Suburban Jungle

Ok guys, gotta warn you before you read on: there is grossness ahead! (Gross as in dead rats… nothing pervy.)

We had a rough week for the wildlife in and around the house.  Don’t panic; Wensley is fine! But we’ve had some other issues.

It started with the rats, actually. I love backyard birding, but feeders attract rodents.  That’s been an issue ever since I first moved in to the house and invested in my feeders. I don’t mind the squirrels, which I realize is basically a form of rodent racism. But they are cute and rats are not. So the squirrels can stay. The rats have to fuck off.

I have tried all the different types of traps that they have at Home Depot and the only kind I have had any luck with are the old timey Tom and Jerry wood and guillotine wire ones.  I bought a big one because these rats are huge.  Actually, I bought several because I looked out the window one morning and saw that I had a whole family crowding around under the feeder, picking through the seeds that the birds dropped on the ground.

I quickly discovered that rats don’t eat the part skim mozzarella that I buy for snacks to try to keep the calories down. They insist on the good cheese because apparently, I have snobby rats, like Patton Ozwalt’s character in Ratatouille.  Only if they do decide they want the cheese (because it is quality locally sourced sharp cheddar), they will find a way to grab it off the trap without triggering it. These are seriously smart rats!

Maybe I should have invited them in and asked them if they could cook and then hire them and live happily ever after. Only, there’s no way because I couldn’t even get past that idea when it was just a cartoon. I sat through the entire movie feeling like I needed to wash my hands. By the end I needed to take a bath in hot Purell. Then, shortly after, I heard that Peter O’Toole died, and I am still convinced it is because those chefy rats gave him the bubonic plague.

After the good cheese, I decided that I needed something messier. I took a small cut of an apple and I smeared it in peanut butter.  That was tricky to set up and the trap snapped closed on me. I didn’t lose any fingers but I did invent a new type of cluster bomb that spreads peanut butter from hell to breakfast. If your enemies have peanut allergies, it would be quite lethal. I’m still finding spattered globs on the backyard furniture.

I did finally manage to get the trap set up. Unfortunately, the ants ate all the peanut butter off bait before the rats got to it.

That was about mid-week and Matt had the idea that we should go out that night. He got tickets to a Bees game, our local Minor League Baseball team.  Ethan is seven now and loves going out to games. He especially loves the Bees because they have a nice playground and he can’t sit through a whole game.  Of course, it turns out that none of us could. Sit through the whole game, that is. It was hot as hell and the innings were taking forever. We finally left just after the seventh inning stretch because it was after 10 pm and we needed to get the kiddo to bed.

Back at home, Matt made a terrible discovery while Ethan was changing into his pajamas.  “Oh no!” he yelled, making all of us stop in our tracks. “I think Kaa is dead!”

Back when the boys moved in with me two years ago, I had only one reservation, and that was the pet snake, Kaa (named for the python in Rudyard Kilpling’s, The Jungle Book). He was a twelve-year-old corn snake and he was humongous. Here is a photo I took when we first got his terrarium set up in Ethan’s new room.

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And here is a photo of Matt holding the last skin Kaa shed.

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I never measured Kaa, but Matt is over six feet tall.  You can see what I’m talking about.  Big. Ass. Snake.

Once he moved in, I completely forgot about him.  We actually had to write his feedings on the calendar to keep track of them, or we would have forgotten. Matt fed him a frozen rat (thawed, of course) once every two months or so.  Then shortly after that there would be a slimy reptilian turd to clean up.  Matt once told me that if I was bored I could take care of those for him.  I laughed. Like it is possible to get that bored. I told him, “I will clean up every accident Wensley ever has but I’m not touching that stuff.”

Other than that, Kaa was the easiest pet on earth.  I never bonded with him.  I couldn’t even make myself touch him.  I knew he wasn’t dangerous, but I couldn’t make my hand go near him.  It’s like there was an instinctual imperative – something hard coded in my DNA – that just wouldn’t allow it.  But God Damn I didn’t want him to die!

I went into Ethan’s room to give him a hug and that’s when the smell hit me.  Matt has a terrible olfactory sense.  We’ll be driving along and I’ll say that I smell a skunk and we will have to go another five miles before he will smell it.  I started clawing at the window to get it open. As I mentioned before, it was damn hot and we had turned the A/C down before we left to be green. Not realizing, obviously, that Kaa would decided to buy they farm and start the decomposing process.

I pinched my nose closed and walked over to the terrarium. I guess I wasn’t expecting to be able to tell that he was dead by looking at him, just by the smell. After all, snakes have no faces. It didn’t occur to me that they could have tortured facial expressions. I was wrong. I’ll never get that image out of my mind. His mouth was wide open and his little onyx-black eyes – once his only “cute” feature – were sunken and dried.

