The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>Squirrel by Carolyn Miller (Spring/Summer 2002)
Sandy ditched the group as they rounded Cedar Drive, where the cobbled wall crumbled like a chipped tooth and the hill slouched to the street. "See ya, suckers!" The words trailed off her breath into the streaks and grumbles of old cars as she charged through weeds sniffed by low hung yellow-jackets. The train of kids, jogging with the enthusiasm of a flu shot line, took no heed of her absence. The misfits that ceremoniously hung to the rear were too busy kicking up the soles of the scrawny kidsí feet, keeping everyone else in the eleventh grade P.E. class sufficiently distracted.
Sandy crossed through the back lot of the CVS, newly paved with new white lines holding the same scrap pile of beat down trucks. She headed to the gas station yawning at the end of the block.
There, Sandy spotted a familiar form in the shadows of the overhang, that tell-tale spindly body leaned against the gas pump. " Squirrel!" she called out, amazed when the figure nodded back.
"Wow! I havenít seen you in ages."
"Nearly a year."
"I got a nose pierce," she beamed, pointed to the silver ring in her right nostril. "A tongue pierce too!" She held out her tongue.
Squirrel opened his mouth and finessed the metal sphere around his teeth. "Had it six months."
"The parentals say I gotta take all my silver out before summer, but screw them. So whatcha been doiní?"
He held up the squeegee in his right hand, then dropped it back to his side. Watery muck dripped like fresh oil on the concrete. "Stayiní clear of the sun."
A Ford Escort rolled into the awning of the station and idled before Squirrelís pump. As though curving with the back swing of a pendulum, the entire bulk of the automobile tilted when the massive woman inside pushed open her door and leaned herself forward in a low sway. Squirrel was already upon her, armed with the squeegee and a crooked grin.
"No thanks," she said, trying to wave him off as she grabbed the door rest with fingers billowed around the joints. As she bent over for balance, her gray sweatpants spread tight over her legs.
"Need a hand?" He laid his arm on her side door.
She scowled and leaned all her weight on the handle. "Iím fine."
Squirrel shrugged and turned to leave her to her business. ĎYou know," he commented, "you canít have your front windows tinted in this state."
The woman took her eyes off the ground and scanned the ferrety face of the boy. "I ainít from Ohio."
Sandy and Squirrel found a new spot where the roof dropped a crooked shadow on the drive. "No school today, Squirrel?"
"Doc says itís bad for my constitution."
"Think I need to talk to your doctor."
"Speaking," he flashed a grin and leaned on the pump, crossing his arms against his chest.
" I didnít know if Iíd ever see you again."
"Still climbing trees?"
"Buildings mostly. Been squatting with this crew of taggers from Philly. Theyíve sprayed pieces over the whole joint. Itís pretty dope. People come from all over to check it out. One guy, people call him Deck, he says heíll teach me the cans when I get back- already got my name down pretty good, but you know, those guys can do crazy dragons and animation and shit." Squirrel rocked on the balls of his feet as he spoke. Itís a precious thing for a kid like Squirrel to catch himself in a moment invested with hope. Heíd been fending for himself for so long, always looking over his shoulder. In the shadow of life he circled, it was hard to make friends, even harder to trust them. But here, right at that moment, it looked like he forgot about all that. "So Iím gonna go back, soon as I scrap a little cash together, maybe start doing pieces with them."
"Cool, Squirrel. Wanna cigarette?"
"Sure." He waited for her to hand him one; nothing happened.
"Donít got any," she gave a devilish grin. "Was hoping you did."
He smirked. "Up to the same old schemes, huh Sandy?" Squirrel took out a crumpled pack of Camels and tossed her a smoke. "How come you ainít in school?"
"Dunno. I got this feeling you were around."
"Sure." Squirrel looked back towards the service station. A middle eastern fellow, wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a pen in his pocket, pushed open the glass doors of the quick mart and bee-lined towards the pumps. Squirrel spotted him the moment his head peaked through the window.
"Punjabís coming," Squirrel whispered and squatted on the curb.
"I see him," Sandy answered back, tucking her legs beneath her. "Heís gonna tell us to split."
"Or heíll throw us off the lot."
"I heard that camel jockeyís got something wrong with his hand." Squirrelís eyes twinkled.
"Then heíll drag us off with the other one."
"I wanna see it first." Squirrel peered around the pump-turned-barricade and saw that the manager had been stopped by a station wagon, luggage bungie-corded to the roof.
Sandy tugged Squirrelís sleeve. "Letís bail!"
Squirrels nostrils contracted. "Itís a free country."
