The squirrel’s eyes darted left and right scanning the branches of the nearby tree inspecting each possible bridge to safety, his hind claws planted firmly into the top of the wooden swing set. Mickey noticed this because the new neighbor’s two Dobermans noticed. Now Mickey watched the squirrel whom he’d nicknamed “The General” because of the demonstrative flare of his unusually large, white tail. That and the way Mickey swore the squirrel would often stand at attention as if saluting his brother in arms.
It’s too damn early for this shit, Mickey grumbled to himself as he took a long, delicious swig of beer and exhaled a thick fog of vapor into the cool autumn air. The dogs had been barking steadily for nearly twenty minutes and it was giving Mickey a headache. He’d been drinking since seven when he walked outside to find the mailbox, his deceased wife had built, splattered into a thousand multi-colored, hand-painted, memory filled slivers across the driveway and sidewalk. Before he could start cleaning, the Doberman’s began barking, and the General’s situation grabbed his attention. Mickey looked on with a jilted sort of despair. He’d grown rather fond of the squirrel, which was more than he could say about the majority of his neighbors, most of them the children of those who’d settled the area when it was first built in the seventies and the few settlers that remained were those Mickey cared for the least. Standing in his driveway holding a beer and a broom, he watched the squirrel and waited to see what course of action it would take. The General was trapped, six feet or more from the nearest branch sturdy enough to hold the weight of that goddamn tail, Mickey thought. He’d never make the jump; he’d have to make a run for it, but that option wasn’t any better. The Dobermans were vicious and seemed pissed that this lesser vermin dare step foot in their yard.
Mickey was engrossed in the standoff and half-gone in a daydream. He was thinking of how the squirrel’s predicament reminded him of something that happened during the war when he came across the body of a British soldier dangling from the top of a fifty-foot tall tree. The thought of the man climbing the tree to escape the Germans only to be used as target practice once discovered stuck with Mickey all those years; as so many bad memories had with so few good ones to fill the void.
The screech of tires stirred Mickey from his trance and he looked over to see Connor Murphy kneeling in the center of the four-way stop, picking his newspapers up off of the ground, with twenty-four hundred pounds of steaming Volkswagen just feet away. Connor Murphy was the nine-year old son of the local mechanic whose family lived in the tri-level near the top of the hill on Rafferty Drive and had just began a paper route in the neighborhood. Mickey always viewed the boy as a little dim, peculiar perhaps. Over the summer Mickey had found tire tracks through his flower garden, and Connor was his prime suspect. In recent weeks Connor rode around on his bike all day, even school days, down and back up the hill and through the intersecting alleys of the red, brick low-income houses that had been built more recently, along the spine of the neighborhood that Mickey had called home for thirty-five years.
“What the hell’s wrong with you boy?” Mickey hollered in his gravely timbre as Connor approached on foot and limping, to which Connor offered no reply. Mickey was normally short of patience, but after the events of the morning he had no tolerance for a kid being disrespectful and ignoring his question. Connor’s eyes seemed magnetically drawn to the ground. He looked like a boy caught stealing in a thrift store, terrified of old man Callahan, the moniker that the neighborhood children had given him. Mickey unsteadily leaned over a bit so that the two were eye to eye.
“There’s an old saying that goes like this son; your feet may control the pace with which you travel, but it’s your eyes that control the destination. Do you know what that means lad?” After a short pause Mickey said, “It means watch where you’re fucking going.”
Mickey stood up and took an extra-long drink of beer but Connor stayed perfectly still but quivering, like a skyscraper absorbing the force of an earthquake, and he didn’t move until Mickey motioned down the hill with beer dripping from his finger and returned his attention to the squirrel and the dogs. Connor made it about one hundred feet when Mickey snapped around and yelled, “Where’s my paper? And where’s your damn bike boy?”
Connor explained that some bullies from school had taken it and thrown it down the big hill in McGovern Park, rendering it unridable, but Connor wasn’t paying attention to Mickey. He was examining the inside of Mickey’s garage. Mickey followed Connor’s gaze inside and noticed a pile of overturned boxes, one marked “Stay Out!” with a red sleeve with white trim poking out. Another full of old grainy pictures that had poured out onto the garage floor. Mickey didn’t remember, but assumed that he’d taken a drunken trip down memory lane the night before. “Give me my paper and be on your way boy,” Mickey snarled. As soon as Connor was out of sight Mickey returned the boxes to their places on the shelf and looked back to the General as it sat at the very edge of the swing set. Suddenly its tail stiffened, eyes fixed on the shaky branch ahead. Then it jumped.
