Trilobites

by Peter Hajinian
I was up before the alarm. I threw on some clothes and went to make myself some breakfast. My pans were hung like a curtain in front of the kitchen window, and as I reached up for one I saw a cop car parked in front of Wally and Ivy’s house. I dropped the pan.

“What happened?” I asked when I got outside. Renetta was standing there, holding Wally and Ivy’s cat.

“I found Roosevelt on my back porch this morning. And then I looked over, and Wally and Ivy’s front door was wide open.”

I spun on my heels. I could clearly see the cops walking in and out of Wally’s museum in the den. I tried to find the right question to ask. “Who called the cops?”

“I did,” Renetta said. “I mean, I know they asked you to watch Roosevelt, but I didn’t know if you were up yet or called it in, so I did.”

I started to pace. In my head, I walked through my actions leaving the house the day before. Did I lock the back door? Did I lock the deadbolt? Did I remember? Can’t I picture it? Then I saw it, my fingers twisting the key in the deadbolt, my other hand pulling on the knob to keep the door closed. Then, I tried to turn it. It stopped, locked.

The rest of the block came to watch the scene unfold. I was the new guy. I’d paid three mortgage payments.

“Is anything missing?” I asked Renetta. I had spent most of my savings on the deposit and fixing up costs. But if I worked overtime, I might be able to make enough money to slowly replace anything that was missing.

“Don’t know yet, they haven’t told me anything.”

Then her cellphone rang. She handed me Roosevelt and answered it. I looked at the cat. He leaned his head back, studied my face, then locked gazes with me. I hated cats.

Eudora, the oldest member of the block, walked over to us, squinting at the open front door. “What happened?”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I shook my head.

“Wally and Ivy are on their way back,” Renetta announced, clicking off the cellphone.

“They’re on a steamer,” Eudora said. “What are they going to do, turn it around?”

“Their cruise stopped in Puerto Rico, they’re flying back from there.”

My heart was in my throat. I cradled Roosevelt, and slowly stroked his fur. If he tried to run I’d hang on for dear life.

A cop came out of the house. Renetta, Eudora and I lined up. The rest of the neighbors stood behind us a few feet. I could hear them breathing.

“How’d they break in?” Renetta asked. The cop’s face was stone.

“Are you all the neighbors?” he asked. We nodded. “Well, we don’t know much yet. But the door wasn’t forced, and none of the windows are broken or showed signs of being opened. We think the door was either left unlocked, or the robbers had a key. Either way, they walked right in.”

“There were multiple robbers?” Eudora asked.

“Possibly,” the cop said. “We don’t know yet. Were any of you asked to watch the house?”

“I am- was, looking after the cat,” I said.

“We’re very close here. We all keep an eye out for each other,” Renetta said.

“Ok,” the cop said to her. Then to me, “Can I talk to you alone for a second?”

We walked out of earshot.

“Can I get your full name and address?” he asked. I gave it to him. “Ok, you have a key to the house, right?”

“Yes.”

“How long have they been gone?”

“They left yesterday morning.”

“How many times have you been in the house since they left?”

“Once. I went in yesterday afternoon to check on the cat.”

“Does the cat have any special needs?”

“No. Not that they told me.”

“So you checked on the cat roughly eight hours after they had left?”

“Yes.”

“Any particular reason? Did you see anything suspicious that would prompt you to go inside?”

No one would call themselves irresponsible or unreliable. Maybe in the past, but that’s behind them, right? I was responsible enough to own a house. I was responsible enough for my neighbors to welcome me into the block family. Responsible enough for them to give me a key and ask me to watch their cat. But was I really that responsible? Did I hear something? Do you explain what you imagined? Roosevelt meowed. I was squeezing him too tightly. “No, officer. I didn’t see anything suspicious. I just wanted to be a good neighbor.”

“What’s your phone number?” I gave it to him.

“The Iversons didn’t have any children?”

“Only this cat.”

“Well,” the cop smiled. “Then it makes sense that you’d want to be overprotective of it. I’ll call you if we have anymore questions.”

“Wait. Was anything stolen?”

