Samuel hates killing raccoons, though he feels he has no choice. They descend on his tiny pole house in packs, searching for food. He hears them in the bushes. They scrape on his garbage cans. He loathes the thought of them underneath the floor boards, scurrying this way and that. Samuel knows he has to shoot a few and string them up as examples to the others. He has to tell them in no uncertain terms that this is his property and they are not welcome.
Samuel takes his old .22 rifle down off the wall above the coal stove and loads it. The butt of the gun is shoulder-worn and smooth. The barrel is cold in his hands and the sight at the end is twisted and untrue. When he looks through his curtains he can see moonlight reflecting from their repugnant little eyes. There is a big coon on the garbage can closest to the house. He watches as it flips the bricks off one by one and listens as it scratches at the tin lid. Samuel pulls the butt of the gun up to his shoulder and aims at the coon down the long length of the barrel, disregarding the bent site at the end, indifferent to the screen door in front of him. He focuses on the thickest part of its night blackened body. The coon seems to look at him. He pulls the trigger and the rifle thumps back against his shoulder. In Samuel’s mind the coon feels a heat crash through before the bullet’s report echoes into the night.
Through the flash at the end of the barrel the coon rolls. Samuel swings the door open and fires rapidly at the black humped shapes that hurry into the fields beyond. They vanish into the tall grass around the house with clicking chatter. He can hear the coon that he hit scratching feebly at the garbage can. He walks up on it slowly and reloads with bullets that he pulls from his shirt’s dirty pocket. His feet drag through the grass. His knees hurt when they bend. He could be an old man, though he is only thirty-seven. The bullets are solid and warm in his fingers and slide smoothly into the rifle’s chamber. Samuel holds the gun in just one hand now and puts the barrel against the coon’s head. For a moment he pushes the fur back and feels the hardness of the skull through the nerves of his hand. Samuel’s shadow lies down on top of the animal at his feet. He knows the fear that resided behind those eyes, and he senses what must have been anger there as well. He shuts his eyes when he pulls the trigger.
After a few moments he opens himself to the night and breathes deeply through his nose. Everything is quiet. Even the wind seems to have gone dead. The raccoon has retracted into a comma shape next to his boots. He nudges the animal with his boot and looks at the stars overhead. The coon is fleshy and soft. Samuel can’t name any of the constellations that glimmer years in front of his eyes. Vacantly he looks at the quartered moon and wonders why the government wasted so much money to get up there. There is dark blood seeping away from the body.
Samuel walks over to his shed and opens the latch. The shed smells of grease and grass clippings. His fingers skate over the smooth shafts of gardening tools. He fumbles for the light switch, finds it, and flips it on. There is one shot left in the rifle. The gun feels lighter in his hands than it did just seconds before. It has become smaller somehow and though he dangles it from the trigger all of the danger has gone out of it.
Samuel leans the gun against the wall of the shed. In the corner of the building lies a tumbled pile of tomato stakes. He walks across the dirt floor and picks up the longest of the stakes. He takes a hammer off the shelf then rattles through a can of nails until he finds one that is long and thick and somewhat rusted. He toenails that thick nail up through the squared end of the stake. The sharp point of the nail extends about three inches from the end of the wood. Samuel takes another nail from the can and picks up the gun. He holds it by its warm barrel and pushes the butt end against one of the shed’s exposed studs and nails the gun’s stalk to the stud. It hangs from the wall. Barrel down–barrel shiny gun metal black–almost hued blue in the light from the dangling bulb overhead. He flips off the light and re-latches the tool shed.
The thought of piercing the raccoon’s skin with the nail makes him slightly nauseous. His mind’s eye is full of needles. It is filled with sharp points that have pierced his arteries, points that have recently sipped his tired, diseased blood. He decides to go back into his house and have a drink of whiskey before impaling the coon on the stake. ‘There’s no harm in waiting, the coon isn’t going anywhere.’ he thinks.
When it rains, the fields around Samuel’s house often flood and he is left alone with his thoughts and open stretches of water. On those days, he slathers on mosquito repellent and sits on his porch watching white hooded egrets wade by the bushes. They strike quickly into the water, their beaks barely breaking the surface, swallowing nymphs and water bugs with quick head tosses toward the sky.
The light coming from Samuel’s windows seems dismal to him. Since the shooting, everything has remained quiet. Crickets restrain their twitching limbs against their need to make music. The screen door squeaks when he opens it. He props the stake against the door jam. He takes a bottle of cooking oil off the shelf and greases the screen door’s hinges with it. He moves the door back and forth, allowing the oil to settle into the hinges. Soon the hinges are silent as well.
Samuel finds that his hands are shaking. He takes a deep breath that rattles phlegm caught down low in his lungs. He coughs unevenly, trying to bring it up, but it stays there, deep in his chest. He is bone thin. Drum-tight skin is stretched over bluish veins. He believes that if he looks hard enough, he will see cancer-blackened blood coursing slowly through his veins. Samuel knows he should be in the hospital. He has missed all of his chemo treatments this month. He thinks that it’s better to die at home than in a cold white room. He looks at the clock on the wall above the sink. It reads 3:42 am. He hasn’t slept at all tonight. The Valium that the doctor gave him don’t help much anymore. Whiskey seems to be the only thing that has any effect. So far there is no pain. He is thankful that he can die slowly. The thought of a quick, unexpected death has always frightened him.
