My journey to West Palm Beach, Fla. began with six hours aboard a passenger train riding out of Orlando. A sizable portion of the travel time was spent moving in reverse, much of the retrograde locomotion happening around a few miles of incredibly dry-looking, cow-dotted farmland outside of Jacksonville. When seen through my Amtrak car’s slightly yellowed windows, the whole place looked as though it could spontaneously combust with the slightest provocation. I was also reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s metatextual psychological horror novel “House of Leaves,” which includes sentences like this:

“My point being, what if my attacks are entirely unrelated, attributable in fact to something entirely else, perhaps for instance just warning shocks brought on by my own crumbling biology, tiny flakes of unknown chemical origin already burning holes through the fabric of my mind, dismantling memories, undoing even the strongest powers of imagination and reason?”

My point being that all of this had me feeling as though I would be disembarking into a sort of semi-tropical episode of “The Twilight Zone” as soon as the train rolled into the West Palm Beach station. I was a little nervous, I have to admit, because I wasn’t sure if I would be given Rod Serling’s part or William Shatner’s, or if I would be the lady sitting next to William Shatner on the plane, or if I might even be playing the Sasquatch-on-the-wing for some Floridian Shatner I would soon be meeting for the first time.

The train pulled into the station and I dragged myself out of my head just long enough to shuffle over to the parking lot. I could hear the Manhattan Transfer’s “Twilight Zone” playing out of a car stereo — my ride was waiting for me.

I climbed into the back of the bumblebee-colored Fiat 500L and was immediately assaulted by a barrage of excited snorts and a rather horrific chicken salad-tinged fart. My grandfather’s French bulldogs Lionel and Lulu were sitting in the front seat, wiggling and staring back at me expectantly. They would be my more or less constant companions for the next 16 and a half days, and they were clearly looking forward to the idea. My grandfather was sitting in the passenger seat and his longtime girlfriend Lara drove the car out of the lot.

The bulldogs are siblings. Lionel is all black, was born missing his right eye and has a head which seems slightly too big for his surprisingly muscular 25-pound frame. Lulu is fawn-colored, has an appropriately sized head for her equally muscular 23-pound frame and is the more restrained half of the duo. Lionel seems to have internalized my retired sportscaster grandfather’s love of sportsball, spending most of his days losing and getting a collection of tennis balls caught under various pieces of furniture. Lulu, on the other hand, has taken on her adoptive mother’s more relaxed demeanor, spending her leisure time lounging in sunny patches and occasionally joining her brother in a tug-of-war over fallen coconuts. Both dogs, I learned, have terrible gas and no regard whatsoever for where or when or into whose unaware face they unleash their odors.

Driving from the station to my grandfather’s house in the suburbs outside of West Palm Beach, Lulu stood in Lara’s lap and stuck her head out of the driver’s side window while Lionel sat respectfully in my grandfather’s lap on the passenger side. They asked how I felt about my upcoming study abroad program in Santiago, Chile and I described to them a short story I’m working on in which Mexican drug lord El Chapo’s otherwise pleasant meeting with the American actor Sean Penn is ruined by the fact that the sky is made out of the same silk fabric as his button-down shirt and his glass of Buchanan’s scotch whiskey is laughing at him. I didn’t want to seem too engaged with the world around me; I was planning on spending most of the trip interspersing lengthy pool-side naps with alternating bouts of frantic fiction-writing and equally frantic, thoroughly ruthless self-critique. Ideally, the occasions during which I would be expected to interface with reality would be kept to a minimum, leaving me free to stew in the self-effacing juices I had brought down from Michigan in my carry-on bag.

For a few days, at least, my plan almost worked. Lara (a successful New York divorce attorney) flew back to Manhattan to do some lawyering. Meanwhile, my grandfather was happy to do crosswords in the kitchen while I marinated in a thick broth of David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolaño and Saul Bellow out on the patio.

The dogs, on the other hand, had no respect for creative genius. Lionel took a particularly sadistic pleasure in distracting me from distractedly flipping through the footnotes at the back of “Infinite Jest” by nudging his tennis ball into the pool and barking at it until I came over to fish it out for him. Lulu would jump into my lap whenever she noticed I had been staring at the same page of “Herzog” for fifteen minutes, snorting into my face until she was thoroughly convinced that my writerly mojo had irretrievably dissipated. Both of them would somehow jam a coconut under the fence whenever I had finally managed to get into the groove with my doodle-making in the margins of a copy of “2666.”

