Fiction by Ron A. Austin
Baby possums squirmed and squealed in a nest of splinters and pulp. They curled into big Cs like overcooked prawns. Wispy fur-covered pink bodies. Solid black eyes slit open. Teeth and claws had just begun to point, curve. I reached to pick one up, but Mama Possum punched dingy paws into hardwood floor, bristled fur into rows of white needles, and bared tiny, arrowhead teeth — this possum wasn’t playing possum at all.
I stomped, swatted a broom at her, told her to get the hell out, but she didn’t startle, she didn’t jump. She just wasn’t going to be intimidated by a stumpy, nine-year-old kid who couldn’t fall asleep without the television’s cold, blue glow.
Gremlins thrive in darkness. One light bulb blinks out and then — SCRUNCH! A scaly hand is squeezing your throat, and all you can do is gurgle help — at least that’s what my older sister Danielle had told me. We called her Yell for short, cuz that’s all she ever did.
Mama Possum strutted around the attic, like she owned it, only leased it for the winter months, her fat tail swishing behind her like a length of coil. I ran to tell Mom about the possum and found her in the kitchen stroking a hot comb through Yell’s hair. Mom yanked it from nappy and matted to straight and silken. Smoke rolled off Yell’s scalp. This heavy, funky smell underscored the death of something delicate. I heard brambly snags ripping from all the way across the room. But Yell didn’t fuss or fidget. She just worked a red crayon in a tattered old Care Bear coloring book, her face smooth as creamy peanut butter.
“Hey y’all, there’s a big, fat, ugly possum up in the attic,” I announced. “We gonna call an exterminator to poison that thing?”
“Nuh-unh. Those folks are crooks,” Mom said. “I called Animal Control last time a stray cat got in the basement.” The hot comb got caught in a stubborn patch of Yell’s hair. Mom yanked hard. Yell’s eyes glassed over. “The man came and parked right out front with one of those tacky vans — you know the ones with the bars over the windows — and he went down there with his snare and strangled that cat, strung her right up. That thing was possessed, snarling and hissing and spitting. You know what that man told me?”
I shook my head no. Yell stabbed her crayon into her coloring book. Mom pointed the hot comb at me.
“That man told me I could take him out through the front if you don’t mind the neighbors seeing, or I could take him through the back, if you might help me out with a little tip.” Mom pressed her lips into a scar and attacked Yell’s hair. “Twenty dollars? Twenty dollars! Does that sound like a little tip to you?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged. Mom calmed down a bit, finished hot-combing a few snags, and handed Yell a silver vanity mirror.
Yell smiled at herself and then frowned just as quick. “Mama, you gotta get closer to the scalp, or there’ll be all this frizz. I don’t want a lick of frizz.”
Mom sighed and went back to work. “But Avery, you could probably lure that possum out with one of those rotten bananas you like to keep in the back of the fridge. Bang a pot real loud and run her out. I don’t know. Do something.”
“Yeah, Avery, do something,” Yell echoed Mom.
I was about to ask why me, but then I thought about how Mom’s designer belt would whip and emblazon my thighs with welts in stylish patterns, cheetah print for back talking, snakeskin for contemptuous eye rolls and haughty body language. Besides, killing rodents was clearly catalogued as man’s work in the family bible of household duties.
So I took a pot and a ladle and a brown banana, too. I got to the foot of the steps before images of Mama Possum’s yellow teeth flashed in my head. I saw her teeth sinking through my pump-up sneakers; her teeth tearing tendons, rending fat; her teeth pink with blood, my toes ground to hamburger.
I fought the sudden urge to pee and retreated down the steps. By the time I got back to the kitchen, Mom had called Grandma and Granddad at the corner store. Mom folded her arms and grunted, “Mama, what do you want me to do?”
Granddad and Grandma had bought the family home by sweltering over pans of hot grease and feeding folks they didn’t always like. Me, Mom, Dad, and Yell lived on the second floor. Granddad and Grandma lived on the first, though some nights they preferred sleeping on cots in the back of the corner store, fearful that neighborhood thieves would break in at night and steal a fortune of lamb shanks, hot pickles, and industrial kitchen equipment. They were too broke for an alarm system and didn’t trust cops to protect what they owned.
Now if the basement flooded, or the floorboards rotted, or roaches invaded walls and crawl spaces, Grandma raged and blamed it on us for being trifling. Mom never liked having to call Grandma at work to break bad news.
Mom always squeezed the receiver tight and chewed her lip raw. This time she said, “Mama. Mama — you’re not listening. I said I told that boy to do it, but you know how he is. You can’t tell him nothing. Unh-hunh. Mmm -hmm. Toughen up? What you think I’ve been doing? He’s soft as pudding and I-don’t-know-what-else. Well, you’re welcome to give it a try. And — say what? No, Mama, the man of the house is not here. And you know that. I had to put his ass out yet again.
“I don’t care if he is my husband — who needs a gambling mooch? Say what you want, but I don’t need him. Come again? Oh, hush up. The kids will learn, now could you please put Daddy on the phone? Thank you.
