From Barking Man Penguin Contemporary American Fiction Series,
Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1990
BARKING MAN by Madison Smartt Bell
A gracious day of early spring began it. The weather was kind, soft, annealing, and the animals were powerfully aware of it. They felt it in their muscle and bone and it made them happy and active--the cheerfullest animals Alf had ever seen inside a zoo. He moved from enclosure to enclosure, his books in a nylon backpack depending from a single strap that dragged down his left shoulder, and looked in. A pair of gorillas sat in lotus postion on the lush green grass the winter rains had fed, combing one another's fur with their big rubbery fingers. A warm broad beam of sunshine lapped across them. Of a sudden they both heeled over to one side and rolled over and over, closed in an embrace at first, then separating. Then they sat up again and resumed the long luxurious strokes of their grooming.
Across a concrete moat the elephants were bathing, a baby elephant and an adult, perhaps the mother? The pool was generously large and deep, and when the elephants went in their hides turned from dusty brown into a slick slate-grey. The baby elephant went under the roiled surface altogether and after a moment erected a few inches of his little trunk to breathe; he could have stayed submerged forever if he'd cared to. The mother elephant snorted and made a move to leave the pool, then turned and floundered in again, sinking to one side with a huffing sound, throwing up a gleaming sheet of water that curved and dropped to rejoin its own surface.
The lions were sluggish, having just eaten, and yet they seemed quite content, lacking the air of morose and silent desperation that most zoo lions exuded. They resembled the lions one saw on films of Africa, resting on the veldt after a kill and gorge. Adjacent, the tigers basked in the sun, full-stretched on their mappined terraces, each apparently content as a housecat on a windowsill. Only one of the big males moved with a kind of mechanical restlessness, loping back and forth on a track of his own devising, his yellow eyes hot and even a little crazed. He'd conceived some smaller circle inside his actual containment and whenever he reached its limit he reversed his limber steps, conforming to a barrier which no one but himself could see.
The bottom of the Zoo was bordered by an iron rail fence a little better than waist-high, beyond which expanded the wide greensward of Regent Park. On an impulse Alf climbed over this instead of going out by the South Gate. It was easily low enough for a vault, but his backpack dragged him slightly off balance, and a rail's tip caught his trousers on the inner thigh and made a neat right-angular tear. Alf stooped over to examine it and straightened up again. Big Brother would not be pleased, but possibly he wouldn't ever know about it. Possibly Hazel could mend it so it wouldn't show. He hitched up the pack and stepped out across the grass. A cool triangle lay on the inside of his leg where the cloth was torn. On to the south, further than he could see or hear, well past the flowers of Queen Mary's Garden, he knew the traffic on Marylebone Road would be whisking back and forth like the multiple blades of some gigantic meat slicer. He stopped, turned in his traces, and looked back.
Later, after a long time and much catastrophe, when Alf had passed into the care of others, he began to feel relaxed and calm. He looked at a dark spot on the wall, and his eyelids grew heavier and heavier, they grew so leaden that he could scarcely keep them open. His eyes were closed. His eyes were closed now, his breath was deep and slow. His limbs were warm and soft and tingling, his arms so heavy that he could not lift or move them. It was utterly beyond his power to open his eyes or move his arms or legs. His heartbeat slowed to requiem time. He descended a set of thirty steps into a dark place of warm and total relaxation. Asked to recollect the source of his affliction, he began to talk about the zoo, easily continuing the story of that afternoon up to the point where he had hesitated on the lawn.
"Yesssss...." The resonant voice of the hypnotist came from very far above, high in the mouth of the deep well into which Alf had lowered himself. "Yes. That is very good. You are a good subject. You are doing very well. What did you think about the animals?"
Responding to some foreign motive power, Alf's hands began to twist and gnarl, his fingers twining into tangles on his lap. His breath came fast, and he could feel his features screwing up like the face of a child about to cry. Real tears were pricking the backs of his locked eyelids, though he did not know why.
"I envied them," he said at last. "I wanted to go back."
Breakfast was transpiring in the flat's large airy kitchen. Big Brother was eating a soft-boiled egg with annihilating concentration. Tap, tap, tap went the edge of his spoon around the little end of his egg, creating a perfectly even fault line. He removed the eggshell dome and placed it on the left side of his plate, penetrated the egg-white, lifted a portion and inserted it between his lips. His wrist revolved and the wristwatch on its sharkskin band presented itself briefly to his eye.
