We had reached that routine-but-often-dramatic juncture in testimony when the victim is asked to point to his assailant and describe what the perpetrator is wearing.
It shouldn’t have been difficult.
Richard Ackerman—gaunt, pockmarked, in his mid-thirties—had finished telling how he was beaten and robbed by two men. One suspect had eluded police but today the other, a blond, sneering youth in a navy-blue jail jumpsuit, sat at the defense table with his lawyer. “He’s right there,” Ackerman said. “He’s got red hair and he’s wearing a black cape.”
On this slow courthouse afternoon in 1981, a nutty, disruptive event taking shape in what should have been an ordinary string-up for a standard-issue mugger could turn into column inches. Journalist me, in the public section, leaned forward. After a pause, the prosecutor sighed. Fists on hips, he regarded Ackerman: a problem. And a problem not for the first time in Rockford, Illinois.
“Let’s start over,” he said. “Can you point to the person who did this to you, and describe what he’s wearing?”
Ackerman’s deep-set eyes darted at three people in the benches with me: a young woman (probably the defendant’s girlfriend); a retiree picking his teeth with his fingernail (he was a courthouse regular); and me, in my red plaid shirt, sniffing out a possible story.
“There,” Ackerman decided. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”
I doubt Ackerman remembered me. More likely he panicked and, believing he had done the wrong thing, sought to fix his blooper—may it please the court —by the quickest available means. But I won’t forget Ackerman.
Nine years old, summer, I trudge across the Whitman Street Bridge, aimed for the Burpee Museum of Natural History, where I will traipse the creaky floors—alone but for the stout curator, who checks me sideways—amid the stuffed birds and the glassed-in replicas of dinosaurs. Visit to visit, they stay the same, which pleases me and lets me down. A fatherless boy, I become an appreciator of artifacts.
I don’t notice Ackerman until he is beside me, and says hello.
A teenager with bombed-France acne scars, he wears an East High School jacket (cloth vest, fake leather arms) despite the heat. I’m already scared because of the bridge—height, water—and now this. His eerie solemnity and a slow manner, like a spider about to strike. Apropos of nothing he volunteers that he owns one hundred pairs of Levi’s jeans and sleeps at night in a coffin. Do I want to see the jeans, the coffin?
I run like a kid in flames.
In the following weeks, Ackerman pops everywhere in my neighborhood. The other boys, I discover, know all about him. “Has he showed you his dick yet?” Mickey Lindell wants to know. Everybody laughs. Ackerman, they say, is always talking about his denims and casket, and asking boys to visit his house. (Nobody does). And, at every opportunity, Ackerman is showing his dick.
Later I find out his first name and miss the pun. He terrifies me. All the grown men of our households have abandoned us—because of me, somehow, I believe. My father leaves my mother who sends me for raising to my grandmother, whose husband abandons her for another woman the year after I arrive. I am bad luck for grown-ups, goes my mantra, bad luck. Later, twice divorced, I will become bad luck for myself. But today this Ackerman apparently wants to be my big brother. When I tell my slightly-older-than-me uncle about Ackerman, he says, “I’ll bust his face!” but he’s laughing, too, and plainly useless.
Thanks to the ever-present jacket and his distinctive posture—rigid, soldier-like—I can spy Ackerman a block away, make detours. For the rest of my years in grade school, I manage to evade him. Other boys, I hear, are less fortunate.
My mother remarries and we relocate a few miles west of town. High school comes and goes. I suffer college briefly, and drop out for my first job in journalism, covering cops and courts.
Again, still, Richard is everywhere.
He keeps getting busted on misdemeanors—disorderly conduct and, of course, indecent exposure. At this point I’m equipped to see the humor in his escapades, which I chronicle for the newspaper with quiet glee. What an embarrassment to his family, Ackerman! Especially his older brother, a cop who ends up taking Richard into custody on his most serious offense, car burglary.
Officer Ackerman must have included in his narrative the make and model of the vehicle his brother pried into with the crowbar. Later I wished I’d had the sense to track this information down. Didn’t seem important at the time, but it would later.
