Johann met the Duckman on his way home from work.
Let’s be specific: it was something that had an idea of ducks and an idea of men. It pushed around the bits it found: the bill, the feet, the wings of a duck; the chest, the height, the eyes of a man.
It was warm outside. Johann was crossing a pond bridge in a park. The leaves were in full bloom and the sun glinted off the highrises as it set. Johann smelled the Duckman before he saw him; the scent reminded him of the only biology course he’d taken as an undergraduate—formaldehyde in a mildewed basement. His eyes watered; he scrunched his nose and thought: I hate this. Make it stop.
The Duckman’s eyes moved in random directions. It said, don’t you have anything I could eat.
Johann stood rooted in place, unable to speak.
Well, how about it?
Laptop bag on one shoulder, both hands still on his phone, Johann thought about the biscuit he’d packed for lunch that he hadn’t eaten. He thought about his nearly empty fridge and Dmitri, his roommate, who ate anything he felt like in the apartment. “No,” Johann said. “Nothing, I’m sorry.”
Its eyes stopped rolling; the Duckman focused on Johann. Are you sure?
Its voice was raspy, no more than a whisper. The sound made Johann want to stick his fingers in his ears and scrape and scratch until he couldn’t hear.
“I don’t have anything, sorry.”
Reconsider, the Duckman said. Think about it from my perspective.
“I need to get going,” Johann said. Though he didn’t, really. His job was menial—designing advertisements for car dealerships almost never required him to take work home and there wasn’t much at home, either: another night of video games, most likely a freezer pizza if Dmitri hadn’t eaten all of them already. Johann thought about packing all of the things he owned into trash bags and giving the bags to consignment. He thought about buying land out in the country, building a cabin, and never speaking to anyone again.
One last chance, the Duckman said.
“No, I’m sorry,” Johann said as he walked away.
At home Johann found a burgundy lump the size of a football in his bed. It was covered in pulsing veins and smelled like sour milk; it left an inky stain on his duvet. He poked it with a hanger and nothing happened. He thought about calling someone but he wasn’t sure what he would say or how that would help so instead he used the hanger to push the lump into an old shoebox.
Dmitri, he thought, now leaves his trash in my bed. It’s getting to be too much.
Johann went to confront Dmitri with the lump. He walked into the kitchen where Dmitri normally sat, eating loudly and watching videos on his laptop. On the kitchen table there was Dmitri’s laptop, closed. Dmitri himself was nowhere to be found.
Johann returned to his room and put the shoebox in his closet. When he found Dmitri he’d stick the stinking lump right under his nose and ask him just what he thought he was doing leaving things like that lying around, and in Johann’s bed of all places. Johann took a deep breath. Maybe the lump wasn’t Dmitri’s. Still, Dmitri might know something about lumps—somebody had to, after all.
Johann stripped his bedding and balled it up along with his duvet. The more he thought about it the less likely it seemed that the lump was Dmitri’s. In fact, it was entirely unlikely—Dmitri was filthy but he’d never trafficked in anything like lumps—not that Johann knew of—it just wasn’t his style. The truth is, Johann thought as he started a load of laundry, our relationship is just that toxic now. I’m jumping to the worst conclusions without examining the facts. Then he thought: something’s come back to roost. It’s laying its eggs wherever it pleases.
Johann needed to pee—had needed to since he got in—would have gone right away if the lump hadn’t distracted him. Now things were getting really uncomfortable. The bathroom door was closed. Maybe that’s where Dmitri was—they’d always left the door open if it was unoccupied. He knocked on the door. Silence. A breeze must have shut it. He tried the door handle and it opened right away.
Dmitri was dead beneath a flimsy inch of bathwater.
Johann wondered: should I pee before I call someone? Is it disrespectful to piss while a bloated corpse lies next to me? Just who the hell doesn’t lock the door when they’re taking a bath anyway? In the end Johann figured he’d be able to answer the authority’s questions better with an empty bladder.
While he peed Johann looked at Dmitri’s pruney body and thought: this was probably an accident. Dmitri hit his head somehow and slipped, alcohol was involved, maybe a freak heart attack. Johann thought: I can’t rule out suicide or foul-play. Then he thought: that’s exactly what the police will say. Finally he thought: we’re all ourselves until something overtakes us, and then what are we? Suspects. Just a bunch of suspects.
Did this have something to do with the lump he’d found in his bed?
