by Virgil Suarez
Illustration by Erica Gilchrist
They come through in the night.
He hears them outside the window, nuzzling under dead leaves, scratching the ground for worms, tasty morsels. They nose around, dig down to the fattest grubs. Armadillos, he’s convinced, are not of this world, with their armor, the way their tiny ears angle up like silver radar dishes.
How do they do it, find their way in the night? One minute evading the heat of day in their burrows, the next scavenging lawns by starlight. Destroying them. Pock-marking them. Rooting through azaleas, prize daisies.
Armadillos, the great insomniacs of the animal kingdom, that’s why you find them flattened on country roads, squashed by trucks in the middle of cool nights. Cracked armor, festering coils of entrails and sinew. Crows love them. Hawks too. Up, sleepless, hungry, then dead by the roadside.
Rich sleeps, having stayed up for two nights – it’s their fault, he wants to say, that he sleeps so poorly – they wreck his lawn, his pride and joy. It’s taken him several months to get the St. Augustine grass growing neat around the walks and flower beds.
When he bought his house, no others were going up. The realtor assured him his would be the only one here on Journey’s End, that the lots surrounding his property wouldn’t be developed for at least ten years. Yet this summer, builders started on the empty lot next to his house. All that space available, and they chose to build another house right up against his. Construction’s what has set the armadillos running. Scared the armadillos out of their burrows, all that cutting-down of trees, moving of earth. There must have been a nest of them somewhere.
Rich knows armadillos aren’t stupid, which is why he’s declared war on them. He’s declared it on his soon-to-be-moved-in neighbors, too. In the night, when he cannot sleep, he walks over and removes nails, dismantles 2x4s with his own saw. A couple of cuts in the right places and the frame comes down. He did this a few nights until he realized that it was a losing battle: as much as he’d like to stall the construction, the builders just keep fixing it, doing more each day. It’s inevitable.
For weeks the sound of the house next door going up ruined his concentration. He’d gotten a new job here in Bradenton teaching composition to undergraduates at a nearby little college, a go-nowhere job but he wanted to be closer to his mother. His father’d passed away during the recovery period after colon surgery. The Friday he was supposed to be discharged to go home, a massive coronary laid him low.
The ICU Code Blue surgeon blamed it on a blood clot. “These things happen,” he explained, pulling the vermillion mask from his mouth. These things do happen. Rich remembers his students’ excuses over the years – drunken uncles killed in car crashes, grandmothers who tumbled down staircases, knife fights, drunken brawls with loaded guns, tractor-trailer explosions on the highway . . . these things happen.
Like the damn armadillos coming through and tearing up his lawn. He wants not to think about them, or cancer, or all the craziness that keeps him awake at night.
He moved back to Bradenton because it was a quiet, no-nonsense place where he could work on his book of comparative paragraph structures in student compositions. But since he’s come back he hasn’t touched the manuscript. His father’s dying sort of settled things for him. What’s the hurry? It wasn’t like he was up for tenure. Heck, nobody really bothered much with him. He likes his invisibility in the department. It’s his habit to only show up when he needs to. He prefers to teach his classes, be good to his students, and rush back home.
Other than checking up on his mother, taking her to buy groceries at the Publix, watching football games, he sits on his chair on the porch and shoots at the armadillos. There are nights when he thinks he is winning the war, but then he wakes up in the morning and finds his lawn pockmarked with more holes.
During the summer nights, the insects fly up from the tall grass to the street floodlights. They flit and flash against his windows. The frogs gorge themselves on moths and mosquitoes, these green tree frogs that speck his window screens, their translucent bellies flattened against the wire mesh.
He hoses bug spray onto his forearms and legs, wears his jeans and a t-shirt, brings out a six-pack cooler of Rolling Rock and drinks outside through the night. Drinks and ponders his days as a teenager. He played baseball in high school, but then he hurt his arm pitching. Afterwards, a lot of his buddies stopped calling, hanging out. Rich didn’t really date much back in those days, and in college he spent too much time at the library. Now, he’s afraid he’d violate fraternization rules, sexual harassment laws, so he leaves his door wide open during teacher-student conferences. He cringes when the young girls call him “sir” or “professor.”
Not much has happened in Bradenton in the past twenty years, and not much will in the next twenty. He likes it like that. His parents loved it too; that’s why his father the office furniture salesman chose to relocate to this spot on the Gulf coast when Rich was three. They always nodded when they talked about Bradenton being the right choice. His father was a soft-spoken man who liked a good joke, and a good round of cheap golf too.
Rich remembers his father shooting at the armadillos to dissuade them from rooting into his tomato garden. It’s been a long, long fight, Rich thinks while he drinks more beer and reloads. Once, Rich shot a possum because the animal startled him with its ugly snout and sharp claws right there on the porch. He simply pulled the trigger and the animal fell onto its side and stopped breathing immediately.
He buried it beyond the woodpile in his backyard.
That’d been many nights ago, perhaps a year or two ago. That’s also what he appreciates about Bradenton, that time passes unabashedly. He is in the right place. Rick sits there, watching it ease from darkness to dawn, a bleaching of the night sky he loves to see.
Tonight he spots a female scuttling from around a pine. She’s with a couple of babies, trailing not far behind. The babies stop to sniff the air.
Rich takes a swig of his beer, feeling it cool his throat. Then he takes the rifle, aims at one of the babies, then changes his mind and targets the mother. Mother’ll have more babies, he thinks.
