May 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
My once good friend Benets has this place in Tangier; an apartment that isn’t all that cosy, that has a pair of bedrooms sized like halls and a balcony that overlooks a skyline of cracked still-cracking walls and peeling paintjobs, domes and lanky minarets. We rest our elbows on the stone balustrade and run our eyes along clotheslines that span buildings, bridging windows, hard to tell from telephone lines or lines strung up for reasons long forgotten. We drink our drinks, he scotch and I port. We admire the remains of Spanish-run days and of the sun, and then we move inside to take ease on his leather settees, in the evening heavy and cool.
‘Couldn’t you just eat this view?’ he says to me.
I tell him I doubt it could fit in my mouth even if I tried. I take the two-note noise from his throat to be some sort of a chuckle.
‘Scotch?’ he says sitting up and holding a position.
‘It’ll do me, Benets. I don’t mind port.’ We call him Benets to his face.
Benets grunts his way out of the hollow in the settee made by his ass. The patter of his loafers peters off into silence, but I know he’s only a little way off, by the coat stand pouring what he wishes was a scotch and what I’m hoping is just port.
I look out towards the balcony at the purple sky and I see a pair of minarets peeking over the railing. Below, between the uprights, I can see the rest of Tangier and it looks glorious as far as the bay. Has a rundown charm even in silhouette. I pull back my focus and fix it on the womanly curves of the balcony’s plinths. My gaze washes over the whole thing, balustrade and all, and I think – in a fit of melancholy – that I haven’t a thing in the world to stop me throwing myself off of it.
‘What was that?’
I say, ‘what was what?’ surprised that my thought could have somehow been made word.
Benets is back with scotch on the rocks in one hand and port in plain glass in the other, wearing an uneasy face.
‘I didn’t get everything but I don’t think I liked the gist of what I think I heard, Moss,’ he’s saying as he struts to his spot on the settee.
‘Benets,’ I laugh, ‘I didn’t say a thing.’ I really want my port and want it in me now.
I laugh. ‘No.’
Benets sits the glasses on the glasstop table but doesn’t sit. Gives a one-note chuckle.
My breath is cordoned. His gaze lacerates me, but then its edge blunts and his face softens and he picks up his drink and seats himself stiffly; glances at me and then away.
I watch him suck on the tan booze, see ice hit his lip and melt a little. He groans (perhaps from pleasure), elbows rested on his knees. Leaning forward I slide the petite glass my way and lift it and knock back a drop; my eyes they never leave him.
‘Must be so nervous I must be hearing things,’ he says to the darkening outside. To the crystal glass at his mouth.
I pitch in by clearing my throat and sipping more port. Benets asks if I ever hear things when I’m nervous.
‘No,’ I say. ‘But my bowels they go funny sometimes.’
Benets says, ‘that’s not so odd.’
I don’t feel quite settled where I’m sitting, like my ass is in the clouds. I ask him what’s gotten him so unnerved; if it’s not just the wedding.
‘Bah…! Anouk’s a big girl and so am I,’ he says.
So as not to laugh at this slight misspeak I roll booze round my mouth. But I find that I’m really not that amused.
I say, ‘maybe the bigger the girl the bigger the nerves. Is that something people say?’
Benets silently shrugs.
‘I’m not nervous,’ he says with sudden verve, after an extended post-shrug silence. ‘Do I look nervous? Maybe anxious, but that’s a different thing to nervous.’
‘Well,’ I say, ‘I hope it’s just anxiety and not nerves.’
Anouk, Benets’ bride to be, hasn’t an anxious bone anywhere anyplace. She’s a French expatriate whom Benets met on a boating trip, the kind well-off folk take to remind themselves how well-off they are and how much less well-off they could be. They talked as they sailed from Boumerdés but that’s all I know of how they encountered.
My first encounter with Anouk was at a newsstand, on the cover of a magazine. She would later disarm me with her deathly sense of humour and her dissertation on the benefits of being underweight. Benets is crazy about her and I think I am too.
The laces draped over the French doors leading onto the balcony beat softly in the tepid sundown breeze as though fanning Benets. I watch Tangier blacken all around him, watch the laces fall still again, still as he stands. For whatever reason, I get up and amble here, amble there. I eventually stop and stand.
‘I wish there was some way I could say thank you,’ I say.
‘You could just say it.’
‘Been saying it since yesterday, since the airport.’
‘And you think I don’t think it’s enough.’
‘Enough. Such a shit of a word. Is it ever enough for anybody?’
I feel like a hatstand he’s hung his gaze upon. And then I feel naked when he reclaims it and casts it upon the view from the balcony. All is silent for not too long. I’m briefly amused that the glint of the city might outdo that of the stars.
Now past my amusement, I give a quaint laugh. Benets doesn’t ask ‘what?’ as I’d hoped. I step forward once, twice, till we are in effect level-shouldered. I clear my throat of muck. ‘I’m still trying to figure out the catch,’ I lightly say with a hint of a put-on chuckle.
Benets quarter turns and I can see, in the glass he’s holding, a thin film of gold clinging to the rocks now reduced to mere hailstones. His look is blank as he says, ‘what catch?’
‘Feels a little like winning the lottery. Being your best man.’
Benets stares at me. ‘You want out.’
‘Alec,’ I declare. ‘Alec. Please. Not at all. I’m just saying.’
‘I’m just listening.’
‘It’s only – it was odd that you found me, is it not? Hell, remembered. What were the odds?’
‘You forgot me.’
‘If I ever did I can’t recall when. All due respect, but how could I forget? I’d hear your name around…the names of the women you were with…blah, blah. I’d read it in the paper and think to myself I knew that guy. A tower your namesake…Then I’d remember how we were friends once.’
