Diane and I had been dating for a few months when she called and asked,
“Kyle, do you mind doing me a favor?”
“Sure,” I said, “What’s up?”
“Remember I told you about my brother, Johnny?”
Yes, I did remember. Among other things, I remembered that apparently Johnny had a bit of a drinking problem. Hold on. Let’s be honest, here. He had accumulated multiple DWI’s over the past twenty years, and he’d also been encouraged by a Hennepin County judge to do a few stints in rehab. So, I’d say he had more than a bit of a drinking problem, he had a major league drinking problem.
“Yeah, you told me about him. Is he okay?” I left her brother’s aforementioned issue with booze hanging unspoken between us.
She paused before answering, and in that moment I knew Diane needed my help. I liked her a lot, maybe even loved her, and certainly was more than happy to oblige. I just needed to know what was up.
“Well,” she slowly began, “Johnny’s been sober for six weeks now, and has just started a new job.”
“Good for him.” I was thinking, that’s fine, I’m glad to hear for Diane’s sake that her brother was staying sober, but there had to be more. “His new job…tell me about it. Does he like it?”
“I think so,” she said, a little cautiously, “I’m happy for him. It’s good to see him working.”
I picked up on the hesitation in her voice and my concern went up a notch, “What’s he doing?”
“He’s with Simonson’s Pest and Rodent Control. They’re training him in on the rodent side of the business.”
Oh, so that was it. My mind immediately went to a cable television show a few years back, ‘World’s Worst Jobs.’ The vision of Diane’s brother fooling around all day long with bug infestations and rats nests wasn’t a pretty sight. But, she was my lady friend. Part of being her boyfriend was so show interest in her family, something I was not only happy to do, but wanted to do.
I was divorced and my three kids were grown and lived in different states. My two younger sisters resided with their families on the each of the coasts, one in California and the other in Maine. My parents were both dead. I lived by myself, but I wouldn’t say I was lonely, just alone. (Those of you living by yourself probably can relate and understand the difference.) The closer I got to her and her family the better, as far as I was concerned.
I knew how much Diane cared for Johnny. Like me, her family all lived far from Minnesota: her younger sister lived in Florida, her son in Seattle, and her daughter in Kentucky. And, like me, her parents were both dead. She was by herself with only her brother to call her immediate family. Meeting with him would be an opportunity to show Diane I was not only committed to our relationship and also wanted to be close to the things that mattered most to her.
With all that in mind, I was completely on board with having him join us. Besides, I’d never known an animal control, or more specifically, a rodent control guy, and I prided myself on trying to keep an open mind when it came to experiencing new things. Plus, truth be told, I really was sort of interested in his new line of employment. I worked at the local True Value hardware store, which was an alright job, just not the most exciting way to spend my time and earn a living. Dealing with what I imaged were rabid skunks and pesky chipmunks on a day-to-day basis? Well, that sounded way more interesting than directing Fred Jamison to the isle where the six inch hex-bolts were located.
“How’s he like it?” I asked.
“Well, that’s why I called. He had a pretty traumatic day today and wanted to talk to me about it. When I told him I was going out with you tonight he said, ‘Cool. Kyle’s a good guy. I don’t mind telling him, too,’ so I kind of suggested that he could met us.”
We were going to dinner at Black’s Ford, a nearby restaurant know for healthy, locally sourced foods. It was a cozy and well run place that featured live acoustic music on Saturdays. We were going tonight, Thursday, on what was turning out to be a much anticipated weekly date night for us. The restaurant would be quiet and peaceful, a good place to talk to Johnny. He lived in the small town of Delano, ten miles west of where both Diane and I lived in Long Lake. I’d met him two or three times before when he’d driven his motorcycle to his sister’s home when I’d been there. I liked him. He was friendly and gregarious, a vastly different personality type from me, but that was no big deal. We got along just fine. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing him.
“Sure,” I said, “Sounds good to me.”
Diane sighed with relief, “Thanks, Kyle, you’re the best.”
Well, I wasn’t sure about that, but it was nice to be appreciated. I’d been married once before for nearly twenty-four years, and it had ended contentiously. What can I say? My ex and I both had our issues and were better off apart. In fact, I’m sure she still hates me and won’t be handing out compliments about me anytime soon, if ever. It had been a long time since I’d been anybody’s ‘Best.’ Diane’s words made me feel appreciated. It was a good feeling.
“I’ll bet you say that to all the guys,” I said, joking with her.
She laughed, “Only the ones I care about.” Then she laughed again, making me feel even better.”See you at seven?”
Only the ones she cared about? I liked the sound of that and grinned, “Seven it is.”
A few hours later, I was home from work and standing in the bathroom of my little one bedroom apartment getting ready for our evening out. I glanced in the mirror, grimaced and shook my head. I learned long ago not to spend much time contemplating my reflection for too long. I’m what you would call an average guy, both in looks and general overall appearance; certainly not remarkable by any stretch of the imagination: five-eleven, brown eyes, thinning hair, neatly trimmed beard, maybe ten pounds heavier than I should be and a propensity for wearing work boots, jeans and plaid, flannel shirts. I’m more introverted than not and like to read, walk, bike ride and identify birds. Like I said, not remarkable. But Diane likes me and that says something. Just what, I’m not sure.
I enjoy being outdoors and that’s what drew me away from Minneapolis, the large metropolitan city where I’d lived my entire life, to Long Lake, a quiet little town of less than two-thousand people, located twenty miles to the west. It’s is a peaceful place to live and for years has been home to blue collar workers, happily putting down deep roots in well constructed ramblers built in the 20’s and 30’s. Most of the people who live here tend to stay put, and homes hardly ever go up for sale. For being so close to a large city, it’s an area verdant with rolling hills, forests and fields. In short, it’s as pleasant a place to spend one’s life as anyone could hope for. But all that’s changing.
For the last twenty years or so, builders have been buying up land and constructing huge, three to four thousand square feet homes on pristine, three acre lots. The locals refer to them as McMansions. It’s been a sort of ‘Build it and they will come’ philosophy that could have had a disastrous impact on the area, especially when rich, well off people started purchasing the gigantic houses at an alarming rate. Surprisingly, though, their effect has been minimumal. In general, the new owners have jumped on the Green bandwagon and have been pretty environmentally conscious. They even helped develop the area’s first natural foods coop, Great Harvest Moon. So, even if there are less fields and forests than there used to be, at least the area hasn’t lost too much of its natural beauty and charm.
An unexpected and somewhat pressing issue has arisen, however. The influx of new homes has drawn the unwanted attention of resident critters, the kinds that are better off kept outside where they belong rather than wandering around inside brand new, multi-million dollar mansions: box elder bugs, carpenter ants, bats, mice, shrews, voles, even bull snakes, to name but a few; and they all had to be eradicated. That’s were Simonson’s Pest and Rodent Control came in. I Googled them. The company has been serving the western Hennepin county area for over half a century, and business has been on a decided uptick, especially in the last ten years or so. Apparently, the new McMansion owners are more than happy to have professional help when it came to dealing with the unwanted invasion any living creature, flying, walking or otherwise. Simonson’s now employed eight full time Control Specialists and, as their website says, ‘We’re always looking for new, highly motivated team members.’ That’s where Johnny came in. They were hiring, and he needed a job, so they put him on the payroll. Was he highly motivated? Well, I wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t even sure how hard of a worker he was. I guess we’d be finding out at dinner.
