RAIN

I love the rain. I heard it last night, a subtle sky sound, just loud enough to wake me up.

Today, the rain is light and intermittent, reminding me of a slow, translucent waterfall coming down a pale rock. Water droplets are hanging on the pine needles outside the window, like necklaces of bright diamonds placed there by fairy hands during the night.

I hope the rain continues all day long, so that later I can walk under my big purple umbrella.

When I pay no attention to anything else but the rain, and when I don’t talk, or walk my dog, it is easy to enter a rain world. I feel as if I were walking alone in a bubble of water. I hear nothing else, see nothing else, except for the water around me.

I know why I love to walk in the rain. From age nine to seventeen, I lived in El Cerrito, California, next to Berkeley, with my brother and mother. I would walk to school every day, first to Del Mar Grammar School, then to Portola Junior High, and then to El Cerrito High School, sometimes with my brother, and often alone. Unlike now, when a drought threatens the area, it was cold and rainy most of the winter. But I don’t remember ever carrying an umbrella.

What I especially remember is that I loved walking home from school in the rain. I purposely got as wet as I could. I walked in the overflowing gutters in my leather Oxfords, feeling them balloon with water, soaking my socks and feet. I wasn’t worried about damaging the leather. They dried out, and I put them on again, and I soaked them again. I turned my face to the sky and let the water drench me. I opened my coat so that even my clothes would get wet and I would get cold. Sometimes, I walked fearlessly under the road in a tall drainage pipe where the water flowed ankle deep. In those days, such adventures were possible, because no one blocked access to the pipe to protect the neighborhood children. A little danger allowed for many memorable rainstorm adventures.

By the time I got home, I would be sopping wet and happy. I would take all of my clothes off in the bathroom. My skin would be pink and bumpy from the cold. I would put on dry, warm clothes.

Then my mother would make me hot chocolate and two pieces of toast with puddles of floating butter. She would light a fire in our tiny living room and we would sit together sipping our hot drink. I would slowly warm up. That contrast between wet cold and the heat of the fire, and mostly the warmth of my mother’s arms, will always be with me.

I know that this is why I love walking in the rain.

The Piano

When I was nine years old, my mother bought an old, upright piano. The wood had been painted white, and my mother was planning to repaint it, I imagined, with images of the elves and fairies she had told us lived in the garden. But she never did paint our piano, and my brother and I got used to its off-white color and slightly chipped paint.

My mother had bought the piano so I could take lessons, but I was not a good student, being impatient and a self-critical perfectionist already by the age of nine. I didn’t like to practice, and one day I scribbled all over my book of scales with a dark number two pencil that was almost impossible to erase. My teacher saw what I’d done, and feeling keenly embarrassed, I told her some silly lie—which made me feel even more embarrassed—about how the marks had been made. Then, in a rebellious fit, I quit piano lessons when I was twelve, a decision I wholly regret, as I love solo piano and wish to this day that I knew how to play.

My mother kept the piano and practiced with it when she took singing lessons. She also learned her favorite piece of music, the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in G. Whenever I hear it, I see my mother’s long fingers move across the keyboard in the same lilting manner as the music, and then she appears to me for a few seconds. I listen to the piece over and over again, and I imagine that my mother is in the room playing it.

For lack of money, the piano was not tuned very often, and it sounded slightly off key. But that never seemed to bother us, and we enjoyed it as we would an odd, but gratifying friendship. The top was covered with pictures, decorations, flowers, and books, and the keyboard was always open, inviting someone to play.

After my mother died in 2005, the idea of getting rid of the piano deeply saddened me, but I had no room for it in my house. Since I don’t play, I thought it unreasonable to spend the money it would have cost to move it from California to Arizona.

So I tried to donate it, first to a school, then to a church, and finally to a library. But no one wanted it. It was too old—about one hundred years—and it was not the kind of piano that teachers wanted their students to learn on.

I was stunned that I couldn’t give away my mother’s piano. I had assumed that everyone would want a free piano, that the moment I offered it a line would form outside my door.

But no one at all wanted it.

Then Rebecca, whom I had hired to help pack my mother’s belongings, posted it on Craig’s List. Within twenty-four hours, a man called and said he wanted the piano. I felt immense relief, as I had begun to seriously worry how I would get rid of it. I had even considered closing up the house, secretly leaving town and abandoning the piano for my real estate agent to deal with. I was tired of the “problem of the piano,” as I had named it, and I was obsessed by a Grimm’s fairy tale, worst-case scenario: that I would never be able to leave because of it. I would fall asleep into a very long dream, and thorn-studded bushes and trees would grow over the house and imprison me inside with it. For one hundred years I would slump over the piano, and then I would wake up like a 21st century Rip Van Winkle. Everything but the piano would have changed, and it would still be standing there, breathing, heavy and unwieldy, a slow, broken-down person that no one wanted to deal with any longer.

