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The Gopher Mound

 

 

 

            The antique crystal goblets in Lorna Ramsay’s cabinet began rattling against each other as the temblor rumbled through Orange, Riverside, and Los Angeles Counties.  The living room chandelier tinkled ominously as the house shook and walls creaked.  The pandemonium of dogs barking in the neighborhood and the rumble of the earthquake, itself, now played sluggishly through Lorna’s murky dream.  The rhythmic beating of their bed’s headboard against the wall came as distant drumming from another world.

            “Earthquake!  Earthquake!” she heard herself mumbling as she tumbled down to earth.  Turning immediately to her sleeping husband afterwards, she shook him violently and, when this didn’t work, pounded unmercifully on his chest.

            “Carter!  Carter!” she cried in the dim light.  “For Christ’s sake, wake up!  Get on your feet!”

            As Carter Ramsay sat up, rubbed his eyes, and stared slack-jawed around the room, he felt as if he was on his boat and caught in the midst of a gale.  From this dream-like state, he also felt his wife dragging him bodily from the bed toward the bedroom door.

            “Wha... whazzamattah... Whaz happenin’ to me?” he groaned, as he was jerked suddenly to his feet.

            “Move it you old fool!” she cried frantically. “It’s a shaker—a big one!”

            “Jesus, Lorna," he protested feebly, “the doorway’s too narrow for us.  There’s not enough room!”

            “Hold me Carter!” she screamed, as the shaking worsened. “This might be the end!”

            Until now, Carter’s mind had been steeped in dream imagery.  As he was tossed about on the ocean, he felt safe and invincible on his boat.  As they held each other tightly now, with only the doorway between them and the roof above, the angry sea played mockingly in his brain.  With Lorna’s last declaration, the imagery was swept away by a nightmare more frightening than his dream.  Perhaps she was right.  It had been a long time since the last quake.  Everyone kept saying the big one was on its way.

            The house was creaking and groaning in every quarter.  His wife’s goblets continued rattling in the next room.  Everything, in fact, capable of being jarred or jolted, including the glass in their precious grandfather clock, continued to shake and rattle, miraculously remaining intact.  It seemed as if the temblor lasted several minutes, although the minute hand on the clock had moved only twice.

            It was a dark moment in Carter Ramsay’s life; by now his wife had almost convinced him that this was the end.  Just when she began reciting the Lord’s Prayer and he began mumbling the Twenty-third Psalm, however, the shaking stopped.  Except a chipped edge on one of the angel’s wings, the delicate figurines on the dresser remained intact.  The pendulum and weights inside the grandfather clock, having barely missed crashing through the glass, continued to rock to and fro.  Dishes, cups, saucers, and glasses had been thrust up against the cupboard door, and if it had not been for the special fasteners placed by Mrs. Ramsay onto the cupboard knobs, much of them might very well have wound up shattered on the floor.  And yet, through it all and despite the terrible shaking, only a faint patch of plaster had fallen on the carpet below.  Only one figurine was chipped and one vase had spilled onto its side.

            Although the dogs continued to bark and the telephone began ringing by the bed, all seemed well in the Ramsay household, except the irregular heartbeat in Mrs Ramsay’s chest. 

                After receiving a short rebuke from his wife for almost sleeping throughout it all, Carter scurried around to make a quick inventory of the house, yard, driveway, and surrounding fence.  Most of the breakables, he soon discovered, remained unbroken, the house’s foundation remained intact, and, except for little piles of plaster on the carpet, there were no cracks in the roof or walls.

            “Sorry," he called to Lorna, now peeking out the sliding screen door, "this was not the big one.  I doubt if it will even get much press!”

            “I just talked to Madge next door.” His wife nodded with a sigh. “They’re calling it a moderate quake.  Can you believe that—moderate?  For Christ’s sake Carter, it felt like an 8.0!”

            “I’ve told you before Lorna,” he chided her smugly, “here in the canyon, it always feels worse than it is.”

            “Hah!” she tossed her head. “You said that when we lived by the river, when we lived in the hills, and also when we lived down by the beach.  Now it holds true for the canyon, too!"  "It always seems worse than it is!" she mimicked him under her breath. "He says that no matter where we live!”

