Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chapter 3~Squirrels

Once she was alone outside, waiting on the steps for her dad to pick her up, her mind cleared. It was a beautiful spring day, and two birds were singing in the giant elm tree that shaded the campus. The traffic was thin out on 19th Avenue, and the air was tinged with salt from the ocean that lapped up against the Great Highway, just 20 blocks away. A piece of foil from a discarded gum wrapper sparkled in the grass, and the longer she sat in the sun and considered her punishment, the better she felt.

What was so terrible about being suspended, after all? It meant she didn’t have to go to school for a week. She didn’t have to put up with their annoying rules. She didn’t have to ask to go to the bathroom, or raise her hand to speak, or read what they told her to read in her “free” time. She could sleep in. That thought alone restored her good mood. Overall, she figured she’d had a pretty good birthday so far, full of many wonders, not the least of which was managing to finesse that iphone away from Moto.

How had she done that, anyway? She couldn’t really blame the new boy--Max--for being skeptical. It didn’t seem very likely. It was almost as if she had hypnotised Moto. And she’d done it before, to other people. It seemed like whenever she suggested to someone that he should be looking somewhere else, or going in some other direction, he believed her. She couldn't explain it. She must just have a very persuasive voice, she guessed.

The sunlight warmed her body and the thinking made her drowsy, so when her dad finally drove up in his little black truck, she hopped in the front seat beside him cheerfully.

“Hi, Dad.”


“Thanks for coming to get me.”

“Not a problem. I was done with work for the day, anyway.”

“So, what did the dean tell you about me?”

“Something about stealing a phone.”

They had pulled out onto 19th Avenue by then, and were making their way north towards Golden Gate Park, where they would turn right on their way to their flat in the Mission District.

“I didn’t do it!” Trilby said angrily.

“I didn’t think you did.”

Trilby had not been worried that her dad would punish her. He believed in her 100%. Since her mom had died when Trilby was just a toddler, the two of them had been a team for pretty much her entire life, during which time her dad had proven that in almost any situation, he would be in her corner--and there had been quite a few situations. It wasn’t that she was mean or had criminal tendencies. She just enjoyed a good prank. Didn’t everyone? And she liked a good party, particularly if there was drinking and dancing. And she sometimes just didn’t see the point of following the rules she was expected to live by.

“I got the phone back from a kid who stole it, and was bringing it to the kid who owned it, when they called me over and told me to empty out my pockets,” she explained.

“Did you inform them of that?”

“I couldn’t, Dad. I didn’t want to tell on the kid. That would have meant more trouble for me down the line. Besides, it’s not right.”

“I’m not sure we’re in agreement about the morality of your decision.” Trilby’s dad always talked like that. “But what do you mean, ‘more trouble down the line’? Is the other student dangerous? Is he going to try to hurt you?”

“No, dad. Don’t worry. Even if he wanted to, I got it covered.” Trilby had been taking karate lessons in addition to gymnastics ever since she was six years old--not to mention piano. Now her right foot was pretty much a lethal weapon, and she’d never had the hesitation some girls did of poking her fingers deep into an adversary’s eyeballs, or putting all her power behind a well-placed kick to the groin. She was also a fast runner. The piano probably wouldn’t help.

They were traveling down Haight Street now, and the sidewalks were littered with old hippies and young runaways. This was the neighborhood where she came to get her clothes. There was a cool second-hand shop that had lots of punk flavor--Gorilla Garbo--unlike the thrift stores in the Mission, which were pretty much straight up old ladies’ clothes, with a sprinkling of expensive retro thrown in.

Trilby looked hungrily at her favorite store as they passed, and wondered if she’d have time to go shopping during her week "off." Her band had a gig (if you could call playing in the Civic Center BART station a gig) coming up in two weeks, and she wanted to wear something sexy, but dark. It was hard to come up with just the right look when you wanted to be both attractive and repulsive--especially if underneath it all you looked like a munchkin.

“So, I’m supposed to do community service during my suspension,” Trilby changed the subject to distract her father. “I wonder if I could come to work with you?”

“I don’t think that counts.”

“Not even if I spend all my time trapping the dreaded black squirrel?” Her dad was a groundskeeper on the Stanford campus where, unbeknownst to his supervisor, he was plotting a way to drive out the invasive black squirrel that was intimidating the native gray squirrel and taking over its territory. She liked to think of her dad as a knight errant on a quest, protecting the helpless residents from an evil scourge.

