Squirrels in the Attic

Kendall Klym

Dedicated to Richard M. Sirota, 1960-2017

Nothing in Trevor’s bereavement books tells readers what to do when squirrels invade the attic. No words or phrases guide the grieving survivor, a month after signing papers to stop life support, through floor shows featuring furry-tailed rodents dropping acorns and poop a few feet overhead at three o’clock in the morning. One author talks about taking deep breaths and imagining the spirit of the deceased spouse or partner hovering above the bed. Another says to “imagine walking peacefully with your loved one, hand in hand on the beach.”

Trevor lets out a guffaw and adjusts his pillow. “Obviously not writing for a gay audience living in the Deep South,” he says. “On what beach in Georgia or the Carolinas could we ever have done that, now or any other time? Walking, yes. Peacefully, never.”

Trevor thinks of how he used to accelerate and overtake Richiee, when they walked together. They were too fit and good looking in the eyes of heterosexual society ever to be mistaken as straight, even in their early fifties. Richiee said to ignore the assholes. Trevor ignored Richiee. The memory of such a scenario, repeated many a time during their 18-year relationship, leads Trevor into another bout of sobbing, this one causing the squirrels to stop their racket. He shuts off the light and assumes a tight fetal position. A few minutes later, just as he begins to enter an alpha state, the noise returns—instead of dropping food, the rodents engage in a game of scampering and skidding to a stop, the sound of claws on wood like fingernails on a chalkboard. Flipping on the light, Trevor gets out of bed and stomps over to the hall closet. Taking the longest-handled broom he can find, he returns to the bedroom and bangs on the ceiling. Not until he’s shouted every curse word he can think of in English, French, and German does he realize that he has made tiny circular dents in the ceiling.

“This is your fault,” he shouts to his dead partner, whose ashes lie deep in a stainless-steel urn with a repeating pattern of wheat stalks, reminiscent of their life in the Midwest before they made the move six years ago to the Atlanta suburbs. “Animals are scared of ghosts, but you refuse to be a ghost because you don’t believe in them. Well, I need to get some sleep, or I’ll end up losing my job. So get your spirit-ass up into that goddamned attic and do something.”

A moment later the squirrels stop. Trevor holds his breath, and nothing happens. Afraid that the minute he turns out the light, the boisterous rodents will return, he opens one of his grief books. He falls asleep trying to figure out which stage of grief his latest outburst represents—anger or bargaining or denial, maybe all three simultaneously. The squirrel shenanigans start up again at 5:15 a.m., 45 minutes before Trevor’s alarm clock is scheduled to go off.

* * *

A week after the landlord receives Trevor’s detailed message about the squirrel invasion, a tall thin man wearing grease-stained overalls rings the bell, just as the tired widower sits down to force down another dinner.

“Hear you got yourself a problem with squirrels,” says the man.

“Up there,” says Trevor, pointing to the trapdoor to the attic.

The man stands still for a moment, picking on the lone whisker sprouting from a mole just above his Adam’s apple. He reminds Trevor of an aging homophobe he had known at his first job out of college. Folding his arms, Trevor thinks about the accusatory tone of the contractor’s statement. Why did he use an indirect object in a sentence that has no need for such a grammatical construction, unless he wants to appear superior, to portray the listener as a helpless victim, who managed to bring the problem upon him or herself?

Not everyone in the world has degrees in English and journalism, so tone it down: that’s what Richiee would say in response to Trevor’s theory.

The man takes a peek and mutters something about a hole where the roof meets the wall just above the master bedroom. “Comin’ in right there,” he says, drawling out the sentence by giving the last word an extra syllable.

“Yes, they most certainly are. Can you do something about it?”

Before the man can answer, the doorbell rings, and Trevor opens it to a 30-something man with a slight paunch and double chin. He introduces himself as Justin, the landlord’s stepson.

“My stepfather had to go out of town, so I’m filling in for him,” says Justin, holding his hand out for Trevor to shake. “Sorry I couldn’t get here earlier, but I’m getting married next weekend and had to get fitted for a tux.”

“No worries,” says Trevor, motioning for Justin to enter the house. “And congratulations.”

Justin thanks Trevor and offers his condolences for the loss of Richiee. Justin and the contractor make their way into the attic.

* * *

During a break at work, Trevor reads a text from the landlord, saying Justin, not the contractor, will fix the holes in the attic.

“No need to be at home. He can do it from the outside.”

The landlord says his stepson’s fiancée will be in charge of her future husband’s schedule until the wedding date. Trevor thanks him and asks for a time frame for getting the roof fixed. The text goes unanswered.

As a gesture of thanks toward his colleagues, who covered for him the day Richiee was cremated, Trevor offers to stay late at the newsroom to write obituaries, everyone’s least favorite task at the suburban weekly.

“You’re a prince,” says Gus, a seasoned reporter, whose habit of coughing up a cloud of cigarette smoke after a break, makes the managing editor slam the door to her office.

“Make sure to take time to eat,” says Melinda, a new hire just out of J-school. “You look like you’re losing weight.”

