We were underfoot. Mom sent us out to the back yard, where the picnic table was covered with a plastic tablecloth, its corners folded and tacked in place, and party dishes were already set out. She said we should clean the stains off the patio. It was a mystery how they got there. Dad said the squirrels threw the green walnuts from the tree onto the cement, but we never saw the squirrels do it. And Mom sent us out to scrub even though the stains never came off and she knew it. The smell of the cleaner on the scrub brush made my nostrils sting and I could smell the cakes she’d left on the table, with little mesh tents over them to keep the flies off.
Billy wanted to see if it was really the squirrels that did it. He found a walnut on the cement and threw it into the branches of the tree. The squirrels up there made little chucking noises but they didn’t throw anything back. You couldn’t really see them up there, only dark splotches like shadows swimming and gliding among the leaves. We wanted to get them to come down. Nance and me, we made Billy sneak a cracker from the plate Mom left on the table, because if Billy got in trouble, it was never really bad. Not even Dad could hit Billy. The priest said his name at Mass so everybody in church could pray for him and he was a miracle child. I could pray for him too because I made my First Communion last fall, so everything I did counted after that.
We lay a trail of cracker crumbs across the lawn and we went back to the patio to wait. We pretended we were in church and weren’t allowed to fidget.
The first squirrel came down from the branches and took a piece of cracker in both hands and sat on its haunches to chew and chew and chew. Chew your food twenty-six times before you swallow. When Grandpa Dan said that, it wasn’t really scolding. We got to put the tobacco in his pipe for him and tamp it down with the metal clip. When he puffed to draw the flame of the match into the pipe, his lips made a soft sound, puck-puck. At his house we remembered: chew your food, don’t scratch the chair legs with your shoe buckles, Grandma was “ma’am” at the table when you asked to be excused and you didn’t forget to ask. Inside the pockets of Grandpa’s scratchy jacket was a smooth satin, cool and slippery and secret, and we put our hands in and he let us keep what we found, a quarter, a stick of gum, a pocket knife, but he was keeping that for Billy because Billy was the miracle child. Grandpa Dan and Grandma Ma’am. That was our nice family. We could go in the little room at the top of the stairs that was Mom’s when Mom was their child and we could play there if we took off our shoes.
The squirrel found another crumb we left him and held it to his mouth with both hands.
Billy said, I want tiny hands like that. If I had hands like that, I could climb out the window of my room and swing on the branches and not fall. I’d go all over and jump from one tree to the next and never have to touch the ground.
And Nance said, no you couldn’t and those aren’t hands, because she was the oldest and always had to tell us that’s not true.
But I looked up to see anyway, and I thought you could. Jump from the walnut tree that shaded our patio to the maple tree by the fence to the tree in the Jansen’s yard and the next tree and the next. Till infinity.
When the second squirrel came down from the tree, it got in a fight with the first one. They were scolding each other. That’s mine! There’s enough for two! No there’s not! There’s never enough for you. That was what Dad said. When we fought in the car over who got the window or disturbed Dad while he was relaxing with the paper after dinner. There’s never enough for you, and if it was after dinner Mom came and made us leave your poor father in peace in the living room. Because he had a lot to do at work. He had to talk to the state legislators about banking regulations because the bank needed them. He wined and dined people. That was a skill.
Billy got another cracker and tried to throw it just where both of the squirrels would have to race each other to get it. And then a third squirrel came down from the tree and they were biting each other with their little buck teeth. And Nance made herself have buck teeth and pretended to bite Billy on the back of his neck, but she only pretended. And Billy said he’d tell. And she said, no you won’t because I’ll tell on you. And she didn’t shove him because you couldn’t. Because his sickness made him have bruises. And if we hit him, Mom’s look was worse than when Dad stared at you if you said no you weren’t chewing gum and he waited for you to swallow so he could swat you twice, once for the gum and once for lying. And if you swallowed gum, it stayed in your intestines for seven years and five times I swallowed and I would be old before it was gone out of me. And why did Grandpa Dan have the sticks of gum in his pocket if we weren’t allowed.
We didn’t want to make Mom sad but sometimes we forgot we couldn’t hit Billy and Billy forgot too—he’d hit first and even if he was sick he was a boy and he could hit hard. And he was bigger than me even if Nance was bigger than him. When Dad hit us it only left a red mark. It didn’t make bruises.
The squirrels began to drop from the tree, thump, thump, thump, and how could there be so many of them up there. When the squirrels landed in the grass, walnuts bounced onto the patio, only when they hit the concrete they made a clicking noise, like marbles knocking into each other. We picked the walnuts up, but we stepped on some of them and made a fresh green stain. Like green ink. Like Original Sin. That was a stain on your soul.