“Daddy, yes — yes, but could you come get this possum? Okay, I told him to, but do y’all listen? Just c’mon on and get it done. Mm-hmm. What you mean I won’t like the way you do it? It doesn’t matter — long as you do it.” Mom looked down and saw me standing there. She turned away from me and whispered something into the receiver. “Uh-huh, alright, I know. Thank you.”
“Mama say you as yellow as that banana used to be!” Yell shouted. She was sitting on my bed and scribbling in her coloring book with a blue crayon, her shiny new hair up in a neat ponytail. I was eating the supposed- to-be-bait banana. That banana turned to mealworm mush when Yell said YELLOW. “She say you yellow as mustard. Yellow as a little fluffy, baby chick. Yellow as — ”
“Shut up already!”
“Oh, baby boy, did I hurt hims feelings?”
Yell never had to do anything hard. Not for real. She played piano, danced ballet, pranced in leotards, whirled satin streamers through air, and I was damn jealous. So I snatched her legs, whipped her off my bed. Her butt hit the floor with a satisfying thud.
“Ow, that hurt!” She growled and raked my shins with her knuckles.
“Ow, that hurt!” I growled and yanked her up into a half nelson (I mean, almost a half nelson — she had three years and a freakish six inches on me).
I wrestled her through the door, out into the hall. She turned, faced me, and kept right on talking with her fists on hips she didn’t have. “You yellow as a egg yolk! You yellow as baby shit!” I slammed the door in her face, but I could still hear her taunting YELL-LOW! YELL-LOW! YELL-LOW!
I opened her coloring book, wanting to scrawl a monstrous dick over Funshine Bear’s belly badge. But I paused and considered the slashes of red crayon jagging across each page. That hot-combing must’ve hurt so bad she couldn’t even color between the lines. She took the pain and tranced out, kind of like those tribal dudes who can take a steel spike through both cheeks and smile. I hated to admit it, but in a lot of ways my big sister was tough, much tougher than my yellow ass.
Toughness was an heirloom passed down by Granddad. Diabetes made his eyes milky and his muscles slack, but sick or not, he could still make screws tight with one twist of his wrist. He could still work twelve hours at the family corner store, slaughter a hog, blow flames out of hot coals — if he didn’t, who would? Necessity destroyed the most vulnerable parts of him and gave him iron strength in return.
Granddad was old school and believed in extreme self-reliance. He had no problem getting a goddamn possum out of the attic, even if that meant shooting it dead with his World War II service revolver. He sat in the kitchen loading his revolver while Mom tried to convince him death by one-man firing squad wasn’t a real form of pest control.
“Daddy, that is animal cruelty. You cannot.” She told him as she hunched over the Yellow Pages, pretending to look for a legitimate exterminator.
“Can’t do what?” Granddad took a bullet out of a Mason jar and slid it into the chamber. “Kill a big goddamn rat?” Two, three, four more bullets slid in the chamber, Granddad’s arthritic hands surprisingly lithe. “You know possums used to eat babies — one nearly ate you, Cheryl.” He spun the cylinder. It clicked like a card in bicycle spokes: TAT-TAT-TAT. “Now what you call that? People cruelty?”
“No, but I call what you’re doing country as all-get-out.”
“I’d chase the damn thing with a brick if my knees weren’t gone.” Granddad slapped the revolver’s cylinder shut and winked at me. Yell stood next to me, her body tight with the same kind of excitement she got from watching neighborhood boys slap box over scuffed sneakers.
Mom didn’t want me and Yell seeing all that violence, but we crouched by the landing and heard it. Granddad walked up to the attic. The steps groaned the same way old women do on hot days. His breaths were heavy and blunt as wind beating against a window. A few more footsteps, a long pause, and then scuffling, claws scraping hardwood. There was hissing, papers flapping, cursing, clattering, banging, and then there was a POP! POP! like Fourth of July fireworks, but it was early June, and the sky didn’t light up. Dogs moaned and barked, but no one screamed. Gunshots on a summer night in our neighborhood were natural and mundane as R&B on Saturday mornings, cicadas screeching at dusk.
Granddad came back down those steps with a black trash bag held high in his hand. He was sweating and smiling, triumphant like he had just bagged a prize boar. Mama Possum’s face poked through a hole in the trash bag, her eyes crossed into cartoon Xs. Blood frosted the white hair around her snout. Her earthworm tongue lolled out like so fucking what.
I looked up at Granddad and saw how old age fit him like a dowdy, two-piece tuxedo: short in the sleeves, tight in the gut, unflattering in the butt. Mom cradled Yell’s head and performed her most earnest stage shriek. “Daddy! Get that damn thing out of here! I mean it — I’ll be sick. You don’t want that mess on your shoes.”
But the job wasn’t done. After Granddad chucked Mama Possum in the dumpster, he put all three baby possums in an old shoebox, grabbed a wire hanger, and beckoned me into the bathroom. He told me, “C’mon, boy, give me a hand.”