Skwerpockt (Of Squirrels and Men)

My Dad’s older brother Eddie spoke very rapidly and slurred his words together. If he said, “Hey, how’s it going and what have you been up to?” it sounded something like “Hayowzagoen, ehwuvbuptoo?” His sisters and brothers could mostly follow what he was saying, but everyone else tried to pick out a word or two to get the gist. He was able to hold jobs and was successfully employed for the entirety of his work life, however, and was a garrulous, confident and competitive man. It didn’t bother him when someone asked him to repeat a statement, and no one challenged him if they thought that he had said something off color because he was stocky and thickly muscled, and sported a burr haircut that gave him an aggressive look. Strangers were forewarned that he was a man who could do damage if sufficiently provoked.

He and my Dad used to go hunting together in the fall for squirrels and rabbits in woods and farmland north of Dayton. Dad came home empty-handed at sunset from one such expedition. He seemed cheerful all the same and stopped to talk to us for a few minutes before he ran water for a bath. He was looking forward to going to a party that evening.

Uncle Eddie called while he was in the tub, and I was the one who picked up the receiver.

“Hey Tom!”

“This is Denny.  Dad’s in the bath.”

“Hey, Dehhy, Tah yerdah skwerpockt.”

“What?”

“Skwerpockt. I puskwerpockt in Tomshuhjakt.”

“Squirrel?”

“Yeah, puskwerhuhjacktpockt. Tell yerdah.”

“Okay.”

I cracked open the door to the bathroom and said to Dad, “Uncle Eddie called and said something about a squirrel.”

My Dad said, “Oh yeah. He shot more squirrels than he could eat. He’s going to come by and drop one off.”

Dad went to his party, Uncle Eddie never showed up and we forgot about the phone call.

A few days later we began to smell something bad, something like rotten meat or road kill. We thought at first that a possum or raccoon had gotten trapped and died in one of the piles of lumber and building materials that Dad kept precariously stacked in the garage. But there was nothing out there. The garbage cans by the garage door were smelly, but no more than usual. We checked around the kitchen and between cabinets for a piece of meat that might have fallen off a plate, but didn’t find the source of the ever more pungent stench that permeated every corner of the house.

I decided to widen the search and followed my nose down the rickety wooden stairs to our basement. I was getting closer: the death smell was a lot stronger down there. I sniffed and peeked and poked until I came up to my Dad’s hunting jacket. It was hanging on a hook on the basement wall farthest away from the stairs. I opened the jacket and a devastating wave of rot assaulted me, and when I stopped gagging I gingerly opened a pocket with one finger and found a curled up bundle of gray fur.

I took the coat out to the garage, and when my Dad came home from work I told him what I had found. He remembered the phone call from Eddie and asked me to repeat what his brother had said to me. I said, “Tell yerdah puhskwerpockthuhjackt.” I repeated the string of syllables at my father’s request and a light dawned in his face. He translated: “Tell your Dad I put a squirrel in the pocket of his hunting jacket.” He added, “Eddie must have slipped it into my coat when I wasn’t looking, and he called to warn me.”

Dad took the corpse of the squirrel out of the jacket and buried it in our garden in the back yard. He hung up the coat in the garage on a hook usually reserved for the rake and went back inside the house.

I would have thrown the jacket away, but my Dad let it air out over the winter and used it again the next fall. He was a child of the Great Depression and wouldn’t let the lingering scent of a dead rodent keep him from using a perfectly good coat.

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