Remembering Singer-Songwriter Sue

I came face to face with my younger self when a cleaning frenzy unearthed this photo from a poster advertising a performance from years ago. The photo, fading and streaked, was mounted on black cardboard that had been chewed by what appears to be a rat. But you can still read most of the white lettering: Friday, Oct. 15 (1982?) Sue Barnard, folk singer-guitarist. (Barnard, pronounced bar-NARD, was my first husband’s surname).

I remember that gig. San Francisco Press Club. I was so nervous I had diarrhea and a sore throat. I mean, the last singer they had was from Broadway. There I was in my homemade clothes singing “Today while the blossoms . . .” and strumming a nylon-stringed guitar. The performance itself is a blur. I do remember how relieved I felt when it was over.

I was about 30 years old, working as a reporter at the Pacifica Tribune. I stare at the photo. I was pretty. No glasses, minimal makeup, longish hair parted on the side. Hands forming a C chord. I did not own a steel string guitar, couldn’t afford it. Sometimes I borrowed a friend’s guitar. I recorded my songs on a shoebox-sized cassette recorder.

I was so earnest back then, my songs so . . . well, I wrote about love, birds, rainbows, my dog. I had suffered through mild poverty and a divorce, but I didn’t know anything yet. So much more was to come. So much.

I miss that young woman. Not just the way I looked but the innocence, the lack of that constant underlying sadness I feel these days.

There was stuff. My stomach issues began in that era. The newspaper deadlines were so intense I often felt like weeping as I counted out headlines by hand and typed as fast as I could on that manual Royal typewriter. I had no money. My car never worked. In foggy Pacifica, we didn’t see the sun for months at a time. I was dating a guy who repeatedly broke my heart.

But I miss that singer-songwriter with the other name (I don’t miss that name) with her crocheted vest sitting on a rock overlooking the beach while her reporter friend Sandy Noack took her picture. I probably processed the film and developed the photo in the Tribune darkroom. I can still smell the chemicals. Using the quick and dirty method we employed for pictures that needed to last only until the paper came out, I didn’t think about “archival processing.” So the photo is fading.

I loved that job at the Tribune. I loved Jim, the hard-drinking photo guy, Tom the jaded police reporter, Mr. Drake the publisher with his bow tie and tweed blazer, Peggy the feature writer, Shirley the office manager who gave me advances on my paycheck, Cynthia the office cat. . . The building reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke and rotting paper. I’ll bet there were rats there, too. Cynthia spent most of her time curled on my lap as I wrote my stories.

I wrote a lot of songs back then. At least once, a song grabbed me during my lunch break and I was late getting back to work. I brought my guitar and played my new song for Paula, the editor. “This is why I was late,” I said. She probably just shook her head, muttering, “Barnard . . .”

I quit that job to sing with the Billy Vogue Country Singers, a Grand Ole Opry knockoff, Ryman set and all, that promised money and fame. We were supposed to spend a year touring the United States, but we went bust before we got out of California. Back to the newspaper biz. Do I regret leaving a job I loved to go sing? No. I had to try it. For as long as it lasted, the show was magical. We were good. I wish I had a video or audio recording, but it was 1983. I have a program, sheet music, and memories.

If I hadn’t gone off to sing and wound up unemployed and living at my parents’ house, I wouldn’t have met my late husband Fred, so it was clearly meant to be.

Fast forward 38 years. I don’t have that last name anymore, but I do have that guitar—and a lot more instruments. The old Fender guitar sounds better with age, and I play better, too.

Ah, time. Where did it go?

More to the point, is the rat that nibbled the poster the same rat I murdered last Christmas or is there another rat living in my house?

Thanks for sharing this trip down memory lane.  

Christmas invader was not even a mouse

The enemy that has besieged my house in Oregon’s coastal forest for three weeks is dead. Last night, my dog Annie and I slept the sweet sleep of peace, confident nothing was rustling around in the dark.

First there was the mysterious gray powder on the floor by my stove. I discovered holes in the baseboard. Strange. Is it falling apart? Is Annie trying to get at something?

The day after I put the presents under the Christmas tree, I found a box of chocolates on the floor, the wrapping chewed off and the box partially chewed. Annie! The day after that, I found a box of chocolates I had bought for myself chewed open and one of the chocolate truffles skinned. Annie!

A giant hole in the dog’s box of Milk-Bones followed. Wait a minute. How could Annie even get to it on the shelf and wouldn’t she have torn the whole box apart and eaten the contents? I taped that hole closed. The next morning, a new hole appeared in the other side. Then the outer wrapper on a loaf of bread I had left defrosting on the counter was torn. Annie? She’s almost 11 years old and has had surgery on both back knees. She can’t jump.

