Menu

Short Story

Alone, what did Bloom feel?

The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below the freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, centigrade or Réamur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.

                                                           —James Joyce, Ulysses

WHAT parallel courses did Leonard and Sammy Two follow prior to meeting?

Leonard: having gone to his doctor for the investigation and treatment of various pains and discharges, had performed upon him a great number of tests and probes with large machines bearing the strangely familiar General Electric logo, and was, ultimately, diagnosed with terminal colorectal cancer.

Sammy Two: having recently been born, was, with his siblings—one male, one female—occupying a nest constructed carefully by his parents at the meeting point of several branches, upward of one hundred feet in the air, when a bolt of lightning struck the primary branch, causing limb and nest to fall to the ground, killing mother and siblings, and leaving Sammy Two, unable to feed self or move on own, resting in a small circle of grass, in shock and facing certain death.

But the two courses did not remain parallel, but turned inward and intersected, as the two met very soon after?

Indeed.

Then the courses were never, in fact, parallel?

Correct. By definition, parallel lines will never intersect.

Provide the scientific classification of Leonard and Sammy Two.

leonard:

sammy two:

kingdom:

Animal

Animal

phylum:

Chordate

Chordate

class:

Mammal

Mammal

order:

Primates

Rodentia

family:

Hominidae

Sciuridae

genus:

Homo

Sciurus

species:

sapiens

carolinensis

common name:

Human Being

Eastern Gray Squirrel

 

What did Leonard do, and what was done to Sammy Two, following the perceived reality of imminent death?

Leonard said to his doctor, with bravado: “Mark my words. The Lord will heal me and you’ll have a medical miracle on your hands.”

Sammy Two was very nearly killed a second time.

§

Did Leonard’s words to his doctor accurately reflect his belief in the possibility of a miracle?

Leonard was, for his years, a big, strong man, who believed in a God even bigger and stronger than he. He absolutely believed God could do it, though he was less certain, since the quiet non-event that was Y2K, that God actually would do it. For on the eve of the millennium, he had stayed up with Betty, watching Dick Clark and the pagans in Times Square partying like it was 1999, as it were, and waiting for the ball to drop—and not merely literally.

He was prepared. He had water, paper products, canned goods, candles, kerosene, even a generator, stored in the basement in boxes labeled A through Z, then AA through HH. He was prepared for the Lord to usher in the new millennium with fire and without electric power. As a Christian, he had learned about God’s wrath. As a Cornell student, he had learned Emersonian self-reliance. As a Big Red football player, he had learned to fight, to be prepared. And prepared he was. But, as everyone knows, nothing happened. Computers did not suddenly believe it was the year 1900 and self-destruct or accidentally launch any missiles. The worst thing that happened was a few bad hangovers. Y2K left Leonard feeling like he had suited and psyched up for a game that was canceled because the other team’s bus broke down.

His first instinct following the cancer diagnosis, if we’re truthful, was to tell the doctor he was going to battle it out with the cancer himself—and win. He would outsmart it and out-health it, so to speak. Instead, he offered up his illness as a challenge to God.

§

What was Leonard’s particular view regarding the apocalypse?

The one in which God kicks the greatest amount of ass: dispensational premillennialism. When trumpets sound, like they did for the Big Red team at Cornell, Christians will be raptured, meeting Christ in the air. During the seven-year period of great tribulation, Christians will be judged and assigned places in the forthcoming millennial kingdom. Then follows the battle of Armageddon—a battle better than the Rose Bowl (where no Ivy League teams ever made it anyway)—culminating in the thousand-year reign of Christ in the New Jerusalem, as announced by the seventh trumpet and foretold in the Book of Revelation, verse 11:15.

§

How did Sammy Two almost die a second time?

After surviving the major fall, Sammy Two was very nearly crushed under the seventy-five-pound pressure of Josie Lambert’s foot. It was the first warm, but also wet, day of March, and Josie and her brother Lou were playing outdoors after school. As they raced through the backyard, Josie, catching a midstride glimpse of a gray-brown blob in the spot where her sneaker was sure to land, and thinking it a dog turd, extended her foot just enough to avoid contact and succeeded in landing just beyond him. Getting the attention of her brother for reenaction and inspection, Josie found that it was not poop but something that would have been even worse to land on. “Daaaaaddddd,” she cried, and Dad found Sammy Two (not yet so dubbed), and, within fifteen feet, his dead sister, and, thirty feet away, under the branch he planned to move that day, Sammy Two’s dead mother and brother.

 

Why did Mr. Lambert say, “Well, I’ll be a suck-egg mule,” and why did he immediately think to bring the squirrel to Leonard Anderson?

