It started with a routine-sounding letter from my health insurance company. I opened it quickly because I was in the mood for a snack, and there was a little picture of cherries on the lower right corner of the envelope indicating that they had used cherry-flavored paper, my favorite. I learned that I would need to get a full DNA sequencing done by the end of the year. Reasonable enough, I thought, as I tore off little pieces of the letter and let the sweet and sour cellulose dissolve on my tongue.
Several weeks later I got the strangest voicemail message. “Hello, Mr. Wright,” began the garbled transcription I got in email, “this isn’t Barley from inshallah care. Web navel your DNA test, and very interesting hallelujah. Please call me back at…” I skipped listening to the actual message and dialed the number.
“Mr. Wright, I am so glad you returned my call!” enthused a female voice. She did not strike me as the usual insurance company bureaucrat. Her name was Hannah Farley, and she worked for the insurance company as an actuarial geneticist. She hastened to assure me that nothing in my genetic sequence indicated latent health problems that should concern me. “In fact,” she said, “I have reviewed your claim history, and I want to congratulate you on being in excellent health!”
“Thank you, Ms. Farley,” I responded cautiously and waited for her to continue. When she didn’t, I felt the need to prompt her. “But…?”
“Right. Well, I’ll just have to come right out and say it.”
“Okay, Mr. Wright. You are …” She paused and even clucked her tongue lightly a few times. “You are a Neanderthal, Mr. Wright.”
She enunciated the word quite clearly and deliberately, and there was no mistaking what she had said, but still I asked her to repeat it.
“You are a Neanderthal.”
My mind raced for a moment. “Oh, I read about this. Everyone has some Neanderthal DNA, right? That’s what…”
“No, Mr. Wright, you misunderstand. You … and nobody is more surprised than I am, believe me … nobody’s ever … I did double-check and triple-check and had colleagues … but there’s no getting around it. You are not a Homo sapiens with some Neanderthal genes. You are a Neanderthal, Homo neanderthalensis.”
I was at a complete loss for words.
“Do you understand now, Mr. Wright?”
After I hung up a few minutes later, I went to the bathroom and looked at my reflection. Protruding brow. Large nose. I took off my clothes and stepped back. I have always been husky and strong. I played football in high school, not because I liked the game, but because if you gave me the ball, I could run all the way to the end zone, littler kids dangling from my body like remoras on a shark. (In college it was a different story. The guys were bigger, tougher, more vicious. I didn’t have the stomach for it. I took up biking, a solitary, peaceful sport.)
I put my clothes back on. Okay, so I was a Neanderthal. So what? I was still Carl Wright, mild-mannered accountant, resident of Santa Clara, California. Wasn’t I?
Ms. Farley had talked me into coming in for some tests. I don’t like being prodded and poked any more than the next guy, but I would be paid. I arrived at the lab promptly at 9am the following morning.
A mole-like, bespectacled man limply shook my hand when I arrived. He stared at my hairy knuckles and then raised his eyes to inspect my face, much as I had done the previous day. He finally forced a smile and said, “Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Wright. Please follow me.”
I was ushered into a room where a woman sat behind a desk. Her wide downturned mouth, fleshy jowls and rumpled brown suit combined to give the impression of a toad waiting with menacing patience.
“Good morning, Mr. Wright. Please have a seat.”
“Hi,” I said and inserted myself in the only available chair. A fluttering in the corner of the room attracted my attention, and I looked to see a tall thin woman in a lab coat. She had straight blond hair that fell nearly to her waist. She smiled at me.
“I am Dr. Willis,” said the woman at the desk. “You talked to Ms. Farley on the phone,” she gestured to the woman in the corner, “and that’s Fernandez.” The man who had ushered me in grunted lightly behind my right shoulder. “Before we get started, I have a few questions for you.”
Dr. Willis attempted to delve into my family history, but I’m afraid I wasn’t much help to her. Mom and dad died in a car accident when I was 12, and in any case they had adopted me. I have no idea who my biological parents were or where they came from. Dr. Willis shook her head disapprovingly.
