“At best, it’s a funny story, but I can’t see how it ends and I don’t want to find out.” A personal essay where taking matters into one’s own hands leads to motley results…
by: Natalie Lockett
The quiet halls of my home are unmarred by photo frames and echo all the more with high pitched screeching. I slide through them in thick, wool socks that make no sound. The desperate voice comes from inside the fireplace downstairs, followed by the scraping of claws against brick.
Afternoon sun pours through my living room window in glittering, dusty shafts. At the bottom of the steps a bare strip of drywall has the letters “F M L” painted haphazardly in French Mint. The sentiment is unrelated, but resonates still.
A week before, my husband stood in the neighbor’s yard with an industrial flashlight. It sagged heavy in his hand as he tossed chunks of bagged ice at the roof. He hissed and clicked at the furry bandit perched on the gray shingles. Its beady eyes glowed radioactive in the dark, blinking against flashlight rays and confounded by the skittering of frozen water over asphalt.
“Don’t do that. You’ll scare it,” I said to the man who’d just realized he was outside in his underwear. The realization gripped his features, wild eyes shifting down to the intruding breeze at his ghost pale thighs. With a single, sharp shake of his head, he refocused on me.
“Do you want them in the chimney?” This hiss differed greatly from the grating, throaty threats he’d been hurling at our uninvited guest. What it lacked in venom, it made up in persuasion. I’d had enough coveted sleep interrupted by the trill of a raccoon doing god knows what.
And the screeching. Oh, the screeching.
“Isn’t there someone we can—” He cut me off with another guttural hiss toward the masked fiend observing our conversation. I wondered, briefly, if prehistoric hunters sipped hot lemon water after an exerting encounter such as this.
Somewhere inside the house my phone, more specifically its camera, sat dark and not living up to its potential. In the coming days, it isn’t the only thing I’ll regret.
Today, in the warm rays of the afternoon sun, our orange cat sprawls across the hardwood like a lumpy rug. The screaming has become all too familiar, not worthy of rousing him from his midday nap.
I stare at the fireplace for a long moment, its wooden mantle squared like the painted white bricks behind it. It is littered with tchotchkes; a box with the bracelet I wore on our wedding day and an old-fashioned milk bottle emblazoned with the words farm cream. My fingers stumble over the glossy screen of my phone, typing in “abimal conteol”. Ours is an old relationship, beyond the sting of condescension. It corrects me without asking.
Inside the chimney, the raccoon is performing a funeral dirge for itself. A low tone rings through my phone’s speaker and I wait for someone more qualified than me to answer. She picks up with little energy, her words hugging each other so closely I’m not convinced I know the language she’s speaking.
“Hi, yes, there is a raccoon stuck in my chimney?” My words flick upward at the end, forming a question, though I’ve seen its black mask and its tiny hands that look all too human. She waits for me to continue. “I think it’s stuck. It won’t stop screeching.”
Her voice is a hum on the other end of the line, Charlie Brown’s teacher in the distance explaining that animal control doesn’t handle things like that.
I’m too focused on the problem at hand to ponder that. “Is there anyone I can call?”
Her reply is an audible shrug. When I hang up, I consider harmonizing with the raccoon.
The idea forms like a noxious cloud in my mind, disorienting me to the point of inevitable action. I hear exactly what my husband will say when he finds out. A video of him standing in the neighbor’s yard in Christmas red boxer briefs would have come in handy for that conversation.
First, I scoop up the orange cat, who spills from my arms like a sack of potatoes. He groans in protest. I lock him in a bedroom in case this doesn’t go to plan.
Next, I collect my tools which, incidentally, were not originally intended for collecting a raccoon from a chimney. Reckless but resourceful — as good an epitaph as any. In the basement, I find a large, blue tote. It is empty and mercifully, its lid is nearby and not lost in an alternate dimension. I don’t have work gloves, so fuzzy teal mittens will have to do. And finally, a tie for a robe I no longer own.
I march into battle, a budget brand soldier. I imagine myself the savior of raccoons as I knot the smooth cotton tie around the bumpy handle of the flue. I’m even more self-satisfied when I secure the other end to the grate. When I pull the fabric taut it opens the chimney and, in a feat of what I imagine to be ingenuity, it flattens the grate against the front of the fireplace. In case of emergency, my living room will remain raccoon free.
Before opening the flue, I slide the jewel-toned tote into the fireplace. It scrapes against the stone floor, scoring the bottom with charred pieces of firewood past. The time has come. This is the most useful these items have been since they were purchased. The old steel hinge creaks open and our houseguest scrabbles somewhere up the chimney before falling silent. We’re at a standoff. How does one go about coaxing a raccoon into a box? Sounds come to mind. The orange cat responds well to kissy noises when he feels like it. Bait might have been a better choice.
Leaning against the grate, I strain to see up the chimney. One flaw in my plan is visibility, the decorative grate leaves a lacey imprint where it bites into my cheek. A sliver of sunlight filters down from above. I squint against it, trying to make out the shapes hovering in the vertical corridor.
Three pairs of eyes stare down at me.
I’m frozen in place, the tile hearth digging into my knees. My local songbird appears to be a chorus. I’m outnumbered.
I haven’t asked them, but they might not agree with my methods. The tote is too small for three raccoons. Flashes of flailing limbs and tufts of displaced fur play on loop in my mind. Followed closely by images of me trying to place the lid on the flimsy plastic box with three wild animals inside.
I can’t reach my hand into the fireplace and shut the flue. But if I don’t, I run the risk of three raccoons jailed in my home, shaking the bars of my makeshift prison until they give way. At best, it’s a funny story, but I can’t see how it ends and I don’t want to find out.
My footsteps are near-silent against the hardwood, but the cat has started yowling upstairs. He is clearly disgusted by my behavior and I tend to agree with him.
I don’t have a time machine and I’m in need of a new tool; something to close the flue without getting my arm shredded like crepe paper. The fuzzy blue gloves dwarf my hands and I’m not sure how I didn’t see that before. I curl my child-sized fingers around a mop handle. A green silicone ball punctuates the top.
After dismantling the contraption I’d been so proud of, I press the soft, neon ball into the handle of the flue. It slips, taking several tries to budge the ancient hinge. It stutters and groans shut, and I imagine tiny, velvet fingers reaching for the closing gap. My chest bubbles like a shaken soda pop.
I slide off one microfiber mitten and fish my phone from my pocket, dialing another phone number. My husband answers cheerfully; we are happily married after all.
“We have three raccoons in the chimney,” I say instead of a greeting. The ridges of my front teeth scrape the soft skin of my lower lip.
“How do you know that?” As he speaks, I slip the other fuzzy teal mitten from my fingers. The next time I wear them there will be snow on the ground and our fireplace will have a vacancy.
Natalie Lockett is a novelist and videographer with a Twitter addiction. Her literary appearances include a piece in LitHub by Bestseller Bob Eckstein on the topic of the Writer’s Digest Conference. She is the producer and host of the podcast Write Away with Natalie Lockett, on which she interviews writers in all stages of their careers. When not writing, she can be found running a small marketing company and trying to convince herself to switch to decaf.