Henry & Biggs:
Adventure Blog of a Literary Agent and His Beagle
Chapter 1: The Woman in Black is Not Alive
Date: February 2
Time: 10:30 a.m.
Looking at her from across the room, I find myself wondering whether she will go away, or at least stop talking, if I licked her face.
Really licked it.
Not on the cheek, with the kind of supplicating, delicately deferential flicking that I reserve for sincere expressions of affection. No, I’m thinking right up the front with the flat of my tongue, slowly, chin to nose and up between her eyes, with a sufficient salivary flourish to simply stun her into silence.
Sllluuuuuurrrrpp. Please. Stop. Talking.
Biggs, of course, would never approve. His friends are to be my friends. I am to be an adorable adjunct to his hospitality. To every social and business occasion, I am to bring … how else to put it … the Beagle charm.
I will do as he expects, of course. I will do anything for Biggs. Even if it means suffering Ingrid Knutson. But a dog can dream.
Ingrid, ensconced in her nook of leather, slips me a dubious look from the couch, her eyes slotting my way like arrows of blue ice.
“What do you think, Henry?” She asks me, frowning. “What are we to do with Little Biggs over there? Do we just … give in? Look at those big brown eyes? What a sad, pleading face.”
She pouts, looking over at Biggs, whose name is not Little Biggs, which Ingrid, wrinkling her nose, obviously thinks is cute to say for its inherent contradiction. She is another one of those people who makes her way in the world on the backs of words. They carry her from one place to another. They feed her. The amuse her. They satisfy her in ways I do not care to imagine and will never understand. I suppose I can forgive her for not resisting the opportunity to play with the sounds in her mouth.
But still. His name is Biggs.
Not Little Biggs.
Not Biggie Boy.
Not Swingin’ Biggs.
Biggs. Simply, unpretentiously, Biggs. At some point, Ingrid’s self-amusement crosses over into an aggressive act of condescension and disrespect and, at that border, I remain vigilant.
Ingrid tilts her head and rotates her chin out into the room, considering him anew.
Biggs’ expression wrinkles hopefully at the attention. His eyes elongate up towards the ceiling.
Ingrid swings her face, now arranged into a playful scowl, back to me. Her hair is positively mermaidian, swishing slowly like curtains of blonde seaweed, still moving several beats after her head has stopped.
“Who can resist such a face, Henry? Hmm?”
She arches one of her over-plucked, perfectly stained eyebrows and waits, expecting, I suppose, that I will respect her question as a genuine inquiry. Expecting that I will mull it over a bit. That I will give her an honest response.
If I were to give her an honest response, it would be that Biggs’ face is, in fact, irresistible. To me, anyway. Those eyes. Big, glossy brown pillows with flecks of green. What loyalty in those eyes. What soul.
But not just the eyes, or even the face. Why stop at the face? For there is also that slightly shaggy, all over broken-in hush-puppy look that I find so endearing but that, I suppose, others might find off-putting for its lack of precision.
So Biggs is not as trim as he might be. He was not made for strutting and showing off like some over-bred Westminster bitch. Where others may question the purity of Biggs’ pedigree, I take some extra pride in the dependability of his character.
And he is not old. He is mature in temperament and subdued in his manner. He is not out to prove anything about himself. He is comfortable with who he is.
And I love the way he smells. Is that weird? I don’t care. I love it anyway.
So, my answer to Ingrid’s query is no. Biggs cannot be resisted.
Except that I know Ingrid will, again, as always, resist him anyway. Hers was not a genuine inquiry. She is toying with my poor, trusting Biggs. Like she always does. And even though Biggs has every reason to know that this time, like all of the other times, he is going to be disappointed, I look into his slightly sad, searching eyes and I see that he does not seem to know any such thing. He is the hopeful, panglossian fool to the bitter end.
Perspicacious? Not so much.
He is, after all, only human.
“Ingrid,” Biggs says to her finally. “Leave Henry out of this. Just take a look at it. A couple of chapters. That’s all I’m asking.”
Sensing a need for reinforcement, I sit up and yawn in my adorable Beagle way, or at least as adorably as I am able given my certainty that Biggs’ effort to convince her is, once again, all for naught. I pad over to Ingrid and flop down over the top of her shoe, craning my head backwards until it hurts. She coos and bends and scratches under my chin, her gold bangles rattle in my ears.
“Biggs, look,” she says. “Vampires … I mean…”
“So the market is saturated. Werewolves too. They’re everywhere. Witches and warlocks are still riding the Harry Potter wave, but trust me, that market bubble is ready to pop. The vampire literary blood supply is already starting to spoil on the shelves.”
