Alex once saw a squirrel drown. It happened a few years back, after a short but violent summer storm. The squirrel fought desperately to get back up on shore, but the smooth wall of the wharf offered no grip to its paws. Each hopeful impulse was reined in by the weight of its soaked tail as the greedy current kept pulling it westward toward the troubled waters of the East River. Alex just stood and watched, waiting for the last splash, unable to alter the course of its fate.
This memory came back to him Monday morning, when Alex noticed it for the first time. Bursts of tapping and scratching in the ceiling above his bedroom left no doubt: a squirrel had found its way inside the wooden frame of his roof. He could hear it racing from one end to the other of the railroad apartment, and even hear the rolling of acorns being stored in the hollows of the structure.
The landlord’s initial response had been downright dismissive. Well, if it dies that’s the end of it, he said to Carla over the phone. He showed up on Friday of that week. After assessing the situation, he made it clear that he was not going to pay anybody to get a trapped rodent out of the roof. Alex explained that he’d actually seen the squirrel going up and down the fire escape, and that it was probably using the building to store more food for the winter. The landlord’s answer was predictable: Some bait and poison on the rooftop should do the trick, then. I hate to kill the little guy, but there’s nothing else I can do.
How do you know you’ll be poisoning the right squirrel, Carla asked.
Let me worry about that, he answered.
On reflection, Alex knew he couldn’t have done anything to save that first squirrel from drowning. Mother Nature’s fury had blown a branch, squirrel and all, right off the trunk of a London plane and into the turbid waters of Newtown Creek. The squirrel’s death, sad as it was, had been at all events a natural occurrence. And even if the struggling rodent had been within his reach, Alex had no business interfering with a script written at much higher spheres.
By comparison, this squirrel making noises in the ceiling had actually transgressed a pivotal rule upon which animal-human (and human-human) relations are built: Any threat to a human dwelling constitutes grounds for extermination. In the much smaller context of this orthodox approach to mortal matters, Alex felt compelled to act as a benign priest, a clever monkey touched by the spark of a higher consciousness, yet capable of empathy and compassion toward this lesser creature, who, in its dim level of awareness, had neither recognized the facts of its boundaries, nor realized the gravity of their transgression. Tomorrow morning, in the early light, Alex would make sure the squirrel got its pardon.
Carla was still in bed when Alex went out the window to the fire escape and climbed the ladder onto the rooftop. The morning sun reverberated off silvery surfaces. Alex had a clear sense of purpose, though. He turned from the skyline glistening in the distance and started searching for possible entries. He inspected the slightly slanted surface, but it showed no cracks, holes or openings of any kind.
Then, he thought he heard a noise in the façade end of the roof—it was near the top of the linden tree planted on the sidewalk. He walked to that corner and cautiously looked over, first over the front and then over the side of the building. There: the ripped vinyl tile and the dark mouth of a hole big enough for a squirrel to get through.
Alex didn’t like heights. Still, he lay on his stomach and reached down to probe the opening with his right hand. Even so, his arm could barely reach all the way down. Inch by inch his body crawled past the edge of the roof until he could easily slide three fingers in the hole. This is it, he thought. Then, as he was pulling his hand back out, he felt a shooting pain on the tip of his middle finger and promptly lost his balance. His body swung like a pendulum. Only the grip of his left hand on the raised edge of the roof stopped him from falling off. As he dangled from his fingers, one of which was bleeding, he saw the squirrel jump out of the hole and reach the end of a bough.
Alex fought desperately to get back on the rooftop, but the smooth tiled wall of the building offered no grip to his feet. Each hopeful impulse was reined in by the weight of his own fattening middle aged body, as the greedy gravity of the planet kept pulling him toward the trash containers 30 feet below. There was no one watching, no one waiting for the last splat, no one able to change the course of his fate. But he didn’t have time to appreciate the irony. He could only hope that Carla’s sleep wasn’t as heavy as usual as he yelled for help as loud as he could.