The heat here yesterday in Alexandria was intense, you know, for May. After a day of doing chores with no particular urgency, at 10 p.m. I went outside into the warm night air to sit on my front steps and drink a glass of white wine. My street, facing rows of modest one-story homes, was completely quiet. I sat beneath my front porch light and all was still and calm.

Directly in front of me, across the driveway, was the front landscaping of my neighbor’s house, her azaleas, a butterfly bush, some catnip, rocks irregularly marking the edges of the planting bed. Just the other day my neighbor and I had stood in front of those mixed plantings discussing what she had planted herself and the plants that had accumulated over the years as different tenants and family members had passed through the 70-year-old house. She was pointing out the catnip and one of her cats appeared, as if to demonstrate the herb’s efficacy, and rolled erotically in the fresh stems and leaves.

So, last night when I noticed a slight shudder of the azaleas and a cat-sized animal emerged into the light, I assumed it was the fat Abyssinian. Instead, not five feet from me wobbled something large and non-domestic, first a white face with a long snout, then a body covered with grayish-brown fur, and, as it turned to make the rounds of the planting bed, a long, hairless tail. As Sei Shonagon would say, Holy shit!

Sipping wine on my steps, I only expect to encounter the banal semi-wild animals of Del Ray: squirrel and robin, perhaps the occasional toad. But this, no this thing was big and vaguely toothy (come no further, for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth), and I start ransacking my dull brain for every Discovery channel show I have ever watched, every biology class I have ever taken. I know what this is! I thought, but I couldn’t remember right away what it was called. No, this was something I had never seen in a zoo or on TV. Why? Because this was a Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). It’s a cool looking animal to be sure, and it is our own American marsupial, but let’s face it: bottlenose dolphins and mountain gorillas give better documentary footage.

Meanwhile, the opossum slowly circled the outside of the planting bed, paused in front of my neighbor’s steps to investigate something, turned and came out again from behind the azaleas. This time it was lumbering towards me and, I presume, the insects that had congregated under my front porch light. I awkwardly gathered my wine glass and stood up, not really knowing what to do. I was thinking What’s the etiquette for opossum encounters? For a raccoon, I would move. But my movement startled the animal and it ran back under the azaleas. I waited, but Pogo didn’t come back out.

Inside the house I consulted my illustrated Encyclopedia of Mammals (yes, I consulted a book) to confirm the species and filled in the blank slate of my knowledge about opossums:

  • The Virginia opossum is one of 63 species of American opossums (including North, Central, and South America). Early American settlers never encountered opossums north of Virginia and Ohio, but now the Virginia opossum’s range is as far north as the Great Lakes.
  • Diet: fruit, insects, small vertebrates, carrion, and garbage. Not sure if they like white wine, but I did leave some on the driveway as I ran inside.
  • Estimated range: 31 to 96 acres, so our local opossum works perhaps 10 to 20 streets of Del Ray.
  • They can nest in a variety of locations, but hollow trees are common. I’m guessing the unfinished crawlspaces beneath our old houses work well too.
  • The encyclopedia says, “Despite being hunted for food and pelts, the Virginia opossum thrives both on farms and in towns and even cities.” Well, yeah.