“Don’t tell that to Lewis,” says Biggs.
“No worries there. Lewis gives me the creeps.”
“Yes. He’s a lurker. Every book convention he hunts me down and then lurks off in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to get me alone.”
“Oh, come on.”
“It’s true. And then when I least expect it I turn around and there’s Lewis, right in my face pretending to make small talk but really just peddling his occult-mystery-voodoo-living-dead-zombie romance trash like he has not done the same thing a thousand times before. He knows Parker Press won’t touch supernatural fiction, but he hits me up anyway. Every time. I turn him down and he goes right back to lurking in the shadows.”
“Never seen shadows at a book convention,” says Biggs, clearly declining to mount any serious defense of his office-mate who, it must be said, is a little creepy.
I don’t know much about lurking, but I do know that Lewis brings Agatha – his fat, one-eyed, Beagle-hating, decidedly anti-social grimalkin – to the office and feeds her cans of the most putrid, disgusting … I have no idea what the stuff is. Whenever I hear Lewis’ door open my nose goes directly beneath my paws, because I know the stench is going to billow down the hall towards Biggs’ office in a fog, rolling out its unctuous residue, coating the walls and the floor, sending out an odiferous flange to slip beneath the door and get my attention. Just enough to let me know it’s out there. And it stays out there in the hall for hours. Waiting. Lurking.
“I expect Lewis to try to sell me vampires,” says Ingrid. That’s his thing. Why am I getting this pitch from you? You’re the literary guy in this place. Mr. Lit-Fic. Along with some historical fiction and the occasional biography. You into vampires now too?”
“No,” says Biggs. “Only the right vampires.”
“The right vam… I couldn’t sell this even if it was good. And it’s not good.”
“How do you know? You haven’t read a single word.”
“I’ve read the title.”
“What’s wrong with Heart Quench?”
“Biggsy.” Ingrid shakes her head and goes to work on my ears with both hands. The essence of her fills my nose.
Biggs always says that in wooing publishers, a good literary agent has to know how to sniff out the yes. Sniff out the yes, Henry, he will say as if that is how I am to earn my keep in this office, Sniff out the yes.
Such is not, if you ask me, the highest and best use of my pedigree. My lines reach back to Essex. Essex! I am descended from beagles that could sniff a hare from a hollow rotten tree stump a mile and a half away.
In the middle of a thunderstorm.
With gale force winds.
And even though I am but sixty-six moons old, my olfactory perception is exceptionally keen for my age. For instance, I can tell when Biggs has been to the recycle center out by the municipal dump even before the car is all the way back inside the garage.
Biggs now leaves me at home on such trips out of an entirely misplaced, overabundance of caution. I have no great love for the recycle center or the dump. I am content to stay in the car. But, for the record, there really was a raccoon. Just out there … kind of walking around. And sniffing. A Beagle can’t let that sort of audacity go unchallenged.
I can also smell his anxiety before he goes out on a date, even beneath all of that insecticide he likes to call cologne. In fact, I can smell the difference between the first date, the third date and the fifth date as his nerves give way to lust and then the lust is hijacked by disappointment and, ultimately, full-on self loathing. I can smell his loneliness. I can smell his yearning. I can smell his guilt, of which there is a great deal, most of it centered on his hypocondriasis-by-proxy obsession with the veterinary sciences, carting me off to be poked and prodded by a sadist in a dirty smock every time my poop fails to live up to his expectations.
He means well, my Biggs.
The point is, I have an exceptional nose. I can smell what time it is, what the weather will be twelve hours into the future, and when the national debt has reached another hundred billion dollar milestone, this last feat owing in large measure to a newsletter that shows up in the mail, smelling of low-grade ink and conservative hysteria, heralding the fiscal apocalypse. The newsletter subscription was a gift from Biggs’ father before he died. It rubs Biggs’ political fur the wrong way but he doesn’t have the heart to unsubscribe his dead father’s gift. It always hits the trash without so much as a cursory glance and so I never see more than a bent corner hanging over the edge of the kitchen counter. Doesn’t matter. I don’t need to see it. I can smell the government spending run amok all the way out in the mailbox.
So, you will excuse me if sniffing the yes out of publishers strikes me as just a little bit pedestrian.
Nevertheless, I’m sniffing up a storm down here and I cannot fathom what Biggs thinks he’s going to get out of Ingrid Knutson. Certainly not the yes. She does not smell like yes. She smells like soap. And pikake. And eggs. Bacon. Orange. Stale rye toast. Gasoline. Mint. Egyptian dark roast coffee, nail polish, hair spray, gluten-free coconut-mango shampoo with Cocamidopropyl betaine. Polyester. Leather. Shea butter. Ink. Asphalt. Tar. Second-hand cigarette smoke. Conceit. Decaying ambition. Daddy issues. And pregnant Irish Setter.
