Every Friday night we feature a short story, essay, personal narrative,
poem, spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.
Tonight’s short story is from Michael Onofrey
Fire/disaster insurance on the house, automobile insurance for his pickup truck, breakage insurance in case he drops a bucket of paint on someone’s Persian carpet, private health insurance, private dental insurance
Electric bill, water/sewage bill, gas bill, telephone bill (landline), telephone bill (cellphone), gasoline for his pickup truck, maintenance on his pickup truck. Is that all?
No, that’s not all. Property tax, income tax (federal and state), and Social Security that he pays into at a rate which amounts to double what a lot of other people pay because he is self-employed, which means he has to pay both sides: employee and employer.
Roy raises his cup of coffee and sips, a Sunday morning, and it’s already getting hot, ninety-five degrees the predicted high. In front of Roy there is the kitchen window with a view of the backyard, where an unhealthy elm throws weak shade on dry grass and on a portion of a patio. Roy often finds himself gazing out the kitchen window at the backyard.
Of course there is food. He has to buy food. He purchases food at a supermarket that he doesn’t enjoy going to because he deems the parking lot dangerous.
Now and then he has to buy shoes or clothes, but not often, because shoes last him a long time and so do clothes, and maybe this because Roy isn’t interested in fashion or in being cool. He’s too old for such things.
A squirrel, in a nonchalant balancing act, is coming along the power line that slants down from a utility pole at the back of the yard. It’s a familiar route for the squirrel, but rather than coming all the way to the roof of Roy’s house where the power line connects to terminals, the squirrel will hop from the power line to the elm, and from the limbs of the elm the squirrel will make its way down the tree’s trunk to the ground, where it will sit its haunches and assume an upright posture, forefeet, which are like little hands, in front of the squirrel’s chest. The squirrel will then begin chirping and waving its bushy tail.
Roy knows that there are at least three squirrels that visit his yard because he has seen three of them in the yard at the same time. Roy has identified the squirrels by way of an Audubon field guide, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Roy wonders how they got so far south. They should be up in the Sacramento Valley or in the San Francisco area as opposed to the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, which is where Roy’s house is located, eastern sector of the Valley. Roy’s seen these same squirrels, Eastern Gray, over in a park in North Hollywood, which is also in the East Valley, and in the park these Eastern Grays are thriving, hundreds of them, each a foot and a half in length and with a bushy gray and black and tan tail. People bring their dogs to the park for a run, and the dogs chase the squirrels, and the squirrels tease the dogs by zipping up the trunks of trees and flicking their tails and chirping.
In Roy’s backyard, though, a different game takes place, for instead of a dog-squirrel game it’s a jay-squirrel game, Western Scrub Jay verses Eastern Gray Squirrel. Many people in Southern California call a Western Scrub Jay a Blue Jay, and indeed the upper feathers are blue and the bird is cocky, but technically speaking it’s a Western Scrub Jay. Regarding Blue Jays, there is in fact a true Blue Jay, but it’s territory begins in eastern New Mexico and spreads east up into New England and then south into Florida. In Southern California it’s the Western Scrub Jay that thrives, and it is extremely intelligent, both generally and specifically, Roy having made this discover by observation in terms of specifically, and in terms of generally by way of reading an article about Western Scrub Jays. The Eastern Gray Squirrels that visit Roy’s yard, though, evidently haven’t made this discovery, or if they have they’ve ignored it. In effect, the squirrels have vastly underestimated the jay’s cunning and intelligence, provided that they have bothered to consider the jay at all.
Roy sips his coffee. The squirrel has made its way to the ground and is now at the base of the elm and is looking toward the backdoor of Roy’s house and is chirping, which is a gruff sort of sound, tail flicking briskly, and true to form here comes the jay to perch on the power line between the elm and the house, and then to cock its head and look down at the squirrel, while sometimes cocking its head the other way to look at the backdoor of Roy’s two-bedroom stucco house. Roy’s question is: Is the jay alerted to the squirrel’s arrival by sound or by sight?
