Napoleon, Brutus, and me
It will come as no surprise to me if you find my tale a little on the tall side. As a storyteller, I am prone to exaggerate for effect. Maybe that’s affect. I get the two confused.
This story begins at the end of a long descending staircase of failures on my part. Never mind the particulars. It’s sufficient to say I had come to the end of my rope quite legitimately, if not literally.
I had no money. In fact, I owed money to everybody I knew, and some I didn’t.
I had swung twice at marriage without a hit. I did manage some offspring, which added fatherhood to my list of failures.
In addition to no money and no wife and no children, I had no friends. Plus my parents and siblings disowned me. I gave the term “black sheep” a bad name.
Pretty much all I put my hand to ended in — well, you know what. Many would say I was the personification of bad luck.
It was early one Wednesday — or perhaps a Tuesday — no matter. It was a week day. Or perhaps the weekend. I can’t remember. Another failing. Anyway, I awoke, and three days from eviction came to the conclusion I should do something. I called the local Goodwill and told them I had furniture, clothing and more to donate, and would they come pick it all up? The next day they did.
I saved a small duffel bag into which I packed two pairs of underwear; two pairs of regular athletic socks; one pair of size 38/30 jeans; one black T-shirt with white lettering that read “Irony — the opposite of Wrinkly,” from Café Press online; two sweatshirts; and some toiletries, although I didn’t I would use them. Something to stay connected to civilization, I suppose.
Once the guys from Goodwill left I checked out with my apartment manager, who asked my forwarding address.
“Don’t know where I’ll be. Why?”
“Refund on your deposit.”
“You keep it.”
“Send it to my sister,” whose name and address were on my original application.
Besides my wallet with three crumpled dollar bills and my driver’s license, I had a quarter. I got into my car and flipped the coin. I had decided that heads would be right, and tails would be left, and that every intersection I came to I would flip the coin and go in whatever direction came up. If I ended up going in circles, I gave myself permission to override the toss, which was one of the few good decisions of my life.
At the end of a day-and-a-half, after starting in Hickory, North Carolina, I ran out of gas on Bob Hollow Road, north of Wentz, Kentucky. I pulled off the road and wrote on a Burger King bag the following:
“Don’t need my car anymore. You are welcome to it. The title is in the glove compartment.”
I signed the title so anyone could legally take the car, left the keys in the ignition, grabbed my duffel bag and started walking north.
That’s when I met Napoleon.
Napoleon was a mix. And small. Tiny, really. He was a bit scruffy and a little too wiry around the eyebrows and his muzzle. I had decided to take a rest along the road when Napoleon trotted up to me from somewhere I hadn’t seen. As he closed in he lowered his chin almost to the ground, slowed and widened the spread of his back legs, as though he was going to squat and make a pee like a female.
I knew the posture, having owned one or two dogs in my time. It was a combination of things. Napoleon wanted me to know I was the Alpha. He also wanted me to know he was fiercely hungry, and could I help him out?
I stretched my hand out to him, which he sniffed and then licked. Then he plopped down next to me at the side of the road as if we had been long-time companions. Perhaps we had.
An old beat-up Ford pulled up in the road and stopped, and a geezer leaned toward the passenger window and rolled it down.
“Need a lift?”
“Well, where you headed?”
“Again, not sure.”
“Get in.” And he opened the door from the inside swung it wide. Napoleon hopped up into the cab as if second-nature, and I climbed in and shut the door.”
“There’s a café about a few miles down the road. Best hamburgers in the county.”
Napoleon sat erect on the seat looking straight forward.
“Had him long?”
“Not really. A little bit.”
“What’s his name?”
“Napoleon.” The name popped into my head, and Napoleon opened his mouth and let his tongue hang out. He seemed to smile at my answer, then licked my hand.
“Like the French guy.”
Our chauffer was in his fifties or so, and wore bib overalls with a dirty T-shirt underneath. His big boots were caked with mud, and were very worn.
“You smoke?” He reached into his bib pocket and pulled out a deflated package of Camels, offering the smokes to me.
“No, thanks. I got too many things on my list to add cigarettes at this point.”
“My list of failures.”
“Oh. And smoking would be a failure, then?”
“For me it would. But you go ahead. I don’t begrudge you at all. I mean, you’re the one giving me a ride.”
“Right.” He pushed in the dashboard lighter and shook out a cigarette, grabbing it with his lips. “You passing through, then? I mean, not a whole lot of people come to Daisy.”
He seemed to be fishing — asking a lot of questions for someone who ought to know privacy is sacred to most people. Napoleon, as though he heard my thoughts, looked at me with the darnedest mug.