Tinkles barks from down the hall. I can tell by the way the sound shallows so abruptly, flattening out like an excited sonic pancake, that she is up on the back of the chair in Melissa’s office expressing herself – in the sharp, biting, hiccupping kind of barks common to the West Highland Terrier breed – into the closed window that looks out onto the snowy park across the street. I’m guessing that the English Mastiff is out doing his thing with the ball or the Frisbee or whatever his human is throwing today.
Tinkles has wanted a piece of that canine from the beginning. What she would ever do with him if she got the chance is beyond me. His left testicle is twice the size of her entire body. She may as well have a crush on a blue whale.
I get up to see what the fuss is about, extracting myself from Ingrid’s grasp.
“Oh, guess we gotta go see,” lilts Ingrid, like I am some toddler pointing at the colors on a television screen. “We gotta go see, Henry? We ga go see? Ga go?”
I consider sinking my teeth into her mango-crème-slathered shin and shaking. But the impulse passes. I wedge my nose into the crack in the door, squeezing myself out into the hallway as Biggs begins testifying to the go-getter qualities belonging to the author of Heart Quench.
I pass Lewis’ office and can smell Agatha from inside. Lewis is in Hackensack for a book fair, but I know – because I can smell – that Agatha is inside, sprawled on top of that bookcase like an obese African lion spoiling in the heat. She sleeps like the dead up there.
Or so it seems.
I tested that theory once. Barked up at her one time when Lewis had stepped out with a client and neglected to close the door behind him. Agatha came to life like she’d been hit with a broom, whipped her good eye my direction, rolled the wrong way and fell off the backside of the bookcase, wedging herself upside down in the crevice between her favorite perch and the wall. Lewis had to pull the bookcase back from the wall to let her out. It was not at all what I had intended, of course. But it was enough to graduate Agatha’s feelings for me from cold indifference to scalding hatred. Tinkles, on the other hand, thought it was so funny she peed on the faux-Persian runner in the hallway and then declared me her office hero, although making clear that the rest of the world outside The Bigelow Literary Agency still belonged to the English Mastiff and both of his testicles.
In Melissa’s office, Tinkles is a snow white bridge stretching between the back of the big fabric chair and the window, against which her front paws are pressed and pulsing with every syllable like she is trying to push her way through the glass out into the snow. Melissa is at her desk reading a manuscript and chewing a pencil.
“Hi Henry,” she says looking up as I cross the threshold. “Tink, will you please put a cork in it?”
Tinkles looks back panting with a crazed look in her eyes. She stops to take a breath and then starts up again. I jump up on the chair next to her for a look.
The park looks empty or, at least, devoid of English Mastiffs. There is a tall woman in a dark hooded coat standing near the edge of what, in the summer, is a hedged rose garden growing over a small kingdom of voles. I look out and give a single lackluster bark just to be supportive. A little support goes a long way for Tinkles, who doubles down on the frenzy, now scratching at the window like she is dog-paddling up a vertical lake.
“Tink!” says Melissa. “Will you please shut the fuck… what has gotten into you?”
The woman in the park is perfectly motionless, unmoved by the little white hurricane lashing against the window. She is a dark smudge staining the snow like a shadow. She may as well be one of the lampposts, or one of the young hemlocks standing watch over the suffocated rose garden and the sunken kingdom of voles.
I lose interest and hop down from the chair and pad over to the desk, leaving Tinkles to her mania. I sit in front of the drawer where Melissa keeps the sausage treats. She looks up from the manuscript, scolding me with her eyes. But I lock my eyes to hers and stick my tongue out a little, just a little, and let my tail do the talking. She is powerless.
I take my reward to the carpet in front of the credenza. The television is on, of course – it is always on – but the sound is off so that Melissa can concentrate on one of the submissions from her slush pile, a slanting tower of paper climbing out of the wicker tray on the desk. A small wooden sign on the front of the basket features a cartoonish squirrel with an armful of books about acorns. Don’t get buried, he says. Read me! Which is more than just a little ironic since squirrels are among the least literate of God’s creatures. I know a Norway Rat addicted to reading food labels. And all of the weasels I’ve ever known read like nobody’s business. I knew a canary that read her Washington Post cage linings.
But squirrels? Give me just a small break.
