In my backyard, there are fruit mice that come out at night, devious, and peel my oranges. In the morning it looks like a herd of suburban moms have come through for mimosas and left their shavings. It’s so disrespectful. I am a maid for mice. I clean up after them and let them have at my oranges again the next night.
I saw a possum come through. He ran off hurriedly when I shined my cell phone flashlight on him, after I struggled to find the button. But when he ran away, it was his running away that let me know that he wasn’t supposed to be there, that my intuition that he was in my space was right. I got angry after he was gone, like a homeowner who returns to find that he has been robbed. What did he want? What was he doing? Why didn’t he just ask?
I saw a racoon in my front yard, on the porch, last autumn. It was after my pumpkin. The experience was very different. While he was dressed like a robber, he acted like he was supposed to be there, and didn’t move. He acted like the resident of a bed and breakfast, saying, “I’m renting. Get me food.” And I wondered if I was supposed to be mad or to accommodate. But because I had heard stories about these con artists and their claws, I threw the welcome mat at him.
My backyard comes alive at night, a Darwinian pool of exactly the right chemicals and catalysts to bring about a pulsating, thriving, growing garden of life. It’s pumping. It’s fornicating, my backyard. I wake up and things have grown and grown together and replicated and stretched and split into two. It’s a pornographic, seething, hotbed of rapid regeneration, my backyard.
So I have a bug zapper. It’s purple. Picture that, because I want you to see it, the purple cylindrical light, the lone siren on an otherwise pitch black background. It’s designed by genocidal engineers who have studied the evolutionary predilections of invertebrate nervous systems. Some slimy organism in a mud puddle developed a soft spot on one side that was sensitive to light, and it drew it towards light, which, at the time, was how it produced glucose within itself on which it fed, so the attraction to light made it survive. A billion billion years later, that’s an eye. And the eye draws its host towards light because it’s supposed to. And the Josef Mengele at the Bug Bgone Bug Zapper production plant knows all of that and made my purple aphrodisiac that draws them in.
I hear it, like a barber’s razor that turns on and then shorts out. I’ve brought an end to an evolutionary line older than the Bible. No more offspring. No next generation. I have killed as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, and I pause momentarily from a Dodgers game when I hear it, to think, “Good, the next time I have a bbq, I’ll be less annoyed. The next time I step out on the patio to take a phone call, I will have to fan my hand in front of my face one less time.”
To the Zulu chant of “Baaaaa sowenya mama beatsebabah,” rising from the growing circle of life in my backyard, I extend my purple middle finger.
The bug zapper factory is a few miles from my home in San Dimas, so I call to find out what’s wrong with them. Under the pretense of writing an article for a gardening magazine (I just named a recognizable journal, the one you’re probably thinking of), I tell them I am researching, and that my article will promote whoever is most helpful in answering my questions.
I call, by the way, from work. I am a recently hired member of a team of forty-five IT workers at a large university who all sit at identical Swedish-manufactured desks in a single, musty room. Not to brag. All of us are men, except the woman who answers the phones. There’s a supervisor, Mr. Jacobsen. He has a name, and the rest of us have an identity only at exactly the moment he looks around the room for an available delegatee. When he looks at me, and I can see he’s combing his memory for my name, I don’t tell him, because I don’t want him to know. I only ask, “How can I help you?” So at least he likes my face.
I’m making this call not only because I’m fishing in the publishing pool, but for the sheer distraction. Otherwise, I would be developing the backend infrastructure of an admissions system, creating viable electronic pathways for the thousands of freshmen who are seeking to advance themselves through a high-quality education. They will pour in, join together, split apart, multiply, and reproduce, which, to me, seems meaningless enough to not be worth my time so much as calling the bug zapper factory to find out what’s up.
I turn to my colleague, Bernard, who was another of the forty-five, and I tell him, “If he asks for something, can you cover it? I have to make a personal call.” We’re not supposed to make personal calls, of course.
Bernard looks at me with the sly side glance of a priest who has heard the confession of a fellow cleric and who promises to keep his destructive secrets. I know, of course, Bernard will do it. Bernard makes lots of friends, because it’s part of his plan for advancement. Mr. Jacobsen calls him quickly, “Bernard!,” because he’s proud of the fact he remembers one employee’s name. And Bernard is proud to be known.
I ask Bernard to cover for me, and when Mr. Jacobsen walks down the aisle of cubicles, Bernard sticks up his neck eagerly to intercept. All of us get what we want.
On the phone, I talk to Denise, who works at a front desk at Bug Bgone, perhaps with forty-five clones seated behind her; I don’t know.
“So for my article, Denise, I was wondering if there was a manager I can talk to about the effectiveness of your products.”
“Ok, I don’t know if someone is available for that.”
“…because there were questions raised at our staff meeting about some complaints.”
“What’s that?” she jitters.
“Is there someone I can talk to?”
“I’ll get someone.” I feel like a cartoon bank robber, ear planted against the safe, listening to the final click of the broken lock.
I learn all kinds of things about bug zappers from Ryan, a diligent and well-informed shift manager. Why do people work for this genocidal system? They work in lawn care and simply see a related opening. Do they feel qualms about the fact that it brokers in mass death? Certain pests carry disease and infest plant life, so this is helping, Ryan assures me. Has PETA called them? It’s fairly painless, and nobody much cares, so no.
Then he asks, “Did someone give you the run-around about it causing brain cancer?”
“It causes brain cancer?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
I am now suspicious that bug zappers cause brain cancer, and I think over my health in recent weeks, and whether I spend too much time in the backyard.
“I have a couple of questions for Denise, if that’s ok?”
“Yes, for Denise.”
“She’s just a receptionist with us. I can answer any other questions you have about the business.”