‘You say once as if it’s permanent. I’m not so changed, Moss, just not so stupid, and broke. For sure not broke.’
‘No.’ I feign a smile. ‘It’s just — this is the kind of good thing that doesn’t happen in forever.’ Suddenly, the melancholy.
He has this way of stating questions.
‘Maybe I exaggerate.’
‘Come outside with me for a sec.’
In the darkness of the night on the balcony we are without drink and it all seems so very honest. Far, as far as the bay, I see something queer on the water and think it would be nice if it were the sail of a yacht that was out for a late stroll.
Fifteen floors underfoot on a two-way street that should be a one-way, two cars duck each other like ex-lovers in a grocer’s aisle. I choose to follow the one on my right with the one dead taillight that’s readying for a left turn but then slows at a junction for a stop sign. Benets chooses to rest his chin on the hair-darkened arms he’s lined up on the balustrade, like a child gazing down, taken with heights.
‘If you leapt,’ he says out of nowhere – and my ears prick – ‘that’d be it.’
I consider the drop with a welling pulse and it is truly quite a drop. ‘So much time to think.’
‘If you leapt you wouldn’t be thinking.’
‘No. But two-thirds down you’d begin.’
‘Huh,’ he says. ‘I wonder what of. Maybe,’ he continues, ‘all the things you’d be leaving behind.’
‘Maybe for some,’ I say despite my suddenly leaden throat, ‘all the things you don’t have to leave behind.’
Benets’ brows collide and his forehead creases and he frowns. ‘You don’t have to. Then why do you?’
‘No no. You leap because there’s nothing to leave behind. Because you don’t have love or money or a daughter or a son or something to fight for, and you don’t have a clue about anything.’
I notice my lungs have emptied and that I am without breath. But I let air leak slowly in as though I don’t need it so much.
Slowly Benets’ lips ease and his forehead skin smooths out and his brows tease apart. Now he is upright and his hands are nestled in his pockets, hidden from this cheeky breeze, this breeze that carries with it the rumpus and spices of Casa Barata, the thieves’ markets. I can almost hear it, the heckling and friendly insults.
‘It’s a sad thing,’ says Benets, ‘that you had so much to gain.’
I’m thinking it’s a sad thing that I still do.
‘A sad thing,’ he says,’ but a good thing. Somehow.’
I look at him.
Two days before the wedding, Benets throws himself from the balcony and drives his skull into the ground. People can’t believe that he fell, how on earth he could have fallen, how drunk he must have been. I can’t believe it either because I know for a fact that he threw himself.
He is survived by a few things ¶.
I was meant to spend the next five days celebrating a marriage. These I end up spending wandering the thieves’ markets or lying in bed reading, in my bedroom in a four-star chain motel. This is when I’m not being summoned to the police station to confirm answers to questions that I’m certain I’ve already been asked.
I know no-one, none of the other guests, certainly not anymore if once upon a time I in fact did. And, from what I hear, none of them are eager to stay much longer in Tangier.
But for me this is free time that I could never pay for out of pocket, and I find that I’m unable to complain, but for the tragedy.
Five days later, I board the return leg that Benets paid for and I fly back to where I’m from, with the knowledge that he chose me to be his best man but ended himself before I had the chance to do him the honour.
¶ Benrhine Systems Inc., currently down 0.38 per cent on Bloomberg, the presidency of which is soon to be filled by one of a number of very worthy candidates; 714 100 in-car GPS systems worldwide, two million units of a now discontinued line of android smartphones, roughly 8300 sets of security gates installed in stores all along the west coast of the United States and spreading, the IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems of the entire fleets of two international and seventeen regional airlines, the patronage of a well-known Perth-based oil exploration company; Benets Towers in south Seattle, home to 86 offices and 115 residential units including a penthouse featured in Luxury Home Magazine last year; two ex-wives, both of whom remember him as a good man but a bad husband, and barren; nearly three dozen ex-lovers (a love affair being arbitrarily defined as having lasted more than a month), most of whom would describe him as a decent man and a good lover, but incompatible with commitment; a Cessna Citation Sovereign business jet, and a Cessna Corvalis TTX that he was learning to fly with, which looks avocado green in the right light, usually late in the evening; two godchildren; homes in 5 out of 6 major continents numbering 8 in all, homes being properties that do not earn rent in the owner’s absence – his personal property investments number in the tens and fetch tens of millions; a weeping, head-turning beauty of a fiancée who I suspect will never again betray her vow to never invest herself, her time or her heart in people, fickle people.
At the behest of noobs
December 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Nia: Babe, I’m at work.
Jez: When do you finish?
Nia: Eleven thirty.
Jez: Fuckin’ shit.
Nia: You poor thing, I’m so sorry; that suuucks.
Jez: (emphatic sigh through the nose)
Nia: How much did you put in?
Jez: Forty bucks. And I opened a Coke.
Nia: Can you at least pay for the Coke?
Jez: What’s the point of that? That doesn’t fucking help me.
Nia: Isn’t there anyone else you could call?
The line briefly goes dead, or just dead quiet.
Jez: I’m sorry the first person I thought of calling was you.
Nia: Don’t be like that; I’m just saying…maybe someone’s free like right now.
Jez: Fuck it. I’ll just bounce –
Nia: No, don’t! Don’t, Jez. Um…give me like fifteen minutes.
Jez: Fifteen? Fifteen fucking –
“Nia. Why are you sitting?”
Nia: Um, just – text me the place bye!
“Always, she’s sitting,” says Devon to who knows who. “You come to work late, then you sit.”
