The Unhappy Life of an Ad Man
by Sean Silleck
The car wound deeper and deeper into the cold, dark mountains. Renee drove, her hands high on the wheel, her stare tight on the twisting road ahead. David sat in the passenger seat, his eyelids flickering in time to the passing trees, impenetrable pines and junipers interspersed with stretches of black, lifeless bog.
Behind them, spread out across the back seat, a dead dog lay wrapped in a patchwork quilt. One paw had come loose and hung over the side. It twitched whenever the car hit a bump in the road.
They were going to bury her, Renee’s beloved Elsa, somewhere deep in the wilderness, in an open field with panoramic views of the mountains, a place where her spirit could run and leap for all eternity. David had taken the day off from work to help, and was going to miss an important client meeting this afternoon. But it didn’t matter; this was the most important thing in his life right now. It was the only thing.
Despite telling Renee he’d left his phone at home, he had taken it in case of an emergency, but he had turned it off and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket, where it would stay for the duration. He had no desire even to look at it.
They had started out from the city a little after eight o’clock that morning, and it was now almost noon. Exiting the highway some time ago, they’d been following one narrow road after another, the towns and houses becoming more and more infrequent. They hadn’t seen another car in over half an hour now. But Renee seemed to know exactly where she was going, and David wasn’t about to pry. It was better, for now, to say nothing at all.
Around the next bend, a faded wooden sign poked out from a tangle of icy vines, and Renee slowed the car. David could just make out the word “trails” as she swung onto a dirt road and followed it for about a mile, until it ended in a small gravel parking lot. Theirs was the only car.
For a long moment, Renee sat perfectly still, her amber eyes scanning the tree line ahead, as if for hidden killers. Several strands of her dark hair had fallen out of her ponytail and lay at odd angles across her face. Finally, in a low but firm voice, she said, “Yes, we’ll try here. There should be a good place to....”
She shouldered the door open and stood up. David got out slowly, stretched his cramped legs, and went around to the trunk for the shovel. He met Renee beside the rear door and together they stood side by side looking down at the dead dog.
“You’ll have to carry her,” Renee said. “It won’t be easy for you. We need to hike two or three miles at least.”
“We could build a sling,” David suggested. “You know, a couple branches tied together. I saw the guy on that survivalist show do it. Didn’t look that hard.”
“No.” She looked at him, her eyes filled with a challenging light. “The trail is too rocky. Carrying her is the only way.”
“Uh, okay. Sure.” He handed over the shovel. As he did, he noticed, for the first time, the butt of the pistol sticking out of the pocket of her skinny jeans. The old Smith and Wesson .380 her father had given her when she moved to the city. Something to have in the drawer of her nightstand for those home invasions by crack fiends, dope peddlers and white slavers the old man believed were a natural part of life in the godless urban jungle.
“Why did you bring your dad’s gun?” he asked, hoping the alarm in his voice wasn’t audible.
She shook her head, thoughtfully. “No telling what we’ll run into out here,” she said. “Best to be on the safe side.”
“What do you think we’ll run into?” He couldn’t help cracking a smile. She’s joking, right? “I mean, you’ve got black bears up here, maybe a couple of coyotes. Like, one bobcat. Nothing that will be even remotely interested in us.”
“You’re wrong.” Her voice was quiet, but intense, like someone uttering an incantation. “Haven’t you read the stories? They’ve been reintroducing wolves to these mountains for the last ten years. The program has been wildly successful. Timber wolf populations have reached levels not seen since the 1920s.”
Renee paused, her eyes narrowing, and added, “An adult male can weigh up to 125 pounds, and they travel in packs of a dozen or more. That’s why I brought my gun.” A slow grin turned up one corner of her mouth. “Of course, if we run into any, you could always try to flirt with them. Maybe you’d be more comfortable with that.”
“Nope, sounds good.”
With a self-conscious bow, he stooped into the backseat and gathered Elsa into his arms. A pit mix of indeterminate origin, she wasn’t a big dog, but neither was she a light one. As he hefted her higher, one arm around her chest, the other around her rump, he estimated 40 pounds. The hike was going to be excruciating.
If Renee noticed the worry creeping into his expression, she didn’t say anything. She looked him slowly up and down, then nodded, threw the shovel over her shoulder, adjusted the gun in her pocket and set out onto a trail that led sharply up into the trees.
A hundred or so feet ahead, they passed a bulletin board on which hung a large map of the area and several cautionary pamphlets about hiking and wildlife in the woods. While Renee continued up the trail, David paused to look at the map. The trail they were about to enter followed a ridgeline up into the mountain and about halfway up snaked through a crevice called the Devil’s Way. He couldn’t help a weak nod of appreciation.
“Are you coming?” She was already well up the trail.
“Just looking at the map.”
He scrambled up the loose gravel after her. For the first half-mile, the trail followed an old logging road up a moderate incline through alternating stands of maple, hemlock and pine. Then it turned off the road and ran along the bank of a dried-out stream for another half-mile, rising more steadily as it approached the mountain. Dark red blazes, smeared raggedly on the tree trunks, marked the way.
Renee widened the gap between them, occasionally pausing to glance behind her before hurrying on again. It was as if she were giving him enough space to feel alone with the dog, the one being in the world she had loved without question and the only one who had never betrayed her.
