“Oh my God, Mr. Tony, what are you doing?”
Nick opened the gate and walked into the garden just as I was putting down the Havahart trap containing one very upset squirrel.
This has been the summer of the Great Squirrel War of 2018. Overrun with them, our diplomatic contract granting them a sizable percentage of my produce had been broken. They were now eating everything, and making the neighbor’s cat dizzy with their constant circular frolic along the top of the garden fence.
“I’m getting rid of the squirrels, Nick. There are too many, and they are eating everything.”
Nick looked up from the straw of his juice box and reconsidered offering the captive critter some snack from a mylar bag. The little Nick whom I met five years ago is now the not-so-little Nick who is taller than all of us, and sporting wispy first growth facial hair. His head is styled to the moment, cross cut above the ears and parted sideways all the way around with the thick growth above the bowled furrow gathered into a Seussicalular top knot. Kids and their stylings. I suppose we all did that, wanting to fit in, and then years later laughing at photos of our emotional attempt to look like our favorite Beatle.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“I’m giving him to Sophie Tucker, so he can be with the 31 I’ve already caught and gotten rid of.”
31! Really? That many?”
“Yes, and aren’t you going to ask me who Sophie Tucker is?”
Over the past five years, since Chris and I moved here and became his neighbors, Nick has learned that any conversation with me will entail references and words at best cryptic or at worst indecipherable even upon explanation. His over-glazing sometimes keeps him from even asking a single question that might involve strenuous mental attentiveness. Now, I can almost see him weighing the entertainment factor of the answer to his question against the effort needed to ask it. Sometimes, he will play along, other times, he will simply retreat into his mind and into the pleasant experience of being with a man who is to him a weird foreign country made familiar. He deploys his faux tired voice.
“Okay. Who is Sophie Tucker?”
“What kind of schooling produces a fledgling high schooler who does not know who Sophie Tucker is? That’s what I want to know. No, it’s not even a question. Important stuff is never taught in school. For instance, have you been taught which fork to start with when you are seated at dinner at the French embassy next to Pamela Harriman? And that’s Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, in-ci-den-ta-ly. A woman with so many skeletons in her closet, you wouldn’t even need to choose a fork for the escargot; just a pry a wishbone out of her. She was full of wishbones, that one. Where were we?”
I always know that despite my rambling, Nick will keep up. He must sense some value in this, and because he does this, I have a better feeling about his future.
“Right! You know she grew up not far from us. We could actually walk to the house she grew up in. And she’s buried up at the end of Jordan Lane in the Jewish cemetery. That is where squirrel #32 is going.”
“You’re gonna bury him in a Jewish cemetery?”
“No, Nick. Squirrel 32 looks a bit too goy for that.”
I weigh the merits of introducing Nick to some entry-level Yiddish, and set it aside.
“Sophie Tucker was called ‘The Last of the Red Hot Mamas’ and don’t ask me who the ones were who came before her because, honestly, she is the only red hot mama I’ve ever heard of, so let’s just assume there is a lineage and that she was the caboose, a word that sure sounds Yiddish, but actually isn’t.”
“She grew up in Hartford. In the South End. She got married and she worked in a greasy spoon on Fishfry Street. Can you imagine?”
I paused to look at Nick and realized that I’d have to pause more frequently to unpack some items that I take for granted.
“A ‘greasy spoon,’ Nick, is what you call a low class and cheap restaurant where you can’t be sure of the sanitary status of the utensils, okay?”
“Right. I knew that.”
“Good. So she was working there and going home to this husband and a baby, and all the while dreaming of being a Vaudeville singer instead of slinging hash, and really, who could blame her? I think of her as a zaftig chanteuse version of Myrtle Wilson in Gatsby.”
Again, a pause to check Nick’s face for exasperation. I don’t think he is listening any more. He is fixed on the very terrified squirrel gnawing at the metal ribs of the cage and desperate to be free.