The participants in the jay-squirrel game are waiting for Roy to come out the backdoor and throw a few peanuts, unsalted/unroasted peanuts, goobers in their shells, so in a sense Roy is a participant in the game as well.
The telephone starts ringing, the landline phone, which is in the dining room and no more than twelve feet away from where Roy is standing. Roy raises his cup and sips while continuing to look out the window at the squirrel and the jay. After five rings the answering machine kicks in, and as of last Wednesday there’s a new message on the machine. The new message says: “This is Roy. I am no longer taking on any work. I’m retired. Thank you for calling. If this isn’t about work, please leave a message after the beep.” As expected, there haven’t been any messages since Wednesday.
The peanuts for the squirrel and/or the jay are in the service porch, which is adjacent to the kitchen. The backdoor to the house is in the service porch, too.
Roy is waiting for his new message to finish and then for the beep to sound before going to the service porch and out the backdoor with a couple of peanuts.
Eastern Gray Squirrels are from the eastern part of the United States. They were introduced to the Sacramento Valley and to the San Francisco area, as well as to other parts of North America, for reasons that Roy is unaware of. In his reading, reasons weren’t given. Perhaps Eastern Grays were introduced to Southern California as well, or maybe they made their way south naturally. Roy hasn’t read anything about Eastern Grays Squirrels in Southern California. They certainly seem prolific and healthy, though. Roy’s seen small squirrels trailing a large squirrel any number of times in his backyard, presumably a mother and her litter. The mother will lead the way, her offspring following, along the power line and onto the elm and then down to the base of the elm. Eastern Gray Squirrels can go head-first down a tree due to hind feet that twist around so that the little claws on those feet can grip the tree’s bark. The hind feet twisting around is a distinguishing feature of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Other squirrels can’t twist their feet around like that, which means they can’t go head-first down a tree trunk. Once at the base of the elm, the mother will introduce the young ones to gourmet peanuts of the raw variety after Roy has released a few from his hand. Late spring or mid-fall is when they show up, three or four young ones with an adult. This family activity usually lasts for about two weeks, thereafter only individual squirrels arrive.
Roy’s message on the answering machine ends, and then there’s a beep, and now Roy’s waiting to hear the sound of someone hanging up, but instead of that, he hears: “Roy. This is Helen Fields. I have some work for you. It’s urgent. I need a bedroom painted. Actually, I should have called last week. I need it done by this coming weekend, you know, next weekend, and . . .”
For the past nine years Roy’s been doing work for Helen on an average of three or four jobs a year, house painting and handyman work, which is the kind of work Roy does—housepainter slash handyman. Helen lives in Encino and she’s finicky about her house and her awning-covered patio and her immaculate front and backyards, as well as about a detached double garage that Roy converted into a studio for her six years ago. Helen’s about fifty years old now, as compared to about forty years old when Roy started working for her. This makes Helen fifteen years younger than Roy. It was after Helen’s divorce that she started calling Roy, a friend of Helen’s having passed along Roy’s name and number. Helen’s high-strung and maintains a wedge of formality, yet that formality doesn’t necessarily embrace manners or consideration. Even after nine years Helen always gives her first and last names whenever she calls, answering machine or no answering machine, it’s always: “Roy. This is Helen Fields.” Maybe this is because Fields was Helen’s maiden name, which she reclaimed after her divorce, a tidbit that she’s emphasized on more than one occasion. Helen has money, but its source is a mystery. She’s always home whenever Roy is working at her house, but of that time she spends a lot of it in her studio—drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings. Maybe she sells her work. It’s pretty good, landscapes and still life. A considerable amount of it is framed, evidence of which is on every wall of her house, each piece with “Helen Fields” in signature near the bottom, right corner.
Roy steps from the kitchen to the dining room, coffee cup in hand, and picks up the receiver and says, “Hello, Helen. This is Roy.”
