Now that Adam had him, he didn’t know what to do with him. They were down on the plywood floor of the little shack, maybe four feet apart, just out of each other’s reach. His friend Roger, if there was any chance Adam could still call him that, ever could have, was sitting with his back up against the waterblistered sheetrock. The way his face was pinched into what he must have thought was a ferocious dare, he looked like one of the squirrels Adam used to trap.

“You bastard,” Roger said.

Adam thought that’s what the squirrels would have said had they been able to speak, had they known words like that, words Adam still couldn’t say in front of his mother. The flowers Roger had brought were scattered over the floor. The bottle of beer had rolled into a corner. Adam pointed at it.

“You want some of that? I could pop the cap on a nailhead.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Roger rattled the chain that tethered his ankle to the bolt in the floor. “Unlock this goddamned handcuff.”

“I thought you said you liked beer. Isn’t that what you told us, that you drank it all summer at the Cape, out on the beach with those girls?”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Trapping you, Adam wanted to say, but he thought that much was obvious. The right question was What are you planning to do with me? and he didn’t know the answer to that one anymore than he had known with that first squirrel. He’d thought he might catch one, but not really believed it, and he hadn’t made a plan. This was just like that. The trap had worked, though, hadn’t it? He wished he could show his father. His dad would be proud of him, even though he wouldn’t be able to admit it, even though he’d have to act all horrified and tell him to let that boy go at once. After all, the squirrel trap had been his dad’s design, a magnificently simple box with a sliding door and a trip wire. The bait had been Adam’s special contribution. In the end it all came down to bait. For squirrels it was peanut butter. For Roger Ellory, it was Missy Whitcomb.

Ah, Missy Whticomb. She’d taken Adam up in the hayloft of Newcomb’s barn and they had kissed and groped and, when she was ready, which was pretty quickly, he had broken open the dark-blue plastic capsules of sheepskin rubbers--two of them, just to be safe--and pulled them both on. She kept saying nobody had ever gotten that far with her. Adam doubted that, but he didn’t get that far either. He thought he was doing it right, but he couldn’t get it in. He couldn’t remember what happened after that humiliation. Somehow he’d gotten her and himself home, and when he’d seen her again, neither of them spoke of it; they drank a couple of the beers she’d brought from home and Adam took one with him and put it behind the rock near the shack in the woods.

The shack looked like it might have been a kid’s playhouse some long time ago, or perhaps part of a lost Incan civilization. Adam hadn’t told anyone about it, not even his father. He patched up the walls with scraps of sheetrock from one of the new houses under construction on the backside of the hill, and in the spring vines with tiny blue flowers grew up between the walls and the floor and the little room smelled like moldering leaves. That summer, when he was alone so often, he’d listened to the rain drubbing on the roof and to the hissing of the steam rising off the black tarpaper as the inside of the shack heated up to a sultry warmth that made him want to take off all his clothes.

Roger had heard about Missy Whitcomb--most of the boys had--but he didn’t know her. She wasn’t a girl he would know; she was nothing like the girls he bragged about sleeping with when he went off to Cape Cod every summer with his family, girls with fancy summer homes and mothers with long strands of pearls who looked like they might be up for a tumble too. Adam told Roger that Missy had seen him a few times at the barbeque hangout and had the hots for him. Adam pretended to find this disappointing--another girl more interested in Roger--which he knew Roger would believe was the natural order of things. Adam said Missy was into gladiator fantasy, that Roger should wear a leather vest over his bare chest. Roger said he wasn’t going to dress up like a goddamned faggot, so Adam suggested he bring her flowers and a beer instead. He said Missy liked beer. He said he would tell her Roger was taking her to a toga party. Maybe she would wrap up in a sheet. Maybe she wouldn’t wear anything underneath.

It took him three days to get the trap ready. He bought the bolt and the length of chain at the hardware store. At first he planned to just wrap the chain around Roger’s leg and secure it with a padlock, but when he thought about it, when he tried to imagine actually doing it, all he could see was him struggling to get the chain tight and the lock in place while Roger thrashed about, and he realized there was a good chance he would end up sprawled out on the floor with Roger on top of him.

He found the handcuffs at the army surplus store, the same place he got the heavy fisherman’s net. When he got to where he could snap on the cuffs in one smooth motion, he hung the net above the door between dry sticks stuck into holes gouged in the sheetrock. He tied a light rope around the sticks and ran it though an eyebolt and secured it to the door, so that when the door was opened it pulled the rope, which broke the sticks and released the net.  It worked on the same simple trip-wire principle as his squirrel traps. The beauty of a trap with bait just sitting out waiting to be taken was that nothing ever got caught that shouldn’t know better.

“Listen, why don’t I go get you a sandwich or something,” Adam said. “You like peanut butter and jelly?”

“Are you crazy?”

“You’ve seen my squirrel cage, the one I made out of the old doghouse. You’ve seen the bowls I put in there with nuts and water.”

“You think I’m a goddamned squirrel?”

