THE YOUNG MAN AND HIS PARACHUTE
A PHOTOGRAPH OPENS OLD WOUNDS
It's not every day that a young man clad only in boxer shorts embossed with red hearts dies beneath an opened parachute in a small third-floor room in one of New York's last boardinghouses. It's even rarer that a visual artist, the owner of a Labrador retriever equipped with a generous belly, a fine mind and an admirable temperament, is called to the scene by the police department before the body is even cold. Yet this is exactly what happened just after ten p.m. on a recent mild March night.
I was sitting on my haunches in our cozy apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, looking into the middle distance and allowing a mother lode of Chinese spareribs to settle pleasantly in my gullet. I felt a postdinner nap coming on and was not planning to resist (in this hectic world it is often a struggle to get my twelve-hour sleep quota). Harry, my twenty-something owner, was beginning the third hour of a documentary on the life of Vincent van Gogh, narrated, it seemed, by a narcoleptic whose voice rose at all the wrong moments, as if he had just been poked awake again in the sound booth.
Then the phone rang. My owner had already taken me for my evening Numbers 1 and 2 (shortchanging himself van Gogh's contentious roommateship with Gauguin at Arles) and was loath to be roused from Grandfather Oswald's La-Z-Boy for anything short of an evacuation of Manhattan for the apocalypse. He let the machine pick up, and Imogen's voice filled our living room.
"Leave a message after the beep," she said before trailing off into an uncertain whisper. "Harry, is it a beep?"
The mild but decisive voice of the caller came next.
"Harry, it's Detective Davis. If you're there, pick up. It's important. It involves . . . her."
Harry flew out of his La-Z-Boy recliner and grabbed the phone. My nose could detect the strong waves of hope, excitement and possibility that my owner shed. I wondered if Detective Peter Davis, the lead investigator in Imogen's case, had a breakthrough to report. Our lovely Imogen, who had rescued me from the pet-store clods and then included Harry in our domestic arrangements, had disappeared over a year before without a word or lead—foul play suspected. I had not yet informed Harry, but I had spotted her once again disappearing into a subway tunnel after the successful—if brutal—conclusion to our last mystery. That investigation had pushed both Harry and me to great extremes of endurance and ingenuity, and the end found us on the verge of an even larger mystery, which promised to span the globe in a conspiratorial and high-stakes web before it brought some resolution to our loss of Imogen. Detective Davis's phone call was the beginning of what would prove to be Act II.
"I'm here," Harry said into the receiver, then listened without a word. He found a pen amid a pile of paintbrushes on the side table and scribbled down an address.
"Okay, Peter. I'll be there in twenty minutes."
My owner hung up the phone, grabbed a light jacket and disappeared through the door and down the stairs without a word to his dog. The peace was shattered—what is peace if it can be broken so easily?—and all prospects of an after-dinner nap seemed to vanish in the face of this fresh anxiety. But fortunately I am built to endure, and soon the soporific magic of the spareribs began to affect me and I closed my eyes for a dreamless snooze.
Let me now share with you the particular facts that mark my existence. I am a Labrador retriever who lives in Manhattan, the isle of my birth, to which I am deeply attached. I am also sentient. Other dogs might be as well, to a greater or lesser degree, but few take pleasure from reading the important works of your human literature or make expansive journeys of imagination as Yours Truly does. I am self-taught, having learned to read from the pages of New York's finest tabloid newspapers laid out for my house-training. The writers, particularly those responsible for headlines, are the unheralded poets of our age (by way of evidence, the Post
's sublime: HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR). Lest I lose myself in the sometimes lurid virtues of the tabloid, the main challenge of this Labrador's life is the fact that his prodigious brain—2.3 pounds of smoothly functioning gelatinous gray matter—is trapped within a body as unresponsive to the nuances of thought as a piece of chocolate (a delicacy I am supposed to avoid because my liver cannot handle it). Because of this physical "frozenness," I cannot express in any facial gesture what I am thinking. Blankness is my trademark, though many humans describe my eyes as "soulful." My tail has a life of its own and wags idiotically even when I am in a black mood. Then there is an involuntary body tremble that my owner frequently mistakes for bladder-based urgency because it jingles the tags on my collar (not that I am ever ungrateful for regular outings to the sidewalks, dog runs or parks of New York). Owners, please never underestimate the importance of liberal access to Numbers 1 and 2—no need to make us test our house-trained credentials.
Being unable to choose when I can relieve myself and under what conditions is symbolic of the many restrictions in my life. I cannot, for example, simply walk out the front door of our apartment and wander the streets without a human chaperone. For most of my relatively short life (I will be six in November) I have not minded these restrictions. I have had wonderful people to whom I belonged and who belonged to me. I have had my books and a cozy corner in which to discreetly enjoy them, to listen to the wind or the rain on the drainpipe and mull over the wisdom of the classics and the music of words.