“I have some questions about being a receptionist,” I tell him. He’s silent. “…in the home care industry.” He audibly sighs.
“Yes?” Denise asks after some murmuring between them.
“Thanks so much for your time, Denise.” I lay it on thick at this part. “You’re honestly the most helpful person I’ve talked to all day. I mean, really. You’ve been so gracious.”
“Oh…why thank you so much.”
“Denise, I’m going to need a tour of the plant to get a few pictures.” I really don’t like my job. The mutations that landed me at this desk were maladaptive blunders.
“I can talk to Ryan…”
“Truly, Denise, Ryan seems a bit intense to me. You’ve been most helpful. If I could just swing by at a time when it’s convenient for you to let me in, I don’t want to bother anyone.”
“Just like ten minutes, Denise. Ok?”
She agrees to see me tomorrow evening at five, just before they close.
Bernard returns to his desk. “Bad news, buddy. They’re paring back staff. Enrollment is down, income is down.” He’s oddly grinning as he says this.
“They say who?”
“I just made sure I’m good,” he says. “I mentioned you were….” then he goes silent.
“You mentioned I was what?”
“Nothing. I didn’t say anything.” He was still grinning.
I greet this news with the ambiguity of someone being dumped by a toxic girlfriend.
As I’m leaving, early, I again employ Bernard’s help. I’m not sure what undoing Bernard has already wrought, whether he’s covering for me or privately calling attention to my failings when he’s behind closed doors. At this point, I don’t much care.
“No problem. I got you, buddy,” he assures me, the way a fly trap applauds a fly. “He won’t notice. He’s about as dense as he seems.”
I grin too.
When he sees my gaze fall over his shoulder, he turns around and startles. Mr. Jacobsen has walked up behind Bernard. We are both looking for some indication of whether or not he heard. Jacobsen rolls his eyes and walks away. I’ve never liked him more. His departure leaves me with a clean break for the door, and I escape an ashen looking Bernard.
I see Denise as her parking lot is emptying. She’s the only one who makes eye contact, and gives me that quizzical gaze that one sends to a blind date on first meeting. She’s a brunette twenty-something wearing a polo with an embroidered company logo. I’m thinking that her dad or uncle works here. This isn’t the land of Oz millennials envision when they finish school. It’s the job you take because it draws you close to things that produce food.
“Denise!” I introduce myself from twenty feet away at a steady pace, like a salesman, and she goes through the usual courtesies.
“This is an unusual visit,” she notes.
I assure her it’s very standard.
She walks me through the office, the warehouse, a makeshift lab in the back. There’s not much to see but cardboard boxes and unfinished industrial utilitarianism. I take pictures as if I’m fascinated.
“Do you like what you do here, Denise?”
“The people are nice…. Do you like researching…for your work?”
“It’s more interesting than anything else I’ve done.” This statement makes me sad as I say it.
“Are people actually reading about bug zappers?” Denise has a wry hook on the corner of her mouth. She doesn’t know me well enough to poke at me like that. I like this.
“I can’t imagine anyone who would,” I acknowledge straight-faced. “I suspect that if a guy does read it, his name is Earl, he wears a lot of plaid, owns a tractor, and so forth.”
She giggles. “We have an Earl who works here.”
“A lot of plaid?”
“That’s my niche, right there, Denise.”
We wander through conversation about how a young woman ends up here instead of a cafe or a bank or an anything else. Called it – a relative has set her up. She has that residual adolescent fog that indicates that life has come without a manual. There are only basic instincts and open terrain.
Bees wander through fields looking for bright colors, I suppose, not deciding in advance which kind of flower they prefer. Instincts cut out pathways which become habits, and we just do the same thing over and over until one day we look in the mirror and realize gravity and time are pulling us back down towards the dust from which we came.
We talk about vacation and time off, benefits and apartments. Before she has time to get the sense that it is getting late, I tell her, “I’ve got another appointment, Denise.” I don’t, really, but I feel awkward staying. “Can I give you my number and we can maybe catch up after work some day next week?
I feel that breathless moment of hesitation on which everything hangs. She doesn’t immediately answer, so I reach out hurriedly: “You can bring Earl along, if you’d like. I’ve got a lot of great material for him now.”
She laughs, and there is very little distance between a laugh and a “yes.”
The next day, Bernard emerges from Mr. Jacobsen’s office looking forlorn. He carries a cardboard book box to his desk and I quickly hang up the phone. Mr Jacobsen seems disinterested, with a vague look of satisfaction that he’s getting rid of something that annoys him, and walks past without acknowledgement. I don’t make eye contact. Bernard puts his few things in a box and prepares to go for the last time. I stand up to walk him out, and there is a mournful silence from a few who watch the transaction, well aware of what is transpiring.
“What happened?” I asked.
Bernard shrugs to say that he doesn’t want to tell me. So I walk him to the office door to say goodbye.
I return promptly to my desk and look at my monitor with new invigoration. When Mr. Jacobsen walks by and scans the room, no one looks at him. No one wants to be caught in that light. I know what has saved me. Writers are that species that has evolved to realize that trying to get ahead in the process of natural selection is only a dive into a pool of predators. Watching the action at a safe distance is a more adaptive mechanism than initiative. Evolution is not mindful of those noble attributes which one touts on one’s LinkedIn. It’s a thoughtless killer that weeds out most variations, and rewards those who lurk in the darkness far out of the reach of its lights. It doesn’t favor those who consciously want to progress. It blesses those who accidentally survive.
Eventually I will have dinner with Denise in my backyard, at sunset, just as the purple light turns on. She thinks it’s funny that I have one. I do too.
James W. Miller is a professor at Horizon University and the pastor of Real Life Church of LA. He lives in Los Angeles.