by Ben Yazman
In the morning Pete had three calls before the old woman. The first was just a check for rodent infestation as a favor for a couple in their twilight years who had often called Pete’s father in the early days of the family pest removal business. He laid a few rat traps around the basement and crawl spaces of the house on the edge of town. Then he drove back across the sprawling country town to chase a family of squirrels out of an attic and remove their nest of sticks and dirt from a keep-sake box. Last, he answered an emergency call about a copperhead snake on a newlywed couple’s patio that had come close to biting their miniature schnauzer. Pete pulled the venomous animal out from behind a propane grill, holding the snake by the back of its head so that its mouth and fangs were held open and safely directed by Pete’s fingers. As he carried the snake to his truck past the frightened pair, the groom looked at him with admiring approval and his young wife whispered that Pete was a hero, drawing a suspicious look from her husband.
Pete drove across town for a third time to the address listed next on his docket. An old woman sat on her front porch in a maroon cotton dress waiting for him. She sat in the shade of a pastel yellow umbrella, looking out over her tiny kingdom of crab grass and garden gnomes. On a table next to her sat a tall glass of iced tea, garnished with a lemon wedge and long straw, and a large ashtray, full to the brim with cigarette butts. She seemed not to move at all in her chair. In one hand she clutched a metal cane with a black foam-gripped handle that looked like so many Pete had seen in nursing homes. In the other was a lit cigarette which the old woman pressed to her lips with hands that shook violently though her head and torso stayed still. Pete wondered if she had been left outside by a caretaker, as she didn’t even move her head to recognize his truck as he pulled up to the curb in front of her house.
Pete jumped out of the truck, his work boots clacking on the pavement under him. He straightened his white collared shirt with its Dehl Pest Removal logo with one hand and held his clipboard with the other. He grinned at the old woman as he approached the end of her walk and after coming up the first steps to her porch he extended his hand, “Afternoon, I’m Pete Dehl from Dehl’s Pest Removal,” he said, about to ask if she or someone else had placed the call into his office.
“You’re late,” the old woman said caustically. “You were supposed to be here thirty minutes ago and I’ve been waiting outside in this heat all morning. Now what if you had given me a heat stroke taking so long?”
Pete, taken aback, apologized and explained the prior emergency call. Customers often enjoyed hearing such stories about dangerous animals.
“Well you made a commitment to me and I expect you to follow through with it,” she responded.
“Yes ma’am,” Pete said. Dealing with agitated, impatient and scared customers was often part of Pete’s job.
“Right. Well, there’s a raccoon down there,” the woman said, shaking her cigarette at the porch below her feet, breathing out a haze of chalky smoke. She stood slowly, leaning on her cane with quivering arms. Pete moved forward to climb the last steps and help her but she shot him a violent glare that froze him. The woman dropped her cigarette and squashed it with a grey felt house shoe and turned toward the door. “I’m going inside. Get it done, boy.”
“Ma’am,” Pete said.
“What?” the old woman turned her head to grimace at him over her shoulder.
“Usually I have homeowners show me where the problem is.”
“Well I already told you,” she said, “under my goddamn home.”
Without another word she hobbled into her dark home, leaving Pete standing with his clipboard. Like the professional he was, Pete returned to his truck and prepared to get to work.
In the back of the Dehl Pest Removal truck sat a vest that Pete wore on most jobs that was basically like those mesh vests fisherman wear to hold hooks and lures. Its many pockets were packed with tools of the trade; a flashlight, industrial strength leather gloves, a pocket knife and a small can of mace which had only been necessary once against a bobcat trapped in a woodshed. Also in the truck was a spray canister which could be loaded with either poisons or a foul smelling liquid meant to mimic a predator’s scent and scare away smaller critters. Pete preferred the latter since he had always done everything in his power to avoid killing the innocent animals he removed from peoples’ homes. There was also a variety of traps, large and small, cages with trap doors that spring closed when an animal trips the trigger from inside. Pete carried in his truck a number of carpentry tools as well, saws and drills for getting into walls, even the necessary tools to repair such holes, though it really was not part of his job description.
