Harley and David

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?”

“What?”

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.”

“What?”

“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?”

“He itches.”

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.



Mail me when new posts come out


The capacity to forget

People say that time heals everything. What they mean is that it takes a lot of work to feel bad and that you can’t keep doing it. Sadness is limited, just as joy is short. The heart is forgetful above all else. If you wait long enough, time will heal the pain of loss and leave only scars in the empty places. It will heal jealousy and hatred and love alike. These are things you can name, things you can forget. But there are things that time won’t heal. It cannot heal what you cannot name. It cannot heal when there’s nothing to forget.


Sometimes it’s a small thing. Jack had a Doberman called Ralph when we were in high school. Ralph got his name from the sound of his bark. He was an exceptionally long dog, even for a Doberman, a kind of limousine Doberman. He was an old dog. He didn’t bark so much anymore because there was also a younger dog—a sausage dog called Bruno—who served as a sentry and a trigger while Ralph passed the time sleeping in the sun. Only when things got serious did Ralph get up to go and bark with Bruno at the gate.

Jack immersed himself in a study of electricity in a boyish quest to become evil. He made a capacitor from a sheet of aluminium foil and a sheet of plastic rolled together into a tight cylinder. He insulated the cylinder with tape and left only a short tip of foil exposed. We spent most of a Sunday afternoon switching the TV set on and off and taking turns to gather the static from the screen by moving the exposed tip of the capacitor across it. Jack had a formula and he knew when there would be enough charge in the capacitor to deliver a nasty shock.

“Where’s Ralph?” he asked when we were done.

“Won’t it kill him?” I wondered.

“High voltage alone won’t kill him,” Jack said.

Ralph lay on his back in the courtyard, fast asleep. He was dreaming and his lips flapped as he breathed. His testicles were very shiny. A blue spark shot from the capacitor when Jack held it close to them. It made a sound like an air gun.

Ralph leapt up and bit Jack on the hand. Then he ran to the gate to find Bruno so he could bite him too. We were still laughing when he returned and lay down again, his rear against the wall.

“Hey Ralph!” Jack called to him. “You’re alright old boy.”

But Ralph turned away. He heaved a shuddering sigh and put his head on his paws. For the next few days we wished that we could explain to him that we were sorry, that it wasn’t what it looked like. For a few years after Ralph had died we remembered him in stories about our childhood. As more time passed we thought less frequently about him. Now, more than thirty years later, we understand our capacity to forget and move on. Our regret about our cruelty toward Ralph has been replaced by a different, nameless regret—a sorrow for the loss of sorrow.


It’s this that time won’t heal.



Mail me when new posts come out


Double blind

blindIn the building where I used to work there was a blind guy called Trevor. Trevor worked for an online estate agent on the 5th floor. What he did there I could never imagine — he had been blind since birth and had never actually seen software or property. Whatever it was, it probably involved talking. Trevor liked to talk and was surprisingly loud.

"Hello?" he’d boom when he wanted to attract your attention. “I say—” he’d begin, and then he’d wait for you to come over so he could talk to you. I spoke loudly to him too, given how loud he was, but he put an end to that. “I’m blind,” he said, “not deaf.”

Trevor had a white cane. He smoked and went out into the courtyard a couple of times every day, tapping away with his cane and booming at people.

One spring another blind man started working in the building, on the ground floor. His name was Frank. Frank had a guide dog called Bruce, a white Labrador with a strangely lopsided face and a tongue that was too big for his mouth. Bruce appeared to have the IQ of a harness. He wasn’t a very good guide dog. On their first day in the building, Bruce dragged Frank through the lobby.

“Bruce!” Frank called out. “Stop, damn you! Bruce!”

But Bruce made for the front lawn where he extruded a large turd. Frank had to stand by and stare into the distance, so to speak.


On his second day, Frank came to the courtyard. Bruce walked him to the center. There, to my lasting gratitude and wonder, he bumped into Trevor.

“Watch where you’re going!” Trevor boomed.

There was complete silence in the courtyard as Frank regained himself.

“Can’t you see I’m blind,” he snapped.

Trevor grabbed Frank by his shirt.

“Look,” he boomed, “that’s not funny!”

“Of course it isn’t funny!” Frank retorted and wrestled with Trevor’s hand. “I’m blind!”

Trevor let go of his shirt.

“I’m blind too,” he boomed.

For a few seconds, neither of them said anything.

“You sound deaf,” Frank remarked.

They stood together for a while longer and then Trevor prodded Bruce with his cane.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“What?”

“That thing you’ve got there?”

Frank bent down and discovered the cane. He pushed it aside and was led away by Bruce.

“Hello?” Trevor boomed. “I say—”



Mail me when new posts come out