I wanted to tell this story that took place in Oland Township, Oland County, Texas, when I was a kid.
The story is about Billy Bob Dupree. Saying that he was a mean kid doesn’t seem enough; many people believed he was borderline evil. In the third grade, for instance, he shot a spitball at our teacher, Sister Margaret Olive, and hit her in the eye. He did it on purpose, too-- it wasn’t even an accident. He wouldn’t apologize, either, not even after getting a good whupping by Sister Margaret and one of the other nuns. (Of course, it was already known, then, that they weren’t supposed to be whupping the students, but because it was Billy Bob, nobody really complained, not even his parents.) Anyway, what showed how mean he was wasn’t that he hit Sister Margaret in the eye; it was that afterward, she had to start wearing glasses, and Billy started calling her Sister Four-Eyes, without a pinch of guilt that he was the one responsible for it in the first place. That was how mean Billy Bob was.
Anyway, I was walking through Beauchamp Park one summer day, bored and looking for something to do, when I ran across Billy Bob. He was standing at the base of one of the old oak trees that graced the rolling green expanses of the park, and he was sneering up at the tree and apparently talking to himself.
Most kids would avoid Billy Bob at all costs, but I didn’t care much. I’d had a run-in with him last year, and survived. I hadn’t won, though; it was a short grabbling match that ended with me losing my balance and falling on my face and Billy Bob losing his balance and falling, with his considerable bulk, on my back. I had blacked out for a moment, and had-- or, anyway, I think I had-- what people call a near-death experience. It had been as though I was floating over the scene; I could see the two of us on the ground, and after Billy Bob struggled to his feet, he gave me a good kick in the ribs while I was unconscious.
After that, I never found Billy Bob that scary.
So I just stood there and watched as he spouted off at the tree. It was a curious sight, really; Billy Bob was a lot of things, but never talking-to-hisself crazy.
Finally my curiosity got the best of me, and I called over to him, “Hey, Billy Bob, what are you doing?”
He looked away from the tree long enough to snarl, “Mind your own business, Fireplug.”
He always called me Fireplug, and I could never figure why. I was tall and pretty skinny and it never made any sense to call me Fireplug. Bean-pole would certainly be more fitting.
I edged my way toward Billy Bob, until I could finally see the squirrel he had apparently run up the tree. It was just like him to torment tiny, defenseless creatures.
The squirrel was sitting on one of the lower branches. It was gazing down at Billy Bob as he cussed at it, and otherwise tried to intimidate it into coming out of the tree.
The squirrel wouldn’t budge, though, but it began to chatter down at Billy Bob rather angrily.
The chattering sound a lot like laughing, and Billy Bob became irate. His chubby cheeks grew a dark shade of pink, and he started to sputter his words so that you couldn’t understand them. Finally he was so enraged he lunged at the tree trunk, grabbed it with his fat hands, and tried to shake the entire tree. Now, Billy Bob was big, but nobody was big enough to shake that old oak tree. He just looked ridiculous in the attempt, and as though the squirrel recognized what a big dummy Billy Bob was, it chattered even louder.
Billy Bob, then, gave up on the tree, and started looking for rocks to hurl at the squirrel.
“Hey, why don’t you just leave it alone?” I called out to him.
He just looked up to glare at me, and then resumed scanning the ground for good throwing stones.
When he had a good supply of ammo piled at his feet, he started to chuck the stones at the squirrel, who ran to and fro on the branch, evading the rocks, stopping now and then to chatter fiercely.
I called out to Billy Bob that he would never hit the squirrel, and he spun round and threw a stone that hit me right in the kneecap before he returned his attention to the squirrel.
In the end the squirrel seemed to become bored with Billy Bob, so it scampered down the opposite side of the tree trunk, and started to bolt across an open grassy area of the park.
Surprisingly Billy Bob took after it, running a lot faster than I would have thought somebody his size could run.
I just had to chase after them, because I had this feeling something was going to happen. Either Billy Bob was going to catch that squirrel, or he would fall flat on his face, or something. What ended up happening, I would never have guessed.
The squirrel was zigzagging out in front of Billy Bob, who little by little closed the gap. Just when it seemed Billy Bob had a shot at grabbing the squirrel, it stopped dead in its tracks, spun round, and lunged at Billy Bob. There was a horrifying squeal as the squirrel sunk its teeth into Billy Bob’s hand, and then Billy Bob was spinning around and around, like a dust devil dancing across a desert floor, trying to get the squirrel to let go, and the squirrel holding on for dear life.
When the squirrel finally let go, it flew off, hit the ground running, and took off for parts unknown.
