BY M. BARTLEY SEIGEL
Grey squirrels live in my soffits. Not the albino squirrels I see running around my neighborhood, though they are grey squirrels, too? What portent, albino grey squirrels living in one’s soffits? Harbingers of wisdom? Mine are not albino, nor wise, nor something so exciting as the little red squirrels who, I’ve heard tell, will bite the balls off other squirrels; or as the old men in my family would have it, chew up the electric wires in the attic and burn the house down. Neither are mine the big foxes, so named I imagine because their infestation would be like having a pack of small dogs nesting in the walls, to which I might respond by burning down the house myself. Mine are the middle mind of the lot, greys, though theirs is a rainbow family running the gambit from ginger to black. Who ever thought to call them grey? They’re up there now, perpetually nibbling the edges around the every widening hole they’ve gnawed through the soffit under the back eve of my roof – their front door. Into and out of this hole they scurry night and day to eat, shit, coo, and purr to one another in their soft little squirrel language. What they’re whispering to one another is, “Fuck this guy, whose house he thinks this is.”
I am not an unreasonable man. I recycle. I leash my dog. I vote democrat. I love and am loved. I try to do the right thing by others. So I live trap the squirrels instead of just shooting and killing the little fancy tailed rats like I’d prefer to do. Since August I’ve trapped twenty-eight grey squirrels in and around the environs I euphemistically refer to as my house. Dutifully, I put the peanut butter on the crust of bread, place the bait in the trap, and place the trap near to the base of the large cedar tree the squirrels use to access my roof. Dutifully, I keep tabs on the trap, lest one of the squirrels I’ve caught be kept encaged longer than is humane. Once trapped, I take it away to a secluded, wooded spot on the opposite shore of a very wide canal that cuts through my small midwestern town. I’ve been told that while you have to remove a squirrel more than ten miles to prevent them from returning, they’re very unlikely to swim across a body of water. There, across the canal, I release my captives, saying a little prayer as I do that they not end up as hawk food during the first hours of their forced relocation, that they make friends with the local squirrels quickly, or that they be quickly reunited with their brothers, sisters, and cousins whom I’ve previously exiled across the water.
It has been suggested by some that my tree hugger home owner counterparts on the other side of the canal from me are probably catching their squirrels the same way as me, probably releasing them on my side as I do on theirs, that all we’re doing is engaging in a Sisyphean trading back and forth of the same squirrels. It has been suggested that perhaps the squirrels themselves have engineered the whole thing as a kind of squirrel mass transit system whereby we humans transport them back and forth over the water for the vagaries of squirrel business. But these philistines are just taking a piss, and this is an essay about love. The squirrels are just a metaphor, maybe, sort of.
Enter my children, ages nine and twelve. Enter my dog, a nine-month-old blue heeler mix that goes off its freaking gourd if it doesn’t exercise for hours and hours every damned day of the week. Enter on a Wednesday, with its cacophony of meetings and appointments, deadlines and lessons, shuttling and chores. Not to mention the absence of my wife, for whom Wednesdays are worse still. Not to mention “but you made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch yesterday, dad” and what that does to me. Now imagine me frantically racing home from the office on this day so that I can arrive seconds before my kids get off the bus because if I don’t my youngest will freak out (another essay, another day); frantically racing home so I can let my dog out of its kennel before its head and bladder explode simultaneously. Now imagine me and dog and kids, the four of us converging at the back steps of my house and the jumping, whining, and barking, the “I’ve got so much homework, dad,” and the “I’m hungry, dad.” And finally, just as a cherry on top, imagine there’s yet another squirrel sitting in the live trap in my yard, watching us through the bars of its cage with its beady little eyes. This is the day I am having. What am I to do with it?
Here’s just the thing. There’s a bar across the canal, near to where I dump the squirrels I’ve caught, and every Wednesday afternoon it opens its doors and its ample, waterside yard to dog owners like me. I can go there, drink a beer, watch the dogs run around, and it’s all very, very civilized. It’s a near perfect solution to Wednesday afternoons, a place where I can take all my animals – my kids, my dog, even my squirrel (who needs to be dropped off on that side of the water anyway!) – a single direction in which we can all travel together in which I can respectively dispense the snacks, exercise, and freedom required by each in turn, and at the end (zing!) I will get to drink a beer.
Into the car I pile my sideshow and off we go through town, across the bridge, and over the canal. The only snag, nearby my squirrel dump zone a bunch of city workers have set up shop to do whatever city works need doing. I drive slowly by, deciding in real time and muttering under my breath that it’s probably best not to dump my squirrel in front of city workers. My kids, ever helpful, point out that perhaps my hesitation suggests the possibility that dumping squirrels in this spot has been ethically suspect all along – with this raising of the ethical question, so too ascends the curtain upon my farce.
We arrive at the bar and park in the lot behind the building. The kids and dog jump out and race around to the other side to where the other dogs are playing in the yard. I pause outside the car for a brief moment of silence and contemplate the squirrel in my trunk, undoubtedly baking in the unseasonable warmth of the late fall afternoon. I feel sorry for this poor animal. Then in an act of impetuousness unthinkable even for me, I go to the rear of the car, open the trunk, pull out the live trap, set it down on the ground, and release the squirrel into the parking lot behind the bar.
