On this late May afternoon, Ed B and I stood out front of his century-old, Victorian-style home downing our second beer. Even though it was still spring, the mid-ninety degree weather reminded us how much global warming could change the natural course of things. Ed's trademark, extended burping reminded me how much everyone in our writers group loved the guy, and that's why I was here. Periodically I'd heard about the pests in the writer-guru's palatial brownstone. Off for the summer from my teaching job, I'd decided to help out the old guy with his problem.
"They eat the sheet metal. Brick, wood, titanium--nothing stops 'em."
In truth, most of Denver suffered from its own squirrel-pandemic, something never featured in the Chamber of Commerce ads that appeared in East and West coast mags--the Sciurus niger species of fox squirrel, with teeth stronger than a beaver's. Hosts to bubonic-plagued and rabies-infested fleas, the rodents also consumed most anything grown in glade or garden--apples, pumpkins, strawberries; hell--they'd even chewed up my hops for making beer, even though they wouldn't eat the pulp, just tasted it and coughed it up.
Titanium? Sure, Ed B. wrote lots of spec lit--fantasy, horror, sci-fi, etc.--but subtlety was his normal approach to most things, including his writing; exaggeration didn't fit him, so I assumed he was only sort of being serious.
"You wanna see where they're getting in?"
I was something of a handyman, having successfully started probably a hundred projects on my own house, some of which I'd even completed. Although Ed knew more about plotting a story, I knew I knew chingos more about nailing a board. For all he'd done for aspiring Denver writers over the years, I figured he deserved my help reaching his dream: to fix the place up and sell it to some Californicators with too much cash on their hands. Then he'd retire to Sinaloa to open his own fruit juice/tequila bar.
"Believe me when I tell you it's impossible to get to from the inside; we gotta use the ladder."
This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I'd always had a problem with heights. Jumping off two-story houses when I was a kid might have explained it, although I never broken a leg. Just drove my femur up past my sphincter a couple of times.
And Ed's ladder reminded you of something you'd see rising from the top of a fire truck. The thing easily reached beyond thirty feet and was probably illegal in half the continental U.S. The prospect of climbing the contraption threatened to put a dent in my goodwill.
"Don't get your balls all in a tangle; it's safe. I've done it a thousand times."
Now, when an eighty-year-old-looking Anglo guy tells a fifty-ish Chicano male something like that, it can only be taken in a macho-challenge way. My fear of heights drowned under a flush of adrenalized maleness. One of the reasons women live longer than men.
Ed B headed up the ladder, clutching his beer can like he was a twenty-something Spiderman. I set mine down and followed like Spiderman II until about eighteen feet up where I turned into Tommy Turtle. Ed waited at least five minutes for me to cover the last six thousand feet, which is what it felt like. I didn't think five minutes was too long, considering how difficult it was holding onto bare metal with hands sweating like my palms' pores had all sprung leaks, with eyes shut tight enough to bust their tiny veins, and with knees shaking like my knees always did when I faced the prospect of death.
"A little scared o' heights, are we?" His chuckle did nothing to help me off the ladder and onto the roof that had a pitch that would have made a roofer triple his rates. Ed set his can into a plastic holder taped onto a vent pipe.
"Here: hold onto this," he handed me a cord so thin I thought I could almost see through it, "and try not to look down too much, ha, ha," which of course I did the opposite. Luckily, most of my vomit missed the ladder.
"I can see you had eggs for breakfast, but you sure you got the huevos to do this?"
It was a little fokkin' too late to ask or answer, so I nodded just slightly so as not to lose more of my meal.
"I think this is where the suckers get in." Ed B pointed to a hole the size of a quarter, dotted all around with nail and screw holes; a thick ring of varied colored glue, caulk and that Liquid Nail stuff. It was what I'd feared most; he'd tried everything I would have. Except for one.
"No, I haven't plugged it from inside. I told you: you just can't get to it from the attic. The way this old house was constructed, you gotta crawl the last ten feet under the framework, on your belly. It's too tight of a fit, and there's no room to swing a hammer or handle much of anything."
Suddenly I saw the light of hope, the promise of salvation, something to get me off this roof. Ed was a bigger boozer than me and much of that alcohol homesteaded in his belly; mine was easily half his size. Maybe I could go where no Ed had gone before.
"Well, if you think you can and you're willing to take a stab at it."
I only sort of lied; what was true was that no matter how tight of a fit it turned out to be, I'd find a way to wield a hammer or screwdriver or forklift if I had to in whatever space God might provide me--anything to get me back off this incline.
"Hear 'em?" He meant the sounds coming from within. Something alive, scratching away.
I instantly had visions of angry, infected, biting and clawing squirrels jumping out the hole, attacking me, and shredding my skin all the time it took for my body to reach the lawn.