Pete put on his vest and began his work by walking around the outside of the old woman’s house to look for possible entry and exit points that an animal may have found or made to get underneath the floorboards. Pete found some scratches along a plywood cover to a vent leading under the house and what might have been small animal tracks in some ankle high grass under a rear window by the back door. These scratches and tracks led up the wall of the house, where Pete followed them to the bottom of a window sill flower box, empty of any flowers, filled only dry brown dirt. Leaning over the flower box to look for more evidence in the dusty box or the window screen he was startled by the old woman’s scowling face looking down at him through the glass. He almost fell backwards but quickly moved on without looking back at the window. He could only find one entry point under the house which was right under the stairs leading up to the porch in the front of the house.
Crawling into spaces like this was Pete’s least favorite part of the job. Animals could get scared easily in a small area and attack. As a boy he’d ridden with his father on several house calls and been forced to go into even smaller spaces because of his size and more than once he had been scratched and bitten, calling for several doses of a rabies vaccine delivered directly to his stomach through a long needle. Even then (as now) his father’s words, “Suck it up and do the job,” would elicit a silent groan before something in Pete forced him to follow through with the task at hand.
Pete knelt by the stairs and shined his flashlight in the area under the porch but didn’t see any animals or nests, only a few sticks, strips of insulation and assorted pipes and pieces of wood. He laid down on his belly in the grass and reached in to grab a copper pipe, about three feet long, he pushed an area clear for him to crawl forward into the darkness and he crept in. Pete lay prone in the foot and a half tall space under the house’s floorboards just inside the opening, scanning for deadly snakes or rabid rodents. The dirt front lawn’s grass ended at the edge of the dark crevas and made for a coolness that Pete thought was ironic.
The flashlight in his hand cast a fairly large cone of light but as he shone it on one end of the space, thoughts of an animal creeping up on him from behind him in the dark made him jerk his light to the other side of the cave hysterically. Just as he was about to crawl deeper the floorboards overhead shuddered and creaked with the weight of the old woman dragging her feet around her house and Pete panicked and grabbed his mace canister and held it out toward the direction of the echoing sound. As soon as he realized that the sound he had heard was not an animal’s attack cry, he forced himself to chuckle and turned to go back to his truck for a repellant spray. As he turned around slowly in the cramped space his light glanced over a bundle of sticks in the front right corner of the house which Pete knew immediately to be a raccoon’s nest. A half second later, a cat-sized blur of black and grey hair darted from the bundle towards him. In the moment it took Pete to realize the situation he shut his eyes and turned his head, bracing against an attack. The animal ran past him and out into the light of the front yard.
Pete nudged the nest carefully into the light with the pipe in his hand as he crawled out himself.
Back in the grass Pete was startled to see the old woman smoking a cigarette in her front lawn with one hand, leaning on her cane with the other, watching as he crawled from beneath her porch.
Pete averted his eyes from the old woman and took a moment to compose himself while the she continued to stare at him. “Looks like a raccoon made a nest down there,” he said.
“I know,” the old woman replied, “I’ve seen it before and I saw it run out just now. What are you going to do about it?” she asked.
“He’s gone for now but he’ll probably be back. I’d board it up if you have some plywood laying around. Do you?”
“Of course not, I’m an old woman. What would I need plywood for?”
“Right, well then I could lay down a repellant spray and set some traps.”
“How about poison?” she asked
“Well small animal poison could be dangerous for neighborhood cats and dogs so I’d prefer to just capture the little guy then seal up the hole tomorrow.”
The old woman spat on the ground and scowled at him. “Take care of it,” she said, hobbling back toward the steps. “You’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
“Yes ma’am,” Pete replied.
Pete laid a cage trap about three feet long and a foot tall and wide and loaded the trigger with a piece of cheese from his lunch. Then he sprayed a foul smelling deterrent around the outside of the house.
When Pete was done with this he knocked on the front door and asked the old woman what time he should return the next day.
“As soon as possible,” She replied curtly.
“Then I’ll be here first thing, eight o clock,” he said with a smile.
“Good. Don’t be late again,” she said, closing the door before Pete could respond.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, mostly to himself as he turned to walk back to his truck.