“Well, in the first place, you couldn’t write that on your form, because it’s a secret. And in the second place, even though I think it’s a community service, some would disagree.”

“Yeah, I know. Like Ralph.” Trilby had met her dad at a bar after work one day and witnessed his co-worker trying to talk him out of his campaign. She guessed it was legal to let her into Rudy’s--the bar across from the CalTrain station at the entrance to the Stanford-- because they served food, but she hadn’t noticed any other teenagers in the bar.

“I just don’t understand what you got against them, Herb,” Ralph had told her dad over a pint of beer and a Rudy burger that night. Trilby had soda and french fries. She didn’t like to eat meat.

The three of them were sitting at a little table in the corner. There were four different televisions in the room, showing four different sporting events--golf, tennis, basketball, and boxing. Later, they’d be pulling down a huge screen that took up an entire wall to show the Giants game. The place was filling up in anticipation of the ballgame. And there was a group in the next room clapping and hollering over what looked to be a hideous sweater contest, even though the Christmas season had long since passed.

“Hopeless nerds,” Trilby thought. They were obviously from some start up company nearby--maybe even the mythic Facebook or Google--drinking it up on venture capital money. They were probably all millionaires, like her uncle, yet they didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to throw a party. “What a waste.”

Ralph and her dad were leaning their heads close together to be heard over the din.

“They don’t belong here,” she heard her dad telling him.

“So what? You could say that about a lotta things.”

“Look, Ralph. It’s like the landscaping we’re doing along Palm Drive, taking out the non-native plants and putting natives in. It’s better for things to grow in their natural environments. It’s not right for non-native species to come in and take over. They need to stay where they belong to keep everything in balance.”

“Why’re you talkin’ about right and not right, and stay where they belong, like it’s some kind of moral thing? There ain’t no morals in nature, man. That grey squirrel don’t own the campus. He’s gotta compete for it, just like everybody else.”

He looked over to Trilby for affirmation, and she nodded in agreement, but her dad only scowled.

“I agree he should compete against his natural predators, but he shouldn’t have to fight an invasive species that got here through unnatural means--shipped in from overseas.”

“Why not? Maybe things got bad for the black squirrel back home. Maybe he packed up his little squirrel family and came over here, looking for another chance. He’s just tryin’ to survive. You saying he don’t got a right?”

“Sure he does--in his own environment.”

“Uh-huh. That’s downright un-American. And why’s it always gotta be the black squirrel that’s persecuted? That’s why you don’t like it, isn’t it? Admit it, Herb. You don’t like that poor little squirrel ‘cause he’s black.”

Ralph winked at Trilby, who laughed. But Herb missed the joke, and continued his explanation in earnest. “I’m not being racist! I don’t think that’s even possible with squirrels," he said thoughtfully, resettling his glasses on his nose. "I’m just saying the black squirrel doesn’t belong here. It’s against nature’s plan.”

“And how do you know that? You got a direct line to Mother Nature? Maybe her plan is exactly what’s happening here. Maybe her plan is for the black squirrel to take over the world!”

Her dad seemed to seriously consider that possibility for a moment. “You could argue that, if the black squirrel had migrated here naturally. But it didn’t. It was brought over accidentally, on a ship, I guess. No one really knows how it got here. But we do know it was because of mankind interfering somehow with the natural order of things.”

“But that’s exactly what you’re doin’, Herb! Interfering. How do you know the master plan doesn’t say the gray squirrel has to die--just like the dinosaur? How would you like it if some no-account groundskeeper took it upon himself to prevent the dinosaur from going extinct? Then where would you be right now?”

Herb gave a little bark that passed for a laugh. “You couldn’t prevent that extinction. That was caused by an ice age.”

“Well, why don’t you just wait for global warning to take care of the gray squirrel, then?”

Her dad shook his head. "That would be too late for the gray."

“And speaking of unnatural migration, what are you white people doing over here, anyway? Last I heard, the only native on this continent was the American Indian, until your invasive species shipped over by unnatural means and kicked his little brown ass. So maybe, if you want to follow Mother Nature’s plan, you better just pack your bags and move back to Slovakia, or Slovenia, or whatever crazy-ass country your grandmother came from.”


