It’s true that I was on my third beer when I saw the blue squirrel. But I maintain that I hadn’t yet reached the point of hallucinations.
I was on my back porch, and the sun was contemplating whether to set. I was thinking about mowing the grass, but the beer had only just started to dull the dose of vitriol I’d mainlined from my boss. I decided I should be fully functional before using any power tools.
Anyhow, I’d just formulated another brilliant comeback to last week’s argument with my soon-to-be ex, when this bright blue rodent comes skittering down one of the trees that mark the end of my yard. It looked like a piece of cotton candy, and I wondered what kind of evolutionary designer would think this was a good idea. But when it hit the ground, I saw that the coloring was ragged at the edges, and its fur was matted. Some son of a bitch had spray painted the damn thing.
I decided this was worth another brew, and I went inside to stock up. When I got back, the squirrel had disappeared, so I sat myself down to meditate on colors in nature. The rumble of the commuter rail train, fifty yards past my yard, interrupted my attempts to reach nirvana. Then again, maybe it helped. As I finished the beer, I realized I had a pretty good idea where the little bastard had come from.
Four houses down and across the street, hunched over like a troll shitting in the woods, was the wreck of the house Frank Dixon used to live in. Once it had been the pride of the neighborhood: two stories, gables poking out from the roof line, and wrap-around porches on both floor. Its last paint job was yellow, but that was more than fifty years ago.
Now, the rest of the area is getting gentrified. We’re seeing a surge in value and every house sports some kind of fancy deck or stone wall or solar panels. But Frank’s roof bows appreciably in the middle, most of the gable windows are glazed with cardboard, and from the right angle, you can look right up through that second floor porch. An unruly wall of hedges hides the yard and most of the ground floor like the spiked walls around a fort. The whole thing looks like it’s been knocked on its ass by one punch too many.
When we moved into the neighborhood, going on twenty years ago, Frank had been ailing, and he’d let the place go a bit. Nothing serious, just an overgrown lawn, and the porch in need of paint. The kids called it haunted, but once in a while, when it got too bad, a neighbor would go over and run the mower around. It wasn’t like those Fascist neighborhood groups you hear about, who measure each blade with a ruler. Just friendly helping out, and Frank would wave from his living room window. We lived in an area where people watched out for each other.
Then one day, his daughter and her husband moved in. There was a brief spell when the place started to get spiffed up, with the son-in-law taking care of the building while the daughter shepherded the old man on into the next life. At night, the both of them would get crocked, and they’d fight until long after midnight. I don’t know how Frank was supposed to get better with all that racket, but maybe they juiced him up on sedatives before they started their own self-medication.
I was watching from the porch the night they finally took old Frank out. I told my wife when she got back from the gym that the ambulance didn’t hurry away. She shrugged and said it wasn’t like anyone would notice. I thought that was a bit callous, but damned if she wasn’t right. I never did know when or even if they’d held a funeral, because the drinking and fighting went on unabated every night thereafter. On nice days, the son-in-law made some fitful attempts at keeping up the place, but the two of them seemed to be more interested in their nocturnal fisticuffs. I admit I was one of the neighbors who called when the screeches got too loud, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. I mean, we had an image to keep up, and the daughter and son-in-law were the chip in the china. And at any moment, we thought it might all come crashing down.
Just to keep things interesting, a swarm of other winos started floating in and out. On Halloween, the ghouls had a party that scared more than the local kids. The cops came twice that night, but all they could do was tell them to keep it down.
Eventually, the ambulance came for Frank’s daughter. In just a couple of years, she’d become a bloated mad dog if I ever saw one. By that time, my wife spent only sporadic nights with me, so I had to shrug for her. I also had the new job of making excuses for her to the neighbors, which is probably why I got the job of speaking for the neighbors: it proved that mine wasn’t the second-most pathetic house on the block.
