"I found your damn ghost," Jerry said, stomping through the living room. Faunda was watching Dr. Phil, talking on the phone with her sister.
“Where you going with that gun?” Faunda folded the footrest on her recliner and sat up. “Hang on, Ginny,” she said into the receiver. “He’s fixing to kill something.”
“I got business to take care of.” Jerry jacked the gun up and down to chamber a shell. He looked like a balding, slope-bellied action hero turning to walk out the door with it slung over his shoulder.
“What in hell are you talking about?” Faunda hung up the phone and hurried after him.
“I’m telling you it ain’t no ghost we been hearing; it’s a damned raccoon.”
“And you’re going to shoot it? You dumbass. It’ll die in the house and stink to high heaven.”
Jerry paused. He didn’t say anything but it was clear he was considering Faunda’s reasoning. Then he put the safety on, set the shotgun on the kitchen table and walked outside to get another look at the situation. The raccoon was there, peering down at him from a hole in the rotted eave, looking as if it might laugh out loud. Murphy, their perpetually juvenile labrador, ran circles around Jerry’s feet.
Faunda came around the corner of the house favoring her delicate bare feet.
Jerry pointed up. “There’s your spook.”
“Son of a bitch,” she said.
Faunda and Jerry sat at the kitchen table and discussed their options over dinner. Faunda shot down the idea of setting out a pie pan filled with anti-freeze. They’d both heard animals love to drink the sweet stuff. But death would be slow and there was still the risk of a decaying body rotting in the walls. And what if Murphy drank it too? They agreed that they shouldn’t shoot it. Number one: they might only injure it, piss it off, and make the situation worse; number two: discharge of guns within the city limits was against the law. It was hardly worth going to jail over, especially if the shot sprayed holes in the neighbor’s vinyl siding. Jerry said he could rig a trap, but he wasn’t sure what he’d do with the animal once he caught it. Faunda suggested they call the cops.
“Shit,” Jerry said, disgust crinkling his forehead. “Sounds like something your stupid sister would say.”
So they did nothing. During the daytime the raccoon was quiet. It would wake up in the evening, waddle along the eave to a downspout, slide to the ground and go about its nocturnal work. In pre-dawn hours it would climb back to its home at the top of the house to scratch and paw, click its toenails, make purring noises and eventually settle in. Sometimes it would bring company to run circles in the ceiling over Jerry and Faunda’s bedroom. Murphy, curled in his spot at the foot of the bed, would sit up and whine. If the ruckus didn’t wake Jerry and Faunda, Murphy’s whining would.
Jerry imagined the sounds were a pursuit, a playful game of hard-to-get, a hissing female staying just out of reach, and a virile male calculating his patient advance and in the end the relief of breeding success that would for awhile abate the persistent gnawing desire.
Faunda, on the other hand, imagined the female scittering away in desperation, crawling over rafters, hiding behind beams and trusses. There would be hissing, baring of teeth, vicious threats. Eventually, the male might outlast her, make a wiser move, win by gentle persistence. If he rushed or made a wrong move she might escape; the game was never predictable.
Faunda would grow more agitated as the sounds wore on while Jerry allowed the images to stir an excitement in him. Whenever he would reach for Faunda, she would cringe, tired after so many years of his pawing and panting. That’s when she would get up, wrap a robe around herself and retreat to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, consider ways to rid their house of this nuisance. Jerry would stay in bed awhile longer, eyes closed, listening to the ruckus overhead with a thin smile on his face, until silence was all that was left.
Faunda watched Delbert Meachum with a disgusted curiosity as he pumped the bill of his greasy ball cap, scratched his forehead, and pulled it down hard over his ears. The two of them were standing in Faunda’s yard looking up at the roof, shielding their eyes from the mid-morning sun. Delbert spit the shell of a sunflower seed. “It ain’t gonna be so much a problem getting her out as keeping her out,” he said.
The raccoon peered down from the eave, three stories up. “I can fix that soffit once she’s out, but it’ll cost you extra.”
“Can’t you kill her?” Faunda asked.
“I could,” he said. “But another coon’ll move in before her shit gets cold and start the whole mess over again.” Delbert turned toward the street where his truck sat, idling. “I’ll set the trap. Once we catch her it’s forty dollars. And like I told you, repairs are more.” From the bed of his pickup, “Critter Control” lettered on the door, Delbert grabbed a wire cage. Inside the toolbox he rifled through his stash of bait and pulled out a can of tuna. He leaned his ladder against the back porch roof and climbed up next to the downspout, placing the cage with the tuna lure up against a wall. Faunda watched from the ground, still in her terrycloth bathrobe, her arms folded in front of her.