Alf choked on a bite of the scone he'd been consuming, coughed, belatedly covered his mouth with his hand and cleared his throat behind it. Big Brother lowered the spoon from his second bite of egg and raised his fishy eyes from the egg-cup. The spoon's bowl connected to the plate with a minute click. For a suspended silent moment he faced Alf down the long checked range of the oilcloth.
"You eat like a yobbo off the street," he said at length. "Choice of diet and manners too. Inclusively." Alf's gaze broke and fell to the crumbles of scone on his plate. Once more Big Brother began to ply his spoon. He had three bites remaining; it invariably took him five to eat an egg. Hazel, sitting half the table's length between them, turned and shot Alf a surreptitious wink, which he returned as he reached over for the butter. Big Brother finished his strong black coffee in two tidy sips and arose from his place.
"Goodbye, Love," he said. "I expect to be in by seven."
Hazel set her hands on her tight waist and arched back in her chair, lifting her face up toward him. The heavy blond braid of her hair hung down over the chair back like a plumb weight.
"Goodbye, Love," Hazel said. "There'll be fish for dinner. I'll see you in the evening."
Big Brother nodded to her and passed in the direction of the hallway.
"Big big Bang," Alf said suddenly. "Pow, knock'm dead, Bee Bee."
Big Brother gave him an eerie look but continued his course without pause. There was a whetting sound as he lifted his sharkskin briefcase from the hall stand, then the tumbling of the door's many locks. Hazel erected herself and curved her torso in Alf's direction. The morning sunshine rushed in through the kitchen's south windows to lighten the green of her eyes.
"More tea?" she said, and stroked the rounded belly of the teapot.
"No thanks, well yes, ah, I guess I will." Alf pushed his cup in the direction of the spout.
"Don't let me make you late for school," said Hazel. "What is it you have Tuesday mornings?"
"Supercallifragillisticmacroeconomics," Alf said. Hazel threw back her head and laughed a laugh that reminded him of someone pouring a delicious drink.
In the usual London style the sunshine failed him as soon as he hit the street. Underneath the damp gray sky he walked a block across Fulham Road and turned. His shoulder sagged under the strap of the weighty book bag. It had given him a seemingly permanent crick in his neck. He circumambulated the South Kensington tube stop, watching the rush of people in and out from the far side of the street. There was no reason for him to enter, nowhere he urgently had to go. He had actually succeeded in forgetting in which quarter of the city the London School of Economics was to be found, and indeed was rather proud of this feat.
A few raindrops patted up and down the sidewalk; Alf sniffed and squinted at the sky. A six-month sequence of dissembling had taxed his talent for killing time. His budget did not allow him long periods in cinemas or pubs, and he had dawdled through every museum in the city at least a dozen times. Spring should have opened up more outdoor distractions, but the difference in the weather appeared to be only a few degrees of temperature, most days. Give him another good day at the zoo for choice, but it was a long way, and he doubted he'd enjoy it in the rain.
He took the umbrella from his pack and shot it up and turned south in the direction of the King's Road. He shambled from one shop to the next, standing before the various clothes racks, revolving his few blunt pound coins in his pocket. Alf's interest in clothes was nil, but clothes stores did have doors and roofs. Whenever he felt an attendant's eye upon him, he departed and moved on to the next shop. When the pubs opened he went into one and had a pork pie and a half of Courage. Yobbo's lunch. The other yobs, punks and skinheads that frequented the area jostled him up and down the counter, somehow always managing to show him only their backs.
By the time he left the pub the rain had stopped, though the sky remained dull. He walked to Saint Luke's and sat on a bench in the church garden, trying to remember his ostensible school schedule. As always, the flowers were immaculate in every elaborate bed. The gardeners had timed the bulbs so that every few weeks the color scheme underwent a magical change. Alf slouched lower on the bench, pushing his pack away from him. He would have preferred to return to the flat, but he wasn't sure if that would be plausible.
A woman in a beige suit came clipping down the walk, one of those London women who though on close examination were clearly in their twenties contrived to convey by their dress and demeanor the impression of being nearer forty-five. A small brown terrier was leading her along at the end of a white leash. Halfway down the walk she stooped and slipped the catch from the collar, then sat down on a bench and watched the little dog run free, sniffing along the line of displaced tombstones propped agains the churchyard's western fence.
The woman took a compact from her bulky handbag and began to examine herself in its mirror, her lips pursed uncomfortably tight. She had a weak chin, but a powerful nose to compensate. The terrier turned from the fence and locked its nose to some trace of scent and began to execute geometric figures around the bench where Alf was slouched.
