by Tom Teti
MAX, 1971, Chittenango Falls, New York
The first one I called Max, because I just wanted to name them all, and he was totally unexpected. I knew nothing about them except what I’d seen in cartoons, you know the mischievous little stripe-tailed varmint stealing a trout from a camp skillet and washing it in the stream. I know you remember the camping trip I took with Jack and Kenny. We were three suburban bred, twenty-one-year-old potheads thinking we were going to retreat to nature for a weekend in upstate New York. We went off in Kenny’s hand-painted, maroon Volkswagen Beetle on Memorial Day weekend. You were always good about me doing whatever I wanted to do – in that case, skipping your parents’ barbecue at your house.
Well, Kenny had this three-man mountain tent; I brought an old pup tent my dad got for us to pretend we were camping in the yard on summer nights, again, pretending to be outdoorsy folk. The pup tent had no floor in it, so we used it for storing our stuff, laying down some heavy plastic and covering everything with more of the same. We got high after I made spaghetti with canned clam sauce, real camper fare, eh? Believe it or not. Kenny wouldn’t stop laughing, Jack kept telling stories, I did some imitations of our absent friends. Then it was time to turn in; it couldn’t have been later than nine o’clock and none of us had been in bed at nine o’clock since we were eleven. Jack tried to sleep, but Kenny kept thrashing around and all of us felt claustrophobic. Mountain tents are for sleeping in the mountains where it’s cold enough to actually want to be smashed in together. I couldn’t take it and I went outside.
The night was mild and sweet. I took everything out of the pup tent and piled it on the picnic table we were near (like I said, real outdoorsmen we were!) and covered it with the plastic. Then I laid down in a borrowed sleeping bag in the pup tent, pictured you sleeping, and enjoyed the free breathing. Things were beautiful.
I know I was asleep for a little while because the noise was so startling. I woke and froze. Sounds crazy, thinking back – how does somebody get roused from sleep and just freeze in fear. But we were young, then, and quicker. There were sounds of things falling to the ground, packages, cups, the plastic being thrust aside, the thudding of cans as they hit the turf. I thought of only one thing – a bear!
This is it, I thought, I get taken out by a bear on the first and last camping trip of my life. How stupid to go on this trip, for all of us. After the bear mauls me, he’ll tear up the mountain tent and eat the other guys in their sleep. Where are they? I wondered. Then the clatter subsided. I heard a shuffling, the reassignment of a few items getting pushed around, and then a dull crunching seeming to move away.
Luckily, there was a flashlight with me which I’d used to move everything out of the pup tent. I decided to brave the outside. I emerged cautiously, you can imagine. The others were sleeping so soundly they didn’t stir, besides the mountain tent was zipped shut. The flashlight beam illuminated an array of supplies all over the place; nothing was left on the picnic table. Then I heard a crackling sound coming from a nearby tree. Bears climb, I thought, followed by something like “Oh, shit,” which I may have even said out loud. I trained the beam on the tree trunk and moved it upward.
On the lowest of the branches, a raccoon was perched with my entire package of Hydrox cookies under his arm and one in his paw. The little bastard was about to take a bite when he froze and looked at me. Somehow it seemed, maybe I was wrong, but it seemed that he was able to look past the light and measure the precise location of my eyes. He proceeded to stare me down.
“Scat!” I whisper shouted. “Git!” I said. He was unfazed. He looked at me as if to say: “What? Whattya want, jerkoff? Finders keepers.” I continued trying to scare him off; it was the most futile experience I ever had. “Dope,” he said, or I imagined he did, that’s how sanguine he was on his branch with my cookies. Jack stirred and mumbled loudly; Frankie woke up screaming. My raccoon looked toward the tent, then back at me, as if to say: “I’ll get you for this, jerk.” Then he scrambled off, bag crinkling, dropping his loot from the tree and jumping to the ground, leaving a trail of Hydrox cookies back to the stream where he probably lived.
“See ya’, Max… Enjoy the cookies. Make sure you share,” I said, under my breath, a teacher’s rote response.
