Month: March 2009

An Interview with Barry Graham and Howie Good

An Interview with Barry Graham and Howie Good

March 2009 Interview by Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle Every time it rained Mrs. Salt made us stay inside at recess and play Thumbs-Up- Seven-Up and I was the only one who would touch Karly’s thumb, sitting there all alone on top of […]

A Conversation with Juliet Cook

A Conversation with Juliet Cook

March 2009 Interview by Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle A beautiful refrigerated woman in white uniform taught you beautiful equals mean; sickly equals unclean. Beautiful equals tell you what to do. Order you. You’ll be painting this plaster of Paris sunflower. You’ll be […]

The Rules by John Walker

The Rules by John Walker

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009

They load handsaws, axes, and splitting wedges into the truck bed, putting in last their jack saw with the rusted blade and cracked gray handles, then cover the load with a tarp, the middle sagging already with the weight of a sloppy snow. Cal is dressed for a long day in the woods, wool coat and work boots, canvas gloves tucked in his back pocket. These last desolate months he had refused to leave the house. Torn jeans and undone flannel shirts. Bare gut stitched with hair. He let the garden die under the frost and left the grocery runs to his fourteen-year-old son, Marty, who learned to guide their old Toyota Scout down the rutted back roads and corkscrewing highways to Mariposa. Now Cal takes the corners too fast. Marty feels the tires lose and find their grip, moments like freefall between jolting traction.

Around Midpines, Cal pulls the Scout off the road and Marty gets out to lock the hubs into four-wheel, the first breath of cold a relief after being trapped in the heated cab. He looks up the old logging trail, thick with overhung boughs and melting slush before disappearing into the falling snow. He turns back to Cal. His graying ponytail hangs serpentine over one shoulder and his lips pout under his beard. He gulps coffee from a gourd, eyes bolted straight ahead. Marty’s gaze slides to the empty place next to him where Mom should have been. She had worked fiendishly alongside his father, as if defending this life she’d chosen for them all, bucking fallen trees for a living. They had grown their own food and built all the pens corralling the mule team without cutting down a tree, without spending a cent. Sustaining themselves and the forest, she had said, completing the circle, protecting.

Cal lays on the horn and Marty jumps.

“You freeze to death out there?” Cal shouts through a slit in the window.

Marty folds his gloves into his hip pocket. His palms are red and damp, the snow such a thin mix of sludge that it has soaked through the canvas.

“This trail’s going to be death,” he says, climbing back in.

Cal guides the truck into the soggy tire ruts.

“Tomorrow the sun will be out,” Cal says. “We’ll be able to work with our shirts off. It’ll feel great, Marty. You watch.”

Frosted pastures open up out the window, running toward sheer granite faces and steep, tree-covered slopes, then thick stands of pines close the view once again. Cal stops and points to a giant redwood lying like a wall at the edge of a clearing, tall enough to make a snow shadow on the leeward side. They inspect the break point, a jagged spire in the air. No black crusts the edges, so it didn’t fall from a lightning strike, but from being too old, too big.

“This is the biggest fall we’ve seen yet,” says Cal.

He walks the perimeter, estimating its length, pausing long at the broken trunk, the annual rings.

“It will take months to get this bad boy pieced up.”

He checks the low sun, guesses the time.

“We’ll cut for a couple days, then use the team to bring it down, by the book.”

Marty digs out the small handsaws from under the tarp. The handles are black and smooth from their palms. Marty hands one to Cal, loosens the wing nut on his own, opens the blade. For most of the afternoon they work the small branches high up the shaft. The cutting is easy, some of the wood snapping off with the blade only halfway through, but the snow soaks them, weighs them down. The sky remains dark, the clouds overhead a close, thick purple. Marty’s stomach growls, his sawing arm trembles with exertion, and his jaw hurts from clamping together. Marty stops, listens. His father isn’t cutting, either.

Cal stands away from the tree, staring at it.

“I hate this,” he says. “It’s spring. It’s supposed to be sunshine and sunflowers. Look,” he says, gesturing across the buried pasture, “this should all be yellow, dancing in the wind. All this white hurts my eyes.”

“Tomorrow we’ll work with our shirts off,” says Marty, straining toward the baritone of his father’s voice.

Cal regards him coldly.

“I’m glad I amuse you.”

Marty looks at his boots.

“Let’s get back to work,” says Cal.

Marty helps drag out the jack saw. He loved it as a kid, when the work was too big by years. He’d lose his feet and be jostled back and forth, laughing, a kind of teeter-totter, and Cal’s old joke that if he pulled hard, Marty’s thin body would slide through the cut. When Mom helped, their weight together became a counterbalance to Cal’s on the other side, the teeth humming through the grain. Now Marty can match him alone.

They start the teeth into the trunk, cutting lengthwise from the break to a place in the middle. In an hour they’ve gone less than a foot into the slab. His palms throb inside his gloves. When the saw binds, Marty falls back into the snow and he stays down. The sky above him swells black.

“Back to work.”

Cal tosses down his jacket.

“I’m taking a break.”

“Wait until we’re six more inches in.”

“Now.”

“If we rest every hour, we’ll be up here for the rest of our lives.”

Cal stands over him, hand out. Marty works up to an elbow.

“I was thinking that was your plan,” he says.

Cal scans the tree, from the tip down the wide trunk, the saw sunk into the wood. He removes his gloves and beats them on his thigh.

“We’ll work on the branches a while.”

“That’s not a break.”

He walks away, leaving Marty in the snow.

“Get up now, son,” he says.

