Where I used to live, there was no coast. Where I live now, there are seagulls and a ship-studded grayness called the Long Island Sound. In my neighborhood, there are crosswalks that don’t make sense, and a hospital supply store, and a Missing Kid poster that shows a dingy security-camera photo of a little boy with Asperger’s. He’s marching down the street with a briefcase. Where I live now, things happened in sixteen-something. Persecuted lawmakers hid in caves. They found safe haven. People say New Haven isn’t quite safe but It’s Better Than It Used To Be. French troops once camped in our park on their way to defend Yorktown. Buildings on my block have little plaques saying they are historically significant and any fool can see they are beautiful. One is salmon pink with blue trim and jewel-toned windows. Mostly they are brick, with archways and strange circular portals and hidden balconies. My own building has a Mansard roof and I never knew that word before but I love how they look anyway, like attic steeples, or dark square hats on the deep red bodies of our brownstones.

The Dogs of War

By Slade Ham

Humor

Character is what we are in times of crisis or when no one’s watching or some other strange set of criteria. For the last week I have been plagued by visitors in the night, sent to attack me and me alone, determined, I believe, to watch me in action and see how I respond. It feels like a psychology experiment gone bad, like the Milgram Experiment or that Stanford Prison thing. Maybe not that bad, but I still feel as if I’m being toyed with.

I lay in bed at night and I hear them coming. Whispers and clicks in the dark, the invaders peer through the inky black and wait for exhaustion to drag me into an uneasy sleep. They organize and plot and look for the perfect opening, and then they come for my socks.

These fucking squirrels.

But it’s not just the squirrels. The entire animal kingdom seems out to get me. Whether it’s rabid cats, mercenary mosquitoes, or obnoxious birds, I’m like the opposite of Dr. Doolittle.

I moved in late summer to a garage apartment, a perfect little spot for a constant traveler. It’s big by apartment standards and comfortable. There’s a place for my car and my motorcycle and all of my stuff fits exactly as it should. My bookshelf is full of the volumes I’ve collected in the last year punctuated by a thousand trinkets and memories from my travels. My desk sits on one side of the living room, my dual monitors surrounded by speakers. This is a place I can get stuff done. My bedroom faces south so the sunlight is constant. I opted not put up blackout curtains so that it would jar me out of bed and into productivity on most mornings. My brilliant plan to surface at eight or nine has been preempted though.

My apartment sits isolated from my neighbors in the middle of four intersecting backyards and one of those backyards is home to a rooster. A rooster, a rooster, a ROOSTER, inside the loop in Houston, Texas.

It’s more elusive than one would expect a rooster to be, too. It is borderline ninja and I know this because I’ve tried to kill it. I have a really hard time contemplating hurting an animal. I’ve never been hunting and I’m a total sucker for the animals of any sort. I could cause harm to a human much more easily than I ever could an animal, but it’s not a human standing in the backyard cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 5:00 am, seven days week.

The woman that owns that house is bat-shit crazy. She won’t answer her door for me or the police. For all I know she could be dead herself. The wooden fence around her yard is painted with bright red hearts and catchy little hippie phrases like Animals Are People Too! and One Planet, One Love. The sign on the door that I have beat on every morning for the last month reads I maintain this house for the comfort of my cats. If you can’t deal with that, you can’t deal with me. She places the welfare of these animals above my own, and for that I hate this woman. She is a hopeless PETA-head, and that is why I bought the slingshot.

I’ve collected a good number of small rocks (ball bearings would look too much like evidence) and from my bathroom window I can see into her backyard. The rooster prances up and down a particular path, hidden almost entirely behind the branches of a low-hanging tree. It knows it is safe, but that hasn’t stopped me from rifling pebble after pebble through the leaves in an attempt to hit him. He of course knows this, and waits until I have shut the window and given up. Then he runs up to the fence and lets out another mad cackle before darting back to the cover of the brush. THWOP, THWOP, THWOP. Three more rocks rip through the air and hit nothing. “Goddamn bird!” I yell. “I’m gonna shoot you in your little rooster face.”

I want to drag its carcass to the hippie’s doorstep and bang away until she’s forced to answer. “Looks like people can be animals, too!” I’ll say, with wild eyes and chicken blood running down my arms. What criminal mind houses a yard full of birds and a house full of cats with such disregard for others? Probably the kind of person that would raise an army of attack squirrels. I bet my invaders are the product of her animal friendly lifestyle as well. She probably hand fed them and took them in, and now that she has sixty-three cats they need a new place to hang out, hence the velvet rope and the bouncer outside the squirrel dance club that my attic has become.

And now I am not safe inside.

A few days ago I woke up to the morning crowing and stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Bleary-eyed and headachey, I poured my first cup. As I started to gain my focus I noticed a sock hanging out from under the counter. “Did something happen last night that I don’t remember?” I think to myself. “Why would I take my socks off in the kitchen? Did I try to put them in the cabinet? How drunk was I? This makes no sense.”