“How long will it take?” she hollered up at Delbert, her face screwed up in the bright morning light.
“Day or two,” he said, squatting on the roof, arranging the trap. He spit another sunflower shell. “When you see her in there gimme a call.”
“What’ll she do?” Faunda didn’t like the idea of a wild animal trapped on her porch roof.
“Piss and moan,” Delbert said. “But leave her be. I got ways to handle her.”
Faunda let Murphy out the back door before the sun was up. She’d started a pot of coffee and could smell the aroma drift from the screen door as she stood on the porch watching the dog sniff out the new smells of morning. A sour odor seeped up through the darkness. In bare feet she crept around the corner of the house to find both garbage cans knocked over and emptied of their contents. Strewn about the yard, coming more clear as her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the hour, was a large debris field of household waste: coffee grounds bursting from the confines of wet filters; a chunk of fuzzy Italian bread; and various barely identifiable decomposing globs of food—refried beans, pork chop gravy, egg salad—that Faunda had thrown out during a recent refrigerator cleaning. Murphy rustled through the mess, smelling and tasting, his tail wagging at a fast clip.
“Get back!” Faunda slapped Murphy’s haunch. He scooted out of reach, his nose pressed to the ground.
“For cryin’ out loud.” Faunda bent to pick up a soiled wad of paper towels. “Oh, god,” she said looking at a smear of cold wet food on her hand, remnants of her recently botched attempt at eggplant parmigiana. “Murphy,” she snapped. “Get in the house!”
The dog bolted, tail tucked. A swell of anger crested, but she suppressed the urge to fly into a rage. She was getting better at putting the brakes on her unruly impulses. It grew easier with age. She didn’t know where her anger came from, only that it was always there, always had been. Time wore away the impatience and frustration that used to precede an explosion. Maybe, too, she’d come to a place where she simply didn’t care to spend the kind of energy that intense anger required.
Her father once beat a lawnmower flat. The day he put his hand through a window pane netted him reconstructive surgery and four days in the hospital. Her mother tore a thumbnail out by the root once while trying to pitch the bathroom scales at her father’s head. That was a trip to the ER and permanent nerve damage to her thumb. Faunda inherited their violent tendencies that had so far resulted in sprung hinges, lacerated fingers, shattered windows and countless broken telephones.
She credited Jerry for revealing her placid side. He had a calming effect, didn’t get riled about much. Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky, she called him. When they started dating his easy-going nature was one thing she found especially attractive. Even when he did get angry it didn’t last long. He’d burn like a bottle rocket, blow off and then fizzle. She wished sometimes that she could stir up a good fight, but that wasn’t going to happen. Jerry didn’t have it in him, and it didn’t seem anything would change that.
Faunda tiptoed through the mess toward the dog. “What do you got?” She clasped his muzzle with one hand, pryed his mouth open with the other. Murphy clamped his teeth shut and averted his gaze. “Oh, shit,” she said. “You nasty-ass animal.” She pulled a soiled feminine napkin out of his mouth and dropped it on the ground. With one hand on the dog’s collar she dragged him into the house, sniping at him the whole way, her robe gaping open, falling off one shoulder.
“That raccoon has made a mess of the garbage.” Faunda slammed the bedroom door.
Jerry sat up, startled awake. He rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Time for you to march outside and help me clean up that damn mess before the neighbors see it.” She dropped her robe to the floor. Jerry watched, still groggy. Faunda turned her back to him, but he could see her bare reflection in the mirror atop her dressing table. He watched as she bent forward and let her breasts fall into the cups of her bra. Then she stood straight, adjusted herself and fastened the garment from behind.
“Why don’t you get back in bed?” he said, patting her pillow. “We’ll take care of that mess in a little bit.”
Faunda continued to dress. Jerry watched for another moment, then fell back against his pillow with a sigh and stared at the ceiling. He put one hand behind his head, the other he slid under the covers and began to absently scratch his crotch. Faunda stopped what she was doing to stare at Jerry.
“Do you mind?” she said.
Jerry continued to scratch. “What?”
“Honestly,” she said and stomped out of the room, buttoning her shirt on the way.
“What?” he called after her, one hand raised in the air.
Jerry appeared on the back porch wearing red flannel pants with a chaotic pattern of penguins on them, holding a mug of coffee. “You missed a piece,” he called out to Faunda. She straightened her back and scowled at Jerry. In one hand she held a black garbage bag, in the other a fistful of trash. At her feet was a bean can, a pickle jar, banana peels, and junk mail she’d never opened.