Nia’s sprung to her feet and has just managed to get her phone out of sight. The staff tea room looks kind of cramped tonight, especially with Devon’s head poking in and taking up space.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if there were any deliveries ready or anything,” says Nia.
“How can you know by just sitting? See here, Matt has a bag bulging; go see what’s he got. Matt! You have some delivery for Nia?”
“Yep,” someone yelps from somewhere unseen, presumably Matt from presumably the kitchen.
“Okay, go, now you have something,” Devon says with a refractory gentleness and an encouraging hand on the shoulder that is calculated but generally sincere.
He watches Nia slink past him in the tea room doorway, all thin long arms, black hair and no tits. He knows that he should goddamn fire the girl, but it wouldn’t be a simple ‘pack your things and leave, you pain in the ass’ deal. She’s not insolent or a brat, or combative; she’s not wilfully unprofessional or maliciously untrustworthy. He wonders if moping is a fireable offence because this she does do a great deal, the whole moping thing.
Matt says “hey” as he swings two taut, large paper bags pregnant with food-filled disposable tubs onto the counter, an invoice stuck to the stapled-up mouth of one of them.
The violence and heat of the kitchen has always put Nia off, has always made her feel kind of unwell. She sneaks a peek at her phone in case Jez has texted his whereabouts, which he hasn’t.
“Your old mate,” Matt says patting one of the bags, looking in the mood for a chat.
“My old mate? What, who?”
“Mr Good-looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook. Remember him?”
Nia’s smirk is tired. “Oh. Him. I thought he forgot about us.”
“Probably learned to cook.”
“He just happened to forget how to turn on the stove tonight?”
“Maybe he discovered that he can’t actually cook for shit, but needed six months just to be sure.”
Whilst chuckling away what little energy she has, Nia catches Devon pulling a long face in the hallway, so she kills the laughter, tells Matt that she’ll ‘catch him’ and exits out the back way. Her little 1998 Nissan is angled parked such that the windshield stares directly into The Chef and I where Devon’s patrons enjoy the redone décor and the upmarket, new, apparently revisionist Thai menu.
Before placing the bags at the foot of the front passenger seat, Nia scans the invoice to kill her curiosity:
Curry puffs x2 10.00
Kanom buang 18.90
Tung tong 9.50
Green papaya salad 14.50
Pla sam roas 36.90
Steamed jasmine rice x3 10.50
100.30 (incl. GST)
Pretty standard stuff. Must be stocking up for the next few days, she thinks, or some brief apocalypse he alone is aware of. Probably wouldn’t matter if the goods arrived a little cold then, which is convenient seeing as she’s a little behind on the delivery, time-wise. According to Devon’s rule, an order should be in a customer’s mouth, bathed in saliva, no more than forty-five minutes from the time of its being placed.
The phone shivers in Nia’s pocket and she draws it like an ace gunfighter from the old west.
Jez: Nia, are you coming or should I just bounce and deal with the consequences?
Nia: Just – hold on, Jez. Fuck, just wait.
With one hand on the wheel, she floors the old wagon into a rapid reversing arc and motors off, barely slowing at the stop sign standing not twenty feet from where she was parked. Doing something that normally makes her hurl silent curses at fellow motorists, Nia alternates between looking ahead at the road and at her iPhone’s cracked screen and soon hears herself cussing Jez for not even bothering to help her help him by letting her know, at the very least, where exactly it is that her help is needed.
Babe, I’m at work. Babe, I’m at work. She actually said this to him.
Babe: a remnant of a time when she might have been a little smitten, now an instinctual overcompensation for the fact that she no longer feels all-consuming affection or has even a whiff of animal attraction but is instead subject to something more akin to the self-punishing sense of responsibility one often bears after having purchased a faulty used car they failed to properly evaluate or made a bad bet at the races. But what does it matter? Whether for love or duty, being at the behest of a noob is a downright waste of whatever potential she might currently possess or might have once had.
At this rate she may as well just place herself enroute to 87 Deluca Close where the customer whose name she knows to be Ray (aka Good Looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook), who once made her navel flutter every time she approached his door with a bag of Pad Thai and Tom Yum and who she swears made sex eyes at a then very barely legal her, is probably growing impatient by the minute in his boxer shorts.
Then it comes: caltex moretoun st; on a lit up screen and accompanied by a quick burst of vibration muted by the scuffed-up seat upholstery.
Nia says, “bloody hell,” but quickly accepts that she will no longer be making a left turn at the next lights but will instead be continuing straight for another five kilometres.
The old tan Commodore Jez’s grandpa bequeathed him rests beside the fuel dispenser that’s in closest proximity to the mart which itself looks like one large rectangular lantern in the darkening night, it’s so brightly lit. Perched on his ass on the kerb edge just outside the sliding glass doors is Jez, smoking and drinking a can of Coke. Nia kills her car beside the giant freezer advertising ten kilogram bags of ice going for only three dollars a bag, bringing the total number of parked cars on the lot to five.
Jez holds out his smoking stub to which Nia responds by shaking her head.
“Didn’t realise I was smoking vodka.”
She exchanges gazes with the brown man standing behind the counter, inside the capitalist lantern. “It’s not a good look, turning up at someone’s doorstep smelling like a cigarette.”
“It’s not a good smell,” he says, overly proud of himself and smiling about it.
“I see you demolished the Coke.”
“Well,” he says, seeming almost ashamed (Nia notes with pleasure) “couldn’t exactly put it back in the fucking fridge.”
“Okay, time’s going; let’s pay.”
Jez mumbles something as he stands and follows Nia into the shop. He slows and stops as he passes the skin mags, leaving Nia to approach the counter alone.
“Hi. Number six please.”
“Number six…” says the attendant as Nia appraises the contents of her wallet and he rings up the damage on the till. “…Seventy two ninety one.”