I explained to the man who had telephoned that the piano was very heavy and that he would need to bring the right equipment to move it. He said, “Yes, of course,” and he seemed to understand. And anyway, how could one not understand the weight of a piano? But when he showed up at the door with his boyfriend, both obviously suffering from AIDS, I knew that neither one of them had any idea how they were going to move it. They looked drawn and grey beyond their years, worn down by illness and suffering, but they were obviously thrilled about the piano.

They had come in a small red truck, and when I went outside with them to the curb, I saw they had brought a few ropes and blankets. The truck did not have a lift. I was so angry at their lack of preparation that I yelled at them:

“What did you think you were going to do, carry it out of here in a paper grocery bag?”

I pride myself on my sense and expression of gracious candor, and I do try to draw the line at rudeness, if not always successfully. Even if I think of making that type of remark (and I admit I often do), I almost never actually utter such words. Yet I felt sheer contempt for the men staring at the piano and wondering how to lift it from the ground to the truck. I was furious, and I suddenly felt as vulnerable as the piano itself.

I pictured it shattering on the ground into a million pieces as they flexed their biceps, and like determined, but now weakened supermen, tried to lift the piano from the ground to the truck bed.

Of course, they did not try to lift the piano.

I burst into tears. I sat down on the curb in front of my mother’s house, I held my head in my hands, and wept loudly. I didn’t care if anyone saw me or heard me, I didn’t retreat to the house to weep privately. Before the sky, the moon, the sun and the stars, my mother’s neighbors and all passersby, I wept.

The men had no idea how they were going to move the piano, absolutely no idea at all.

Then Rebecca—upbeat and ever optimistic Rebecca—had an idea. The siding on the townhouses in my mother’s neighborhood was being replaced. A man had been in the parking lot all day long—moving,

stacking,

moving,

stacking—

with a small forklift. Charming and calm, Rebecca walked over to the forklift operator, said a cheerful hello, smiled, showing her beautifully white, symmetric teeth, and began speaking with him. He spoke almost no English, but Rebecca, who had lived for several years in Chile, spoke Spanish. A few minutes later she pulled out some bills from her wallet and handed them to him. He drove his forklift over to the curb in front of the townhouse where the two men had managed to roll the piano from inside the house.

One of them said something about how sick his partner had been, that recently he’d barely pulled through some lung disease, and he now hoped to enjoy what remained of his life with his new piano. Piano lessons would make him happy. At least he had some time. He sounded earnest, even cheerful. My mother’s beat up, old piano would give life to his beloved, and best of all, it was free.

The forklift operator gently slid the fork beneath the piano. The two men and some other workers in the parking lot, recruited with more bills from Rebecca’s wallet, came and steadied the piano as it teetered slightly, all four yelling in Spanish and English. Rebecca joined in. They all hovered around, each holding a leg, a corner, or an edge, leaning in with their weight. I sat on the curb, continuing to weep, half-covering my eyes, occasionally glancing, still imagining the colossal crash of the white piano to the ground, a mass of splinters, ivory keys rolling down the pavement like dominoes, and the screeching, out-of-tune voice of a dying beast. Very slowly, the piano rose from the ground and reached the edge of the truck bed where it was gently eased in like a precious albino elephant being lowered into a pen at the zoo.

The piano was secured and wrapped for transport across the bay to San Francisco. It would have a long, slow ride in the small red truck.

The men thanked us profusely and gave us their phone numbers. We shook their hands, hugged them, and finally a smile emerged from my tear-stained face. They had our phone numbers, and they promised to call and confirm the arrival of the piano. They drove out of the parking lot very slowly, the piano wobbling slightly in its rope girdle. I watched until I could no longer see it, and I waved and yelled “thank you” and “good luck.”

The men never telephoned us. I don’t know why. Nor did I ever call them. I no longer cared. I wanted a clean break from the piano. I didn’t want to hear bad news. I simply felt relieved that the piano was now their problem, not mine.

Yet, I have often wondered whether the red truck and its delicate cargo made it to the other side of the bay, and how they got it out of the truck once they arrived. I was sure they would not have the dumb luck of finding a friendly forklift operator on the street in front of their house. I repeatedly imagined the old piano on the side of the freeway next to the stretch of mudflats that had been covered, since my childhood, with sculptures built of scraps of metal and wood. I remembered an airplane on the end of a long plank, stick figures, and mythological animals. Through some magic, the white piano would now be suspended on the end of an enormous metal girder, joining the rest of the collection of found art and family secrets emerging from the mud.