My apartment is within a stone’s throw of picturesque Long Lake, the narrow, mile long body of water the little town is named after. In fact, if I stood in the far corner of my living room and looked out the window, I could just make out a sliver water and local public access. I’d moved from Minneapolis after my divorce five years ago and wouldn’t think about leaving. I’m forty-nine years old and happily moving on with the next phase of my life. That’s where Diane comes in.
We met a few months ago on a warm Sunday morning in the beginning of June. I was riding my bicycle along one of the many rustic trails in the area maintained by the county park system when I came upon her. She’d had a flat tire. I always carry a tire repair kit in my little saddle bag and a hand pump on my frame for just such an occasion. In no time flat (No pun intended. Well, maybe just a little.) I patched her tire, pumped up it up and got her all set and ready to be on her way.
“Good as new,” I told her as I packed away my repair stuff.
“You’re pretty handy with that,” she said, pointing to my patch kit and tire pump. “I like a man who’s prepared.”
Hmm. Was she flirting with me or just being nice? Hard to say. Anyway, I liked her easy going, friendly manner. She’d introduced herself while I was working on her bike and we’d immediately hit it off. She was just over five-feet tall, had long auburn hair and a pretty, oval face, with high cheek bones, green eyes and full lips. Her name was Diane Anderson. She told me she’d lived in Long Lake for twenty-five years in one of older ramblers on the west side of town. She was my age. She had been divorced for eight years and had two kids, each of whom were living on their own. She worked at a local bakery. She like to read. She liked to garden. The longer we talked, the more I was drawn to her. We had a lot in common, yet were still different enough to find each other interesting. Before we parted, I asked if she’d like to go for coffee sometime and she replied, “Sounds good. How about tomorrow?”
I said, “Sure,” and we did. We’ve been dating ever since.
I took one last look in the mirror, fluffed my hair a little and then shrugged my shoulders. What was the point? I was going bald, no use hiding behind the thinning hair ruse, so I might as well accept it. I grabbed the keys to my seven year old Ford Fiesta and headed out the door. Fifteen minutes later I had picked up Diane, and we were in downtown Wayzata on the east end in a little strip mall, a couple of blocks from Lake Minnetonka, the largest lake in the county and home to the fashionably wealthy of the western metropolitan area. I pulled up to Black’s Ford and we both got out. I looked in the big window facing the parking lot and could see only a few patrons inside. It was going to be a nice, quiet dinner for us, the kind I’d come to expect. I hoped so, anyway. We’d have to see how Johnny’s presence affected the evening.
Black’s Ford was just the kind of place both Diane and I favored. It was busy enough to let you know the food was good, yet intimate and cozy enough to let you carry on a quiet conversation without having to raise your voice to be heard. It had ten tables and could seat maybe forty people on a good night. Jerry Black was around my age and the owner. He was also the cook and a super talented chef, serving up tasty fried brown rice, chickpea salad, spiced pasta and roasted vegetable dishes that were the talk of the town. His wife, Rhonda, was the outgoing hostess, head waitress and general all around fount of positive energy for the establishment. Where Jerry was quiet and meticulous, Rhonda was effervescent and outgoing. Together, they made for a great couple as well as purveyors of a tasty dining experience. In its fifth year of business, the restaurant was going strong. More power to them, I thought, as we walked through the door.
Rhonda waved a greeting and showed us to a table by the window.
“So, Kyle, how’s life in the hardware business?” she asked, as Diane and I took our seats.
“Doing good, Rhonda. Repaired a tricky screen door today. Put a new window pane in, too. Fun city, as always,” I said, joking with her.
Rhonda grinned at Diane and said, “How do you keep up with this guy?”
Diane laughed, “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s hard.”
Rhonda handed us our menus and smiled, “The special tonight is vegetable pot pie. It’s absolutely to die for. The veggies are fresh today, right out of our garden.”
It sounded so good, I couldn’t help it, my stomach started growling. We were in the last week of August. The weather was hot and local vegetable gardens were filled to overflowing. Black’s Ford took full advantage of a myriad of fresh produce when it came to preparing their tasty home cooked dishes.
“Sounds great,” Diane said, opening the menu and perusing it, “Just let me have a quick look here. I’ve been thinking about that veggie pizza of yours since we were here last week.”
“Oh, yeah. The Mediterranean flatbread with pesto? I don’t blame you. No sweat, Di. You guys take your time. I’ll have Marybeth bring your water. She’ll take your order, too.” Then she winked at both of us, “She’s new, so cut her some slack, okay?”
Diane and I both laughed, “Don’t worry, we will,” Diane said.
See what I mean? Friendly but not overbearing. What was not to like about the place?
After Rhonda left, Diane reached across the table and took my hand, “Thanks for doing this with Johnny. I really appreciate it.”
I gently squeezed her hand. “No problem,” I told her.
I liked how we were becoming close and that Diane felt she could depend on me. My feelings for her were strong and getting stronger every day. I was happy to oblige. Plus, I didn’t expect having dinner with Johnny would be any big deal. In fact, it would be good to get to know him better. I didn’t have many close male friends. Well, none, actually.
She squeezed my hand in return, her finger tips lightly caressing my palm. I looked up, and she smiled at me. I smiled back and we held each other’s gaze. It was a nice, intimate moment and could have gone on for a while as far as I was concerned. Then I saw her eyes slide past me toward the front door. I turned. Johnny was just coming in. I was so lost in the moment, I didn’t even hear his Harley when he drove up.
Johnny was four years younger than Diane, and, like I said, I’d met him a couple of times before. He was a large man, at least six-two or three and he must have weighed easily two-hundred and fifty pounds. He had a full beard, and long, wavy, black hair he wore pulled back in a ponytail. He looked like a mountain man, although I’d been told he wasn’t an outdoorsman at all, preferring to spend his time building model airplanes and battleships from World War II. He had deep set eyes, a round face and a pleasant smile if you didn’t look too closely at his teeth; he was missing a few. Tonight he wore a clean white tee-shirt, black leather vest, blue jeans and motorcycle boots. Each arm was covered with tattoos. If you didn’t know him, he was a formidable looking character, definitely exuding a biker vibe. But he was actually very sweet natured. Diane told me he almost never got mad and that he had a fondness for little kids and small dogs. With those traits in mind, if it wasn’t for his alcohol problem, he’d be a model citizen. At least to my way of thinking, anyway. Unfortunatley, he did like his drinks, there was no doubt about it. The fact that he’d been sober for six weeks was cause for a minor celebration. But that’s not what this meeting was about.
“Hey, Di,” he greeted his sister and bent to give her a big, warm, hug.
Then he stood up, turned to me and spread his arms, “Kyle. Hey, my man,” he grinned, and gave me a high five, which I returned, something I’m not prone to doing, but with Johnny you kind of got drawn into the force of his personality.