“Yeah. That one. Get your crazy ass back there.”

Ralph hadn’t convinced Herb that night, but he had planted a few doubts in Trilby’s mind. He’d also given fair warning that he would have nothing to do with the eradication effort, and if her dad was caught by their supervisor--as Ralph felt certain he would be--Ralph was going to claim ignorance of the whole idea.

Herb had said fair enough; he would continue alone.

Trilby was thinking about that conversation as they pulled up in front of their flat on Folsom Street. And she realized that, although she liked spending time with her father, she didn’t really want to help him figure out how to kill squirrels anyway--black or gray. So she was running some other possibilities for community service through her mind, thinking about the volunteer organizations that dotted her neighborhood, when her dad let her out in front of their pink Victorian before maneuvering the truck down the impossibly narrow driveway to the parking place they shared with the neighbors in back. It took up most of the yard, but it beat driving around the neighborhood for an hour trying to find a place to park.

Trilby hoisted her backpack up the short flight of stairs to the porch, then opened the front door with her key. She was grateful for probably the millionth time in her life that they lived in the lower flat, and she didn’t have to hump that heavy backpack up a steep flight of neverending stairs every day like her friend Kore, who lived up top. On the ground just inside lay the usual pile of mail, which the postman had slipped through the mail slot at the base of the door. Trilby saw right away there was another postcard in it, and she scooped it up while balancing the big backpack on her knee before her father could come in from the back yard and see it. Then she proceeded down the hall to her bedroom.

Once she got there, she dropped the backpack on the floor with a loud “whomph,” gave Babs a little nod, and closed the door behind her so she could look over the postcard in private. This was the fourth one she’d received. The other three were tucked away in a shoebox under her bed, along with other treasured items. She didn’t know who was sending them, and that frightened her father--who had threatened to call the police when she got the first one, and didn’t know she had gotten the others--but it didn’t frighten her. The cards weren’t scary, they were cool. The sender didn’t mean her any harm, she felt certain. Trilby ran her finger along the edge of the card and looked up at the little icon she had hanging from the door hinge. She knew it was silly, but she sometimes imagined that Babs was the one sending her the postcards, that Babs was looking after her.

The postcard had a picture of the Palace of Fine Arts on the front, just like the others. The Palace was a beautiful earth-colored building that was constructed during the World’s Fair in 1915. It had a tall, rounded archway flanked with giant statues of women looking down into the pillars--at what, the mere groundlings couldn’t say. When the second postcard with a picture of the Palace had arrived, Trilby wondered if the sender had made a 2-for-1 purchase. But when the third one came, she started to consider the Palace a part of the message, and wondered if she should make a visit there. The idea gave her a little thrill.

What would she find, she wondered? Would the sender be there, waiting for Trilby? Would she be hiding beneath a bush, and jump out to snatch Trilby when she walked by? Well, the neighborhood was populated enough--the building was situated out near the Marina, right next to the Exploratorium, and at the beginning of freeway access to the Golden Gate Bridge. As long as Trilby went in the daytime, she would be fine. She could get Kore to go with her, for protection, although what protection her skinny friend could give her, she wasn’t sure.

Trilby turned the card over to examine the message. Her name was ornately lettered in the address area, as usual, in a style that showed great attention to detail. The handwriting was feminine, with lots of scroll work and curlicues and round, pregnant letters. The messages on the cards had been cryptic, and this one wasn’t any different. Trilby wasn’t sure if they were meant to fit together to create one long poem, or if each one stood on its own. She had begun to think of them as koans, little proverbs you were supposed to meditate on until you could extract the deeper meaning. Or maybe they were like horoscopes or fortunes, warning her what to watch out for in the coming days. She read the three lines out loud.

“The supreme good is like water,

which nourishes all things without trying to.

It is content with the low places that people disdain.”

“Hmmm,” Trilby pondered. “What does she mean by ‘low places?’ Is that a reference to me being short!?” She was about to get angry, but she didn't have time. When she heard the door slam in the kitchen, she quickly stuffed the postcard in the shoebox under her bed and went out to join her dad to figure out what they could put together for dinner.

Come back next week for another chapter of Trilby Awakes.


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