After that, the son-in-law didn’t bother at all with pretense. He brought in a few drinking buddies, just so there’d be some noise around the joint. Kids knew to cross the street to avoid the drunken cackles of a rotating cast of monstrously fat men who sat on the porch and filled the yard with crushed cans of cheap beer. One time, I had to go over there myself when one of the neighborhood girls said she’d seen one of them taking a wizz right off the front steps. None of them fessed up, of course, but I told them in no uncertain terms they’d better learn to use a toilet like the rest of the civilized world. The next morning, I woke to find my own porch puddled in piss. I knew better than to complain, though. That would only embolden the assholes.
No one knows exactly when it happened, but at some point, the son-in-law, who, presumably, had inherited Frank’s old mansion, gave up the ghost. No one saw him carted away, but after a while, the general consensus in the neighborhood was that he was no longer a presence among the trolls drinking and pissing off the porch.
That’s about when the house seemed to give up on itself. Glass spontaneously broke in the window frames, shingles slid off the roof in a gust. During one winter storm, the second floor porch collapsed. No one laid a finger on the debris that stuck out of the shrinking pile of dirty snow, or during that first summer.
Who knows who ever paid the bills, and eventually, Franks’s house stayed dark round the clock, even as the drinking and yelling continued. But the drinking crew stayed on, scrounging up a grill to cook up all their meals. The smell of charred mystery meat hung over the house like fallout. When winter came, someone lugged in a wood stove and vented it through a window patched with plywood. That’s when the floorboards of the ruined porch were finally cleaned up, and the trolls made occasional forays into the woods. I don’t think everything they dragged out of there was already dead, seeing as a lot of those trunks bore the signs of strokes from a dull axe. At least that told me some of the squatters, for that’s what they surely were, had some industry.
It was around that time that my wife finally took off with some gym lughead. He’d left a wife of his own, plus a kid still in diapers. I think he suddenly realized that his childhood was over, and he couldn’t take the pressure. Last I heard, they were heading for fucking LA. Like that ever solved anyone’s problems.
But that doesn’t say anything about the blue squirrel, now, does it?
The sun had gone down by the time I finished drinking the reinforcements, and I realized that mowing my own lawn would have to wait another day. The next day, I was back to contemplating whether the weather was good enough to work in, and that’s when I saw a bright orange rabbit lurching through the tall grass at the base of the trees. Even without the bright paint all over it, the thing was doomed: it was dragging one of its hind paws, so each time it hopped, it crashed to one side. This time, I didn’t hesitate. Something was wrong in the neighborhood, and it was my job to investigate.
Most of the latest crew was arrayed on the front porch. Two of them were scrawny fuckers, both wearing ratty wife-beater shirts, sitting on old beach chairs. Neither one had a full set of teeth in his mouth. The only way to tell them apart was that one had greasy blond hair trailing to his shoulders, while the other one had a dark crew cut. From the sidewalk, I had much too clear a view up his shorts. Judging by the wrecks of their faces, each was probably only about twenty-five. They’d be lucky to see thirty.
The third was a brute of a porker, all wattles and tats on his flabby arms. He’d been here the longest, and as such was the spokesman of the group. In another time, he might have been a biker, with his hillbilly beard and ink right up to the last knuckle on each finger. I happened to know he didn’t go anywhere these days. He sent the two flunkies on scavenged bicycles to get beer and firewood. It must have been their version of paying rent. God knows where the money for the supplies came from.
He grinned. “What’s the matter, neighbor?” he said. “Someone piss on your porch again?”
The two skinny ones sniggered and bumped fists.
“I think we have a rodent problem in the neighborhood,” I said. Something kept me from crossing from the sidewalk into the yard, so I had to raise my voice a bit.
“Don’t blame no rats on us,” he said.
“Tell him, Bobby,” said the blond one.
Already this was spinning beyond my control. I wondered if I should even mention that I’d seen a pair of Technicolor beasts hopping through my yard. Hell, maybe I had been drinking too much, now that I thought about it.
But there’s one piece of advice my mother gave, and that was to always see things through. I’d seen it through with my wife and her vein-popping lover, and I’d see it through with my supervisor, next time he asked me some dipshit question about how to run a report.
So I said, “I wasn’t talking about rats. I’m seeing rabbits and squirrels, funny-colored ones.”