I secured all of my food, putting everything in glass or hard plastic containers. In response, the invader left tiny turds on the counters. Oh! I had a mouse. I bought humane mouse traps at the hardware store. I would lure the mouse in, trap it, and take it out to the woods. I tried cheese, dog treats, Christmas cookies and peanut butter. Facebook friends offered suggestions: gummy bears, sunflower seeds, raisins. Nothing worked.

Things got stranger. I found the soap and soap dish from my hall bathroom in the sink one morning. Must have knocked it down in a sleepy nighttime pit stop, I thought. The next day, my bathtub soap from the master bath had been lifted out of the dish and shoved across the floor into the bedroom. That’s some big-ass mouse, I thought. And way too close to where I sleep. Or tried to sleep. Every night, Annie woke me up, upset about the critter. Get it, I suggested. No, you get it, she whined. 

Yesterday things came to a head. I saw no new damage, but there were turds on the counter again. Ick. I bought a package of poisonous mouse traps at Fred Meyer. The idea is they go in, die, and you dispose of the whole box without ever having to touch or see the mouse.

But that’s not what happened.

The critter got too bold last night. While I was watching the Golden Globes on TV, it raced past me through the den. A few minutes later, I saw that the poisonous mouse box from the bathroom was in the hall, chewed on the outside but with no mouse inside. That’s not what’s supposed to happen. I put it back on the bathroom sink. Soon it was on the floor again, being pushed around by a rat. Not a mouse. A rat. It was so excited with its new toy that it forgot to run away until after I got a good look. Medium-sized but way bigger than a mouse. It didn’t get caught in my mouse traps because it didn’t fit.

As I approached, the rat raced into Fred’s old office, where I pay bills and keep my book inventory. I tossed the trap in after it and shut the door. Now what should I do? It was a rat, right across the hall from my bedroom. I couldn’t stomp it, didn’t have a gun to shoot it, couldn’t move fast enough to capture it.

I texted my friend. While I waited for her response, I queried Google. The websites all suggested I call an exterminator. Yes, but it was Sunday night and the rat was trapped in the office. My friend Pat S. said to call my neighbor, Pat W. I hate to be such a girly girl, but I called.

Pat loves to shoot stuff. He came over in his camo clothes, carrying his .22 rifle. Tiny pellets. It would just leave a little blood, he said. But the rat had gone into hiding. Can’t shoot what you can’t see. Pat went home and got a trap, baiting it with cheese. We left the trap in the office with the door closed.

Forty minutes later, sitting in the living room hugging Annie, I heard a loud snap. I tiptoed down the hall and opened the door a crack. The trap was upside down, the dead rat splayed beneath it, its neck caught. I saw blood and rat poo on the green shag carpet. 

I felt terrible. I don’t hate rats. The poor little guy was just looking for food and shelter. He didn’t even get to eat the cheese. I don’t like to kill things. But I can’t have a rat in my house, walking and shitting in the places where I cook, eat, bathe and sleep. I can’t have Annie waking me up every night in a dither because the rat is running around. I can’t have a rat chewing holes in my walls.

I’ve had rats before, but they were in the attic and under the house. I hired an exterminator because the rats were tearing out the insulation, and the noise was driving us crazy. But those rats weren’t IN the house leaving big bite marks on my lavender-scented soap.

Weeping, I put on gloves, removed the rat from the trap, and placed it in a plastic tub left over from Annie’s arthritis pills. I took the rat out beyond the fence into the woods. Its body was still warm. Maybe some creature would have a midnight mouse snack, carrying on what my English lit teacher called the Great Chain of Being.

I scrubbed and vacuumed the floor. Annie, terrified of the vacuum cleaner, went outside and barked. I have more cleaning to do today. That rat was everywhere.

My friend Pat S. suggested I say an Act of Contrition, something Catholics do when they go to confession. I did. Sorry, God. Sorry, Mr. Rat. If you hadn’t gotten cocky and shown yourself in the light, you’d still be chewing your way through the house.

I live in the woods. I know creatures will get in. Have I told you about the time I found a live garter snake in the laundry room? Or the dead barn swallow in the woodstove? Or the family of mice that moved into the potholder drawer in the motorhome? We humans don’t have as much power to separate our space from nature as we’d like to think.

I just hope the rat didn’t have a family ready to follow in his footsteps.

So that’s my rat story. Feel free to share your tales of critter invasions in the comments.