The Fourth River

A Second Look: “Critter Control” by Lori Jakiela

By on November 19, 2014

We’ll Just See About That

 -by Ryan Rydzewski, The Fourth River Staff

407593_2939368930614_535018166_n“And now the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and my mother had a shovel,” writes Lori Jakiela at the beginning of her essay, “Critter Control,” from The Fourth River’s Issue #7. “She was holding it over her head.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Jakiela’s mother screams. “Bitch and bastard.”

There are 7 billion people on this planet, and perhaps because it’s possible—minutely—that a few of them might not be hooked yet, Jakiela compliments the essay’s opening with this: her aging mother smashing a snake in the writer’s childhood driveway. “Part of its tail was yellow and squashed flat,” Jakiela writes. “This made it stick to the driveway. I’d never seen a snake limp before, and it was sad the way it tried to squiggle and jerk itself free.”

This violent and difficult and tragic image becomes, in many ways, a metaphor for Jakiela’s mother, who—despite being wholly, vigorously alive—begins losing control of her life due to a heart illness. Jakiela moves home to care for her, thus inserting herself into (and occasionally exacerbating) the central conflict in “Critter Control”: the struggle that erupts when our lives become both ours and not ours, when illness and age force us to cede the reins before we’re ready.

But although it’s the impetus for Jakiela’s story, illness—and the unspoken specter of death—gets very little airtime in “Critter Control.” Jakiela instead focuses on the relentless life force that is her mother:

“She didn’t seem sick. Sure, she walked a little more slowly and didn’t do stairs, and sometimes…she looked far off and sad and vulnerable. Most of the time, though, she seemed very much herself—tough, invincible, the same woman who’d had Last Rites five times and lived to joke about it.”

This toughness is exactly what allows Jakiela’s mother to rail against the forces encroaching on her life, from animals to disease. “I’m not putting up with this crap,” she says after an incident with a raccoon. “Go through my garbage and make a mess in my yard? We’ll just see about that.” Mother and daughter contact a company called Critter Control, a trapping service that releases animals safely back into the wild. “At least that’s what the ads said,” Jakiela notes, calling to mind George Saunders’s short story “The 400-Pound CEO” (which concerns a fictionalized version of the same enterprise).

“Critter Control” consists of very short scenes that rely heavily on dialogue and Jakiela’s expert deployment of “luminous details”—carefully chosen words and images that directly contribute to the story’s theme and mood. We see Jakiela’s mother trying to assert control over the narrator in the same way she did when Jakiela was a child: “Are you going to stay up all night reading?” she asks. “What’s so important about that book that you can’t put it down? You’re going to ruin your eyes if you don’t stop it already.” When Jakiela’s friend comes by and offers to cook dinner, Jakiela’s mother responds: “Don’t tell me you brought fish. You’re going to stink up my whole house with that…and you expect me to be happy.”

In the hands of a lesser writer, such remarks might paint a character as bitter, ungrateful, and two-dimensional. But Jakiela shows us just the opposite: her mother as a loving and lively woman struggling to maintain what illness threatens to take. “It was all, of course, about control,” Jakiela writes.

The essay’s final scene (in which we return to the snake in the driveway) reveals her mother reclaiming that control.  “She jumped back and brought the shovel down again, this time square on the snake’s lispy skull,” Jakiela writes. “My mother had never looked stronger or more determined in her life.” Here we see her full essence: a frightened woman rediscovering the same inner strength that had sustained and defined her for so many years. A woman who finds a way to keep going, despite forces that endeavor to seize her independence. “Not in my house,” she says as she brings her power down on the snake. “Not in my house.”

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Ryan Rydzewski lives in Pittsburgh, where he studies creative nonfiction in Chatham University’s MFA program. His writing has appeared in the Atticus Review and is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine. He’s at work on his first book: a history of the Erie Gauge War, an event that once made his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, the most hated city in America. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski