My landlord, Mr. Harvey, was a slumlord. He was somewhere in his 70s, had long bony fingers, hairy eyebrows, wore second-hand clothes, and ran a shabby ship.

“He’s bush league,” one of my neighbors told me shortly after I moved in. “I can’t stand that old fart.”

The inside of the apartments were not that bad. The one I lived in had new paint, carpet, and nice clean sinks. I’ve lived in worse. Still, the apartments could have used some aesthetic improvements. For instance, the garage doors were different shades of brown. They looked ridiculous and faced the street for the whole world to see. The first time I pulled up to the property I was like: oh, fuck no.

A simple fix one would say.

Not a roof job.

Just paint.

I didn’t care if the paint was neon pink or periwinkle. Just as long as the doors were the same color. And the same went for the paint on the trim around the windows. They were peeling and faded from the sun beating down on them for god knows how long. Probably hadn’t been painted in twenty years. Hell, the whole complex could have used a fresh coat of paint.

I saw one of those home you-can-fix-it-yourself shows once and the woman that was running the show said that paint was the cheapest way to make a big difference to your property. Be it an entire house or a room. Paint it a different color and poof: an instant new look. But he refused to take on this simple task.

One day I was hung over and feeling a bit punchy and I told him that the garage doors looked horrible and that since he had a couple of vacancies that he might want to paint them to make the place more attractive to potential tenants.

“Curb appeal,” I told him, like if I was a real estate agent. “You have a lot of competition out there, sir. You need to make this place pleasing to the eye. Looks like a checkerboard.”

He looked at me with his old blue eyes like if I was crazy. I sensed this and pushed my stance further to prove to him I was perfectly sane.

“Really,” I continued. “It’s a renter’s market. There’s choice up the ying-yang out there. Of course, this depends on how much cashish you’re willing to dish out. But still.”

“Well, that’s very observant of you, Mr. Romero, and I value your opinion. But right now there’s more pressing issues concerning these apartments. It’ll get done. I can assure you of that.”

I guess one of the more pressing issues was the parking lot that was hammered with large dents and potholes. There was one pothole that was no longer a pothole but a small crater. And when it rained the crater got larger and deeper. Over the six months I lived there I saw a handful of people trip over it. I once saw a woman do a face plant. She thrashed on the ground, kicking her legs wildly and flailing her purse. Poor thing. She never saw it coming.

“Oh, my god!” she yelled as I lifted her up. “What the hell just happened?”

I wanted to tell her that she ate tons of shit in a crater because the landlord was a cheap old man. He didn’t give a fuck about her safety or the aesthetics of his property so he could save some money to buy more stale clothes at the Salvation Army and gas up his decaying1972 Ford Squire. But I didn’t tell her that.

So I lied.

To her face.

“Oh, you just tripped up on this pothole.”

“Pothole?” she said looking down at the crater with befuddled eyes. “It’s a swimming

pool!”

Another pressing issue was that the complex was infested with ants. By nature the desert is infested with ants. That’s where they live. That’s where they steal, sting, and work. Big ants in a variety of colors. Black. Red. Purple. Yellow. For the most part they stay in the desert where they won’t be messed with by ratty-ass desert kids. I’ve seen these little bastards in action. Pouring soda or alcohol down the holes. Blowing them up with firecrackers. Blow torching the lot of them via lighters and hairspray.

But these ants were ballsy and seemed to be hopped up on coke. They created whole cities just outside our doors. They were relentless workers and what were once nice grounds dotted with bright desert flowers were turned inside out. Calls were made to Mr. Harvey and after a week or so we saw him creaking around with a giant plastic tank full of poison of some sort strapped to his back. Like the ants, he worked tirelessly covering every inch of the grounds. He penned us a letter and slipped them in our screen doors. Well, at least those of us who had screen doors.

