[Author's note: The Possum King originally appeared as 3 separate columns because of space constraints. I posted them together here as one story because that's really what it was].
Part 1: First Encounter
The following is a tale of a great war. It was an epic war. The following is an epic tale of an epic war that was totally and utterly epic and as such, can not be relayed within the confines of a single column. Indeed this week’s column isn’t even about the war. Rather, it is about the events that preceded it. I will do my best to refrain from embellishing.
About two months before beginning a major home renovation – I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a cat eating dry cat food. Now, being a co-owner of two cats, the sound of cat food consumption isn’t normally the sort of thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night. But something was different about the way this cat food was being eaten. I couldn’t put a finger on it at first. But then, as I lay in bed listening to the crunch, crunch, crunch sounds resonating through the house, it occurred to me – it’s not how the cat was eating the cat food that was peculiar, but for how long.
I mean that thing was going for twenty minutes. And the incessant crunch, crunch, crunching was so obnoxious, I finally flung off my bed covers and headed toward the kitchen so as to stomp its little cat-head. However, upon arrival, when I flicked on the light switch, I looked down to see a great beast looking up at me from the cat food dish that was quite clearly not a cat.
It was a Possum – an enormous, wretched, arrogant, disease-carrying, pink-eyed, monster of a prehensile marsupial just looking up at me from the cat food dish as if to say, “Yeah, I’m all up in your shit. Wot you gonna do about it?”
She reminded me of another possum I met a long time ago back in upstate New York. I was driving down Cromwell Hill Road with my then girlfriend Jill. It was late at night and we were nearing the bottom of the hill when we heard a loud thump-thumpa-thump noise thumpeting beneath the car. I pulled over to investigate and there in the middle of the road, on its back legs, was a big fat possum pissed off and screeching in pain like Queen Latifa at a white-girl pajama party.
It was a dreadful thing to behold, the creature writhing in agony and Jill shouting, “Do something, do something! You gotta do something!”
“Do something??” I asked incredulously. “Whaddya want me to do, nurse it back to health?”
“No Doctor Doolittle, I want you to put it out of its misery,” she said,
as if putting a living being “out of its misery” was just another man-task, like hanging a shelf or mowing the lawn.
“I’m not putting it out of its misery,” I snapped back. “You put it out of its misery!”
“No you!” we shouted, not noticing that another car was cruising down the hill until it struck the marsupial with a resounding thump-thumpet-thud-thudda shutting us both the frick-up.
The driver stopped and exited the vehicle. He glanced at us, then at the possum who, unbelievably, was still alive hissing and spitting even more than before. The stranger approached us and we discussed our dilemma.
“No problem,” he said as he picked up a stick about the size of a broomstick, walked up to the animal, and matter-of-factly clubbed the possum across the head with a full-on baseball swing.
The Possum’s head snapped below its shoulder and instantly snapped back into place. Then it wailed to the possum-high-heavens. It was a terrible sound of a creature in unthinkable pain, but still, not yet dead. So the stranger clubbed her again – only to make the beast howl even louder, angrier, Queen-Latif-ier – then again, and again, and again and it seemed the more the possum got clubbed the less dead she became.
At that point, Jill was going ape-shit. She was screaming at the stranger to stop and even lurched toward him. I grabbed her by the back of her shirt and shoveled her kicking and screaming into the car. As we drove away, I saw the man in the rear view mirror still clubbing the thrashing possum.
Man, those things won’t die, I thought.
And here now, some 20 years later, looking at this possum seething at me in my own kitchen, I’m thinking that she looks like the same possum we encountered on Cromwell Hill Road. I’m thinking maybe it is her and she’s looking for revenge. I know that sounds crazy but, see, she’s looking up at me from the cat food bowl like this is her Kill Bill moment and I’m the Bill that needs killing.
“I’ve been waiting for you Decker,” she’s saying with her teeth bared, talons extended and those eyes, those eyes, those eyes all pink and dripping – a carrier’s eyes – and I say, “Screw this! I’m not messing around with her furry ass. Those things won’t die.” So I turned off the light and went back to bed thinking I’d call animal control in the morning.
The next morning I awoke to find 5 or 6 of possum pellets and a quarter-cup-sized puddle of urine where a possum used to be. I counted my blessings that she was gone and hoped that would be the end of it.
It was not the end of it.
Part 2 – Operation Skippy
About 3 months after the encounter with that first possum, and right around the beginning of the Great Multi-Apartment Remodel Project of 2005, a war of epic proportions began.