But then Imogen disappeared and people died and I needed to apply whatever strengths I had to protecting my owner and learning the truth. Prior to this development I had always steered clear of trying to communicate with humans. As warm as my relations are with Harry, I never trusted the species as a whole. There is always some P. T. Barnum in the woodwork, ready to try to make a buck from the latest animal freak, or, worse still, an overly zealous scientist eager to shave off every inch of a Labrador's fur and snap on the electrodes to prove that we are a higher form of life. No thank you. But despite my reluctance to "shine," the necessities of protecting my owner and solving a mystery required that I construct a bridge between species. I did this by using Harry's favorite cereal, Alpha-Bits, and composing messages from "beyond" out of the friendly little letters. Harry is susceptible to the idea of the paranormal. Ghosts, spirits, communication from beyond now make up part of his worldview. Someday, I hope, this irrational fever will pass, but we all nurse our wounds differently and losing Imogen was a harsh blow. For my part, I stick to reason and those elements of intuition and dog sense that have helped me navigate this life. Perhaps I stick to these things a little too much. The point, though, is that I used Harry's susceptibility as a way to introduce the messages I wrote and make them credible. The messages came from a spirit guide whom I dubbed Holmes. My uncritical owner left the stone unturned and I was never found out, even though near the end I had Holmes indicate that I had been "inspired" and that my owner should follow my lead.
Harry returned to our apartment after three hours, and I awoke from my after-dinner slumber to find him smoking one of his emergency cigarettes as he came through the door. Things were clearly very grim.
Fortunately, my owner often gives voice to his recent experiences and thus keeps his dog well informed. The following is a narrative of what transpired after Harry left our apartment, which I have pieced together from his reiteration of events and information I gathered soon after.
My owner had taken a taxi to the address provided by Detective Davis. He stepped out of the cab to find himself standing before a large red-brick residential building in the East Village. Most of the windows were dark, but one room on the third floor was ablaze with light, and Harry saw figures appear and disappear in the window: a man with a tape measure; someone else in a big white suit with a face mask. It was a forensics team collecting evidence.
"No one in. No one out," a police officer said. He stood between Harry and the entrance to the building.
"Detective Davis told me to come," Harry said.
The policeman stepped aside. Harry climbed a short flight of stairs and, entering through the open front door, found himself in the lobby of what could have been mistaken for a New England bed-and-breakfast if it were not filled with an oddly incongruous bunch of foreign nationals, drag queens and vagrants.
"Wow," Harry muttered as he absorbed the scene.
Rough-and-tumble bachelor-athlete type though Harry may be, even my owner knows that doilies, woven wicker baskets, plastic cornucopias with waxy grapes do not typically belong in the East Village and definitely not with this pirate crew.
"They're the residents," Detective Davis said from the landing of the interior staircase. He spoke loudly, as if he wanted everyone to hear. "Come on upstairs, Harry."
Harry did as he was told and began to climb the several flights of stairs to the third floor.
"Interesting place," Harry said. "What is it?"
"A boardinghouse," Detective Davis said. "Probably one of the last ones in Manhattan. There used to be hundreds, thousands even. Then they turned most of them into SROs—single-resident-occupancy buildings—but not this one. This one is classic Bowery bum."
"Yeah, the people don't really seem to fit," Harry said as they climbed the stairs, occasionally brushing past crime-scene personnel carrying clear plastic bags filled with suspicious-
looking contents gathered up above on the third floor. "I mean, there's a complimentary coffee and tea station. There's a fire going in the fireplace. There're Currier and Ives prints on the wall."
"Some of those aren't prints," Detective Davis said in hushed tones. "Let me give you the short version. Ten years ago this place was a dump. A gun cage around reception. Dealers on the stoop. Graffiti all over that wall where the Currier and Ives are now. Then two things happened: the neighborhood started to improve, and the lady who owns the place won the lottery. Instead of doing what most people would with the winnings—buy a villa in Tuscany, sail the world—she decided to renovate the place."
"I got it," Harry concluded. "But she couldn't get rid of the old tenants. That explains the people downstairs."
"No," Detective Davis said as they arrived at the third floor. "She didn't want to get rid of the tenants. She wanted to give them a taste of the good life too. Harry, I think that she is either one of the craziest women on the planet or the happiest. Most of the time I lean toward thinking she's the happiest. After all, only the happiest sort of person would win all of that money and not leave their past behind. Only the happiest sort of person has that kind of peace."
"Now let's go look at the corpse."
