Fiction: Pressing Paws
By Jacob Aaron Reingold
I stepped both feet into the trash can and stomped. I had petitioned the neighborhood for these shorter, narrower bins, so we would produce less waste. But I couldn’t get the lid to close, which meant the autonomous garbage truck wouldn’t collect it. Cicadas buzzed and my armpits moistened‒another muggy November night in Illinois.
See, Leah? I imagined telling my wife as I shoved down the chip wrappers and takeout boxes, the new containers work fine. She had been against them, or at least apathetic. Even our five-year-old, Evy, whenever I talked about saving the planet, let out a prolonged sigh and buried herself in her coloring book. Our neighbor Bill groaned, too, when I mentioned the bins at town council meetings.
My rhododendron rustled, and I thought maybe Bill’s dog had gotten out again. He had one of those chow chows with a speech interface. Millions spent on getting dogs to talk, and it turns out they only shouted banal pleasantries. I never got the appeal. I didn’t see anything, and I was starting to smell the ravioli we ordered in the other night, so I stepped out of the garbage. I had one leg out when a whisper came from the bushes.
I tripped and knocked over the bin, spilling out the trash. Bill’s dog didn’t whisper. I looked down, squinting in the dark, and a charcoal-hued creature stared up from the rhododendron.
“Help me,” he said, white eyes bulging from his trademark black mask. I had heard rumors of criminals experimenting with speech interfaces on other animals. The mafia liked racoons because they were nocturnal and had small, thieving hands. But this one seemed harmless.
“My family’s starving,” he said meekly. “I beg you, leave out more trash.”
He was adorable and I sympathized. But I had spent the past six months arguing for these bins. I knelt down like I was talking to Evy.
“Sorry little bud,” I said, “You’ll have to go back to eating natural…” I paused; I had no clue what racoons ate before humans’ garbage became ubiquitous. He slicked back his fur with his hands.
“Cut the shit, stupido,” he said. Now, he had an accent from back east and a raspy throat like he smoked, if that was even possible. “I ain’t living off caterpillars.” He spit onto my daphne. “Maybe a nice fettucine…”
“Listen,” he said, “I know youse the one who shrunk the bins, and I know youse fighting the landfill.” Springwood was strongly considering a new landfill with a waste-to-energy plant. They claimed it was eco-friendly, but I knew it meant greenhouse emissions, sulfur particles in the air‒terrible for Evy‒and more trash. I was doing everything I could to stop it.
“Sorry, I won’t keep feeding you garbage. You’re an invasive species.”
“That’s rich, comin’ from youse,” he said. “If you don’t knock it off, we’re gonna have a problem.” He gestured into the bushes. Four pairs of eyes glowered from the shadows.
“Family is everything‒I wouldn’t want something bad to happen to your wife or sweet daughter. My associate Eddy over there isn’t well.”
Spittle dripped off one of the racoons’ lips, and he was twitching.
But I wasn’t responsible for their problems, and I wouldn’t be bullied. Besides, I had like four feet and a hundred and thirty pounds on them. I snapped a branch and swatted at them.
“Shoo!” I said.
They scurried away. But at the edge of my yard, the spokesman turned back.
“Youse gonna regret this,” he said.
The next day, I tried to forget about Angelo‒I had named the racoon in my head‒by throwing myself into work. I used to love being a web developer, back when I actually developed. But I had been promoted to an unstimulating supervisory role that paid too well to turn down. As usual, I finished my work by eleven. I knew I should have vacuumed and done laundry, and maybe found a new recipe to impress Leah and Evy. But the more I thought about Angelo, the madder I got. He was asking me to harm the environment. I doom-scrolled on my smart glasses, and saw the politicos were debating a second solar shield. The first one had slowed warming by a quarter-degree but created a permanent frost layer in the tropics and driven the willowed warbler to extinction. It was time we left the earth alone.
I spent late morning designing fliers opposing the landfill-plant, then biking around the neighborhood and stuffing them in mailboxes. We lived in a subdivision of colonial revivals outside Chicago. A few months ago, I had rewilded our yard, to the chagrin of the town council. I breathed in the hot, autumn air, and hosed off the daphne still in full bloom. I wondered what the area looked like fifty years ago, before it was developed. I heard the stream babbling through the field behind the houses and took solace that at least there was one place nearby unsullied by humans.
