Veda leaned against the wire shelf in aisle 19 at Home Depot and tried to look cool. “Thanks for stopping to ask, actually I do need your help.” A stray black hair fell across her forehead in a viscous curl and she swiped it away.
Veda wasn’t great at eye contact. She preferred the anonymity of never really connecting with those she spoke with. So when Hello-My-Name-Is-Chip asked her if she needed any help, she just looked at his nametag and then at the furry space that, had he not had a unibrow, would have been the skin between his eyes. That was close enough.
She has spent 10 minutes in the Pest Control aisle before Chip approached her. Another female employee in a noxious orange vest and unflattering khakis had passed by Veda in the interim, but she didn’t stop. Maybe it was because he was a man. Chip seemed like the sort of guy that if the mood struck Veda, she could invite him into the disgusting employee WC near his, no doubt, depressing break room for a sweaty, faceless, afternoon tryst. She was equal parts repulsed and attracted to the fact that she could have him if she wanted to. Nothing like that ever happened to Chip. She seriously pondered the possibility for a moment as a favor to him before brushing it aside as too generous of her.
Chip scratched his bulging stomach before yanking his acid-washed jeans up under his belly’s largess. His index finger found a mole on his neck and absently pulled at a hair growing from its center.
“So, yeah. What can I do for you?”
“See, Chip—Can I call you Chip?”
“That’s what my nametag says.”
“Is that your real name? Or, like, your Home Depot identity? I mean, are you, like, exotic in real life? A Xavier? Maybe a Milosh? Piotr?”
“No, ma’am. Just Chip.”
Another woman wearing yoga pants and a baggy Sacramento Kings jersey hovered close by, circling her prey and waiting for Chip to break away so he could help her with, what? Who knew. Chip didn’t seem capable of offering too much help with anything. But in the vast big-box store where customers wandered aimlessly seeking assistance with their purchases—easter egg purple paint for the baby’s room, plywood for whatever one used plywood for (Veda had no idea why she’d ever need to buy plywood), screws, dishwashers, carpet, decking, CFL lightbulbs (what was the right way to dispose of them?)—it was rare that anyone noticed you here.
Veda was still staring at his brow line, but Chip diverted his gaze anyway to the line of mousetraps just to the right of Veda’s hip.
“So, here’s the thing, Chip, I’m going to just come right out and say it. I need to find a way to kill something.”
“Like weeds? That’s aisle 12A.”
“No, not like weeds, Chip, like an animal. That’s why I’m hanging around the mousetraps.” Veda scowled. Chip had even less depth than she had first thought.
“We have mousetraps.”
“Yes. I see that,” Veda ran a hand through her hair, “I can’t use traps. This thing is in the tree outside my bedroom. I need poison.”
“Oh, bummer, ma’am, but we don’t carry poison at this store anymore. It’s really cruel. Didn’t you know that?”
“Yes, I suppose it is, Chip. But so is killing any way you kill. I can’t very well hang mousetraps from my tree, can I?” A dim light of understanding came into Chip’s eyes.
“That would make one funny Christmas tree, huh?” He laughed at his own joke.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Chip sucked a tight breath of air in through his slack lips.
“Okay, then. I’m not sure how I can help you.” He finally saw the woman in the yoga pants, and seemed to be planning an escape from Veda.
“Chip?” Veda was as annoyed as she sounded, “Can you look at me for a second?” Chip looked back at her. “Do you sell, like, arrows or something?”
“Arrows? Jesus,” Chip whistled through his teeth like a cowboy in a spaghetti western, “What’s in your tree?”
“Not Jesus. Just a squirrel.”
“Just a squirrel? That’s unavoidable. They’re everywhere. You’ll get rid of one and another will move right on in.” Chip snorted. “What’s your plan? Sit outside behind a bush in camouflage knocking squirrels out of your tree like Robin Hood?”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” doubt crept into Veda, and she realized Chip was right.
“I mean, good lord, lady. I wouldn’t sell you a bow and arrow even if we stocked them here, which we don’t. This is Home Depot. We fix things. That’s no solution. If you ask me—”
“But if you did, I’d tell you to learn to live with it. Love life, and all that shit.”
Whatever power Veda once had over Chip was gone. This time she looked at yoga-pants-Kings-jersey-lady and nodded to communicate that Hello-My-Name-Is-Chip was free to help her now.
“Yeah, okay,” Veda mumbled. “Thanks anyway.” She turned and left the store, empty handed.
Later that day Veda stood in her bedroom and looked out the window. The loquat tree was lush and pregnant with fruit that fell off the branch and smashed into great, juicy messes on the walkway in front of her cottage. When Veda had moved in two years ago, she was fresh to California—she’d never had a fruit tree before and was excited that she’d entered a time in her life when that was possible. She didn’t even know what a loquat was at first. When she plucked one down and went inside to Google it, joy had welled up in her that she could eat it—loquats tasted like a cross between an apricot and a peach. But they were much smaller. She could fit three or four in the palm of her hand.
Veda wasn’t the only one who loved loquats. Just as her harvest was coming in, a big, bulbous squirrel moved into the tree. In fact, the squirrel and Chip were a lot alike: hairy, fat, smug. It sat on a fork between two branches plucking loquats and gorging on them. Juices ran down its gluttonous chin in great sticky streams, matting its fur and growing its round belly with every passing day. Whenever Veda left her house, the squirrel chittered at her for breaching its territory. One day it threw an overripe loquat right on her head. The fruit smacked the top of her skull like a cracked egg. She had to go in and change a second time for work—her blouse had been soaked with loquat juice. In the mornings, starting at four or five or always before the sun came up, her cats would hiss and spin in her bedroom mewing at the squirrel outside that tormented them with its laziness and lack of concern for predators. It began to embody all things Veda hated. It antagonized her and her cats. It woke her up early when she was tired. It was greedy, sloth-like, cruel, selfish.
She tapped her hand on the window’s cracked glass. The squirrel looked at her, and she stared back into its beady, black eyes. Both loathed one another equally. The squirrel viewed Veda as an intruder too.
“Say thank you to Chip, Squirrel.”
Maybe she’d go back to Home Depot and buy a chain saw.