Nonfiction by Jonathan McDaniel

Concerning Dan

            On a Saturday afternoon in 1845, a handsome Newfoundland dog paddled into the soft ripples of a river behind its owner’s house, dipped its head underwater, and stopped paddling. Mr. Floyd, the dog’s owner, dragged it from the river, fur hanging flat as a sopping towel, and tied it up. As soon as Mr. Floyd released his dog, it darted to the water, swam into the current, and tried again. Again, Mr. Floyd pulled it from the river. It went on like this, until finally the dog kept itself underwater long enough and sank to the river bottom.

            My friend Dan died by hanging himself at his home in suburban Memphis. If Dan had died of heart disease, friends and family could accept that smoking had built up plaque in his arteries, hindering the flow of oxygen-rich blood to his heart; if he had died in a car accident, we’d pinpoint the catalyst—a glance at his phone, a drunk businessman cranking the engine—that led to his body being enveloped by shattered glass and twisted metal. Even if death was not altogether unexpected, an autopsy could still reveal an underlying cause. An autopsy cannot tell the full truth behind suicide.

            I first met Dan to join his team at a local dart league. The match was held in a bar called Sharpshooters in Bartlett, a middle-class suburb of Memphis. Dozens of pool tables filled the singular, convention sized room and eight electronic dartboards lined the back wall. The bar was packed with teenagers, sporting backwards caps and baggy jeans, kids who ponied up quarters on the rails of pool tables and smoked Camel Lights like their lives depended on it, sipping away at longnecks of light beer because Sharpshooters didn’t check IDs. A friend and I located the league commissioner, an egg-shaped mustache draped in a Hawaiian shirt and wielding a clipboard.

            “We’re looking for Dan. We’re supposed to join the Toothless Americans.”

            “Fella over there with the glasses,” he pointed. A long column of ash fell from his cigarette and littered the clipboard. He brushed it off with his thumb. “Once y’all get settled, you’ll have to come fill out some paperwork. Official league shit, you know?” 

            We slid two stools up to the collapsible table where Dan was sitting, screwing plastic tips into the shafts of his darts. He brushed his salt & pepper hair to the side and said he was happy we’d gotten a team together.

            “You got a set-up?” He asked. “I’ve got a fifth of Jack. You guys are welcome to it.”

            I told him I didn’t know what a set-up was.

            “You just give the bar a ten, and they’ll set you up with Coke all night. B.Y.O-Liquor.”

            That night we played a team of six women wearing pink t-shirts who called themselves the Pink Ladies. When Dan and I weren’t shooting darts, we’d shoot whiskey and smoke cigarettes at the table. I was out of place in the dart league. At first glance, it seemed that league bylaws mandated every team include at least one rowdy man with a goatee, and that every player must renounce any affiliation to other hobbies. Had it not been for Dan, I would have sat in the corner, constantly adjusting my thick-rimmed glasses, hesitant to lose myself in conversation for fear that I’d reveal I was studying English in college and that my mother still paid my rent. Instead, a belly full of booze and Dan’s incessant smile had me babbling like a salesman, and something clicked between us. We shared a love for NBA basketball, tossing around phrases like true shooting percentage and playing out imaginary trade scenarios. He asked what I planned to do with my degree and gave me advice on applying to graduate school. Dan told me he was a pathologist, and that a job offer had taken him to Memphis, away from his wife and son in Utah. He’d take a redeye to visit them every Friday.

            “Every weekend? I can’t imagine traveling that much,” I told him, snuffing out my cigarette and tapping a new one out of the pack.

            “My son is my life, man.” He splashed his cup with whiskey. The bottle could’ve had a leak at the rate the stuff had disappeared. “I’m only really happy when I’m here or with him.”

            We rotated bars for dart league matches. A few weeks into the season, we ended up at a dimly lit shack on a back road in Raleigh, TN. The place was no bigger than the double wides that hugged the treeline across the street; a Budweiser sign hung slanted above the wrought-iron door that clanged when pushed open. A group of gray-headed men in leather vests lined the bar, conducting a meeting for what I assumed was some sort of Medicare endorsed biker gang. I wedged my way between them and ordered a beer. Dan slid two wrinkled singles across the bar and snapped open a can of Diet Coke.

            “No set-up tonight?” I asked.

            “I’m trying not to drink as much. It puts my mind in a bad place,” he laughed. I wondered if I’d missed the joke. 

            That night, in between rounds of getting our asses kicked by the granddad bikers, Dan told me about his wife in Utah. He wanted to salvage what was left of their withering relationship, and planned to relocate to Washington with the whole family, something they’d discussed over the phone the night before. His sober smile beamed as he told me this, as though he’d discovered true joy, woven like wet rope between his ribs and tethered to his family across the country. 

            An 1875 edition of The Animal World reported that stags, when cornered by hunters and their dogs on Britain’s south shore, would throw themselves off cliffs to avoid death by the snarling jaws of the hounds. The stag, plummeting toward the whitewash below, had made a choice, whether calculated or reactionary, about how its life would end.

            When their infants die, some female chimpanzees huddle against a tree, away from the group, stone-faced and despondent. The mothers also starve themselves for a time, and sometimes carry their lifeless children on their backs like nothing is wrong.

            Dan’s drinking swayed with the steady pendulum that was his marriage. If they’d had an argument, he’d shoot three whiskeys before the match began and hit on women half his age, though he never so much as got a phone number. In fairness, I’m not sure he wanted to; his clumsy, doe-eyed flirting seemed another way for him to pull the rug out from his own reality. I would drag him away, time and again, and ask him about the NBA playoffs, anything to snap him back into the moment.

            One of those evenings, he stumbled into the seat beside me after throwing a near-perfect game of 501—he inexplicably became a deadeye when drunk, like Mickey Mantle blasting a homer after a breakfast of brandy and Kahlua—and lit the wrong end of a cigarette. When I asked how his most recent trip to Utah had been, he rolled his eyes and flicked the ruined smoke on the table.

            “My wife wants a divorce,” he said.

            The mention of divorce in a dialogue often slingshots a spintop toy into the mind, a whirling thing that ricochets from wall to wall in search of a careful response. He told me how much he hated his wife’s lifestyle, that she flaunted their money by driving expensive cars and dining at the country club. He asked me if I’d hate that, too, if I were in his position, a question that was more of a formality to further the conversation. Dan spoke again before I could answer.

            “She can just be such a bitch, you know?”

            I didn’t. I had never met Dan’s wife, and he knew that. He wanted, I think, to call her a bitch to another person, to see if he felt any differently once the words became sound and he couldn’t wrestle them back into his mouth. Their financial dissidence, I’m sure, was an ancillary complication to their shared task of pinpointing where what they’d built began to smolder—and now they faced the prospect of watching it all burn.

            “We’re up,” Dan said. He grabbed his darts and gulped his drink until the ice clinked in the glass. He staggered to the line, that dead weight slung over his shoulders, and took his practice throws with a smile.

            The Newfoundland dog that drowned itself had apparently been acting sluggish, uncharacteristic of its usual disposition. It is impossible to know, over 150 years later, what obsession or madness drove the dog to a watery grave. Most scientists and philosophers agree that animals are unaware of their own mortality; the dog would no sooner realize the consequence of its actions until it was unable to realize anything at all. The chimpanzee’s self-destructive behavior—starving and carrying a dead infant on its back—seems a desperate reaction to circumstance, the infant’s death a caesura that breaks the cycle of ordinary life in the wild. The stag, I think, is the tragic outlier. Engrained in its DNA is the awareness that the dog’s razor teeth are to be feared, avoided at any cost, so the distinction is clear: the fall is no worse than the pain it will endure on the cliffs.

            Our team made it to the C-Division’s championship match, two notches below the A-list contingent of teams who occasionally threatened violence upon other teams after losing. Dan ordered a beer and drank it slow. We were pitted against a serious team who seemed allergic to their current situation—playing for the lowly C-Division trophy—and who had long since jettisoned any effort to conceal their aggravation. When the late evening found us on the cusp of clinching the win, I barked at one of our opponents after he missed a shot, the kind of jockbrain behavior I only exhibit after a few drinks. The man, who stood well over six feet and wore a leather vest, turned to me, revealing a face tattoo I’d failed to notice before, and started towards our table with clinched fists. I stared at him, silent and handcuffed to the moment, my wide eyes all but advertising the fact that I'd never been in a fight. I was certain of how the events would unfold. I saw it in fragments, as a prophecy conjured in a cloudy dream: his raised fist, my glasses bent and bloodied on the floor, faces staring down at me. But when I remember what actually occurred, I see it replayed in slow motion on a silver screen in my mind: I watch Dan stepping between us, placing a quiet hand on the man’s chest, easing the anger in his eyes.

            That night would be the last time I played darts with Dan. We each went home with a trophy, a faux-brass affair depicting two darts enshrined in a cartoonish flame, standing no taller than six inches. It sits alone on a dusty windowsill in my apartment, its dull patina still reflecting the sunlight on cloudy afternoons.

Jonathan McDaniel is originally from Memphis, TN, and received an MFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2016. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his essays have most recently appeared in The Point Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and at The Rumpus. He lives in Chicago with his dog.