels from climbing up and down to their nest.
“They came from over there. But they will move.” Mama declared to Daddy while he raked the sharp cones and hard green thorns. “They won’t be able to get back up the tree to their house with these metals sheaths where they climb.”
The squirrels did move, though unexpectedly closer to our back door through the tops of the trees, not on the ground. My mother glared up at the too-close-to-her-house bundle of twigs the squirrels called home and it ruined her idea of the perfect yard. “Why on earth didn’t they go back to the wilds of the Nagels’ overgrown lot?”
The rodents continued to chew through pine cone after pine cone, gleefully (according to Mama) leaving wood chips and thorns all over the berber-like lawn. Daddy raked and the squirrels made detritus. It was a daily race to see who could outdo the other (also according to Mama).
The third Tuesday of each month, the Woodland Hills Ladies’ Bridge Club (The WHLBC as women haughtily called it) met at our house. I helped to pull out the folding card tables, fetch matching cards and tallies, and fill crystal snack trays with peanuts, pretzels, and crudites. All the place settings for each woman were done by my sister’s more practiced hand. Suzette growled and writhed down on her back smack in the middle of the davenport.
“Shoo. Get down.” Kay fanned her hand at the dog who first ignored her then decided to jump down and go gnaw her haunches in the doorway to the kitchen. The doorbell rang with the first guest, but she didn’t stop biting to bark at the door.
I opened the door and greeted the ladies of the WHLBC as they arrived, politely directing them to the living room as my mother had scripted. They lounged and had refreshments, gossiping and laughing before they began their games.
Mrs. Nagel, our next door neighbor with the jungle for a yard, sat on the white couch holding her tea daintily over her lap. She sipped the hot liquid with her head hunched forward a bit so she wouldn’t spill anything on the crisp fabric. The couch looked like a giant cloud with a patch of sky that was Mrs. Nagel’s pale blue dress. On the edge of her dress, down deep from the crevices of the furniture where Suzette had been rubbing her back, came the gathering tempest. First one small black dot appeared, then another and another. New fleas from the dog and hatching eggs from previous davenport scratchings pulled together into the perfect storm of biting little pests. Mrs. Nagel had a sudden itch on the back of her knee. She felt the hard little bug while she was discreetly scratching the itchy spot. She stared at it on the end of her finger, not quite comprehending what it was. Then she saw the tide of black dots crawling up her leg towards her dress.
At the same time across the room, Mrs. McMillan was staring with large round eyes at the black pepper dots jumping crazily all around her chair. Women began furiously scratching, lifting their feet and legs off of the floor which was carpeted with gray wool berber and freshly- hatched fleas. The bridge club became an uproar of screaming women mixed with thousands of leaping fleas.
It was a defining moment- the shame of having the entire bridge club evacuate the house steeled Mama’s focus. Her immediate thoughts went to the only things that weren’t under her grip, the only things that had disordered her world recently- the squirrels. Suzette had been running out of the door every day and cavorting with the yard mutts a couple of lots away, bringing home dust, dirt, and fleas that would leap off into the deep fabrics of the upholstered furniture in our house. Mama didn’t believe in flea collars and rarely checked the dog for the parasites. “Those things itch the dogs worse than a flea!” She said. Choosing to ignore Suzette’s transportation of the flea, it all became the fault of the squirrels. It was the squirrels that somehow infested our living room with fleas and humiliated her. She declared repeatedly, obsessively how the squirrels had ruined her life on purpose. She began to yell at the animals through the windows, banging on the glass every few minutes. It was like she thought of nothing else.
That Thursday evening the power went out during a thunderstorm, the wind lashing the trees harshly, the lightning strikes close and all around. We were sitting in the den with candles lighting a dim corner. Mama went to the window that overlooked the back yard where the pine trees swayed crazily to the storm’s power. As the flashes backlit the trees, she looked up at the shadowy nest held high in the spidery black limbs and growled in an unnatural voice over and over. “The devil rides on pine trees! The devil rides on pine trees!” She raised her arms; a thunderbolt gave a brilliant background to her raised, clenched fists. That’s when I felt a chill run up my spine. It was Mama against Nature.
