by Timothy Wojcik
The problem was the raccoon in the fridge.
Natalie had been looking for a gust of fresh air and accidentally let the thing in through the window, and when chaos broke loose, the drunken throng chasing a wild raccoon and vice versa, Bart took action. He grabbed it by the scruff, threw open the fridge door, and blindly tossed the shrieking animal in.
“I’m not sure that’s a sustainable long-term solution,” Natalie said, waving their frenzied guests out of the kitchen.
“I realize that,” Bart said. “Gimme a second, I’ll think of something.”
“C’mon, farm boy,” Natalie said.
That much was true. Bart had grown up on a farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas, but that seemed tremendously far away, both in time and space, as he looked through their window to the sodium lamps painting their street and the apartment buildings lining it orange.
He knew how his father would have handled the situation. He thought back to one late night when he was thirteen or so. He had been in bed when he heard screeching from their yard followed by clattering in his parent’s room. His door flew open, banged against the wall. Get your shoes on, something’s getting after the chickens his father had said in his pajamas, untied boots clomping on his feet. Bart threw his sneakers on and followed his father, who grabbed their shotgun from the armoire before crashing through the back door. They arrived too late—whatever it had been, it was gone. They surveyed the damage, bloody feathers everywhere. Two chickens were gone entirely, most of the rest ripped to shreds. One chicken was still breathing, a shallow, wet sound coming from its side. Without warning, his father raised the shotgun and blasted the chicken, which exploded into a million pieces, then turned and walked past Bart, too stunned to move. C’mon, honey his mother had said some time later, patting him on the shoulder. Sometimes your dad just doesn’t know what to do, and then he’ll go off and do something like that.
Bart eyed the fridge, wondering why the animal wasn’t making any sound. Perhaps the raccoon that had killed their chickens deserved to be shot by an angry old farmer, but the one in their fridge had done nothing more than entered their house after what must have seemed like an invitation. He thought of those bloody chicken feathers cascading down like snow, and suddenly their kitchen felt stifling. Bart retreated into the living room.
“Hey, where are you going? Don’t leave me in here,” Natalie said over his shoulder.
“I have an idea,” Bart said to nobody in particular, pushing into the crowd packed into their small railroad apartment. He was jostled and fondled, both accidentally and not, as he inched his way around the clusters of revelers drinking and shouting into each other’s faces, and he felt a palpable sense of relief as he closed the bedroom door behind him. Bart pushed the pile of down jackets from their bed to the floor and pulled their blanket off, but his mind was fixated on his father.
The man had expected a lot of Bart. To tend to the chickens, to help with the planting and harvesting, to run their stand at the farmer’s markets around Lawrence, and on top of that to do well in school. But, then again, what did Bart expect? His father had worked on the farm his whole life, had taken it over when he was only eighteen, after his own father died working the fields. His mother, Bart’s grandmother, had long been dead, and his older brother, Clive, Bart’s uncle, was no help. At the time he was in prison after paralyzing a man in a bar fight. That man his father said of it didn’t know how to fall right.
Bart emerged from the bedroom, blanket in hand, annoyed at the dance party that had spontaneously formed. It was the time of night where things would continue to devolve if they let it, but there were more pressing matters at hand. He bumped past a pair, an unfamiliar woman holding his friend Owen by the belt loops of his pants, moving his hips around in motion with hers.
“Nap time for little Barty!” Jessie said, laughing into the humid air.
The thing that had always confused Bart was the way his father was with his mother. You might expect that he was rough, mean, but no, not at all. When he would come in from a long day in the field, burned by the sun and chapped by the never-ending winds, palms scratched raw, he never spoke an angry word to her. He’d grab her in a hug, say things like c’mere, sweet lady and she would try to shoo him away. Go take a bath she’d cry, trying her best to frown, her eyes sparkling. Bart he once sat down and told him, find you a woman like your ma. She’s the sweetest person on this Earth. Bart had nodded, but his father took one look at him and shook his head, let out a sour breath. Coop smells like shit. Didn’t I tell you to clean it out before? As he walked out to the coop, he caught a glimpse of his mother and father through the window down the hallway in the living room, gently swaying in an embrace as if dancing, though no music was playing that Bart could make out.
