Writing: Where I’ve Been — The Squirrel on the Fire Escape

I touch the brakes as a squirrel races across the highway. He flings his tail forward like an oar, propelling himself to safety in the rabbit brush well ahead of my tires.

My Westie, Frodo, lunges over the back seat and stands with his paws on the dashboard, barking. He’s never caught a squirrel, but in the city they taunt him from treetops, so he’s sure they are legitimate prey and therefore can be yapped at.

To distract him, I reach for his bag of treats but it’s empty. Without looking away from the highway, I find trail mix in my grocery sack and give him a peanut while I eat an almond. He eyes me suspiciously, surmising that what I’m eating is better than his snack. But if I gave him an almond, he might behave like a squirrel I once corrupted.

Columbia

A photo of me taken close to the time period of this story. Was I flirting with the photographer? I’ll never tell.

In my senior year of college, facing graduation, I knew I’d have to decide soon whether to go back to the ranch to marry a local boy or try to make a life for myself in the competitive world where most people live. I worked then as a reporter on the night staff of a daily newspaper, watching the news from Viet Nam and assessing my nerve to see if I had enough to be a war correspondent. I didn’t, but I entered a marriage that proved nearly as unpleasant in the long run.

Each morning I drove sixty miles from my upstairs apartment near the newspaper office to graduate classes. Each afternoon, I drove back to Sioux City, Iowa, the biggest city I’d ever seen, population one hundred thousand people. I lived in an old Victorian mansion that retained a few traces of its former elegance, like a beautiful old woman wearing a ragged velvet gown. From my apartment on the top floor, I looked out on a broad avenue where the city’s blue bloods first reigned. When the children of these aristocrats fled to the outskirts of town, a medley of humbler citizens moved in, including my Jewish landlady who rented the top floor after her husband died and her son moved out.

In my apartment’s one large room, faded wallpaper was embossed with red and gold roses. A couch and two worn chairs defined the living room by sitting with their backs to a bed tucked under a roof slope so steep the ceiling touched my head when I read in bed. When I lay down to sleep, the attic came alive with shuffles and squeaks. Though I knew from experience the sounds were squadrons of squirrels cavorting among the resident bats, I pictured a different scene. My landlady had said that during the Twenties, when a bootlegger owned the house, her beaus spoke softly of visiting these rooms to get illicit liquor. They whispered of lovely women who may have sold their favors on the side. As I drifted into sleep, the thumps and whispers in the attic became a dream of soft music and slim women in short fringed, the beads and the ice in their drinks clicking as they danced in the shadows. A secret back stair in the closet had been closed off years before, because it was too narrow for modern safety standards.

Sioux City Stately House

Though not the actual house I stayed in, this old house in Sioux City is representative of it.

The tiny kitchen created by walling off one corner of the room was efficiently fitted with oddly-shaped cupboards. One door opened into a dining room with polished oak floors, a battered but aristocratic buffet, and double doors opening onto a porch big enough for one chair. The porch topped an ugly fire escape required for apartment buildings by federal regulations, attached like an abscess to the house’s facade. One evening as I sat on the tiny porch above the wooden stairs, eating peanuts and tossing shells over the railing, the squirrel entered my life. She clung to a tree branch overhead and screeched while I whispered sweetly, trying to lure her closer. When I went to work, I left a few peanuts on the railing.

Each evening after that, I left a few nuts on the porch. And every day, while I stared into the refrigerator hoping to find better food, she scampered back and forth on the railing, chattering.

Timing her arrival to mine was harder than it sounds. I drove to graduate classes at the college sixty miles away every day. I came home each afternoon to rest or study before bicycling to the newspaper where I worked from five p.m. until one in the morning. The squirrel soon identified both my vehicles. I’d often see her a block away, scampering along a high branch toward the porch to wait on the railing until I got inside.

On my days off, I put peanuts out each afternoon, shut the door and watched as the squirrel approached, advancing one hop and retreating three, until she could snatch a peanut and leap to a branch. Success or winter made her bolder. By the third month, she’d grab her peanut while I stood inside the open door. By spring, she’d sit on the railing beside my chair, eating from my opened palm.

When summer arrived, with memories of mowing hay on the ranch, I grew homesick and feverish. Walking sleepless along the river late at night, I could picture snow melting on high mountains in the north, knowing the winter’s heavy snowpack would soon come roaring down the river. The Corps of Engineers had squeezed the river between artificial concrete banks. Looking north along the walkways was like looking at a big woman who insists on forcing her ample shanks into a maiden’s corset. A flood could burst the concrete stays, flooding the low streets in the valley. Heat magnified the existence of one of Sioux City great attractions, “the world’s largest pile of manure.” Scooped from the busy stockyards, the pile loomed beside the river, bubbling with heat and broadcasting its odors for miles. I imagined a flood dismantling the mound and scattering it over the fields while the smashed remnants of the river walls washed up in downtown New Orleans.