“Sounds like you been hittin’ the sauce too hard,” Fat Bobby said. “Next it’ll be pink elephants.” Beavis and Butthead giggled into their hands.
“Anyhow,” I forged on. “I saw a couple of spray-painted critters. I thought you guys might know something about it.”
Bobby stopped smiling and leaned forward on his stool. His belly hung between his legs like a stone pendulum. “Now, why would you think it was us?”
“Because it was!” blurted the dark haired one. He pointed to a spot just inside the yard, behind the hedges. There were two wire traps, both empty at the moment. “There’s a couple more round back,” he giggled.
Just then a voice inside the doorway slurred, “What’s all the fuss about?” It had a slow, drugged cadence. I looked up to see a new addition to the cast, a slit-eyed woman with dirty hair and scabs on her hands and under her chin. She wore a hoodie unzipped enough to confirm that’s all she had on above. A pair of gym shorts hovered precariously over legs so skinny I wondered how they kept her upright. She leaned her head against the doorframe, closing her eyes against the light.
“Leave it, sunshine,” Bobby snapped. “No one asked you to come out here.” She rolled herself back into the gloom like a wraith.
“Anyhow,” I said. “Stop painting the wildlife, before someone calls the cops on you.”
“And would that someone be you?” Bobby’s voice harbored more hatred than I’d ever encountered. I realized that seeing it through wasn’t so necessary, but before I could make a tactical retreat, Bobby was up on his feet, crashing past the two sycophants. He moved with the inexorable force of a charging rhino, and though there was nothing but malice in his eyes, something inside me really did want to see it through. In a fog, I let him lumber up to me and trap my elbow in a mighty grip. “Come on, Alice,” he said. “Let’s find you a rabbit to follow.”
Just like that, the neighborhood disappeared behind the hedges, and Bobby propelled me through the tall grass and rusted junk to the backyard. We crashed past the carcass of an old stove, paper sacks overflowing with empties, four or five folding chairs leaning precariously on wounded legs. And sure enough, just like that jackass on the porch said, there was a row of traps like the ones out front. The only difference was that a can of spray paint stood guard next to each one. I saw the blue from the first sighting, as well as the fluorescent orange. There were two panicked squirrels spinning around inside the trap with the can of green paint in front of it.
Somehow I found my voice and said, “You’re a sick fucker.”
“Call it an experiment,” Bobby said.
I gaped at him. “That’s twisted. What do you do with them?”
“Told you, it’s an experiment. Catch and release. We got colors for every day of the week. We drop ’em off, oh, various places. Then see if they ever come back. Only the green ones never do.”
Suddenly curious, I asked, “Where do you bring them?”
“Out by the pond. I think the turtles eat them. That, or the paint washes off and we can’t tell.” He seemed genuinely perplexed.
“You don’t actually eat them, right?”
“Oh, we grill what comes back,” Bobby said, letting go of my arm. I could see the indentations of his fingers around my elbow. “Paint don’t go to the meat, y’know.” He laughed, a kind of drunken snort, and I thought his henchmen would come running, but we were alone.
“That’s what this is all about, living off the grid?”
“You think we’re just a bunch of boozers. Well, no harm ever came of a few brews. You should join us, ’stead of sitting there on your own porch. Least we’re sociable.”
I wanted to take offense, but I maybe I was a bit of a loner. What harm could come of having a couple with the neighbors? It’s not like my wife would leave me again.
“Who owns this house?” The rest of the watch would want to know I asked. “You?”
Bobby shrugged. “No one comes asking, so what do you care?”
“What you should be asking,” Bobby said, “is what anybody contributes to the general welfare. Look at us. I do the food. Jim does beer runs, and Dunc collects firewood. We pool whatever money we get.”
“So you’re like a hippie commune?”
He raised two fingers. “Peace, love, and understanding, man.” He let one finger drop and waved the middle one at me.
It was all too obvious what Sunshine contributed to the household economy. “I suppose that woman provides the free love?”
