The Squirrel

The sound came from the far wall. Henry placed the car magazine he was flicking through on the coffee table and listened to see if he could hear it again. His wife, Charlotte, was at her singing lesson. Or was it book club? Retirement had caused him to lose track of her social calendar. Sometimes he even forgot the day of the week. While she made an effort to meet up with old friends, he preferred the solitude of staying home. In her absence, the house became an echo chamber, each creaking floorboard or rattling window pane amplified. Henry had catalogued these noises, and had become accustomed to their whisper, each one a telltale sign of his home’s dilapidating condition. But this sound was unusual. After half-a-minute perched on the edge of the sofa, he heard it again. A crying sound. It seemed to be rising from the flue which serviced both the main floor and basement fireplace. It was likely a small animal fallen down the chimney, Henry thought. If it died down there it would rot and smell, and he’d never hear the end of it, so he slowly made his way downstairs.

The hanging bulb flickered to life, emitting a faint yellow glow. The room was a minefield of plastic storage containers. His wife had bought them long ago from a stripmall, which was now mostly vacant, ready for another high-rise to be developed. They had used the containers for camping trips a lifetime ago, and when those stopped, they were used to store bed linens and spare towels. Now they were full of things that once belonged to their only son, Dennis. Some university textbooks, moth-eaten clothes and Halloween costumes, trophies, old toys, CDs and cassettes, school binders and love letters, and stacks of photographs. They were perspex altars, thought Henry, holding the relics of his son’s life.

As he made his way across the room, Henry toed a section of the laminate flooring. It had a three-pronged patch of greenish-brown discolouration and had started to curl up in the corner, like the toe of an elfish slipper. The basement had flooded the previous winter during an ice storm. A blackout, a burst pipe, and a sudden thaw. A recipe for inconvenience. They’d been away visiting Charlotte’s sister north of the city and were stranded when the storm touched down, sooner than expected. Whiteout blizzard, and then a bitter cold. The highways were undriveable: slick with ice and unplowed. They felt lucky, at the time, to be in a comfortable house with power and a diesel generator if that should change. They could wait the whole thing out. Whole sections of the city had gone dark. They’d watched news reports about couples renting hotel rooms for $300 a night just to find some warmth. On the second night of the freeze, they saw one gut-wrenching report about a family, newly arrived from the Philippines, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning when the father tried to heat the house with a barbecue. Only their youngest daughter survived, after creeping out to fetch a neighbour in her pyjamas. It was chaos, for 72 hours. And then, virtually overnight, the temperature climbed to spring-like conditions. When they got home, they discovered the swamp in their basement. 

The room now had an ever-present smell of mildew, and damp. Henry wondered at the condition of the artefacts inside the containers, which seemed, at a glance, relatively unscathed. But it was hard to tell. One day he and Charlotte would be able to sort through their son’s belongings properly. There were things that would need to be thrown out, but he wasn’t sure either of them had the courage to be the first to make that suggestion, let alone follow through with that draining process of sorting, and remembering. Of making piles and saying goodbye, all over again.

Henry thought about the way Charlotte held his hand at the funeral home, when they’d been made to select a coffin. The undertaker’s empathy had dissolved like an ice cube in hot tea when it came time to discuss money. He began speaking from a rehearsed sales pitch, elaborating on the quality of the wood, oak or cherry, its durability underground, against the onslaught of insects, and rot. He even talked about the thread-count of the white or blue satin liners, as if corpses needed Egyptian cotton. Only the finest, he kept repeating. Charlotte’s fingers were cold. She had squeezed his hand tightly as they walked around the small display room with heavy legs, barely lifting the soles of their feet off the purple carpet. The razor-edge of the diamond in her 25-year anniversary ring had dug into his skin.