“For all we know,” said Fernandez in a desultory whine, “he has no parents.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ms. Farley, jerking her head to the side. I found myself fascinated for a moment by her movements, her tall lanky stance, the way her hair was so light in color that it almost blended with her lab coat. A fault of the fluorescent light, no doubt.
“…quite possible that he was created in a lab from some well-preserved remains,” Fernandez was saying.
“Nonsense,” said Dr. Willis. “35 years ago that would have been impossible. It’s hardly possible now.”
“Well, you explain it then.” He gestured to me, as if I were the “it” in need of explanation.
After some more apparently fruitless discussion, I was led to a lab for a variety of tests: strength, cardiovascular health, flexibility, cranial capacity, intelligence, visual acuity, etc. There was much humming, chuckling, even a few surprised gasps, but they refused to tell me anything about the results. In the end they thanked me, paid me, and I went home.
I thought that was the end of it, and I went back to my life doing bookkeeping and tax planning for small business clients in and around Santa Clara.
Then came the call from the New York Post. Somehow a reporter had gotten wind of my genetic status and had called to find out if it was true, and to do a story on me, whether it was true or not.
“I found your picture online, Mr. Wright,” said John Trawley, “and, wow.”
I was so taken aback that I almost hung up on him, but I let him talk, and he seemed to take my reticence as a shrewd negotiation tactic. In the end, by merely grunting non-committally every once in a while I had secured a surprisingly lucrative deal.
I was not completely naive. I knew the publicity might have unwanted consequences. I agreed to be photographed, but insisted that I be fully clothed in attire of my own choosing. I also demurred when they offered to fly me to New York. Trawley flew to Santa Clara instead with the photographer in tow.
He had surprisingly few questions for me. Perhaps our initial conversation convinced him that I was a dull interview, and I can’t really blame him. We did talk about my football days, and I allowed them to make a scan of an old photograph of me in uniform. The rest of the conversation focused on my sex life, or lack thereof. He asked for my ex-wife’s phone number, but I refused. He smiled and nodded and told me he completely understood. I should have known they would have no trouble tracking her down on their own.
The photographer, a short, hyper-efficient little man who seemed to have pockets growing like blisters over his entire body, took pictures of me in my business suit, pictures of me at my desk with my sleeves rolled up (exposing my hairy forearms), and pictures of me gazing out the window (highlighting my Neanderthal profile). I agreed to go for a walk with them, and we wound up at a park. Only later, when I saw the pictures of me next to trees and boulders did I realize their goal in photographing me in a semi-natural setting.
It was ironic, because I had never been an outdoorsy guy. I vacationed in cities, not national parks, stayed in hotels, not campgrounds. I used to go camping with mom and dad before they died, but I never got the point of giving up modern conveniences every Memorial Day weekend. “This is how our ancestors used to live!” said my dad. “Our ancestors ate s’mores?” I asked while roasting a marshmallow, because I could be a bit of a smartass, but I loved the campfire, getting wrapped in a blanket, staring at the dancing flames, seeing in the embers random flashes of my ancestors hunting glowing beasts with glowing red spears.
Anyway, the New York Post article, titled “Caveman Accountant!” was breathtakingly inaccurate. It said I lived in San Jose instead of Santa Clara, for instance. Why? It quoted my ex-wife as having called me an animal in bed. Had I been abusive, they asked? No, she said, but I had quite a temper.
Well, that’s absurd. She would never have said those things. Had they talked to her at all? She divorced me when she fell in love with another man, and I was upset but reasonable. We still met sometimes for dinner at Tequila Grande, very cordial and comfortable. Her new husband was not threatened by me at all. (Sometimes, perhaps, I wished he felt threatened, just a little, but he didn’t.) I am not an animal in bed. I have no temper to speak of. I’m a very steady, even boring, individual, and nobody would be quicker to point that out than Christy.
It was after dinner when I read the article, and I started to feel a little wistful thinking about Christy. I still missed her, I suppose. I got another beer from the fridge and slumped on the couch. Christy had a persistent cheerfulness that I always found charming. The bangles on her wrist rattled when she moved her hands expressively, as she always did when she talked. She played the flute, and the light, airy sound of that instrument always feels like her warm breath on my neck.
