Why They Came

First the black bear walked in. He left the door open behind him. I squatted behind the tan leather sofa while he rummaged through the kitchen cabinets to find some shortbread cookies. Then a white-tail deer trotted in. She stood just a few inches away from my hiding place and watched the bear. I glanced at the dark, shiny wood floors and feared that dear Mrs. Deer would leave hoof marks. The grey squirrel came in talking, tail twitching. “Cashews. Give me cashews. Or popcorn.”

Sometime after that, the dream ended and I opened my eyes and laughed out loud. Dave and I were in our favorite cabin hideaway in Asheville, North Carolina. We’d come to see the roses in bloom at The Biltmore. The night before, while Dave lifted the cooler onto the front porch, I read the laminated sign posted beside the door. “Do not leave your front door open. Bears have been sighted on the grounds.”

Inside, another sign referenced a grey squirrel that might appear on the deck seeking an anticipated snack from new residents. We didn’t see any bears, but the squirrel story was a bit understated. The squirrel stood on his hind legs and knocked on the sliding glass door. We were forced to encourage him by giving him popcorn and peanuts, which we had to partially shell before he would dig in. He was a relentless pest for the three days we were in Dad’s Digs—came inside the living room once and we lured him out with crackers. “Pest,” that’s what they really meant to write on the warning sign, not “pet.”

We did see some deer, but none so brave as to walk into the living room while a bear searched for cookies and a squirrel made demands. Of course, we were careful to keep the doors closed.

So far, no raccoon, fox, nor groundhog has wandered into the house here on the ravine. If any one of them were to visit, he’d probably come into The Cellar, the place where I keep an office and a second kitchen. One reason to appreciate this small efficiency apartment in our walk-out basement is that the dirt comes in here instead of the regular living quarters upstairs. The first landing for hedge trimmers, grimy work gloves, and buckets of whatever vegetable is currently prolific in the garden—today that would be turnip greens—is a counter height table that my dad made for me out of old lumber and four-by-fours. He painted the top turnip-green green.

The garden tools and produce—and dirt—are things that we bring in. And then there are the things that just come in, on their own. Leaves, for instance. Oh, sure, we bring in a few leaves on our shoes, but nothing compared to the brown, orange, and yellow piles that rush with the October wind every time a breeze blows through the opened door.

Some of the smaller critters have already headed indoors, and the entry point of least resistance is The Cellar. We’ve had some cold spells so I guess they’re trying to keep warm. It doesn’t hurt that there are so many good hiding places down here in The Cellar, either.

I don’t mind the occasional box elder bug but the mouse that scurried across the floor in front of the bookcases unnerved me. Dave came downstairs. (I suppose I might have screamed a little, too.) My good husband headed for the hardware store to buy mousetraps. He was gone for maybe ten minutes when I saw something moving from the back door and across the kitchen floor. I squinted my eyes. It was too slow to be a mouse but it was about that size. I eased up from my desk chair and tip-toed around the file cabinets to have a closer peek. A spider. A really big spider. Black, with hairy, meaty legs. On another day, I would find a way to move him outside; I don’t really hate spiders and I rarely kill one. However, my normal self had fled with the mouse so I threw a paper towel over him and stomped. Later I wished I had saved him in one of the fruit jars on the table so that I could show him off.

Dave baited three traps with peanut butter and placed them in various mouse-traffic patterns but for three days, no tell-tale “pop.” I was beginning to think the uninvited guest wanted cashews when Dave informed me on the fourth morning that he had “removed the little friend” and that the exterminator was coming.

Halloween seems to signal “fall-for-sure,” just as Thanksgiving says, “Winter is here.” People, critters, and things come inside. The grandkids and their friends from next door won’t be racing past the window by my desk much longer. Their scooters and bicycles will be tucked into garages and they will draw and paint, read, and watch videos-on-demand. We’ve already brought in the ferns and cactus, and we’ve moved the porch furniture closer to the house. Next frost, I’ll move the potted roses to the storage garage.