The new stains were worse than the old stains because they looked dirty and we couldn’t get up all the bits of shell. They pricked your fingers like splinters. We scrubbed the fresh smears and we couldn’t make them look like the old stains. Nance said we were going to get it now and I didn’t want to. I held my breath. If I stopped breathing for long enough, everything went black at the edges and even when I had to breathe again it was different, better. Nance and Billy’s voices went woolly and the tree and the table beneath it pooled together and wavered in the air like a soft gray shadow and all kinds of other things came into me, the way they always did when I held my breath: the puck-puck sound of Grandpa Dan’s lips on his pipe and Mom lifting her hair from her neck this morning and spraying perfume there and the shoe polish smell when I cleaned Dad’s shoes with the chamois and Dad setting the bottles out on the wet bar for the party and chunking ice in the ice bucket and letting me pour him a glass—two inches, he always said two inches—and winking at me, our secret. Anything could end up inside me if I held my breath for three whole minutes. Swim in the pocket of me.
Billy said, let’s go back inside. We could go back inside and promise to stay in the kitchen and then when Mom came out later we wouldn’t be here so we couldn’t have done anything. In the kitchen Mom was making the ham salad with pickle relish in it and she said, did you finish, and Nance said, you know it doesn’t come off. Then Mom said we could stay if we promised to stand there in the corner. She vacuumed this morning and our shoes would leave tracks in the wall-to-wall carpeting because it was brand new. Nance wanted to know who was coming, because if it was the bank people there wouldn’t be anyone for us to play with. And Mom told us who was coming. The Allens. The Reichardts. The Merrills. The Schreibers. Only Mom said Thee Allens, Thee Reichardts. When it was a lot of thee’s, it was probably the bank people or the people from the club where Grandpa Dan got Dad in because Mom said if Dad learned to play golf it would be good for him in business. Playing golf was a skill. Dad could pick it up like that, Mom said. She knew from the moment she laid eyes on him Dad was a real go-getter, not meant to stand behind a counter in a hardware store the rest of his life.
Mom spooned the ham salad into a big glass bowl and covered it with cellophane, a nice tight skin, perfect. The Host on your tongue was like a crisp piece of skin, and I didn’t know that till last fall. Mom opened the fridge and pushed dishes around to make room for the ham salad. Inside on the shelves was a Jell-O mold, with tiny marshmallows in it and fruit cocktail that only looked like candy, and I saw a plate with cubes of cheese with toothpick flags in them, and more bowls with those skins of cellophane. Mom took out a bowl of rum balls and put them on the table and sprinkled some powdered sugar on waxed paper and rolled the balls in it before she put them on the cookie plate. When Mom made apple pie she let us make little pies in the lids from peanut butter jars but we couldn’t help today because the rum balls were for the party.
Sometimes Nance and me made mud pies and we got the tiny red berries from the bushes and put them in the pies because Nance said the berries were poison. Then we delivered them. We snuck up to people’s houses and left them on the doorstep. I was scared to at first, but Nance said pretend pies didn’t count. Then it was nice to think, what if people ate them and died!
We stayed in the corner but it came to us, the sweet smell of the powdered sugar and the other smell. The Dad smell. The Grandma smell. The other grandma. When we went to her house we ate in the kitchen because there was no dining room and she smelled like that and she laughed and told jokes and Aunt Kay was there too and she laughed at the jokes. Aunt Kay called Dad Danny in her gravelly voice and when she said his name it sounded like she was mad at him but she wasn’t. She didn’t say patio, she said see-ment porch, like Dad. But she didn’t say two inches when she asked Dad to refill her glass. She said two fingers. We went there for Christmas Eve and Easter dinner. They weren’t our kind of people. The kitchen chairs had metal legs so you could kick all you wanted and you could stick your finger in the holes in the seat cushion and pluck out the hairy stuffing when you were hoping it would be time to go home soon. But we had to sit at the table after we ate, and that grandma made tea and put spoons and spoons of sugar in it and her cup left sticky rings on the plastic tablecloth you were only supposed to use on the picnic table. Aunt Kay always had a cigarette and tipped the ashes onto her plate, and I liked Aunt Kay but not that grandma. If we said please, Aunt Kay made smoke rings come out of her mouth and in the car on the way home Mom said don’t imitate that kind of vulgarity. The smoke rings weren’t like Grandpa Dan puffing on his pipe.
Billy rubbed his eyes and Mom said, are you tired? Sometimes the skin was blue under his eyes but it wasn’t a bruise. And Billy got mad and said why was she always asking him that. And she looked at him and her eyes were swimmy, like when you’re about to cry, like the way your shadow ripples on the surface of water, like when I wanted to know if we still had to pray for him, and Mom smiled and said he was fine. So I didn’t know if I still had to.
Mom said we could help carry more plates out to the picnic table and then we had to go upstairs and change clothes. Nance and me had dresses already set out on our beds and Billy had to wear the Sunday pants that turned shiny when Mom ironed them. Nance and me had matching party dresses on our matching bedspreads in our room, and we had the same of lots of things, our lunch boxes and the socks with lace trim and the ballerina music boxes, but we were not the same. Nance cried until Mom let the hairdresser cut her hair so she wouldn’t have to wear barrettes, but I had lovely curls even if the comb got stuck. I could do something that was impossible, hold my breath till everything came inside me, and if I didn’t tell anyone, no one could say that’s a lie.