“Damn thing made it, Edith!” Mickey chuckled as he entered the garage door that connected it to the empty kitchen, passing the hallway cluttered with pictures of Edith and his son Sean from a toddler through middle-school. He tossed the empty beer can and opened a new one. While most people were eating breakfast he was finishing a six-pack. Mickey sat in his recliner thinking of how he missed his wife while looking at a framed picture of her from before the stroke when she still had that gorgeous smile. Then he looked through the durchreiche and into the kitchen where an envelope sat on the kitchen table. It was a letter that he’d written his son Sean months before, but had never sent. He stared at it, now a yellowish pigment from cigarette smoke, and threw it back down on the table. Not yet, he whispered into the beer can as it approached his lips.
Mickey made his way back outside to find Blanche, the nosiest of nosey neighbors making her way across the street to observe the fractured post.
“Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “What in the Lord’s name happened?” she asked, surely feigning concern while fishing for information. Meddling Bitch, Mickey thought.
“Don’t know. Looks like someone took a fucking bat to it,” Mickey replied as he drank from his beer. He could see that his choice of words and the beer for breakfast had caught her a bit off guard and he enjoyed watching her blush. She hid her disgust well however, and continued prying.
“Well I didn’t hear that, but I did hear some yelling from up the hill around midnight,” she explained, “Sounded like two women, but I’m not sure yet.” Mickey noted that she said yet, as she was surely just getting her daily snooping started. “Might have been the people making all that noise that broke your mailbox. Maybe you should ask around.”
“No, no. I’m not going on any manhunt, besides it seems the neighborhood’s best bloodhound is on the case,” he said, giving her a devilish wink which set her skin ablaze as he turned his back to her, leaving her standing alone in the yard. She stared a hole into the back of him and turned around just as he walked into the garage and turned the sprinklers on.
Mickey didn’t care to ask any questions because he suspected the culprit was more likely someone from the low-income houses built along the backside of his comfy ridge, like barnacles attached to the back of a whale. Mickey’s house sat on Calleigh, the steep, hilly street that ran down the middle of the neighborhood and through his kitchen window he could see the encroaching tenements perched atop the ridge behind his home. They weren’t quite tenements, but the uniformity of them gave Mickey an uneasy feeling; all red brick and single story with about ten feet separating each home. Housing like that, Mickey proclaimed, is meant for those who are slowly dying but don’t know it yet.
On his way to the hardware store, Mickey came to the last stop before exiting the neighborhood and saw Connor standing at the corner. He appeared lost, looking back and forth in either direction like a foreigner who’d never been there before and would rather stay lost in that spot then lost in another. It was then that something Mickey had overheard Blanche tell Vera Kelley a few weeks prior rang out in his mind. “They’re getting a divorce,” she’d half-ass whispered. The mystery that Mickey hadn’t cared to solve before was who, until he stopped to think of how much more time Connor had been spending riding around on his bike alone instead of at home.
Connor’s distant stare stuck with Mickey throughout the evening. He’d seen that look before but couldn’t place it even though it seemed so imbedded in his memory. It reminded Mickey of a soldier he knew who received a letter that his father had been murdered back home, but with less anger and more despair. Perhaps he recalled it from one of his co-workers when the steel mill closed down. He kept searching for the image in his mind that matched Connors and couldn’t, but no matter who it was, it caused him to feel great sympathy for the boy. After a few glasses of whiskey, Mickey went to the garage and began to attempt to create a perfect replica of the blue and white mailbox that Edith had made for him just before her body began to falter. The silence of his empty home was yet another reminder to Mickey of those he’d lost. As he looked around in his drunken haze he saw phantoms of his past, Edith washing dishes, watching him and Sean as they ate their dinner, and being ready with a cool wet cloth and her ever calming presence whenever Mickey would awake from a nightmare.