“Roy. This is Helen Fields. I have some work for you. I need . . .” She goes on to repeat everything that she said in the message, and then continues, “My sister is coming down from San Jose. She’ll be arriving next Sunday, and I’m going to put her in that bedroom that’s upstairs, you know, at the opposite end of the hall from my bedroom, and I want to change the color in that room. I want—”
“Helen, didn’t you hear my message? I’m not taking on any work.”
“Actually, there’s wallpaper in that bedroom right now, so that has to come down, and then I want the room painted an off-white, that off-white with the gray tint, the one you used in my studio, you know, City Lights, and . . .”
From the dining room window Roy can see the squirrel, but he can’t see the jay because the dining room window has an aluminum awning, as do all the windows on the house with the exception of the kitchen window and a small bathroom window. Roy can hear the jay, though. Even with Helen’s voice at his one ear, Roy can hear the jay screeching, and the reason the jay is screeching is because Roy should have been out the backdoor by now with some peanuts. Patience isn’t the jay’s strong point. Roy sometimes wonders what goes on when the squirrel and the jay show up when Roy isn’t at home. He also wonders if maybe the squirrel and the jay have ways of knowing when Roy is at home and when he’s not at home. Right now, they seem to definitely know that Roy is at home, and in this regard the jay is reminding Roy that it’s peanut-time.
“I’m not working any longer. It was on the message.”
“Yeah. The answering-machine message.”
“What are you talking about, Roy?”
On the dining room table, along with the landline phone, there are several books and a couple of road maps and a notebook and a pair of binoculars, Nikon Monarch 5, light-weight binoculars that feature substantial eye relief so that field-of-vision isn’t reduced while wearing glasses, a necessary feature for Roy because he wears bifocals.
Roy’s cellphone is also on the table, but that phone hardly ever buzzes because there are only three people that have that number, two long-time friends and a real estate agent, a bilingual agent, Spanish/English. The long-time friends are married and have grown children, who have children, thus making Roy’s friends grandparents. Roy’s long-time friends rarely call Roy. They have their own lives that keep them busy. The Realtor, though, who is a somewhat recent acquaintance, makes use of Roy’s cellphone number when something needs to be discussed.
“I’m not taking on any work. I’m retired. My house in escrow, which should close in about two weeks, and when it does I’m leaving town.”
“Leaving town? What town?”
“Los Angeles, Southern California altogether.”
“You mean, you’re moving?”
“Well, what am I going to do? Can’t you come back to work? Can’t you commute?”
“I’m going to Arizona, the southeastern corner of Arizona.”
“Arizona? Arizona’s too far away.”
Roy laughs at this, but at the other end of the line there is silence, but not for long.
“Roy. I need my bedroom painted, and you need work. So what’s the problem?”
“There is no problem. I don’t need to work anymore.”
The Western Scrub Jay has switched from screeching to screaming.
“Hold on a second, Helen. I’ll be right back. I got to do something.”
Roy puts the receiver down on the table and goes to the service porch and gets a couple of goobers and goes out the backdoor and tosses the peanuts, one in one direction, the other in another direction. He returns to inside the house where he glances out the kitchen window while in route to the telephone. The squirrel has reached the one peanut and is picking it up. The jay is standing on the patio with the other peanut in its beak and with its head turning briskly in a showoff mode.
Roy picks up the receiver and says, “Hello, Helen?”
“What I suggest is that you go over to that supermarket on Ventura near your house and check out the bulletin board there. Housepainters and handymen cards are on that bulletin board. Call a couple and have them come over and give you a price for the bedroom.”
“But I don’t know any of those people. I don’t trust them. It’s like a blind date. You just don’t know what you’re going to get.”
“Well, try one, and if you don’t like that one, try another one. When you find someone you like, stick with that person.”
“That’s going to take time. Can’t you recommend anyone?”