He grabbed a chair, sat down between us and Marybeth brought him a menu and water. We talked back and forth, making small talk for a few minutes while Johnny looked over the menu. Finally, Diane asked, “So about your new job…how’s it going?”
“Oh, man, it’s unreal,” Johnny said, setting his menu aside and shaking his head. He was clearly distressed.
“In a good way or a bad way?” I asked.
He managed to cough out a laugh, “Well, not in a good way, I can tell you that.” He took in our perplexed looks and turned quiet, thinking how to proceed. Finally, he said, “How about if I tell you about what I did today? Then you guys can judge for yourselves.”
We were more than curious. “Sounds good,” both Diane and I said at the same time.
So he told us and I’ll never forget what, to this day, is still a remarkable story.
“First of all,” he turned to me, “Kyle, let me ask you a question. What are you most afraid of?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I was guessing he wasn’t getting at the big universal fears like death and dying, speaking in public, or dreaming you were wandering around a shopping mall in your under wear.
“You know. Like spiders, centipedes, whatever.”
I was right. Those kinds of fears. Well, here’s the deal: I like to think I’m a mellow, love thy neighbor and all god’s creatures kind of a guy, but, honestly, I’m not. Spiders, beetles and cockroaches kind of creep me out. So do most reptiles, with salamanders being right up there.
So that’s what I told Johnny. He nodded sagely, agreeing with me, I think. Before he could comment on what I said, though, I was quick to add, “But right at the top of the list are snakes. Ugh. I know I should accept them for what they are, and how they’re important to the environment and everything, but I can’t. One crawled into my sleeping bag once when I was a kid and it freaked me out so bad I just about died. It was just a harmless bull snake, but, man, it was huge, at least ten feet long.” I spread my arms wide to indicate how long it actually was and, at that moment, an involuntary shiver ran through me, just from that long ago unpleasant memory. Even now, talking about it was traumatic. I forced myself to continue, “I honestly can’t help it. They one-hundred and ten percent weird me out. I’ll run for the hills before I’ll ever touch one. Which I’ve never done. Touch one, I mean. Ugh.” I sat a moment, thinking, and then said, lowering my voice somewhat shamefully, “Well, to tell the truth, I actually have run away from them. A few of times, anyway.” I glanced at Diane. She gave me a sympathetic smile and reached for my hand in a show of solidarity. God love her. I gladly gave it to her.
Johnny had been listening carefully and nodding along. When I told him about my fear of snakes he smacked his hand hard on the table, causing the glasses and silverware to rattle. “Right on, man. Me, too. Big time.” He looked at Diane and pointed. “Di here has a thing for snakes, too, but also mice and rats. Pretty much all the Rodendia family in fact, isn’t that right, Sis?”
Diane shuttered, “Don’t even mention it.”
All this discussion about fears and reptiles, besides making me uncomfortable, was also having another effect. It was making me more curious than ever. “So what’s the deal, Johnny? What happened today?”
Just then Marybeth stopped by our table and we gave her our orders. I was hungry and ordered a black bean burger with sweet potato fries. Diane suggested to her brother that they split the large Mediterranean flatbread and he agreed. Orders were placed, but if Diana and I had known what Johnny was going to tell us, we would have just skipped trying to eat and gone straight for the doggy bags. Neither of us felt too hungry when he was done with his story.
“Last week was actually my first week,” he began, “I rode with Larry Swartz, just to get the lay of the land. He was kind of training me in on rodent control. We checked a lot of traps for mice.” He glanced at his sister, knowing her aversion to them, and added, “Not the most thrilling job, but it wasn’t too bad. At least they were all dead.”
I looked at Diane. Was she turning just the tiniest bit pale? Maybe. I reached for her hand but she gave me a little, ‘Thanks, but I’m alright,’ pat on the wrist and, instead, took a sip of water.
Johnny continued, “Most of our jobs were in those big houses south of Long Lake.” He pointed out the window even though the area he was telling us about was five miles away. “Lots of mice out there, I guess. Larry told me they were all over the place, you know, in the fields and such.”
I got the drift. Mice, mice and more mice. I personally didn’t mind them, but didn’t need to dwell on the image of herds or hordes (or whatever you’d call them) of the little buggers running rampant over hill and dale, nosing around and searching for ways into people’s homes. “So what happened today?” I asked, hoping to move the story along.
He easily shifted gears, “This week I got to go out on my own. Let’s see, it’s Thursday, right? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday weren’t too bad. I took over part of Larry’s route and checked mice traps and laid down some new bait. Dealt with a raccoon in the rafters of someone’s garage and a possum living under somebody’s deck. Even some chipmunks that had taken over a tool shed. You know, basic stuff.”
I didn’t know, but that was okay. I got what he was saying. “So you were out on your own?”
He nodded, “Yeah, I was. There was lots of paperwork, too, that I had to learn about.” He stopped and grinned enthusiastically, “Well, not really paperwork. They’ve got these cool hand held computers…”
I glanced at Diane. She rolled her eyes. I guess her brother had a propensity for going on and on about things he was interested in, and it seemed like Simonson’s hand held electronic record keeping devices were one of those things. She smiled at me, letting me know, I think, that she appreciated my patience.
But, still…let’s get to the story. What happened today that was so all fired up weird or crazy or whatever, that caused Johnny, this big mountain of a man, to cave like a pile of wet sand and call his older sister? I looked at Diane, and she nodded a silent, ‘Go ahead,’ so I turned to her brother and said, “So, come on, Johnny, tell us what happened today.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” He took a big gulp of water and wiped his hands nervously together. I guess in retrospect he was just trying to delay the inevitable. After what he told us, I could understand why. His expression turned serious and he choked up, his nervousness causing him to lower his voice. Both Diane and I had to lean in close to him to hear what he was saying.
“It was early this afternoon. I was thinking about lunch and just driving back to the office after spraying for termites at a huge house on Willow Trail. I should explain, even though I’m rodent control, our pest control guy, Freddy, had called in sick, so we were all covering for him.”
He looked at us like, Did we understand? and we both nodded that, yeah, we got it. In the back of my mind I was thinking, at least Diane’s brother likes to keep his facts straight. That had to be a good thing. Right?
He continued with his story, his voice more confident as he spoke, “Anyway, I got a call from our dispatcher. She wanted me to head over to Brown Road. A lady had called in about a noise under the floor in the family room in the basement. I was supposed to go and check it out, so I drove over. The house was pretty new, maybe only a few years old. It was on a two or three of acres of land, woods all around and a driveway maybe two hundred feet long. It built toward the back of the property on a slight rise with a nice view of the front yard all the way out to the road. The backyard was overlooking a big swamp. I mean, it was huge. I think it’s called Marsh Lake, but it didn’t look like much of a lake to me. It was a swamp, no doubt about it. Cattails, reeds, muskrat houses, and not much open water. A good place for ducks, maybe.
“Anyway, I parked my Simonson’s truck and got out. The owner hurried up to greet me like she’d been waiting for me. She was maybe mid-thirties, one of those tall, thin and in shape kinds of women that you see living out that way. Anyway, she was nice enough. She told me her name was Susan Mackelmore and that she and her husband and three children had been living there for two years. And, I was right, they’d had the house built brand new for them.
