The morning of the raccoons, I had the showerhead set on a hard pounding staccato. I was staring straight into the water, counting the intervals between the spurts, thinking of how much I wanted to avoid the two people on the other side of the door. That’s when I noticed that the ceiling above me was bouncing. Not a two-year-old on the bed sort of bouncing—more like what I imagine the ocean looks like from below—slow and rhythmic. Without taking my eyes off the ceiling, I reached for the handle and turned off the shower.
Whatever was up there clearly felt comfortable. It moved casually and made a faint noise not unlike a husband trading the day’s news with his wife while shuffling through the mail. With my eyes on the ceiling, I plucked a damp towel from the back of the door and wrapped it around my lower half. The caveman in my brainstem understood that this was a fight or flight moment. It will surprise none who know me that I opted for flight.
I reached for the doorknob just as the ceiling gave way in a peal of thunder and mayhem. In the seconds before I slammed the door behind me, I saw a raccoon the size of a bear cub land in the tub, shake itself off and lift its head in my direction. With its mask on and small baby fangs glistening under its snout, the animal looked happy to see me.
It had been a bad month inside a bad year. This couldn’t possibly help.
Outside the bathroom door, I found Jeremy playing the video game that I’d bought him for his sixteenth birthday. From the sound of it, a lot of people were dying or at least becoming wounded loudly. The game was called “NAVY SEALS”—all caps and very emphatic. The goal of the game was to slip inside unsuspecting nations and assassinate unsuspecting despots. He never ran out of countries to invade or leaders to kill. I bought the game for him as an attempt to engage with him in his language, on his terms. Such was the advice of this therapist that his mother had made us all go to. It felt like a surrender to me—and not the last.
Jeremy didn’t look up when I swept past him, still dripping, barely covered and obviously in a hurry. He was focused on his war. I stepped over his cords and headed to the kitchen where I picked up one of the chairs from the table that we sat around in silence on most nights.
From her perch on the living room couch, Lauren turned her head and looked at me. She cupped a mug of steaming tea with both hands while the cat purred on her lap. God, did Lauren love that cat. She’d named it Prufrock, un-ironically, and she would do anything for it, including spend a thousand of our dollars to have a rubber band it had slurped up from the kitchen counter removed from its belly.
“What’s with the chair, Ted?” she asked soberly like someone might inquire on how one’s chemotherapy session went.
“Umm,” I managed. “Fatigue?”
Lauren had been angry with me for months, which, when I did the math, accounted for a good portion of our two-year old marriage. I knew it was mostly about Jeremy, the boy who was not her son but her stepson, a title that only began to describe the distance she felt from him. At first, she’d been excited about playing a mother-role in a young boy’s life, but she is young and given to fantasy and step-mothering got old fairly fast. Jeremy has a nice mix of ADHD/Depression/Solipsism/Masturbation Anxiety/Fear of Failure/Disappointment with Parental Figures issues. He’s a fucked-up young man, but he is mine, not Lauren’s, and by the time the raccoons arrived, it was beginning to show.
As I moved towards the bathroom door to set the barricade, I saw Lauren place her mug on the side table and begin stroking Prufrock’s neck, long and slow, like a lover might along the shoulder of her beloved, had the lover and the beloved lived in a different house, entangled in a different marriage.
McWilliams’ Emporium is a gourmet food store in the haughtiest mall in Cleveland. It supplies one kind of coffee, Jamaica Blue Mountain, that sells for forty-five dollars a pound. I was the general manager there. I knew I could have been more if I’d ever found something to do other than read my books and try to avoid trouble, but what I could have been has never made me hate what I am. At the time of the raccoons, I was generally fine with my role in the universe. I was forty-two years old in charge of an over-priced and over-stocked grocery store. That was fine. That was great.
What drove me close to a public and garish suicide was that I worked every day with Lauren and, worse—much worse—her parents, who owned the place. They were good people, but they also were terrible. They’d hired me out of kindness to Lauren, but I’m sure they also wanted to collect evidence for their crusade to convince her that I was and always would be a bad idea.
The morning of the raccoons, I walked into McWilliams Emporium, past the old-age crowd who used the mall’s smooth floors and open spaces as their power-walking facility. The pants of their plastic tracksuits made a whooshing noise as they raced past the store. Some days I found it all amusing. This was not going to be one of those days.
