Boats on the Horizon
by Tony Taddei
I don’t care much for animals. Cats are nothing more than snakes with fur. Birds, even the pretty ones, they’ll shit all over your roof—or you—given half a chance. A small dog properly trained can be a comfort in some situations. But then there’s the hair on the couch and remembering to feed them. So no, not dogs either. And squirrels. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, especially not in the attic above the room where I have to make a living
“I can trap ‘em,” he says, having arrived within an hour of my call. “I can put razor wire and steel wool inside the ridge cracks and soffit vents to slow them down from getting in again.” He laughs at this for some reason. “I can kill the ones I trap, too or let ’em go miles away.”
Standing just inside my front door he glances around my townhouse. He’s got one of those islands of hair that grows near the front of his otherwise balding head, just above and between his eyes, no other hair within a foot of it except for his eyebrows. I’m not quite sure why, but that tuft of hair coupled with his broad, flat face and the hunch of his mountainous shoulders makes him look like he got dropped here from the 15th century. Dress him up in a leather vest, a cap with a feather, sandal straps crisscrossing his ankles up to his knees, he could be killing rats with lodge pole in a 20-hectare field owned by a feudal lord. That’s him. Only updated, dressed in the costume of an American working stiff: Carhartt pants, boots from Sears, the lines of embroidery above his pocket telling me what I need to know about what he and his kind do for the world. He’s “The Critter Ridder.” He rids the earth of unwanted critters.
Behind him, his van ticks in my driveway. I can only surmise the array of poisons and Havahart traps stacked inside. Funny, a man with Havahart traps who doesn’t look to have much of a heart when it comes to animals. So far, it’s what I like most about him.
“I’ll take the full package.” I tell him. They need to be gone ASAP so I can work.”
“It takes time, you don’t always get them right away.”
“Expedite it. Put out more traps. Money is no object.”
Though it surely is the object. If I can get a little peace and quiet, I can work. If I can work, I can keep making money. If I can keep making money, I can get through the last couple of tuition payments to get my youngest kid out of college, write the final support check, pay off the mortgage, and disappear into a diminishing version of the man I am. I have this image of myself sitting at a window by the sea, looking for boats on the horizon. But before I can get to the horizon, the first step is to finish this project. It’s the big one, a moneymaker, and the squirrels tearing up my attic with their scratching and thumping from the time I start work until I leave have distracted me to no end and made me blow past more than one deadline.
I let him all the way into the house. His name is Kennerman. Last or first name, I don’t know. It’s how he introduced himself and then told me to call him Ken for short.
“Up here, Ken. Right this way.”
We climb a set of stairs that lead to the second floor and the bedroom I use as my office. The steps creak under Ken’s weight. He’s a 50-something, 200-plus pounder with feet three or four sizes bigger than mine, who lumbers, albeit with a certain purpose.
“You ever have this place tested for termites?” Ken asks me, stopping to press his heel onto one of the steps, making it creak in rhythm.
Two steps above him I turn around.
“No.” I look down to find his eyes. “Should I?”
He shrugs. “Hard to say.”
He flattens himself against the wall slipping past me, skewing the pictures of my kids that I’ve hung along the stairway in this townhouse where I live. It does me good to look at my children the way they used to be in the past, before their mother divorced me, as I go on my way to and from my work. My son in his soccer uniform from fifteen or twenty years ago tilts at an angle where Ken’s elbow has hit him, the kid’s smile turned into a smirk. My two daughters and my ex-wife sitting on a sofa on Christmas, the tower of presents I paid for in their laps defying gravity given how Ken has reset the photo to a 45-degree angle with his ox-like lurching against the wall.
“Which way?” Ken asks.
“You think I have termites?” I say.
“Every house that’s got wood has got some kind of insect that eats it. It’s just a matter of where and how many.”
He stops at the top of the stairs. “Which way?” he asks, pointing left then right.
“Past the bathroom, to the left.”
“Not your problem anyway, right?” Ken walks ahead of me. “You got a condo here. Bugs and such, squirrels in the attic, it’s all part of the fees, right?”