Melissa’s professional focus is in finding publishers for those aspiring authors working in the chick-lit, young adult, and erotica genres. She is a certifiable news junkie and lives most of her life enveloped in a soundscape of blathering punditry. C-Span for Melissa is a kind of electronic respiration. Not infrequently she is also tuned into her computer, which is live-streaming NPR or MSNBC or CNN or some other acronym that represents a purveyor of breaking news that may or may not actually be breaking news and may just be something to fill the time until something newsworthy actually happens. Whenever it happens, whatever it is, the news acronyms will be there first. And so will Melissa.
There are exceptions, of course. The television is off whenever Melissa and her boyfriend – and I use that term loosely as an amalgam to represent a great swath of New York’s single thirty-something and married fifty-something male parolee population – are copulating on the couch in her living room. I know this only because I stay with Melissa and Tinkles when Biggs makes his semi-annual trip to California to see his widowed mother.
Melissa and her men are, apparently, of the mistaken impression that canines have no opinion about human fornication. She is grievously mistaken. It’s like a day at the zoo. You’ve never seen such ridiculous flailing about and carrying-on in your life. I’ve seen toy poodles watch a pet-parade from inside a parked car conduct themselves with more dignity.
Tinkles and I usually lay nose-to-nose on the carpet, our backs to the imitation antique steamer trunk that holds Melissa’s treasure trove of straight-to-video, stubble-is-the-same-as-acting Hollywood gems. Tink and I watch the naked-monkey couch Olympics with a practiced, half-lidded, wholly fraudulent disinterest. Sometimes I gnaw on a stick of rawhide just to keep up appearances. If it weren’t so entertaining, it would be unconscionably rude. But twenty minutes of couch time with the hairless monkey circus keeps me and Tinkles amused for at least three to four days after, so no one is complaining to Miss Manners.
In any event, the televisions in Melissa’s life generally stay on, but muted, whenever she is reading client submissions. Not all of them. The Chik-Lit and the Young Adult submissions readily lend themselves to multitasking and divided attention. But the erotica … well, that’s something else entirely. The naked-monkey stories, apparently, require a greater professional focus, which explains not only why Melissa’s television is silent this afternoon, but also why she is so irritated today at Tinkles’ spot-on impression of Dustin Hoffman as a love-crazed lunatic pounding at the glass wall of a Methodist church. Not that Elaine Robinson was a well-endowed English Mastiff, but in the froth of Tinkle’s head, it’s roughly the same scene.
I chew my imitation sausage treat with gusto, looking up at the screen in front of me. A man with a helmet of boiled tar for hair is at a podium pointing to a drawing of a green dollar sign. His mouth opens and closes soundlessly like an angry fish. With every ten or so words, the man slaps at the drawing on the easel with a wooden pointer. He points the stick at a scrubby-faced kid in a blue blazer and a retina-scorching tie, who stands up and positions another square of poster board over the drawing. The new drawing depicts the White House hemorrhaging green dollar signs into the front of a hospital. The man says a few words and then nods sharply at his assistant who produces a new drawing, this one with two nearly identical images of a human fetus except that one is smiling and is wearing a graduation cap and the other is frowning beneath the weight of a giant red ‘X’. The man with pointer keeps whacking at the frowning baby as he talks. Like the kid is in trouble for wearing a giant X on his chest even though he knew he would be on television.
“Let’s go Henry.”
Biggs is suddenly at the door behind me, Ingrid Knutson in tow. They both have coats on. Biggs is swinging my collar at the end of a leash.
I am up in a flash but Tinkles, launching herself from the top of the chair like some sort of albino flying squirrel, is at the door before I am. Melissa sighs and puts down the manuscript and joins us, reaching over me to scoop Tink up into the air.
“Nice to see you, Ingrid,” Melissa lies.
“You too, Mel,” Ingrid lies back to her, wrinkling her nose above her smile like she has just caught a whiff of Agatha’s food from down the hall.
“Well, did Biggs sell you on this one?”
“Not a chance,” says Ingrid. “He played every card he had though. I’ll give him that. Did everything but sing our alma mater fight song.”
“Would that have worked?” asks Biggs hopefully as he hooks me up. I start pulling hard for the door. I don’t know why. I just do. It’s the collar and leash. They make me crazy. All I want to do is pull and I am relatively indifferent about the direction. I have been called undisciplined. I prefer impatient. And I suspect I may have spent a past life as a sled dog.
Ingrid and Melissa laugh at the notion of my ever-hopeful Biggs singing the Yale fight song for money. Poor Biggs.
In the parking lot, we wait for Ingrid to disappear up the road towards greater Great Neck.