“Very funny,” she said, pushing back a loose strand of hair with her rubber-gloved hand. “Least you could do is get out here and help.”
“Thanks anyway, I’m full,” he said, laughing.
Faunda surrendered a weak smile. “Scared of a little goo and rot?”
“What say I get the ladder and see about that trap?” he said, disappearing into the house to find his shoes.
“I’d say that was mighty quick thinking,” Faunda muttered.
Jerry called down to Faunda from the porch roof. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “Sumbitch took the tuna and left.”
“So put some more in it.”
“Where’s it at?”
“In the kitchen where we always keep the tuna,” she said.
“Pardon me. I was just asking.” Jerry wiggled his fingers in front of him in mock testiness.
“And you would think that after living in this house for twelve years you’d know where to look for food.”
“What are we going to do to keep that little shit out of the garbage?” she asked.
“I haven’t got that far yet,” Jerry said, coming down the ladder to get the tuna.
“Tell you what,” Faunda said. “I’ve got more important things to do than pick up garbage after a wild animal, so when you figure out what you want to do you go right ahead and do it.” She righted the garbage cans, stuffed the full bags inside them, peeled off her rubber gloves and stomped into the house.
That night Jerry and Faunda sat in matching recliners, reading. Jerry had the paper opened in front of him, his glasses at the end of his nose. Faunda was reading what Jerry called smutty trash, but Faunda enjoyed Harlequin romances and refused to stop reading them on account of him. They didn’t require much effort on her part and in them she found a private pleasure.
The lights flickered. Jerry peeked over the top of his glasses and stared silently at Faunda until, finally, she looked back at him.
“What?” she said.
“Did you do that?”
“Did I do what?”
He went back to his paper. The lamp on the table flickered again. He ignored it. But the third time it happened he crumpled the news in frustration and glared with malice at Faunda.
“You see me sitting here,” she said. “I ain’t touched the damned lamp.”
Jerry bent over to peer at the bulb beneath the shade. Nothing seemed out of place. He picked up his paper again, smoothed it out where he’d wrinkled it and began to search for the place where he left off. The room went black.
“What in the sam hell?” he said.
“Don’t look at me,” Faunda said.
Jerry fiddled with the switch, turning it several times, in vain. Faunda went to the kitchen, found a new bulb and brought it back to Jerry who unscrewed the old one and replaced it. He turned the switch. Nothing.
“Go turn on the overhead light,” he said.
Faunda went to the doorway and flipped the light on. Nothing.
“The kitchen works,” she said.
“That ain’t doing me any good out here now, is it?” Jerry said.
“Point being that the whole house ain’t out,” Faunda said. Then she walked out of the room leaving Jerry to his own devices.
She sat at the kitchen table beneath a hanging light and opened her book. Jerry stomped through the room on his way to the basement. Faunda knew he’d found the breaker box and was flipping breakers as the kitchen lights went off and then came back on, twice. When he came back upstairs, mumbling to himself, Faunda asked him what, if anything, had he found.
“It all looks fine,” he said.
He went back to the living room to again try the lamp, then the overhead light. Still nothing. He came into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “I guess you’ll have to call the electrician tomorrow,” he said. “Beats the hell out of me.”
Later, when they went to bed, the lights in the bedroom would not work.
“What the hell’s going on?” Jerry yelled into the darkness.
Faunda was tired and didn’t feel like messing with it anymore. She crawled into bed and pulled up the covers. Jerry fumbled around the room trying every electrical device: the alarm clock, his bedside lamp, the television, Faunda’s hair dryer. Nothing.
It took the electrician a little while to troubleshoot the problem, but he finally figured it out when he spotted the raccoon watching him from above. He asked Faunda how to get upstairs where he’d seen the animal. She showed him the door to the third floor. He pulled up a couple of floorboards and discovered the problem.
“Looks like that critter’s chewed up your wiring,” he said to Faunda.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“Serious as a heart attack.”
“What’s that gonna cost?”
“Depends on how much damage it’s done. And you need to get rid of it before it takes out the whole house.”
“We’ve been trying,” Faunda said. “Lord knows.”
“You want me to explain all this to your husband?” he said.
“Call him at work,” Faunda said, writing the number down on a scrap of paper. “He’ll take it better from you than he will me.”
“I don’t reckon he’ll like it regardless who tells him,” he said. “But if you don’t get that animal out of there soon you’ll be needing more than wiring.”