Halloween is also the date of my parents’ anniversary. This year, it was their 65th. Sixty. Five. Years. They were young when they took a taxi from the Smith County hills to just over the Georgia state line, just seventeen and fifteen. They looked young at their anniversary gala on Sunday afternoon, an event held in an old mansion that serves as the fellowship hall for Southeast United Methodist Church. Mom dolled up in an ivory embroidered suit with copper and silver accessories. Dad strutted around in his best black suit, an ivory rose tucked into his lapel, and leaned on his cane when he stopped to visit. Mom received most of the guests at a reserved table, but she eased around the room with Dad two or three times, once to pose with the stacked cake and once to receive the short blessing offered by Pastor Ann Cover.

The guests were plentiful and so were the reasons they came. Some came because they’re family; Mom and Dad lived away from Tennessee for most of their married life and every family gathering is a treat. On the memory-video, Aunt Bessie said, “See, now, if you’d stayed in California, I would have missed this.” Some were friends from church; one said, “We are so happy to have you here teaching our Sunday school class.” Some were members of the church Dad retired from; they said they’d never forget Mom and Dad. Heatherly said, “We just love your mama and daddy.” Some were members of a church that Dad pastored when they were teenagers; Jackie Edwards said, “Brother Blair, you’ve been my favorite for over fifty years.” Some worked with Mom when she was a credit manager for a boot company; Bill Black said, “We’ve made the 50th and the 60th and now the 65th and we’ll be here for the 70th—You are going to have another party, aren’t you?”

After the party, Dave and I had to make two trips in the van to bring home the decorations, dishes, and leftover cake. It was a really, really big tiered—no, “stacked”—cake that I carried in my lap on the second trip, the backend of the van full again. We agreed to take the cake in and leave everything else to unload the next morning.

Dave opened the passenger door and I eased out with the cake, being careful to keep it upright. I planned to re-frost the top where we had removed just one tier and take it to the Nashville Rescue Mission where they would serve it as dessert for dinner.

“This cake turned out beautiful,” I said. I had obsessed over the cake, a home creation a friend and I concocted. My friend has decorated a wedding cake. I had not, and until the bouquet of red roses, dogwood, fringe plant, and crape myrtle transformed the monstrosity, I almost would have paid somebody to take it.

Dave told me several times, “People aren’t coming to the party for the cake.” Well, no, that wasn’t the reason they came to Mom and Dad’s anniversary reception, but I was still thrilled—okay, “relieved”—when several ladies said it was the prettiest cake they’d ever seen. They even said it was the best-tasting white cake they’d ever had.

Just as I sat the cake down on the turnip-green table, I remembered the extra hors d’oeuvres I’d brought home. “Oh, shoot, Dave, those leftovers are somewhere in the back of the van, under something.”

It was dark, and we had not turned on the floodlights (switches upstairs) on the back drive and patio. The only light turned on was the motion-detector fixture over The Cellar’s door and we have it set to turn off after sixty seconds.

“Just wave or run around in front of it—and I’ll find the food,” I said.

Dave propped The Cellar door open and stationed himself.

“Well, we may as well take this stuff in if I’m going to have to move it anyway,” I said as I lifted item after item.

“Yeah, no need to move it twice,” Dave said and came for his first load.

While I started to dig again, Dave headed inside, his arms full of candles, dried boughs of fall berries, and tablecloths. As he set his load down, pushing bags under the table, the light clicked off. He hurried back out to wave it back on.

“Hey,” I heard him holler, “Get away from there!”

I jumped. Dave wasn’t talking to me. He was yelling at a raccoon making a run for The Cellar’s open door.

Now, that raccoon wasn’t cold and he didn’t need a place to hide. He did not express admiration for Mom and Dad’s sixty-five years of marriage nor did he claim nostalgia for having known them for so many years.

But he did have a reason. The raccoon came for the cake.


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