THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Then What Isn't?

by Miles Guggenheim

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published September 13, 2019


Thomas did not see the squirrel. He saw a wooden chair resting sideways on the ground. He saw a broken glass on the coffee table. He saw water dripping onto the floor.

Abby had her hair up in a vertical ponytail. She was holding a cardboard box.

“Is he in the box?” Thomas asked.

Abby shook her head.

“You look nervous,” she said.

Thomas was not nervous.

Thomas was a groundskeeper. He had scared a moose off with a frying pan and a wooden ladle. He had pepper-sprayed a black bear. If anything, Abby was scared. Abby was from Los Angeles. She taught theater to middle school children.

Thomas sat down at the kitchen table. Searching the apartment again made him yawn, and he turned away towards the window to hide it from her. Outside, flat sunlight bore down on the shoppers. They crawled up the most popular street in town. Their street. The street with the best retail shopping in the state of Wyoming.

Thomas scratched his nose. He could smell coffee brewing. In the two years since they moved here, Abby and Thomas had never had a rodent. They had confronted ants. They had mourned a dead sparrow. But they had never had to deal with rodents. Thomas turned from the window to look over the apartment again. He scanned the living room first, and then the kitchen. In truth, everything besides the bed and the bath was crammed into this central room. There was no need to distinguish them.

Abby lifted the box up to her face and cut one side open with a pair of scissors. She walked across the apartment and placed the box next to the bathroom door.

“Oh, the bathroom…” said Thomas.

“There you go,” said Abby.

“You trapped him?”

“I did.”

Abby walked over to the kitchen where Thomas was sitting. She took the table with both hands and dragged it over to the bathroom. The table groaned.

“Can I help you?” Thomas asked.

Abby turned the table on its side, so its legs pointed north toward the mountains. She put her hand on the edge of the table and stared at him.

“No,” she said.

Then she went for the coffee table. She took it, flipped it over, and placed it next to the kitchen table, so the two surfaces faced each other.

“Oh,” said Thomas.

He saw the plan. He liked it, but he figured it would probably take two people to accomplish. Someone needed to trap the squirrel at the end of the channel. Another person had to close the door behind it. He figured it was best to let Abby realize this on her own.

“You can sleep through anything,” a voice said from the bedroom.

“What?” said Thomas.

“You can sleep through anything,” said Abby, crossing through the kitchen again.  A line of red yarn followed her.  It didn't seem to move until the last end slid through the doorway. She tied the beginning of the yarn to the doorknob and took the rest in her left hand.

“I wear earplugs now,” said Thomas. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh right,” said Abby. “Those are new, huh?”

Thomas nodded. Abby let slack out on the yarn.

“Am I starting to snore?” she asked.

“No.”

“Talking in my sleep?”

“No. You’re fine, darling. You’re perfect.”

“Oh really? Then what isn’t?”

Thomas gestured to the open window. The whoosh of a car pressed down the road. A truck beeped. Thomas smiled. He raised an open palm as if presenting these disturbances like a roll of quarters. He hated town. He wanted to move up into the hills.

“Oh yeah, it’s like Manhattan out there,” said Abby.

She opened the bathroom door and walked around the tables. The yarn followed her. For a few seconds, they listened to the squirrel’s feet scrabble across the bathroom tiling. Then it appeared, looking out at them from the doorway, its jaw wobbling, obsidian eyes wide and unblinking.

“Wow,” said Abby, “it’s cute.”

She pulled the yarn. The door slammed shut, evicting the squirrel. It slid like a puck over the waxed floor, and hit the box with a thud.  Abby taped the box shut. She put her hands on her hips and walked behind Thomas toward the kitchen sink.

“What, are you going to murder it?” said Thomas.

He walked over to the box and poked five breathing holes into the top with a pen. Then he flipped the pen around.  He wrote, Squirrel, and turned to show Abby. He expected a laugh. Abby poured muesli into a bowl and turned off the coffee maker.

“Can I make you something good?” said Thomas.

“No,” she said, “I don’t have time.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, no. No time.”

“It’s Saturday. I bought tomatoes, and avocado, and bacon.”

“I know you did.”

Abby bit her spoon. Outside a motorcycle gang rolled down main street. Every Saturday they did three circuits through town before descending upon the Applebee’s.

“I hate them,” said Thomas.

“Hmmm…”

“You don’t?”

“I don’t hate anyone,” said Abby.

She took her hair tie out. Her hair was in her eyes again.

She stared at him, expecting more.

Thomas was done. Abby stood up, cleaned her bowl, and dumped the bottom of her coffee into the sink.