The store was just about to open. I slipped under the half-opened gate. I was a mess. I hadn’t brushed my teeth, let alone my hair. I put on my apron and waved shyly to Sylvia, my mother-in-law, who stood at the opposite side of the store. She didn’t wave back.
Jim, my father-in-law, tapped my shoulder from behind. I flinched, startled. “So Lauren tells me you’re infested,” he began with a smile. He has this way of smiling while hating you. He doesn’t move his lower lip. It’s very off-putting.
I nodded and said, “Not sure I’d use that word, but –. I think it’s just one. Two maybe. I have them locked in the bathroom.”
“Lauren says she packed up everything in thirty seconds.” He let out a laugh. He was enjoying himself. “She sounded terrified.”
“Well, she’s a fantastic packer.”
It got quiet while we stood there looking at and through each other.
“How’d you think they got in, Ted?” Jim asked finally.
“Well, I don’t know. It’s an old house.”
“Did you check the crawlspaces? Or the roof? You know, they can gnaw and claw right through soft spots and end up in the attic.”
“I didn’t, Jim. I didn’t. I should have, but I didn’t.”
He had his head cocked a little to the right so that his hairpiece seemed to be accusing me of something. “Well, as always, you’re more than welcome to stay at our place until you sort this one out,” he offered. They lived only fifteen minutes away from us.
I thanked him. I knew Lauren was already headed there and that she’d probably just stay there all day. He was pretending like I had a voice in matters. It was sweet in a mocking, brutal sort of way.
“You need the name of an exterminator?”
“No, no,” I replied. “I have a good one.” Which was a lie of course. I hadn’t thought that far along in the process. “Got it all under control,” I said. Jim looked doubtful as he paused before telling me to finish taking the inventory that I’d left incomplete the day before.
The exterminator I found on Yelp told me he couldn’t make it out to the house until that evening. “‘Tis the season, my man,” he said. “The coons are finding their winter homes all over town. They know which way is up.” His name was Jake. He was eating something while he talked to me. I was in the stock room out of earshot of my in-laws. “They still in the attic?” Jake asked.
“No, in the bathroom. One almost fell on me while I was in the shower.”
“Not an advised situation, Amigo.”
“I’m aware. How long do you think it’s going to take?” I looked behind me. Jim had a way of sneaking up on me. This time, though, no one was there. “I can’t sleep in my house as long as they’re living up there.”
“You got that right,” Jake said. “Until we figure this one out, I’d find a nice couch in a nice townhouse and stay the hell out.”
“So how long? I mean, when will you get these things?”
He took a bite from was he was eating. I envisioned an apple, but from the lack of noise, it would have to have been rotten and soft.
“It all depends, my friend. We’ll see what Mother Nature has cooked up for us.”
Around three that afternoon, Jeremy strolled into the store, slipped on an apron and took a stand next to me behind the counter. I wasn’t expecting him. He worked at the Emporium occasionally as another generous, evidence-gathering activity for Sylvia and Jim. I appreciated it. I really did though I also resented the hell out of it. He only came in when he needed money or when he’d failed a test and needed a hideout from his mom, my ex-wife, Sandra.
Jeremy wasn’t his best self in front of my in-laws. He was sheepish around authority in general, hanging his head so that his oily curtain of bangs slid down over his eyes. That part wasn’t so bad. What was worse was when he morphed into a lunatic like the time he came into the store with his friend Jared. They were giggling like idiots, picking up all the hot sauces with lewd names—“Ass Burner,” “Rectal Retaliation,” and the like. They weren’t doing anyone any harm, but Jim threw them out anyway. Jim swears that Jeremy flipped him off as he left the store. I don’t doubt that Jeremy did precisely that, but I backed him up in the argument that followed anyway. When it comes time to pick teams, I’ll side with the misfits every day.
Jeremy began to wipe the metal counter tops with the damp rag we stored underneath the counter. Sylvia stood eighteen inches away from him but didn’t acknowledge him. She resembled an angry cigar store Indian with her arms crossed and her stare fixed straight ahead.
I tapped the button on the cash register that ejected the tray. It was my nervous habit. With my thumb and pointer finger, I measured the thickness of the stack of bills in each compartment. I looked up and watched the only customer in the store put down a can of three-dollar garbanzo beans and leave. “You okay?” I asked quietly without looking at him.
“Yep,” he said.
“Why are you here?”
“Nowhere else to go,” he said. I didn’t know what Jeremy had done, but I sensed it was probably something I’d shrug my shoulders at. Unlike his mother, I don’t generally see the acts of childhood as signs of deviance.
“What about your mom’s? It’s Monday.” I looked up then and saw him fill his cheeks with air and rub his forehead. When he released the air from his cheeks, it sounded like the soft pop of a bubble.
Around five, Jeremy and I went back to the house to meet the exterminator. We didn’t speak much during the ride just as we didn’t speak during the two hours we’d worked next to each other. I was trying as hard as I could to navigate my little dinghy through my life’s turbulent waters. I hated myself, that’s for sure, but self-loathing isn’t like cancer. There’s no tumor to tremble about and then cut out and poison against. Self-loathing is an all or nothing proposition that I tended to nod at and then walk away from.
Which didn’t keep me from being angry. It occurred to me that if Jeremy needed to stay with me while his mother calmed down, he’d be doing so at Jim and Sylvia’s. My skin burned just thinking about it.
Jake the exterminator was a polar bear of a man with a long thin neck and hands as big as hams. He was leaning on the hood of this truck when Jeremy and I pulled in. He tapped on his watch three times and looked right at me as I stepped out of the car. Jeremy reached forward and wiped a patch of dust off the dashboard.
“Sorry we’re late,” I said as I approached Jake.
“It’s your money, man. I just made fifteen bucks for scratching my balls.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I quietly said, “Well, good for you.” I walked towards the front door and Jake followed. As I put the key in, I heard rustling inside. It sounded as if someone had dumped a wheelbarrow’s worth of autumn leaves in the living room and then invited the neighborhood kids over for a pounce. Jake reached past me and put his hand on mine. It was almost gentle. “Don’t open that door, brother,” he said ominously. “Sounds like they’ve moved in.”
“Fuck.” I grabbed my forehead and blew out a heavy breath.
“Fuck, indeed. My guess is they’re ass-deep into your couch.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
With both hands, Jake grabbed my shoulders and shook me twice. “It’ll be alright, Sport. I’ll kill those bastards and leave you the carcasses to piss on.”
I looked back at him and smiled as best I could and then went back to the car. Jeremy and I sat there in silence, watching Jake set up traps, which were basically just cages with spring-loaded doors and some sort of bait on the floor. Jake stuffed one through the narrow door of the crawlspace at the base of the house. Then he climbed a ladder up to the roof and removed the exhaust fan in the attic. From my seat in the car, I leaned down low so I could watch him lower the trap through the narrow opening in the attic. He looked like he was whistling.
When he was done, Jake climbed back down the ladder and headed towards our car. “We’ll see how these work,” he said a little out of breath. “From the shit piles, it looks like you got yourself a whole family. This might take a while.” He nodded twice, coughed and then looked around for an appropriate place to spit. He chose Lauren’s hyacinths.
“We have to kill them, right?” I said. “I mean, there’s no humane way to get rid of them.”
“Well, sure there is. Of course. Just invite them over for Thanksgiving and work out a time share.”
I nodded. “Right,” I said. “Well, there it is.”
“Damn straight it is. I’ll get them, mister. You meet me here same time tomorrow, and we’ll see how we did. Until then, here’s hoping we both get laid tonight,” he grinned. He punched me once on the shoulder and winked.
Jeremy let out a laugh, which drew Jake’s attention to him for the first time. Jake’s face grew serious and parental. “You, son, I have some advice for you: stay in school, keep away from the drugs and the alcohol and keep your pecker in your pocket. You hear me?”
Jeremy nodded guiltily. “Yes, sir,” he said.
I’d never heard my son say ‘sir’ before in his life.
Jake punched me one more time and turned back to his truck. Before we pulled out, I took one last look at the roof. For some reason I thought that one of the raccoons might reach its paw out the attic window and wave goodbye.
When we got to Jim and Sylvia’s, we didn’t knock, which might have been a mistake. I’d thought about it, about being a guest, a visitor, a stranger. It might have gone a long way. The house was silent, and so it was kind of surprising to find Lauren sitting next to her parents on their ivory sectional in the living room just off the entryway. She was dressed in her bathrobe and slippers with a mug of what I assumed was gourmet loose green tea steaming in her hands. It dawned on me that she was staying for good.
Jim looked up and then stood. At first, he didn’t say a word – he just pointed to the back bedroom. In the living room’s track lighting, the lines that had cut into his face after years of glaring seemed darker and deeper.