In the end, I was not religious enough for her. I had accompanied her to church, but I could take or leave Christianity. She would occasionally play the flute at church, and the sight of her by the altar, beautiful and bathed in the golden glow of Sunday morning light, should have filled me with pride. Instead it only made me feel as if she were on another planet, in touch with a spiritual universe I couldn’t see. She’d left me for the organist.
I got another beer out of the fridge, but thought better of it, put it back, and went to bed.
After the article my phone started ringing like crazy. Talk shows wanted me. Reality TV shows wanted me. Porn movie producers wanted me. I stopped answering the phone altogether, but reviewed all of the voice messages. My genetic makeup was a bankable commodity, apparently, and I was going to make the most of it.
I went with Wanda Stippler. After all, she had the most popular daytime talk show in the country, and while she strayed into the sensational at times, she tackled substantive issues and maintained a respectful atmosphere on the set. Or so I was told. I’d never seen the show before. I watched a few clips on YouTube before making a final decision.
In one of the clips, Wanda introduced a man who came out wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a putty-colored suit. He seemed like an ordinary fellow, a bit shy and awkward, and in a series of initial questions Wanda carefully established his guy-next-door persona. He was a software developer; he was married and had an infant daughter; he had grown up in Ames, Iowa. Then she asked him what he liked to do in his spare time, and he told her he liked to belly dance. “What?!” she cried, looking at the audience and holding her hand to her breast in obviously feigned surprise. He liked to belly dance, he repeated quietly. A moment later, the studio lights were lowered, he tore the putty-colored suit from his body (it was held together with velcro) and flung the glasses to the side. Vaguely middle-eastern music began to play, he raised his arms and rippled the flesh of his abdomen to squeals of delight from Wanda and her (mostly female) audience.
This video gave me pause, as you might imagine, but it was obviously a bit of a ruse. The guy was certainly a professional dancer, just doing his job, not a mild-mannered software developer. That’s entertainment. Right?
Anyway, Stippler’s compensation package was generous. And when I amended the contract to specify the clothing I was willing to wear and the subject matter I was willing to discuss, they agreed.
I flew in to LAX. In the airport, I became aware of people staring at me. A pretty teenage girl bugged her eyes at me, covered her mouth, and leaned to say something to her friend. I noticed the gaze of several others linger on me longer than was natural, smiles flickering or barely contained.
The thing is, I don’t know if this was actually new or not. I suspect that I had always gotten reactions like this but hadn’t cared enough to notice. In fact, if I think about it, I can remember all sorts of instances in which cashiers, bank tellers, receptionists, waiters, neighbors, UPS drivers, etc. gave me quick double-takes or cleared their throats awkwardly after standing a few seconds with their jaws open. All through my life, people have talked to me more slowly and loudly than necessary, as if I were dense. This was not new. Had some of the people in the airport seen my picture in the paper? Possibly. But it was my own attitude that had changed. I felt like I had a stamp on my forehead saying “Neanderthal” in blocky, rough-hewn letters.
At the studio I sat in the office of producer Margie McFadden. On her desk sat an empty pencil holder shaped like a penguin next to a computer mouse pad with the picture of a penguin. The woman had some sort of penguin fetish. On the wall behind her head was a framed poster of an emperor penguin sheltering its young. On her bookshelf was an assortment of penguin figurines, snow globes and toys, behind which appeared to be a variety of books about penguins, both fiction and non.
Ms. McFadden noticed the direction of my gaze. “Do you like penguins, Mr. Wright?”
After a slight pause, I said, “Sure, who doesn’t?”
“Exactly!” She seemed pleased, and thus having broken the ice, so to speak, she began coaching me on what I would say in my interview.
She asked me whether I had ever suspected that I was a Neanderthal? Had I ever looked at the artists’ renderings of Neanderthals and thought, “Hey, that’s me!”
It was a good question, and I had to think about it for a moment. “No,” I finally concluded, “I just thought I was ugly.”
“Oh, that’s good! That is a good line! I want you to say that in the interview, just in that way.” She paused and looked at me dubiously. “Can you say it just like that? Let’s practice. Wanda will ask you whether you ever suspected you were a Neanderthal—her wording may be a little different, but it doesn’t matter. What do you say?”
