The damn squirrel won’t come to me.
The squirrels always came to my Grandfather. He used to hold out a fistful of popcorn or sunflower seeds or bread crumbs, and they would hop right up on his lap and eat from his hand. They were so comfortable around him. They would mount themselves on his knees, and then run back and forth across his outstretched arms like he was a tightrope. The squirrels would wiggle their furry noses right in his ear, never biting, and effect the largest, most genuine smile out of that big, bear-like man as they communicated ticklish sentiments to him for the gracious meal.
My Grandfather raised me after my mother died of a broken heart. I never knew my grandmother as she had left him many years before I first breathed the harsh air of this world. He was a kind and loving man who worked diligently for his money and never raised a hostile hand to me. He was the large, burly type that liked to work with his hands. He never said much, but when he spoke, it was worth listening to. It seemed Nature loved him as much, if not more, than I did.
Some of my fondest memories as a child were of going to the playground to play and watch my Grandfather feed the squirrels. The squirrels were so graceful, lithely jumping from tree branch to telephone wire to park bench to my Grandfather’s patient person. Their manner towards him was amiable; they seemed very keen to make his acquaintance. I remember several of the creatures would notice him as we entered the park, sprinting eagerly from the treetops to the bench where he always sat. I would rock to and fro on one of the weathered plastic horses mounted on giant steel coils and watch the squirrels congregate around this large hulking man like he was the head of a religious community. Those bright summer days spent in the park with my Grandfather and his numerous rodent followers were some of the most pleasant memories of my miserable life.
I always loved the squirrels, but they never shared the same passion for me as they did for my Grandfather. Like any curious child, I wanted to pet their soft, cushiony fur and touch the tip of my nose to their nutational snouts. I would start towards them and they would pause from their activities as a group. After they realized my intention to kidnap one of their members for the purpose of cuddling, they would scamper away from the bench in mass. My Grandfather would lightly caution me. I was too eager. Don’t chase them. Just let them come to me if I want to pet one. I would shuffle away dejectedly, then repeat the same scenario minutes later when the squirrels would return to my Grandfather’s welcoming lap.
So here I sit today on a park bench waiting for my father to meet me, holding a half-eaten chicken salad sandwich out to a squirrel. It had been bounding through the grass, looking for grub, and had come dangerously close to entering the personal space around the bench where it might want to come to me. Once it noticed me, it froze. The sandwich was dry and bland, so I hazarded a thought of attracting the squirrel and held out the morsel as an offering.
The squirrel coolly regards me, but makes no move to take the sandwich or get anywhere close to me. It stands upright, its tail quivering with indecision. The tail of the squirrel always fascinated me. It seems to me that the squirrel’s plush appendage would probably be the most comfortable surface to human touch this side of a feather, silk pajamas, or a ceramic bowl filled with rose petals.
My father sneaks in from out of my view and sits next to me on the park bench where we predetermined that we would meet. The squirrel bounds away from the new intruder, leaving the secrecy of the texture of a squirrel’s tail a mystery to me. I toss the sandwich after the fleeing squirrel in an effort to communicate to it that it was not my intention to invite the offending party. I hope it still considers me a possible candidate for companionship.
“How are you doing, son?” my father offers pathetically.
“How do you think I’m doing,” I shoot back. “And don’t call me, ‘son.’”
I’m reminded of the antithesis of the squirrel: the rat. I’m quite familiar with rats. I encounter them frequently at the manufacturing plant I run. The plant has a rat problem, and we’re forced to set up box-traps all around the perimeter of the warehouse. One of the less enviable tasks I have as supervisor is to make my weekly rounds to empty those traps. There is nothing more loathsome to the senses than a dead, smelly rat that has been partially severed by a steely length of metal. Some of the traps I run across haven’t always completed the job either. I’ll find a writhing creature with a portion of its torso pinched to the point of bursting, staring revenge at me with its dark, disturbing eyes. In those cases, I have to finish the job with a large rock or the heel of my steel-tipped boots, grinding my teeth to the point of cracking with each strike. I’ve disposed of many a disgusting corpse, and I’m quite familiar with the make-up of the vile rodents.
I had a disturbing notion one day when I was examining one of the rats’ cadavers: rats are actually quite similar to squirrels. They’re both around the same size, though the rats do tend to be a little larger. They’re both long and covered in matted fur. The most noticeable difference is their tails. The rats have those long, skinny tails reminiscent of a snake’s oily body while the squirrel’s bushy length is evocative of a plush toy you would lay in your baby’s crib. Bottom line is that they are both rodents; we just think of one as endearing and agreeable and the other as malevolent and abominable. They’re both part of a large community living quietly among us human beings. We welcome one to bound out in the open among our trees and backyards, close to our children. The other is banished to the dark, nocturnal confines of our graveyards and sewers. The squirrel is cute and accepted; the rat is ugly and shunned.
