I haven't had breakfast yet. Ramona said I got up too late. I would have settled for lunch, but it is already past lunch too. There is nothing in the fridge but spoiled onions and a Country Crock tub full of aging pineapple. It hasn’t been cut right so I hurt my teeth on the hard parts. Soft teeth, sensitive. That has always been my main problem, so I’m told. Too sensitive.
I knead the fruit with my fingers to try and soften it. I think Freddy bought it because it was on sale, who knows how long it’s been sitting there. Freddy and Ramona are talking in low voices but I already know everything they’re saying. I would try and add something cheerful to the conversation but I’m “not allowed” to make small talk anymore since I told the cashier at McDonald's how I used to think the devil was trying to get me at night. I’d wake up unable to move and I couldn’t remember the Lord’s prayer so I’d just sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” from my piano songbook over and over. I can’t play the piano, but I like to sing along with the songs when Freddy tries to show me how to play. I tell him I don’t think we should have to learn things we’re rubbish at. Ramona usually rolls her eyes and tells me I’m spoiled. The cashier gave me a free McFlurry so I don’t see what the problem was, but there you have it.
Freddy and Ramona won't realize that I haven’t eaten lunch, though they could figure it out if they put enough thought into it. It’s not like I have any going-out money to spend but that’s not my biggest grievance; my biggest grievance is that God didn’t make me ugly enough to be interesting. I have a lot of misplaced freckles that are probably better called moles, but they don’t make any noteworthy shapes. My scalp itches all the time with dandruff but I’ve got a decent smile, even if my front teeth are too small and my tongue is too big for my mouth. I’m utterly ignorable. That’s my biggest complaint.
Ramona calls me petite pomme sometimes, because she likes to think she can speak French and I like to eat apples and am somewhat shaped like one. She bemoans the fact that I cannot fit into her hand-me-downs, “such a waste,” or waist if you like puns as much as she does. She’ll whine about the fat around my stomach and then compliment my eyes, saying I look like my father. I think this is an attempt at softness, but Ramona is not soft. That is the whole point of her.
Today Ramona is supposed to drive me to Mr. Kiel’s, my school’s choir director. There was a time she wanted to marry Mr. Kiel and talked about it loudly over a pasta buffet and red-checkered plastic tablecloths. A bunch of kids from my school were there taking advantage of the endless breadsticks and overheard it all but they never said anything to me about it. It only takes one of Ramona’s death glares to shut anybody up. That’s a kindness I suppose. Mr. Keil talks to her at school events and I guess that makes her think of them as friends. They are friends as much as we are family. Not much. Freddy is the bridge between us. I guess he is her friend as well as her half-brother, so Ramona has two friends.
Mr. Keil says he is my friend too. He knew my parents, back before they were anybody’s parents. He says they all used to get into trouble together and then doesn’t elaborate so I think it must not be the fun kind of trouble but the kind that can make a bunch of babies that are only sort of related to each other and then leaves them all together to raise each other kind of trouble. Mr. Keil always looks sad when I tell him this and I try to remember that I’m not allowed to make small talk anymore. Regardless, he lets me do the yard work for him every other week for twenty dollars. I wonder how many things I can get off the dollar menu at the McDonalds by the 7-11 for twenty dollars. In a fair world, twenty things, but the math never comes out right.
Mr. Kiel gives me a list of chores whenever Ramona drives me over, but it’s more of suggestions than demands. He pays me even if I don’t get past the top two. He’ll sit on the back porch and talk with Ramona while I fill bird feeders or rake leaves. It doesn’t matter how slow I work, he always pays me twenty dollars. I’m going to be late if Ramona doesn’t get off her ass.
She is on the phone with her feet propped up on the coffee table and a cigarette going. I wait on the floor of the foyer fiddling with my shoes and hoping she will hurry. I don’t know why I think she’ll notice my absence more than my presence.
Freddie comes up to me all serious. He is the best of all my relations because he is kind. Simple as that. You can count on him to be kind. It must be exhausting for him really.
“I think she needs to stay here,” he says motioning to the cigarette smoke rising from the living room. “Do you think you could go over to Mr. Kiel’s on your own? You could take my car.”
This is a rare opportunity. I’m not really allowed to drive that much on account of I don’t have a license.
“How do I get there?” I ask him.
“You’ve been there dozens of times. Don’t you know the way?”
“Why would I? Ramona always drives.”
Freddie swallows and I watch his throat bob. He searches his pockets and pulls out a gas receipt. I have a pen in the tangle of my hair, so I give it to him and he scribbles for a while. When he hands me the receipt, I am surprised by how delicate the map he has drawn is. A star at the destination and everything.