Oh Sean, his smart little boy. Mickey thought of his son often, but when remembering him he tended to think of him in his childlike form, not as an adult or even from his high school years. A rift had grown between the two when Mickey’s suspicions were confirmed and just after Thanksgiving dinner when Sean was fifteen, he went down to the den where Mickey sat, and told him that he was gay. He told Mickey that he had met a boy that made him happy, happier than he’d been in his whole life. Mickey took that statement as an affront to not only manhood, but to his relationship with his son. The thought that some homosexual relationship made him happier than anything Mickey had done over the years drove him to stand up and walk out of the room. As he left, Sean reached out and grabbed his arm demanding a response, any response. Mickey whipped around and told him that he was disgusted. He went on a tirade about how Sean, being the only son, was destroying the family name. He ended his diatribe and stormed out of the house, out into a snowstorm wearing his loafers and no coat, displaying his own manliness.
Memories flooded Mickey’s mind, every tender moment and every heated argument. He stood in his living room and watched a figment of Sean standing near the window, looking outside and watching the snowflakes fall and all the neighborhood children romping through the porcelain drifts. Mickey teetered into the kitchen and sat down at the table. He reached for the bottle of whiskey and his arm brushed the unsent letter to his son. He ripped at the envelope and unfolded the letter. For the past few years Mickey had begun to feel that he should be the bigger man and forgive his son for his life choices and put all this animosity behind them. So he wrote a letter to Sean describing his feelings and why he didn’t approve of a sinful lifestyle that was damned in the eyes of God, even though Mickey hadn’t been to mass in over a decade. The tone of the letter changed as he told Sean how he missed him. He missed Sean’s wit and that sophisticated mind that Mickey didn’t have. How Sean’s point of view on topics of conversation would often catch him off guard, having never thought of things from that perspective.
His emotions began to mix with the alcohol and he soon began to cry. There he was all alone and it was of his own doing. After Edith passed he pushed everyone in his life away, began to drink more, and looked skeptically at every person he passed. Everyone was a suspect of some crime Mickey had yet to discover. His paranoia was growing every day. He was angry and alone; quite a tragic combination. Mickey sat on the floor gripping the bottle in one hand and reaching up to the wall mounted telephone with the other.
“Hello?” said the voice on the other end.
Mickey paused for a moment, then with a slur replied, “I love you son.”
There was another pause before the person responded, “Sir, I think you have the wrong number,” and then hung up the phone.
“I love you…” Mickey mumbled, barely intelligibly, which didn’t matter because no one could hear him. He slumped to the floor leaving the phone dangling and the dial tone humming.
The following morning he awoke and staggered out to the porch to get his paper, but it wasn’t there. A light drizzle of rain was falling, bringing with it a cool chill; A sign of the approaching winter weather. Across the street, the General was back atop the swing set when the Doberman’s were let out into the backyard. He was still and calm from what Mickey could see, nothing like the skittish behavior he’d had before. The General was holding an apple core and ignored the barking dogs. The branch that he jumped to the day before had broken from his weight, so this escape route was blocked. Mickey looked on and smirked at the boldness of the General who stood up on its hind legs and looked in Mickey’s direction. Mickey saluted him in return as his other hand patted each pocket on his clothes searching for a cigarette. The squirrel then dropped the apple and the two dogs leapt at it and began fighting over it. By the time the two Dobermans realized that the squirrel wasn’t on the swing set anymore, he had scaled the fence and the closest tree as well. Mickey laughed aloud at the General’s ingenuity. He took that damn apple with him in case the dogs came out. Just have to outsmart them, Mickey thought.
There was Connor limping down the street towards Mickey noticeably avoiding eye contact. Mickey’s back popped and cracked as he rose. Sleeping on a linoleum floor was not a wise decision.
“Hey Lad, Might I have a word with you?” Mickey called out.
Connor froze in place and slowly looked up at Mickey. Then to either side and behind him, but it was only him.
“Come on, before the sun sets,” Mickey rasped. Connor hesitantly made his way across the street and up to Mickey’s yard. The limp was noticeable and it appeared that the boy was wearing the same clothes as the day before, only dirtier and damp. His hair was a mess and his eyes were still coated with sleep. He was covered with a thin coat of dirt, especially on the left side of his face, hoodie, and jeans. Upon closer inspection Mickey noticed a bright blue sliver of wood stuck in the fabric of his hood. Things began to come together.