 

******

            As Carter Ramsay’s wife joined him in the backyard, a dull and unspectacular dawn broke behind a bank of low-lying clouds.  For a few more moments, Mister Ramsay was buoyed by the fact that they were still alive and there was no serious damage done to their home.  After coaxing his wife to make them a cup of instant coffee, they strolled carefully arm-in-arm across the grass, watching the overcast day spread over the land, until they could clearly make-out the outlines of grass blades, flowers, and leaves below.

            For a few seconds, as they inspected their yard, it seemed as if the ground rose up suddenly in one patch of the lawn.  Since the Ramsays were still suffering from the aftermath of the quake, they ignored the ominous rise as if it was part of the same bad dream.  During their inspection, when the magic of daybreak vanished and the grim reality of an uncut lawn and untrimmed plants greeted their bloodshot eyes, Mrs. Ramsay took this opportunity to water her plants, while Mister Ramsay scanned the yard for leaves, weeds, and gopher mounds, which seemed worse where they now lived.

            As he sipped his coffee, Carter marveled at their fruit trees and multicolored flowers and looked down with awe at the vegetables and herbs sprouting from his wife's garden.  Since his retirement began, he had actually grown interested in what was growing in his yard.  It was no longer merely Lorna’s domain; it had become his, too.  To save money, he had begun mowing, raking, and weeding his lawns, and was in charge of dispatching snails, gophers, and other garden pests.  Lately, however, due to the baseball playoffs and a fishing expedition he could not miss, he had grown negligent.  It had been a couple of weeks since he mowed the lawns, checked for pests, and pulled weeds.

            As he looked down with guilt at Lorna’s prized plants, he spied snails, aphids, and a gopher mound rising in their midst.  In addition to the uncut grass, crabgrass and dandelions grew rampantly everywhere.  It was time for him to get back to work.  While Lorna watched him from the corner of her eye, he took on a fierce, resolute pose, and yet went on whistling happily under his breath.  He would show her once again that he was the protector of her plants.  Then maybe she would take pity on him and fix him something to eat.

            “Damn it to hell!” he said aloud. “He’s back!”

            “He never left!” Lorna replied knowingly.

            While sprinkling her flowers, Lorna Ramsay yawned expansively and thought how she had been shaken from her bed.  Right now, gopher mounds had a lower priority in her mind.  Their good health and their new home’s apparent soundness were all that mattered.  When they first moved into this neighborhood, their yards were nothing but dirt, and they had not yet planted her flowers, garden, and trees.  Even now, months after his retirement, she had done all the chores. Carter cared little about yard work.  The truth was, she thought grimly, he didn’t like working at all!

            During his leisure, with a beer or cup of coffee in his hand, he enjoyed the greenery.  He even bought a new lawnmower, edger, and weed-whacker to do some of the work.  But his heart wasn’t in it.  He hated using all those contraptions to cut, trim, and tidy up the grass.  He also hated killing gophers, spraying for aphids and snails, and picking all those infernal weeds.

            He was, for all his good intentions, however, responsible for the uncut grass, shabby looking yard, and the return of all those pests.  Had he been vigilant instead of taking that fishing trip and watching those silly games, the snails would not have eaten all her plants.  Had he been doing his job, the gophers, he so angrily decried, would not be nibbling at her roots.  He was, she reminded herself, playacting now and doing a sort of penance for his neglect.  Although she had gotten his message, he appeared comical to her.

            Once again, Carter was behaving like an ass.
            “I’ve tried everything,” she heard him cry, wringing his lily-white fists, “traps, poison, even gas.  Nothing works!  He’s too sneaky for me Lorna!  Too damned sneaky!”

            “Try water,” she suggested, playfully sprinkling his foot.

            In spite of her sarcasm, Carter’s charade would play itself out.  Her husband, she had found, in spite of his daydreams, had little imagination and depth.  When not on his boat lately, his mind was on the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine.  If not fishing, he would much rather be dozing in front of the television as game six of the pennant race got underway.  He would also like to be setting at the breakfast table reading his newspaper while she waited on him hand and foot.

            After reaching over convincingly and grabbing the hose from Lorna’s hand, he turned it with feigned anger upon the mound.  As the water eroded the dirt, he watched it disappear and the expected hole appear beneath.  In addition to gaining access to the hole, he had unwittingly watered much of the garden—the most garden work he had done in several days.  He had, however, also succeeded in creating an unsightly mud puddle in Lorna’s garden and, as he flushed it out, only chased the little rodent into the neighbor’s yard next door. 

