It’s Fathers Day. As such, I’d thought I share a story about my dad and a squirrel…
“Charing, come here for a sec,” Dad said through the back screen door.
I signed heavily as I peeled myself off the living room sofa. I wondered what urgent matter he had for me today? A lecture on the history of the South African Liberation movement? Or maybe a lecture about how I was wasting my time with all that hippy-hop and needed to start listening to real music like Coltrane and Davis? Maybe he was going to mix things up a bit by lecturing me about how fat I was getting? What ever the matter, I know it was going’ to ruin my day.
Summers with Dad weren’t as pleasant as they used to be. During the fun years, Dad would come pick me up from my mom’s home in Philadelphia, drive 100 miles up I-76 West and then drop me off at my grandparents house in Steelton. And then he would disappear.
Grandma told me that he was doing his residency and had to spend most of his time at the hospital. I understood, somewhat. And I didn’t mind being at my grandparents house. For one, Dad never felt like he wanted to be around me. And secondly, my grandparents house was always bustling with aunts, uncles, cousins and a handful of foster kids. That many people around meant I always had someone to play with. And when my cousins and play-cousins and I weren’t capturing lightning bugs or racing each other on bikes than we were having intense debates over the correct lyrics to a rap song. It was during the summer of 1989 when I clocked my girl cousin on the forehead with a shoe for guessing wrong to who had the better verse on N.W.A’s Express Yourself. The correct answer is Ice Cube because it is a trick question. I hit her so hard with the shoe, she actually fell down. She survived though as it was only an Adidas.
Because of them, I really looked forward to summers in the former steel-producing town. My grandparents house was the closest I would come for many years to experiencing the countryside. But during the summer of 1990, Dad didn’t drop me off at the grandparents’ house. Instead, we arrived at his new place on the North side of Harrisburg.
It was a beautiful two-story brick house on a picturesque tree-lined block. It was much nicer than my grandparents’ single story dwelling. And quieter. My new summer abode had other promising amenities too, like my very own room and the cute brown-skinned boy who lived across the street. However Dad had fears about me messing with the latter. So much of my time was spent either people watching from his front porch or from his living room couch.
When I came downstairs, I found Dad standing on the back patio staring pensively at an unidentifiable gray furry object resting at his feet.
“What is that,” I asked impatiently. I just wanted to hurry up and get this round of mental abuse over with so I could cry real quick and then get back to watching Yo! MTV Raps.
However Dad didn’t say anything. Instead he pointed. I rolled my eyes and moved in closer to get a look. It was a squirrel. The poor thing was stretched out on its back and gasping for air. I shuddered before turning my back on its suffering.
“Did you do this,” I asked him.
He shrugged and pointed to the Aboriginal blowpipe on the patio table. “ I didn’t think this damn thing would really work,” he said.
Dad had been stalking a squirrel for almost a couple of weeks. Just one squirrel. The squirrel with a white tip on its bushy grey tail. According to Dad, that one squirrel had been menacing his new house for a couple of months. It had nested in the gutters and had torn holes into the roof of his tool shed. He tried everything he could to get rid of it including laying down poisonous peanut butter traps and throwing rocks at it. But the squirrel had managed to avoid all attempts on its life. That was until Dad rediscovered the blowpipe he had gotten as a souvenir on a trip down under.
It was beautiful bamboo piece adorned in tribal symbols and finished with a nice high gloss. Most reasonable people might have thought it would look good as decor hanging over a fireplace mantel. But Dad wasn’t a reasonable man. He said he brought the blowpipe for actual protection. It was much quieter than a handgun and he was certain that with some practice, he could make the blowpipe just as deadly. I had no idea what indigenous killer he thought was after him or how he felt he could use that for protection when so many other people carry guns. Nevertheless, he would soon find a worthy nemesis in the squirrel with the white-tipped tail.
For almost two weeks Dad camp out in the backyard with his blowpipe, a hand full of darts and a pack of Newports. He would be out there for hours, allegedly studying its patterns and learning its habits. Through his surveillance, he learned the squirrel had been coming around to mess with the gutters at the same time every morning. And that would be the best chance he had to get rid of his arch-enemy once and for all.
On day fourteen, Dad concluded his investigation. And on day fifteen, he geared up for action.
The first assassination attempt brought him back into the house with a pained look on his face. Apparently he had almost swallowed a dart. The next few days were a little better, but not by much. While he got better at keeping the darts in his mouth without choking on them, he still returned with similar stories of defeat.
“You are not going to really kill him, are you?” I asked him on the fifth day of his sting operation.
I just didn’t understand the vendetta he had against this creature. The squirrel wasn’t doing anything other than being a squirrel. And it was Dad’s fault for not sealing the tool shed roof so the squirrel couldn’t get in. That’s what I told him.
But Dad wasn’t trying to hear that. “You got-damn right I’m going to kill him. Pfft. You better stick a fork in him ’cause he’s done!”
And on the sixth day, the squirrel would be done.