“I wish I could, but everyone I know is either too high-priced or not reliable in terms of quality.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
The squirrel is back at the base of the elm and has opened the shell of the peanut and is chewing on one of the two nuts inside. The jay is somewhere out of view and is silent. The game, though, is far from over. Both the jay and the squirrel will soon resume their waiting-for-a-peanut stances and demeanor. One peanut is never the end of the game unless Roy is headed out his front door on his way to work.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Helen, except maybe to call some friends and see if they know someone. After all, that’s how you found me.”
“Yes, but . . . Well, to tell you the truth, it’s been my friends who have called me, and it’s been me who has done the recommending.”
“Yes, I know, and I really appreciate the referrals.”
Of course Roy has said this before, and it’s true, for over the years Helen has pushed work Roy’s way, and in that regard she’s a nice person, a person Roy ought to like. But he doesn’t. For Helen is the talker, Roy the listener, and that’s the way it has been between them, a relationship that should have been okay with Roy because Roy is a taciturn sort of man. But with Helen there is this undertow of assumption that presupposes that Helen has important things to say and Roy doesn’t. Thus, an alliance involving arrogance prevails, which Roy has endured for reasons that had to do with livelihood, and within the parameters of employee-employer Roy has mostly nodded in response to ideas and opinions that Helen has espoused, but which Roy is opposed to or not interested in. Of course Helen isn’t the only person that Roy has worked for who was like this. There were others. Fortunately, though, not everyone was like this, but some people were, and this is one among a couple of things that bring myth to the so-called freedom and independence of those who are self-employed, otherwise known as “their own boss,” as if that meant they could say and do whatever they like. For Roy, what distinguishes Helen from the others, though, is the number of hours spent in her presence, which quite naturally spawned a fuller understanding of her personality.
“Well then, why not forget about moving out of town? You need to earn money to live, don’t you? So why not do it here, in the Valley, where people know you, instead of somewhere else where people don’t know you?”
The squirrel, having cast aside the remains of the peanut shell, is back to swishing its tail while looking toward the backdoor of Roy’s house. Undoubtedly the jay is back on the power line after having used its pointed beak to get through the peanut’s fibrous shell to the nuts inside, or, more likely than not, after having buried the peanut somewhere in the yard like it usually does. Roy knows that he’ll be hearing from the jay very soon, because Act Two is about to begin.
“I plan not to work.”
“Not to work? How is that possible? You’re not wealthy. And I know you’re pretty much on your own—divorced, no children, and so forth. And . . . well, I just can’t imagine you have any sort of pension plan. Housepainter/handyman, that’s not the sort of occupation that generates a pension.”
Helen’s memory is in no way impaired. In conversations with Roy she’s mined gems and stored them like nuggets that serve to explain and order her world, a world that requires constant surveillance and maintenance, hierarchy at work and thriving.
Roy moistens his lips with his tongue. His lips are chapped. The Western Scrub Jay is making noises.
“I’m going to get Social Security.”
“Social Security?” Helen enunciates. “That certainly can’t amount to much.”
“And there’s a plus-side between selling my house and purchasing a resale singlewide that’s already spotted in a mobile home park.”
“Your house, the house your mother left you? If I recall correctly, that house is in Sun Valley.”
“You recall correctly.”
“Well, that can’t be worth much, not in that neighborhood, certainly not enough to sustain you for any length of time.”
“I plan to downsize. I plan to reduce my expenses drastically. For one thing, I just started getting Medicare, and that means I can stop writing checks for private health insurance, or at least change over to supplementary insurance, which will be a lot cheaper than what I’ve been paying. And then there’s what I’ve been spending to live in a house in Los Angeles as compared to what I’ll be spending to live in a singlewide in a semi-rural area of Arizona.”
“What’s a singlewide?”
“A relatively small mobile home, but certainly large enough for one person. A doublewide, for example, is twice as large.”
“A mobile home? You mean you’re going to live in a trailer?”
