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Packrat: A New Mexico Story

by Richard on July 28, 2017

There… just down the slope a little. A corner of turquoise cloth stuck out of the ground where a packrat had left it. Decoration for his back door. I slid down over the crispy, dry juniper needles and shriveled berries from last season. Looking around carefully for snakes, I grabbed the corner and gave it a sharp tug. The whole damn hat popped out of the burrow and landed at my feet.

It had been maybe two years since that hat disappeared. I didn’t remember losing it; I just noticed one day I couldn’t find it. The packrat found it. Finders, keepers. It wasn’t even chewed up much. The bill was raggedy, but only a little bit of the crown had been removed, probably to decorate something deep underground. I picked it up, turned it around, then tossed it back down. He could keep it. He’d peed on it.

It was a big nest, with a midden pile that spread over a dozen feet in each direction. Cut branches, pieces of Styrofoam cups, tatters of paper, cardboard, dried juniper berries and pieces of ribbon. I knew it was just the tip of the iceberg, though. Most of the horde was safely underground. He’d been a very busy rat.

Smelling the telltale mustiness of rodent droppings and urine, I quickly climbed back up the slope. People got really sick from breathing packrat urine. A couple of Navajos had died the year before. The spokesperson from the Nation said they might have been digging Packrat nests to get the Pinon nuts the rats horded. Made me kind of wonder about buying a sack of PInon from the roadside guys.

I looked over the midden pile, the gaping holes of several entrances, just visible below the lip of the slope. It really wasn’t much of an issue for the house. It lay under a huge, drooping juniper about twenty feet from the front wall. I could probably poison ‘em, but why bother. There were always new ones to replace dead ones anyway. Poisoned rats could also poison crows or ravens, even coyotes if they were too hungry to care if the lunch was moving first. The Packrats could have this slope. We didn’t need it.

####

“Jim? You  seen my car keys?”

“Nope. Take mine… where’d you leave ‘em?”

My wife’s face told me she didn’t appreciate the humor. “Funny. Would you take a look when you’re finished with that? They couldn’t have gotten far.” She bent over and gave me a quick kiss on her way out the door.

“Be careful out there!” I called after her. It was getting to the point where we felt really relaxed and safe at home. Travel, even out to the local grocery store, implied a certain amount of risk. No matter where you happened to be, chances were good that there was a drunk… or a complete idiot bearing down on you. You had to keep your wits on high alert as the evening news attested. The carnage on the road was almost gothic horrorshow in its terrible proportions. Whenever one of us went out alone, the other one worried.

My bookkeeping skills were pretty shaky and today’s attempt at cleaning things up wasn’t getting anywhere. I got up with the idea to look around for my wife’s keys. I checked all the usual hidey-holes and corners where things got shoved by mistake, but they remained gone. Maybe, I thought, she dropped them in the garage.

That took an hour, moving the bags of yard waste and cardboard boxes left over from moving in just eight years earlier, produced no results. I did find a screwdriver I thought I lost inside the truck’s engine well, beneath the distributor, a month earlier.  OK, a small victory over the forces of fate.

I decided to look around outside, where she parked the truck last night. Our driveway was gravel and the garage had a wide apron, so if she’d dropped them, they’d be pretty easy to spot. After I walked back and forth a few times, I did the perimeter, checking under every snakeweed and chamisa. An occasional prickly pear cactus poked up along the edge of the drive, where the edging stones held runoff water. No luck.

Something shiny caught my eye as I headed back to the door. I knelt down and found a piece of a broken Christmas ball partially buried under a flat rock. The screwdriver in my back pocket began digging into my butt, so I stood up. I turned the piece of thin, curved glass over, wondering where that had come from. We’d never decorated a Christmas Tree with glass balls since we moved in.

I guessed it must have been left over from the previous owner. He’d been in a big hurry to sell, and get out. It was probably from his junk. We had swept up a big pile of odd junk left all over the house, under cabinets, in closets. Among the stuff waiting for the dustpan had been two spent nine millimeter handgun shell casings. Strange things to leave on the floor.

But, no keys. I headed back in to wait for Marty to get home so I could interrogate her about the keys. Last place you knew you had them, what you did next… typical stuff. I was sure we’d find them, though. We always did.

####

Two weeks later, they hadn’t turned up, but I had a real issue to deal with. One morning I heard Marty scream from the master bath. I ran into the bedroom, hoping she hadn’t taken a header in the shower.

She opened the door, clutching her robe around her and shaking her head.

“What was that? You OK?”

“I’m fine, but take a look in the shower.  It’s disgusting.”

“Oh God.” Last time the waste system backed up, I was two days digging up to my neck in the clay and rock mix that was the standard in this part of New Mexico. The only thing that got through it was a six-foot iron breaker bar and a huge mattock. My back took weeks to mend, and here we were again.

While reaching for possible alternatives that might save my back, I remembered the issue last time had been roots. Maybe that’s all it was this time. Two days later, after the Roto-Rooter guy had reported an obstruction in the mainline out to the pool, I was again slinging dirt out of a trench designed to cut across the mainline, about four feet down and hopefully uncover the issue. I’d already lost a couple of days of work, and the cost of the inconclusive roto-rooter visit put me in a pretty foul mood without the digging.

The trench ran from a point I guessed would clear the pipe, across the driveway and over near to the big juniper.  Four feet deep, I was almost there, I figured. So my muttering and slinging went on until about four in the afternoon, when I banged up against the white PVC pipe. OK. Time to rest. I climbed out of the hole and stumbled, losing my footing. I’d stepped into another packrat tunnel or something. The ground had given way under my feet. I stood and carefully used the shovel to excavate the tunnel. It ran towards the drain line, so I began to clear it out. I figured it would be easier digging anyway. My break could wait.

The dirt collapsed with soft thumps all along the tunnel as I prodded with the shovel. The intersection point with the pipe was just ahead. I also noticed some wetness, when I cleared a bit of the dirt out of the collapsed burrow. A twisting line of juniper roots also followed the bottom of the trench, protruding from the mud. OK. That was probably it. Three more shovel loads, and I exposed a coupling in the pipe that was cracked. As I cleared it away, I saw the juniper roots had entered the cracks. It might have been cracked when he had a load of heavy flagstone delivered. A pallet had fallen off the back of the truck and it probably did the initial damage. The packrats had obviously helped, providing a clear pathway to the moisture seeping out of the pipe for the roots to follow. It had only been six months or so. I guessed Juniper roots could grow fast when they wanted to.

I sunk the shovel in, beneath the coupling, intending to clear a work hole to re-join the pipe after pulling off the old coupling and removing the roots in the line. I was glad I had heavy rubber gloves. The dirt collapsed around the shovel blade and fell away into an existing space beneath the pipe. Another shovel full, and I had the space clear, but there was something metallic gleaming in the mud. Of course. I knew what it would be as I reached over to pick it up. Caked with mud and filth, but here were my wife’s keys.

# # # #

For more stories in a New Mexico setting, try Back To Santa Fe by WT Durand , available online or at your bookseller

Saille Tales Books new author

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