“…no, number six; the brownish car just there.”
“Yes, seventy two ninety one.”
Nia looks at him as though she could have sworn he’d just called her mother a whore, until the obvious realisation dawns on her that Jez is far more likely to insult her mum than this man wearing a tucked-in polo shirt and a Caltex nametag that reads ‘Vinay.’
“Petrol, Coke, cigarettes…comes to seventy two ninety one –”
“Okay, okay, just wait,” she snaps at him as she snaps around in order to hurl eye daggers at Jez who appears to be eye fucking all the skin mag cover girls at once. “Jez, what the fuck?” She says in a whisper.
He just looks at her, his vacant face and hollow posture a marvellous substitute for the most apathetic shrug you ever saw. The futility of reprimanding or attempting to draw reason from such a human being is not at all lost on Nia and she wisely returns her attention to Vinay who is taking no shame in lapping up this latent spectacle that’s dropped by to disrupt an otherwise dull as shit shift.
Nia breathes out hard and long, fingers her wallet, pulls out a card and says “just on credit. Thanks.”
Mad for not being madder at Jez, Nia nothing short of careens into Deluca Close and nabs the first kerbside vacancy that presents itself, knowing full well that she needn’t walk the hundred metres from here to her destination when she could just as easily get away with double parking right outside Ray’s door for the whole of half a minute. But it seems she needs the walk, or perhaps wishes to punish herself with it, the sheer torture that it is.
Nia yanks the order from the front passenger floor and basically assaults the car with its own driver-side door when she throws it shut.
Apart from skinny black-clad Nia stomping down the poorly-lit street, there is someone else further along, a lady stepping out of a car and then burying her torso back inside, probably fumbling with something. Nia marches past and startles the poor woman who is understandably alarmed by the sound of aggressive walking emanating from so close and on this dim street and while she has her back turned. By the time lady has locked the door and begun her high-heeled horse trot towards the curve of the cul-de-sac, Nia has arrived at the door numbered 87 and knocked on it. The door opens and, sure enough, it’s Ray looking like he always has, only now freshly-shaven and reeking of several colognes, decked out in a crisply ironed business shirt and yet, despite all this, coming across as weirdly dishevelled or at the very least a little shambolic.
“Hi, I have an order –”
“– that I made like five fucking hours ago,” he spits through tight, hushed lips.
While he is eyeing the paper bags in Nia’s hand as though debating whether or not to accept it, Ray’s attention shifts abruptly upwards and beyond her. His face falls and turns sallow at a sudden and he pushes past her and jogs out into the dark yelling, “Alexia!”
The lady who had been trailing Nia is now walking back to her car, Ray pursuing her barefooted and repeating her name. He catches up to her and seems to be battling and failing to win himself an audience with her. It’s like a pantomime, all gesticulations and no sound apart from half murmurs and mumbles carried on a barely-there breeze; all that Nia can deduce is that this Alexia isn’t too happy about Ray having Thai delivered to his place; either that or his baby smooth face and collared shirt are somewhat offensive to her, or maybe she thinks that she is being cuckolded by a titless, teenage delivery girl.
It’s over quicker than Nia expects and with a slightly disappointing lack of histrionics. Ray watches Alexia enter her car and drive off. It’s only on his walk back to 87 that Nia realises that he is wearing dress shorts and that this may very well be the straw that broke Alexia’s back.
Ray murders Nia with his eyes as he approaches and she smartly stands aside to let him enter his home.
“…how did you want to pay for this?” Nia squeaks from behind Ray, who turns around and looms over her like a gargoyle’s shadow.
“What was that?”
“I was just wondering how you wanted to pay for the food –”
“I’m not paying for any fucking food. What fucking food? You mean the food that turned up late and ruined my fucking evening? You can take the food and go fuck yourself with it; fuck off.”
Ignoring the avalanche of fucks, Nia stands her ground, not so much from resolve as from being a bit stunned.
“Sir…I can’t leave without payment. Is the thing.”
“Then sleep here.” He hurls the door in her face and assaults something inside, something likely – hopefully – inanimate.
Against her better judgement Nia persists with a series of knocks, none of them thankfully answered.
For some minutes she proceeds to wander back and forth across the two big windows at the front of the unit like some caged beast, the light inside Ray’s place stabbing its way out between the folded blinds. Nia is all of a sudden alarmed by the current paucity of thought that has overtaken her. As her hand is being lightly steamed by the contents of the paper bags, her mind is doing absolutely goddam nothing.
“Nia, so long you’ve been gone,” is how Devon greets Nia as she walks into The Chef and I through the back door, carrying Ray’s unpaid-for food.
Nia stares at him without response, nervous in a way that is unusual for her in his presence.
“He didn’t pay,” she says simply.
“He wouldn’t pay for it, the food.”
“Why?” He takes a step forward and eyes the bags. “Did you take the wrong thing?”
Devon non-maliciously snatches the bag with the receipt stapled to its mouth and peers at it, mouthing ‘curry puffs’ and ‘kanom buang’ before he walks off towards the counter, leaving Nia feeling sick and on her own, with one bag in her hand. She can hear him quizzing Janice and Matt about the order in his usual fussy manner.
Nia cracks open the staff room fridge and finds a largely undrunk bottle of water which she pours into herself, making her innards feel only sicker. Devon walks into the room without anything in his hands.
“You were gone half an hour, Nia,” Devon begins. “It doesn’t take half an hour to drive to Deluca, Deluca is just around the corner; how does it take you half an hour?” he says in a stutter of exasperation.
“It didn’t feel like half an hour.”
“But it was a long time. I remember thinking, where is that girl?”
