by Bruce W. Thines
Being isolated in my apartment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused me much loneliness and anxiety. I’ve missed my time at the library and conversations with friends at Dunkin Donuts. I could only watch so much television then become bored and lose interest with whatever I was watching. If felt like I was imprisoned. I had to escape. Thank god I live across the street from MLK Park.
Every morning and afternoon I would go for walks down East Ave. and through the park. I often brought a book with me and earbuds to listen to music. But most of the time I enjoyed watching the various birds and the squirrels. My mind would be totally void of any thought, just full of the calming effects of Bach, Hayden and Brahms. Suddenly, I became aware of something watching me. It was a grey squirrel. Looking at it, I said, “Hi squirrel, how are you today?” The squirrel sat on its hind legs and waved one paw at me and I waved back. We were both locked in a staring contest for a while, then it scampered away. It didn’t seem scared but probably thought it strange that I was wearing a mask over my face.
The next day upon awaking the squirrel was on my mind. While shopping at Wegmans I stopped at the snack aisle to pick up a bag of trail mix, when I noticed the bags of peanuts and so I bought a large bag. When I returned home I packed up the trail mix, the peanuts and a bottle of water and headed for the park.
At the park I found a bench overlooking a small knoll of trees. It was a beautiful, clear spring day with very few clouds and a blue sky. Sitting there, eating my trail mix and scanning the trees I spotted the squirrel. Was it the same squirrel as yesterday? They all look alike. I waved at him and said, “Hi Jack”. I had to laugh, If I would’ve said that on an airplane I would have been handcuffed and arrested. I wasn’t sure if it recognized me because I wasn’t wearing my face mask. Surprisingly, the squirrel sat up and waved at me. He was heading my way and then stopped a few feet from my bench. I looked around to see if anyone else was nearby watching. I didn’t see anyone.
Jack inched closer, sat up on his hind legs and stared at me with interest. I said to him, “Would you like to join me for lunch? I have some peanuts and trail mix.”
Suddenly, words popped into my head, “Sure, I’d love some.” I thought to myself, where did those words come from? Was the squirrel talking to me? I didn’t see him move his mouth. I reached into the bag and threw down some peanuts, which he started eating. I had a couple handfuls of trail mix.
Suddenly, more words popped into my head. “I see you’re not wearing a mask today.” I looked at the squirrel, he was still eating his peanuts. What was happening here? Was I losing my mind?
Looking at Jack I said, “I took the mask off. I didn’t want to scare you.”
Jack said, “Why are you people wearing those masks?”
I responded, “There is an illness amongst us that is making us sick.” I asked Jack, “Are there any sick squirrels that you know of?”
Jack responded, “No, as long as we stay away from the rats. They spread illness. Sometimes we fight with rats when they attack our burrows.”
I asked Jack, “Would you like to take some peanuts back with you to your burrow?”
Jack said, “How?”
I reached into my backpack and took out a small baggy which I put a handful of peanuts into. I said to Jack, “Could you handle this?” I laid the baggy next to him.
“Thanks.” Jack said, and he grabbed the baggy in his teeth and scampered away.
When I returned home, I sat in my kitchen with a cup of tea contemplating what had just happened in the park. The squirrel was communicating with me, but he wasn’t talking. How could this happen? Maybe I was imagining the whole thing. It was all this loneliness and confinement that affected my mind.
The next morning, I went to the park again. I brought some trail mix with me and sat in my favorite spot waiting for the squirrel. He showed up a few minutes later. I felt my mind fill with dialog.
“Hi there, how are you?” Jack asked, excited to see me.
“Hello. How are you doing today?” I asked.
Jack told me about the meal he just had with his family. It was left in a box on a bench. I asked what it was. He said he didn’t know. Maybe some kind of pie. He wrote a word in the dirt, “PIZZA.” He did not like the pepperoni but he did like the crust and the mushrooms.
I asked Jack, “Do you like meat?”
“No.” He said, “Except for the chicken bones. I love the sauce.”
I shared my trail mix with the squirrel, and we had a great conversation.
Bruce W. Thines is a Rochester author.