One summer when I was a boy, my father entered into a friendly rivalry with a giant raccoon, a creature that could dart across lawns as quietly as a house cat even though it was the size of a small refrigerator. The first attacks on our garbage cans began in June. Within weeks everyone in the neighborhood was so tired of retrieving their cans from where they’d been left dented in the street, of sweeping the remains of torn garbage bags from driveways and rooftops, of pulling swollen diapers and coffee filters from rain gutters, that all the usual small talk had been replaced by a single topic: a mutual hatred of the beast. For everyone, that is, except my father, who spoke of the vandalism with a peculiar admiration. Most adults in our neighborhood referred to the animal only as “the raccoon” or “that goddamned raccoon.” It was my father who named him Mendelssohn.
My sister, Olive, and I asked more than once why he settled on that name, but our father was a difficult person to understand when he was amusing himself. He would tell us that as a graduate student in Pittsburgh his upstairs neighbor had been a piano player who died suddenly or he would describe the color of the Elbe on a cloudy day in September when he had visited Germany as a boy.
The morning after an attack, it wasn’t uncommon to catch Dad standing outside in his maroon bathrobe, his dark hair still messy from a night’s sleep. He would be drinking coffee out of the Smurfs mug Olive and I had gotten him one year for Father’s Day, chuckling to himself as he observed where Mendelssohn had wedged our neighbor’s aluminum garbage can between the forked branches of the peeling birch tree in our front yard or where the creature had pulled our porch swing down into a ditch and halfheartedly tried to bury it. Dad would gamely carry the swing back up to our porch or grab a stepladder so he could pry the can out of the tree, all the while humming to himself what I would later recognize as the overture to Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Our subdivision bordered farmland and Michigan wilderness, and so the garbage cans on our street had always been subject to the normal mischief of woodland pests. But on June 6, those of us on Oldberry Street woke to discover the evidence of an unprecedented level of animal-on-garbage violence. For a quarter mile on both sides of the street, cans were not only knocked over but in some cases bent in half and flattened. The garbage bags were all torn and piled twenty feet high in a greasy, dew-soaked mound in the middle of our street. Near the edges of the pile you could see the wet tire tracks where our neighborhood garbage truck, its driver adhering rigidly to the rules dictating the curbside presentation of refuse for collection, had slalomed around Mendelssohn’s handiwork before continuing on his route.
By seven in the morning, every adult on Oldberry was staring up at the trash pile in horror. Olive and I still had two weeks of school left, but when we came down the stairs dressed for the day we found our parents standing in our open front door, Mom frowning at the egg-and-zoo stink that had begun to drift into the house. Olive nodded to me and we quickly returned to our bedrooms. Our unspoken policy whenever our parents were too distracted in the morning to make us go wait for the school bus was that neither of us should do anything to remind them of our presence in the house.
I watched the developing scene in the street from my bedroom window and Olive joined me after changing back into her pajamas. We crouched there with the window open and our chins on the sill, enjoying the adult confusion taking place below. That summer Olive was eleven and I was eight. In a few years my persistent boyishness combined with her sudden sense of maturity would begin to annoy her, but for the time being we were best friends.
In the street Mr. Butler was regarding the immensity of the mound and shouting about teenagers until Mrs. Lambert pointed to the gnawed garbage bags and conspicuous piles of feces surrounding the heap, loose scatter shots of cigarette-width turds. Olive supplied the voice for Mrs. Lambert, affecting a geriatric wobble as she did whenever she imitated an adult for my benefit, “Clarence, those aren’t teenager droppings.”
Mr. Wallace, our neighbor from across the street, squatted authoritatively over one of the scat piles and nodded in agreement with whatever Lambert’s actual assessment had been. Wallace was a sixty-five-year-old retired gym teacher who had been on his way out for his morning run. He was tall and still athletic-looking, with a handlebar mustache and a head of white hair worn in a tight crew cut. His wife, also a retired teacher, had the same haircut and Olive had once observed that the mustache was essential in telling the two apart. They were ushers at St. Anthony’s and had a habit of looking surprised that Dad never came to church with us. Earlier that year, they’d approached Mom after the service as we made our way out to the car. They asked her a few questions that seemed outwardly polite but that even to a child’s ears were so freighted with strange undertones that on the ride home Olive asked what they had wanted.
“They think your dad is Jewish,” Mom said.
“Because his last name is German,” Mom said, sounding a little bored as she imagined our neighbors’ suspicions. “And he has dark hair and doesn’t go to Mass.”
“He isn’t though?” Olive said.
“No. He isn’t anything. He’s agnostic.”
Olive asked what that meant and Mom smiled, explaining that our father had taken one philosophy course in college and liked to sleep in on Sundays. At times she seemed to view our father’s lack of religious obligation with a wistful jealousy bordering on pride, as if his ability to spend his Sunday mornings drinking coffee and reading P. G. Wodehouse novels was, to her, a kind of magic. After that Sunday at church, we would see Wallace stop whatever he was doing to stare at Dad whenever the two were outdoors at the same time. If Dad noticed, he didn’t seem to care and would always smile at Wallace, giving him a friendly wave.