“There,” Richard said, and pointed at me in court. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”
The prosecutor shook his head, the judge grinned into the sleeve of his robe, and the public defender leaned back in his chair, half-smiling as if Ackerman’s horse had crossed the finish line first but would shortly be disqualified.
“Fifteen-minute recess,” the judge said.
The trial ended with a guilty verdict for Ackerman’s attacker. Over the years, Ackerman continually found for himself more low-grade trouble. Free on bail, Richard he misbehaved again.
He joined an open-casket funeral where he didn’t belong. Until someone singled out this odd stranger, Ackerman spent long minutes gazing at the body—almost meditatively, a mourner told me later. Officers had to drag him away. In another incident, Ackerman complimented the ass of a sign painter downtown, who didn’t see the humor, and gave chase. “You’re cute when you’re mad!” the fleet-footed Richard yelled over his shoulder, according to the police report. Repeatedly, incorrigibly, Richard showed his dick.
After the car burglary, the state made a move to revoke Ackerman’s probation and send Ackerman to prison for a while. (This clownish freak!) I flipped through the weighty file. A manila envelope slid into my lap: the pre-sentence report, a confidential document that clerks are instructed to remove before handing over any paperwork. Secret because it contains hearsay—interviews by officials with family, friends, and associates, material used by the judge to decide whether to give the probationer another chance or lock him up. I opened it.
Although, in my published account of the matter in re: Ackerman, I couldn’t quote from material that I was never supposed to see, but I’m at liberty to tell you here. Richard is beyond harm. He died in 1998.
His mother said in the report that Ackerman had not been normal since he was a lad—not since about the age I was when I met him, not since the day he tapped his pale father on the shoulder, shook him gently, and opened the car door wider to let the cold body fall sideways onto the garage floor. Tailpipe smoke must have floated around them, boy and man. His mother found him running in circles and screaming. The report does not disclose if the car is a Ford or Chevy or Oldsmobile. I wonder if things might match up.
Match up, like two images of him that persist for me. Ackerman in frantic motion, dizzy from the carbon monoxide and from whatever this loss had begun to mean for his soul, never fully known or understood, maybe, by him. Surely not by me.
And then Ackerman on the witness stand, trying to make right his wrong. His finger extends at me, the plaid-shirted one, an ill portent—the damned boy who makes the men run away. As if I am again and forever accused.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.
She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.
The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.
We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.
Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!
I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.
As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.
The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.
And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.
The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.
I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.
Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.
Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.
Briefly I left myself.
Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.
The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.
Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.
I turn. Cross.
To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.
My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.
I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.
Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
In high school after lunch I goofed off in the library with my misfit friends Richard and Joel. Richard: grubby, overweight, and indifferent, with taped-together glasses that sat crooked on his head. Joel: milk-white skin, wispy hair, and translucent, vaguely bluish eyes, like an alien. Voice so deep it was almost inaudible. My boys.
On this day, I was getting over a bad cold. My entire face hurt. We sat at one of those round study tables. Joel, who would die of a rare disease a few years after graduation, said something unexpectedly funny and I laughed—really more like a snort, with unintended oomph.
My entire sinus cavity … disgorged.
There was a lot.
The result was not something that could be discreetly nostrilled up, like a worm that poked from its hole (maybe they saw, maybe they didn’t). It was a hot, greenish-yellow blob, like something from another world that covered my lips, and half my chin, and was advancing. The jackpot of snot.
As teenage boys we reveled in bodily functions, of course, but in the seconds after my blast each of us knew in his own way that I had gone too far, albeit helplessly and by surprise. Richard and Joel gaped. They cackled. I did the only thing I could think of.
With a cupped paw, I wiped away the seeping, viscous wad. Then I chased Richard and Joel around the library with it, my handful of disgrace. We howled with a kind of weird joy, they scrambling, me in pursuit as the masters of world literature gazed down at us from the shelves, disdainfully.
Fast-forward a decade or so. Joel was no longer among us, and I’d lost track of Richard, as one often does after high school. I was getting married. In those days, state law required emissions tests not only for cars but that, too. The doctor used one of those cotton-swab sticks, like a Q-tip but about nine inches long. It didn’t have to be that long.
“Wait,” I said. “Why is this even necessary? My fiancé is the only person I’ve ever had sex with.” This was true. Go ahead and feel sad for me here if you want. I felt a little sad for myself.