“She also told me that it was supposed to be their dream home, but that it’d been anything but. In fact her very words were, ‘It’s been a nightmare.’ I about to find out why.
“She took me inside and we went downstairs. God, you guys, maybe I’ll take you out there and show it to you sometime. It was one of those huge mansions with white walls, big rooms, tall ceilings, windows everywhere. Nice, I suppose, if you like that kind of thing, but, man, definitely not for me. Too much of everything.”
I looked at Diane. She was following her brother’s story carefully. I was, too. Nearly a brand new home? What could have been so bad that they had to call for help?
“She took me downstairs to the family room. It was on the ground level and covered with wall to wall, light gray carpeting. It was a huge space with a big screen television at one end and a couple of those big sectional couches taking up most of the rest of the area. It looked comfortable to me, definitely a party room, you know, a good place to hang out,” he looked at both of us. Diane and I nodded, letting him know we got the picture.
Diane said, “So…”
Johnny grimaced and continued, “There was a sliding glass door that led to a small backyard. It slopped down to the swamp about fifty feet away. I have to say, it had a nice view, but it wasn’t the view she wanted me to see. We walked into the middle of the room, behind the couches and stopped. She pointed to the floor and told me to listen. I did. I held myself still, didn’t talk or anything, and listened carefully. After a few seconds I told her I didn’t hear anything. She told me to be quiet and wait a little while longer, so I did. I squatted down and concentrated. After a minute or two I finally heard a noise. It sounded like something was shuffling around down there. Like ‘swish’, ‘swish’, ‘swish’. Something like that. Anyway, when I adjusted my feet to keep my balance the swishing stopped. When I kept still for a minute longer, the swishing started up again. Then I moved my feet a little bit, and it stopped. I stopped moving, and it started up again. Something alive was definitely down there.
“I looked at the owner. At the sound of the swishing she’d backed away to the far end of the room where the stairs were and was holding onto the banister for dear life. She looked frightened. ‘What do you think it is?’ she asked. I stood up and walked over to her and told her that I had no idea.”
He looked at us both. It seemed like his eyes were sad. Or frightened. Or something not normal, anyway. He was certainly still shaken up. After a few moments he took a sip of water, cleared his throat and continued, “And I really didn’t know what was down there, but, I have to say, I had my suspicions. I thought it might be a raccoon or a skunk or even a possum. The guys at work told me it was common to find them holed up in crawl spaces. They liked the protection and, in the heat of the summer, like now, they liked the fact that it’s a nice, cool place to hang out. Whatever was down there, though, I needed to check it out, and find out what was going on.
“I told Susan I needed to look under the floor. She took me out the sliding glass door to the backyard and around to the side of the house. There was a small door in the foundation that was the entrance to a crawl space. I took out my flashlight and then grabbed the handle of the door so I could take a look inside. It was kind of stuck because it had never been opened before. I yanked and yanked and after a couple of tugs I was able to free it. I swung it open, bent down, shined my flashlight in and saw what was in there. And, man oh man…
He stopped talking and took another drink of water. Then he looked at us and said, “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
Just then Marybeth brought out dinners. She set the plates down, and even though I was ravenous, my appetite had disappeared entirely. I glanced at Diane. It appeared she felt the same way because, after she’d taken one look at the pizza that she and her brother had ordered, she’d pushed it away. Johnny gave her a quizzical look, shrugged his shoulders and took a slice. We watched as he wolfed it down in half a minute, savoring every bite. I was incredulous that he could eat after what he’d just told us, but he was a big guy and, I guess, had to fuel the engine. Personally, I was impatient and wished he’d hurry up and finish eating. I was anxious to find out what he’d had seen.
In less than a minute he’d chomped down his second slice. I couldn’t wait any longer and said, “So, back to the story. What was in there? A raccoon like you thought? Or a rabbit? Maybe with babies?”
Johnny let out a laugh, and wiped his mouth on his napkin. “That’s funny, Kyle. And I wish, I really do wish it had been little baby bunny rabbits. At least they’d have been cute. But, no, they weren’t rabbits.”
The heck with it. I was hungry, myself. Whatever was under the floor of the house, how bad could it be? I was reaching for my black bean burger, getting ready to sink my teeth into it when Johnny said, “So, Kyle, my man, no. It wasn’t a cute little bunny rabbit with her cute little babies. Not even close.” I paused on my way to taking a big bite.
Diane, who’d been silently listening, asked, “Well, what then, Johnny? What?” Did she sound just a little petulant? Was she losing patience with her brother? I looked at her, but I misjudged her reaction. She seemed fine, just a little on edge. Well, I could understand that feeling. I was, too.
Johnny hesitated for just a moment, maybe to build drama, but he didn’t need to. He had Diane and I hooked with his story. Finally, he took a deep breath, let it out and went ahead and told us, “Okay, I’ll tell you. You know what it was? It was the last thing I could have ever expected, and way worse.” His eyes got wide and he spoke softly, “It was snakes, you guys. Garter snakes. A shit load of them. Like an ocean of them. A huge, tangled up, mass of garter snakes and they were all alive and slithering around all over the place under that house like there was no tomorrow. It was freakin’ unbelievable.”
Thankfully, I never got to bite into my burger. I put it down. In fact, to be honest, I haven’t touched one since. Remember earlier I’d told Johnny of my fear of snakes? Well, my body reacted to what he’d said, and a surge of adrenaline flooded my system. My hands began shaking and sweat started running down my chest. The image of those snakes filled my brain; a slimy mass of them ready to slither out that crawl space door, wind their way through the woods all the way to Black’s Ford, find me and start crawling all over my body. No!
I nervously rubbed my hands on my thighs and glanced at Diane. She’d gone pale. I’m sure I wasn’t looking much better. I took a gulp of water. Diane used her napkin to dab some perspiration off her brow.
Johnny took a look at each of us, noticing our reaction. “You guys okay?” he asked, symphathically. He was genuinely concerned. We both nodded our assent, a little dourly, I might add. He waited a few moments for us to get our bearings, then said, “I know it’s hard, but there’s more. You want me to go on?”
I looked at Diane. She had her face set, grimly resolute in her desire to offer emotional support for her brother. After all, that’s what we were there for, and that’s what we had to do, no matter how hard it was. Plus, we’d already come this far. We needed to put our fears aside and support him, the slithering, slimy, mass of garter snakes notwithstanding.
“Sure,” I managed to croak, “Go on.” I’d almost lost my voice.
Diane didn’t bother trying to say anything, she just nodded. Then she took another sip of water and dabbed her forehead again. “Yeah, go ahead,” she finally managed to say, her voice barely a whisper.
He sighed, “Okay.” It was then that I realized how hard this must be for him, reliving the experience and all. He was as afraid of snakes as Diana and I. Maybe more so. But he dug deep, found the fortitude to go on, and continued,
“At the sight of all those snakes, I jumped back and slammed the door shut. I think I startled Susan, because she jumped back, too, and screamed, ‘What? What’s in there?'”
“I took a moment to compose myself and then told her what I’d seen. I tried to keep my voice steady. I’m supposed to be a professional, you know, but man, it was hard. My hands were shaking.” He held them out to make his point. I looked. Was that the tiniest little tremor I detected? Yes, it was. I looked at Johnny, and he nodded, “Yeah, I’m still freaked out a little bit.”