I was halfway onto the ladder before he finished uttering the word. Of course, it took several more minutes to force my foot to take its first step down to the next rung, but I got very encouraged when squirrel chirps were added to the scratching noises.
By the time Ed B joined me on the ground, my palms were nearly dry and my shorts, only half-soaked.
"Nothing like an invigorating drink to go with an invigorating brush with death. Care to join me?" He stepped around my vomit.
As it turned out, I managed to calm down after half a bottle of Ed's Agavero. It was supposed to be sipped, but I couldn't help swallowing most of mine.
* * *
"To tell you the truth, I don't like being in this attic so late in the day. Gives me the creeps."
Coming from a man whose fictional characters had amputated, dissected--hell, even eaten raw--all manner of dead and living tissue in his stories, it sounded cutely ironic, like hearing President Bush had tripped over a WMD. I answered with a shake of my head.
"No, really. Sometimes when I go to the head late at night and I'm standing there taking a leak, I can feel their eyes on the back of my neck, staring at me through the exhaust fan grill. Once, the bulb burned out and when I looked up, I swear I saw a pair of eyes glowing all green at me.
"Anyway, this is as far as we can duck-waddle. From here on you gotta go belly-down. You can maybe still see some light coming through their hole. Take the lamp and watch yourself."
It felt like two hundred degrees, and we sweated like Enron executives at a sentencing. Worse yet, the light showed me it was more than a tight fit. I crawled in and managed fine until the wooden frame lodged my shoulders tight, still five feet from being able to reach anything. That's when I heard the scratching again, from behind me, and could feel something like little teeth nibbling the edges of my shoe soles.
"Hey, you suckers!" It sounded like Ed and a squirrel or two were having at it. Given my delicate position, my money wasn't on the rodents.
"Sons of ..." The commotion stopped. "It's okay; I beat 'em off of you for now, but they might come back. You seen enough?"
I had, and I'd also wiggled around enough to know we'd have to train a squirrel or midget how to plug the hole. Either that or spray cement to fill in that last five feet. Anyway, the perspiration from my brow made it almost impossible for me to stand staying any longer. Plus all the booze Ed had forced on me wanted out.
As I backed off, I realized I'd successfully passed a lot of extra long nails on my way in only because they pointed the same direction I'd been moving. Now that I needed to retreat, I would be driving the nail points into my body. I was wedged in. Without a hammer. Without the space to point the lamp and see the nails, although I could feel exactly where each one was.
So Ed B composed his most redundant phrase ever: "You're not stuck, are you?"
After I'd described how stuck I was, he responded, "Shit! Now what're we gonna do?"
I was more worried about Me than any We. Ed could go for help, even call up the fire department if he had to. I'd come over to help him fix his house, and now I might wind up costing him a new chunk of roof and some major repairs. Pendejo, I felt. There had to be another way.
"You're right. Look: I'm going to get this neighbor who's a carpenter. Maybe he's got an idea; he's usually home about this time. You wait, okay?"
Like I had another choice?
"You'll be fine for a while."
Sweating and all hot like I was, that "while" felt like it turned into an hour, although it might have only been fifteen minutes. Soon my bladder would bursst. I tried several more maneuvers: twisting around, spiraling, pulling out one arm, then two, but the nails were everywhere.
Then the sounds started up again. Only more of them, and closer. Claws on wood.
I wasn't that worried since I assumed the squirrels could only get to my feet. If one came at me through the hole, I figured he wouldn't be able to stand the lamp's heat. Worse came to worst, I'd wind up needing some shots. Was there one for bubonic plague? I guessed I'd find out. To conserve its battery, I turned off the lamp, my only defense. I knew the sun was setting from the light fading through the opening.
If you've ever been in a cave without any light, you know what happens. Your eyes can't believe the absolute darkness, and after a while they make up their own light. Mine started doing that. That didn't bother me so much until my nose started making up its own smells; at least, I hadn't noticed any before.
It was the same smell that had derailed Ed B's selling the brownstone the year before. He guessed it came from a squirrel dying up there after he'd succeeded in shutting the hole up, for the umpteenth time. They must have died of starvation, and that's when the rot-smell started. If Ed had only waited a couple of weeks for total decomposition, he might have sold the place off to that unsuspecting "gentry" and been E-mailing us from Sinaloa.
At the moment, I knew even partial squirrel decomposition would chase away any buyer. Vapors from my previous puking still hung in my throat, and my stomach lurched in response to the odor of death. I did what I could to keep it down because my situation was bad enough as it was. I wasn't about to face a bunch of laughing firemen pulling me out of my own pukey mess. A man's got his limits. I heard Ed climb into the attic.
"Turns out my neighbor's not gonna show; he's working up in Aspen. You know anybody I can call? Or got any other ideas? I'm ready to accept there's no choice but to call the fire department."