“To be honest, won’t know till the owners get back and take a look at things. There’s some strange stuff. Nothing’s broken, but no telling what’s supposed to be there and isn’t. There is an empty yellow box, but we don’t know if something was in it, or if he’d unpacked it and left it out.”

I imagined the multi-million-year-old trilobite fossil sliding into a black bag, velcro-ed shut, carefully hustled into the back of a waiting van.

“One more thing,” the cop said. “Who else has a key, besides you and the lady across the street?”

I blinked. “No one I know of.”

“Ok. We’ll be in touch if we need anything else.”

# # #

After months of looking, talking with my realtor, and endless calls to my parents about whether it was going to be the right house or not, I finally put an offer in on a foreclosed property that had “good bones” even though it’d been empty for almost a year. A month later, summer arrived, and I moved in. I had never owed anyone that much money, but it was exhilarating to have something all to myself. I remember the first night, sleeping on a blowup mattress in the living room, kept awake by every creak, every scrape of a tree branch against the faded blue clapboards.

The next day, the middle-aged couple next door introduced themselves.

“Hello, new neighbor, I’m Ivy, this is Wally.” Ivy was wearing the same sunglasses Audrey Hepburn had in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Wally had peppermint breath and a mustache fit for a walrus.

“Hi, I’m Nick Philips. Nice to meet you.”

“This is a good neighborhood, Nick. We’ve been here for forty-two years,” Wally said, ”and just so you know, the neighborhood doesn’t put up with any bullshit.”

“Oh come on Wally,” Ivy said, putting her hand on his arm. “You don’t need to bust his chops right away. Look at him, he looks like he’s got a good job.”

“Yes, ma’am. I work in the mortgage department at Blue Federal Bank.”

“See?” Ivy said to Wally.

“Well, a man of the financial industry,” Wally said. He extended a hand. I shook it, making sure I squeezed hard. “Nice to meet you Nick. If you need to borrow any tools, let me know. You ever live anywhere that had a boiler?”

“You mean radiator heat? No.”

“Well, come fall I’ll give you a crash course in getting everything primed for winter.”

“Tell me, Nick,” Ivy asked. “Do you work a lot?”

“I work a full week, like anybody.”

“A hard worker. That’s always nice to have in case we need help with anything.”

“In case,” Wally reiterated.

“And is it just you moving in?” Ivy asked delicately. “No, roommates? Fiances?”

“Nope. Just me, ma’am.”

“Please, call me Ivy.”

“Ivy. And Wally. It’s great to meet you guys.”

“Yes,” Ivy squealed. “It’s nice to meet you as well, Nick. Now you get back to unpacking, and when you’re ready I’ll take you around and introduce you to everyone.”

“Holler if you need anything, Nick,” Wally said.

After I’d unloaded all my furniture, unrolled the rugs, stocked the fridge with food, and the bathroom with toilet paper, I went over to take Ivy up on her offer. She’d lead me up to a house, ring the bell, and then announce me to each neighbor as the “newest member” of our block, using words like “respectable job” and “lots of yard work experience.”

“Be careful what you say around Renetta,” Ivy said quietly. We were walking the twenty feet of pavement between the Sanford’s and Renetta’s. “She’s a bit of a gossip.”

Renetta lived directly across the street from Wally and Ivy, and despite Ivy’s snarl when she said her name, Ivy was all peonies and sunshine when she rang the bell. A thirty-something, long haired brunette woman answered the door.

“Hi, Ivy,” Renetta said. “Are you the welcome wagon?”

“Yes,” Ivy said. “This is Nick. He moved into the old rental place next to us. Now, there’s no serious girl in the picture, but he does work at the bank and so I think that might be a temporary situation.”

“Ivy,” Renetta chided. “He just moved in, let him get settled before you take over his business. Besides, a fiancee? You just met him, he could be gay.”

Ivy looked at me.

“I’m not gay,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you Renetta.”

“Nice to meet you, too, Nick.”
    
“This is his first house,” Ivy said to Renetta, putting her hand on Nick’s shoulder. “But he has lots of yard work experience.”

“Yeah, I kind of grew up in the country,” I said.

“Then you could help me move my log pile,” Renetta said.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, Nick,” Ivy said. “You’ll find we’re a little family here. We look out for each other, and those who look out for themselves tend not to stay long. Right, Renetta?”

