When Harley was moved into my office, I’d seen him now and then around the institute. He was a lonely, awkward man. He was also a genius. His particular genius could be seen, like a rare clover, by those who scaled the cliffs of quantum mechanics. Elsewhere he was not so smart. He was only partially aware of his surroundings and almost completely unaware of other people. We watched him from the tea room one afternoon in the winter as he tried to depart on his orange Vespa. He wore goggles and a scarf and looked like a nerdy version of Peter O’Toole in the opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia. He gunned the engine and leant forward across the fairing, a picture of speed. It took a while before he realised that he wasn’t going anywhere because the Vespa was still on its stand. On another occasion Harley stayed home for a few days after his mother had had an operation. During that time our institute moved to a new building on the campus. When Harley didn’t return, people got worried. Someone eventually found him in his office in the old building, quietly working at his otherwise empty desk. He didn’t seem to know that the building had been deserted and that he was in fact the only person in it.
To make sure that someone kept an eye on Harley, the lead scientist moved him into my office. Igor was a serious Russian who didn’t tolerate distractions.
“Research,” he warned me, “is no smilingk matter.”
“I know,” I said. “But things are funny.”
“Zere are designated areas for smilingk,” Igor said without smiling.
He gestured at the world beyond the institute.
“Outside,” he added. “Khere ve don’t smile. Ve research.”
“Why put him in my office then?” I asked.
“You khev extra space,” Igor snapped. “Vat are you suggestingk? Mine?”
In those years it wasn’t yet common for people to bring their dogs to work, but Harley had decided to do so. The day he moved in with me, the dog arrived at the institute. He was called David.
“Are you serious?” I asked when I met the dog. “David?”
“What’s wrong with David?” Harley asked and cuddled David.
David was a narrow dog of unclear lineage. He was remarkably ugly—scrawny and fawn-like, with mangy skin, bulging eyes and buck teeth. When he wagged his tail, it flapped up and down.
“Yes my boy?” Harley said.
David flapped his tail.
“Well,” I said, “for starters, David’s not a very dog-like name.”
“Oh,” Harley replied with a puzzled look as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
He unpacked some papers onto his desk and became engrossed in what he’d been working on before he got moved into my office. David sat on the carpet and adored him.
“Also,” I added after a few moments, “Harley-Davidson.”
Harley looked at me with a blank expression.
“On what?” he asked.
It was my turn to stare at him.
“You know,” I tried, “the motorcycle?”
“Oh,” Harley said. “He stands on the floorboard. He’s got good balance.”
He looked affectionately at David who flapped his tail.
“Don’t you my boy?”
“No,” I tried again, “Harley-Davidson motorcycles. You know, the ones with the long handlebars?”
Harley stared past me for a few moments and then he returned to his work.
David became a problem the same day. Igor didn’t like the idea of a dog roaming the institute.
“Vat ze hell is zat sing?” he barked when David scampered into the kitchen. “A circus rat? Make it go avay!”
David had to stay in our office after that. There it became apparent that he was going to be a problem all the same. When he didn’t actively adore Harley, he passed the time by licking his balls, farting, or trying to masturbate.
When he licked himself, he kept at it for hours, non-stop, slurping and whining as he struggled to get a better purchase on his shiny testicles.
“Make him stop,” I implored Harley. “They must be gone by now, surely?”
“He’s itching,” Harley said and patted David fondly. “Aren’t you my boy?”
David flapped his tail and adored Harley.
“If he was itching,” I said, “he’d be scratching.”
But Harley had returned to his work. His ability to concentrate was phenomenal. Even though David lay at his feet and oozed squeaky farts, Harley was oblivious.
“Do you have a cold?” I asked him one day.
“No,” he said and looked puzzled.
“Can you smell that?”
David eased out another fart.
“That!” I said and pointed at David. “You can strip paint with this dog.”
Harley considered David while David adored him.
“What do you feed him?” I asked. “Rotten eggs?”
“He struggles with digestion,” Harley said at length.
“Sure,” I pressed on. “What does he eat?”
“I don’t know,” Harley said. “My mother feeds him.”
Harley had lived with his mother all his life. He wore the same clothes to work every day, like a kind of uniform, clean and pressed. He had a lunchbox at which he always seemed surprised and then disappointed. His mother must have seen to these things, and also to David, but Harley had never talked about her. Now he said something surprising.
“David doesn’t like her.”
“Oh” I said. “Even though she feeds him?”
Harley looked at his lunchbox and then at David.
“Maybe he doesn’t like what she feeds him,” he said and returned to his work.
When David ran out of other options he propped himself against the wall and masturbated using his one paw. It was an arresting sight.
“Harley,” I begged, “make him stop.”
“He’s jerking off!”
Harley patted David who continued to knead himself and grin a toothy grin.
“He’s got a skin condition,” Harley explained.
“A skin condition?”
David grunted as though he agreed.
“Sure,” I said. “I had the same skin condition when I was a teenager.”
“Really?” Harley said with genuine surprise. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t,” I sighed. “I’m just saying, OK?”
Harley looked at David, then at me, and then he returned to his work.
Over time we came to a happy division of responsibilities. David manufactured offensive smells and disturbing visuals. I handled complaints. Harley looked puzzled and then he returned to his work. Near Christmas, it all fell apart. There was a party at Igor’s house.
“It’s Christmas,” Igor had snapped at the weekly meeting. “Come to my khouse. If you vant, bring someone.”
The party was a somber affair. People stood around and nodded and ate olives. Igor wore a strap-on beard and a Santa hat and complained about the institution of Christmas.
“Zis is bullshit,” he observed and fingered his beard.
He looked around in disgust. I wanted to ask why he was dressed as Santa, why he’d even bothered to have a party, but I was too afraid. Then Harley turned up. He’d brought David with him.
“I meant khumans,” Igor snapped as David trotted into the living room. “Vat’s he doingk khere?”
“My mother is ill,” Harley mumbled and looked puzzled.
“So is my poodle,” Igor said.
A topiary poodle lay on a silky cushion in the dining room. Igor had been checking on her every few minutes.
“Sasha,” Igor added loftily, “is not feelingk vell. I don’t vant zis sing anyvere near kher.”
We stood around and talked about research and forgot about David. There was a heated argument about whether the institute would continue to receive government funding. Some people wanted it to be more commercial, but Igor wanted funding. He held forth on the seriousness of science.
“Research is no smilingk matter,” he said. “Money—”
“Look!” someone cried. “David’s humping Sasha.”
In the dining room, Sasha had risen from her silky throne and staggered about like articulated candy floss. To her backside clung David, holding on and hopping along. Behind them, a few seconds later, Santa flapped his arms and screamed in Russian.
After that, David was banned from the institute. Harley seemed lonely but he didn’t say anything. His mother died in late January, and then, a few weeks later, David died too. Harley called in sick three days in a row and then he returned to work.