What Could Be Burning?
Stepping out my front door, the heat assaults me, steals my breath and leaves me gasping. Its partners-in-crime are an eye-stinging haze and an unpleasant smoky smell in the air.
An old hound, owner of the expression ‘hangdog’ if ever there was but most likely happy and well-loved, is sprawled across the pavement. He could probably sniff and say exactly what’s on fire but lacks the voice to tell me.
The city is hot, too hot to be outside. People cower under bus shelters and huddle against shop windows. I fossick for shade, abandoning plans for a morning coffee in the sun. My favourite café looks abandoned, the outdoor furniture unused and still stacked. I push the door open then stand there as the cool air rushes out at me.
A voice chides from within. “Hey, don’t let all the cold air out. You trying to air-condition the world or something?” I step inside and let the door close, smiling at the surly barista. He looks positively livid; his default state. But he makes a to-die-for cup of coffee.
Tony, the big Italian owner, waves at me from the kitchen. I wave back but I’m too hot to bother making small talk. He exaggeratingly wipes his brow then shrugs at me. I nod and make the same gesture. He nods acknowledgement then goes back to his newspaper.
There’s not a free chair in the place and the queue is ten deep so I stand at the end of it and resign myself to waiting. Generally, I don’t mind queues. It is an excuse to gawk at the other customers.
There's a couple in the far corner, hissing quietly back and forth at each other while trying to pretend they're not arguing. She is a stunning middle-aged woman, made-up and dressed expensively. He is younger by at least ten years, with a sheen of youthful handsomeness. I make up a story about them on the spot. It doesn’t end well.
Near them, a pretty girl sits by herself. She has her ears plugged and is nodding to an unheard song. I watch for a bit as she mouths the words. She catches me looking and frowns her discomfort. I look away and make up another story about her. This one doesn’t end well either.
I continue to make up stories for those gathered until the queue has me at the counter. Most of my tales don’t end well, except for the one about the gorgeous waitress and me.
The cranky barista doesn’t bother asking me what I’d like; he starts to make my usual. I want to confound him and ask for something different but don’t have the guts. Said gorgeous waitress takes my money and returns a smile and a “Hi, how are you today?”
I don’t know why but I always have problems talking to pretty girls. My usual verbosity is turned upside down and I lose the capacity for coherent conversation. I respond monosyllabically. “Hot”.
“Ooo, yes, isn’t it? I can hardly wait to finish then I’m heading to the beach. I hope it won’t too crowded.” She gives me a bit of a look and I grunt and offer her a pathetic grin. Thankfully, the barista hands me my coffee and I dash outside. I’m convinced she thinks I’m a weirdo.
On the street, the heat is now an invading army. It doesn’t play favourites and takes no prisoners. I stand in front of the café, wondering where I could go to hide out. I have no patience for the large mall around the corner although I know it will be cool. The only real option I have is to head back home.
As I turn that way, a fire engine goes screaming by, then an ambulance. The haze in the sky now seems a little more ominous. I make up another story as I go home. In this one, I’m a hero who rescues a pretty girl (who, by pure coincidence, looks like the cute waitress) from a blazing inferno.
However, my damned imagination has me looking like a cross between Fabio and Bear Grylls, an all action-man with flowing locks and completely the opposite of what I'm in real life. I don’t think I’d create an avatar so corny.
The old hound is still sprawled out on the pavement. I lean down and pat him but he doesn’t move. His long tongue falls out of his mouth onto the hot cement. He doesn’t pull it back in or yelp or anything. I step back, shocked.
I knock on my neighbour’s door, hoping someone will be home. I hear someone walking down the hall. The door cracks open and my neighbour peers out.
“Hello?” She sounds surprised and a little bit pissed off.
“Er, I think there’s something wrong with your dog.” I gesture with my head.
“What! Where is he?”
“He’s lying out there on the pavement.” I point behind me. I want to say something more but can’t. Instead, I step back, hoping she’ll come out and deal with it. All I want to do now is get out of the way, just in case he is dead. I have problems dealing with grief.
“How do I know you’re not trying to get into my house? I’ve heard about all the tricks people use.”
I’m stunned. I’ve been living next to this woman and her family for a number of years. I could understand it if I were a stranger but I’m not. “It wouldn’t be a very smart thing to rob my neighbour, now would it?” I try to make my voice sound light and friendly.
“Yes, but that’s what you might want me to think.”
I don’t know what else I can say so we stand and stare at each other. Eventually, she gives in. “Oh, I suppose I know where you live.” She opens the door and steps out onto the front porch. I follow her out onto the pavement. The dog is now lying on his back, exposing himself like a cheap hussy.
My neighbour reaches down and rubs the dog’s belly. He squirms with pleasure. The damned thing had been playing possum and I feel like a right idiot. My neighbour throws me a look as if to say she agrees.
My face is a fire of embarrassment. And I can’t call anyone to put it out.