It was the first time Dad hadn’t worked in 59 years. He didn’t want to retire, but the doctor encouraged him to at least only work part-time and find some relaxing hobbies, for his blood pressure’s sake. He already exercised. He walked around the block every morning. So I tried to make a few other suggestions.
Meditation? “That is for California hippies.”
Journaling? “That’s for wimps with mommy-issues.”
Yoga? “People’s aren’t meant to be able to kiss their own ass.”
My father was an engineer. He worked since he was in high school and still carried his slide ruler on his belt loop. How about gardening I suggested. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll try it.”
So the next day we went to the hardware store, the same one we went to when I was a kid, the same mechanical horse stood out front. It even smelled the same, like fertilizer and new plastic pool toys. Dad pulled a blueprint for his garden out of his pocket. He measured what parts of the yard got just the right amount of sun using roots and algorithms, then outlined the square footage to know precisely how much supplies he needed. We bought seeds, compost, mulch, a spade, and a rubber kneepad for dad’s bad knees. He pulled out his old leather wallet, duct tape on the seam, held together by an elastic band. The next morning dad tilled the hard earth. He spent hours getting the soil just right, mixing the compost checking the pH with litmus paper. Then he dug up the rows and sectioned off four parts with wooden markers. They were labeled ‘lettuce,’ ‘beans,’ ‘beets,’ and ‘tomatoes,’ all good companion plants with plenty of space.
Every day, Dad was up before the sun feeding the seedlings just the right amount of fertilizer. He measured it out in his beaker to be sure not to over or under feed. He tested the soil weekly.
After two weeks, we saw some little sprouts peeking through the earth. Dad beamed. He talked to the plants from his rocking chair and watched over them like a doting father. Then one day, he had a cute little tomato, about the size of a golf ball. Dad dusted him it every day, stroking his smooth skin. Watching his baby grow. He called it his ‘pomme d’ amour.’
One morning when Dad went to check on his tomato, he caught him red-handed. A squirrel had Dad’s tomato in his hairy little hands. Dad had planned on pulling the tomato off that day and enjoying it with some mayonnaise and salt. But now the tree rat had taken off with it. It bounded up to the fence and stopped, looking at Dad as it sunk its little mouth into his produce, flicking its tail mockingly. Dad released a string of obscenities I hadn’t heard since the night I snuck out of the house as a teenager. To make matters worse, we found the tomato the next morning in the grass, with only a small bite taken out, as if it wasn’t even good for him, poor little pomme d’ amour.
Dad came out armed with a sprinkler the next day. He had done some research; if he kept the sprinkler running, it should deter the squirrels. So he set up the sprinkler to go back and forth and back and forth across the yard and directly over his garden. We sat at the kitchen table eating the breakfast I brought him, fat-free bran muffins. Within minutes, the squirrel returned, only now he had a friend. They ran back and forth under the sprinkler like children. At one point, the new friend rode the sprinkler back and forth, drinking the water. Dad was beside himself.
We went back to the hardware store, and they recommended fencing in the garden. So we left with rolls of chicken wire. Dad spent the next two days clipping and securing the fence, intertwining the metal corners. It was impenetrable; nothing was getting through this. And nothing did, but something had gone under the fence, his green beans had been stripped off the bush. The squirrel was still sitting on the fence, flicking his tail, eating a green bean as he watched my father. Dad was so angry he got the hose and began spraying the thing, trying to shot it off the fence like a carnival game. The fuzzy rat ran up the tree, green bean in hand, and watched as my father continued to try and spray him, managing only to drench himself as the water rained back down on him. I swear the squirrel was laughing.
The next day he tried flakes of chili powder, but they didn’t seem to mind that either. Dad was running out of ideas. It was man vs. beast. It wasn’t the revenge he was after, but a reckoning.
The next morning I returned.
“Dad, you in here? Dad?” I looked out the kitchen window. He was sitting in his rocking chair overlooking his garden, a pistol in one hand a beer in the other.
“Dad, what the hell are you doing?”
“The furry bastard is driving me nuts,” Dad said flatly, not turning around.
“I can see that. I’m pretty sure this isn’t what the doctor had in mind for your blood pressure. And you drink now? It’s only 10 a.m.” I lectured.
“It’s just a sipper to steady the hand,” he explained.
“Where did you get a gun anyway?”
“It’s not a real gun. It’s a potato gun.”
“What the heck is a potato gun?”
“It uses bits of potato and shoots it out at high speed to injure and scare the squirrels away. I got it from the neighbor. He used it to give the squirrel in his yard some serious brain damage with one shot,” he explained hopefully.
“Dad, that sounds inhumane.”
“You should see the monstrosities he’s got set up over there, hook and claws meant to grab the little bastards by the necks and sever their feet. It’s like a torture chamber. They are getting into his attic, tearing up his insolation. They are in his walls. They are ruining his house for God’s sake,” he said exasperated.
“I’m worried about you, dad,” I said as I got up to leave.
Just then, the squirrel appeared on the fence doing his usual acrobatics. Dad got to his feet and shot. The potato piece hit the fence and ricocheted back towards him as the squirrel lunged up into the tree-like the next Ninja Warrior.
“Dad reload! Reload!” I yelled.
“Now look what you did. You ruined my concentration,” Dad growled, scrambling to pick up rocks and began hurling them up into the tree.
“You’re gonna break the neighbor’s window! Maybe you just need more target practice.”
Dad put the gun in his pant waist, shaking his head.
That night I stayed up late thinking of ways to defeat the squirrel. I could get him a rat terrier to chase the things away. He hated dogs, though. We never had any pets growing up. The only thing he hated more than dogs were cats. A cat would be good at stalking and killing prey.
So the next day I went to the animal shelter and took a chance. If he didn’t want it, I would keep it. It was worth a shot. I went to Dad’s with a basket of blankets, cat toys, food, a litter box, and a new grey cat. He wasn’t a kitten, so he already knew how to use a litter box.
“What the hell is that?” Dad asked, looking at the basket.
“It’s a gift,” I said.
“Oh, Dad, just try it. I read that they’re good to keep rodents away from your garden. He’s already litter box trained. All you have to do is feed him. You’ve been all alone here since Mom died, you need a friend.”
The cat looked up at him and started to cleanse its nether regions on the kitchen table. “See, he likes you,” I said.
“Fine. He gets one day. But tomorrow, you’re taking it away if I change my mind.”
“Deal,” I said.
The next morning I eagerly went to see how their first night went.
“Dad, you home?” I went and looked out the window. Dad was sitting in his rocking chair, the cat sitting next to him eating a can of tuna.
“Well, what’s happening out here?” I asked excitedly.
“Tricia, you wouldn’t believe it. This damn cat already caught that squirrel. He left the thing on the back door for me this morning. As a gift, it’s like he knew.”
A decapitated blood squirrel lay in front of them. The cat looked up at Dad and began cleansing its face, proud of its hard work.
“Should we give the thing a proper burial?” I asked.
“Hell with the damn thing,” he said as he threw the headless corpse over the fence into the woods.
“Let it serve as a warning for all his friends,” Dad said as he reached down to pet the cat’s head.