"The little dog laughed to see such sport," Alf suggested. "And the dish ran away with the spoon." The terrier stopped and looked skeptically up at him.
"Please do not permit your dog to foul the amenity area," Alf intoned, quoting loosely from the several green placards planted here and there on the lawn. The terrier sat back on its haunches and let out a little yip.
"--oof," Alf replied, falsetto.
"riffrirf," the terrier said, jumping up and smiling.
"aarffooorffurfurfiiiii!" said Alf, somewhat louder. Across the walk the woman snapped her compact shut with a cross click and stood up, shaking the leash.
At the head of the stairs of the maisonette flat, Hazel and Big Brother had their bedroom; and next to it Big Brother occupied what Hazel optimistically referred to as his study. In fact it was a sort of electronic cockpit, packed with computers, printers, monitors, fax machines and modems hooked up to New York and Japan. Here, after nourishing himself from his exertions in the City, Big Brother would repair to continue trying to figure out every conceivable ramification of Big Bang for a good part of each night. From the windows of both of these rooms could be seen the Natural History Museum, the domes of the V & A, the Queen's Tower, and other features of the skyline, though Alf doubted if Big Brother ever raised his eyes to them.
His own room was at the other end of a longish hall, right beside the bathroom, a location which admitted him to privacies of which he might have preferred to remain ignorant. As the spring continued, Alf spent much of his out of class time seated at the small desk before the windows, staring out across the binding of some textbook at the children playing in the trapezoidal courtyard of the council houses below. After the evening meal he'd most often retreat to this same position, now staring inattentively at his own faint reflection in the darkened window panes.
"All's well, Love?" Hazel's voice came from down the hall; she must have opened the door to look in on Big Brother, for Alf could also hear that munching sound the computers liked to make as they gobbled information. He couldn't hear the Beeb's reply, if he made any, only a drop in the hum of the machines as the door closed. He propped his elbows on the pages of his book and shut his eyes to dream of Spain. For several weeks he'd been considering that he might claim a holiday after his long year of study, and though he didn't speak the language the junkets to Spain were cheap. Hazel was coming down the hall, though he wasn't sure just how he knew it; her bare feet made no sound on the carpet runner, it was more like a small breeze passing by. There came some groans and gurgles from the bathroom pipes, then her reflection appeared in Alf's windowpane, framed by his open doorway.
"Still hitting the books this late at night?"
Alf flipped the pristine textbook shut and swiveled in his chair. The lights flickered and dimmed for an instant as the computers engorged some great mass of news. Hazel had let down her hair -- it descended in a warm current parted by the oval of her face and rejoining on the rise of her bosom, where one hand smoothed it absently against her nightgown's cotton weave.
"The two of you," she said, smiling. "Seems like you never stop."
"Ah," Alf said, and stopped with his mouth open. Conscious of this, he shaped the opening into a sort of smile and began to scrape his fingers across his scalp.
"Hmm, well, I'm going to bed," Hazel said, and shook her head to toss her hair back onto her shoulderblades. "Sweet dreams, Alfie...." She pushed herself out of the doorway and swung his door half shut.
Alf turned back to face the window, pulled his hand loose from his head and looked down at it. His fingers were wrapped with stiff black hairs, indubitably his own. He lifted his forelock and leaned toward the window to examine his hairline. No doubt that it really was receding. A short harsh sound came out of him, something like a cough.
Hazel was leaning over the small gas stove top, rolling kofta meatballs and dropping them sizzling in a pan of oil. She turned suddenly to reach for something and collided with Alf, who'd been peeping over her shoulder.
"Good Lord, you're always right behind me," Hazel said testily. Her face was pink and humid from the burners on the stove. She made a shooing motion and Alf retreated, slinking along the edge of the table, which was laden with trays of tiny salmon and caviar sandwiches for the cocktail party that evening. He sniffed and cleared his throat with a rasping sound, then picked up a tray and started down the long hall with it toward the living room.
"Where do you think you're going with that?" Hazel called after him. "Just bring it back, it's way too soon, they won't be here for hours."
Alf reversed his steps and put the tray back where he'd found it. He began to turn an uneasy circle between the table and the stove.
"Well, I'm sorry," Hazel said. "Well, you're just underfoot, that's all. Haven't you got a class to go to? Then just go out and get some air, go on now, scat!" The kitchen steamed and she steamed with it; she had sweated nearly through her blouse. She smiled at him gaily through the vapors, and flapped her hands to send him away.
