There’s a family of mountain lions living in my basement.
I say a family because I know there’s more than one, but I don’t know exactly how many. If I knew how many, I’d just give you the hard number. Like five mountain lions. But that would only be a guess.
To be fair, a family of mountain lions may not be correct either. I’m not sure they’re related. To be really precise, then: there is a group of mountain lions living in my basement. And in case you’re wondering, there’s no proper term for a group of mountain lions. I looked it up.
Not a herd, or a pack, or a gaggle, or a pride—not even a murder, as it is with crows, and which I personally think would be apt! (Please notice that I’ve not yet entirely lost my sense of humor.)
Anyway, apparently, they (mountain lions) typically fly solo. Solitary beasts. So no one ever bothered to name a group. What I want to know, then, is how I managed to get so lucky. A whole group of them in my basement! I’m being facetious, if you couldn’t tell, about the luck.
A note seems in order here, about planning. I did plan to have my house custom-built. I did not plan to have mountain lions living in my basement. Even though I only planned one of these, both things happened. I suppose that goes to show you can’t plan for everything. That is what I call a lesson for life.
It’s a real beauty of a house, by the way. Three beds, two baths, open floor plans. In a desirable neighborhood with good schools. Took out a sizable loan from the credit union to finance it. Thirty-year mortgage, but worth it. That’s what I kept telling myself.
During construction I stopped by every week just to see how it was progressing. One day, I noticed that the foundation was open, exposed to the elements, while the construction crew framed and walled the main structure of the house. It occurred to me that if it rained during this time, water would get into the foundation. I said something to the foreman about this and he said not to worry, they had it all under control. Then he waved me off like a fly. Told me to relax: leave it to the experts.
But do you know what did not occur to me when I saw the gaping foundation? That a group of mountain lions might nest in the basement. So I didn’t say anything about that. My mistake, I suppose.
They must have come down from the hills north of the village. The mountain lions, that is. Not the construction workers. The construction workers came from Graysville, two towns over. I didn’t even know the hills had mountain lions living in them.
But I guess they do.
Anyhow, wherever the mountain lions came from, now they’re in my basement. Let me restate for the record: the possibility of this happening did not occur to me. It simply did not occur. Apparently, it did not occur to the construction foreman either. Or to any construction foreman, ever. Or to the people who wrote the building codes. There’s nothing on the books about it at all. The foreman insists that, for these reasons, he’s not liable. He says he followed standard procedure. He says this is my problem alone. He also said they had everything under control. I guess maybe that’s just an expression.
Still, whoever may or may not be liable, there are mountain lions in my basement. And I’ll tell you something else: I didn’t even know they were there. Not at first. Not for a while. That may sound silly. You may wonder how one could overlook a group of mountain lions. Well, I’ll tell you how. It was winter when we moved into the house and the mountain lions must have been sleeping very deeply. Taking a long winter’s nap. You’ll notice that I didn’t say hibernating. The word choice was intentional. According to my research, mountain lions don’t hibernate.
Call it what you will, then. Sleeping. Napping. Snoozing. Lying in wait. Whatever. They were down there in the basement, quiet and unmoving, for months. At any rate, when spring came, the mountain lions awoke.
They must have been hungry then. They started scratching at the basement door. What could that be, I thought to myself when I heard the scratching. I didn’t know yet that it was mountain lions. I peeked through the narrow gap underneath the door. I saw big tan paws and sharp claws and fangs and fur and whiskers and several large pink noses. When I put all this together, I had my answer.
It was mountain lions.
The mountain lions were scratching from the inside-the-basement side, where they were. I could hear them from the other side, the outside-of-the-basement side, where I was. So at least we were on opposite sides of the door, me and the mountain lions. I guess that’s what you call a silver lining.
They were also snuffling, which was quieter than the scratching, but still audible. It made me feel weird to think that they were smelling me. When I say weird I suppose I really mean terrified.
I first heard the mountain lions when I was in the kitchen, where the basement door leads into. I noticed I could also hear them from my bedroom when I tried to go to sleep that night. My bedroom is on the second floor, which means they were scratching pretty loudly. My wife and our baby son were both scared. My wife was scared of the idea of being mauled by mountain lions. My baby son was just scared of the unfamiliar scratching sound. He is too young to know what mauling is, or what mountain lions are. Another silver lining.
To address the scratching, I went to the garage and got a saw. I used the saw to cut a narrow slot in the basement door. The slot is for sliding raw steaks into. The raw steaks are for feeding the mountain lions. The feeding is so they would hopefully calm down and stop scratching.