“I just thought I was ugly?”
“No, no, pause thoughtfully for a moment, just like you did, and then say it.”
“Okay.” I raised my hand to my chin and turned my head to the side, and then I looked back at Ms. McFadden and said, “I just thought I was ugly.”
She stared back at me for a moment with narrowed eyes and then sighed and threw her hands in the air. “It will do!”
We talked for a few more minutes, and then she said, “Oh! I have something to show you!” We got up, and she led me down the hall. A young woman wearing a white cardigan and glasses trotted past, smiling at me broadly. We stopped outside a half-open door and Ms. McFadden turned to me. “Just keep an open mind, okay?”
She led me into the room, where a woman sat bent over a sewing machine among racks of clothing. The woman looked up, then down, then up again. “Where is it Judy? Oh, here.” From a rack she pulled a capacious leopard-print garment, ragged at the bottom. I noticed a plastic club made to look like wood leaned against the wall.
“It’s just for fun, Mr. Wright!”
“My contract clearly states…”
“Your contract,” she spat. “It’s just for fun, Mr. Wright! Forget the contract for a moment. Feel the lining. Silk, right Judy? Very comfortable.”
I refused to touch it. “No,” I repeated.
Ms. McFadden sighed deeply and returned the garment to the rack. “Well, we tried.”
There were two other people waiting in the green room before the show. One was a woman with lobster claw hands, and the other was a garrulous little man who looked very old but who told me he was only 16.
“Progeria, it’s called. It’s really really rare.”
“Oh, it’s not that rare,” said the lobster claw woman.
“It is too!” said the boy, sounding younger, even, than his 16 years. “She’s jealous,” he explained to me, eliciting a dismissive grunt from the woman. “What do you have?”
“I … I’m a Neanderthal. Apparently.”
“What, like a caveman?” he asked.
I paused. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. But I live in a house like regular people.”
“Yeah, I knew that,” he snorted.
The boy was called out first. “Showtime!” he said, rubbing his hands together. It cheered me somewhat to see his enthusiasm. He said he’d been on lots of shows, and it was fun. The lobster-claw woman was morose, however, and we sat in silence until she was called out.
Then, as I was waiting nervously, a man was ushered in by Ms. McFadden. “… on such short notice,” she was saying. “You’re a lifesaver.”
The man had a salt-and-pepper beard, and he sat down opposite me and folded his arms. “Hi,” I said, but he only glared at me. I wondered what genetic mutation he had, but then I realized that he looked familiar. I was trying to remember where I had seen him before when I was called out.
The interview itself was surreal. I did my line about thinking I was ugly, but my preliminary pause was probably more terrified than thoughtful. It got a good laugh anyway. Wanda leaned over and touched my arm, and then she declared that I was not ugly but beautiful, and her audience applauded obediently.
Then the bearded man was introduced as Dr. Trevor Smythe. I and my fellow genetic mutants moved down the couch to make way for him, and I suddenly remembered who he was: a pop-science writer who frequented the talk shows, known for his wit.
After exchanging pleasantries with Wanda, he talked about genetic mutations in general before addressing each of us in turn. When he got to me he told Wanda about Neanderthals, how they had become extinct 40,000 years ago, how they had interbred with humans, how they actually had larger brains than humans but had nevertheless been outcompeted by them. He reiterated the point about them going extinct 40,000 years ago, raising his eyebrow at me as he said this. Then he dropped his bombshell.
“I don’t believe for one moment this man is actually a Neanderthal.”
“What do you mean?” cried Wanda.
“I mean he’s a human like you and me. He has some Neanderthal-like features, but so do most of us. What proof has he provided that he is a Neanderthal? He’s making a fool out of you, Wanda.”
Wanda held her hand to her breast and looked in disbelief at the audience, who murmured on cue. Turning to me, Wanda asked, “What do you have to say, Mr. Wright? Do you have proof?”