He got out his phone and dialed emergency and then stopped before placing the call. Would the coroner be able to tell Dmitri’s time of death? They’d be sure to ask Johann when he got in, why he didn’t call sooner. When had Dmitri drowned? Didn’t he think it was odd that his roommate wasn’t home at his usual time? Would the authorities be persuaded by the rancid lump in Johann’s closet? Would the lump arouse further suspicions? If he didn’t say anything they probably wouldn’t know. The lump probably won’t be an issue—but he hadn’t called right away, he’d peed. Why hadn’t he called while he peed? He could have peed sitting down, after all, or aimed with one hand. Is urinating while making a phone call to official emergency responders a crime? Anything was possible. He imagined a courtroom where he’d sit, accused; battered down by seemingly endless cross-examination Johann would tremble as the prosecution pulled this final, damning piece of evidence: the missing minutes before the phone call. They’d have tracked his phone movements, be able to prove that he’d been at the apartment for some time before calling—plenty of time for a murder to take place. Why hadn’t he called the second he arrived in the apartment and noticed something was off? Maybe they’d believe that he hadn’t gone straight to the bathroom, sure—but as soon as he was in the bathroom? The timelines wouldn’t add up—there’d be an entire season of a true crime podcast dedicated to his case, speculating about what happened in that minute—Johann would insist over and over again that it was nothing more than a simple act of urination. Experts would deliberate while Johann rotted in prison. Johann cursed his needy bladder.
Things would only get worse the longer he waited.
So Johann called.
The operator told Johann not to go into the bathroom or touch anything, to leave things just as he found them. “It’s important the scene stays intact for forensics.”
“Forensics?” Johann said.
“That’s right,” the operator said, “that won’t be a problem, will it?”
“No. For all I care they can do forensics on the whole apartment.”
“Why would we need to do forensics on the whole apartment?”
“You wouldn’t. I don’t think. Just if you wanted to. If you wanted to make sure nothing suspicious was going on here.”
There was a long pause on the line. Johann knew he’d gone too far. He wished he’d done his business in a bush or maybe the kitchen sink, or, hell, just after the damn phone call. The wait had made him even more nervous.
“Is there something suspicious going on over there?” the operator asked.
“No,” Johann said. “Nothing.”
“Nothing suspicious, huh?”
Johann could hear the clacking of fingers on a keyboard.
“Maybe there’s something you want to tell me,” the operator said.
“Only that my roommate is dead in our bathtub and I don’t know how he got there.”
Now Johann was really starting to sweat. Was there anything else?
“Nothing else,” he said.
“We’ll see,” the operator said.
Anxious for the police and the ambulance to arrive Johann called his ex-girlfriend, Milena. She didn’t pick up. He thought of calling his brother. He thought of calling his father. He hadn’t spoken to either in years. Before he could make up his mind the ambulance arrived.
“Well, where is he?” the woman asked.
“In the bathroom,” Johann said.
“Okay, where’s the bathroom?”
Johann pointed her down the hall. The paramedics took a stretcher and went to gather Dmitri. Johann should have been worrying about who he would get to cover Dmitri’s half of the rent; he should have called Dmitri’s parents. He didn’t want to think about anything. He was hungry but nothing sounded appetizing to him. As the medics walked down the hall and into the bathroom Johann could only think: thank god.
Detective Ulisses Moller arrived next.
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
“My roommate—Dmitri—he drowned,” Johann said.
“How did he drown.”
“How did he drown?”
“I mean, how was it that a grown man drowned in a bathtub. How did he get under the water for that long?”
“I don’t know, I just found him that way.”
“So you don’t actually know that he drowned, is that what you’re telling me?”
“He was underwater, he must have drowned.”
“Sounds like you know that he drowned then. Not that he died some other way before someone put him in a tub.”
“I don’t know, I just presumed—I opened the door and there he was, underwater,” Johann said.
“But he could have died before he got underwater, right?”
“I don’t know,” Johann said.
The forensics team arrived next. They began to take pictures of the bathroom; the kitchen; Johann’s sparely furnished bedroom. Another team arrived: this team dusted for fingerprints. Johann was about to say something when he remembered that he’d already consented to the search while he was on the line with the operator. He thought: here we go. This is how the end begins. Something they find will give them license to lock him away for the rest of his life. Detective Moller kept asking questions:
“Do you remember the last time you saw your roommate?’
“No. Last night probably. We have—or, had, I guess—different schedules.”
“Why do you think your roommate was taking a bath at five o’clock in the afternoon?”