“I think you select the noises you want to hear,” she said. “You never complain about the frogs when we go camping. You’re like, ‘isn’t it peaceful here,’ and meanwhile there are frogs passionately fucking outside our tent.”

“They aren’t fucking. They are just asking to be fucked. It doesn't even compare to thirty motorcycles,” said Thomas.

“You’ve fallen asleep mid-conversation with me,” said Abby. “What’s going on there?”

Thomas groaned.

Abby walked back into their room to change. She was going to rehearsal.  A month ago she had been appointed the head director of the Jackson Hole Community Theater. It was a good thing. She was happy about it. But lately this happiness had built itself up into an oppressive confidence. There were times when Thomas felt that he was the flattest character Abby worked with each day. The questions she liked to ask him now were more self-affirming than curious.

“So you called Mark and he came over, right?

“Yes, you did yard work, in Wilson, with Jamie, yeah?”

Opening his phone, Thomas slowly went through his unread messages. He had not planned on working today, but the requests were always coming. Today, he had to check up on the Benchley house, but he also wanted something new.

He scrolled until he found an unknown contact: 307-093-8989.

307-093-8989 had a broken fountain.

307-093-8989 had introduced herself as Lucy. Lucy lived in Smith, not far from the Hoback Junction, where Thomas had grown up.

He was still hunched over the phone when Abby emerged from their room. She was dressed in a blazer and glasses. She reached for the box and tried to smile goodbye.

“Oh, I can do it,” said Thomas. “I’m driving out of town today.”

“Why?” said Abby.

“Well, I have work too.”

“No, why do you need to drive the squirrel out of town? I was just going to do it on the sidewalk.”

“Our sidewalk?” said Thomas.

“It’s a squirrel.”

“Yeah, woodland fauna.”

“Not this one,” she said.

She picked up the box headed for the door.

“I guess we will see him again tomorrow, then,” said Thomas

“Him?”

“Yes,” said Thomas.

“Really?”

“Definitely,” said Thomas.

“Alright.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Abby closed the door. Thomas listened to her feet hitting the stairs. Another yawn took over his face. He poured himself a bowl of cereal and carried it to the window. A block down the street, Abby knelt before an oak tree and cut the squirrel out of the box. It scampered up the tree, gripping the trunk in an awkward hug. For a while, Abby stood there watching it move from one branch to the other without gravity or reason. Then she waved goodbye to it, turning her back as she moved up the street towards the community theater.

Cue the hawk, Thomas thought.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Thomas was downshifting the pickup truck. He turned onto a paved road which wound up the edge of the valley into the woods. Modern houses, spliced by the cedars and the aspens, revealed themselves in fragments, blurring and breaking like action in a flip book. He turned into a driveway and followed it up a steep incline, where he reached the Benchleys' property, a glass box overlooking two acres of pasture.

In the summer, Thomas filled the pasture with horses. In the winter, he took the horses to a small barn where a man named Duncan watched and fed them with his cattle. For its beauty and sharp look, the Benchleys' house was poorly insulated. Every winter it needed an obscene amount of heat to keep the pipes from freezing. Now that the valley was a few days into spring, Thomas figured it was time to turn the heat off and save money.

Thomas entered 5643 to unlock the front door. Then he entered 2295 to disarm the security system. He walked through a narrow hallway which opened up into a spacious living room, kitchen, and dining area. Soft gray light streamed through the big glass windows. It fell on the deserted white furniture and marble countertops. A large rectangular window framed the forest. The forest framed a meadow which Thomas had cut into trees. A herd of elk stood in the meadow, surrounded by a circle of fences.

Thomas turned off the thermostat.

Returning to the truck, he noticed a text from Lucy. She said that she was ready for him, and it was okay if he wanted to bring film equipment into her yard. Thomas was excited.  It had been many years since he had made a “fix-it-yourself video.” Before there was a waitlist for his services, he had found work by posting tutorials online. At 1 AM, in the dark silence of his family home, he would edit on two computer monitors, hacking away at a picture of himself grinning beside a paralyzed weed whacker.

When he could bear it, Thomas chose not to use the bathroom in the houses he looked after. Thomas made it five miles towards Smith, before he had to pull over at a gas station.  A few other buildings stood beside it. Across the street, a group of construction workers sat together in the sunlight. Behind them the gray cylinder of a cement truck slowly turned as it set down the parking lot for a new supermarket. Thomas got out of his pickup truck and walked to the bathroom behind the gas station. Even after the steel door closed behind, he could hear the sound of jackhammers and nail guns.  From here the next great enclave of urbanite settlements would extend. Thirty minutes was the farthest they were willing to live from organic food. Like his Dad, Hank, Thomas resented the tides of development.  The sound of jet engines that filled the valley every May for the national parks and every January for the ski slopes.

