THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


David in the Forest

by Miles Guggenheim

Illustration by Eve O'Shea

published September 15, 2018


I used to have eggs and toast for breakfast. That was great because I’d go to bed each night thinking about what I could do differently with eggs. There were variables back then. Now it’s just Cheerios, and the only thing I can really manage in terms of Cheerios is the level of sogginess. So much is changing. Even my coffee. The coffee machine has this new function now where the grinder goes off as my alarm clock each morning, and it just scares the hell out of me. I have this recurring dream where I’m on the Titanic sitting in my soft-lit, second-class room, and then boom we hit the iceberg and that’s the coffee starting. It sounds bad but I feel like having it this way might be necessary; otherwise, the weight of my day just sorta straps me under the covers and I lay there hitting the snooze like a morphine drip. Somehow, this year, mornings got really tough, and I think it’s because of Nick. I miss him.

 

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He wasn't getting out, or, I wasn't taking him out and you know the way Dachshunds are, with their fragile backs. So I cut his meals down. I even had him eating this expensive Salmon mix called Atlantic Grounds. I don't know how he got so heavy, he just did. His body became like this depressed bridge.

The day I saw his penis dragging across the carpet, well, I talked to a few families. I found this mom, Cindy. Cindy drove a minivan with automatic doors. She smelled like wheatgrass and took me out to coffee. She charmed me. She assured me dogs like this are easy to handle.

Feeling pain is like any sport, Dad used to say. He said the same thing about socializing, eating, and drinking alcohol. In fourth grade when I threw up on the basketball court, he asked me in the bathroom who my hero was. I think he wanted me to say it was him, but I said Joan of Arc, and drumming his fingers on the stall door, he told me that Joan of Arc used to feel just as nervous before uh– and I said, a battle? And he said, Yeah a battle. Back then, I found that connection between sports and pain comforting. You knew, whatever hurt, the rules to overcome it would always be the same.

Now I’m twenty-seven, and I'm not sure if he’s right. I don’t think Joan of Arc experienced the feeling of loss the way I do now. In her time people died often. They lost everything. Villages were burned and family members were carried off. I don’t think people even named their dogs back then. Back then, they probably addressed dogs like, “hey!” and if one got overweight they’d feast on the abundance.

My first dog, the family dog, was named Scoop. Scoop had a seizure and went blind around the time our house was renovated. Every night, when the family had dinner, we would hear him bumping softly against the furniture as he tried his best to follow the chimes of colliding silverware.

Nobody enjoyed their last two years with Scoop. Grandmammie considered killing Scoop a service. Not asking for her son’s permission was part of the service, and so was burying him in an unmarked grave. When I was fifteen, I eventually asked her how she did it. What dog, she said.

Grandammie came to America after surviving some bad happenings in Belorussia. When I was in third grade she visited my school for Veterans Day and delivered a speech on the importance of family ritual. Shouting in broken English, she told us that all fascists smelled like gasoline. She said language was the rule book to a game of conquest. After the speech came her last years. We were never close, but towards the end she would sometimes wink at me across the kitchen table. I think it was her way of reaching out. I could never really give anything substantial back to her, but sometimes we would just make eye contact and smile together across the food. The day they finished the Etherdome, she died watching PBS with a pot of coffee brewing in the kitchen.

It took me a while to get that there wasn't a real dome, that the name was just a metaphor that inspired a feeling of protection. The first few days with the immortality field sure were great. Boxing without gloves in the parking lot after work was awesome. The ramped-up violence in football got everyone’s attention. That was all fine.

But—and this is an unpopular thing to say—everything since those slingshots has been over the top. To be honest, I forget who made them, or even when they started getting distributed. I just remember that first feeling of getting my jaw cracked on the train home for Thanksgiving. Long time no see! shouted Halley. She had shot from the other end of the train car. I guess she was headed North to see her family too. For a moment she kept her distance as if she was expecting me to return fire. I maintained the space for a few seconds to let my anger settle. Through and through, it wasn’t a bad encounter. I breathed and walked over. We sat together the last thirty minutes of the ride and talked about the roller rink they were tearing down in Nyack.

That night, my younger brother Peter showed up to dinner with a slingshot and new girlfriend. Dad asked, was it for attention? Dad asked, was it for Fun? Peter took a piece of sea glass from his pocket. He and his girlfriend had found it walking along the river together. He shot her with it from close range and they ran upstairs without clearing the table.

I washed Peter’s plate with the water jet set very high. Mom, Dad, and I sat around the fire.  Dad said when he was a kid the whole neighborhood would get together and play capture the flag with a pair of socks. Mom said things were better now. She said that when she was a kid, she and her brothers would light mice on fire. That was the first night she forgot to run the dishwasher.

With the crossbows things got more complicated because it just became harder to tell where the shooting was coming from. I stopped going to the park on my lunch break. Some of the more lawless marksmen would aim at your coffee cups. The Etherdome had a hard time reconfiguring plastics and paper.

The harpoon guns were more annoying because of the steel cables which restructured movement in the city. In the office I worked at, every cubicle had six lines of cable shot through it; every bathroom looked like a spider war. All through the working day, people tripped over their shots and did gymnastics to get from one place to the other. For a week, we didn’t know where our IT guy was until maintenance found him curled up in the corner of the trash room listening to the vibration of a single chord.

Primitive guns hit the free market soon after. Every night across the city, small bursts of light asserted themselves in the dark. We saw them from up high in our skyscrapers. Each was the flash of a muzzle, the final, ferocious breath of a dying star.

