A body in the bathroom
A number 1 in Central Park
LYELL OVERTON MINSKOFF-Hardy, literary light and cultural personage, perished a few days before Christmas beneath a stainless steel toilet on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. With his fly open. Harry, my owner, prone to accept all explanations involving the paranormal, believed the death had a supernatural flourish. Almost from the start I thought Harry quite mistaken. Overton's death had nothing to do with ghosts, spirits or the occult and everything to do with science, human nastiness and greed.
I first learned of Overton's death upon the return of my owner to our humble walk-up apartment. I had been rereading Robert Pinsky's excellent translation The Inferno of Dante, an artifact from Imogen's time in our lives, when I heard the familiar clump-clump on the stairs and the jangle and click of locks being opened--notably more urgent than usual. I did not have time to close the book or even move too far away from it. I imagined my owner's imminent surprise. The book would be the first thing he would notice, no doubt. The reading light that had been off when he departed would be the second.
I was wrong. Harry was in such a distracted state that he noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Rain dripped from his Driza-Bone jacket and pooled on the kitchen floor. My owner is a broad-shouldered, strapping fellow, standing almost six foot three, and you would never guess that his regular regimen of physical fitness had long been derailed by frequent retreats to the La-Z-Boy recliner with buckets of fried chicken and takeout Chinese.
"A great man is dead tonight, Randolph," he pronounced.
I could think of several great men who were dead that night. Dante Alighieri, Florentine poet, first among them; Sir Winston Churchill, a close second, but I did not so much as growl a qualifier.
"A famous man," Harry emphasized.
He crammed what looked like a Maryland crab cake into our deeply troubled refrigerator, the interior of which had remained a shadowland of petrified broccoli and pizza since the bulb burned out months before.
"Lyell Overton Minskoff-Hardy." Harry spoke the dead man's name with a kind of reverence.
It is a point of pride that I remain well acquainted with the biographies of luminaries past and present. I do this chiefly through newspapers and magazines. There is much truth to be gleaned from the gossip columns. Rich treasures of it. I had already assembled a full mental file of notes on the man Harry named and I drew from it now.
Lyell Overton Minskoff-Hardy was two men really. There was the patrician figure, Lyell Overton, whose name evoked English estates and private libraries where wolfhounds stretch before the sputtering hearth and leather-bound volumes lie open awaiting the return of some tousle-haired savant from Oxford. An appropriate image, I think, for he was tall and graceful in that insouciant, underclassman way--a perennial student and college man, his torso forever sheathed in the invisible, but palpable, entitlement of the varsity letter sweater.
The Minskoff-Hardy contribution was gritty, ethnic and glamorous in a hard-won sort of way. It was Broadway via Ellis Island and the Five Points--vintage New York. Minskoff-Hardy could be urbane and world-wise, but also, as are so many native New Yorkers, hopelessly parochial, predisposed to view with suspicion anything not found or imported to their narrow island. Minskoff-Hardy was brash and full of colic, demanding and impatient. But more than anything, Minskoff-Hardy was ambitious and his ambition had wounded, scarred and made an army of permanent enemies along the way.
Both men inhabiting the hyphenated identity died that night with their flys open, their eyelids slightly ajar and their last bon mot left unspoken.
These matters of temper and temperament are now locked in his dead heart, but his death--and this moment with Harry in our cramped but cozy Upper West Side abode--would bring out that inner being in Yours Truly concerned with the murderous significance of details and the disastrous consequences that stem from small gestures. All such questions of the heart and the character are my concern because the detective is the last true humanist, standing at that lonely intersection where observation and reason meet emotion and intuition revealing the secrets that measure our fragile, inconstant, but extraordinary beings. How ironic, then, that I am not even human.
Yes, that is correct. I am not human.
You see, I am a dog--not a scoundrel, a cad, a rascal--no, not a dog in that sense, but an actual dog, Canis familiaris. One of the most familiar and lovable (I only repeat the general perception): a Labrador retriever. A Labrador retriever is defined by Merriam-Webster as "any of a breed of compact, strongly built retrievers largely developed in England from stock originating in Newfoundland and having a short dense black, yellow, or chocolate coat . . . called also Lab, Labrador." Faithful to that definition, I am indeed compact and strongly built (though bulging at the midsection from my owner's generous feedings) and black but for a wisp of premature white on my chin that serves to impart a sort of sage-like impression.