Samuel hopes that the coon has moved on to another dimension. He doesn’t believe in heaven and is wary to drift into endless blackness. He’s been told that the cancer might cause him some pain in the end. He wonders how long it will take a social worker to find his body after he dies. He wonders when the pain will come.
The whiskey Samuel drinks burns his throat. He takes the bottle of Valium down from the shelf by the stove. They are ten milligram tablets, and he swallows two with a large swig of whiskey. Samuel turns the TV on. The reception is poor. Thin lines fall quivering down the screen. The lines partially obscure a commercial for Pepcid AC. He wonders if Pepcid AC would help his stomach. He writes a note for himself: “Buy Pepcid if shop again.” Then he remembers that his truck won’t start so he crumples up the note and underhands it toward the sink. He wonders if the truck is just out of gas. He remembers there are five gallons of unleaded fuel in the tool shed. He writes another note for himself: “Put gas in truck.” Samuel turns the TV off and walks over to the stake he’s made. He takes another pull from the bottle of whiskey and goes back outside. ‘At least I can still fix hinges,’ he thinks.
He adjusts slowly to the moonlight. There are brightly flickering dots of red and yellow in front of his eyes. He rubs his forefingers over his closed lids and the dots flare like fireworks. When he opens them, he sees the vague outline of the raccoon. Samuel’s mind is tiring. It might be the Valium and whiskey, or the late hour. Yet the thought of endless blackness urges him on. He noticed only yesterday that the hair on the backs of his hands had turned gray. It was then that he allowed himself a measure of pity. No one would have him again, or he anyone else. What woman, even for charity’s sake or money, would bother sex with a cancer-ridden man in the middle of swamp land? Who would have sex with a feather of a man who eats only peanut butter bread, and drinks whiskey for water? Who could love a dying man in a pole house who buys peanut butter and bread and whiskey with a welfare check? Even a man that was once happy? Wasn’t he happy? Wasn’t it one year ago, two years ago, when he began to get tired? Wasn’t it five years ago, six years ago, when even the thought of laying down another brick made him ache?
Samuel’s sister lives in New Jersey. It’s been years since she’s visited. Just after the doctors pronounced his early departure, she came to his house with a male friend. When Samuel remembers her visit it is a dark dream. She stood in the doorway, her long hair sponging the daylight behind her, leaving his face in shadow. Her friend, Rod, stood behind her shoulder smiling at him the way someone smiles at a baby. How are you, she asked? How the hell do I look? he said. Like shit, she said. There you have it, he said. Can we come in or something? she asked. Or something, he remembers saying. You can’t do this by yourself, she said. Her voice shaking. Her friend had moved to the steps on the front of the porch. This is the only thing that I can do. By myself. See you soon, Samuel said. In the box, he said as he shut the door–shut it slowly–so that he could remember her yellow sweater and blue jeans, her beautiful eyes and slightly upturned nose, her tiny hands and her high cheek bones. She knocked and turned the door’s locked knob, and she called “Sam” over and over until Rod told her that they should just leave him alone. Until Rod said that Sam would call her. Until Rod told her that he’d be in the hospital in a week and that they’d see him there. He’d call her when he was ready, Rod said. Tough Rod. That Rod who thought he could read Samuel’s mind. Soon after, Samuel heard their car doors shut. And he remembers the sound of the gravel on the road as it crunched under the Toyota’s skinny tread.
Samuel looks at the raccoon. Some part of him had hoped that another coon might have dragged the body away. Taken it home. Maybe to bury, perhaps to eat. But its black shape is there by the garbage can where it fell. The stake in his hands feels heavy. Samuel’s weariness has descended on him with brutal strength. He tells himself that it is late, that he’s had whiskey and Valium. He tells himself that laying brick can do this to a man. That the shear monotony of the labor might have activated his cancer. That his body might have responded to the boring work in the only way it could, through self-destruction. Where have my friends gone? he asks the raccoon. If there is an answer it is something ushered quickly past his ears. Like a shooting star. He knows he’s never had a good friend. He knows that if that meteorite would slow down, if only for a second, that it would whisper to him words that he already knew. ‘You forced everyone away, you bastard,’ it would say. It would tell him that a few cars had come carrying people ready for his death. That they came to offer him mercy and meals, or fifteen bucks for a decent meal, or another doctor to try, a specialist they had heard about, a new treatment, maybe an old prescription that someone happened to find in the back of their medicine chest. He’d have none of it. He wants nothing but quiet.
