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Andrew’s father was learning to be a squirrel.
“What is your dad doing?” the other kids would ask.
“He’s practicing—” was Andrew’s reply.
Andrew was almost eight years old. He lived in a yellow two-story house. The staircase had a banister he could slide down, when his mom wasn’t watching. The upstairs bathtub had been leaking for almost a year, so Andrew showered downstairs. They had a cat, Adelaide, who brought the family gifts of small rodents from the acres around the house. The backyard was big and sloping, enclosed by a fence that came up to Andrew’s chest. Flakes of blue paint were chipping off the fence, and you could see Andrew’s footholds that he used to vault over it.
“Andrew, use the gate!” his mother would cry from the kitchen bay window where she sat to do crossword puzzles. Andrew’s hands would grasp the top of the fence, and in two steps he’d be over and running down the slightly sloping land, into the trees that grew on the acres behind his house and yard.
This is where he first saw his father talking with the squirrels.
Andrew timed his breathing with his footsteps, in, out, left, right, in, out, left, right. Leaves crunched under his feet like the screams of tiny elves. He grabbed hold of a branch to slow himself, and swung his body around, feeling the sharp bite of the bark in his palm, smelling the moss and the fungus that lived in the trees. His breathing slowed and he ran his hand down the tree before walking on.
He heard a voice to his left, and he walked toward it as quietly as possible—a difficult feat over dry late-September oak leaves.
It was his father, on the ground on hands and knees. There were leaves in his brown-gray hair and a little twig on his shirt sleeve. He was peering up intently at an oak tree, and didn’t see Andrew approach.
“What?” His father cocked his head toward the tree. There was a squirrel, bushy tail spread out behind him, clinging to the bark on the tree. “Ah, I see.” Andrew’s father rose to a crouching position, and Andrew could see he held something in his left hand. His father raised it to his mouth, and holding it in both hands, began to nibble at it–it’s a walnut, Andrew realized—as he would at a piece of pound cake, or a chunk of smoked Gouda cheese.
Andrew watched, fascinated, as his father finished the nut and wiped his lips with his thumb. He then moved, still in a crouch, toward the tree. The squirrel, who had watched Andrew’s father the whole time, suddenly looked at Andrew. His father turned too, just as suddenly, and almost fell over when he saw his son standing there.
“Andrew! What are you doing? Don’t you have chores to do?” He had stood and was brushing off the jeans he wore on weekends, and shaking leaves out of his hair.
“Finished ‘em. What are you doing, Dad?” Andrew asked. He pointed to his father’s sleeve, and his father brushed the tiny twig away.
“Oh, just chatting with the squirrels. They’re great company. You can learn a lot,” his father said cheerfully. “You ought to try it some time.” He patted Andrew’s head and hugged his shoulders. “What do you say we get some lunch?”
“I already ate,” Andrew said. The squirrel had run up the tree into the high branches, and he scanned for it, but it had blended in and disappeared.
“Oh, did you? Well, I’m going to go get a sandwich. Are you going to stay down here awhile?”
“Yeah.” It was the perfect time of day to play in the woods. The sun was beginning to fall, and it was slitting through the trees in places, creating glitter out of the dust in the air. There were places Andrew could see the actual shafts of light, and he liked to stand still and watch them shift and then disintegrate as the sun moved out of place. He liked the way tree trunks went fire orange right before the sun finally set. The woods could never be the same because leaves fell and trees grew and squirrels ran madly like small senile old ladies and the sun never stopped crawling across the sky.
“Well, you know to be back in the yard by dark—”
“Yup,” Andrew said.
“I’ll see you later then. Remember, the squirrels are very interesting. They can teach you anything.” His father winked solemnly. “Just listen to them. Bye, Andrew!” He began to make his way back up the hill.
“Bye, Dad!” Andrew called, then turned and surveyed the trees around him.
