THE SQUIRREL WARS
Nora moves into the city, leaving behind the white split level in the suburbs where she lived for thirty-five years. She never asks herself if sixty-four is too old for a new beginning in the wild lands of Philadelphia. She’s chosen a neighborhood a bit too east, her son worries, what with drug dealers still using open alleyways as business offices and a plaque on the sidewalk dedicated to a fallen officer. But Nora offered the asking price and planned her escape from her history. From those failed marriages. From those ridiculous boyfriends that followed. From that isolation in her lifeless house that utterly confined.
And what about the practical reasons, she’ll argue. “Imagine I’m dead,” she tells a friend.
“Why would I do that?” The friend breathes heavily.
“Imagine I’m lying on the floor and no one finds me—not for weeks or even years.”
“Your son,” the friend insists, now engaged in Nora’s game, “he’d look for you.”
“He’s just moved to California and calls once a week. It would take him months to figure something is wrong.”
“We talk every day,” the friend says. “I’d know.”
“You’d think I was getting my hair cut or buying groceries. By the time you came looking,” Nora insists, “I’d be only a speck of dust in the corner of my living room.”
The friend laughs. “You always exaggerate.”
“Not this time,” Nora answers.
Three stories high with two full staircases between the floors, the new house might be too big for a woman alone but she doesn’t care. She reviews her reasons: stairs will exercise her bouncing thighs and fallen derriere. Windows offer three exposures; surely the sun will follow her everywhere. A roof deck presents a view of the city and the tops of neighborhood trees. Squirrels bound through those trees and across her deck with familiar ease. There’s enough bird song so she won’t miss the suburbs, and only an occasional bus passes by, dissipating diesel.
And human sounds. In the first days, she hears joyous teens run by after a night out, and occasionally, when her window is open, people quarreling at three in the morning. Once a lovemaking couple cried out so loudly in the middle of the Sunday afternoon that a number of neighbors opened their doors to listen longingly. This is her home, she tells herself, like the new mattress she’s bought. No one else’s DNA allowed.
It was once a carriage house with a huge, domed window in front where horses entered. That first day she positions her desk right in front and removes the grill that stretched across. The window gives her an easy view of the couple across the street. Impassioned stoop-sitters for twenty-five years, she learns, they had claimed their territory even before urban renewal and gentrification and disappointed women wanting a new start would arrive. Like the proprietors of the block, they perch each night, drinking a Coke or a beer, calling hello to everyone who passes.
They spot Nora in her upstairs window. She has opened it to let the fumes of the newly painted, ballet-pink walls escape into the city. She is eating a salad filled with only good things: quinoa, avocados, a bit of wild-caught salmon.
“Come on out,” they call to her.
“Just started eating,” she replies.
“Bring your dinner,” the man says. “We’re Joe and Susan,” he adds.
“We watched you move in,” Susan says. “Wondered how a single woman could fill up two trucks. Aren’t you downsizing?”
“The house is just right.”
“Too big for someone alone,” Susan has decided. “But we hope you’ll be happy. We’ve got writers and artists, and a lawyer who has handled all the changes around here. Everyone contributes something.”
“Have a drink with us some night,” her husband yells up before cars pass between them. They both wave.
Friends, she congratulates herself that night in bed. One week in the house and an invitation. She wants to celebrate in the name of new beginnings.
A Friday night and Nora sits at the neighbor’s table. There are linen napkins and fresh flowers and a kind of chicken mixture that is both soup and stew.
“You should go online to meet someone,” Joe starts, just after his Susan examined Nora’s marital history in detail. “But it’s hard, you know, almost impossible after fifty. And you’re sixty-something, right?”
“Why would you want to marry again?” Susan asks.
“Just take a lover,” Joe advises.
“Better than dealing with another husband. And if you’re alone forever—so what? It’s easier when you’re older,” Susan says. “Not so much estrogen to deal with.”
“Susan still takes a replacement, even though she’s even older than you,” Joe confides. “She never worries about risks and reports.”
“That’s me,” Susan laughs. “A big risk-taker.”
Nora decides to confide. “It’s a relief to be alone.”
“And no one tells you what to do,” Susan adds.
“I wouldn’t like it,” Joe says.
They’re quiet for a moment if Nora doesn’t count the slurping soup, the smacking on chicken bones, and the sighs of absolute pleasure. As if they were having sex or a great massage.
“But it’s wonderful to have you here,” Joe adds, just as the front door opens. The neighborhood artist has arrived. Hair dyed mousy brown like an afterthought, clothing all beige, eyes catching every corner of the room. “Sorry I’m late,” she says.
“We didn’t know . . . ” Joe starts before Susan nudges him on her way for another bowl.