AIDS wasn’t around back then, but herpes was, and syphilis, and gonorrhea. Also human papillomavirus, or HPV. I read the other day that every sexually active person will come into contact with HPV at some point, if not one of the others. Think of it. An ordinary person’s loins are seething with contagion. Maybe you’ll meet someone new tonight.
The doctor muttered something about public health. “We just want to keep you honest,” he said, and I realized, possibly for the first time in my stupid existence, that I could lie but my body would tell the truth.
Next I was a new husband, with a job: photographer for the weekly newspaper in our northern Illinois town. One day my editor sent me to shoot the girl’s swim team at the high school, which had won some kind of award. I arrived at the appointed hour during practice, everybody out of the pool, lined up. Thanks to a powerful strobe flash on the camera, I was able to stand far enough back to fit all of these nubile beauties into the frame. I left the school feeling good. I’ve always felt good, leaving schools.
In the parking lot I heard distant sirens, then closer, and then a line of squad cars followed by an ambulance heading into the cemetery across the street.
Because I was a newsman, I followed them. To the body, which lay face-down on a grave in front of the headstone. I captured that image, and next the overall scene, then zoom: the lad’s half-open mouth, tousled hair, the cassette player near his elbow.
A guy came over yelling and waving his arms. Owner of the cemetery, private property, get out, no pictures, get out get out. Because I was a newsman, I photographed that guy, teeth bared and veins bulging on his forehead.
Later he phoned the office and apologized for his rage. Just came out in the moment, he said. I lost control. But he also threatened to sue if we used the pictures. A boy who lost his girlfriend, as people like to call it, in a traffic accident had shot himself on her resting place while their favorite song played.
We consulted our lawyer. Yes, any cemetery is private property. But the usual rules don’t apply when an event of public concern takes place on it. An event, he said, of public concern.
We didn’t use the pictures.
I peered over my editor’s shoulder at the prints of the swim team. It must have been the strobe flash, the water still on the girls fresh out of the pool, and the weave of their nylon suits. Two rows of beaming maidens faced us looking—except for the faintest shadows of what they wore—as naked as newborns, albeit more interesting. “Nice,” my editor said. “We can’t use these either.”
Fast-forward another ten years into my starter marriage, as people like to say afterward. Let’s extend the housing metaphor and say it was a fixer-upper. Let’s say it had a weak foundation, and was falling down around us. It did.
They say the body is the house for the soul, the body that secretes and excretes and blurts. The body that things come out of, not always planned, and can’t be put back in. The body that’s cut and bruised in wrecks of all kinds. The body that’s brokenhearted. That might be hidden, and—in a flash—exposed.
Wikipedia defines flesh as “the soft substance of the body of a living thing.” The body: private property we have no choice about showing other people, since the body is where we meet them, in our mutually arranged or accidental events of public concern. It’s the site of inevitable trespass, too, at least until the house is foreclosed on, emptied, and then gone altogether.
I still think about that swim team.
RANDY OSBORNE’s writing has appeared in various online literary magazines. In 2014, his work was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces, which first appeared in Full Grown People, is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book of personal essays.
“I don’t expect you to remember me,” she says. The Atlanta bar is loud around us. She’s maybe late thirties, with dark hair and eyes, apple cheeks, a certain kind of defiance about the lips. She tells me her name. “We were pen pals almost twenty years ago,” Jessica says.
I stare hard at her and ransack the mental files. Nothing. Later I will learn that Jessica heard my name from what turned out to be a mutual friend, who knew I’d be in the bar on this night for a special event. It’s over and the crowd is shuffling out.
Jessica goes on, apparently untroubled by my blank stare. “You worked at Creative Loafing.” Dimly I recall that job at the weekly alternative newspaper, but Jessica not at all. “I was a college student at Oglethorpe. I read one of your columns—something about family, I think—and sent you my poems. You wrote back.”
She lowers her eyes. “I still have those letters. I just wanted you to know how much they meant to me.” She was ready to quit writing in those days and I encouraged her, she says.
“Do you want to see them?”
In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting old handwritten diaries and letters. The hobby arose as if out of nowhere, intense and mysterious. When asked to explain it, I tell people about my father.