He walked up Exhibition Road to its end, went into Hyde Park and continued as far as the lower end of the Serpentine. Two men were fishing where he paused, their long poles leveled over the dank surface of the water. The concrete bank was littered with goose down and slimy green goose droppings. An unpleasant idea came to Alf completely of its own accord. Many years before when he was small and they still lived on the farm outside Cedar Rapids, he and his older brother had taken the BB gun to the little pond and whiled away an afternoon shooting toads. When he remembered the phttt sound the BBs made going through toad bellies, two voices separated in his mind.
It was Tom's idea, he was the oldest, claimed the first, and the second answered, no no, Alfie, it was you,it was your idea from the beginning, if not for you it never would have happened.... The thing was that it didn't actually kill the toads, at least not right away, just left them drearily flopping around with drooling puncture wounds through their slack stomachs.
"RURRRRFFAAARRRH," cried Alf, and discovered the subject had been instantly wiped from his mind. One of the fishermen looked up at him sharply, then away.
Alf couldn't get his bow tie right and finally decided to leave it with one end bigger than the other. Leaning into the mirror, he pulled the loose skin of his cheeks down into bloodhound jowls, then let it snap back with a wet smack. He passed a hand across his head, wiped the loose hairs on the edge of the sink, and went downstairs to survey the situation.
An assortment of pinstriped Big Bangers and a smaller number of their fretful wives were circulating through the two front rooms. Big Brother, sharkskin File-O-Fax in hand, appeared to be rearranging his appointments. A somewhat scurvy-looking gent, Hazel's water-color teacher, stood alone, snapping salmon sandwiches into his mouth, glancing around after each gulp to see if anyone was observing him. Hazel stood with the gay hairdresser who'd befriended her at the painting class. Alf ate a caviar and cracker and began to eddy up onto their conversation. She wore some sort of pseudo-Victorian velvet dress, fastened with a thousand tiny buttons down the back. Though it conformed to no current fashion it made the most of her bee-shape; the swell of her rear and the arch of her back even suggested a bustle. Alf drifted in a little nearer. Hazel's hair was scooped up into a smooth blonde orb, exposing the fine down on the back of her neck.
"...then a body perm, and Bob's your uncle," he overheard the hairdresser saying. "Just whip a comb through it in the morning and you're off!"
Hazel plucked at her lower lip with a finger. "It does take a lot of time to look after...." she said musingly. Alf felt some rough obstruction rising in his throat.
"But after all," said Hazel, half-turning to include him in the subject, "What else have I really got to do?"
A steely clasp shut on Alf's upper arm and he felt himself inexorably drawn away.
"Mr. Thracewell, my brother Alfred," Big Brother said. "Alf, fetch Mr. Thracewell a gin and french." He passed Alf an empty glass and leaned to whisper in his ear, "Jesus Christ, your tie's not straight." As Alf receded into the hallway, he thought he heard the murmured invocation: London School of Economics, and he swallowed against that plaguey roughness in his gullet.
The kitchen was empty and he snatched up the gin bottle, carried it into the pantry and shut the door after him. With the bottle upended over his jaws, he squinted up at its butt end until he saw four bubbles rise, then lowered it and gasped. Gin and French? He sniffed the glass the Beeb had given him, but the scent was unenlightening. He fixed a gin and tonic with a lot of ice and headed back toward the front of the flat. En route he toppled a tower of bowler hats from the hall stand, made an abortive move to gather them, then decided to let them lie. Deep in conversation with Big Brother, Thracewell took the drink unconsciously and tasted it without looking. Alf watched his mouth shrivel to the surface of the glass, and at that very instant the vast bubble of gin he'd swallowed burst inside him with a soft explosion.
"iirrrfffooorrrffffaaarrrROOOOORF OOO OOO!!!" he howled. All around the room he could hear vertebrae popping with the speed of the turning heads.
"Your younger brother this is, you say?" Mr. Thracewell murmured. "My word, a most original chap."