No kidding. Me, too. Same with Diane. And we hadn’t even been there. I really felt for the guy. What a hell of a position to be in. His second week on the job. He wants to make a good impression. Now, this massive invasion of snakes to deal with. Plus, he was as afraid of them as I was. And his sister. God, what a horrible position to be in. How do you begin to deal with something like that?
I went ahead and asked, “So what’d you do?” I was trying to put my fear of snakes aside, and I must have been successful because, suddenly, I was curious…very curious. After getting over the shock, I have to say, I really did wonder, what did you do in a situation like that? How do you get rid of, as Johnny had said, a shit load of garter snakes? I was about to find out.
“After I told Susan what I’d seen, she sort of freaked out herself. I can’t say that I blamed her. I mean it was a mess. There were hundreds of them in there. Maybe thousands. It was hard to count.” He looked at us and managed a little grin, like a smirk, a vain attempt at humor. We just stared back at him, speechless. I didn’t find the situation humorous at all. He shrugged his shoulders and went on, “She told me she had to call her husband and ran back inside for her phone. Me? I called the office right away and explained the situation. They told me what I had to do.”
I found my voice, “What?” I managed to say, “Seriously, what’d they tell you to do?” My mouth was dry, my discomfort palpable, but my unease was overshadowed by my curiosity. I could tell Diane was wondering, too, despite her earlier misgivings.
“They told me to trap them,” Johnny said.
“Trap them? What the hell?” I immediately pictured a steel trap, the kind with jaws that you pried open and put on the ground and then some poor animal stepped in it and got caught. I was incredulous. Is that what they used for snakes? “I don’t believe it,” I told him, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Yeah,” he said, warming to the subject, “I set traps for them.” He saw the perplexed looked on my face and hurried to add, “Maybe not the kind you’re thinking of. Here’s what I did. I went out to the truck, found the box they told me would be there and carried it back to the crawl space. By this time Susan had talked to her husband and they decided that they wanted me to get rid of the snakes. ‘No matter what the cost,’ were her exact words. So that’s what I was going to do. The dispatcher walked me through the steps I had to take. Let me tell you, guys, it was the worst thing I’d ever done in my life.”
I could only imagine. I’m sure my eyes had never been so wide open, picturing what Johnny had gone through. I looked at Diane. Hers sure were.
“We use what they called, ‘Sticky Traps.’ They’re like fly paper. You peel off the back and set the sheet down and the snakes crawl over them and get stuck. Then you come back later and you remove them.”
“What!” I exclaimed, more loudly than I’d intended. I sheepishly looked around the restaurant. I’d started a few of the diners. I half-heartedly waved my apology to the room. But really, sticky traps to catch snakes? It sounded insane to me. I turned my attention back to Johnny, “I can’t believe it.”
“Yeah, sounds crazy, right?” he said, “But, I guess it’s supposed to work. I’m told that’s what everyone uses.”
Everyone uses them? I sat back kind of stunned. Asked and answered. So that’s how you got rid of snakes. Who would have thought it? Well, well, well. You learned something new every day.
“So what’d you do?” Diane asked, finally having found her voice. Though Johnny was forty-five and an adult, she was older than him by four years and still considered him her little brother. Plus, I could tell how concerned she was for him. I smiled to myself, the first time in a long while that evening it seemed. He was easily twice her weight and over a foot taller, but the fact that she cared so much about him was refreshing to see.
“That was the worst part, Di.” He pointed to himself and grinned, “You know I’m kind of a big guy.” At six-three and at least two-hundred and fifty pounds, the statement was self evident. “It was a tight fit getting into that space, that’s no lie. I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl in there with my sticky traps. The clearance was about two feet so it was a tight fit. Plus, there was no light; it was pitch black. Thank god for my flashlight. I had to carry it in my mouth like this.” He picked up a fork and put it between his lips to show us. He really didn’t need to. We got the drift.”Anyway, I had to lay on my stomach so I could use both hands to peel the back off and lay the traps out. I figured the best way was to start at the far wall and work my way back out. Let me tell you, crawling through those snakes was no walk in the park. It was a bitch. I was scared of them anyway, so it was taking all I could to not to lose my mind. You know, it’s hard not to think about snakes when you’ve got snakes crawling around right next to you.” He paused, trembled a little and looked at us to make his point. We both nodded. We got it. Point made.
He went on with his story, “Some of them even crawled over my arms and legs. A couple even got caught in my hair.” He shook his head and let loose a gigantic shudder at the memory. (Both Diane and I did, too.) Then he continued, “The hardest thing was trying not to think about what I was doing while I was doing it, you know?” He shook his head some more, “But, I managed to put all those snakes out of my mind and made myself keep working until I was finally able to get the job done. Thank god. If I hadn’t been able to ignore what I was doing, I doubt I’d be here right now talking to you guys. I’d probably be in a hospital somewhere with a heart attack or in some bar somewhere getting drunk, trying to forget.”
I found myself nodding along with him. Yeah, what he had done was not only hard, it was courageous. Hugely courageous, at least as far as I was concerned. I looked at Diane. I’m sure she felt as I did, but it was hard to tell. By now, she was pale, really pale. I took her hand to connect and be close to her. In spite of our reactions, though, we were both still hanging on every word.
Johnny took a deep breath and exhaled. “Not all of them wanted to move. I had to push some of them out of them away,” he made a sweeping motion with his hand, “Man, I’m glad I had my rubber gloves on.”
The fact that he was terrified of snakes, yet crawled in amongst them, all in the name of getting the job done, was incredible to me. In fact, the vision of it has stayed with me to this day. But, at the time, all I could think of to say was, “Geez…” I literally was speechless. Johnny had ten times more courage than me. Maybe a hundred times. And the fact that he had been able to push past his fear of snakes to get the job done? Well, that was truly amazing. Me? I’d have slammed the door to the crawl space shut and let the snakes do their thing. I’d have packed away my flashlight and sticky traps, dropped off the Simonson’s Pest and Rodent Control truck back at the office, quit right then and there and never looked back. Then I’d have gone home and started applying for jobs in a different line of work. Safer jobs. Cleaner jobs. Easier jobs. Jobs like…Like…Well, like anything.
Diane was back to being speechless. I was, too. Johnny, for his part, took another slice of pizza and casually ate it, wiping his hands on a napkin when he was finished. Then he took a drink of water. It came back to me about his alcohol problem. Apparently his drinking was under control for right now. No beer or alcohol for him tonight, just water. I had to give him a ton of credit for that, even though in the past it apparently had been easy for him to fall off the wagon. For now, though, he was under control and sober. It was good to see.
We were all silent for a minute. Johnny worked some more on the pizza while Diane and I held hands, silently supporting each other, trying to rid our minds of the images Johnny had painted of his ‘Incident with the snakes in the crawlspace,’ as I was beginning to think of his experience as.
After a minute or so I asked, “While you were in there with them, where’d the snakes all go?”