The basement fireplace hadn’t been used since before they moved there in 1982, when the house had still been on the garden tour, or so the real estate agent had told them. Maybe it was a line he always used. Did garden tours still exist, wondered Henry. A vision of flower enthusiasts admiring garden arches, bird baths and ornamental maple trees crept into his head. For some reason he pictured birdwatchers: men and women with Tilley hats, and binoculars hanging from their necks, dutifully scrawling shorthand notes inside palm-sized diaries, rating the shapes of leaves, and flower petals, the vibrancy of colour, the aromas. Perhaps ranking the realism of the painted garden gnomes, with their pointed hats and wizened faces, or the the stoic clay toads peering sideways out of bushes. Henry wasn’t much into gardening. He considered himself lucky if the grass came up at all, and downright blessed if it hadn’t scorched golden-brown by the midpoint of July, but Charlotte’s eyes had lit up at the real estate agent’s remark. She quickly took to planting petunias and marigolds in the small wicker baskets by the front door, and in the planters beneath the second-storey master bedroom window.

Years earlier, a white backboard and black metal hoop had hung from the wall above the garage door, just beneath that window. On summer nights, Dennis would water the flowers, his thumb a makeshift nozzle. He’d cover the opening of the garden-hose to build-up pressure, before aiming skywards and unleashing a high-arcing spray. The water droplets would crash against the bedroom window, and stream down like tadpoles, pooling in the planters, dampening the soil. Afterward, Dennis would practice his free throws and left-handed lay-ups in the driveway, until it was dark or he was called in for dinner. Henry thought about those ancient sounds: the rush of the hose water, the tinny noise of the spray against the glass, the rubber ball pounding the pavement. From inside the bedroom, where he often sat reading in the late afternoon, it sounded like a drum beat somewhere far away. It’s funny how memory is so often tied to things that go unnoticed at the time, he thought.

Charlotte still took great pride in the home’s so-called street appeal and, even now, as the red bricks were crumbling, and the window frames were in desperate need of a paint job, she insisted on planting flowers in spring. Henry contended they’d be much better off planting perennials. That would save him the trouble of climbing up the ladder. He was getting too old for that, though he didn’t like to admit it. He still wanted her to think of him as capable. Her response had been, maybe next year.

There was no sound now. Whatever animal was responsible must have sensed his presence and hushed-up in fear. Henry lifted the iron grate covering the fireplace, and bent over to look inside. It was too dark to see, so he leaned in closer. As his wispy grey hairs brushed the brick, a dark animal shot out into the room, between his legs. Henry stepped back, surprised, and tripped over one of the containers. He lost his balance, and crashed to the floor with a loud thud. A sharp pain surge through his leg. The animal darted across the open spaces of the room in a frenzy, this way and that, like a ricocheting pinball, trapped by containers and too injured to climb over them. It was a squirrel, Henry could see plainly now. It was all black, with a bushy tail that looked like it had been clipped at the end. It stopped then, and looked directly at Henry, who began making a kissing-sound with his tongue against the roof of his mouth, trying valiantly to ignore the pain in his hip. The squirrel tilted its head, sideways, confused, then retreated back into the shadowy fireplace. Henry pushed himself into a seated position, but when he tried to stand he dropped back to the ground. He cursed silently. Something was broken.

He remembered the morning when they found out about Dennis. He hadn’t come home, but it wasn’t unusual for him to sleep at Adriana’s place. He’d usually come back in the morning, with bagels from the coffee shop where she worked. In winter, he’d bring them mint teas, and in summer iced coffees. But that morning he never arrived. Instead, it was a detective who knocked on the door. He had slicked back hair, the style that might belong to a Hollywood-caricature of an investment banker, or someone who overzealously peddled flashy shit-you-didn’t-need on television infomercials, and he was wearing a black trench coat. He didn’t flash a badge, and didn’t need to. There was a uniformed officer on the porch behind him, radio clipped to his solid, navy blue chest, aviator sunglasses covering his eyes. He was holding a brown paper bag in his left hand, balled-up into a fist, next to his holster. A patrol car was parked on the street.      

