AN APPETIZER IS CAUSE FOR CHAOS
THE CRUISE DIRECTOR TAKES CHARGE
D Two weeks after being plucked from the lethal waters of New York Harbor by a police helicopter, Yours Truly, a Labrador retriever with a penchant for literature, and Harry, his dangerously abstract and artistic owner, were once again aboard a nautical vessel off our beloved isle of Manhattan. This time, though, the circumstances were quite different.
On our last disastrous waterborne outing there had been nothing but hardship and grimness. There had been nothing delicious to eat. Nothing at all—not even a stale New York pretzel or something seductively sticky and grizzly seared by the sun and a thousand commuters’ feet to the steel deck.
Harry and I had chased Imogen, my mistress and his lady love, off the rain-slicked Staten Island Ferry and into the water in the middle of night. Even for a water dog such as myself, this had been harrowing and unpleasant. The conclusion was also ambiguous.
That is, the world was supposed to believe that Imogen was a victim of those waters never to be heard from again—but Harry and I had a different understanding. We were confident that she had feigned her death and now wanted us to find her in a distant place of her choosing, safe from a world of diplomat-spies, nation-states, profiteers, and other rogues intent on claiming her uranium fortune.
She had left a “constellation map” to lead us to her. This is why we were heading south toward the Caribbean aboard the Nordic Bliss, a monstrously oversized, but tidy, Scandinavian cruise ship. In a handful of days’ time we would be disembarking on that quaint Dutch island of Curaçao where the architecture is pleasant pastel, the temperature a steady eighty-five degrees. We believed our mistress was hiding there in some cove beneath the stars waiting for us.
As far as our pursuit of Imogen went, passage on the Nordic Bliss made sense since it was a “pet lovers’ cruise” and something that even scrutinizing and hostile eyes might dismiss as natural for an artist and his dog.
But soon it would become clear that our trip by sea had the trappings of one of those expeditions that start with celebration only to grow progressively more troubled before ending with all hands going down in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle far from hearth and home, gone without a trace. I would learn that the Nordic Bliss was chock-full of characters who would threaten to turn this middle-aged Labrador’s chin completely white, leading to more than a few encounters with the absurd and the ridiculous and, most unfortunately, to some untimely passenger deaths. This last wrinkle would demand the particular abilities of Yours Truly’s 2.3 pounds of smoothly functioning gelatinous gray matter.
Though doubt and chaos loomed, in these first shipboard hours the hard edges of recent memory had gentled somehow, and Yours Truly was able to entertain a dream of peace—in this case the hope of an eventual reunion with our Imogen under more permanent circumstances that would eventually leave us all hearthside again in our cozy Manhattan abode. In the meantime I harbored the fantasy that I might soon be lazing beneath the shade of Harry’s deck chair discreetly dipping into the classics as our drumming liner slid toward the tropics.
The late-spring sun poured golden light down on Brooklyn and Staten Island, making even those lesser boroughs with their factories and sagging docks seem luminous. Harry tossed a last streamer into the breeze and watched it sag and flutter down the side of the ship until it was lost in our wake. There was music playing on deck—a trio producing Caribbean confections on the steel drums. Colorful, umbrella-crowned drinks were being consumed—Harry was draining his perilous third mojito and swaying a little too loosely for my taste, unable to resist, apparently, the rhythm of the drums and the ship’s wayward risings and fallings. (I sometimes wonder about my Harry and his endless capacity for distraction.)
There was a team of crew members whose sole responsibility was to smile and distribute bite-sized hors d’oeuvres on paper napkins in our vicinity. These people were such experts, so unflappable and focused in the art of hors d’oeuvres delivery, that even two dozen canines tangled about their feet fervently maneuvering for spillage could not coax a single morsel to the deck.
Though the hors d’oeuvres were whizzing well above this dog’s eye level on silver platters overhead, my nose quickly allowed me to develop a tentative list of the unseen delectables. There were in no particular order: urchinmeat salad in endive spears; pepper-crusted goat on brined chestnut with lychee crème fraîche; sea snake with prosciutto, stuffed with muscatelle grapes, wrapped in bacon with a plum reduction; wild snails on crostini; and beef tenderloins on parsnip crisps.
Yes, indeed, a dog’s nose—one hundred thousand times more powerful than a human’s—is a wondrous tool. (Please remember this the next time you scold your pet for seeming absentminded. Though my brethren do not have my laser-guided brain, reverence for reason, and knack for quiet reflection, they are just as likely to be lost in an ecstasy of scent classification. Expecting them to stay on the rails when rich smells fill the air is the equivalent of expecting a human obsessive-compulsive to take detailed notes during an acid trip.)
But it wasn’t these hors d’oeuvres that gave me pause. Certainly had any one of them fallen within easy scooping distance, I would have indulged, but my nose detected even more seductive fare.
I may come across as a bit of a snob for my love of literature, the formality in my writing, or a certain elite bearing with which I carry my plumpish Labrador torso, but I am not a snob. In fact, I detest snobbery.