Gus offers to order and pay for a small pizza, and Melinda shakes her head no. Gus apologizes, saying he forgot that Richiee had been delivering pizzas when he had the accident.

“I’ll be fine,” says Trevor. “Brought my own sandwich.”

“A sandwich is not enough,” says Melinda. “You’re coming to my house for dinner this Saturday at six, or I’m not leaving. Barbecued steak, baked potato, and fresh green salad with tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden. My boyfriend is an awesome cook.”

Trevor thinks of the garden he and Richiee had planted when they first arrived in Georgia—unsuccessful: too much shade.

“I’ll be there,” he says.

“Am I invited, too?” asks Gus.

“Put your foot in your mouth like you just did,” says Melinda, “and the answer is no.”

The last of Trevor’s colleagues gone, he logs onto the obit file. Highest on the editor’s to-do list is a 500-word tribute to a famous Georgia chicken farmer, whose affiliations with anti-gay special interest groups must, of course, be kept in the closet. He begins the task, which will require extra time and care, since the deceased was a highly respected citizen.

“Nothing to come home to, anyway,” says Trevor, whose coworkers are all paired off, and, to his knowledge, heterosexual.

Nowadays, when he finishes writing stories about traffic jams, home invasions, and gun legislation, he knows the house will be empty. Adorning the front and back doors are alarm system stickers Richiee had bought on E-bay. The house has no burglar alarm, and neither Trevor nor Richiee has ever owned or wanted a gun, despite the now defunct mandatory gun-possession ordinance that drew both attention and ridicule to the community a while back. Sometimes, when Trevor returns from work, he speaks softly to Richiee, and something strange but wonderful happens. The space in the diminutive two-bedroom ranch, swallowed on the outside by oversized Georgia pines and oaks, grows as vast as the tallgrass prairie, the minimalist floor lamps adorning the living room transforming into clumps of bluestem guiding Trevor’s way back into the safe haven of a place where you can see where you’re going and where you came from. Whenever Trevor has such an experience, he thinks Richiee is present. The first time his mind led him to such a conclusion, a week after his partner’s death, a single branch of the avocado plant facing the dining room window waved up and down as Trevor ate a bowl of oatmeal. Not long after that, he found a sticker from a mandarin orange on the back of his shirt—“Cuties,” it said. Whenever he tries to rationalize such incidences as clear evidence that his partner was and continues to be present, he stops short.

The chicken farmer obit still on his mind as he enters the house through the garage, he feels the presence of the five-foot ten-inch, curly-haired man he has loved since they met on a hike through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. “Maybe it’s just memory,” he says, sticking his fingers in the dry dirt of the avocado tree. “And at some point, if I live long enough, even the memories will fade. Won’t they, Richiee?”

Trevor waters the plants, grills a chicken breast, and steams a pot of broccoli, but nothing happens to reassure him that anyone is listening. While looking at his dinner on a plate, he catches the slightly fermented scent of “pepperoni-infused sweaty cotton,” a phrase he used to say in reference to Richiee’s clothes after a full day of deliveries. As he eats, he imagines describing his partner in an obit as “a pesca-vegetarian who delivered pizzas for a living, and, for a hobby, built computers from PC scraps he fetched from dumpsters at strip mall parking lots—the world’s biggest underachiever. He could take apart, fix, and put back together just about anything you handed him, from a lawnmower to a wristwatch. If he had had an ounce of self-confidence, he could have owned and managed multiple businesses.” Despite an offer for a free 250-word obituary, Trevor has opted out of honoring his partner in print.

A few minutes before bed, as the squirrels gear up for another night of antics in the attic, he gets the idea to look on YouTube for a sound recording that repels rodents. He finds several, settles on one, and hooks up his computer to a set of speakers. After enduring a half hour’s worth of electronic squeals, the squirrels go away. Trevor thanks Richiee for the idea and falls asleep once the pain in his ears begins to subside. He repeats the audio ritual the next night, but not without a show featuring the sound of something being dragged across the attic floor. He gets only a half hour more of sleep. The third night, he turns on the recording, closes his bedroom door, and sets up his sleeping bag in the living room. A few minutes later, the squirrels find a new play space in the attic, right above his head.

* * *

The following day, when Trevor gets home from work, he notices cut-up pieces of screen by the side door to the garage—remnants of what must have been used to block out the squirrels. When he enters the house, he knows the animals are gone. Feeling the quiet, he is reminded of the time he and Richiee got lost in the Chattahoochee National Forest and spent a sleepless, foodless night crouched under a rhododendron that had a knack for attracting bugs and letting in the rain. When he awakened, Richiee was gone—a few yards away picking wild blueberries, but nowhere in sight, the vegetation so dense you could barely see a few feet in front of you. The feeling in Trevor’s stomach, although it lasted only a moment nearly five years ago, has returned, giving him the impression that a vacuum cleaner has made its way into his body and is systematically sucking out his guts, his organs, his soul—the absence of feeling worse than needle-shooting pain. He loses track of time as his sobbing from room to room gives him a backache.

“God, I hate the sound of my voice,” he says, his eyes stinging and his throat as raw as a wet January night in North Georgia.