As Wallace examined the pile of droppings, he was bare-chested, wearing only a pair of blue track shorts and some ancient-looking gray sneakers. Olive and I were usually intimidated by the intensity of Mr. and Mrs. Wallace. But watching from my room, we felt more than comfortable laughing openly as he scrutinized that mound of feces as if it were a ransom note.
“Raccoons,” we heard him bray.
“Nobody touch it,” he shouted, already up and jogging back to his garage. “It’s poisonous.”
Wallace’s request that nobody touch the poop kept Olive and I cackling, but it was nothing compared to our reaction when we saw him walking confidently back down his driveway holding the homemade flamethrower he had once been in the habit of using to de-ice his driveway in the winter. A habit he stopped only after a few of our neighbors raised questions about its safety. As soon as everyone saw him with that yellow tank strapped to his back and the flame wand made from an old rifle stock with its pilot already lit, they all began to raise their voices in protest.
“Goddamnit, Donald,” Mr. Emory said. “That’s the last thing we need.”
“No, Stewart,” Wallace said, calling Emory by his first name as if it were an accusation itself, “the last thing we need is an outbreak of roundworm.”
Emory looked around for a show of support from his neighbors, but at the mention of some kind of contagious worm everybody began to retreat into the safety of their lawns. Sighing, Emory trudged back to his own yard to watch from a safe distance as Wallace lit up the first pile.
The early morning sun shining on the wet garbage in the street was joined by the shifting light of Wallace’s flamethrower as he walked from one pile of feces to the next. The mound of garbage flickered like a bonfire and Wallace’s chest hair glowed a rosy orange. Olive and I held hands as we laughed. From my window we could see all the way to Elmer Road, where the school bus we were supposed to be on was floating by.
Unfortunately, the day’s seeming perfection proved fleeting. Once Wallace was finished torching the rest of the raccoon droppings, everyone on our street banded together for a cleanup effort that included my sister and me, dashing our hopes of devoting our unexpected free day to our new favorite pastime of playing Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, just barely outsmarting 8-bit Nazis on the Apple II computer in our basement.
Instead we found ourselves putting on dishwashing gloves that went up to our elbows so we could wander around our yard picking up loose garbage. The only consolation was that the trash was a mix of everyone’s, so the task of cleaning it up had what one might call a human interest element. Underneath the swing set in our backyard we found a deposit of empty prescription-medicine bottles, two pairs of men’s underwear with the crotches worn out, and a long blond wig that was soaking wet. And so, during that day of yard work our parents heard no complaints from us.
The night before, Dad had forgotten to take our cans down to the curb, and so they had been locked in the wood-and-wire pen he had built behind our garage. Mendelssohn ripped the pen apart in order to get to our cans, so once the street was clear of trash Dad spent most of the day taking spare lumber from his woodshop in the garage to make the necessary repairs. He had been immensely proud of his garbage pen, as he was of anything he built, but he seemed to take its destruction in the spirit of constructive criticism. His expression as he stood over the tangle of wood and chicken wire in a pair of old jeans and his Cornell T-shirt was one of deepened focus, as if he were reevaluating the whole process of building a garbage pen in light of new and mysterious forces.
Dinner was almost over by the time he came back inside, smelling faintly of outdoors and body odor. Dad would have been the one to cook on any other night, but Mom had taken the day off work and was only too happy to throw something together while he kept himself busy. She said a project was good for his aimlessness, a word she used without judgment, as if she were describing a trick knee or a bad back. Our father, the aimless inventor. In his early twenties he had developed some sort of gas compressor and, as my mother put it, nobody in the country could build a decent refrigerator without having to cut him a check. But success had effectively retired him at the age of twenty-eight and Mom worried about his long periods of creative inactivity. As he sat down at the kitchen table, one could see that his mind was still far away in a land of reinforced joints, bolts, and epoxies. Eventually he wiped his face on the sleeve of his T-shirt and opened the can of Old Milwaukee Mom handed him.
“The pen lives,” he said, smiling.
• • •
Wallace was the first to buy a pair of the pest-stopper garbage receptacles with clamping lids. They soon became a short-lived fad on our street since everyone still thought our neighborhood was dealing with an ordinary infestation of raccoons. One bright afternoon some of us also started to notice a few steel kill traps glittering in Wallace’s lawn. It was Mrs. Nowak, a proud owner of two outdoor tabby cats and a sandy blond cocker spaniel named Futz, who publicly urged Wallace to replace those lethal measures with the humane kennel traps that could be seen all over our neighborhood with campfire marshmallows and lumps of wet cat food sitting on their bait plates. He eventually made a show of acquiescing, but those of us who lived nearby saw that he just moved the kill traps to his backyard.
Ours was the only house not to put out any traps at all. Because of Dad’s faith in his reconstructed pen, he wouldn’t even consent to buying any of the special pest-proof cans. His plan was to wake up early on collection days and take our old, metal cans to the curb once the truck was making its way down our street. And so, each house embracing its own level of preparedness, the neighborhood waited.