He looks at the raccoon. He knows he’s made himself that blackness that he dreads. Blackness that is hindered only by a few forsaken white cells. ‘Wasn’t it Henry the Fifth that fought a battle against overwhelming odds?’ he thinks. How does he know this? Where did it come from? A part of him remembers trivia from Mrs. Holden’s class in the tenth grade. Samuel puts the stake down next to the raccoon. He sits down on the ground and lays back in the grass. He looks at the stars. He closes his eyes. In his mind he brushes the raccoon’s tail. It is soft, yet he can feel a bone there beneath the fur. Sleep falls into him.
When Samuel wakes in the first light of morning he is lying on his side. There is a cool breeze blowing, and his clothes are damp with morning dew. The sun is low on the horizon and flecks yellow light over the waving grass that encompasses his yard. He is cold. Raccoon blood has turned the grass and dirt black. He gets up slowly, moving onto his hands and knees, then picks up the stake and uses it as a lever, heaving himself into a standing position. He rocks there, hunched over, his back aching and tight.
There are red winged black birds sitting on the roof of his shed. Flies and mosquitoes buzz the air around him. His arms are bumped with mosquito bites, tiny red swells that he can not feel. There are flies crawling through the blood on the ground, flies crawling over the raccoon’s black nose and blank eyes. He waves the stake at the body and they scatter only to gather again seconds later. He takes the raccoon by its tail and lifts it off the ground. It peels off the dirt and grass like a sticker. It stays in its comma shape. Its body is stiff. Samuel limps away from the blood and the garbage cans. The dead coon nudges his leg as he lumbers. Its head bumps his knee. The raccoon’s tail is slippery and cold, but the sun is warm on Samuel’s face and the rays seem to soften the air around him. Those rays seem to warm his neck, and amplify the coolness of the dew soaked shirt and pants where the thin, tattered material touches his skin.
If his house were further away he would have sat back down and slept again. But it is so close. He can make it. The coon’s blood has coagulated during those three hours of night. There is no trail of blood following him, though he turns to look. He hopes that his bed will feel as hard as the ground that he removed himself from. He wants that hardness, only the physicality of the hardness not the ground itself. He wants no part of the ground itself. He tells himself that he should be cremated. No dirt over him. “Write yourself a note,” he says out loud. The voice that pushes into his ears dismays him. It could be his grandfather’s voice. It is the voice of someone tired or drunk, but old. When he opens the screen door, the hinges are still silent. He smiles, thinking, ‘So there are still miracles in this world.’
The raccoon’s tongue is pink and hard looking as a pencil eraser. Samuel runs water into the kitchen sink and takes a dish cloth from a drawer and wets it with warm water. He slowly walks into the back of his house and into the bathroom, taking a comb down from the cabinet over the sink. He limps back to the body. Samuel wipes the blackened blood away from the mouth and eyes. The coon is both hard and soft at the same time. Where he wipes with the cloth, the blood turns red again, and becomes watery and runs onto the counter. He dabs at the eyes, but they remain cloudy. He tries to shut the eyes then, but they refuse to stay shut. He wipes the dark body with the cloth, and rinses it again and again as loosened blood collects in the cloth. He runs the comb through the coon’s heavy coat, but there are too many burrs, too much dried blood, and the comb just pulls tufts of fur from the body. He is able to comb the ears though. And the fur around the jaw. There is no evidence of the bullet hole. Perhaps the hole is sunk where the fur is most matted. Samuel whispers to himself as he works. He mutters and sing-songs lines from old rhymes, bedtime rhymes that have come to him once again. Samuel’s hands shake as they comb the raccoon’s fur. His breath is gargled. So tired he is. The sun guts the room with bright morning light. The coffee pot on the stove becomes a burst of white and startles him. All the dots that he saw in front of his eyes during the night have returned. It is difficult to see through them. When he rubs his eyes, he knows that he has finger-smudged blood over his face.
Samuel takes a blanket from the back of the couch. He lifts the raccoon up and slides the blanket under. The body is so heavy that he almost falters. He almost quits. But then it is done. Samuel folds the blanket carefully over the hind legs and the back. He holds the last edge of the blanket above the raccoon’s head. Maybe still some life? He knows better, and carefully lays the remaining blanket down over the staring eyes, over the open mouth filled with so many sharply pointed teeth.
Samuel rinses his hands in the sink and uses soap to clean them of the blood. He wipes the counter with paper towels. Samuel forgets where the trash bin is, so he puts the bloody towels into the sink. He makes his way over to the couch and falls back into it. His back aches, and his neck is so bent that his chin brushes the dirty collar of his shirt. When he leans back into the softness of the cushions, he shuts his eyes and waits. When he slumps down lower into the brown striped cushions, he remembers laying brick. One up and a half over. Red bricks or concrete blocks. Mortar. He thinks of his sister making him French Toast. Squares of sweetness piled on a white plate. Pads of soft butter. He breathes in the sugary smell. And quietly he releases. He is eleven. His mind embraces this young-old weight. He’s playing catch in the backyard of a long-ago house in Cleveland. Samuel sees a ball rising high into the blue of the sky, a ball falling towards his outstretched mitt. He feels the leather yield to the hardness of that spinning ball. He thinks of the ball disappearing.