It’s obvious Ken has never lived in a condominium. Never been divorced nor forced out of the house where he raised his kids, made to give up the addition he built on as his office to run his production company out of a bedroom in a two-bedroom condo townhouse behind the train station. Can’t picture Ken doing that, no. Can’t imagine him cramming his bulk and his traps and bait into what’s supposed to be a guest bedroom, taking home rats to drown them behind a twee shower curtain in a fiberglass bathtub.
“The fees only take care of the snow removal, grass cutting, like that,” I tell him. Everything that goes wrong from the roof down, I pay for out of my own pocket.”
“Doesn’t seem right.” He’s got his back to me. “Give up a owning a whole house and all the land and still having to pay for everything. But what do I know.”
In the office bedroom he starts tapping on the ceiling with a carpenter’s pencil he’s pulled from his shirt pocket. Without even standing on his tiptoes, pencil in hand, he’s able to connect with the ceiling. Four or five taps and he waits. A couple more and he waits again. And then something taps back. Though not so much a tap, more of an airy, dragging noise, that stops and starts and stops a half dozen times over. Different from the noises I’ve been hearing but as it turns out its what Ken’s been aiming for. I can see it on his face. Ken speaks squirrel.
“Yep.” He says. “It’s big too.” He taps again and then jumps off the floor and hits the ceiling with his fist. Suddenly, above us the rafter’s come to life with what sound like a herd of small horses shod in tiny iron shoes, galloping in all directions. “Bingo,” he says. “Sounds like you might have a whole tribe of them up there.”
I am dumbfounded, both by the horror of having discovered that I have many more rodents than I anticipated living just above my head and by the fact that Ken instinctually knew just where to stop to tap on the ceiling to find them.
“That’s not good,” I say to Ken.
“It’s good if you’re a squirrel,” he replies, as if he has lived a squirrel life as well as man’s life and knows both equally well.
“What do we do?” I ask, my manhood dripping out of me like tears from a child’s eyes.
“You got a way up there?”
“Yeah, in the closet. There’s an opening.”
“Can I use this?”
Without waiting for me to answer, Ken takes the files and briefcase I’ve stacked on a wooden step stool I keep at the corner of my desk, and then he drags the stool into the closet and turns on the light by pulling the string that’s dangling in his face.
On the stool, he pushes up the hatch that sits in a frame made of clamshell molding. Leaning into the closet I watch Ken as he removes a small flashlight from his pants pocket. With his head and upper arms disappearing into the ceiling, Ken flicks on the flashlight. The light in the attic sweeps across wiring and vent pipes but then he shines it downward into a place I cannot see and everything above his head goes dark. I hold my breath, waiting for the verdict from above.
“Well I’ll be.” When Ken says these words, his voice muffled by the sheetrock and insulation between us, he almost doesn’t sound like the same guy who climbed up on my stool to look in the attic. His voice is lighter and filled with respect. “This is quite a bunch of squirrels you have up here.”
For most of the next day, I work downstairs at my kitchen table. I need a break from what’s been happening above my head in my office, though I know I can’t stay out of there forever. The site plans for the corporate launch I’m producing are tacked on the walls around my desk along with a three-foot long list of camera directions and a wall’s worth of storyboards. It’s just the way I work. Younger guys these days, they keep it all in a laptop. But if I can’t touch it and look at it all around me, I lose my way pretty quickly. Sitting at the kitchen table trying to work, I’m losing my way pretty quickly.
All morning and into the afternoon I’ve been firing blanks trying to come up with some clever audio-visual scheme that will bring on the company’s CEO, the overweight head honcho of a pharmaceutical conglomerate with all the stage presence of a plumber. By three o’clock I’ve had enough, and I close the lid of my laptop and force myself to walk upstairs in search of some sort of inspiration, somewhere.
After Ken got his ladder and set a trap in the attic above my office, he told me not to get alarmed if I hear what sounds like a baby crying above my head. Just call him as soon as I hear any sort of wailing or hissing or screeching. Don’t go up there and try and do anything, is what he told me. As if.