“Why don’t you two just go back to your room,” Jim finally said. “It’s been a long day. Sylvia’s got dinner for us. Come on out in half an hour.”
I didn’t move though. “Lauren, honey,” I said. “Don’t you think we should do this, just the two of us?”
“Just give her a minute, will you, son?” That was Jim talking.
“Lauren, come on. We don’t have to do this here, do we?” She didn’t answer. She hadn’t moved her pose from the second we’d walked into the room. Neither had Jeremy. She stared into her space, and he stared into his. I looked at each of them and then walked toward the back of the room that Jim had pointed to.
It was quite a defeat. Next to the bed there were probably a dozen boxes. It turns out that Lauren had managed to do a lot with the raccoons gnawing at the bathroom door.
I’d been thrown out of a house before – Sandra did it to me fourteen years earlier. That time I quieted the ache with Kentucky bourbon and venom. This time, though, I decided that I wouldn’t do all that. I didn’t know what I was going to do instead, though, so I just stood at the window with my cheeks blown wide and stared at all the plastic slides and climbing toys that sat like giant colored mushrooms on all the back lawns of Sylvia and Jim’s neighbors.
Sylvia walked in before too long to tell me that dinner was ready. I waved and thanked her.
Before I came to the dinner table, I went to the bathroom so I could get a good look at myself in the mirror. I started talking to myself. “Go in there and save it,” I told myself. “Get out of your head. Ask her what she wants and then give it to her.” I pointed at myself like a coach or dad might.
But before I could get in there and run the play, I had to use the toilet. As I was pissing, I noticed a gray and sleeping pubic hair dancing in the yellowing water. It must have been Jim’s, but then I worried that it was mine. It was unsettling in a way I couldn’t name, and the feeling stayed with me after the flush, the wash and the opening of the door.
When I walked out, the rest of them were already seated at the table. Jeremy sat next to Sylvia who looked still as a corpse, waiting for Jim to say grace, which he did as quickly as he could. I looked at Jeremy as I flapped my napkin and laid it on my lap.
I waited for Jim to start serving the meat before I spoke. “Lauren, this is not how we should do this. This is between us.”
“We’re all family here,” Jim said.
I squinted at him. “You were in the war, for God’s sake. Would you have this conversation in front of Sylvia’s parents?”
He cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t put myself in the position to have this conversation at all.”
After a few seconds, I turned back to Lauren. “What is this about exactly?”
Lauren kept her eyes fused to mine. “You’re a terrible father,” she erupted. “You’re unprincipled. You refuse to do your job. You have no sense of what’s required to be adult.”
I saw Sylvia staring into her lap.
“You’re twenty-eight! What the fuck do you know?” I didn’t intend for my voice to carry as much rage as it did. Sometimes things slip out. From the kitchen radio, a newscaster murmured. Jeremy reached for a roll.
“I know things,” she insisted.
“What are we even fighting about now? The raccoons?”
“No. Yes,” she said. “It’s about everything and what everything means.”
“And what precisely is that?”
Jeremy spooned mashed potatoes onto his plate.
“Couldn’t you have foreseen this?” Lauren asked. “Can’t you anticipate?”
“Can you?” I asked though I’m not sure what I was going for there. Bile was in my veins, clogging up my logic.
“Well, yes,” she said, not triumphantly but also not with despair, not with devastating grief. “I can.”
There was silence except for the radio speaking and Jeremy chewing.
“Listen,” she said after a pause. “I can’t do this with you.”
“Can’t do what?” I asked. I assumed that she was talking about Jeremy. “You’re not even his mother!”
“It’s not that,” Lauren said and then smiled awkwardly at Jeremy who lifted his chin in recognition.
“Why do you even care how I raise him? Why do you have to shape every life you bump into?”
“It’s not that.”
“Well, then what is it?”
“It’s something else,” she whispered into her lap.
And then I got it. I’m a little slow.
I had no idea that she was pregnant, but when I realized she was, it was so obvious that I felt like an idiot again for not seeing what was right there in front of me. I also quickly realized that she was telling me something important with my packed boxes – and that was that she’d rather have a baby with her parents than with me. I sat back in my chair and let it sink in. The voices from the radio seemed to get quiet too. Everyone but Jeremy looked stricken.
“Well, there it is,” I said after a bit. I pointed at her belly. “How far along –.” My voice trailed off.
A silence like the inside of a well took over the room. Jeremy broke it. He was looking under the table. He asked, “Where’s the cat?”