His blood feud would come to pass with a single dart to the chest. The squirrel fell from the roof of his house and crash-landed onto the back porch. Dad celebrated, however his victory was short-lived. Upon closer inspection, he realized he took down the wrong squirrel.
“I could have sworn it was him,” he said as scratched his temple.
I shook my head at Dad one last time before making my way back into the house. He was going to have to put the dying squirrel down. I knew he was. It was the humane thing to do. But I had no interest in watching that. Instead, I sat on the couch and watched Yo! MTV Raps.
A few moments later Dad crept into kitchen and locked the screen door.
“So did you clean it up,” I asked.
Dad glared at me, “What? No! It’s still out there. I’m not touching it until it’s dead.” He paused for a second while he took one final look at the squirrel through the locked screen door. “ I shot that sucker in the heart. It shouldn’t take him long to die anyway.”
Four hours had passed, but the squirrel had not.
Dad chain-smoked Newports by the back door as he watched the squirrel cling on to whatever little life it had left. “Damn! I took my man out with one shot. I mean, you should have seen it,” he said with a faint grin.
Despite the chest-pounding, I could tell he was trying to make himself feel better. And it worked for the first five hours. But after the sixth hour, Dad got quiet. And then he started staring remorsefully out the screen door. By the eight-hour, Dad soul began to burst. And he could no longer hide behind the bravado.
“You know, I kind of feel bad about the little guy. I should have never shot him,” he said, finally owning up to the obvious.
I paused my washing of the dishes to make sure I was hearing him right.
I almost felt bad for my dad. However I had no intention of soothing his guilt. An innocent squirrel he shot was slowly and painfully dying on the back patio. And Dad refused to go out there and end its suffering. He was always bucking responsibility. And as far as I was concerned, the bungling assassin needed to sit with the weight of his ill-conceived decisions. Maybe then he would act like he had a conscious.
“On second thought, he should have run faster,” he said, before taking another drag off of his cigarette.
I rolled my eyes and walked away from the kitchen sink, “I’m going to take a nap…”
I was no more than 15 minutes into my nap when I heard Dad yell, “WHY DON’T THE DAMN THING DIE ALREADY?”
I peeled myself out of bed and made my way downstairs. Dad, who was mumbling obscenities and pacing back and forth in front of the screen door, eyeballed me suspiciously. “What are you looking at,” he asked.
I shrugged, not sure how to answer that. He walked over to the kitchen table, pulled out a chair and told me to have a seat. I sighed heavily, but did as instructed. In front of him on the table was a wall calendar with the pictures of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Marcus Garvey on the front cover. Dad stared at me intensely for a few moments before asking, “Do you know what today is?”
“I dunno. I guess August 3rd,” I answered in genuine cluelessness.
I could tell by how tight his face got, that was not the answer he was looking for. He opened the calendar and started flipping feverishly through the months until he got to August. “Well since you know the date smart-ass, can you tell me what happened on August 3rd,” he asked.
I rolled my eyes out of frustration. “I said I dunno. Why don’t you just tell me.”
He glared at me for a few moments as if he was deciding between answering me or back-handing me in the mouth. He opted for the former and located the 3rd on his Black History calendar. He studied the box for a few moments and then glared at me again.
“Well nothing really special happened today, but why didn’t you know that?,” he asked.
I was puzzled and slightly entertained, but I kept my composure. “I don’t know, Dad. I go to public school in Philly. Because you won’t let me live here with yo-”
“You damn right public school! They ain’t teaching you shit. Well, you are going to learn right now” he said as he flipped through a couple of more months. “October 1st marks the day Nigerian gained its independence from the British -”
“But it’s summer tho,” I said interrupting him right back.
His face tightens, “See, that’s your problem. Black history is every day of the month.”
“But not on August 3rd,” I said.
Dad slammed his hand on the calendar. “Charing, don’t push your luck!”
I snickered, but heeded his warning to stay quiet as he read through most of October’s Black history facts. When he was done, he slide the calendar across the table towards me.
“You need to learn something about Black people outside of those rap videos.” He paused and stared at me accusingly, “I mean, why haven’t you asked me once about Black history? I have all of these books around the house. How come you never pick one up? Do you want to be dumb like all these other people out here? Matter of fact, why don’t you go to the library? Oh my God, why are you rolling your eyes? Do you have anything to say for yourself? ”
I shrugged, “So, how’s the squirrel doing?”
Dad abruptly stood up from the table and began pacing, “Um,he’s not, um, dead yet.” Then he told me to take my calendar and go study. I took the calendar as instructed. But once in my bedroom, the only thing I planned on studying was a nap.
The squirrel made transition overnight. The next morning, Dad bagged it up and tossed it into the trashcan in the alleyway. As he walked back towards the house, the squirrel with the white-tipped tail scurried across the telephone wires and onto the tool shed roof.
Dad was certain it was mocking him. “But I got something for that ass. Ha-Ha. Let me get my air rifle…”