Tom prowled yard sales for antiques he could mark up and resell. At his bank-teller job, he sorted bags of coins, plucking the rare finds and replacing them with his own pocket change, worth only face value. One of the first to own a metal detector in the 1960s, he haunted public parks on weekends, waving his wand like a dowsing rod. He unearthed tiny balls of tinfoil and flip-tops from soda cans, an occasional brooch pin or bauble.
One day, as a toddler, I stood at his side when he dumped onto the table his latest pile of flea-market junk. A hardcover book fell to the floor. When I opened it, the spine crackled. Spidery script in ancient ink lined the crumbly yellow pages. Wedged between them was a lock of hair, snipped and preserved more than a century before. I exhaled and the filaments trembled as if alive.
My spare bedroom is piled with crates full of folders and padded envelopes, the scribbled records of the pasts of strangers. Not that I plan to profit by passing them on. These I am keeping.
The scans arrive by email from Jessica. My letters, dated between June and November 1996, are not handwritten as I hoped but generated by an old-style dot-matrix printer, probably in Creative Loafing’s office. Most striking about them is how little my “correspondent” voice has changed, given all that history. Brisk, jaunty, self-deprecating. Is there an essential me? An immutable set of qualities that add up to an entity, myself, never to be mistaken for another?
As part of my day job—I’m a biotechnology journalist, handling the daily news of DNA and disease—I was assigned a few months ago to write about a saliva-based genetic test that purports to find predisposition to disease. I spat in the test tube.
“You have really good genes,” the consultant tells me after checking the results. Except for one hitch: one copy of the APOE3 gene, which confers an average risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and one copy of the APOE4 gene, which means high risk. About 22 percent of the population bears this genotype, and it doubles my odds of Alzheimer’s.
When I am held down screaming in some filthy public hospital (so I envision it) as the nurse finds a vein, what of that essential me will exist?
In one of the letters to Jessica, I mentioned that although she has referred to prose as a blind corridor, she did not go so far as to call it a brick wall. “Even those who pretend we know what we’re doing are really groping along,” I wrote to her. I described my father’s recent accident, which rendered him a paraplegic, and my fumbling attempts to handle his affairs.
Maybe this is what prompted Jessica to send me an essay next. “I like the way you folded into the second version of the truck-stop story how your father is aging,” went my reply. At the end, I wrote, “Maybe I will get to meet you someday! That would be good. I have things to ask you about fiction vs. non-fiction, and the difficulties of each.” How non-fiction can become fiction so easily, as recollections fail.
November 1996. In another year, the newspaper job would end. In two years, my wife would leave me a letter—also dot-matrix, in a business-sized envelope—on the pillow of the guest room where I had been sleeping for a while. And then I was divorced.
They tow my car from the parking deck of our apartment complex. Having misplaced the title to the decrepit Subaru, I avoided the hassle of getting new tags after I moved here from California. The truth is, I pretty much neglected the car altogether. Probably because of the flat tire, someone reported it as abandoned. I don’t bother visiting the impound garage to harangue some bored clerk in his cage. What’s a car anyway but the means of transport? Like the body hauls the soul around, until the soul alone is transported … somewhere. No doubt the Subaru will be auctioned or flattened for scrap, so I let my driver’s license expire, too. My watch quits working and I throw it away. All of this I recognize as the wordless language of relinquishment.
I’ve waited a long time to get old. After high school, I knew that I needed more life in order to have anything worth saying to a blank page. I wanted to claw the calendar pages off in bunches and accumulate a past. I wanted to let time etch lines in my face and scorch my soul. It happened, but I don’t know much more today than before, though I feel friendlier with the questions, more patient. Less patient, too, almost violently so, as the death clock ticks on. I’m pushing sixty. It’s not pushing back.
Still left to quit is my job. I phone a financial advisor to ask about retirement prospects. He wants a list of assets and I almost laugh. As he will, when he gets the “list.” It’s on the night after this conversation when shy Jessica sidles up to remind me about the letters.
“You did a good thing,” she says.