I was thunderstruck. I realized later that, like everything else on the show, this moment had been carefully orchestrated. They needed a big ending for the show, and I had denied them the pleasure of seeing me dressed up like Fred Flintstone. Ms. McFadden called in Dr. Smythe, with his pretense of authority, to question my integrity and allow them the pleasure of watching me defend myself. One way or another, they were determined to see me squirm.
When I did not speak but only looked back at her with terror-widened eyes, Wanda asked again, “What is your proof that you are a Neanderthal?”
“My insurance company told me.”
“Your insurance company,” Dr. Smythe said derisively, then turned to Wanda. “It’s very clever, really, because insurance company records are confidential, right? So there’s no way to check.”
“I would not lie about this,” I sputtered. “I never wanted…”
“What if, Dr. Smythe, an independent lab were to verify the results?”
“But would he agree,” he asked, “and risk exposing himself as a fraud?”
They all turned to me, and thus did I promise on national television to provide a DNA sample to a lab of Dr. Smythe’s choosing to determine whether I was a bona fide Neanderthal.
The Stippler show played the suspense for all it was worth. They showed daily commercials leading up to the big reveal two weeks later. In the meantime I tried to return to work, but it was hard to concentrate. I thought the results would confirm what Ms. Farley had told me weeks ago, but what if they didn’t? What if they had made a mistake? Was I, however unwittingly, a fraud? Did I want to be a Neanderthal?
I flew back to LA for the follow-up show, which, for me, was anti-climactic. The new results confirmed that I was a Neanderthal. Dr. Smythe was on hand to apologize for doubting me and to tout me as a new mystery of modern science. Wanda declared me a hero, which seemed silly to me.
“I am no hero,” I declared, and realized immediately that Ms. McFadden et. al. had known I would say that. It was my line.
I went back again to Santa Clara determined to put all of this behind me. Of course, you know what happened next.
My picture was everywhere. The implications of an actual Neanderthal among the human population were analyzed, debated, fretted about, lamented, and celebrated. The New York Times, the Atlantic, Fox News, the BBC, and CNN, to name just a few, all published/broadcast stories within days. I was the talk of Facebook and Twitter. I received death threats and marriage proposals. One email I got described how the writer would like to capture me, dress me in a little red hat, and make me dance to the music of a street organ. At least he did not wish to shoot me, as so many others did. I had to shut down my accounting practice—my office address, phone number and email address having become public knowledge. I stayed in my house for several days, looking through venetian blinds at an encampment of reporters drinking coffee and checking their phones.
I still subscribed to the Chronicle, making me the only one in my cul-de-sac who continued to resist digital media. Rather than face the press to pick it up from my driveway I paid a neighbor kid a dollar a day to carry it to my door, which he did like a commando on a mission. I spread it out on my breakfast table and read it front to back, licking my ink-blackened fingers. To skip a story would seem irresponsible, like I was shirking some ill-defined civic duty, so I read them all. I had done that for years, but now every other story was about me.
It was the syndicated columnist Vanessa Bolen who first brought up in a serious way the idea that I, as a Neanderthal, was not entitled to be called a person, in the legal sense. This elicited some wrangling among scientists and opinionated non-scientists about whether Neanderthals were really a separate species or were, in fact, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. If Neanderthals were a subspecies, I gathered, then I could be called a person. The argument, however, ended up focusing on a 2014 study that found that differences in the nasal passages of Neanderthals made them a distinct species, thereby relegating me to non-personhood.
(I looked at my big non-person nose in the mirror. “I just thought I was ugly,” I quoted. I snarled at my reflection. But perhaps I was beautiful. What would an actual female Neanderthal think of me?)
Many defended my right to be called a person anyway, arguing that Neanderthals were “humans” even if they were not Homo sapiens. Others pointed to my obvious intelligence and my success as a member of society. But as is often the case, the “slippery slope” argument won the day. If a Neanderthal, then why not a clever service dog, who was also intelligent and useful? Why not one of the new robots coming off the assembly line, which was more intelligent and useful than most humans? Would we strip personhood from the unintelligent? No. It was simpler and easier to lock it down to the species.
There were calls for my social security number to be revoked, for my bank accounts to be seized, all contracts I had entered into to be null and void.