Squirrel 1983

In spite of having a job, I was still a penniless college student, barely paying expense from living off campus and driving back and forth with my night job. Unable to afford air conditioning, I ventilated my attic space with open doors and windows. One evening when I was scrambling eggs for a sandwich, I glanced up to see the squirrel in the dining room. Moving slowly, I placed a peanut on the polished floor. She gobbled it, then sat up and chirped at me. After that, she’d run along the porch railing to rattle the door knob until I let her in.

Keeping my old car running cost more than I’d reckoned. By January, I was eating oatmeal twice daily. With no peanuts in the budget, I rationed a can of mixed nuts from Christmas, doling out one peanut a day until they were gone. The next time the squirrel knocked, I picked out an almond. The squirrel put it down on the floor and looked up. She sniffed it, skittered to the door and back. Finally, she ate it. I fed her the rest of the nuts, mostly almonds because I’d eaten my favorite, the cashews, first.

The day my paycheck arrived, the squirrel pounded at door knob while I was climbing the stairs with my grocery bags. I grabbed the bag of peanuts off the top and knelt in the doorway holding one. She advanced, flipping her tail and looking over her shoulder to check the escape route. She sniffed the peanut on my hand and sat back on her haunches. Then she advanced jerkily to sniff again. I picked up three more peanuts. She marched forward and rummaged among the nuts with both paws.

Just as I realized that she was looking for almonds where none existed, she fastened her teeth in the most almond-like object she saw and ran. Her teeth were locked in my finger. Her running paws scrabbled and slipped on the waxed floor. She dangled from my hand, eyes rolling.

Calmly, I mentioned her error. As her teeth broke through my skin and she tasted blood, I spoke less calmly. She executed a midair somersault, and zipped into her tree. For an hour she sat on the railing beside a pile of peanuts, chattering.

I sat on the couch thinking, feeling every hot pulse in my finger and wondering if I needed a rabies shot. I’d tantalized the squirrel with treats beyond my budget and beyond her ability to fend for herself, taught the squirrel upward mobility. She grabbed an almond and ran on air, confused by the shower of blood. Just like a human.

In the years since, I have applied what the squirrel taught me to my own life. I refuse to covet or buy gadgets without considering the costs and the consequences. Will the item, I ask myself, fit not only my financial budget, but my environmental account?

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

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Afterword to “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape”

When did I write this, asked my assistant Tam, as we discussed putting it on the WordPress site.

Hmm. Since I am, like many writers, something of a packrat and descended from several generations of people who hold onto things, I was able to find the metal file box in which I tracked my nonfiction submissions until about 2001– before computers.

While flipping through it looking for the squirrel story, I spotted the category labeled “Old Manuscripts: not quite dead but on life support.” Behind that divider I find a piece titled “A chocolate éclair with spiders in it,” a 5000-word essay written in 1969 and submitted once. I can’t recall what that was about, but wish I had a copy so I could find out. Another piece was “Overdue Inventions,” written in 1985 and rejected by the Saturday Evening Post and Christian Science Monitor but now lost. I dismantled “The Consequences of Fame,” and used part of it in another piece. I suspect that “Down But Not Out in the Fine Arts Capitol of the World,” written in 1974, might have been about my literary magazine and press. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy: the best food in the West,” was rejected by both High Country News and Northern Lights, magazines which regularly accepted work from me.

But my writing wasn’t all failure; the “published fiction” section of the box includes notes on several pieces I called fiction but which were actually written from my experiences. I incorporated several of them into later nonfiction work.

See how easily a writer is distracted?

In the S section of the Nonfiction Submissions, I find that “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape,” at 1100 words, was rejected by High Country News in 1994, by South Dakota Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and Reader’s Digest in 1995, then revised and submitted to High Country News again in 1999– and then I apparently stopped submitting it.

The history of this little piece probably demonstrates how I learned about publication success and failure. I suggest to the writers with whom I work that they not submit always to the most popular magazines– like Christian Science Monitor and Reader’s Digest; while the rate of pay is good, those magazines get thousands of submissions and their readers must always be overworked. Instead, look for good publications in your region, where you might build a relationship with an editor and gradually become a respected contributor to the pages.

Persistence did pay off with Christian Science Monitor, which accepted several of my essays. I worked with an editor there I liked, and doubtless the publications helped when I submitted to book publishers. But I developed a closer and longer (still going) relationship with High Country News. One of its editors, Betsy Marston, often wrote concise and useful comments on my work, helping me to revise pieces that she later accepted.

I’ve never been back to Sioux City to drive by the house where I lived, though now I realize that it must have been a four-square, like our house in Cheyenne. I remember my landlady very well; she was an elegant woman with a clear understanding of how hard it was to be young and poor; she was very intelligent and very considerate of me. So when I dropped the glass shelf from my refrigerator and slashed open my wrist, I wrapped towels around it until I realized that I couldn’t stop the gushing blood. I also knew I couldn’t drive, so I called an ambulance– but asked them not to use the siren so as not to alarm her. After I got home with my stitches, she came upstairs several times to be sure I was OK.

I’ve never tried to feed a wild animal again.

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Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

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