Sunday, April 5, 2009

Poppa and Sidewinder

Note: I wrote this more than two years ago, based on an experience that I estimate happened when I was in middle school. My paternal grandfather has always been somewhat of a mystery to me, and I thought I would write a story about him and the anomaly of Sidewinder. My grandpa is currently undergoing some health problems due to complications of a fall down the stairs about two years ago, where he cracked his head on the concrete floor at the bottom. I've never shown him this story, and am not sure I intend to. But I wanted to share it.

I can think of a mangled old squirrel and smile. The more I read that sentence to myself the more ridiculous it sounds, yet there isn't any falsity in it. I did indeed know of a squirrel whose body was so misshapen that he (I'm assuming gender here) couldn't scamper like others. His fur was forced to grow around the lengthwise gash down his back, and somehow the squirrel's mangled frame did not completely fail him, for he was able to pay a visit to Poppa every afternoon.

I don't remember when I decided Grandpa was to be called "Poppa," since I was said to have named him before I was capable of remembering, but he's always been Poppa to me, and when my brother was able to speak he also used that name. Even our childhood friends called him "Poppa" when they'd visit. Now that I"m older, I think perhaps I knew Poppa needed a special name. Or maybe "Poppa" was easier to say. I'm willing to admit to both.

I can't assume to know what Poppa went through in his lifetime. One of my earliest memories of him is where he told me how he was in the Korean War.

He lifted his shirt to show me the scars on his belly. The scar had usurped the belly button's place in the center of the abdomen, having long ago shoved it an inch to the left. He told me how after he had been hit by a mortar shell, he was thrown on the dead wagon, and only discovered to be alive when he moaned. That is all he ever talked about in regards to the war. Just being mistaken for dead--the origin of his scars.

Most of my memories of Poppa are of him sitting on the patio on his plastic green lawn chair near the barbecue, a Miller High Life in hand, saying few words. Those he did say usually ended with an abrupt "I'm shuttin' up," a closing statement jabbed at Grandma. Most of my memories of her involve her controlling conversations and silencing Poppa even was he wasn't speaking to her.

There was one thing Grandma couldn't control: to whom Sidewinder attached himself.

Named for his sideways gait, likened to the species of snake of the same name, Sidewinder moved forward one side following the other. The left side always followed the right. His twisted body was like if I shifted my right shoulder and hip forward to lurch rather than walk. To walk a straight path, he pointed his body sideways.

I'm not sure when Sidewinder became a regular visitor to the patio, but Poppa began buying peanuts by the pound so he'd have a treat for the squirrel, who soon began to hobble right up to Poppa and take the peanuts from his hand. I don't know how Sidewinder survived with his disabilities. He wasn't a fast creature--certainly he couldn't outrun a cat. He could climb fences and trees, but with difficulty. Finding food must have been difficult, since other able-bodied squirrels meant competition. Perhaps this is why he befriended my Poppa, in the urgency that is self-preservation.

Sidewinder's trust for my grandpa grew so great that he would paw at Poppa's knee to get his attention, even climbing up his leg to sit on his lap while he sat in that lawn chair, until at last Poppa would ease to his feet and with Sidewinder trailing him, he made his way to the garage, opened the old popcorn tin containing the peanuts, and presented the little squirrel with as many peanuts as he could eat.

It became such a routine that the squirrel would return at the same time each afternoon, and Poppa would wait for him outside, even in the winter.

I regret I never thought to take a picture of Poppa and Sidewinder, because one day Sidewinder didn't sidle up the walk onto the patio, and my heart brok with Poppa's, though he never said a word--at least not to me. But that was the way with Poppa. Not saying anything usually saved him an argument in a house where hating loved ones was normalcy (and in a way, still is). Only those who knew him could read beyond the stoic expression, read the loss he kept hidden.

I know what it is to bribe an animal to love you, and loving it brings something one may not have achieved with people. We can speak to animals and feel the release of imprisoned words, letting them flee without impediment, and for a while, at least, we can forget that interruptions by loved ones exist. I know that world, and its comfort.

I still think of that squirrel, and how odd it seemed, but I remember the look on that war veteran's face when Sidewinder appeared, and then how that look slowly dissolved and died when one day he did not.