Johnny finished chewing and swallowed, “Where do you think? Most of them went right out the crawl space door. You should have heard Susan scream when that started happening.” He smiled at the memory. In spite of myself, so did I, imaging the scene; a mass of snakes slithering out, rushing toward the unsuspecting homeowner. I looked at Diane. She was grinning, too. I think we were both thinking, though, better Susan than us. Johnny added, “A lot went under the ground, though, under the foundation. It was pretty hectic in there for a while.”
No shit, Sherlock. I could only image.
Diane put aside her ill at ease feelings of snakes and began to get in the groove of supporting her brother, wanting to show an interest in his work. “How long did it take to get the sticky traps put down?”
“About two hours. Pretty much all afternoon.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was nearly eight o’clock. While I’d been showing Frank Becker a new fixture for his bathroom vanity, on my way to finishing up my shift at the hardware store, Johnny had been on his hands and knees with a flashlight clamped firmly in his teeth, crawling around in a dark, dank, two foot high crawl space, laying out sticky traps for hundreds if not thousands of garter snakes. God, what a job.
All of a sudden, I had a thought.”So you’ve got the traps out. Now what happens?”
Johnny sat back, took another slice of pizza and bit into it, chewing contemplatively, and said, “I’m not done yet. I’ve got to go back there tomorrow and see what there is to see.”
“What!” I blurted out. I let go of Diane’s hand and sat straight up in my chair. I couldn’t help myself. I never imaged that he’d have to go back into that crawl space, but, of course, that’s exactly what he’d have to do. How else would he get rid of the snakes? Diane patted my hand to calm me. I looked around and saw Rhonda watching . She looked at me questioningly, and I waved, ‘It’s okay,’ to her. Then I turned back to Johnny.
He spread his arms wide and smiled a big smile and said, “What can I say, man? It’s my job. Somebody’s got to do it.”
Oh, my god. He wasn’t done yet. He still had to go back tomorrow. Unreal. I looked at Diane. Her eyes were downcast and her expression had turned inward. I could almost hear the wheels in her brain grinding away, working overtime. I knew she was wondering if the stress of this new job would be enough to cause her brother to go back to his apartment and start drinking again; you know, turn to alcohol to bolster himself with some liquid courage for the task that lay ahead of him tomorrow. That being said, though, I have to say that I kind of got it. When my marriage fell apart, I admit that I turned to Jack Daniels to drown my sorrows, a habit that could have gotten out seriously of control if I hadn’t put the brakes on and quit cold turkey. Sober, now, for over five years, I was sympathetic to what he was going through.
Johnny must have known his sister well because he rushed to allay her fears, “Don’t worry, Sis. I’m good. I’ve got it all under control,” by which I’m sure he meant his drinking. “Besides,” he added, “I have to say, dealing with the snakes and all is kind of a challenge. I kind of dig it. In fact, I’m looking forward to going back tomorrow to see if I got any of the damn things.”
He smiled a big smile, took another piece of pizza and bit into it. Then he looked at Diane and changed the subject, “Hey, Sis, better grab a slice. I’m kind of hungry and might finish the whole thing.” There was only one piece left. Then he laughed loud and long. The other diners looked at us and then quickly turned away. It occurred to me they might have overheard parts, if not all of, Johnny’s story. If they had, I wondered how could they have been able to continue eating? Me? I’d totally lost my appetite.
Just to be polite, later on when we left, I asked Marybeth for a bag for my black bean burger. It never made it into my home. I tossed it in the trash container outside my apartment before I even considered going inside.
The problem was that Johnny’s story wasn’t over. That next day he had to go back and complete the job, doing, as he’d told us, ‘What he had to do.’ For our part, I knew this: Johnny wasn’t far from either Diane’s or my mind all that next day, with both of us wondering how the horrific task of snake removal was going with him.
Later that Friday night, Johnny called his sister to talk. Diane called me right after, “Yeah, Kyle, I just got off the phone with Johnny. He was in a really good mood. He said that it was great being with us last night, and he really appreciated the support we gave him. He wanted see if he could take us out to dinner next week to Black’s Ford. ‘On him’ he said. Then he’ll fill us in on what happened today.” She paused, playing around with me, “If you’re interested, that is.”
I couldn’t get the words out fast enough, “Yes, yes, yes,” I told her. Of course I am. Big time.”
I was beginning to really like Johnny. I enjoyed being around him. Plus, truthfully, I’d spent more than a few minutes at work that day wondering how it had gone for him, getting rid of the snakes and everything. In fact, when I mentioned the snake infestation to the people I worked with, they were all adamant in telling me that dealing with garter snakes coming into homes was becoming a big issue in the area. Almost epidemic.
My boss, Larry Jorgenson pointedly said, “Yeah, they come up from the swamps. If they get inside someone’s house, it’s really trouble. A huge pain in the ass. Once a snake lays its eggs and hatches its young, that owner’s home becomes their home. Well, den is the correct term. Anyway, when that happens, it’s almost impossible to get them out.”
Wow, I didn’t know it could get that bad. Needless to say, it was not a good situation at all, and, in the case of the mansion out on Brown Road, Johnny and his sticky traps were stuck right in the middle. (Pun intended.)
So, of course I wanted to hear what happened. “Can you call him back right now and tell him that for sure we’ll be there?” I began picturing a myriad of possibilities as to what might have happened with the garter snake roundup. Then I stopped myself and asked, “By the way, did he give you any hint? Any clue as to how it went?”
She laughed, “Hold on, Kyle, not so fast. First of all, I’ve already told him we’d be there. I figured you’d want to. Was I right on that?”
“Absolutely. My mind’s going a mile a minute imagining what it was like.” Again, though, an involuntary shudder. After all, it was hundreds and hundreds of dead and dying snakes we were talking about here.
“Good,” I could picture Diane smiling into the phone, and the image made me feel warm inside. I hope that statement doesn’t sound too sappy, but, I can’t help it, that’s just the way I felt. In fact, being with her was fast becoming the best I’d felt in years.
Her voice came into my ear, just then, and interrupted my thoughts of love and romance. She continued, “And, no, no hints at all, thank you very much for asking. My brother’s playing it close to his chest about how it went, having some fun with us, I think. But that’s okay. I’m glad he’s staying sober. That’s the main thing. Plus, I think he likes this job.”
Back to the reality of the here and now and Johnny and the garter snakes. “So we wait until next Thursday?”
“Yeah. But that’s a long way off. Do you want to get together before that?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Ok. How about we fire up the grill at my place tomorrow night and then go for a bike ride on Sunday?”
“You’re on,” I told her, grinning like there was no tomorrow. Except that there was, and I’d be spending it with Diane. And the next day. Perfect.
So we spent the weekend together and had a wonderful time. Saturday after work, I came over and we made up our own black bean burgers and did them on the grill on the back patio. They were scrumptious, juicy and flavorful. Then we stayed up late outside, sipping ice tea and talking, enjoying a quiet evening together before turning in. We both had Sunday off, so we slept late, had a leisurely breakfast and then went for our bike ride.
Out of the trail we saw early blooming white asters and I even spotted a barred owl. When I pointed it out to Diane, she was visibly excited. “I’ve never seen one before. It’s so cool.” She snapped a few pictures with her phone, and I broke into a big smile, one that she immediately returned.
