Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nothing about cobras this time, I promise

The Squirrel Man

I was cleaning out my computer desktop yesterday and found a file called "Squirrel Man." I had no idea what it was so I opened it and started reading. I read a little of it and decided I must have downloaded it from the Interweb and kept it for some reason. Then I read a little further and saw a couple of personal references. Turns out I wrote the thing, probably one of those late night ideas that wouldn't let go of me until I wrote it down.

Since I don't have anything terrifically witty today. Here's the Squirrel Man.

I passed the old man every day on my way to work. He sat on the same park bench from daybreak to sundown, in rain and snow, heat and cold, he was always there.

He dressed in a gray wool overcoat that had seen better days and an ancient Cubs cap. His face was deeply lined, his hair thinning and gray. His eyes gave no sign of happiness or sorrow. They just stared ahead, looking at something in the far distance.

I called him the squirrel man because he was covered with squirrels. They perched on his shoulders, arms, and legs, even on his scuffed boots. Without seeming to move, a piece of corn or a nut would appear in his hand for a second before one of the faster squirrels grabbed it in both paws and hurriedly nibbled at it.

After a while, I ceased to notice him. He was another park fixture, more like a statue than a man. The seasons changed but he did not.

A few days before Christmas, I hurried through the park on my regular route to work. Fat snowflakes skidded past, borne by a gusty wind. When I reached the park bench, the squirrel man slowly turned his head and looked at me for the first time. I stopped and gave him an awkward wave. His eyes lowered, indicating the vacant seat on the bench. After a moment’s hesitation, I sat next to him, causing a mass exodus of squirrels.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be,” he said in a whispery voice. “They’ll be back, soon as they figure you’re okay.” An acorn appeared between the squirrel man’s thumb and forefinger. A squirrel approached, and after giving me a wary look, jumped on the man’s knee and grabbed his prize.

“See? They’re just a little shy, that’s all.” He paused and took a long breath. “You come through here ‘bout this time every day.”

I nodded. “It’s a shortcut to work.”

“You got a good job?”

“I think so. I enjoy what I do.” I paused, feeling my curiosity get the better of me. “Are you…are you retired?”

He nodded. “Long time.”

I flinched as a gust of wind hit us. The snow came faster. Drifts began to pile up against the trees.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked. "It's terrible out here."

“I’m always cold. Ever since I was in Bastogne. That’s a Belgian town, you know. Everybody thinks it’s in France but it’s not.”

“You were there during World War II,” I guessed.

“Yep. I was a paratrooper. Got caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. Them Krauts came through the forest with everything they had. Shot the hell out of us.”

A nugget of corn appeared in the man’s hand. Two squirrels jumped in his lap and fought for it, chittering angrily.

“The whole world wants to fight,” the man said. “It don’t solve nothing.”

“You must have been brave to be at Bastogne,” I said.

“Nah. It don’t take bravery to jump out of a burning building, does it? We were there because we had a job to do. Besides, if we’d come out of our foxholes, the Krauts would’ve picked us off in a second.” He paused and closed his eyes. “It was real pretty in those woods. Sometimes at night, it got so quiet, all you could hear was the snow dropping from the branches.”

I groped for something positive to say. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”

He stared at the ground in silence while more squirrels advanced. He made sure they all got a piece of corn.

“Soon be Christmas,” he said. “You can hear the bell ringers all over the park. They got real pretty lights strung up on the buildings.”

I could no longer feel my toes and I was late for work but I couldn’t leave. “Do you have family?”
“Probably so. They don’t much want anything to do with me.”

“Why?” I asked and immediately wished I hadn't.

“I got shot up pretty good at Bastogne. I weren’t the same any more.”

“I’m sor—”

“I don’t want nobody to be sorry. I took my life as it came, and that’s all anybody can ask of me.”

I started to feel a little frantic. I wanted to get inside where it was warm but I couldn’t get up and leave the old man alone. “Do you have somewhere to go for Christmas?” I heard myself ask.

He nodded. “Got my post right here. The squirrels don’t know about Christmas. They get hungry no matter what day it is.”

“It’s too cold,” I said. “You can’t sit out here in this kind of weather.”

His head slowly swiveled toward me. “Bastogne was worse, lady. At least here I don’t have nobody shooting at me.”

“I’ve got to go.” I stood and shook snow off of my coat. “What if I brought you something warm later on? Maybe some coffee or some soup?”

“I’m okay just like I am.” He pointed at the lapel of my coat. “I like that pin. I used to keep bees, long time ago.”

I glanced down at the gold honeybee pinned to my lapel. “My sons gave this to me a couple of years ago. I’d almost forgotten it was there. Look, are you sure there isn’t something—”

“Get out of here before you’re late for work.” The old man turned away and gave his attention to the squirrels. As I walked away, they swarmed over him, waiting for something to eat.

That day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the squirrel man. I felt guilty sitting in my warm office. After taking a sip from my fourth cup of gourmet coffee, I made up my mind to do something for him.

The snow continued to fall. Schools let out early; street closures came over the radio. It looked to be one of the biggest snowfalls in years. Surely the squirrel man had gone for shelter somewhere. No one could last long in this weather.

I left work a little early and hurried to the park. It was nearly dark. A police car and an ambulance stood at the entrance, their lights flashing. A fender bender, I decided. Cars were skidding all over the icy streets.

The park bench was empty. All around it, shoeprints had churned the snow into mush. I felt eyes peering at me and looked up into the trees. Dozens of squirrels looked back.

A policeman approached, scribbling something in a notebook.

I pointed to the park bench. “There was an old man—”

“Crazy old coot.” The policeman snorted. “Sat there so long he froze to death.”

“No!” I blurted. “Not him.”

The policeman shrugged. “’Fraid so. Happens all the time.”

“What was his name?” I needed to know.

“No idea. Just another vagrant.” The officer peered at me and pulled a small package from his pocket. It was wrapped in a greasy menu from a Chinese place down the street. He glanced at the package and nodded. “Found this on the old guy. Are you the bee lady?”

I nodded. “He liked my pin.”

“Works for me. No crime committed here, so we don’t need this for evidence.” He tossed the package to me and walked away.

Give this to the bee lady,
the old man had written in a shaky hand. I fumbled to unwrap the paper and found a worn velvet box, and inside that, a medal with a striped ribbon. A silver star. I turned it over. For Gallantry in Action, it read.

I stared at the park bench, now empty, and tears began to burn my eyes. “I didn’t even know the man,” I said out loud. “I shouldn’t be this upset.” I started to walk away but after a few steps I stopped and looked into the trees. “Okay, I’ll be back,” I told the squirrels. “You won’t go hungry.”

I hugged my coat a little closer and turned into the teeth of the wind. I wondered how cold it got in Bastogne.


Shari Lyle-Soffe said...

Wow! I love this story. Thanks for sharing it.I can't believe there wasn't a cobra and I had braced myself. I was just sure it would be inside the old man's coat.


Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Maybe an entry for Chicken Soup for the Beekeeper's Soul?

I always enjoy reading your writing, Missy.