Squeaky... Or, When A Five Year-Old Went To Hell
When Bobbi was five years old, she spent my weekday afternoons at Vernon Street School. She went there after a half-day of kindergarten because she was an exhausting child and her very tired mom needed some time to be a human adult. She may have also gone to work but Bobbi's not sure because what other people were doing was not the main focus at this point in her life.
So, Bobbi was five, which means her little sister was two, which means that she was still getting used to the idea of no longer being an only child. (She was not exactly a person whom you would describe as ‘easily adaptable.’) Bobbi was the youngest of five which meant she got away with a lot. It also meant that she got a lot of hand-me-downs.
Which is how I ended up with a stuffed animal rabbit/mouse/rat thing whom she named Squeaky.
Maybe Bobbi was bored. Maybe she was creative. Maybe she was… special. Whatever the reason, Bobbi pulled this stuffed animal rodent out of her enormous hand-me-down stuffed animal basket, placed her in a shoebox with a piece of Iceberg Lettuce, showed it to her parents before school, and insisted it was real. She knew it wasn’t. Bobbi was weird, not dumb.
I carried Squeaky down into the kitchen, curious to see how much patience/acceptance/surrender to the children was available to me at 7am. I don’t remember my parent’s reaction exactly, but I do remember getting away with it long enough to be allowed to bring it to kindergarten for show-and-tell. And then, I remember taking it with me on the bus to Vernon Street, which is where I went for my after-school program. I don’t remember, but I probably sat alone.
I got off the bus with Squeaky. It was definitely winter because the cubby room was total chaos, as it had to be when 30 five-year-olds had to change from their parkas and boots into Velcro sneakers and sweaters every day during the never-ending Massachusetts winter. I remember standing in front of my cubby, looking at Squeaky, and feeling kind of bored and over the initial excitement of my brilliant ruse. The problem was, a few of the kids from kindergarten also spent their afternoons at Vernon Street and had already started asking me about where and how Squeaky was going to spend the rest of the day.
Squeaky had become famous in a kind of D-list but still a celebrity way, and now there was no turning back. It was okay to have an imagination, but then you had to commit.
As we were all being loudly encouraged to hurry up and go sit on the circle (which was a stained, color-blocked area rug with a giant circle on it,) I took Squeaky, who was starting to be a real pain in the ass, under my arm and into the room. It should be noted that the kids at Vernon Street were a bit of a tougher crowd than my South Street School kindergarten room.
South Street was a three-room schoolhouse up the road from my parents’ with a very small number of students and a basement that also functioned as a lunch room and a gym. Vernon Street was actually a pretty amazing school which brought in kids unlucky enough to be caught up in the foster-care system. At Vernon Street, the students put up with way less crap so there I was with Squeaky, wading into possibly socially dangerous territory. I sat in the circle with this slightly ratted, used, generic rodent stuffed animal crammed into a 1980s Aerosoles shoe box with some wilted vegetables, feeling like an utter moron. Some kid probably just finished telling a story about saving his mom in a knife fight, and now it’s my turn to tell everyone about the thing in the box.
“She’s real,” I insisted unenthusiastically. “…And she’s still because she’s sleeping… And she sleeps with her eyes open… it’s called ‘nocturnal.’ And she didn’t eat because she hates vegetables… She likes macaroni and cheese, but not the white kind with the shells—the real orange kind with the tube noodles. And she’ll probably sleep for the rest of the day.” Only the dumb kids seemed impressed, like Asa, who liked to eat wallpaper glue.
I sat down, mortified. All I wanted to do was bury Squeaky in the compost bin by the playground and never hear from her again. I asked Lyndah, the head teacher, if I could let Squeaky nap in the cubby room because she didn’t like all of the noise in the classroom.
Poor Lyndah. I wonder if she thought I was some cool, hippie, creative kid or if she categorized me with Asa who was presently chewing on the wall. Lyndah agreed that Squeaky was best left outside of the room and the rat was put away. Great, I thought, I'm done being a parent.