What puzzled me every night was the lack of barking dogs. Despite the noise outside, the silence within my close-quartered building was always pristine. Often, I feared for Nick who annually lost his mind on the Fourth of July. But somehow the dogs in the city had remained calm. I hoped Nick was among them. I hoped he had adapted to what I couldn’t.

Of course, when they introduced horse-drawn cannons, even Mom wanted one. I said it was a bad idea, but Dad capitulated and she unwrapped a falconet for Christmas. Bundled up, we trudged out into the yard to watch her try it out. She couldn’t make it through the instruction manual—she just read the first sentence of the section for French speakers ten times: “l’interface de chargement…l'interface de chargement…” until Dad inhaled sharply through his nose, and I took him inside to cry on my shoulder. I remember looking down at the snow we’d tracked onto the rug, hearing Peter loading and firing outside, the aspen trees snapping in half, and Mom screaming, happy.

The day we moved her into memory care she asked me if she could borrow my flintlock rifle. I told her I still didn't own anything like that, and as we walked through the garden toward my car, she reminded me to feed Nick. I told her Nick was fine. I called Cindy later on the highway and found out he had a new home about four hours outside the city. When I got back to my apartment I tried breaking a mug on the counter to see if I’d cry.

That next Christmas, Dad played the oral history he made for Mom, and Peter’s new girlfriend sobbed through most of it. It was tough. At some points, I had to turn away or look down at the hospital floor. In the end, Mom was more interested in the AR-15 Dad got her. Peter offered to give weekly marksmanship lessons. That was sweet. I got a postcard from Nick, or from the expensive dog resort they’d sent him too. It said Happy Holidays from Dog Forest in cursive print above a generic snapshot of a Shorthaired Dachshund bounding up a hill.

We didn't even need surface-to-air missiles. We didn’t. They were terrible for the infrastructure and the air quality and the hummingbirds that nested in the park. Above the simple incovneincincies they polluted the night sky, which had a lot of people in the suburbs complaining.

And then came the awful prank. That put the hummingbirds into perspective. You see, it was only shut off for a minute, the Etherdome. Like really just a minute. No one knows how or why it happened. My friends think foreigners did it through a wire. Dad has a theory about it being one of the subordinate physicists. In any case, I’m just glad my family was at home and out of the city when it happened. It was awful dragging person after person toward the ambulances. Some of the paramedics had never seen blood before but, in the end, many people rose to the occasion. The news said the individual heroism kept the toll under ten thousand.

The good thing was, whatever happened, we saved the economy. Dad made a point of driving into the city and wheeling Mom through the mall with Peter and me. The president thanked us all a few days later. I guess a few paramedics remembered my name from that day, because I got a medal of valor shipped to me in the mail, which was nice.

The medal is a good thing to have. Sometimes I catch Jeb, my roommate, staring at it when I come home. Jeb says he knows a guy who also has a medal and the guy gets dates with it: no bullets no arrows, no cupid’s bow, he just sits down at a coffee shop with it pinned to his hoodie and girls sit down.

Was it traumatic, they finally ask?

Yes, Jeb says he says. And they go home together.

Sometimes at night, I think about taking my medal out of the case and wearing it to a skating rink. Someone cute might slip on the ice and I could glide over and help them up. Then they would see it. But I don’t know why I have that fantasy. I’m not an elegant skater.

 

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One day, I think it was a long weekend, I decided to drive out to Dog Forest. There is always something nice about seeing uncomplicated stretches of land roll by. I don't particularly like country music, but it came on the radio and I let it play most of the way. A few rockets flew over the car on their way to the city, but they were easy enough to ignore. I kept my speed 60 mph because of stories I’d heard of people still dying in car crashes out  in rural parts of the States.

Dog Forest looked a lot better on the postcard. The front office reminded me of the little league snack stand I used to get curly fries from as a kid. Electric cattle wire ran far out from either side of the building, through a misty thicket, and beyond. There were no dogs, just the smell and sound of pine needles. Inside there were ten printers. They hummed and shook, and the desks beneath them creaked. A man with tight gray t-shirt and no shoes was replacing the ink.

 

I’m here for Nick, I said.

Visiting? he replied. You’d be our first visitor.

Yeah, I said, is he here?

We weren't expecting anyone, said the man. A German Shepard with a rabbit between its teeth slid out onto the printing tray.

Is he getting in shape? I asked. Is he eating well?

Sure, said the man.

Can I see him?

Sure, he said.  He handed me a shotgun and a dog whistle. We walked outside, where it was suddenly humid.

If they give you trouble, don't hesitate.

You mean shooting them, I said.

Yes.

Really, I said. Are they feral?

They could be, he said.

Jeez.

Yeah.

Well are they cooperative, you know, like are they living some sort of romantic ideal?

What do you mean?

Uncivilized, but I guess free and sorta pure for that reason.

You mean, like, are these dogs cultured?

Uh, well.

Hippies?

No, no, definitely not that.

The man handed me six rounds of buckshot.

You’re hesitant, he said.

Yes, I said.

A big howl rose up out from the tree line, and it thundered on for a while as more and more dogs joined in. I had to fire the shotgun into the sky.

Nice, said the man, good to assert your confidence like that.

He handed me a big knife.

Is that necessary, I said.

Yes, he said.

It’s kinda heavy, I said

It’s not heavy it’s just unfamiliar, he replied.

I don't need this, I said.

You do. You only have five shots left.

 

MILES GUGGENHEIM