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arnie maddox: the crying squirrel
august 3, 2002

This is the second in a series of six "guest columns" by Arnie Maddox, while I tend to other business. In this episode, Cindy goes to a school dance; Arnie tries to convince her squirrels don't really empathize that much with people.

For information on Arnie, please see the notes at the end of this column.

I'll be back with the regular Lately entries September 7.

The Crying Squirrel

Cindy came downstairs for breakfast the other morning and told me the squirrel outside her window has been crying again.

This business with the squirrel started at the end of the Richardson school year, when there was a "big dance" being held at Cindy's school to celebrate completion of another year, and the beginning of Summer vacation.

Cindy wasn't going to go, but we had a father-daughter talk where I told her you never get ahead unless you try something, and I gave her a quarter and said, "If you get there and you give it an hour or so and you find out you really don't like it, call me on the phone and I'll come get you." I would never insist she go to the dance, but I felt sometimes it helps a person to be given a little push to get them into the water.

The next few days she was kind of quiet at the table, picking at her food, and I could tell she was thinking about the upcoming dance, but not thinking about it like it was something fun to do, but like it was a dentist appointment. I told her about a dance me and her Mom had gone to once to try to let her see a dance can be a lot of fun.

I guess that helped a little, because later that night, while we watched some TV together, Cindy sitting in her favorite chair, petting Rudo in her lap, I saw out of the corner of my eye a couple of times her face get expressions on it like you get while you're talking to someone, and I knew that in her own quiet way she was rehearsing talking to people (read: boys) at the dance. It made me feel good.

The next afternoon though, with the dance still a week away, she came out of the living room when I got home, dragging her feet along, and when I asked what the matter was, she burst into tears and told me everyone was going to sit with a boy at the dance except for her (the boys had all asked the other girls if they could sit with them, apparently). I shrugged my shoulders, acting non-plussed. "Well, that just puts you at an advantage, that's all."

Her red face looked up at me out of its misery. "What do you mean?"

"Well, there's probably going to be a lot more boys there than girls. That always happens. The other girls, they're already tied down to the boys who asked to sit with them. But you, you'll be free to sit with whichever boy you want to. Maybe even a few boys."

"But it's going to be embarrassing!"

"No it won't. Sit with Margaret, and you two can talk to each other. You'll have fun."

She looked up at me distrustingly, but at least she had stopped crying.

Later, over dinner, pushing her fork around her plate, she said, "Are squirrels smart?"

I dug into some more mashed potatoes, but stopped before lifting them. "Yeah. I mean, for an animal that lives in a tree."

"There's this squirrel in the tree outside my window? And this morning, I was thinking about how no boy has asked me to sit next to him at the dance. You know. And I started crying. And at one point I looked out the window and the squirrel was crying on his branch."

"What do you mean, he was crying?"

She raised her eyebrows at my stupidity. "His head was shaking, and he had his hands over his eyes, and he was making a noise that sounds like he's, like, really unhappy. Really sad."

"I don't think squirrels cry."

"This one did. He's cried in the past, too. Everytime I'm unhappy, he's unhappy. I don't think it's a coincidence anymore," she challenged.

Well, I wasn't gong to argue with my daughter about whether or not squirrels cry, so I let it go.

Cindy didn't feel any of the clothes she owned would be right for the dance, so I took her and Margaret out to Spring Creek Mall, to a couple of the shops there, so she could find something she'd feel comfortable in (one of the hardest things about being a single Dad is trying to keep up with school fashion!).

Anyway, she and Margaret spent a really long time looking at a bunch of different clothes. We finally settled on a nice pants and blouse outfit (Cindy prefers pants to dresses). Then it turns out we had to buy shoes that matched the outfit, and then a purse that matched the shoes. It was worth it though, because she looked really lovely when she put everything together.

The day of the dance Margaret came over early, and I could hear her and Cindy up in Cindy's room through the ceiling, and by the constant thumping sounds, it was clear they were rehearsing different dance steps, some of which seemed rather complicated.

Around five o'clock Franklin, Margaret's Dad, arrived to take the girls to the dance (Franklin and I worked out a deal where he'd drop them off, and I'd pick them up later). My little girl looked beautiful. I took a couple of pictures of her and Margaret, and surprised her with a fresh flower with a pin in it I bought at the florist that morning (I got Margaret one too).