There were similarities. Squirrels had amazingly soft coats and sunlit bushy tails and could fly through trees. Adam had tried that once, flying trough a tree. He’d done pretty well for a branch or two before losing his grip and waking up flat on his back on the ground, looking up at the dying light.

“Come on, Rog. I’m just having a little fun with you.”

Roger looked at him the way the squirrels always had, with that mix of fear and glaring hatred. It excited him and, at the same time it made him sad. He didn’t want to be hated. He wanted them to see that although they must depend on him for their care and feeding, they could trust him. It was true that the first time he had caught a squirrel he had intended to skin it to make a cape for his mother, but he hadn’t been able to go through with it. The poor thing had banged so frantically into the wire mesh of the cage that he had scraped his nose raw, one whole side of his face, actually, and Adam had let him go. Not a week later, though, he’d set his trap again and caught another. He thought maybe he just needed to catch the right one, one who was tired of living with the other squirrels and would welcome the care and companionship of a devoted boy. This one had been just the same, though. Adam kept him overnight this time, thinking the squirrel might calm down after a while, but in the morning the squirrel was dead. He was still warm when Adam took him out of the cage. His face was banged up like the first one, but not as badly. Adam couldn’t see what had killed him.

The skinning part was a little gruesome. He knew how to do it in theory, but he had never gutted anything but the sunfish he caught in the creek. When he had finished with the squirrel, he had what looked like a miniature bear rug, minus the head. He had read somewhere that you had to salt the hide to preserve it, so he laid it out on a board, fur-side down, and sprinkled on a whole shaker of salt and put the skin under the doghouse-cage and waited a day or two for it to be cured. When he came back to it, he saw that he still had a lot to learn to be a furrier: the hide was stiff as a board. He could hold it out perfectly straight by one leg. He thought it might make a better fan than cape.

As he got up to leave, he told Roger it wouldn’t do any good to yell, that no one could hear him back there behind the old water tower. He was just going down the hill for a little bit, he said. He asked again if Roger was sure he didn’t want a peanut butter sandwich. Over the rustle of dead leaves underfoot he heard Roger calling out to him. It was a satisfyingly pitiful whine that made him feel certain Roger would settle down and wait quietly for him. Roger couldn’t hurtle himself against the wire mesh of a cage, after all, and his ankle was already swollen and tender from jerking against the handcuffs.

It was getting dark by the time he got home. The kitchen smelled like onions and butter cooking. His mother was bent over the stove, with her back to him. When she heard him, she straightened up and turned around slowly. Her dark hair was damp. She brushed it away from her face and he saw that her right cheek was scraped under her eye. The dried blood was dark and the skin around it was red and puffy. She touched her fingertips to the hollow of her cheek as if testing for feeling.

“Are you okay, Mom?”

The corners of her wide mouth twitched. “Have you seen Roger, honey?”

“Where’s Dad?”

She looked away. “Roger’s mother is looking for him,” she said.

She was leaning back against the stove, and even though the pan of onions was on the back eye, he worried that her blouse might catch on fire again. He took her hand and led her to the table. He was as tall as she was now. He could smell the bourbon on her skin. He wanted to touch her face. “I haven’t seen Roger,” he said.

She sat down and began rubbing one thumb over the fingers of her other hand.

“Do you remember the squirrel cape I was going to make for you while you were away?” he said.

She glanced up at him but showed no sign of remembering.

“When you came home I showed you the skin that was stiff as cardboard, remember?”

“That was a rough time for you, wasn’t it?” she said.

“I still have that old hide somewhere.”

The butter and onions were beginning to smoke. He didn’t see anything else on the counter, no chicken or anything else to be cooked. He turned off the stove.

“You want me to make you something?” he said. “I could make us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

“You love those sandwiches, don’t you?”

“I’ve had a million.”

“Your dad said you practically lived on them that summer.”

“He was busy.”

“Yes, he was busy.” She cupped her cheek in her hand, covering the scrape entirely. The other side of her face was perfect. “I’m so sorry, sweetie,” she said.

He thought the old squirrel skin was still on the top shelf of his closet. After it had cured, it hadn’t smelled bad. He’d brushed the salt off and tried working it to make it soft, even pounded it with a hammer, but he’d only succeeded in messing up the fur in a few places. He’d always thought he might figure out the secret to making it soft and come back to it. Then he’d gotten the idea that he might be able to tame a squirrel for her instead. He thought it would be like a magic trick, that taming a squirrel might make her better. She would see how this wild and restless creature could, when cared for by those who loved it, have a calm and happy life. He made beds of branches and leaves in the cage for the squirrels he caught, one after another. He gave them food and water and sang to them while they trembled in a corner, but they always ended up with the same bloody faces. Eventually, he let them all go. He wanted to think they would be okay, that they would heal in the wild, but he wasn’t so sure.

1 comment:

  1. WOW!!
    Beer, handcuffs, and Missy Whitcomb(I think I dated her!)....doesn't get any better than that!