Welcome to Hamster Heaven

By William Morris

Rather than face the rigmarole of traditional publishing, I took it to one of the few surviving copy shops and printed several copies. Everyone was eyeing everyone else. To print-copy collate laminate was a mischievous thing. Which of us was working nonprofit? Which was a propagandist?

I took my expensive load back to the apartment building. It was perfect. Every word was where I wanted it—where I needed it. I said hello to Joan as she was going out—suitcase in hand—and I was coming in. Joan was in love with me. Had been for a number of years. Since before cellphones. She used to call my landline in the middle of the night, when she knew I was writing, to tell me she was thinking of me.

“Say a word,” she’d say.

“Although.”

Ugh.

“Tumultuous.” And she would tell me she was touching herself. That my words brought her to orgasm.

One night, I knew she was reading a piece I’d published in a small quarterly because, when I was drifting to sleep, I hear through the floor: “The dog lay bleeding before their eyes, and in a show of animalistic compassion, not just the boys and girls cried, but the men and women too!”

Her voice, its hoary overtones of pleasure, carried my words through walls and ceilings. People believed we’d had some perverse etymological sadomasochistic affair. But that was behind us. Now the novel was finally finished, and everyone in the building would see not only that I was brilliant and underappreciated, but also well-adjusted and down-to-earth.

Chr-chrk!

I stapled a few copies of page 1 to the wall directly inside the apartment’s foyer. Ideally, one would read a page here and there each day and leave it be. But there was always that odd neighbor—Jeffrey—who was likely to tear a sheet off the wall and take it with him. So chr-chrk! went 3-5 copies of each page as I went along the foyer, up the steps, chr-chrk! to the next floor, and chr-chrk! stapled the pages onto walls near doors to my neighbors’ apartments.

 

In the coming days, I tried to gauge the other tenants’ reactions to my life’s work.

“Do you really have to do this kind of thing, Andrew?”

“What, you don’t like it, Bernie?”

“It’s an eyesore, man. The pages are falling off the walls and littering the floor. Mrs. Giuseppe almost broke her neck falling over page 98 on Tuesday.”

“Page 98?”

“Please clean it up.”

“Well, but do you like it? Aside from the mess, I mean?”

 

There was an art student living in the apartment Mr. Lennox had died in earlier this year.

“I like it,” he said. “It shows a certain ganache.”

“Ganache?”

“Panache, I mean. But what’s with all the words?”

“It’s a novel,” I said.

“Which one?”

“Mine.”

 

Jeffrey, who rarely left his apartment, caught me one day.

“Andy,” he said, holding a ten-pound bag of woodchips. Thanks for the paper.”

His clothes smelled stale, and his teeth were yellower than when I’d seen him last. We were both reclusive, but whatever he did in that cramped apartment worried even my stolid mind many nights.

“Paper?”

“But I usually go for newsprint. More absorbent,” he said.

book-book-pages-burned-pages-large

When a week had passed without word from Joan, I worried. My kindest critic. That eager woman with her nervous hands that wandered twitchingly, mouse-like when she spoke. Could something have happened to her?

After another sleepless night of reflection, compiling every reaction to my novel into an amalgam of ambivalence, I went out for coffee. People went to coffee shops like this to write their unreadable memoirs. I watched hipster kids in flannels type away and felt embittered. The walk home was filled with whispered curses. I was, in a word, jaded.

“Andrew?”

“Wha,” I said.

“Oh, Andrew,” Joan said. We stood outside the building and shuffled like we’d both considered hugging but thought better of it.

“Are you OK?”

“Oh, Andrew, I was away at a business conference. It was awful.”

“You look sick,” I said with mock concern. Or was it real concern?

“It’s the rats.”

“Rats?”

“In the hotel,” she said. “There were rats. It made me sick to the stomach. I hardly ate the whole week, Andrew. I’ve lost five pounds, I think. I hate rats.”

We went in, and she lifted a page 1 off the floor. By now, there were hardly any sheets left on the walls. Either the wind or a passing shoulder or something more insidious tore the pages down. They littered the ground like an abandoned manifesto. She took to her hands and knees and read through the tattered manuscript in silence. As we scaled the steps, I caught glimpses of the skin-tone underwear beneath her dress.

Hours might have passed. She’d left her lonely suitcase in the foyer. Neighbors stumbled by on their way in and out.

“Andrew, this is marvelous,” she said.

“Keep reading,” I said. “I think page 207 is right there.”

She stepped over a pile of shredded pages and reached for the next in sequence. The clearance was a bit too wide, and she tripped, toppled against Jeffrey’s door, into his apartment.

Pieces of red and blue plastic snapped and cracked, and the stench of animal feces hit me full on. There had been a network of tubes or tunnels winding around the apartment. Joan broke through them and brought the entire system to its demise. There was screaming and snapping, and Jeffrey yelled, “My babies!”

At which point I saw the hand painted sign: WELCOME TO HAMSTER HEAVEN.

The brown and white and gray creatures burst out of their tunnels like so many potatoes rolling through the produce department.

“Rats!” Joan said.

“They’re hamsters!” Jeffrey said.

“My manuscript!” I said.

Their little claws and teeth tore over Joan’s prostrate body and obliterated the already chaotic mess of pages as they dispersed to odd ends of the building.

 

William Morris is an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He works as an editor at Natural Bridge Literary Magazine. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Aji Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Oblong Magazine, drafthorse, Magnolia Review, 5×5, and Red Earth Review. He is the recipient of the 2015 Besse Patterson Gephardt Award for Fiction. William lives in St. Louis, where he devotes his time to cats, coffee, and creative writing.

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