When Leah and Evy got home, my chest tightened a bit; I had forgotten the housework. Leah dealt with preschool and playdates because I biked instead of drove, on principle. I had a bike-seat for Evy, but her preschool was far, and the town next door was getting rid of its bike lanes. So, cleaning and dinner were my jobs. Attempting to cover, I scooped up Evy and took her to the bathroom to wash up. Leah didn’t say anything about the messy kitchen or sofa crumbs. Then she came into the bedroom and saw the pile of dirty clothes.
“Dave, did you at least make dinner?” she asked.
“I got caught up in work,” I said.
I ordered from a new bistro, but it took forever, and by the time we sat down, Evy’s food was cold. Evy uncrumpled a paper from her pocket and laid it on the table. It was one of my fliers.
“Alicia’s dad says you’re weird,” Evy said, “and that Alicia shouldn’t play with me anymore.”
Leah looked at the paper.
“Is this what you were up to all day?” she asked.
“Not all day,” I said, leafing through curdled salad. “I had a few minutes.” I brushed my hand over Evy. I wanted her future to be as bright as her curly blonde locks. “The planet’s dying, babe‒we’ve got to do something.”
“I know,” Leah said, sighing. “That’s why I love you.” She held my hand, which for some reason made me feel guilty.
Even in late fall, it was boiling inside, and Evy went to open a window.
“Daddy, trash!” she shouted from the kitchen, and we came over to look. There were pop cans in the shrubs, rolls of TP hanging from our old buckthorn, and pizza boxes strewn on my daphne.
“What the hell?” Leah said. “You don’t think it was the teenagers down the street?”
But I knew who did it. I pictured Angelo’s cherub face and his cute little hands, and my heart sank. Was he not a creature deserving of life? But he had threatened Leah and Evy, and now he had destroyed our garden. He was an anti-environmentalist and an unnatural, human-engineered fluke. He had to go.
I weaved between the steel cages scarring my yard. The exterminator was a rotund man‒he probably ordered in a lot, too. I asked him if he had any luck, and he shook his head.
“It’s strange,” he said, “they can’t never resist chicken liver.” He pulled a gooey, red organ out of the trap and slopped it into his van. “Unless,” he said, turning back to me, “you’ve got an infestation of the loquacious variety. Rumor is there’s one in the area.” He stared at me while he spit a tobacco wad onto my daphne.
“I’m sure it ain’t, though” he said, hitching up his pants, “because they’re protected under federal law, and that would make me an accessory.”
My mouth hung open.
“That’s absurd,” I said, throwing up my arms, “They’re smart and dangerous‒they’ll outbreed the native population!”
He started slamming the aluminum traps into his van, making a big show of the effort. With each one he loaded I got a little more desperate. I thought about Leah and Evy, and the planet.
“Haven’t we screwed up the environment enough?” I said. “We have to protect it from these things. From ourselves.”
He heaved the last cage into his van and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He held a chip reader out to me.
“Here’s the bill for your attempted murder of a sentient critter, Mr. Conservation,” he said.
I had plenty of time before Leah and Evy got home, so I went and bought my own damn traps. I searched raccoon habitats on my smart glasses and found they like water, so I placed the traps by the stream. I used last night’s takeout chicken salad as bait‒no one would miss it.
The next morning, I awoke early, sure I had caught him. The air was already warm and heavy, and I scrambled through the thicket by the creek. The first two traps were empty, but there was something in the third; I could see tufts of fur through the grating, and I rubbed my hands together. I pulled back the bar, lifted the door and looked inside.
It was a rabbit; a flecked brown-and-white cottontail with long, cartoon ears. It had eaten the greens in the salad before my grip trap snapped its spine. I laid the carcass carefully down under some leaves, sighing. Now I had messed with the ecosystem.
I thought of the bunny all day, and of Angelo, pissed at what he had driven me to do. I would double down on my crusade against the landfill. The town council was going to meet in two days, and I would be there to oppose the plant.
After dinner that night, Leah and I headed to the bedroom. A breeze came through the window, and I went to close it, not remembering even opening it. That’s when Leah screamed.
