“Neanderthal Tenant,” a short story
“Harold, dear. I think I’ve made a terrible mistake renting the room.”
“What’s wrong? I thought you said you were thrilled with the new tenant.”
“He wasn’t exactly who I thought he was, dear.”
“You interviewed him, didn’t you?”
“Well, not really. You see these two very nice young people came by from some agency. They had our ad from the paper. They said they were placing some special tenants in our area and wanted to know if we could help. It sounded so good and the government is pitching in extra for rent each month, a hundred dollars. They paid me on the spot, Harold. Three months in advance.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well, he’s here now. He’s upstairs…and…and…”
“Well, he’s one of those Neanderthals.”
“A Neanderthal. You can’t miss it. It’s quite obvious.”
“Grace, that can’t be. Neanderthals don’t live here. They’re restricted to those wild areas.”
“Not any more. It’s some kind of trial program. They’re being brought over to live with us. The government agency has jobs lined up for them and everything.”
“Oh, Grace. For cryin’ out loud. I was hoping I could relax tonight but now I’ll have to deal with this. Listen. Just see that the thing doesn’t make a big mess.”
When Harold arrived home that evening, Grace was ready with his favorite cocktail, a gin and tonic. Harold put down his briefcase, shrugged out of his topcoat and hung it in the closet. He took half the drink in one pull.
“It’s been quiet up there,” Grace said. “Heaven knows what he’s up to.”
“Don’t you worry, dear. I’ll have him packing in no time. Imagine sending us a Neanderthal. What are those government people thinking?”
“See for yourself,” Grace said handing her husband a stack of papers. On top was Grace and Harold’s usual rental agreement. The tenant’s name had been neatly filled in, apparently by the agency people, “Mr. Moe Og.” The proper boxes were checked. All the required information was there. At the bottom, in the signature box, there was a thick scribble. The rest of the pile of papers were copies of government forms and information brochures about the Neanderthal Relocation and Resettlement Program.
“So this is what we pay our taxes for,” Harold snorted, “to have our homes taken over by half-wits?”
“Just don’t take it out on the Neanderthal, Harold. Be gentle.”
“Oh, I’ll be gentle all right. As long as he doesn’t put up a fight.” Harold drained the rest of his drink and headed for the stairs.
The Neanderthal was sitting peacefully on the edge of the bed when Harold walked in. He quickly rose to his feet. He was shorter than Harold expected, only about five feet tall. The way he hunched over made him seem even shorter. He had a stocky build, long hairy arms. A pelt of brown fur was wrapped around his waist and was pulled up over one shoulder. Shaggy hair hung to his shoulders. He had a jutting brow ridge and a heavy jaw. There were gaps between his large teeth. As he rose, he bobbed his head a couple of times and then seemed to be waiting for Harold to speak.
“Now look here,” Harold began. “There’s been a mistake. My wife didn’t agree to your being here. You’re just going to have to leave. I’m quite sorry but I’m afraid there can be no argument.”
The Neanderthal’s brow knitted, creating quite a deep crevice in the middle of his sloped forehead. His brown eyes glittered beneath bushy eyebrows. He scratched his head. Then his face brightened. He tapped himself on the chest with his fingers. “Mm-oh,” he said carefully. “Moe. I Mm-oh.”
Harold stared back at the small creature. “Yes, yes. Your name is Moe. I saw that on your papers. But that’s beside the point. I’m saying to you that you can’t have this room. We can’t have you here.”
The Neanderthal had no reaction to this news. Instead he extended a large hairy hand toward Harold and said, “You name? You name?”
“My name? It’s Harold. I’m Harold, but again, that’s beside the point. You need to understand what I’m saying.”
“Grr-awld. Grrawld,” the Neanderthal said and then flashed a huge toothy grin.
“Yes. Good. Okay, now, but…hmm…how to say it.” Harold tried raising his voice and speaking very slowly, “NO…RENT…THE…ROOM. We…” (Harold made a circle with his finger to include himself and Grace downstairs) “…don’t…want…you…” (he pointed to the Neanderthal) “…to rent the room.”
Another deep crevice appeared in the Neanderthal’s heavy brow as he struggled to understand. His hand absently scratched at his belly. Then he had an idea. He bent down and picked a roughly woven bag off the floor. He rummaged around inside and produced a small sheath of crisp new bills. The Neanderthal held the bills out toward Harold.
“No, no,” Harold shook his head. “It’s not a matter of money. You’ve already been paid for. It’s…” Harold was stumped at how to continue. “Let’s…I…harrumph. We’ll speak later. Excuse me.” The Neanderthal bobbed his head enthusiastically as Harold retreated out the door.
“Give me those papers,” Harold said to Grace back downstairs. He stood impatiently leafing through the rental papers with one hand and holding the phone receiver with the other. He found the agency’s number and punched the buttons on the phone forcefully.