Two weeks later Mrs. Rubio went into her backyard to replenish her bird feeder and discovered that her aboveground pool had been filled with garbage, the mound of bags bobbing on the water and spilling over onto the pool’s wooden deck. Also, Mrs. Rubio’s bird feeder, a miniature Victorian gazebo atop a five-foot-tall aluminum pole, had been yanked out of the ground and was never seen again.
The rest of the neighborhood hadn’t fared much better. The pest-proof receptacles had presented Mendelssohn with some difficulty, but only in the sense that the lids remained fastened and he was forced to bite through the middle of the cans, pulling the bags out through grapefruit-sized holes. He left a trail of toppled cans down our street, all of them looking like wounded soldiers with their guts tumbling out. After several houses he seemed to get the hang of this new method, nearly chewing the cans in half before plucking out the bags.
The majority of the stolen trash wound up in the Rubio pool, though some was also wedged into a half dozen or so of the humane cage traps. At first this appeared to be a maneuver to remove the trap’s bait without the trick door locking into place, but in all instances the bait was left untouched, except for the few cases in which it had been defecated upon. Wallace most likely would have viewed the failure of those cages as a moral victory if it weren’t for the fact that three of his hidden kill traps had also been found by the animal and flung into his prized rosebushes. The traps had clapped shut on impact, mangling the flowers.
When Dad stepped outside early that morning, he was dumbfounded to find that his new and improved pen had been pulled up and dragged a good thirty feet into our backyard, where our empty garbage cans were all tipped over and scattered. He joined us at the breakfast table, a distant look on his face as he told us there had been another attack. He was still leaning back in a kitchen chair with his mouth hanging open when Mrs. Davis rang the bell to tell Mom what had happened to the Rubio family pool. With her strong sense of community, Mom sent Olive and me to the garage to get what were now our designated garbage-handling gloves, instructing us to volunteer at the Rubios’ while she and Dad cleaned up our yard.
Olive and I were anxious to get a close look at the garbage-filled pool, but when we got there the oldest Rubio boy, Stephen, told us to stay out of the way. We pressed ourselves against their back fence and watched as several men from the neighborhood brought up sopping wet garbage bags while Stephen and his younger brother, Velmer, used pool skimmers to fish out sheets of newspaper and paper towels that had become as elusive as ribbons of seaweed. The men were careful to check the bags for tears before pulling them out, keeping the holes closed with one hand as they hoisted the bags out with the other. But as Mr. Conklin lifted up one particularly overstuffed bag, he failed to notice a long rip down its side. The bag emptied itself into the water, filling the pool with an orange-and-brown mush. Everyone present groaned in frustration. As a large island of mush bobbed gradually away from Mr. Conklin, he occupied himself with a series of heartfelt fucks and goddamnits.
But to my own surprise, my happy contemplation of the scene was interrupted by the dawning of a thought I found somewhat unsettling.
“At breakfast,” I said to Olive, “did you see Dad’s face?”
“I know,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that happy.”
I kept my eyes on the pool without saying anything, but I understood what she meant.
Dad’s astonishment at the destruction of his improved pen had betrayed a strange sense of excitement on his part that bothered me if only because it was so unfamiliar. My father was always happy and energetic, but astounded? Thrilled? No. I’m now older than my father was that summer by six months and looking back I can tell you that he was a pleasant man with nothing to prove, someone to whom financial success and a warm family life had come unnaturally easy. As a result, it was often impossible to ignore his sweet boredom. Dad washing dishes by hand in the kitchen, whistling something by Jethro Tull. Dad, unseen, moving boxes in the garage for hours without explanation. Dad wondering aloud at the dinner table if it’d be difficult to learn Japanese. Until the presence of Mendelssohn, I hadn’t realized how comforting I’d found our father’s quiet restlessness.
After a while we returned home to find our own yard already clear of trash. Stepping through the front door, Olive reported that we had been dismissed from pool-cleaning duty with the heartfelt thanks of the Rubio family, a claim that went unscrutinized since my parents were busy carrying my father’s heavy oak drafting table up from his cluttered workspace in the basement. We watched from the top of the stairs and Mom smiled up at us.
“Your father wants to work in the family room,” she said before blowing a strand of hair out of her face.
Mom was ambitious by nature. She was a business reporter for the Free Press and whenever she saw that a story of hers had gotten bumped to page one, we would find her standing in the foyer wearing a tank top and a pair of Dad’s boxer shorts, pointing at her byline and saying, “You’re goddamn right.” Likewise, she had a great enthusiasm for my father’s abilities and seemed anxious, after his many years of idleness, for him to once again put them to use.
They arranged the table in our family room so it faced the large sliding glass doors that looked out onto our backyard. Just outside you could see where Dad had carefully disassembled his pen, its materials stacked on the patio. He went back down to the basement to fetch his drafting chair and some supplies. When he returned, he filled the table’s built-in cubbies with mechanical pencils, gummy erasers, engineering scales, and masking tape, at which point Mom finally asked him what it was he’d be working on.
“Raccoons,” he said, taking a seat and taping a piece of plotter paper to the desk’s slanted surface.
“Racoons,” she repeated.
She wasn’t asking for clarification, just making sure she’d heard him correctly.
He adjusted his stool and nodded.