"Youíve been back five minutes and already your getting in trouble?" She tugged on his jacket. He stayed planted on that curb.
"Whatís the big deal about sitting on a curb?"
"Not for you and me."
"On account I ditched school and you arenít even in school." Her voice strained. The station wagon gurgled away and the manager continued his warpath toward the pumps.
They peered up at the silhouette blocking the sky. His mouth cracked at the corners. The wasted sails of his olive cheeks billowed lightly with each breath. He carefully kept his left hand tucked at his side. "You cannot smoke here."
"Sorry sir," Sandy smushed out her butt against the curb.
Squirrel took another drag before he followed suit. "That all?" he questioned.
"I do not want you two disrupting my customers." The manager spoke in an educated English accent.
"Hey man," Squirrel answered, "Iím just trying to make a few cents to catch the bus back to school."
"The school is right around the corner. Not more than three blocks away. You can walk."
"Youíd be talking about North Druid, the public school. Shoot, we go to the Catholic joint across town."
"Where are your uniforms?"
"Canít you see my friendís got hers on right now?" Squirrel gestured to Sandyís gym shirt, emblazoned with the N.D.H. logo.
"It reads, ĎNorth Druid High School,í or can you not read?"
He examined Sandyís gym shirt and chuckled. "Yeah, I can read."
The manager pitched forward. "I donít want any trouble."
"We arenít causing trouble, sir," Sandy spoke up. "Weíre just sitting." She sat more upright and tightened her posture. A horsefly with bulging green eyes landed on her right calf. She tried to ignore it until the irritation compelled her to flick it away. The fly circled back, drawing figure-eights in the space between her and the manager.
"You can find someplace else to sit."
"You got no right telling us where to sit," Squirrel blurted out.
The manager jerked his head back, checking the path of the fly as it collided with his ear. "It is very dangerous to have flame near a gasoline pump. Does that not seem obvious to you?"
"If itís so dangerous, then whyís the gas station the main place folks buy their cigarettes?"
"People buy cigarettes here, they do not smoke them. You must go now, please."
"We ainít bothering your customers. Besides, where would you like us to go?"
"Where I come from, we work if we are not in school."
"Thatís what Iíve been tryiní to do." Squirrel pulled up the squeegee from behind his back, not cognizant that he was incriminating himself.
"That does not belong to you!" The manager lunged to grab the instrument, thrusting his concealed hand forward. It was so gnarled by burn marks and misaligned skin that the fingers contorted like a crowís claw. Sandyís eyes could not conceal her morbid fascination. Squirrel didnít react at all.
"I ainít stealiní it. Iím just borrowing it. I ainít even takiní it off the lot."
"I did not give you, or any one else, permission to solicit services on my property. You will have to give that back."
"Come on, man, Iím not doing you no harm. I just need a few bucks."
"I cannot help you. Give that back to me or I will call the authorities."
"Why you gotta be like that?" Sandy pinched him and warned him to hush up.
"I do not wish to be anything. I want you to return my stolen property and to leave."
Squirrel stood. "Ainít that the story of my life."
"I do not know about your life." The manager, habitually curling his left arm behind his back, thrust a step towards the boy. Squirrel sensed the increased tension in their shrinking distance. He let his voice loosen. "Let me just make a few bucks and Iíll be gone."
"Then Iíll go on the street and bring it back later."
"Then how you suppose I wash windows?"
"Buy your own tools."
Squirrel waved the squeegee in the air like a mallet. "Buy this?" The manager did not flinch, even when his left cheek was sprayed by flecks of greasy water. "How you figure I buy one if I got no money? I need this in the first place toÖ"
"Youíll steal it. I know your type, always sneaking gum and cigarette packs from my store."
"Just give it back, Squirrel."
As Squirrel passed it to the manager, he let the squeegee fall onto the concrete. With apprehension, the manager reached for it. Squirrel sidestepped beside him, menacingly close. The manager recoiled with a firm grip on the squeegee and stood to a safer distance. Squirrel knew he had scared him.
"Yeah, right," Squirrel sneered and turned around.
A few yards onto the main road, Squirrel slowed his pace. He yanked the tired pack of Camels from the cargo pocket of his pants and stuffed one in his mouth.
"Itís so whack."
"The whole deal." He lit the tail and spoke with the cigarette in his hand for punctuation. "You need one thing to get another, cuz you canít do a third. But if you could do that third, some one else woulda already hooked you up on the first." The smoke bobbed up and down with his animated gestures. "You turn around and youíre still facing the same fucking way."
"No you donít. How could you? Some people got that first thing, some people donít, and that sets it all up for the rest of their lives. You already got that first thing, and nothingíll ever take that away."
