For thirty years we lived in Ohio in the middle of a dense woods, with a horde of raccoons, but for the first five or ten years we didn’t know it. We had our suspicions. Sonja did, anyway. In retrospect – for the rest of our lives we’ll be rethinking and feeling it – we sensed they’re out there, in the trees, way up there. Up there in the trees, mostly hidden in the maple leaves -- that cluster of odd caterpillar balls in the crotches of limbs – what is it? Why do we feel we are being spied on?
Then en mass they descended, as often hind-first as headfirst, from the trees onto our big open deck attached to our dining room, and every night for the next twenty years they turned it into a discotheque or hootenanny, on a good night twenty or thirty of them hobnobbing or milling around with drinks or hors d'oeuvres in hand, mingling aloofly, virtuoso pirouettes or the foxtrot or coon-trot or flowing waltz, one-slow-step-forward-two-quick-steps-backward, couples and clusters dancing not cheek-to-cheek but butt-to-butt, consummately choreographed, generally decorous and studious and snorting softly (sounds like nose-blowings) but if necessary snarly and snappish, breaking rhythm. Rare barroom brawls, nothing serious, going for the ear, not the throat. Instead of levis and t-shirts they’re wearing tuxedos and masks, or, in season, plush coon fur coats.
Coons are born great dancers, or are they pro basketball players scuttling, swirling crisscrossing the court, disciplined and practiced? It just looks chaotic. And the off-camera coon coaches are profligate with their subs, there are plenty of them, sent darting one after another onto the court for quick dunk shots and as quickly back into the shadows.
That’s the nightly floor show, under our porch lights. Come the day and the deck is a spa with a few of the girls snoozing satisfied in the sun, or stretched out and languidly swishing their paws in the little pool, which Sonja cleans and refills on the hour but as soon looks like bouillabaisse. Or a pool hall with a couple of the guys hanging out, Joe Cool Coon, dark glasses, swaggering, just got off his Harley Davis, cooler than Joe Cool Camel, guys whiling away the day, lolling, half-heartedly jabbing at each other, or at the bar taking swigs of bouillabaisse.
Sonja is the ring master and hostess, mother Theresa and den mother, hand-holder and podiatriast, care-giver and nugget-provider, and buddy. These coons, they are Sonja’s Friends. Welcome to Sonja’s Discotheque.
She has spent more years studying the psychology and nicked ears of her subjects, documenting, photographing, and admiring their lifestyles and ringed tails than any PhD on NatGeo Wild. Subjected to full peer review, her studies have demonstrated conclusively that if you put out the bread crumbs and cat-food nuggets, they will come. Just scoop up nuggets by the handfuls and fling them to the winds like fairy queens flinging petals, or sit on the back steps feeding by hand, your coons queued up patiently like kids in line for Santa Claus. If they are really nice they find a sugar cube in the outstretched hand.
But such genteel comportment is only superficial. Basically coons are as greedy as teens at an iPhone sale, as pushy as New Yorkers at a subway, as demonstrative as protestors in Zuccotti Park, as importunate as the widow in the parable. If there are no nuggets on deck, there is a clamoring riot of coonsters at the double sliding-glass door, layer upon layer of coons, every one standing tall on two feet, long wizard-fingers stretched flat against the glass, glaring and staring straight at you, eye contact as from hypnotists or trial lawyers.
Those fingers -- as well formed and as slinky as a symphony conductor’s, always in motion rolling a nugget or a crayfish like a baker rolling dough or a croupier the dice, as ceremonially as New Testament Pharisees purifying every nugget in ceremonial pans of bouillabaisse. People just don’t know how facile of hand a coon is. Does Wikipedia know that it’s a coon’s hands in Durer’s famous etching, “praying hands.” She posed at our back door. When we can no longer outsource assembly of electronic motherboards to China, the coons will be out there and could prove even more dexterous and cheaper, though less inscrutable.
Thus endowed, coons are not vandals. Pickpockets maybe, but not vandals. That’s a bad rap, like how they lust to give you rabies or HIV. But one or two had a weird compulsion to rip the solar panels from my 12V yard lights, thereby sending Solyndra into bankruptcy.