Detective Davis motioned for the forensics team to clear the room, and two men and one woman in sanitary jumpsuits promptly exited with more bags of evidence. Harry moved as if to cover his nose the way he had seen in detective shows, but Davis intervened.
"No need. There's no smell. If he's been dead more than two hours I'd be surprised. Forensics will tell us soon enough."
Harry stood just inside the room and looked around. At first there was not much to see: a queen-sized bed, a writing desk and desk lamp, a waist-high chest of drawers and two large klieg lights brought by the police to illuminate the room. Then Harry saw the legs sticking out between the bed and the window. The legs ended in the white boxer shorts embossed with red hearts. The rest of the body was covered by a gently inflated white parachute that draped from the bed onto the floor like the roof of a child's tent playhouse.
"You haven't moved it yet?" Harry asked.
"Oh, yeah. We moved it, but I had them put it back."
"For me?" Harry asked.
"For me," Detective Davis said. "I like to freeze the scene in my mind. It helps me trace backward if I know how it all finally ended."
"Sounds like a meditation."
"Only when the bodies don't stink or someone's not shooting a gun at you or swinging a machete."
"The parachute's strange," Harry observed.
"The parachute's a real winner. The touch of the poet," Detective Davis said. "He didn't die falling off his bed. He was strangled with the parachute cord. He's a strong young man. Very fit. But there isn't a sign of a struggle. People don't let themselves get strangled. They kick. They punch. They scratch. They fight. The only time they don't is when they aren't conscious to begin with. Whoever did this first made sure he wasn't conscious. He was probably drugged. I'd guess chloral hydrate. We found two champagne glasses and a bottle—Schramsberg—the California bubbly Richard Nixon used to toast détente with China in the seventies. It's all being tested now, but I can already tell you what they'll find. Powerful sleeping agent in only one of the glasses and plenty of DNA over everything . . ."
"I don't get it, Peter. What's this got to do with Imogen?"
Detective Davis motioned toward the dresser, which was bare except for a large photo frame.
"Take a look at those pictures."
The frame contained two photographs, one above the other. Both featured our mistress. The top photograph showed Imogen in a red cocktail dress, smiling broadly. The bottom photograph showed my mistress and Yours Truly, but I will save further description of the picture because it was the top photograph that gripped my owner now. In it, Imogen's arm was around the shoulder of a young man. Her hair was short, as it had been when I had last seen her racing toward the subway.
"My God. It's her," Harry whispered. Harry reached to pick up the frame and hold it close, but Detective Davis stopped him.
"Harry, please don't touch. It's evidence."
"Who's that guy?"
"That guy is that
guy," Detective Davis said, pointing at the body beneath the parachute. "Beyond that I couldn't tell you. I was hoping that you could tell me."
"I've never seen him before," Harry said. "But Imogen looks so different."
"Short hair," Detective Davis said. "Is that it?"
"I've never seen the dress," Harry said. "It's very un-Imogen. She was a jeans and T-shirt girl."
"So you think the photograph is recent?"
"That it was taken after she disappeared . . ."
Harry could not grasp the meaning of Detective Davis's words, because, as I mentioned above, I had not yet informed him that Imogen was alive. There was no "after she disappeared" for Harry. In Harry's mind, Imogen had no "after" life that did not include him. Harry was of two minds: Imogen was dead, but, because he loved her beyond telling, she never could be. She haunted him but was permanently frozen as the girl who had disappeared one winter's night going to buy bread at Zabar's. I should have conveyed what I knew to Harry, but, instead, I had decided to approach the revelation of her being alive in my own fashion, which meant after much careful and literary reflection. Dante, my Florentine poet guide, promised no help in this area, since Pinsky's excellent translation was still buried beneath the daybed in our living room, where Harry had kicked it by accident on his way from bedroom to bathroom one drowsy morning. I turned to Proust and his prodigious work on memory but, alas, was asleep before the first madeleine. So I crossed the Channel to the land of Dickens. Dickens mixes his poetry with practicality, and his novels, of course, are stock full of people disappearing and popping up again. I began to work my way through Great Expectations
in a small-print, nose-unfriendly paperback edition, and as Pip and Estella and Miss Havisham rose up to me from the page and began to play—not very nicely, those last two—in my imagination, I realized, once again, something that I have always known but frequently forget: literature is not a way to get practical things done. Nor should it be. It is a destination and occasionally an escape. When we return to this so-called real world from the book, it is like stepping back into time at the exact moment we had left. We may feel different, but nothing else has changed. And if we are different, we are different in ways that might be rich, wide and soulful, but not really practical. Go into a great novel or poem looking for the answer to A and you'll get the answer to Z. It will be a good answer. But it will still be the answer to Z, not A.
Excerpted from A Dog Among Diplomats by J.F. Englert. Copyright © 2008 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.