Pete pulled his truck up to old woman’s house right on time the next day. As he walked up to the house he could see the woman standing in the front window waiting for him. He waved at her and got right to work, checking his trap. He was very happy to see that his plan had worked, that the raccoon had returned to its home under the porch and taken the bait. It now laid curled up in the darkest corner of the cage, blinking at Pete as he shined his light on it. Pete put the caged animal in his truck bed before returning to the house to let his client know the good news.
A hard knock on the screen door brought her onto the porch.
“Got it, ma’am,” Pete said, thumbs hooked confidently through his belt loops. “It should be all clear but I think you ought to hire someone to board everything up down there so nothing else can get in.”
His client’s face lit up. “It’s alive?” she asked.
“Well, can I see him?”
“Sure,” Pete said, opening the screen door so the little old lady could maneuver her cane down the stone steps to the bed of Pete’s work truck to see the incarcerated raccoon, nibbling on a walnut clutched in its tiny paws.
“What are you going to do with it?” she asked.
“I usually let them go out in the woods.”
This excited the old woman. “The woods around here?”
“Well, no ma’am. About twenty miles out of town, I’d say.”
“I want you to kill it,” she said, squinting past her wrinkled nose at the raccoon. It was sitting happily on its haunches, staring back at her. “This little bastard has caused a mess of trouble for me and I want him gone from this earth.”
He didn’t quite know how to explain to this woman why he did not want to do that. “Why?” he asked, finally.
At that question the old woman turned from the cage to look Pete dead in the eye, her wrinkled nose no higher on him than his monogrammed breast pocket. He could see she was upset. “He’s torn up my garden and worse,” she said seriously, “He’s scared away my grandchildren. They’re not allowed over here anymore because their parents are afraid they’ll get bitten. Now I did everything I could on my own before I called you. I set traps, laid poison and had my son-in-laws crawling around down there but when they couldn’t do anything I had to call, because I’m just an old woman.” She lowered her face. “I know you have poison in the truck. Can’t you help an old woman with a little satisfaction?”
Pete awkwardly picked up a clipboard from the truck’s bed and shuffled through its papers. He skimmed the form that lacked only the Client’s signature to be complete, stating that the job was done. The Client, Mrs. Donalds, as the form said, kept a steady bead on Pete’s eyes as he stared deeply into his company’s logo on the form and considered what a better man might do in this situation.
Pete’s father started the family pest removal business because it afforded a man enough independence to escape society’s many confines. Fancy words, Pete thought in hindsight, for a hunter turned business man.
Riding along in the rusted Ford truck cab that was then and still was, the rolling office of Dehl Pest Removal, Pete’s dad eagerly taught him about business, customer relations and more. “Never let ‘em tell you how to do your job.” he’d say whenever a customer was not satisfied.
Smoking fat, unfiltered cigarettes that only seemed to add to the smell of rotting animal in the truck, Pete’s dad would often take off his ten gallon hat and sit it on his son’s tiny head when he was getting to an especially important part of the lecture. “Now, you always want to keep your clients coming back for what’s called return business.” At this Pete’s father would raise his eyebrows and nod for emphasis. “One way to do that, boy, is to keep them wanting more.” Pete never really understood how this figured into his dad’s tendency to kill the animals that brought them work.
Even when it came to the recreational hunting trips that the two would go on, lessons on the family business would always creep in. “Those are squirrel droppings,” His dad would say, squatting by a small mound of pellets, “now you remember how to catch a squirrel right?” and Pete would nod with unadulterated glee. They would track rabbits, foxes and deer and the first time Pete carried a gun his dad coached him into shooting an eight point buck.
The immense animal’s antlers spanned as far as Pete’s arms from hand to hand and the boy was sure it was the most impressive creature he’d ever seen. His father had to help him drag it back to their camp and hoist it up on a skinning rack. He handed his son a knife and pointed to where he should begin the cut to skin it. “Just like you’ve seen me do,” he said.
Pete held the knife at arm’s length. Suddenly the carcass dangling from its hind legs in front of him was horrifying and sad. As he pressed the blade against the soft belly of the deer he cringed at the phantom tingle on his own stomach, as if someone were pressing the blade to his navel.