“I’m headed west,” I answered finally. He lit his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke from his nose out the open driver’s side window.
“To see family?”
“Right. They’re expecting me in a couple of days.”
Napoleon looked at me again.
“He’s not to be trusted.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“Didn’t say nothin’,” the chauffer answered. Napoleon stared straight into my eyes. “Where did you say this family of yours lives?” He pulled deeply on his cigarette, an ash beginning to form at its tip.
“So, where is it, then?”
He pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Then turned and smiled at me. He was muscular, and had toned arms and shoulders. Powerfully built.
“So they live somewhere west, which you won’t tell me. And here you are out in the middle of the sticks with your dog, hitchhiking.”
“Yep. That’s about the size of it.” I felt my heart begin to pound, and a tightness constrict across my chest. A bead of sweat formed at my hairline and trickled down my cheek.
“Know what I think?”
“I think you don’t have family west of here. When I first asked, you said you weren’t sure where you were headed.”
I didn’t answer. He smiled and put his hand on my leg.
“I think you are homeless — a drifter. Am I right?” He squeezed my leg gently.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble . . .”
“Neither do I, brother. I just thought we might be able to help each other out. Come to an understanding. I know you got needs. Gotta need money and food and shelter. Am I right? Plus, it’s getting late and it’s not safe to be out alone. Perhaps I can help you out if you can see fit to help me out.” He squeezed my leg again.
At that point Napoleon began to growl deeply, and backed close to me, his muzzle not far from the man’s hand. He removed it cautiously.
“Guard dog, huh?”
“His bite is worse than his bark,” I said, narrowing my eyes at the man. “It’s why I call him Napoleon.”
Napoleon continued to growl.
“Tell you what, friend — me and Napoleon are used to the road, and while I appreciate your offer, I’ll pass on it.” I opened the door and the dog and I got out quickly.
The man smiled and tilted his head. “Suit yourself. The money’s good.”
“There are more things than money,” I said. He reached over and closed the door, then sped off ahead, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.
I shook my head and sat down. Napoleon sat next to me. I patted him on the head and scratched behind his ears.
“Thanks. I owe you. I do believe we just avoided something bad.”
“Don’t mention it,” Napoleon said, his face stretched into a grin, saliva dripping from one corner of his mouth. “He wasn’t going to do anything with me around.”
I let the comment pass. Obviously I was hearing voices.
My grandmother was schizophrenic. She lived with us in the back bedroom of our home when I was growing up. She used to read Uncle Wiggily stories to me from a big picture book. As she got older, she got vague. I remember once she pulled me aside and told me the Communists were after her. It was only a few months later when she died. She had gone to the hospital with what my parents called “complications,” but I was never allowed to go visit. She died late one night, and Mom and Dad had her cremated within a day. They flew up to Luverne, Minnesota with her ashes to put her to rest in the family plot.
Later I learned she heard voices, and that she was paranoid. That was where the comments about the Communists came — from her illness.
When I first heard Napoleon talk I immediately figured I was schizophrenic like my grandmother. Truth is, I think Napoleon had second thoughts about speaking to me, figuring it freaked me out, which it sure as hell did.
Then I figured maybe I was wrong about the guy in the truck as well. Maybe he was like a Samaritan, and was going to set me up a bit. Maybe all of my misgivings, which had definitely been knocked askew by thinking Napoleon said the man wasn’t to be trusted merely denied me of some great opportunity.
I spent the last of my money at a country package store. I bought a can of Spam and one of those Jiffy Pop aluminum popcorn pans. I also bought a can of Sterno.
Napoleon and I shared the Spam, and I used the can as a makeshift stove, putting the Sterno in it and lighting the blue jelly fuel. Soon the corn popped, puffing the aluminum cover into a silver dome. Most of it was burnt. The dog and I shared that, too.
“Well, I guess you can take off now, Napoleon. I’ve spent all my money, and we’ve eaten all there is. Nothing left but for me to curl up and die.”
Again, Napoleon looked at me, his eyes aglow from the blue Sterno flame.
“That’s a crock.”
“You heard me. I’m calling you on this.”
“Ah, my schizophrenia is kicking in again!”
“No. Your dog is talking sense to you.”
“Wait! Several things wrong with this scenario. First, you’re not my dog. And second, dogs don’t talk! And why the hell am I talking to you?”
“And pigs don’t fly and the moon is made of green cheese and on and on and on. As far as your first premise, whether a human adopts a dog or a dog adopts a human, the result is the same — they own each other. Ergo, you are mine, and I am yours.