It was a simple moment, sure, as was the entire weekend; one that might not seem like much in the bigger picture of things, but we were stockpiling a lifetime of those special moments and it felt wonderful. Moreover, it was the sharing those kinds of uncomplicated times, I think, that was helping to build a strong foundation for our relationship. That’s certainly what ours was becoming, anyway, one based on friendship as well as mutual attraction and respect.
From my standpoint, I was very happy. So was Diane. For each of us, having been through a divorce, we had started out by taking our time, wanting to get to know each other before committing emotionally. But that was back at the beginning, when we’d first met, nearly three months earlier. Clearly, now, all of that was changing. It was obvious that we were not only enjoying each other’s company, but were also building a strong emotional bond. It was fun to experience, especially coming from the disaster that had been the end of my first marriage. I could tell the same was true for Diane. She and her ex, both eighteen at the time, had married far too young and had, over the years, simply grown apart. “The divorce was mutual. He’s moved on with his life and so have I,” she told me early on when we’d first started dating. Another time she told me, “As far as I’m concerned, getting divorced was the best thing to do. It gave me a chance to have a better life.” I understood completely.
For me, being with Diane…Well, I counted myself lucky, that was for sure, if not extremely fortunate. For us, things started good and have steadily improved as our feelings for each other have grown. In fact, recently, when I was over at her house grilling corn on the cob, she came up out of the blue and gave me a big, passionate hug. “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been,” she said, holding me tight. “Me, too,” I told her in return, and hugged her back, almost (but not quite) forgetting about the corn smoking away on the grill. I totally understood where she was coming from.
One thing was certain, we could talk about anything that was on our minds. She was opening up about her family and her marriage and her kids. I was, too. I’d even told her about my own past issues with alcohol. In return, she confided that she’d gone through a period of opioid dependency to oxycodine ten years earlier after fracturing her pelvis in a car accident. She was clean now, as I was sober, and we both intended to stay that way.
In short, our relationship was becoming closer and stronger every day. I hadn’t been as happy or fulfilled in a long time, if ever.
So, we had a good week, but Thursday evening couldn’t come soon enough. When it did, I picked up Diane and we drove to Black’s Ford in time to meet Johnny at seven. He was at the same window table as before, carrying on an animated conversation with Rhonda. She turned as we walked in, “Hey there, you two,” she greeted us with a sly smile. We sat down and she handed each of us our menus, “Johnny, here was just telling me about his job and what he’s been doing this week. Here to talk about snakes again?”
Whoops. I felt my ears turn red. I guess lots of people in Black’s Ford last Thursday could overhear our conversation
“I’m so sorry…” I began to apologize, but Rhonda waved a hand in my face.
“Don’t worry about it, Kyle. It’s a public space after all.” Then she winked, “Besides, I’m looking forward to hearing what happened. Johnny here’s keeping mum on the outcome.” She grinned at her little rhyme, and then ambled off to chat with some customers a few tables over.
Diane and I watched her walk away and laughed nervously. Johnny just grinned and asked, “So…before I fill you in, should we order first?” Then, before we could say anything, he answered his own question, “Sure, let’s do that. I’m starving. And remember, you guys,” his grin got wider, if that was possible, “It’s on me.” I couldn’t tell if he was enjoying being generous, or simply enjoying dragging out the end of his ‘Incident of the snakes in the crawlspace’ story. I decided to give him credit where credit was due and went with both possibilities.
We perused our menus until Marybeth came to drop off water and to take our orders. At this point, after Johnny’s story last week, I felt I had a handle on what might be coming and figured I could listen to the outcome and still enjoy a tasty meal. Diane did, too, so we ordered: a rice curry dish for me and baked summer squash for Diane. Johnny went with the vegetarian lasagna. We chatted amicably while waiting for the food to arrive. When it did, Johnny hungrily dug into his lasagna.(Inhaling might be a better word. Man, that guy could eat.) After finishing half of it, he set his fork aside and asked, “So,” he smiled mysteriously, “Are you ready to hear about what happened last Friday?” He knew that, of course, we did. He was just goofing around and playing with us.
Diane grinned back at him, playing along, “Sure. Anytime you’re ready, little brother.”
Johnny laughed and made it a point of getting himself set. He took a big bite of his lasagna and chewed away happily. In fact, he ate most of the rest of it right then and there while we waited patiently, letting him have his moment. When he was finished, he wiped his hands (rather symbolically, I thought) on his napkin, and said, “Okay, here goes…”
We were all ears.
“I went back early Friday morning. The guys at work told me that because snakes are reptiles and reptiles are cold blooded, in the early morning their body temperature is low. That means they’re sluggish. Not so active.”
Honestly, I was interested, but the image of a sea of sluggish snakes lolling around in a tangled, reptilian web was not a good way to begin a nice meal. In fact, my appetite, ravenous five minutes earlier, was suddenly beginning to fade. I looked at Diane. She must have felt the same way because she was only half-heartedly nibbling at her summer squash. I had a private mental talk with myself along the lines of, ‘Man up, Kyle, and get with the program. It’s only a bunch of harmless garter snakes, for Pete’s sake.’ To that end, I picked up my fork and took a big, healthy bite of my rice curry. I’m happy to report that I was able to continue to listen to Johnny, as well as chew and swallow, with only a minimal amount of choking.
“I got there around seven in the morning,” he continued, “Remember, when I left the day before I’d put the sticky traps down, but the snakes had all slithered out, so the crawl space was empty. I had no idea if the traps would work like they were suppose to at all. In fact, I wasn’t even sure there’d be any snakes there when I came back.”
That was that. The picture of all those garter snakes slithering out the crawl space door heading for who knows where did it for me. I put my fork down. So much for my pep-talk to ‘Man up.’ I figured I’d just wait for the end of his story. Then maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to continue with my meal without getting the dry heaves. I looked at Diane. She gave me a wan smile and set her fork down, too. For both of us, dinner was on hold.
Johnny stopped and looked at us with a slight grin. I could tell he was just loving our reaction.
Loss of appetite notwithstanding, I was still inordinately interested in what happened and didn’t mind playing along. I asked, “So were there any snakes there? Anything stuck in the sticky traps?”
He smiled, enjoying the moment, I’m sure, before answering, “Oh, yeah. The traps worked great. There were snakes in them alright. Lots of them. Tons of them. Even more than last time, I think. Maybe a double shit load.”
I shoved my meal away. No more rice curry for me for a while. To take away my queasy feeling, I felt I had to make some sort of comment, “So the sticky traps worked?” I managed to say.
“Yeah, they worked great. The floor was covered with them. Wall to wall dead snakes.”
I was glad I hadn’t eaten anything. My stomach literally did a complete somersault and I put my hand over my mouth, just in case. Diane reached over and took my other hand and held it tight. She was ghostly pale. I was queasy. What a couple we made. But, hey, at least we were there for each other and doing our best to look out for the other one.
In fact, in looking back, I think that it was right at that moment that our fondness for each other reached a deeper level. A level where, bound by our fear of reptiles in general and snakes specifically, we tumbled over the edge into the abyss and fell in love. Yeah, strange as it may seem, I’m pretty sure that’s when it happened, right in the middle of a sticky trap covered, snake infested crawl space. But I’ll always say, simply, that it was at a nice dinner with Johnny at Black’s Ford and leave any mention of dead garter snakes out of the discussion. It sounds way better.