“Just do it in reverse to get home. Ramona’s making a lasagna tonight.” He points to the bold line on the map, tracing it back and forth.
“Really? What for?” My interest peaked at the word lasagna.
“She wants to practice. The Alveronzos’ kid is sick. I’m going to bring one over to their place tomorrow. Ramona’s on the phone with them now.”
“What’s the kid sick with?”
Freddie pauses. He likes to keep the bad news away as if it isn’t already up to our necks.
“Cancer, I believe.”
“Maybe she’ll get better.”
“Maybe she will.”
He helps me off the floor and gives me his car keys, warm from his hip pocket. Ramona’s just started the story about how her great aunt died and all the gory details about the cabin that didn’t belong to her and the rifle that did. I don’t think Ramona should be allowed to make small talk either. Once she gets going it turns into a detailed history of every calamity to ever befall our bent and branching family tree. A narration that only ends when the other party pretends that a pipe suddenly burst in the bathroom or that they have come down with a case of spontaneous combustion. The lasagna won’t be in the oven for a long time so I might as well get going, Mr. Kiel might have snacks.
I drive slow so that no cars stay behind. The parking is the hardest part and I do it the wrong way on the wrong side of the street. A fact I find out when a neighborhood watch neighbor comes out with a ticket that alerts me to my error and how suspicious it is. I was worried there might be some sort of fine for not realizing that cars have to not only be parked but parked all facing the same direction and that it would eat into my twenty dollars, but there was nothing on the note about fines and the neighborhood watch neighbor bustles away. I leave the car where it is and ring Mr. Keil’s doorbell.
He doesn’t answer. The doormat crunches slightly and I notice a small package tucked under the mat. It has my name on it. Inside are house keys, garage keys, thirty dollars and a note. Some sort of choir emergency, asking if I could give his apologies to Ramona and please clean up the back yard. The hedge apple trees have started dropping their fruit. It’s an awful mess. The gnarled and bumpy pale green apples crack open to reveal pale mush inside, all turning brown under the sun. I’d find trash bags under the sink, trash cans in the garage near all the other things I’d need. If there were any dead squirrels, I was to just leave them. He’d dispose of them himself. I’d be welcome to call a friend over to help, hence the extra money.
I have friends. The kind you sit next to at school and go over homework with but not the kind you call up and see. Not the kind that aren’t already doing something on a Saturday. Besides, I need that thirty dollars all to myself. I have had a cash flow problem of late. I used to babysit for Mrs. Douglas but Ramona said Mrs. Douglas was in love with Freddie and so I couldn’t go back there again. I thought that was a strange reaction because what did it matter if she was in love with Freddie. Freddie was lovable. That shouldn’t stand in the way of me making money now and again. I open the garage. I would try to do a good job, even with no one watching. I like Mr. Keil, but I am confused about the dead squirrels and what was going on in his backyard to warrant their deaths.
By the time I’ve gotten most of the leaves and rotting hedge apples into the garbage bags, I haven’t found a single dead squirrel. It is a bit disappointing but I comfort myself by stomping on the remaining hedge apples and splattering their surprisingly soft insides over my shoes.
Cold wind is coming in with a thick layer of clouds and I haven’t dressed warmly enough to keep from shaking. Mr. Kiel won’t mind if I borrow a jacket. It is far past too late when I realize that I tracked mud and rotten hedge apple gunk through his living room and kitchen searching for the coat closet. I’ll have to clean it up too. I find a thick jacket along with a plaid scarf, mittens with finger holes, and a floppy-eared hat with fur trimming. It’s all too large but it’s warm. I swipe a couple granola bars from the kitchen too. Got to keep my strength up.
I hope Ramona’s lasagna burns and then she won't want to give it to the sick kid. It’s got to look nice or it doesn’t count, that much I know for certain. If it burns, it’ll be my lucky day. I want to take the whole thing down to my room and eat it without anyone disturbing me or lecturing me. I’ll lay the hot dish in my lap and let it warm my legs through my jeans. If it burns me it burns me. As long as I get to scoop it right out of the dish and see how far I can make the cheese stretch. If it was perfect, I wouldn’t get a bite and she’d be too tired to make more for our dinner. Freddie will probably just tell me to pitch in, but that is Freddie’s way of handling things.
