Let Inga Tell You: How the dead possum almost stole Thanksgiving

turkey with pumpkins and hat

It was the Monday of Thanksgiving week 2015, three days before the kids and grandtots would be arriving, when my kitchen suddenly smelled like a marlin had died on the countertop. I had only one question: Does God hate me?

Even I am not that bad a housekeeper. I would have noticed a marlin. When a morning spent scrubbing the affected counters did nothing to improve the ever-worsening smell, I finally Googled “bad odor on granite.” The replies were chilling: “It’s not your countertops. It’s the dead animal in the wall behind them.”

Uh-oh. A mere week earlier, Olof and I had heard the annual late-fall scurry of little feet in our attic and had put two rat poison baits up there to discourage them. Pest control places tell you never to do that because a rat might die in your wall and then you just have to wait it out (weeks) while it odoriferously decomposes. Had we lived back East, it would have turned into a ratsicle and we wouldn’t have known about it until spring. But this was San Diego, having its warmest year on record.

I should mention that Olof and I are hardly vermin virgins, having dealt with rats for four decades in this basically indefensible house. We stage an annual Spring Rodential Offensive when we remove all 800 oranges (rats’ food of choice) from our tree and donate them.

Fortunately, rats confine themselves to our attic. But we don’t want them there either since they chew wiring and carry hantavirus. In times past, we’ve had pest control services come put traps up there, but it required a two-hour window every other day for the pest control guy to come check them. It was just too inconvenient to have our lives controlled by the rat guy. So we put the rat poison up there in plastic-encased bait traps and had never had anything die in our walls. Until now.

I was hoping that maybe the smell wasn’t as bad as I thought. Then my cleaning person showed up. “Huele muy feo,” she announced. So it stunk.

One of the reasons I love hosting Thanksgiving every year is that I adore the wonderful aromas wafting through the house. This year, they would be interspersed with notes of rodent mort.

In desperation, I tried calling pest control places to see if they might have any recommendations, short of breaking through our walls or burning down the house, both of which suddenly seemed reasonable.

Finally I got a place that I’ll call Rotting Rodents R Us to come on Wednesday afternoon, literally the afternoon before Thanksgiving, mere hours before the family was due to arrive. These folks weren’t cheap and my husband insisted we were wasting our money. But they said that in the (totally unlikely) event the decedent was in the attic and not the wall, removing it could reduce the smell considerably.

Alas, when the Rotting Rodents guy climbed down from our attic, he said he couldn’t see or smell anything up there. Dang! But then he said, “Do you have a crawl space under the house?” I’m nominating this guy for sainthood right now. It’s as nasty a spider-filled place as you can imagine. You have to crawl on your stomach, and our kitchen is the farthest point from the entrance.

I was already contemplating Plans B through T when the pest guy emerged 10 minutes later, a too-heavy-for rat, mercifully opaque bag in hand. Holding it up like a Grand Prix trophy, he jubilantly announced, “It was a possum!” Right under my kitchen counters.

Up close and personal, the horrible smell that had been in my kitchen was now magnified by a factor of 10. In an understatement of oversharing, he added: “The ants and maggots had found it. Mostly only fur left!” I felt my entire last year’s meals rising in my throat.

Still, it was one of the happiest checks I’ve ever written. “There will be a little residual odor for a few days,” the pest guy continued. “Hard to get every last ...”

I put my hands over my ears. Ack! Please stop talking! Residual odor I could handle. Details I couldn’t.

No idea how the possum (a “juvenile”) could have gotten under there. It couldn’t have eaten the rat poison, since the opening of those child-pet-and-possum-proof bait traps is too small. As with all unexplainable phenomena these days, we’ll just go for the default answer: global warming.

As we all know, this time of year is the season for miracles, and I truly consider this to have been one, along the lines of the stories you read on the back page of Parade magazine. I could see the headline: “My miracle Thanksgiving: How the day was saved when the dead rat in the wall turned out to be a dead possum under the house!”

Thankfulness comes in mysterious ways.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