“Please call during our office hours…” a kindly recorded voice advised him.
“For cryin’ in the bucket,” Harold muttered.
Grace stood in the corner of the hallway beneath the twist of the stairway with a worried look on her face. “It’s spending the night, isn’t it? I hope it knows how to use the toilet.”
Later, about midnight, Harold slipped out of bed, tip-toed down the hall and carefully cracked open the door to the Neanderthal’s room. A slash of light from the hallway fell across the bed. The Neanderthal was curled up on top of the bedspread. Harold started as he saw the Neanderthal’s large brown eyes staring back at him. “Moe sleep now,” the Neanderthal said. “Moe tired.”
Harold pulled the door shut and hurried back to bed.
The next morning Harold sat at the breakfast table sipping coffee and reading his newspaper while Grace busied herself with some scrambled eggs. They heard the front door slam and looked at one another. “What in the world,” Harold muttered.
By the time they reached the front door, the Neanderthal had already made the turn at the top of the sidewalk. He walked bent over, one bowed leg stomping forward after the other, his knuckles just clearing the sidewalk. He was dressed exactly as he had been before. His woven bag swung from one shoulder. He clutched a piece of paper in one hand and stopped to study it. Then he continued on.
“Glory be,” Grace said. “Glory be.”
The two of them hurried up the stairs. Harold pushed open the door to the Neanderthal’s room. Grace craned forward over his shoulder. The bed was still made, undisturbed except for a large depression in the center where the Neanderthal had been curled. A small tarp was spread out on the rug and on that sat several stones of various sizes and shapes. There were flecks of stone scattered on the tarp and a couple of half formed spear points. A large knobby club leaned against the wall in the corner. Several pieces of paper were scattered on the night table and spilled into a half open drawer. Harold inspected a sheet that had fallen to the floor. It was covered in something like pictographs showing a house, a man walking on a sidewalk, a bus stop, a bus with a big number 12 on it, and the like.
Harold showed the paper to Grace. “They’re instructions,” he said. “How to get to work, how to get to the store, how to get back here. Must have come from the government people.”
“Well, it’s not going to do them any good. In fact, I’m calling them right now.”
Harold went back downstairs and spent the next several minutes on the phone while Grace tidied up. The Neanderthal had rearranged the odds and ends that had been in the room. She decided he had actually done a pretty good job of it. Nothing was broken. She put a few things away in the closet. From downstairs, she could hear Harold’s voice getting louder and more agitated. Then she heard the receiver hit the phone cradle hard and Harold’s feet stomping up the stairs.
“Can you believe it? A week! A whole week we have to put up with that smelly thing. Everyone from their agency has gone back to Washington. They can’t get back out here to pick him up until next Tuesday. By gum, Grace, they owe us. They owe us big time. Maybe we’ll just hang onto that rent money. It’d serve ‘em right!”
Harold left for work fuming. In the afternoon, he called home to see what was happening.
“No sign of him,” Grace reported.
The Neanderthal was still not there when Harold arrived home. He looked at Grace and shrugged. There was nothing to do but go on about their business.
They had just sat down to eat when they heard a pipe rattling underneath the house. “Someone’s running our hose,” Harold said as he got up and threw his napkin on the table. He was first out the back door with Grace close behind.
The Neanderthal was standing in the back yard next to their barbecue pit. He was running water from the hose over a skinned and gutted rabbit, which he had apparently just pulled from a bag that lay at his feet. Harold stocked over to the side of the house and cranked the faucet shut. The pipe emitted a final high pitched squeak.
“What in the world is going on here?” Harold yelled.
The Neanderthal dropped the hose. He looked back and forth from Harold to Grace to Harold. His head sunk lower than it already was and his shoulders hunched up above his thick neck. “Moe hungry,” he said quietly. “Moe sorry.” He bent down and picked up the rabbit. “Cook this,” he said showing how he meant to cook it over the barbecue.
Harold looked at Grace. “Grace!”
“Well, dear. He does have kitchen privileges. It’s part of the rental agreement.”
Harold’s mouth dropped open. “Does he get to dig a cave back here, too? Does he get to take his club out and start knocking people on the head?”
“Settle down, dear. I’ll tell you what. Bring the rabbit inside. I’ll help him out.”
Inside Grace quickly had the rabbit simmering in a large pot on the stove. The Neanderthal sat at the kitchen table hunched over, his hands in his lap, watching with great interest as Harold cut up a pork chop.
Grace prepared some celery and carrots. She quartered a couple of onions and threw everything into the pot with the rabbit. A pungent gamy smell filled the kitchen. Grace selected some spices from a cabinet and applied them liberally to the pot.
The Neanderthal followed every movement Harold made with his knife and fork. Harold gave up trying to ignore him. “Try some?” Harold said holding out a piece of pork chop on his fork.