"What are you talking about? I was right there with you. The manager kicked me off the lot too. Weíve hung out so many times whenÖ"
Squirrel interrupted her. "So what if we hung out? What, we smoked up a few times, we watched some flicks at your parentís house? You got nothing in common with me."
"Not that I can see. s that my fault You got it good. A nice house, new clothes, family vacations. Thatís cool. But me, I donít got that."
Sandy did not know what to say. He didnít have that.
"There are cracks all over this life and I fell through one of íem."
"Itís no Martha Stewart at my house, Squirrel. Iím not sure having my dad is much better than having none at all." They shuffled down the sidewalk, eyes at their shoes. A ratty dog scratched at the barber shop window. Sandy peeled a piece of gum off her sole that stuck to the pavement each time she stepped.
At the end of the block, Squirrel stopped and looked at her. "I probably got more in common with that manager then I wanna admit. Walking around with that fucked up hand, trying to hide it all the time. I can understand having something missing, something wrong you wanna hide."
She cocked her head sideways and stared back at him. He still had the face of a little boy. She draped her arms around his neck and hugged him. She had to stretch up on her toes to reach him. "Youíve gotten so tall."
"Watcha doing tonight?"
"Thereís a party in the meat district in an old warehouse."
"Whoís on the decks?"
"DJ Greed and Digital Sonic."
He dropped his head again. "How much? Twenty five?"
"I got this friend, Mike, he covers my tab as long as I carry for him. I just stuff them in my bra. Sometimes I tip security a couple rolls and they leave me alone. Maybe Mikeíll hook you up."
"Last time I did that shit I got bounced by some guys that knew I was slinging pills. They jacked me up and stole my stash. I donít wanna do that again."
"Weíll find a way to get you in. Will you come?"
"You got a place to stay?"
"Just hopping floors. My cousin lives out on the highway."
"Tomís away at college. You can stay in his room." She tugged on his arm .
"Thatíd be nice," he mumbled.
The manager locked up the register, turned off the pumps, and chained the glass doors. Mr. Ambikar rubbed his head as he lumbered to his navy Toyota Corolla, parked in the side lot. Occasionally, he scratched the folds on his burned hand. The itching was usually exacerbated by fatigue, especially when he worked all day, exposing his skin to gas fumes.
His wife was still brewing the tea and taking the Naan from the oven when he arrived home. Rice and yogurt had already been laid on the table. His son, Sadhir, was burrowed in the den, playing a football video game. The artificial recreation of tackles and crowds drifted into the kitchen where Mr. Ambikar sat to read the paper.
"Call him in," Maya nudged her husbandís shoulder as she took the pot of green curry from the flame and ladled the potatoes into a white bowl. She and her husband spoke in Hindi. They discussed her day at the school, her dealings with the students, the chronic creak in her knee, the Brahms quartet that would play that Friday and the price of the tickets, the broken sprinkler, the dog getting into her closet again and tearing through one of her new shoes. Mr. Ambikar nodded and listened, but the visage of the gaunt boy with the nose ring and the dirty hair would not leave his mind. The boy had such desperate eyes, leopard eyes, he thought. He had only seen a wild leopard once, when he had been a just a boy himself in India. It was starved and itís coat was tattered as it prowled for days through the alleys of his town. Everyone knew that it had wandered in from the jungle, looking for food from the drought. They were worried it would get a child. He had seen it, at night, when he took out his trash. The leopard crouched there, behind a green bin. When it growled, he had not run away. He felt great sorrow for the animal. Why had it wandered were it did not belong? The men of the town found it a few days later and shot it dead.
The boy today had the same eyes as that wild animal, the eyes of something outcast and hunted.
Maya called Sadhir to supper herself. Reluctantly, he removed himself from the video game and lulled himself to the table, listening to his parents discuss the evening news and uncle Hasimís new job in Atlanta. His father did not conceal his mangled arm at the table; he placed it comfortably by his plate as he ate with his other hand. Mr. Ambikar asked Sadhir questions about school, whereupon he answered each in English, giving the shortest replies possible without confining himself to monosyllables. The conversation changed as his mother stood to get more rice.
"Why do you never speak Mirati to your mother and I?"
"Why should I?" Sadhir snapped.
"As the first generation born outside of India, we want you to appreciate your culture."
"Yeah, yeah. My people, my peopleÖ." Maya rejoined the table with the dish of rice and was caught off guard by the complacence of her son. "Canít we have lasagna or hot dogs or even forks every once and a while. Like normal people?"
His motherís face blushed. "Like normal people?"
"Donít get we wrong, I like chickpeas and yogurt, but every night?"