“Of course, Ivy.”

“Would you two like something to drink? I just got back from the liquor store. They’re having a wine sale.”

“Oh, no thank you, Renetta,” Ivy said. “It’s two in the afternoon. Besides, I have things I need to do.”

Renetta looked at me.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m still unpacking and getting settled. I should have everyone over for cocktails when I finally get the kitchen put together.”

A smile crept across Ivy’s face.

“Yes, let’s all get together soon,” Renetta said. “Nice to meet you, Nick. Goodbye, Ivy.”

“Goodbye, darling,” Ivy said.

Renetta shut the door, and Ivy shepherded me to our side of the block.

“She’s only been here for four years,” Ivy explained with a slight sneer. “And she’s had her nose in everyone’s business since Day One. Wine sale. She doesn’t need a wine sale to stock up on booze. Do you drink a lot, Nick? Nevermind, you work at a bank.”

I didn’t have any time to answer.

“Now, Wally and I have been here a long time, but the longest-resident honor belongs to Eudora. It used to be shared by her and her late husband Maximillian, never Max, who passed away a few years ago. He made it to forty-eight years on the block. Eudora, bless her, is up to fifty-three.”

I nodded and smiled. I signed a thirty-year mortgage, which put me out of the running.

“Alright, now you go and finish unpacking your things, and let me know if you need any help, I’ll send Wally over.”

With that, she deposited me at my front door and sashayed to her house. Eudora may hold the title of longest resident, but Ivy was the queen.

Wally and Ivy, Eudora, Renetta, the Sanfords, Rich and his tenants, Agnes and Jim. It did feel like a little family. By the fifth introduction or so, I realized Ivy was letting everyone know I was fit for the neighborhood.

I couldn’t help but feel a little pride. After college, I’d spent years living in low rent apartments and crumbling rented ramblers. Now, I had a salaried job adjusting mortgage rates for homeowners like me, and enough money to get a mortgage at a good rate myself. With it, I found myself a nice two story, two bedroom house in the middle of a friendly block in a neighborhood I liked. Not too shabby.

# # #

After I had been there for a few weeks, I went over to see if I could borrow Wally’s lawnmower so I could keep my lawn in line with everyone else’s.

They lived in a cream colored stucco house, with impeccable trim and a roof that looked like it was put on yesterday. These are the kinds of things you notice when you’re a homeowner. What condition the shingles are in.

The white doorbell button felt like ivory. The front door was a heavy-looking oak affair, beautifully finished, with a stain glass window near the top. I heard some steps inside approaching. The door swung inward, and I smiled as Wally’s broad frame filled the door way.

“Well, hello, Nick.”

“Hi, Wally,” I said. “I was wondering if I could borrow your lawnmower. I’m going to buy one next weekend, but thought I should take care of the jungle in my front yard.”

“Of course, come in,” Wally said. I wiped my feet and stepped in. The house was beautiful. Chandeliers, cream colored walls and dark wood trim that edged honey-gold wood floors.

“This is Roosevelt,” Wally said, shutting the door to reveal a fluffy white cat on the mail table. Roosevelt froze, then scampered up the carpeted stairs.

“He’s a little shy,” Wally said. “So this is our house. Built the same year yours was. Although, we have made a few modifications.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It doesn’t look anything like mine on the inside.”

“Well, your house was a rental for a long time. Shame, too. That does a number on things.”

He led me into the parlor. Heavily striped wallpaper set the mood, but symmetrically spaced stuffed bookshelves and overstuffed leather chairs made it feel like the kind of place men trade war stories.

“This place is great.”

“Ivy likes to decorate. She does a pretty good job, too. But let me show you the real treasure.”

Wally led me back to the main hallway, and to a room on the other side of the house, where my den was.

“This,” Wally said, sliding open the dark stained pocket doors. “This is the master collection.”

Shelves lined with rocks, glass cases of specimens. On the wall above the cases, a variety of stuffed animals leaned out from their mountings. On a table in the middle, bones of all shapes and sizes were arranged, each with a little card explaining the genus, species and age of each one. It felt more like the storeroom of a metropolitan museum than a room in the house next door. I took a few steps in and inspected a stuffed platypus above a violet geode egg.

