Walking Up the Hill
The chipmunk is crushed so perfectly its body is completely flat, surrounded by a pancake of bright red gore. It is fresh and wet, run over this morning, maybe even moments ago. I walk down the hill to the train, making a mental note not to step on the chipmunk walking up the hill later. When I walk up the hill that evening, the blood has faded to dark brown and there are flies. When I pass the chipmunk the next morning, walking down, the body is there but the blood is gone. Even the body seems less distinctly animal, losing its shape and markings, more like a scuff of tire. When I walk back up the hill, I can only see the chipmunk because I know where it is, the body a silhouette taking on the gradient and texture of the road. When I walk downhill the next morning, I can’t find the chipmunk at all. It’s either gone or merged into the asphalt. Days later I pass the same spot walking down the hill, and this time I see a dead garden snake in the road, two feet long, covered not with flies but bees.
There are many chipmunks around my house. One lives in the woodpile. Another in the garage wall. Others burrow in the mulch beds and grass. These holes are unsightly but the only hole that bothers me is a giant gap next to the front walk. I read that chipmunks can collapse paving stones as their burrows expand underneath. They also eat the roots out of plants, killing them from below. I don’t want to kill the chipmunk, so I try pepper repellant, sprinkled around the hole. The hole only gets bigger, and I see the chipmunk pop in and out. I try a nonlethal trap. Minutes after baiting it with a smear of peanut butter on wax paper, I look out the window to see a fat squirrel crammed into the small cage of the trap, flipping around with its struggles. I go outside and gingerly release it. I set the trap again and walk down the hill on an errand. When I walk back up the hill, there’s another squirrel caught in the trap, frantically rattling the cage like before. For all I know it’s the same squirrel. But this time a second squirrel sits on its haunches next to trap, placidly eating the peanut butter on the wax paper. I have no idea how this squirrel got the bait out of the trap, or why the other squirrel went into the trap if the bait was gone. I wonder if the first squirrel was tricked into going in the trap and passing the peanut butter out to the other squirrel. I chase off the non-incarcerated squirrel and release the trapped one.
I give up on capturing the chipmunk. I leave the empty trap next to the front door. The hole by the front walk grows a spiral of tiny gray-blue mushrooms leading down into its depths. I read that chipmunk burrows have multiple exits, so another way to evict them is to flood the burrow with water, making the chipmunks flee and eventually turning the burrow to uninhabitable mud.
I flood the hole. The water overflows, then subsides, and I flood it again. I never see any chipmunks escape from anywhere else nearby. I kick the hole closed, and I check on it every time I walk down or up the hill. The hole doesn’t reopen. I wonder if the chipmunks are all dead down there, drowned under my front walk. Three weeks later another hole appears further into the flowerbed. The annuals around the new hole start to die.
There are three phases to walking up the hill. The first phase is modestly inclined but sharply curved, and to get there other returning commuters scramble across the street from the train station, ignoring the crosswalk twenty yards north. Local cars seem accustomed to this, slowing down and amiably allowing the mass jaywalking. I try to at least jaywalk directly perpendicular to the street, meaning I’m in traffic the shortest time. Most commuters don’t bother with this nicety, crossing in long diagonals that hold up both lanes.
Very few of these commuters live in my neighborhood. Instead they hold parking passes at the country club on my street, leaving their cars in the morning because it’s close to the train station. I think “country club” may not be what people call places like this in the northeast. Here they say “golf club.” We’re members there, though we don’t play golf. There is a nice pool for the kids, and most of the food is surprisingly good. It’s so close to our house, so convenient, it’s easier to overlook the club’s foibles. They have a dress code that’s hard to navigate sometimes. I once wore sandals to eat on the terrace. I had recently bought collared polo shirts — the first I’d owned in decades — to adapt to the code. But the manager approached me discreetly and said they do not permit men to wear open-toed shoes at this venue.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I asked at the pool, and they said these were allowed here, outside.”
He smiled thinly. “Not usually,” he said. He meant: never.
I’m still learning. You also aren’t supposed to talk with or even look at your phone in the dining areas. They don’t yet have a plan for dealing with the Apple Watch. They told us when we joined that they started admitting Jews in the 1970s.
My family were members of a club where I grew up, in another suburb in the south, though it was just a “swim and tennis” club. We were often dismissed by other club people for our lack of a golf course. I didn’t understand all the weight behind that dismissal, at the time. Now our old swim and tennis club is a bankrupt wreck, the pool choked with algae and leaves, the buildings caving in. I visited there recently and took pictures. The place was forlorn and melancholy to me, but also eerie and alien. I couldn’t force my memories onto its template.
The second phase of walking up the hill is the shortest and hardest, very steep for a casual walker. This is where the chimpunk and the snake died. This part of the hill requires a transit of the road near two blind curves and a Y-intersection, with a sign that indicates the same street name in opposite directions because the Y creates a loop. Also on this section is a brand new house, under construction, simple and sensible in its new gray vinyl siding. The lot formerly held a derelict old Meditteranean pile, occupied for years by an old man who finally died or lost his senses or both. The new buyer knocked it down in three days. In the front yard is a tall fir with a semicircular fieldstone wall at its base. The wall is shabby and rough and old. I didn’t like the previous house and I don’t much like the new one, but I liked that they left this wall. Then I saw they were cannibalizing the stones to use for their new front stoop, and now I have mixed feelings.
The third phase of walking up the hill is the longest but also has the easiest slope. Some of these houses are old Tudors like ours in various states of preservation, modernization, disrepair. Some yards are open, some have forbidding hedge walls. There are families with kids of several ranges of age. There are couples with kids long gone. There are solitary individuals or silent enfeebled old folks and their caretakers. I don’t know many of their stories yet, though in the 1980s a surgeon lived in one of these houses who got wrapped up in a sex-murder scandal. He was suspected of having a longtime affair with his assistant, then attacking her with a hammer. When she survived, he supposedly tried to kill himself back at his house on my street. I don’t know how his story ended up.
There are many many rabbits. The rabbits are out all day but most numerously visible in the early evening. These rabbits are so fecund and unpredated they have no fear of people. They run if you get very close, but you can sense their irritation at giving in to instinct. Many times I have come across a pair of rabbits lounging in a neighbor’s lawn, lying on their sides, relaxed, legs splayed indolently, like cats. There are hawks crying from the trees every day, but there are not enough hawks to make a dent in the rabbits. Maybe the hawks are sick of eating them.
Behind our house is another hill, a wild hill, terraced long ago but reclaimed by thick underbrush, weed trees, and strangling vines. I’ve walked down this hill too, which is really just another face of the same hill, bushwhacking around a hodgepodge of non-native plants discarded by previous occupants, taking hold and resurrecting down here, out of sight and mind. Concealed in the middle is a thick hump of daffodils, painfully yellow among the deep green and visible to no one. I’ve seen a beaver waddling around this hill in the winter. There’s a huge hole in the hillside, big enough to fit a basketball in its mouth, likely the burrow of the beaver or something else much larger than a chipmunk. Nearby I find a bleached raccoon skeleton nested on a bed of rotten fur.
Walking up the hill in the evening, crickets and grasshoppers sing everywhere in their millions, a reedy chorus encoded in my DNA. The buzzing rise and fall, like waves, crescendo and diminuendo, keyed to heat. What they do to make this sound, rubbing their legs and wings, is also one of my favorite words: stridulate. I marinated in that music year after year, summer after summer after summer, in the other suburb. Hearing it all around me while walking up the hill makes it feel like I never left or that I brought it all with me, which is what I did.