Something to Do with Evolution
My neighbor plays the saxophone like a fifth-grader breaking in a reed. He turns on Coltrane and plays along. Jerry blares himself on summer mornings, afternoons, and late at night in his courtyard with his bulbous tomatoes and towering cannabis. It’s like he’s playing in my face, and having an awesome time. He probably won’t kill himself tonight.
Jerry isn’t a regular neighbor who lives in the house next door facing the same street, coming and going from a parallel driveway. He’s more like a gargoyle in the backyard. He actually has a door into my yard though it’s a mystifying three feet off the ground—a portal between me and something unpredictable. It exudes a magnetic force that repels and attracts. When I step out my back door my head jerks towards it. Sometimes he is right there waiting to say hello. It was worse when I had a garden to water. He would startle me every morning across the spray of the hose and tell me how beautiful everything was. How the garden was beautiful and I was beautiful, “the essential woman,” and how he kept his door open to embrace that energy.
I saw less of him when I let the garden go. I didn’t cut back the bamboo, and it became a thick hedge maybe fifteen feet tall with crushed over parts like a giant torn up basket. The dead sunflower stalks, crispy zinnias, and shriveled cherry tomatoes stood as a testament to neglect. Presumably he kept the door shut to ward off defeat or discourage black widows and stray cats from jumping in. Maybe it was open. I didn’t check.
Jerry is my landlady’s ex-husband. He and Linda bought the property on Arno in the 70s when they were both architecture students. It was Jerry who took a pickaxe to the curb to make the driveway, plastered ceilings with mud, and installed the long-dead irrigation system in the yard. The property holds a two-story brick house built in the 1920s, a smaller “cottage” in the back built around 1900 (that I rent), a two-car garage connected to another semi-finished house (Jerry’s) that opens onto a back. They wanted to have an art commune there, but it didn’t work out. Jerry had some addiction problems. They both met other people. Linda moved to Japan for a while and got remarried. Jerry moved to another part of town but held onto the back house. The bamboo was planted, the bricks disintegrated around the edges into chalky red dust. Tenants collected rusty objects and bovine skulls. Twenty-some years passed.
Then I moved in. The rent was cheap. I had friends living in the big brick house. I liked rust and peeling paint and mysterious artifacts. It was the perfect backdrop for the artist I wanted to be. I overlooked the fact that it smelled like the Salvation Army. I thought the old windows were charming. The archaic heating mechanisms were unique. The claw-foot tub sinking through the bathroom floor was picturesque. The neighborhood offered a nice blend of trendiness and seediness. I was twenty-six.
For a while it was a kind of party house where hippieish late twenty-somethings could live out their post-adolescence. The brick house saw a succession of tenants including an Ayurvedic healer who eventually skipped town to evade the cops, a colonic hydrology massage therapist, yoga teachers, PhD students, fire dancers, filmmakers. For a while there were three dogs and the dog owners invited their friends to drop off their dogs during the day so all the dogs could play together and poop together in the yard. One of the resident canines liked to chew, and tore through the old couch in the bamboo patch and the miscellaneous objects and dug up broken beer bottles and bone pieces and plastic bits. Then someone left a box outside full of packing peanuts, and a garden hose, and these are things that have integrated with the soil and will turn up in the geologic record in several billion years.
There was eventually a house fire, as one might expect. It was 4 a.m. and the neighbor was smoking a cigarette and saw the flames and woke up the sleeping partiers and everyone got out ok. I was with my boyfriend, John, and he woke up which was good because I probably wouldn’t have, and there was no smoke detector. The fire was in the front of the brick house and not the back, or we might have burned. Just the house was lost, or mostly lost and taped up like a big brick box. That ended the period of Early Arno, which fell in the period of my Late-Middle Youth.
Linda stopped by one day and told me about her teratoma. It was February, a year after the fire and the pipes had frozen and thawed and rained down inside the house for at least three days before I’d noticed and called her. She and the plumber pumped out the basement into the yard, dug channels to distribute the water, and then dragged out twenty years of refuse—her sodden college textbooks, her daughter’s pink bed frame. Afterwards she stopped in to chat.