The Spanish holiday did not materialize and now that school was out Alf was at looser ends than ever. Though the weather had turned generally fine, he tended to loiter around the flat, tracking Hazel from room to room till she was inspired to invent some errand for him. He went down Elystan Street to the candy store on the little square and joined the queue of all the old ladies of Chelsea, each waiting patiently for a lovely chat with the brick-faced woman behind the postal grille at the rear. Often he came here to buy stamps for Hazel. The fat lady behind the candy counter glowered at Alf and only Alf, who was a foot taller and forty years younger than anyone else present, the only man and to be sure the only foreigner. He shifted nervously from leg to leg, trying not to think of how soon Big Brother was likely to discover that he had only set foot in the London School of Economics once or twice ten months before. The tiny lady immediately ahead of him, ancient and brittle as a bit of dry-rotted antique lace, had with the help of a complicated-looking walker made her way up to the grille. She conducted some sort of savings transaction and asked for a television stamp. Television stamp? Alf rocked forward and peered to see what that might be.
"What do you mean?" the brick-faced woman hissed. "Turn round you, turn right round. I shan't go on till you turn right round."
Alf unfroze himself and turned around and stood staring out over the heads of heads of the others behind him into the blinding square of sunlight at the door. When permission was given to approach, he made his purchase wordlessly, fumbling the change with his slightly trembling fingers, and went out. Halfway back up Elystan Street the enlargement of his throat surpassed containment.
"wurf! Wurf! WurrrfffaaarrrhOOORRHHrrrr," he barked. A bobby looked at him sternly from the opposite side of the street. With an additional swallowed snarl tightly wrapped around his tonsils, Alf averted his eyes and went resolutely on.
Hazel seemed to grow a little restless too; she swept more and more activities into her schedule, adding to the water-color sessions a class in yoga and another in French conversation. Her shopping expeditions moved further afield, she undertook riverboat trips and excursions to outlying villages. Alone in the flat, Alf turned the television on and off, flipped through books and magazines, and furtively prowled from room to room; the areas he found the most attractive were those where he had no good reason to be. A time or two he breached the sanctity of Big Brother's electronic office, tiptoeing in and standing on the little throw rug before the desk. All around him on their long shelves the machines blinked and flickered, pooped and wheeped, and every so often they spontaneously crunched out some document. Alf could not rid himself of the superstitious fear that somehow they were recording his own activity to report to Big Brother on his return.
In the bedroom, Hazel and Big Brother's bedroom, there was an indefinable smell of lilac, a natural scent as from dried petals, though Alf could find no bowl of potpourri. Atop the bureau was a wedding picture in a silver frame. Big Brother's long neck was loose in the high stock of his tuxedo; he looked a little frightened, perhaps startled by the flash, but Hazel wore an easy, merry smile, and looked straight out of the frame at Alf, who set the picture down. He opened a drawer at random and discovered Big Brother's starched white shirts laid out in rigid rows. Another held a tangled nest of Hazel's jewelry.
The bed was a platform on short legs, low and broad, with two unremarkable nightstands on either side of it. On Hazel's was a ragged copy of Time Out. Big Brother's was bare except for the coaster where he set his water glass at night. The bed was spread with a quilted eiderdown, emerald green, with feather pillows mounded on it at the headboard. When Alf leaned down and touched the surface of the quilt, his fingers somehow would not come away. He was drawn further, further down, his shoulder tucking as he dropped. He curled up on his side and dreamed.
"I don't know why," he said. "I just don't know." His arms were pasted to the leather arms of the deep dark chair, his head lolled, his eyeballs spiralled behind their lids.
"You know," the hypnotist murmured softly. "Oh yes, you know very well."
"I didn't want to know," said Alf. "What would have been the use of that?
"Knowledge is power," the hypnotist suggested.
A galvanic shudder emerged from the reaches of Alf's autonomic nervous system and shook him to his fingerends.
"No it's not," he said loudly. "Not when you know everything and can't change any of it."
No matter how deep his daydreams took him, Alf remained alive to the sound of Hazel's key entering the downstairs lock. He'd roll from the eiderdown, land on his hands and knees and scamper out, coming erect again some distance down the hallway toward his own bedroom. Until the day some deeper sleep overtook him and he woke to find Hazel standing in the doorway, looking down. She wore her loose black sweatsuit, her face was patchily flushed from yoga, and a forefinger pulled down her plump red lower lip in her familiar gesture of perplexity.
