Little Feet

On October 22 of my 34th year, I decided I had better start making a living. I was sitting at my desk in the corner of our bedroom, on the second floor. We rented the back half of an 1850 Greek Revival house, which might sound nice, but when it hasn’t received any maintenance work of note since the Depression isn’t such a bargain. The toilet leaked, and the kitchen sink allowed only a trickle of dirty dishwater through its permanently clogged pipes. Winter was almost here, and even after I reinjured my back leaning out of the second floor to hang them on their rusted hooks, the 80-year-old storm windows would still make only a feeble show at keeping out the cold winds. Each time the furnace hit, the lights would dim momentarily, and then we’d have to turn up the volume on the stereo to compete with the new din. (Bach had been the abused party all the previous winter; Janey had picked up a used boxed LP set of Szeryng playing the violin sonatas and partitas, and we didn’t touch our CDs for a month.) Still, I was fond of the niche in our bedroom, between one corner and the closet, where my desk snugly fit. The view in front of me was split by a maple trunk, which rose in summertime to unseen verdancy above. To my left was another window, looking out on our backyard — a rarity in our congested urban neighborhood — and the rusty blanket of fallen leaves I looked forward to raking in the afternoon. Except for winter, when I had to wear an extra sweatshirt, a hat and liner gloves (the forced-air heat didn’t sufficiently reach the second floor), my bedroom office made the entire place seem worthwhile.

Janey and the baby were in Florida visiting her parents. She was near the end of her maternity leave and had flown down for a week and two weekends. She wanted me to go with her, but I hadn’t been getting much done since the baby, and I looked forward to a full day’s work every day, without the muffled screaming from downstairs. Besides, my relationship with my in-laws was strained at best. They worked so hard at their restaurant down in Gainesville, they couldn’t understand why I insisted on taking only temporary or part-time unskilled jobs, with my college degree and a master’s to boot. What on earth was I doing with the rest of my time? I don’t think that it sat well with them that their daughter had to provide the bulk of the household income. Or that I hadn’t yet taken out a life insurance policy. God, how my father-in-law loved to corner me while I was washing dishes or (God forbid) lying on the sofa reading, and deliver his sermon about life insurance. As if my untimely demise would leave my daughter any worse off financially. I guess I just didn’t fulfill their image of a man. They were decent folks, and encouraged me to come down, but there was always a tension in the air when I was there; all parties were happier with me up north.

I had my coffee, freshly prepared in a single-cup French press. I had my long-obsolete computer booted up. I was just starting to look over the second act of my play when the sound began. The scratching of a handsaw from somewhere outside. Was someone working on our roof? God knows it could use it. No, it sounded more like it came from a neighboring house. I tried to ignore the distraction and concentrate on my work.

In my 20s, I had written 30 or 40 short stories, squeezed out between temp jobs with the self-righteous force of one convinced of his own talent. I sent them out into the world with that same confidence, biographies of favorite writers in my mind. Back they came, 20, 30 copies of each story, like carrier pigeons with news of lost battles.

The confidence ebbed; the power waned but didn’t disappear. I figured I was just fooling in the wrong medium. What I really loved — had always loved ever since my high-school experiences in it — was the theater. I hadn’t been involved in it since that time, but the fantasy had never left. I would write plays. And I did. Afterward, I had nowhere to send them — I had no connections, had never so much as built sets for a community theater — but there was nothing to stop me from sitting down and writing plays. In my 30s, fantasy remained a strong-enough drug to keep me going at a pursuit that promised no reward.

A squirrel appeared on the tree trunk directly in front of me. All summer, I had watched them scampering up and down this tree. Plump, healthy beasts — there was no shortage of nuts and garbage in our neighborhood. I enjoyed their proximity, reveling in the glory of nature right outside my window. They would perch on the branch and wash their faces like cats, licking their paws and then rubbing their heads from back to front. Occasionally, one would chase another up and down and around the trunk, fueled by the urgency of love. Several times, when they would assume worthy poses — a couple conjoined laterally, head to tail, or poised statuesquely on the branch staring right at me, hypnotized by their own reflection in the window — I picked up my camera and snapped a shot. Wildlife Photos Taken From Bedroom Office. Their industriousness was admirable: Sedulously, they scrambled up and down the trees with branches and leaves to take to their nest, wherever it was.

Wherever it was. I watched one particularly robust specimen make his way up my tree, a bundle of red and yellow foliage stuffed in his jaws. When he ascended above my line of sight, I leaned over my desk and twisted to see higher. The squirrel was on a higher branch that reached partway to our roof. I caught him midcrouch, poised to jump, leaf wad still clutched tightly in his mouth. Then he leapt and disappeared from view, replaced by a rumbling noise overhead, the pitter-patter of his little feet. This sound, in turn, gave way to the familiar far-off scratching. Construction work was indeed going on at our house.