She did not respond, thus his father spoke up. "It takes your mother a very long time to prepare suchÖ"
"Forget it." Sadhir interrupted. He dropped his hands to his napkin.
"What is it?"
His mother touched his shoulder. "Why do you think your father and I go out of our way to eat the traditional meals, and wear the clothing, and speak Mirati to one another in the house?"
"Habit." His head stayed down.
"Not only habit. It is so that you know who you are. When you are in this house, you have time to understand that youíre Indian."
Sadhir took a breath. "See, to me, that sounds funny. Cuz, the way I view it, itís the other way around. The only time I really feel American is when Iím inside this houseÖ When Iím outside, Iím reminded that Iím Indian every minute of the day."
"What do you mean?" But she knew his answer.
"In my room, I got my Playstation and my Sports Illustrated and my basketball in the window and I get on the Internet and I watch the X-files, just like any other teenager in this country. But people donít see that. When Iím at school it feels differentÖ You can tell by the way people look at you, they donít have to say anything."
"All the time, you feel this way?"
"Not all the time. Sometimes I forget. I was at Johnís house last weekend, heís in my history class. I was talking to Eugene, heís Chinese-American and Kim, a Korean-American girl. Then John came up to the three of us, I think he was wastedÖHe took me by the shoulder and asked if we were the foreign exchange program. I laughed at the joke, you know, and let it slide. We all hung out for a while and had a beer, and then after ten minutes John said, ĎMan, I feel like a dumb American hanginí out with you guys,í as though he was the American and we werenít. All four of us had been going to school together our whole lives.í"
"You were having beer?"
"Come on, mom, thatís not the point. I could let it all slide; stuff like that happens all the time. Iím sure you two get it worse than me, at least I donít have the accent. But I donít want to be reminded Iím different all the time. Why should I speak Hindi or wear the clothes or eat with my hands? I just want to be normal."
No one spoke for some time. There was nothing to say. They had had this conversation before, with different friends and family members in different years; it was common to them all. Talking it over only salted the wound. He would learn the middle ground, just as the rest had before him.
Mr. Ambikar turned his thoughts to the vagrant boy at the pump. "A boy and a girl from your school were at the station today. Quite the trouble makers."
"Who?" Sadhir inquired.
"She called him, Squirrel I believe."
"Like the rodent?" Maya asked.
"Yes, I believe so."
"Squirrel, really? Heís been gone since last year." Sadhirís excitement grew.
"You know this boy?"
"Did he run away from home?"
"I donít think there was much of a home to run away from. I think his mother and his grandmother used him for school subsidies. They kept enrolling him in two different districts. He never went to either school much."
"Thatís awful." Maya leaned in. "Tell me more about this boy."
"He was always climbing things. In first grade, I remember heíd be up on the roofs all day. They couldnít yell him down. They let him stay up there just so heíd be out of trouble. He used to play soccer with us on Sundays, crack jokes at the refs until even they couldnít keep a strait face. Iím glad heís all right, though. No oneís heard from him after he disappeared. So why was he at the station, dad?"
"He wanted to wash windows on the lot."
"Did you let him?" Maya asked.
"Of course not! I thought he was a thief. And he was bothering the customers."
"Heís had it hard. You should give him a break."
"He was with this girlÖ with a nose pierce, they were smokingÖ"
"That must be Sandy. She was in my Algebra class last year."
"You know her as well?"
"We know who each other are. She wouldnít really give me the time of day."
"But you say you know both the children who at my store today?"
"Yeah, why? Whatíd you do to them?"
"Nothing, nothing. I made them return the wiper and leave. He said he needed money. I thought they were street kids. They looked like thieves."
"I did not know."
Sadhir became defensive. "Well theyíre not, okay?"
"All right, son, all right. Do you see this girl often at school?" his mother asked.
"From a distance."
"You should go to her tomorrow and tell her that her friend can come back to the store if he wants and we will allow him to wash windows." Maya looked sternly at her husband. "Maybe he can do even more than that, pump gas or do something with the mechanics." Mr. Ambikar nodded.
"Seriously?" Sadhir put down his Naan and looked at his father.
Mr. Ambikar nodded again. "If he comes back tomorrow, I will help him."
Sandy had hopped up on the wall beside the track. She had painted dark makeup around her eyes two days before and had not bothered to take it off. She fiddled with the two pony tails in her hair.
"Sandy?" Sadhir asked sheepishly.
She took a drag of her cigarette for emphasis. "Maybe."
"Iím SadhirÖWe had math class together, last year."
Sadhir stepped forward, placing his backpack on the wall. "I didnít know if you remembered me."