“I just got some trilobites in.”

Wally brought over an opened yellow box. Sitting in a sea of a tissue paper was the fossilized crustacean. They looked like giant potato bugs. Like someone had swept out a forgotten corner of a museum and this is what ended up in the dust pan.

“How old are they?”

“About 270 million years. I got it from a dealer in France.”

“I had no idea you were a collector.”

“Well, we all need hobbies. Some men hunt, some men fish, some men leave their fortunes at the neighborhood bar. I suppose you could say I’m an armchair curator.”

“Where do you get all this from?”

“Oh, friends. Auction houses. There’s an art dealer in Chile who’s going to call me the next time he gets a moai statue in from Easter Island.”

“You mean one of those big face statutes? I thought that was illegal.”

“It’s a moai. And it’s fine if it’s a part of a private collection.”

"Where are those from?" Ivy asked. I hadn’t noticed her slip into the room.

"Trilobites, Ivy. From France."

"France!" she cried. "I'd love to go to France. When are you going to take me to France? You promised we'd travel once you'd retired. Think of it, you could save on shipping."

“We are traveling. We’re going to South America next week.”

“I know,” Ivy said. Then she turned to me. “Which reminds me, Nick, I have something I want to ask you. Let me steal him for a moment, Wally.”

“Suit yourself,” Wally said. He turned back to the trilobites.

Ivy’s heals clicked on the hardwood, then the kitchen tile. She ushered me into the the dining room and sat me at the polished mahogany table.

“I fixed us a drink,” she said.

“What’s this?” I looked at the czech-cut crystal tumbler.

“A manhattan,” Ivy said. “Special recipe. Now where did you grow up, Nick? I heard you mention you grew up on a farm.”

“Well, kind of. I grew up in the country, but not in a farming area. We were down a long driveway in the woods. My dad was a park ranger, so our property backed up to a state park. It was the kind of place where the neighbors all had ‘No Trespassing’ signs up by the road. I mean, we never asked for help or a cup of sugar from them. That was like a convenient plot point in a movie. But now that I live here, I can see how that really happens.”

“Well, it’s important to look out for one another. After all, what’s bad for one of us is bad for the neighborhood.”

I sipped my manhattan. I thought hard, but couldn’t remember a single time growing up that we had the neighbors over, or they had us over, or my dad even had a beer with any of them. They were more than names on a mailbox, we’d smile and wave when we saw each other on the roads or in the grocery store. But that’s as far as things went. I knew how to be a neighbor. I just didn’t know how to be a Wally-and-Ivy neighbor. But I did know I enjoyed the manhattan.

“Nick, we wanted to ask you something,” Ivy said. She got up and opened the top drawer of the buffet. “While Wally and I are on the cruise to collect more trinkets for the illustrious collection, I was wondering if you’d watch the cat for us.”

I wasn’t much of a cat person.

“Sure.”

“Roosevelt would stay here, of course. You’d just have to come in every few days, feed him, check the water. Think you can do that?”

“Of course. You’ve been so great to me, it’s the least I can do.”

“Great!” Ivy pulled a rabbit foot keychain out of the drawer and handed it to me. “Here’s the key to the back door. It unlocks both the door lock and the deadbolt. I’ll have all the food and instructions in the kitchen by the food dish.”

The rabbit’s foot was really soft. “Need me to do anything else while you’re gone?”

“Just keep an eye out. Wally likes to set the lights on a timer, so don’t worry about that. Everything else will be fine.”

“How long is your trip?”

“Two weeks.” Ivy smiled. “Rio! Can you believe it? It’s going to be hard to come home.”

Back in my house, I clutched the rabbit foot. It was the tackiest thing I’d seen in the whole house, and they sent me home with it. I looked out the window at my yard. I’d totally forgotten about the lawnmower.

# # #

Wally and Ivy didn’t make a big deal about leaving. Everyone on the block knew they were going, and instead of a big show of being whisked away by taxi, as you might expect from Ivy, they drove themselves early that Saturday morning.

