The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about. Acorns, parasites, the inevitable approach of autumn. These subjects had been covered within their first hour, and so breathlessly, their faces had flushed. Twice, they’d held long conversations about dogs, each declaring their across-the-board hatred of them, and speculating on what life might be like were someone had put a bowl of food in front of them two times a day.
“They’re spoilt rotten, is what it comes down to,“ the chipmunk had said. And the squirrel had placed his paw over hers and said, “That’s it, exactly. Finally, someone who really gets it!”
Friends had warned them that their romance could not possibly work out, and such moments convinced them that these naysayers were not just wrong, but jealous. “They’ll never have what we do,” the squirrel would say. And then the two of them would sit quietly, hoping for a flash flood or a rifle report. Something, anything that might generate a conversation.
They were out one night, a little bar run by a couple of owls, when following a long silence, the squirrel slapped his palm against the tabletop. “You know what I like?” he said. “I like jazz.”
“I didn’t know that, “the chipmunk said. “Thank goodness! Jazz!”
She had no idea what jazz was but worried that asking would make her sound stupid and unworthy of his affections. “What kind, exactly?” she asked, hoping the answer might narrow things down a bit. “Well, all kinds, really, “he told her, “especially the earlier stuff.” “Me too, “she said. And when he asked her why, she told him that the later stuff was just a little too late for her tastes. “Almost like it was overripe or something. You know what I mean?” And for the third time since she had known him, the squirrel reached across the table and took her paw.
On returning home that evening, the chipmunk woke her older sister, with whom she shared a room. “Listen,” she whispered. “I need you to explain something. What’s jazz?”
“Why’re you asking me?” the sister said.
“So you don’t know either?” the chipmunk asked.
“I didn’t say I didn’t know,” the sister said. “I asked you why you’re asking. Does this have anything to do with that squirrel?”
“Maybe,” the chipmunk said.
“Well I’m telling,” the sister announced. “The first thing tomorrow morning, because this has gone on long enough.” She punched at her pillow of moss, then repositioned it beneath her head. “I warned you weeks ago that this wouldn’t work out, and now you’ve got the whole house in an uproar. Waltzing home in the middle of the night, waking me up with your dirty little secrets. Jazz, indeed! You just wait until mother hears about this.”
The chipmunk laid awake that night, imagining the unpleasantness that was bound to take place the following morning. Just as she thought she’d calmed herself down, a new possibility would enter her mind, each one more terrible than the last. Jazz was the maggot-infested flesh of a dead body, the ochre crossed on an infected eye, another word for ritual suicide. And she had claimed to like it.
Years later, when she could put it all in perspective, she’d realize that she’d never really trusted the squirrel. How else to explain all those terrible possibilities? Had he been another chipmunk, even a tough one, she’d have assumed that jazz was something familiar. A kind of root, say, or maybe a hairstyle. Of course her sister hadn’t helped any. None of her family had.
“It’s not that I have anything against squirrels, per se,” her mother had said.
“It’s just that this one, well, I don’t like him.” When pressed for details, she’d mention his fingernails, which were a little too long for her tastes. “A sure sign of vanity, “ she warned. “And then there’s this jazz business. That was what did it.”
Following a sleepless night, the chipmunk’s mother had forced her to break it off. “Well,” the squirrel had sighed, “I guess that’s that.”
“I guess it is,” the chipmunk said.
He headed downriver a few days later, and she never saw him or spoke to him again. “It’s no great loss,” her sister said. “No girl should be subjected to language like that, especially from the likes of him.” “Amen!” her mother added.
Eventually the chipmunk met someone else, and after she’d safely married, her mother speculated that perhaps jazz was a branch of medicine, something like chiropractic therapy that wasn’t quite legitimate. Her sister said no, it was more likely a jig, and then she pushed herself back from the table and kicked her chubby legs into the air. “Oh you,” her mother said, “that’s a can-can!” And then she joined in, and gave a few kicks of her own. This stuck in the chipmunk’s mind. She never knew her mother could identify a dance step, or anything associated with fun. It was a way her own children would eventually think of her. Dull, strict, chained to the past. She had boys, all of them healthy and only one prone to trouble. He had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but his heart was good, and the chipmunk knew he would eventually straighten himself up. Her husband thought so too, and died knowing that he had been correct. A month or two after he’d passed on, she asked this son what jazz was. And when he told her it was a kind of music, she knew immediately that he was telling the truth. “Is it…bad music?” she asked. “Well, if it’s played badly,” he said. “Otherwise it’s really quite pleasant.” “Did squirrels invent it?” “God, no!” he said, “Whoever gave you that idea?” The chipmunk stroked her brown and white muzzle. “Nobody,” she said, “I was just guessing.”
When her muzzle grew more white than brown, the chipmunk forgot that she and the squirrel had had nothing to talk about. She forgot the definition of jazz as well, and came to think of it as every beautiful thing that she had failed to appreciate. The taste of warm rain, the smell of a baby, the din of a swollen river rushing past her tree, and onward to infinity.