We all, well, mostly me, put the supplies back in order. They went back to sleep, but I lay awake, arms behind my head, catching what glimpse I could of the carnival of stars that were in the sky that night, never saw more than I did that night. But I didn’t really feel like sleeping, or couldn’t sleep, because I kept imagining what it would have been like if it really had been a bear, and if I’d gotten mauled or eaten and never saw you again.
In the early morning I took Kenny’s car and drove to the General Store and called you collect. Remember? I was afraid the phone, hanging loosely from the ramshackle barn wood wall, wouldn’t work. But it did, thank God. Your father answered and made his usual joke about you not being up yet, but you were and I never heard anything more warm than your voice, squeaky and childlike as it was, then.
“How is it?” you asked. “Having a good time?” You were so positive, always wishing the best for everyone. I can still see you as I pictured you then: your lean, timeless face, long brown hair tied with a ribbon and draped over one shoulder, looking like one of those photographs of women in Rome after the war, striding through the street with her string bag heading toward the market.
“Eh, it’s okay. Be back tomorrow,” I said. I missed you, and proposed to you right then. Typical you, you said: “What?” I laughed so hard… You kept trying to quiet me down through the phone to find what I’d said but I couldn’t stop laughing.
“I just proposed to you!” I said.
“Oh,” you said. “Oh my God!” Then you were laughing. When I got home, we went to the park and I asked again. We were married the next year.
JASPER, 1975, Yellow Springs, PA
Two years after we were married, we were separated. I was living in that house off the Horseshoe Trail with that guy Neal and his friend Wayne. I was driving back by my usual route. It was after school; we were both teaching, but I always left when school was done, and you always stayed in your classroom, making things better, readying the plan for the next day, trying to be terrific, which everybody, including me, thought you were. I left you a year after we were married. It would be stupid to think you’d forgotten. It was when I got involved with that music/movement instructor; she was brought in to help with coordination and sensory issues for the special education population. I was in a quiet crisis about teaching – I wasn’t really any good at it – and she appeared at the weakest moment. She was exotic to me: military father, had grown up moving all over the world, knew Asian things, Latin things, experiences, introduced me to Indian food. She liked my singing. I fell into it.
I was cruising the country road, thinking about how my supervisor was hinting that he’d like to see me work after the kids were gone, and about how you were so well thought of because you always did stay after the kids were gone, when I spotted something in the center of the road. A quiet, traffic-free country road at three-thirty in the afternoon in spring, but something was right in the middle of the it. I got to within fifty feet and confirmed that it was a raccoon, and I slowed to a crawl so I could get close. He (I call them all ‘he’, but I have no way of being sure they were all males) was holding a plastic cup and spoon, licking out the remains of a soft ice cream sundae. He actually held the long, white spoon with one paw and licked it clean. He swirled his tongue around the top half of the cup, then used the spoon to get the rest out of the bottom and lick some more. Then he got tired of the small amounts and scooped the bottom with his paw.
He was eating that last gob when I pulled up right beside him. He looked up as if to say: “You got a problem, shithead?” Then he backed up a whopping foot and a half; he was still right by an automobile, but could he care? No, they are bold little sons of bitches, they know we aren’t a threat just because we see them. He took the cup and spoon with him as he made his reluctant retreat. “I ain’t sharin’, so you can go chew a basketball, Ass Breath.” That’s what he was saying. “Sorry to interrupt, Jasper,” I said, pulling away. But the rest of my day, you were in my thoughts. I kept thinking how, when we were just married, you would call me at my school at the end of the day and say: “Let’s go to Dairy Queen.”. And you made such sensuous sounds while you enjoyed your cone, the chocolate dipped vanilla. One would have thought you were two hundred pounds by your enthusiasm for the stuff, not the skinny-minnie you were, and stayed your whole life. The next day I left school at the buzzer and went to you. I stood outside your classroom windows and yelled, “How ’bout a Dairy Queen?” I love it that I made you smile.
