Sidetrack by Judy Crozier
He sells things part-time with a funniness that makes people smile and put down what they were doing. They forget what they were doing and their eyes fold up peacefully because they like him so much. She knows this as if she were there, though of course she’s guessing because it’s all phone work, this job of his, in a short-lease office in some three-storey building somewhere, selling tickets to functions for charity, so all those poor kids can go to the functions, for charity. Warming the cockles of old ladies’ hearts. Unrelenting once he’s got them, by the cord as it were, his voice warm and funny and it’s for charity anyway and they pay. He earns hundreds from his commissions, more than anyone else in the office. He tells her, ‘I’m the best. You can’t stop and feel sorry for them,’ though she thinks he does sometimes, later. He says, ‘This old woman, you could tell she was close to tears. “My husband died last month,” she said, and I said, “I’m sure he’d want you to do this, for charity.”’ It’s as though he were talking about somebody else, maybe as though he were reminding himself of something. He doesn’t say much else about it, leaves a space as though there is something left unsaid. A space he could fill with remorse. It’s as though he might consider that, remorse. He goes into the bathroom and locks the door. Every spoon in the house is a little bent, since they met. He’s got a special box for his sharps, keeps it on his side of the bed. ‘I don’t leave needles hanging around,’ he says, virtuous, and as if he were answering a question. And the spoons are only that shape because he can’t quite get them back to the way they were before he came to the house.
Little things like that. Nothing’s quite the shape that it was. The chair pulled up close to the wonky coffee table, for his feet when he’s watching TV. Always a coffee cup with a butt in it. Clothes sometimes on the backs of chairs. Paperbacks left open on their fronts next to the bath. And the spoons.
Sometimes through the kitchen window she can see him in the garden in his suit – he’s always in the suit though it’s shiny and the black is a kind of sponge, soaking up dirt and sadness – talking to her boy who’s up a tree, and it goes on for oh hours because the boy can’t stop because he’s so happy talking; he’s so flattered. She can see the smile from here.
Days when he’s not working and he’s started to pace and his skin is pale and damp, like moss without sun, he’ll come and put his arms around her, rock her gently side to side crooning in her ear, ‘Honey…..’ and she’ll say, ‘It’s not fair,’ and he’ll say, ‘I know….’, and she’ll find the keys and take the old car to the ATM and that’ll be another fifty.
She’s done a preparatory drawing and begun to paint, setting out just the right palette for his pallor – a lot of white and a surprising amount of green, and she’s wondering about definition, how much there should be – while he tells her how many women he bedded when younger and since and about the one he’d met that he’d smiled at, who looked at him with her voice too loud and high and her mouth pulled down in humiliation, and said, ‘You don’t remember, do you. You don’t even remember,’ and even though the woman told him when, he didn’t remember. Now he’s remembering, like it’s some kind of offering.
He tells about Louise, whose parents sent her away though not before those two years, him sharing her flat and the smack, her driving him around in her car. He lights a cigarette and says, ‘I don’t fall in love, you know. Or I don’t realise I have, ‘cos it was only after she left that I knew I loved her.’ She can see he likes to think this. He exhales a long propelled puff, in a long silence, facing away. She waits, paintbrush in the air, for him to turn back. But he stayed longest with Cathy because there was the baby suddenly. ‘My little bloke. My little fella,’ he smiles with those long dimples, and says how Cathy bought all these toys and baby slides and swings as well as the car and put a deposit on a house, but lost it and the job, and everything but the toys and the car, with the using that she did, more and more – he couldn’t believe how much – when, before, all Cathy’d ever done was a bit of chuff. She doesn’t say anything. She’s painting his hands.
It’s early summer, and already there are warm, gentle nights after harsh, hot days. He’s got his guitar, says, ‘I am the Strum King of the South’, though he’s from the north, and they sing sixties’ bubble-gum, God knows where he found the lyrics, and drink rough red in the backyard, though she never makes it past the second glass. They teeter on plastic chairs on the clumped weeds. ‘I remember that one!’ She’s laughing to think of this song on her little pink transistor under the pillow at night, a million years ago. She can tell her boy is listening; his light is on and there’s a fuzzy shadow in the corner of the drawn blind that’s him, sitting up in bed. There’s a pizza cooling on the old plastic table, next to where she’s propped her feet. He’s teaching her these songs because she could sing back-ups when he pulls a band together for the pub. Later, their mouths are full of pizza and their lips slick with grease. He bites and pulls the slice away so there’s a string of cheese that snaps, rubbery now. Maybe because it’s so warm tonight he’s talking about back up north where they grow sugar, which is
where he came from, farmland – she thinks of vast acres of clattering cane in the thick heat, and tin roofs, wordless farmers with hard eyes and baked faces. He and the boys, he says, would hang around the tourists, backpackers: Swedish girls all blonde and golden in short shorts. They’d take the girls to waterholes, burling off down tracks, raising a cloud of dust. He stretches. ‘It’s funny. They’d never talk about anything but where they’d been and where they were going,’ so she has a vision of gritty brown country boys hanging around in silence watching, till these golden girls stopped talking for long enough. He had a sister, too, but it wasn’t the same for her, being younger, and a girl. His sister died – she can tell from the past tense he always uses – but she can’t tell when. She doesn’t ask.