I went back to play for the rest of the day, having learned no lesson at all except that next time, I would lie about something much more interesting than a pet rat/rabbit, especially when I could have just as easily brought in my actual hamster and probably hung out with the cool kids in the wooden block section until our parents came to get us.
Daycare pickup was a hugely stressful time for me because I knew my dad was a lawyer. I also knew he had to go to the jail a lot. I also knew that every minute that he was late picking me up was because they had slammed the jail bar doors shut and decided to keep him there. I didn’t know how to tell time yet, but I knew that my dad was always late because I was the last kid standing with Lyndah. This was due to poor time management on his part, not felony conviction—or, at least, not his own.
I would pace around the playground in the nice weather or in the classroom on cold days. On this particular day, I was working myself up into a five-year-old’s version of a panic attack that my dad was locked in jail and I’d have to sleep at Vernon Street without my teddy bear. The minutes, as I imagined them, were ticking by, and I could picture my poor dad sitting on the dirt floor in a jail cell surrounded by mice and stalactites, rubbing his hands together in front of a drippy candle, trying to keep warm. (Now is a good time to mention that most of my basis for information outside of my world was born from a nonsensical collage of Disney movie images.) This was the day I made my first ever deal with God:
“God, if you get my dad out of jail and back to Vernon Street before I count to thirty, I promise to never lie again… please…”
I started counting, staring off into the parking lot where other kid’s parents were getting out of cars and hugging them. Or yelling at them to leave the gross snowballs on the ground and also to stop hitting their brother. And I repeated my promise to God, over and over and over.
Please, please don’t keep my dad in jail. He’s a good guy. Please, God, really, I’ll never tell another lie for as long as I live.
And it worked. I saw my dad’s rusted Toyota pulling up to Vernon Street school and I felt simultaneously lucky and pretty damn omnipotent.
“Dad!” Tears flooded my eyes in relief that my father was a free man. “Wait, I just have to get my stuff.”
As I ran upstairs to the cubby room, I started thinking, Maybe God does want to give you stuff as long as you promise to be good and repeat yourself a bunch… when I stopped dead in my tracks.
There, in my cubby, was my lunchbox, a mitten I had forgotten weeks ago, and nothing else. I looked under the shelves, poked in other kid’s spaces, checked the classroom, and glanced over my shoulder on the chance that some Velveteen Rabbit shit had happened and maybe she was real. But no luck. Squeaky and her Aerosoles’ box were gone. Gone. I was mad, indignant, and totally relieved. I was only five, but I didn’t have the energy to put into a new pet—especially one that had no chance of helping me improve my social situation. Fuck it, I thought, let someone else deal with the fake real rat. I grabbed my lunchbox and ran outside.
“Where’s Squeaky?” My dad casually called the loaded question into the back seat as I climbed into the old Toyota. Ugh, why did he remember these things? My dad is one of those men who can delve into the most minute details of the United States’ Constitution at any moment of the day. He is currently taking an astronomy class to contemplate the vastness of the universe (which I was really excited about, being a self-absorbed Leo and all, but it turns out that’s astrology so… that’s why I didn’t go to law school.) My dad is smart smart. And in the ways of so many people with his brain power, he generally has trouble with the simpler things in life.
Like using a Phillip’s Head.
So my BS rarely registered which was something that I already knew at five how to use to my advantage. Why did he remember Squeaky? I had been so relieved. I thought I was off the hook. I figured I’d be able to put this whole fiasco behind me, lay low for a month, and then show up with a real hamster and blow Vernon Street’s mind. This was just a dress rehearsal and I really didn’t want to get into it. I was tired. I may not have been in court, but I had definitely also had a long day.
“Squeaky?” my dad repeated. So yes, I had made this deal with God to keep my poor dad alive and not incarcerated, but what if God had already decided to teach me a lesson about lying by having someone steal Squeaky? All before I had promised anything? This made much more sense. Which means that our little deal was probably null and void. So, I opened my lunchbox, took out some leftover Goldfish, and, solidifying my space in Hell, I replied,
“She ran away.”