Would you believe that I have found many a SiteMeter hit from Google search strings involving "opossum" and any one or combination of the following words, "dead," "removal," "Christmas," and "recipe"? This is the reason.
When I first started this blog, I tried writing a story about a particular Christmas involving a dead opossum and a couple of friends. The story was a first draft. By "first draft," I don't mean "my best effort so far, and now I'm going to fly it by an audience to get feedback." I mean "shitty first draft." I had planned to revise it into a proper first draft and repost it today; but, alas, grading has occupied my every waking moment for the past week. (We are, I must admit, lucky in that we have an unusually long amount of time to get our grades turned in. I think it is related to the 5/5 load and unionization.) This means that, sadly, I do not have a proper first draft. I will, instead, post a slightly more evolved version of a shitty first draft, just to see where I've taken it. This time, I've changed the names to grant myself literary license -- and to protect the obnoxious.
Today is December 23rd. Many years ago, over a decade I am astounded to realize, some friends and I decided to dub this the day of Festivus. It was the year after the Seinfeld "Festivus" episode aired, and were were an embittered set, nauseated by sentimentality, undergoing break-ups, divorces, and bad marriages, or simply along for the ride. We had a particular reason for choosing December 23rd, and that reason has a story.
The story started one early September evening in the Heights neighborhood of Houston. A group of us were gathered on the porch at George's house. By “us,” I mean myself, Emily, and Emily's husband, Bubba. Emily and I were graduate students in history. George was a large, hairy history professor of Sicilian descent and the red Che Guevara banner in his office. We were all gathered for the occasion of cheering me up after a nasty break-up with the latest link in my Chain of Fools. Beer and wine flowed liberally, and George passed around cigars to whomever would smoke them.
Just as I was learning that cigars taste just as nasty as they smell, and Emily was learning that she liked a little buzz, and Bubba was trying not to mind that Emily had a buzz, and George was leaning back in his lawn chair like an impresario, his wife Sue walked out of the front door and gave a little yelp. “Oh look,” she exclaimed, “a baby opossum!” Sure enough, just where she pointed, a football-sized opossum had climbed up the trunk of a sapling growing at the corner of the porch. The creature settled itself onto a branch and peered into the light at us.
We all cooed at the creature, and marvelled that it was not as ugly as the full-grown opossums who populated the neighborhood, knocking over garbage cans nightly for sumptuous feasts. George, however, was unmoved. He launched into a full-scale indictment of the entire opossum species. These were the creatures crawling in the walls of his house. They kept him awake all night. They clawed at the walls. They ate the garbage. Evil they were, he proclaimed. Evil.
“Look at those beady little eyes,” he said, “those sharp little teeth.” He bared his own. “They want blood.”
“’Possum aren’t carnivorous,” Emily laughed.
“Oh yes they are,” insisted George, focusing his “Manson glare” on the baby opossum. “He’s just waiting me to drop my guard, then he’ll jump me. They move like lighting, you know.”
“’Possum don’t attack, you nutwad,” said Emily. “Why the hell do you think they call it ‘playin’ ‘possum’? Because they want you to think they are dead and go away.”
“Oh, no,” said George, “they’re trying to lure you closer. Then, they attack.”
Thus, the conversation proceeded, much to the mirth of everyone in attendance, particularly George’s ten-year-old son, Joey. Joey and Bubba, in fact, conspired to tease George at every opportunity, shaking bushes and tossing tortilla chips from hiding places. Even after the party broke up, and for the next three months, George became known as the fierce ‘possum hunter, a giant gorilla of a man afraid that the opossum were digging their way through the walls of his bedroom to slaughter him in his bed then snack on his Bruno Maglis.
During those next three months, several things would happen that would alter all of our futures, most especially the opossum’s. First, Emily and Bubba split up. Both being students with tiny paychecks, neither could afford to move out of their one bedroom apartment in an unsavory section of town. George saw how stricken Emily was on the day after she and Bubba had agreed to part. He empathized perhaps a little more than he cared to admit with the predicament of living with someone whom you no longer love, so invited Emily to stay at his house. Fortunately, both his wife and son liked the idea as well. Emily then saved a little money, and she and I got an apartment together in a complex known as the “graduate student ghetto” in a funkier part of town.