Then came defenders from a different quarter: animal rights groups. I was, as far as anyone could tell, the only member of my species on the planet.
To make a long story short, I looked out my window one morning to see two burly representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service walk up the path to my front door and knock on my front door. When I didn’t answer, one stepped back and looked in my window. He could see me standing there, drinking a cup of coffee.
“Mr. Wright, we’re here to protect you.” He took out his ID and pressed it against the window. I went up and read it. Officer Banks. “You can’t stay here anymore, Mr. Wright. It’s not a good environment for you.”
“And what is a good environment for me?” I called through the closed window.
“One where you don’t have to live in fear.”
“I’m not afraid,” I retorted.
Officer Banks said something to his partner and then turned back to the window. “The bank is going to take the house. You can’t stay here.” I thought about this. He was right; I had gotten the letter. The paper had been lemon-lime. I sipped my coffee while Banks and his partner fidgeted impatiently. “Mr. Wright,” said Banks’ partner, “you’re coming with us, one way or another.”
So I let them in and asked if I could pack a few things to take with me. They said of course, they would even help me carry them to the van. I got my biggest suitcase out and wondered if my whole life would fit in it. I packed some clothes—just my favorite jeans and shirts. I was going to pack my navy blue three-piece, but then the phrase “monkey suit” came to mind; I left it behind.
What else to bring? My only hobby other than biking was reading. I wondered aloud which books I should pack, and Banks asked, “Why not bring them all?”
“What? I have three bookcases full of books.”
“Not a problem. Chris, can you get the boxes from the van?”
Banks’ partner went out and returned promptly with a stack of folded cardboard boxes and some packing tape. Muttering something about the stone age, he began boxing up the books on my living room shelf. Paul Bowles, Jon Krakauer, Emily Dickinson, Bill Bryson, Douglas Adams.
Banks and his partner flanked me as I rolled my suitcase out. Cigarette butts, coffee stirrers, and wads of gum littered the gutter in front of my house—the detritus of reporters who had abandoned their posts. As Banks lifted my suitcase into the back of the van, a dilapidated Honda Civic stopped at the curb. I turned to see Ms. Farley from the insurance company getting out. She fluttered over to me.
“Mr. Wright! Mr. Wright, I’m so glad I caught you!”
“Ms. Farley? Hello.”
She started to apologize profusely for how things had turned out. If she had known, etc. She was sure Fernandez was the one to leak the information to the press, the little jerk, and probably made some money off it somehow. She had tried to call, but I hadn’t answered, and she felt just awful. She wore a mottled brown and white jacket, unzipped, and, with her hands in her pockets, she flapped her arms.
“A heron!” I blurted out.
“… a person’s genetic…” She stopped abruptly. “Excuse me, Mr. Wright?”
I had only been completing a thought that I had started back in the lab. Fernandez was a mole, Willis a toad, and Farley was a large marsh bird of some kind. “I’m sorry, nothing. I’m going crazy. I’ve been cooped up for too long.”
“Oh, I feel so responsible! Are you going to be alright? What can I do to help?”
“I’ll be fine, Ms. Farley. Look, I have two new friends, representatives of the United States government, no less.” Chris could be seen pushing the boxes further into the truck while Banks checked his watch. “I really appreciate your concern, but please don’t trouble yourself. What’s happened has happened. That’s all.”
She shook her head. “How can you be so calm? If I were you I would be angry. You are a person. Carl. You are a person.”
For a second time, Ms. Farley had rendered me speechless. “I …” I said finally, glancing at Banks, who beckoned to me, “… need to go. Thank you so much for coming out to see me. I really do appreciate it.”
I shook her hand and bid her farewell. She seemed hesitant and confused, but returned to her car.
Meanwhile Banks and Chris were arguing. There was only room for two in the front of the van, all three of us being wide bodies. Normally, if they had some fish or wildlife to transport, it would go in the back, and Chris was of the opinion that precedent should not be broken. Banks argued that my safety was paramount and that I should have a proper lap and shoulder harness. Their job was to protect me, and so ultimately Chris did his job and got in the back of the van.