Now the footsteps continued, directly over my head. It sounded like golf balls rolling around in the attic. For weeks we had thought we had mice, but now I realized it was the squirrels. I had been taking snapshots of their cheerful mugs just before they went inside to destroy my house.

There was a golf club leaning against the wall to my left. A 3-wood. If I ever knew why there was a 3-wood resting within arm’s reach of my desk, I have forgotten. I grabbed the club, stood up, and thrust the wooden head upward into the sagging, peeling sheetrock like a tap dancer’s downstairs neighbor. Ten or 12 sharp, loud pokes, then I waited.

Silence.

I sat down. Replaced the golf club against the wall. My play remained on-screen, pixels glowing in a dark planar night, waiting for me in the very place where I had gotten stuck days before (I never worked on weekends). I had constructed a situation, a clever one if I do say so, full of potential for wit and drama. But I had nowhere to go with it. Or rather, I knew exactly where it was supposed to go — the ending existed already in my mind, perfectly made — but I had no idea how to get there. This was my curse: I had a talent for opening scenes, and for knock-’em-dead closers, but the middle was a great desert I struggled in vain to cross. From where were the details to come? Had my life experience been so jejune — countless empty hours spent in front of a keyboard — that I lacked the nutrients with which to nourish my work?

Following Hemingway’s advice, I had stopped writing the previous workday at a juncture where I knew what would come next. The mystery writer Charles Willeford had said not to let yourself urinate in the morning until you had a page in the bag, but I decided Hemingway was enough. To be certain, I had let off right in the middle of a character’s monologue. The thing was, now I couldn’t figure out what the hell she was talking about. Where would this speech lead, anyway? How would I get from A to B?

Scratch, scratch. They were back. Or rather had decided that the danger had passed and they could go about their business once again. I leapt to my feet, clutched the 3-wood like I’d just shanked one into the woods, and jutted it into the ceiling again and again. Bits of paint and plaster fell to the floor, floated onto my desk like autumn leaves after a gust. Then silence again.

I blew the debris from my keyboard. Stared at my lady’s speech. Thought only of the furry beasts crouched expectantly above me. This time they didn’t wait so long. Just a few seconds, then they were at it again, no longer concerned with the intermittent protests from the tenant below.

I gave a few more knocks with the club, then slammed it back to its resting place and stared at my screen. The scratching continued, but I forced it into an ambient-noise compartment in the back of my brain.

The rest of the monologue was there, I knew it was, somewhere inside, like the memory of a close friend before she was your friend, when you’d only met her once or twice. Later, you can’t quite recall what it was like not to be intimate with her. Searching for my character’s words was like trying to recapture that unfamiliarity.

But it was there, and I would find it. And when I did, and when I had found the entire web of relativities and interactions, when the play was a completed thing, it would find its audience. How could it fail to? Good art would always persevere. Some small New York theater to which I sent it would see that it needed to be produced and take it on. A Times reviewer on an off-night hunch would show up, and the next day her review would alert theatergoers to the miracle that was occurring every night down below Houston. The audience began to grow larger each night; the 80-seat theater was sold out for weeks in advance. Finally, the move to an off-Broadway venue, and the money came pouring in. And more important, the offers for my next work and the one after. Backstage, Janey joined me after the opening-night performance to entertain famous well-wishers. Her parents and my parents were there as well, proud and at the same time abashed for ever doubting my life plan.

Someone was staring at me. I almost swiveled in my seat to look over my shoulder before realizing that the gaze emanated from in front of me. There, five feet behind my window, perched on the branch, a fat, complacent rodent sat staring into my eyes. I was almost grateful to him for startling me out of my decadent fantasy. The time I wasted in these delusions of artistic triumph!

But then, there was the squirrel. As children, my sister and I had loved them, chasing them in parks, throwing bread crumbs. They were the closest thing to wildlife we ever saw, and they seemed lovable, noble, a precious link to nature. Now, though, they were 100-percent pest. Fire was something I worried about, for one thing. Lying awake in bed at night, Janey and the baby sleeping unperturbed, each time the thermostat nudged the old furnace into action I imagined sparks flying in a miniature subterranean fireworks show. The wood of our house was so old, it wouldn’t take 10 minutes for the whole thing to burn down. It was a house balanced on a precipice of entropy, just waiting for the slightest excuse to fall back to a more natural state. The few precautions we took — smoke detectors, furnace inspections, shoving our mountain of cardboard boxes into a corner away from the furnace — were a feeble attempt to hold off the force of nature until we could move to a safer abode. And now the squirrels threatened to turn the balance of fate against us. Gnawing through wires in the walls, they could turn my home and family into ashes before I could get the pathetic rope ladder through the window.

What sort of madman spends the greater part of his working life writing imaginary scenes that will never see the light of production? What the hell had I been doing for all these years? I loved my wife. God knows I loved my little daughter. And I hated my life. (Careful with the typing on that one.)

