Arts : Home on the Range

A former New Yorker’s guide to the texas adjustment

“Red and yella kill a fella. Red and black won’t hurt Jack.”
- Ancient Texan Proverb

The first time I saw a tarantula lollygagging on the front porch, my husband says I screamed. I dispute this. At the time, my husband was a few hundred yards away checking the mailbox and I simply had to raise my voice to get his attention. And I wasn’t yelling for him to come save me. I was merely yelling in surprise — shock, really. No one told me there would be tarantulas when I moved out to the country (a.k.a., the exburbs of North Central). Why hadn’t anyone told me about the tarantulas?

I would have thought that someone would have said something, because there are few pleasures a native Texan seems to savor more than informing a Yankee transplant that she’s signed up for a life under siege — from critters. “Critters” is the quaint, folksy way Texans refer to all manner of vermin to show that they’re not afraid of them. That they’re old news. As in “Yep, I’ve already killed three rattlesnakes in my backyard, and my house is way more suburban than your house.” That’s an actual quote from my contractor, who appointed himself Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle in all things “country” when I first moved out here.

I’ve heard that in addition to the tarantulas, scorpions, ’possums, coons, and coyotes, all of which I’ve seen with my own eyes, that I also have brown recluse spiders, armadillos, black widows, copperheads, and coral snakes.

“Don’t you be letting your daughter play in those rocks,” he said one day, scowling at the pitiful excuse for a rock garden that sits next to our pool. “I hate to be the one to tell you this” — though he was clearly loving every minute of being the one to tell me this — “but you WILL have rattlesnakes in your yard. End of story.”

But that’s really not the end of the story, is it? I’ve heard that in addition to the tarantulas, scorpions, fire ants, fleas, ’possums, coons, and coyotes, all of which I’ve seen with my own eyes, that I also have brown recluse spiders (their bites make your flesh rot!), armadillos (they carry leprosy — which makes your flesh rot!), black widows, chiggers, copperheads, and coral snakes. Say what you will about the quality of life in New York City versus that in San Antonio, but at least in New York the critter population is not terribly diverse. You’ve got your rats, mice, and rats with wings (pigeons, though here you call them “doves”). Also, two kinds of cockroaches: the little ones that swarm and are a direct result of slovenly housekeeping, and the big lumbering ones that crunch underfoot, but are not your fault because they’re actually “water bugs” whose NYC residency predates dinosaurs. Imagine my joy at moving to Texas, where the “water bugs” are known as “tree roaches” and they can fly — poorly, but they can fly!

I take some consolation in the fact that I now find myself living in a mouse-free environment. Back in New York, we would catch mice with glue traps, and rather than let a stuck mouse suffer a slow death, my husband would don his cowboy boots and kill it with one stomp. My friends would recoil in horror, but I would just shrug — what do you want? He’s from Texas. Recently, I had the opportunity to act in a similarly heroic fashion when my dog Cupcake caught a squirrel in our backyard, and threw it around like a ragdoll for 15 minutes before I could stop her. With the squirrel slumped like a drunk against an oak, I phoned my husband, who told me the right thing to do was kill it. I refused. The squirrel will be fine, I said, he’s just a little discombobulated. Sure enough, the squirrel disappeared into the woods within the half hour — and a few weeks later, I found Cupcake cavorting with a tangle of fuzzy-tailed entrails. Live and learn.

So maybe I’m just one of those people who has to have someone do her dirty work for her. Given the number of exterminator trucks I see tooling around my neighborhood, I’m not sure we can say that’s even un-Texan. After much handwringing about the collateral deaths of innocent garden spiders, I called one myself. He said that for $95 every three months, he’d ring our yard with poison, and that most mornings I could expect our patio to be littered with scorpion corpses. It’s a charming image, but I’m still thinking it over.

The truth is, I sort of enjoy telling my houseguests to check their shoes for scorpions. Overall, I’m feeling pretty stoic about the critter situation. I mean, no one has mentioned anything about Africanized killer bees terrorizing the neighborhood (yet). And I comfort myself with this thought: At least we didn’t get the first house in the country that we bid on — the one with the creek running through the backyard. Because we most definitely would have had water moccasins. Phew.

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