“Louise is the most famous person on our block,” she says. “Her paintings hang in New York galleries.”
Nora can see lapis blue along Louise’s knuckles, carnelian under her nails. Her elbows are ochre yellow as she rests them on the table. Nora has spent hours reading about Louise, whose canvases explode with color. With her famous hands, Louise grabs a chicken leg that pokes out of the bowl and carefully bites.
“Been hot today,” Joe starts. “You shouldn’t work on a day like this. You need the AC nonstop.”
“I prefer the fresh air,” Louise says. She hooks a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Maybe you should take a day off sometime,” he insists.
“Good soup,” she answers.
“Need the AC to eat it,” Joe says, unwilling to give up the fight. The couple is unusually quiet as if the presence of a verified artist has terrified them.
Louise turns to Nora. “Your flowerpot says a lot about you,” she says. “You have an eye for color.”
“Only neighborhood plants,” Nora says, almost proud of herself. She’s given up an acre of land for a single flower pot, only for a moment regretting the feeling of earth between her fingers. The richness of decaying matter, the sight of a worm spiraling into the darkness, the scent of wet debris. She’s chosen sidewalks and streetlamps. But that pot on that one step pushed her to the neighborhood hardware store, where plants on metal shelves lined the old boulevard. She used a soup spoon to dig, her garden tools long ago given away. The fresh dirt lingered behind her nails for a day—almost as an accusation.
“But,” the artist starts.
Everyone turns to Louise. Surely something profound rests behind the word, some pronouncement about plant life and color balance. Some lesson Nora should ingest along with the chicken soup.
”But what?” Nora finds the courage to ask.
“Better for another time,” Louise answers, a breadstick bouncing between her fingers like a paintbrush.
But—that word changes the neighborhood’s temperature. Suddenly, in place of the noise of suburban lawnmowers, are the voices. Joe announces that he’s watched Nora leave the house at eight in the morning to take a walk. It’s a good idea, he adds, because she carries her weight in her middle.
Susan tells her to stay away from that Friday night date. “He’s weird,” she adds, her face grimacing. “I saw you holding hands. Not a good candidate for anything.”
“Perhaps I’m not looking,” Nora tries.
Then Joe appears at her door after his afternoon on his stoop. “Gotta mention something, Nora. Know I can say it because we’re friends. You should do something about that wall of yours.”
Nora pulls in air. “Nice solid wall,” she deflects. “Doing a fine job of holding up the house.”
“It’s those wires,” Joe insists. “Makes me think of ugly spaghetti. You should plant ivy.”
“Ivy eats the brick.”
“Not for years,” he says, “and by then, who knows, maybe I’ll move away. Or die.”
She finds the courage. “I want to be a good neighbor but I’m not planting ivy.”
He seems discouraged for a moment. Then he adds, “And Louise says you should take care of this.” He points to her flowerpot. “Every day there’s dirt all around. Louise says she’s been cleaning it up for weeks. I told her I’d talk to you about the situation.”
Nora looks down to review the traces of dirt on her front step. Broom marks prove Louise has been at work. But small balls of dirt that she missed hover in the back corner. “Just squirrels,” Nora says. “They like to bury nuts. Right next to the tree, see?” She points to the padded nest in the branch just above her front door.
“We won’t let anything take down the neighborhood.” He’s smiling but she marks the determination playing along his face. “And think about that wall.”
Squirrels, she tells herself at night. Back in the suburbs, she had grown to know the families around her—the female that rebuilt her nest each year. Her mate with the half-bitten-off ear. She felt like them sometimes, working hard, trying to survive, putting away food or money, raising her son. Following the same patterns year after year until she’d found her bravery and moved away. At her old home, she’d put out enough feeders so squirrels and birds could share. All part of nature, she’d tell herself, surveying the piles of cracked shells that littered the snow all winter.
The next morning she’s at her desk when Louise moves toward the pot, dustpan, and brush in hand. Nine a.m. and artistic sensibilities have been insulted. Susan doesn’t even try to hide. She stands in front of the window with her hands on her hips, staring into Nora’s office. Nora closes her blinds.
Now the mailman is involved.
“I heard about the fight,” he tells her over a handful of catalogs. “About the spaghetti wall and the dirt.”
“I don’t get it,” Nora mumbles, looking at the quiet house across the street. The blinds are drawn against the morning sun. The front door solidly shut. Joe and Susan silent for the moment. “I lived in the suburbs for decades, and no one ever bothered about stuff like this.”
She remembers if a yard collected rusting cars and trash, there might be a neighborhood movement against the homeowner. A few calls to the township. A note in the mailbox. Perhaps well-mannered picketing in front. But over tiny balls of dirt sitting on her step?
