I'm only going to say this once: This story 100% happened. It occurred during the absolute nadir of the 2009 recession. Myrtle and Jarl are real humans who breathe the same air as you and I. Sadly, this probably needs to be said.
After accepting a job in San Jose, California, I needed a place to stay. With time short before my arrival and no opportunity to visit in advance, I was working with one hand tied behind my back. Between my tenuous finances, the uncertainties of my new job and the sky-high prices of the California bay area, all signs pointed to Craigslist, the wild west of apartment rentals.
After a week of looking it seemed like I’d found a place – there was an older couple looking to rent out a room in their home. Everything seemed almost too good to be true. The house was in a nice part of San Jose (very near the Netflix and Apple headquarters, actually). The pictures looked nice and, most importantly, it was cheap – six hundred dollars a month, well below the going rate.
To be honest, it seemed too good to be true. I was worried that I was missing something critically wrong that would be discovered only after I’d moved in and it was too late. In this spirit, I did my best to find the problem. I asked for pictures and inquired about restrictions, personal habits, and anything else that might deter a normal, rational person. Everything checked out, so I sent in a deposit and said I’d meet them soon.
After three days of non-stop driving, I rolled up to the curb in front of the house. The neighborhood was nice, nicer than I’d imagined, even. So too was the house, an expansive ranch-style home on a corner lot. I’d spent most of the get-to-know-you conversation with the owners looking for red flags; as a result, I knew only a little bit about my hosts. Here’s what I did know: Myrtle and Jarl had been married thirty-eight years. They lived on the outskirts of San Jose with their two grown sons. Originally from Chicago, the pair had moved out to Silicon Valley just in time for Jarl to work in the tech boom of the 1970s and 80s. I pictured the parents as a couple of comfortably situated retirees. Retirees with a hot tub in the backyard.
I knock on the door for the first time. After a moment, a wild-eyed bearded man who looked like a beefier version of Ted Kaczynski (AKA The Unabomber) opened the door and stared at me wordlessly.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Noah.”
“Oh… Hi,” said the Unabomber. We stared at each other for a long moment.
“Are you… Are you Jarl?” I asked, pronouncing it ‘Yarl’.
The man paused, longer than I would expect for such a simple question. “Yes,” he replied finally.
“May I come in?”
“OK,” he said, placing a slight singsong sound on each letter. This, I would soon learn, is a Jarl trademark.
Inside, I was introduced to Myrtle, Jarl’s wife. Like her husband, Myrtle was also Polish-American. We found her sitting heavily in front of the television, which was tuned to an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Myrtle’s dominating feature was her size. She was three-fifty if she was an ounce and, for the entire duration of our relationship, I never saw her dressed in anything other than a formless moo-moo.
We settle in for an introductory chat. My hosts maintain an air of normalcy for about an hour, until I ask where the nearest grocery store is. “Hold on for a second,” Jarl said, rushing off to what I assume was the bathroom. While we waited, Myrtle told me where to go. The store was only a mile away; I had shopped, returned, unpacked my groceries and sat down again when Jarl came bustling in with a thick sheaf of papers that he set down in front of me. “I thought you could use these," he explained solemnly. “It’s a map to the grocery store.”
I looked at the documents. Jarl had printed out SEVEN maps to the store using progressively higher magnification; the first showed almost the entire state of California. To this, he’d added a hand-drawn map displaying an alternate route. Although this was odd in and of itself, how he’d managed to spend AT LEAST two hours on this activity was the real question.
The next morning, I stumbled out of bed and plopped onto the couch with some cereal. Myrtle was out somewhere and the couple’s sons – who I had yet to meet – were at work. I was watching tennis when Jarl came out of the bedroom with another thick sheaf of papers.
“Noah, here’s a chart of the electric company’s on-peak charge hours,” Jarl said, placing yet another hand-drawn schematic in front of me. “And here’s a diagram of our energy usage last month and for the last year,” he said, placing a second and third sheet on the coffee table.
“Why are you showing me this?” I asked bluntly.
Like an autistic kindergartner in the process of self-soothing, Jarl plowed on as though he didn’t hear me.
“Do you want to reduce power usage during the day?” I tried again.
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Jarl, with an odd, inappropriate glee (this was another of Jarl’s signature traits). “Take a look at the difference in the bill between one year and three years ago.” Jarl launched into an analysis of the poser usage of the various appliances in the house. I indulged him, all the while having no clue why he was providing me with this information. My best guess was that he was trying to tell me not to waste energy in a very passive-aggressive manner.