Now, however, having left the kitchen in search of an idea, I’m once again standing in my office in front of a small bookcase that contains all that’s left of the books I used to have, one ear cocked toward the attic. During the divorce my wife went a little crazy owing to the affair I’d had with a woman half her age. Before I could stop her, my ex had tossed out most anything she knew had meaning for me, which included a shit ton of books — classic fiction, first editions of poetry I’d had since college, histories and textbooks on filmmaking that had become my bibles. By the time I got back into the house to pack up my things, all that was left we’re a few paperback Hemingways, a couple of dog-eared Stephen King novels and Costco collection of John Clancy thrillers, none of which I’ll ever have the desire to read again; those and some production manuals along with a two-volume set of famous quotes and speeches. It’s one of those books of quotes that I’m looking at now for any inspiration it might offer.
I open the book at random and land on quote from Wallace Stevens, his name at the top of the page. As I recollect, Stevens was a poet who also worked as an insurance company executive. If anyone might have something profound to say around the introduction of a fat, Waspy CEO, Stevens might. And then I read the quote: “Money is a kind of poetry.”
I say the words out loud and they catch in my throat. I can feel the blood blooming in my ears. It’s not because the quote is so wrong. It’s because it’s too perfect. It’s during this moment of realization that I hear the crying from above my head.
It does indeed sound like a baby, maybe not a human baby, but a baby something. I freeze. The crying grows louder and more plaintive, accompanied by what sounds like something flinging itself against the spot-welded structure of a cage. Something is keening for its loved ones, making enough noise at the galvanized wire of the trap to raise its mate or its mother or father and alert them to come rescue it. Against any instinct I would have thought I’d have in this moment, I have to force myself not to immediately get up on the stool and open the hatch. To do . . . what? Set it free? This is why Ken told me not to do anything if I heard the crying. Despite my irascibility and said dislike of all things with fur and feather, he somehow knew I’d not be able to resist the desperate supplications of a thing so untamed and innocent.
I drop the book of quotes onto the floor and reach into my pocket for my phone. The crying continues, abated only slightly in my right ear once I dial Ken’s number and hear his voice on his answering machine.
“You have reached the Critter Ridder,” Ken tells me. “Leave your message when you hear the beep.” There is a pause and I’m just starting to wonder if I haven’t missed my cue when Ken’s voice breaks in again. “And above all,” he says. “Stay calm. Help is on the way.”
That night my son Pete calls me and we quickly get around to him telling me about his latest girlfriend. The kid was twenty-four on his last birthday and by my count this is the fourth girlfriend he’s had in the last year. This is the one, however. The one and only, is what he tells me. He’s sure of it this time.
Anyway, I’m only half-listening to him, because I still can’t shake the sight of Ken crawling out of my attic a few hours ago with the trap under his arm. It turns out there were two, count ‘em, two squirrels in the trap, a male and a female. Ken was very specific about it and very sure of himself. “The female went in first to check out the bait,” he said, pointing to the peanuts shells dribbling out of the trap onto the floor of my closet, the squirrels doing parabolas and cartwheels trying to bite at the sleeve of Ken’s canvas jacket. “The male got curious and followed her in. Big dummy probably sprung the track. They’re clumsy and horny all the time and not anywhere near as smart as the girls.” Motioning at the squirrel, it started chirping at him aggressively.
Peanuts, still in their reptilian shells, like the kind you find at the circus. Nothing left of those peanuts now but shards and fragments, bitten to pieces by two ravenous squirrels. I wonder if it was the male or the female doing the crying?
“Her name is Judy,” says my son, and for a split-second I almost think he’s talking about the female squirrel. “Dad,” he calls. “Hello. Are you listening to me?”
No, in fact, I’m not. I’m in the closet with the light on, looking up at the attic hatch. Everything has been quiet up there since Ken left, all but assuring me that any other squirrels that had been up there probably high-tailed it once the trap sprung and the squirrels inside it started screaming. As advertised, he also stuffed my soffit vents with steel wool. But who knows.
“Sorry,” I say to my son, standing still. “What does she do? This Judy.”
“Does she have a job?”
“Yeah, she’s an intern for a social media company.”
“Does she get paid?”
“Where are you, Dad? What’s that noise?”