"oooOORF!" barked Alf, in sheer alarm. He flipped from the bed to his all fours and barked again, "urrfffOOOHRRRFF RRAAAARRFFFF!" Hazel's eye's lit up, she swirled in the doorway and ran down the hall. Alf pursued her, quickly as he could on his knees and elbows, barking happy ringing barks. She ran a little awkwardly, her loose hair flagging out behind her, looking back over her shoulder in mock fright. He chased her around his room, back down the hall and down the stairs and up again, yapping hysterically at her heels. Hazel fled back into her bedroom, dove onto the bed and rolled onto her back, shuddering with wave upon wave of laughter. Her knees drew up toward her stomach, her sweatshirt rode up to the bottoms of her breasts, her head thrashed back and forth on the wide silky spread of her hair. Too breathless to bark any more at all, Alf put his forepaws on the quilt between her feet and raised himself to look at her. She was warm with a radiant heat, an intoxicating scent poured out of her, she was rich with her own beauty (he put his hind paws on the bed and bunched himself for his next move) -- she was his brother's wife.
Hazel turned stone pale and sat up quickly on the edge of the bed. She clapped her knees together, wrapped her arms around herself, bit down on her lip till it went white, and began to shake all over. Alf got up too and stood with his hands hanging, dead little lumps against his thighs. After a moment he picked up her hairbrush from the bureau, turned her slightly with the least touch on her shoulder, and began to brush her hair. Supporting the whole sweep of it over his left forearm, he brushed it out till every auburn highlight gleamed beyond perfection. After a few minutes her back loosened and her breath began to ease and deepen.
"Thank you, Alf," she said. "Thank you, that feels good. That was very nice. You can stop now, please."
Alf walked away and set down the brush, turned and propped himself on the bureau's edge. Hazel gathered her hair in one hand and drew it forward over her shoulder. She put an end of it into her mouth and wet it into a point, then took it out and stared at it, round-eyed.
"I'm thinking of getting all this cut off," she said.
"Don't do it," said Alf. "What for?"
"It's a lot of trouble to take care of."
"It took you twenty years to grow it."
"Neddy said he'd style it for me free, said he'd come to the house and do it."
"What, that whinging little shrimp? Don't you let him touch your hair."
"He'd like it if I looked a little more contemporary," Hazel said, jerking her head toward Big Brother's nightstand.
"Don't do it," Alf said as he walked out of the room. "You'll be sorry if you do." He hadn't been so sure of anything all year.
Big Brother had been working too hard -- well, that much was no secret. But Hazel wanted a good night out, she wanted a date with her husband in fact, and that wasn't so unreasonable, was it, once every couple of months or so? They went to the theater and to a champagne supper afterwards. Alf fell dead asleep on the eiderdown and didn't wake up till he heard them giggling outside the bedroom door.
There was time, just barely time, for him to make it under the bed. He lay frozen in a mummy's pose, admiring its simple but ingenious construction. There were many slender wooden slats, and these were surely what made it so comfortable to lie on. He heard the sound of buttons and zippers, drawers opening and closing upon articles put away.
A great soft weight settled itself over him. He began a mental chant: don't bark, Alfie, you mustn't bark, quiet now, good dog, good dog... and by some mercy this drowned out every sound. Three fifths of the way down the length of the bed, a group of slats began to flex, slowly at first, then faster and faster and FASTER.... Then it stopped.
Big Brother unlocked the door, came in, set down his sharkskin briefcase, locked the door, picked up his sharkskin briefcase, and snapped his fingers. Alf, who'd been basking in the glow of the BBC in the front room, raised his head slightly from a couch cushion.
"A word with you, young Alfred," Big Brother said brittly. "Upstairs, if you please."
Alf stood on the little throw rug in the glow of the various video terminals. The phrase called on the carpet distantly presented itself to his mind. Big Brother, strangely inarticulate, swivelled to and fro in his desk chair, compulsively flicking the edge of his sharkskin calculator case with a fingernail. Finally he stopped in midrotation and stared up at Alf.
"My hair is brown," he remarked. "Yours, on the other hand, is black."
"This much is true," Alf said. "Always the wizard of perception, Bee Bee."
"I have a name," Big Brother said bleakly. "My name is Tom. You are familiar with it, I believe. Why don't you ever call me by my name?"
After the ensuing silence had accomplished itself, Big Brother spoke again.
"Well," he said. "Right." He reached into a tea mug on his desk and pulled out a little snarl of something. "This is hair."
"That's so," said Alf.
"There's quite a bit of it, wouldn't you say?" Big Brother said. "I've been collecting it for about a week. Off my pillow, in point of fact."
Huskily, Alf cleared his throat.
"Well then, I'd like to know what you've been playing at."
"When exactly was it you started talking like a freaking Englishman?" "When in Rome...," Big Brother said. "Don't try to change the subject."
"Okay," Alf said. "You're concerned that I've been climbing on your furniture."
"Yes, I suppose you could put it that way."
