by Emily Hampson

“The squirrels keep coming,” she says, staring out at the backyard as if our scanty plot of suburbia is somehow facilitating the enemy. Black mud shines beneath bits of mangy grass and patchy March snow, reminding me of my mother’s scalp before she died, half-bald from chemo.

My wife’s eyes flit from the fence line to our garage. The rusted swing set. The ceramic bird bath, cracked down the middle. The evergreen with the sickly branches we can’t afford to cut down. The pile of birch crammed against the shed, sheltering spiders and chipmunks and pill bugs within its moist, earthy mass. She fixates on each lawn entity as though it is a squirrel accomplice—its very presence thwarting her efforts to eradicate the vermin. 

“Of course, they keep coming,” I say. “We live across from a forest preserve.” 

She licks her lips like she’s brooding over a puzzle. “No, they’re territorial. I’m only trying to eradicate the ones on our property.” 

She doesn’t look at me, although I wait for it. Yearning is a hard habit to break. A person has to bail a lot of water before accepting that he alone is dealing with an ocean. Tag-teaming is absent when one’s marriage is failing. I don’t challenge her out loud, but I’d studied Darwin in college. Animals are opportunists; they migrate to where there’s less competition for resources. The squirrels in the forest and those in our backyard are one and the same. The stretch of blacktop in between—our street, named after some paunchy old aristocrat—is hardly a habitat barrier. 

In the middle of the driveway, the Rubbermaid garbage bin stands idle, filled with frigid water from the hose. The water has turned as dark as engine oil, stained with slaughter, after she drowned a pair of them this morning, still in their cages. Their eyes were open when she tossed the carcasses in the brush. Four gleaming balsamic pearls. The rodents are powerless to resist the bait she sets: sweetened puffs of corn positioned in precise increments of doom.

Our twin boys’ Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch playing Pied Piper’s flute. 

Having done their duty, the cages wait next to the bin like exploited subjects at royal court. A wet circle has formed on the concrete under the metal bars. In the frosty spring air, everything is slow to dry. 

“Maybe I should display their heads on the fence posts,” she continues, her voice menacing. “A warning to the others.” 

I picture ten tiny squirrel heads impaled on the chain links, framing our yard. 

“What about the neighbors? Or the boys?” I ask, startled, wondering if she read my mind about the royal court. Once upon a time, we had been that in sync. But I can no longer tell if she’s serious. Dark humor was never her default; it was mine.

She shrugs. “I won’t stop until they’re gone.” 

Her vengeance stems from the squirrels pilfering our garbage. They’ve chewed through four bins in six months, turning the high-density polyethylene to Swiss cheese. Once in, they gnaw through the bags, pulling trash through the openings and painting our driveway in carrot peels, moldy marinara sauce, and shredded maxi pads. Every morning is a massacre.  

“Just be careful you don’t disrupt the suburban food chain,” I joke, but she doesn’t laugh. We haven’t really laughed together in years. The final time was when our sons’ pregnant teacher vomited into her wastebasket five minutes into our kindergarten conference. 

“So, tell me what you really think of our sons,” I had said, and my wife had guffawed.

I loved her for that.

But laughter can turn septic. A few weeks later, we heard the teacher had lost the baby. 

I have understood the inevitable for a while, even as my wife refuses to concede. Don’t you see that it’s useless? I want to say, but I gave up pleading when she stopped listening. Instead, I regard her with pity, a parent explaining impermanence to a child who has let go of his balloon.

She strides to the kitchen, filling a coffee cup with more Cap’n Crunch. When she ventures outside to reset the traps, the wind blows cold against my cheek like a scalding of aftershave. I stare out the window at her huddled frame. Nearby, a squirrel flips upside-down on the sugar maple, batting at the bird feeder until seeds rain down on the lawn.

My wife straightens at the waist, scanning the yard with a tented hand—a general surveying a battlefield, fighting the wrong war.


Photo by Jennifer Uppendahl on Unsplash


“Suburban Warfare” was originally published at Wow! Women on Writing.