Location: St. Vincent & Grenadines

You were driving home in the dark on one glass-slippered heel, window sliced open and bathing in the snowliquor of the night air. We heard you singing, and couldn't bear to wake you.

20 February 2006

Behind the boathouse, I'll show you my dark secret.

WARNING: this entry is not for the faint of stomach. It's an entirely selfish attempt at catharsis and it's really, really gross. You might want to just scroll down to the picture at the end.

At first we thought it was a poopy diaper that had fallen behind a couch or under the bed, but it wasn't that; it wasn't the contents of any of our wastebaskets; it wasn't something Jennie had dragged in from outside. But the horrible smell lingered, and finally I knew what it was. I didn't want to be right, so I called our tenant in the downstairs studio to check: did she smell something horrible, too? I knew she'd say yes, and she did, and that was that.

Dead possum under the house.

Marla, woman of superhuman endurance, regularly performs mighty feats that would make me buckle: she wrangles the baby 24/7, endures shrieking tantrums, cleans and cooks and cleans again, gets up to breastfeed at 3 a.m., keeps up with friends and family, runs errands, handles secretarial affairs for her father's real estate ventures, and does it all without compromising her calm, sunny Weltanschauung. My responsibilities are relatively few: I teach, I take out the garbage, and I try to keep a civil tongue in my mouth. If something needs to be done around the house, chances are, Marla's on it.

But disposing of dead possums is my job.

I've done this once before. It was a ghastly experience -- like, I'm talking PTSD ghastly. Some experiences never leave you, however much you wish they would. And I could describe in detail what it's like to handle a rotting corpse that comes apart in soft pieces, writhing with maggots, when you pick it up -- see? I just did -- but reading about it, imagining it, is nothing like experiencing it.

Anyway, this time I knew what I was in for beforehand, which only made it harder. Our house is built into the side of a hill; in the studio on the ground floor, where our tenant lives, there is a locked cabinet-sized door halfway up the wall that opens onto the space underneath the house. I opened the door, hoisted myself up, and crawled in with a bandanna tied over my mouth and nose, armed with white plastic trash bags and a flashlight.

I crouched and squeezed my way between pipes and vents and beams, crawling on hands and knees. I aimed the flashlight methodically in all directions before I made a move, hoping to spot the carcass from a distance, praying I wouldn't brush up against it unexpectedly. The first possum to die under our house had chosen to crawl under a sheet of dusty black plastic; there were yards of this stuff everywhere, and I lifted it gingerly as I went, expecting at any moment to lift the lid on a puddle of rodent goulash. No such luck. I went around the whole place twice and couldn't find a thing. There were a few areas, up where the bottom of the house met the hill, that I couldn't reach; I hoped to god it hadn't gone up there.

I steeled myself for a final search. I had been cupping a hand over the bandanna over my nose as I went, but now, in defiance of every instinct, I opened my nostrils wide and tried to follow the scent of putrefying flesh. Move toward the stench, my mind told my body. No, really. Trust me. This is what we want.

But it wasn't as easy as that; the reek of death was everywhere. A third careful circuit turned up nothing. I was about ready to give up and head back out into the fresh air -- okay, way more than ready -- when, just as my hand reached out for the door, I saw, on the dull silver wall of a heating vent, a line of black, ichorous fluid . . .

I turned my flashlight toward the vent and followed the line up . . . to discover, between the curve of the vent and a mass of exposed pink insulation, the gray snout and long yellow teeth of a very fat, very very dead possum.

After I took a couple of minutes to get my gag reflex under control, I investigated further and determined that the possum, before dying, had scrabbled its way up the side of an insulation-covered vent (tearing most of the insulation away) and into a cozy pocket right underneath the floorboards of our living room. It's a little difficult to describe, but basically this pocket was almost exactly possum-sized; floorboards above, two large vents side by side below, a possum-width opening at one end where it had crawled in, and a concrete wall at the other end. At the bottom of the pocket was a gap of an inch or so, just big enough for the creature to poke its snout through and drool blood as it died.

I went and got a hoe. Too big to fit through the hole. Got a spade. Small enough, but too small to do anything more than poke the thing. Got an apple-picker -- a wire cage on a stick, open at the top with a set of claw-shaped wires. This managed to lift one side of the possum momentarily, catch on its skin and rip it open -- yep, maggots -- but that was it.

If I wanted this possum to come out the way it went in, there was only one way: I'd have to reach in with my hands and lift it out. Toward myself.

And I've got balls the size of watermelons, but that. Was not. Going to happen.

So I called it a day, went upstairs, took a long, hot shower, and called Animal Abatement. Unfortunately, this experience took place on Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend; today's Monday, Presidents' Day. So this weekend -- during which we've been entertaining a lot of guests -- we've had to endure the horrible, horrible smell of rotting possum in our house, which gets more intense when we turn up the heat (since the corpse is resting on a heating vent), which we have to do because the weather is the coldest it's been here in 103 years.

So yeah. That's some of what I've been doing lately.

Okay, no more grossness. Take a deep, clean, sanitary breath. Look at this beautiful picture of my daughter, and be happy.


Blogger Jemaleddin said...

First of all, that really is a beautiful picture - so serene, so smart. I'm glad I skipped down to read it first.

Secondly, for that kind of job, I like going with rubber gloves and a sacrificial pair of oven mitts so that I don't have to deal with the texture or worry about the goop leaking through onto my skin.

Oh, and just because I have to complain to somebody, they just started playing Ace of Base on the radio here at work. I just realized that it's "Base" and not "Bass" and I'm all confused and nauseated, but it's only partly your fault.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Wesley said...


So you're sure it wasn't just playing possum, I guess.

11:53 PM  
Anonymous Laura said...

"Possum Kingdom."

That's funny. Hadn't thought about that song in years.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Felix Helix said...

Gallows humor: my specialty.

Playing possum? If this thing is playing, it's the greatest method actor EVER.

So Animal Abatement charges $325 to remove the thing, and $89 if they come out to try but don't succeed. Isn't that nice?

Jemal's suggestion suddenly seems a bit more appealing. But only a bit.

Man. I don't know how much more of this I can take. (She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake.)

2:24 PM  
Blogger Jemaleddin said...

Oh, and I'd also suggest getting one of those painter's breathing masks and supplementing the filter with some dryer sheets.

I somehow jumped over the actual song reference and went straight to that horrible Michael W. Smith song that's another of the "I killed a chick near a lake" songs. Man I hate that song. More than Ace of Base, I think,

4:43 AM  

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