I'd already gone over things in my head. Maybe one of my construction-savvy buddies could figure out a way; I just doubted it. From where I was, the only escape was forward, through the roof, by cutting a hole in it. My friends might be able to do that, but in the dark and a thousand feet up, it'd be better to let the pros handle it; at least they had a real ladder. I told Ed to make the final decision, though I guessed what it would be.
"Okay then, I'm gonna call 'em. Be back soon. Sit tight."
I could see tomorrow's headlines: Heroic Firemen Save Dumb Chicano. I'd never live it down. A great help I'd been. Serendipitously, the smell took my mind off my embarrassing future.
Actually, it wasn't really the smell; it was the smell moving. I was certain it had been on my right, and now it came to me from my left. Nearer, too. Since I wouldn't need it much longer, I was tempted to turn on the lamp, but my mind seized up at the dread of maybe not being able to handle what lay in the dark.
As I realized it crept closer, my hand remained frozen, unwilling to flick the switch. I knew I had to prepare to defend myself, blast whatever squirrel was in front of me, not let it bite my face (Dumb Disfigured Chicano Saved...), but I couldn't bring my shaking under control to press ON.
That's when I felt a tongue--all wet and sticky--lick the trembling fingers of my left hand. The wetness was warm, the tongue soft and small, like maybe I'd found an infant squirrel just learning to crawl. An infant that wallowed in its own feces, but maybe not something so hazardous to my good looks.
I thought of baby-talking to it but worried that a human voice, especially a nervous one, might agitate it enough to attack. A cooing, half-murmuring squeal convinced me it had to be a little one. The voice plucked at vestigial paternal instincts, making me want to at least pet it, but I imagined the second I did so, a flea infestation would latch onto me, and I'd be the Dumb, Disfigured and Diseased news, so I held back, just enjoying my own private communing with urban nature. My body sweat abruptly ceased. Through the roof I heard someone walking around.
"It's just me, but they're on their way. You still okay, right?" He didn't bother waiting for my response, not that I desired to break my communal. "You know, I've talked to pest companies, even experts at the Fort Collins college that know everything about squirrels. They say what I tried so far should have worked. They couldn't understand why my squirrels are always so determined to get it."
At that moment, I did understand. What licked my hands--by now I'd also offered it my right--was giving off pheromones that acted at a primordial level of Family. It reminded me of our animalness, of our shared blood and bodies, our likeness of flesh. It soothed away all civilized stupidity.
"You want more light in there?" Ed pointed his flashlight into the hole, its long beam burning a one-second snapshot into my brain of my new friend.
He wasn't really a friend; he was a bunch of them. Apparently, every time Ed B had succeeded in stopping up the hole, a squirrel or two had died and putrefied. But the decomposition had never affected the tails and paws, and somehow they'd maintained a life of their own. Another repercussion of global warming? A Cheyenne curse born of the Sand Creek Massacre? The exact origins didn't seem to matter.
That brief image burned into my mind replayed itself. The rotting baby's body was naturally covered with maggots. But, a dozen furry tails of various lengths and thicknesses, and even more paws had attached themselves all over its corpse and swayed to their own life-rhythm, propping up the putrefying corpse and moving it around as if it still lived. Where it's eyes had been, the plumpest, hugest green maggot things plunged in and out. It would have been a hilarious j-peg if it had come up googled on the Internet. Where I lay, it seemed like the most natural thing.
When it smiled at me, it broke my trance, and nothing felt natural to me now. I broke out in gallons of sweat. Nails or no nails, heroic firemen or not, I couldn't wait. I don't remember if I screamed as I grabbed the ceiling joists and shoved myself--back the way I'd come. But I do remember worrying what would happen to my pieces of flesh left hanging there.
* * *
The heroic firemen brought along an ambulance; otherwise, they say, I would have lost too much blood before getting to the emergency room. Now I'd grow old looking like Godzilla had worked me over, but I would grow old, which is supposed to be a consolation.
The month after I recovered, I quit the writers group and never returned to Ed B's. He still writes fantasy and horror and such, and I hear his beer belly's taken up more of his belt notches. I can't verify that because I haven't seen him, although he's called a few times. When I see it's him on caller I.D., I don't answer because I know he's going to ask what happened in the attic that made me panic. And I know he wouldn't be satisfied with my telling him it was just a squirrel.
As it turns out, I guess I did help Ed B, however inadvertently. Because of my close encounter he gave up and let the squirrels stay, figuring he'd bequeath them to the next lucky homeowner. Plus given his penchant for the odd and supernatural, if he knew the truth it might affect his decision to sell the place, and his Sinaloa bar would remain just a dream.
© Rudy Ch. Garcia, 2006