Plants and bugs abound: a new lease on life

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By Ian Neligh

I don’t know what time it is — but it’s late. My bloodshot eyes stare angry holes into the darkness. I want to sleep, but I can’t. Every 15 minutes a loud diesel truck pulls up in front of my apartment complex, and then quickly drives away. This happens again and again. The rumble of the heavy diesel engine smacks away at my skull like a holy ruler on blaspheming knuckles. It’s relentless.

It’s not hard to imagine some drunken lover’s quarrel is the cause of this cruel auditory invasion. Every time I start to fall asleep, it happens again. I once heard that a significant lack of sleep makes people feel psychotic, and about the 12th time I’m awakened, I’m ready to put on the hockey mask. I hate living in an apartment; unfortunately, this one hasn’t been the worst.

I’ve had an apartment that smelled like an Indian restaurant, where gunshots barked in the streets on a semi-regular basis, and the manager screamed like a gutted pig at my guests for parking in the wrong spot.

I’ve had apartments where drunks crashed into our parked vehicle, people stole our mail and every other Sunday a crematorium blew ashes across the parking lot and into my open living room window.

Compared to these dumps, my current apartment is practically perfect. This is something I realized even when I awoke to the sound of somebody else’s flushing toilet that first morning — I knew I had at last found a good one. When the time came to renew my lease, I jumped at the opportunity. I am still recovering from my last rental and will be for some time to come.

A few years ago, I moved to the small Colorado town of Gunnison to work at the local paper. My wife and I spent two days looking at every apartment for rent in the town. Some apartments were dark and moldy; others had laundry on the floor and dishes still in the sink. The nicest apartment had a problem with drunken college kids, as evidenced by piles of cheap beer cans in the bushes. We checked a small house last. Delighted at its cozy interior — and considerably desperate by this point — we agreed to rent it, and the price was right.

The fact that it was slanted to one side escaped our initial attention. The subtle angle made me feel like I walked around in a fun house that wasn’t fun. We sat under the dead-moth-filled ceiling light and ate pizza, paying no notice that first night. After all, we finally lived in a house — albeit a small one — but a house nonetheless.

It was December when we found that the ancient and dangerous-looking gas heater warmed only the space immediately around it. We moved our bed next to it to keep warm through Gunnison’s 40-below evenings. The fumes it vented made me dizzy. Our small bathroom was so cold some mornings that I wrapped my arms around myself like drugged monkey and watched the plumes of breath float in front of my face. The bathroom also smelled perpetually of urine.

Our slumlord lived in Florida during the winter. He wasn’t easy to get a hold of, and when we did, he became damn unpleasant, so talking to him was mostly out of the question.

We knew spring came to town when the toilet water thawed. It was then we also discovered the windows were painted shut. One of the walls became thick and sagged from being waterlogged. The house had no foundation, which quickly resulted in plants growing out from the floors and walls.

The most common variety of inside vegetation was a pale, leafy vine. It grew behind the bookshelves, up the walls to the ceiling. The vine also stretched across the floor to where sunlight spilled in the paint-splattered windows.

The space under the front door was big, and you didn’t need a peephole to see someone standing on the other side. We piled up the spare blankets at its base to stave off the blowing wind and potential rodents.

In June, it became very hot without air-conditioning. Giant black bugs regularly woke me by crawling on my face in the night looking for moisture on my sweating brow. In the morning, I could stand on the sagging kitchen floor, drink coffee and watch the neighbor’s daughter frolic among the black tires and lawn angels in our shared backyard, while her father played an excellent rendition of a Metallica song on his electric guitar.

When our landlord returned from Florida for the brief season before winter, he casually mentioned one day that he’d be willing to sell the house to us for about $200,000. “Such a good deal,” I thought the next day while nursing my swollen foot where the bathroom doorknob had fallen on it. A good deal — if you plowed it under and salted the earth after you were done.

I now lie in the darkness, smiling as the phantom driver pulls up in the parking lot yet again. We’re still renting, but I find a type of serene happiness in having no bugs crawling on my face. Sometimes it’s the little things in life that really matter.

Ian Neligh is a news editor for Evergreen Newspapers.