Though he knows not what it means or where he first heard it, Mr. Lambert often employs said phrase in moments of disbelief and general amazement. Mr. Lambert, who has often tuned out of his neighbor Anderson’s enthusiastic explanations and interpretations of the Book of Revelation and the imminent coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, recalls hearing him say one thing that interested him: that several years ago Mr. Leonard Anderson raised a baby squirrel that answered to the name of Sammy.

 

How did Leonard’s second wife, Betty, handle the arrival of Sammy Two?

With her usual social grace and strong presence of mind. She dried her tears before opening the door and called to Leonard to retrieve Mr. Lambert’s squirrel when all she wanted to do was slam the door in Lambert’s face and say that Leonard was busy saving (or losing) his own life and could not, just now, be bothered. She smiled and thanked Mr. Lambert for Leonard, who, instantly dazzled and filled with purpose, withdrew the tiny squirrel from the hand towel that Lambert held him in, said, “His little toes will get caught in the threads—best to use a handkerchief,” and retreated to the kitchen with his new project and prize.

What happened to Leonard’s first wife?

She died.

 

How did he meet Betty?

Betty lived seven houses away. Her husband had also died, a year prior; she prepared a casserole for Leonard, who ate one cheesy, chickeny, creamy piece alone every night for nine nights after the funeral; and on night ten, the casserole pan was empty but his heart was full. When he returned the clean casserole pan to Betty—whom, it should be noted, he had known for many years as a very fine neighbor—Leonard also brought along a marriage proposal.

 

How did this go over with Leonard’s three adult daughters?

Not well. Not well at all.

 

Why did the arrival of Sammy Two not go over well with Betty?

Because Betty knew her husband. Before the doorbell rang, they had been sitting at the kitchen table making plans for Leonard’s healing/treatment. Leonard held Betty’s hand, squeezing her fingers too hard against her wedding ring, and prayed; on a piece of paper he drafted a list of phone numbers for the prayer chain. Betty composed a list of foods for Leonard’s new diet; she created a schedule that balanced her work with Leonard’s transportation to and from the hospital. (Leonard was retired and collecting barely a pittance; Betty, a few years younger, continued her job as receptionist for a local dentist.) Betty was angry, for she had lost her first husband to cancer, and it seemed absolutely like Leonard’s God to strike her twice. When the doorbell rang, she learned that he had struck thrice: lightning hit the Lambert’s branch and here was a baby squirrel.

 

Why did Betty think but not say, “Shit”?

Because Leonard didn’t like it when she cursed, and she tried not to when he was around.

 

What did Leonard think and/or say in his first moments with Sammy Two?

He said, like man on the sixth day of creation: “I’ll call him Sammy Two.” He thought (with no little relief or gratitude): This is a sign from God. He has heard my prayers. He said: “Betty, where’s the heat lamp?” He thought: Sammy Two must be just a couple weeks old because his ears haven’t opened yet.

 

What, then, did he not think to think?

He did not think to think that perhaps God was giving him Sammy Two as a bit of joy in lieu of the healing miracle. Betty, on the other hand, was very tuned in to this potential and particular irony.

Describe Sammy Two’s condition upon entering into Leonard’s care.

Sammy Two was in generally good health, considering. Leonard was immediately concerned about his body temperature, which seemed to be lower than it should, so the heat lamp was found and shone upon Sammy Two. Leonard was secondarily concerned with a tiny cut on Sammy Two’s belly. He treated it with diluted hydrogen peroxide, which he dabbed with a cotton swab, and then with a spot of Neosporin. Leonard was thirdly concerned with getting food into Sammy Two’s belly. Leonard fumbled about the kitchen and bathroom medicine cabinets, searching for his medicine dropper (Betty followed behind, putting everything he removed back into place); then he concocted a solution of sugar, salt, and warm water, which he fed as delicately as his large hands would allow into Sammy Two’s hungry mouth. Leonard was fourthly concerned with Sammy Two’s elimination. He stroked the squirrel’s genitals (he was officially a boy!) in order to stimulate the flow of waste and was rewarded with a dirtied tissue.

 

Having tended to Sammy Two’s physical needs, what did Leonard do?

He cleared the scattered crossword puzzles and remote controls from the table next to his recliner, and he set the heat lamp there. He settled into the recliner, holding Sammy Two in his hand, and stared at the little walruslike face with its whiskers and sepia-colored body no bigger than his thumb, and he stroked, as gently as he could with the knuckle of his index finger, the velvety body that pumped and breathed in soft, rapid pulses. He turned on the McLaughlin Group. He forgot, for the first time all week, that he was dying.

 

What did Betty do?

