The Woman, the Roofers, And the Raccoons

SHE is large and fair, and nobody asks her age. But why does she bother to carry a thermos heavy with ice from her attic apartment down four flights of stairs to the foot of ladders surrounded by splintered wood, cracked tiles, tar paper torn into trapezoids, bent rusted nails, and twisted-off gutters too full of holes to hold more than last year's maple leaves?

It's not even her building, but the brick one across the alley. The roofs are on the same level, and since her windows are raised she hears the workers' orchestrations of crowbars, hammers, buzz saws. In return, she spins forth Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms.

Now she stands 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 a bag of cups and cupcakes. They haul the load past everyone's balconies onto the roof.

Well, neighbors say, she has no one to bake for, why not, though roofers are sooty, tattooed, with shirts missing or damp, 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 actually kissed her hand as if she and they 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 the rooftops the men toast her - framed in her garret dormer - with green plastic cups of orange juice and eat her cupcakes wrapped in white tissues while she puts on Chopin and Liszt, puts onions, carrots, and chicken backs into the pot, pinches sage and thyme from the herbs growing on her sill, and irons her blue dress.

The sun is still hot but clouds 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 fresh fish spines, and play cricket with apple cores.

But neighbors, upset by the nocturnal raids - like living under a bowling alley - insisted:

``Repairs are overdue. When they rip off old shingles, they'll rid us of varmints. Roofers know how to do it, have cages and sprays, a truck to transport `em off to a forest to start a new life in the wilds.''

``Raccoons,'' they assure her, ``adapt.''

Will she?

Therefore negotiations begin.

``Just to the corner park?''

``Already has its raccoons.''

``The ravine, the woods down the road?''

``Can't leave them too near; we must guarantee they'll never gnaw their way in again, or we'll always be coming back to patch up.''

Can the roofers see her smile as she adds potatoes, garlic, and dill to the soup, watches the first drops of rain pattern the new plywood slabs, and changes her dress?

Like lost collies, raccoons might find their way home across a whole county.

The wood is also rotten under her eaves, and the gables are high.

Meanwhile, the raccoons huddle under the final ridgepole, under the stripping crowbars, hammer blows, sifting dust.

The fragrance of garlic and herbs wafts over the chimney posts, even through burgeoning rain.

A knock on the door returns her empty thermos and cups.

They will come up until the storm stops, a compromise can be reached, they will be back, they will be back.

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