He’s cut a little bit for her, and they watch it bubble in the spoon over the flame. He’s found the vein – ‘pump your fist’ – and the needle goes in and there’s a wave heavy and warm like a bath closing over her head, which falls backwards, won’t lift, and her eyelids won’t lift either and she says something, voice squeezed and distant, something like, ‘Lucky I’m already on the bed.’ But he’s got her sitting up, then feet on the floor, saying, ‘I’m going to run you a shower now. Up you get, Honey,’ and there’s a slow walk to the bathroom past her boy’s door, though he’s not in, she remembers vaguely. He makes her stand while she’s showering; no leaning against the tiling. ‘You don’t get addicted unless you hit up more than two days in a row,’ he says, to say something, and she says, ‘Okay,’ very slowly. The water beats hard and hot against her skin but so far away, while he tells her a story about some executive who’d had his first taste, but had much too much – wouldn’t be told, silly prat – and had to be showered, and walked around and all that, fingers down the throat for a spew, said, ‘Jeez mate, you saved my life.’
She tries to tell him, explaining very reasonably, she’s only got that bit of government money and what remains of what her parents left, to do something to the house – it leaks, and there are cracks, and the doors don’t fit – and take herself and the kid away for Christmas. There’s only… ‘Don’t tell me how much,’ he says. So she’s quiet for a minute, and he reaches and presses his face to hers so she can feel his cold sweat, ‘Honey…’
Later, he offers her a taste, arm around her shoulder and leaning his face into her hair. But she says, ‘No thanks, got stuff to do,’ and doesn’t say and anyway, now I know. She’s washing up cups and cutlery. Now she knows what makes his voice like that, tight and thin, while she does the back-up chick bit for the Strum King and he makes the pub crowd laugh calling his lead guitarist ‘Cyril Sausage’. Hands in warm water like an amniotic bath. Now she knows.
She doesn’t see him for two days until he phones for her to come and get him at some house in the next suburb. In the car he’s worried his suit smells because he hasn’t washed and he’s been so smacked out and pissed and sweaty. Then he quietly wants her to hurry, and when they get home he’s out of the car, door left hanging, and throwing up under the rose bush with him nearly sprawled on the grass. ‘Gets so you enjoy the spewing,’ Associations, you know. He says he only spent half the weekend at that house; first he went to see his little fella. Later in the backyard, his knife and fork clattering over a final mouthful, the plastic table wobbling, he tells her and her boy how he’d gone back up north that time, him and Cathy and his little guy who was a baby then, Cathy driving that ancient thing of hers. Went to see his parents, show off the little guy. Borrowed money from the folks. Sat
yarning and cracking jokes on the verandah with an uncle who said to his dad later, surprised: ‘He’s a good bloke.’
He says he knows a place by the river in the hills, better than a beach. Where the river’s narrow and new. She drives them up there and there it is, a point where there’s an eddy with the young river anxious and falling over itself, and you jump in at the right spot to go sweeping around in a semi-circle to the shallows and paddle back to the bank. His hand out to both of them, to her and her boy, as they sweep past laughing. There are four other families there, swinging around the eddy then sitting on warm rocks with their towels. Hats and red shoulders. A cicada-shrill making the air throb and a thick green tangle on the opposite shore, reaching over the water. Sun-hot pebbles between the shadows.
She’s parked near the rail line; there’s a park bench where he’s waiting in the gloom thrown by bushes. Seems to be taking a long time. There’s a voice whingeing on talkback radio; she changes the station until there’s a bit of Chuck Berry singing ‘Lucille, why can’t you be true’ while a man in a loose check shirt and fawn trousers goes to the bench. They’re talking. The exchange is smooth and quick; they talk some more, and the man in the shirt glances around at her. ‘John says you look nice,’ he says, opening the car door and climbing in. He puts on a Russian accent. ‘He says: “She not usink?” and I said no, so he said “that’s good. That’s good. You look after her.”’ She can’t help smiling about the solicitous smack dealer, so entirely unconscious of irony. By now she’s pulling out into the street and he’s not looking anyway, can’t see the smile, he’s sorting out his pockets or something; crumpled old receipts on the car seat.