“It’s an interesting problem.”
She smiled down at him, watching him start to draw, eventually taking his free hand and kissing it.
• • •
The rest of the neighborhood lacked my father’s ingenuity, and so as Mendelssohn’s attacks continued many families found themselves at a loss. Neither the traps nor the special garbage cans had worked and animal control was known to be useless unless you had something cornered in your garage. Some neighbors began to meet with consultants from pest control companies, most of whom were dismissed as soon as they launched into their pitches featuring glossy photographs of the same humane catch-and-release traps and secure garbage cans that had already proved so ineffective. Those who could afford it installed chain link rodent fences and floodlights on timers. The Ronaldsons even purchased a set of outdoor speakers that were supposed to drive pests away with special high frequencies. Wallace could be seen putting a lot of work into his yard, but other than the heavy wire cages he’d placed over some of his more delicate plants, it was difficult to tell what our most reactionary neighbor’s plan was when it came to defending his home.
Meanwhile, Dad had begun conducting interviews with our neighbors and was starting to hypothesize—weeks before the first sighting—that our neighborhood wasn’t dealing with a normal infestation of pests but the efforts of a single, genius raccoon. He hung a corkboard next to his drafting table and pinned to it the Polaroids he had taken of the damage he’d observed at the homes of those he interviewed. In the photographs you could see his hand holding up a yellow pocket ruler to bite marks left in garbage cans and aluminum siding. He did the same with any paw prints he could find, noting not only their size but also the fact that they all seemed to be coming from the same animal. That was around the time we first started to hear the name Mendelssohn, Dad dropping it into conversation as if we had all already agreed it was the creature’s name.
Through the course of his research, he quickly became dissatisfied with our public library’s lack of adult nonfiction devoted to the subject of raccoons. He ended up driving to Detroit one weekend to wander the high, plentiful stacks of the downtown branch. He returned in the evening holding a single leather-bound book containing a text from the late eighteenth century. It was in French and titled Le journal d’Etienne Boudin, un coureur de bois.
Dad said his French was a little rouillé, and so it took him some time to translate the text. He spent hours flipping back and forth through a French to English dictionary, lurching his way through Boudin’s beautiful and discursive views on the subject of raccoons. He recorded his translation on a yellow legal pad and would follow us around the house, reading passages aloud to anyone who’d listen. Boudin described a boar raccoon climbing headfirst down a tree as “moving cautiously with the weight of his own body, hands outstretched, half pleading, half curious. A man feeling his way through a darkened room.” A sow raccoon placed Juneberries in her mouth with an expression in her eyes “as if she had knowledge of a joke yet to be told.” When Dad recited these passages, his voice came out bewildered, as if these poetic descriptions of nature’s proud burglars contained truths so essential and beautiful that they were wounding him. The corkboard became crowded with quotes from Boudin’s book, lines describing the chirping of raccoons as “panicked but playful,” and their silence as being “colder than the light of the moon.”
Dad was also delighted to discover a formula the old trapper had developed for determining the size of creatures through an analysis of their paw prints. The calculation took into account not only the length, width, and depth of the print but also the quality of the soil, which Boudin had differentiated into over two hundred basic types: dry dark loam, dark loam within two days of heavy rain, river silt during two weeks of drought, etc. Using this model and the various photographs he had taken, Dad estimated Mendelssohn to be three feet long and around 105 pounds.
“Yowza,” Mom said, when he reported his finding at dinner. “So it really is a monster raccoon?”
“Well, ‘monster’ seems a little strong,” he said, placing a hand on the pile of notes he had brought with him to the table.
“He’s not”—he had to search for the word—“he’s not usual, if that’s what you mean.”
However, Boudin had been a trader of furs, and so the traps he described were all decidedly lethal. The formula Dad had used to determine the animal’s size was followed in the text by a chart explaining the corresponding size of boulder that would be needed to crush that animal’s skull, but Dad was insistent that killing the creature was out of the question. After all, he was fond of pointing out, he was incapable of building a raccoon. No. Mendelssohn could be stopped only with compassion and sportsmanship.
While studying Boudin’s design for a deadfall, Dad came up with what he referred to as a livefall. After consulting with Mom, he dug a large hole in our backyard, filling it with metal tracks, wiring, and some spring hinges. When he was finished there was a platform of perforated metal in the middle of our backyard that was eight feet long by six feet wide and level with the grass. If weight in the center of the platform increased by forty pounds or more, the platform dropped at mousetrap speed and assembled itself into a large cage, which could then be pulled out of the ground.
Dad couldn’t stop smiling as he demonstrated its operation. He did so a dozen times by pushing on the platform with the handle of a rake as Olive and I watched. The inner workings of the trap were so efficient that it barely made a noise, just a faint click and a soft flourish like an umbrella being opened. He had designed the trap to accommodate a raccoon the size of a sheepdog, but he still worried that it might maim the creature if it wasn’t calibrated just right. Eventually he went into the garage to take from the deep freeze one of the birthday cakes he’d purchased for bait, placing it on my skateboard and rolling it to the middle of the platform. If the cake survived the trap he said we could celebrate by having it for dessert that night, and so Olive and I watched with an air of serious appraisal as he pressed on the platform once more with the rake’s handle, the cake’s red and blue flowers of frosting looking fragile and alert. A breeze hissed through the grass, but otherwise the backyard was quiet. When the cake finally disappeared into the livefall and came back up without so much as a bruised petal, Olive and I screamed and jostled each other.