“I think Sophie was just like that squirrel. She felt trapped and doomed and she couldn’t take it. She was like Maggie the cat on that hot tin roof.”
(I didn’t even bother looking at Nick to see how that might have registered before I continued.)
“So one day, she up and left. She took off her apron, and just like Kathy Mattea she knew that Forth Worth couldn’t hold her because her dreams were bigger than the Texas sky. Only instead of Boulder, she got a one-way ticket to New York City and that is where she became a ‘Red Hot Mama.’ And now she is dead. And back home in this mashugana place. And buried up on that hill not so far from where she grew up, and I am not sure what that teaches us. They say you can never go home again, but really, you can never get away from home is the better lesson, I think. That is why the insolent Veda told her mother Mildred Pierce that no matter how many restaurants she opened, she would never get that chicken grease off her hands, and she was right. She was right, Nick. She was so right. She just shouldn’t have said it. Just because you are right about something doesn’t mean you should say it. I wonder what Sophie’s descendants would say. I’m sure they still live nearby. If we walk by that house, I bet we can hear them in there playing her records and singing along with her on “Some Of These Days.”
“I got in trouble at school yesterday because I said something, and I was right, but I still got in trouble. I mean serious trouble.”
“Oh? What did you say?”
“This girl was being mean to me. She does it all the time, and she gets away with it. She says anything she wants to me. She calls me anything she wants.”
“What did you say, Nick?”
“So she’s all in my face and pushing me and everyone is laughing.”
Nick. What did you say?”
“She told a teacher that I called her the N-word.”
“Oy. Did you?”
“Well she says it all the time. And all her friends say it.”
“Oh. Let me guess. She’s black?”
“Oh, Nick. Well, this is a big lesson for you. Black people can use the N-word any time they want. It is theirs to use and it is never ours to use. And it doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not. It is just how it is. I’ll tell you how I learned this. I used to use the word ‘Trannie.’ Same deal. All my trans friends used it, so I figured I could use it or write it. They got pissed. I got schooled. They can use it. I can’t. Same thing with the N-word. So what happened?”
Nick didn’t want to talk about it anymore. (He also didn’t even blink at my use of the word “trans” which damn surely is a sign of the mainstreamed sexual times in which we live. In my day, trans would have meant only Siberian railway.) Instead of listening, Nick was trying to push a potato chip through the bars of the cage. He said, “I think he’s hungry. Maybe we should name this one Sophie Tucker.”
“No. No names. Only numbers. If I start giving them names, I’ll start thinking how cute they are and then I’ll stop catching them and then they will go back to eating everything. There are lots of woods up there on the far side of the cemetery. Plenty for him to eat, and at least 31 other squirrels for him to play with. And, the dead don’t care if you eat their flowers. I’m just worried that it may not be far enough away. I don’t know if squirrels are like dogs that always know how to find their way home even if they are many miles away. For all I know, I may be trapping the same squirrel over and over again!”
“Can I come with you? Are you going to bring him there now?”
Not only is Nick not allowed in my house, he is also not allowed in my car. We don’t need the neighbors seeing us harboring an underage boy. The garden is as far as Nick is allowed, and that was permitted only after a frank discussion with his wise father five years ago.
In case you haven’t yet surmised it, Nick is the “son” that an older gay man like me may get in his life should the circumstances allow it. To be sure, he is not the “son” Chris and I would have chosen or created. Ours would have been a brilliant modern dancer, an Olympic gymnast, star of a remake of “Lassie Come Home,” or Tadzio in a remake of “Death in Venice,” a stunning prodigy mathematician/pianist, a precocious boy Youtube star who ate Mozart for breakfast and was able to pay off his fathers’ mortgage and move them to Beverly Hills, before dropping dead of exhaustion before turning fifteen. That would have been our son. That is probably why gay men are better as the ‘gay couple next door’ rather than as actual parents, but don’t quote me on that because I have gay friends who are raising kids.
