By Elisavietta Ritchie
She is large, fair and buxom and nobody asks her age. Some from a distance guess forty, biographers hint at more. But why she bothers to carry a thermos heavy with ice and juice from her attic apartment down four flights of stairs to the foot of ladders surrounded by splintered wood, cracked tiles, tarpaper torn into trapezoids, bent rusted nails, twisted-off gutters too full of holes to hold more than last year’s maple leaves —
Not even her building. The brick one across the alley. The roofs are on par, and since her windows are raised, they share their orchestrations of crowbars, hammers, buzz saws, planks clanging, while she spins back Aida, Traviata, Forza del Destino.
Now she waits while they lower a rope five flights down. Might they lift her like a wired angel up to their heights?
She ties on her thermos and bag of cups, and cup cakes still warm from her oven. They haul the load past everyone’s balconies onto the roof.
Oh well, neighbors say, why not, she has no one to bake for, though roofers are sooty, tattooed, shirts damp and dirty or missing entirely, fingernails blackened forever with tar, and their English is shy of grammar and foreign of accent, granted their smiles and curls are ample, their black eyes shine, and one of them (maybe a Pole) actually kissed her hand as if she were nobility, one supposes they bathe at the end of the day, and she could slim down if she tried, though there’s no accounting for tastes.
From their rooftop they toast her, framed in her garret dormer, with her green plastic glasses of orange juice, wishing it were champagne or at least beer, and eat her cupcakes wrapped in white tissues. She puts on Figaro, puts onions, carrots, chicken backs in the pot, pinches sage and thyme from her sill, irons her blue dress.
The sun is still hot but clouds mass, begin rolling in.
It’s all because of raccoons. Two discovered or fashioned a hole in the next-door eaves, settled in, birthed six. Now every night eight climb to her dormer ledge to beg for bananas, lick tins of sardines, nibble fish spines, play cricket with apple cores.
But neighbors are upset by nocturnal raids through their trash, perpetual romps overhead — like living under a bowling alley!
“Repairs long overdue,” they insisted. “When they rip off the old leaky shingles, they’ll rid us of varmints. Roofers know how to do it, have cages and sprays (humane), a truck to transport ’em off to a forest to start a new life in the wilds. Raccoons,” they assure her, “adapt.”
Therefore: negotiations. Move these raccoons to the corner park? Already has its share of raccoons. The ravine, the woods down the road? Can’t leave them too near, we must guarantee they’ll never gnaw their way inside again, or we’ll always be coming back to patch up.”
Can they see her smile as she adds potatoes, garlic and dill to the soup, watches the first drops of rain pattern the new plywood slabs, changes her dress. Like lost childhood collies, displaced raccoons might still find their way home across a whole county. The wood is rotten also under her eaves, gables are high, her landlord miserly with repairs….
Meanwhile, raccoons huddle under the final ridgepole, under the stripping crowbars, hammer blows sifting dust in their noses and fur.
The fragrance of garlic and herbs wafts over the chimney pots, even through burgeoning rain. A knock on the door: glistening with raindrops, they are returning her empty thermos and cups. All right, just until the storm stops, they might come up, taste her soup, they’ll just take off their work boots.
A compromise could be reached, they will be back, they will be back.
[earlier version copyright 1995 The Christian Science Monitor; reprinted in In Haste I Write You This Note: Stories & Half-Stories, winner Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize, copyright 2000 Elisavietta Ritchie]
Elisavietta Ritchie’s latest books are CORMORANT BEYOND THE COMPOST, AWAITING PERMISSION TO LAND, ARC OF THE STORM, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Well traveled but home base Washington DC and Southern Maryland on the edge of the sometimes-flooding Patuxent River, source of much of her writing and living, and where she is currently studying Shorin Ryu karate, teaching a workshops “Re-Create Your Life: Creative Memoir Writing” and occasional poet in the schools. Latest coup: “Camille Pissarro ‘The Bather” won The Ledge 2011 Poetry prize. www.elisavietta.com and on Facebook, and eminently googlleable.