With the trap a success, Dad spent a week determining when Mendelssohn would strike again. He worked late into the night, pouring over Boudin’s observations. He consulted his own hand-drawn maps of our neighborhood, weather reports, calendars on which he had penciled in the phases of the moon. His calculations went on until July 2, when he went out to the deep freeze to get another cake. It sat on the platform of the livefall from the early evening on, bright white under an overcast sky. He gave us all his word that Mendelssohn would strike that night and he wasn’t wrong.
• • •
Mom protested when Dad mentioned a stakeout. The plan was for him to sit in our family room all night with the lights off, keeping an eye on Mendelssohn’s cake out in the backyard. Mom had already spoken to him about the irregular hours he had been keeping and that night the strained patience in her voice suggested she might be worried that her husband was taking his interest in a local raccoon a bit too seriously. But the look of happy determination in his eyes won her over and she ended up starting the coffeemaker for him before heading upstairs to bed.
His family asleep upstairs, he sat drinking coffee with Yoo-hoo in it. He had rigged a floodlight to turn on once the livefall was triggered and to this day I like to imagine him sitting there expectantly, waiting to be blinded by his own success. Instead, around two in the morning he was startled by three loud rifle reports and the sound of one of our front windows being shattered.
As it turned out, my father wasn’t the only one on our street waiting for Mendelssohn to return. Ever since Mr. Wallace’s rosebushes were mangled, he had been dressing up in a black sweat suit a few nights a week and hiding behind those same bushes with a pair of night vision goggles and a hunting rifle. According to his account of the night’s events, which our family learned later through neighborhood gossip, Mendelssohn had been trotting down our street with a large white garbage bag in his mouth. The bag was overfull, but Mendelssohn dragged it along at a brisk pace, leaving a wet trail of grease on the pavement. Wallace was shocked not only by Mendelssohn’s size but also by his strange coloring, all black with a narrow white streak across his eyes. Wallace must have made a little too much noise as he adjusted his grip on his rifle because Mendelssohn dropped the bag from his mouth and turned to face the rosebush containing our neighbor. Wallace aimed quickly and fired, his first shot grazing the creature. Instead of fleeing, Mendelssohn charged at Wallace, who let off another two shots, one of which went through our first-story window. By then lights all along our street flicked on and Mendelssohn, perhaps sensing himself outnumbered, dashed in a black streak toward our backyard.
When Dad realized the sound of broken glass had come from our house, he rushed upstairs to make sure we were all safe. He found me sitting up in bed and pulled back my covers, patting at my chest and stomach. He ignored my confused, middle-of-the-night questions and examined my arms one at a time before kissing my forehead and rushing down the hall.
While he was making sure Mom and Olive were safe, I opened my bedroom window and watched as Wallace stood in front of his driveway. His rifle was now leaning against his garage door as he addressed a group of our startled-looking neighbors. When he demonstrated the size of the creature with his hands, the people on our street finally started to seem more curious than upset and drew in closer to hear what he had to say. That was when I heard my father thunder down our steps on his way out the front door.
Wallace turned from his audience and raised his palm to Dad as he approached.
“I’ll have your window fixed,” he said, his tone suggesting that any complaints my father had were sure to be trivial.
Dad didn’t say a word, just walked toward Wallace with purpose and punched him in the mouth. Wallace’s eyes went wide and he grabbed Dad by the collar of his sweat shirt as if he were about to scold a child. Dad hit him a second time and the two men stumbled away from each other.
A woman in the crowd screamed and some men moved to stop Dad without daring to touch him. Wallace was stooped over, holding his mouth and staring up at Dad with what looked like genuine hate. Dad stepped back from the crowd and pointed at our open front door, a wild tremor in his hand.
“My family lives in that house,” he shouted. “My family lives in that house, you goddamned animals.”
He waited for someone to understand what he meant before hollering even louder, “Call the police!”
Inside, Mom collected Olive and me, ordering us into her and Dad’s bed. Then she went out to calm Dad down so he wouldn’t be arrested once somebody from the sheriff’s department showed up. Fortunately, the young deputy who arrived spent most of his time talking Dad and Wallace out of pressing charges. After the deputy climbed back into his cruiser, Dad noticed a light coming from our backyard. He ran to check on the livefall, but when he pulled up the cage it was empty except for the grocery store cake, a single print on top and a plum-sized divot out of its side where Mendelssohn had had just enough time to grab a single pawful.
An hour later we were all in my parents’ bed. I rested my cheek against Dad’s arm and he put it around me before letting out a long, disappointed sigh.