Dear Tenants:

Thank you all for voicing your concerns regarding the ants. Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad! Those suckers really tore up the place, but I’m confident that my homemade brew will kill them all or at the very least will send them underground. Don’t worry the solution is not harmful to your pets or the native animals of the desert such as squirrels, crows, roadrunners, rabbits, and the occasional coyote. If you have any questions please feel free to contact my secretary and I’ll get back to you shortly. Thank you.

His secretary.

Right.

That’s what she was.

What he meant was his wife fresh from some hillbilly town in Georgia. It was hard understanding her. A yodeling mush-mouth. I called her once regarding my shoddy water heater and her responses were nothing but a warbling batch of muddy yeps and yeses. She was a mess with lazy blue eyes, stringy blond hair, toothpick lips, and dirty nails bitten to the quick. Her name was Sherry.

“Hi, Sherry. Nice to meet you.”

“Yep.”

Needless to say, Mr. Harvey’s ant-killing concoction did nothing to the ants but piss them off. They went underground for a couple of days, gathered themselves, and then came back with cold insect agenda and tore the place up to all hell. Ants were everywhere building hills and zipping around in frenzied patterns. It looked like the ground was moving. I felt like I was on acid. We called Mr. Harvey and he came back with the tank strapped to his back and went at it again.

My next door neighbor, who I affectionately called Bowling Balls because he bowled frequently, got the bright idea to strategically place little poison ant pods around the complex to stop the destructive force of thousands of pissed off ants. What an idiot, I thought. The pods did nothing. The ants crawled over them, around them, picked them up and moved them out of their way.

The longer I lived there the more I noticed what a terrible landlord Mr. Harvey was. His secretary sucked wienies and some of our requests and concerns went unanswered. The water got shut off numerous times. Once he didn’t pay his garbage bill (he hadn’t paid it in four months) and they hauled away the dumpster. Some of the tenants threatened to toss the trash on the roof.

Mr. Harvey also took forever to fix things. And when they did get fixed he hired some two-bit handyman who never did the job right. One of them was named Greg. Greg was some weathered drunk with small bat ears and elephant skin. He was also missing a pinky finger from trying to catch his nephew’s remote control airplane. He always showed up ripped and talked to himself while he worked. One time he was so drunk he fell asleep while fixing some broken sprinklers.

It was Greg who painted the garage doors two weeks before I moved out. I pulled up and saw him slinging paint and talking to himself. Mr. Harvey was pitching in wearing painter’s overalls and goggles peppered with paint. He looked ridiculous.

“Hey, Reno,” Mr. Harvey called me over. “Looks good, huh? Too bad you’re leaving us young man. I sold one of my houses. Gonna use some of the money to fix this place up. Get it all shiny and new. It’s a new beginning.”

I looked at Greg who was rolling the paint like a 3-year old.

“Well, good luck, Mr. Harvey. Wish I could be around to see it.”

I packed up and hauled boxes and furniture passed Bowling Ball’s front door, faded paint, and thousands of ants building and burrowing in the hard desert dirt. Two months later I happened to pass by the apartments and two of the garage doors still needed painting.

So much for new beginnings.

At the end of Via Crosia, at least a kilometer past the Macelleria, but before the vineyards, the street’s rose cobblestone is cracked with anthills. Surely these bugs are, right now even, communing under the town, perhaps under a single block, waiting to bore holes through the bathtubs of Barolo, Italy.  In one of these homes (we can only hope), someone will be washing for work—an Elena or Francesco, Valentina or Beppe—dreading the sight of silver tray, meat case, trade show badge, and tractor. By the time the ants reach the white-green tile, this person, whoever they are, will recall their breakfast if only with their throat: the buckwheat flour, egg, and water gelling inside them to spawn something entirely new.