“You’re going to give up a house in Los Angeles for a trailer in a trailer court in Arizona?”
“And you’re going to give up employed for unemployed?”
“Yes, but some people call it retirement.”
“But people like you don’t retire.”
The jay is screeching and the squirrel is upright on its haunches at the base of the elm with its tail swinging, direction of its black eyes the backdoor of Roy’s house.
“What do people like me do, Helen?”
“Well, they . . . They work until they die. What else can they do?”
“I plan to beat the system. Or more accurately, circumnavigate it.”
“The system that defines ‘better’ and ‘prosperous’ and ‘successful’ as adding, as in adding more and more, or buying more and more, as opposed to subtracting or reducing, which means spending less and buying less. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a moral cause per se, at least not for me. It’s more like something associated with desperation. I’m worn out—mentally, physically, and emotionally worn out. The way I see it, it’s either downsize or pursue the route you so accurately described. You see, I came to the same conclusions about my life as you did. But then—I looked for an alternative.”
“An alternative? How did that come about?”
“Hold on, Helen. I got to do something again. I’ll be right back.”
Roy sets the receiver down and repeats the sequence of throwing a couple of peanuts for the jay and the squirrel, which at first initiates the same responses from the two animals. But after they each have a peanut there is a change, and when the change begins Roy is back in the dining room, on the phone with Helen, which means he’ll be watching Act Two from the dining room window.
“I started getting into bird watching and animal watching,” Roy tells Helen. “This was after I had stopped drinking and was at a loss, like suddenly I had time on my hands and I didn’t know what to do with myself. But actually, the watching began when I was still drinking. But after the drinking stopped I became more conscious of the birds and the squirrels that come to my backyard. In a sense, it gave me something to do, watching birds and squirrels, and then taking notes and doing some reading, which in turn also took me away from the treadmill, the earn-money-slash-spend-money treadmill that had me always thinking about getting money so that I could keep up a certain lifestyle. Of course it wasn’t a great lifestyle, but it was a lifestyle nonetheless, a lifestyle that a lot of people struggle to maintain, usually out of necessity, a middle- or lower-middle-class suburbanite lifestyle. In a sense, watching, watching birds slowed me down so that I could step back.”
The squirrel is burying the peanut in the lawn. The jay, having flown to another part of the yard to bury its peanut while constantly checking on the squirrel, is now perched on the power line between the elm and the utility pole, which, since it is toward the back of the yard, is visible from the dining room window. The jay is looking down at the squirrel, and Roy watches this, just as he has watched it so many times before, the jay silent so as not to draw attention while the squirrel focuses solely on creating a cache that it will utilize when in need of something to eat, memory coming into play, a notably precise memory that has been documented in studies.
“Bird watching?” Helen says. “I had no idea. I had you pegged for a beer-guzzling man. Certainly not a bird watcher.”
“Yeah, well—people change.”
“So bird watching brought about the change?”
“Not that simple. More like age, or aging, forced these changes. Freeways are no longer fun. They’re too fast for me. The mall doesn’t interest me anymore. The neighborhood is too noisy. Even television seems like noise, with maybe the exception of sporting events. Hangovers? Hangers started lasting a week, and without alcohol, bars became obsolete. So then I found myself looking out the window more and more, and in a casual way I started feeding the squirrels and birds that come to my yard, and this tweaked an interest in what they were doing.”
The squirrel finishes burying the peanut and hops away. The jay is on the power line, looking down intently.
“So why move?” Helen asks.
“I started getting into it, started going out to places to look at birds. Some of the places are popular, but not crowed-popular, more like some people go there to look at birds, and I started talking to some of these people, you know, because there was a common interest. And then about a year ago, I took a week off, a week’s vacation, and I went out to this superb bird-watching site in southeastern Arizona, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a forty-mile stretch along the San Pedro River, a free-flowing river, a true rarity in the Southwest. More than 375 bird species, as well as over 80 mammal species, are in the area, and more than 250 species of butterflies, too. The river originates in Mexico just south of the border and runs north into Arizona.”