• • •
The next day Olive and I were unimpressed as we rode our bikes around the neighborhood. Mendelssohn had been interrupted in his work and so there were only a half-dozen mangled cans along our street. We stopped in front of the Conklin house and the sight of Mr. Conklin sweeping up a modest spill of toilet paper tubes and soda bottles in his driveway seemed especially pathetic after Mendelssohn’s previous acts of destruction. We were just about to abandon our tour of the neighborhood when Pat Drexler squealed up on his bike. Drexler was a boy my age with a blond flattop and an assertive way of talking that made it difficult for me to tell whether he was trying to bully or befriend me.
“I heard your dad went crazy last night,” he said.
Olive had been about to pedal off, but at the word “crazy” she lowered one foot back down to the street.
“Mr. Wallace could have killed us,” she said.
Drexler wiped his nose on his shoulder.
“My dad says your dad’s scared ’cause Jews don’t believe in heaven.”
I thought about this for a second.
“People who believe in heaven want to get shot?”
Olive put her hand on my shoulder as a signal that I wasn’t helping.
“Our dad isn’t Jewish,” she said.
Drexler regarded us with a blank, open stare.
“My mom says there’s nothing wrong with being Jewish. It’s part of your heritage.”
He looked around impatiently before pedaling away, anxious to have this same conversation about our father’s Semitic rage with anyone he could find.
On the ride back to our house, Olive shook her head and called Drexler an idiot. Otherwise, we were both quiet. Neither of us had anything against the idea of our father being Jewish. We had no idea what that would even mean, but the strange curiosity and insistence of our neighbors gave it all the force of an accusation.
I was too young to have words for any of this at the time, but my grade school education had already instilled in me the single piece of wisdom it had to offer, which was that being different was dangerous, and so there was a queasy feeling in my stomach as I thought about what Drexler had said. Olive seemed more troubled by his naïve oversimplification regarding non-Christians and the afterlife, which had perhaps played into preexisting concerns that our father never came with us to Mass, where eternal hellfires were mentioned as matter-of-factly as bake sales and spaghetti dinners.
When Dad returned from the hardware store later that afternoon with a new pane of glass, Olive marched up to him as he was coming through the door and asked him if he believed in heaven. He stopped where he was and adjusted his grip on the pane, which was wrapped in a white foam sheet. He looked confused, giving Olive the same friendly shrug we gave him whenever he asked us what we had learned at school that day. But when Olive continued to look concerned, his face turned serious, finally breaking into a sweet smile when he thought he understood.
“Don’t worry, Ollie,” he said. “Mendelssohn’s not dead.”
She tried to rearticulate the question, but Dad was walking the glass sideways into our living room and telling us to make ourselves useful. Mom had made him promise that he would fix the window and the part of our living room wall where Wallace’s bullet had lodged itself before he got into any more raccoon business, so now he was briskly carrying out the task with Olive and me as his assistants. We handed him the heat gun, the putty knife, and the can of linseed oil while he talked about the paw prints in the bait cake and the absence of blood near the livefall. He cited both as prime evidence that Mendelssohn had survived Wallace’s ambush, which he described as both cowardly and uninspired.
“His idea of solving the crossword puzzle,” Dad said, pushing on the sash to make sure the window was secure, “is to light the newspaper on fire.”
The more he spoke on the subject, the clearer it became that his plan was no longer just to capture Mendelssohn, but to find some way to save him from harm.
Olive had been silent after he misunderstood her question, but her interest seemed to be piqued by the way he spoke of Mendelssohn. I had already decided to ignore our strange conversation with Drexler and was anxious for Dad to finish his repairs so Olive and I could go play computer games in the basement. But Olive was still grappling with something and, as she listened to Dad talk about Mendelssohn with nothing but love and concern, it appeared to be subtly undoing whatever anxiety Drexler had inspired in her.
After the pane was installed and the bullet hole spackled, Olive was suddenly unenthusiastic about our plans to spend the rest of the day on the Apple II. Halfway through her turn she stopped just short of shooting a Nazi. She was captured and the screen read, “They got you!”
Before I could tell her where she’d gone wrong, she stood up and violated our cardinal rule by unplugging the Apple II to turn it off.
“Olive! What’s your problem?”
“Come on,” she said, in a voice I would hear more and more often in the years to come, when she possessed such a sure authority that it was as if she herself were only responding to orders that were of distant and mysterious origin. “We’re helping Dad.”
• • •
Despite Wallace’s recklessness, he enjoyed some celebrity as Mendelssohn’s presumed killer. Neighbors stopped by his house in the evening with thank-you gifts, stepping inside for beer and coffee to hear him tell of his encounter with the creature. This newfound popularity was cut short after a few days, when Mendelssohn struck our neighborhood again in full force. After arranging another massive garbage mound on Wood Street, he pulled down an entire tree house in which the Campario twins had accidentally left a box of Oatmeal Creme Pies.
Our father woke us early that morning with the good news.
“Mendelssohn’s back,” he shouted from the bottom of the stairs.
As part of our participation in Dad’s new plan, Olive and I had received special dispensation to sleep in our clothes, and so all we had to do was grab our notebooks and shoes before heading out to get our first look at Mendelssohn’s carnage. As we tied our sneakers, I was full of a boyish sense of adventure, while Olive frowned seriously down at her white Keds.
“Double-check everything you write down,” she said. “We have to be positive what he eats.”
