There’s the choppy, the-puppies-are-missing bark, usually in concert with some other hound (or hounds), clear across town. You can almost make out each dot and dash of their canine Morse code, passing on their messages in a sort of doggy dictation. Then there’s the throatier, stouter “BA-ruff!” she slings at most passersby. It’s the this-is-my-yard-so-you-best-keep-walking bark. Works like a charm, most days, especially when you toss in that tremendous leap of hers. Few and far between are those who loiter on my block. Finally, you’ve got the break-out-straight-jacket, aliens-have-landed, ninjas-are-on-the-roof bark. It’s about five parts wolf pack, three parts Rottweiler and two parts get-your-ass-out-here-and-help-me-out-you-bastard! She barely breathes. It sounds more dog fight than dog bark.
Now because she’d spent the last couple nights snarling her oh-shit bark at all hours for no apparent reason, I decided I was getting to the bottom of it, once and for all. Rather, than attack the problem head on, as I had those previous two nights—half dressed, bleary eyed and pissed-off—I opted for a new tact. I snuck out the front door in hopes of figuring out what was bothering so bad.
I worked at a machine shop, back in those days. It involved a lot of sweating your ass off, barring the two-point-seven days of the year when freezing said ass off was a more viable concern. Of course, that’s how it works, most years, down in my part of South Texas, anyway.
One thing’s certain: There wasn’t anyone who might confuse what I did for a living with white-collar work. It was a greasy, grimy job. Definitely not a place you even thought about bringing a white collar, much less wearing. Not unless you were born half idiot or simply walking by. It wasn’t even safe then, half the time. The only thing you ever wondered about, really, was which one you’d take home more of at the end of the day: Grime or grease? It was hard to see where one ceased and the other began, most days. And it might take a month or two before we discovered this one, but we all did, sooner or later: Usually, we’d be barefoot, fresh out of the shower, when we made their acquaintance.
Metal. Fucking. Shavings.
Yeah, that’s right. One of those curly-cue slivers of metal that’ll fly off from one of those machines. Sure, you’d need about four sets of pliers, a blowtorch and a tow chain if you tried yanking one of those bastards from the bottom of your boot. But just walk within four feet of any rug, and they magically unhinged themselves somehow, then disappear, lightning quick. Only way I’ve ever found one again, coincidentally, was when it sliced through my bare foot and was poking out the other side. Smarts like hell, let me tell you…
So there I was, dressed in my darkest sweat-stained finest, slurping down an ice-cold beer—or five, can’t say, I quite recall—wondering what the hell’s wrong with my dog. I’ve got a corner lot, so if I stand in my front yard and peek around the corner, I can normally spot any intruder right off.
But I make it there and I don’t see shit. Not a thing. Nuthin.
Seeing how I’d already walked all that way, I figured I might as well try and get closer, see if I couldn’t figure it out. I grab another beer, and round the corner to my carport. When I get to the truck, I finally see something: This big band of light sweeps across the yard, disappears, then pops back up several feet away.
Son of a bitch, I think. Aliens really have landed!
So I’m standing there, watching all these lights flash on and off, listening to all these bangs and clatters and grunts in the back of my yard, trying to decide what to do next. Cigarette in one hand, I crack open a fresh beer with the other. Right about that time my dog breaks off in an all-new level of unhinged. This time, however, rather just flashing lights, I spot what looks like some dude swinging a big ol’ stick over the fence at my dog.
Oh, hell naw!
Quicker than you blink, I’m halfway across the yard, thinking up every one-liner I ever heard to announce before I commence my ass-wuppin, taking that last slug of beer I expect for a have for a while and flicking my cigarette off to the side as far as I can, when I notice that the shadowy figure with the big stick bolts off in the opposite direction.
That’s what I thought, you son of a—
Before I can finish that thought, my dog’s now in a completely opposite corner of yard, way off on the other side, raisin’ an all-new round of hell.
I heard it before I saw it: The shadowy figure that took off just moments ago from near the back fence, is bounding, thud thud thud, right for that corner where the dog has now taken up residence, snarling like her life depended on it. I hook for the side yard and make my way up the fenceline. The light sweeps the yard once more, then I hear it again: Bang, Clatter, Rustle-Rustle, Grunt. My eyes, more adjusted to the darkness, still couldn’t make out what was going on, especially when that shadowy figure took up what looks like one of those mastodon-killing poses you always in the picture books about cavemen. He aims, lunges in this ridiculous pirouette, then resets for another round, all while my dog continues to lose her mind.