Second, George located the nest of the opossum in the wall behind his sofa in his living room. His landlord had removed an old-fashioned heater from the wall, leaving an uncovered and unfinished nook . George pulled and tugged at the sheet rock and exposed boards to get a glimpse of his quarry’s lair. Then, he went to the last remaining independently -owned hardware store in America and found the most potent rat killer that the place sold. He took a huge chunk of the poison and wadded it up with some bread, rolling it into a deadly ball of dough the size of his fist. Then, he shoved it through the boards. “That’ll get him,” George snarled triumphantly. I’m not sure, but I think that he rubbed his hands together like a villain in a melodrama.
One Sunday, not long after, I sat down on the sofa, right in front of the nook. I relaxed, ready to watch the Simpsons, and full of ravioli. I almost had seconds on the ravioli when I caught a whiff of the most foul odor I had ever smelled outside of a Girl Scout latrine. I shook my head and the scent seemed to subside for a moment. Then, it returned in another wave, and another.
“Jeez!” I exclaimed, covering my nose and leaning forward. “George! Where was it you put that poison ball, again?”
“Right there,” he said, pointing to the nook behind my head.
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “I think you got him. It smells like something died here.”
“Nah,” George shook his head. “The ‘possum would have eaten the ball and crawled outside to die. You’re smelling the musk from his nest.”
“Not with all of the poison you put in that thing,” said Emily. “You could’ve killed an elephant. That poor ‘possum probably took one bite and rolled over dead.”
“Dear god!” I said, surprised that the very air itself was not turning a sick shade of green. “I can’t take it.” I moved to the far side of the room and gulped big breaths of air from the open window.
“Oh, I won’t mind it,” said Sue. She sat down in my vacated place. Two seconds later, she hopped up. “That is pretty bad,” she said, and left the room.
“Ya’ll are too girly,” said Emily, and took the seat by the nook. She inhaled deeply. “Yeah,” she admitted, “it’s pretty bad. But ‘possum musk stinks.” I think her eyes watered a bit, but she didn’t give up the seat.
Later that week, I prepared to head out for Baton Rouge to visit my aunt for Christmas. In those days, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I’d drive over to her house so that I could spend Christmas Eve at the bonfires on the levee in Lutcher. As I drug my suitcase through the living room, I found Emily slumped on the edge of the one comfortable chair. Her face crinkled up in disgust. She shook her head.
“The ‘possum is dead,” she announced.
Emily had awakened that morning to a phone call that began, “You’re from the country. You know how to get rid of dead critters.” George, apparently, had decided to take a nap on the sofa the evening before. The smell had become so powerful that his grip on his musky nest story had weakened. The next morning, he moved the sofa away from the wall, and began to pull away the boards in the nook. There, he found a grim sight.
Much as George had originally planned, the opossum had taken the bait, eaten the poisoned ball of dough, and began to crawl out of the house. It had died half-way through the act. When George had pulled away the boards, he saw the hind end of the dead opossum. “This should be easy,” he thought, gripped the opossum’s butt and gave it a tug; but nature had taken its course. The corpse had swelled and was wedged into place. That was when he called Emily.
Now, she sat on the only comfortable chair in our living room, facing a day of dead opossum.
“Man, I’m sorry,” I said. “Have a Merry Christmas?”
“Oh, yeah,” she replied.
I left and had a wonderful time at my aunt’s house. When I returned on Christmas day, Emily told me just how merry her eve of Christmas Eve had been.
Emily arrived at George’s house to be greeted by such a wretched scent that she swore she could see the air turn brown. “And not just the usual Houston brown, either,” she added. George and Joey stood in front of the nook, wearing bandannas over their mouths and noses like two bandits. The opossum’s rear stuck up and its tail looked a bit loose.
“Isn’t it disgusting!” said Joey, gleefully bouncing up and down.
“You know, they have people who will come out here and take care of this for you, dumbass” Emily told George.