Years later, I have come to understand that the men’s enthusiasm at getting a free piano, while they were wasting away from AIDS, made them come over completely unprepared. All that occurred to them was the joy they would derive from a musical instrument—even an out-of-tune, old piano—not the logistics of getting it home.

I wonder how long the sick man lived and how much pleasure he derived from my mother’s piano at a time in his life when every second was precious, when every second had to be filled with some bit of happiness, in case it was his last.

Our Haunted House

February 21, 2015, was the twentieth anniversary of the death of my brother, Jeffrey Thomas Benjamin Marcus. The following true story is dedicated to him, and it is one of many adventures in which he included me, and that I’ve never forgotten.

My brother Jeffrey and I used to walk to Del Mar Elementary School, and later to Portola Junior High School, both about one mile from our California home, although they seemed much farther away when I was a kid. I walked in a straight line, occasionally hopping onto a wall that I could balance on until it ended or got too narrow. Then back to my neat walk, serious little girl that I was.

Jeffrey did everything but walk, and instead danced, sauntered, and boogalooed, as he swung a huge wad of pink Bazooka Bubble Gum made from several pieces that he’d stuffed into his mouth. He’d pull on it, then stretch it out at least three feet, and then holding one end of it, swirl it around like a baton. With his flexible whirling pink baton, he cavorted and moved to a beat that only he heard. But it was loud, and he kept dancing. I remember some kid in a book who stuffed his unfinished gum behind his ear for safekeeping. It wouldn’t have surprised me had I noticed a wad stored there for later behind Jeffrey’s brown curls.

On that road which curved and sloped down to the back entrance of Del Mar School, perfumed by eucalyptus and oleander, there sat an abandoned house. We didn’t go into it more than once, yet fifty years later, I have a permanent memory of something eerie and exciting, something disturbing that drew us to it.

The house was never boarded up or torn down. Instead, it was left to sulk in its sordid mood, year after year, out of place, taunting the surrounding middle class houses, their neat gardens, mowed lawns and trimmed rosebushes. The house breathed and heaved, and its unlocked front door beckoned us to open it and peer into a room where torn curtains still hung, mottled with pond-green mildew. They blew back and forth on windy days, and when there was no wind, they still seemed to billow slightly as we went past. The glass panes were shattered, and a few jagged edges sparkled in the light.

We entered and walked downstairs, Jeff still lost in his dance, and I, terrified. But I followed him anyway with a couple of other kids. I saw the curtains, I saw them moving in the wind, and I stared at the dim staircase to the lower floor. And I remember, like an apparition, the most unnatural thing about the house: a single bed with a neatly tucked in white bed spread in the middle of what must have once been a bedroom. The bedspread had a whisper of pale green mildew that looked like what crept up our shower wall no matter how much bleach my mother scrubbed it with. The only piece of furniture left in the house, the bed still reclined on the hardwood floor, as if waiting for us to lie down on it.

Tarnished Canadian pennies, pennies we knew from having spent them in our hometown, Vancouver, British Columbia, were scattered next to the bed, their maple leaf designs curling up toward us like tiny hands. I heard little voices chant to me: “Touch us, take us, take us from here! Touch us, take us, take us from here!”

What most frightened me was the jagged hole in the wooden floor next to the bed, through which I could see dirt unevenly piled in a mound. At first, it smelled like a clean dirt smell, but it was mixed with something unidentifiable.

I reached down for one of the Canadian pennies. I couldn’t leave such an unexpected and attractively uncanny treasure, behind. But at that moment Jeffrey screamed something about someone coming, some shadow that we never saw, some sickening presence. I never saw him, but I knew that it had to be a bad man, a bad man in dark clothing, big overalls, with a stale smell–nothing like my daddy and his suits and ties and his daily smell of Old Spice that I loved so much–big shoulders, slightly bent forward, an angry man with a haggard scowl carved into his face.

We all screamed, and by then Jeff had flung aside his Bazooka Bubble Gum and was fleeing out the door of that evil house. And I had never run so hard in my life until that moment. Something about sheer terror turns you into the fastest runner on the block.

Squirrel Memory

One of the most enjoyable things about living in a small mountain town, in the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the world, is the frequency with which I can observe wildlife. I don’t even have to seek it out. The animals are close by, and I have seen many: herds of deer on the golf course during the quiet early morning hours, or in the woods at any time of the day, elk, a large javelina (also known as a peccary, or skunk pig) who ran beneath a giant log in the forest that I was sitting on, prairie dogs calling to one another on their mounds, lines of tiny horned toads, like ducklings following their mother, on a trail in Buffalo Park, snakes, tarantulas, bats at sunset, coyotes, hawks, stick bugs, and some of the strangest, largest multi-colored beetles, bugs and spiders I’ve ever seen, and that I can’t even begin to identify. And then there is the ubiquitous backyard squirrel. We have tufted-eared Kaibab and the less decorative American grey squirrel.

