The next morning he woke from the dream to find the squirrels flinging themselves at his basement window, the cold reports of their bodies against the glass. They rebounded onto the wooden walls of the window well and launched themselves again.
— What do you want? —
"We want in."
When James came home late one evening, the sun just down, to find a squirrel on the porch, he wasn't surprised. Squirrels in the city weren't exactly tame, but acclimated to humans. You'd see them diving into open trash cans or digging in the public green spaces. They'd stare you down to within a few feet before skittering away.
It happened during the year when those short, boyish haircuts were in for girls and every woman in town looked the same to him. To make matters worse, they all wore colored overalls too. It felt like a TV movie from the ’70s when every no-name actress had chocolate horse eyes and feathered hair like Farrah Fawcett. Indistinguishable from scene to scene. He couldn't follow the action. That's why he didn't talk to anyone, he told himself, that's why he was lonely.
He paused a yard or so from the bottom of the steps and watched the animal worry at some piece of something someone had dropped. It was a large female. She stood upright and moved the bit over in her tiny paws. They weren't quite claws, but not quite hands. The timed porch light clicked on and the miniature beast started a bit, stopped chewing.
Their eyes met, and it seemed that his were only reflected in hers, and he wondered what she might be thinking.
He liked moments like these, unexpected overlap between the wild and tamed, like spotting a rusted bicycle mucked in a riverbed, but be was tired. He took a tentative step forward and she ran from his falling shadow: in between the wrought iron bars of the railing and over the edge, across the yard and up a tree, where she waited and watched him as he went inside.
His space was a tiny single room in the basement of the apartment house. There was a barely separate bath and intrusive kitchenette. His bed was under the window in the opposite wall, so that the morning light might wake him. It rarely did.
That was also the summer when the sun flared constantly and he couldn't get any radio or TV stations. He'd turn the knob and find only static, with maybe a ghost of a voice hidden deep in the noise. So he opted for the quiet, which he didn't mind so much.
Home again, home again. The faded house caught some of the orange glow of the setting sun. The first crickets were singing.
Heading inside, movement caught the comer of his eye. The squirrel was trapped in the window well, in the window. He peered down over the cracked, painted ledge and saw her, pitifully clinging to the thin screen that defined his apartment, as if for her life. He could hear her nails tear at the wire as she trembled.
He didn't quite run. Up the steps, inside, downstairs.
The dishes were a few weeks piled and starting to smell, so he had left the window open to air out the place. It swung outward, scraping against the gravel in the bottom of the well, and she was caught in that aperture, on the near side of the glass.
From the inside he could see the soft, tawny fur of her belly and the curl of her tiny knuckles, with her fingers ended in charcoal points. She snapped her head left then right, as if to avoid eye contact, and he felt her confusion and vertigo, and pity. The world must seem suddenly flipped sideways.
He gently pushed at the screen with a pillow. He didn't want to hurt her, but she didn't move. He shook the pillow out of the case and headed outside. Maybe he could knock her loose. Maybe he could shake it open and scoop her up.
The well was set inside an elevated bed of landscaping, and the bottom was just out of the reach of his arm. He leaned over with the blue pillow case and flopped it lamely. It brushed her, but she didn't respond. He dragged uselessly it across her back. She didn't move, even as her fur was parted.
He exhaled, frustration and something like fear whistling out between his pursed lips. He wasn't exactly scared, but nervous. He didn't want to hurt her or spook her, for such an animal might be sick and bite. He considered his long denim legs before stepping among the plants and gingerly lowering himself into the well. His feet hit the gravel and he was in up to his waist, with no room to move, and with her watching him out of either side of her head. She wasn't moving at all now, ever her head and tail still, but he could see vibrations coming off of her and gently shaking the screen.
He put both arms inside the blue cloth and tenderly picked her up. She was in his hands for only a second, but he could feel her tiny heart pound, the blood pulse under her fur. She was softly stiff, probably in shock with fear, but vibrated with such life. He remembered that he too was alive, and felt sad for her, though he strangely wanted to smile, and his eyes felt wet; his lips pursed with concern as he reached out of the hole and set her down. Easy, baby.
She did not move, didn't even turn her head as he pulled himself out. She was clearly in shock. He was pretty shaken up, too. So he let her be.
Before he readied for bed, he cranked the window shut. Looking up out of the well, he could just see the top of her tree.
... there is a knocking at the window, her big brown squirrel fist, enlarged to the size of his own, is rapping on the pane.
The voice says something he can't hear, either the sound moves too slow or his ears aren't quick enough because the words haven't reached him by the time he's upstairs, out there.