“I’m not paying some guy $50 to haul off a dead ‘possum when I can do it myself,” said George.
“And I can see you’re doing a damn fine job of it, too,” said Emily. “How long have you been working on this?”
“Shut up and pull,” said George.
So, Emily pulled her own blue bandanna over her face, held her breath, and gripped the ‘possum’s tail.
“Please tell me that the tail did not come off,” I begged her, at this point in her story.
“Oh, no, it didn’t come off,” she said, “I wasn’t about to pull on it that hard.”
Joey’s enthusiasm had to be reigned in, however. “Pull harder!” he shouted in the background. “Let me try.” They stopped him when the tail started to separate from the body.
George tugged on the hind feet. Emily had a go at the tail again. Joey pulled on the hips. Around and around, they took turns for the next hour or two. Then, they ordered pizza. When the delivery boy arrived, they offered him a chance at a tug. The delivery boy experienced at delivering to crack houses, dorm room, and flop houses, said, “sure.” Then he saw the bloated butt of the opossum and the stray bits of fur floating around the corpse, and inhaled the brown air. He blanched. “Naw, that’s o.k.,” he said, and took his tip and ran.
After lunch, Joey got bored. A dead opossum stuck in a wall only holds so much entertainment for kids these days. He went over to a friend’s house to play. A phone call from him a few minutes later announced that he would be spending the night there.
Finally, at about four thirty that afternoon. Emily handed George the Yellow Pages. “Call,” she ordered him. George opened his mouth to protest. “It’s almost five,” Emily continued. “Do you want to have this smell here all night? ‘Cause you ain’t staying at my place, Mr. Great White Hunter.” George’s shoulders dropped. He hung his head. “Here’s the phone,” she said, and thrust the already ringing receiver into his hand.
“I’m not white,” George sniffed. He had always labored under the insistence that people of Italian descent, especially Sicilians, were not white, so Emily’s insult stung the worst.
Ten minutes later, the exterminators arrived. One of the two men reached into the gap around the opossum, gave the body a little twist, and pulled the corpse out in one piece. “It took them all of five minutes,” George exclaimed. “Five minutes! They charged me 250 bucks for five minutes of work!”
“And worth every penny,” said Emily.
“What a scam,” insisted George. “I should go into business doing that.”
“You would be so successful, too,” said Emily.
“At least people would feel that they got their money’s worth from me,” he sniffed.
Thus began the short-lived tradition of the Christmas ‘Possum. The next year, we incorporated the opossum into our Christmas decorations. Inspired by a Seinfeld episode in which George’s father describes the celebration of “Festivus (for the rest of us),” we set up an aluminum pole in our living room, which Emily topped with her blue bandanna. Beneath the pole sat a stuffed toy opossum that I had found at a market in South Carolina. When George first saw it, he shrieked and grabbed his chest. “The Ghost of Christmas Past,” said Emily.
Eventually, George and Sue divorced, and Emily and George began dating. When Emily and George broke up, Emily moved to Colorado and George began to date a succession of the wrong women. After twenty years of plotting to leave Houston, I finally moved on to a life elsewhere.
A few years later, when I was in That Place, in New England, I saw an opossum running across the docks at the river. In a fit of nostalgia, I told someone the Christmas ‘possum story. I forgot that people there thought the story typical of Texas. It fits their image of hunting-mad people who bungle after helpless furry game. Dick Cheney didn’t help matters much with his quail escapade of the previous summer.
In any case, I had this story in mind when I started this blog. This is now it’s second shitty draft. I haven’t found a satisfying ending for it, perhaps because the ending is clouded by the reality of what came after, the way Emily and George ended up, the way our friendships ended. That’s the problem with writing stories from life if you haven’t yet figured out what they mean. They start, they flow, and then you have to manufacture an end. The reality of the end of this one ends up sad for all with the dead opossum and the dead friendships. Nonetheless, that period of time, of Festivus and Opposum Christmases, took each of us, Emily, George and me, through a leap in our lives.
Perhaps next year's version will have a proper ending.