My job is dangerous. A roof could come down on my head. Thieves could sneak in for copper wiring and usable appliances and attack me. I could turn around and see a man holding an ax. I might wake up at age forty-five and still be doing this job, then slip on a banana peel.
Thankfully, only one of these things has happened to me. I was walking down a hallway, recording what was left of it into my dictaphone, “carpet runner, two feet by seven feet, hunting cap, hunting jacket with fur-line…” when I sensed someone behind me, turned around, and saw a man holding an ax.
All of my life, I’ve been planning on what I’d do when I turned around and saw a man holding an ax. But like most things, nothing went as planned. I didn’t calmly and poetically reach out to him on a human level and convince him not to kill me. I made a jerky adrenaline-driven move while standing in place and inhaled so sharply I snorted. The man holding the ax just stood there in his coveralls, his legs several feet apart, moving the ax up and down a little so the wood handle slapped gently into his palm. I had one thought, and it was “This is it. This is how I’m going to die.”
I realized I wasn’t going to die when the man with the ax said his name was Phil, swung the business end of it to the ground, and said, “Welcome to my home. Scared ya’, didn’t I?”
Before we met, which is to say, before he snuck up behind me with an ax, Phil had scared me a lot. I’d begun my inventory in his office, where he had an entire bookshelf dedicated to the Third Reich. And fine, Nazi history is interesting. It is important. But when you’re a woman alone in someone’s dark, unlocked home, 2.4 miles from the nearest strip mall, and you’re not sure where you left your car keys, it gets a little chilling to have just inventoried 30 books about Nazi leaders and SS mobile killing squads and then find three dozen more on conspiracy theories, well-armed citizenry, The Sons of Liberty, and how to be a master gun-maker. It only would’ve taken finding a biography of Timothy McVeigh to have me officially walking out on the job. But the next book I found was Pit Bulls For Dummies. So I stayed.
Phil lived in a remote part of Idaho alongside a rural road, and I suspected he was part of a militia, or wanted to be. I cannot claim to know much about militia groups, but like many uninformed people, I have my ideas. Militiamen wear fatigues with little neo-Nazi touches. They are disillusioned by their lack of power, their inability to become war heroes or police chiefs; or they’re men who are just delusional. They’re anti-government, stockpilers of weapons, fomenters of violence. They meet in the woods to do skirmish exercises and break for a quick game of Smear the Queer. They take the law into their own hands, and sometimes, some of them go crazy and blow stuff up or go hide out in the hills with some cans of soup, a stove and a semi-automatic weapon. But there’s also a part of me that just wants to believe militiamen are good avid outdoorsmen who are disillusioned about life in general and are in search of a greater calling than a management position at Walmart and a wife and kid. This is the part of me that didn’t ask Phil to leave.
I let him follow me around while I inventoried the rooms of his home the fire had not gutted. I wanted to understand him, even like him. Or, maybe I was being so conciliatory because he had an ax and a bunch of dumb jokes that took the edge off the ax.
The first thing Phil did after trying to scare me was ask if I’d met his neighbors, “the Mor_mans_. Get it? The more mans!” I told him that, yes, I was familiar with the Mormons. Then he made a motion for me to follow him and tromped off down his hallway toward his bedroom, stepping over tufts of insulation, dragging his ax.
I’ve had male clients assist me in opening waterlogged drawers and cupboards, but Phil didn’t assist. He stood silently behind me, watching my body torque and twist, struggling to yank his top dresser drawer free. Part of me thought he considered it sexist to not let a woman try, and part of me accused him of drawing some kind of perverse pleasure from watching me try, but I didn’t even know what to call it, maybe Watching Girls Pull And Tug And Sweat Just To Get My Underwear?
After a minute-long effort, I sighed, and Phil knew to step in. He tapped me on the shoulder, made a motion for me to step aside, swung the ax above his head and held it there for a moment before crashing it down on top of his dresser. All the drawers stayed shut, and the ax stayed still; it was stuck. Phil climbed on top of his dresser, squatted and wrenched the ax this way and that way, grunting as if no one else was there. Finally, it came free and he and the ax went sailing back into his wall, causing roughly three pounds of Sheetrock to cascade on top of him. Unembarrassed, Phil stood up, shook his head like he was auditioning for a cartoon, strode over to his dresser and feverishly whacked at it with no apparent plan.
This same sort of scenario played out in every room. In all my disaster insurance investigations, I’d never seen anything like it. Usually men are less coveting of their former belongings. They are apt to show you what they owned, then toss the item over their shoulder, whereas women clutch the thing to their chests. But Phil didn’t clutch or throw, he demolished. He didn’t seem angry or sorry his things were burned or smoked or melted, only eager to see what happened when they were struck with an ax. He whacked at an antique sewing machine in his laundry room for no reason, he chopped a sliver into his deck railing and he apparently wanted to know what it sounded like to drive an ax into a metal filing cabinet.
