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I was standing on the chipped linoleum floor, breathing in
the dead squirrel smell. And let me tell you, buddy, I was crying bad — a real
gusher, my eyes finally cutting loose all of the tears I’d been trying to hold back
for a few months. I was 8, maybe 9 — that isn’t important. I was
young, put it that way. I was young and husky and impressionable and the main
guy in my life, my dad, had succumbed to the booze and was gone.
I had no idea where he’d went. One day, there he was, living
in the house where I’d lived all my life. The next day, he was freaking gone,
man. Like a ghost. Like the wind.
Like an asshole.
We ended up walking around the corner from our nice family
home so we could collect our beat-up wits, so my mom could cry herself to sleep
at night with her mom over in the next room, just because. No one imagines
divorce. No one dreams of having your soul shattered by the level of pain that
comes with a broken family. But you don’t really get to choose that stuff, so we ended up living in my Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop’s dilapidated house for a
couple years; me and my mom and my younger brother, all of us just making the best
of a bad situation.
Our family had imploded, like a lot of modern American
families end up doing. But still, we still felt like we were the only ones, I
guess. I mean, it doesn’t matter how much you try and deal with divorce, how
many talks you have with each other about it or how much you run yourself
through the child psychologist office or the bookstore books with their tender
$16 advice about how to tell your kid that the shit has really hit
the fan now or any of that. That stuff can help you get through the next hour
or two when you’re just a fat kid staring down the barrel of impossible
heartbreak, but it wears off after a bit, you know? Eventually the sadness
creeps back out from behind your young bones again, flipping you the middle
finger every time you think about your dad, which is pretty much all the time.
Old men don’t want their grandkids living without dads, but it happens.
My Pop-Pop put massive poison in the attic above my bedroom
in the back end of his small house. He wanted to kill the squirrel up there so
bad that it became the thing that drove him. Maybe it even kept him alive,
hell, I don’t know. Men are funny creatures. They’re beautifully committed to
things that make no sense. Trying to assassinate a rodent might seem dumb to
me or you, but for my Pop-Pop that summer, when I was so blue that I couldn’t
even find the words, it was a way forward, a way through the murk of a
situation which no one ever dreams is heading their way.
Old men don’t want their grandkids living without dads, but
it happens. If you’re lucky — and lucky is probably the wrong word here but
whatever — if you’re lucky, your dad dies heroically in some jungle or desert
fighting for big freedom. That’s rare, though. More often, like with me and my brother, your dad chases a beer can
cloud over the far horizon and forgets your ass in a blaze of glory.
My Pop-Pop, a World War II battleship alcoholic bastard himself
if there ever was one, he stepped up, man. He made sure we had ice cream in the
freezer and soda in the fridge from the day me and my brother arrived in our
little Tasmanian Devil daze of confusion.
Then, he did what he had to do. He took his own anger and
frustration and his pain for his daughter and he aimed it at that squirrel. The
thing had chewed into the electrical wires up in the attic. And when he finally
ate the poison my Pop-Pop had stuck in a wad of peanut butter, and died alone up
in the rafters, and began to rot away in some sweltering summer corner up there,
his death was some kind of ultimate sacrifice, I reckon.
The squirrel died an awful death because everyone down below
him living in that house was hurting really bad and we didn’t know where to
turn or who to run to or how to heal these wounds on our chests, our blood
spilling out all over the metaphorical floor. My Pop-Pop killed that squirrel
because he couldn’t kill my dad. Because he didn’t have that level of murder in
Listen, as another Father’s Day approaches and we all get
bombarded with so much sappy bullshit and Hallmark sentiment that you can get
high on the fumes of bad poetry if you let yourself, I look across certain
rooms and I still don’t understand any of it. I glance over at my own kids
jumping up and down on the couch of their own Pop-Pop’s house (my stepdad, one
of the greats) and as we plan a visit from my own dad, who has returned into my
life a changed and battered man, after years of missing out on everything … on all
of it. I search for the forgiveness inside me that I know is there, hiding out somewhere
in the basement of my guts.
It’s tough though, it really is. Because, check it out: I
still smell that dead animal stench drifting down into my bedroom, mixing with
my fat boy tears. I’m 42 years old now, "staying at my mom’s" as my own
marriage gets on with choking on its own puke, and I love my kids more than anything
in the world — more than God or pizza or wine or stupid long trout with my hook
in their lip.
And there are a bunch of things I guess I’m just never ever
going to understand. But forgiveness is all I’ve got. And, the way things
are looking, forgiveness is all I’m ever going to have.
I hope that dumb-ass dead 1981 squirrel feels the same way.