He’s caught me. I’ve started dragging the stool into the closet and I’m trying to reach the ceiling, the phone sandwiched between my shoulder and my ear.
Before Ken drove off with the squirrels, I asked him what he was going to do with them. “If you don’t want to see them again,” he said. “Then you probably don’t want to know what I’m going to do with them.” It chilled me, him saying this. I had visions of the traps and squirrels placed at the edge of Ken’s property, Ken firing 22. caliber slugs into their walnut-sized brains. Visions of a fifty-gallon trashcan filled with water, the trap and squirrels submerged inside, Ken waiting for the bubbles to stop rising to the surface. Visions, I couldn’t easily shake.
“Dad,” my son says. “Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” I get down off the stool and sit on it, the light from the bulb casting shadows of me onto the floor. “So, you really like this girl?” I ask him.
“Yeah, and Mom likes her too,” he says.
I honestly haven’t meant to rile him up with my question, but who knows what’s in my subconscious after the problems I’ve had with women. Not to mention the on-again-off-again antipathy this kid has be nursing toward me since the divorce. And that doesn’t even factor in any anxiety that might be seeping into my voice over my bad reaction to these squirrels.
“Well if your mother likes her…”
“Suze and Melinda like her too,” he says.
It seems he’s gotten his younger and older sister on his side along with his mother. What chance do I stand if I don’t like this girl?
“Well, I’d love to meet her sometime,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Really, I would.” I realize what’s happened and I’m pleading now, pleading and back peddling. “I want you to be happy and if she makes you happy then I’m happy.”
Happy. Happy. Happy. Except I don’t think I’m convincing him of anything. I look up at the hatch. I’m still wondering where those squirrels are that Ken took out of my attic. If they’re still alive and if so, are they happy?
“I’ll ask her if she wants to meet you sometime,” says my son.
If his head had popped out through the receiver for him to spit in my face, he wouldn’t have hurt me more than he did by saying what he just said in the way he said it. I want to tell him that I’ve got squirrels in my attic, for Christ’s sake, and that they’ve been making me crazy and sad, all out of proportion to how one might ordinarily feel about such a thing, and that I’m having a hard time working or making money and that I’m getting depressed by all of it, really depressed, and so couldn’t he please just cut me a break and let me be, let me say the passive aggressive things I have a tendency to say and forgive me once and for all for whatever I might have done to our family—to him and his sisters, and his mother.
“Okay, please ask her,” I say. “I’d love to take you both out to dinner.”
I get up from the stool to turn off the light. Closing the door to the closet, I stand there in the dark. The blackness and blunt silence is not as unpleasant as I would have imagined.
“Pete,” I say. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” he says, waiting long enough to make me wonder if he hasn’t hung up.
Having lost faith in myself to say the right thing to my child, I say the only thing I can think to say at this moment.
“Do you need any money?” I ask him.
It’s been a week now and not a peep from above. Blessed be the lord who oversees the squirrels. Blessed be the Ken who sets the traps with his peanuts. Blessed be the souls of the squirrels he’s taken out of my attic. If they’re dead, may they rest in peace. After seven days I’ve nearly stopped thinking about them.
When the marketing folks from the pharmaceutical company call to check in on me for the third time in two days, I am happy to tell him that I’ll be delivering the final script and production schedule by tomorrow morning and that everything is on track for me to get on a plane early next week and show up at their headquarters to run the event. Day-by-day over the past couple of weeks, as the date of the launch loomed ever closer, this crew of marketing minions had been getting increasingly worried and more vocal about my delays, asking me point blank if I was sure—absolutely sure—I’d be able to get this job done by the deadline. The subtext being that they were wondering if they shouldn’t just fire me now before it was too late.
I myself had been wondering that very same thing. And so in telling them that the job is all but finished and hearing the relief in their voices I am already starting to think about my final payment. That pot of money and the resulting peace of mind that which will eventually get me in front of my window by the sea where I can watch those boats on the horizon.
All afternoon I keep working, merrily putting all the job files together in a single folder on my lap top, taking down the camera directions and story boards from the walls, whistling as I send reams worth of script pages through my printer, feeling really cocky about the great work I’ve been doing, and actually starting to think I’m home free.