“And as to the second premise, guess what?”
“You — you’re talking to me!?”
“Ding! Ding! Ding! Give that man a cookie!”
I’m fond of saying “Think outside the box.” And, I’d like to think I’m fairly open to what I might not understand or even believe in. After all, my world is a microcosm of me, myself and I. Stretching that small universe would not be a bad thing, right?
“Please, give me a moment to digest everything.”
“My observation of the world of humans is anything that challenges the norm is a threat.”
“Well, you’re a dog, and you are entitled to your opinion. What am I doing!?”
“You are trying to adjust to a challenge of the world as you know it. In your world, I can’t talk. And if I am talking, it’s not really me, but either a figment of your imagination, or some psychotic breakdown.”
“I have been under a lot of stress lately.”
“I’m neither a figment nor a breakdown. I’m a dog.”
“How is it you speak English?”
“Well, considering I was born in this country, what language should I speak?”
Napoleon tilted his head to the side and was quiet, as if in deep thought.
“We have more important issues than whether or not I can speak.”
“Such as we need money. We need supplies and food and a game plan.”
“Other than rob a convenience store, I’m not sure what we can do about money. We could shoplift for the supplies and food, I suppose.”
“You are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. God didn’t give you a brain for nothing!”
“You believe in God?”
“Well, it is dog spelled backwards. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, yes, all dogs do go to Heaven.”
“Pardon me if I still seem a skeptic. Talking animals are best left to fairy tales and cartoons.”
“Can we move pass this? Okay, pretend you’re dreaming. I just said we need money, supplies and food. And, no, we are not going to get those things illegally. Last place I want to end up is the dog shelter. You prison’s not a safe place for a cute little dog.”
“Spare me the thought.”
“I do have an idea, if you’d like to hear it. A way to get some money fast. And legally.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Okay, we find a shopping mall, or some downtown shopping area. You take me on your lap, and you pretend to be a ventriloquist. You ask me questions and I answer.”
“That’s your idea?”
“We find a hat or a tin can to collect spare change. We do a show.”
“In the middle of Kentucky.”
“Maybe not here. Maybe we hitch a ride to a bigger town.”
We hitchhiked, Napoleon and I. From the backwoods of Perry County to Lexington. It took six rides. Thankfully none of the other drivers were like our first experience.
Once there we headed to the Fayette Mall, the largest around. The weather was reasonably nice, and since I couldn’t take Napoleon inside the mall, we set up near one of the entrances. Napoleon hopped onto my lap, and I started to ask him questions in a loud voice as people passed. We had worked on the questions before we performed.
“You’re a small dog.”
“How’s your life, being so small?”
“Ruff! Really ruff!”
“Are you a good dancer?”
“Not at all.”
“Because I have two left feet!”
“What kind of dog does Dracula have?”
It’s true that the jokes were groaners. But Napoleon took everything over the top. He tilted his head. He paused (no pun intended). He varied the tenor of his voice. People on the sidewalk began to slow down and stop and listen. Soon we had a small audience that laughed and groaned along with us. Then people began to drop coins into a cup I had placed in front of us. Then dollar bills.
We were on a roll when a security guard strolled up and watched from the edge of our audience. He grinned and laughed a few times, then finally stepped forward when the crowd thinned out at one point.
“That’s amazing! You are a really talented ventriloquist! Unfortunately, you can’t do your act here, and you’re going to have to move along.”
Timing is everything, right? Here Napoleon and me got things rolling a bit, and we weren’t bothering anybody, and some money was starting to fill the cup, and this jerk has to go and spoil everything.
Napoleon looked at the would-be cop.
“So, you couldn’t make it as a regular cop, eh?”
“Napoleon! You shouldn’t say something like that! It doesn’t help.”
“Well he’s the one not helping! So, Mister Security Guard — you have nothing better to do than chase off a couple of honest guys trying to earn a living?”
“Look, it’s not up to me. I don’t make the rules here.”
“Right. What a cop out! No pun intended.”
Napoleon jumped off my lap and stepped up to the guard and sat at his feet.
“Betcha if I were a talking cat you wouldn’t have a problem with our working the sidewalk.”
He sniffed at the guard’s pant leg.
“As I thought. You’re a cat owner.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“The smell of cat is all over your pants. Probably one of those ugly long-haired, pug-nosed, stuck-up pussies.”
“See, that’s discrimination. That’s profiling. That’s the same-old same-old we dogs have had to endure forever.”
“Wait! Am I having this conversation with a dog?” And the guard side-stepped Napoleon and walked over to where I sat enjoying the scene.