What she always did when anything, including her job, her children, and both of her husbands, disappointed her: she imagined the ideal. Even as a teenager, she had a very strict sense of how high school, for example, should be: all lettermen sweaters and pompons. Now she could scarcely distinguish between her actual school experiences and the ones she had conjured in her mind. She could scarcely distinguish between the vague lives her son and daughter were living in faraway states and the lives she had envisioned for them. Between the heroic death of her first husband, Ted, and his actual, unpleasant decline.

Leonard had always had a habit of talking about two things around the neighborhood: Jesus Christ and Cornell University. She totally tuned out the former, but, even when both of their spouses were alive, she found herself drawn to his bravura regarding the latter. He’d played football, pledged a fraternity, written for the sports section of the school paper. He’d been wild, virile, young. She hadn’t known him then, of course, but she was attracted to who he said he was, and she thought of this person a lot. She found herself looking through his college yearbooks, trying to merge the two disparate images of Leonard into one.

There was something else she learned after they were married, something that did not come up at block parties. Back in the eighties, in his basement, Leonard had invented individual coffee bags and very nearly became a millionaire. But timing is everything, and coffee prices inflated, the economy deflated, and his business partner pulled out. Fourteen years later, the patent expired, and P&G released Folgers Coffee Singles to the world, making Leonard’s millions.

Betty, then, retreated to the bedroom, leaving Leonard and Sammy Two before the television, and allowed herself to forget her concerns about money and health insurance, about death and disease, and to get lost in thoughts of Leonard: young, strong, rich, healthy.

 

What did Leonard and Sammy Two do all day while Betty was at work?

They became the best of friends. They got on famously. Sammy Two grew quickly, thriving under Leonard’s care, and Leonard took great pleasure in studying Sammy Two’s personality. Sammy Two, for example, took tissues straight from the box and stored them on the floor behind the couch. Leonard thought this very smart and funny of him. Betty, less amused, cleaned up the tissues. But Sammy Two would grow very distraught when his tissues were not where he had placed them and made clicking and scolding noises at Betty until she left his tissues alone.

They played football. Leonard would tuck an acorn into his palm, holding it with his thumb, then use his middle and index fingers to run across the kitchen table toward the end zone. Sammy Two proved himself to be an excellent safety—always making the tackle in the nick of time. Regularly causing a fumble that he recovered himself. Leonard taught Sammy Two the Cornell fight song.

Also, as Sammy Two grew and there was a nice string of warm April days, Leonard thought of what fun it would be to take Sammy Two out, show him off a bit. So he came up with alliterative errands: milk at Meijer, window washing fluid at Walgreen’s, birdseed at Bigg’s. Leonard put on his spring jacket, and Sammy Two hopped on his shoulder and crawled down inside the jacket. At the checkout counter, Leonard would make a little click sound, and Sammy Two would pop out on cue to the delight of all. What the— Is that a squirrel? Hey Pete, check this out! It was a hoot.

 

What did Leonard and Sammy Two not do?

Remember doctor appointments.

 

What did Leonard do the time he saw a dead squirrel in the road as he drove home?

By this time, Sammy was moving freely between the house, where he slept, and the birdhouse, where he took his girlfriend. Leonard could not remember if Sammy had been inside or not when he left. He pulled in the driveway and bolted from the car—leaving the door open to ding ding ding—and ran to the backyard (slipping on the hill beside the house, hurting his tailbone and soaking his pants through to his butt), where he whistled furiously, frantically, Sammy where are you, then again, tweet, scanning the birdhouse, the trees, the wire, until, oh thank you Jesus: Sammy.

 

Fast-forward a couple of months.

June arrives, and Leonard has undergone a number of treatments, thanks to Betty who monitors him like she would a child, and no thanks to his daughters who are unable, even after four years, to accept the presence of Betty in his life. Nothing else has happened. The cancer does not seem to have spread, but it is not going away either. His eighteen-to-twenty-four-month timetable has been reduced to fifteen to twenty-one months. His squirrel will outlive him.

It is time for the annual family reunion at Maple Run, the cottage an hour north. Leonard’s daughters will not attend, as they haven’t for four summers. They send him cards and talk to him on the phone (he is dying, after all), but they don’t want to be around Betty, who finds them the oldest adolescent imbeciles she’s ever encountered. Leonard announces that he will bring Sammy Two to Maple Run. Betty agrees with the idea; it will give them something to talk about other than Leonard’s cancer.

 

How is Betty holding up?

She excuses herself from her bridge club and cries in Vanessa Murray’s bathroom three times in one night. She hangs up on a member of the prayer team. She flicks off Sammy Two when Leonard isn’t looking.

 

What is the big surprise of the day at Maple Run?

That two of Leonard’s daughters show up with their families and surprise him and everyone, quite to the point of awkwardness. But fortunately, Sammy Two saves the day by absorbing the attention of the grandkids (my how they’ve grown!) and allowing Betty to withdraw unseen for a solitary walk in the woods.

