The Birds and the Bees (and the dogs and the trees)

When I was a kid, I used to run to the top of the steep hill in my backyard and then roll all the way down. I’d feel leaves and sometimes burrs sticking to my clothes and hair as I spun toward the plateau at the bottom, then get up and walk back to the top, dizzy and ready to do it again. Later, Mom would comb out the burrs by jerking a hairbrush across my ears. Most of the time, she’d find at least one tick and would scream for Dad to come take the parasite away. She’d hand the little squirming bloodsucker to him between a pair of tweezers, and he’d either flush it down the toilet or set it on fire with a match depending on what instrument of destruction was closer.

There was a shed at the bottom of the hill in the backyard, and I had to line up my starting spot carefully so that I didn’t smack into the front of it as I rolled to the bottom. No one in my family ever used the word shed – the shed was just called “the building” and the building was where Dad kept his power tools and where stray dogs who got pregnant without telling us had their puppies. At least a dozen wasps’ nests ringed the perimeter of the building, and in the summer, the sound of their buzzing was so loud I could hear it from the porch nearly fifty feet away. The sound made me nervous, as did their unpredictable diving.  I hated wasps ever since one stung me on my upper arm when I was very young. I remember the red, circular welt that grew outward in circumference faster than I’d ever seen anything grow and the stinging sensation that seemed to leave my whole arm sore. Mom had rushed out onto our porch when she heard me crying and taken me inside. She dampened a wet paper towel and shook a special cooking seasoning called Accent on it before pressing the towel against my wound. It hurt more. She’d heard this seasoning was the best home remedy for bee stings, but I don’t remember if it was.

Because of the wasps, I avoided the building and only went in when my older brother threatened me with a beating if I didn’t. It was dark and windowless in there – no one had wired it with electricity, so finding anything even during daylight hours was nearly impossible. On top of that, there was always the chance that when I grabbed for what I thought was an extension cord, I’d come up with a hibernating garter snake. The whole building smelled like gasoline, from weed-eaters and cans stored all winter, and at least three litters of puppies – a wet dog smell that never completely leaves unventilated places even after the pups have grown and are producing their own litters elsewhere.

Years later, after I too grew up and moved out, Dad bought a four-wheeler. He keeps it stored in the building. The seat, soft and absorbent, smells like long gone dogs that are almost certainly dead of old age by now.

My First Shitty Apartment

…My first shitty apartment was a third-floor walk-up in a house that didn’t really have a third floor – like if your grandma rented out her attic. The ceilings were so low that I spent the three months I lived there permanently crouched. The bedroom had no closets, but was the size of one itself. There was already a futon when I moved in, but I quickly became convinced the damp polyester housed bed bugs and refused to sleep on it. Instead, I put an air mattress in the kitchen since it was the only decently sized room in the whole place and slept there. It was so hot that summer, and heat rises, so the damp, dirty apartment became a steam room for bacteria. I acquired a portable air conditioner, a floor unit where the accordion hose hangs out the window. It often took on too much humidity and overflowed multiple times a day, causing large, discolored watermarks to form all across the dark green “carpet” in the living room. I covered these stains with baking soda because that’s what Pinterest or Google said to do. When that resulted in nothing more than a thick paste, I became more proactive and re-purposed a lid from a large container to set underneath the unit and catch the water. This formed a moat that had to be emptied into the tub twice a day. On the way, I’d easily spill half of the contents of the rubber, wobbly lid across the carpet, so I put down yet more baking soda. I remember being embarrassed when a friend came to visit and burst out laughing at the disaster that was my living situation. “What the hell is that?” he said, cackling and pointing to the pasty white stains that snaked across my floor. To feel better, I told him to leave and then a few days later, adopted a kitten. This cat was the last kitten left in a litter at the shelter down the street because, as the lady at the shop warned me, “He’s the devil. He attacks everyone. Even his siblings hid from him.” I decided this was the perfect cat for me and brought him home in my jacket. He thanked me by peeing on my couch and refusing to recognize the litter box as belonging to him. Instead, he left cat shit all around my toilet like a picket line I had to cross every morning. I got no sleep after he moved in. I would try to bed down on the air mattress but could never fully relax because he was always climbing to the highest spot he could find which was usually the mountain of dishes I left piled in the sink. Perched at the top, he would flick his tail and watch me, waiting for me to enter that lucid yet dreamy state between wake and sleep – at that point, he would launch himself off the tower of pots and pans causing them to fall and clang noisily as he landed feet first, claws out, on my chest…