The argument that Blanche had overheard was not between two women but a mother and a nine year-old boy. That explained Connor’s lethargic manner. He hadn’t been back home. He must have sped off on his bike in the middle of the night, fleeing from the argument and wrecked into Mickey’s mailbox. Mickey had thought that if he found the person who destroyed one of the last connections he had to Edith, that he would unleash a fury on them the likes of which they hadn’t formerly thought possible. But now, seeing this broken boy before him, he felt no anger, only pity.
“What exactly is wrong with your bike?” Mickey asked.
“The front rims bent and the spokes snapped and the chain’s broken,” Connor responded.
“All that, from a fall down a hill huh?” Mickey asked mainly to see Connor’s reaction.
“I guess so,” Connor said in a quivering voice. He obviously wasn’t used to lying, he was so bad at it, Mickey thought.
“Come with me,” Mickey commanded, leading Connor into the living room, “Wait here.” Mickey walked upstairs and returned with some of Sean’s old clothes and told Connor to change as he walked into the kitchen and poured a shot. When he returned he stopped in the doorway and saw Connor standing near the window looking outside at the rain. It struck him soundly. That look, that desperate stare that he’d seen from Connor, he realized where he’d seen it before. He’d seen it from his son Sean when he was Connor’s age. That look of no hope, no happiness. He’d always attributed it to the normal changes of adolescence, but now it made sense.
Mickey ushered Connor out to his car and drove him from house to house to deliver his papers with his old golfing umbrella as the rain turned to sleet. They spoke little in the car. Connor looked exhausted and fell asleep just before they approached the last eight houses. Mickey got out and delivered those papers. When they arrived at Connor’s home, Mickey shook him awake to which he looked around and down into his paper-bag and realized what Mickey had done. “Bout time for school, eh?” Mickey asked.
“We’re on fall break this week. No school.”
“Okay, then be at my house at 0700 tomorrow morning. That’s seven a.m.,” he ordered, “and bring your bike.”
“Are you going to fix it for me?” Connor asked with a guilty look as the two sides came to an understanding of where they stood.
“No, you are, but I’m going to show you how.” Connor’s mother Moira was sitting on the porch watching, without the slightest look of interest as to why her son hadn’t been home or why he was in the car with a stranger. “I’ve got your son, Ma’am!” he hollered out the window, faking a smile. She merely raised her hand in response and returned the cigarette to her mouth. Mickey began to get more pissed off with each second of her blasé demeanor. Not only because of what it meant for Connor, but because it raised thoughts of his own indifferent attitude with Sean all those years.
A quick drive to Flannery’s Pub helped to calm him down or rather push the emotions deeper to where he could temporarily ignore them. He’d begun drinking heavily after he returned home from the service. The only place where he felt suitable was the battlefield where he’d either end up a hero or a martyr. Here, he just existed.
That evening he received a phone call from his sister Marianne, informing him that Sean had just passed the bar exam and had been hired as a public defender. Mickey felt a pride that had been suppressed by alcohol and prejudice for years. He tried to compose himself after the conversation, but the guilt was overbearing. That night he had terrible nightmares where he was running through Hurtgen Forest alone at night. He had no bearing or idea in which direction his regiment was located. He viewed every footstep as possible suicide because he may be moving ever closer to the Germans line. So he stayed in that spot, hiding in a sewer drain, doing his best to muffle his sobs.
Seven o’clock sharp and Connor was ringing the doorbell. Mickey took him into the garage and they got to work as Mickey handed Connor tools and explained what to do. Connor caught on quickly and afterward Mickey once again drove Connor from house to house to deliver his papers. When they returned to Connor’s home Mickey stopped the car.
“Same time tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do about those spokes.” Mickey said.
Connor didn’t respond, just stared at the floorboard. “Can I go with you?”
The straggling leaves left on the branches bright brown. Mickey watched them as a few finally let go and floated down onto Mickey’s windshield. “I have some things to do today, perhaps tomorrow.”
“But maybe I could help you with something. I forgot the key to my house,” he lied. “I could go with you to the bar and sit in one of the booths. I know you like going there. I wouldn’t bother you. I promise.”