“So after my house went into escrow last month, I went back out there again, and I bought a used singlewide that’s already spotted in a mobile home park that’s at the edge of a medium-size town. From the mobile home park I can bicycle, or even walk, to the conservation area. In addition, the weather is mild, which my bones need. I’m not young anymore.”
The Western Scrub Jay is down on the grass and is stabbing the lawn with its beak. After three jabs the bird finds what it is looking for. The squirrel, meanwhile, has made its way up onto the lid of a trashcan that’s in the corner of the yard. From the trashcan the squirrel will jump up onto the top of the cinderblock wall that surrounds Roy’s yard, and in all the times Roy has watched this he has never seen the squirrel look back to see the jay unearthing the squirrel’s cache, which the jay will then re-burying in another part of the yard. Time and time again this plays out without deviation, and Roy can’t help to think how smart animals are, yet how narrow they can be in their view of things.
This has been going on for years—the jay stealing the squirrel’s cache in order to create its own cache, the jay’s cache. And here again, studies come into play, for they have established that the Western Scrub Jay can remember over 200 specific cache-sites while keeping track of particulars, such as what’s buried at each site and the shelf-life of each of those burials.
With the jay burying the stolen peanut, and with the squirrel having left Roy’s yard, the jay flies off. Thus Act Two concludes, and so ends this segment of an on-going drama, a drama that will begin anew the next time the squirrel comes to Roy’s yard, with Roy at home.
As of late, though, it is Roy’s throwing of peanuts that Roy has begun to think about in a number of ways. For example, should he have started feeding the animals way back when, which in turn quickly developed into a relationship based on food, a relationship that might involve dependency and perhaps ill-health? Simply put, is it okay to feed wild animals? Delving below this question, and various quandaries connected to it, such as feeding wild animals in a city (parks and backyards) verses feeding animals in non-human-habitat areas, there is the indisputable fact that Roy is a part of this drama, and the nature of this drama involves people (Roy) and animals (Eastern Gray Squirrel and Western Scrub Jay). For Roy, this has been beneficial, for it has spawned an interest in the world that surrounds him, and beyond this it has made him feel connected and/or communicative with that world, which of course is the animal world that intrinsically operates in conjunction with terrain and weather and flora and insects and so on. And of course there is Roy’s interest in the way animals interacting with one another, which is what has taken place in Roy’s backyard—the squirrel and the jay, and in addition Roy too, the three of them in communique and direct association.
“Well, I just don’t know what to say.”
“There’s nothing to say, Helen. I just told you this to tell you. That’s all.”
“This is a dream, Roy, a completely unrealistic dream, an absolute dream. That’s all it is.”
“Yeah, I suppose it might be.”
“Well, good luck.”
He hangs up the phone and sits, receiver in its cradle, coffee cup nearby. Just out the window on the left side, there is a hummingbird feeder that Roy’s rigged up to hang from the edge of the awning. An Anna’s Hummingbird is at the feeder, its red throat glistening. The area in southeastern Arizona where Roy is headed is sometimes referred to as the Hummingbird Capital of the United States.
The young Mexican-American family that’s buying Roy’s house wants all the furniture and appliances and cookware and beds and everything else, everything except clothes, because this will be their first house and they can use whatever Roy wants to leave behind, which is just about everything because his resale singlewide has basic appliances. In addition, Roy has worked out a deal with the young family where Roy will leave a store of peanuts for the husband and wife and their young daughter to throw for the squirrels that come to the yard. And: “There’s also a jay that comes to the yard.”
Michael Onofrey’s stories have appeared in Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Oyez Review, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (anthology, University of New Mexico Press, 2013), Snowy Egret, Terrain.org, and Weber – The Contemporary West, as well as in other literary journals and anthologies. A novel, Bewilderment, is forthcoming from Tailwinds Press in 2017.