Dad had given us separate routes around the neighborhood to patrol on our bikes while he investigated on foot. Together the three of us were able to survey the damage quickly before any cleanup efforts could obscure the trail of evidence that Mendelssohn had left behind. The first page of my notebook had a checklist in my father’s handwriting, composed of over thirty observations calibrated to determine how Mendelssohn had spent his time at each house:
- Cans destroyed or just knocked over?
- Bags ripped open or just pulled out?
- Bags tossed into the yard, street, or missing?
After collecting data from a handful of attacks, Dad’s analysis was that Mendelssohn was drawn to a perfect trifecta of garbage on Spring Street, where the Lamberts with their five cats produced bags filled with stale cat food and used kitty litter, while just across the street was the Ronson family, whose patriarch was a notorious yo-yo dieter who made no secret of the fact that he tended to buy sweets and guiltily throw them away half eaten. Next to the Ronsons were the Vesuvios, who had three teenage daughters and their two-year-old miracle baby, Andy, meaning their garbage was a pungent combination of full diapers, used sanitary napkins, discarded cosmetics, and a fine mash of wet Nilla wafers and Cheerios. These three houses provided a cocktail of waste that Mendelssohn found irresistible.
Having arrived at this conclusion, we moved on to the next phase of the plan, which involved going on a few late-night garbage raids, stealing bags from the trifecta houses, and storing them in airtight rubber bins in our garage. Mom had been nothing but supportive up to that point, but as Dad slid yet another bin of our neighbors’ trash under the large woodworking bench in the garage, he said it was probably best that we not trouble her with this aspect of our project.
Next he set his sights on the undeveloped strip of land we owned that extended a half acre beyond our back fence. It was a few dozen trees on a gentle slope leading down to a shallow creek. After clearing some brush, he gave me and Olive shovels and had us dig a pond for Mendelssohn to defile in the same manner as the Rubio pool. Dad also used the dirt we displaced to fashion the type of generic animal den that Boudin claimed raccoons were fond of taking over for themselves. He mixed the dirt with water and an organic fixative of his own design, applying the mixture to a metal frame he’d built that was the size and shape of a round camping tent. The frame contained a network of wires and pressure sensors and air vents made from PVC pipe, all of which he worked quickly to cover over with mud, not talking unless he was giving us instructions.
He had reason to hurry. After receiving a record number of calls, trucks from animal control were now patrolling our neighborhood on a regular basis. And during a trip to Johnson’s Independent Hardware to get some spring hinges and wire connectors, Dad had spotted Wallace in the hunting department. The sheriff’s deputy had warned Wallace against discharging any firearms in the neighborhood, and so at Johnson’s he was holding a crossbow bolt up to the light and smiling at its black point as if it were the glint in a diamond.
Olive emulated Dad’s intensity as we worked in the woods and shushed me when I marveled at a giant worm my shovel had unearthed. I held it up for her to see as it curled and groped in the open air. I was more confused than hurt when she kept her eyes down and told me to keep digging. Her seriousness had already made the digging seem more like a chore and now that I’d officially been bossed I thought about asking if I could go back inside. But then it occurred to me that once Mendelssohn was captured our summer could go back to normal, Olive and me shunning another too-bright summer day in the cool, dark basement, eating bologna sandwiches and potato chips in front of the computer while Mom wrote in the kitchen and Dad sat with his feet up in the living room, reading some fat, sun-faded paperback. In other words, I kept digging.
By the time we finished filling in our freshly dug pond with buckets of creek water, Dad’s mud den had dried. It was a hideous, lump-ridden mound, but sturdy, something he tested by taking a sledgehammer from the garage and striking it a few times with all his strength. The den’s entrance let out the dull rubber boing of a hollow tire being struck.
The noise seemed to please him and he moved his tools to our back fence, where he mounted an electrical box with a bundle of wires snaking out of it and leading back to the den. He waited a few days, until his calculations predicted Mendelssohn would attack again, then he loaded the garbage bags we had stolen from our neighbors into the den like an offering, topping off the pile of garbage with another cake. That night the animal control trucks were out late. They rolled down our street one at a time in slow, solitary patrols, their headlights filling our house with waves of yellow light as they passed. The occasional squeal of their brakes made it difficult to sleep, as did the suspicion that Wallace was out there hiding with his crossbow, waiting for any sign of the precocious creature that was under my father’s protection.
By early the next morning our neighborhood was untouched but there was a lively, almost peppery stench coming from our backyard. Dad woke Olive and me and the three of us ran barefoot toward the source of the reek.
He opened the electrical box on our fence with a key he took from the pocket of his bathrobe and carefully examined a pressure meter dangling inside. After blinking his sleep-swollen eyes at the meter, he flipped a black plastic switch inside the box. From the trees there was a metallic clank as the secret hatch my father had built into the mouth of the den swung shut. Soon, there was a heavy thumping sound coming from the den, followed by a low, loud growl. The power of Mendelssohn’s complaints caused the distance between us and the den to shrink and a rush of fear moved through us as if we had just caught the universe by its tail. Only after this frightened moment passed did we all think to celebrate our victory with a cheer that caused dogs two and three houses away to start howling.