“That’s not very Wyoming,” Hank's new favorite phrase.  He would point to a pastel fleece, or a can of flavored sparkling water and say, “That’s not very Wyoming.”

Last Christmas Hank had purchased three pairs of TruckNutz.

“These only work with a trailer hitch,” he said, passing one to Thomas and another to his older brother Mark. “i.e. you can only attach them to vehicles.

His family loved to sit down and talk about Thomas’ work. He had taught them the word “minimalist,” and now every time he worked at a house they wanted to know if it was minimal or not. After they’d had their laugh at the house, they would move to the owners, asking what type of shoes they wore and how they shook hands.  Five drinks later they would direct the fire at Thomas.

“Thomas, are you becoming minimal?”

“Are you and Abby going to buy a Prius?”

“That’s not very Wyoming,” Hank said when Abby had first come to meet the family. There was no food. No drinks. They just sat her down in the living room and listened to Mark grill her on the history of fur trapping.

The second she was alone with Thomas in the car Abby burst into tears. Over and over Thomas told her how endearing she was. How well she had handled the situation. How she had perfectly overcome it. How good she looked.

“If someone asks me a question here,” she had said, “I have to be able to answer it.”

The address was an old white farmhouse with a small covered porch that had no chairs or benches.  Many yards behind it the gray ruin of a barn sagged in a green field. Thomas grabbed his tool belt and his camera bag.

The top of Lucy’s head barely reached the median height of the doorway. She had short graying hair, glasses, and a red-tank-top. She was maybe 72. The smell of air freshener escaped through the open door.      

“I remember you.” she said.

“Hey,” said Thomas. “How are you?”

“You’re cute,” she said.

Thomas looked over Lucy’s head into the house. His eyes followed a long, maroon floral carpet. He had no recollection of the carpet, the home, or Lucy.

“Can I get you a glass of water?” she asked.

“No thank you,” said Thomas.

“So modest,” Lucy smiled.

They walked through her living room. The same painting of a snow-capped peak hung in two different places. There was one in the hallway and one in the living room. In the living room, three separate daguerreotypes of hunting dogs were arranged in a V formation over a mahogany table.

A black, circular table stood at the center of the yard, a lone chair docked beside it. On top of the table, an ashtray cradled a dying cigarette. At the edge of the property, a row of lavender bushes hugged a pale wooden fence. In one corner a marble angel held up a bird bath. In the other, a stone fountain stood over a patch of dry mud.

“There’s the fountain,” said Lucy.

“Okay,” said Thomas.

“If you film,” she said, “you should stand behind the lavender bushes.”

“I will,” said Thomas.

“They are the only damn thing I can take care of,” she said, walking back to the house.

The screen door slammed.

Before Thomas set the tripod down or adjusted the frame, he knelt to diagnose the fountain.  To his disappointment, the problem revealed itself immediately. A sycamore leaf hugged the filter, plugging the flow of water. Thomas pulled the leaf off. He put the pump in. He filled the fountain with a garden hose. It ran perfectly.

Thomas unplugged the fountain. Dumping the water out again, he pulled out the pump, and wrapped the leaf back around the filter. With the tripod set and the camera recording, Thomas returned to the base of the fountain.

“I thought I would do a quick video about fountains,” he spoke to the camera. “It’s a short video because this is an easy problem to fix. And you shouldn’t let repairmen or big garden stores get the better of you or any other fountain owners you know.”

Then he coughed. He looked away from the lens. He stood up and walked behind the camera. There was no need to review that take, he knew it was bad. Sometimes when Thomas tried to be matter-of-fact his voice slipped into a droll, attractive tone.  A long time ago Abby had told him something about acting. Not acting was its own way of acting, she had instructed– “don’t be so proud.”

Thomas couldn't remember where she had said it. By the time they had met, he had stopped making videos. She had seen them and laughed and complimented him, but she had never given notes. He had never let her direct him. He had never attended her classes, even when she said he could come for free.

He thought hard to remember it: “don’t be so proud...” And nothing came. Maybe she had said it in an argument. When Thomas argued, he had a habit of arresting his emotions. He became robotic. He even lowered his voice, as if speaking from the furthest, deepest end of a piano. He was working on it. He was still working on it. She was patient. He was working on it.

“Take two.”

Thomas pressed record. This time instead of walking, he sauntered into the frame. He loosened his arms and his shoulders. He let his hands float behind him.

Thomas felt like an idiot.

But then he felt good.

He was gesticulating now as he spoke. He was goofier, bolder. He smiled and the blood ran up into his cheeks. It was like there was a real person standing in front of him.