My apartment was all torn up from ongoing renovations some friends and I were making. Tools and debris were everywhere. The stove and refrigerator were dragged into the living room. Boxes of tile and grout and ten pound bags of thin-set were scattered about.
It was a difficult time for me. For one reason, I’m certainly no carpenter. Secondly, I just couldn’t get used to waking at 6:00 a.m. Hell I don’t even usually go to sleep until 4:00. So in the days of the remodel project, I spent many hours tossing and turning trying to fall asleep by midnight.
On one particular sleepless night, I was awakened by the familiar sound of something – not feline – eating cat food. Angrily, I snapped back the covers, stepped over some boxes of tile, navigated around the stove, crawled over large bags of thin-set, slammed my toe on something pointed, like the corner of a shelf prhaps, muttered a series of expletives, and turned on the kitchen light to see not one but two possums looking up from the cat food bowl.
I knew in an instant. These were the babies of the first possum. That’s why she was so big and ornery. And now her offspring have grown and returned to the place where they know the cat food is.
The following morning I phoned Dave from 1-800-CRITTER who arrived with two rectangular metal boxes. He placed the traps at the foot of the refrigerator (which was now in the living room). Then he spread dry cat food all around the outside of the trap and applied a large swath of peanut butter inside. And thus was the first major military operation of the war set into place. It was called Operation Skippy. And it seemed to work because we caught the first possum on the first night. The next morning I called Critter Catcher Dave and he came and took the possum away (apparently they release them back into the wild).
So at first things looked promising. But the second possum eluded the traps for days. Every night it was the same thing: Just when sweet sleep would come, I’d hear that old Crunch, crunch, crunch crunching again. Then it was a nightmarish cycle that went like this: Hear crunching. Wake up. Navigate appliances and debris. Bang toe on something sharp. Mutter expletives. Flick light switch. Possum hides. Shout out derogatory, anti-marsupial insults such as, “You are the scum-sucking, illegitimate son of an alley cat and a rabid kangaroo!” Go back to bed. Toss and Turn. Eyes shut.
Then, sleep comes. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Wake up. Stumble around in dark. Bang toe. Curse loud. Flick switch. Possum hides. Attempt Sleep. Then Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch again, and I’m wondering, “Why oh why won’t you go for the Skippy, oh delicious Skippy peanut butter, so creamy and yummy. . .” Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, again and again, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, reverberating through the house in the middle of the night like Satan chewing on John Gacy’s bones and it’s sunup now, time to drag myself out of bed, make coffee, get dressed and meet Possum at the time-clock.
“Morning Ed,” he says, punching out.
“Morning Ralph,” I say clocking in.
In this way the nights all meld into one and now it’s the fifth night (I think) – night of the infamous military engagement called Battle at Front Door Front.
Battle at Front Door Front:
It is the fifth night of the ordeal. I am watching Law and Order with W. The possum has grown accustomed to us and is fearlessly meandering about the household. In a stroke of luck, he wanders toward the front door. This is fortuitous because, while the wooden front door is wide open, the security screen door is closed and it occurs to me that this can be used as a trap. As he walks up to the screen door and looks outside, I slam the wood door shut locking the possum between the two doors.
Furious now, the creature begins scratching and scraping fervently. I open the door a crack to see the little bugger digging into the floor underneath the screen door.
He’s already got his head through, followed by his neck, then shoulders, then torso, until all that remains on my side of the door is his tail.
In my head I know, if he escapes, he’ll be back tomorrow so, without thinking further, I leap onto the ground, grab the disgusting hairless appendage and start tugging him backward. It’s a firefight now with him hissing and spitting and clawing and me pulling him backward until he pops out from under the screen and now I’m holding him in the air by the tail while he wildly snaps claws and jaws and just before he gets a piece of my hand-flesh, I drop him into a laundry basket and close the lid over his head. Victory is mine.
Sleep comes easily this night. I dream I am sitting on a throne at the base of a giant, Sphinx-like monument with the head of a cat and the body of a rabid kangaroo. It is Marsupius – God of Possums and I am his chosen one. Standing before me are millions upon millions of possums waiting for my announcement.
“I am the Possum King!” I say as they hiss and spit their approval. “I can do anything.”
The next morning, I called critter catcher Dave who arrived in his Critter Catcher mobile. I showed Dave the laundry basket which was now on the front stoop. He opened the lid to get a look at the possum and the possum – as effortlessly as Colonel Hogan pulling a warm nail out of a tub of butter – sprung out of the goddam basket and wriggled itself through a possum-sized opening under my goddam house.