I am also sentient. I can think. I can remember. I can understand that as the teller of this tale I had best get most of this explanatory material over with at the beginning. Like the reader, I compare the past and the present. I strategize and calculate. This is not a possibility entertained by the Merriam-Webster definition. The competent editors of that publication are not to blame for the oversight. Most dogs certainly do not behave in ways that would suggest sentience (though I might also add that most humans do not either as is apparent from the hastiest of glances at the newspapers). Moreover, there is at present no way to penetrate my species' muteness. Science is unable to plumb the depths of our cerebral cortices and discern the life of our minds.
Even so, among my brothers and sisters, I am unique. Where other dogs babble, I sing. Where they follow tangents like they are darting from scent to scent, my thoughts are precision-guided. If you could speak our language, you would understand. It is a challenge to extract a single relevant word from one of my brethren let alone a competent sentence and forget reasonable analysis altogether. It's all myth, rumor and constant distraction with them. What makes my kind endearing to humans makes them difficult for me to endure. It is a mystery why I am different. Genetic mutation, something in the water my mother drank during her pregnancy, my rearing, who knows? I came to consciousness, I suspect, in much the same way a human child does: sticky scraps of reality gradually collaged into a bigger picture within which an identity was assumed.
"Randolph, tonight was unbelievable," Harry said finally. "It's going to be all over the papers tomorrow."
He forced the refrigerator closed with a grunt. I had the momentary sense that something might try to escape.
"One minute Overton was at the table telling stories: a taxi ride with Truman Capote; strip poker with Kerouac; arm wrestling with Fidel Castro . . ."
Harry reached behind the toaster for his emergency cigarettes. He shook one free from the pack, lit it and put the rest into his pocket.
"Halfway through dinner, Overton gets up, walks down the hall, then there's a sort of yelp. I expected that he would burst out into the dining room with a joke; instead he was dying on the bathroom floor in a pool of urine. A woman found him. I think she owned the apartment. At least, she acted like she did, but I don't think she is the one who invited me."
Harry had been invited to assist at a seance that night. The invitation had come through the mail with no return address. Harry wasn't too sure who had invited him, but he accepted anyway--lately he had become vulnerable to the promises of the paranormal and immersed himself in that otherworldly network of charlatans and misty-eyed believers. It was a fascination that was trying my patience even though I understood the tragedy that had caused it--a tragedy that had crippled
me as well and made it impossible to act with any decisiveness for many months.
"She acted like she owned Overton too, because she kept nagging him. When she found him, she screamed. We didn't even get to the real part of the seance. Overton wanted us to contact his first wife. She had died on their wedding night. He said she was his true love . . ."
Harry's voice trailed off, leaving only the hollow, tinny sound of rainwater down our drainpipe and his crisp inhale. I knew he was thinking of Imogen; talk of true love always had this effect on him. Imogen was our tragedy.
Less than a year earlier Imogen had left our apartment for an evening walk. She was going to Zabar's to buy some bread. She often made this trip on the nights she returned home early from her work as an archivist at the Morgan Library--that fabulous New York institution endowed long ago by the solitaire-playing tycoon J. P. Morgan. Imogen liked to buy bread at the end of the day. It was usually marked down, but more than this, the idea of getting bread daily appealed to her romantic nature. She told Harry that it made her feel like we were living in Paris and she had ducked down to the boulangerie for a baguette.
But that night she didn't return. Harry launched a massive search. He enlisted the police. He rallied friends. He chased down every lead he received and spent hours in excruciating vigil by the phone. Weeks passed. The police finally found her red beret under a bench in Riverside Park. The assumption was that she had somehow fallen into the water and drowned. At least that was one assumption, but darker visions of my mistress's fate haunted me. Her body was not found and she remained a missing person.
Harry and I had been living a sort of half-life of false starts and impossible expectations ever since in the same apartment to which we three had all moved so happily, filled with future promise. Harry and Imogen had met at a party downtown--a party that she frequently liked to remind him she had almost skipped because her Labrador puppy had a cold that night.