“Amazing as your talent is, mister, you gotta go. We can do this peacefully, or the hard way. It’s your choice.”
Ain’t technology grand? Unawares to us, while the security guard, Napoleon and I were having our confrontation, some mall customers were taking videos of everything on their cell phones, and uploading to Facebook and Twitter. Rather than risk a night in jail, I picked up the can of money and motioned to Napoleon we should go.
“What are you in the mood to eat?” I asked my friend.
“How about a hot dog?” he grinned at me.
By the time we crossed the parking lot and found a fast food place where we could sit outside and eat, those digital videos of us had been shared and re-shared to the point half of Lexington had viewed them. One of those was a local reporter for Fox 56 television, who was in the area when she saw the tweeted video.
Kimberly Dawn drove by in a Fox 56-decorated van and saw us, screamed to her driver to stop, and hopped out.
“Are you the guys in this video?” she asked, shoving her iPhone close to my face while the confrontation with the mall security guard played. I watched, turned to her at its finish, and smiled broadly.
“Yep. That’s us.”
“Well guys, this must be your lucky day!”
Napoleon and I ended up on the Fox 56 six o’clock and 11 o’clock news that night. The interview was a mixture of our “story” — travelling through with nowhere to stay — and Napoleon answering questions posed by Kimberly Dawn.
“So, Napoleon, tell our viewers what breed of dog you are?”
“Mix. Part terrier, part Pomeranian. I just say I’m a Sooner.”
“Sooner? As an Oklahoma U fan?”
“Naw. Sooner one than the other.”
“How did you meet your owner?”
“I’m not a slave. He doesn’t own me. We are a cooperative with equally important yet differing responsibilities.”
“And what are your responsibilities in this cooperative?”
“I’m the brains of the outfit.”
I was in the background of the shot, nodding and smiling and moving my jaw a bit as though projecting my voice to Napoleon.
At the end of the interview, Dawn and her cameraman/driver gave us a lift to a homeless shelter, and she apparently knew the director, who okayed it for us to stay for a couple of days. It was to his interest, as the shelter became a small part of the story.
That news spot didn’t just air on Fox 56. Oh no. It was picked up by the national Fox News people, which was picked up and re-aired by ABC, NBC and CBS national news departments. When Dawn said “This must be your lucky day,” she wasn’t kidding! For the next week replays of that little news encounter filtered through nearly every local TV station across America. Everyone likes a feel-good-story, don’t you know?
Five people saw it who responded in very different, unexpected ways. Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, and three others.
One was a muscular man, who had toned arms and shoulders. Powerfully built. He sat quietly nursing a Budweiser, seated at the counter of a country bar on Bob Hollow Road, a bit north of Wentz, Kentucky. He reached into his bib pocket and pulled out a deflated package of Camels, grabbing one of the smokes with his lips, and lighting it with his Zippo. A large flat screen TV was hung at the back of the bar, and the news item about Napoleon and me was on.
“I’ll be damned!” he muttered. He threw back the remaining beer and placed a five on the counter, then left the bar and climbed into his beat-up truck and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.
A man and his wife were in the living room of their farmhouse, eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans from plates on TV dinner trays, watching Fox 56 evening news.
“I’ll be damned!” he muttered when the piece on us aired. “That’s where that damned dog got to!” He stood up and took his tray to the kitchen, then swung the back door open angrily and hopped into his truck and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.
A lean, prim-looking woman sat in a large easy chair, reading the newspaper, the TV blaring in the background. The news item caught her attention, as she was a dog-person at heart. Then she noticed the man in the background of the shot of the talking dog, nodding and smiling and moving his jaw a bit, projecting his voice to Napoleon.
“I’ll be damned!” she muttered, then grabbed her cellphone and dialed a number. The ringing was interrupted by a man’s voice.
“Cuthbert? This is Sally. I just found out where that deadbeat of an ex of mine has gone to. I want you to have him arrested.”
It’s truly nice to be wanted. And in my case, or I should say, our case, Napoleon and I were definitely wanted by two huge television personalities. We were at the right place at the right time. Kismet, some would say. Pure luck, according to others. Whichever, the fact remained that Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres wanted us on their shows.
I like Jimmy Fallon. Not that I ever watched him before. I quit watching The Tonight Show when Johnny retired. It wasn’t the same anymore. I mean, when Ed McMahon belted out “Heeeere’s Johnny!” the world seemed ordered and right. But without them? Plus, it got harder and harder to stay up to watch the show. Jay didn’t do it for me.
