The fifth (and final) project by a student in Jeanne Finley’s class on failure is by Rebecca Ora. Here is the original project proposal.
Note: The drawings and italicized text in this piece were composed by my mother, B.Levavi. The straight text and images of the books are my own.
I have lived next door to Mr. Harmon for 21 years, precisely 21 years this month, yet he and I have never greeted each other much less held a conversation. He is at once comical—a gaunt, galloping Ichabod Crane—and dark, the bogeyman who lurks under the bed and in impenetrable shadows.
We know Mr. Harmon’s name only because from time to time his mail has been mistakenly dropped in our box just as we know the name of his (now deceased) dog Francis only because at 3 AM we would hear Harmon calling, “Francis, Francis, wake up. Why are you sleeping?” I sometimes think of the name that contains “harm” yet is only one letter from “harmony.”
I always refer to him as “like Boo Radley, but he doesn’t like children.” We have also called him “the man with the yellow hat,” a Curious George reference.
But we normally refer to him simply as Harmon.
Harmon lives alone in the house once occupied by his parents. In all the time we have lived here he has never worked, never entertained, traveled or had a casual conversation with a neighbor. Periodically he leaves his house to hang tattered garments on the back yard fence, drag his shopping cart to the supermarket, returning with innumerable boxes of raisins, or place his garbage bins precisely three feet apart at the curb on Wednesdays. Mr. Harmon has a characteristic walk. He leans forward at a precipitous pitch and takes giant strides, sweeping one arm into the air with every second step taken. He is rarely seen without a hat and appears to have a vast, varied wardrobe from Chinese pointed hats that tie under the chin to deteriorating straw hats to pitch helmets.
Harmon’s requirements for privacy are exacting. Once I returned home with a friend who mistakenly pulled into his driveway. Harmon came to the window with a megaphone to announce that we were on private property. Again, I approached his door to inform him that a recent earthquake had weakened our chimney and that perhaps he would want to move his car (he had a car at that time although he was never known to drive it) that was directly beneath the listing bricks. He was about to leave the house as I approached, saw me and quickly retreated behind the locked door. Only by banging on the door was I able to draw him to the window so that I could convey the message.
One time, a friend told me she had read in the local paper’s police log that the name “Fudge” was reportedly written on the side of a shed in the Wilshire-La Brea area. Of course, my brother Fudge was immediately suspected of foul play, though he vehemently denied it. Years later, he confessed to having written his name on Harmon’s shed that abutted our yard. We can only assume the Harmon, upon spying the crooked crayon scrawl on his dilapidated structure, had reported this paltry attempt at vandalism to the police.
About ten years ago I received a letter from a lawyer who threatened legal action on Mr. Harmon’s behalf because he claimed that my children were harassing him. In actuality, if my children chased a wayward ball onto his barren lawn, Mr. Harmon would turn on the sprinklers. I responded that I would counter-sue if they pursued this frivolous action and they instead went after the Asian family whose most intrusive actions appear to be silently deadheading roses on Sunday mornings. Since his failed attempt to extort money from me, Mr. Harmon hides behind bushes if he is on the street and sees me coming. On those occasions I walk very slowly.
Harmon used to have a dog, Francis.
I was the one who discovered Francis’ name. It was 3 AM, and, being an avid high school senior, I was constantly up all night, studying. Occasionally, I would hear shouting from next door: Harmon.
It sounded like, “Francis! Wake up, Francis! Why are you sleeping? It’s 3 AM!”
This was the only time I ever really heard his voice. Considering the late hour, I do not know how accurate my recollection of this episode was. I don’t know whether he was saying “Francis” or “Frances.”
Harmon’s shirts, through time, have become rattier, his walk more emphatic.
Sometimes I still spy him reading the newspaper outside, in his weedy yard, while donning a red batting helmet. He moves his head side-to-side, presumably with each line he reads. Sometimes, the newspaper is upside-down.
Mr. Harmon has had several visitors over the years. When Francis was still with us a mobile dog-grooming van would sometimes be parked in his driveway. Once I returned home to find police cars parked along the street. Mr. Harmon, it seems, had been tied up, beaten and left in that condition for several days. A friend who was visiting us told the police that she had seen a man in a bathrobe get out of a car and enter Mr. Harmon’s house several days earlier. More recently one of my children spotted two people who appeared to be social service workers standing by Mr. Harmon’s door with a pie. The pie was alas not sufficient inducement for him to open the door.
Mr. Harmon is the embodiment of isolation and paranoia. He is at once repellent and fascinating. His proximity provokes thoughts about the nature of reality and the purpose of human existence. He is the neighbor usually described as “a quiet guy” who has for years been burying dozens of bodies in his garden in the middle of the night.
Oh, Harmon! Oh, Humanity!
We have always had too many books. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves lining every wall in the living room, and shelves of varying height in the hallways, all three bedrooms, and in my mother’s bathroom.
With seven kids, all in the same schools, we often read the same books. The night before the first reading assignment was do, the child in question would inevitably freak out, realize he /she had no idea where the book was (though we were certain we had it somewhere) and someone would have to run out and pick up another copy.
We live 3 houses from a library that holds weekly book sales. Ten-cent paperbacks and fifty-cent hard covers meant that we accumulated multiple copies of random books as they were withdrawn from the stacks.
We all knew that we had too many copies of several titles. Gorky Park and Lost Horizon, for some reason, seemed to abound.