While it’s very hard to do your job when things all around you are constantly being hacked at with an ax, the prospect of telling Phil that it wasn’t necessary for him to chop the two remaining charred legs off his kitchen table—that I actually needed the legs intact so I could measure the table height—seemed like a bad idea. Phil not only had a weapon, he was perhaps dealing with loss in a way I wasn’t accustomed to—harnessing the freedom to really smash shit up. So I kept mum, except for the occasional, “Let me get out of your way,” or “Before you destroy that, let me measure it.”
On the morning of our second and final day, I drove up to find Phil waiting for me in his driveway, sitting on a folding lawn chair. Two bottles of spring water and two steaming Styrofoam cups of coffee clustered around his feet. I would have appreciated the thoughtful gesture if he’d been thoughtful enough to be wearing more than boxers and striped tube socks. A whole new kind of fear welled in me, so I attempted to bring things back to normal, me-and-Phil-normal, and said, “Morning! Where’s your ax?”
Ignoring my question, Phil popped out of his chair, dug into a nearby plastic bag, pulled out his coveralls and slipped into them casually while telling me he’d surmised I was a coffee black kinda gal. I told him he was correct, and as he wobbled on one leg while attempting to squash his socked foot into a rubber Wellington boot, he asked if I’d heard the joke about the Mormon and the Jew? Did I know how many Mormons you should take with you fishing?
This was definitely some kind of weird perversion, probably Watching Girls Watch Me Get Dressed While Forcing Them To Laugh At My Predictably Simplistic Jokes That Lack Any Complex Sense Of Irony. I just wanted it all to be over soon, which didn’t seem like an impossible wish since Phil and I only had one thing left to inventory, his Tuff Shed. I followed him around the side of his house to his backyard, wondering what was so important that he kept it locked in a shed. A stockpile of guns? Preparations for the End Of Time battle? A 10,000-page misspelled manifesto? Phil undid the lock that held a loop of chain through the shed’s door handles, then the combination lock that held the handles together and opened the doors to reveal rows of neatly stacked shoeboxes. Not a good barricade for the coming apocalypse, but then again, maybe they were filled with ammo.
Phil brought me one of the boxes, flipped its lid and watched my face. Nestled between sheets of tissue paper were collectible Avon perfume bottles, lonely old lady things. He proudly explained he’d been collecting them for three decades, announced that it was time to “T.C.B.,” then walked all the boxes out to me and sat down two feet away on another one of his folding lawn chairs so he could watch.
I knelt in his yard, practically at his feet, and described each bottle the best I could into my dictaphone, “Avon clear glass sea turtle perfume bottle, Avon perfume bottle shaped like woman… no, wait… like a cat wearing a skirt, Avon Smurf-blue house bottle… I mean it’s not a Smurf’s house, but the color is Smurf-blue. Ugh… it’s just a house.” Phil sat silently above me eating a peach, never correcting me, just listening to me fumble over my descriptions. This perverse pleasure was called Thinking About Something Completely Unforgivable While Some Girl’s Squatting At My Feet Touching My Perfume Bottles.
I needed to balance the power, to knock him off his high roost and pull him down to my level. So I asked him to open my water bottle, claiming the lid was too tight. He disappeared for a moment, then reappeared almost between my legs, lunging forward on a bent knee, shoving a knife into my face.
“Take a look at it,” he said.
“It’s a knife,” I said, then inhaled deeply. I suddenly realized that it wasn’t the inappropriateness of Phil’s aggression that was the scariest thing about him, but the degree to which he didn’t know or care that he was frightening me.
“No, it’s an antler-handled obsidian knife. Know what’s special about it?”
“It’s clear obsidian, never seen that before.” Then he jumped up, grabbed my water bottle and attempted to cut off the flip-top. I watched him take out his aggression on the bottle, bending his knees and grunting. I heard the knife scraping the plastic, then the bottle went flying into the bushes.
“You’re bleeding!” I told him.
“Yep. Sure am.” Several thick rivulets of blood ran down his forearm, and spouted off his elbow into the grass. Phil didn’t seem to be bothered by his blood, or the fact that I’d just lost whatever fear-based respect I’d had for him. He went headlong into the bushes looking for the water bottle I could’ve opened myself, thwacking the branches with his bloodied hand. It was my turn for a little perverse pleasure, and I wasn’t sure what to call it other than Girls Watching Guys In A lot Of Pain Trying To Play It Cool.