Lauren was nearly apoplectic when we left. She loved Prufrock. She really did. Jeremy volunteered to go with me on the rescue mission. His options weren’t great. In fact, as I drove back to the raccoon-infested house, I began to see that the only one who had worse options than me was him. We were a real pair.
The night was moonless with a wispy fog whose strands dodged my headlights like ghosts.
“Well, at least you know she’ll be a shitty mother,” Jeremy said.
I turned my head towards him and felt my lips pull into a grin. I was still numb with the news. “That’ll be your little brother or sister.”
“I guess so.”
The heater was howling. “So what did you do to piss your mother off?” I sort of shouted.
He took a pause and then let me have it: “I joined the Navy Seals.”
I took my foot off the gas and began to glide until the car slowed to a stop. I didn’t look at him. I felt the urge to laugh and sob at the same time. “HA!” I wanted to shout. “HA! HA!” I didn’t shout that though. I didn’t shout or say anything.
“I mean, I committed to them,” he said. “I didn’t join them. I can’t, not until I’m eighteen, but I did speak with a recruiter and decided that I want to be a Seal. It’s what I want.” He sounded convinced and converted, and it struck me that there’s probably nothing sadder than someone who sounds sure.
Eventually I stepped on the gas again. We were at the house before I’d formulated a response. This is my problem according to my wives. I don’t know how to behave.
Jeremy reached for the door handle and switched on his flashlight before I’d even turned off the engine. He was hurt, I could tell. He wanted me to say something supportive. Before he stepped out the door, I grabbed his wrist tight and yanked him towards me. I said, “You give me two years to convince you that you don’t have to spend your adult life making up for the shit of your childhood, and if you still want the Seals, I’ll buy you your wetsuit.”
He jerked his arm out of my grip and leaned back. The truck’s interior light split his face in half with shadow and light. He put his hand out for me to shake. Which I did.
The outside lights weren’t on, so the house had the look of a darkened mausoleum. Our flashlights splashed along the leaves and the walkway. When we got up to the porch, I threw light at the picture window off the dining room. I scanned the room until the flashlight’s dusty beam caught two yellow eyes staring back at me. The raccoon snickered and scattered. “Did you see that?” I whispered to Jeremy.
He nodded and waved for me to follow him. I imagine he felt like all his training with that joystick and those games was proving quite useful. I followed behind like a good soldier towards the front door.
“Jake said not to open it.”
“That was before the mission, Dad,” he said. “I’m going in.”
“No. Jeremy,” I told him. “You can’t.”
He ignored me, though, turning the knob and slipping into the darkness. As I watched him go, the first snow flake of the season dropped past the roofline and landed on my shoulder.
I followed him in – let this record show – but I did hesitate for a moment – just enough for ghostlike thoughts to cross my mind and similar feelings to pass through my chest. It was a tragic sadness that presented itself here, a reversal of fatherly courage and the transmission of values from sire to son. I had lost that with Jeremy, it seemed, and if past was prelude, I would lose it with a new child inexplicably and unexpectedly growing inside of yet another woman who I’d disappointed simply by being myself. If I was ever to become a man who others would recognize as such, I would need to scramble my own DNA, conceive a new Ted out of the nature and nurture that had belched out the current one. Maybe it could start with slaughtering a raccoon, I thought to myself as I sucked in my fear and stepped into the darkened house.
Terror buzzed through me and pushed me towards the light switch, but I kept myself from flipping it because I sensed that light might startle and rattle the invaders. I crept forward with my flashlight scanning the floor.
“Jeremy,” I hissed. “Where are you?”
I didn’t see him or hear him until for maybe half a minute, but then a clatter broke out in our bedroom, and I heard two loud thumps and a screech and then there he was, holding something in both hands in front of him. Instinctively, I covered my mouth with one of my hands.
“Please tell me that’s a raccoon,” I said when I realized it wasn’t.
We slept in the car that night. I kept the engine running and the heat on, so it isn’t as bad as it might sound. We were on the road by dawn. That was three days ago. I am nowhere now. Georgia or northern Florida. I’m just looking around with Jeremy. The raccoons can have the house, but Lauren doesn’t get to keep the baby for herself and neither the Seals nor his mother get to take Jeremy from me.
As I drive in silence with Jeremy staring out his side window, I imagine Prufrock trying to fend off the attack, and I can’t imagine or get my hands around what I’m capable of.