Pulling the sock out from the opening underneath the base board, I noticed that it had several holes in it. “Squirrels,” I growl. I’ve known they were here for a while. It’s an older place and there are plenty of openings that allow them into the attic. I hear them constantly but I’ve remained unconcerned. Once I knew that they weren’t mice or rats – the piles of nuts in the attic and the sight of actual squirrels hopping from the power lines onto my roof cinched that – I just resigned myself to being a winter refuge for the fuzzy little things.

But now they’re taunting me. They’re literally stealing my socks – as if my clothes dryer wasn’t already doing enough of that. They are strategic. To get my socks requires some investigation. While I will occasionally leave a pair lying in the living room (one of the perks of bachelorhood), they usually end up in my bedroom. None of my other clothes are touched, nor are the dish towels or the beanie I left laying on my desk or the bag of Cheetos Puffs on top of my microwave. They’re selective little creatures. I mean, it takes determination to say no to those Cheetos. Cheetos are delicious.

They seem content to only drag the socks as far as the holes under the cabinets too. They don’t take them all the way inside, but leave them hanging out just enough to let me know they were there. It’s a form of counting coup, I’m afraid, and this is why I feel I’m being experimented on. It’s as if they know that I am incapable of simply trapping them or killing them. They want to see how I’ll react.  They know that boredom will entice me to fight back. I have moved anything cloth-like to my bedroom now and I make sure the door is shut when I leave. Then I place one sock strategically in the middle of my dining room floor before I make my exit or turn in for the night. I have to know if they come, and come they do, but never when I can see them.

I sit on my couch and stare like a child waiting for Santa. Unable to stay awake, my eyes finally close, only briefly, and then snap open again to find the sock tucked neatly in its little cubbyhole under the sink. “How the hell did you do that?!?!” I yell. Somewhere a squirrel rolls around on the floor laughing and high-fiving his friends. I rip the sock out from the hole and throw it back on the floor. “I’m going to bed, you bastard!” I yell at nothing whatsoever. “Come get your stupid sock if you want it!” Then I wake up the next morning to find it sitting exactly where I left it. It’s no fun for them if I don’t care, it seems.

So I have to formulate a plan before I go out of town again. I have to get rid of them. I don’t know if I am up against one rogue animal or a hundred. In my mind, my walls and my attic are now one big Squirrel Kingdom. Buttons and thimbles and scores of socks line the halls of a Secret of NIMH world. Will taking one of these creatures out be enough? Should I trap one and leave it bound in the middle of my kitchen floor as a warning to other squirrels? Should I poison a sock? Buy an owl? I don’t know what to do exactly.

I know that the gauntlet has been thrown down though. They started this, this thing with the socks. “Cry Havoc,” I say, “and let slip the dogs of war!” And maybe that’s the answer – actual dogs. Or a fox. A fox would eat the squirrels and the rooster. I want to put on face paint and get a ghillie suit and hide with my slingshot. I want to set up a box and a stick with a string tied to one of my socks. I want a jet pack and some rocket skates and I want to paint a fake tunnel on my wall like Wile E. Coyote. I want to put the squirrels and the rooster and all their little friends in one big bag and toss it into the ocean – and then blow up the ocean.

I want to win.

Maybe I should focus on the flower child in the house behind me, maybe point my slingshot at her instead. Cut off the head and the monster dies, right? Maybe she’s like the Other Mother in Coraline. Who takes their animals that seriously? Seriously. These things are interrupting my lifestyle and her desire to protect them only makes me angrier. Now I want to cook steak with my windows open so she has to smell it. And I want a fur coat. And I want to beat a baby seal to death with an endangered penguin. Her “Save the animals” mission has clearly had the opposite effect on me.

But for now, I will continue to type, stopping every sentence or two to pause my music and glance into the kitchen and try to catch a glimpse of the cocky little rodent as it mocks me. Because right now I am clearly not winning. Right now I am losing.

And badly.

I can hear the squirrels flitting back and forth on the roof even now. I can hear the rooster too, cluck-cluck-clucking just feet outside of my apartment. I cut my eyes across the desk to the slingshot. “I could go outside and kill them all right this second,” I think.

And I would, too, if only I could find a pair of socks.

Scribble ass, scramble ass, punk ass squirrel,
You got me scowling the soggy into my cereal,
Breathing hot into ice cream, sucking-wind asthmatic.
Don’t you have a fine somewhere else to be?
Who the fuck declared open house in my attic?

Was it something I said? An “I love nature”
Comment you thought you’d make literal?
The nukes are coming and you’ve found the NORAD ark?
Huh?  Scribble ass, scramble ass, punk ass squirrel?

That’s Dave Brubeck you’re scratchy-dashing over;
You’ve got the beat all wrong, quit tripping the light damn-spastic!
You ain’t the be-bop the she-bop next jazz sensation
And who the fuck declared open house in my attic?