Is someone sick? the alto asks. Do you need an ambulance?
Another muffled bump turns into static. The silence ends in a stifled O. Rapid words shear off, unidentifiable even with digital filtering and enhancement. The sounds of failed comforting.
The dispatcher says, sir? Can you confirm your address?
Someone hums a muted tune, a lullaby from another planet. Then the line goes dead.
I was sure that no one would ever hear a note. This was my piece for an empty hall.
The two officers who pulled up in front of 806 South Linden in an indigo squad car had already dealt that evening with an antidepressant overdose, a molar-breaking scrum in a convenience store, and a eugenics debate involving small arms fire. Life in a Pennsylvania college town flexing itself, and the night was still young.
The house belonged to Peter Clement Els, an adjunct professor who'd been released from Verrata College three years before. The police database had nothing; it seemed Mr. Els had never even jaywalked. The two officersa young man with a shot-putter's gait and an older woman who gazed around bewildered as she walkedheaded up the path to the front steps. Maple branches clicked in the spring wind. Dampened hilarity spilled out of a nearby house and across two dark lawns. High overhead, the twin jets of a short-haul flight shrieked toward the regional airport. Cars scythed up and down the state highway four blocks away.
The front porch was littered with things on the verge of being put away: a wood chipper, a pair of chewed-over rawhide bones, nested flowerpots, a bicycle pump. The male officer held open the screen, and the woman knocked, braced for anything.
Something flickered behind a half-moon window, and the door swung open. A gaunt, monkish man stood in the wedge of light. He wore rimless glasses and a plaid work shirt pilled around the collar. His gray hair looked as if a pioneer woman had cut it using an inverted bowl. An archipelago of food stains speckled his corduroys. His eyes were way elsewhere.
Mild disarray ruled the room behind him. Mission chairs sat ringed by bookshelves. Books, CD jewel cases, and stalagmite--coated candles covered every surface. A corner of the worn Persian rug was flipped up. The evening's dinner dishes sat stacked on a magazine-covered coffee table.
The woman officer surveyed the scene. Peter Els? You placed a call to Emergency Services?
Els closed his eyes, then opened them. My dog just died.
You dialed 911 for your dog?
Beautiful golden retriever. Fourteen years old. She started hemorrhaging out of the blue.
Your dog was sick, the policeman said, her voice sagging under the weight of humanity, and you didn't dial a vet?
The guilty party dropped his eyes. I'm sorry. A stroke, I guess. She was sliding around on the floor and howling. She bit me when I tried to move her. I thought that if someone could help restrain . . .
Behind a gate, down a hallway leading from the living room, a green quilt covered a lump as big as a curled-up child. The male officer pointed. Peter Els turned to look. When he turned back, his face was an anagram for confusion.
She must have thought I was punishing her. He held the half-open door and studied the ceiling. I'm sorry to have bothered anyone. It felt like an emergency.
The officer nodded toward the lump. Can we have a look?
Els flinched. At what? She's dead. After a clumsy pause, he stepped aside.
In Els's living room, the uniforms looked harsher and more hardware-laden. The three walls of floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with books and CDs unnerved the male officer. He stepped over the gate and down the hall to the covered lump lying on the floor, where he turned back the sheet.
Excerpted from Orfeo by Richard Powers. Copyright © 2014 by Richard Powers. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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