Growing up, I had an unusually large array of house pets. A hairless guinea pig, two ferrets, rabbits, love birds, iguanas plus the usually cat-dog combo could be seen meandering around our home throughout the years. We collected stray animals the way hoarders might keep a single sock, knowing it may never be a whole pair again but maybe, just maybe. My mother was considered a modern day Dr. Doolittle, taking in the filthy strays, curing the ill and loving all God's creatures no matter how ugly or bald. Animals loved her and trusted her and with this rare gift came endless abuse of her power as she would bring home random animals that needed do our help. Im convinced my parents divorce surrounds how many pets we owned.
In the fourth grade, I had a friend named Valentina, a cute girl with very square teeth and a knack for age inappropriate outfits. “Why do you like dressing like a boy? Don’t you like my snakeskin pants?” I did like her pants but knew my skinny white girl body could never compare to her already developing figure. One day, my mother was driving Valentina and I home from school when she noticed a couple of kids on bikes harassing something in the middle of the street. Naturally, my mother pulled over. “What do you boys think you are doing? Leave it alone!” My mother often reminded me that anyone who hurts animals as a child will most likely grow up to be a serial killer.
As I sat up in my seat doing my best to peer over the dashboard, I noticed a tiny gray blob lying in the street. My mom rushed back to the car to grab a towel from the back seat then scooped up the fury morsel. “I hope she’s ok, goddamn kids worse than wild animals.” She very casually dropped the bundle into my lap and very casually it turned out to be an opossum; an infant that fell off its mother while she daringly crossed the busy street. It hissed at me the entire drive home.
Valentina and I ate grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup while the baby opossum sat in a shoebox on the kitchen table eating orange bits. It would occasionally hiss but my mother instinctively would caress its head to calm it down. “Isn’t she the cutest? Look at those teeth.” Her teeth were long and sharp, not necessarily charming. Within hours, Peewee had a name and assumed she could share my mother with me. We took Peewee to the vet in an old woven shoulder bag, where to my mother’s joy, was told she could nurse her back to health. Once healed, my mom decided Peewee had imprinted on her and couldn't possibly be let back into the wild. The convenience was unwavering.
Peewee quickly became the household darling. You could find her strolling the hall or taking naps under a bed. She often took an afternoon constitutional in our backyard and I’m sure you’re all curious to know that Peewee slept with my mother in her bed under the covers. She was like a house cat, except drooled this thick sticky slobber, which often made my gag reflexes go off. But she was also pretty useful. Peewee could fit two whole quarters in her warm, furry pouch, which I liked to hide there for my enjoyment. “Chelsea, please remember to take the quarters out of Peewee when you’re done playing with her, it's so invasive,” my mother moaned. “Mom, she should be use to having things up there that’s what it's for, I’m just training her to be a real opossum.” My goal was to prepare Peewee for the real world outside of our home.
It was also exciting to see how many household items Peewee could hang from, her giant rat-like tail was just so strong. Doorknobs were usually the safest bet and the closet was a favorite prank of mine. Our pet opossum also became potty trained, which is really impressive for a wild critter we found in the street. As a house pet she was the real deal. My mother loved her, I was embarrassed by her. For Halloween, my mom dressed as a witch and carried Peewee around on her forearm. My dad wore a Frankenstein mask and my younger sister wore mismatched clothes and a red wig. They were “The Freak Family.” I was a cowgirl, and borrowed Valentina’s snakeskin pants or rather drowned in them. It was my first attempt at dressing "mature" for Halloween, and I walked briskly ahead of the freak show.
One day my mother decided to pick me up from school on the playground instead of waiting for me in the car. She came dressed in overalls, wearing a pair of those fake hillbilly teeth with Peewee hanging out of her front chest pocket. “Chelsea over here.” I genuinely think my mom does a good hick accent. “Chelsea come say hi, don’t be shy.” She over did it by waving her arms; her entire outfit caused enough attention. I wanted to cry from embarrassment, but so many kids had already run up to her that I knew crying would only make things worse. I kept my distance for a few minutes then decided to join the crowd by skipping over excitedly wearing my best faux smile. If I didn’t act like I loved Peewee too, I would most definitely start bawling in defeat.
But, to my surprise, everyone was really intrigued by Peewee as my mom mouthed off fun facts about opossums. "Opossums have a prehensile tail. This means they can grip branches." No one was grossed out or embarrassed for me and soon my own self-pity and uneases wore off. “They are a marsupial, which means they are a pouched mammal.” I began lovingly petting Peewee, for the first time taking pride in our savage pet. My personal relationship with Peewee got a little better after that, fewer quarters in her pouch. She continued to play the role of a house pet along with our other animals and soon found a tiny, slobber free place in my heart.
A year later, Peewee grew a large mass on her side and there was no such thing as opossum chemotherapy. But, I imagined taking Peewee to the vet and telling her everything will be ok as she sat in a chair getting a chemo drip, my sister reading a trashy magazine out loud to help pass the time. Later, a bald but healthy opossum would be seen wandering our halls like a giant lovable rat. My mother decided to have Peewee put down so she wouldn’t have to live in pain and we buried her in our backyard under my mom’s favorite cactus tree. I drive by our old house every now and then and can see the cactus tree from the street. It's become massive over the years, scouring several feet above the backyard fence. I wonder if the current residents know the bones of an opossum lay underneath where they seek shade.