Gradually, it dawned on me that the house had solar panels added at some point, and Jarl was explaining the difference in electrical consumption pre and post. However, the dude had forgotten to communicate this at any point in our twenty-minute conversation, although he'd mentioned that the family was saving eight cents per shower in utility costs three times in this period. At roughly the same time, it dawned on me that Jarl was probably the reason the rent was so cheap. Something was seriously wrong with the man. My primary suspicions went to early-onset Alzheimer’s, then schizophrenia, then extreme loneliness and boredom.
Then, as suddenly as he’d began, Jarl stood up as though he’d heard an inaudible whistle, walked into his bedroom and laid down on the bed (with the door open) to take a nap. Or possibly continue an existing nap – it’s entirely possible that he had risen solely to tell me about their electricity situation because it just couldn’t wait.
Today I saw Jarl naked. It wasn’t my fault. It was nobody’s fault, really… except Jarl’s. He’d left the bedroom door wide open as he was changing for bed. Enter innocent little Noah, on his way to the kitchen for a midnight snack, add a flash of motion and bam – I’m traumatized. There’s a direct relationship between how fucked a living situation is and how long it takes to inadvertently see the people you’re living with naked. I’ve been here, what, 36 hours?
The plot thickens:
During the routine writing of my first rent check, I learn that Myrtle and Jarl are poor as shit. Both are out of work, Myrtle for about six months and Jarl for roughly fifteen years (no, that’s not a typo). Myrtle was still actively looking for work; I surmised Jarl had abandoned the quest long ago.
The couple's live-in offspring were faring only slightly better; both sons were out of school, but not out of the house. Both worked gig-to-gig as video game quality control. A person in this position tests new video games, often by playing them, to ensure any bugs are worked out before they are released for sale. This type of work did not pay well, Myrtle informed me. I nodded with genuine sympathy as I imagined being forced to play My Pretty Pony 3 all day, every day for eight bucks an hour. This sounded like hell itself. Anyway, as far as I could tell, neither son pays rent or contributes to household expenses.
It’s a weird kind of poverty – the family lives in a house that has to be worth at least three-quarters of a million dollars. When I broach this with Myrtle, I learn that the house is actually their largest financial problem: through home equity loans and ambitious home improvement projects, the family has transformed the $60,000 track house they purchased in 1970 into an ongoing $3,000-a-month mortgage payment. When Myrtle lost her job a few months ago, the family began to fall behind on their bills almost immediately.
I asked Myrtle if she has ever considered selling the $800,000 house they cannot afford. Myrtle squints at me as though I am insane for suggesting this and informs me that she will murder the first banker that tried to repossess her dream house. I glance at Jarl, who is staring blankly into space, and begin to wonder if they actually have guns on the premises.
Myrtle’s extreme candidness is proving immensely helpful in the study of Jarl’s madness. She has built up many theories on the topic over thirty years of marriage, and she seems thrilled at the prospect of fresh ears to share them with. Their marriage is a love story turned tragedy, played out over many decades. As newlyweds, the couple’s arrival in California coincided perfectly with the tech boom that established Silicon Valley as an economic powerhouse. Opportunities abounded; with only a high school degree, Jarl found himself making the 1980s equivalent of six figures working for companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Money and some degree of technical proficiency were effective crutches for Jarl’s assortment of burgeoning personality problems. But stagflation and the eighties brought heartache; Jarl imploded as newer, better-educated workers drove him out of the tech giants and into a series of increasingly menial jobs. The last time Jarl worked was 1992. Now he spends most of his time sleeping during the day or sitting at the kitchen table, making daily lists of what’s on sale at the local grocery store. If you even mention needing groceries, Jarl will whip out his list – which he stores in his back pocket at all times – and launch into a protracted reading of what’s on sale.
I suspect that, as his breadwinner status faded, Jarl’s personality twisted into its current form, detached almost totally from reality. For example, for a man who hasn’t earned a dime in almost twenty years, Jarl is always eager to spend money; he and Myrtle frequently argue about the massive quantities of groceries he buys during his near-daily trips to the supermarket. Unsurprisingly, Jarl is also a packrat: the entire two-car garage is filled from floor to ceiling with boxes of Jarl’s “papers.” And then there’s the drinking, which Myrtle is hinting is a problem.
Myrtle tells these stories in a matter-of-fact way, holding nothing back. For her part, she seems incapable (or at least disinclined) to hold back from voicing an opinion, even on a personal matter with a stranger. This includes everything from Jarl’s various medical maladies to his failings as a human being, and – most recently – the reasons she is opposed to divorcing him. On more than one occasion, Myrtle would murmur, “We just weren’t brought up to divorce,” to a question no one had asked. “No divorce. No. Matter. What.”