            “Stop that, you silly man!” she snapped, reaching down irritable for the hose. “I was only kidding.  You’ve tried water before—countless times.  That’s the easy way out.  All you’re doing is wrecking his tunnel.  He’ll make another.  I’ve read about these little fellows; they’ve got underground networks down there: chambers, corridors, and escape-ways you wouldn’t believe.”  “You’re just wasting water now,” she scolded, prying the hose finally from his hand then jerking its nozzle out of the hole. “Concentrate on killing those aphids and destroying those snails for me!  Set me some traps!”

 

******

            Conversationally at this point, Lorna told her husband about the article she read in the Reader’s Digest about gophers.  His well-intentioned wife seemed to have a magazine article for everything in life.  From health remedies to his own personal hygiene, a proper reference was always at hand.  Once again, he conceded with a sigh, Lorna was right.  Among a whole range of do’s and don’ts, water was a feeble weapon against such a foe.  All he had done was send the gopher into exile.  In a few days, he would be back.  For a moment, though, Carter felt wicked delight that his snooty neighbors next door would be plagued awhile instead of them.

            As he looked around the yard for a second mound, daydreaming of his retirement ahead, he noticed the rise in their lawn.  At first, he wondered if it was not just the angle he was looking from.  The lawn did, in fact, slope up from the patio.  They were, after all, in a canyon, where they not?  The ground was bound to be bumpy in spots.  Perhaps, he also reasoned, it was just an elevated outgrowth in his uncut lawn.  Even with the aid of his new prescription glasses, his vision wasn’t what it used to be, and yet the closer he came to the little hill, the more he realized that it was not the angle, nor his eyesight, or the canyon’s natural bumpiness at work now.

            He remembered, at this point, walking over the rise with his wife and wondering about it then.  No, it was not mere imagination as he hoped.  Scurrying over now and dropping onto his knees, he studied it with growing alarm.  This was not simply an unnoticed unconformity in his yard.  The lawn, as a matter fact, he thought sheepishly, was uniformly uncut.  Except for the times he neglected to mow it, the gentle sloping of his yard had always been smooth.

          Just that moment, Jim Hornsby, none other than his snooty neighbor, himself, looked over the fence, and exclaimed. “You flooded my garden, Ramsay; that wasn’t very neighborly.  You drowned my plants with that trick!”

          “I didn’t know where the hole was,” Carter replied defensively. “I’m going to buy some traps.  I’ll give you one.”  “Listen Jim.” He threw up his hands. “I’ve got bigger problems.” “You felt that shaker,” he changed the subject. “Something broke down there.  Take a look.”

          Pointing to the small hill, he waited for Jim’s reply. 

“Looks scary.” Hornsby frowned. “What do you think it is?”

“I dunno.” Carter sighed. “I was hoping it was a gopher.  I’ve had one there before.”

“That’s an awfully big mound,” Jim grumbled. “I sure don’t want that in my yard!”

          “I dunno,” shrugged Carter. “I thought it be a busted water main, but there’s no water seeping out of my lawn.”

          “Well, water exploded out of my yard,” Jim raised an eyebrow. “You’d better report that, Ramsay.  That doesn’t sound like a busted water pipe to me.  It ain’t no gopher mound either.  That looks like a hill!

          Carter caught his breath. “I just thought of something….What if it’s a gas main below our properties?  It could blow any moment.”

          “Good Lord.” Jim shook his head. “Let’s hope not.  Is there a chemical smell in the air?  Take a whiff.  We’d have to evacuate.”

          Sniffing carefully, his face inches above the mound, Carter struck a comical pose.  Bursting into laughter, his neighbor watched him move on all fours around the mound, then rise shakily to feet. 

“Smell anything, Ramsay?” he teased. “You look like my basset hound.”  

          His neighbor was trying to make light of this, but this was serious, a brand-new mound, Carter reflected... Small as it was, it was definitely a hill.

          “Lorna!” Carter gasped with fear. “You gotta see this!  It’s a damn hill!”

          “Calm down,” Jim chortled. “There must be a logical explanation for this.  I got bumps in my grass too.”

“Carter, are you all right?” She rushed to his aid.

          “I’m all right.” He looked up excitedly from the grass. “I was just inspecting the lawn.” “Look at it.” He demonstrated with his hand. “It’s solid under the grass, like rock, and rises up at least a foot.  What do you make of it Lorna?  You ever notice this before?”