“What are we going to do with him?” Matt asked.  I knew exactly what he meant. It was nearly eleven at night and still ninety-five degrees outside.  The smell was overwhelming. We just couldn’t put Kaa outside or in the garage for the night and then bury him in the morning.  The smell would attract racoons, or worse.  I decided that we had to do what my biologist sister would do.  I went to the kitchen to clean out some space in the freezer. A lot of space.

I grabbed Ethan’s sleeping bag so that he could sleep down in the basement with us, away from the stench. At first, Matt protested, asking if that was really necessary.  Then, as he picked up the lifeless snake with a garbage bag like you might do with a giant dog shit, the smell finally hit him. “Oh my God!!!”

The next day we had a little funeral.  Ethan took a nice river stone he had collected on one of our hikes and made it into a headstone. It had a grass stain on it because I had thrown it at a rat a few days before, but we decided that Kaa would appreciate that.  Then we buried him in a nice spot under the bird feeder.  We talked about what a good snake he was, and mused out loud that he might enjoy being near the birds and the rats.

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It gave me an idea, in fact. That night, I went back out with a trap loaded with a peanut butter smeared cracker.  This time, instead of just setting it below the feeder in plain sight, I buried it so that the wooden slat was hidden and only the bait was visible.  The next morning, I went outside with Wensley on his early morning constitutional and saw that I had caught something.

I pulled the trash bin into the back yard and grabbed my shovel from the shed.  It wasn’t until I got close to the trap that I realized there were two dead rats in it.  It was the two juveniles of the family. They must have got to the bait and the same time and were both caught when the bar came down.  I started to feel heartless for having done this, and so I reminded myself that I didn’t kill them to be a dick. They aren’t safe! We have a dog and a second grader! Neither of whom need rabies or the plague! I had to do it!

“Ug,” I said out loud as I lifted the rats and trap with my shovel, refusing to get any closer than that. “Sorry guys.” And then I dropped them into the trash bin and closed the lid.  Then I went in search of some Purell.

That should have been the end of the story, but there’s more.  Just a few days later, my younger sister and her family came to town for a visit. We were all hanging out at my older sister’s house. One of my nephews came running in from the yard yelling, “There’s a dead thing! It’s a chipmunk or a rat or something! And it’s gross! I can’t play back there!”

I gave the universe this look:

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Then I said to the other adults, “It’s okay, I got it. I’ve been training for this.”

I grabbed a plastic shopping bag out of the closet and followed my nephew out to the yard.  It was not a chipmunk. It was a juvenile robin.  It didn’t have a head but I was able to identify it by the scattered belly feathers.  “It’s just a bird,” I told my nephew.  “Looks like a cat got it.”

He took a few steps back as I wrapped my hand in the bag and then took a hold of it. There was a stick that had fallen on top of the bird so it was awkward to grab. I ended up having to flip it over.  As soon as I did I yelped in horror. A golf ball sized mass of writhing maggots pulsed in the open chest cavity, like a new myriad chambered heart.  My nephew moved to look but I warned him off.  I flipped the bag inside out, capturing the entire “disgusterous” (to quote the BFG) mess and disposed of it the same way I had the rats.

We went back inside and I (you guessed it) washed my hands for fifteen minutes.  I even made my nephew wash his hands and he hadn’t touched it. My mom asked what was going on and I ended up telling her the whole story of my crazy week of death and decay.

That is when Mom told me that when she first got married she used to re-use mouse traps to save money. “I’d just open up the wire and toss the dead mouse out, and then I’d use it again.”

That blew my mind.  For just one second, cleaning up that gross dead bird for my nephew, I felt like an adult. That is a rare feeling for me.  Sometimes I still feel like I’m twenty, but only until I spend a little time with someone who actually is in their twenties, and then I’m like, “Nope. I’m forty.” But even after all these years of having a real job and making mortgage payments, I never feel like a bona fide adult.  Then my nephew asked for someone to protect him from a dead thing and even though I hadn’t particularly wanted to, I stepped up and I did it. Like a grown up. Then I tried to picture myself pulling back the wire on one of those traps and taking the limp mouse out because my family needed to save that dollar… and I realized that I will never be that adult. And you know what? I don’t give a rat’s ass.

Comedy and Redemption

Sarah Silverman tells a story in her book, Tales of Courage, Redemption, and Pee (originally titled, I Said Vagina, Now Make Me Famous, but Silverman says that the publisher wouldn’t sign off on that), about her brother Jeffrey.  Jeffery was an older sibling who died when he was still a baby. In the early 1970s, her parents went on a vacation and left their two young children with their grandparents. Sadly, one night the side of the crib that held baby Jeffrey collapsed as he slept. The baby slid down into the open space and became trapped. When his grandfather got up to check on him in the middle of the night he found that the baby had suffocated.

It’s a terrible story, and you feel awful for Silverman’s grandparents who were, understandably, overcome with grief and guilt over the tragedy. But the reason that she tells the story has more to do with her journey as a comedian. She is explaining how she discovered the euphoria of making others laugh at an early age, and she describes it like an addiction. She couldn’t get enough. And at the age of five, it was very easy to get a laugh by saying words that were shocking, like curse words, or inappropriate, like “tampon.” Basically anything to make adults stop and laugh in surprise.

