The hound sat motionless at the top of the front steps unless someone tried to approach. Then it growled. It didn’t take an aggressive posture—just growled loudly enough to be heard. Warning the world that it was there to protect the old man banging away on the out-of-tune guitar.
Fortunately, the old man wasn’t busking for change. He was playing on his own porch, shouting at the top of his lungs whatever half-remembered verse or chorus popped into his brain. Nursery rhymes. Army chants. Radio jingles. Lines of poetry he’d had to recite as a schoolboy. The less sense his continuous improvised song made, the louder the old man seemed to shout it.
He was just as random about where he put his hand up and down the neck of the guitar. He didn’t know the fingerings of any chords, so he was making up his own new ones as he went, strumming faster or slower to suit his racket’s changing moods.
Now that an audience had gathered, he was trying to mix things up—to keep folks entertained. If they got bored, they might leave before he could make sense of what had overtaken him like some incredibly mad spirit.
The old man could see arms crossing, could hear begging for him to give it a rest already.
Frustrated neighbors had poured out of their homes wrapped in bathrobes or wearing coats over their pajamas. A few had called 911 to complain about the noise, but the police had not yet arrived.
“I’ll be honest, folks,” the old man rasped during a momentary lull. His voice was shot. “I have no idea what I’m doing out here tonight. I don’t know one thing about music. Honest I don’t. But apparently we don’t have much choice in certain matters. They’re thrust upon us like a curse. Since taking up this guitar a couple hours ago, I’ve given music everything I’ve got. Because it’s all I’ve got left, besides this old hound. Shooting off my little finger to escape the war never prepared me for such unbearable pain. My wife was a special woman until she caught fire. Beautiful woman, too. If I’ve got a message for you tonight, this is it: Spontaneous combustion is for real. It can happen. Lord, I’ll miss her forever—like you wouldn’t believe. We were married for forty-four wonderful years. Now I’d like to play another song, in her memory. Maybe it will be what they call the blues.”
The old man’s senseless monologue further baffled the crowd gathered outside his fence. The scraping of his metal prosthesis pinkie finger across unwilling guitar strings aroused a howl out of the dog that was as frightening as it was forlorn.
It was so upsetting it sent the old man’s neighbors fleeing back to the safety of their own yards.
From there they all noticed billowing ropes of smoke rising through a burned hole in the roof of the old man’s house. Strands of smoke that braided into one as it climbed toward the orange moon hanging above them all.