Brent Robison

Family Man

Harold has had it with the squirrels. He's had it with lots of things,
but mostly with the squirrels. He tried plywood. They chewed through.
He tried wire mesh. They chewed around. He tried mothballs, after
Carmine across the street mentioned it over the barbecue. "Like tear
gas to the little bastards," Carmine said.

So Harold scattered mothballs all over the attic. They laughed. In
Harold's imagination, the squirrels laughed. They pointed their little
fingers down through the ceiling at him, clutched their little bellies,
and howled.

"I'll kill you," Harold said.

His wife said, "What?" She lay next to him on the bed, not touching.
This was the second marriage for both of them. They lay flat on their
backs, staring straight up, listening to the scrape and scuffle and
scratch of the squirrels in the attic. It was 4:37 a.m.
"Nothing," Harold said.

###

Harold wears a perpetual suit. On weekends at home, he feels oddly
naked, as though at a silly costume party. Every Wednesday at noon he
gets his shoes shined.

"Whoop-tiddle-ee-dee!" the shoeshine man says. He is a former jazz
musician. Harold always gives him a two-dollar tip. Secretly, Harold
holds the shoeshine man in high regard, due to his flamboyant way with a
rag.

###

It is summer. Harold flips the frisbee to his son with one flick of a
stiff wrist. Central Park is in dim twilight. Around them, weeping
willows look like the wet walls of a cave.

"I guess opera's not so bad," his son shouts.

The frisbee is an orange neon UFO slicing humid green air. An aria from
Turandot booms low thunder from beyond the trees. Over there somewhere
in the swarm sit the women: Harold's mother, his sister, his daughter,
his second wife.

"Woo, Dad, check it out," his son says, tossing the frisbee under one
leg. It's a movement like scissors. The boy looks like his mother,
Harold's angry first wife. He's nine and so awkward he can hardly walk.

Harold is not thinking of the frisbee. He's not thinking of the opera.
Fireflies wink in spirals.

Harold is thinking of Dolores, the woman he met in the movie line
yesterday. Terminator 2. Sold out.

###

Once over dinner, Harold told his first wife, "I had lunch with my new
client today. Boy is she gorgeous."

His wife threw the entire pizza at the wall. It was a Domino's medium,
delivered hot in under thirty minutes. The door slammed behind her.

"I don't want soup!" his son immediately wailed. The boy was four then
and exercised firm control over all meals. He would eat only pizza,
plain. Preferably Domino's and never pepperoni, never sausage, only
plain. This was a source of great stress in the family, especially at
breakfast. Most mornings, Harold felt distinctly relieved as he closed
the front door behind him. "Aaah," he would sigh. But at the same
time, he felt mysteriously sad. He would murmur, "I am a believer in
the principal of ultimate indivisibility. I am a family man."

The boy found a slice with half its cheese and no dust. Harold's
daughter, who had been served just before the pie took flight, continued
eating. Her eyes blinked once.

His wife spent the night in the bed of the roller rink boy with the wispy mustache. "We're just friends," she had once told Harold, as she
tossed her skates over her shoulder and left for a weekend at the rink.

Harold cleaned up, but a faint brown pattern remained, tomato sauce on
green wallpaper. Within a month, his wife had moved into a studio
apartment downtown. She said she had to find herself.

For weeks after, Harold could see a picture in the stain. It was a
penis with angel wings. This he told no one.

###

Harold and his second wife wanted a free TV. It was simple--they just
had to drive out of their Jersey suburb, head west to the Poconos,
listen to a pitch by a perky blonde, tour the Shady Glen condos (offered
only to carefully selected married couples with a combined household
income over $42,500). and tote their new faux-ebony 13-inch Toshiba
home. But they were a mile short of the Delaware when they turned
around and went back.

"Bullshit!" Harold said with sincere energy, as loud as he could
possibly shout. It was all he could think of to say. It filled the
Honda like a light in a closet, on then off. His wife sat. Then she
plucked the stylish red glasses off her face, twisted them into a tangle
so that one lens popped like a cork into the back seat, and began to
cry.

"Oh, good. Another hundred," Harold thought, but he didn't say another
word all the way home.

It was because of Harold's kids. It was because Harold's kids were
impossible. It was because Harold's kids were so incredibly bad that no
second wife could possibly ever have a chance. They were the offspring
of Satan and Medusa. They were evil with a capital E. How could a new
family ever begin under the weight of such a legacy? All was doom, and
messy bedrooms, and backtalk, forever and ever.