In the spirit of maintaining objectivity, I suspect Myrtle has some less obvious reasons for sticking with Jarl. One of them is convenience: Where Jarl is merely obese, Myrtle seems to have difficulty standing for more than a few moments. Jarl frequently functions as a waiter, ferrying food from their larder to Myrtle’s present location. More on this later.
Guilt may also be stopping her from leaving. It’s an easy leap to imagine her constant-but-accurate criticisms may have hastened Jarl’s unraveling. I hope to get to the bottom of this at some point.
Oh Christ. I’ve now seen Myrtle naked too. Similar circumstances to the nude Jarl sighting, and equally traumatic. I don’t want to talk about it.
Myrtle and Jarl have a third son, Jason. In fact, it seems I’m living in his old room. Myrtle told me Jason had recently been kicked out for a litany of yet-unspecified problems. Considering the family harbors two grown sons who still appear to be suckling heavily from the parental teat, this is saying something.
Jason is a slightly-wilder-looking, less-plump, younger version of Jarl. I’d actually bumped into Jason my first night there (although – and I’m sorry but this is true – I thought he was a homeless man at first), and he’d made a definite impression already. Jason had pedaled up on his bicycle, introduced himself, and asked me to let his father know he was there. I complied, then resumed ferrying things from my car. While I worked, Jason took the ensuing wait as an opportunity to relieve himself on the side of the house in broad daylight. At first, I attributed this to some sort of dominance behavior, perhaps some form of territory marking, but soon learned this was simply normal Jason behavior. Eventually, Jarl came out and conversed with Jason in hushed tones. Something changed hands and Jason pedaled away.
When I questioned this secretive interaction, Myrtle explained the deal.
“Jason’s not allowed in the house,” she said. “He comes by every day for his cigarettes. We give him one pack a day, otherwise he’d trade them for more drugs. He’s not dangerous,” she added, after seeing my facial expression.
This information nicely explains the bail bondsman keychain I found hanging in my closet.
This morning: First day of work. After a few days of the new home environment, I’m looking forward to a little break from the family. I get up early and am ready to leave around 7:30 AM. As I’m heading out the door, I run into Jarl, who is acting really twitchy. He has the same crazy eyes a kitten gets before it starts tearing your couch to pieces with its claws.
"Noah, the house cleaners are coming tomorrow," he said, voice audibly quivering with excitement. "They said Monday, but they didn't have enough people on Tuesday, so they'll be coming tomorrow." [Please note the complete absence of coherent timeline in this statement.]
The information was paralyzing. Why was he telling me this now, at the crack of dawn the day before they showed up? Why, for that matter, was this even on his mind? And why was he looking at me the same way Anthony Hopkins looks at Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs? In my mind, the Jarl icon jumped over the Jason icon on my threat-o-meter.
"Good to know," was all I could muster.
Jarl showed no sign of moving from his blocking position in the hallway. I squeezed past, trying to avoid rubbing against his ample belly. "Have a good day at work," Jarl crooned after me, as I flew the coop.
I was too busy trying to remember whether my room locked from the inside to ask why the family employs housekeepers when they can’t make a mortgage payment.
Day two of work. To guarantee avoiding Jarl, I tiptoed out the door this morning before 7 AM and ran smack dab into Jason on the porch.
“Hey,” he said, avoiding eye contact, “could you tell my mom and dad I’m outside and could use some breakfast?”
Jarl and Myrtle were unsurprised to learn that their eldest son was waiting on the porch to be fed, like a stray dog. This was my introduction to this routine. I walked out as the couple argued over whether or not Jason deserved bacon.
Myrtle and Jarl’s medical problems are both exacerbated by occasional bouts of summer heat in the San Jose Valley area. Today it was a dry 95 degrees, perhaps 80 degrees inside the house. Most homes in the area aren't air-conditioned, as these temperatures are something of an aberration. I was OK with a cool glass of ice water; Myrtle, trapped in her rolls of moist flesh, was dying, perpetually on the knife’s edge of a heat-induced panic attack. I witnessed her begging - BEGGING - for her husband to install the window-unit air-conditioner that cools their bedroom to a frosty 55F.
"Jarl, get me something cold to drink," Myrtle crooned.
Jarl lumbered into the kitchen. "Do you want water," he asked, "or juice?"
"Juice," announced Myrtle. She turned her gaze towards me. "Cranberry juice. Good for a urinary tract infection, right doctor?"