At least a kilometer away—maybe even more—the temperature drops one degree over the grapevines and the wind brushes them into hair. The last of the colony, having just dined on a white truffle crumb, folds full and thorax-first into the anthill. Signaled from the front of the line, the last ant knows that at least a kilometer away, someone is afraid to bathe, can’t afford to fix the hole in their tile. This person, whoever they are, can not wash away breakfast’s hold, lest the ants, with the water, rise from the drain like palm fronds, slow in destroying the foundation, but surely building something—the spindle-laddered metaphysica of the flightless insect, perhaps. Yes: they rise, craving the mask of spiders, a banana tree sprouting in fast forward to bite cacti-like at the soft dough ends of Italian toes.

Breakfast will reassert itself with the fundamentals. Everything must evolve: the eggs, the hens that laid them, the naked stomach snapping back on its food, and fear. That too.

Viewed from an altitude of 37,000 feet, the Earth looks a lot different than our everyday experience.

The majestic Rockies are a bumpy patch of acne. Mighty rivers look like static, crooked lines. Teeming cities become their smoggy, Google Earth counterparts.

We build our lives in these places, we take vacations to them, we photograph them in order to precisely relive their beauty at a later time. We make clear distinctions between desolate, flat farmland and the beauty of California, where mountains meet the sea.

But from high above, the differences between these places are blurred.

***

The place where I work is made up of several buildings that surround a courtyard. There is a pond in the courtyard and a small, man-made waterfall. There are trees and grass. And there is a also network of sidewalks in this courtyard that shuffles us workers between buildings.

On one particular sidewalk, there is a place where ants cross from one plot of grass to another. I often stop to watch the ants speed down their narrow highway, wondering where they are going with such single-minded conviction. Sometimes traffic increases, and their roads widen. Sometimes I find them in the process of dismantling a dead wasp, breaking it into pieces and carrying it back to their hidden home.

Occasionally misfortune befalls the highway, and the ants are forced to clean up a group of their suddenly-dead brothers.

Imagine what an ant-produced television news segment might be like:

“Yet another giant footstep kills hundreds on I-280! Field reporter Buggy Buggerson interviews surviving worker ants tonight at 10!”

To ants, an average rainstorm is like Hurricane Katrina. Thousands wash away. Hundreds drown.

Every time a kid knocks down one of their carefully constructed hills, the ants lose their homes and are forced to rebuild.

Your average drainage ditch is the Grand Canyon.

But size isn’t the only difference between humans and ants. We’re also a bit smarter than them. Right?

I mean, we can calculate the orbits of planets and the relationship between speed and time, but we still go around killing each other for money. Or turf. We strap on diapers and shit ourselves during cross-country drives to murder rival astronaut girlfriends.

Is it a blessing or a curse that our minds, powerful as they may be, are so influenced by emotion?

To a biologist, emotions are governed by mappable, electrochemical processes. They can be altered chemically or physically. I can trigger a release of dopamine by drinking alcohol. Doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that influence (for better or worse) the brain’s delicate chemical balance.

If emotions are so easily influenced by mechanical processes, how should we define them? Are they really as special as we like to believe?

Admittedly, thinking of the world this way–from a purely mechanical point of view–is not very romantic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. Romance itself is an emotion, in fact, a filter through which we interpret the world.

And yet these are the brains we have. How would we interpret the world except through these emotionally-charged minds?

Just because we humans imagine the universe in a certain way, just because we like to impart meaning on inanimate objects and places, just because we look for patterns in events that might ultimately be random, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way or even the best way.

How do we know someone or something isn’t watching us like we watch ants, observing our human struggles with a sort of amused detachment and maybe a little pity…pity that our understanding of the world is so limited?

I wonder if we would better off knowing more or knowing less? If it turns out the universe is meaningless, if it really is nothing more than a soup of matter and energy brewing in spacetime, would you like to know exactly how it works? Or would you rather be oblivious, a worker trudging back and forth on the ant highway, day after day, blindly working toward a goal that will never become clear to you?

When you die, does it matter at all?

Does it matter even now?

For the moment I leave these questions to you. I’ll be chasing a little white ball around a plot of grass for the next few days.

-R