When they walked into the house, there was a squirrel in the living
room.

M&M's from the bowl on the buffet were scattered all over the floor.
Harold's wife's dog, a terrier whose life's purpose should be the murder
of rodents, sat looking innocent and bored in the center of the room.
The squirrel froze. Then it dashed. It shot like a baseball to the far
wall, ricocheted, came back, heading for the stairs, a line drive on a
collision course with Harold. It leapt to the couch and into the air,
little arms wide, little claws spread, little eyes wild with something
so fierce that Harold stopped like he'd been punched. His heart did a
flip-flop. His mind heard screams and the crackle of fire. His eyes
saw the glare of a beast ready to kill or die in the ancient bloody
battle for the cave. This is the way Harold liked to think about it
later. But he kept it to himself.

For one second, his mind was blank with terror. Then the squirrel
sailed past, scampered up the stairs, and disappeared. "Goddamit!"
Harold said. Then he got a poker from the fireplace and stalked up the
stairs, walking with very heavy steps.

###

Standing in the movie line, Harold had noticed right away that the woman
in black was alone. He had answered his son's non-stop questions with
falsely enthusiastic monosyllables as he watched her, waiting to see if
a man would show up at the last minute to dash the hopes that were
rising like yeasty dough in his mind. Finally he said, "You an Arnold
fan?"

She said, "No, you might say I'm a connoisseur of apocalypse." Her lips
were red.

Harold's heart melted. "Aah," he said, nodding with great exaggeration.

"And then the T-1000 morphs right through the bars, it's so cool!"
Harold's son said. "Morphs?" said Harold.

"Dolores," she said, extending her hand.

###

In the attic, the squirrels have escalated. They've turned from
everyday squirrel routine to orgiastic squirrel celebration. It's a
decadent rodent Bacchanalia. They cry out in passion. They scream.
They are squirrels with voices! They screech and tumble and gallop up
and down in a frenzy of shameless animal abandon. Harold lies in
moonlight, mesmerized. He can't be sure if it's joy or pain; if it's
love or battle. Or both! It's something altogether alien, surely too
exquisite for men. It's sacred squirrel ecstasy.

For a moment, Harold feels guilty for eavesdropping.

###

"Dad, think fast!" the boy shouts. His face is a round glow in the
gray-green twilight of the park, surpassed in luminosity only by the
bright cut of the frisbee saucering straight at Harold's head.

"Hey bud, getting a little dark for this, isn't it?" Harold says.
Inside, he argues with himself: Aah, Dolores!

Then there's a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder like giant
tympani, obliterating the opera beyond the willows. He loosens his tie
and makes another awkward toss. He knows that by now the women will
have scurried for the car, and his wife will be angry that he hasn't
come dashing to save them from the dangerous weather.

"Yowie zowie, Dad!" Rain has begun to fall. The boy does a cartwheel.
Little drops, a few, then big drops, a hundred, a thousand. All at once
Harold feels himself, unwilled, dribble to a stop. His son stands
suddenly still at his side, a skinny shoulder held close by Harold's
hand. All they can do is breathe deep together and turn their faces,
big and little, to the sky. This feels foolish, but wonderful.

###

Finally, Harold has found the solution. It's simple: rat poison doesn't
discriminate among small furry mammals. On a shovel, one by one, Harold
carries the stiff little bodies down the stairs to the garbage. His
wife won't speak to him. For her, cuteness is a religion. Little
animals should frolic on pink wallpaper in the nursery, even an empty
nursery.

The squirrels look like the botched homework of a freshman taxidermist:
flat hairy things without softness or grace, with sawdust stuffing, and
brown teeth too big for their grinning little mouths, and no eyes.

His wife weeps silently. "You'll thank me tonight when you're sleeping
like a baby," Harold says.

"No, I won't," she says. "I'll be asleep."

###

Now, Harold stands stumplike in the drenched clearing, soggy-suited and
laughing. His son clings like some twisted miraculous outgrowth of his
body, all slimy and whooping in new maleness. The sky has broken! For
a moment Harold doesn't care that his wife and mother and sister and
daughter are sitting and waiting and growing cruel in a driverless car.
For a moment Harold even forgets yesterday. How he had stood there with
her too, laughing, entirely mindless of the little boy tugging on his
arm.  How he had stood there lustful and oblivious in the slanting sun, stood
there in his rumpled suit talking to the red lips of a woman dressed in
black, just stood there trying desperately to think of all the ways the
world can end.


Copyright © 1999 by Brent Robison

About Brent Robison