Billy Bob ended up sitting on the ground, wailing like a baby. He was holding his hand close to his chest, and blood was fairly gushing out of the wound that was in the meaty part between his thumb and pointing finger. I couldn’t say that I felt the least bit of sympathy for him. It served him right.
I walked up to him, thinking that that squirrel had left him much the same way Billy Bob left the many little kids he had tormented.
“Wow, Billy Bob,” I said, savoring the moment, “that squirrel sure did have long teeth, hunh?”
When he looked up, I could see that his fat cheeks were shiny with tears. All he could say was “I’m bleeding…I’m bleeding…” repeating it in a panicky pathetic way. I almost hated myself, then, because I actually started to feel sorry for him. I couldn’t have said why. I was certain he had never felt anything at all after he’d torment some little kid, leaving him scraped and banged-up in the school yard.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m sure they can stitch that up all right. You might hafta get rabies shots, though.”
His eyes bugged out in terror. “R-rabies…?”
“You know that squirrels carry rabies, don’t you?”
He gasped, seeing the truth of what I’d said, struggled frantically to his feet, and fled from the park, calling for his mother long before he was even near his home.
I walked after him. There was no way I was going to miss any part of his comeuppance.
By the time I reached his house Billy Bob was already gone. His father had run him over to the Oland County Bar iatric Center, which was the only nearby medical facility that had anything that remotely resembled an emergency room. I thought it was ironic-- and potentially practical-- that he was taken to the Bar iatric Center. Maybe after they fixed his hand, they could also staple his stomach-- maybe he could get some kind of two-for deal.
Billy Bob’s mother was standing on the rickety old porch that hadn’t been painted in years. She was a formidable woman-- meaning that Billy Bob had inherited his disposition from her-- and the spitting image of her son. Appearance-wise, the only things that separated the two were thirty years of wear and midnight snacks and a sex-change operation.
She was talking down to a sheriff’s deputy, who had apparently just arrived and who seemed reluctant to get too close to the house.
As I approached, Billy Bob’s mother spotted me, and pointed an accusing finger in my direction.
“I betcha he had something to do with it,” she said to the deputy, who was pretty young and looked way too serious.
“You know what this is all about?” the deputy asked. “Billy Bob was so frantic he couldn’t speak.”
“Oh, he did something, all right,” she said, certain. “He even looks guilty.”
It always struck me as strange that the parents of the kids who were doing the worse things always believed that it was other folks’ kids who were at fault.
“Hey, I didn’t do nothing,” I said to them both. “He was squirrel-bit.”
At that they both gasped, as though getting squirrel-bit was the worst thing that could befall a human being.
“Aw, that ain’t good,” the deputy said gravely, and looked to have a shiver running through him. “We’re gonna need to find that squirrel. If not, Billy Bob is gonna hafta go through a mess of painful shots. Thirteen injections right in the solar plexus…. Did you see this happen?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
He took a small notepad and a pen from his shirt pocket, and got ready to write.
“Gimme a description of the squirrel,” he almost demanded.
“What did it look like?”
“Well…it looked like-- a squirrel.” I thought it was a really stupid question; Oland County only had one type of squirrel, and they were reddish-brown and all looked alike. It sounded as though young deputy was expecting the squirrel to have a moustache or walk with a limp-- I concluded that he was not detective material. But then I remembered, “It did have a messed up tail.” The tip of its tail had been sparse of fur, remindful of the quality of Christmas trees you might find at six o’clock on Christmas Eve evening at a cut-rate tree lot.
I described the squirrel tail to him, and he seemed happy to have something to jot down.
The whole while Billy Bob’s mother glared down at me as though I did something wrong.
It didn’t take long before every deputy on duty, and sheriff himself, along with a few file clerks from the County Building, were all combing the park for a small reddish-brown squirrel with a ratty tail.
They checked up trees, behind bushes, around the river where it squiggled through a south corner of the park. They checked around the softball diamonds, the park house, and the two small bathroom buildings whose doors were always open in the summer months. And though many squirrels were spotted, and there were a few false alarms, the offending squirrel remained at large.
The deputies then fanned out into the downtown area on one side of the park, and into the residential neighborhood on the other side of the park.
They checked every tree and bush. They checked tool sheds and garages. They checked all the roofs of any structure. They even checked inside the small downtown stores and offices, as though the squirrel had actually pushed open one of the doors to let itself into the genuine air-conditioning that was advertised in faded letters on the front window.
I was requested to make myself available to identify the culprit once it was captured, since Billy Bob was still at the emergency room and way too distraught to be of much use.