She needs to confide in someone. “I’m not destroying the neighborhood,” she tells the mailman.
“That’s what I said to the deli owners. She’s not bringing down property values. Not turning the house into a slum. Mind you, the deli owners have been hearing about this for weeks. Your next-door neighbor buys morning coffee there each day.”
“Before she goes to work on my step, I guess.”
“She’s all over the place. Takes her dog for a walk and picks up trash along with his poop. Just very conscientious, I guess.”
“But it’s not her business.”
“That’s just what the deli owners said. As long as you’re abiding by the block’s rules, that is.”
“There are rules for living here?”
“So I’ve heard,” the mailman answers. “I just don’t know what they are.”
“Were the squirrels informed?” she asks.
Nora stands by the corner of her house. It’s only seventeen feet wide, her responsibility marked by the sidewalk. Above her the enemy squirrels do what they’re supposed to do: scamper and call, chase, and eat. Once they were seen as a food source or even as tiny wild friends. Once they were the inspiration for schoolhouse lessons on the need to plan for the future. Once stories of squirrels animated children’s books and cartoons, then populated children’s songs. But on this block, they’ve become the challengers of order.
Nora reads all she can. Because of the surplus of acorns last fall, there is an explosion of babies. And in the countryside squirrels are tormenting the local farmers. Not just taking bites from fallen apples lying on the ground but actually visiting the almost-ripe fruit still hanging on trees. A nibble here or there is enough to ruin the entire crop, a farmer complains. Another says he’s seen the little devils actually climb up corn stalks and pluck ears of corn—their tails swishing everywhere when they run off with the loot. They’re raising hell, a man insists; the newspaper has captured the venom in his eyes.
Stolen crops and nibbled apples. This Nora can understand. There’s retirement savings and children’s new shoes and college tuition to consider. It’s not that she wants to champion all squirrels—just the ones who live in the tree in front of her city house. Or maybe, she can admit, the same squirrels that are gnawing into her neighbors’ peace.
Every morning Nora catches Louise staring at her house with determined hatred. At night Nora places a collection of nuts around the tree, covering them lightly with dirt. Walnuts, cashews, all crackable treats. To feed the birds, she hangs a feeder from a branch at squirrel level. Now empty shells land in piles on the ground.
Joe visits the next day. “This has to stop, Nora,” he starts.
She waits silently.
“We were so excited when you moved in. Thought you’d be a great addition to the block. But you and your squirrels…”
“You can’t go against nature,” she answers.
“We’ve got more squirrels here than I’ve ever seen. Like an army moved in. Louise thinks you’re calling them.”
“So I’m the Pied Piper of squirrels.”
“Well, you gotta admit…” He tries again. “And they’re dangerous. They bite humans.”
But she’s prepared. “In New York City last year, there were ninety-six people bitten by squirrels.”
“See,” Joe cries.
“But the same year almost two thousand humans were bitten by other humans.” She watches him take in the fact. “Maybe you should write that down,” she suggests, “and tell Louise not to worry.”
Joe is looking at his feet. “We just wanted to be friends,” Joe says, dismissing her and retreating to his stoop. He perches, shaking his head either at the spaghetti wires or at the squirrel nest under construction in the tree in front of his house.
She’s just fine now. She’s joined a book club, taken up tango, walks every morning next to the river. She drinks wine with new friends at the neighborhood bar, and no one bothers her about the dangerous and increasing squirrel population.
But the mailman looks at her with sympathy when he knocks on her door. To avoid the neighbors, she leaves her front blinds closed, letting in only the shadows of people passing. She moves her desk upstairs to the other side of the house, where she faces trees and gets the morning sun. She uses the garage to enter and exit.
All fall she watches the squirrels chase each other up and down the verticals of the street. The weather cools and the stoop is empty. In winter she welcomes the ice that takes over the neighbor’s spot. In the middle of February, she cleans her garage and scatters the remaining birdseed along the back alley, just to take care of anything that needs food. Birds, squirrels, mice, she doesn’t care.
One spring afternoon she turns the corner to see the neighbors again on their stoop. Louise is there too, coddling her dog with fancy treats. Suddenly Louise jumps up and screams. She waves her fist at Joe’s tree, where squirrels play. Her entire shirt is covered by a wet stain that engulfs the neatly ironed cotton, claiming personal territory.
“Damn it,” she hears Louise call. “One of them peed on me.”
They turn together to stare at her house.
She looks up. Across the wires, Tarzan-leaping from one tree to another, the squirrels run freely. And without concerns for uninformed neighbors or block rules or urban territory. Nora, squirrel-witch, destroys her neighbors’ peace one more time when she laughs out loud.