I looked at the squirrel. So innocent and with heart racing. So unprepared for everything that was happening to him. My primary consolation was that they don’t have memories like mine or Nick’s. Should he escape, he’d scamper home, but tomorrow he’d be back grabbing at the sunflower seed/peanut butter schmeer inside the same trap.
And then, I was a million miles away in time, but only a few feet from where I had been a kid just like Nick, for this was in fact the street I grew up on. I didn’t seek this street out when Chris and I were looking for our next house. It just happened to be exactly what we wanted. We moved in, I took down all the trees and created the walled garden I saw in my dreams. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I sit down and scrape the wonderful black dirt of this garden from beneath my fingernails and think about the perfectly yet curiously homebound cycle of life; of even an adventurous and far flung life like mine.
When I grew up on this street, it was a dirt road, and I couldn’t stand it. I wished for wings, not to see the world but just to rise up and get away. No word had more beauty for me than “away.” All creation was divided into two. There was where and what I was, and there was “away.” I would look at my parents and my younger brothers and all my neighborhood friends and their parents, and I knew instinctively that they held no dreams of “away.” I was different from them. I was the “away’ child. I was that dandelion seed that screams to be lifted and blown far by some Sirocco that finally carries it over the high fence into a place you’ve never heard about but love instantly upon arrival. I was that dandelion seed whose heart broke while watching “The Wizard of Oz,” and who wanted to shout at the TV screen, “You don’t need to go back there! Kansas is nothing! Wake up, girl! You have everything I want! Stay there! What is your problem?”
Sophie Tucker felt “away.” The urge was strong enough to make her leave husband and child. Any local jury would have condemned her, but not I because I know what it feels like to be desperate inside your heart. To wake up at the age of 25 and to say, “What have I gotten myself into?” Unlike Sophie, I wasn’t exactly slinging hash. I had indeed gotten far away from this street, but in the process, I had gotten myself into another trap with albeit fancier trappings. That is another story, but I was like a horribly misplaced orchid trying to squirm though a crack in a concrete sidewalk, elbowing for enough air and water to live for another day, to collect my thoughts, and finally, to get again “away.” My problems, like Sophie’s were not that big. It was our desire that was big, our unfounded need for so much more than we had been handed; our sense of injustice at our lot in life; our belief that good wasn’t enough when there was gorgeous right around the corner. Say what you will about our abandoning of our lives, we really had no choice but to follow our instincts. This will strain the comparison, but you might say that I traded “Mother Church” for "My Yiddishe Momme" and I never looked back with one ounce of regret.
Nick had wandered away. Perhaps he had heard his mother calling for him. She seems to have a sense of how long he spends in my garden. Worried that he is annoying me, she will call him home after a spell even though I have assured her that he is never a problem.
Nick is not an “away” child. He is already home, and not destined for reinvention or transformation. He doesn’t want or need wings. There’s no leather bound suitcase under his bed begging to be packed at midnight for a furtive run to the bus station, to Broadway, to the constant stepping down a notch on the playbills of your private Vaudeville circuit and that final return to the street you grew up on, rationalizing your disillusionment and valiantly making a pretty quilt of the scraps you daily bring forth from that suitcase, still under your bed, still willing to take you away again, should you still be willing to go away again. You silently swear to your garden you’ve still got it in you. But Nick? He’ll have just the learning that comes from making little mistakes between snacks provided by loving and careful parents.
It’s just you and me now, Squirrel #31. His tail is whipping. His eyes are wide. His sharp claws are braced against the cage. I can’t begin to imagine his panic. Or maybe I can.
I haven’t the heart for triumph today. I know I’ll regret it, but for once in my life, I’m going to choose the less courageous, less pioneering, less star-stuck, less dramatic, less decisive, less dazzling, less original path. No musical showstoppers will be written about what I am about to do, but I open the trap and step back to watch Sophie make a run for it, home again before dark.