Nia is looking at different regions of the staff room floor.
“Are you well, Nia? If this job, you’re tired of it, you can always –”
“It wasn’t half an hour.”
Devon looks at her as though his mere gaze could crack her like an eggshell.
“The order, there was no problem with it, so what…he decide he doesn’t want to eat anymore or what? You don’t want to eat, you take the food, you pay the money, you put it in the fridge…but he refuse totally. Why?”
Nia may or may not notice that her right leg has now begun to bounce. Devon certainly does; he’s eyeing that right knee.
“Can’t we just store it?” Nia suggests.
“No. We don’t do that anymore here. The customer, either he pays or…you can take the food home like a…like a…” Devon has something on the tip of his tongue. “…like a…souvenir.”
Devon simply looks at her and she suddenly knows where he’s going; where he’s just gone.
“I don’t want Thai food as a severance package, I want to keep working. Please. I’ll pay for the food.”
“Is not the point.”
“Okay, then I’ll get him to take his food and I’ll get the money. Okay?”
“But why he didn’t take it; what did you do? You were gone such a long time.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll try again. Can I just try again, please?”
Ignoring Devon’s tone, Nia grabs the paper bag at her feet and starts for the doorway, pushing past him. She finds the bag with the invoice stapled to it sitting on a workbench in the now empty, closed-for-the-day kitchen. Devon can still be heard calling her name from the hallway, and as Nia is opening the back door her boss rushes into the kitchen and says “Nia!” in a way that makes her finally come to a halt.
Devon cocks his head to one side and dresses his face with an expression of gentle reproach.
“I don’t like this,” he says. “This I don’t want. I want this to be a new restaurant. This –” he gestures at the food in her hands, “– is not new, is old. I’m tired of this, Nia. I like you, but I’m a businessman; I run a business.”
Nia’s gaze fixates strangely on his nose, dropping in and out of focus.
“You don’t worry about the food,” Devon tells her. “Enjoy it; is my treat.” He’s hoping to god and all of god’s alternatives that she’ll say something, which she doesn’t. “I’ll write you a very nice reference.”
He concludes with “go home, Nia. Rest.”
Devon walks out of the kitchen to presumably attend to his few remaining patrons.
It’s uncanny how mercifully free streets can be when one’s mind is anywhere but on the road ahead. Uncanny, that is, when one does not find oneself ploughing into something. From Nia’s point of view she might as well be ploughing into some void.
The phone kicks up a sudden stink in Nia’s pocket. She shocks herself by slowing down to take the call, decelerating to the upper fringes of the legal 70 kph so as to more safely captain the car with just the one hand.
Jez: Whereabouts are you?
Nia: At work. Why?
Nia knows for a fact that he’s just shrugged. He’s the kind of person who would shrug in a discursive capacity while on the other end of a line.
Nia: Did you just shrug?
Almost immediately, Nia expires deeply through her nose, annoyed at her herself for coming out with a sentence playful and wanton enough for Jez to latch onto as evidence of her having forgiven him for doing whatever it is he thinks she thinks he has done wrong; as proof that everything is O.K. now.
Nia opts for an abrupt change in tone.
Nia: What is it Jez?
Jez: Why’s it got to be anything?
Nia: It doesn’t. But what is it? I’m driving.
Jez: Was just thinking about your tits.
Nia: Right. I hope they’re thinking about you too, but I need to drive.
Jez: Come over later.
Jez: Don’t be frigid.
Nia: Fuck you. I said maybe, that’s enough. And I’m driving.
Just before she kills the connection, Nia can hear Jez flapping his loosened cheeks rapidly back and forth, emulating some kind of propeller. This kind of inane shit would have normally teased a laugh or a smile from her, coming from him at least, but at the moment it’s quite possibly turned her scowl into a frown, the same frown that decorates her face as she beats Ray’s door with her fist.
She cruises his still-blinded windows behind which a dim light shines. While she’s at this, the front door whines open and Ray half steps out.
“Why are you harassing me?” he says.
“I just want the payment.” She holds up the bags. “I brought your food. Please take it. I can’t take it back.”
Ray looks at her hands, then at her face.
“What, you’ve been driving around with that for the last hour?” says Ray.
“There’s nothing wrong with it.”
As though she just realised her arms had dropped back down, Nia offers up the food bags once again.
Ray fixates on her face. “You really fucked up my evening.”
“I wasn’t that late. But I’m sorry.”
“You were late enough to fuck up my night; do you have a problem with accepting that fact?” he says with a sudden surge of hostility.
“I’m sorry I fucked up your night,” Nia says; diplomacy under duress.
During the exchange Ray has somehow edged his way from halfway in the doorway to being four feet from Nia in the tiny courtyard. Ray weirdly asks her if she’s had her dinner.
“I’m not too hungry.”
“After ruining my shit, the least you could do is help me not eat alone like some old spinster. My shout.”
Nia intermittently fears that this dinner table silence portends some latent sexual intent on Ray’s part, as though he is subtly expressing his dominance by way of inexpressiveness; by being comfortable in his own domain on top of being older, taller and more testicled. Alternatively, it might be some form of punishment by awkwardness, like being forced to have dinner with the school principal for detention.
Matthew and Clinton cooked the hell out of whatever this is she’s eating; the tung tong she guesses by means of elimination. Nia will freely admit to not being particularly enamoured of Thai fare. Perhaps that kitchen she so hates/hated killed whatever allure the cuisine might have once held for her.
Nia makes a note to thank Ray at least once, while scooping an unexpected second helping of papaya salad, for the meal he has so graciously provided (omitting the ‘graciously provided’ part, tactfully). He grunts “no worries” and refills his already half-full mouth.