He returned to the kitchen where Natalie was standing guard in front of the fridge.
“Do you realize how many people have come in here looking for booze? I practically had to fight them off,” Natalie said.
“Sorry,” Bart said.
“I haven’t heard a single noise from in there,” she said, and, “Is that our blanket?”
“I have a plan.”
Natalie would swing the fridge door open, and Bart would be ready with the blanket to trap the raccoon and, as gently as possible, toss it out the window onto the fire escape.
“Did it have to be my mother’s blanket?” Natalie asked.
“I grabbed the first thing I saw. I’ll wash it, it was starting to smell anyway.”
“I hadn’t noticed a smell.”
Bart descended into a half-squat and swayed backwards, nearly fell, and he remembered that he, like their guests, was somewhere between pretty tipsy and hammered drunk. Natalie looked at him, eyes steely yet anxious.
Bart had been dating Natalie for a few months when he finally gave in and agreed to take her to visit his hometown, meet his parents. It was late fall, and Kansas was already covered in a thick blanket of snow, different from the city slush he and Natalie dealt with occasionally. His mother was beautiful and radiant as ever, but his father seemed smaller, more frail and hunched. It’s been a hard couple of years his mother said. That evening, a supper of chili and cornbread in their stomachs, Bart and his father put on thick snow boots and coats and went on a walk around the land. When they got to the old chicken coop, his father reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a flask, offered it up. Bart twisted the cap off and caught a faint whiff of the stink of stale tobacco under the sharp and sweet smell of the whiskey. He took a big gulp, felt the familiar warmth. His father’s chuckle turned into a raspy cough, and when he was through, Bart, not knowing what else to say, said I always hated those damn chickens. A pained look came across his father’s face. Hell, they weren’t so bad, were they he asked, and Bart was surprised to see his father’s eyes pooling milky tears. Bart passed back the flask and his father took a pull, then grabbed Bart by the shoulder, and even through his gloves and the down coat Bart was wearing, he could feel the strength still in his father’s bony fingers.
Bart nodded, their signal. Natalie flung open the fridge door and flinched. Bart held his breath. Then, they looked inside. The raccoon was splayed on its side on top of a case of beer, ribcage rising and falling slowly, as if it were asleep. A small rivulet of blood was trickling down the cardboard and pooling on the plastic shelf beneath.
“Oh shit. Shit. Is it dead?” Natalie asked.
“I don’t think so, it’s still breathing,” Bart said. “Hurt, though.”
“What do we do?”
Bart laid the blanket out on the floor and reached into the fridge. The raccoon’s breath quickened as he gently lifted it out of the fridge, feeling its small ribs underneath its gray and black fur, and laid it on the blanket. It was a lot smaller than it had seemed at first.
“You know what the average lifespan of a raccoon is?” he asked as he pulled the four corners of the blanket together around the raccoon. “Two to three years.”
“Jesus. That’s so short,” Natalie said.
“I learned that the first time I went to the zoo on a field trip when I was a kid,” Bart said. “My dad thought it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. He said the only animals that mattered were the ones around me on the farm.”
“They had raccoons at the zoo?” Natalie asked.
“I guess. Anyway, this zookeeper told us that a healthy raccoon in captivity can live like twenty, twenty-five years,” Bart said as he lifted the blanket, the raccoon tucked inside like a parcel, through the window. He placed the bundle on the fire escape, felt the cold winter air like a balm against his ruddy face.
“That means that most raccoons are killed when they’re super young. Hell, if my dad had his way he’d’ve shot every one he came across on sight.”
He and Natalie watched as the raccoon lifted itself and woozily ambled off the blanket and climbed up the flaking fire escape stairs.
“Do you think it’ll be ok?” Natalie asked.
“Yeah. At least, I hope so. It just needs to learn how to fall right.”
Natalie rested her chin on Bart’s shoulder. Something crashed in the living room over the roar of their guests. Bart pulled the blanket back inside and sealed the window shut.
Timothy Wojcik‘s fiction has appeared in American Literary Review, december mag, and CAGIBI, and his poetry in Hobart, Caketrain Journal, Heavy Feather Review, Belleville Park Pages, and Front Porch Journal, among others. He is currently at work on his first novel.
Photo: Enrico Mantegazza/Unsplash