Image by Kevin Marks
The Old Opossum (or does it signify?)
Six years ago I found myself trapped between a dying opossum and a small dog obsessed, elderly, property association officer in the subdivision I then lived in. It was not one of the happier times in my life. The property association officer came by to “kindly” inform me as to the state of my lawn. While cut to the association’s specification and properly poisoned according to the required treatments it still had “Unsightly spots.” That the spots were the poisoned earth pushing back with fungal infection as a protest against the insistence of non-native grasses and the poisons necessary to manage them was not something I pointed out. Nor did I point out that the saner approach for the entire community would be to adopt landscaping policies as set out by the states’ departments of water management and land management that directed communities to use native species that were drought resistant and did not require the poisoning of the soil. I instead adopted that studied mid-western posture of patient silence, where you do not respond to anything being said but instead stare at them impassively. Try it some time. It is very disconcerting for the other party, if they notice. This association officer did not notice. At one point I began to imagine that were I to leave, shut the door and have breakfast I could return an hour later and find her still there finishing a conversation she had so clearly rehearsed. Her dialogue continued.
At some point she decided to share with me her passion for small dogs. My lack of involvement in the conversation did not in any way deter her from telling me about all the dogs she had over the years, the shows they’d entered and the ribbons they’d won. She would, I believe, still have me standing there to this very day listening to her talking about my lawn and her dogs if an incident hadn’t occurred. A strange chittering noise came from the bamboo stand that was then in my front yard. This drew her attention.
“What was that?” she asked.
I shrugged. It was the first physical acknowledgement I had given to anything she’d said in the last twenty minutes. She then demonstrated a behavior that I considered to be contrary to everything that Darwin’s work on evolution would suggest we should expect. Instead of retreating, she went to investigate.
“You have a possum!”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Yes, you do!”
“Do you have a dog?”
“Yes, of course I do!”
“Then I don’t have a possum,” at that point I went back in the house as the conversation had come to what I considered a conclusion.
The property association officer (homeowners’ association to be more precise) did not attempt another interview. But instead she returned the following day with one of her dogs, a small mop of hair, only identifiable as a dog by its dark glaring eyes, small shining black nose and white pointed teeth that were bared. This animal, which might be eight ounces soaking wet, was tethered to the property association officer by a retractable lead and perfectly matched her pace. It trotted with a contemptuous air, entirely unaware of its own absurdity and confident in its authority. It seemed to me, as I observed the small animal, that nature had distilled the essence of that officer into this dog.
They were coming to inspect my lawn, the property association officer having elected to pursue a policy of active management. I observed all of this from within my sunroom and within a few days we fell into a routine. I would sit writing in the sunroom, the officer would arrive in the yard with her dog. The officer would take notes. The dog would take a crap. The officer would retrieve the crap and I would continue writing. It had been about six days of this when another incident occurred. I was leaving my house for work and I found the opossum on the front walk, breathing its last. It had no injuries, just the look of the diseased and dying. I returned that evening to find it had crawled a few feet off the walk and expired at the edge of the bamboo stand. I buried it in the side yard that night. The routine with the property officer continued and they, the opossum, the small dog and that malignant property manager made their way into my writing, where they were transformed into the novel, Facebook Ate My Marriage.
Why revisit all of this at this time? Why recollect that opossum, the interview and the subsequent battle of wills – or battle of will and indifference – when these things are moving into what is quickly becoming the distant past? Another event recently occured, that recalled all of this for me.
I returned to my home last night. This home is blessedly far removed from that community, that property officer and those less than happy times in my life. It is a home that is far more hospitable to my habits and ambitions. It is a property that requires no active maintenance from me, other than the daily cleaning of its interior, which I happily undertake for the diversion it provides. But on this occasion, last night, a duty cropped up and an unhappy one. My wife informed me there was a dead cat in our side yard. This was by way of an explanation of a smell that had become progressively worse over the last few days. Normally the smell emanating from our side yard is that of flowers and grapes. We have nothing to do with either of these. Our neighbor has, against both the soil quality and the climate, established large, grape vines that runs the length of the fence. These produce an exceptionally sweet grape. What we have, in our back yard, is our own garden – herbs, citrus, pineapples, vegetables and an army of visiting stray cats.
My wife was not overwrought when she informed me of the cat. We both understand the transient nature of life and stray cats. But her suspicion was that it was a cat she calls alternatively Oakley and “O” as it has a very odd, perfectly circular pattern to its stripes in the middle of its flank. I told her I would take care of it. She went to get me a shovel but only found two rakes. I knew that I could work with them and went out to address the situation.