As she is wont to do, Nia very suddenly releases her fork and nudges her plate away by half an inch to signal – more for herself than anyone – that she is done, turning her head to watch Ray who apparently doesn’t mind being watched as he eats.
“Was that your girlfriend?”
Ray waits till his mouth is slightly less packed. “Soon to be ex. Officially.”
“Because of – ?”
His not answering is precisely the answer. Nia looks away, guilty but only for the briefest instant.
“What, doesn’t she like Thai?”
Sudden laughter and a mouthful of jasmine rice is the kind of poor combination that lands Ray in a fit of coughing and scratchy nasopharyngeal clearing as he tries to dislodge a grain that’s presumably found a home somewhere in the back of his nose-throat. After a few minutes whose awkwardness is nullified by the unselfconscious flailing of a man with rice in the wrong part of his head, Ray downs a quarter bottle of beer and silently belches. He then explains that he had invited his now-ex to his place to try to dissuade her from quitting him, like Ennis Del Mar was so desperate to do with Jack Twist in “Brokeback Mountain”. As an illustration of his sincerity, and of his willingness to develop into a holistic male whose cooking was favourably comparable to his tyre-changing and beach cricketing prowess, Ray decided to treat her to a meal prepared by his own hands. Or rather, one he’d hoped to prepare.
“I didn’t plan it very well,” Ray says as he tries to figure out what he would next like to eat.
Nia drinks from her glass of water somewhat shyly, as though Ray has been politely insisting. She watches Ray eating for a moment.
“What if you’d gotten away with it?” Nia says.
“Gotten away? You make it sound like a…heist,” Ray replies with a somewhat pinched smile.
“Well…you were gonna cook for her, but you didn’t and ordered Thai instead.”
“I started cooking,” he says, pointing in the direction of the kitchen sink from which some pot handles are sticking out like drowning hands waiting to be saved. “I wasn’t sucking my fucking thumb for eight hours before I called you guys.”
Nia is quiet for a moment.
“I just figure it’s the thought that matters, not the food. Like…even if you’d made shitty roast and veggies, wouldn’t that have been better than take out?”
“Well…the point is that we were supposed to have dinner and talk; me cooking was just to add a bit of texture, but at the end of the day it comes down to you being fucking late and, basically, that’s it.”
Nia stares at him sideways, debating whether to retort.
“I wonder if she would thank me.”
“Thank you? For what exactly?”
“For, like, exposing your lies,” Nia says, trying to conceal her dead seriousness with teenage jocularity.
Ray sits up and glowers at Nia. He wipes his mouth with a serviette and continues to eat. “What are you, the moral fucking police or the delivery girl? I ordered Thai, not bullshit feminist justice.”
“No, I’m the delivery girl,” says Nia with a mocking meekness that seems to be lost on Ray, thankfully. She pats her belly and downs the rest of the water in the glass. “I deliver gender-neutral justice.”
Ray stares at her from a hunched position and chews.
“I think I’m gonna head,” she says with a groan of satiety.
Like a gentleman, Ray pays for the food, standing in the doorway. Before Nia has even turned to leave, he closes the door on her. Nia carefully lines her wallet with the notes and bulks it up with the coins.
Walking to her car which she parked at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, Nia briefly glances through the four messages she had felt buzzing through into her pocket one after the other while she was sharing dinner with Ray. She can’t quite decide whether, by ignoring these as they came, she was being polite to Ray or rude to whom she believed to be the sender. Sure enough, all four are from Jez, appropriately inane and poorly spelt, telling her to speed things up and make an appearance in his bedroom; that her tiny tits are on his mind.
She replies that his tiny dick is unfortunately not on hers.
June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
I got on me knees and looked in the cupboard under the sink. Mum said why would she keep them under the sink, they were in the next one over, behind all the pots and pans she abandoned when she got the Teflon non-stick ones. So I pulled all the plastic plates and bowls out from behind the pots and pans and stacked them up but mum said why did I put them on the bloody ground. Now she’d have to wash them again.
Dad said it said in The Advertiser that the Africans were dentists.
Mum said, ‘all of them?’
Dad said just the bloke was a dentist. ‘Got a wife and three kids it says here.’
Mum was scrubbing the plastic china with Palmolive and a sponge and I stood and watched because I thought I deserved it. Dad twisted his neck over the back of the sofa.
‘Em. Emily. Oi! The bloke’s a dentist, they can afford their own crap,’ he said but mum said that third world dentists weren’t like dentists here. That’s why they came to Australia. Besides, a church ladies group was behind the whole thing, just to make the Africans feel at home. And to add to their congregation she guessed. Said it wasn’t her idea, calling dibs on the new people. Just that she thought she didn’t want to waste decent dinnerware.
Dad said what about a garage sale, he’d been thinking about having a garage sale. Mum said that was another story, put the soap and the sponge back under the sink and said we might as well throw in the pots and pans too. Dad said what if we need them one day.
Mum said, ‘it’s not a gift, Roger, it’s just a bloody loan.’
We’re playing handball in the quad, me and the other retards, because that’s what they call us, the other kids, because they can’t be bothered talking to us. There’s ten squares crushed into the cement with chalk some dickhead nicked from roll call. Shetty’s in king, Trent the ranga’s in queen and I’m in jack but I think the ranga’s trying to get me out because he’s hitting all these low fast balls at me. It’s like everyone’s trying to get me out ‘cause they’re all hitting low fast balls at me. Brendan Carter’s just got out but he won’t get out and people are yelling at him, ‘get out of it!’ But Brendan’s saying ‘nah! Bullshit! Nah!’ throwing his arms around and pushing everyone away. But then the principal walks out of the office with one of the Africans mum was talking about. A boy. Brendan is so busy looking he gets shoved out of his square and everyone up to that square moves up one. Some of us are also looking at Mr Woz(niakiewicz) and the African boy. I’m one of the ones also looking.