"At least I'm housebroken," Alf said. "That's something to be thankful for."
In the weird light of the computer screens, Big Brother's sudden change of complexion looked purely fantastic.
"What the hell is the matter with you?!!!" he cried, half rising from his seat. Alf barked at him several times and left the room.
He sat with his elbows on the table, watching a bug walk around the little blue squares of the oilcloth. They didn't have cockroaches in the flat, and this bug didn't much look like one; however, it didn't look much like anything else either. After a long time Hazel came down and made a pot of tea. When she brought it to the table, Alf could see the dark circles around her eyes.
"It's been a tough year for him too," she said. "You need to try and understand that, Alfie. He's more of a small-town type of person, really. We all are, I suppose."
Alf leaned back and raised his eyebrows toward the ceiling.
"I had to make him take a pill," Hazel said. "Zonko."
"I see," said Alf. "Well, here we are."
"It's really hard for him at work," she said. "The English snub him all the time. But they don't know any of the stuff he knows. Till this year they did their whole stock market with pen and ink and big black books, supposedly--" She gave her braid a yank and dropped it. "But it worries him that he doesn't fit in. He thinks they think I look like some kind of a pioneer woman off the prairie...."
Alf scalded his mouth on a gulp of tea.
"You two were close when you were children, I know that," Hazel said. "He used to talk about that a lot."
"That's right," Alf said. "But ever since we got to London he's been acting like a goddamn microchip."
"He's really scared about it all sometimes," Hazel said. "He's afraid the whole balloon is going to pop. He says, people used to worry when their assets were only on paper, but now they're not even on paper any more."
Alf watched the bug walk over the edge of the table out of sight.
"He's worried about you too, Alf," she said. "He's pretty upset about you, in fact."
"He doesn't think--"
"No, not that. Thank God, he never even thought of that.... He knows you didn't go to school, though. But he doesn't know what to do about it."
The bug reappeared in the vicinity of Alf's tea mug. He turned the mug around and around and watched the amber liquid swirl.
"He's worried maybe you're going nuts," Hazel said. "He doesn't know how to handle that either. Alfie, you know he'd do anything for you, but what is it he can do?"
Alf reached over and snapped his finger at the bug, which rebounded from the Delft tile around the kitchen fireplace and fell down into the shadows below.
"He was crying, actually." Hazel said.
"Roorrrfff!" said Alf. "aaaarrhhhhwwwOOOOOORFFOOOOOOOOO!!!"
"For God's sake, will you stop that ridiculous barking," Hazel said, and slammed her palms flat down against the table.
As he retreated further and further into the world of the canine, Alf's sense of smell became increasingly acute, so that on the final day he was faintly apprehensive of disaster from the moment he got onto the lift. The aroma, at first indefinable, became more vivid and more complex as soon as he had entered the flat. Hanging over everything was the odor of neutralizer and the bright ammoniac smell of the perm fluid. Mingled with this was a whiff of Neddy'saftershave, and most alarming of all the smell of Hazel's tears.
He went down the hall with his hackles rising. Hazel, barely recognizable by sight, sat at the kitchen table, weeping over a small square mirror. The inch or two of hair remaining to her had been strangled into tiny ringlets which resembled scrambled eggs. The balance of her face was wrecked and her features looked heavy and bovine. It appeared that she had been crying for a long time without even trying to wipe her face. Her eyes were ridged with stiff red veins and her tears were pooling on the mirror.
"Well, there's no need for you to keep grieving so," Neddy said a little crossly. He had stretched Hazel's severed hair out on the table and was securing each end of it with a bit of black ribbon. "What if it is a little tight? It'll relax in a day or so, you'll see if it doesn't...." He took a cloth tape from his pocket, measured the coil of hair and tucked it away in a leather bag. "And if you really decide you don't fancy it, why, in just a few years you can grow it all back. So brace up, eh? There's a duck...."
Alf dropped to all fours on the kitchen floors and bounced springily on all of his paws.
"Here now, Hazel, look who's come," Neddy said with a nervous titter. Hazel cried intently on, as if she was incapable of hearing.
"It's your little brother who's mad." said Tony.
"rrrrrRRRRRR," said Alf. He bristled. His lips pulled back from his incisors.
"Hazel," Neddy said. "Your brother's off his bloody head--"
"rrrrRRRRR," said Alf, and moved a little closer in, his hindquarters taut and trembling. Neddy took a long step backward, into a three-way corner of the fireplace and the kitchen walls.