“All right,” Dad said, once our shouts died down.
He looked out to where the den could just be glimpsed through the trees, the low mound shaking and hopping in the dirt from the force of Mendelssohn’s blows. “Now comes the tricky part.”
• • •
Dad got dressed and spent the rest of the morning on the phone in our kitchen, haggling over rental fees. In a few hours a flatbed truck rolled up onto our lawn followed soon after by a truck bearing a fifty-foot crane. Olive and I buzzed around him, asking him what was happening, but he was busy waving both vehicles into our backyard. Once they were in position, four large men in dirty blue coveralls stepped down from the cabs. They looked intimidating until they heard the animal wails coming from the tree line and started to exchange nervous looks with one another. As Dad led them back into the woods to show them how to attach the crane’s cable to the hidden hitch loop he’d installed in the den’s roof, they all held bandanas over their mouths to handle the stench. When they reached the den, one of them was forced to turn away for a moment to give in to a dry heave.
Olive and I watched from the family room as the cable went taut and the den was lifted from the ground. Dad shouted instructions and encouragement to the crew, applauding like a nervous coach as they hustled into position beneath the descending den. It swung pendulously through the air on its way to the awaiting flatbed, jerking to one side every few seconds from Mendelssohn throwing himself against its walls. Once the den came to rest, the crew had to work quickly to secure it before Mendelssohn’s struggling could topple it from the truck bed. After they covered it with a blue tarp, Dad came inside and seemed surprised to see us still in our pajamas.
“Get dressed,” he said. “We’re going on a trip.”
With the crane and its crew departed, our family loaded ourselves into the flatbed’s roomy cab. Pulling around the side of our house, we saw Wallace standing in the middle of his lawn, watering his grass with a limp gurgle from his garden hose. Mendelssohn was still mewling loudly and Wallace squinted at us, looking too confused by the whole scene to disapprove. As Dad turned right onto Oldberry, he gave Wallace a neighborly wave.
That day there was a great deal of music, a few deftly played rounds of the alphabet game, and the passing of sandwiches from the cooler at my mother’s feet with an efficiency that became a point of pride for all of us. After driving north all day and most of that night, Dad pulled the truck to the side of the road just outside Traverse City, near a thick stretch of woods that loomed above the open rows of a black cherry orchard.
When Dad cut the engine, we could hear Mendelssohn’s complaints again. His fierce growl was now a soft moan and the monstrous thumps coming from inside the den had been replaced by the sound of light, searching scratches. We all stayed in the truck while Dad left to climb up onto the bed. He threw off the tarp and pressed on a hidden panel so the den’s small hatch sprang open. He took a step back and there was a long, still moment.
Mom, Olive, and I were huddled against the cab’s rear window, trying to see anything moving in the darkness of the open hatch. Then, in a wave of black fur, Mendelssohn leapt out onto the truck bed and off into the grass, landing with barely a sound, before coursing dark and huge toward the far trees. Mom and Olive hugged.
I was happy too. Because Mendelssohn had been gotten rid of so humanely, I felt we had earned the right to spend the rest of our summer in an air of undisturbed bliss. Life, I told myself, could finally go back to the way it was meant to be. But it seemed to surprise Olive and Mom when I jokingly shouted, “Good riddance!”
Meanwhile, Dad had climbed on top of the den, where he gave out a loud whoop. He gave another and then leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees like a man catching his breath. The light from the road was behind him and his face was in shadow. When he shook, he could have been laughing or crying. It was a hot night, so as he climbed back into the cab I couldn’t tell if his face was just damp with sweat. The serene look on his face offered no clues. He closed the driver’s side door with a chipper bang, kissed Mom, and then looked down at the wheel of the truck in front of him as if it were a suggestion.
“Okay,” he said, nodding and reaching for the ignition, “okay.”
That night, we stayed in a roadside motel and didn’t get back home until late the next day. After we pulled into our driveway, I jumped down from the cab of the truck and told Olive I’d race her to the Apple II. She had been quiet the whole trip home and told me she was too tired to play, a feeling of embarrassment seeming to spring up between us at my childish excitement.
In the months and years to come, the frequency of moments like that increased so gradually that I’m not even sure when the Olive I was best friends with was gone. Though, I’ve never once stopped expecting I might see her again. It’s a kind of faith or stubbornness that I like to think I got from Dad. For example, he could never admit that Mendelssohn must have died at some point. Decades later when Dad was in the hospital for the last time—Mom smiling at him from her chair and holding his hand while Olive talked authoritatively with the nurses and I stood at the foot of his bed in my winter coat looking as though I’d just been slapped—he was chatting about how we had all saved Mendelssohn’s life. His voice was a croak, almost unrecognizable, but he talked about Mendelssohn as if he were still way up north, drinking from the cool water of creeks and munching on the dropped fruit of now-overgrown orchards, the tartness of the cherries making the animal’s eyes water in gratitude and the apples, soft from the fall, almost too sweet to bear.
Seth Fried‘s stories have appeared in numerous publications. He is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes and the author of a short story collection, The Great Frustration.