Turns out he’s in me roll call, him and his sister. They look heaps like each other, not like twins, but they’ve got the same nose and lips sort of. And apparently their hair’s like carpet, at least his is. They sit right up front in front of Ms Jarra’s table, talking to each other so quiet you can’t hear them. You can’t even hear them say yeah when Ms Jarra says Tu-Too-Toondie? Where’s Toondie? Ne-Nu-Na-Nagozie? Maybe because she’s saying it wrong or maybe because they can’t understand Australian. But their names aren’t even Australian. A few names later Ms Jarra says Matthew, Matthew Rusk, and I say yeah. That’s the only thing I say the whole time because I’m up the back and no one is talking to me.
The African girl Nagozie ends up being mates with Bec Dunner and Kayla Redman and the other sluts but I don’t think she knows they’re the sluts. Toondie’s all over the place, hanging around with the boofheads that reckon they’re awesome-as and the careers lady’s weird son. I even see him talking to some of the cooler retards between class because he’s in the same classes as them, all the harder ones, like harder Science and harder English and yeah all the harder ones. After like a month the African kids don’t talk to each other as much ‘cause they’ve got their new mates. But it’s still a pretty quiet one for me, roll call, ‘cause I’m up the back and no one’s saying anything to me.
Dad’s back from the mine because I can hear him stomping his steel-cap boots outside the front door. I’m in the kitchen pouring some lime cordial because that’s all that’s left. Luce finished off the raspberry I reckon, and I can’t stand lime, but I can’t get enough of Cottees. I don’t know why but I sneak off to me room before dad comes in but I listen to him rumbling to mum about work as I sip me cordial and wait for me PlayStation to startup. But mum yells tea before it starts up.
We have lasagne for tea, the one we had for tea yest’y and the day before. Mum’s passing dad a massive plate when she says did he hear what the Africans did with all the stuff the church ladies rounded up for them. Dad says what and mum says the Africans said they didn’t need it because they had their own stuff coming by ship from South Africa and besides they were living in the Keenans’ old house on Colin street because the dad knows Mrs Keenan and she’s renting it out to them and it’s fully furnished and everything. Dad’s up for another plate after mum’s said all this. So I pass him the casserole dish.
‘Heard their boy’s in your year,’ dad says to me as he shovels lasagne with the cake scoop. I nod with me mouth full. Mum says do I know him and I say not really. But I seen him around.
Mum says, ‘don’t you want to invite him over? Show him your PlayStation?’
I stuff me face again when she says this and I think dad notices because he says ‘Matty’s not into inviting people over much, are you mate?’
‘Be good to know the new dentist in town,’ mum says into her plate. Dad says yeah, if it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. Lucy isn’t saying anything. She never says much round the house, only when her mates are over, then she’s talking loud and acting like she’s king shit. Mum’s just drank some water and she’s picking her teeth with her tongue.
No one says anything for ages, and then mum says why don’t I take me bike and ride over to Colin street tomorrow and give them new people some cassette tapes or something, just a taste of real Aussie music and hospitality, maybe a bit of Farnsey for the grown-ups and a bit of INXS or Barnesy and maybe some of me own CDs. She says the boy is probably wanting to make some friends but I reckon she means me. Dad says what about some Troy Cassar-Daley but mum says they might not get it; what about all that Aussie rap I’m always playing in me room and I say um…like I don’t know, but I think she means The Herd.
Sweat’s running into me eyes it’s so hot. And every time I stop me bike at a stop sign the flies are all over me like those stars when a cartoon gets whacked in the head. Our town’s streets are wide like highways, and the sky’s blue like it didn’t want to be blue but was forced to be blue and now is like you wanted blue so here it is. The road’s so hot it’s like I’m looking through water and as I’m riding I’m wondering will he know who I am, will he remember. I’m thinking why did mum have to make me do this.
Once when I seen Toondie in the corridor at school I said how’s it going and he said ‘good and you?’ He sounded not how I expected him to sound. He didn’t sound that African. It was weird. Then once, he came over to where we retards eat lunch and play handball and he was sitting with Glen and Spandy Lachlan and they asked him did they have TV in Africa and he said yes like it was a stupid question and they asked him like what shows do they have and he shrugged and said the usual like The Simpsons and Buffy and CSI and Egoli and Carte Blanche and Jam Alley but I don’t know if he was making it up ‘cause I’ve never heard of them last ones. Then Toondie said he saw a dead roo on the road, are there heaps of them around town hopping down the streets and someone said nah it’s not like in South Africa with the lions and all that. Then Glen asked Toondie if he wanted to come to youth group on Frid’y (‘cause Glen and Spandy are churchies) and Toondie said he’ll think about it. I stopped listening in and kept eating me ham cheese mustard sambo. Then a tennis ball rolled up to me feet but I was too busy eating me sambo to pick it up and Bowdy said ‘Oi, Rusky! Rusky, you ugly cunt, chuck us the ball!’
So I turn into Colin street and keep an eye out for the Keenans’ house cause I seen it before. Looks pretty much the same now, just that the front lawn’s now sand. I ring the doorbell with me free hand. Toondie opens the door but not the flyscreen so I can’t see his face too good because of the glare. I say g’day and he says hello. I think he remembers who I am. I hold up me hand with the CDs and tapes and say just wondering if they wanted to have a listen to these, they can keep them for a bit if they want. He looks at the stuff in me hand and says no thanks, they’ll be fine. Then he slowly shuts the door but he doesn’t even touch the flyscreen because it’s already shut in me face.