After three days of fishing tennis balls out of the pool, I had had enough. There was a heavy rainstorm that day and I demanded that my grandfather drive me a few miles down the semi-flooded road to a B-grade Starbucks, where I sat in a corner hunched over an iced latte and wrote this:

The Writer smelled a Metaphor, so he took off his fake duckbill and picked up his notebook. He put his nose to the ground and crawled around on the patio, following the scent along the spaces between the paving stones. The gurgling of the pool focused his senses, and he was certain to check around the corner, just in case Jorge Luis Borges had followed him along the train tracks out of Orlando. Convinced he was alone, he began his search in earnest.

The Pursuit of the Metaphor took him to parts of the backyard that it had never occurred to him to visit before, like the Underside of the Massive Concrete Planter northeast of the Patio Set, or the Roots of the Bird of Paradise Tree tearing up the foundation of the house just south of the Air Conditioning Unit. He passed a little brown bird whose name he didn’t know just behind the Second Tallest Palm Tree on the Lot, and he found an angry chameleon nestled in the mulch between two tropical shrubs. He spent 10 minutes wondering at a strip of black burlap sticking inexplicably out of the middle of a mangrove tree, and then finally tripped over a fallen coconut and fell face first into a pile of dog shit, which he now realized had been the source of the smell all along. He stuck his head up and looked around for the Metaphor, hoping against hope that it wasn’t the shit on his face. His eyes ultimately settled on the only viable alternative in sight — two French bulldogs engaged in a battle of wills over the offending coconut lying at his feet.

He began writing then and there, shit-faced as he was, hoping that he might be able to squeeze a story out of the Metaphor tussling with itself in front of him. It came out like this:

What do I do with my Irony?, the Writer thought to himself. Do I give it to my Characters or do I keep it for myself? Should I hang it on the Scenery like wallpaper, or tie it around a tree in the corner of the yard? Do I plaster it across a locked door like police tape, or do I hang it on the doorknob like a “Do Not Disturb” sign or, better yet, a necktie that lets everyone know I’m having sex in there? Maybe I should just let it out into the yard so it can entertain itself — I hate taking it for walks, and people always want to stop me and ask what breed it is. Is it Dramatic Irony?, they say. Or Situational Irony? Where did you get it from? Does your Irony have a pedigree? It won’t bite, will it? I bet you got it to pick up chicks, didn’t you? Doesn’t it have lots of health problems? I read an article the other day about how Irony is so inbred and disfigured it can hardly stand up, let alone play with other Literary Devices. Is that true? I hear it sinks if it falls in the pool, and you have to wipe its ass every time it takes a shit or else it gets infections — isn’t that a lot of work? It’s kind of cute I guess, but I don’t like the noises it makes. Don’t they keep you up at night?

The truth is that I do not really like my Irony, the Writer thought, and its noises do keep me up at night. They’re really quite awful. If it were up to me I would poison it, shoot it three times, beat it across the face with a shoe and then dump it in a river tied up in a burlap sack. Irony is one of those types that shows up in the middle of the Apocalypse looking like a stray that might also be God. You take its advice on whether or not to give your son an aspirin, and the next thing you know it’s dictating foreign policy. The right thing to do is brutally murder it, drag the body out to a polytechnic university, then melt it down in a cauldron at 4:30 in the morning and be done with the thing.

But I don’t have any friends at the polytechnic university, the Writer thought, so I’ll have to find something else to do with my Irony. Maybe I could pass it along to one of my relatives, like a fruitcake, or bring it to the Humane Society and let them euthanize it. Maybe if I threw enough money at it, it would leave me alone and buy itself a house somewhere far away — so far I wouldn’t be able to hear it snorting when I’m trying to fall asleep. I might be able to leave it at a convent, he thought, or convince a priest that it needs to be burned at the stake. But, God damn it, he thought, I just need to put it somewhere so I can get back to living my life!

Defeated, the Writer then read a New Yorker profile on Vijay Iyer, and then three short stories by Adam Ehrlich Sachs about sons who have to do something with rather absurd inheritances, and then an interview with Adam Ehrlich Sachs about those stories, and then 20 short stories by Daniil Kharms. And then he suddenly remembered that he had thought two French bulldogs were a metaphor for irony and that he had tried to turn that idea into a story. He went and laid face down in the shower. Then he got out of the shower and made himself an English muffin, which he ate while watching YouTube videos of French bulldogs playing fetch. The Metaphor was sitting in his lap. One of the dogs farted, and it was horrendous — the Writer suspected that the one-eyed one did it, but it was frankly impossible to know for certain.