The Neanderthal’s eyes widened. He carefully picked the meat off the fork, sniffed it and placed it in his mouth. His heavy jaw worked in a circular motion for a moment. He swallowed and a big smile spread over his face. “Good!”
Grace was watching and had to smile as well. “Harold, why don’t you ask Mr. Og why he was gone so long today?”
Harold snorted. “Mr. Og,” he said. “It’s Mr. Og now, is it?”
The Neanderthal tapped his chest. “Moe,” he explained. Then he pointed at Harold. “Grr-wald.”
Harold shoved his plate aside. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Let’s see,” Harold said, “you went to work early, right? Then you came home late, very late. You understand?”
Moe nodded uncertainly. “Work. Moe work.”
“Yes, you worked all day, a long day. Did you work the whole time?”
Moe looked puzzled.
“Uhh, did you eat? Eat lunch.” Harold mimicked eating.
Moe nodded again and then quickly shook his head. “Work. Moe work. Moe go on bus. Work. Come back here. Moe hungry. I cook there.” He pointed out the back door toward the barbecue.
Harold and Grace exchanged a glance. “They must have worked him all day,” Grace said. “He was gone for twelve hours. What do you suppose?”
Harold shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe he didn’t come straight home. He got that rabbit from somewhere.”
The Neanderthal was sent upstairs to clean up and rest until his dinner was ready. After awhile Grace called him back to the kitchen and served him a large bowl of the steaming rabbit stew. She demonstrated how to use the spoon and blow carefully on the hot broth before he tried to put it in his mouth. He caught on quickly. He held the spoon like a toothbrush but he managed to get most of the stew from the bowl into his mouth.
Grace filled the large bowl a second time, and the Neanderthal finished that as well. She would have given him more but she was afraid it would give him a stomach ache. “You can finish this up for dinner tomorrow, Mr. Og,” she said to him. “I’ll put it here in the refrigerator.”
The next morning the Neanderthal left early once again but this time he had a good lunch that Grace had fixed for him tucked away in his bag. That evening Harold and Grace had already finished their dinner and were putting up the dishes before the Neanderthal finally came dragging in the front door. He dropped his bag in the hallway too exhausted to carry it any farther. Harold brought him straight to the kitchen.
He flopped down in his place at the table, his face drawn and his head bowed. Grace had the rest of the rabbit stew ready for him. He listlessly spooned down the food.
“Looks like they’re working him half to death,” Grace said as she watched him eat.
The next day Harold waited for the Neanderthal to leave and then retrieved one of the direction sheets from his room. It showed where the Neanderthal’s workplace was located, a stone quarry on the edge of town. Harold left his office at lunchtime and made his way there. The place was run down and covered an inch thick in dust. A precariously leaning chain link fence marked the firm’s perimeter. Harold parked his car and walked to a shack that served as the office. Inside a man covered in white dust was leaning back in his chair, his work boots propped on a desk, attacking a sloppy Joe and watching a TV mounted high on the wall.
The man made no attempt to greet Harold when he entered, so Harold saw no need for pleasantries. “You’ve got a man working here by the name of Moe Og…a Neanderthal?”
The man lowered his sandwich. “What if I do?”
“I’m here to see how he’s being treated.”
The man sneered and took a big bite out of his sandwich. He wiped the side of his face with his sleeve and took an interest in the stain he’d left on the cuff of his workshirt. “We work him same as the others.”
“Can I see him?”
Harold glanced at his watch. It was still lunch hour. “Busy, huh?” Harold spun around and walked out the door. He headed across a wide dusty lot toward the business end of the quarry.
“Hey, you’re not allowed back there,” the man shouted from the doorway of the shack.
Harold stopped but he had spotted the Neanderthal. Other men were sitting at a picnic table off to one side of the lot having lunch. Two men sat in a truck with the doors wide open taking a snooze, but the Neanderthal was busy swinging a sledge hammer over his head and working on a pile of rock. Harold watched as the Neanderthal bent down and lifted an enormous chunk of stone over the edge of a steel cart and dropped it in with a resounding clang.
The man arrived at Harold’s elbow. “Works like an animal,” he said, “and don’t mind none staying late.”
“Well, see that he’s let go at the regular time this afternoon,” Harold said brusquely. “You’ll be hearing from me.”
Two minutes after Harold returned to his office he was on the phone with Washington.
“Neanderthal Relocation and Resettlement Program. How may I help you?”
“Yes, one of your Neanderthals is my tenant, a Mr. Moe Og. I need to speak to someone about him?”
“And this is regarding what?”
“It’s regarding…well…first of all, it’s regarding that you are supposed to be out here to pick him up and secondly he is not being well treated at the place he’s working.”
“Do you mind if I put you on hold, sir?”
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud. Yes, I do mind as a matter of fact but go ahead.” There was a click and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons began sawing away at Harold’s ear. Several minutes passed.