After all, the wooden door wouldn’t stand up to all that scratching forever. I mean, sure, it’s solid hardwood—really high-end construction—but come on: those multiple sets of four-inch claws, working day and night? Piles of the rich blond wood shavings had begun to collect and grow larger on the threshold. A hedgerow of teeny haystacks.
I’m not so sure about that image: haystacks. That makes it sound quaint, pastoral. It’s not. It’s eerie. Chilling, even. And the math behind it so brutally simple: the bigger the piles, the thinner the door. So what’s an eerie, non-pastoral alternative to haystacks? I don’t know. Probably not the time to be quibbling over imagery, anyway.
Where was I? Oh, the feeding slot. The feeding slot seemed like the only sensible thing to do. And the steaks do appear to appease them. There’s a lot less scratching now. Of course, the mountain lions are still there. And the scratching and snuffling haven’t stopped completely. They’ve just lessened. So I can’t really say the problem is “solved.”
Last week, I called the Department of Fish and Game. I asked if they could help me out. Maybe bring over a couple of those neck snare things. Like you see on those nature-man shows. Pull the lions out, bring them back to their native habitat, let them loose. They said it’s not their problem either, though. Those guys and the construction foreman, two of a kind.
They also said this particular type of mountain lion is endangered. Meaning, it’s illegal to kill them. It would even be a felony if I let them die of neglect in my basement. Another reason to keep it up with the steaks.
Then I thought maybe, if they’re so rare, I could make a few bucks off them. Sell them to a zoo. Nope. Selling them is a criminal offense, too. Endangered animal trafficking. And to top it off, word has gotten out to the animal rights people. A whole bunch of them are picketing out front. They’re carrying signs with slogans:
Animal rights: no animal wronged.
Protect the lions’ pride.
At first, I thought they might be of some help. Raise awareness and interest. Help get these animals back to the wild, right? Back where they belong, where they’ll be more comfortable. But no, their position is exactly the opposite. The mountain lions have chosen to live in my basement. They should be allowed to remain. We’ve taken over their habitat, so now this is payback, etc. The activists insist they’ll intervene immediately if I try anything that might harm the lions. Or anything that might infringe upon the lions’ inalienable rights. Which apparently includes living in my basement.
So no help there, either.
I know it seems trivial, all other things considered, but did I mention about the laundry? The washer and dryer are in the basement. So we can’t do laundry, considering the mountain lions. I know: we could go to a laundromat. But we just spent two grand on the new washer and dryer. And now I’m going to go and spend even more money to wash my clothes at a laundromat? In their inferior washing machines? With their harsh powdered detergents? In their non-adjustable oven-like dryers that will shrink all my clothes? That will burn my cashmere sweaters into charred husks of lint? That will transform my Egyptian poplin shirts into what? Into extremely expensive, nappy rags, fit only for doll costumes! Come on. I mean, really, come on. And then what will I wear to work when all my nice clothes are ruined? I’m a professional—an assistant professor of business mathematics. I can’t go to work in a pair of greasy sweatpants. So, no. No, thank you. I will not throw my wardrobe away in those ill-maintained lint traps! Those churning boxes of imminent fire hazard! Gosh-damn-it-all to hell!
I think I’m misplacing my anger about the mountain lions. Taking it out on the idea of laundromats. When in fact, I’m not angry at laundromats. Not really. Laundromats don’t deserve that kind of badmouthing. They’re perfectly productive businesses that provide a needed service to society. I just lost my head for a minute. Please excuse that outburst.
Anyway. If you have any idea what to do about the mountain lions, please let me know. I’m kind of at the end of my rope, here. Damned if I do, and all that. A felony to kill them, a felony to sell them, and a danger to keep them around. I mentioned that I have a baby son, right? And a wife? They can’t defend themselves. Not against a hungry mountain lion. Much less against an unknown number of hungry and/or captivity-crazed mountain lions. And that door won’t hold forever. I may have to take matters into my own hands, consequences be damned.
But not right now. Not yet. I don’t want to do anything too rash, too hasty. Not until I’ve exhausted all my other options.
So, like I said: if you have any ideas, I’m open to suggestions.
For now, though, I’m headed to the supermarket. We’re all out of steaks.
Matt Tompkins is the author of Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press, 2016). Matt’s stories have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate).
From Souvenirs by Matt Tompkins. Copyright © Matt Tompkins and Conium Press. This story first appeared in Post Road.