The Blog December 12, 2011

R.I.P. Dr. Manhattan (2009-2011)

The following story is dedicated in memoriam to my hamster, Dr. Manhattan.  The first draft was written the same day that he was laid to rest.  As he rides with the Valkyrie in the Halls of Valhalla, may his fur be forever fuzzy, his balls ever so large.
By Stuart C. Paul
David was a hamster person.  By the time he was thirty-nine, he could rattle off the names of the sixteen hamsters he had owned over the course of his lifetime with the same effortless cantor usually reserved for reciting the Presidents of the United States.  His first hamster, Squeaky, had been a gift from his parents when David was six.  It was supposed to be a training wheels pet—the hamster’s low maintenance requirements coupled with its short life span intended to teach the child the virtues of responsibility in preparation for the inevitable day came when David began pestering his parents for a dog.  The assumption that the boy’s tastes would grow more sophisticated over time proved to be incorrect.  While his preferences in food, clothing, entertainment and friends changed over time, his taste in pets never did.
To say that David liked hamsters would be an understatement.  To say he loved them misses the point entirely.  It was a bond born of an understanding that went beyond species, transcending the traditional roles of owner and pet.  The boy’s unusual predilection did not go unnoticed by his parents.  His mother first began to worry when she would glance over from the television to see David perched with his face pressed against the bars of rodent’s cage for hours on end, gazing deep into the noble Squeaky’s eyes as if they contained the very secrets of the cosmos.  This concerned her, for the hamster is, by design, a stupid creature. 
Her apprehension that the boy’s attachment to the ham went beyond what might be considered completely normal remained only a seed buried deep in the recesses of her mind.  That all changed when she was getting ready for dinner one night, only to discover her favorite pair of heels had been chewed to bits.  It seems that her son, having determined it cruel and unusual punishment to keep imprisoned in a cage, a creature who so obviously possessed such a keen desire for freedom, had begun letting Squeaky run free.  A family discussion was held in the living room, during which David’s parents sought to make the boundaries between hamster and human more clearly defined.  Despite her son’s promise to keep his friend locked up when not under direct supervision, David’s mother would still, on occasion, find the telltale oval-shaped nuggets dotting the carpets which told her that a hamster was afoot. 
For his part, David’s father took the boy’s antics in stride—that is until the night he was awakened by the sounds of scurrying within the walls.  The rest of the night was spent hammering, drilling and sawing; and then calling, coaxing and cursing.  The hamster was finally lured out around dawn, leaving a series of gaping holes in the baseboards of the house.  Worse still, the night’s excavation had also exposed a sea of gnawed wires behind the entertainment system.  This led to another talk in the living room, during which David’s father threatened to release the hamster into the wilds of the suburbs to fend for itself against the neighborhood cats if something like this ever happened again.
For a while, things calmed down.  Then came the day David began insisting that a benevolent wizard had transformed him into a hamster overnight.  Abandoning his human identity, David would answer only to the name Garbanzo.  He filled his room with shredded newspaper and went about in the nude, abandoning showers in favor of licking himself in the corner.  Soon after, a pungent smell alerted his parents that Garbanzo had abandoned use of the household bathroom facilities.  An appointment with a psychologist was quickly scheduled.  After three sessions, the doctor concluded that David was not insane—just a little strange.  David’s human identity reasserted itself soon after.  Despite a tumultuous beginning, David’s antics soon faded away into the domain of family lore.  After the death of the inimitable Squeaky, David’s parents felt a pang of relief, but within a day, David had already begun inquiries as to when he could get another hamster.  So it was that neither nature nor nurture, psychology nor sociology could account for David’s unnaturally potent affinity for the noble Mesocricetus auratus. 
Hamsters came and went, and in all the years of David’s youth, there was scarcely a week in total when there was not a hamster in the house.  As he grew older, certain analogous qualities between pet and owner became apparent, the most obvious being their sleep cycles.  Like companions, David was nocturnal.  As a boy, he often had difficulty sleeping at night.  As a teenager, his days were plagued by sloth, his nights the only time when he truly came alive.  His eating habits were also rather rodent-like, his preference being to eschew regular meals in favor of snacking on whatever food he had on-hand.  Like his friends, sunflower seeds, cashews, peanuts and assorted sweets were a favorite.  The last point of comparison was David’s uncanny ability to expand the size of his cheeks to extraordinary proportions, a favorite party trick which earned him many free drinks, but very little in the way of female companionship.
