It’s Thursday and my creative nonfiction class wants to talk about squirrels.
They don’t want to discuss why The Fourth State of Matter, a memoir, is narrated in present tense or talk about how the author, Jo Ann Beard, uses aspects of craft from fiction to establish character and setting. Nope. My students want to talk about the squirrels and what the hell squirrels are doing in a memoir about a school shooting.
“There are squirrels living in the spare bedroom upstairs,” Beard writes. One of her dogs, an ancient collie, is dying and her husband has moved out, showing up now as “a troubled voice on the telephone three or four times a day,” but those things are bearable. “What I can’t take are the squirrels,” she writes. “They come alive at night, throwing terrible parties in the spare bedroom, making thumps and crashes.”
Eventually, the squirrels are removed by a woman named Caroline, a former beauty queen who shows up in a tool belt carrying a ladder. A day or so later, the author will leave work through a set of double doors, passing the graduate student who will shoot and kill her best friend and half-dozen others.
In every class there are always a few students you can count on for discussion, students who raise their hands politely and give dutiful but uninspired answers to your questions. Others shift in their chairs or peek at the cell phones they’ve parked on their crotches and hope you don’t call on them. The hand-raisers are often the same students who will wait by your desk after class and tell you how anxious they are about their final grade. They’re sophomores and juniors, but they’re already thinking about applying to med school/law school/pharmacy school and they can’t afford to get anything less than an A. Please, please.
Today though it’s not just the polite students raising their hands; it’s everybody, a flapping thicket of hands, and they need to talk about the squirrels.
The squirrels are stupid, says a guy, a lacrosse player who will dress in Aloha shirts and wear flip flops well into December. He hands in rambling essays about the meaning of sports and when I press him to go deeper, beyond clichés, he will write about the stupid things guys do in locker rooms and how he’s embarrassed sometimes to be an athlete. I am not like them, he writes.
The squirrels are necessary, says a young woman who wears combat boots and a lot of eyeliner. Her essays are assembled from disjointed fragments that are lyric and sonic delights. I often read them out loud to my cat, who blinks and snores.
Necessary how, I say?
It’s suddenly quiet.
The squirrels are, like, life, says a kid in the back row. We turn and look at him. It’s the first time he’s spoken all semester.
We are two years from Sandy Hook, in which twenty children ages six and seven will be slaughtered; six years from the shootings at Pulse Nightclub, seven years from an outdoor concert near the Las Vegas Strip. The survivors will say later that they were dancing or walking down a hallway, texting a parent or arguing with a lover when the shooting started. Like, life, I will think. You’re worrying about squirrels when you walk through a door and say hello to a man who, in minutes, will slaughter several of your friends.
After class that day, I imagine I did Thursday things--picked up some sushi and a bottle of wine and watched Grey’s Anatomy, an episode where PTSD is playing out in the wake of a deadly shooting the season before. In ten years, Grey’s will blink off in the midst of a season while in real hospitals, a real person will die each minute of a virus that’s the stuff of movies. We’ll get used to veering around each other on a sidewalk, get used to covering our mouths and noses with a strip of cloth so that seeing someone bare-faced is as startling as glimpsing them naked. We’ll retreat to our houses and go virtual, become little squares of ourselves in bad light that shows every unslept night.
We’ll miss the squirrels. We’ll wish them back, welcome their squall and scuffle, the chaos that can be caged and released in a way that grief refuses to be.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis; A Brief Natural History of an American Girl (Accents Publishing, 2012), Sort of Gone (Turning Point Books, 2008) and We, forthcoming from Harbor Editions in late 2020. Recent work has been featured on Writer’s Almanac, appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Fractured Lit, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018) and Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006. She lives and swims in Rochester, New York.
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