The only place in Mr. Kiel’s backyard I haven’t cleaned yet is the fountain. He had inherited it from the previous owners. A ridiculous looking thing three tiers high and completely broken, decorated with a misshapen cherub teetering on top. It’s ugly enough to be interesting that’s for sure. Leaves and trash gather there and rainwater collects until it makes a gross soup. It’s too heavy for Mr. Keil to move, and I rarely clean it, but I feel guilty about the stolen granola bars and dirtied living room.
The bottom of the fountain is filled with a brown and murky water populated with leaves and soggy hedge apples. Five or six dead squirrels float on top. The exact number is uncertain because a few of them have piled into each other and formed a dead squirrel raft. Despite what Mr. Kiel’s note says I can’t leave them alone. I poke the furry raft with the handle of the rake and watch the bodies drift.
“It’s the hedge apples,” Mr. Kiel says from the other side of the fountain. I didn’t hear him drive up. He stands with his hands in his jean pockets, looking cold. “They ferment if they don’t get cleaned up. The squirrels eat them, get drunk and then fall off the tree into the water. Drown, I think. It took me awhile to figure out.”
“What did you think was happening before that?”
He shrugs. “Someone pulling a prank.”
“Could they just be sleeping? Sometimes when you’re real drunk it’s hard to wake up.”
Mr. Kiel grimaces and nods. “I think that’s why it’s only the ones in the fountain that die. The ones that land in the yard tend to be fine.” He looks concerned but there is no reason to be concerned. I’m not scared.
“You want your jacket back?” I ask.
“Only when you’re done. I’ll go inside though and make some hot tea. Do you want any?”
“Naw. Gotta get home soon. Ramona’s making a practice lasagna.” I wouldn’t know what to talk to him about over tea. Plus, then I would have to explain the mess I tracked into the house and hadn’t cleaned yet.
“Well it looks like you’ve done more than enough to earn the money. Why don’t you just head on home before it gets too dark.”
I nod and hand him his jacket, furry hat, scarf, and gloves. He struggles to take the rake from me too and then there are the keys. The hat falls out of his hands and into the fountain water, into the pile of dead squirrels.
“Don’t worry, it’s seen worse,” he says as he fishes the hat out of the fountain careful not to drop the rest of the clothes in after it.
“Well no, but…”
“Can I ask you a question?” I don’t know why I say that. Only that he is being kind to me and that makes me want to ask him things.
“Sure, you can ask me anything.” He shakes the wet hat vigorously, trying not to splash the dead squirrel water on himself. I don’t have a question but I want one. I want a question, to keep talking next to the fountain full of dead squirrels like friends. The longer I wait the more important the question needs to be. The more concerned Mr. Kiel looks.
“Is everything alright?” he asks.
I was supposed to be the one with the question, not him. That wasn’t a fair question for him to ask either. I try not to look him in the face now that it is getting all crumpled in the way that people crumpled themselves up every time I tell them Ramona and Freddie are not my parents. What was it that I wanted to know? He knew my parents, he knew their past, but I doubt he knew more than I did about why some people light you on fire and pretend it’s all right. He wouldn’t know anything worth all this trouble.
Mr. Kiel pokes his foot into the patchy grass twisting it into the dirt, as if testing to see how hard it might be to dig a hole to hide himself in.
“What are you going to do with the squirrels?” I finally ask.
A strange relief floods his face and he turns to the squirrel pile. “I thought I’d just throw them away.”
I shake my head. “Trash won't come until Thursday. You’ll get maggots. Trust me.” The “trust me” makes him arch his eyebrows.
“Well what would you suggest?”
“Pyre, like the Vikings.”
“Isn’t that a little... drastic?”
He laughs and turns to go back inside with his armful of winter clothing just leaving the squirrels there, their twisted faces and bucked teeth grimacing against the bloat. I can hear others chattering up above. Watching, mourning maybe. Trying to identify who is who.
He hadn’t said no to my suggestion, he’d just laughed. A laugh isn’t no.
I pile the small bodies into the grill. It’s not so gross to touch them once you stop wondering if they will come back to life again. I know how to use a grill, no problem, Dad taught me before he left. Burgers and hotdogs. I had turned them, watched them sizzle. Dad came back when I was done, made us plates. Whatever Dad was waiting to be done now I didn’t know. Maybe he was dead after all. There was nothing to prove his aliveness. Mr. Kiel has all the supplies I need right there by the propane tank.
He calls from the back porch.
I close the hood of the grill. It won’t take too long; they are just small bones. The smell of burning fur isn’t pleasant but it will pass. Everything does, time and all that. That’s what I’m told. Mr. Kiel is yelling but there is nothing for anyone to get upset about. We just have to wait.