Taming Raccoons for Fun and Profit

One summer when I was 13, my brother-in-law, Randy, saw a baby raccoon sitting along the side of the road next to a mother who had been hit by a car. I was known as the animal lover of the family – my nickname was Elly May after the teenage girl on the Beverly Hillbillies who, like me, was happiest with a menagerie crawling around her neck – so Randy covered his hands in a thick pair of protective gloves, grabbed the hissing ball of fur, and threw her into the bed of his truck. He then drove straight to my mother’s house where he presented her to me as an exotic pet.

I was devastated that she’d lost her mother, but, selfishly, thrilled to have a new pet. I retrieved an old pet taxi from the shed and, using Randy’s gloves, transplanted the sopping wet, angry creature into her new home. She seemed to hate me. She stayed huddled at the back of the pet carrier, glaring at me with yellow eyes and growling in an attempt to convince me she could bite my face off through these bars if she really wanted to. But I could smell her fear – there’s a scent that animals give off when they’re in danger or agitated, and this little baby raccoon was throwing a stink my way that undermined her nonverbal threats of ripping out my eyeballs with her teeth.

Meanwhile, I loved her already and wanted her to love me just as much. I stole a jar of Mom’s peanut butter from the kitchen and began rubbing handfuls of it across the bars, hoping to entice her closer. My hands became stickier with each dip and smear. After ten minutes, my fingers were nearly webbed together, but it was worth it because the hateful fur-ball could no longer resist the scent of food. She stopped growling, instead chortling like a pigeon as she crept forward on tiny, padded paws. Soon, she’d licked the bars clean and was looking up at me, almost purring. My mother warned that she probably had rabies and swore she’d leave me to die in the basement if I contracted it too. I unlocked the bars anyway and allowed her to crawl into my lap where I continued to feed her peanut butter until she fell asleep in a furry semicircle.

For the rest of the summer, she was my first priority. I called her Baby because she seemed certain I was her mother, following me everywhere and crying noisily if I disappeared behind a door for even a moment during the day. At night, she slept outside on the porch in a bed I’d created from old wood scraps and cloth because Mom remained certain my new pet was an unpredictable, possibly rabid nuisance. Each morning that summer, I woke up and fed her breakfast, a mixture of peanut butter and cheesy-poofs. She would chatter happily, climbing up my jeans over my white US Open 2001 t-shirt which by the end of the summer was stained with orange and brown paw prints. She preferred to sit on my shoulder like a parrot, holding the snack between her paws and taking bites. This was the cutest behavior I’d ever seen, but I worried that she needed training in food scavenging for when she got older; my solution was to hide cheesy-poofs inside tree branches so she would have to climb to reach them. By the end of the summer, I had turned the area outside my house into a raccoon jungle gym – I stashed snacks in garbage bins, buried them in the yard, and dangled them from chains she easily scaled.

Over the next year and a half, she lived with me, but as she grew bigger, she often wandered farther and farther away at night, becoming less my pet during the day and more like a visitor that showed up without calling, instead delighting me with surprise arrivals. “Sherry, your ‘coon’s out here!” Mom sometimes called to me in the evenings from the front porch. I’d come running out to see how much bigger she’d gotten, laughing as Mom cowered against the screen door for fear Baby would mistake her for me and climb up her back. I’d pick her up like old times, petting her and always giving her lots of treats. As the year went on, her visits became less and less frequent until one day after being gone for nearly four months, she showed up with four little raccoons of her own. I tried to give them cheesy-poofs too, but she was fiercely protective, growling and refusing to let me get too close.

raccoon

I didn’t see her much after that, but I like to think she still lives somewhere in the woods behind my parents’ house, raising generations of raccoons who, to hear Mom tell it, will soon come and dismantle the house piece by piece, starting with the kitchen – Baby knows that’s where the peanut butter lives.