Arriving at the point from where this odor originated I was halfway down the fence line at the base of one of grape vines on our side of the fence. There was a body, stretched out on one side with a cloud of flies encircling it. Repositioning my glasses I could now see the active process of decomposition and the vibrant ecosystem that was resident in this formerly living being. I turned my attention to selecting a spot away from all pipes, wiring and root systems where I could inter the remains. After five minutes I managed to turn enough sandy soil and establish an adequate furrow into which I could safely bury it. Moving the body with the two rakes I briefly displaced the cloud of flies and could more critically examine it. The coat appeared gray, not the tan and black of Oakley. Turning it and lowering it into the furrow I saw that the head, which had been beneath the body was the wrong shape for a cat. Then I saw the tail and the paws and it was clear I was burying another dead opossum. Oakley returned this morning, demanding attention and clearly relieved that the odor issue had been resolved.
This not only recalled the property association officer incident, but the recurring role of opossums in my life. Four years ago, living in a different suburb, north of Tampa, I had seen a dozen of them wandering through my yard in the twilight, making their way to the decaying, elderly tree that dominated our front lawn. This seemed a terrible portent. Like some sort of old testament vision visited upon a pharaoh, conceiving as I initially did that they would drive out the squirrels my wife had so regularly fed and the ducks that came to our door every day. What happened instead was a small pack of coyotes fell upon them, dragging them off into the woods behind our home. I wasn’t disturbed by the coyotes, I knew they were wandering our neighborhood, there had been a notice in the association paper. I wasn’t disturbed by the attack. I was disturbed by the fact that I couldn’t find meaning in what seemed to me an all too convenient set of circumstances that dispatched those opossum.
This thought and memory reached out to connect with a more recent one, from a year ago. Before we settled in our present address we were situated in one of the more stolid, middle class suburbs in south west Florida. It was a place that was profoundly beige as was most of the neighborhood, with the exception or our neighbors immediately to the south. It was the sort of house that the ambitious would consider adequate and would find entirely dissatisfying without being able to necessarily explain why. Faults could be found in abundance, a bath that drained into a shower basin, a sewer pipe that turned at a right angle and clogged weekly, an air-conditioner that failed quarterly and only did so on Fridays after ten o’clock at night, a kitchen that was well appointed, spacious, granite topped and with no ventilation over the cooking surfaces, and on the list went. But even were you too fix everything it would still leave you with that empty sense, giving neither comfort, nor station, nor prestige; much like being married to a local news anchor.
But if it wasn’t ideal, it was a place where we could host friends, family and colleagues. One colleague – really more of a family friend – had become a regular visitor to our home when he worked in the area. European by heritage and education, American by birth, he enjoyed the meals and the company. He would drink his red wined chilled, even with ice if the weather dictated, and he would tell fabulously depressing stories about the state of the world, politics and the economy. When we worked together he would dissect the day’s events, bemoan the death of health care and offer as the counterpoint to all of this the observation that “at least we are all eating well.”
With all of his cynicism, morbid observations and depressive world views he still could be shocked or brought to a state of agitation on behalf of another. My circumstances, which he would often inquire about, continued to shock him and beggar his imagination that nothing could be done. He would become agitated about the fact that things were “No good, that is no good.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. World devastation, Armageddon and the four horsemen of the apocalypse and my circumstance were, “no good.”
He would, once an appropriate amount of time had passed and he was safe to drive, return to his hotel. On the last such occasion he had to stay in the guest room. Not because of any excess. But instead because the hotel he normally stayed at while working in town was undergoing renovations and the others were booked, as it was season and spring training. We had been dining a little over an hour and were passing remarks on another day of excellence in healthcare when the sound of a dog barking could be heard from outside our home. This being one of the more moderate evenings we had the windows open and the sounds seemed close. The conversation resumed only to be interrupted again by the sound of a man’s voice saying, “What ya got there? You got a possum? Really?!? GOOD BOY! YOU KEEP IT THERE!”
“It sounds as if our neighbor’s dog has cornered something,” I said, trying to restart the conversation.
“Does this happen often?” my colleague asked.
“No, usually the dog comes over here and wants to play,” my wife said. “He is a love. He just wants to chase tennis balls and sniff cats.”
“Oh, “ he said.
I was preparing to jump start the conversation when the sound of three shots were to be heard. They came from our side yard. A few moments later the dog came trotting out around the corner, following my neighbor. My neighbor had, slung over his shoulder a massive opossum, over his other was a rifle.
“What was that?!?”
“My neighbor, the one to the south. I believe he shot a possum with a 22.”