BONNIE AND CLYDE, 1983, Lima, PA
‘Skinny Minnie’, my mother gave you that name. She thought she was being cute and complimentary, but it was with a certain disdain for people who had more eating discipline than the rest of us. Maybe she hated that I loved how thin you were, how you’d stand in boots, (you know, it was the ’70s and everybody wore boots and short skirts) and the boots never really touched your calf at the top but you looked so fetching. I especially liked that black choker you wore. You always said she didn’t think you were good enough for me, and maybe that’s right. I cringe at the memory of the day she made that thoughtless comment (I hear you saying “which one?) about your hair. Yes, she had many blunt, undiplomatic things exit her mouth. We were back together, and we were happy.
I started that little sandwich shop, and you approved. I was happier cooking for people than teaching. You kept on; you were made for teaching little ones. We were house shopping, then – we’d lived what seemed like forever at your mother’s. Your father wanted to build a house on that lot he gave to us, but it never started. I suppose I should have actually talked to him about it but I never felt I had much sway. My mother was so dismissive of you, she almost rubbed you into the woodwork. I didn’t notice it until I saw her make that comment about your perm, which we all liked a lot: “Well, if you knew you were going to look so much better why didn’t you do it a long time ago?” I was weak about it, didn’t really defend you, made excuses for her. “After all,” I remember saying, “she never talked any better to her own kids.”
So I was spending all my time at the shop. I had a little back room bed and bathroom. Even before I began sleeping there, I was up at the crack and not done until seven or eight, so I had very little time to give, unless I shared the job with you, which you said you wanted to do, but I was so stupid. Stupid! I didn’t trust it. Besides, you worked hard enough teaching, and third grade to boot. We separated again during the holidays, and the long winter. Spring rolled around.
One morning I was lying awake in bed, a little after sunup, thinking about you saying to me, “Come on, that’s the joy of it, doing it together.” And you asked if I didn’t think it would be better if you washed the lettuce and sliced the tomatoes and made chicken salad while I got eggplant and sausage ready and designed the specials for the day. Your eyes were glistening with salty tears and your brow so intensely furrowed. “I just want to be with you,” you said. I thought that morning lying there that I was a true dope not to take you up on it, or make some kind of deal.
Because things got even worse then, for a bit. You started working in a department store, part time, and, well, I was jealous, scared – I never told you – that you would meet somebody else. There I was trying to spare you the effort of part-timing with me, and you went off to do it in the women’s shoe department. And the part-time girl at the shop wanted to sleep with me, which scared me, too, because sometimes I felt so alone I wanted to accept her offer.
So, that morning, as I lay there thinking those things, feeling quite hopeless (tell you the truth, missing your long straight hair, sorry, I liked it better than the perm) I heard this racket outside the back door, clang, clangclang, clang, clangclang. It wasn’t trash day. I peeked out the window of the back door.
There were two raccoons (really there’s six raccoons, but five incidents), and something made me think of them as a couple. One was pushing down on the trash can lid to keep the other side open while his Mrs. rummaged through the contents, tossing what she thought was crap over her shoulder onto the ground, pausing when she thought she’d found something delectable. Then they would both leave the can for a minute while they inspected their plunder and had a taste. Then, they would both go back to the trash can and continue the search. They’d strewn the ground with several sandwich remains, some eggshells, and a few empty tuna fish cans. They licked the oil from the cans and wrapped sandwich pieces in some of the white paper they found. Yes, they wrapped it! Next they found the chicken carcass and trimmed fat from the beef, other stuff, all ingredients for the fresh, homemade items that eventually broke me, and put those in a big, empty restaurant size tomato sauce can. Damn if the two of them didn’t just start off toward the woods and the creek carrying everything, together. I opened the door and made a joke, like they could understand me.
“Hey! You could’ve put the lid back on,” I shouted.