“He told me once that he never showered because in middle school he was whipped with a wet towel and told that his penis was small.”
“He told you that?” Detective Moller said.
“We used to be close,” Johann said.
“Used to be?”
“But are no longer?”
Johann shrugged. What could he say? It was a bad look but there was no hiding the truth. Dmitri’s death hardly made a difference.
Detective Moller had Johann come to the station until the teams finished their work. They took Johann’s phone; they took his keys. Soon enough Detective Moller ran out of things to ask Johann about Dmitri so he started to ask Johann about other things.
“Any women in your life?”
“No,” Johann said.
“But you have a mother?”
“Your relationship with your mother is complicated?”
“I don’t like to talk about it.”
Detective Moller leaned back in his chair and stuck his pen in his mouth. He squinted at Johann and nodded his head. “So no women?” he said.
Johann thought of Milena, of their last fight. She had insisted he’d put the toilet paper roll on the holder the wrong way; Johann couldn’t see why such things mattered. If it was such a big deal, why not leave the roll on the counter?
“But you didn’t leave it on the counter, you put it in backwards again,” Milena had said.
“I just don’t see why it matters.”
“This isn’t working.”
“It works just fine—it’s toilet paper. It doesn’t matter which way the roll is facing.”
“No, I mean us. We aren’t working.”
And a full fight later Johann had called Dmitri, who had happened to need a new roommate in a week. He’d known Dmitri since high school and they’d always liked each other from a distance. So Johann had moved in. That was three years ago.
“No women,” Johann said, “not anymore.”
“Do you have any other intimate partners? Men, maybe?”
“No,” Johann said, “I’m alone.”
The forensics team had either missed the lump in the shoebox or had deemed it unimportant. The coroner determined that Dmitri had died of a heart attack. They were still in the interrogation room when Detective Moller told Johann they were letting him go.
“I’m sorry to keep you so long,” Detective Moller said, “but it’s my job. We have to rule out all the possibilities.”
“That’s okay,” Johann said as he rubbed his neck, “I understand.”
“Any questions for me before we let you go?”
“Can I go back to the apartment?”
“No, I’m afraid not. We’ll be by in the morning for one last sweep.”
“All right,” Johann said. Where would he stay? Who could he call?
Let’s be clear here: the police of the city were no charity organization out to give suspects with drowned roommates free nights in motels. Judge after judge had affirmed that this was Good and Proper.
“Unless there’s something you want to tell me that makes the sweep go quickly?” Detective Moller asked.
The operator had really been running his mouth. Johann rubbed his neck again. Why had he given permission for them to sweep the whole apartment? He thought again about moving to a cabin far away from everybody.
“There’s nothing I can think of,” Johann said.
“Well then,” Detective Moller jerked his chin towards the door.
When he got his phone back Johann saw he had two missed calls from Milena. It was 2 a.m. Her last call was at midnight. He didn’t think it would hurt to call her back. She picked up on the second ring.
“Johann,” she said.
“Milena,” he said.
“I said ‘what’s wrong?'”
“Why do you think anything’s wrong? Does something have to be wrong for me to call you?”
“Yes,” she said. “Now out with it.”
“Dmitri is dead and I don’t have anywhere to sleep.”
Milena let out an exasperated sigh. “I knew this would happen.”
“You knew that Dmitri would die and I would be homeless?”
“Obviously. Anyone living with you for as long as Dmitri did would want to kill themselves. And you? You’re a bum.”
“Hey, what the hell is this? I don’t talk to you for years and when we finally do talk it’s just abuse, abuse, abuse. I’m in an emotionally vulnerable state right now, you know?”
“And when aren’t you? Honestly Johann, this is your problem. A man is dead and your biggest worry is where you’ll sleep tonight. You’ve got a job—pony up and get a motel for god’s sake. Have you even thought about Dmitri’s family and what they must be going through? You probably took your sweet time to call the authorities even, it wouldn’t surprise me—typical Johann! If the house was on fire you wouldn’t lift a finger to put it out unless it was on your agenda!”
“That’s not true and you know it! I’ve always been open to other perspectives.”
“Like hell you have! You’ve never given one thought to anyone else’s perspective, and I should know! It’s like our neighbor across the courtyard.”
The neighbor was always outside reciting his lyrics at the top of his lungs into the middle distance. Johann would scowl and mutter about how nobody gets discovered that way, that the neighbor should get a clue and let people have some peace and quiet for once.