Reader! Don’t you have something better you could be doing?!


By the time the bumblebee-yellow Fiat pulled into the Starbucks parking lot, bulldogs in tow, a few unpleasant things had come into perspective for me. First: Somewhere over the past few months I had turned into the sort of person who would compare a French bulldog to Rasputin. Second: I had simultaneously become the sort of person that would write about wanting to murder a literary device personified as a pair of French bulldogs who were also Rasputin. Third: I had picked up the rather obnoxious habit of ironically capitalizing things that aren’t proper nouns. And fourth: The Florida sunshine hadn’t done anything for my frayed nerves, and certainly hadn’t made me into a Writer. If anything, it had just de-constipated my inner asshole, letting loose that shitty story about tossing French bulldogs into a river. I’m frankly surprised that I managed to cobble together an ending that wasn’t just profanity-laced word salad in all caps.

When I finally collapsed on the futon in my grandfather’s office later that night, I was beset with the coagulated product of the day’s stewing: a horrific dream in which my plans to stand around a mausoleum drinking vodka and wearing a bathrobe were ruined when my grandmother began chasing me around in circles to the strains of “Yakkity Sax,” threatening to smack me over the head with a shoe. After a while, she disappeared and an Instagram picture of Donald Trump floated down from the heavens to tag her out. He began shouting at me about how we need to replace government-issue freedom with free market-brand freedom, and the fact that everyone’s teeth were falling out (he was screaming) proved his point. Sure enough, my teeth were falling out, and when I spat them into my hand I saw that they were in pretty terrible shape. They seemed to have disintegrated — most of them were little more than chunks of gum surrounding a few specks of white — and then the more-or-less healthy teeth starting falling out, too. When I spat them out they started yelling at me along with Donald Trump. After a few minutes of trying to tear my own ears off, I woke up drenched in sweat. I dragged myself into the kitchen to microwave a cup of coffee, and my grandfather asked if I wanted to take the dogs for a walk.

I put the bulldogs into their harnesses and strapped them to a leash. Leaving through the garage felt like stumbling out of a cave that I had been trapped in for weeks — the dogs were fine, but the sunshine burned my eyes. I let them pull me along the street as I hid my face behind a raised forearm. After a few minutes of blind meandering, palm trees and ranch houses began to come into focus over a soundtrack of lawnmower buzz.

I grew up biking around a neighborhood much like my grandfather’s retirement-era suburb, and as I watched Lionel inspect a yield sign coated in an invisible patina of dried dog piss, I began to feel the reassuring suburban calm settle in on my Vitamin D-deficient shoulders. I was in my natal element.

The neighborhood my grandfather lives in — the sort of subdivision that attracts most of West Palm Beach’s sizable upper middle class — is insistently referred to as a “community with a gate” to differentiate it, of course, from the snobbish “gated communities” surrounding it. It’s about a 25-minute drive from the Atlantic coast, situated on the north side of the massive nine-lane Okeechobee Boulevard, which is lined on either side with yet more subdivisions, strip malls of varying levels of prosperity, several massive churches, a few strip clubs and, of course, a healthy smattering of car dealerships, many of them of the luxury sort. Within the subdivisions themselves — which often encircle man-made ponds and domesticated swamps — days are slow and cocktail hour is at 5 p.m. People are friendly and yet, if given the choice, would likely limit their interactions with their neighbors to waves and smiles from behind the windows of their luxury cars and $200,000+ ranch houses. Suburbia is suburbia is suburbia. But here, at least, you can sit by the pool in January.

The dogs dragged me further down the street and I counted the palm trees lining the sidewalk. 12 … 13 … hibiscus … 14 … I felt my mind drifting beyond the confines of empirical reality and ever nearer to that oh-so-comfortable ironic distance I know and loath. I began to think about how, once every few years, someone invariably murders their parents or spouse in these sorts of neighborhoods. I remembered a few cases from my own suburb. About four years ago a 19-year-old graduate from the local high school beat his dad to death with a baseball bat, almost doing the same to his mother and little brother. About seven years before that an elementary school teacher hacked her husband to death with a hatchet and left his body sitting in the trunk of her Ford Explorer while she taught class the next day.

