In summer, every guest is a surprise. The forest is thick with greenery, blocking the telltale signs, muffling the whistle of the train as it squeals past, blocking out the highway and its parade of lights cutting through the dark.
By winter, we’ve found, the train rumbles more fiercely, the shells of trees don’t hinder the signs of approaching cars. We can see the bluffs from our sun porch, where we sit and play cards and gaze out, still amazed that we found this place tucked alongside woods and riverside so beautiful John A. Latsch himself hand- picked it to be saved.
It was late last summer when the forces aligned, when this little house in the woods stole our hearts and kidnapped us from our city abode. With the generosity of our families and a lot of hard work, my partner Chris and I were able to purchase a little slice of heaven, 750 square feet of ‘70s green carpet and fireplace attached from the rear to hundreds of acres of Merrick State Park and the backwaters of the Mississippi only a fool wouldn’t love.
And while I do own a banjo and a jug or two, and spent many years living in the country in my youth, I didn’t necessarily think that the term hillbilly need be applied. In my mind, I could dance a jig to Guy Clark’s “Texas Cookin’” till the cows came home with a straw sticking out of every toothy gap, but heck, I’ve got an automatic coffee machine and an education.
But I’ve learned.
For instance, it’s hard to tell a story about a diseased possum galloping into your home without admitting to yourself that you’ve gone country faster than anyone ever featured in an Alan Jackson song did.
He’d been hanging around for awhile. At first it seemed cute, an old possum who wanted to play with our cat outside the house one day while I was at work. I got an e-mail from Chris, and told him to snag a few pictures.
But by the time he’d captured the little guy on film and I’d gotten home, we’d both realized that there was something wrong with this critter. He panted, mouth agape; he was up during the day and generally seemed to be ill, probably dying. We wondered whether he’d stick around, whether we’d have to do something about him and whether he had any disease our pets could contract.
Possums are not known to be big carriers of the usual suspects: rabies or distemper, which did put the mind at ease. But the little guy’s behavior continued to cause distress, as our two city folk guests Thursday night brandished a rake on the way out to their car and he darted around the driveway, panting raggedly.
He made no appearance until late Saturday night. Our friend Sarah was over, and I had just let our two dogs outside for one last hurrah in the yard. Our naughtier of the two, Freddy, the “Saint Bernard slash terrier mix” began running frantically back and forth in front of the door. I realized that our furry friend was likely back, and called the dogs more urgently to get inside and leave him alone.
Somewhere in little Fred’s supposed genetic background, there must be some sort of herding work dog, an interesting note for the mutt who occasionally finds himself trapped in three-sided cages. Because just as he rounded back up the sidewalk to come inside, he herded up our diseased critter neighbor and sent him flying through the open door, over my pink little bare toes and into the sun porch.
Now I’m not a great sprinter, and I’m not generally afraid of animals who fall far short of knee height. But I didn’t shave any time off a second to ponder bravery or appropriate responses, I just hightailed it through the house as far from the front door as 750 square feet allow, stopping just short of a closet door before I began laughing at my cowardice.
While none of this is very funny, seeing my relatively calm self jump several feet into the air and then run screaming from a tiny animal did bring on the effect, and the three of us spent the next hour holding our bellies with hilarious pains.
Our little possum friend got the boot from Chris back out the door, and his desperate bid to indoor life was one of his last, as he was dead by morning, his little body leaning up against our house under the barren lilac bushes.
Over the last few months, as we’ve ripped up carpeting and pulled down wallpaper, I’ve found a bit of life within the house. The sun-bleached outline of six little gingerbread people who must have hung for years in the kitchen, a lone clip-on earring blazing orange tucked between the floorboards and the drywall, a handmade fishhook stuck in the carpet glue. And I realize that, in a real home, you leave a piece of yourself, little signs and remnants of your life, long after you are gone. And at the same time, a real home becomes a part of who you are, as you define yourself and your life and break new paths between its walls.
For me, if there’s a little bit of real hillbilly tucked between the banjo and the jug and Chris’ late grandfather’s checkered black and white couch in that pea green living room, so be it. I’ve never felt so blessed, possum and all.