The Opossum in the Cabinet

We had an odd arrangement with our contractor, who was also our former pastor and good friend: we hired him to build the house, and he hired Greg as his framing crew. He knew we needed to do all we could to cut costs, and he graciously accommodated us. I worked on the house too, as much as I was able, mostly on painting and clean-up. The kids were then six, three, and two years of age. They spent long days with us at the house-in-progress, helping with the work and running around the three-acre property.

No doubt the new house would be a big improvement over the old. Since before Daniel’s first birthday, we’d lived in 1100 square feet of bad plumbing and particle-wood sub-floors. We’d been grateful to get that place, and certainly it had its good points. But we were reveling in the expectation of 1600 square feet of brand spanking new living space that could be counted on not to fall apart around us anytime in the near future.

We’d gotten home late that night from working on the house; we’d thrown something together for dinner, fed the kids, and put them to bed. Greg and I were sitting at the kitchen table, talking, when I heard a scratching sound coming from inside the cabinet under the sink.

This was not an unheard-of thing. Our baby-proof latches had long since worn out, and our cat Pud had a knack for opening certain cabinet doors with his paw. Probably he just liked the privacy.

Untroubled, without shifting in my seat or pausing in what I was saying, I opened the door.

Perched on top of a box of dishwashing detergent was an animal. Smaller than our grown cats, whitish, with round black eyes, a long snout, and a bald, pink, prehensile tail.

I shut the door. Then I turned to my husband.

“Greg,” I said, “there—there’s a—there’s an opossum—”

He was already nodding, his eyes intently fixed on my face, willing me to stay calm. “I know. I saw it too. It must have come in through that hole in the cabinet floor. We’ll just leave it shut in the cabinet for the night, and tomorrow after it goes away I’ll seal up the hole.”

The plan wasn’t ideal, but under the circumstances it was the best we could do. Neither of us wanted to grapple with the animal, and if we were to flush it out of the cabinet and try to hustle it through the front door, there was no guarantee that it would go where we wanted it to without a fight. I’d heard of opossums doing a lot of damage in houses to which they’d somehow gained entrance.

We blocked the door with a chair and a box, trapping the critter and preventing Pud from strolling in for a little down time and making the awful discovery. Then we went to bed.

Next morning, we opened the cabinet. No opossum! It must have slunk out in the night, just as Greg had predicted. Greg sealed the hole with some of that expanding foam stuff that comes in a can. When he was done, there was no opening left through which any opossum could possibly pass.

He went to work, and the kids and I stayed home. Sometime that afternoon, I opened the undersink cabinet to throw something away.

The opossum stared up at me from inside the trash can.

Let me say here that I do not fear opossums on principle, or bees or wasps or spiders or snakes. Faced with wildlife that isn’t actively attacking me in a life-threatening manner, I can keep my head as well as anyone. But I do hate to be startled. I don’t fear Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke either, but if I found him inside my trash can, I would probably scream.

It all depends on context.

And I screamed now. To my credit, I also had the presence of mind to quickly throw away my handful of trash and slam the cabinet door shut.

The kids knew that Mom did not make a habit of randomly screaming. They wanted to know what was wrong. Rattled, but determined to recover my calm, I said, “Oh, nothing, almost nothing at all. There’s just an opossum in the trash can.”

(This is as good a place as any to address the largely obsolete spelling “opossum.” Throughout most of the incident of the marsupial in our cabinet, I referred to the animal by this, its rightful name. “Why do you call it that?” Greg asked. “Nobody says opossum anymore, just possum.” The thing seemed to matter deeply to him, so I started saying the word his way. I even pronounced it without the apostrophe traditionally used to indicate missing letters.)

I called Greg at work. We agreed that the possum had most definitely not been hiding out in the trash can while he was sealing the hole in the floor. Nor had it been skulking in a corner of the cabinet behind my mopping bucket. Where, then, had it disappeared to, and reappeared from?

We reasoned that the possum had slipped into the space behind the dishwasher and hung out there while Greg was working on the cabinet floor. Perhaps it was napping, or cowering in abject terror. One way or another, it was back.

Then the full import of the situation dawned on us. Greg had, in fact, sealed the possum inside the house, contrary to his intent.

And Greg was about to leave town for the weekend.

“You can keep him shut in the cabinet while I’m gone,” he said in a half-apologetic, half-coaxing tone. “When I get back I’ll set the live trap inside the cabinet and catch him. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get him out after I get back, but I just don’t have time to deal with this right now.”

There are times in my married life when my husband needs me to rise to the occasion, to be more than what I am, to laugh in the face of minor irritations and major adversity and so on. I’ve often failed, but not that day.

We blocked the cabinet door again, and Greg left for a visit to his dad.

Obviously I couldn’t have the beast perishing of hunger inside my kitchen cabinet, so a couple of times a day I tossed in some of the kids’ sandwich crusts. I figured it would get a subsistence level of water from the faulty plumbing under the sink.

It was kind of an unsettled time. It’s hard to really relax when you know that there is a hissing animal with needle-sharp teeth hiding in your kitchen. The whole concept probably has the makings of a horror movie. The underbed has been amply explored as a region of primal terror, but there is untapped potential in the undersink, home to dangerous chemicals, leaky pipes, garbage, nameless slime, and itinerant marsupials.

Greg came home again, set the live trap, baited it with a cheese sandwich, and put it in the cabinet. I had my doubts. Could the animal really be naïve enough to be lured by such blatant means into a metal contraption so obviously meant to confine him?

Yes, it could. In the morning Greg opened the cabinet, and there was the possum, snugly ensconced in the trap. This was my first opportunity to get a good look at the animal. It was a young possum and sort of cute.

Something like this.

Pud was sleeping nearby. Throughout the whole possum occupation he’d been an ineffectual watchcat, never even sniffing suspiciously at the cabinet. Greg held the cage close to him. The possum tensed; Pud slept on.

Finally Pud woke, looked at the strange animal, and fluffed up his fur. His pupils dilated and he began to yowl.

But the time for a rumble had passed. The delighted children accompanied their father and me down the street and across Mayhill Road to the lovely woods beyond. There we released our evicted tenant. It scuttled off into the herbage, never to be seen again, at least by us.

After church that day I got out a roll of paper towels and a bottle of cleaner and happily went to work, removing all signs and odors of the possum’s stay. I crawled inside the cabinet to reach the space behind the dishwasher. In a surprisingly short time, all impurities were purged away.

Within a few months we’d moved into our new home, which was never once invaded by a possum during the nine years we lived there, though it did have quite a few brown recluse spiders. But we have great memories of the old place. It was a good home to us, marsupial squatters notwithstanding.

Whether an animal, or even a person, qualifies as a pest, an invader, a guest, a pet, or a resident depends on the homeowner’s point of view. Scorpions are never welcome inside the house, and cattle belong outside the fenced yard and away from the compost bin. The status of the outside cats fluctuates depending on whether they are lounging on the porch, slipping inside to steal food off the counter, or controlling the local population of Rodents Of Unusual Size. Just this morning three of the dogs were demoted to varmint status when they chewed some of Emilie’s stuffed animals and ate her bag of horse treats.

But all four of the big dogs earned praise two nights ago when they alerted us to an alien presence in the yard. Greg went outside and found a possum curled up in a hideous playing-dead pose: eyes wide and staring, limbs stiff, lips pulled back from rows of jagged teeth in a horrible grimace. Greg picked it up by its tail and chucked it over the fence.

If only it were always that easy.