They looked back but didn’t stop… Didn’t slow down, just stared at me, Bonnie saying: “What are you, helpless?” Clyde was sassy. “Our arms are full, du-uh.” I watched them until they were gone, and what you’d said about working together came to mind. All day I pictured you sprawling on the couch with your feet up, watching an old horror movie, eating popcorn
That evening, after I closed the shop, I went to your parents’ house and stood on the lawn outside the kitchen window. You were eating something, standing up, which was one of my pet nags toward you. We had different values about meals. You were not a good eater as a child and you rebelled against the reverence both our families applied to it. It was early spring and darkening. I relished you chewing, your cheek harboring a big bite of something, (probably an Italian roll), working your way slowly through it. I was watching your cheek so closely that I didn’t notice you seeing me. The chewing stopped and you started to laugh, mouth closed and full, trying not to spit it out. I had tears forming. I just let them go. We embraced at the door, I kissed you, hard, long, and you started to cry, and your mother caught us, remember? “Fila, who is it?” she asked. “Oh! Sorry…” and she went away. We were never apart again.
BERT, 1996, Muir Glen, Caifornia
The trip to Yosemite was one of the best, and most fun to plan. I have such great memories of every little segment of it: starting in San Francisco; driving through the Sierras; that magnificent midnight tram ride through the valley on the full moon! As usual, you found that and signed us up whereas I would never have even known about it and we would have missed it. It was all glorious. I use them all to fight that one other memory.
We checked into that motel – very nice place for a motel, large, clean, just outside the park itself and the room stretched from the front door to a set of sliding glass doors and a little patio that oversaw the Merced River coursing vibrantly only fifty feet away. The young female clerk at the front desk told us on check-in: “Don’t leave any valuables on your patio table, especially shiny things, the raccoons take them.”
We laughed at that, but anybody tells a raccoon story I’m ready to believe it and probably want to believe it. We went to the room and you wanted to make love. Some comedian espoused the merits of christening a hotel bed right away and we did, sweetly, tenderly. It puzzled me, a little, but not enough to slow me down. We had a terrific day seeing the valley and exploring. El Capitan was equal to every calendar representation I’d ever seen of it. In all of our trips, the natural wonders always seemed to exceed their reputations; the man-made ones never quite equaled the hype.
Our first morning was gorgeous. I brought you coffee out on our patio. You were reclining on the nice lounge chair, not totally out of character but I felt, in such a tiny, tiny way, that something was slightly wrong; you seemed tired. But it was so beautiful out, I was sure it was just relaxation taken to a perfect level. I hadn’t sat yet, was still standing when I saw him. On the other side of the river, a raccoon, whom I now call Bert, the biggest I’d ever seen, up to then, was proudly strutting along the bank with a wristwatch on his arm. It had one of those nice, silvery metal twistable bands and was glinting in the grand morning sun. Tracers of sharp, white light were reflecting off the furniture, darting to the glass doors and even our faces.
“Look at him!” you said. We were laughing, enjoying that moment so much, and I turned to you to tell you my other raccoon stories because I didn’t remember if I’d told all of them before and you were crying and laughing at the same time. We all know what tears of joy are like and why we have them: weddings, birthdays, graduations, etc. But this didn’t look like that to me. It stopped me. Your gently beautiful smile, I still see it so vividly, and those modest eyes, which were flooded with tears. You saw me seeing you. “Oh, Ron,” was all you said, all you needed to say; “I love you.” You reached for my hand from your prone position and squeezed it in a vise grip.
That’s how I found out about your tests.
JUMBO, 2001, Glen Mills, PA
It may sound weird, even thoughtless, in a way, though I don’t mean it to be, but those days at home when you were in bed, even those days in the hospital, are some of my most cherished. Certainly not because you were in bed, no – your best days were on the couch, even the patio. It was because it was so spiritual; it was you and it was me, and there was no one else. The visitors came and then stopped because I think they got the message. Thanks and thanks again. It was better we had no kids.
We had never talked about God in any reverent or friendly way. We were tough on religion and those who touted it loudly. We weren’t godless, we just didn’t cut the deity any slack. And you were tougher than I was. Until you became ill, then it was me slamming Jehovah, every day.
“Bad things happen,” you said one day, after I’d said a few choice words of the critical kind. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Come here,” you said, stretching out your arms, and you cradled my head on your shoulder. It made me cry to have you comfort me. I said something and you said: “Well you’re the one who needs it. You’re going to be alone. I’m glad it won’t be me.” I kissed you and you said “That was good… Should have done that more.”
The next day, you were reading one of those many magazines we had laying in ruffled piles near the couch.
