Odd memories, part 20

Photography remains nonexistent and my time remains thin and sporadic, with no change to these visible in the immediate future, so for now we’ll just have some nonsense posts. It’ll get better soon, I promise.

Every once in a while, these memories come back to me, vestiges of another life – my move from central New York to North Carolina (even is it was central NC) marked a decided difference in my experiences, attitudes, and living conditions.

We lived in the same house in NY for seventeen years – well, “we” is relative. My mother was there even longer, while my siblings had all left at various times earlier. But that house was a large, old farmhouse. It had been appended to an original two-story house that was built around the turn of the century – as in, 1900 or so – but that portion was not heated nor adequately insulated, so it mostly served as storage, while we lived in the more modern section that had been built probably around the 1940s or so, and admittedly updated a little since then. One of those updates was the eradication of a fireplace in each room (including upstairs bedrooms) and the installation of hot water baseboard heating. This consisted of hot water pipes that ran along the outer perimeters of the rooms down at the floor, with radiation fins along them to help dissipate the heat into the air; all of this was concealed behind tasteful metal housings. Bear with me, since this is germane. The heating system was spastic, and especially prone to uneven heating, though I still can’t imagine exactly how one room would be cold and the adjoining room, on the same damn water line, approaching sauna conditions.

One of the traits of an old house, unsurprisingly, is how rodent-proof they aren’t. Mice could often be heard scampering around on the ceilings and having the occasional squabble up there, and would venture into the main living quarters whenever they had a ready access. Having cats helped prevent this from getting out of hand, and the kitchen was well-sealed against such incursions, so we didn’t have pantry-raids, at least. But over the years, we escorted plenty of mice and several bats back outside, and in the summer we routinely had to release starlings from the attic after they got in from dog-knows-where.

One night, I woke from a deep slumber suddenly, with the immediate urge to turn on the light on the nightstand. I recall no noises, nothing at all to indicate why I should be awake, just the demand that I should. As I lay there on my side, pondering this unexplained impetus, my eyes caught a bag of walnuts on my nightstand, handy for snacking while reading. It was a paper bag from buying them in bulk, and the top was crumpled and curled over where it had been rolled up but then slowly opened itself under the stiffness of the bag. I was in such a position were I could look straight down the length of the rolled portion – and noticed a tiny face staring back at me. A mouse had been endeavoring to make its way into the bag (without, for some reason, simply gnawing through it,) and had been trapped by my sudden stirring. I can only surmise that I heard it, and without registering the exact reasoning, had been forced awake by this.

We stared at one another for a few seconds, separated by no more than 40 cm, neither of us moving – then I gently snaked my hand out and closed it over the top of the bag, effectively capturing the mouse within the roll. There was no reason to kill it, so I simply carried it downstairs (this is probably about 2 am) and out the back door. It was, at least, not a cold night so I didn’t have to get dressed to do this. I took a few steps outside the back door and opened the bag to release the mouse.

Unfortunately, one of our cats, a lightning fast hunter named Dusty, had heard the door open and had come up to be let in for the night. Dusty announced his presence immediately after I opened the bag, and saw the mouse spring from my grip and bound off into the grass – for not two leaps. In a fraction of a second Dusty had pounced before I could do anything sensible; I never would have released it in front of the cat, but I hadn’t noticed him until I had already opened my hand. At that point there wasn’t anything I could do, and Dusty was no longer interested in coming inside, so I just went back into the house, though some measure of how bad I felt releasing the mouse to its immediate doom can be derived by the fact that I still distinctly remember this little story.

The other recollection is more upbeat and amusing. On another evening, I was sitting in my easy chair reading and heard a soft rustle from the trash can. I lowered the book and otherwise remained still, listening for it to happen again, unsure if I had merely heard something settling in the trash. In a moment it came again, then again, sharper, and a tortilla chip vaulted from the can and hurtled across the floor to disappear under the bookshelves.

I should explain that I had discarded a bag of old Doritos, and such bags are even less prone to staying tightly crumpled than paper ones. An enterprising mouse, finding no movement or noise in the room (since I was reading and I had by that time learned not to sound out the words,) had smelled the nacho goodness and gone foraging in the trash bin. Having selected a prime stale chip, it had leapt out to carry this treasure back to its access, which was the hole that permitted the heater pipes to enter the room, opportunistically widened by the mice over the years. This one had followed the pipe under cover of the metal baseboard plate until even with the trash can, then crossed the open floor and jumped into the can. Once in possession of its food, it was taking it back to a safe eating location.

The amusing bit happened almost immediately after it disappeared under the bookcase. The end plate of the heater housing had been removed, for reasons that I can’t recall, the the bare pipe was exposed right at the corner where the pipe passed between rooms. I heard a rapid and musical tinkatinkatinkatinka from the chip rattling along the edges of the radiation fins as the mouse sped for cover, then as the sound reached the corner, the Dorito reappeared again by springing out into the middle of the floor; the mouse had failed to account for the size of the chip, and being much larger than the hole, the chip had been ripped from its grasp by the wall as the mouse made it through successfully.

I waited, knowing this wasn’t the end of the drama. All was silent; the world held its breath. Then, after about a minute, a small grey nose appeared from the shadows of the missing end plate. The mouse surveyed the room warily, ensuring that the kidnapped chip had not alerted any authorities, then started out into the room. After only a second in the open, the little grey scavenger went for broke and sped across the meter of open floor to where the chip had fallen, seizing it and racing back to the hole in the corner. The Dorito, however, had not shrunk at all during its time out in the open air, and I watched a comical dance as the chip, paler than the mouse, could be seen banging frantically and repeatedly against the wall while the mouse uttered desperate little squeaks, rivaling just about any Three Stooges gag. Eventually, a compatible position was found, and with one last wobbling clatter, the chip disappeared into the wall. All was well; the world started breathing again. I went back to reading, and somewhere behind the sheetrock a mouse family began their history of MSG hallucinations and flashbacks.