Once, I gathered together the myriad copies of these two books, much to everyone’s amusement. My mother said they were very fine pieces of literature, and it was ok, but I could tell even she knew this was excessive. I think I found five or six copies of each. When I left Los Angeles to move up north, I donated a good deal of my old stuff to charity, and my mother gave me some of the Lost Horizons and Gorky Parks to give away. We still have too many copies of other books lying around the house, though.
My mother told me once that women have a particular connection to reading, since it is a solitary activity, and women are expected to be constantly engaged, socially. She said my father used to throw her books in the trash. She would be searching for a book she was in the middle of reading, and would find it buried in the garbage. When she confronted him, he claimed that he had begun reading the book, did not care for it, and so disposed of it. He did not understand that it was not about him.
Tovah, my aunt in Israel (really my grandmother’s nephew’s wife), likes to tell the story of how my grandmother died.
Tovah refers to her as Malka, though Malka was her middle name. Her full name was really “Esther Malka” (Queen Esther). Tovah just calls her “Queen.”
She had flown to Israel from New York to visit her family. She came in on a Friday, and, upon arrival, decided to eat something then rest before the Sabbath began. She hung her wig (though she had long since been widowed, she continued to cover her hair) on the arm of the couch, put on her slippers, and sat in front of the television in the living room.
When Tovah (always in the kitchen, always cooking) realized she had not heard from the old woman for a while, and entered the living room to find Malka, perfectly still, with a slight foam on the outside of her mouth. She had died, then and there.
Tovah says that at one point, Esther, who came from a strong family that fought against the British colonizers before statehood, showed her her diaries, and claimed that her father had pushed her to marry her husband—my grandfather—who was a stringently religious man. She had actually been in love with another man, she claimed, and showed Tovah the diary entries as proof.
She was a hard, mean woman by the time I knew her.
I remember Mrs. Leo. She was the vice principal when I was in first grade, and I liked her because she had blonde hair. She was a large woman, tall and buxom. She was always very nice to me, but she did kick a little girl in the class—Sherizad Kohanzad—out of school for supposedly cheating on a spelling test.
Melissa, the woman to whom Mrs. Leo confessed about her flight capability, was eccentric in her own right. She had originally been a model, then married a religious French-Moroccan man. Her father was head of Warner brothers when she grew up, and her family lived next door to Groucho Marx. When I knew her, a mother of four, she spoke with a fake French accent at times, and cooked horrible vegetarian food with tofu-substitutes for the original ingredients. Her mother, who bought her a face-lift for her birthday one year, married a man named Laszlo who convinced her to invest the last of her fortune in an ostrich farm.
Melissa’s kids were all devastatingly gorgeous and devastatingly stupid. I tutored several of them—both older and younger than I am—for years. They are all married to beautiful stupid people, and live in Los Angeles.
Melissa’s husband Charles (my mother refers to him as Le Grand Charles, both in reference to his grandiosity as well as in ironic jabbing at his diminutive stature), once told my mother that all of his grammatical errors were “poetical license.” For some reason, my mother and Melissa had a falling out some years ago and have not spoken since.
Mario, Slim, Louisiana, Bumdog, and some other characters live on the street corner.
They drink. Mario, from the south, refers to my mother as “Miss B.” He has “cleaned up” a few times over the years, but keeps returning to the streets. At one point, he was working as a security guard.
Whenever I am back in town, Mario is happy to see me. He always tells whoever is sitting at the corner with him that he has known me since I was “this small.” And now look at me.
He used to ask her for five bucks here and there, but I think he has stopped asking my mother for money, now that she is out of work.
My mother’s backyard abuts a large park and all of its human and animal wildlife. We have spotted possums (My sister Hannah, or “Ham,” as we call her, is most afraid of these repulsive creatures, and is somehow the one to whom they most often appear, leering at her with their red and beady eyes), lizards, and even chickens on occasion. But cats are the most common.
We hate the cats. Someone always feeds them, and the neighborhood is overrun with mangy felines.
My mother has tried setting out cayenne pepper, vinegar, anything she reads or hears will serve as a cat repellent.
We had never had pets growing up, not the furry kind, at least. We had, through the years, several canaries (Tweety, Spot), freshwater and saltwater fish (including a catfish that stung my highly allergic father), and a suicidal eel that would jump out of the tank. I, being the brave one, would constantly be called to save the depressed creature’s life.
Once, Dov and Ham spotted a sign publicizing a missing cat answering to the name “Phuk Phuk.” Thereafter, the two of them began answering to Phuk Phuk, too. We did not try to locate the original Phuk Phuk; considering the number of strays in the neighborhood, those people could have easily found a replacement.
Recently, two women rang our doorbell, and asked my mother if she minded if they would catch some of the strays and take them home. My mother, in her infinite wit and dry humor, expressed that not only was this fine with her, but she did not care what they did with the cats thereafter.
“You can make stew out of them for all I care,” she said.
One of the women lost it at this point, and had to be dragged off, screaming and shaking, by her companion.
I once saw a little Asian woman pushing a baby carriage full of kibble, sprinkling cat food around the periphery of my house. Now, in addition to setting out cat repellants, my mother sets out threatening signs to deter old ladies.
I know that, no matter how long my mother is out of work, or how far her children are, she will never be an old lady with hundreds of cats.