“Did you know that most kisses that are not intending to lead to sex last less than three seconds?” You continued reading, silently. I was saddened by that, as I was by most of the things we realized we hadn’t appreciated enough before: sunsets, birds chirping, touch. I walked over to you on the couch. You saw me and were about to speak but I began kissing you.
“Are you timing this?” you asked, out of the side of your mouth.
I smiled but kept the kiss going. “You do it,” I said. “See if we can make it to ten seconds.
You peeked at the clock above the mantle. “Ten,” you said, then closed your eyes and started a longer kiss. “They’re right,” you said, after twenty seconds or so. “I want to make love… I think I want to make love.” I carried you to the bedroom, amidst protests that you could walk. What happened was beautiful, with all the shortcomings, beautiful.
And unforgettable. Nothing else mattered for those minutes, nothing. “I must look terrible.”
I said: “I must look fat.”
“Compared to me,” you answered. I got your makeup mirror from the bathroom, the one I complained about being in my way in the bathroom every morning for the previous thirty years, and showed you that you didn’t look terrible. You didn’t look at your reflection, you just kept looking at me. I saw beauty in that mirror, but there was fear, too, and something else. I asked you what it was.
“I’m trying not to leave this earth angry, because I am… So angry… I don’t want to leave… Especially you…”
I decided to write this as if you were still here, there, on the couch, or the patio lounge chair. I want to believe, and do, that you are near. It just feels like it’s true. What prompted it was something that happened this morning. Gradually over the three months you’ve been gone, I’ve put things out on the property, in the garden, under trees, between bushes, not only to get them out of the house (there are reminders every square foot, all with stories, memories) but also to spread the area of you to the outside.
Well, I took our coffee out on the patio this morning (I still pour one for you and place it on the table next to the chair you lounged on) and admired the stretch of our back quarter acre or whatever it is, as I do every day, the two apple trees, the yews, the blasted Rose of Sharon that just keep popping up wherever they feel like it and then the woods, always slightly dark any time of day. We loved the view, the air, never tired of just existing there; that spot became our favorite thing about living there.
So, when I felt the sun on my face, I thought it peculiar because it was early and the sun hadn’t crossed over the roof yet, it was still at the side of the house. I knew what it must be – there was no other explanation. Several weeks ago I had placed that makeup mirror of yours, the one I always complained about, at the foot of the magnolia, where you used to sit and read in the shade. Your ashes, some of them, are sprinkled there. The mirror was reflecting the sun’s rays onto my face, and then, I noticed, all over the patio with those same scattered sparklers like we’d been peppered with at that motel in Yosemite. For the briefest moment I saw your face laughing and crying on our patio chair. When I looked over toward the tree, the mirror wasn’t there.
The reflections were subsiding both in number and intensity. Ten or fifteen feet away, moving toward the woods, was Raccoon #5, Jumbo, with the mirror under his arm. This guy was the granddaddy of them all, big and fat and probably old, probably a has-been as a pilferer, hustling as best he could to make his getaway, looking pleased with himself and certainly pleased with his booty, thinking about the lies he’d tell about his daring adventure when he saw his boys, how I came after him with a hockey stick and he heroically kept the mirror in his clutches, never letting it go while he disarmed me with one paw. He looked back like he might be scared that somebody was gaining on him.
“I hope the wife likes it,” I shouted – I had tears and laughter choking me.
He kept looking over his shoulder. “Gotta’ keep her cheerful,” he yelled back.
“Hold onto her!” I shouted, loud as I could, because I wanted you to hear me, yet I didn’t want you to feel bad. I laughed so hard at that, harder than I had in three months. But as he faded out of sight, the laughing faded to a smile, then I started crying a little. You were with me, on that chair, I know you were, both of us laughing and crying at that chubby, old thief. I choose, beyond all other choices, to have you there. Crazy as it sounds, I am most sad when I stop crying.
Tom Teti is well-known as an actor, director and teacher in Southeast Pennsylvania. Less well known is Tom’s writing over his entire career of more than 40 years. He lives in Malvern, and is a founding member of Malvern Arts.