Before I continue further, I would like to point out that I live in a very small town in a far northwestern corner of Michigan. The bar in question sits alone on its lot, removed from other buildings and people, and its parking lot faces a large feral lot of small trees and brush. It just seems a logical place, given the exigencies of my day, in which to release the squirrel; not perfect, but as elegant a solution as any other of my possible bad choices might prove to be. The squirrel will run across the pavement to the trees. I will go inside to enjoy drinking a beer. My kids and dog will run around in the yard on the other side of the building. We will all live happily ever after.
But the squirrel doesn’t run across the pavement to the trees. Instead, it runs three feet away from me, stops, turns around, locks eyes with me, then sprints with all its squirrel might back between my legs. I squeal. The squirrel runs under the car, around the building, and smack dab into the middle of the yard beyond where a large pack of dogs of various ages and sizes seethe and froth in the furry of dog play. The next thirty seconds are fuzzy, but by the time I get around the building, the squirrel has already been torn limb from limb and the dogs are in a blood frenzy of growling and barking. Dog owners are scrambling to restrain their animals. One man is trying to secure and remove from the scene what remains of the squirrel’s eviscerated and dismembered carcass. My children slowly back up to flank me and together we stare in wooden shock at the margins of the massacre I’ve just unleashed. My youngest, my son, pulls on my sleeve, I lean down, and he whispers into my ear, “I won’t say a word, dad.” I look at my daughter and she makes the motion with her fingers of zipping her lips shut and throwing away the key. My children have my back. Already at their young age my kids have learned that we are deep in the act of forging a communal lie together, one that will bind us forever. Even as the dogs lick the blood of the murdered squirrel from their jaws, we are intuitively, almost silently agreeing that shame is a shit-poor reward for honesty when the life of a squirrel is involved. We are realizing that none of us feels discomfort in our collective mendacity nearly so much as we share a fear of admission and the awkward culpability that must surely follow. As the commotion begins to fade and the gathered patrons sit back down to their tables to whisper excitedly about the oddity of the suicidal squirrel, as the dogs return to frolicking in the sunshine as if nothing happened, I quickly down a beer at the bar while by the door my children quietly gulp two enormous Coca Colas (something I rarely let them have; their reward for a conspiracy well begun). As soon as we are able, I give the nod, we gather up the dog, and quietly slink back to our car to make a hasty retreat home.
On the drive back, my kids are abuzz with their adventure, by the shared excitement of having gotten away with something odd and oddly significant, especially given that it was accomplished in the company of their father who was himself at fault for the whole thing and whom they had saved by being such good little soldiers. For one heartbeat my chest swelled with the pride of our solidarity, in the bonds of our newfound ignoble brotherhood. Then, by the second beat, my heart deflated like a punctured, flatulent balloon. Even as we pulled out of the parking lot the realization dawned that I was teaching my children something kind of horrible. I was teaching them that through thoughtlessness action a person could go out into the world and blithely create havoc, then pretend nothing out of the ordinary was going on, and by the simple act of looking the other way and keeping one’s mouth shut, walk away free and clear. While I’ll be the first to admit this is a skill not without its uses in adult life, the idea of having taught it to my kids by my own hand felt beyond the fatherly pale. My own life has been littered with the repercussions of lies both big and small. Did I want my children to start out of the gates believing it was ok to avoid responsibility because they’d eye-witnessed their father shirk it himself and make a clean getaway?
To my kids’ horror, I turned the car around and returned to the bar. I didn’t make them go back inside with me as what had happened with the squirrel wasn’t their fault, but I loved them too much to not perform this fessing up for their edification, however much of a show it was, and if for not other reason than to model for them that even the most embarrassingly absurd of situations could be owned and lived through, and that the person who came out on the other side of taking responsibility could be better for the process. Aside from the squirrel, no one had been hurt, no property had been damaged, but I had erred in my judgment and I was the adult, even if only a marginally stable one, and I could take responsibility for myself.
Love is weird. It's like squirrels your in your attic. You’re trying to do the right thing even as you drive over the bridge and over the brink. Love is about the inhabiting of that space, that insanity, its contortions and contradictions. Love is so impetuous and unthinking, incautious, even reckless, behaving in unforeseeable ways with outcomes that may very well turn out to be gruesome. Love is the taking on of surreal responsibilities. It can mean sticking together and keeping each other’s secrets, but it can also mean doing what you say and saying what you mean. Love can mean walking a very crooked line in the eyes of those you love most. Love can mean – contrary to one of the worst quotes about love ever – having the courage to admit when you’re wrong and saying you’re sorry, even when you don’t have to, especially when you don’t have to. Sometimes, as in the case of the squirrel, love means eating crow.
The lady at the bar looks up from her work and smiles at me when I walk back in the door.
“Did you forget something?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I mean, yes. Listen… You know that whole squirrel incident earlier? That was me.”