Andrew’s mother wrote poetry, when she wasn’t doing crossword puzzles. Almost every day she would write something new, and, she said, when she had enough pages of poems, she would put them all together and publish them into a book. She wrote poetry about their house and the acres of forest behind it, and she wrote about meeting Andrew’s father while she was working as a blackjack dealer in Reno. She wrote about the question mark formed by sleeping Adelaide. She wrote about broccoli, sometimes, and sometimes she wrote about silence. Quite often the poems were about Andrew—
as though today had been
too much for him.
Climbing, dodging, jumping,
Most of the paint is
off of our old
Andrew didn’t mind, even if kids at school sometimes made fun of him.
This year, though, now that his father was learning to be a squirrel, the kids focused on that, and had stopped teasing Andrew about his mother’s poetry.
“What does your dad think he is?” asked Jimmy, the biggest kid on the playground, while his entourage grouped up behind him and picked their noses and sneered at Andrew. Andrew’s dad scampered across the parking lot, picking Andrew up after school.
“He’s practicing to be a squirrel,” Andrew answered, and the big kids burst into laughter, pointing at Andrew’s dad, pointing at Andrew, and then finally pointing back up their noses once more. “The squirrels can teach you a lot,” Andrew insisted, to a fresh round of laughter. His father arrived at his side at that moment.
“Hey Andrew. Did you have a good day today? I brought you a snack,” his father said, handing Andrew a little bag of honey-roasted peanuts.
“The squirrels eat nuts!” exclaimed Jimmy and dissolved into laughing again, while Andrew’s father eyed the group of bullies. Andrew saw him glance up into the trees and then nod his head back down toward Jimmy.
“Well, come on then,” his father said finally, taking Andrew by the hand. “Let’s get home. Your mother’s been working on a new poem all day.”
Andrew tried not to look behind him as the kids laughed and his father led him towards home. He tried not to look at his father’s squirrelly little ears, and at the bushy gray hair across the back of his father’s hand.
It was early October, and more leaves were coming down in the woods. Andrew saw his father around the house less and less, and even his mother was beginning to look worried when she heard the back screen door squeak shut on its hinges. She was writing longer poems these days, Andrew could see the words from across the room before she covered them with her hand and shooed him away. The letters drifted like falling leaves across the white blank pages, and his mother’s block handwriting was easy to read in those seconds before she caught him watching her. Andrew saw phrases like melancholy autumn, always alone, ironically vibrant.
He wanted to ask...but he didn’t have to.
He saw his father at the breakfast table each morning, watched his cheeks grow bigger and fuzz over with light gray hair. His mother made too-heavy jokes about shaving, or growing in a winter coat, while she served them pancakes or fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. Andrew’s father talked less and less these days, and his eyes darted around each room he was in, as though something would soon come out of the walls and destroy him. He took to carrying little snacks with him everywhere—nuts he mixed himself from their trees—almonds, walnuts, pecans. He nibbled on these while watching TV—the nature channel, always, these days—or pulled handfuls out of his jacket pocket when he picked Andrew up from school.
“Dad?” Andrew asked on their walk home one day. “What do you learn from the squirrels?”
“Oh, lots of things, Andrew,” his father replied cheerfully, but Andrew didn’t like the way his voice had changed pitch over the past few months. “I learned to take time to look around myself, and to really see my surroundings. I’ve learned to live off of the land. I’ve learned to run and jump and climb trees like...well, like you do, son.” He ruffled Andrew’s hair. “I’ve learned to live life while I have it...because you never know when it will be gone and you’ll be moving on to the next thing.”
Andrew was silent the rest of the way home, while his father whistled “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” When his father tried to take his hand, Andrew wiggled away. He didn’t like the feel of his father’s hands growing smaller, the touch of the little paw and the hard fingernails, and the slight dewclaw somewhere near his father’s wrist.
“Andrew, what do you want to be for Halloween?”
Andrew had begun living with the constant trepidation that someone around him would make reference to a squirrel, and he wouldn’t be able to control himself. Already the kids at school had dubbed him Squirrelboy, and his father, Squirreldad, and Andrew was experiencing anger toward these kids such as he’d never felt before. He hadn’t gotten into any real fights at school yet, but he had taken to throwing rocks at squirrels he saw when he was down playing in the forest.