The detective knew Henry’s surname and asked if he could come inside. A wave of cold air followed them through the screen door, altering the climate of the hallway, the whole house. The detective asked Henry to sit, but he declined. Charlotte was standing in the doorway, tears already welling in her eyes, blue irises, like icy planets floating in white space. She knew what was coming, sensed it. Henry tried to remember the thoughts that cascaded through his own head as they all stood there, falling like oddly shaped pieces in a game of Tetris, too fast to coherently organise. Building up in a jumble, the music speeding up, warping reaction time. He remembered the scene later as though he were an owl, perched in an unseen corner of the room. An out-of-body, aerial view. They were like statues, the four of them, only two had begun to crumble, fault lines exposed in their plaster skin.

The detective was tall and wiry, with a strong unshaven jaw-line, and he  spoke in a gruff monotone. He smelled like cigarettes and Dentyne chewing gum. Henry could tell he’d done this before. His movements were deliberate, certain. He had entered houses of countless different layouts and configurations. He was well-versed in rupturing the calm equilibrium of suburban homes. Safe-zones. He had developed a way of staring through hysterical mothers, glancing at sullen fathers just often enough, with his defiant grey eyes, which were neither cold nor reassuring. Just plain enough to command a belief that what he was saying was true. He needed them to know it was real, the news he was delivering. The other officer was less experienced. He didn’t seem to know where to stand or where to look. Anywhere but into the eyes of Henry or his wife seemed appropriate. Out the window, at the house across the street. At his hands, his boots. When it was time, he handed the paper bag to Henry. It was the only thing he did confidently. He did it eagerly, in fact, like he was handing-off a biosecurity risk, or a bomb.

Inside the bag there was a pair of white shoes, with splattered blood freckled across the toe and laces. There was also a watch, a leather belt, coiled like a snake, and a black wallet. It all belonged to Dennis. There was someone else in the car, the detective said then. A woman. They explained that her parents had been notified. Brevity was a critical part of this process, this intrusion. Don’t overstay your welcome. Maybe they tell them that during their training, Henry thought afterwards. Or perhaps you learn it quickly on the job. The detective told Henry he would need to identify the body, and asked if he would come along to the morgue. Henry nodded and asked for five minutes alone with his wife.

Charlotte was still standing thanks only to the hallway wall. When the officers took their leave, she melted to the floor. It was as though her spinal cord had undergone a phase change, the solid bone morphing into some kind of liquid or gaseous state. A spirit, or some vital essence, left her body, seeped alongside her tears into the crevices in the hardwood floor. Her white hands banged on that floor, as though it were the earth itself, and the force of her anger could animate or conjure some otherworldly force, willing to offer a Faustian bargain, to take her instead. Her nails scratched against the wood. Henry remembered the sound of her sobbing.  There was a wild, boundless energy in it. A livid energy she’d never displayed, even in their most erotic moments, years, years before. For several long moments he watched his wife, like one watches a circus oddity, bewildered by their collective pain, and the grief she was displaying, so openly. He wanted to cry but couldn't. He stood there, dumbfounded. When his legs finally obeyed his brain, he walked to her. It took courage to kneel, to bring himself to the floor of their home, beside her. He touched her cheek, and forced her into an embrace, which felt hollow.

It was dark outside when Henry heard footsteps upstairs. He was still sitting on the floor, and the squirrel was still taking refuge in the fireplace. He began yelling.

“What on earth are you doing down here?” asked Charlotte, as she entered the room, taking exaggerated steps over and between the containers. And then, seeing him on the floor, in obvious pain, she said: “Oh my God, Henry, are you alright?”  

“I’m not alone,” he said, grimacing, as he tried to readjust his position. “There’s a squirrel in the fireplace.It must have fallen down the chimney, and, well,  it was crying. So I came down to investigate. He ran out and I fell, and, well, I think I’ve broken my hip.”

Charlotte looked at her husband with a stunned look, and then, she burst out laughing. “A squirrel?” She put her veiny, violet-tinted hand over her open mouth.  

“Oh for Chrissake, it’s not funny Charlotte.” But before he’d finished the sentence, Henry had begun to laugh too. He was happy to see his wife smiling. “Don’t be so bloody immature. I’m in distress, over here.”