I continue my approach toward shadow man, who’s still oblivious to my presence. I’m probably about three or four steps away from him before I finally make out enough features to tell that the shadow with the stick is actually my neighbor. He’s trying to pinch a long metal flashlight in the nape of his neck while performing this strange dance with what looks to be every inch of the proverbial ten-foot-pole you always hear about. I’m not kidding: It’s like he purposed screwed together several lengths of these wooden paint poles together, just so he could run around in the yard, acting like a complete lunatic.
Now before I go any further, you gotta know one thing about my neighbor, a rather important detail, considering the circumstances, I think: My neighbor—him and his wife, both—are cops. That’s right. Badge wearing, gun-toting, law-abiding police officers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen them dressed in full battle rattle with about nine guns apiece strapped to various body parts, strutting out to their cars like peacocks on their way to work. Made my butt pucker something fierce the first time I saw it—morning’s first coffee in one hand, big fat joint in the other—but you get used to it after a while.
So you gotta understand what running through my head at this point. Here’s a dude I know has more guns in his house than I have hair left on my head—and surely enough pull to get away with discharging any one of said firearms in city limits, if it ever came to the nut-cutting—prancing around his yard at about ten o’clock at night, jabbing this long ass stick in a tree. He’s focused—I’m talking full-on trigonometry, advanced calculus and quantum physics focused—up at the branches of this tree, with this long metal flashlight wedged in the crook of his neck, taking up his mastodon pose once again.
What started as a crisis situation has suddenly become just strange. I lean back a bit, so he has plenty room with that stick of his, and the follow the light up the tree. I don’t see a goddam thing up there.
I’m close enough now I could lean over give the ol’ boy a kiss, if I wanted. My dog’s still raising all kinds of hell, so I figured I’d speed this up a bit. I ask him, not real loud but loud enough, I guess; he is just right there, after all:
What the fuck are you doing, dude?
Now I’ll admit: I used to hunt. Despite having a twenty-pound, steel-toed boot strapped to each foot, I can move silent as a catfish glides through water. But I’d made no point in trying to sneak up on him. Not at this point. In fact, I’d been there long enough I figured he’d at least smell me, anyway. Between the hundred-degree heat at work that day, the pack-and-a-half I’d smoked that day, and open the open beer I still had in my hand, peering up at the poor defenseless tree, I can’t imagine me not having some kind of odor about me at that point.
If I did, he never caught it, that’s for sure. Ol’ boy come up off the ground about a foot-and-a-half and executes this perfect chess piece move. I ain’t talking something simple, like a pawn or bishop or none of that crap. Naw. This was intricate. Complex. Like one those Ls the knights always pull off, about two yards left and three back, and made mid-air with a perfect right angle in the middle. Or maybe it was more like that switcharoo deal you do with your king and rook, that pole of his the only thing still standing where he’d been seconds ago. Guess he dropped it when he decided to try his hand at the levitating arts.
And yeah, I was fairly camouflaged, I guess, especially for the hour, wearing dark jeans and a navy workshirt, a black ballcap on my head. And sure, having a two hundred-pound biker with a beard past his nipples suddenly appear out of the darkness at your back could be understandably unnerving. But this dude’s a cop. Surely, they must get training for shit like that.
This dude apparently skipped that day.
In fact, you’d have thought I really had bent over kissed him, straight on the lips. All I saw was whites in his eyes. “Pa-pa-pa—possom,” he stammered, his index finger pointed at the dark sky.
Protect and serve, my ass.
Officer Mike found him with his flashlight at about the same time as that possum started waddling his way across the new branch. He thrust his big stick in its general direction, missing entirely. He pulled back and jabbed once more, reminding of me an awful lot of this little kid I saw once, who’d snuck out his momma’s best broom to get at the piñata his pops had hung in a tree. Still, no matter how good his tool or how hard he tried, the damn thing was just out of reach. That’s what my neighbor looked like as he worked that that stick—sucking on his lip, flustered—it was kinda funny to watch but kinda sad at same time, too.
Give a blind man enough darts and he’ll probably find the board, eventually. That big stick finally hit its mark, striking that big rat bastard in the tenders right below his ribs and knocking him loose into freefall directly above our heads. I took a step back. The cop was busy yanking on his big stick now, having lodged it somehow between the branches and gotten it stuck. Thankfully, the possum latched on to final branch left between him and Mike’s face.
Our intrepid warrior never even noticed.