Bobby’s face darkened. “Don’t be nasty, pal. We ain’t saints here, but we’re not savages neither. What we got works. Now look at the rest of the neighborhood. Y’all are in your own little worlds, barricading yourselves behind stone walls and solar-powered security lights. Do you even talk to each other? Or is it just an arms race, so every time one house paves the driveway, somebody’s gotta build a new porch?”
I made my excuses to go, but Bobby fixed me with a stare. “You came over here to say something,” he said quietly. There was no hint of that mountain man accent, just smoldering menace. “I’d like to see if you have the balls to say it.”
At some point, Dunc and Jim had sidled up behind me. I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the setting sun. What had I come to say? Stop painting vermin? Clean up the yard and fit in with the rest of us? Or did I come to join their merry band and leave my rotten shell of respectability behind?
“Well?” Bobby said. “Let’s hear your great proclamation.”
My mouth popped open and closed like a trout’s.
“Say somethin’.” Dunc pushed me from behind. My arms flew out to steady myself.
“Don’t be starting what you can’t finish,” Jim said, swatting my hand away from him.
I spun to face the two mongrels, but they hopped back, just out of reach. Bobby folded his arms and watched our little drama. Hemmed in by their stinking bodies, I gagged on a cloud of sweat and booze and mold. When I lurched toward one, the other flew in behind. The caged squirrels were flying around the wire traps, gibbering furiously. Jim and Dunc were laughing as they hectored me. I imagined I could get killed here, and no one would ever know. Then one of them rabbit-punched me. My ankle rolled, and I went down hard. The trap crashed on its side, right next to my face, and one of the squirrels sliced my forehead.
“Maybe you should just mind your own business,” Bobby said. He still hadn’t moved, but the other two hovered over me, fists cocked, ready to finish me off. I was breathing hard, and every time I took in oxygen, I felt a sharp pain in my side. Was I already so old that I’d be breaking ribs in a fall? Maybe I should be going to the gym myself. Maybe if I’d gone to the gym, my wife wouldn’t have left me.
Fuck that, I was better off without her. And maybe it was time to say something to my imbecile of a boss. This is what was was spinning through my head while I lay in the weeds with a trio of urban hillbillies ready to kick the shit out of me. I needed to see this through. With a grunt, I moved into a sitting position. There was definitely something wrong with one of my ribs. I had to take shallow breaths, and I was sweating and shivering at the same time. With another effort, I had my legs beneath me, and I thought I might be able to get up from kneeling, but Jim’s heel flew out at my shoulder, and I was on my back again.
The squirrels shrieked and rolled the cage so the solid bottom was facing up.
“I don’t want to see you or any other of your fucking pristine neighbors coming around here again,” Bobby was saying. His voice seemed to come through a thousand miles of ocean. I put my left hand down to push up, and it landed on the edge of the cage, giving me an extra bit of leverage. As I rolled on my front, my other hand found the can of paint. I took a sharp breath, telling myself this would be worth it.
I came up swinging the cage, unlocking the door as I did. The angry rodents streaked out of the opening. One of them impaled its claws on Dunc’s shoulder and bit his ear. The other took off into the weeds. I clocked Jim with the cage, and he dropped to the ground. Bobby was in motion, his arms swinging like pistons. But I had the green paint held upright, and I let off a cloud in his face. He swallowed some, and the rest went in his eyes. His beefy hands flew up too late to protect his vision, and his bellow turned my legs to water.
I didn’t stick around to see what happened next. I dropped the trap and the paint can and scrambled out of the yard as quickly as my broken rib would let me. When I emerged from the yard into the street, it was as if nothing had happened. No one was looking curiously out their windows. No one had stood up on the deck or peeked over a fence. Not even the junkie woman let herself be seen.
I could still hear Bobby and the others swearing and threatening me, so I didn’t waste anytime hobbling back to my house. I called 911, barely able to breathe, let alone ask for an ambulance. The shivering got worse, and huge black spots floated in front of my eyes. I sat down on the curb in front of my house. The spots reminded me of the green mist, the last thing Bobby had seen before he dropped to his knees. The green squirrels never came back, he said.
I was still laughing when the EMTs strapped me on to the gurney.