The next Saturday morning I woke up to booming blasts gunfire from outside. I threw open my bedroom curtains and saw Daddy in the back yard under my window reloading a 12 gage with shell packed with bird pellets. Little bits of pine tree and cones littered the yard around him. He pointed the gun upwards and let another two barrels crash through the squirrel nest. I looked over at the patio, and my mother stood there with a smug smile on her face, one dead squirrel at her feet. She had the final solution, the thing that would rid her yard of shame and her house of fleas. If you can’t control, kill them. Mama could have been a conquistador in the Age of Discovery.
Then something happened that Mama wasn’t counting on. In her mania she had forgotten Mrs. Nagel. Her back door was only 50 feet from where Daddy was firing away in compliance with Mama’s command.
“There’s one right there get it no over there right beside the second pine tree no not there pull the damn trigger!” Her sharp voice made Daddy jump like a marionette. She stopped and looked over to Mrs. Nagel who was now standing by the fence with one hand on her hip and the other wagging her finger at my father.
“What do you think you are doing? You can’t fire that thing in city limits!” Mrs. Nagel bellowed across the yard to Daddy.
Mama turned to see who was yelling at the precise moment Daddy who did not hear the neighbor unloaded another barrage of death on the squirrel nest. Pine cones, clumps of green and brown needles, and wet squirrel bits rained down on Mrs. Nagel. I couldn’t really hear what she was saying because my ears were ringing from the shot gun blast, but it looked like very adult and very dire words were said.
I went and took a shower to try to loosen the ringing in my ears. When I went downstairs a few minutes later, there was a cop on our front lawn talking to Daddy. After he fined my father for firing his weapon in city limits without a permit and calmed down Mrs. Nagel, he had a suggestion.
“I can come over here, ma’am, in a few days, with the right permits, and shoot those critters for you.” He grinned and nodded at my mother. “Truth is I like squirrel. Grew up in the country eating it and other game.”
The next Saturday while Mrs. Nagel was out visiting her sister, my mother called the officer back to the house. I was outside sitting at the picnic table on our vast concrete patio which was set with overflowing flower pots, bird feeders, and scrolled wrought iron chairs. The policeman, not in uniform, sat at the table with me for a minute while he loaded his gun. “You like hunting I bet.” The huge grin on his face made me think of an ancient uncle, dead in his casket, rictus stretching his mouth into an unnatural grin.
“No sir. I don’t like killing things much.” I gave him a flat, polite smile and looked up into the trees to see where the squirrels were.
The cop marched across the yard and stood under the big pine tree where the rodents had made a huge nest spanning what looked to be 15 feet across- the edges were a bit wispy, but it was still the biggest squirrel nest I had ever seen. He took aim and started peppering the thatching with a rain of lead. Animal after animal fell out of the nest, dead on the ground. The gray bodies piled up quickly to seven, with a couple of corpses hanging in the remains atop the pines. The rest would not remake their home in the area, and they scampered off through the treetops.
“I guess that takes care of your squirrel problem, ma’am.” The officer blew the smoke from the end of the gun barrel and gave his disturbing smile to my mother who was waiting on the back steps.
A rustling in the rose bed on the east side of the house captured Mama’s attention. “There’s another one over there!” She shouted and pointed, her feet making a staccato beat on the bricks.
The policeman swung his weapon and, aimed at the moving bush, and blew away Mrs. McMillan’s grey Persian cat Sammy who was out for a quick catty romp, sadly his last. Of course between the officer, my parents, and a $20 bribe to me, no one ever found out that a gun was irresponsibly discharged or that a cherished pet had been destroyed. Sammy ended up fertilizing the same rose bushes he had been getting ready to fertilize himself, which is what I said during the brief eulogy I was indulged. My parents hurried my “funeral” along lest Mrs. McMillan come looking for her cat.
The uproar from the neighbors about more shooting in our yard grew louder this time. Mama had to save face, but she had to be rid of the squirrel menace. Although the nest site had been decimated by gunfire and death, there was still one squirrel left, one paladin to fight the good fight. He chattered in the treetops, staring down at the ground below with venom in his voice. “I gotta get that one too.” Mama was determined, and like I told you, it was never ending.