‘Decent bloke. Got a bit of an accent on him. Good thing he doesn’t talk much.’
Dad had a pretty bad toothache the other night. Heard him from me bed yelling bloody fucking this and bloody fucking that and mum saying bloody fucking watch your language.
‘They’re arrogant,’ mum says as we watch Eddie McGuire trying to throw someone off the answer they’ve locked in: B, Bay of Pigs. She says they just walk in and act like they own the place. We’re just trying to make them feel at home. Dad says yeah. ‘Good dentist but. Fixed me tooth up.’
I’m on the floor with me back and me head against the hard chair arm. I say something about youth group on Frid’y night and dad’s like, you’re not a churchie now are ya. Mum’s like, let him. If you want to go you should go, Love. Like it’s me last hope of being cured of something, some disease.
‘Why don’t you go to the disco thingamajig with Luce, meet some real people?’ dad says, but I can’t dance for shit and I don’t want to do it with me sister.
So I turn up at the Uniting Church with me bike. The parking lot’s almost empty and there’s light coming from an open door. It’s almost eight but it’s like the sun doesn’t want to move from where it was at five and it feels like someone is breathing in me face it’s that stuffy and warm.
Spandy calls me Ruskie when I walk in. Ruskie’s what everyone calls me because they reckon I’m an idiot. There’s about eleven people and that’s about it. Eight kids and three grown-ups. Spandy’s dad says dig in, there’s plenty to go around so I stuff me face with lollies and pizza and weak-as cordial and pretend to listen to the churchy stuff. Toondie and Nagozie and their little brother I never seen before look how I reckon I looked when I fell asleep on CountryLink and missed me stop and ended up in Gunning. But the grown-ups are trying to get them into it, like it’s a matter of life or death. Because when they come to school to talk about God and stuff all the kids think it’s a bunch of shit even though they act good and pretend to listen.
We play games all night and eat sour worms and I’m drinking cordial like I’m me uncle Lance and Cottees stands for Tooheys.
When I’m chucking me plate in the kitchen Toondie’s getting a plastic cup so I ask him how’s he liking it here and he says it’s alright, then I say has he got a PlayStation and he says no and I say I’ve got one and he says cool. After games Mr Lachlan gives us a talk. Says Jesus says we should come to him with all our problems and that he wants to be our friend and that he’ll be the only friend we ever really need. But I reckon if Jesus was here he’d call me Ruskie and not talk to me ‘cause he’d reckon I was an idiot.
Maybe if people knew who he was they’d be sad and not just act it. I never seen him before but he sounds like he could of been one of us even though I never seen him or heard of him or remember him playing handball. The whole town’s going on about it but out of respect or something it’s not in The Advertiser. But I reckon one day they’ll have one of them notices in the back with all the birthdays and weddings and old people who died and hot country girls looking for love.
They say his nan saw something in a tree across the paddock and thought it was just a big branch that lightning had snapped that was just hanging on by the skin. After the coppers took him down they say his dad stayed up all night hacking down the tree with a chainsaw and his mum can’t walk past his bedroom without having a scream. Heard all this from mum ‘cause all dad can say is that it’s bloody disturbing just thinking about it.
Luce says I should of seen Mr Driscoll at assembly today, he was spewing, but in his quiet Mr Driscoll way, like he’s a bottle of coke that someone shook hard, and he said that this is a lesson for everyone, that we should look after one another and we should have respect for one another and compassion and this is a bloody disgrace. One of them boofhead bullies was having a guilty cry and Mrs Callaghan told him to go do it outside. I wish I’d been there to see him crying like a poofter but I went shithouse in me School Certificate last year so now I’m working at the sausage factory. Dead set, it doesn’t stink as bad as it makes the rest of the town stink.
‘Funeral’s Monday week,’ mum says to I don’t know who. She loves this kind of thing, the kind of thing she can shake her head at and wish she’d never heard. Me head’s in the fridge, so I don’t say anything. I just grab a bunch of seedless grapes and close the fridge door and am walking to me room when mum asks did I know him and I say the one who necked himself and she stops mashing potatoes and says what’s wrong with me, why would I say that.
I say, ‘never seen him. Maybe I seen him once.’ Me head’s down when I say it.
Mum’s looking at me funny and I wonder what she’s doing. It’s not like I’m sick or anything ‘cause that’s her sick face, the face she has on when I have the flu or gastro and am spewing me guts up.
The doorbell’s just rang and mum says go get it. She probably reckons it’s Luce come back from Nagozie’s house ‘cause they’re mates now. I been to their house once. They’ve got a new house and a pool and everything so we went for a swim but Toondie never come in because he doesn’t like water much. But I reckon he doesn’t like me much. I reckon his mum said I could come round just to be nice. Yeah, the swim was good but Nagozie kept saying I peed in the water. I don’t know how she knew, it was just a trickle.
Saw Toondie in IGA the other day but. Buying spinach for the old lady ‘cause I saw her parked in the car park waiting, and he nodded his head at me and walked past and I spent the next minute trying to figure out who he was nodding at until I figured that maybe it was me.
It’s not Luce at the door, it’s me old man in his orange Hi-Vis shirt and his Hard Yakka pants and his boots. He’s about to stomp when I open the door and he looks at me through the flyscreen and I say dad and he nods, still looking at me.
‘Thought you might be having a beer with the boys from work,’ he says through the flyscreen.
I say I didn’t feel like it and he just looks at me through the flyscreen with the sick face. His sick face is different to mum’s sick face but it’s dead-set his sick face and he’s looking at me with it.
That’s pretty much all he says. Then he looks down at his Blundstones and gets on with stomping the dirt out from under them.