Art by Caroline Gaspich. Story by Claudia Fell Conger. 

Comfortably Numb

By Caroline Gaspich


By Claudia Fell Conger 

Z— lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He pays nearly a grand a month for one bedroom in the apartment, but he doesn’t bother to hang anything on the walls. He tells me he couldn’t bring his cats because of his roommate’s aggressive dog. I never see the thing, but I hear it at night. The dog barks as though it was obligatory.

The dogs of the city rarely seem to surpass ten pounds. That means it would take twenty city dogs to equal the reported weight loss of “Subway Guy,” Jared Fogle. I ask Z— why the city dogs are so small. He says he doesn’t know. He’s concentrating, opening a cardboard box of Easy Mac. Z— spends all of his free time hanging out on the eighth floor of the English department building. He shows me the official department fridge, complete with his own personal jar of peanut butter. He’s absolutely thrilled about the peanut butter.

The dog predates peanut butter and chardonnay. The dog appeared before agriculture. It was the time of the hunter-gatherer. Archeologists mark side-by-side human-and-dog remains as conclusive evidence of domestication. Grief breeds collective grief, which breeds genetic manipulation.

Domestication relies on relationships of mutuality. Gerbils are illegal in the state of California. In Florida, C— buys two young male gerbils in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The gerbil lady insists they meet in the parking lot. Her home is in a constant state of quarantine. She’s been a member of the American Gerbil Society for over a decade, she tells C—. There are no visitors allowed in the rodentry.
The gerbil lady drives a blue minivan. Her hair is tablecloth, fire-ant red. She opens the trunk of the minivan, smiling. She’s been raising gerbils since 94, since before C— was born, since before the ad campaign of Jared from Subway.

Do not equate gerbil with hamster. Do not anger the gerbil lady. The hamster is a solitary creature. A forest dweller, you can smell his piss a mile away. The gerbil is more social, perhaps more sensitive. You can barely smell his piss. Gerbils sleep together in moving heaps of body and fur.

Three years after the WalMart parking lot, C— arrives home at eight a.m. Only one gerbil moves in the tank. Little D— lies buried in timothy-grass, his grey head immobile. C— shifts through the bedding, finding his tiny body half gone. His brother nibbles a patch of grey in mouth. C— closes her eyes. She hasn’t touched meat in six years.

There are no visitors allowed in the rodentry. Appreciate the consistency. Hunter-gatherers first bred dogs on the basis of their behavior. These dogs were hunting technology. The brain of the dog is fifteen percent smaller than that of the wolf. Lighter brains in mammals denote gentleness.

Anarcho-primitivists see domestication as a precursor to the global shift toward totalitarianism. Those who harness the land must look next to the assimilation of others. Agriculturalists uproot the hunter. Man sees wild as an opportunity to tame.

Domestication is never finished. The dogs of New York grow smaller, more compact. The Victorian era prompted the elite’s fascination with dog breeds, and the appearance of middle-classes in the 19th century created new status boundaries. This is the persistence of human above nonhuman—the performance of respectability. The well-behaved dog performs middle-class identity.

It’s been two summers since I’ve seen P—. There are no trains in Florida. He wants to know why I didn’t tell him about the subway. You live in Massachusetts, you idiot, I say. P— says he’s already on the way to New York. He likes the drive. He says it’s like sleeping without guilt. He has dreams sometimes of the two of us slicing oranges, dressed in summer clothes again. And then he wakes up.

Harsh lines of biology compose the soft lines of inference. When they burn, they burn freely. Manipulating the natural world is like trying to grope a mirror after it spills onto the floor. Gentleness drives into the ground, disappearing and coming back as something greener, something different.

I ask Z— why the city dogs are so small, and he tells me he doesn’t know. They are small because they have to be. The morning prayers send the dog barking again. I say it doesn’t sound much like a small dog. Z— says he doesn’t know — he’s never seen it. He’s concentrating. This time he’s making a peanut butter sandwich. Archeologists discover the peanut butter and chardonnay in the fridge and call it conclusive evidence. Gerbils are still illegal in the state of California as C— leaves the WalMart parking lot with another one. The red-haired lady seems less translucent this time.

Today there are hundreds of breeds of dogs and P— is wearing the same jacket as always. He looks at my hands and asks what it’s like to sleep under all that humidity. My knuckles are gloveless and dry, almost bleeding. You live in Massachusetts, you idiot. If he could take off his hands he would give them to me. •

Claudia Fell Conger is in the last semester of her undergraduate career at the University of Florida, studying English, Spanish and linguistics. She is an assistant teacher of English as a second language, a writer and a vegan baker.