That Monday after work, Daddy came home with a couple of Have-a-Heart animal traps, the kind baited with food and humanely traps animals through a trick door. Mama wanted to set out poison. Daddy insisted against it. “Lord almighty they’ll run us out of town if somebody’s pet gets poisoned! We’re lucky no one found out about Sammy!” My father, for once, was completely set in place. “Betty June, we will do this my way and nothing else gets killed.”
He put the two traps near the base of the home tree where one part of the destroyed nest still clung. It was a fortress for the final flea bag, he joked. I brought him some shelled pecans and popcorn mixed with a big gob of peanut butter, a real squirrel feast. I sprinkled a little parmesan cheese on it just in case squirrels were indeed tree rats with fluffy tails like Mama said. And I figured rats liked cheese. The traps were baited and set, then left alone that night.
Another kind of ruckus besides weapons fire woke me up the next morning. There was metal rattling, an awful scream, and lots of barking. Outside below my window, Kay clung to Suzette who was yapping like a mad thing, swinging her head snarling at the traps. We had gotten not one but two animals overnight, a huge ugly possum and a small smudgy dog from down the street who was one of the many that Suzette regularly slummed with.
“Shit! No squirrel! Pardon my French.” My mother stood on the patio and puffed on her cigarette hard while my father picked up the trap containing the possum and holding it as far from his body as he could, put it in the trunk of his car. He drove off down the street heading for the edge of town where he would let the creature go. I opened the cage with the dirty dog and shooed him in the direction of his own backyard.
This became a familiar morning scene: we would awaken to some sort of unnatural howling and rattling from the traps. It was never a squirrel. Mostly we caught a parade of pests like possum and raccoons, with the occasional neighborhood pet. We caught the little dog from down the street so often, I began to call him Peanut Butter because he licked all the spread off of our bait, leaving a pile of nuts and popcorn. The squirrel seemed exempt from the temptations we set out. I imagined him like a siren, sitting on top of the traps luring the other animals inside
instead of taking the bait himself. I thought he was exacting revenge from my mother for being the force behind ruining his home and killing his family.
Day after fruitless day passed. Suzette cavorted with Peanut Butter every chance she got. Kay spent her allowance on flea powder. Mama’s perverse pride kept Daddy busy trapping the neighborhood pets. I named the squirrel Hero. Finally, weeks later a metal clink in the middle of the night, a small rattle, and the deed was done- Hero took the bait and became a caged squirrel.
“Thank Sweet Baby Jesus that nasty animal can be disposed of!” My mother danced on the patio that morning, swaying her hips in mockery of the squirrel.
My father was more pragmatic. “We just outsmarted a rodent. I think I should take him out a far piece into the woods.”
“You’re going to take that thing 50 miles from here. I don’t want any chance of him showing back up so I’ll check the mileage on your car!”
That’s how Daddy and I ended up riding down the interstate with a cage trap on the back seat of the Buick. That car had a slight vibration, a low hum caused by the cheap tires my father insisted were just as good as Pirellis. This vibration began to move the latch on the door of the cage which sprung open as the tires hit a particularly wide expansion joint in the road just before the bridge. I didn’t hear it because of the singing of the rubber on the road. Suddenly a loose squirrel leapt onto my father’s head, the highest point the animal could get to in to car. Daddy shook his head but the squirrel dug in his claws. Blood splattered everywhere and I cowered against the door, afraid that the animal would lunge at me next. Lights from a police car reflected off of the mirrors as we bounced around across the road. When we slid to a stop, I quickly reached over, grabbed the squirrel by the scruff of its neck, and tossed him like a football out of my window over the railing of the river bridge.
Officer Dickson chuckled to himself as he wrote out a ticket for reckless driving, speeding, and littering. The poor fellow had a good excuse for why he was driving so erratically, and the wife sounded as bossy as his own. He had to write the ticket even though he empathized with the man. Stepping back up to the Buick, he winked and handed the citation to the driver. “Sorry sir. Next time try to remember to put a cage like that in the trunk of your car. This whole situation was avoidable. By the way, it look like you have a few fleas on your shirt.”