Blasts from the Past - Doug Horn, King of Denial

This time let's get a little more creative, with some old creative writing homework. This assignment was based on an character building exercise, in which you identify what a character wants and build out from there. I chose someone who wanted to own a hippo. The paper thin premise could not be stretched thinner.

For as long as Doug could remember, he had wanted to own a hippo. This curious fascination began when Doug, as a young boy, developed a kinship from afar with the rotund amphibious mammalian species. Although he would not see one in person until his darker Wharton days, he related to the animal on a conceptual level, as a fellow traveler of the Large and In Charge League. Doug wished that he too could one day hold dominion over his own personal bend of the river, intimidating even the most feared alpha predators who dared trespass. Sadly, his fist never quite made it all the way to iron, stopping somewhere short of chalk, as Doug was regularly singled out from the pack in the wild free-for-all of the school hallway. His size proved to be a negative in these cramped close quarters, not being large enough to deter attack, yet not being nimble enough to evade it. In these formative educational years he was wholly dependent on sticking near elders of the species to dissuade predators, staying long after his peers went home helping perform menial tasks. Despite the social ostracization Doug endured because of this perceived brownnosing, he found solace at home in stacks of National Geographics, all already sorted to remove any copies which featured only lesser animals like beavers or egrets, as well as his trusty copy of Zoobooks: Hippopotamus Edition. He poured over the glossy full color photos and memorized every bit of hippo minutia presented in the captions below. He took special note of the tiny oxpecker birds who cropped up in many of the photos, picking ticks off the rough hide of the hippos. They were the one animal that the hippo tolerated violating its territory. Doug supposed that even an unquestioned lord of his own dominion must generously donate his backflesh to his loyal vassals from time to time, so long as he benefitted as well. He concluded that must be where the “you scratch my back, you eat whatever you find” proverb originated from, even though he was the only kid in the 7th grade to use it. However, only so many nature magazines were put out in a year back in these pre-internet leaden days of youth, leaving Doug devouring that which he had already mentally processed the day before. He was eating shit, so to speak, and while this was yet another trait he shared with his totem animal, it provided him little comfort.

One particularly numbing November afternoon brought Doug’s obsession to feverish boil. Doug decided that he must observe them personally and regularly, at his own leisure, and as soon as it would take to ship one over from Africa, preferably overnight. When he told his parents of his plan to transform their above ground pool into his own little slice of the Nile, they scoffed and patted his head, sharing a smile for their own impossible youthful fantasies. The next day, when he told them again, they told him to stop pestering them and to go clean his room or something. It was when he told them a third time and with added insistence, that Doug’s parents began to worry. They sat Doug down and asked him to clearly articulate his position. Doug wanted a hippo that much was clear, but why? Doug presumed that it would be for the same reason anyone would want such a magnificent creature, to learn from it, to bond with it, to accept it as your brother that you would die alongside in the mudfields of Verdun, if the situation happened to call for it. The boy’s father tried to explain that all that you would learn from putting a hippo in a tiny pool is that hippos hate tiny pools and can smash them quite easily. Doug was not so easily dissuaded and riposted with a plan to radically reshape the terrain of their suburban backyard, digging out all that useless turf and replacing it with as much water as their hose could spray. Doug’s father flatly rejected this proposal on the grounds that he enjoyed his time groundskeeping it and would like to, in fact, keep his grounds. Before Doug could issue a formal rebuttal, his mother seized the reins of the debate and brought it to a clattering stop. The monetary question was issued, a question Doug, despite the rapid calculations he rattled off, could not adequately provide an answer for. No matter how many candy bars the boy sold door to door, the grand prize would never be the endangered two ton wrecking ball of a beast that Doug wanted. It was then that Doug learned that the path to extravagant purchases is paved with money, and that a whole lot of money would be needed, considering that money does make for a durable surface to be walked on. Doug informed his parents of this new far more grounded future aspiration, much to his mother’s relief. His father, however, tempted Doug’s mania and suggested that if he studied zoology he could become an animal behavior scientist and be paid to watch hippos all day long. That he could even one day write the articles in those magazines that piled themselves precariously in his room. Doug did not answer him right away as he arrived at a second breakthrough in as many minutes, that his father was hopelessly naïve and could never understand how the world really worked. Doug told his father that he couldn’t own a hippo if it was still swimming around in Africa and that he shouldn’t suggest such silly things again.

Some twenty years later and a few hundred thousand dollars richer, Doug is still as hippo poor as ever. He has found that the workplace is yet another school, although with alpha predators far more desperate and balding. He comforts himself with his oxpecker role with thoughts of his childhood ambition, mostly now stripped away to a fondness for BBC Nature documentaries and of surfing Wikipedia instead of crunching numbers. But Doug still keeps that well-worn copy of Zoobooks, which nowadays is tucked away under his mattress for only himself to read. In the place where most men hide their nightly shame, Doug stashes away his last forlorn hope.


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