On a screen of ridged bark, a magnified silhouette pantomimed its drama. It looked as big as a bear, lying in preparation for his next move, torso heaving, ears alert for any sign of predator or prey. Where was he? The shadow was projected on the tree in front of me, so with the sun at its matinal angle, no, that’s impossible, he would be hanging in midair. It must be afternoon, and he was somewhere up and to the left, and behind — on an unseen tree branch leading to my roof.

The shadow tensed and then disappeared in a muscular leap, and was replaced by sound — thundering hooves above me, like the British fucking cavalry on my roof. That wasn’t one squirrel.

I went to the hallway and stood under the entryway to the attic. I’d never been up there. I fetched a ladder from the basement and dragged it upstairs, positioned it under the trapdoor. Then I climbed two steps, shoulder-pressed the board out of perhaps decades of inertia and slid it off to the side. Some dust floated down from the fresh maw, but no sound. I climbed higher, thrust my head into the darkness. Not a sign of movement among the murky shadows. I climbed all the way up and walked the length of one beam (there was no proper floor) with a flashlight. No animal life, no scat that I could see and no slice of sunlight to betray an opening.

I stood in the musty air for several minutes to convince myself that I was alone. Then I made my way down the ladder, replaced it in the basement, climbed back upstairs and sat down at my desk. So they weren’t infesting the attic after all. I supposed I could live with rodent traffic on my roof.

I stared at the computer screen. The glowing embers of my play throbbed amorphically as I stared right past them into the cosmic background. I may have looked like someone trying to write, but what I was doing was listening. Waiting for their next move.

The enemy complied, bursting into activity, mocking my blindness. Bowling-balling back and forth, the ceiling sagging kinetically. I felt like an unfortunate college roommate on a bottom bunk. Plaster fallout contaminated my keyboard.

I jumped to my feet, grabbed my 3-wood and flailed away, screaming heavenward, “Goddamn you sons of bitches! This is my house! I’m home! I’m home! Yaaaaaaaaah! Helloelloelloello!”

Not even a moment of silence, out of respect for the legal resident. Corner-to-corner, Olympic-triple-jumping, frenetic scratching and scraping: Yo, we’re busy up here; keep it down!

Where the hell were they getting in? There was no point continuing my vain inquiry into the motivations and desires of my lady of the legitimate stage. Down the stairs, out the door, into the yard for some real man’s work — see where the chink in the armor was.

Standing in the middle of the backyard, wading in a tide pool of foliage — I could never rake enough to daunt the four great maples of our backyard; they had enough ammunition to stave off a whole regiment of rakers — I gazed up at the roof. The siding seemed inviolate enough. Around the corner was the tree that faced my desk, and, sure enough, there was a typically brash miscreant scaling the trunk, a full load of leaves stuffed between his jaws. I stifled the urge to charge him, screaming, and watched silently as he made his way up to the gangplank branch and prepared to board my ship. He stepped gingerly out onto the branch, his well-fed brawn and extra load causing it to sway, and then leaped and disappeared into the rain gutter. I recognized the moment when, as observed from my desk, his image would be replaced by his sound.

I stood in the middle of the backyard. The pest-control man had come for the mice last summer and said there was nothing he could do until the landlord put in new siding and a new roof, and I knew the landlord (92, in a nursing home, beset with terminal thriftiness) would never approve such work. I also knew we could never afford a better apartment until I got a job to supplement Janey’s income. It wouldn’t be so bad. At last I could give up the masochistic striving for artistic fulfillment, give up the torturous mornings at my freezing desk. Work an honest job, make an honest wage. Something with my hands, physical, outdoors.

Movement in my periphery jolted me out of my reverie and attracted my vision to a coruscation of glass above our bedroom, snuggled into the acute angle of the rafters. In all the time I had spent out in the yard, I had never noticed this small attic window. I stared at it for several seconds, and then the movement repeated. It was a squirrel bounding past the glass from inside. Then nothing. I stared for a full minute before he ran by again, in the other direction. A minute later, two of them came by, one chasing the other. In the quiet yard, I could imagine I heard the rumble of their steps.

My right hand moved to my jeans pocket, felt no bulge, and I pictured my keys sitting on the kitchen table. Our front door locked automatically; I never went out without grabbing my keys first. I continued to stare at the attic window. A squirrel came to the glass, sniffed at it and stood there looking out at me.

Need some time apart, she’d said. The bibs and burp cloths and little full-body sleeping suits were all gone from the second bedroom. I wrapped my arms around me; I had run out without grabbing a jacket. It was cold for October. It looked snug in the attic — the late-afternoon light reflected off the window gave the appearance of a hearth. There were two twitching, whiskered faces there now, pressed against the glass like children, looking out at the wildlife.

Marshall Jon Fisher ’85 is a freelance writer living in the Berkshires. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and “Best American Essays 2003,” among other publications. His book “A Terrible Splendor” won the 2010 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, and his novel “A Backhanded Gift” was published earlier this year.

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