My dog is plumb insane at this point. She’s either telling all the other dogs in neighborhood to get over here and check out this dumbass with the stick, or she’s seriously pissed this ugly, stinking varmint would dare climb in HER tree. Hard to tell sometimes with a dog like her, I don’t care how hard you listen…
Mind you, this ain’t my first rodeo with a possum. I can’t even begin to account for how many I’ve seen in my lifetime, nor how many I’ve killed through the years. I hold them in about the same regard as snakes. They eat eggs, fresh out the chicken; they’ll probably eat the chicken, too, if you let them. So they gotta go, plain and simple. Plus, they’re ugly as sin. Looks like an armadillo fucked a swamp rat, and thus, life was born. Something you may not know about them, they got an attitude to go with them awful looks. Those little sons-of-bitches can get mean as hell, especially when they’re hurt or trapped.
Now fully recovered from his recent freefall experience, that stick to the gut looked to have pissed him off right good. He hissed this wicked noise and charged down the branch, straight at my neighbor’s head. He acts like he isn’t even aware of the angry critter headed for his face. He’s busy playing with damn stick of his again. Thing is, I don’t think just an act. He really doesn’t know he’s about to get molested by big-assed possum. It’s headed right for him. Four feet. Three feet. A foot-and-a-half
One of us had to do something.
Now, I could’ve fallen to my knees, prayed that the Good Lord smite this hideous beast before he injured a good and decent, though obviously clueless, man. Or I could’ve asked that this idiot’s suffering end swiftly once that possum got hold of him, ask that God guide the hand of this noble creature with a well-placed claw across his jugular. Instead, I just grabbed the branch, right beyond this rat-bastard’s tail. I buckled my knees right as he was on ol’ Mike’s head, who still hadn’t unlodged his stick from whatever orifice it was stuck.
The limb bends. A lot. I see that possum’s eyes go wide, just before I let it go.
Three things happened when that limb snapped back up like a catapult: 1.) That cop finally got his stick loose and turned toward all the ruckus to begin piecing together what nearly happened; 2.) My dog instantly stopped barking like her ass was on fire, as if to tell me it’s about you finally got here; and 3.) Perhaps most important, that possum launched a good twenty feet in the air in this this steep but almost slow-motion arch. It was thing beauty, man, I tell you what. And I swear: That critter looked like he was trying remember those plans he’d seen once on how to craft your own grappling hook. Or was it a parachute? Either one would’ve been mighty handy right about then.
He landed in the middle of the street, hitting the pavement like a wet sack of bricks. Despite an obvious stupor, he wasn’t stupid. I gotta hand it to him: He tried to book it, even if all he managed was to sidestep his way around in a circle. I’d paced his trajectory while he was in flight, so when he hit, I was right there beside him, ready. I sunk one of my steel toes into his flank. He sailed like a kickball into the hurricane fence across the street. I was right there on him again when he hit, having pulled my lockblade from my back pocket in the transition. I sank my blade into his tough hide a good two or three (maybe twelve) times in rapid succession, right there by the curb.
I looked back as I stood up. My dog couldn’t have cared less at that point. Possum no longer in HER tree, she’d wandered off across the yard and was presently squatted in her shitting stance, like we weren’t even there. My neighbor, I’m pretty sure, mighta shit himself a little, too. He stood there, mouth open, looking horrified. I guess he figured we were gonna talk this possum down from his perilous perch, or maybe meet him later for drinks to talk things out, part ways with a therapeutic and healthy hug.
He obviously didn’t grow up on no farm.
I couldn’t resist. I took my time, wiping the blood into those nasty work jeans I had on, closed the blade and slid it back into my pocket. Then I reached own, nonchalant, and grabbed the poor creature’s tail. It was only spot on him without a gaping knife wound. I hoisted him up, held him about head high.
“You gonna eat this?” I asked him.
He stared back at me like I just murdered his first born, still clinging to that stick of his, his mouth, open wide but completely incapable of making a sound just then.
I smiled as I shrugged at him, flipped that carcass over my shoulder, and walked off into the darkness back to my house. I made it half a block by the time I turned into driveway and finally looked back. The cop hadn’t moved an inch. He hadn’t closed his mouth yet, either. I tossed the dead animal in the trash bin, glad it would be picked up the next morning, and walked inside. I’ve got no idea how long he must’ve stood there. He never made a peep, but when I went back out for my final smoke of the night, about hour later, his house was silent. Dark.
I’ve lived here nine years now, and never once had conversation with that man, despite there being just a four-foot fence between us. Not once have I ever heard any snide comments about how tall my grass has grown or how loud those Harley pipes can at two in the morning, or how I might oughta turn the Metallica down to a more reasonable level when I home at that time of day. Not one word—from him or anybody else in my neighborhood, for that matter—hell, if I’d a known something simple as that would’ve worked so well, I’d probably kept me a possum as a pet, a long time ago. Trained him to eat snake meat. Make wallets outa their hides. Or something…