Harry took another long, reflective drag of his cigarette. I tried to keep my body motionless but the involuntary canine trembling that many humans mistake for excitement made my collar tinkle.
Harry mistook the sound for bladder-based urgency. He took my leash down from the hook beside the door and clapped his big hands together.
"Want to go for a walk, boy?"
Harry employed the singsong voice reserved for inducing the delivery of a swift Number 1 or 2 by Yours Truly.
I sat down and let him snap the leash to my collar. I am fortunate in this important regard: he is sensitive to my need for walks, seldom inflicting a marathon of waiting that might force me to test my house-trained credentials.
It was well past midnight and our street was empty. It had stopped raining, but the sidewalk still glistened. Young Harry remained silent. He sucked the life out of his cigarette and lit a second. Together we exhaled great clouds of steam and smoke into the cold night air as we trotted toward Central Park. We crossed the avenue, passed through the park gate and down the tree-lined path. The ground was hard beneath my paws, but a little spongy in places from the rain. Indeed, it felt like
December--winter but not quite.
My nose filled with an inexplicably rich array of winter smells. Smells are a central fact of my universe. I will do my best to share them with you despite the extreme differences in our noses which, to make a wine-tasting parallel, will reduce the finest vintage for you to a third-rate beer for me. What a marvelous organ! A Labrador's sense of smell is 100,000 times more acute than that of man. Imagine what the world would be like if humans could smell with the same complexity. Humans would have at their disposal a rich vocabulary that could illuminate nuance and shed truth. But more on that later.
Even in the absence of need, I never forget to pull Harry toward the little hill that has been designated for my Number 1s. I think if I act a bit Pavlovian it reinforces the importance of regular walks in my owner's mind. That night, I lifted my right leg and as usual felt embarrassed even though there was no one else about.
Not that Harry was paying me the slightest bit of attention. He was off with the pixies--sad and brokenhearted pixies.
"Sometimes," Harry said, "the spirits will call to us so strongly that our bodies just let us go. Maybe that's what happened to Overton. Maybe his first wife was calling from the beyond."
Malarkey, of course, but I couldn't blame Harry. Imogen had left us both quite alone, forced to pick up the fragments as best we could and lick wounds that showed no sign of healing. Harry had responded to her absence by opening himself up to people and ideas that Imogen would have promptly dismissed as fools and absurdities--and Harry would have felt the same confident disdain in happier times.
If Imogen's disappearance had taught me anything it was this: men need to be loved or they will slowly and invariably go bad. A perfectly adequate male in his twenties will become, in little more than a decade--if unloved--a strange creature statistically prone to die of an ingrown toenail in an apartment crammed with hoarded newspapers and unwashed cereal bowls.
Harry wasn't the only male that could use Imogen's help. I was also slipping without her. She had been my mistress long before she had been Harry's. My mind scrolled backward five years.
"Aren't you a wise little dog?" Imogen had said, lifting my puppy body high in the air and gently flicking my chin, white even then. That very day she had whisked me away from the pet store clods, the sawdust and the poking children to my first home: a little studio in the East Village.
Imogen had made better males of us both and yet the anatomy of my dog's eyes would never permit me to shed a single tear for my vanished mistress.
A dog reviews a jounal
A strange code is revealed
AS HARRY AND I TRUDGED up the stairs from our walk, it suddenly occurred to me that I had encountered Overton's name before and much closer to home than the tabloid gossip pages. The dead auteur was mentioned in Imogen's journal. My mistress was fun-loving and at times even a little bit wild, but she had--as befitted her profession--an archivist's thoroughness and this was especially apparent in the regularity and precision of her journal entries. She had kept a journal since high school, but I only had access to the final volume--a thin marbleized notebook that remained faceup on the lowest shelf of the bookcase (the rest were tucked away in a cardboard box in the bedroom closet). This notebook contained scores of entries penned in black ink and Imogen's fine, precise hand.
Excerpted from A Dog About Town by J. F. Englert. Copyright © 2007 by J.F. Englert. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.