I guess Jessica’s age is about the same as mine when our letter exchange began. Such women look away from me in the street, sick of goons inspecting them. Then, too, it’s instinct, simple biology, and nothing personal.Their DNA makes them not return my gaze for the same reason my DNA makes me hope (absurdly, because what’s next?) they will. Our respective strands of chromosomes, our stranded chromosomes, want only to replicate with the optimal candidate. For mine, they are it. For theirs, I am not.
Yet another, larger part of me feels a wash of relief at not caring. The soul separates from the body, hardly a big deal. Can it be starting already? What’s astounding, so lucky, is that they came together in the first place, for however “long” or “short” a time.
“A few years ago, I ended a relationship that was murdering the joy out of me,” Jessica writes in a follow-up email to the letter scans. Quickly she apologizes for the “melodrama.” She’s “re-entering the world” and trying poetry again, she says. I tell her I’m glad. Her father has just turned eighty-three, she adds. “My parents had kids late, which makes them the age of my friends’ grandparents, which gives me an odd perspective sometimes.” She mentions his “creeping Alzheimer’s. At least he’s still around, which I know isn’t ever guaranteed, and everybody expected him to be gone by now.”
One of my letters to Jessica closed with, “I want to help and am running out of time.” Another scrap of unintended melodrama, true in one way during the moment of composition—I was headed out the door, late for a flight—and more broadly true in another way now.
If I see her again, I’ll tell her, since it’s possible she will understand, about my stockpile of handwritten letters and diaries. About the form of treasure that they make up for me in the language of those who’ve relinquished everything, happily or not. About how the once-blank pages are filled with insistent claims, clamoring to be heard, silently bursting with what we’re expected to remember.
RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.
My forearms and the backs of my hands are faintly speckled and sketched with blood. Like when, in grade school, you twiddled the ballpoint pen between your fingers and let the tip touch paper for quick, light slashes. Like when you made dots by pressing.
These traces on my flesh—they heal and are remade, but they will heal again—can pull a stranger’s gaze, can make him look away. Neither defined enough to signify cutter, nor dug-out enough to say crank sores, the marks mean something else.
Upon waking, Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray tree squirrel abundant in my Atlanta neighborhood, yawns and stretches. It sees the world in color. Its hands bear vestigial “thumbs.” Its body temperature ranges from 98 degrees Fahrenheit to 102.
Its brain weighs 0.25 to 0.35 ounces, relatively large for a mammal, in proportion to body weight. This is not because the squirrel is extra-smart, but because it has parallax vision (it looks at you with both eyes at the same time to judge your distance, for the purpose of fleeing) and spatial memory (it doesn’t find buried acorns by odor alone—it remembers), and because a squirrel’s keen sense of hearing needs more gray matter. Its ears face sideways, like ours.
The family name Sciuridae is Greek for “shadow of the tail.” Used mainly for keeping warm and dry, the tail adds 17.8 percent of protective value to baseline when raised. Someone has measured this. Below the tail rests a cluster of blood vessels that the squirrel can dilate or narrow to warm up or cool off—no small matter for endotherms, creatures that make their own heat, like us.
You may detest squirrels. Many urban people do, given the raiding of bird feeders that goes on, given the chewing-up of attic insulation, which compromises our own heat-making, and given the mad, kamikaze severing of electrical wires. “Tree rats,” you may call them, ignoring the many differences. I love one.
In June 2012, I was making more money than I had ever made. My first foray into the corporate world, with its murky, ever shifting demands meant a nicer apartment, with a pool and gym. My girlfriend Joyce and I dined at snazzy restaurants. We talked about having kids. My boss flew me out to work in the home office, a skyscraper that gleamed in the San Francisco sun.
Abruptly one afternoon, by phone, I lost my job. Downsized and restructured, I drifted, uncertain about my future. Ours. Although I didn’t realize this when we met a few years earlier, the matter of children was a potential deal breaker, since Joyce half-wanted kids. “Not your willingness, I mean, but whether you would be open to the idea,” she said, vaguely.
I was. With three grown kids from two previous marriages—three, by the way, is also the average size of an Eastern gray squirrel’s litter—I felt ready to consider fatherhood with Joyce. But now I was jobless. Even before, there was a potential snag. Our ages differ by twenty years. The gap is wide enough to worry over, especially considering the already shorter lifespan for men. Twenty years is how long squirrels are estimated to live in captivity. In the wild, only about half that.
