The .22 rifle in the corner of the bathroom belonged to Jackson's wife, Terri. It had been there for five months, since early April. At first, Terri gently complained about the clutter, but she hadn't mentioned the rifle or the ammunition all summer. When she cleaned, she set the small black plastic box of bullets to the side along with the crystal bowl of apple-scented potpourri, then centered the box again on the back of the toilet when she was done. But now that September had come, she again asked Jackson about it.

"Put yourself in the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald," he said with a fetching smile.

The bathroom window overlooked their small backyard, where astilbe, hostas, wood ferns, and impatiens grew in the shade of the dogwoods and where purple petunias, white begonias, orange hibiscus and red roses shimmered in the late summer light. Early every morning as he drank his first cup of coffee, Jackson toured their small garden and assessed the rodent damage.

In the afternoon after work, he and Terri had their drinks in the shade, praised the day's growth, delighted in the day's blooms, and cursed the squirrels.

"But you can't kill them," Terri said, setting her glass on the patio table.

"You're talking in that Thumper voice again," Jackson said smiling, referring to the childlike lyrical inflection Terri affected when she spoke of small animals. "Think of them as rats with fluffy tails," Jackson said. "They kill our babies."

Every spring Terri and Jackson studied the weather and shared intimate, anticipatory conversations about what to plant and when the odds no longer favored frost. At the farmers market, they carefully selected a rainbow of flats and devoted their weekends to designing placement and setting out the infant flowers - first digging, then working the black soil with their fingers, stirring in a little cow manure and fertilizer before cuddling and covering their roots. They called the small flowers their babies.

But the squirrels invaded, appropriating the soft, fertile places, uprooting and tossing aside the tiny plants, then burying pecans from the neighbors' trees.

"Well, if you kill something, I don't want to know, okay? Just don't tell me."

Two houses over, a car door slammed shut. A small child was crying.

"Shut up," a man shouted. "Or I'll burn your ass."

Jackson and Terri exchanged looks.

"I can't stand that," Terri said.

"Somebody ought to kick his ass," Jackson said.

The child, no more than four years old, wore a faded pink dress. Her rust colored hair fell in thick ringlets over small dirty hands pressed hard against her eyes. She turned, head down, half folded at the waist, and slowly walked stiff-legged away from the man, down the dusty drive.

"I saw the sign was down," Jackson said to his wife. "Be grateful it wasn't that one they bought." He nodded toward the sign in front of the house next door.

Two houses over, the girl's father stood in the shadow of his slanted garage with his back to them, smoking.