Early afternoon, I went over to check on the cat. At the backdoor, I unlocked the door knob then deadbolt, and looked over my shoulder to push away the suspicion that someone was watching me, waiting for this moment to slip inside the house.

The house was silent. I stood in the back entryway for a second, then shut the door and locked it behind me. The litter box was fine, and the food bowl was still full. I worried Roosevelt might have gotten out. My shoes sounded unnecessarily loud on the kitchen tile. I took a few steps into the pristine dining room. I knew I’d wiped my shoes, but checked to make sure I wasn’t tracking anything in.

I headed down the hall to the front of the house. The pocket doors to the den-turned-museum were closed. Wally must not have wanted Roosevelt getting in. I stepped into the parlor. The shades were all drawn, and it was dark inside. Something moved in the corner of my eye. Roosevelt was watching me from a spot on a chair, tail slowly flicking this way, then that. My shoulders dropped.

I wondered what the collection looked like without its owner and curator. The rest of the house felt just as much like a museum. The house made so much sense when Wally and Ivy were leading me around it, when the room was filled with their presence. Without them, it felt like a cast off shell. No one to animate all the stuff or explain it. A random jumble of objects in a below-room-temperature wooden-and-sheetrock container.

There was a thud upstairs. It came from the far corner of the house. I froze. I’d never been on the second floor, so couldn’t guess what room it was, but if their layout was similar to mine it’d be the master bedroom. My eyes caught Roosevelt’s. He seemed unimpressed. Maybe I just imagined it. I held my breath, strained my ears. Silence. If there was someone up there, I reasoned, they’d be moving by now. Images of an unshaven, thick headed lug pulling himself up on a king size bed with a flower pattern bed spread popped into my head. I counted to thirty. There was a car slowly driving down the block, nothing inside the house. I traced my steps into the kitchen, then out into the backyard. I shut the door and locked it, twisting the knob twice to make sure it didn’t budge.

Back in my own castle, I turned on the TV and slumped into the couch. There was some stupid movie on, but it was perfect for a Saturday. The sun sank, on the way down lighting some dust. I turned on some lights. Out the window, I saw a light snap on in Wally and Ivy’s house. I blushed a little, thinking about sneaking around earlier. As if Ivy wouldn’t make sure the timers were set. I should trust her. She trusts me.

# # #
  
The cop had moved on to talk to Eudora. I walked back to my porch. Who else has a key? Besides me and the lady across the street. The lady across the street. Renetta. I hadn’t unlocked the front door, I hadn’t even made it as far as the front foyer. The back door was locked, I made sure of it. Who else had a key? Some old neighbor, who moved off the block long ago? There wasn’t a speck of dust in Ivy’s house, not a dirty dish in the sink, not a single picture frame hung without a level. No way Ivy would let someone walk leave the neighborhood with a key. Why would she give one to Renetta?

I opened my screen door and waited for it to slam shut before I dropped Roosevelt. The cat sniffed the air, then strutted into my living room and leapt up onto my couch.

Out in the front yard the cops were making the rounds, talking to each neighbor separately. Renetta hovered, staying just out of ear shot, but still in the middle of it all. Without Ivy someone needed to direct traffic. Maybe when Renetta first moved in Ivy trusted her like she trusted me. Maybe Renetta used to look after Roosevelt. Maybe Renetta did something to lose Ivy’s trust.

On one hand, I was waiting for Wally and Ivy to return, waiting for their wrath. It’s not my bullshit, I imagined telling Wally, I wasn’t irresponsible. And on the other hand, there was Renetta. I had no proof she did it, but I’d watched enough cop dramas to know she had motive. Or did I? Why would she do it? To get back at them? What did they do to her? Ivy’s attitude and slander toward her didn’t warrant stealing an almost three hundred million year old rock, did it?

I turned to face Roosevelt. He looked at me with a look of disdain. It was almost as though he thought I wasn’t ready to be entangled in the neighborhood. This thing was bigger than me. I’d have to watch my mouth. Especially after a few manhattans.
Peter Hajinian lives and writes in Minneapolis. More of his work can be seen, read, heard and watched on hajiniangrocerystore.tumblr.com.

© 2012, Peter Hajinian