"Um. You and your friend were at my fatherís gas station a few days ago."
Her body stiffened. "What of it?" she snapped, connecting the son with the manager.
"IÖheÖhe wants to apologize."
"Oh." Her body loosened beneath her sweatshirt, the hunch in her back eased up as she shifted the weight of her shoulders onto her palms.
"Can I sit down?"
She scooted over. "Help yourself."
Sadhir had a little trouble climbing up; his shirt came untucked from his pants and the soft of his belly fell out. Sandy giggled. "Sorry," she said.
"Thatís okay." Sadhir straitened out his hair. "Anyway, my dad feels pretty bad about the other day. He regrets what happened."
He could almost see her eyes brighten beneath the smeared make-up. "He feels bad, honest. He wants to invite Squirrel to come back, if he wantsÖClean windows."
"Maybe he would. Dunno. He split."
"Oh." Sadhir answered. "Is he coming back?"
Sandy appeared uncomfortable again. "Doubtful. He got in trouble with a couple of guys at this rave. Some stupid tweakers." Her eyes burned. "They messed him up pretty bad and they took his backpack, which was like the only possession on earth he had anyway." She stopped herself, staring at her companion. "You donít want to hear any of this."
"No, please. Go on."
"Well, Iím the one that convinced him to go to the rave in the first place. He looked like he hadnít had fun in a long time. So I said Iíd pay for him to get in, but he didnít want to be a burden so he agreed to sling pills-"
"Whatever, for this guy I know. A friend of my brothers. This crowd from Cleveland drove in for the party, and word got around that Squirrel sold them bunk e, you know, aspirin or something. So they went looking for him. He tried to tell them that he was just selling for this other guy-"
"Your brotherís friend."
"He never tested it himself, but they were so jacked on crystal that they wouldnít listen. So they took him out back and beat him up and made him drink all this G and when he passed out, they stole his gear." Sandyís eyes were watering.
"What happened to him?"
"I donít know. I never found him." She looked up at some arbitrary cloud hanging in the sky just to keep the tears from sliding down. "We must all sound like the biggest load of degenerates." She smiled in a way that concealed her shame, trying to tuck her face away from him.
Sadhir found it honest, the way she held her face. There was a beauty in that. "Iíve been to one of those warehouse parties before. Last November. At Turnmills."
She perked, "I was there. With the giant globe above the floor."
"You never found Squirrel?"
"When I heard the story, I looked for him outside, where they said they left him. But he was gone."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
They hung there, each suspended on two different memories. Sandy imagined how tall Squirrel had gotten as she flung her arms around him, how she wanted to kiss him in the twisting incandescence of the warehouse, how when she touched him, it felt like no one had touched him for a long time. The first time she held his hand, he had flinched, but the longer she kept it there, the more he got accustomed to it.
Sadhir remembered the scrawny kid in the oversized shorts heckling the referees until he made them laugh. They would buy yogurt push-ups after the soccer game from the ice cream truck. Squirrel would take the orange push-up and climb into the poplars around the field to watch other games, getting up as far as the sky would let him, his hide-out revealed only by the dangling cleats and the splotch of powder blue from socks pulled over his shin-guards. When anyone went near the trees, Squirrel banged his shoes together, letting the trapped clumps of grass between the cleats drop on the unsuspecting below. People looked all around, baffled. Then this little laugh would drift down from the leaves and give him away.
Sandy spoke first. "It sucks, you know. Maybe if heíd stuck around this time, things could get better for him." She flicked her butt into the bushes beside the brick wall and wiped her face with the pocket of her sweatshirt. "Certain people donít get any breaks." She took her hand out of her pocket and wiped below her eye to clear off the makeup that had smudged with her tears.
"My father says you have to make your own breaks."
"Yeah, well, your fatherÖ" Sandy was about to blurt out something, but she stopped herself. "Squirrel said he probably had a lot in common with your father."
"Weird, huh? He said something about knowing what it feels like to be different." She leapt down; Sadhir handed Sandy her pack.
"Hey," Sadhir called out. She turned. "Would you like a ride home? I have my fatherís car."
"Um, wellÖ" she tarried a bit, knocking her feet together.
"It would be my pleasure."
Sandy watched the masses circulating the exterior halls as students clinked their shut their lockers. "All right," she agreed, waiting for him to catch up to her.
"You would have never agreed to ride with me a week ago, would you?"
She held her chin a moment. "Probably not."
They melted into the sea of bodies, swept up in the random current, much like Squirrel drifting out there in a far deeper and far darker ocean, only the buoyancy of his own body to keep him afloat.
© 2002, Carolyn Miller
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