With such fingers and personalities, such creatures must be named. Adam was commissioned to name creatures at Creation, without Eve second-guessing him. This time around Sonja, my own dear Eve, got the privilege, and rightly so. She earned it, being head mistress, den mother. It’s Sonja’s Discotheque, with neon lights.
At first it was “the one with the nicked-ear. That’s Nick Ear.” But a great number had nicked ears, like so many 18th century gentlemen had scars on their cheeks from duels, and for the same reason.
Then Sonja appropriated names from Star Trek, notably Spock and Worf, “Spock,” I caught – pointy, nicked ears. But a coon named “Worf”? Besides he turned out to be a she. But the coon name that takes the cake came not from Star Trek but Der Ring des Nibelungen: Coonhilde. Wagner’s Brunhilde, catch? Now that’s a hum-pun-dinger-dinger, Sonja! Makes up for calling a manly cat “Filbert” and swamps my Joe Cool Coon, no contest.
Coonhilde – that’s a name for the ages, which is about as long as Coonhilde has endured. Coonhilde was among Sonja’s first customers, quite probably the very first to venture down from her tree and over to the deck. She’s always first: the first in handout queues, undoubtedly first in number of sugar cubes received, somehow closest to the backdoor in the food riots. Early on she was first because she was young and aggressive and shoved the others aside. Now she’s first because she’s the matriarch and the others stand aside. Coonhilde is the most faithful coon around, Sonja will say, handing over another goodie.
Over the twenty-some years we hosted the Coon Deck we saw many generations come aboard. In the Spring a few mothers, still sleepy-eyed from hibernation up in their holes in trees, with decrepit patchy old fur coats bedecked with strings of fresh juicy nipples, would shamble onto the deck to start taking nourishment. Then a few weeks later they would return looking more spruced and snazzy, with a clutch of the cutest little babies you ever saw on any e-mail forward, no babies are cuter than coon babies, Honey Boo Boo eat your heart out.
As the summer progresses our clientele increases beyond mathematical reproductive expectations, with summer visitors – news of the place on the Coon Blog must have gone viral, – arriving from Cleveland, Copenhagen, and Beijing. I had laboriously laid down flag-stone paths that meandered through the picturesque meadows and woods, but these scenic routes the coons ignore. Instead they have engineered, using precise laser surveying equipment, the straightest lines between point A and point D (Deck) through the forest, a geometrically precise web of radiating vectors, tidy little paths, from all points of the compass to converge on the Deck. Purposefully sprinting, jogging, or just shuffling along these well trodden paths come the caravans of out-of-town coons to gorge on the goodies and fatten up for winter. Then the rollicking, roiling party of rolly-pollies thins out, just a few old-timers still coming around, at least Coonhilde does. During December, January, and early February the place, usually snowed or iced over, is boarded up like old-time off-season Atlantic City, with only a rare coon, maybe Coonhilde, bothering to get out of her hibernacle and amble over to the old deck for the token nuggets Sonja puts out from time to time, out of habit.
Then one spring Coonhilde didn’t show up. Because she was already a fully ripened, nubile, bouncy young lady when we first saw her, we didn’t know her age exactly. Most coons live about as long as a cat, 13-15 years. And now Coonhilde is maybe a hundred, lame and on her last legs, groping and staggering, blind and feeling her way with those gnarly fingers. But still she had come, as faithful as ever, until several weeks ago. “Will she be back tonight, do you think?” we asked each other. But she didn’t come back. Face it, everybody has to leave the scene, some day. Coonhilde, RIP. But what ho! There she is, pulling into her privileged handicap parking slot, with fresh prize-winning nipples and a cutie coon kid in tow! So now she has a new name, Sarah (who, in senility and sterility, bore the promised heir), and the child is Isaac.
Then one day in November Sonja didn’t show up. We had sold the place. Down the long driveway we drove, through coon territory and the web of neat coon paths, past the Burma Shave Signs (On our deck / A crowded discotheque / Coons eat, chomp, glut / Crowded butt to butt). We left town early in the day, partly because that was the only time the coons wouldn’t be at our back door, begging, expecting. Maybe Coonhilde, and Isaac, still come around.