A teratoma is an encapsulated ovarian tumor that develops organ tissues. They usually have hair or teeth or bone parts, but they can also grow eyes or other bits of humanness. She said she thought that maybe this had something to do with evolution and maybe sometime in the distant past or the distant future asexual reproduction was/would be a thing. At the time of the tumor, she and Jerry had already separated. She was living in the brick house with their young daughter, and Jerry and lived across the street with his pregnant girlfriend. She told me this wasn’t awkward except maybe the one time that she ran across the street help when the girlfriend went into labor. It was a boy. Then Linda went to the hospital, and they removed the teratoma. The doctors wouldn’t let her see it. He should have been my child, she said. She said it like one might say I should have bought a different car. I guess that’s what time does. And Jerry and the girlfriend had a kitten and their daughter always wanted to be over there. I got the impression this hurt Linda’s feelings as a mother—a good sober mother. But now Linda is in her sixties, and she does Pilates, and she shows me her abdominal muscles, the soft outlines of a six-pack.
The Middle Arno period blossomed with my first gardening attempts and the flowers that Jerry found so moving. I was working a lot and then quit my job as a marketing director for a small design company to spend more time sitting on the porch. I sat and wrote under a wasps’ nest and read and did other things that are lost in the vacuum of memory. John and I were together and optimistic. He tried to save the apple tree that the dogs had chewed nearly to death. He cut back the bamboo and dug my gardens out deeper than I would have, and brought in compost. The chickens were his idea. He would fall asleep on my couch watching TV, brush his teeth, put the top on my teapot in a left-handed way. He fixed things, chopped broccoli, sang songs, drained pasta, and went back to his own apartment or sometimes stayed. “He doesn’t know how good he has it,” Jerry would say, followed by, “If I were thirty years younger…I’d show you something alright. I used to be very attractive you know.” John liked Jerry. He showed a decent amount of protectiveness but they bonded over the shared struggles with self-medication, poverty, rough childhoods, and the supposedly romantic depression of artistic torment.
I liked Jerry because I wanted to believe he was right. When a ranting, intense, prophet-type tells me I am resplendent, I want to believe them. I find flattery irresistible. I liked Jerry because of his rawness. I liked Linda because of her honesty. Because she thought I should know about her teratoma. I liked the cottage because it was all character and no pretense. I find it difficult to express my own rawness, my own entropy, and being near those things felt right.
John wasn’t there the night that Jerry got in a fight with the neighbor on my other side, Mike. It was a fight about parking. Jerry didn’t like that Mike’s trailer was parked in the front yard of the empty brick house. I heard the gunshots and a few hours later there was Jerry on my porch in tears and bent over and he told me how Mike shot a gun at his head and he’d said go ahead and kill me, but Mike missed, so he’d torn the front door off that motherfucker’s house and Mike said that I said that it was okay to park there, which I had, or at least I’d said I didn’t care. And Jerry said I love you but you have no right. I told him I was sorry and I gave him a dozen fresh eggs. A couple days later, when Mike was ripping the teeth out of his own white picket fence and threatening the neighborhood with gunfire he was finally arrested. But only after I’d spent an hour hiding in my closet with a kitchen knife where a stray bullet was less likely to hit, and after listening to Mike pound on my cardboard walls screaming I know you’re in there you bitch. After this I thought maybe I should move. But I didn’t. Jerry would never hurt anyone but himself, Linda promised, and Mike was evicted.
There were sounds besides the saxophone that came from Jerry’s house. Sometimes it was early morning retching. The aftermath of drinking or possibly chemo, I assumed. Linda told me he was being treated for prostate cancer. It was the prostate meds that had triggered his phase of cross-dressing—stripped of testosterone and exploring his feminine side. I didn’t know that when I first saw him in women’s lingerie months after I moved in. He’d let my friend film a Haitian dance video in his house and wanted to participate. But now I understood. For a few weeks I heard the kind of wailing that I can only describe as the essence of suffering. This sound is the reason we hide from ourselves. An animal sound. I would run away from the house and be gone all day. I mentioned it to Linda because she would sometimes check on him, and she said it probably meant he was sobering up. Being sober is hard for him.
Last year for some reason the bug man never came to do whatever he does that is supposedly organic to keep the insects from crawling through all the cracks in the floor, walls, windows, closets. I called him. Linda called him. He never came. There was one night when the cockroaches were all out together in a roiling mass beside the front steps. Usually the motion light came on and there were maybe fifty shiny black darts crisscrossing the driveway. But that night it was like someone stirring a cauldron of dead leaves. Not leaves but a million exoskeletons brushing against each other. A hundred thousand crunchy legs rubbing each other. The ground was moving. There were roaches, and the roaches were having mad orgies, but mostly outside.