“No sale, Henry,” he says. I stop pulling and look up. “She’s a tough one.”
A tough one. Right. Got it. He is not talking about publishing. It’s almost enough to make me toss up that last sausage treat. What Biggs can possibly see in Ingrid Knutson is beyond my stubby-legged comprehension. My best guess is that she cast some sort of naked monkey spell on him back at Yale and he’s never been able to shake it loose. Now they pretend to be colleagues but he’s still asking and she’s still saying no.
She’s a tough one all right. But that’s not all she is.
Trudging through his reverie, Biggs is slow to move. I pull him across the small parking lot to the sidewalk and then across the street to the park. On the other side I look back and can see Tinkles in the window, trying to claw her way through and biting at the air. The longest walk Tink ever seems to get is out to where the dumpster holds down the northeast corner of the parking lot, and even then it’s only long enough for her to do her thing and then apprise herself of who else has been around and what they’ve been eating. Melissa is not much into walking or any exercise other than the naked monkey couch Olympics.
Once Biggs took both me and Tinkles to the park. She nearly hyperventilated she was so excited. She didn’t shut up about it for three weeks. Every time Biggs so much as scratched his nose Tink was at the front door having ecstatic seizures. Hers is an unfortunately excitable breed.
“She’s probably right,” Biggs says, waiting for me to paint the snow around the base of an oak. “I should stick to my own territory. It never goes well when I dabble in other genres.”
He is thinking of the time he had tried to find a publisher for a comedy about a man who gets roped into helping his Mormon neighbors – Tiberious Bowel, his wife Emily and their seven children—move out of their home. From what I could discern from the snippets Biggs read to Melissa and Lewis, the man ends up in a depraved sexual relationship with the oldest Bowel daughter recently home from college to help with the move. The co-ed, freshly exposed to the freedoms offered by higher education and whose carefully bred piety had come unraveled with surprising ease, eventually finds herself in the back of a moving van pinning the hapless protagonist up against a makeshift bed of boxes full of sweaters and old embroidery and record albums of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir harmonizing about the Gates of Heaven. That’s when the co-ed’s five-year old sister pokes her head in to find out what all of the commotion was about. No end of discomfiting hilarity ensues.
Biggs loved the book but could not find a publisher to save his life. Ingrid’s was only one of many rejections. Ultimately, he conceded defeat, concluding that the book was too long and was not as well written as he had originally thought. The author called Biggs a worthless agent and hung up on him.
Personally, I think it was mostly the title. Who wants to read six hundred pages of anything called Moving the Bowels?
We resume walking but suddenly the leash goes tight. I turn to see that the woman in the long black coat is now, from out of nowhere, standing between us.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Bigelow,” she says, her words precisely shaped, but slow and somehow thicker and heavier than normal words. Her hair, bleached with a slightly red metallic sheen, is so short it makes her face look freakishly long. “How will you realize your true potential if you never … how did you put it… dabble in other genres?”
“Do I know you?” asked Biggs.
“I,” she says, “know you.”
“No. Not if you call me Mr. Bigelow, you don’t. Not really.”
“I prefer the formalities. Biggs is too…” she removes a long pale hand from her pocket and stirs the cold air with her fingers. They are so white that I almost lose them against the snow. “Too lacking in dignity. I can call you Peter. If that pleases you. But I will not call you Biggs. I would prefer my agent to have an air of self-respect.”
“Your agent? Am I your agent?”
“You will be. And I will be your only client.”
“Oh?” Biggs gives a little laugh.
“Well, I suppose I should say, the only client you will care to invest any time in.”
I sniff at the ground between her long legs and at the souls of her coal-black boots, the tops of which disappear up into the folds of her coat. I smell nothing but snow and expensive clothing.
My breed is not given to fear. Beagles are undeterred by the size and strength of our enemies. I have uncles who have given chase to black bears ten times their size and fifty times their weight.
But suddenly, for the first time in my life, I am truly afraid.
Tinkles is in such a state of excitement she is all but raising the dead across the street, manic on the other side of the window. I can hear her. I look to see Melissa appear at the window trying to figure out what has gotten her so worked up.
I realize now that Tink had not been barking at her English Mastiff or even at the hopes of seeing him romping in the snow after a Frisbee. She was barking at this woman in black who makes no sound when she walks and who makes no breath when she speaks. And who has absolutely no scent to her presence.
The eyes can lie. The ears can lie. But not the nose. Not my nose.
The woman in black is not alive.
And yet I have smelled death and its telltale rot and it is not here.
The woman in black is not dead.
It’s as if she does not exist.