"Here now, Alf," Neddy said. "Let's be reasonable, old chum. There's a good fellow, I mean, keep away, you! Just you keep off!" But Alf was no longer able to hear or understand his speech. In fact he was aware of nothing at all but the vibrating fabric of Neddy's trouser leg and the odor, texture and taste of the blood and meat inside.
"No," the hypnotist said thoughtfully. "No, I do not think you can believe that you were justified. Undoubtedly what you did was very wrong. And it is true, as you have heard, that human bites are very dangerous....".
Limp in the deep dark chair, Alf commenced to twitch and whimper.
"However," the hypnotist went on, "You will remember that it has all been satisfactorily resolved. The gentleman in question has accepted your brother's settlement. Moreover, he has not been lamed or hurt in any permanent way. It is not true, and never was, that you have rabies. And so, though naturally you will regret your unwise action, you will feel no permanent guilt. You will forgive yourself for what you did. In fact, you have already done so."
Alf twitched again and faintly yipped a time or two.
"And now," the hypnotist said, "and now, you are let off your leash. You have slipped your collar, Alfie, you are free. You are running away from the house and into the barnyard. You feel the soft damp grass of the lawn between your toes, you feel the dust and the little stones of the barnyard. When you have run into the hall of the barn, you pause and sniff -- you smell the hay, you smell the grain...and something else too, another odor. Rats, Alfie! rrrRRRATS!"
"Rirfff!" yelped Alfie from the chair. His body tensed and then relaxed.
"You leave the barnyard," the hypnotist said, "and you go into the field. You are capering among the hog huts, you run past the slow and lazy hogs, until you reach that furthest fence. Feel the wire rub hard across your back as you squirm underneath. And now you have come through the screen of trees to reach the little pond. You are very warm from the sunshine and from running, and so you splash into the water, you feel the cool water soaking into your hot fur, and you look up and see how the little white duck you startled is flying far away in the blue sky.
"And now you are lying on the warm soft grass, Alfie, with your eyes closed and all four legs stretched out. Feel how the warm sun dries your fur, feel how the little breeze ruffles it. You doze, you are sleeping very deeply, yes. You dream.
"And now you are running into the forest, deeper and deeper into the trees. You see all the woodland sights, you hear all the woodland sounds, and you are in a very special world of smells, Alfie, which only you can understand and navigate. There are many, many smells, Alfie, but one of them is more important than all the rest. What is it, Alfie? What is that you smell? rrr.... rrrrrr...."
Alfie's mouth came slightly open as he whined; he salivated on the leather of the chair.
"rrrrrRRRRABBIT!" said the hypnotist. "You smell the rabbit! You smell the rabbit very near! And now you see the rabbit! And now you chase the rabbit! (Alf's arms and legs began to pump in rhythmic running motions as his neck stretched out and out) And now you catch the rabbit in your jaws, you bite through the fur and skin into the tender flesh and the hot blood, you crush the rabbit's little bones, and you swallow every part of it. And now, Alfie, now that you are satisfied, you rest. Rest now, Alf. You are sleeping very deeply now.
"And now you hear voices, Alfie, voices calling out your name from far away across the fields. Alfie, Alfie, they are calling. They are calling you to go home to your house, Alf, and you go. You will obey the calling voices, you are going now. On the back porch of your house you see your family waiting for you, your mother, your father, your elder brother Tom, your sister-in-law Hazel, she is there too. It is they who have been calling you, Alfie, because they need you to come home. They feed you your dinner, Alf, and when you have eaten, they pat your head and they rub your ears, the way you love it so. They have prepared a soft mat near the warmth of the kitchen stove, Alf, where you stretch out and rest from your doggy, doggy day. You have no worries, Alf. You have no responsibilities at all....but still, something is missing. What is it, Alf? What is it that you lack?"
Alf shifted, coming more nearly upright in the chair. He trembled a little, but he didn't bark. His hands settled on his knees and he assumed a posture of attention. The hypnotist leaned a little further toward him.
"Dogs don't love," the hypnotist whispered. "They haven't got the capability. They feel, yes, but they don't love."
"That," said Alf, "is a debatable point."
"Perhaps," the hypnotist said. "Possibly. But in your case... not worth debating, I shouldn't think."
Alf whined and pricked his ears, then let them lower.
"Come on, Alf," the hypnotist said. "Come on, boy. Come on out, now. Are you coming?"
"I don't know," Alf said, as his eyes switched under their seals. "I can't come before I'm ready."
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