In August, a friend asked me to substitute as host of her literary reading series. A simple chore. Welcome the turnout, introduce each of three writers, and wind up the show, good night. But I felt nervous, an impostor. Although I had composed a few pieces that seemed okay, I was not a member of the scene, not a bona fide person of letters. I admired the others as they sped past, trailing bright streamers of irony.
Since I had planned to attend as a spectator anyway—and with, after all, not much else to do—I said yes.
We strolled in the near-dusk, making our way toward the coffeehouse. I saw a few people I recognized, no doubt bound for the same place. Suddenly, someone cried out, pointing to a spot in the street beneath a massive oak. We hurried over.
A tiny curlicue twisted slowly on the asphalt, its sparse fur (pelage, I would learn) unruffled, eyes open. Blood seeped from the nose and mouth. Delicate whiskers (vibrissae) twitched. About twenty-five feet above us, we spied the leafy mass of nest (drey).
Joyce’s artist friend Hilary retrieved an old tee-shirt from her car. She lifted the squirrel from the pavement as if handling smoke. Her fingertips arranged the fabric around its wee body, which all but disappeared. Most squirrels don’t survive their first year, and this one fell hard. Internal injuries, most likely.
Of the night’s event, I remember only the end, when Hilary approached me with the bundle, a cleaned-up nose peeking out. She had asked around—nobody wanted to take the squirrel home. Made sense to me, hardly a fan of the rodent class. Everyone probably recalled well, as I did, all the baby-bird failures of the past and couldn’t face another. Hilary tucked the corners, a final tidying of the package.
“It’s a boy,” she said and held him out to me.
At home, after a Google search, I witnessed myself driving to Publix, where I asked the pharmacist for a batch, please, of one-cc, needle-free syringes. Then to the infant-care aisle, where I seized a liter of Pedialyte. Next, PetSmart for a can of Esbilac puppy-milk powder.
Removed from his burrito-style wrap, he fit in my palm like a miniature doughnut with a licorice-whip tail, or like an exotic, oversized insect. He kept his eyes closed, as if to say either, “Let me get some rest, it’s been a long day,” or, “I can’t bear to watch what the human is about to do to me.”
I loaded the syringe with Pedialyte. Here goes.
As soon as he felt contact, he gripped the nozzle with bony hands and sucked, eyes half open now, gulping, as my thumb delivered a slow push.
Baby squirrels in the wild gain sixteen-fold their weight in two months. In humans, this would be comparable to an eight-pound baby reaching 130 pounds in the same period. The squirrel mother’s magic milk consists of twenty-five percent fat and nine percent protein. Compare Esbilac powder, stirred into Pedialyte: forty percent fat and thirty-three percent protein. Close enough, it turns out.
During those first weeks, Bug took six syringes of formula at each meal, with feeds about four hours apart. He would drain the first syringe, swat it away, and grope frantically for the next. In about a month, he was downing less formula and rejecting the syringe after emptying two or three. He munched bits of apple. A few weeks later, diced raw green beans, and broccoli stems. Shelled nuts. Before long, he was cracking into them himself.
“Imagine,” the wildlife rehabber tells me, “having a two-year-old child who is emotionally dependent on you—only you, they latch onto a single caregiver—and who will never grow up. I mean never.”
I think of my kids as two-year-olds. Hadn’t I wanted them to grow up? Of course, I did. Yes. And: no.
The rehabber is realistic in describing my options. She is predicting from experience how things will go. Did she say “emotionally”?
Until her, I didn’t know that people exist who specialize in the process of returning squirrels to their natural habitat, after well-meaning humans like me snatch them out.
“But it doesn’t always work,” she says.
I keep her number.
“The majority of mammals live solitary lives; estimates suggest that at least 85 percent of mammals can be classified as asocial animals that aggregate only briefly at a seasonal food source or to mate.”
—Michael Steele and John Kropowski, North American Tree Squirrels (Smithsonian Books, 2001)
Joyce and I watch squirrels jump, dart, and scurry in the park. On a flat surface, squirrels can travel as fast as 16.7 miles per hour. Their crazy trajectories, never in tandem or together, bisect each other across the grass and up the trunks of trees. Lyrics from a Patti Smith song come to me, the one she wrote for Robert Mapplethorpe as he was dying of AIDS. “Paths that cross will cross again.”