As we got on the road, Banks explained to me how things would work now that I had made the endangered species list. Basically, whatever I wanted, Banks was authorized to provide, within reason, of course, and subject to safety review. Just for example, if I wanted to stop for some ice cream, no problem! I just needed to be aware that my cholesterol would be monitored regularly. The goal was a healthy, happy, Mr. Wright. And, ultimately, if a Mrs. Wright could be found…
Banks broke off, as if he had said too much.
“A Mrs. Wright …?” I asked.
“Well, yes! A female of your species, for you to mate with … I mean to marry … I mean … Sorry, this is really weird for me! I’m used to dealing with animals. I mean animals who can’t speak English. I mean …” He broke off again and became inordinately absorbed in turning on his blinker and looking over his left shoulder to change lanes, muttering “damn traffic” under his breath.
“A female of my species …” I echoed.
An image of Christy flashed in my mind, wearing a white silk blouse, looking to the side and smiling amusedly. During the worst of the media storm, I had tried to call her, but she hadn’t picked up. I ached for her suddenly, so much that I began to squirm in my seat. But she wasn’t of my species, after all, and that made me feel sad. I realized that I had always hoped that we would get back together, somehow, maybe while sipping margaritas at Tequila Grande, her bangles slipping from her wrist down almost to her elbow as she raised her glass. That possibility, however remote it had been, was now gone completely.
I thumped the armrest with my fist. “I want some ice cream,” I announced.
“Yes, sir!” responded Banks.
As I ate my ice cream (raspberry and chocolate), I thought about the human beings who had built the city I lived in, built the ice cream parlor, invented ice cream, cultivated raspberries, invented chocolate, written the books I liked to read, invented the math I used to calculate taxes, invented taxes… Their world was my world, or so I had thought. But I was like a suburban deer—comfortable in their world, adapted to it, but not belonging in it, not really. It had only been a matter of time before I was forced out.
And so here I sit on the fringe of human civilization, in a small ranger cabin in an undisclosed national park, hidden away and supported by Banks and the good people at U.S. Fish and Wildlife. I am wildlife without the skills of wildlife. A river runs near in which I could fish, but I have yet to find the patience for it. There are woods in which I could hunt. Banks gave me a bow and arrow, but I proved inept and unteachable at archery, so he gave me a rifle. He tried to teach me that, but I have yet to shoot anything. I am lazy, I admit. I like to walk in the woods, and to read on my little porch, and to sit and stare at busy birds and squirrels who are at home in this world. If he really wanted me to hunt, Banks would not bring me a big box of food every week. But he can’t have me getting thin, and so he brings it, and I tell him embellished stories of my attempts at hunting, how I came upon a group of wild turkeys and blasted at them with abandon, but they all got away. Their feathers settled to the ground like snow, and I was glad.
I do tend a small garden. It is something, at least. I had more tomatoes than I could eat this summer, and I have planted squash for the fall. They are all hybrid varieties, of course, invented by men to grow easily and produce shiny colorful fruit.
Maybe with time I will grow truly wild. I fantasize about it sometimes, leaving the cabin, building a hut out of animal skins and twigs, living off the land, becoming like the fox I sometimes see at dusk, swift and silent and vigilant and competent. But let’s face it, I’m an old dog, domesticated and dumb.
Sometimes when Banks brings me supplies he stays to chat, or play cards. He says often how he envies me my life in the woods. He jokes about us trading places. “I have a stack this thick of paperwork! Just for a week, you go back and do it. You were an accountant! You’ll love it! I’ll stay here.” When he has to go he takes one last look around and a big vigorous breath. “Man, this is the life,” he says, and then he gets back in his truck and returns to civilization, and I wonder if he would really like to trade places or not, and if I would. Or not.
He brings me letters too, from supporters and detractors alike. He tries to weed out the nasty ones, of course. Two weeks ago, I got a letter from Christy. My hands actually shook as I opened it.
She apologized, first, for not picking up the phone when I called. She didn’t know what to say to me. My being revealed as a Neanderthal affected her much more than I had realized. She spent many long hours thinking about it, praying about it, talking to her husband and her pastor about it. The central question, in her mind, was whether I had an eternal soul, whether she would meet me in heaven when all was said and done as she had always imagined she would. The thought that I would not be there troubled her.
