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» A hot case for modern-day sleuth

Commentary & Family life 24 Jul 2009 08:51 am

A hot case for modern-day sleuth

Here is my print column from July 23. It’s not the “director’s cut” version I published below (called Skunk Summer), which included photos of my dog. In this one, I try to hide the culprit until later in the piece, so if you already know it from the earlier post, pretend you don’t.

It was a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

My wife and I woke up a few weeks ago to the smell of something like burning wires and smoldering tires. Not pleasant.

I focused on the worst-case scenario: Something in the walls was on fire. This was followed by my second-worst-case scenario: An appliance was committing hara-kiri. The worst-case scenario is my version of the Power of Positive Thinking. If I think the worst, then I am pleasantly surprised by a happier outcome. It makes me feel better, but it drives my wife crazy.

Anyway, I put the dog outside so she would stay out of my way, and then pulled out the refrigerator, sniffed around the computer and dishwasher, and looked for smoke. Nothing.

It started to smell better. Maybe I had imagined it, or maybe it was the lingering olfactory ghost of tilapia from the night before. Fishy, but not life-threatening. I let the dog back in and made breakfast.

Somewhere between the first and second bite of oatmeal, the smell returned, but stronger. My daughter came down the steps to ask what died. She said it smelled rubbery. Meanwhile, the dog was dancing at the back door. Her keen canine sense of smell was probably overwhelmed by the stench, I thought. Out of compassion, I put her back out and kept looking.

The smell subsided a little, so I shrugged and brought the dog back in. By that time, my daughter had left for work, my wife was almost ready to leave, and I had errands to run. (Teachers don’t work in the summer, but their honey-do lists grow longer to compensate.)

With my Watsons gone or preparing to go, this Holmes was stumped. On the chance that it was electrical and in the walls, and to avoid the minor inconvenience of coming home to a set of cinder blocks that was once my house, I called the fire department for advice.

The advice came minutes later, accompanied by two fire trucks and a squad of firefighters in full gear, blocking the street and tromping around inside the house. To make things easier, I put the dog outside again.

Yep, something smelled funny, they said. No, it didn’t exactly smell like a fire, an opinion buttressed by a little electronic doodad that indicated nothing hotter than an electrical candle warmer in the house. Besides, the smell was fading. Maybe an animal had died in a wall or corner somewhere?

They left. My wife left. I left. Later that day, the neighbors asked me if my house smelled funny. I was mortified. Could something in my house smell so bad that the neighbors smelled it too?

No, it turns out everybody on the block had a house that smelled like that, although I was the only person to call the fire department.

An important clue came when the neighbors petted the dog and noticed she smelled funny. I turned my attention to the pooch, rubbing my hands through her coat and sniffing her collar.

She smelled like burning wires and smoldering tires — and something else besides. Something musky and organic, a smell my neighbors recognized at once in their own houses but masked in mine by the chemical interaction between my normally stinky dog (a bath once a year if she needs it or not) and a more stinky backyard intruder.

Suddenly, earlier clues sprang to mind: The dog’s frantic barks from outside the night before. The way the smell came and went with man’s best friend.


I am probably the only person in the world who ever thought his house was on fire because a skunk sprayed his dog. I freely admit this puts me in the bottom tenth percentile of most IQ scales, a capital-L loser.

Two weeks later, the dog has gone through the full gamut of skunk remedies and cures, culminating in a full-body shave that turned a husky mix into an albino. Still, she smells slightly fresh.

True to my worst-case scenario philosophy, I’m gratified it was only a skunk and not a hornet’s nest of burning wires. Still, I can’t look a firefighter in the eye, and the master detective failed to collect the clues, solve the crime or provide an effective remedy.

Egad, how does he do it?

Elementary, my dear Watson. Skunked again.

Since two people have asked about it, I should note that the dog REALLY DIDN’T SMELL LIKE SHE’D BEEN SPRAYED BY A SKUNK. I highlight this because the general consensus, as one person put it, is that I’m too much of a city boy to know the skunk scent, which isn’t true. I know very well what a skunk smells like, and this wasn’t it. Believe me.

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3 Responses to “A hot case for modern-day sleuth”

  1. on 25 Jul 2009 at 1.Jody Csaki said …

    This is a great story! The skunks have been TERRIBLE this year! I hope everything gets back to normal soon.

    This story is yet another in a long line of great stories! You should really consider compiling your writings into a book. It would sell!

  2. on 31 Jul 2009 at 2.Chris said …

    Thanks for the compliment. A book collection is always something I kick around, but I never move much beyond the thinking stage.

  3. on 11 Feb 2010 at 3.Cassandra Dalton said …

    Have ALL of your pets been in some way injured or embarrassed?

    Too bad about the skunk though, that stinks (pardon the pun).

    And even Holmes had slow moments. Though I can’t think of an example off-hand.

    But why on earth would the fire department send over two trucks to investigate that?? One truck with another on-call would have been sufficent would it not?

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