In the traffic behind us on North Highland Avenue, we hear a pop—the sound a plastic bag with trapped air makes as tires roll over it.
Together, we turn. The squirrel lies near the center of the road, still alive, hands clawing pavement, unable to drag the rest of its body. After a few seconds, stillness. A light, almost merry wave of the tail, goodbye.
How far away the curb must have seemed, in that squirrel’s fast-fading, parallax, big-brained vision. The Stephen Dobyns poem, “Querencia” (Spanish for “a secure place”), describes a bull tormented in the ring as the audience cheers.
Probably, he has no real knowledge and,
like any of us, it’s pain that teaches him
to be wary, so his only desire in defeat
is to return to that spot of sand, and even
when dying he will stagger toward his querencia
as if he might feel better there, could
recover there, take back his strength, win
the fight, stick that glittering creature to the wall …
The glittering creature in this instance is not a matador but an SUV, now a block away. No bloodthirsty crowd, only a few pedestrians who seem not to notice what happened. Maybe the driver didn’t, either.
One of the many reliefs of no longer owning a car is that I don’t have to worry about killing anything with it, but I remember instances. A thump, the glance in the rear-view mirror. That wad of flopping misery. My sick, jarred sense of a fatal suffering so great and so nearby, yet unfelt by me, impossibly, its cause.
In Dobyns’s poem, the afternoon proceeds messily, the bullfighter proves inept, and “everyone wanted to forget it and go home.” Joyce and I do, too. Cars make sad arcs around the squirrel corpse, which I know I should relocate before it’s transformed into a meat rag.
The squirrel’s up-tilted, almond-shaped eye, with that tight rim of lighter hair, is still moist and shiny. I’ve had my eye inches from Bug’s. Like this eye, his are strong-coffee opaque, yet suggestive of a depth.
The body is warm in my hands. I think of Hilary’s fingers. I feel crushed bone pieces, many bone pieces, jostle amid the limp flesh. Before situating it in the grass, I sneak a glimpse at the lower abdomen, the pink nub there. Male.
Tonight’s sunset must be glorious to somebody. On Elizabeth Street, I stand gaping, unfazed, at the orange-scarlet and indigo riot in the sky.
Scientists at Wake Forest University devised a chamber with an oxygen analyzer, put a squirrel inside, and gave it something to eat. The idea was to find out whether squirrels know which nuts are smartest to consume, i.e., which offer a “net value” (calories) that justifies their “handling costs” (effort taken to split the shell, determined by oxygen use). As you may have guessed, they do know. They budget every sliver of energy. Gray squirrels do not hibernate, which means that, even in the harshest winter, they forage. Searching and often not finding.
Squirrels budget, and so must we, the privileged. Dinner done—burritos, cheap New Zealand white wine—it’s playtime for Bug. He’s ready. He charges madly up and down the levels of his tall cage. We do this twice a day, to keep his skeleton supple and because I can’t resist him.
Metabolic bone disease is the main cause of death in captive squirrels. Like humans, when they are not exposed to enough sunlight, they make no vitamin D and can’t absorb calcium. I send away for Bug’s food. The fortified blocks, in sealed plastic bags from Florida, consist of pecans, protein isolates (whey, wheat), and thirty other ingredients, including vitamins D, K, E, as well as B-1, -2, -3, -6, and -12, with all the important minerals. A month’s supply, twenty-five dollars.
He springs out. Perches on my shoulder, rotates to inspect the room. Hops atop my head.
For the next hour, he scrambles over and across my arms, legs, hands, and torso—somehow he knows to avoid my face—pausing only to wrestle. This involves tumbling between my hands, losing then regaining the top position. Over and over.
He nips, and I feel the promise of his incisors, but not their full gift. The damage is done by his inward-curved claws. Evolved for tree bark, they slice and puncture flesh. I endure this abuse in trade for the moments between, when I touch his pelage, soft belly, and cold wet nose. His tail, plumy, snow-fringed, sifts through my fingers.