Skinning deer (and all other game) had been part of the regular lesson plan for Pete. His father had shown him how to gut a deer many times and had never failed to recite his golden rule of hunting. “You kill it, you skin it.”
“I can’t.” Pete dropped the knife and sat down to cry. The two didn’t look at each other on the ride home.
Pete was never brought on a hunting trip again, though he was often required to work long hours as his father’s assistant. His father would demand more and more of him, pushing him to seek and destroy rodents with a fever that Pete just didn’t share with his father. Pete would be sent into crawl spaces and attics. He would be ordered to strike down wasp’s nests and pick up large snakes. All of these tasks Pete hardened himself to and developed a kind of pleasure in catching even scary animals, though he always refused to kill them, fueling his father’s intensity. Pete enjoyed helping people with their animal problems, but could never share his father’s enthusiasm for destroying them.
Eventually Pete took over the family business when his father became old. “It’s all yours now, you run your own business,” Pete’s father had said to him, dropping the keys to the truck in his hand.
“Mrs. Donalds,” he said, looking up from the clipboard. “I completed my obligation to you. Now there’s a city ordinance that prohibits me from exterminating this animal here, but you have every assurance that he will never be a problem for you or your family ever again.”
She nodded her head with disappointment. He handed her the clipboard and pointed to where he wanted her to sign, then held it on his knee for her to scribble her name. She took the pen in her little bent hand but never took her eyes off of Pete’s.
“You coward,” she said, snarling.
“You call yourself a man! You’re exactly what’s wrong with your generation. Bunch of sissies.”
“Ma’am, I’m just doing my job.” Pete stammered, suddenly aware that he was still standing with his knee out so the old woman could sign the form on the clipboard, while she trudged up her walk.
“You’re job?” Mrs. Donalds was practically yelling. “Your job is to take care of my raccoon problem.”
“I already told you, the problem is solved. This little guy won’t bother you any more.” Pete said, trying keep from fighting with the old woman.
Muttering something about her late husband, the old woman pivoted on her cane and turned toward the house. Pete watched her slowly hobble inside, wincing as she took each step one by one. He thought she had left him to do as he wished and was just about to leave when she appeared back at the door and was coming back down the stairs. Pete walked over and offered his hand to help her down again, but jumped back when he saw she had a dull silver revolver in her knobby fist.
“Mrs. Donalds! What are you going to do? You can’t shoot it here, you’ll be thrown in jail,” Pete said, running along side of her as she hobbled down the walkway to the car, waving his clipboard in exaggerated and panicked gestures.
“Get out of my way, boy, nobody’s going to arrest a crippled old lady,” she said, perfectly calm, eyes forward, feet sliding ahead.
“If my husband were here he’d show you how a real man handles a pest,” she said.
“This is no way to get me to kill that raccoon,” Pete said, “I already told you I can’t. Why don’t you just let me take him away?”
“Cause I’m going to blow him away,” she said.
She was now approaching the truck parked on the curb, the raccoon in the bed craning its head to see the commotion over the wall of the truck bed its cage sat in.
Mrs. Donalds extended the gun upwards with one hand to chest level in a series of jerks before it her arm creaked to a stop. Leaning on the cane with her other arm, she aimed down the top of the weapon. Seeing the old woman pointing a gun at his truck, Pete dropped the clipboard and wrapped his hands around Mrs. Donalds’ and the gun, pointing them towards the sky.
The sound of the gun going off made Pete close his eyes and move away instinctively. His ears rang and he was disoriented but in the moment he collected himself and looked back at her, she had dropped the pistol and was clutching her chest, eyes wide. She fell backward onto the walk stiffly, staring into the sky.
Pete dropped to his knees by her side.
“Mrs. Donalds, are you okay?” he asked, looking into the old woman’s still face, her loose skin pulled back into an expression frozen in surprise. He looked around and couldn’t find any blood.
“Heart attack,” she croaked “dumbass.” Her head fell back against the ground. Pete’s mind raced, he grabbed his cell phone to call for help, with his other hand Pete put his fingers to her throat but could not find a pulse.
When the police came Pete was sitting on the porch, his head in his hands. The cage trap that had earlier held a raccoon, sat empty at his feet.