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“Well, if you want me to make you a costume, you’re going to have to tell me soon. Halloween’s two weeks away.”
“Hey, Andrew!” his father said suddenly. Andrew’s mother threw a worried look toward him before turning back to her writing. Her pen scratched madly across the page as Andrew’s father continued, “Why don’t you be a—”
“I’m going out to play,” Andrew interrupted him. “I’ll be back before dark.”
Instead of going down the hill to the trees, Andrew walked all the way up his family’s rural road, to where it entered town. The sun was already quickly dropping, so he jogged on his way home.
The house was silent when he came through the front door. In the living room, he flopped on the couch and picked up one of his father’s Smithsonian magazines from the bunch that was strewn over the coffee table.
I wonder where Mom and Dad are, he mused, without really caring. When he got up for a glass of milk, however, he found his mother in the kitchen, standing against the sink. She was holding her elbows in her hands and gazing through the window that overlooked the backyard. She was sighing more these days, and lines had appeared next to her eyes.
“Mom?” Andrew asked.
She seemed stirred from her daydream, and she picked up a washcloth and began wiping off the already spotless counter. “Oh...Andrew...I was just wondering where you were. Now, go wash up for dinner. Your father will be down from the attic at any moment—”
“The attic? What’s he doing in the attic?” Andrew asked.
“He’s sifting through some old things. I think he’s looking for something from when he was your age. Go wash up.”
Andrew climbed the narrow stairs to their tiny attic. “Dad? What are you doing in here?”
His father turned, searching in the dim light of the attic with his small eyes. “Andrew, come look at this,” he said. “It’s my high school yearbook. Look here, what it says under my picture.” He held it low, in one of the few shafts of light that managed to penetrate the dirty window, so that Andrew could see it. “Most likely to accomplish anything. They would never believe it if they could see me now. Most likely to accomplish anything. Andrew, if you set your mind to it, you too can accomplish anything.”
“Dad, I...I have to go wash up for dinner.” Andrew tripped on a loose board in the floor on his way back to the staircase, and tears sprung unexpectedly from his eyes. In the bathroom, he ran cold water and drew a wet line with the tip of his finger across his forehead and down his nose. He studied himself in the mirror. Looked for signs in his face of the loss he knew was imminent.
When Andrew came home from school one late afternoon, his father was gone. Just like that, it was over. In the kitchen, beside the big bay window, his mother sniffled over a six-letter word for “be disloyal to.” In shaky handwriting, she filled in the letters B-E-T-R-A-Y, and then laid her head down on her arms and soaked the newsprint with her tears.
Andrew slipped out the back gate, and walked as slowly as possible down the hill to the woods. At the edge of the trees, his father was waiting, sitting on a large rock. His thick tail was spread out beside him, and glints of sunlight were caught carelessly in the fur. Andrew wanted to stroke the top of his father’s head, between the ears, where it looked so soft...but he stayed a yard or two away, not daring to step any closer.
“Dad...I’ll keep Adelaide in the house from now on—” Andrew began.
“No. She’s alive. Let her out. Life is to live while you have the opportunity. None of us should be caged. Remember that, Andrew.” His father’s small eyes searched Andrew’s face pleadingly. “Andrew, remember the things I told you. Remember what I’ve taught you. Love your mom. She needs you.”
“Why are you leaving us?”
His father said slowly, “I have to...I have to. I belong here.” He looked over his little squirrel shoulder at the trees, longingly, then turned back to Andrew. “Do your chores. Do your homework. Be a good boy. I love you.” With that, he turned and scampered away into the darkness beneath the trees.
Andrew stood at the edge of the forest for a very long time. When he finally trudged back up the hill to his house, it was growing dark and his mother had begun to boil water for potatoes for dinner.
Andrew sat down in the darkening hallway, watching through the window as the sky turned from yellow to purple. He knew he would never go into the woods again.