David did his best to keep up, ignoring the pain that had begun to settle into the base of his spine. He was already incredibly thirsty, but wasn’t about to ask for the water bottle in Renee’s pack. He was determined to haul the dog up the mountain without a word of complaint, to go as far as it took to find the perfect burial spot.
The truth was, there was no other way back to their old lives except to follow this trail to the end. It was out here in these primeval woods, far from their lives in the city, that he would demonstrate his worth. He would carry her dead dog — he would carry all his sins — and, when they found the right spot, he would bury them together, relics of the awful past, never to disturb them again.
* * *
The vast silence of the forest was broken only by their footsteps crunching through the thin layer of frost on the ground. They went through a stand of birch trees, white as bleached bone, crossed another stream bed and made their way down into a narrow gully. The trail wound its way through thick trees and enormous glacial boulders and then began to rise again.
The pain in his back was extending down into his thighs now, as if some vise were being slowly tightened around his lower vertebrae. The dead dog seemed to be growing heavier with every step. But he took only momentary breaks to catch his breath. The pain, he realized, was a necessary part of this.
They climbed the other side of the gully, which got very steep near the top, forcing him to pull himself up with one hand while clutching Elsa awkwardly in the other.
Up and over a broad ridgeline, they entered a pine forest. The trees were very tall, and their roots, hundreds of them, broke through the carpet of brown needles and slithered away into the forest like a vast den of serpents. An expanse of gray sky showed through the trees about fifty yards ahead, and David’s heart stirred with the hope that it might mean an acceptable clearing.
A chill breeze rattled the branches overhead as they emerged from the pines and stood on the edge of a field of tall stiff grass. The field was about a hundred yards square and had a view to the north of a line of dark mountains.
It seemed the perfect place to bury the dog, but Renee kept walking toward the opposite side of the clearing, her long purposeful strides extending the distance between them.
Despite the feeling of dread in his chest, he broke into a jog to catch up to her. When he was close enough, he called out, “Hey. Hey, Ren. What about right here? It’s kind of perfect. Can you imagine how beautiful it will be in the spring, with the wildflowers blooming and the trees all green?”
She stopped short and turned to face him. Her lips were twisted in a knowing smirk, as if she’d been expecting this plea. “You can’t chase a ball here,” she said. “One good throw into that grass and it’s gone.”
“Yeah, but she would have loved it.” He gave the dog a squeeze, as if to demonstrate her posthumous approval. “All the smells here. All the little animal trails. You know?”
“No, it’s no good.” Her eyes narrowed. “We have to keep going.”
“Okay.” All at once he fell to his knees, the pain in his back erupting into long tendrils of flame. “I mean, it’s just... She’s really heavy, you know?”
Renee came all the way back to him. “You told me last night you were going to do whatever it took to make things right,” she said, looming over him. “Didn’t you say exactly those words? That what happened when you were away on your little business trip was a mistake that was never going to happen again? Or was that just another lie?”
“No, no. Of course, we’ll go wherever you like.” He looked up at her, his shoulders slumped. It felt really good to be on his knees. “I meant it. It’s okay. I just need a minute or two.”
Renee said nothing. She studied him a moment, then turned and walked away down the trail.
* * *
“I made a mistake.” He said it in a voice too low for her to hear, and then struggled to his feet, sucked in an agonized breath and began to follow after her. They crossed the clearing and re-entered the woods, following the red blazes. For the next half-mile — the trail switchbacked down into a rocky ravine — his thoughts kept him company.
He considered the things he would say to her when the burial was over, when they were finally in the car headed home. Things he hadn’t yet said or things he hadn’t properly articulated. He wanted to explain it, what his life had been like. He wanted her to feel it, to understand.
It was the endless pressure, first off: the stress of having to suck up to clients who treated him like a cheap valet. It was sitting through hour after hour of market research — in Detroit or Dallas or Duluth — while Jennifer, his young assistant with the honey-colored hair, sat close beside him, studiously tapping notes into her laptop. It was the dinner and drinks afterward, the huge relief when they finally tucked the clients into a cab and went back to the hotel bar for one last round.
Who could even tell at that hour — with the blurry lights of the bar morphing into the spectral brightness of the hallway back to their adjoining rooms — which of them had made the first move? An accidental collision of bodies, a shared laugh, and then somehow his arm was around her waist and his mouth was latching itself to her neck.
And just like that the vortex opened.
And down, down, down he went.
Of course, if it had been just that one time, maybe none of this would have happened. But the next night, in the next city, it was the same; more than that, it became an expectation, an escape from his life, a chance to be human, if only for an hour or two.
The drudgery of the trip, the unending demands of the client, the incompetent regional airlines, the Olive Gardens and TGIFriday’s, the crappy wi-fi, the dirty snow banks piled up outside the hotel parking lot, all of these indignities evaporated against Jennifer’s body beneath the floral-smelling comforter, in the thrum of his bourbon-warmed blood.
He was going to explain all of this to Renee, as a key part of the healing process; maybe not in such detail, but enough to make her understand. It was a cry of desperation. That’s all it was. And he was done with it now. He would quit his job, leave the agency, the entire awful industry, and never look back.
Starting completely from scratch, he would remake his life nothing but good will and positivity and selflessness. It would be a process, probably a long one, but whatever it took he’d do it. He would climb any mountain she put in front of him.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Silleck