But then I hear what sounds like a dog biting on a chew toy: that squeaking sound that a chew toy makes. It’s an odd noise that I’ve never heard before in this room and at first I think it’s the gears inside the printer. But when the printer stops the noise continues. I can’t tell for sure, but it sounds like it’s coming from high up in the walls of my office in the place where they meet the ceiling. My skin grows cold and the nape of my neck starts to itch.
I lean back so that my shoulders and torso are at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Examining the area where the wall meets the ceiling, listening hard, half expecting what—a squirrel to break through the sheetrock with a rubber toy in it’s mouth? But the sound has stopped. I count to ten then twenty and thirty and still nothing. Past the count of thirty, I begin to wonder if I haven’t just made the whole thing up out of anxiety or guilt.
I sit down in my desk chair and put my face in my hands, rubbing my eyes and temples. I try to calm myself, focusing on each breath as I’ve learned to do in moments like this. And it’s working. It’s good; I’m feeling better. Until the squeaking starts up again.
Leaping off my chair, I jump up and hammer my fist into the upper part of the wall. But the reaction I get is not the same as what Ken got out of the ceiling when he did it. This time, there is no cascade of clacking paws. There is only more squeaking, an X-multiple of squeaking, as if there are now four or five toys all being chewed on at once.
Panicking, I run from the room, getting as far away as I can to make the call.
By the time Ken arrives it’s dusk. There is red in the sky above the sea of townhouses in my development. This portentous vista lies far beyond my own small driveway, but despite what sailors say about red skies at night it’s only darkening my mood. Ken doesn’t even wave to me on my half-assed porch where I’ve been waiting for him for the last hour. He gets out of the truck, takes his eight-foot A-frame ladder from the back and barely nods when he walks past me into my house.
“Squeaking,” I say, as we climb the stairs, him walking ahead, me hanging tight at the back of the ladder he’s got hooked over his shoulder. “Weird, huh?”
If he knows something, he’s not saying either way. In the office bedroom, he moves some things around inside the closet to get the ladder open.
“You told me you thought you got them all,” I say.
“When did you start hearing the squeaking?” He’s on the ladder and rising.
“Nothing since I took the trap out late last week?”
Ken grunts. It’s not what you’d call a comforting sound.
Unfolding a pair of leather gloves he’s tucked between his belt and the waistband of his pants he places them onto the top step of the ladder and reaches for a heavy canvass sack he’s tied to the ladder’s frame. It’s the first time I’ve noticed the sack. It’s makeshift—the kind of thing you might pick up off the floor of feedlot, and it doesn’t inspire much confidence in the professionalism of these proceedings.
Gloves on and the sack in his hand, Ken rises into the attic. I see his flashlight click on and hear the thumping of his knees above me.
“Where was the sound coming from?” he calls down.
“Near the top of the wall,” I say. “Where the wall meets the ceiling.”
“Never mind,” he says. “I see it.”
“What?” I ask. “What, for God’s sake.”
I wait for him to answer and when he doesn’t, I start to climb the ladder.
“Don’t,” he says to me when he hears me coming. “Stay down there.”
There is kindness and concern in his voice. It’s clear I’ve never gotten him to believe I’m the tough guy I make myself out to be when it comes to animals and this is what I get: a gentler side of Ken.
But am I listening to the kindness in his voice? Am I taking it as the caution it’s meant to be? No. No, I am not.
Reaching the top of the ladder and poking through the hatch I find Ken huddled inside a tight corner where the steep slope of the roof meets the walls of my townhouse. At first all I can see is Ken’s doublewide ass, plugging my view of anything going on in front of him. So I boost myself into the attic and begin to lumber toward him on my hands and knees, careful not to put a knee or foot through the insulation and the sheetrock below it. Working my way around Ken, I keep going until I can see into the area where he’s shining the flashlight.
“Stay back,” Ken says. “Please.”