He pulls the trigger. The report startles the babies. Rich reloads and aims at the bigger of the two babies, but it's too late. They scram across the street and into the tall grass.
Rich walks over to the dead armadillo, kicks its armor, and studies the damage. Clean off. No head.
He picks up the animal by the tail, carries it over to where the babies headed, and swings the mother’s corpse into the darkness. That’ll teach them, he hopes. In a few days they’ll be back, Rich knows, but for now it’ll get him a few days of peace. Maybe.
When morning comes, he surveys the yard in front and around the house, throws the beer empties in the green recycling bin, folds the chair and goes inside to sleep. He teaches mid-afternoon and early evening classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He is always home.
He steps inside, removes his shoes and leaves them by the door, then steps on the plush carpet of the living room, places the chair behind the door, drops his father’s rifle, now his Armadillo eradicator, on the couch and goes to the bedroom to sleep.
Tonight an indigo 1970 Nova with the mag tires and hood flair paint cuts its lights and drives up on the neighbor’s driveway. Rich has been on armadillo vigil for a few hours. He’s taken out a half dozen beers already. Despite the bug spray, the mosquitoes are biting and it's hot, muggy.
He didn’t see the car come around the corner at first, but he turns toward it when it cuts its lights and crunches up the gravel of the driveway next door. Luckily Rich knows he’d never be seen because he sits in the porch with the lights off, though the streetlight floods the entire corner lot and part of the neighbor’s. He sees perfectly from where he lurks.
The car with its dark, shiny hood and top, idles there, moonlight glinting off its slick paint.
Muffled music comes from inside the Nova. It sounds like “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders, or some other 80s band.
In high school he’d had a buddy with a Chevy Nova like this, only a lot less nice. They cruised up and down the main drag, still too young to sneak into the bars, and besides the college girls made fun of them because they were still a couple of dumb teenagers who looked it.
The driver shuts the engine off and soon enough its sound is replaced by those of the night. Crickets, frogs, insects tick against things.
Someone inside changes the stations.
Rich hears music again, more scanning, hesitation, and then a song he swears he recognizes but not really because it’d been a long time since he’s listened to the radio. He enjoys television better, and only when it’s a necessity. He watches football, and every once in a while a movie on HBO.
From where Rich sits, he can see how the driver, a young man, rolls down his window and lights a cigarette. The illumination of his face and long, blond hair in the match’s brief flash.
“That’s cool,” the young man says.
“ . . . Damn it! . . .”
“Leave it, leave it.”
The young man smokes. He takes a long puff, holds it for a long time, then exhales. Rich sees smoke plume out of the car window and rise in the light.
“How you get this thing off?”
Rich makes out a young woman’s voice. It’s a bit drawn, raspy, of someone who’s been drinking. Slurred words, feebly chosen.
There is quiet, then Rich observes the car moving. He imagines some hanky panky going on. The two bodies move from the front seats to the back. Then come knocks and thumps.
The thought of what those two are doing hardens in the back of Rich’s mind and stays there, like the gulp of warm beer he retains in his throat, feeling the suds dissipate. He swallows and makes up his mind.
He rises from his chair quietly, puts the beer down and then as he takes his first step, he knocks the bottle over. He freezes.
The car keeps rocking in the moonlight.
Rich moves from under his porch and walks toward the pine trees on his front lawn, away from the car, but comes around so that he can see through the rear windows.
As he draws closer, he feels the heat on his back. The light shines bright and for an instant he almost changes his mind. The surprise of what he thinks he is doing keeps his adrenaline up, pulsing down his legs and arms so they become tense, his back stiffens. He holds tightly to the rifle, keeping the barrel facing toward the ground.
What does he think they are doing, those two? Having sex, he thinks. Having sex in a car parked in his neighbor’s drive.
As he moves in closer, he sees them, a young man and a young woman, in the back seat, white flesh flashing in the moonlight, between light and shadow. Rich hears them. A belt buckle hitting something. Ash tray? Rich can almost feel their breathing, the boy’s voice so low in the girl’s ear: “Oh, man, oh, man . . .”
Something elastic snaps against flesh, and then everything stops. All sound ceases inside the car.
Rich leans in as much as he can to get a closer look, but he can’t see more than a bulk leaned over–two bodies close together.
She mutters something Rich can't make out. What did she say?
A frog starts to croak near the car and Rich doesn’t hear it. What he does hear is the sound of his own heart pounding deep inside his chest. He stands still, but continues to look inside the car.
Now he hears a buckle being unclasped, and the car begins to rock again. Rich brings the rifle up and holds it in both hands as he tilts closer toward the back window, close enough to see his own reflection in the glass.
“Amazing,” the young man says, then he slides his partner onto her back and crawls on top of her. Now the car sways, and Rich can't look away. The girl’s white legs are up, the bottoms of her feet hitting the ceiling.
Then there's a scratching, a rustling, that same sound that's been haunting his dreams, the same sound that's been in his woodpile, his yard, his house, his mind.
Rich recoils, takes a step back and aims the gun at the bodies tangled in the back seat of the 1970 Nova. He places his finger on the trigger. What drives people to behave like animals? he thinks. They're no better than insects, than rodents, than armadillos. Not these two.
He feels the trigger move beneath his finger.
A man draws a line somewhere. This is his house, his property. This is the place where he just wants a little peace. Who would believe this? he thinks. A grown man peeping on a couple of punks screwing in a car in the middle of the night?
Rich just wants to stand his ground, but he's shaken by what he cannot control.