I offer a hazelnut, which he snatches and “buries”—finds a cranny in the sofa or an empty shoe or even a vacant pocket, jams the nut in as far as possible, and pats around the area. Scatterhoarding. During play, he will not stop longer than a few seconds.
In the mornings, though—yawn and stretch—he positions himself on the cage’s upper tier, where I can reach him, tucks his snout into the crook of my thumb, and submits to a few minutes of drowsy massage. As if he knows breakfast follows. He does know.
One of Emerson’s lesser-known poems, “Fable,” pits squirrel against mountain in an argument—the dialogue of big versus small, hashing out superiority. Says the squirrel,
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it’s no disgrace
To occupy my place.
It reminds me of Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics, where he writes that “many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.” But toward what is Bug directing me? What am I expected to seize?
Squirrels mate twice per year, once between December and February, and again in summer. Estrus lasts eight hours. All day, males chase the female, who copulates with three or four. Each gets about twenty seconds. The older, dominant ones usually prevail, but not always. In “breakaways,” the female escapes to a secluded area for a few minutes of peace. She mates with the first male that finds her.
Bug’s downy testicles are huge, about the size of butterbeans, loaded with baby-making potential. In “active” mode, his balls weigh seven grams. They shrink to one gram when the season of lust passes. Why shouldn’t he get his chance? Even if it’s with a girl who’s just tired of going through the paces with more virile types and willing to take whatever guy comes along.
But I fear for him in the wild. Predators hover and lurk. Hawks and owls. Cats, foxes, and snakes. The hodgepodge of parasitic species that want him includes six protozoans, two flukes, 10 tapeworms, one acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worm), 23 roundworms, 37 mites, seven lice, and 17 fleas. There is also the odious botfly, which lays its eggs under the squirrel’s skin. Larvae become disfiguring lumps the size of olives, called “warbles.” Eventually, the pupa drop out of dermal holes to finish growing in soil.
What’s mating worth?
In the fall of 2013, I see reports of squirrel migrations in north Georgia. A bumper crop of oak acorns in the previous year led to a high birth rate, followed by a mild winter and rainy spring, which caused the supply of nuts from oak, beech, and hickory trees (mast) to dwindle. That’s one theory. Less obvious forces could be responsible. Naturalist P.R. Hoy of Racine, Wisconsin, reported gray squirrel migrations across his territory during three satisfactory mast years—1842 (four weeks, a half-billion squirrels!), 1847, and 1852. No one knows why.
In more recent history, our state has not seen a migration of 2013’s magnitude since 1968, a year when other stories pushed aside news of wandering Sciuridae. The war in Vietnam raged that year, with the Tet offensive in January and the My Lai massacre in March. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. President Lyndon Johnson gave up on seeking a second term.
Quieter history was made in Greenwich Village. “In retrospect, the summer of 1968 marked a time of physical awakening for both Robert and me,” writes Patti Smith in her memoir. They had begun to understand what was possible, and what was not.
Winter’s almost here. Joyce and I continue our talks. I bring up parenthood more often than she does, she who has yet to become a mother (nulliparous). At the same time, I wonder about my fitness for doing the dad thing yet again.
For more than a year Bug was, other than Joyce, the last thing I saw before sleep, and the first thing I saw in the morning, his cage and towel “nest” situated opposite our bed. I woke to the squeaks when he dreamed.
At odd moments, almost every day, memories of him rise. Images. Sniffing inside my ear. Smacking on a chunk of avocado, his favorite. Balancing on my hand, his teeth scraping my thumbnail. Nuzzling me as, from the other side of the bars, I trace his flanks and ribs. I feel his heart tapping.
I see him leap from branch to branch in the forest canopy, his body made for this. The “overstory,” botanists call the green ceiling, limbs almost entwined, leaf and twig so close together that the vibrissae of tree squirrels grow longer than those of ground squirrels, the better to detect what’s near. There’s an “understory,” too, down where I am. Paths that cross will cross again. I picture him in mid-air.
RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. He’s the director and co-founder in 2010 of Carapace, a monthly event of true personal storytelling, and staff writer at BioWorld Today, a daily newsletter that covers the biotechnology industry. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.