As a rule, David was monogamous in his hamster relations.  One hamster at a time—that was the lesson he learned when he accidentally placed Nibble (#3) and Hampshire (#4) in the same cage.  A series of furious shrieks alerted him to his mistake, and he found the two rodents rolling around, their bodies melded together in a furball of mortal combat.  David himself did not escape unscathed as Nibble’s teeth dug into the skin of David’s index finger when he reached in and grabbed the wrestlers, vigorously shaking them to peel them apart.  When the wounds were tallied, the battle came out overwhelmingly in Hampshire’s favor.   Nibble suffered multiple lacerations, losing a large chunk from his left foreleg, while Hampshire got off with a minor scratch under his right eye. 
The milestones of David’s life were marked not by changes in the world around him, but in the cage across from his bed.  His induction into the world of adolescent obsession with sex came not from the girl next door, TV or the Internet, but when he saw Quasimodo (#6) pleasuring himself.  He shared his collegiate descent into drunken debauchery with Bond James Bond (#9).  Unlike his namesake, the hamster never took to martinis, shaken or stirred.  And never had David felt such palpable rage as when he returned from class to find his roommate and three of his friends blowing pot smoke into Mr. Bond’s plastic hamster ball.  007 spent the rest of the night hiding under David’s bed, chattering his teeth and obsessively grooming.  David’s first and only experience with marijuana went much the same. 
Of all of David’s hamsters over the years, only one, Mary Todd Lincoln (#5) was female.  Finding her smelly, he swore to stick to male hamsters from then on, but years later, after meeting a most enchanting human female who accepted David’s proposal of marriage, he decided it was time to give the fairer sex another shot.  His marriage was mirrored in the coupling of George (#11) and Gracie (#12), the lone exception to his one-hamster-at-a-time rule, whose honeymoon came to an abrupt end when David found Gracie cannibalizing the brains of her ill-fated husband and newborn litter.  David’s own marriage ended under slightly less diplomatic terms.
While it is undeniable that hamsters offers a number of substantial positives (easy to clean up after, quiet, fuzzy), there are also some negatives which any hamster owner can tell you are keenly felt (impossible to housetrain, enjoy to chew on expensive things, tend to hoard food in unexpected places), the most potent of which is their short lifespan.  The average duration of a hamster’s existence is two years—a high turnover rate when one considers that the death of each and every one of his hamsters struck David like the loss of a beloved relative.  The most aged hamster David ever had, Miyamato Musashi (#13) lived an epic four years.  The shortest was Gilgamesh (#10), who after being left beside an open window by the maid overnight, contracted wet tail and died within two weeks. 
Over time, David’s grieving process had grown into a ritual as precise and layered as that of any religion.  Whether the creature had to be put down by anesthesia (Beast, #10), died peacefully in his sleep (Jesse James, #11), or fell prey to the laws of gravity (Evel Kanevil, #2), David always followed the same procedure. 
First, the coffin was constructed, preferably out of balsa wood.  Next, a coin was placed between the hamster’s teeth (one must do this quickly before rigor mortis sets in).  Once the coffin was glued shut and the proper Buddhist mantra concluded, the coffin was covered in Sterno, placed upon a body of water (an ocean or lake is preferable, but a bathtub will do) and lit aflame, the remains transferred afterwards to an appropriate resting place. 
Such was the process which David undertook two weeks before his fortieth birthday, laying to rest Dr. Manhattan (#16).  The death of the good Doctor hit David particularly hard, for he had nursed Dr. Manhattan from the time he was no bigger than David’s own thumb.  The doctor’s disposition was most pleasant.  Never once did David feel the sting of the hamster’s bite.  The Doctor was also favored among all David’s hamsters for his habit of climbing a stack of books that David had leaned against the wall.  From there, the adventurous sprite crawled up the window blinds, onto a speaker shelf and down to David’s desk where he would sit, illuminated by the glow of David’s computer screen, the two of them working side by side, deep into the night. 