            “No.” she adjusted her glasses on her nose. “Never noticed.  I would’ve seen that by now.”  “It sure isn’t a gopher mound," she mused, methodically tapping it with her foot.

            “Could the earthquake have done this?” Carter asked, looking back up to his wife. 

            “Nope, I don’t see how.” She shook her head. “According to Madge, it was relatively mild.  You said so, yourself, that no damage was done to our place.”

           As they inspected the mound together—Carter probing with his fingers and Lorna kicking it with her foot, they debated on what it might be.  

“It might be a broken water main beneath the house,” he said, glancing at his neighbor. “Maybe it was ready to burst and shoot like a geyser into the air.  Or maybe something worse—a broken gas main!”

“No, no, no.” Jim shook his head vigorously this time. “You’d see water spurting out.  You’d smell something in the air.”

  Lorna, who laughed hysterically at these silly men, suggested that it might be land slippage beneath their property, and, when her husband shook his head, offered the possibility that there might be a toxic dump beneath their lawn.

That’s worse!” Ramsay’s eyes widened. “A toxic dump?  I never thought of that!”

“My god!” Jim groaned, retreating from the fence.

“Are you trying to scare me?” she asked, socking his shoulder.

            The last suggestion had taken hold in Carter’s mind.  For those moments, in fascinated horror, as they studied the mound, the faint unmistakable odor of sulfur filtered up from the mound and a tiny contrail escaped the earth.  As he thought of the implications, Carter’s limbs stiffened, reminding Lorna of one of those bodies she had read about in Pompeii.  Frozen in mute silence, he seemed petrified with fear.  Had she not been filled with dread, herself, she might have laughed at her husband’s pose.  At first, Mrs. Ramsay, who had been watching her husband’s actions, had been too busy worrying about his behavior to pay attention to the odor in the air.  Although Carter, himself, smelled the first wisp, he had only glimpsed it emerging at the corner of his eyes.  Rising shakily onto his legs now, he adjusted his spectacles on his nose and stood there silently watching the smoke from the tiny hill rise into the air.

            Swallowing heavily, he began backing away from the mound. “You suppose its chemicals coming out of a broken pipe?” he mumbled to his wife. “Maybe you’re right Lorna.  Maybe we’re sitting on a dump!”

            “I don’t know,” she replied, dropping the hose onto the grass, “but I don’t like this.  I don’t like this at all!  That stuff’s making me sick.  Come on Carter, get away from that mound.  I think we better go inside.”

            “Good thinking Lorna,” he said with wide, unblinking eyes. “I’ll call the fire department while you shut up the house."

            Trotting behind her through the sliding screen door, he added fearfully, “They’ll know how to handle this problem.  They have special units for this.  For now, let’s shut all our windows and not let it in.  Could be poisonous Lorna!  There’s no telling what’s creeping out of our lawn!”

 

******

            Barricading themselves in their house, the Ramsays anxiously waited for the fire department to arrive on the scene.  Soon they could hear the sounds of sirens breaking in the distance.  Help seemed on its way.  With their primal sense of disaster, birds had fled the skies and vacated trees.  After the tremor, given further reason by the odor, wild animals, including fox, coyote, deer, and squirrels, migrated from ground zero.  Trapped in their yards, while their human masters awakened slowly to the disaster, dogs barked incessantly, and feral cats’ put distance between themselves and the scene. 

“Jesus, Lorna, it’s smoking something terrible!” Carter murmured frantically to his wife as they peered out of their window, Something’s really wrong out there!"

            That very moment, his neighbors on each side of him and those in back, awakened from their complacency after hearing sirens and stood in panic in their backyards until catching a whiff of sulfur in the breeze.  Jim Hornsby, who had looked over the fence and witnessed the ominous mound, was now cloistered with his wife in their house, as were the other neighbors, a phone clutched to his hand.

          “They’re on their way,” he reassured his wife. “The last time I smelled that we were visiting Yellowstone National Park.”

          “I remember,” she replied in a quivering voice. “But that came from Old Faithful, a geyser.  The ranger told us it was caused by thermal and volcanic activity below the earth.  This is Orange County, not Mount Vesuvius or Mount St Helens.  What’s that doing in our neighbor’s backyard?”

While the Ramsays looked out their front room window, a big red fire truck came to a stop in front of their house.  As the commander rushed up to the door, his men readied the hose, and a smaller troop of men dispensed gas masks, as if they already knew what was wrong.