Jimmy’s a real nice kid. Still wet behind the ears, but genuine as can be, near as I can tell. He had Napoleon and me flown up first-class to New York. Even though it was a short flight, Napoleon kept everyone in stitches with his dog’s perspective. Of course I was the one that got the credit, though.
“You are amaaaaa—zing!” the other passengers complimented me.
I told Napoleon in private our secret was bound to get out.
“You’re nuts! Who in their right mind would believe that a dog can talk? Don’t worry so much!”
We were picked up at the airport by an NBC limousine and whisked away to a midtown hotel near 30 Rockefeller Square, where the show is taped.
Two hours before the taping Napoleon and I were driven to the towering building, and made our way to Studio 6B, where we were ushered to the Green Room. Our guide directed us to the hair and make-up room where I was powdered and rouged a bit. Napoleon refused the make-up.
“There’s something more than weird about a dog that wears lipstick and eye shadow,” he yipped at the make-up artist. But he was into the hair bit, getting a quick style-and-snip wet cut and blow-dry.
“So, what’s your favorite dog breed, Honey,” he asked during the process. “I’m a great lap-man. Wanna meet after the show so I can prove it?”
“I’ll bet you are!” she laughed. “Thanks, but I’m more of a cat-person.”
When I walked out onto the stage with Napoleon tucked onto one arm, the brightness of the lights almost overpowered us. I sat in the chair directly beside Jimmy’s big desk, and he reached over and patted me on the arm.
“So, you and Napoleon were wandering the streets of Lexington, Kentucky, and started a street show for money, I understand.”
“Yeah.” I was so nervous I could only muster short one or two word answers. Then Napoleon took over, which was why we were there anyway. I let him have his day, and mocked moving my mouth a bit. Mostly nodded and grinned while he did all the talking.
“What’s it like to be a dog, Napoleon?” Fallon asked finally.
“Actually, a dog’s life, depending on if you have a kind owner, is the best. Humans are great pets and wonderful to have around.”
“You don’t really get to experience family, though. I never knew my dad. My brothers and sisters are scattered all over the place, and my mom was a real bitch.”
“So I have a question for you, Napoleon. Why is it that dogs go around smelling other dogs’ butts? I keep thinking what if humans did that?”
“Actually it’s a great question, Jimmy. You probably know my sense of smell is probably ten thousand times better than yours.”
“I heard that. If that’s true, why would you have to stick your nose up in there? I mean, crap is crap, right? You should be able to smell it a mile away.”
“The fact is there are glands around a dog’s butt that can tell me a lot about that dog.”
“Really? Like what?”
“If they are ill, for example. What their gender is. I can tell if that dog is somehow related to me, or to another dog I know. Whether or not they are going to be a friend or a foe.”
“Well, if you smell my butt, we’re friends for life as far as I’m concerned.”
“You know that dogs have been known to detect cancer in their humans. And are used these days to alert humans about impending stroke or heart attack.”
“So, tell me about alpha dogs and pecking orders.”
“I’m an alpha dog. We’re on your show because of me, not him.” I was glad to get at least an acknowledgment.
“So size does not matter, then?”
“Most alpha dogs I know are as small as me. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. You’ve heard that, of course.”
“And it’s brains, not brawn.”
“Where do you guys go from here?”
“We’re off to California tomorrow to be on the Ellen show.”
“That’s great! You’ll love her!”
And so it was over almost as soon as it started.
The next day we flew to California, again First-Class. I discovered that Napoleon, talking aside, is unlike any other dog I’ve known before. Most are content to lay down and nap the day away. Not him. He’s’ always got his nose into something — well, that’s normal for a dog now that I think of it — and is jabbering with someone about some thing. Me? I leaned my leather seat back and tried to sleep. That really impressed everyone!
“How do you do that?” one fellow passenger demanded, jabbing me in the arm.
“Ventriloquize while you’re asleep? Obviously you’re awake, right?”
“Well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say your dog actually does talk, and you’re the dummy!”
“You got me.” And I turned away to resume sleeping. And the other passengers kept talking to Napoleon, asking him all sorts of things.
“Who’s your favorite rock group?”
Three Dog Night.
“Your favorite song?”
Pressley’s Hound Dog.
And he, in turn, would ask them questions.
What do you get when you combine a peeping Tom with a junk-yard dog?
“I don’t know . . . what?”
That went on through our first connection in the gate seating area, and again on board. It was becoming more than tiresome. Oh, sure — everyone else liked the performance. It dawned on me how this same frustration had shown its ugly face in my two marriages. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. But not nearly as quickly as it does when you have a talking dog.
Copyright © Lawrence S. Marsden, 22 January, 2016