I have my standards, but for someone who is forced to do his business in public on the streets of New York, be dragged around on a leash, and succumb more often than is comfortable to the lower canine nature, there is a limit to what standards I can have. Also, as a dog I know of the simple, inexpressible joys of existence—and that to pursue these joys you cannot be too proud or you will most surely miss them.
And one of those joys—a joy that was not to be missed—floated somewhere above my head on one of those silver platters. My nose was tormented not by sophisticated endive spears or lychee crème fraîche, but by something common, the gutter child of hors d’oeuvres that makes a mandatory appearance at every wedding, anniversary, and wake in the United States: I am of course speaking of that preservative-laden sublimity pigs in a blanket.
A particularly dapper crew member, all blond hair and polished epaulettes, had arrived on deck with a mother lode of these porcine delectables in their individually toasted blankets.
At first, this guardian of the pigs in a blanket remained on the fringes of the crowd. All the four-footed animals—even those rare ones unmoved by the other food—instantly became aware of the nearby bounty. The crew member sensed the pack movement in his direction and looked ready to retreat, but then a two-footed animal—a used car salesman from Pasadena, California—gestured for him to approach. The crew member obeyed, gripping the platter against the waves of pointers, hounds, poodles, retrievers, and a single affenpinscher wearing a pink collar.
I am not proud of what happened next and have no excuse for my behavior other than to say that in some cases not to act on our impulses can also be a kind of failure.
The steel drums played on, the Hawaiian-shirted passengers swayed above my head, the pigs in a blanket drew closer and closer until there they were right above me. I had not hunted them down, I had only willed them to come in my direction and they had obeyed. This was what they meant by fate, an unlikely but imperative collision of desire with consummation. The car salesman from Pasadena reached out and helped himself to four, which he promptly consumed and then reached out for another four. He was not even truly appreciating them.
Dogs of all sizes and shapes swarmed about the server now. The silver platter caught the last of the dying sun and gleamed with otherworldly brilliance. My stomach tumbled and galloped and tumbled some more. The scent was so powerful, so substantial that I felt I was sucking the food in through my nose. I was suddenly convinced that sitting on a throne at the center of the universe there was an all-powerful, all-knowing pig in a blanket dispensing truth, justice, and mercy and making the celestial orbs hum. That single intoxicated thought should have been a warning that Yours Truly was about to do something rash.
The used car salesman waved the server away, Harry was offered a sampling but declined, and then the tray began to slide away from me. A single delectable peeked from the edge. Surely there would be no harm in saving such a noble food from falling to the deck. It was at this point that I found myself flying upward. There was a shout and a tug on my leash from my owner, but it was too late. With a deft flick of my tongue and a precise snap of my dependable incisors, I had secured the prize. Unfortunately, I had underestimated the force of my heft in motion, and while I maintained sound oral precision as I gulped the delectable down, I could not prevent my chest from ramming into the upright Scandinavian and his blessed silver platter. The Scandinavian grunted and folded like a pair of scissors, the tray tipped, and in an instant its contents were showering down upon corgi, affenpinscher, and Labrador retriever alike. Mojitos and frozen daiquiris spilled. Yours Truly and the other dogs found themselves rolling in a swamp of alcohol and baked delights, snout-smearing and swallowing untold quantities.
And then my leash was yanked again with an unusual severity and Harry’s voice thundered my name from what seemed a very long way away.
“Randolph, stop it.”
But I couldn’t stop it.
“Randolph, drop it.”
Nor drop it.
And he yanked again and again and finally grabbed my shoulders and pulled me back from the melee.
“We’re going, Randolph,” Harry said. “I don’t have to tell you how disappointed I am in you.”
My head sank. My pathologically optimistic tail buried itself between my legs. These were harsh words even if they were delivered on a mojito tide.
“Sometimes I don’t recognize the dog that Imogen trained.”
Harry apologized to the server, who held the empty silver platter in one hand and looked stunned.
“It had to be the whole tray,” Harry muttered. “And I thought you were going to devour that Chihuahua next. All class, aren’t you, fella?”
Harry dipped on one leg and tried to pretend it was the result of the ship’s side-to-side motion. Then he gave another sharp yank on my leash and led us out of the crowd. We abandoned the mayhem on the Poop Deck and struck out down a passage for our quarters in the bowels of the ship. Someone was right behind us and wanted Harry’s attention.
“Excuse me,” called a short woman in a blazer holding a clipboard. This was the cruise director, Melody Buttermold, whose smiling visage I had seen plastered on posters all over the ship. It was Miss Buttermold’s duty to offer structured programs to those passengers who might fall into a dark well of despair lest they find one moment of their lives unscheduled. Harry and his dog did not fall into this category, but we were still clearly in Miss Buttermold’s sights.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you, I know you have a discipline problem on your hands,” she said, gesturing at me.
“Randolph likes to embarrass himself,” Harry said, steadying himself against the passage wall and trying to look respectable.
“Melody Buttermold,” the cruise director said, extending her hand. “I’m the cruise director.”
Miss Buttermold gave a girlish curtsy. “Here for your entertainment,” she said and then presented Harry with a canary-yellow sheet.
“This is the schedule and I’ve got a gap to fill.” She tapped the paper. Miss Buttermold pronounced the word gap as if it were an existential hazard or a dread- inducing disease.
“A gap?” Harry asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I had an accountant scheduled to deliver a lecture on turning your pet’s terminal cancer into a tax deduction, but he fell through and now I’ve got a gap. Our passengers demand value for their cruise dollars. A gap is unacceptable.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Harry said.
“Don’t be. As the Chinese say, crisis is another word for opportunity. That is why I’ve tracked you down and want to give you an opportunity,” Miss Buttermold said. “I know it’s last minute and feel free to say no, but one of your friends, Mr. Temple—he’s in the presidential suite—”
The cruise director said these last two words with extreme reverence.
“—suggested that you’d be absolutely perfect as a fill-in.”
Harry looked confused. “I don’t know anything about taxes,” my owner said.
Miss Buttermold laughed and rested her hand on my owner’s arm—the one that was not occupied in keeping him steady and respectable looking.
“Of course not, but he did say that you are an expert mosaicist—I hope that’s the right word—and would be happy to teach a class on memorializing a dog in mosaic. Pet owners love that kind of thing—it makes art useful. It’s just an hour. This Wednesday.”
Harry looked doubtful.
“We already have a delightful woman—a renowned pet portraitist from New York—teaching a similar course in oils and watercolors.”
Harry started to shake his head no.
“We’ll reimburse half your passage,” Miss Buttermold offered.
“It’s a deal,” Harry said.
“And we’ll throw in a personalized Pet Wellness Compliance Officer.”
“A what?” Harry asked.
“A Pet Wellness Compliance Officer.” Miss Buttermold repeated the ungainly moniker and pointed at me. “For him. No offense, but some of our top pet experts have already made a few comments.”
“About Randolph?” Harry asked.
Miss Buttermold nodded gravely. “There seems to be universal agreement that Rudolph could use some strict dietary enforcement.”
Harry looked at his feet. “I guess I’ve been a little slack with his diet,” he confessed. “You see, we’re on our own, and there’s a great Chinese place around the corner. They deliver. Randolph likes the ribs and the dumplings and the spring rolls with duck sauce.”
My mouth began to copiously water as the mention of these delectables evoked a Pavlovian response.
Miss Buttermold said nothing at first, and Harry’s recitation of my menu was brought to a sudden halt by the sheer force of her moral indignation.
“There’s no excuse, I know,” Harry said. “Randolph deserves better.”
I could think of nothing better than a wholesome array of Asian specialties, but Harry’s contrition or rather his sellout of Yours Truly won the cruise director over. Harry didn’t even defend me by mentioning that I had an unusually wide rib cage, which could easily suggest added pounds.
“Don’t you worry,” Miss Buttermold said. “It’s nothing the Pet Wellness Compliance Officer can’t fix. He’ll whip Rudolph into shape in no time.”
Then Miss Buttermold looked at me again and reassessed.
“At least he’ll get the healthy lifestyle process started,” she said.
Healthy lifestyle. These two words had an icy ring to them that gravely affected Yours Truly’s peace of mind, especially when they were delivered by a woman so thin as to be emaciated and possibly in need of medical attention, and whose eyes gleamed with the manic fever of someone for whom every calorie was the enemy and every doughnut a confectionary booby trap on the high road to nutritional salvation. Her sheer efficiency of care was threatening my leisure.
Harry might be profoundly incompetent in his feeding and walking duties, but my Labrador nature could accept such weaknesses and failings. It is brutal efficiency a dog cannot tolerate—we know only too well what lies at the end of that approach to the inherent messiness of life: a kennel, a lethal injection, a whimper and permanent darkness for us, while human streets remain free of the inconvenience of having my homeless brethren underfoot. Healthy lifestyle indeed. I huffed at the thoughtlessness of this much-bandied-about term like Orwell stewing over Politics and the English Language. I thought: As if to read and enrich one’s spirit, soul, and gray matter somehow does not rate unless it is being done on a treadmill or in between bouts with a ThighMaster. This woman’s ethic would have had Emily Dickinson out jogging along with all the other great literary gimps, recluses, and asthmatics, aspirating wheat germ instead of poetry. I huffed again. Unfortunately, the cruise direc- tor mistook the noise for weight-related respiratory trouble.
“What’s wrong with him?” Miss Buttermold asked.
“He just does that sometimes.”
“I wouldn’t wait another minute to get him on the path to wellness and lifestyle change,” Miss Buttermold said. She added, almost as if whispering a reminder to herself, “Check what accommodations we have if one of our canine guests were to pass.”
Coffins and cold storage awaited their human passengers, but the implication was that Yours Truly would be indecorously heaved overboard if he were to die aboard ship snout burrowed in a buffet tray. I huffed again.
“I think it’s serious, poor thing,” Miss Buttermold said. The cruise director pointed us in the direction of my salvation and headed off to find other idle passengers to terrorize.
Excerpted from A Dog at Sea by J. F. Englert. Copyright © 2009 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.