Before he can finish blowing his nose, the doorbell rings.

“Came back to make sure the squirrels are gone,” says Justin, his speech slightly slurred.

Trevor thanks him for a job well done and begins to close the door, but Justin steps inside.

“I’d like to check to make sure, if that’s all right with you.”

Trevor catches a whiff beer on his breath. He says nothing.

“Sorry,” says Justin, touching Trevor’s shoulder as he brushes by, “gotta get something in the truck.”

Justin returns with a toolbox in one hand and an open can of Budweiser in the other. “You don’t mind if I have a little of this,” he says, holding up the can. “By the way, I’m real sorry for what happened to your partner. The whole thing really sucks.”

“Yes, you told me the other day.”

“Well, I wanted to tell you again. It really sucks.”

Trevor swallows hard and walks toward the attic door, which opens from the ceiling and features a pull-down ladder that creaks like the springs on an old-fashioned bed bouncing up and down. Perhaps, Trevor thinks, Justin doesn’t know the details, that Richiee was killed by a drunk driver, a 22-year-old with a .222 blood-alcohol reading, carrying an open bottle of vodka in her SUV.

As Justin rummages around the attic, Trevor washes dishes. Scrubbing the pan that held the fish, he remembers Richiee’s solution to encrusted cookware: to “let it soak.” Trevor has always disliked such a response, which, in his eyes, personifies laziness, a particular brand that requires great determination to put off anything that requires a little extra work. “If you put as much effort into scrubbing the pan,” Trevor used to say, “as you do in explaining why you shouldn’t, the dishes would all be clean in less time than it takes for you to rationalize not doing the work.”  Trevor thinks of Richiee’s well-honed ability to tune out much of what he didn’t want to hear. He also thinks of his own pettiness.

“You really keep in good shape,” says Justin, causing Trevor to drop the hot, soapy sponge on the floor.

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough.”

Trevor remembers he is wearing a tank top and shorts.

Justin moves closer. “You know I once spent a week in San Francisco,” he says. “Loved every minute, if you know what I mean.”

Trevor turns the faucet on hot and tosses the sponge in the sink, causing water to splatter and Justin to step back.

“You’re about to get married.”

“To a woman. Yeah, I know.”

Justin’s phone bleeps a text. As he furiously types out a response, tiny bubbles of saliva form around his mouth.

“Buddy of mine,” he says, grabbing his crotch. “Wants to hook up over at Redtop Mountain. Join us?”

“Definitely not. I think it’s time for you to get going.”

“Suit yourself. Just trying to be friendly.”

Leaving his empty beer can on the kitchen table, Justin walks out the door. Trevor locks it behind him and watches through the Venetian blinds as Justin nearly backs into a car speeding up the street. Instead of calling the police, Trevor finds the number for Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers. As expected, no one is available to take his call; it’s too late in the day. He goes on the organization’s website and finds out that “about a third of all drivers arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders.” He doesn’t know if Richiee’s killer has a record. He knows better than to hate her; Richiee wouldn’t want that. He picks up Justin’s empty beer can and examines the label. The word America, and not Budweiser, is surrounded by a red, white, blue, and gold background. Below America, written in a bold semi-cursive font is the phrase E Pluribus Unum. Above the seal, intricately adorned with triangular, diamond, and oval accoutrements, is the first sentence of the Star Spangled Banner. Trevor locates an online article on the label titled “Budweiser gears up for 2016 summer Olympics.”

He rinses the can in the sink—a Richiee ritual for all recyclable containers, so as to show respect for the people whose job is to sort through trash. When the smell of fermented sugar mixed with barley and hops enters Trevor’s nose, he wonders what was going through the 22-year-old’s mind, when she decided to get in a vehicle with a bottle of vodka. All he can think is she didn’t think. As he dries the dishes, he looks out the kitchen window and sees one squirrel chasing another up and down the variegated trunk of one of the towering backyard oaks, planted too close to the house. He opens the window, but the squirrels ignore him. One on the other’s tail, they skitter across a high branch uttering squeals of ecstasy as they switch roles, the chaser now getting chased. He wonders if the two are a couple. He thinks of Melinda and her boyfriend barbecuing steaks, inviting friends over to their house for a summer meal. At midnight, as Trevor tries to fall asleep, he hears a faint scratching sound, not in the attic, but somewhere on the roof. Finding his way into the kitchen, he rummages through the freezer and finds a salmon steak hidden in the back.

“Must have been Richiee’s,” he says, flipping it into a pan. Not until the food is ready does he realize he forgot to use cooking spray. The fish sticks to the pan.

“Let it soak,” he says, squeezing dishwashing liquid into the sink and letting the faucet run.

#

Featured as one of “the greatest up-and-coming fiction writers today” on Amazon, Dr. Kendall Klym is a graduate of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, with a Ph.D. in English. He has won numerous awards for his short stories, which have been published in literary journals such as Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, and the Tampa Review. A 2017 writer in residence at Wolff Cottage in Fairhope, Alabama, Klym is a Lecturer of English at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta.