I’d been tinkering with the Communicator when I heard a short squeal of brakes outside my house and then a dull thud: the sound of a body being struck by a speeding car. As quickly as I could I removed the headset, shut off the current, and hurried to my front door. When I opened it, I looked around.
The street was pretty much empty except for a big brown dog wobbling up the walk to where I stood. About five feet away, it suddenly sat down and stared as if it knew me but was having trouble remembering from where exactly, and whether I’d been a friend or an enemy. The dog’s dark eyes moved from deep, pained questioning, to blank, then back to me.
“Hey, boy,” I said, but before the animal could come to any resolution one way or another, it fell heavily onto its side, all four legs stuck out and quivering. I tried to remember if I’d seen it around the neighborhood and, if so, where, but in truth I’d never paid much attention to dogs. The animal looked at me again, let out a sort of exasperated sigh, as if it had done what it was supposed to do—had brought back the ball, or whatever, and dropped it at my feet. “And now,” it seemed to say, “it’s your turn.” But my turn to do what, I couldn’t understand.
Then it died.
The dog, a male, had short red-brown hair with a small patch of white on its chest and a flat, broad skull. His expression, in death, had changed to one of dignity and regret. I walked over and patted his stony head. “Sorry, guy,” I told him. “You did OK. You came to the right house. It wasn’t your fault. You did fine. It just didn’t happen to work out. Things go that way sometimes. Believe me, I should know.”
Around the dog’s neck was a thick leather collar with silver spikes and an oval nameplate with Bob in block letters, but there was no other identification—no license, no rabies tag, no carefully chosen heart-shaped or bone-shaped or round disk with an address to look up or a phone number to call—nobody at all to tell the bad news.
And as chance would have it, Bob was my name, too.
Bob’s nails were dark, shiny, and in need of cutting. There was an endearing tuft of black hair at the very tip of his tail. His tongue, already drained to gray in the fading light, poured carelessly out from one side of his loose mouth. I could see no visible marks on him, but clearly he had been the victim of that speeding car—wherever it had disappeared to—the sound of whose driver’s belated attempt to brake had disturbed me. It seemed odd that out of all the doors on this street Bob might have staggered toward, he had chosen one that belonged to a person who shared his name—his brother, in effect—but animals, I knew, often had a way of sensing the nearness of a kindred spirit.
Or, alternately, I thought, if Bob hadn’t known my name, was it possible he’d been sent as a sign? Could Bob’s visit be a warning, like in that famous scene in The Godfather when the horse’s head is left on the movie producer’s bed? Was someone or some thing telling me: “Hey pal, it’s time to wake up. Bob was alive. Now he is dead. You are alive, but how long do you think that is going to last? So carpe diem, Bob, if you get my drift”?
I may have been missing a couple of steps in the old reasoning process here, but the point was the same. In other words, there was a possibility, however remote, that some godlike force had chosen this unfortunate dog to send me a message, and that message was: “Get off your ass, Bob. It’s time to stop your woolgathering and to make something of your life. You’ve been working on the Communicator in a more or less half-assed fashion ever since Yvonne disappeared, and how far have you gotten? Not very, is how far. You’ve been putting on those headphones and taking them off for how long? Since Yvonne’s been gone, that’s how long. Don’t let me lose more faith in you than I have already, but also, don’t spend so much time on your invention that you forget you have an upholstery business to maintain. I could tell you dozens of stories of people who starved to death before they finally found what they were looking for. Still, as it did for this unfortunate animal, the messenger of this message, time is running out for you, too. That ship, or train, or bus supposed to take you out of here to a better future is at the station and is about to move on without you unless you get onboard.”
As messages went, I thought it could have been a little more focused. The messenger of this message? And woolgathering? Where did that come from? I’d never used that word in my whole life. Why was I using it now?
I took a few steps down the walk, toward the street, and turned to look at my house. It was a modest frame structure with a mostly brown front yard and some kind of bush on the right side of the door. True, the door could have used another coat of varnish and the bush’s leaves were starting to curl, but we were in a water shortage. That wasn’t the whole story, however. The fact was that I had neglected to do the watering as well—yet another strike against me, the dog’s message might have added, in a sort of PS. To make matters worse, my gutters were stuffed with leaves. My next-door neighbor, Farley, had a tree whose branches hung over my roof, and though I’d asked him a million times to cut it back, he refused. One of these days I was going to have to get a ladder to clean those gutters out. I hated heights.
I knew I should call the city and report Bob’s death, but the truth was that the dog’s timing was terrible. It was five thirty on a Thursday, and the city offices were already closed for the day. As a cost-cutting move, they were closed on Fridays, so no one would be answering phones again until the following Monday—no, Tuesday, because Monday was Columbus Day. In other words, when—about five days in the future—I finally got through to the city switchboard and sat on hold for about ten minutes listening to an idiotically cheerful trumpet solo that some well-meaning civil servant must believe represents the sound of a happy citizenry, was connected to a clerk, and had to explain how the previous week an animal had died on my doorstep, how long would it be from then before someone actually appeared to take said animal away? Over a month ago I’d called to ask them to take away a metal bookshelf that had been tossed near the curb in front of my house, and large parts of it still remained, making a clanking sound every time a car ran over one of them. So I figured that from where I was right now, time-wise, to the actual moment a bored maintenance worker arrived at my small house to carry Bob away, I would have a dead dog lying across my threshold for a minimum of five days, with a week far more likely, possibly two.
Also, there would be the smell.
It didn’t seem right, somehow. Bob had done his job. Bob had made his painful way all that distance, up my walk nearly to my front door, and had, like the inventor of the marathon, Philippides, used his last precious moments of life to deliver his message. That, and maybe to beg for a little first aid. And I had gotten the message, more or less, but, pitifully, had been unable to offer any assistance in the area of veterinary expertise. Surely Bob deserved more than being thrown into a landfill, or worse.
When I considered it, I had only two real options. The first was to drag Bob next door into Farley’s yard and let Farley deal with him. The downside of that was if Farley happened to be around at this hour and he saw me (Farley worked nights, and his schedule seemed to change often, so I could never be sure exactly when he was at home), I would be in big trouble. Farley had a nasty sense of boundary entitlement and once, when a letter addressed to me had been delivered to his house by mistake, he wouldn’t hand it over until I signed for it. It turned out to be an overdue notice from the library. Or I could just drag Bob back out to the street and leave him, but the negative in that case was that if anyone saw me doing it—and there was a lot of potential to be seen because half my neighborhood, come to think of it, was out of work—I might be accused of murder, or at least littering. Plus, lying in the road, Bob could cause an accident; the last thing I wanted was to hurt an innocent mom driving her kid to preschool and then be sued by her hotshot lawyer.
I walked back to where Bob was lying and thought it over: Why not be active for a change? What was it Bob had said about woolgathering? When all was said and done, it would be a simple enough thing to drag Bob around back and bury him beneath the rosebush that was currently looking in serious need of nutrition. All in all, I guessed it wouldn’t take more than a half hour, and, in addition, it would give the brave dog a sort of resting place in honor of his sacrifice. For another thing, it would feed the bush.
The more I pondered, the better the idea seemed. I looked down at the inert form lying at my feet. “You were wondering if I was a friend or foe, Bob,” I told the ex-man’s-best-friend, “but you can relax now. You made the right choice. You did the right thing. You’re safe now. Nobody is ever going to scold you again for jumping up on the furniture, for tracking mud onto the carpet, or for stealing an unguarded pork roast from a dining room table while your underachiever owner is a room away in his La-Z-Boy recliner—a real pain to reupholster, by the way. You’re a good dog, Bob, and notice that while, only a few minutes ago you were accusing me of being indecisive, look at me now. I’m taking action on your behalf, my friend. And that’s only the beginning.”
Grabbing Bob by his hind legs, I pulled him around the side of my house through the gate to the backyard and left him about four feet away from the rosebush. He looked as if he were sleeping, though his original look of regret had turned to one of resentment. Then I went to the garage and found the fancy spade I’d bought from a mail-order gardening catalog but had put off using because it looked so beautiful. I took it down and started to dig. My backyard was small, so at first the hole seemed disproportionately large, but once I’d slid Bob inside, the hole suddenly looked too small and too shallow. I could have pulled him out again and dug it deeper, but decided not to.
“Rest in peace, old buddy,” I whispered.
There might be a little smell, but eventually the odor would disappear. It wouldn’t be the worst smell in the neighborhood, either, that honor probably going to Farley’s taxidermy shed. In time, Bob would become the rosebush and the rosebush would become Bob. Or something like that. It was a nice thought, I thought.
I filled the hole and tamped it down. Then I watered the rosebush for several minutes. The backyard looked worse, in its way, than the front, but at least back there people weren’t leaving me notes to pick up my trash or to cut my grass. In the darkening air I could just barely make out a hawthorn at the far corner of the yard that was in the process of shriveling to a Brillo pad. The lemon tree, I noticed, was covered with cobwebs, which meant the white flies were back. I shut off the water and hung the spade back up in the garage, where I found a piece of wood—a sawed-off end of a one-by-twelve I’d used to make a shelf a while ago. Then I unearthed a brush and some paint. In a kind of Old English lettering, I wrote, Bob, and beneath it I added the date and the letters RIP. I carried the finished sign over to the rosebush and hammered it into the ground about a foot away from where Bob’s head ought to be. All in all, it looked pretty professional.
That night, I dreamed I was walking up and down the streets of St. Nils, some of which I recognized and some I didn’t, when I found myself in an unfamiliar alley, staring at a large building that appeared to be a warehouse, strangely out of place amid all the nearby houses. How the warehouse had come to be among all these residential structures, and why such an anomalous eyesore was tolerated, I had no way of knowing. The building was about thirty feet high, and the side I faced was about sixty feet long. There were two windows on top and two on the bottom, each about twelve feet by six feet, and no entrance was visible. Flat iron bars covered the lower set of windows, dividing them into checkerboards. The upper row of windows had no bars at all, only closed gray shutters with flaking paint.
Peculiarly, between the building’s top story and the lower one, someone had painted a squiggly horizontal line, with everything below the line a light blue, while the top section, except for the shutters, was completely white. This contrast, along with the fact that the line was vaguely wavelike, gave the place the feeling of an ocean on its lower part, and of a cloud-filled sky on its upper one. Except for the oversized copper gutters along its flat roof, there was little else in the way of decoration, nor was there any company name or logo printed anywhere to signal who owned it. I couldn’t be sure if the building was still occupied or had been abandoned and was only waiting to be torn down. Or possibly rehabbed into low-priced artists’ lofts. Artists, I remembered thinking in my dream, will live about anywhere.
I knew, of course, that if I walked around to another side of the building I might find some clue to tell me more, but as it was a dream, it was impossible to move from where I was rooted. Why had I come there in the first place? Or, alternatively, was there some message I was supposed to deliver to whoever was inside, and, if so, where would I find the front door?
Then I woke. I got out of bed and walked into my living room, where I looked out the front window.
Across the street a light went on. A man wearing pajamas and a robe appeared at his window and looked back at me. Had his dreams been strange, too? Was he lonely? Did he want to step into the street to have a late-night chat?
Thus, I wondered, and then I wondered if he was wondering the same things. After a few minutes his light went out, and his window was dark again. A street or so away, a car backfired. It was well after midnight, so I washed my hands, brushed my teeth again, and this time finally stayed asleep.