Mickey stared out through the spaces between the leaves on his windshield. For a moment his heart warmed at the thought of the boy wanting his company, but he soon wondered if it had more to do with avoiding his own home. “Where’s your mother, can’t she let you in?” Connor was silent. “Where’s your pop these days?” Mickey continued. Connor threw the car door open and ran to the end of the street, veering up towards the brick homes on the ridge before Mickey could exit the car.
Mickey walked up to the house and knocked on the door and got no answer. He could hear the television, so he knocked harder.
“Just wait a goddamn second!” he heard Moira Murphy yell from inside. “Did you forget your fucking key again? You got half a brain like your fath-” she gulped down the last few words as she opened the door to Mickey’s glaring eyes. “I’m sorry. I thought you were my boy.”
“And that’s how you talk to him? What the hell’s the matter with you? Do you even care where Connor’s been the past few days? He got in a wreck and has been favoring his leg, which I’m sure you hadn’t noticed. He should see a doctor. He’s nine-years old! He needs to be home with parents that give half a shit about him. Not some drunken idiot!” Mickey’s blood boiled over at this sad excuse for a mother.
“Oh,” she laughed, “You’re one to talk. Everyone in this neighborhood knows how big of an asshole you are. Always walking around like you own the fucking place. You should step down off of that high horse Mr., because I can smell the alcohol on you too.” She took a long drag from her cigarette, “Where’s your son?” Her long, thin body leaned against the door jam, one arm wrapped around her waist. Mickey figured that Blanche had mentioned him and his family at some point to Moira, and her ammunition hit him square in the chest.
The following day was Saturday and Mickey awoke, quite surprised to see Connor standing on his porch at exactly 7 a.m. Mickey made himself a drink and made his way into the garage to see Connor sitting Indian-style on the floor, going through one of the boxes from the shelf.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing boy?” he yelled and raced over to see that the box he was looking in was the one containing his service uniform, some medals, and pictures he’d taken during his time in the war. The box marked “Stay Out” still sat in its place on the top shelf.
“You were a soldier!” Connor exclaimed as if he’d just met Captain America himself.
“Aye, I was”, Mickey responded, lost in the memories that the photos resurfaced.
Connor held Mickey’s Silver Star in astonishment. “A real hero”, he said speaking to himself.
“Enough of this lad. Your bike’s almost finished. Let’s see to that and I’ll show you this stuff another time.” Mickey quickly tossed the pictures and medal back into the box and returned it to the shelf. “You don’t touch anything without asking me first, understand?”
As they worked, Connor seemed to talk a little more, smile more as well. “Christmas is only a month away,” he said. “What will you ask Santa for?”
Oh, the things that Mickey would ask for, if he knew that asking was all it took. “People like me don’t get presents from Santa,” he responded. “I’m on the permanent naughty list. I’ve done some really bad things in my life.”
“Like during the war?” Connor questioned?
Mickey paused for a moment looking down at wide-eyed Connor, “Mostly after,” he replied.
Then Connor stunned Mickey with a simple question that he was afraid to face the answer to. “Why?” he asked. Mickey spent the rest of the day searching for an answer to Connor’s question. Snow was beginning to fall and each snowflake that passed Mickey’s gaze reflected a single moment in time. A replacement cowering in a foxhole, Sean’s first steps, Edith’s deathbed. “Why?” he whispered to himself as Connor made a snow angel in the driveway. Connor arose rather suddenly as a boy a little older than he came riding his bike over the hill on the opposite sidewalk. As he approached Mickey’s house he yelled, “Nice snow angel fag!” Mickey awoke from his daze, his eyes flaring. He reached for the closest object which just happened to be a hammer, stood up and hurled it at the boy, barely missing. The boy’s expression changed drastically as if it hadn’t occurred to him that the home belonged to old man Callahan and he kicked up a snow cloud as he peddled away.
“Who was that?” Mickey growled.
“Just one of the kids at school that pick on me. He lives down at the bottom of the hill.”
“Little fucker,” Mickey exclaimed then turned to Connor, “Go get my hammer will ya?”
“But what if he comes back?” Connor replied.
“Then you hit the little bastard with it. You show them that you won’t take their shit then they’ll leave you alone. That’s how bullies work. They push you as far as they can and retaliation is the only language they understand.”
“I’m not big enough,” Connor said.
“Then you damn well better be smart enough,” Mickey responded, “You’re about the smartest boy I’ve ever met. Hell, you learned how to take a bike apart and put it back together in a week’s time.” Mickey placed his finger to his temple. “The mind is the strongest weapon you have if you know how to use it.”
Mickey finally realized that all those years it had been he who was the bully, and Sean’s retaliation was leaving home at eighteen. Still, Mickey was surprised at his reaction to the slur. He hadn’t felt a paternal instinct in as long as he could remember. He had changed. Even though it seemed that he was helping Connor, he could feel that Connor was the one who had made the larger impact on him. Mickey excused himself, went inside, and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” the familiar voice said on the other end.
“May I speak to Sean?” Mickey stammered into the phone.
“Dad?” Sean asked with a hint of astonishment in his voice as if it had never crossed his mind that his father would call him.
“Hello son, how’ve you been?” Mickey asked although Marianne had kept him updated.
“I’m good. I passed the bar a few months back.” Sean responded. A long pause followed. “Hello?”
“I’m here,” Mickey answered, tears running down his face. “I just wanted to say that I’m proud of you. I know it may not mean shit from a mean old drunk like me, but I love you and I thought you should know that.”
“I do Dad,” Sean responded, “You told me a few weeks ago when you called.”
Mickey heard someone speaking in the background and could tell Sean had covered the phone the way the muffled voices carried through the receiver. He looked over at the picture of Sean when he was nine sitting on the porch swing. That bright smile illuminating everything around him, making the sun obsolete in his presence. Though Mickey had never been the lovey-dovey type of man, his family was his life and Mickey wanted that back.
“I was wondering if you’d like to come over and have dinner with your old man,” Mickey began apprehensively, “Do a little catching up.”
The few seconds of silence seemed like years before Sean spoke. “Umm, I’m going to be busy the next few weeks. I have a lot of cases in litigation right now, you know?”
Mickey knew the truth, but he had to be patient. He’d built the wall between them and he couldn’t react when it didn’t fall down after one phone call. He choked back the tears and responded, “That’s fine son. I’m available anytime you got time. Just give me a call. I’ll be here.”
“Ok,” Sean responded, “well I have to go, but it was good talking to you dad.”
“You too, son,” Mickey said as he hung up the phone and broke down into a waterfall of tears. He hated himself for the things he’d said and done to Sean, his boy, his responsibility. He’d failed him and he knew it. Suddenly, he felt something wrap around him. It was Connor, giving him a hug, showing him that he wasn’t a wasted soul; that his life meant something besides regrets and guilt and lonely, drunken nights.
Mickey told Connor that he’d be busy the following morning and for the first time Connor didn’t seem to mind. He told Mickey that he too had some things to do and asked if he could use a few of Mickey’s gardening buckets and his Allen Wrench set.
Mickey sat at his kitchen table and wrote a new letter to Sean while the old letter lay in shreds on the floor. With it he placed a picture of Mickey, Edith, and a nine year-old Sean from his violin recital. On the back he wrote, “Proudest father in the world.” The mail had already run so he made his way down to the post office. Then, as he reached the bottom of the hill he noticed the bully from the day before, standing in his driveway looking quite perplexed. Mickey slowed down and upon seeing the sight, laughed so hard he spilled his coffee. There, in the driveway, laid the boy’s dissected bicycle, each piece splayed out on the concrete, and all of it encased in a thick layer of ice.
When Mickey returned home he found Connor sitting on his porch. He gave him a wink and an assuring pat on the back when something caught Mickey’s eye.
“Come here, look at this Connor,” Mickey whispered his outstretched hand pointing to the swing set across the street.
“I don’t see anything,” Connor said, squinting.
“On top of the swing set. Look Closely. It’s the General,” Mickey responded. Sure enough there was the General using his giant white tail as camouflage with the Dobermans none the wiser below. “See you don’t have to be bigger or stronger, just smarter.” Mickey chuckled and looked back towards the garage at the box marked “Stay Out”.
“So Mr. Murphy, what will you ask Santa to bring you for Christmas?”