“What does the neighbor have to do with anything?”
“The week after you moved out I went down and talked to him: I said ‘why are you out here all the time?’ and do you know what he said? he said he had to go outside to recite his lyrics because his senile grandmother had moved in with him and she liked to watch NASCAR reruns at full volume and he could hardly hear himself think in that apartment and he just wanted to express himself! But would you ever have thought of that?”
“That’s untrue and unfair and you know it.” A steady trickle of tears was leaking down Johann’s face. He was still hungry. He thought again of the biscuit in his laptop bag. Was this how the Duckman had felt?
“Like hell I know that,” Milena said.
“I don’t know why I called you.”
“Because you missed me and you’re going through something traumatic.”
“Well now I regret it,” Johann said.
In a burst of sympathy Milena sighed again. “I’m sorry Johann. You’re an asshole but I should be kinder. You saw the corpse, didn’t you?”
Johann tried to keep the tears out of his voice. “Yeah,” he said.
“How many nights?”
“Just one,” he said.
“All right,” she said.
Milena’s couch had been given to her by her great-aunt when she first got her own apartment. It was sagging and it had once been white. There was a tear the size of a thumb on the middle cushion. Johann slept there in his jeans and t-shirt beneath a plush throw blanket. Milena’s roommate scowled at Johann as she walked out the door the next morning.
“Would you like some eggs?” Milena asked Johann. She stood in the archway to the kitchen with her arms crossed. Johann felt sick at the thought of eggs.
“No thank you,” he said.
“Have it your way then,” she said with a shrug. She turned and went back into the kitchen to cook.
On the bottom of Milena’s stoop Johann stepped in another lump. It popped into burgundy pulp beneath his foot. A fleshy chunk of the lump landed with a thunk on Milena’s door. In a few seconds she opened it. The sickly sweet stench of sour milk soaked into Johann’s socks and jeans.
“Did you forget some—ah god, what’s that smell?”
Johann stammered to explain.
“You say a lump was in your bed that smelled this way?”
“Yeah,” Johann said.
“A lump Johann? You know lumps mean serious business. How do you know it’s not cancer?”
“The lump’s not on my body—”
“So it could cause cancer. You don’t know what it is so you don’t know.”
“I’ll look into it,” Johann said.
“Figure it out, Johann!”
Johann was starving and still nothing he could think of sounded good. Nothing they had offered him at the precinct appealed to him; like Milena’s eggs, the thought of turkey sandwiches and coffee made him queasy.
The stench of the lump saturated his nostrils. After a few blocks it started to smell sweet to Johann. When he reached his apartment he thought: Maybe I’ll be in the mood for that biscuit still. Then he thought: well, I’ll just make a fresh tin. I’m hungry enough.
As he popped the tin of biscuits he thought of what Milena would say if she could see him, oh so you’re too good for my eggs but you can fill yourself with carbs and junk, huh? He thought of what Detective Moller would think—what kind of person returns to the scene of a death to bake? He thought of Dmitri’s last moments thrashing and then gurgling in the tub. At last he thought of the Duckman moaning in the park for want of something to eat.
As the biscuits baked their scent made Johann sick; the rich buttery smell seemed saccharine. He left his kitchen heading for the bathroom to vomit but on the way there he realized he knew what he needed instead.
He opened his closet and pulled out the shoebox. There was the first lump: pulsing away and unscathed by the forensics team. Johan lunged at it like a tiger pouncing a kill. He tore strips of its inky flesh and masticated loud slapping chomps.
Let’s be clear: it was no food that Johann ate so ravenously. More like a concept that something had decided might be thought of as food given the right perspective.
He lay on the floor, face streaked with stains, breathing heavily. His fire alarm started screaming so he rose to get his biscuits from out of the oven.
He got his laptop bag and dumped the trayful in. He lumbered to the pond in the park.
The Duckman floated beneath the bridge. It opened its bill in anticipation.
The first burned biscuit he crumbled into bits. He’d call Milena up again this afternoon and tell her he was sorry he was such an asshole. The second biscuit he only broke in half. Johann felt he could see his whole life mashing endlessly in front of him like a cootie catcher with fortunes written in a language he couldn’t speak. The third biscuit he flung into the pond whole. He worried about Park Patrol, briefly—feeding the ducks was strictly prohibited—but then he thought: what does it matter. The poor fowls are hungry and I can help them.
Alex Skousen has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook Southampton. His work has previously appeared in Catapult, takahe, and other places.