So, I was home last Saturday and I heard this ruckus in the walls. It sounded like something with very sharp nails scrambling around. In fact, it sounded like my dog, Pippa. I called for Pippa, she came. Clearly she wasn’t in the walls. I followed the sound. It moved. It tinkered. It bumped. It was weighty—thunking. Then it was in the ceiling of the second floor, tumbling from my daughter’s room to the hallway. There were heavy sounds of things thudding against the ceiling. My husband, David, came upstairs. He stood with me and we listened and followed the sounds. David crept up the ladder stairs to the third floor where he has an office. He flipped up the hatch door and stood there, half his body in the third floor room, half below on the second floor. The sounds continued. They were between the ceiling and floor.
This house is almost a hundred years old. It was built by a gay man who hosted festive parties, just for men, in his backyard. We know this because he hired professional photographers to attend the parties. When we bought the house, the owner showed us the black and white photos. We wrote the pictures into the contract. There were and still are huge trees in the front and back, hiding the house from the neighbors. We don’t have curtains on the downstairs windows. We don’t need them. In the front of the house is a stream. In the back is a hill. Wildlife is everywhere. The dog caught a rat in the backyard. I had to conk it on the head with a shovel to help it move on from the quaking epileptic fit the dog had left it in, to a peaceful nothingness. There was once a large, lumbering, unrecognizable hairy thing eating grass in the backyard. We took a video of it to show to people to find out what it was. It was a hedgehog. I came home to a rabid fox one night. He was on the front lawn, circling his tail with white oceany foam dripping from his mouth. I called Baltimore Animal Control, but they never came. Eventually the fox circled himself off the ledge and into the stream. It was dark, I couldn’t see what became of him and nothing was in the stream the next morning. And now, this. Something was living in our walls.
On Monday morning, I called a wildlife removal man who showed up thirty minutes later. His name was John.
“Raccoon,” John said, when I described the noises. He was over six-feet tall and about three hundred pounds. Not fat, just big. Someone you’d want nearby when wrangling raccoons in your house.
“The droppings will kill ya,” John said. His head was shaved and he had big meaty hands that almost looked like flesh gloves. He ran those hands over his head as he talked.
“Raccoon shit will kill me? How?”
“Like this,” John said, and he tilted his head to the side, shut his eyes and stuck out his tongue as if he’d instantly died.
“No warnings, no symptoms?”
“Nothing,” John said. “One minute you’re alive, the next you’re dead. It’s the worms in their droppings.”
“Well what if these raccoons don’t have worms?”
“They all do,” he said.
“Why aren’t you dead?”
“Inoculated!” John said, and lifted his arm and made a fist the size of a bocci ball.
John and I went up to the third floor. He opened the small door to the crawl space behind the walls of the third floor and a loud shifting, like someone jumping out of a rocking chair and running, ensued. John jumped back, he had his arm extended in front of me, as if we were in a car and he’d just come to a sudden stop.
“They’re right there,” he said.
I went downstairs to get a flashlight. Before returning upstairs, I stopped at my computer and googled “deadly raccoon shit.” Sure enough the stuff will kill you. Although not as quickly as John had led me to believe.
Back on the third floor, John explored the crawl space with the flashlight. There was no raccoon shit.
“It might be squirrels,” he said. And then he saw some fur peeking out from behind a box. John reached in with his giant bare hand and grabbed it. He pulled it by the tail into his line of vision, then let it go. It was a squirrel.
“Weren’t you worried it would bite you?” I asked. John shrugged.
“Buddy of mine,” John said, “he was catching squirrels and one jumped on him and clawed out his eyes. Pop, pop. One eye and then the other. Gone. Guy’s face looks like it went through a meat-grinder.”
“Is he blind?”
“Yeah, he’s blind. Squirrel popped out both his eyes. You don’t want to get near them, they’ll bite you and they’ll scratch right down to the bone.”
“Well, I guess it’s easier to avoid than deadly raccoon shit.”
“Oh yeah,” John said. “You’re much better off with squirrels.”
John laid traps: two that would catch the squirrels live and two that would decapitate them—like a guillotine.
“Now don’t open this up and stick your hand in,” John said, as he closed up the crawl space. “The trap will take your hand off like that!” John did a karate chop on one wrist with his flat knived hand.
I flinched and backed away from the crawl space.
“Buddy of mine,” John said. “He was reaching for his trap and lost half of all four fingers. Bam. Gone.”
“I hope it wasn’t the guy who ended up blind,” I said.
“Nah,” John said. “Different buddy.”
While he had been searching the crawl space, John had seen a hole. It was the size of an orange. John told me there might have been a missing slate, a bit of bare wood and then they clawed their way in from the roof.
“It’ll take them three minutes to dig through exposed wood and get into your house. Three minutes.”
John called John, another buddy who’s a roofer. Then he called a third John, a landscaper, to cut back the branches of our trees away from the house. Give the squirrels less access. John and John both came out the same day. I had three Johns here at once.
John the roofer walked all over my roof and took pictures. He told me there were twenty missing slates. I didn’t doubt this. There are about twenty places where brown water spots appear on the ceiling when it rains. David and I are bad home-owners—we should be in an apartment where the roof isn’t our responsibility.
John the tree guy said there are vines growing all over the south side of the house. I knew this already. Leaves and branches press against the windows. Deep, red cardinals nest in the branches. It’s pretty cool to see them hanging out there.
The tree John trimmed the trees, the roof John fixed the hole and replaced slates, and the first John set the traps.
He caught four squirrels over two days. The first day he stood on the third floor waving two caged squirrels over my head. He wanted me to see their claws, how sharp and deadly they are, how they can take out an eye in five seconds and dig through a roof in three minutes. I bowed away from the hovering cages, I didn’t want them over my head. Squirrel shit was dropping out the holes of the wire cages.
John pulled the cages back. He and I looked at the black and white nuggets of squirrel shit sitting on the green carpet. John reached down with his bare hand, picked them up and put them in the pocket of his hoodie.
I went downstairs first: facing the ladder, I inched down in wedding-step fashion. John stepped onto the ladder facing out and descended it as if he were walking down regular stairs, a frantic caged squirrel in each hand.
I was sort of sad when my adventures with John and John and John were over. It was fun to see my poorly-tended house through the first John’s eyes: a place as dangerous as an African safari, the possibility of death and/or blindness within my own walls.
Causes Jessica Blau Supports
Baltimore School for the Arts, 826DC, CityLit Project.