Her husband and her pastor agreed that as an animal I was not a moral being and was therefore ineligible for the afterlife, much as I was ineligible for Social Security. As further proof they cited my indifference to Christianity, which could best be explained not by wickedness (they all readily agreed that there was nothing wicked about me) but by a complete absence of spiritual feeling. They meant this as consolation, but it made Christy very sad. She came, nevertheless, to accept it as the truth. She apologized for taking so long to write, to say her final goodbye (for that is what her letter was).
I tried several times to compose a response, but there was nothing for me to say that would not seem ridiculous. I was like a lost pet to her, nothing more. Anything I might say would be like a clever imitation of human emotion, an anthropomorphic charade.
“What’s wrong, Carl?” asked Banks the next time he saw me. I’m not one to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I was even more laconic than usual, I guess.
“Oh, nothing. That letter from Christy…”
He winced. “I’m sorry, man. But listen, I have great news. They found another one!”
“Another Neanderthal! And it’s a she!” He grinned and raised his eyebrows twice. “And she’s your age.”
We stood on the porch and I looked out at the trees, whose leaves were starting to fall. “Huh,” I responded.
“The geneticists, they say it’s amazing,” he continued, “she seems to be almost exactly the same age as you, and you’re such a good match. It’s as if, they say, it’s as if she was made for you. Literally.”
I stared at him. “What does that mean?”
“Apparently they think you were designed or something, but nobody knows who did it! It’s bizarre. They can explain it to you, maybe. But whatever, I’m going to bring her out on Thursday.”
“You’re going to bring her here?”
“Of course! So you two can get to know each other.” He paused and chuckled softly. “Relax. Maybe you’ll hit it off, maybe not.” He slapped me on the back. “I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t hoping for an overnight stay.”
So, Julia arrived yesterday afternoon. She seemed shy and nervous, but she smiled. After introductions, Banks got in his truck and drove away without another word. He wouldn’t be back that evening, I knew.
I invited her to sit on the porch, and for a few minutes we only looked around at the trees and exchanged pleasantries about the coming of autumn and the peacefulness of the woods. Then I caught her eye and we began looking at each other, studying each other’s features. She told me that when she saw me on the Stippler show she was struck by my gentleness and my modesty, and she had followed my story closely ever since.
Inevitably we started talking about people, Homo sapiens, and about how crazy they are. Julia and I had always been the most sensible people we knew. “I heard,” she said, “that they weren’t smarter or stronger than Neanderthals, but that they took more risks. When they met mountain ranges, they crossed them, despite the danger, while we stayed put. It’s how they survived while we didn’t, some say.”
“Interesting theory,” I said.
Last night we did the sensible thing and slept together. It was okay. And in the morning I watched her sleeping, and I felt happy for the first time since Christy left. I don’t love her, at least not in the way that humans use the word, at least not yet, but I hope she stays. Maybe we will have a child, and we will live together in this cabin in these woods with the squirrel, the blue jay, and the fox. I reminded myself that I must gather more firewood for the winter. Banks gave me a chainsaw, and last week I found a fallen oak tree. I cut it into sections a little over a foot in length and used the wheelbarrow to bring it back to the cabin, where I chopped it and stacked it in crosshatched towers in the woodshed. A few more logs like that, and the woodshed will be full. How cozy it will be in the middle of a snowy winter to build a fire in the fireplace. The smoke will get into my clothes as it already saturates the cabin furniture, and eventually I will no longer smell it, I assume.
I should remind Banks to bring me old newspapers to start the fire, because I don’t know how to start it without them, along with butane for the lighter. Come to think of it, I haven’t read a newspaper in a while. I wonder: will I be tempted to read the newspaper before I set it ablaze? There was a story I was following closely about the elections in the Philippines. Who won? Eh, I don’t care anymore. I’ll just roll the pages up and place them in a neat line under the grate. I’ll light them, wrap myself in a blanket and stare at the flames. Perhaps I’ll see visions of my ancestors in the logs as they evolve from fire to ember to ash.