In the late spring tiny babies appeared. Baby cockroaches that just looked like delicate, scaly grains of rice with quick legs. I thought—no big deal, what’s another little bug for the spiders to eat. Until it became obvious that there were at least one million precocious roach babies. A few weeks later they were the size of sunflower seeds. In August they were the size of peanuts. But roaches aren’t as bad as living with crickets. Crickets in the house are loud. Crickets under the bed. The black widow couldn’t eat them fast enough. I didn’t know about the black widow until I moved out, and a friend casually mentioned finding it under the bedside table. I used to go to bed and think maybe a black widow will crawl across my sleeping face. Suspicions confirmed.
The bedroom was dark, its one window shaded from the possibility of Jerry’s gaze across the yard. Moonlight slit through the cracks in the back door, along with cold air and the scratch of wind in bamboo, and the occasional bug. It was the site of good sex and bad sex and lots of sleeping and sleeplessness. Where I’d spent the weeks after watching Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, watching the wind blow the shadows and the motion light come on and expecting to see an owl that would turn into an ancient Sumerian alien life form and drag me around outer space and return me to my hovel without words. Where I woke up at 3 a.m. and wondered if I would see a demon. The room where for four years I had someone warm to hold onto, feeling densely together and alone like two pebbles in the dark. If I sleep an average of seven hours a night, I’d spent about 639 days just lying in the dark in that small box, body regenerating itself, liver working overtime on the bottles of wine I’d drank while watching The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Or reading books, feeling tragic, feeling jubilant, feeling hopeless, feeling like a queen. Me lying there with the room breathing on me, dust creeping, chirping crickets, silent spiders feeding.
If I had to pinpoint a real turning point, the transition from the Middle Arno to the Late Arno period, it would be the day I came home and found Linda and Jerry on the roof, tacking down a bright blue tarp over my cottage. It was a temporary fix for a roof that had been diagnosed with innumerable leaks. But the sun in New Mexico has a special quality, an insidious intensity that will eat through plastic, destroying the tiny fibers that hold it together. The temperature fluctuations in the high desert make the filaments brittle and the tarp shredded into blue string that spread across the yard. They were staticky, and I found them on my pant legs, in my car, under my bed. There was something about the tarped roof that suggested poverty or futility, and it got me down. Linda made promises of a new bathroom, a washer/dryer, a new back door. Someone posted a fluorescent pink permit out front suggesting imminent repairs. The spell of the house, the illusions of someday buying the property and fixing it shredded slowly and bleached out. The conversations I had with myself were the kind you have with a friend in a bad relationship. You deserve better. A nicer house wouldn’t make you a yuppie. It would mean you have some self-respect. You’re an adult. Get it together. Three tarps later I did move, shortly after John and I broke up. Maybe the decision had something to do with the break-up, but it’s more like the break-up had to do with the same thing that propelled the move. The necessary renovations were never going to happen.
I moved almost everything out in a hurry. The new place was small, clean, solid, and it smells like wood and paint. I crash-landed and didn’t go back to Arno for a week or so to finish the job. When I did I was surprised to find it was still standing; the rot had not consumed it; it had not succumbed to the powerful vacuum of my absence. I was offended by the dingy thrift store smell and its boozy overtone, the lack of clean up after the moving party and the dregs of twenty beers scattered on the floor. My heirloom Norwegian china teacups were still strewn on the counter with a film of dried cider and rum. The odds and ends that I didn’t want were still waiting for me. The plants that hadn’t fit in my car had nearly given up on life. I noticed a small pile of plaster dust on the floor where the kitchen/dining/living room table/desk used to be, confirming my suspicion that I wasn’t leaving crumbs around but perhaps the ceiling was falling in. All the dirt I hadn’t cleaned from under the bed and behind furniture was exposed and vulnerable. Jerry had obviously been in the yard. He’d cut down the bamboo and dragged scrap wood out of the basement. I had left without saying goodbye.
Jerry was my neighbor for a while. Linda was married to him, but then wasn’t and hasn’t been for a long time, and is fine now. The teratoma is not a metaphor. It’s just a real thing that happened to my landlady and now it’s part of my story. I don’t know what it means. It just illustrates the things you can know about other people. I also know about the time she saw god, and her brother’s death, her mother’s death, her MA in cross-cultural communications, and the white carpet in her apartment in Tokyo. I used to live in the house that she and Jerry owned, and our lives overlapped on a small plot of land. I used to be younger than I am now. I used to live in a charming, rundown little house, and now I don’t. The particles left behind—the carbon of my skin and of lovers and of insects and vegetables and chicken excrement, will eventually compress into a slim layer of rock—a permanent thread of tarp-flecked dust.
Author’s Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Photographs provided by author.