Illustration by Alex Kostiw
The sitting room is like an incense burner, its air nearing opacity and fragrant in the dusk. In one corner of the room a record player masquerades sibilantly as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It might appear to someone spying over the cinderblock wall from the alley that the man inside the room is frolicking along with Rimsky-Korsakov as he skips slightly to recover from a near-stumble over one of the heaps on the floor. The staticky music wafts out into the garden and covers, together with the crickets, the sounds of burning things.
The splintering wood approximates a savage sort of ruff the way that he holds the pieces, fanned out from one another around his neck in a gentle chaos. The concavities of his body are glazed lightly with sweat; to an outsider watching for long enough, his person would undulate slightly, distorted where the abnormal heat of the house met the cooling eve-ning air. He moves with arms full to the voluptuous sooty stove sitting like a commander at the room’s center. He feeds it a succession of severed furniture limbs, solicitously. The afterimages of the flames drift over the dimming openness of the room when he turns to gather the last of the wood. Dizzy for a moment, he stops to press a handkerchief to his forehead, the hollows beneath his eyes, the rings of seashell-colored skin around his nostrils. Then he throws the handkerchief into the stove.
No one finds him exactly; it is the pulling of the dogs at their leashes that causes the neighbors to see the feet, wrongly angled toward one another. They know that something has gone south. They walk forward a little, see the others, confer across the street in strained voices.
One of them ties his greyhound to the stop sign at the corner and pulls his mobile out to dial the number for emergencies. While he’s quavering to the operator the velvety dog frees itself and lopes over to the figure in the middle of the street. Its owner can’t seem to put his lips right to whistle and it won’t come to its name. They block the cul-de-sac off like good samaritans but no one goes over to separate the dog from the body.
He’s certified dead at six o’clock by the paramedics. The hound has been locked in the nearest backyard until somebody can decide what to do with it.
Any idea why the deceased was naked? Next of kin? The neighbors incline their heads toward one another on the periphery; what was his name, again?
The sunhatted lady with the prematurely white hair volunteers to go into the house to see whether anything can be found out. Its front door gapes in the dry wind. Up on the canal, the sun burns its last, jarring against the mild stroboscopy of the ambulance lights. The police haven’t come yet.
What will remain: out in the garden, a layer of ash several inches deep. Inside the wood-burning stove, an incompletely combusted suit of clothes.
The landlord will have an easy time of it. Rarely has a renter cleaned up after himself so thoroughly, he’ll remark to his daughter, aged five-and-a-half. Clipboard discarded, absently opening drawers in the kitchenette, he will realize then that he hasn’t heard her clattering around the house for some time. He’ll move quietly around the island, half-anticipating that a game of hide-and-seek has begun unannounced. Only when he realizes that one of the long glass sliding doors in the sitting room is open will he see her, smiling, hands buried in ash. He will feel a responsibility that stems from the smile still on his own face. He will feel strangely compelled. He will thereafter be unable to look at his daughter straight-on.