“How often does that happen?” my colleague asked, clearly agitated.
“First time,” I said and continued eating.
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
“I live in Orlando and I’ve lived in New York City and nothing like that’s ever happened near me before!” he said, not angrily, but more in a protracted shock.
“Hmm. In the country it happened occasionally,” I was recalling my life up through age eighteen, “in Kansas City I had seen and heard a fair few shootings.” I said, inventorying my mid to late twenties.
“They shot possums in Kansas City?”
“Hmm, no. They shot each other. Though I expect there might have been a few possums and skunks shot along the way.”
“I want to go see,” he said, and set down his napkin.
He was clearly upset, as he had only had three servings of pasta. I decided to accompany him.
While he was a lifelong urbanite, dividing his life between New York and Athens, the last decade had seen him pushed to the gated suburbs of Orlando. He’d chaffed under this, but tolerated the imposition and the stupidity of suburbia for the marginal benefits it conferred on his children. Were he to have his choice he would be back in New York where he could obtain for his children a proper education and steep them in the culture that he found so painfully absent in Florida. In understanding this you can begin to perceive how horrifying all of what followed actually was to him.
Outside my home, a few feet from the front door we both stood. He stared at the long red, ribbon that ran in front of my wife’s truck.
“What is that?” he said, not pointing.
“There is blood on your driveway?”
I looked across the front yard and out to the side yard. “There is a trail of blood. It probably continues on over to their house.”
“I want to see what he shot.”
I lead the way over to my neighbors. Entering through their open garage, I knocked on the door.
“Hiya doc,” I was greeted.
“Sounds like you got a possum.” I said.
“He’s cleaning up right now. The possum is in the back of the truck,” she informed me.
“Could we see it? My friend is over for dinner-“
“Oh geez! Sorry doc. Yeah, sure, I’ll send him on out. He’s real pleased with himself.”
“No reason not to be. I did notice the blood trail-”
“Damn it! I’m so sorry, I’ll have him clean it up.”
“No rush. “
She began to yell for him to get out of the bathroom and I went down their driveway to my colleague who was looking at the end of the blood trail. “They just-“
“He just,” I corrected.
“He just shot a possum?”
My colleague began to smoke and pace. He smokes regularly. Like so many who work in healthcare the general despair of the long association with humanity had reinforced his views on the futility of life and stupidity of minor virtues. I watched him and tried not to smile. A professional, a man, a multilingual cynic, who painted portraits of federal round ups of citizens, Midwestern concentration camps, armed uprisings and worldwide collapse, was struggling with the shooting of a possum in suburbia.
A few minutes later my neighbor appeared, in a clean shirt, grinning. He threw me the large sweeping handshake that is his custom and I supervised the introductions.
“So you want to see my possum?” he grinned and turned back the tarp.
What lay in the back was over two feet long, nearly round and quite clearly a possum. “Big one, “ I observed.
“About twenty pounds,” he said and lifted it up by the tail.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen on this size.” I commented, as it was clearly well fed.
“Normally they’d be a lot smaller, but this one has been getting into some of the neighbors lanais and eating the kitty food.”
“Are you going to eat it?” my colleague asked, now on his third cigarette.
“What? No. I’m going to donate it to our wildlife feeding program.”
“You have one of those?”
“He is going to take it over to the canal where the gators hangout,” I explained.
“You’re supposed to do that?”
“You have a good night,” I said to my neighbor and lead my colleague away.
“What kind of crazy place do you live it? This doesn’t happen in Orlando.”
I didn’t correct him. We returned home, had dessert during which my colleague continued to analyze the events and wonder at the neighborhood we lived in. While we still see my colleague regularly, and have visited with him on numerous occasions, he’s not returned to our home.
My colleague remains a committed doomsday prophet. But he has confessed to me that he is not going to be one of those who will survive. “I’m not suited for it. I don’t know how and wouldn’t know how. I still can’t even understand how your neighbor shot that possum.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I told him, “I very much doubt the possum signifies.”
“I don’t think that the possum means anything. It is just a possum.”
“But I couldn’t shoot it. I couldn’t plant a garden, raise animals, butcher-”
“The possum doesn’t signify,” I repeated, “you will or would do what you needed to do if it ever comes to that.”
I believed it when I said it to him. Now, today, having buried another I’m beginning to suspect that it does signify, but I have no idea what. Which concerns me, since if there is some sort of cosmic hint here it is written large, but I can’t see the words or even make out the letters. All I can see are just the dead possums.
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Text Copyright 2015 Cusper Lynn
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