Jarl brought her a glass of cranberry-flavored high fructose corn syrup.
It’s the weekend. Jarl and Myrtle tell Jason he can’t sit by the front door all day. Jason pedals away on his bike. Later, I go for a run and find Jason loitering down the street, perhaps 200 yards from the house. He waves. I wave.
One of the live-in sons has a girlfriend move in with him. I asked the girl how long they’ve been dating. Two weeks, she replies.
Jarl and Myrtle are, as far as I can tell, OK with this.
The famous 25-cent fight.
As a preamble to this lowlight, let me say this: in my experience, people generally put forth a good front of politeness and civility at the beginning of romantic relationships. Over time, this façade gradually dissolves in favor of a person’s real personality. When sufficiently incompatible, most normal people simply break up before things really hit rock bottom. However, if you mix sufficiently diametric personalities, an unwillingness to divorce, and add a few decades for resentment to foment, some spectacularly ugly shit can happen. Which is to say that, when the real fireworks between Myrtle and Jarl flared, it wasn’t merely the flaws in their relationship that were on display, but rather the horrific depths of their twisted nightmare of their matrimony.
It began at lunch. We were sitting at the kitchen table. I was directly between Jarl and Myrtle, eating a surprisingly delicious turkey pot pie prepared from a bird they’d roasted the previous evening. Lured in by tasty free food, I fail to notice the brewing storm between the unhappy couple until the two were in full fight.
The topic was the couple's Ebay reselling business, which they'd been operating to earn a little extra dough. It hadn’t been going well, for reasons that were becoming apparent.
Earlier that day, they'd sold a board game for $8.50, including shipping. Myrtle's plan was to send the game media mail for about $2, netting a tidy $6 profit. Nothing to get too excited about, but certainly a positive result.
Jarl, however, had reservations regarding this plan. Media mail was too dangerous, he proclaimed; the package would be crushed beneath "pallets of books." Jarl wanted – nay, demanded – to ship it priority, which he instantly calculated to be $8.25. Thus, the crux of the argument was whether they should (a) ship media, risk the box being crushed, and make $6, or (b) ship it priority and lose their entire profit.
If you’re bored reading the play by play of this, rest assured you’re not alone. The stakes hinging on this decision are so low that I found it difficult to type them out here without drowsing off. With such a trivial choice, the normal response is (a) whatever, it's only a board game, or (b) whatever, it's only $6. In other words, the odds of finding two people willing to fight over this were astronomical.
These were not normal people, however. Myrtle was like a raccoon that had latched on to something shiny; she wouldn't budge from the idea of pocketing those six dollars. She bemoaned how priority would basically be making them give the game away for free. It apparently fell to Jarl to be the adult, or at least to knuckle under and be apathetic. But Jarl is not a normal guy. He’s a man who roams the hallways before dawn and takes energy output readings from the house’s solar panels four times a day for no apparent reason. Like the honey badger, Jarl does whatever the fuck he wants. And he can be stubborn: the previous evening, Jarl defended his belief that Alexander the Great was French, even after definitive proof to the contrary was located. He’s also resisted his wife’s naggings for him to get a job for well over a decade, so he sure as shit wasn't going to abandon his position over something as trivial as an all-out screaming match with his wife of 38-years in front of a near-total stranger. Jarl dug in like a recalcitrant mule, and trench warfare commenced.
Which brings us to the present scene: me, shoveling pot pie into my mouth as two rotund adults on either side screamed it out. As the two grew more apoplectic, I got the impression that this was merely a flare-up in an argument had been going all morning. I wondered how long the battle had raged. Two hours? Three? What were the per-hour earnings, even if the media mail strategy were to prevail? What was the cost per histrionic here?
This conflict had a surprise winner. While I’d initially picked Myrtle for her tenacity, it was Jarl's steadfast remonstrations of the US Postal Service that finally wore her down to the point of capitulation. I won't go through the argument blow-by-blow, but I will give you the climactic final line. Myrtle, accepting defeat, takes a final dig at her hubby. In a voice I found highly reminiscent of the mafia mother from the The Goonies, she shrilly pronounced, "I hope you’re happy, Jarl - we only made 25 CENTS!!!"
Ah, this line... I can't do it justice with the written word.
Then Myrtle storms off to eat the better part of an Entemann's danish and Jarl got drunk on red wine. I had seconds of the pot pie.
Next Time: A meat grinder breaks, a fistula emerges, and Jarl uses peach pits in his beauty regimen.
Read Part Two
Where The Cats Pee
A multi-part story covering my time as a houseguest of the least stable family in America.