Monday, February 06, 2012

Outtake from a Novel in Progress

I used to watch an old black man sitting on a bench in the park feeding sunflower seeds to the birds and squirrels. I was working at a fast food place, this was years ago, and on breaks, since I couldn't afford to eat, and didn't want to, I'd go walk in the park, which was nearby, just to get away from the smell of arrested decay the meat reeked of. He was there everyday, and I'd come up through the grass behind a couple trees where he didn't notice me, far enough to see but not be seen.

The first day, he tossed seeds down near his feet, and I didn't stop, thinking nothing of it, except that more squirrels than birds came. After a week, or so, he was setting the seeds on the bench beside him, chewing right along with them, and the squirrels came up and ate them, right beside him. By this time, I'd noticed that he shooed the birds away, which explained the preponderance of squirrels. I hated the job, and would've quit, but I was interested in the old man, who seemed to have a purpose he was approaching methodically, and I am a sucker for drama. The squirrels would come closer and closer, one in particular, I think, and then one day, after about a month, I saw the man reach out, delicate as a lover, and stroke the thing's head. It ran off, of course, but it didn't bite him. I didn't see it the next day, but he kept feeding them until it came back, and, after a couple weeks, he was able to stroke its fur, his hand lingering on its silky head, but only when its mouth was full, otherwise, it wouldn't go near him. I waited, some days, until it'd eaten its seeds and run off, and talked to him. It was hard going. He was shy towards me, a stranger, and a white one, to boot, but I think he saw my sincere interest and responded accordingly. Over the course of several days, he said that he'd grown up in the country, and they used to eat squirrels. He said his mom had died when he was young and his dad made him, essentially, become the mom, and cook and clean. And the father was down on his luck and hardly worked, so he hunted for their food. Except he drank and wasn't much of a hunter, so he mostly brought home squirrels. He liked to eat their brains and suck their eyes out (which, the old man said, probably had something to do with why his father was so bug-eyed mad, and laughed hilariously at this as though it didn't worry him) so his dad made him cook the squirrels, heads on, bug-eyes staring, and it had always bothered him. He ate the things, right along with his dad, for several reasons, hunger being chief, but also fear of retribution, and the fact, he said, that you did what you were told in his day, but he had terrible nightmares about it up to his teens, and even when we was older and working on his own, had stayed away from meat, for the most part, remembering those eyes. He said it was thanks to George Washington Carver who'd invented peanut butter for black folks, because you could get all you needed from it. Now that he was old and used up, he said, he liked to share his lunch with the squirrels, hoping to undo a little of what his father did to them, because it was too late to undo what he'd done to him. A lot of people don't like squirrels, he said, but a lot of people voted for Reagan, too.

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