He’s removed a layer of insulation from between the rafters at the edge of the ceiling, and there, nestled inside a second layer of fiberglass, exposed by the crystalline LEDs of Ken’s flashlight, is what looks like a tangled mess of pink and grey internal organs. But then this mass of organs begins to pulse and undulate, and I see an eye, then a tiny ovoid head with rosebud ears, and then black claws the size of pepper flakes and three of four fleshy tails that I at first mistook for intestines.
“Jesus Christ,” I say. “What the fuck.”
Ken flattens the insulation, broadening the indent around where these things have been nesting. He wants to get a better idea of what he’s dealing with among the flecks of shit, tumbleweeds of fur and bits of building debris that also inhabit this nest.
“How did they get up here?” I ask him. But, even as I ask, we both know this question isn’t even worth answering. They got up here inside another squirrel.
So I think of a question that I, for one, don’t know the answer to.
“Why didn’t we hear them before; when you were here the first time?”
Ken turns his bovine head. “They just now got big enough to open their eyes,” he says. “And their mouths. It takes a week or two after they’re born, but when they do, that’s it.” It’s not quite an apology from Ken. It’s more of eulogy.
“A week or two? They’ve been trapped up here alone a week or two?” I don’t know what to do with this information, I really don’t.
He lays the sack down into the rafters and begins to widen the mouth of it with his gloved hands. Shaping it like a potter throwing clay onto a wheel, he fashions a well of cloth with burlap sides just high enough to hold something that cannot yet easily climb out on its own.
I can’t fathom it. How could they have survived up here even for a few days without a mother or a father? Without food or sustenance, without love of any kind, save for the feeble love they begged from each other.
Squirming as Ken pinches the first of them up and into the sack, these brothers and sisters understand what I now understand. That love and kindness toward our families is fleeting and imperfect and too often based on things we think are out of our control.
In turns out there are five of them. One by one, Ken plucks them out of the nest and drops them in the sack. When he’s done and about to close them up, I do something that I could not have imagined doing just two weeks ago. I place my naked hand inside the sack with them. Ken looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I have.
Though it does feel good to touch them. They’re not slimy or even all that jittery. They’re warm and soft and even when one of them bites at my thumb it is more like affection then it is aggression. I nearly break down right there and then.
“Stop it,” Ken says. He’s not fooling around and he’s not being all that gentle about it either. “Get your fucking hand out of there. You’re gonna catch a disease. Go downstairs.”
Ken waits for me to remove my hand and then shoos me out ahead of him. It’s better for both of this way.
At the bottom of the ladder I wait for Ken. I can hear him whispering something to himself or maybe to the squirrels. When he emerges, his foot leaving the last step of the ladder, there is no movement inside the sack, not even the tiniest of squirming. He puts down the sack and starts to fold up the ladder before he catches sight of me pacing the room. We look at each other for what feels like a long time.
“Okay,” I say finally. “Do I owe you anything else? Am I good?” Even I can’t believe I’ve asked him such a loaded question.
He jams the A-frame under his arm and grabs the sack.
“No,” he says, turning quickly to walk out the door, to get away from me as quick as he can. “You’re good.”
We both know we’re not talking about money here. It’s never really been about money. But he doesn’t have the heart to tell me that. He’d got evidence in his hand of what it looks like when an animal is forced to leave its offspring behind, and he knows that, unlike me, those adult squirrels he pulled out of my attic would never have abandoned their family of their own free will.
When I hear Ken in my driveway putting the ladder on his truck I go to the window in my office and try to open it. But it’s stuck. I rattle it till I nearly break the glass, swearing and hissing at it, but still it won’t budge. I’ve had some time to think and I want to yell out the window for him to stop. To go down and explain myself once and for all. To tell Ken that, despite what I’ve done, I’m not a bad man. I’m just a guy who’s trapped himself here, paying for everything, over and over, from the attic on down.
With those squirrels of mine in his truck, Ken ,of all people, should know what I mean.
About Tony Taddei
Tony Taddei holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College and is a past recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship for prose fiction. His humor and short stories have appeared in publications including Story Magazine, Folio, New Millennium Writings, The Funny Times, Pif Magazine and the Florida Review. He currently lives and works in New Jersey and has recently completed a novella as well as new book of linked short stories.