            “Move into the backyard.  That’s where it’s at,” Commander Jack Stone ordered his men. “Smells like it might be poisonous men, so keep those masks tight!” “You guys," he added, pointing to a pair standing by the truck, “begin evacuating the neighborhood, while I fetch the family inside!”

            As the firefighters charged into the backyard and looked down at the grass, they debated anxiously amongst themselves about what it might be.  Perhaps, one veteran suggested nervously, a gas pocket, caused by the breakdown of material in a landfill, had filtered up through the soil.  If this was so, a frightened rookie responded, this whole neighborhood might go.  Another opinion, of course, was that toxic chemicals were being blown from a pipe or underground well.  It could also mean, a senior firefighter pointed out, that they were standing on top of a toxic dump.  As Command Jack Stone began pounding on the Ramsay’s door, several other firemen, including men from a second truck on the street in back of their house, were evacuating neighbors up and down the block.

            By now the awful stench of sulfur had ebbed into the Ramsays’ house and nearby neighbors’ homes.  Fortunately for everyone, the wind had only just begun to disperse the smoke, but it was in the air.  As the column rose higher and higher, fingers of smoke spread out and tiny flakes of ash began dropping down to the ground. 

            “I’m Commander Jack Stone for the Orange County Fire Department,” he said while ushering the Ramsays out. “Please folks, don’t panic!  Begin putting these resuscitators on as we head toward the truck.”

            “What’s with the hose?” Carter wrung his hands. “This isn’t a fire!  I explained to you guys on the phone that we got gas, not fire, and we got smoke, like you never seen, pouring from our lawn!”

            “I know all about it.” Commander Stone nodded through his mask. “It sounded like a toxic dump reaction at first, but I don’t recall any landfill being in this area.  That might explain such an emission, but not the smell.  If it had been a gas main, there would’ve been an explosion.  I don’t think it’s any of those caused that column.  First, before the wind shifts and we get a whiff, I want you to stay here with your wife on the north side of the truck until an ambulance arrives.  She doesn’t look too well.  You don’t either.  Both of you lay down and breathe into this mask, okay?” “That’s it.” He motioned to a firefighter. “Keep them lying down, but if the smoke starts dispersing, we’ll have to move them down the block!"

            As they lie on the cots, oxygen was administered to Carter and Lorna while Commander Stone went to inspect the backyard.  Meanwhile, as more sirens sounded in the distance, other firefighters began pulling Carter’s neighbors from their homes, forcing them to put on gas masks as they were ushered down the street.  An immediate call by the brigade commander to the special unit for toxic spells was followed by the decision to evacuate the entire housing tract, an area much larger than a city block.  It appeared, as if everyone on their street was trying to back out of their driveways at the same time.  A small-scale traffic jam occurred between emergency vehicles, including ambulances blocked at the end of the street, and escaping neighbors.  Lorna, who wanted to stay with her husband, told a concerned fireman that she was much better now, and yet she complained of difficulty breathing and had a pain running up her left arm.  Shielding his eyes from the sun, which broke through the shifting column, Carter searched for the tardy ambulance.  Thanks to their fleeing neighbors and the engine on the street, it was nowhere in sight and they were trapped in front of their house.

            When Commander Stone returned to the fire engine, he spoke discreetly to one of his men, who nodded grimly to what he just said.  As he came closer and closer, Carter could see it in his ironclad features: amazement tinged with fear.  As the commander had already concluded, it was more than just a toxic emission or burning chemical fire.  With great bitterness, as if it was the Ramsay’s fault, he heard Jim Hornsby shout as he found his avenue of escape temporarily blocked, “You still think it’s a gopher mound, Ramsay?” 

There was as much action in and around his house now as a five-alarm fire.  Finally, after driving over several lawns, an ambulance arrived.  Carter could see another ambulance not far down the street.  After helping the Ramsays into the ambulance and, at almost the same time, directing the special unit arriving on the scene, Jack looked back briefly at the stricken Mrs. Ramsay, a worried expression growing on his face.  To Mister Ramsay, who was waiting for his verdict, the commander tried explaining what he had seen, noting the incredulity registering on the homeowner’s face. 

            “I’ve seen pictures of them.  I never thought I would find one in my line of work... But there’s no mistaking what is coming out of your lawn.  It’s small right now, but it’ll grow and I’m afraid it’ll get a lot worse.  I’m sorry Mister Ramsay, but there’s a volcano in your yard!”