The murders themselves are bad enough, but the real horror of the thing is that, while it’s a tragedy when they happen, assassinations of that sort hardly scandalize the entire community. The guilty party goes to jail, an estate sale is held and a new family moves in after their house has had a chance to breathe for a few months. If you ask me, that sort of social disengagement is borderline sociopathic, but I can understand the sort of nonsense logic that makes it happen. The suburban household is a world unto itself, after all, and the nuclear family occupying it the only real, immanent plane of suburban life. When interactions with the other men and women populating the subdivision do occur, both parties conduct themselves like North Korean peasants with gun barrels in their backs giving a spiel to American tourists in a cardboard supermarket full of Styrofoam fruit. Their neighbors are ghosts from another world, so it should come as no surprise that the goings-on at the house down the block have little chance of intruding upon the suburbanite’s waking life in any tangible way.

As I shambled into a bush on the verge of complete dissociation, Lulu began tugging me back toward the middle of the street — she spotted an unleashed Maltese about two blocks away, and its asshole was going woefully un-sniffed. I felt the muscles in my forearms tighten as I struggled to restrain the force of her unbridled ass-thusiasm. The strain brought my mind lurching out of the nether with a sickening conceptual yawp, and I once again felt myself blinded by the Florida sunshine. When my eyes refocused, all I could think about was the dog-filled mise en scéne unfolding in front of me.

The domestic dog is, after all, one of the few bright spots in the otherwise heartless wasteland of American suburbia. Much of that brightness, I think, comes out of their approach to the distribution of spiritual property. Dogs are territorial in much the same way their suburban owners are, yet their inviolable territories are limited to physical spaces: water bowls, couch seats and the troves of tennis balls and chew toys hidden under their owners’ beds. Outside of their territory, well-trained dogs are proper spiritual communists, perfectly willing to share their inmost being with anyone and anything that might want to partake — hence their receptiveness to open-air ass-play. The suburbanite, on the other hand, carries his territory around in his head, buried beneath a broken smile [1] and the debris of his irreparably fractured soul, which had little hope of surviving the merciless, crushing solitude of his suburban solitary confinement. [2]

And yet if there is a way out, the domestic dog might be the only suburbanite capable of finding the path. The dog is a bona fide member of the nuclear family and, as such, spends its days tethered to the suburbanite’s head-territory — the part underneath the soul-debris — by a sort of adamantine Leash of Being (!); Thus a walk around the subdivision isn’t so much a casual stroll as it is a profoundly dangerous, prolonged sticking-of-the-head up above the suburban foxhole/house, exposing the suburbanite’s inmost self to a potentially deadly array of airborne bacteria (i.e. other persons). The spiritual-communist dog enhances the danger. It might decide without warning to engage in a bit of anal Being-in-Common [3] with one of the other dogs walking down the block, compelling its owner to glimpse the Leash of Being extending from the strange canine asshole directly to the middle of his neighbor’s forehead. The experience is a quasi-hallucinogenic shock to the system that might, at least momentarily, cause him to consider that his fellow suburbanite is not a thinly veiled embodiment of pure darkness, but rather a person much like himself, beholden to the same unwritten laws that otherwise prevent their interactions from attaining to anything you might call “sincerity.” The levees might burst from the pressure, letting loose an overwhelming deluge of unselfconscious fellow-feeling; an asterisk-free [4] moment of mutually genuine self-exposure.

Such were the ruminations peopling my noggin as Lulu’s nose finally made contact with its long-pursued prize. Panting myself from the two-block jog, I watched her sniff deeply at the Font of Being (!), relishing the scent as though it were the bouquet of a fine burgundy. The Maltese looked up into my eyes with an expression of blank contentment. The moment was sweet.

My ruminations swirled into a thick rhapsodic stew and, ready to genuinely expose myself to the dog’s owner, I let my eyes wander along a line extending from the Maltese’s asshole toward the yard it had trotted away from just moments before. There, I saw a sunburned, shirtless, crew-cut paunch lumber out from the far side of a hedgerow in front of a jeep whose rear bumper sported a Confederate flag decal. I felt myself beginning to retch and used up what little energy I had left suppressing the convulsions into a set of silent dry heaves.

—Princess!, the paunch bellowed. Get your ass back over here, you little shit!

Heeding her owner’s call, Princess turned away without looking back.

Lulu looked up at me with her sad French bulldog eyes, and Lionel did the same with the one eye he had at his disposal. He had shat on the pavement; I had left the poop bags at home.

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