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Fire in the Rain

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January in L.A. Rain hits the roof like a hundred drummers vying for attention. It pounds against the hillside and slashes through the oak trees, the force of its fall driving smaller branches downward toward the soggy earth.

The intensity of its roar drowns out lesser sounds, unless I walk through the house and listen to the hard drips of water into plastic buckets where the roof leaks, and to the hum of a pump as it empties a drainage ditch just outside a back window.

A heavy mist accompanies the rain, twisting through the dripping branches of the oaks and laurel sumacs like the silver ribbons of God laced in celebration of winter through the Santa Monica Mountains.

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January in Topanga.

All of one’s senses are alert to the storm. I half-listen to the drumming, the dripping and the humming, and to the music of a jazz tape that struggles to be heard through the dichotomy of sounds.

I am drawn to the scenes outside my windows where a drainage ditch becomes a rushing, downhill torrent and the storm coats the streets with a glistening shield of water. I am hypnotized by a hawk that circles against the iron gray sky and disappears finally into the mist.

Outside, the heavy smell of firewood lingers in the wet air, and puffs of white smoke disappear quickly in the wind as they are pumped from chimneys throughout the community.

Inside my small room, Erroll Garner plays “Misty.”

“Everything goes to hell when it rains,” a neighbor says, clearing his drainage ditch of debris. He grumbles and smiles simultaneously.

“This is magic,” a middle-aged woman shouts as she pedals her bicycle through the downpour on Old Canyon Road, like a cheerful wicked witch in a storm that could easily sweep everything to Oz.

I drive through the mountains. A slide on Topanga Canyon Boulevard brings a large tree into contact with high-voltage wires, lighting the lines of its branches with sparks of fire, like a Christmas tree in the rain.

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Waterfalls that weren’t there before cascade down hillsides. Sheets of mud slip over the main highway in erratic patterns. Small chunks of road fall away into oblivion.

Branches snapped off by the power of the storm litter the small roads that snake through the canyon. On one street, a giant oak tree smashes to the ground in a shower of leaves and limbs. Before long, the insistent growl of chain saws adds to the storm sounds.

Topanga Creek rises ominously, and so do rushing torrents everywhere throughout the city as storm water seeks downward paths of least resistance. Television cameras scan the waterways, and KFWB’s Bill Cooper, in a stroke of ironic imagery, describes the muddy floods as the color of cafe au lait.

I hear music as I take the main roads and the small roads. From one house, the piano of Horowitz, from another the trumpet of Mangione, from another, the voice of Billie Holiday.

The music I hear, laced like satin into the storm, is mostly jazz, as though the soothing riffs will somehow temper the calamity they confront.

But storm is a formidable adversary, and not even the rich variations of America’s own music can bring it to heel.

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“This is nothing,” Richard Kelly says. He’s our local amateur meteorologist. “In 1980, we had five inches of rain in two hours. That’s when our roads got washed out. That was a storm. This is just rain.”

It’s Sunday afternoon. Since Jan. 12, Kelly says, we’ve had 15 inches of rain in the Santa Monicas. For December-January, the total is about 30 inches. We live close to nature in the canyon.

“You can about double the amount of rain you get in the mountains, compared to everywhere else,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bruce Entwistle says. “That’s why we say one to two inches along the coast and three to five inches where you live.”

I ask why the mountains get more rain than elsewhere, and he responds in the complicated terminology of his expertise. But then he quickly senses the blankness in my eyes and says, “Just say moist air is too heavy to go uphill so it drops its load on the high ground.”

“This ought to fill the goddamn reservoirs,” a woman shouts as I drive by. Her yellow slicker gleams in the storm light as she stands on her roof cleaning a rain gutter.

The rain gets harder, stinging as it slices onto the roadway and into the gulleys. Highway patrolmen slow the traffic around slides. Firemen stand by where the tree threw fire into the gray air.

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I return to the word processor. Outside, the rain stops but the fog thickens. More storm is on the way. Inside, John Coltrane blows a blue tenor sax into the cold and wintry day.

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