Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Squirrels in the Loser's Crawlspace

The Complete and Total Loser's apartment is the top one in a three-story brick rowhouse. It's kiln-like in summer—he has no air conditioner, and cold in winter—the old steam heat system doesn't propel heat up to his place which, as he writes this in late January, is 64 degrees.
His crawlspace, accessible by a hatch in his ceiling, is fairly large. He visited it a decade ago when workers left a stepladder behind. Inside, he found some old cans, a local newspaper from the year 1919 and a brass crucifix that was without a cross, the wood having turned to dust.

His landlord's lackadaisical care of the building has led to rotting in the eaves, which in turn led to an invasion of squirrels. Or squirrel. It was hard to tell.
The Loser has nothing against squirrels. He doesn't think of them as bushy tailed rats, like others do, but sees them as urban acrobats, gravity defying climbers said to be the smartest of all rodents. He tolerated the sounds the animal made for several weeks. After some time, however, the squirrel got noisier and, to the Loser's surprise, lived a nocturnal lifestyle. Previously beginning its day at dawn, it began to make noise all night. As his apartment faces the street, the Loser has earplugs on his night table, but the noise grew in incidence and volume. Off to the Web the Loser went in search of tips on how to rid his space which, to be fair to the squirrel, was no more his than its. Recommendations ranged from finding the entry points and sealing them to installing a strobe light, which they hate, to spraying the area with ammonia or throwing mothballs in their habitat.
The Loser dislikes calling his landlord. The men sent to make repairs are rough, even by blue collar standards. The spill cans of paint in the hallways, gouge gashes in the walls, and generally leave the building in worse shape than when they arrived. He opted for ammonia, a product, by the way difficult to find these days (he finally found some in a hardware store). The Loser filled a spray bottle with it, turned the nozzle to "stream," and stood on his kitchen chair to open the hatch with a broom and reach up to spray.
He did this for weeks and it worked well, but only for a few hours at a time, no matter how much he sprayed.
Next came mothballs. The Loser has heard that you can't buy them in California because of their carcinogenic properties, so he was reluctant to have them exposed so close to where he spends much of his day and all of his Loser nights, alone.
They, too, worked, but again, not for long.
The Loser called his landlord's maintenance number and left a message.
That night the squirrels were so loud that, angry, he threw several handfuls of mothballs through the open hatch and went to sleep.
It was an effective dose, but with side effects.
Not long after the assault, the Loser heard sounds from above different than any previously heard. Furious squeaks and chirps, interspersed with high-pitched mewing sounds. Much galloping across the floor, and chattering between what was now a confirmed pair or more of squirrels, probably with pups. They do, the Loser learned while researching the American gray squirrel, breed in December.
The sounds entered the Loser's half-awake thoughts as he constructed an anthropomorphic scenario. In his imaginings, the female squirrel, bed-ridden with maternal duties, yelled in panic at her husband, who'd promised her that the crawlspace would be warm and safe throughout the cold Philadelphia winter. Her eyes watering from the fumes, she waves her paws at the mothballs, ghostly in the near pitch darkness.
"My babies," she said. "Our children, will die in this environment! But where can we go? It's too late to build a nest now! Where will we live?"
The male, his jaw slack with lack of words, his brain churning as it seeks answers or, failing that, excuses, runs back and forth uselessly, his eyes groping for a solution.
"Say something!" she screams. "Fool! Idiot!"
He trembles. Then he hears the words the Loser is certain he would have heard if any woman had chosen him as her groom in the decades of his youth: "I never should have married you!"

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