In the urban environments that I grew up in, I occasionally saw deer, opossum, raccoons and snakes, especially in Santa Barbara, California, where the populated foothills merge with the wilder mountains above the city.

However, I have never seen as much wildlife “in action” as I have here in Flagstaff.

My husband and I have a pond and waterfall in the corner of our yard, a tall bamboo grove (yes, bamboo does grow in the mountains; this particular variety is from somewhere in the mountains of China and does well in snow) and about thirty trees of all varieties, mostly native.

Many birds come to drink and bathe in the water, and the squirrels drink there, too (though I would not be surprised if they secretly bathe there at night when our dog, Koira, is not trying to catch one; her capture rate is low: one in nine years).

The other day, we watched a scene worthy of filming. From our dining room window, we have a perfect view of the pond and area around it. The day before, I had put a pile of Brazil nuts on a flat rock next to the pond. I thought that the crows and other birds would quickly devour them, but they sat there for two days until one particular squirrel discovered them. Jackpot! We watched him for ten minutes, wishing we had a video camera.

He ran up to the Brazil nut pile and took one. He scurried and jumped onto the head of our statue of Indra (King of the gods in the Hindu tradition, and follower of Buddha) next to the pond, then took a few nibbles. He then jumped off Indra’s head, nut in mouth, and dug a small hole with his tiny speedy paws (front paws have four toes and back paws have five). He dropped the nut into the hole, tamped it down with his nose, and then rapidly covered it with dirt and pine needles. He repeated this sequence ten times with ten different nuts: grab nut, taste it, leap onto statue, sit and nibble, leap down, bury nut. Every nut was buried in a different place.

The first thing we asked was: “How will he ever remember where he put all of those nuts?!”

I decided to do a little research. I’m not at all alone in my curiosity! The issue of squirrel memory has been studied a lot, and there is a plethora of articles about it, in addition to videos and photos of squirrels, squirrel tracks, nests, food, scat, etc. As a generalist, and someone who knows next to nothing about animal behavior, neurology and biology, I find these squirrel facts fascinating.

Did you know that…?

1. Squirrels remember where they put their nuts. They don’t rediscover them by odor alone but have a spatial memory for where the nuts are located.

2. They use information in the environment, such as the distance between a cache and a particular tree, or other landmarks and their caches.

3. Some of them engage in what is called “deceptive caching.” A squirrel digs a hole as if it were going to bury a nut, but then it doesn’t bury the nut there, instead putting it elsewhere, once the coast is clear and no one is watching it. The intent is to trick other squirrels or nut-eating animals that might be observing.

4. American grey squirrels hide nuts in many different caches so that if, by chance, another competing animal finds them, all is not lost! There will be some nuts to dig up and eat
elsewhere.

5. While some bird species experience seasonal growth of the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for memory function, apparently this does not occur in squirrels.

6. A squirrel can go headfirst down a tree because its hind feet can turn backward.

Last summer, I had an amusing but somewhat alarming experience with a squirrel. I often cluck my tongue at the squirrels, and talk to them, when I’m in the yard (“Hey, squirrely-whirly, what are you up to! Curkk, curkk, curkk!”). That day, as I came out the front door, I saw two young squirrels on the trunk of a pine tree in our front yard. I clucked at them. They descended the tree, and one of them seemed to stare right into my eyes as it ran directly toward me, then leapt onto my lower leg, bounced off, and ran away. All of this happened very quickly. Later on, a biologist friend told me that when squirrels behave in unusual ways, it might mean they are sick. I felt relieved I’d been wearing jeans. I immediately thought of plague, which occasionally hits the local skunks. During past summers, we’ve had to quarantine cats for several weeks at a time while the forest service baited food with plague vaccine. Perhaps I should no longer speak to the squirrels. What do they think I’m saying?!

Though I sometimes complain that they steal most of the bird food, before the birds have a chance to eat any, I love squirrels, and I love watching them. I have a great deal more respect for them, now that I know how highly developed their memory is. Can you remember all of your “caches”? Where you left your keys, hearing aids, glasses, flashlight, hairbrush, earrings you set down somewhere in the house, gifts you hid in a closet, purse…? I can’t! Squirrel Nutkin can!

Cover Squirrels and nuts