A bloody rabbit’s head, severed at the neck, stared back at us from the sheets. It was the one I had killed.
“Leave out more trash,” a voice whispered from outside. I slammed the window shut.
I sat in the town council meeting, my foot bouncing nervously off the carpet. I was about to give a speech on conservation, while simultaneously contemplating buying a gun to shoot a fluffy woodland creature. He was the vindictive mafioso head of a rabies-infested gang but still, it didn’t feel great.
The Springwood Town Council was in a drab office building surrounded by asphalt‒a complete affront to the forest around it. A small fountain in the lobby was its one saving feature. I looked to it for calm like I would a brook, but it was just another man-made fake.
I rushed the middle part of my speech but hit all seventeen of my bullet-points and concluded with fist pounds on the dais. A few others spoke‒supporting the landfill‒but their comments were dry and brief. As I stepped out of the chambers, I was daydreaming the council would kill the project altogether, when I ran into Bill.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” he said.
I held up my hand.
“Save it,” I said, “I know you want the plant for the economy but it’s an ecological disaster.”
“I don’t want it for the economics,” Bill said, “I’m an environmentalist.”
I cocked my head.
“You’re right, we’ve ruined the earth,” he said. “We’ve been doing it since we scorched grasslands to kill woolly mammoth, overgrazed North Africa into a desert, and cut down all the trees in Western Europe for kindling. Hell, half of what you want to preserve now only exists because of human meddling. You think your prized daphne is native to North America? The only thing new about our destruction is the scale.”
I looked around for my bike.
“We have to build that plant, just like we need that second solar shield, because we’ve already made a mess. We broke it and we own it‒it’s our responsibility now, and we have to claw our way to a better future.”
I hurried away to my bike, kicking a pebble across the pavement. I wrote off what he said as an old man’s ramblings.
That afternoon, I gave Leah a break and picked up Evy on my bike. Her daycare was in Elmhurst, the next town over, and I saw they were already starting to paint over their bike lanes. I cursed softly, so Evy wouldn’t hear. For some reason I couldn’t pinpoint, I was feeling guilty, and on the way home, I bought Evy a new ball. She bounced it in the front yard, and I looked up from my work every so often to check on her. I didn’t have much to do that day, but even the little I had was slow-going. I kept refuting Bill’s points in my head. After a while, I realized I didn’t hear Evy bouncing the ball anymore. I looked through the window, then the door, but she was gone.
I nearly knocked my holo-computer off the desk when I leapt up. I raced outside and called her name. I searched the whole yard‒under the porch and the shrubs and even up in the buckthorn. I paced the cul-de-sac yelling, my own voice echoing back to me off the houses. After several minutes, I still hadn’t found her, and I started to fear Evy was in the last place I wanted her to be.
I ran toward the field, scraping my way through the bushes to the creek. I trudged through a blackberry bramble, the branches lashing my wrists. On the other side, I saw them. Angelo and Evy stood at the bank of the creek. The racoon’s sharp, pointy claws dug into my beautiful angel’s arm. In his other tiny hand, he held a switchblade. The graze of non-verbal raccoons hovered nearby. Angelo looked up at me and narrowed his eyes.
“First youse take our garbage,” he said, “now you try to cancel the landfill.”
My hand curled into a fist.
“Get your paws off her‒” I said.
“Fat chance. Youse hurting my family, so now I hurt yours,” he said. He twirled the switchblade between his fingers. “You know,” he said, “ever since that coyote bit Eddy, he ain’t been right. He’s been droolin’ everywheres, even on this blade.”
I looked at the spasmatic, salivating racoon by the tree, then at my baby. She was still so small, not much bigger than the animals, with her whole future ahead of her. Tears blurred my vision.
“OK,” I said, “you win. I’ll go to the council and get back the old bins. And support the landfill.”
“You’re confused, Davey-boy. This ain’t a sit-down,” he said. “This is payback.” He moved the knife toward her collarbone, the blade glinting in the sun. The veins in my arms bulged, and I snapped a branch off a tree. I stepped my foot back, getting ready to do the only thing I could‒lunge.