Jerry devised a plan. At dusk he set a folding lawn chair in the back yard, opened one of the twelve bottles of beer he’d crammed into a cooler, and laid the shotgun across his lap. The drinking had started as soon as he got home. The electrician had said it was going to cost thousands of dollars if the house had to be completely rewired, dollars Jerry and Faunda didn’t have. And every day the problem went unsolved cost them more. He’d declared war on the raccoon and was determined not to sleep until he held the trophy of its dead body by the scruff of the neck. Faunda had done her level best to talk sense into Jerry. Having failed, she’d gone in a huff to her mother’s house saying she didn’t want to be party to his cockamamie plans.
Jerry hid in the shadows of his yard beneath a large walnut tree. He noticed how much went on in the neighborhood that he had never paid attention to. He watched people walking their dogs, leaving and returning in their cars, dragging trash cans to the curb for tomorrow’s pickup.
Jerry slurped his beer. Friday night and he was stalking a raccon. For years on Friday night he and Faunda went for ice cream. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d done that. They hadn’t decided to stop, they just had. When they met she was working at Brewster’s 33 Flavors in the mall. Back then she was girlish, cute in her pink visor and matching apron, dipping ice cream. He often made service calls to fix a broken lock or to rekey a store. When he finished his work he would stop by the ice cream store for a double dip of praline chunk on a plain cone. Back then Faunda was thin. Her hair was brown, not frosted like now. He could still remember the sugary sweet smell of the place. One day Faunda was finishing her shift, so she sat down with him while he ate his cone. That’s when he asked her to dinner. Then he started showing up around time for the mall to close, to help her clean up, to spend time close to her. If she was alone he’d corner her in the back room, run his hands through her hair, steal kisses.
The night she coaxed him to the top of the walk-in freezer and took off her clothes, he fell in love. He’d waited until the next spring, when she graduated from high school, to propose. There was no hesitation in her yes.
They never had kids. Not that they didn’t want any, or that they’d even talked about it. They simply never got around to it, and now that they’d been married twenty-one years it was too late. All things considered, they’d lived a decent life. They always had decent jobs and had never been too hard-up for money. They both enjoyed antiques and the Daytona 500. At this point in life Jerry wasn’t miserable, but was this all there was? He wondered if Faunda felt the same.
Along the way there had been other women. Jerry had fallen prey on a couple of occasions to fleeting attractions. Nothing serious. He wasn’t proud of what he’d done, but he never acted with the intent to hurt Faunda. Besides, that was a long time ago.
Jerry rubbed his head. He’d gone bald in his twenties. The muscular bulk that once swelled his chest had softened and slipped south, settling behind his belt. Faunda had put on weight too, most of it in her hips and thighs. Jerry would never tell her again that she had aged like her mother.
And what had the two of them accomplished? They bought this house thinking they wanted to fix it up, make it their dream home, but somewhere along the way, before they really got started, they lost the energy for it. Now it was a rotting hulk of history that sagged as if the simple act of standing had worn it out. It needed everything from wiring to plumbing to paint. It needed someone who loved it, but Jerry no longer felt capable. Didn’t feel like his heart was big enough. He thumped his chest and let out a sigh that seemed to hang in the air. Jerry wiped his eye, looked at his hand, then swiped the moisture across his pant leg. He was overwhelmed with sadness for the house. It could have been beautiful. It still could be, but the magnitude of the task and the destructiveness of time seemed bigger than Jerry’s abilities. He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d done to improve its condition. He and Faunda were young when they bought it, full of energy and creativity. Somehow their passion had become ambivalence and out of that snake a vine of doubt that his original vision was even possible. He wiped his eyes again. He remembered then that beer always did this to him, made him sappy, reflective. He took another sip and dragged his sleeve across his face. His nose began to run. He sniffed it back, clearing his throat against swelling emotion. He rapped on his chest again, but instead of suppressing the knot in his throat, the force loosened a sob that screwed up his face. He sucked in a loud gasp of air as if he’d broken through the calm surface of deep water, and then drowned the sounds in long gulps of beer. From the cooler beneath his chair he took another, twisted off the top, flicked the cap into the yard. He went on like that, one beer after another, until twelve bottles were strewn about his feet, a weight of grief hanging overhead in the trees, and no sign of the raccoon.
Faunda’s headlights swept across the yard stirring Jerry awake. He wiped slobber from his chin and grunted at the damp circle that had formed on his shirt. He felt for the gun in his lap. It was still there.