Part 3 – The Final Showdown
Can you imagine how sick I was of this interminable war with super-possum from Hell? I mean, after all those hours of lost sleep, after cleaning up all that possum shit and piss, after all the days of living in a house that smelled like the county simian morgue, after that epic brutal Battle at Front Door Front when I finally, finally caught the goddam object of my insanity – after all that then this Critter Catcher Dave person just goes ahead and opens the lid and let’s the possum out!
I could not believe my eyes. When the possum escaped, I actually fell to my knees in despair. True story. I’ve never done that before; never really ever had anything to fall on my knees in despair about. Not that possum-catching is a worthy reason either. But I did it unconsciously. And it happened so fast. When the possum jumped out of the box, my knees got all rubbery until I collapsed muttering, “No, no, no, no,” in disbelief.
Because I knew he’d be back that night. He’d come back like he always came back, and the crunching, and the defecating, and the no-sleep-getting would begin all over again.
Critter Catcher Dave for his part felt awful. He just stood there shocked like Bill Buckner looking up from an empty mitt.
“You,” I said, getting up from my knees and pointing at him. “You did this to me.”
Dave delivered his apologies. In his hand he held one of his critter catching instruments – a slim metal rod with a cable that ran up the shaft and became a loop at the end to make a noose for hooking around the animal’s neck. It looked menacing.
“Give me that thing,” I said pointing at the noose-hooking-cable thing.
“This is my only one,” he responded, “I’m really not supposed to lend it out.”
“Give. Noose. Hooking. Thing. Now. Dave.”
“I guess I owe you,” he said.
Oh, you owe, all right.
As I write this, it occurs to me that my trials quite mirror a movie I saw some 20 years ago called Of Unknown Origin. It’s a peculiar little horror flick, Moby Dickian in nature, about a man named Bart Hughes (Peter Weller) who encounters a rat while remodeling his home.
In the film, Hughes tries the usual methods to dispatch the rat but the rat is some sort of super rodent and cannot be outwitted. Destroying the rat soon becomes a compulsion for Hughes which eventually destroys his family and career.
There is one memorable scene in which Hughes decides to stop being a victim and procures a shotgun. In the scene that marks the beginning of the movie’s climax, he cocks his shotgun, mutters an immemorial catchphrase, and begins chasing the rat around the house in a maniacal rage – blowing holes in the walls and furniture and cackling to himself the whole time and this, my friends, is where I am at right now with this possum. I’m at wits end people, ready to go mano a ratto in a final showdown and now that I’ve got the wondrous cable-noose-hooking device, all I need now is a memorable catchphrase.
Battle at Little Big Bathroom – the final showdown
It is the 6th night in the ordeal. W. and I are watching TV. Possum is pacing around the apartment like a bored third roommate. He opens the refrigerator door looking for a night snack. He takes a slug from the gallon milk bottle, pulls out some sandwich fixings, makes a sandwich, leaves the mess, dials a long distance phone call, then heads toward the bathroom, I assume, to stink up the place.
The bathroom? He’s going inside the bathroom!”
As quietly as possible, I grab the noose-hooker apparatus, skulk toward the bathroom, then step inside and shut the door behind me. Holding the device in the air like a cocked shotgun, I mutter the only catchphrase that comes to my war-torn mind…
“No sleep ’till hookin,’” I say, and go after the possum. The beast darts into the bathroom closet and I get on my hands and knees and start feverishly digging through the clutter at the bottom of the closet – shoes and shoeboxes mostly, some garbage, knickknacks – until I see the possum in the back right corner of the closet.
He’s hissing and spitting, but holding his ground. I slowly position the noose in front of his head, then in one swift motion, loop it around his neck and snap it tight.
“I got you now bastard,!” I say as I pull him out of the closet. Oh he’s pissed now, clawing and snapping at anything in reach and just before I pull him all the way out, he closes his jaws on one of my wife’s revered dress shoes and clenches down hard.
Must save shoe, I think, and grab it by the heel and start pulling. But he just clenches harder and as we tug-o-war it out, I can see his teeth marks dragging across the leather. Realizing all hope for the shoe is lost, I yank the possum out of the closet and into the air. Now he’s dangling by the neck and thrashing violently. Shit and piss is flying everywhere. Foamy drool drips down the shoe still in its mouth. I make a dash for the outside patio and slam the creature into a box and close the lid.
And just like that, war is over. Neighbors all come out of their houses to witness the victory celebration. Hugs and cheers then. Handshakes. Champagne and cigars. Confetti. Smiles. A soldier kisses a nurse.
Possum images from aanimalcontrol.com