“Sir, are you still there?”
“We’re very sorry but we’re going to have to call you back. The Neanderthal you are inquiring about is Mr. Moe Og, is that correct?”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“…your home and work phone numbers please.”
The phone was silent all afternoon. Harold stuffed some work into his briefcase and left his office. He felt better when he found that the Neanderthal had beaten him home and was at the kitchen table happily enjoying dinner with Grace. Not five minutes after he arrived home, the phone rang.
Harold was passed through a couple of exchanges before a man introduced himself as the director of the program. “We are deeply sorry about what has happened here,” the man said, “but I’m afraid we were all taken by surprise. You see the agents entrusted with resettlement in your area… There were two of them, correct? Rather young. Fast talkers.”
“Well, they’re frauds and they’ve…uh…absconded with quite a bit of the government’s money.”
“You weren’t given a manual, were you?”
“Yes, you see. You should have been given a customized manual, unique to your Neanderthal. We normally spend months preparing materials for our clients. We explain diet, habits, give a full background portrait. There shouldn’t be a single question left in your mind by the time we are ready to offer you a Neanderthal. You see it’s more like an adoption really. We also carefully vet all the possible workplaces, make sure the Neanderthal has nothing but the most humane conditions.”
“Well that hardly describes our experience. What the devil is going on?”
“And the money offered you?”
“An extra hundred bucks per month on top of our usual rent.”
A laugh came over the phone. “You see. We offer a five thousand dollar bonus just for signing up with us. Then we pay all expenses pertaining to your Neanderthal and a three hundred dollar a month stipend on top of that.”
“We weren’t offered any such thing.”
“Exactly, exactly. You see Congress cut our budget. We’ve had to trim expenses. Our usual safeguards weren’t in place, I’m afraid. We contracted out placement in your area to freelancers and, well, you are aware of what happened. We’re very sorry here at the agency.”
“What do you intend to do about it?”
“Yes, I’m getting to that. I see here that we’ve agreed to pick up Mr. Og next week. We’ll hold to that commitment. If you can please just see that he is well cared for until we can get there.”
“We’ll see to that. Don’t you worry, but what will happen to him? Will you be taking him back to his people, back where he came from?”
“Oh, no. I’m afraid not. Mr. Og was the last of his family group. It’s a rather sad story. You see, the Neanderthal are very clannish. They have their small groups and don’t like to intermingle. Once they lose their connection to their home group, no other group will have anything to do with them. They’re considered bad luck. And once they’re on their own, they don’t tend to last long. You have to understand. A Neanderthal alone is just overwhelmed. There’s a fire to keep going night and day, constant hunting and gathering to take in enough calories, keeping warm, making tools and clothes, finding shelter. No one to help if they get sick. That’s why we’re trying to settle the loners over here. Your Neanderthal is the last Og. His home group dwindled. Bad luck mostly. Illness cut his group down. He only had his father and a wife left, but she was barren, and then the two of them, that is the wife and the father, drowned in a flood. Apparently, he spent days finding their bodies. He buried them and just sat down by the graves. That’s where we found him, thin as a rail. He wasn’t even trying to make a go of it. But of course you’d have had all that information if his placement with you had been handled properly. ”
“Good Lord, we had no idea.”
“Yes, well. We’ll send our best people to escort him back, rest assured.”
When Harold finished the call, he walked into the kitchen and found his supper ready for him on the table. The Neanderthal had already gone upstairs.
“What’s wrong, Harold?” Grace asked as soon as she saw her husband’s face.
“Have a seat,” Harold said.
Later the two of them went upstairs to check up on the Neanderthal. They found him sitting on the floor with his back propped against the bed and his legs spread out over the tarp. He had a stone in one hand and a half-formed spear point in the other. He was carefully gouging flakes out of the edge of the spear point, expertly striking the edge with the stone, checking the result, and then striking the edge again. The flakes were collecting between his legs.
“Mr. Og…” Harold said.
The Neanderthal looked up. “Moe,” he said, pointing to himself.
“Moe,” Harold said. “We were told about your wife.”
The Neanderthal’s hands froze at the word wife. Then he said, “Hmala.”
“Hmala. Wife name. Hmala.”
“It’s a beautiful name,” Grace said. “Very lovely.”
The Neanderthal nodded. A moment passed as nobody spoke. Then the Neanderthal began striking the spear point in his hand once again with the stone, producing more small flakes.
“Grace, dear, could you run downstairs and fix me a gin and tonic?” Harold said. Then he hitched up his pants and sat down cross-legged on the tarp next to the Neanderthal. He took up one of the half formed spear points and another stone that looked like a striking tool. “Mr. Og,” he said, “why don’t you show me how to do that?”
The Neanderthal raised his head and smiled. “Moe,” he said pointing to himself. “Name is Moe.”