“What the hell are you still doing out here?” Faunda said, stepping out of her SUV, walking toward Jerry.
“I’m on a coon hunt,” he said.
“Gimme that damn gun. You old fool.”
“No, I’m sitting here until that little shit shows its face. Then I’m taking it off.”
“Not drunk as you are,” Faunda reached for the gun.
Jerry grabbed it with both hands. “Don’t,” he said.
“Jerry, this is ridiculous. Give me the gun.”
“Nope. I’m staying here until I get it.” He slapped away Faunda’s hand.
She made a more aggressive move for the weapon, driven by equal parts fear and anger. Jerry shoved her away with one arm, the other still holding the barrel of the gun.
“How dare you.” She shoved him back, knocking over his chair and sending him, legs over arms, rolling backward. “Give me the damn gun,” she said.
“You shouldn’t of done that Faun.” Jerry struggled to his feet.
“Don’t you threaten me you sonofabitch.” Faunda spotted a leaf rake leaning against the garage. She picked it up and came at Jerry, swinging it back and forth with broad strokes. He tried to duck, but she hit him across the shoulder. He threw the gun on the ground and lunged for her throat. With both hands wrapped around her, he shook with vigor. The way her head flopped back and forth reminded him of the chickens his grandmother raised and the way she would kill them with one hard jerk of her hand.
A crisp, white pain stopped Jerry still. He sucked in one quick breath and then buckled to the ground, his hands covering his crotch. Faunda doubled over, clutching her neck, and drew in ragged breaths of air, coughing and gagging. Jerry wretched and curled, like a fetal pig, at her feet.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she managed to say. “You ever do that again I’ll kill you.”
Jerry, still unable to speak, coughed up a puddle of beer. He pulled himself to his feet and stood before Faunda. “I’ll be go to hell,” he said.
“If you’d of fixed the problem before it got this far we wouldn’t be having this mess,” Faunda said.
“What problem?” Jerry squinted as if he had trouble keeping Faunda in focus.
“You don’t even know what the problem is.” Faunda threw up her hands. “Are you that damn dumb?”
“Don’t start on me. I work hard for you. I give you what you want. I provide for you like a man should, and you know it.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Look at our house! That animal is tearing it up, and you’re sitting back letting it happen.”
“Oh that.” Jerry scratched his head. A stale belch burbled from his lips.
“Look at you. Drunk like a damn fool. Worthless as tits on a boar-hog.”
Faunda looked at Jerry, his bloodshot eyes, ridiculous expression, the mess of his appearance, and began to laugh.
“What’s so damn funny?” Jerry asked.
Faunda continued to laugh.
She remembered a fight her parents had, before the divorce. It had been spectacular. Her mother had asked for money to buy a new coat, and her father had vaporized in response. It was clear to Faunda, even then, that the fight wasn’t about the coat. It was deeper than that. It seeped from a hatred they both felt for one another, having lived together long enough to grow sick of the other’s idiosyncracies, the dull habit of marriage. The fight had ended with Faunda’s father chasing her mother with the car, and her mother hiding behind the neighbor’s shrubbery to avoid being struck down. She had always been a scrappy woman. Faunda’s father had given up on finding her and headed to the bar to drink away the anger. There was never another word spoken of it.
The next spring Faunda’s father moved out. On Mother’s Day, no less. Years later he’d apologized, saying he hadn’t realized it was a holiday. Faunda hadn’t believe his apology was sincere, but those old wounds were no longer tender. They’d scarred over, toughened. Both of her parents had moved on with their lives and whatever pangs of regret lingered were never discussed.
What Faunda remembered most vividly was the passion of that fight. The fire that burned in her father, the resilience of her mother. And she was proud of them, believing that hatred is not the opposite of love; it’s indifference that’s fatal. The cold months between the fight and Mother’s Day were quiet. Her parents had retreated to opposite ends of the house, begun sleeping apart from one another and stopped talking altogether. It was no wonder that her father found a woman, not too unlike her mother, with whom he could live. Once she’d recovered from the shock of rejection her mother had gone on too, with a new man and a new life.
When she put her palm to Jerry’s cheek the laughter turned to tears. She opened her arms to Jerry, and he folded her into him. They stood like that, clinging to one another like they might have done years ago, rocking beneath the limbs of the sprawling walnut. Jerry excused himself for a moment, disappeared into the garage and came back with a second lawn chair. He opened the webbed seat, set it firmly on the ground, righted the one he’d sat in earlier and then patted the cushion for Faunda to take her place at his side, loaded shotgun on his lap.