She picked up a pillow from a chair in the corner and walked toward him. “I know it’s not funny,” her smile fading, “but sometimes if you can’t laugh, you cry.” She knelt down beside him, slowly, and placed a kiss on his cheek. He lifted himself just high enough for her to slide the pillow under his rear. “I guess I have to call an ambulance,” she said, “or are you going to sit down here forever, with your new friend?”

“I’m going to need some help. I actually can’t get up,” he had stopped smiling now, too. “But I think we should try to get the squirrel out of here. Maybe if we move some boxes, and clear a path. And we might need to build a ramp up the steps. I don’t think he can climb.”  

His wife stood up and surveyed the room. She wandered over to a plastic storage container and pried the lid open with her slender fingers. She reached in and pulled out a rubber Halloween mask. “Do you remember how badly he wanted to go as Freddy Krueger? I never should have allowed it.” She shook her head, remembering. “What must the other parents have thought? I hadn’t even seen those movies. I hope he hadn’t. God, he would have only been seven.”  

    “Six,” said Henry, quietly. He’d taken Dennis trick-or-treating that year, in the early evening as dusk turned, and had laughed as the boy struggled to ring doorbells with the pointy-tips of the plastic-blades, protruding like claws from his small hands. He thought about the end of the night, how Dennis removed his mask and those bladed gloves, and held his hand while they walked down the big hill to their street, carrying a pillowcase half-full of Tootsie Rolls and Rockets and lollipops, and tiny chocolate bars. Henry could almost smell the dead leaves, the damp earth in the ravine, and see the dull glow of jack-o-lanterns. He could feel the chill of that night, the first sign of winter. “He was only six.”

There was a long pause, and then his wife dropped the rubber mask. It hit the container’s lid, and fell to the floor. She didn’t bend over to pick it up. “I’ll call someone about the squirrel,” she said, finally. “We won’t let it die down here. But I’m not building a ramp up the stairs, Henry. Or laying out breadcrumbs or cheese, or anything silly like that. And I suppose I’ll call you an ambulance,” she added, as she began walking away, back up the stairs to get the portable phone.

In the silence that ensued, the squirrel poked its head out from the darkness of the fireplace, and scampered toward Henry’s outstretched leg. It stopped just a tail’s length away and stood up on its hind legs. Henry stared into its dark eyes, at its little pinkish nose, and the whiskers flailing out from its cheeks. The squirrel made a low chirping call, just barely loud enough for him to hear, and then a whistling noise. It wasn’t an angry or scared sound, he thought, but a reassuring noise. It seemed a sound of mutual recognition, that they were stuck down there together. Bonded in some unfortunate way. Henry whistled back, mimicking the sound. The squirrel dropped back to all-fours, lifted it’s tail, swung it in a figure-eight, and then retreated back into the darkness. “You’ll be okay,” Henry said, not sure whether he was comforting himself or the animal.

When Charlotte returned she was carrying a blanket, a thermos, and two mugs. “I made us some tea,” she said. “We might have a 30 minute wait. How’s your squirrel doing?”

“I think he’s doing okay,” he said.  

As they sat drinking their tea, it was Charlotte who spoke first. “We can’t keep it forever,” she said. She looked at him then, into the depths of his eyes, in that penetrating way that only she could. She’d been laughing. Maybe at her choir practice, maybe at him, or this whole debacle. It didn’t matter. Henry could see it in the lines beside her eyes, the looseness of her sloping shoulders, her lips. He was happy on days when he knew she was. There had been too much sadness. “All his stuff.”

“I know,” he said.

She kissed him then. A single kiss, and she lay her head on his shoulder, careful not to put any added weight on him. But she felt light as a feather, and the pain in his leg was subsiding, somewhat, so Henry pulled her closer. And they waited, in the cold stillness of the basement, surrounded by the creaky noises of their rundown house. He could feel her beating heart, and she whispered to him that everything was going to be okay. And he hoped that she was right.