"Groundhog Days" by Conner Russell
February 2 was warm and sunny when the groundhog stuck his head out.
“I’m so alone,” Tommy said to the groundhog. The groundhog studied Tommy’s river of tears and receded back into his hole.
The clouds blocked out the sunrise.
“Mornings without sunrises are portentous,” Tommy used to tell me. I didn’t want to say that the day Isabelle left him began with the most magnificent sunrise I’d ever seen.
“I wish the groundhogs could see this,” Tommy said minutes before Isabelle called to say it was over.
By noon the sky was black and trickles of rain floated toward the ground. By 5PM, the freeways were gridlocked as tired motorists marveled at the now fully formed raindrops smashing against their motionless windshields.
Tommy opened his umbrella and sat near the groundhog’s hole.
“Come out,” he yelled, but the groundhog had no intention of leaving. He was deep asleep, dreaming of flowers.
On February 7, I had a job interview at a home improvement store. They asked me all sorts of questions that at the time seemed irrelevant.
“We have a lot of groundhogs around here; do you know how to deal with them?”
I lied and said yes.
“There’s also a sad man that hangs out with them. Do you know how to deal with sad men?”
I almost said the sad man was my good friend Tommy but instead I said: “I’ve dealt with a few in my time.”
The interviewer posited a situation: “Say you’re at the register and a groundhog comes in looking for flowers. What do you do?” It felt like a trap.
“I’d ask the groundhog if they needed assistance then discreetly call the manager.”
“Thank you for your time.”
Tommy, after a slow walk around the park, was feeling better about his devastating loss when the groundhog emerged.
“Why have you been ignoring me?” Tommy asked.
“Everyone ignores everyone,” the groundhog replied. “Get out of my way, I need to find something to eat.”
February 15, like the 26 days before it, ended in tears for Tommy.
The interviewer called on the 18th and said I got the job. I was to start immediately, as they were shorthanded on cashiers after a few had been fired for letting groundhogs abscond with flowers.
When I got there, I was handed a fluorescent apron weighed down by buttons demonstrating my lack of knowledge (“I’M IN TRAINING”) or my lack or agency (“ASK ME ABOUT OUR CREDIT CARD”) or my lack of a belief system (“WHEEL OF VALUES”). Then I was sentenced to retrieve shopping carts from the parking lot.
“People are afraid of the groundhogs so they’re leaving their shopping carts out there,” my interviewer said. “Go get ‘em.”
Fear makes people do irrational things. Like yell and fight and leave their shopping carts in parking lots. I watched as a woman shoved her cart into the side of a truck. “There’s no time for decency anymore,” she yelled, “not with all these groundhogs running around.”
I saw only a handful of groundhogs on my cart runs. They lounged in the dirt eating soggy brown grass, bullshitting with bored squirrels and pigeons, and on the periphery of their group was Tommy, nervously writing love letters to Isabelle. He locked eyes on me and rushed over.
“My letter starts: Isabelle, I know change is hard to come by in this day and age but if there’s anyone who can change, it’s me: you know that! How much did we change together? How we changed in such beautiful ways — you, from a”
“I have to get more carts,” I cut him off. He crumpled like the leaves of a dandelion in the mouth of a big groundhog.
Tommy’s letter went through multiple drafts.
Isabelle, I know change is hard to come by, but if there’s a single person who could do it
Isabelle, change is a difficult thing, but it doesn’t always have to be
Isabelle, we all want change and don’t want change at the same time. Change is paralyzing us... me.
“Terrible,” said the groundhog as he retired to his hole for the evening.
They still had me pushing carts around on March 1. My coworker Jon made me a modified Wheel of Values, one I couldn’t attach to my apron. It was called “The Wheel of No Diploma,” divided into seven equal parts:
- FAST FOOD CASHIER
- CONSTRUCTION CLEAN-UP CREW
- PARTY CLOWN
- LOT ASSOCIATE
I told him I knew people with diplomas who did all those things and he rescinded his Wheel of No Diploma and cried and cried and…
Tommy’s first smile came on March 2. The groundhog basked in a tiny sliver of sunlight while disenfranchised hawks sized him up.
“Shouldn’t you be hiding?” Tommy asked.
“What’s the point?” the groundhog said. “I’ve got nothing on these bones.” The hawks must have realized this because they sighed heavily and flew away.
Tommy smiled. “You’re so wise”
“I forgot you were still here,” the groundhog said.
I have resigned from my position at the home improvement store. Here’s what happened:
I was told I needed to convince people to sign up for credit cards. As a joke, I asked Tommy if he was interested and to my surprise he said yes. He needed financing to buy a bunch of shovels so he could dig a hole and live with the groundhogs.
Predictably, he was declined and my supervisor got a sour look and said: “Get real people to sign up.”
Then I found an old man and told him how great and altruistic the store was to extend him such an amazing offer.
“What’s the APR?” he asked.
“Multiply the number of groundhogs out in the parking lot by two,” I said. Riotous laughter fell out of his mouth and off he went.
As I turned around Tommy was walking off with two shovels.
“Did you pay for those?” I asked.
“No,” Tommy said.
My supervisor told me to stop him at once. Instead, I gently placed my apron in the trash can and followed Tommy. February 18 to March 15. Not a particularly impressive career.
Tommy and the narrator spent all of March 16 digging a hole. They took their time and really made it something to be proud of. Tommy added windows into the tunnels so he could wave as the groundhogs scurried past. He added a bathroom where he could take mud baths. He added a living room with a clay futon. And in his bedroom was a bed of grass and thousands of half-written letters.
Later, Tommy and the narrator burned those letters while sitting around a campfire with the groundhogs.
“So what if you’re alone and ignored,” the groundhog said wisely. “You’ve got a hole to call your own and that’s worth something.”
The next day the clouds disappeared and the flowers came out and it wasn’t winter anymore.
© 2017 Conner Russell
About Conner: Conner is from San Diego and is currently studying English and Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley. He is at work on short stories, essays for class, and a novel loosely based on his experiences hitchhiking and trainhopping around the country.