The photograph is soft with age, colours bleached. She’s staring at it too long because, actually, she’s surprised, shocked really: it’s him and his mum and his sister, eons ago, sullen as wolves somehow, resentment winding like ribbon between the three, tense with proximity, maybe brittle with the isolation of the clattering canefields, the acres of baking emptiness, the dirt roads straight to the horizon. His sister followed him down to Sydney when he was living there, in his twenties and her just barely nineteen. Hung around him, though he was too full of being busy, busy – only at his place to sleep, hitting up between drinking, snorting and blowing anything. All those pubs and music. Breakfast, perhaps, sometimes. She came banging on his door but he had some girl with him and wouldn’t answer, and she yelled that she was going back home, back up north, but she never got to the train because a car knocked her down. Her face still wet, and a few clothes ripped from her backpack. He knew his sister’s face was wet not five minutes after slamming his wire door. ‘I don’t feel guilty. I know it’s not my fault,’ he says. She, his lover, was about to say that, that it wasn’t his fault. But the thought crosses her mind: sometimes you can say that and it sounds as if it is. His fault. So she doesn’t.
‘I’ll go to Adelaide when you go away at Christmas. The office is moving over there,’ he says, and she wonders if they’ve drained the market here of all its charity, and he smiles maybe. She thinks maybe there never were any functions the poor little kids were taken to, but looks at him and thinks he wouldn’t know that anyway. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, staring out of the window. It’s been raining, on and on all day. She’s hunkered down looking for the frying pan in the cupboard. After dinner she thinks they’ll play cards for a bit, with her boy. She’s thinking there’s a funny mood now between them, an impatience, like sitting in a place when you should be somewhere else. Filling in time.
In the early hours of the morning the street is suddenly filled with shrieking. First there had been the clanking growl of a car pulling up, a door opening, maybe that’s what woke her; she recognised his voice and the other one must be Cathy. His little guy in the car asleep, probably. The murmuring drifting in through the window ajar for the air, past the curtain stirring a little because hot nights are not always still. Herself in the dark hanging crooked on the wall there, painted before all this, before she knew, what was it like, not knowing? And suddenly, in the sleeping dark, the street is full of shrieking. Cathy, demented with it, pulling out all the stops. She’s screaming about how he should grow up, and he should show some responsibility, and he murmurs something in between, enduring this, and Cathy starts again with don’t you remember? Don’t you remember? Trying to scream love into him. It’s like being part of an audience, all of them lying awake in their houses with Cathy shredding from loss in the night under the streetlights, him there murmuring, cringing, placating, enduring until she’ll let him go.
Christmas, she’s off with her boy and their bags to a beach, while he’s off to Adelaide. Saying he’ll phone, but he doesn’t and she’s not surprised. After a few months the floorboards are up for the restumping and there’s dust all over the place. She throws a lot of things out: old clothes, a chest of drawers that won’t open and then won’t close, and the half-a-portrait of him, its edge poking now at an angle from the skip. She and her boy go to stay with friends who have no dust. She comes back daily, checking up on the guy rebuilding the back bedroom and putting up the porch. And then there’s all the nailing of the skirting boards; sanding, sanding. The orbital sander spun out of her hands and severed the phone wire – it’s a story to tell. She’s painted the new walls in a kind of yellow wash so they glow in the afternoon light. She goes crazy, gets carried away – so she tells her friends – and re-jigs the old coffee table, rubs and rubs, bit of stain and varnish till it looks like a real one. She paints her own room, and there are new curtains. She’s framed her self portrait and like magic it hangs straight. Funny.
One night she’s at that pub and his mates are there, the Strum King’s guitarist and a couple of others, and everyone says how much he owes them, thousands, though everyone gave. Of course they gave. Turns out everyone’s spoons are bent. Once she thinks she sees him, through her car window. It's the old suit. Though she can’t swear it's him, and this surprises her.
It’s a Sunday, when her boy is out, that he comes knocking again. ‘Hi, Hon,’ with a bottle of red in a paper bag, though she never did like to drink during the day. Not really. He pours her a glass, and they sit on the new porch in the cool breeze, and he tells her how he wants to go back up north, and she should come, drive him up there, and bring her boy. They could swim in waterholes. See the sugarcane in the fields. Follow the coast all the way. Sing bubblegum by the fireside. They might do that, he says. He doesn't mention his own little fella. She’s thinking what to say, though he knows what her answer is. She's gazing at the tree in the garden, its leaves drying and loosening, ready to fall. She looks at him, puts her glass down untouched. He’s sitting there with his hair puffing like chaff in the small wind and his suit getting so it’s no longer even black. The sleeves are too short. They always were. He asks could she drive him to where he has a room on the other side of town. So she does, in a silence filled with radio chitter-chatter and sometimes a squeak from brakes. She watches him walk towards the dark doorway in the old bluestone building, past the old guy sagging against the wall and staring into the distance. ©