He steps through the front door to see her scramble up the tree, impossibly tall now, her tail like a loaf of bread. She shrinks as she climbs away into the distance, almost out of sight, then turns around and comes back down to normal size, perching on the branch above him, and he looks up to see a distended, fuzzy sack and calculates that she is actually a he. "Fucking favor, hoss," he says and coughs. To which there are no thoughts to share, no response.
A length of rope hangs from the limb. It loops at the end, wrapped around itself several times like an animal chasing itself up a telephone pole. He realizes that he could put his head through and it would tighten around his neck.
"That's right," the squirrel says in a winding and gravelly voice, "Hang yourself."
But the rope keeps stretching to the ground.
He wanted to chuckle about it the next morning, but he was woken late by a tea kettle he didn't remember starting. It was boiling over onto the burner, hissing and steaming.
He couldn't find his bus.
By the time he got there, they were already closed.
So he got home much earlier than usual. The sun was four o'clock high and burning. You had to squint to look at it, a white hot disc set in a blanched sky. The rays seemed to reach down and touch the hard-edged shadows, as if testing their territory. Up in her tree he saw the nest, which he'd never noticed before. Against the glare it was almost two-dimensional, flat and black with nervous fibers working their way loose. It might have been a bad haircut or wig on a misshapen head in profile. The silhouette was so much larger than he'd imagined. Was all that space really necessary for one thing so small?
When he left the next morning, late again, seriously considering not even bothering to go, he noticed there were two. A second squirrel had taken residence in the nest. It too was female, but less in size than the first, which seemed now that much larger.
He had forgotten what day it was, gotten it all wrong.
So he got home much earlier than usual, and when he rounded the corner, there they were atop the half-wall near the porch. The little one hung back in the dirt surrounding the well but larger (the mother?) stood at the edge, not a foot off the sidewalk.
It was the closest he'd ever been to a wild animal. Their eyes met, and hers looked crazy. Was that just because she was wild? He wondered randomly if she would take into account that he'd rescued her.
Despite being so small it seemed so dangerous just for being loose.
He'd never much paid attention to squirrel eyes (or human eyes for that matter) — but hers just seemed wrong. All pupil, two black holes directly into the head, they seemed to shine with a skin of suspended liquid. They looked at him and didn't care that he was so much larger, didn't care that he was a man. They were without fear.
He was not.
She took a few dancing steps forward, her tail twitching aggressively and he remembered an archival cartoon image, a motif he'd seen repeated over and over, one that he used to laugh at. A man dancing frantically, trying to get a squirrel or rat, some rodent, out of his clothing. It ran up his pant leg or something and you could distinguish it only by shape and motion. Under the cloth, it looked like a moving part of the man — he might have had a mobile cancer tumor.
It didn't seem very funny any more. He shuddered a bit, and took a few steps back.
"Listen," he said. "I need to go inside now."
She leaned forward with tail high above her elevated haunches, her coarse gray back angled steeply down to the neck which tilted up defiantly at him, the forepaws hanging just off the ledge.
"Look," he plead, his arms out and palms open. "I'm just trying to reason with you."
She suddenly vocalized a disgusted squawk and he flinched. She looked to pounce as he turned around and bolted.
That night in the basement the red light of his machine was blinking.
"Jimmy?" his mother said as he pressed the button. "It's mom. Um, your father and I haven't heard from you in, in a long while now and I was just calling to checkup. We were thinking — please call us. We'd just really like to hear from you."
The tree is shaking as if in a rainstorm, so violently that even the two strongest limbs tremble. At the crown the nest vibrates like an epileptic jittering himself to pieces, and twigs fall loose end over end, but the graveled voice comes down in control.
"You think you can talk to them? What you gone call them for? You can't even talk to squirrels, let alone people."
— They just don't listen. —
"Maybe cause you ain't got shit worth saying, you think? Ain't nobody care about you."
— I tried. —
"Fuck it. You know what to do."
He woke abruptly. The night still hanging from his window ledge, retreating from the pinking dawn, and, knowing it was now or never, he got to walking.
He was alone and the sky threatened rain.
The building was a ruin of embers. The scorched brick edifice had crumbled in on itself, exposing an open and devastated basement. Black and empty but for pipe piled among uncurling ribbons of smoke. His eyes watered, but he swore he could see something small and many moving under the ash.
In his mind, the rope rolled off the branch like a tongue.
He headed home.
And even though it was not yet noon, he returned to bed, and slept through the rest of the day, and the following night, in dream.
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