I left the house at 8:30 that night to make sure I'd be there in plenty of time before the dance ended, so they wouldn't have to stand around outside, but they were both outside already, looking glum. The way they piled silently into the car I could tell something was wrong. "So how'd it go?" Cindy didn't say anything, just sat next to me with a sullen little profile I've been seeing more and more of lately. Margaret, I guess because I wasn't her Dad, and therefore she had to show me some manners, said, "It was okay."

We dropped Margaret off. I waited a couple of blocks, then said, "So how'd it go?" Cindy pushed her face against the side window, and started sobbing. I felt terrible, and tried to get us home as quickly as possible, taking a hand off the steering wheel to pet her on the shoulder.

It took about an hour of teeth pulling in the kitchen while I fixed us some homemade nachos, but evidently, no one had asked her to dance, and none of the boys sat next to her. Later, the next day, I found out from Franklin, who had found out from Margaret, that apparently one of the girls there said something mean to my daughter, some unkind remark about her weight, and apparently one of the boys standing around who overheard the remark laughed. I'm not going to give this boy's name, but evidently he's someone Cindy "likes." For all I know, he may have been the boy she was pretend-talking to with Rudo on her lap the other day.

I wasn't sure what to do, but I wound up going up to her room, where she was sitting on her bed, just staring out the window. Her red eyes watched me walk over to the foot of the bed. "Honey, I'm sorry things didn't work out last night. Maybe I should just have never brought the dance up."

She didn't say anything, she just pointed triumphantly at the window.

Outside, on a branch, a squirrel had his paws clutched over his head, his body trembling. As I watched, he lifted his little grey head up at the sky, mouth opening and shutting. It did look like he was crying.

I couldn't think of anything profound to say, and didn't think it was the right time to argue with her. "Does he laugh when you're happy?"

She shook her head, shoes pulled against her body. "I'm never happy anymore."

Well, I know that's an exaggeration, but I also know how hard it can be growing up, especially when you start getting into the teenage years. So I talked quietly to her for a while, mostly about my own problems when I was at school (misery loves company), and after a while she started laughing at some of my jokes. When she stopped hugging her shoes, and actually interrupted me to tell an even worse story that had happened at her school, I played my trump card: "Anyone want some inside-out turkey?" (the recipe's on my Chow page).

While we stood in front of the stove, waiting for the turkey to be done, she reached over and squeezed my hand for a second, and told me she loved me.

It makes it all worth while.


Effective July 27, I'm taking six weeks off from writing Lately, to work on other projects.

While I'm gone, there'll be a guest columnist here, Arnie Maddox.

Some of you may remember I used to maintain a second website in addition to SENTENCE, called Jump Down the Hole. The site was dedicated to writing fiction in forms specific to the Web. For example, I had an informational site there on Antarctica, but an Antarctica re-imagined as a nation that has existed for forty thousand years (which I'm currently revising for SENTENCE), and an e-serial novel (which later evolved into my fourth novel, As Dead As Me).

Another feature on the site was The Maddox Family Home Page, in which I told the story of a fictional family through the conventions of a typical "We're the Smiths!" homepage, complete with family news, recipes, a guestbook (which I loaded with fictional entries), poetic efforts by the father, etc. The site linked to other family sites on the Internet, some of them real sites, some of them fake sites created by me, to further blur the distinction between reality and fiction.

The feature was popular. In fact, I'd get e-mails from people who'd write to Arnie thinking he was a real person, instead of me in stomach padding with a digitally receded hairline.

I dropped Jump Down the Hole in 2000 simply because it was too much work to maintain both sites. However, I still sometimes receive requests from people who want to know where they can read the Musings columns Arnie would write on his day-to-day life. Each Musing was meant to be a self-contained story which also advanced the larger story of Arnie and his fourteen year old daughter, Cindy. I structured each entry along the lines of a TV sitcom episode, a problem introduced at the beginning, which is sometimes mirrored by a subordinate story, then resolved at the end.

Think of the six entries reprinted here, one a week, as an e-serial.

I myself will be back with a new Lately column September 7.

Of all the characters I've created over the years, Arnie is probably the most decent, albeit sometimes a bit slow on the uptake. I hope you enjoy his adventures.