After a moment of awkward silence, my father begins anew his plea.
“I realize there are a lot of hard feelings between us…”
“You know, I don’t want to hear any speech you might have prepared,” I interrupt. “What do you want?”
I haven’t seen or spoken to my father. He abandoned my mother and me before I reached any degree of awareness as a babe. My mother died shortly after he left. The doctors said cancer, but I have maintained throughout my life that it was my father’s fault. He chose to stay out of my life, so I haven’t ever considered having a father. My Grandfather was a wonderful substitute, but I never acknowledged it until recently.
My Grandfather did his best to make me a good man like he was, but he left me because of a heart attack shortly after I moved out at eighteen. As a teen, I gave him such a hard time—sneaking out at night, stealing, vandalism, juvenile arrests—but my Grandfather never gave up on me. I would openly defy him; on numerous occasions, I would express my deep hatred for him. He never did anything to warrant such a reaction, but I would tell him how much I detested living with him. He was such a good man trying to raise an ungrateful creature. He tried his damnedest to make me a superior person—an acceptable, beautiful man like he was. I often realize as I live day-to-day, offending people with my biting candor and ruinous attitude, that he did not succeed.
My father has tried to contact me three times over the past month by phone. On the fourth attempt, I begrudgingly agreed to give him a moment of my time. I’m not sure why I exactly agreed to it. Call it morbid curiosity.
“I want to make amends…meet my son…” my father says.
“Well, now you’ve met me. The ‘amends’ thing isn’t going to happen.”
One time at the warehouse, I was making the rounds of the rat traps with one of the old-timers that we employ to run the machines. I made the mistake of sharing my observations about rats and squirrels to this antiquated employee. His face glowered and he shared his knowledge of the ‘scrat.’ A scrat was a squirrel/rat hybrid that was produced, in his crude words, when a rat caught sight of the inviting, attractive tail of a squirrel and decided to have his depraved way with it. He was droning on and on about the scrats he used to shoot in his hometown mountains of West Virginia, but I quickly dismissed him, thinking this senior citizen was trying to pull my leg with tales of some urban legend he picked up from his rural upbringing. When he detected my contempt, he insisted I look it up. On a lark, I Googled it on a lunch break and discovered numerous web-sites dedicated to the existence of the scrat. I wondered about the qualities and characteristics of a product that would result from such an unlikely union. I discovered some disturbingly familiar traits upon close scrutiny.
“You see, son, I’m sick. My doctor says I need an operation and it might not be successful…”
I feel my heart slow to a sickening pace at the prospect of my last existing tie with humanity passing from this existence. I maintain some perverse fascination with meeting this detestable patron that counterbalances the sheer hatred I feel for him. I admittedly have many questions I want to know the answer to that only this man can provide. I’ve run imaginary scenarios through my mind about how our first meeting would commence. My masochistic urges always get the better of me. I let my father continue without interruption.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have insurance and they want to send me to this fancy hospital. There is absolutely no way I can afford it. I just have nowhere else to turn. So I called you up and…”
“Wait a minute,” I explode. “You came to ask me for MONEY?”
My father is not as distraught from my retort as he should be. “Well, I tried to be civil with you but you didn’t give me a chance…”
“Shut up,” I tell him flatly. “Just shut up.” I rise from the park bench and look fiercely down at this pitiful man with the most contemptible glare I can manage. The squirrel that I had previously tried to befriend had returned to gnaw on my discarded sandwich. When I stand, it detects my gargantuan revulsion and scurries for the sanctuary of a nearby tree trunk.
I want to unload all the years of anger and ruthlessness that I have generated for my father in this one moment, but all I can manage is a whimper.
“I hate you so much…” I say.
“Look, I don’t want it to be this way.” My father tries to salvage his appeal. “I really want us to be friends, to get to know one another before I die.”
“I hope you DO die. I hope you wither away slowly. I hope you die with as much pain as humanly possible.”
I leave him with that, marching away from that park bench with heavy footfalls and hot tears streaming down my cheeks. I do my best to drown out what he shouts to me as I leave.
“You’re my blood, son. You need to do this for me. What else am I going to do? You owe me, son.”
I try to calm my body as it seizes from now uncontrollable sobbing. I continue on my course away from my father, desperate to be away from this distressing scene, but he feels it necessary to throw one last especially painful dagger my way.
“You’re a much better person than I am.”
I break into a run, fleeing my kin, knowing that I belong neither to his despised world nor to the beauteous kingdom of excellence that my Grandfather belonged to. I reside firmly somewhere between a squirrel and a rat.