Jerry’s Phone and Anne’s Bag


I was raised by a precise man. My father was an engineer worthy of the term. His field was mechanical, but he acquired an electrical license in middle age. He understood all construction. He could repair most.

Dad taught me and my brothers to keep our stuff well and organized. Everything in its place meant outlines on the peg board for each tool. It meant emptying one’s pockets or purse into the same receptacle every night, so small things were always where we meant them to be. It meant not forcing electrical wires, understanding power switches, never slamming doors or stressing hinges. We wound wires and strings and belts and ribbons so they could not tangle.

Even our words were precise. Not in our house was a motor confused with an engine, or concrete called cement.

Dad raised orderly logical offspring, and rendered us unfit for living with others.

Really. Each of us has married at least once. Each of our spouses hated and abhorred our passion (they called it mania) for orderliness. And not just that. We don’t use subtext or act passive/aggressive either. We almost felt like we were on the spectrum when we had an interchange like this:

Me to my spouse: Have you taken out the garbage yet? (I’m asking because, if he hasn’t, then he shouldn’t bother, because I have more to throw away, and I can just take it all out now).

My spouse to me: Just a minute! (And he hurries to take out the trash, thinking that my asking was my way of reminding him, when in fact I was just seeking information).

Invariably in that sort of situation, I’d end up pissed off because I never got the information (and, I’ll admit it, I didn’t get to make the elegant move of picking up that other garbage as I went to dispose of the new stuff), and my spouse would seethe with confusion about why I was pissed off when, after all, he took out the garbage like I wanted.

I’m single now. As is my younger brother. The older one is still married but it’s a bad relationship with feet. They ignore one another. They just happen to both be committed to staying married, which as we know is the number one way to do so.

But this is about my neighbors. Anne and Jerry are next door, and it’s a good thing we’re not living together. They are even more unlike me than was my spouse.

They occupy two of the three condominium apartments to my immediate north. The third resident of their development is an elderly woman with a mean temper and an erratic attitude, and it’s a pleasure to be talking about a neighbor other than old Bertilda.

Anne is in her mid-60s and just retired from a special ed career. She’s a warm empathetic woman of medium height and average dimensions. She celebrated her retirement by having her ponytail cut off; now she sports slightly graying natural curls around her face to just below her jaw, and she looks a decade younger because of it. She’s not an engineer. She’s a sociologist. Anne tends to forget facts and misplace small possessions.

Jerry is about twenty years younger than Anne. He lives in the garage apartment of the address. He’s a gardener by trade, and maintains most of the common area property next door. He has also held positions as painter, housecleaner, apprentice electrician, and masseur in his quarter century of employment. He’s a typical polite punk drummer too, somewhat inked and liable to wear baggy long shorts and heavy laced boots. He cuts his thinning dark hair so close to his scalp he almost looks like a scrawny skinhead. He’s thorough at his trades, but he’s more of a free spirit than a technician.

I had interactions with each of my neighbors recently, and both seemed to illustrate our different approaches to organization.

Anne and I decided to take a long weekend together. We made plans to stay three nights at a destination spa about fifty miles north of here. We booked facials and body scrubs, and two different types of massage.

Meanwhile, I arranged with Jerry to paint the interior upper floor of my little house. He accepted the job with satisfaction; he planned to do regular work during the day and then pop next door afterward for the necessary hours. I went over the rooms with him (two bedrooms, the sun porch, the bathroom, a hallway), and gave him our travel dates a couple of times. He was sure he’d be able to finish the work in the four days we’d be away.

The trip was good. The traffic was okay and the weather was perfect. The treatments were excellent although I’ll never do the “Japanese Restorative Facial” again. Maybe the slapping technique is good for the neuromuscular system, but it had me flinching. Other than that, the only flies in our ointment were the several times we were delayed because Anne couldn’t find something in her designer slouch bag.

Anne’s a little scattered under the best of circumstances. Sometimes I send her emails about our mutual neighbor, and she always misplaces them in her computer. I’ve given her the contact information for Bertilda’s caseworker/conservator so often that we’ve just tacitly agreed that I’ll be the keeper of that sort of thing. Anne makes other contributions to our relationship. Like creating and tending the little strip of garden between my place and her back door. Or trying new recipes and bringing me tastes.

But the bag thing is just asking for trouble. Anne favors form over function, when it comes to purses. She loves the look of a big leather sack, especially if it’s trimmed in braided skin of another color. The kind of bag she keeps buying costs a couple of hundred dollars even when on sale, and has one or maybe two interior pockets. She has to load it with enough stuff that it has a shape, and that’s always so much stuff that she then can’t find her sunglasses, or her readers, or her Pepcid, her pen, the lip balm, her keys. Time and again over the weekend, I watched her root around in that bag, grow increasingly agitated, dump it with some violence on her bed in the room or our table in the restaurant, locate at last the desired item, and then scoop, slide, and ladle all the stuff, even the paper trash and loose currency, back into the beautiful bag.

It cost me a little time, but it seemed to cost her more. She was frustrated and apologetic. I wondered what bag could be deemed so lovely that it was worth all the disruption. The third time it happened, I tried to show her all the pockets in my small messenger bag, but it seemed to only increase her rate of apology, and I could tell I wasn’t selling the idea.

We had a lovely long weekend, all in all, and we were just about to check out on Sunday when I got Jerry’s text. He was abjectly sorry, but he just realized we were coming home that day. He’d gotten confused. He thought he had till tomorrow. He wrote that he’d work on it all day, but the bathroom required so much prep that he’d need to finish the job the day after my return.

I was proud of myself. I didn’t get irritated. I fully accepted the fact that there was nothing that could be done. This demonstrated that the weekend was worth the time and money; I’d been carting around a strong tendency toward irritation lately, and that’s what I’d been working on healing while on the bodyworkers’ tables.

Jerry apologized again the next morning, while he spread tarps and I commenced restocking the bathroom shelves.

“I can’t tell you how nervous I’ve been,” he said as he popped the lid off the flat paint. “I’ve even been having anxiety dreams at night. I’d wake up and assure myself that you weren’t coming home till today, but I guess it never really set.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s the kind of thing I’d write down on my calendar. Or in my phone, since that’s your go-to resource.”

“Well I don’t want to be a list-and-note person. I want to, you know, live more in the moment.”

I think my face showed some disdain. “What?” Jerry asked.

“Are you serious? Are you saying you’re willing to put up with nervousness and anxiety dreams, when all you have to do is off-load this data to something that isn’t your head? Jeez, Jerry, I don’t sleep that well, but at least when I wake up and my brain starts doing those monkey jumps I get to tell myself it’s written somewhere, and quiet down.”

“You make a point,” Jerry said. The surprising thing is that his facial expression suggested he was processing the idea. Then again, if I’m on the spectrum, I’m probably no good at reading facial expressions.

Go figure. I like these people. I think I even love them. But I sure don’t want to be them.

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