 

What does Betty think about on her walk?

That she needs to call her own daughter, who lives in Denver, and plan a visit. That she needs to send her son a birthday present, and that it’s okay he doesn’t want her to visit just now since he recently moved in with the girl whose name eludes Betty. That she misses Ted, her first husband. She misses how he used to call her Bethy, which was far too cutesy for a name, but a more perfect abbreviation of Elizabeth than the banal Betty. That perhaps she should not have married Leonard. That she is scared to death of Leonard dying.

What does Betty hear that makes her run back to the cottage faster than she has moved in years?

Leonard’s voice—arched, howling. “Betty!” he is calling. “Betty! Oh Betty, I’ve killed him! Betty, where are you? I’ve killed him! Betty!”

 

What split-second moment will Leonard play over and over in his mind, in slow motion, until he can’t take it any more?

Not the moment of opening Sammy Two’s cage, or the moment of Sammy Two eating a nut—rotating it round and round in his two paws—on Leonard’s shoulder. Not the perfect undulating sine curve Sammy Two made as he ran along the wooden ledge of the screened-in porch. Not the moment of his grandchildren’s laughter, or even the moment of Sammy jumping on Leonard’s daughter’s head, tousling her hair until she looked Leonard in the eyes and smiled warmly. Not the moment of holding Sammy Two’s twitching, dying body in his hands as he stumbled off the porch calling for Betty. Or the moment of placing Sammy Two’s still body into the fresh dirt at the foot of the maple tree (where, Leonard had the presence of mind to think, he will have all the nuts he ever wants). And not even the improbable, impossible moment when Sammy Two darted up Leonard’s chest, over his shoulder, then to the back of the solid green metal chair, which had a spring that allowed the back of the chair to move under Leonard’s weight while Leonard made the backward tilt that caused the solid green metal chair to press Sammy Two’s body too hard—far too hard—and so fast—against the also green wooden frame of the screened-in porch.

The moment Leonard will remember is the one a few weeks before the picnic when it finally dawned on him that he was, in fact, going to die. He thought of his daughters as young, pigtailed girls chasing fireflies at dusk. He thought of his first wife helping them poke holes in the lid of the Ragu jar. He thought of Betty, of his inconsistent career life. He thought of his fraternity brothers and teammates—the ones he’d lost touch with, the ones who had died, the ones he still saw every ten or fifteen years. He thought of heaven and wondered what it would possibly be like. And he thought, for the first time, of the actual moment of death (…the cold of interstellar space…the absolute zero of Fahrenheit…) and realized that he had never expected to die. He had always believed that Jesus would return before he ever had to die. That he would just get “taken up” to meet the Lord somewhere in the sky and reign with him forever and ever. He really believed that. Leonard cried with the realization that he would, in fact, die. Head in his hands, tears and snot streaming down his forearms. How had he been so wrong?

Then he felt the pressure of little feet on his back and shoulder, a paw touching his index finger. Leonard pulled his hand away from his face, sniffled, inhaled deeply to steady his breathing, and looked at Sammy Two, who was looking, with one large eyeball, straight into Leonard’s wet eyes, just like the unblinking Jesus in that picture in the living room. In that moment, the one Leonard could not possibly have understood at the time but now plays over and over in his mind, Sammy Two held his gaze.

 

What can Betty feel in her fingertips as she embraces the inconsolable Leonard at Maple Run?

That the cancer is gone.

 

What does the doctor say at the next visit?

That the cancer is gone. He has a medical miracle on his hands.

 

So Leonard and Betty grow old together? Live happily ever after?

Leonard turns away from the God who has forsaken him, who has allowed Sammy Two to die and will—eventually—allow him to die. Whether of cancer or of old age, whether now or in twenty years, seems, ultimately, beside the point. He lives in his mind with Sammy Two on his shoulder, in his pocket, running ahead of him as they travel together along a narrow path toward Ithaca, where the Big Red team awaits them: linebacker and mascot. They follow the sound of the crowd cheering them on, the band trumpeting their imminent arrival.

Betty, on the other hand, is known to smile placidly and say to friends, to the prayer chain: “God works in mysterious ways.” And she believes it. She comes to believe in a powerful and strange God.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Related Short Stories

The Weight of Fire

By

Diane Glancy

image of a field and a yellow sky and a burst of sunlight in a blurry, motion-fraught circle from a spinning camera.

Pelagia, Holy Fool

By

Melissa Pritchard

Interior of a house, a table and chair illuminated against a yellow blind behind it.

Thoughts from Port Royal, Kentucky

By

Wilmer Mills

In the Clear

By

Christopher David Hall

Pin It on Pinterest