But one day, she and her sisters were getting in the car with their grandmother and were told to put on their seatbelts. “That’s right,” she quips. “You don’t want to end up like Jeffrey.”

But instead of laughter there is silence. Followed by the devastated sobbing of her grandmother, who never forgave herself for the accidental death of her tiny grandson.

When I listened to the story I cringed so intensely that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I remember – when I was about that age – feeling a similar craving for attention. I made a lot of profoundly bad jokes in the process of figuring out how to get what I needed from the adults around me. I never meant to be vulgar or hurtful. I just loved it when I made people laugh and it took a long time for me to figure out how that worked, exactly.

Most of the time that I got people to laugh, I didn’t really understand why. I was just a little kid. It was like trying to make a machine work by pulling levers and pushing buttons and then waiting to see what happens. I never made someone cry by joking over the death of my baby brother, but only because I didn’t have a dead baby brother. Not because I knew better.

I’m trying to think of a concrete example, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any that directly explains the potency of my reaction to Silverman’s story. I went through a period when I was four or five where I thought it was funny to give people a hug and a “kick” instead of a “kiss,” because I noticed the words were similar and the effect seemed to be shocking. My dad laughed when I did it to him. And when I heard my mom laughing when he told her about it I felt encouraged. My next two test subjects, however, were of the geriatric variety. Neither of them were amused. In fact, I think my grandfather briefly considered seeking medical attention. My mother put a stop to it after that.

I also went through a phase where I would think of something funny, but I was acutely aware that I had passed out of the “cute kid” chapter of my life and that the joke would play much better if my little sister, Andrea, delivered it. So I fed her a couple of one-liners. She nailed those jokes, as I recall. For the record, Andrea is naturally much funnier than I am. And at five, she was a professional “cute kid.”

There are elements of that story that may sound endearing. The seven-year-old future playwright developing material for her five-year-old sister. It makes me think of something my friend Sarah told to me, recently. “You are a story-teller,” she said. “And you always have been. I think that you should embrace that fact.” I think that’s true, and ultimately these memories are really about my learning how to do that.

Nonetheless, it still grosses me out to think about feeding Andrea lines. First of all, I don’t like that I put words in my sister’s mouth. It was undermining and manipulative. But what is more disconcerting is that it makes me feel like there was never a time in my life when I was without artifice. Even at an early age, I couldn’t just relax and be a person. I’ve been coping though shtick for as long as I can remember.

At least I had enough respect for the craft to know when a line would be better served by another’s delivery; I can be proud of that.

The Jeffrey Silverman story also managed to unwedge another lost memory from some deep and forgotten recess in my mind. This one has to do with a teacher and friend of my mother’s, an elderly Irish woman named Teressa (who coincidentally was the other victim of the “hug and kick” bit).

Teressa was a character. I remember – when my sisters and I were growing up – we would go to visit her at her home in the tiny town of Hagerman, Idaho. Teressa openly criticised my mom as intensely as she openly flirted with my dad, all while her aging female dalmatian – an idiotic sweetheart named Magpie – humped the legs off all visitors who sat in the living room. Those were fun weekends.

Teressa only displayed her Irish accent after the third or so glass of wine (or whiskey – she loved whiskey), usually after dinner, as the evening wove into night. I remember one such evening when I was still quite young, Teressa told me about the grief she suffered when losing her first-born daughter, who died when she was a toddler. Then she told me – her accent as thick as I had ever heard it – about the time that David, her only son, came to her a few years later and asked about his sister. He would have been five or six, I suppose.

“I was thinking,” Teressa was speaking as David, giving him a little boy’s voice, “That we could go to where she is buried and that we could dig up her skeleton. And that it could be my skeleton?”

“I’ve never been so angry with that child,” Theresa told me, going back to her full voice and curly Irish brogue. “Not before or since. I told him to get out of my sight and to never speak to me of it again.”

I didn’t know why she told the story, but it upset me. I think I thought she was trying to send me a message, of sorts. I remember feeling shaken, as if I were the one being told off for being macabre and self-centered. I don’t think that’s true, now. I think that she was a tipsy old woman in the dusk-years of a hard life, speaking in free associations. But in that was that all children are narcissists, I was convinced that the story was about me.  I thought she was trying to tell me, specifically, to watch my behavior and to understand that my actions could be hurtful. And I received the message as admonishment.

My dad piped in at about this point and said, “Children at that age, they don’t have dense skeletons. She was so small. Just a baby. I don’t think there would have been any skeleton left for him to find.”

That freaked me out also, I recall. It made me feel small and impermanent, like I could just disappear into the ground. But in another way, I remember feeling a little better after Dad tossed that thought into the conversation. Because even as a little kid, still trying to learn how to be a person, I understood that wasn’t the point of Teressa’s story and was the wrong thing to say.