Romance aside, however, back to Johnny’s story. Without getting too graphic, here’s what he told us happened: I guess when the snakes got stuck on the traps, they couldn’t move much and eventually died from shock or something. Most of them, anyway, but not all. When Johnny got there he had to clean out not only the dead ones, but, also, the still barely alive ones. He and his big bulky self worked his way into the crawl space like yesterday, flashlight firmly clenched between his teeth, dragging a large leaf bag that he used to stuff the snakes into. This time he worked from the front entrance to the far back wall. And remember, this is a guy who was terrified of snakes. Thank god, he told us, he had his heavy duty rubber gloves on. Anyway, it took all morning. He filled one bag, hauled it out to his truck and then went back in for more. (The image of a heavy duty black plastic leaf bag, filled with writhing, still living snakes, is another image that continues to haunt me to this day.) He filled five bags all total. When he was finished he took them back to the office where they buried the dead ones in a landfill. The live ones? They gassed them with the exhaust from Johnny’s truck. Then they buried them.
When he finished his story, Diane sat quietly. Me, too, both of us stunned speechless. We were still holding each other’s hand, though, and that was really nice, but we were also both processing what Johnny had told us: me, the picking up and hauling out of five garbage bags full of snakes, some of them still wriggling around. Diane, as she told me later, imaging crawling around in a confined space in the dark with the only light coming from a small flashlight. (That’s when I found out she had an issue with claustrophobia.)
“Well, I’m in the mood for dessert,” Johnny said, finally, clapping his hands together after a minute or so of silence, “How about you guys?”
When he looked at us and asked if we wanted dessert ourselves, we looked back at him incredulously. ‘No, no dessert. Not tonight, thank you, very much,’ was the essence of what we told him. Food was the last thing on our minds. We hadn’t even been able to eat our dinners.
Johnny shrugged his big shoulders and went ahead and ordered himself some dessert, a big slice of fresh apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream.
Finally, Diane found her voice and said, getting to the main point as far as she was concerned, “So you got rid of the snakes, little brother, and I’m glad for you, but what do you think? Is this the kind of job you want to keep doing?” she shivered and added, “Personally, I won’t be surprised if you quit. In fact, I can’t believe you haven’t hung it up already.”
Me? What did I think? Well, personally, I found Johnny’s job, even though it wasn’t something I’d want to do, I found it fascinating. I mean, to know there were people out there doing that kind of work – work that us ordinary folks wouldn’t ever dream of doing – well, more power to them, I say, and more power to him, too, specifically, when it came to Johnny.
Diane pressed her point, “So what are you going to do, little brother? Stay at Simonson’s or hang it up?”
Johnny sat back and grinned, “Well, this might surprise you, and honestly, it kind of does me, too, but I’m staying, Di. I really am. I like it. I have to say that I enjoy the work. Yeah, I know we get called out to deal with some pretty disgusting things sometimes, but, hey, that’s alright. I’m doing something most people would never consider doing, and I kind of dig that. In fact, my boss is thinking of putting me in charge of snake disposal. Kind of like a promotion.”
Promotion? Yikes, was he joking? That seemed to be stretching things a bit. I looked at Johnny, though, and it was clear that, indeed, he was serious. Deadly serious. It was also obvious he was happy with his job. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that maybe Diane’s brother had found his niche. I pictured the company’s trucks with new lettering on the side reading ‘Simonson’s Rodent, Pest and Reptile Control.’ At least there’d be more bases would be covered, from an animal control standpoint, and more work for them, too. Hmm. The future was looking bright, for both Simonson’s and Johnny. Well, I thought, good for everybody.
“Plus…” He stopped for a moment and looked at us both to make his point, “I’m staying sober. And that’s a good thing, right? The most important thing, really, you know?”
Both Diane and I nodded our heads in the affirmative, “Right,” Diane said at the same moment I said, “Absolutely.”
Just then, Marybeth brought Johnny’s pie and ice cream and cleared out plates. Doggy bags for both Diane and I. Again. I secretly hoped this wasn’t going to become a habit. I promised myself that, this time, my leftovers would make it inside my apartment when I got home, and that I would I eat then and enjoy them. For sure.
“So all’s good, right?” Johnny asked, enthusiastically digging into his pie.
“Yeah, it is,” Diane said, agreeing with her brother.
I could tell she was very happy for him. A little skeptical, maybe? Sure. You kind of had to be when dealing with chronic drinkers. For now, though, she was ready to cut him some slack and give him the benefit of the doubt. And that’s what siblings did, right? Tried to be there for each other? Well, at least in this family they did. The point was, if Diane was happy for Johnny, then I was happy for her.
“So, what’s going on now?” I asked, my appetite was returning as I enviously watched him destroy his huge piece of apple pie nearly buried in a mountain of vanilla ice cream, “What are you working on now?”
“Right now I’m assigned to a house that’s in the process of getting over run with mice. It’s pretty challenging. Want to hear about it? It’s a real mess.”
In spite of ourselves, both Diane and I nodded.
“Sure,” I said.
“Why not?” Diane added.
He looked at our nearly empty place settings, with only a water glass each, and set his fork down,”Come on you guys. I feel bad you didn’t eat anything. How about if I at least order you some desert? Maybe we can celebrate not only my new job, but the fact that I’m staying sober.” He lifted his plate in a mock salute and intoned the essence of the Alcoholics Anonymous Creed, “Here’s to taking it one day at a time.”
Diane and I looked at each other and smiled. Johnny was happy and sober and we were happy for him. Plus, we were happy with each other. Three times happy. You couldn’t beat that. So, why not? Why not celebrate?
In the end, that’s exactly what we did. I waved Marybeth over and ordered a bowl of salty caramel ice cream for each of us. Two big scoops each. We chatted a little until our bowls arrived and when they did, Diane and I dug in hungrily while Johnny settled back to begin another captivating tale, this time about, as he put it, ‘A shit load of mice.’
After he began his story, Diane and I looked at each other and made eye contact for a long moment. Each of us smiled warmly at the other. Then she reached over and squeezed my hand, and I squeezed hers back. I didn’t know about her, but for my part, I was getting the feeling that this could become habit forming, meeting her brother like we were on a weekly basis, just chatting and getting the low down on his job. You know, getting caught up and staying in touch. It’s something I wanted to do. I felt like I was being drawn into this little family of a brother and sister and it felt good, all three of us being together and talking, subject matter aside. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better way to move on with our lives; Johnny with his new job and staying sober. His sister and I moving forward with our relationship as we continued to forge a new life together.
“…and those mice, man, they aren’t just downstairs, they’re all over the place, especially in the kitchen, in the cupboards and everything. Everywhere. Mouse crap all over the place. I guess they got into the walls somehow and are starting to overrun the house. Man, it’s going to be a horrendous job. I’ve got to…”
Diane and smiled at each other, content and at peace. We ate our ice cream and held hands and listened to her brother’s story. We couldn’t have been happier.