I wandered around watching the hunt, and I noticed how deeply concerned everybody was. You’d think they were doing it all for some kind of saint, and not for Billy Bob, who, it was generally known, was a “bad seed.” I wondered what they could possibly be thinking. It really was an awful message I was picking up from their actions: that it didn’t matter how bad, even evil, a person might be, he was still deserving of their sympathy and concern if he was bitten by a rabid, or might-be rabid, squirrel. They were basically saying that when push came to shove, it didn’t matter how you have comported yourself in life, everybody would look after you. And though this was a comforting idea, it seemed to make meaningless every good, kind, and decent thing I’d ever done.
Then, as if that weren’t a hard enough pill to swallow, I spied Sister Margaret Olive, who had joined in the search.
But it was Wordell Jackson who ultimately found the squirrel.
As I strolled down a road not far from my house, I noticed Wordell had pulled his squad car over, and was now standing before a small house that had a large front yard. He was peering into the yard, and when I got closer, I saw the squirrel just as it jump onto the top of the white picket fence.
Wordell noticed me, and slowly raised his hand, warning me not to come any further.
The squirrel, perched on the fence, stopped, and looked more like a ceramic squirrel than a real one. When it finally moved, it stood on its hind legs, turning to face Wordell, who seemed uncertain what to do at first.
Then he looked toward me, and moved his eyes between the squirrel and me, as though asking whether this was the right squirrel. When I nodded my head, he carefully reached down for his service revolver, and pulled it from his holster. Now he appeared more uncertain than ever, and with good reason. You see, Wordell was, without a doubt, the worse shot the Oland County Sheriff’s Department had ever employed. Each year, all the deputies had to qualify on the shooting range, and were expected to get at least the minimal passing score of eighty. In the ten plus years he had been a deputy, Wordell was hard-pressed to break fifty. He would always end up getting a pass until the following year, though; it would have been much too hard to replace him, simply because nobody wanted to be a deputy, what with all the more desirable jobs available in the county, like digging graves, greasing pump jacks, and hunting rattlesnakes whose meat was shipped to fine-to-do restaurants out east to be served as gourmet food to people with lots of money and very little common sense.
So, Wordell, knowing his limitations, slowly re-holstered his revolver, as the squirrel continued to look at him, not the least bit concerned, as though it could sense Wordell was no real threat.
Wordell eased back toward the squad car, and returned with a shotgun. He probably figured he had a better chance to wing the squirrel with a shotgun.
The squirrel, though, didn’t seem the least impressed with the change of hardware. It looked more curious than anything. It watched as Wordell drew a bead on it, and then waited.
When Wordell pulled the trigger, three things happened at the same time. There was a deafening roar from the shotgun. Wordell flew backward, and landed flat on his backside. And the squirrel disappeared.
At first I thought the squirrel made a miraculous escape, somehow jumping off the fence and running to hide in the nearby lilac tree. But then I saw that it hadn’t gotten away at all; just above where it had been standing, there was a pink squirrelly mist lingering in the air.
Everybody heard the sound of the shotgun blast, and came running. Soon the front yard was crawling with deputies, looking everywhere, but not finding a piece of the squirrel big enough to test to see whether it had had rabies.
The sheriff, disgusted, sent a deputy over to the emergency room to tell the doctors Billy Bob would be needing the rabies shots.
Wordell was sent over to the emergency room, too. He hadn’t been holding the shotgun right, and had apparently dislocated his shoulder.
Soon everybody was gone, and it seemed like just any other lazy summer day in Oland, where there was plenty of time and not a whole lot to do.
Ernest Hemingway once said a true story ends only in death.
But Billy Bob survived. His wound healed, and he got over the rabies shots. Within a week or so, he was back to his old ways, tormenting little kids and tiny creatures. None of it changed him at all. Everybody wants, even expects, bad people to change. I don’t think it ever really happens. If you’re born good, you stay good. If you’re born bad, you stay bad. If you can learn to life with this, you’ll never be disappointed.
Wordell did suffer a dislocated shoulder, but he, too, survived-- although the sheriff, it was rumored, really wanted to kill him, because Wordell was rewarded for his stupidity by being able to stay home for six weeks at three-quarters pay on a duty injury.
The only one who died was the squirrel, who had to be the unluckiest creature on earth; first it’d been tormented by Billy Bob, and then shot and vaporized by somebody, who, it was widely known, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a howitzer. You don’t get much more unlucky than that.
As far as this story ending in a death, I wonder if the squirrel counts. I really hope it does.