Outside the apartment building, our groundhog was munching early stalks in the side-yard. He stopped to stare when I pulled into my hard-dirt parking place. He did this in deceit of the trap our landlord Allen had laid to catch him. Yards behind, at the back fence, our upstairs neighbor Amanda knelt over a flowerbed, looking fussy even at distance. She had a red cloth spread beneath her. Northampton had apparently missed the downpour. My parking spot was only a slightly darker shade of dirt. The sky was yellow and gray, where the colors didn’t blend nor cancel each other. Even that was fading into reluctant blue.

Behind the windshield the day was neither warm nor cold. With the afternoon spread in front of me, and with Anna away at her conference in Atlanta, I was glad to see our groundhog still on the lamb, glad to stare back at him with the car idling, glad to keep staring when he returned to his careful sniffing and I turned the car off, saw him flinch at the new soundlessness then continue. We’d first seen him from our tiny balcony, before the snow completely melted, when the side-yard was an archipelago of grass-spots. On some Saturday we’d attempt to share him with Facebook, but couldn’t get a good photo. Since, we’d tracked him to and from a small hole in the building’s latticework, which led to a more pronounced hole burrow dug against the brick foundation. This was the first time I’d seen him since the trap was set, and I was to see him taking full advantage of the lawn Amanda had sculpted into something of a groundhog’s paradise.

Since the spring turn, Anna and I had indulged some renters’ resentment at Amanda for spending all the daylight hours out in the lawn, claiming it pre-emptively, suffering its muddiness for the payoff of making it hers come summer. With the certain way she held her shoulders, she demonstrated that propriety was a posture.

Anna and I also were more and more against the apartment’s No Pets policy. Our careful deconstructions of the Buddies calendar in our living room belied evenings we’d spent in front of it cooing about puppies. We’d barely spoken of the production of human babies, but we’d spent hours talking baby talk in the shadow of the Buddies calendar. Through February and March, we’d dissolved into gibberish, spent our downtime traipsing the apartment in our pajamas. One of us would curl around the other and say, “Look at the puppy.”

Maybe this was normal domestic behavior. At the very least it was a new thing to learn about love – that it absolves lovers of dignity.

In recent months, how often had I made wake-up or going-to-sleep noises, then felt Anna’s hand unexpectedly on my shoulder? One of us would say, “What’s wrong?” from another room, meaning it only as a different way to say, “Hi” or “What’s Up?” But, “What’s Wrong?” was better. Better for its existential connotation. Better because living in such close quarters made it impossible not to become more aware of the problem of existence, of the thudding and thumping we performed perpetually in front of each other.

That we refrained from most of this in public I guess was requisite to continuing to venture out. There were however some carryovers. For instance, on walks, upon seeing a daffodil, a blowing shopping bag, a man on a recumbent bicycle, one of us would point and say, “Look at the puppy.”

 *

As I continued to stare through the windshield our groundhog disappeared behind an un-bloomed azalea, and I was no longer doing anything. I was just sitting in the Corolla, had sat there long enough to imagine Amanda imagining me doing so as some sort of spirit-cleansing weirdo-thing I did frequently in the car.

But, in the meantime, nature had happened. Our groundhog was visible and now was not. National Public Radio called this Driveway Listening, giving themselves too much credit, inserting themselves in drivers’ tendency to sit before their homes and take stock. It was 54 degrees, I’d averaged 34 mph since whenever the control had started its averaging. I was getting 33.4 miles per gallon. I had 256 miles of Range. That was enough to drive to Philadelphia. Elapsed Time said I’d been driving 99:99, which was as high as the control could count. It’d said the same thing for months. All of it to mean: Post-Counting, that somehow I misread the control, that the Corolla was no longer new. I realized the annoyance in my periphery was NPR’s spring fund-drive, barely audible. The hostess was saying dollar amounts didn’t matter so much as “the level of participation.” She went on, asking listeners to consider “just a dollar a day,” never mentioning how that added up. “Just a dollar a day,” she said again and the concept of a day went sideways. “Just a dollar a day,” she said a third time and I turned the radio off.

I checked my phone. No new texts, no new calls. I pictured Anna in sunshine content to spend the next 24 hours waiting to get home. There was nothing really to talk about. She’d tell me about her presentation, about her trip. I’d tell her about my blip of bachelor life. The semester would seem substantially less by Monday. I imagined the exponential rate at which it’d dissolve at the same time our wedding preparations ramped up.

 *

Two weekends ago, as the snow melted, we’d considered for a brief moment: What if Anna was pregnant?

If asked we’d have said we wanted children, wanted them vaguely when we could get around to them – in a different state, with different jobs, a second car, a mortgage, maybe never. Overtly, children were just another pre-marriage issue we had to make sure was not an issue. A far more fraught dealing had been discussing my student loan debt in minute, soul-bearing detail. Until two weekends ago, we’d last discussed them on the same night we talked about getting married with Anna’s parents while we waited for the coals to burn down on the red Webber grill, while the chicken marinated.

Then, two Sundays ago, Anna got up from bed, came back, put her arms around me and announced she definitely was not pregnant, which caused me immediately to consider that she must’ve thought she might be. I saw an egg jettisoning a sperm at the last instance before conception. I thought of Anna’s uterus waiting a few extra days before initiating its tear-down cycle.

The week before, when we’d happened on Allen carrying the trap I’d told him we were going to miss our groundhog.  He told me he’d send me a fur coat, which was pretty tough talk from a guy about to place a No-Hurts Rodent Catcher. When Anna and I went to the side-yard to inspect the trap it was impossible not to note the thrift in Allen’s use of bait. A whole budding yard for our groundhog to eat, and Allen was attempting to lure him with a dried slice of carrot. Our inspection resulted in two observations we shared with each other: 1) How landlords were always performing themselves, and 2) How at that moment Anna and I resembled nothing so much as two humans pretending to be groundhogs – both of which I remembered from inside the ground-hog colored Corolla.

On the Sunday of the non-pregnancy, at the moment Anna told me it was unreal, I had a very fast, very real consideration of a baby. The bedroom windows were foggy and dotted with droplets that glowed almost silver. For the briefest moment I was sad it wasn’t true. Then, that too was gone. Fate had not intervened. Our lives, so directed by choices, remained so. The closest we could come to disruption was to imagine an accident. Eventually, we threw on clothes and went for coffee. Outside, the yard was soggy. The trees were dropping tufts of slush. The world looked smudged. We came around the side of the building to see that the trap was shut. We went quickly over to it. The bait was gone, but inside, no groundhog.

 

Jack Christian

Jack Christian

JACK CHRISTIAN is the author of Family System, which won the 2012 Colorado Poetry Prize. Other excerpts from “The Apartment on Market Street” have appeared in Carolina Quarterly and The Weeklings.
Jack Christian