We took the plates outside and when Mom saw the new batch of smashed walnuts on the patio she didn’t think it was us. Oh, those squirrels, she said. But she had that look on her face, like when it hurt her so bad if you forgot and hit Billy. And she called Dad and her voice sounded wobbly. And Dad came out and let the screen door bang behind him and Mom said this is hopeless, hopeless, when I have so much to do for the party and how can I serve the food out here on the patio. And I was afraid that Dad would know. He always knew it was our fault, because we were never satisfied. But this time he didn’t. He said, goddamn squirrels. And most of the time he said goldang except after dinner when he was tired and we had to leave him in peace and sometimes Mom cried in the kitchen because we didn’t leave him in peace and she wanted everyone to be nice like she was.
Mom said she wished Dad would listen to her and put in a brick patio.
Dad said, why don’t we just buy you another house altogether? And Mom’s eyes got swimmy again.
Because Mom would say can’t we just pay someone to do it, but Dad was good at fixing things like the stopped sink in the bathroom and the end table that teetered on its legs. Mom put the table in the garage this morning because he was too tired from work and couldn’t get to it. And she put the reading lamp that stood by his arm chair in the garage too because it was old and ugly. The rest of the living room was nice and she didn’t want to spoil it, the nice new carpet and the two armchairs that matched and Grandma Ma’am’s silver candy dishes that we got to fill with mints when company was coming. At the other grandma’s house they didn’t care. Sometimes in that house I felt like everything was thin skin: the braided rug that skidded on the linoleum and the black gunk caked in the grooves where the linoleum was chipped and the stuffing from the seat cushion like tiny hairs that you just had to tease with your fingers and the doily on the armchair because it was bare under there, and you started to think if you stayed long enough the insides of everything would be showing. And that only made you want to dig harder at the stuffing in the cushion.
And it was never not nice at our house, not even when Billy had to go to the hospital. Mom came back from seeing him and she said the doctors there knew just what to do for him. She let Nance and me stay up late making care packages for him, putting in the little pies we made in the jar lids and pictures we drew and the scapular Sister Marie sent for him, and we would each put in one toy, like my Slinky, lend it to him because at the hospital the only thing there was to do was play and he didn’t have to go to school. Children weren’t allowed to visit the hospital even though they put children in it.
Mom said, Daniel! when I have so much to do for the party, and Dad went back into the house and I thought he wasn’t going to help her. He didn’t help us move the lamp or make the care packages either because he fell asleep in his chair after dinner and if you went near him you could smell it in the air around him like you could smell chlorine near the swimming pool. You could smell it but it was still a secret and you couldn’t say it. Once when Billy was in the hospital, we made cookies for him after dinner and burned a whole tray. Mom said they were OK, but when Dad came in the kitchen, he picked up the cookie tray and slid the cookies into the garbage and he did not mind that the tray was still hot from the oven. And he didn’t sign the card Mom bought that said “Get well, son,” even though that was what he always called Billy instead of his name. And since then Billy didn’t have to go to the hospital, but he was always going to be the miracle child and that was good even if nobody would tell you how come. Like how come Dad didn’t mind if his fingers got burned.
We had to help Mom if Dad wouldn’t. Mom said we should start picking up the smashed walnuts and she got a knife and scraped a little at the cement to get them off.
And then Dad came back and he had his twenty-two that he kept in the garage and I would always see it there on its shelf high up but I never saw Dad take it down. Dad told us to come stand by him right now and when we did he aimed the rifle at the tree. And even though in the branches the squirrels were only shadows, when Dad shot the rifle one of them dropped right away. He shot again and another one dropped, and it was like they turned into squirrels on the way down and he had to shoot them to make them turn into what they were.
Zing-pock! from the rifle, and thump! like that had to be the answer. Mom put her hands over her ears like it wasn’t her who said Daniel! Like the rifle made a very loud sound, which it didn’t. When she put her hands over her ears, I didn’t want to stand next to her.
Dad put the rifle on his shoulder and aimed and shot again. Three, four, five, six, seven, eight squirrels. One bumped the edge of the picnic table on the way down and left a pink smear on the tablecloth.
Dad lowered the rifle from his shoulder. You kids pick them up and put them in the trash.
Mom said, they can’t touch them, they’re vermin.
They can wash their hands after, Dad said.
We had to do what he said. The squirrels were bloody and ripped like some old thing you wanted to throw out anyway. Some of them had their mouths open and you could see their little buck teeth that looked like the baby teeth we put in an envelope for the tooth fairy.
I had to lean down close to pick where to grab the squirrels, somewhere on the spine where my fingers felt only the fur on the bone and not the squishy wetness where the bullet had ripped their skin and released a dribble of guts, a hot stink.
I had to lean down close. I held my breath every time, and that was only for a few seconds at a time but still I felt dizzy, still I felt everything flooding in: the way the cubes of fruit cocktail shivering in the Jell-O mold looked like jewels and made you want to eat them even though you knew you’d push the grainy bits of pear to the corner of your mouth and spit them out when no one was looking and what did Billy do all day at the hospital if he didn’t have anything to do but play and did the sound of the rifle hurt Mom’s ears that much because so what! a squirrel couldn’t worry about why it was bleeding.
We picked up all the squirrels. Then Billy and Nance and me had to scrub the blood from the cement. That came off.