“Daddy,” my little girl said, “you can fix this.”
Her sweet, high-pitched voice stopped me. It shook me out of my rage. I thought of all the ways I’d fallen short with Evy; not holding her enough, ordering out instead of cooking for her, doom-scrolling when I should have been cuddling.
“You always fix it,” Evy said.
She still loved me, even though I neglected her‒and Leah. I realized that in a twisted way, I had a duty to Angelo, too.
I thought of one way to make it up to all of them. It was a shot in the dark.
“I can give you and your whole family something incredible,” I said. “Give me a chance.”
“This is an opportunity for you,” I said, “don’t miss out.”
He growled but loosened his grip on the switchblade.
“I’ll bite,” he said, tightening his hand around the knife again. “But no tricks or she gets it. Capiche?”
Everyone followed me back to the house. I tried to convince Angelo to let Evy walk with me, but he just squeezed his paws tighter.
I left them in the front yard where I could see them, and went inside to get to work. I dusted off the old pasta machine and mixed the eggs and flour. I chopped tomatoes, garlic, and onions, wiping away tears, and raided the spice cabinet. I moved from muscle memory, never taking my eyes off Evy through the window.
The sauce simmered, filling my nostrils with familiar, pleasant smells. I had cooked for Leah and Evy every night for years‒why the hell had I stopped? Maybe I needed to quit doom-scrolling, or quit my job and get back to actually developing. Or just spend more time with my family.
The smell drifted outside, and the raccoons’ whiskers twitched. I scooped the noodles onto plates, drizzled the sauce, and garnished with parmesan.
“What’s this?” Angelo said, taking the plate.
“Linguini alla puttanesca,” I said.
“My favorite!” Evy said.
“This ain’t garbage,” Angelo said with a skeptical frown.
“Just try it,” I said. He twirled the linguini around his fork and nibbled. He closed his eyes, and his whole body relaxed. He dropped the switchblade down to his side, and I finally exhaled.
“Youse made this for us?” he asked. “No funny business, no rat poison?”
He reloaded his fork, and the non-verbals shoveled paw-fuls into their mouths. Their tails curled and they groaned with enjoyment. Maybe there was something to what that old coot Bill said about responsibility, I thought. Angelo forgot all about Evy, and she ran towards me. I scooped her up and smothered her in hugs.
“Nobody’s ever cooked me real food,” Angelo said. Tears dripped down his fur and mixed with the red sauce around his jowls. “Except mama‒it’s just like she used to make.”
I wondered if mama was a doctor in a speech lab, a mob wife, or an actual raccoon, but I didn’t ask.
The sun glared in my eyes, and I checked my watch. Leah would be home from work soon, and I had to get rid of these racoons and give Evy a bath. I made plates for Leah, me, and Evy for dinner, and told the racoons to eat the rest of the pot out of sight.
When Leah came to the door, I took her briefcase and greeted her with a long, grateful kiss. That night, we had the happiest dinner I could remember.
Afterward, I went back out into the yard. The air had finally turned crisp, and I found the critters under the porch, dozing next to the empty dish and rubbing their bellies.
“I was wrong about youse, Davey,” Angelo said, “you’re a stand-up guy.”
He propped himself up on his side.
“I been thinking,” he said, “you ain’t got no hound in the house‒good, they’re ignorami. But youse need some animal companionship. Maybe you and I could come to some kinda arrangement.” He held out his hand for a shake. “Maurice,” he said.
I looked at his sauce-covered paw but didn’t take it. I frowned‒I was used to him as Angelo, and just a few hours earlier, those claws had been digging into my daughter’s arm. I had never had a pet, but it would be a long time before he and I would be buds. He would always be a crook. And I would always be a family man. From then on, I would cook for them every night. Still, I supposed I didn’t mind giving him the scraps. I stared out at the horizon. Maybe we could make a deal.
“The next town over is nixing its bike lanes for a highway expansion,” I said, “it would be a shame if something happened to change their city council’s mind.”
Maurice squinted at me.
“Youse just keep the pasta flowing,” he said.
Jacob Aaron Reingold has taught English in Oman, served in the US Navy, and worked in refugee resettlement, carpentry, and food service. He currently lives in Spain.