Two years came and went, and with them, the good Doctor’s salad days passed into requiem.  The first sign of mortality came when David heard a solid thud followed by a series of pained shrieks from his office.  The Doctor, his grip not what it once was, apparently slipped whilst engaging in his nightly climbing ritual.  But even a broken leg could not slow him, nor dampen his spirits, though he did walk with a limp from then on.  The next thing to go was the doctor’s eyesight as his pupils clouded over with cataracts.  Still, his sense of smell took over where his sight failed him, and Dr. Manhattan still got around as well as ever.  Then came the night when the Doctor did not emerge from his cage at the appointed hour.  When David picked him up, the strength had gone out of the hamster, his body limp, his gaze full of apathy.  The tumor, which had no doubt been brewing beneath Dr. Manhattan’s lustrous coat of fur, had sprung up nearly overnight.  It was located on the lower, right side of his abdomen and quickly spread into his right rear leg.  The nails on his foot began growing at a spectacularly accelerated rate, curling up into spirals as the cancer cells continued to reproduce at breakneck speed.  Dr. Manhattan’s decline was swift and merciless.  He became lethargic, stopped eating and drinking, and lost most his muscle tone.  When David picked him up, the hamster stared at him with an apathetic look on his face, his body limp like a lukewarm marshmallow.  The Doctor’s death was inevitable, a blessed release from an existence which had become filled with suffering.
For two weeks, David barely ate.  He slept all day and rarely went outside.  He felt he had lost the best part of himself.  As in his youth, his existence began to resemble that of the hamster he now mourned.  When he finally did work up the strength to shower and go to the local breeder to look into procuring another hamster, something had changed.  He no longer felt the same tingling anticipation as he waited to see with which animal he would have a connection.  He looked upon the poor creatures piled upon one another like the residents of a refugee camp, and all he could think of was death, death, death. 
The knowledge of his coming loss overshadowed all possibility of joy in the present, and David decided that perhaps the day of the hamster man had come to an end.  Two years was just too short a time.  Assuming he lived to 80 years, he would, at the present trajectory, have to suffer through the pain of losing twenty more beloved companions at least.  Perhaps, he thought, it is time to move on, to get a pet less susceptible to mortality.  Like a macaw or a tortoise or something like that. 
David looked into every species, genus and phylum under the sun, conducting research both in physical libraries, in zoos and online.  He came very close to purchasing a San Salvadorian iguana, but decided he could not get past the reptile’s notable lack of fuzziness.  No, it was time to face up to the facts—it was hamster or nothing.  Just as David resigned himself to the idea of spending the rest of his life in hamsterless spinsterhood, a message popped up in his inbox.  The sender’s name was listed as DR. GENE POOLE.  The subject:  LIVE FOREVER.  
Though he normally would have deleted such a message out of hand, David found himself opening the message.  The advertisement read:  SCIENTISTS CAN NOW FORESTALL AGING AT THE GENETIC LEVEL.  ADD YEARS TO YOUR LIFESPAN FOR AS LOW AS $9.99 PER CHROMOSOME!
David had heard the hubbub on the news a few years ago when the first designer genetics salon opened up.  The proponents of genetic engineering, quick to dispel any accusations of eugenics, said that disease, aging and death were nothing but an accumulation of errors at the genetic level—errors that could now be corrected for a price.  The opponents’ arguments were many, but eventually, someone always brought up the words “playing” and “God.”  Indeed, the Pope had come down firmly against the concept of gene tampering.  But nobody really gave a damn what the Pope said once the geneticists announced the first cancer patients had been cured. 
Most of Dr. Gene Poole’s marketing was targeted at movie stars, trophy wives and expectant parents hoping to give their children an edge.  It had always struck David as grossly narcissistic.   Frankly, he didn’t want to live forever.  And even if he did, with forty-six chromosomes per cell in the human body, he would never be able to afford it.  Plus which, he was far too old to fix the damage that had already been done.  The procedure was most successful when applied to an unborn embryo.  David moved his cursor over to the delete button, but he did not click.  A question, a notion, a fancy had come, unbidden, into his head, and once thought, it could not be un-thought.  He wondered to himself, How many chromosomes could a hamster possibly have?
 *    *    *
 Hamster #17 cost David $440,000 plus tax.  David died at the age of eight-five.  He was buried in the graveyard next to Hamsters #1-16.  He had no children.  The headstone on his grave reads:
Survived by Enoch
The World’s Oldest Hamster