Carol sat in her late husband Hand’s quarter-backed yellow chair, holding Hand’s old red mug full of cold milk. She did this every morning. After she drank the milk she rinsed the mug and left it in the right side of the sink. Carol tried to call her daughter Jessel, but Jessel did not answer. In another eight years it is Jessel who finds her father’s mug at the foot of the chair with the milk run out of it, her mother right next to it stiff as hell.
Carol went outside. At the base of her sycamore sat a squirrel.
“You look like someone,” Carol said.
The squirrel scratched up and around the back of the trunk. Carol looked around one side and then the other. The squirrel swung back and forth the opposite in a lover’s game. Carol recalled a lover’s game with Hand where, then, like now, she was not wearing shoes. The roots were hard. The sycamore’s buttonballs covered the ground.
Carol went and bought a jar of peanut butter. She scraped a scoop at the base of the sycamore and set out some dried leaves and sat down in the grass. The squirrel came down the tree, ate the peanut butter, and took the leaves back up. Carol went inside to try Jessel again.
“Really,” she said. “It doesn’t take too much encouragement to convince someone to build a new home. People will go where they are welcomed.”
“It’s not a people, Mom.”
The other end of the phone was very alive. It was sometimes difficult for Carol to believe that Jessel had a family of her own. When she was seven years old Jessel insisted on eating everything with chopsticks. One Sunday evening she sat cross-legged and pitched-forward in front of the television, eating hot fudge from the jar. When it came to a commercial Jessel popped the chopstick into her mouth, sprang up, and lost her balance on the turn. She slammed into the wall, and the chopstick put a hole in the back of her throat, very nearly out the back of her neck. It took three stitches to close.
“I have to go,” Jessel said. “They have salmonella, Mom.”
Jessel hung up. Carol spent the day outside. She left more peanut butter, gave more leaves. A storm made its way across the western states striking thirty six houses with lightning, none of which caught fire. The squirrel built a nest in a branch of the sycamore that stretched out over the road. That night the storm arrived, and Carol never heard the snap of the branch.
Hand had left the house early one morning. He drove ten minutes to a five-story building called The Atrium. The Atrium was a commercial building whose tenants included two dentists, three psychiatrists, a real estate firm, a credit union, several wealth management companies and capital advisors, and a plastic surgeon. The Atrium was so named for the ground-to-ceiling chamber at the heart of its design. The walkway of each floor wrapped around the open core. The front door of every office opened onto the walkway with a view right down to the ground.
Hand arrived thirty minutes before most of the offices opened. He took the elevator to the fifth floor and jumped into the cavity of The Atrium. Hand landed head first on ceramic tiles, his blood and shit spraying up the white wall at his left. He was found almost immediately by a real estate agent who had showed up early to print some personal documents and heard what sounded like the crack of a wooden bat against a big yellow softball. Hand lived long enough for the ambulance ride. It jostled the pieces of his shoulders. His ribs, his neck, and his spine—the pain was not what killed him, but it did not help.
“It was no secret that he suffered,” said a doctor.
Most of the offices closed for the day.
In the morning Carol forgot all about Hand’s chair and Hand’s mug and the cold milk. This would be the only time she forgot about the ritual until her death. She took the peanut butter outside. The squirrel was dead in the road. She stepped in the street and scooted the squirrel to the curb with her foot, but that did not look right. Carol scooped the squirrel and placed it on the tree lawn. After a few minutes of petting it from head to toe she forced its mouth open and filled it with peanut butter, stuffing it until it was gap-jawed and gawking. Carol closed the squirrel’s eyes as cars drove by on their way from home to wherever. She got in her car and drove half an hour to Jessel’s without first calling. Her daughter refused to let her in.
“That’s ridiculous,” Carol said, looking over her hands.
“No it’s not,” said Jessel. “You need to sterilize. Everything.”
Carol drove home. It was hot, and she rolled down the window and turned on the radio. One man told a caller that it was not okay to lie about ghosts. She changed the station and another man said there was no reason not to be both mad and alive. On a different station, one Carol would never find, an automated DJ played a sweet song in which a woman sang all about the things that her lover had built for her.