It was the first time Dad hadn’t worked in 59 years. He didn’t want to retire but the doctor encouraged him to at least only work part-time and find some relaxing hobbies, for his blood pressure’s sake. He already exercised. He walked around the block every morning. So I made a few other suggestions.
Meditation? “That is for California hippies.”
Journaling? “That’s for wimps with mommy-issues.”
Yoga? “People aren’t meant to be able to kiss their own ass.”
My father was an engineer. He had worked since he was in high school and still carried his slide ruler on his belt. How about gardening I suggested. “Hmm” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll try it.”
So the next day we went to the hardware store, the same one we went to when I was a kid, the same mechanical horse still stood out front. It even smelled the same, like fertilizer and fresh plastic pool toys. Dad pulled a blueprint for his garden out of his pocket. He measured what parts of the yard got just the right amount of sun using roots and algorithms, then outlined the square footage to know precisely how much supplies he needed. He pulled out his old leather wallet with duct tape on the seam, held together by an elastic band. We bought seed, compost, mulch, a spade and a rubber kneepad for dad’s bad knees.
The next morning dad tilled the hard earth. He spent hours getting the soil just right, mixing the compost, checking the pH with litmus paper. Then he dug up the rows and sectioned off four parts with wooden markers. They were labeled ‘lettuce,’ ‘beans,’ ‘beets,’ and ‘tomatoes,’ all good companion plants with plenty of space
Everyday Dad was up before the sun feeding the seedlings just the right amount of fertilizer. He measured it out in his beaker to be sure not to over or under feed. He tested the soil weekly.
After two weeks we saw some little sprouts peeking through the earth. Dad beamed. He talked to the plants from his rocking chair and watched over them like a doting father. Then one day he noticed a cute little tomato, about the size of a golf ball. Dad dusted him every day, stroking its smooth skin. He loved watching his little baby grow, he called it his ‘pomme d’ amour.’
One morning when Dad went to check on his tomato, he caught a squirrel holding it in his hairy little hands. Dad had planned on pulling the tomato off that day and enjoying it with some mayonnaise and salt. But now the tree rat had taken off with it. It bounded up onto the fence and stopped, looking at Dad as it sunk its teeth into poor little pomme d’ amour, flicking its tail mockingly. Dad released a string of obscenities I hadn’t heard since the night I snuck out of the house as a teenager. To make matters worse, we found the tomato the next morning in the grass with only a small bite taken out, as if it wasn’t even good enough for him. Dad picked it up and looked at it lovingly, shaking his head. This time it was personal.
Dad came out armed with a sprinkler the next day. He had done some research, if he kept the sprinkler running it should deter the squirrels. So he set up the sprinkler to go back and forth and back and forth across the yard and directly over his garden. He sat at the kitchen table eating his fat-free bran muffin, and within minutes the squirrel returned, only now he had a friend. They ran under the sprinkler like children, as if Dad had put it out there just for them. At one point the new friend actually rode the sprinkler back and forth, drinking the water as it sprayed him in the face. Dad was beside himself.
We went back to the hardware store, they recommended fencing in the garden. So we left with rolls of chicken wire. Dad spent the next two days clipping and securing the fence, intertwining the metal corners. It was impenetrable, nothing was getting through it. And nothing did, but they did get under it. Now the green beans had been stripped off the bush. The squirrel was still sitting on the fence, flicking his tail, eating a green bean as he watched my father check the fencing. Dad was so angry he got the hose and began trying to spray the varmint off the fence like a carnival game. The fuzzy rat ran up the tree, green bean in hand, and watched as my father continued to try and spray him, managing only to drench himself as the water rained back down on him. I swear I heard the squirrel laughing.
The next day he tried putting chili powder on the plants but they didn’t seem to mind that either. Dad was running out of ideas. It was man vs. beast. It wasn’t revenge he was after, it was the reckoning.
The next morning I returned.
“Dad you in here? Dad?” I looked out the kitchen window. He was sitting in his rocking chair overlooking his garden, a pistol in one hand a beer in the other.
“Dad, what the hell are you doing?”
“The furry bastard is driving me nuts,” Dad said.
“I can see that. I’m pretty sure this isn’t what the doctor had in mind for your blood pressure. And you drink now? It’s only 10 a.m.” I lectured.
“It’s just a sipper to steady the hand,” he explained.
“Where did you get a gun anyway?”
“It’s not a real gun, it’s a potato gun.”
“What the heck is a potato gun?”
“It shoots out bits of potato at high speeds to injure and scare the squirrels away. I got it from the neighbor. He used it to give the squirrel in his yard some serious brain damage,” he explained hopefully.
“Dad that sounds horribly inhumane.”
“You should see the monstrosities he’s got set up over there, hooks and claws meant to grab the little bastards by the necks and sever their feet. It’s like a torture chamber. They are getting into his attic. Tearing up his insolation. They are in his walls. They are ruining his house for God’s sake,” he said exasperated.
“Ok, ok. Calm down...I’m worried about you Dad,” I said as I got up to leave.
Just then the squirrel appeared on the fence doing his usual acrobatics. Dad stumbled to his feet and shot. The potato piece hit the fence and ricocheted back towards him as the squirrel lunged up into the tree like the next Ninja Warrior.
“Dad reload! Reload!” I yelled.
“Now look what you did. You ruined my concentration,” Dad said angrily scrambling to pick up rocks as he began hurling them up into the tree.
“You’re gonna break the neighbor’s window! Maybe you just need more target practice. I’m leaving.”
Dad put the gun in his pant waist, next to his slide ruler, the look of defeat in his eyes.
That night I stayed up late thinking of ways to help Dad. I could get him a rat terrier to chase the things away. He hated dogs though, we never had any pets growing up. The only thing he hated more than dogs, were cats. A cat would be good at stalking and killing prey though.
So the next day I went to the animal shelter and took a chance. If he didn’t want it I would keep it, it was worth a shot. I went to Dads with a basket of blankets, cat toys, food, a litter box, and a new grey cat. It wasn’t a kitten so he already knew how to use a litter box.
“What the hell is that?” Dad asked looking at the basket.
“It’s a gift,” I said. He opened it.
“No way,” he said.
“Oh Dad just try it, I read they’re good at keeping rodents away from your garden, and he’s already litter box trained. All you have to do is feed him. You’ve been here all alone since Mom died, you need a friend.”
The cat looked up at him and started to cleanse its nether regions on the kitchen table. “See he likes you,” I said.
“Fine. He gets one day. But tomorrow you’re taking it away if I change my mind,” he bargained
“Deal,” I said.
The next morning I eagerly went to see how their first night together went.
“Dad you home?” I looked out the window. Dad was sitting in his rocking chair as usual, the cat was sitting next to him eating from a can of tuna.
“Wellll, what’s happening out here?” I asked excitedly coming out the back door.
“Abby, you wouldn’t believe it! This damn cat already caught that squirrel. He left the thing on the back door for me this morning. Like a gift, it’s like he knew.”
A decapitated bloody squirrel lay in front of both of them, the cat cleansed its face with his paw.
“That’s great Dad! Should we give the thing a proper burial? It only seems fitting to give him a formidable good-bye,” I said.
“Hell with the damn thing,” he said as he threw the headless corpse over the fence into the woods.
“Let it serve as a warning for all his friends,” Dad said as he reached down to pat the cats head. "Good boy."