Marty unfolds the saw to its boomerang curve and works away from his father. He peels his glove off to see if his palm has turned bloody, but the skin’s only pink, creased with his grip. Still, it’s easier than slicing into the core. The jack saw remains stalled in the wood, the handles drooping like broken wings. No one lives this way anymore, handsaws and mule teams, suffocating principles. The work has absorbed Cal—and maybe that’s the idea, to be swallowed up—but it threatens to steal Marty, too, demanding so much of his sweat and muscle that there will be nothing left once the fallen tree is sawdust and a bald slice of earth.

“Let’s get back to the big boy,” says Cal.

“A drink of water first.”

“No. Six more inches.”

“Who are you shitting, anyway?” says Marty. “We’re never getting this tree out of here by ourselves.”

Cal faces him, the open saw dangling from his hand.

“If your mother was here, she’d keel over, hearing you talk.”

“If Mom was here you could sneak her off into the woods and get your jimmy waxed and leave me alone.”

Marty licks his lips, spits away from his feet. Cal tries to return to the tree but his hands are shaking.

“Fucking Jesus Christ,” he roars, rearing up like a bear and casting away the saw.

It cuts through the air and buries itself in the snow and Cal turns hard to face down his son.

Marty squares to meet him, saw gripped like a dagger. The two have the same hazel eyes and cut jaws that jut forward when they’re angry, teeth grinding, biting the rims of their lips. They stand more than an arm’s reach away, but a lunge could fix that, even the smallest step together.

They stand a few breaths, relaxing together slowly, turning away to scan the tundra for the saw.

“Find it for me, will you Marty? I’m—just get it,” he says, leaning against the trunk.

It’s snowing harder, the footfalls deepening. He reaches the place the saw should be and kicks at the snow, but sees only white. Cal starts pounding toward him, but stops when he evens with the truck. He disappears behind the toolbox lid and then lifts out something Marty can’t yet see.

“That is not by the book,” says Marty when he gets back to the truck.

Cal is gassing up a chainsaw.

“Get away from me,” he says.

Snow touches the shiny plastic shell, the links of the new blade.

“We can buck it up right, Dad. We’ll find the saw—”

“I said go, Marty.”

He looks at the fallen tree, the trunk shaved of branches.

“This snow will melt,” he says. “We can come back with the team.”

“It’d take us a year to get anything small enough for a mule to carry. You were right. Congratulations.”

Cal pulls three times on the rope before the engine catches, the exhaust bluing in the cold. He revs it a few times, the thing screeching between them.

While Cal lays into the tree, Marty drags away the branches and cuts the biggest on the Scout tailgate. The chainsaw roars, echoing off the mountainsides and rattling in the trees. Cal’s got one foot propped on the trunk. His shoulders are drawn tight against the saw, pushing it deeper. Marty can smell the sweetness of redwood, almost feel the soggy resistance it gives a blade.

“Dad,” he shouts. “Let me spot you awhile.”

Cal pulls up on the chainsaw and walks around the tree.

“Show me how to use it.”

Cal shakes his head.

“This is too much saw for you.”

He draws a deep breath, stretches his back, faces the trunk. He sinks the chainsaw into the wood again, but withdraws and lets it idle.

“You know your mother sends money?”

“No.”

“Five hundred bucks worth of guilt every month. I hoard it away.”

“That’s good,” says Marty. “Right?”

“We made a life for ourselves out here, exactly the kind she wanted, and then one day she accuses me of running away from the world. Like that was suddenly a crime.”

Cal looks to his son.

“This chainsaw is technically yours. I used the guilt money. I thought, what the hell? The rules have changed.”

“Let’s work the jack saw,” says Marty. “Let’s do it right.”

Cal shakes his head. The chain spins, chews into the trunk in a spray of dust and chips. Marty feels the splinters stinging his cheeks and turns away, then the sound changes. The engine stalls, pulls at Cal, almost ripping itself from his hands. The blade revs back to life and finds its way into Cal’s foot.

Marty goes to him. The canvas top of his boot’s split, soaking red. He palms his father’s forehead and looks into his stony eyes, wide and dry.

“Dad, Jesus.”

“It’s numb, Marty.”

“I’m getting you to a hospital.”

“Do you hear what I’m saying? I can’t feel it.”

Marty moves down to the tear. He pries open the smiling gash in the boot to the cut, an angry bite taken from the slope, gushing with blood. Marty packs the foot with snow, pressing fistfuls down into the split.

He helps Cal to his feet. He’s unsteady, the wounded leg dragging, and the ground is slick. They fall twice, three times, and Marty lands with his head on his father’s chest. Above the trees, the horizon is the color of aluminum.

Cal shakes his son.

“Marty, get up now. I don’t want to die out here.”

Marty’s eyes open. Together they rise, and he doesn’t know if he’s carrying Cal’s weight or being lifted in his arms. The imprint they leave behind is unrecognizable, four legs, two spread arms, a bloody hole burned into the snow.

Marty drives the truck down the trail, the headlights cutting cones through the storm. He keeps his father awake as night closes in. They reach Mariposa, and Marty waits in a freezing room while Cal is stitched closed. Cal shows his son the butterfly sutures and Marty drives them back to their trailer.

That night, Cal uses a hammer to crack walnuts, rolled to the table in the rented hospital wheelchair. He bangs on the pointed tip of shells and scatters fragments across the room. The bits he can reach he saves in a coffee can. Marty feels each hammer crack in his knees, exhausted but not wanting his father to stay awake alone.

“Most people use nutcrackers,” he says.

Cal puts down his instrument, crosses his arms, leans back.

“We have hammers,” he says.

He rolls the chair back and looks at the pinkish bandage on his foot. His hair tangles down his shoulders, stripes of gray in dirty blonde. His skin is ashen and eyes glassy from the painkillers.

“It’s still snowing. Can you believe that? What a shit year this has been,” he says.

Marty comes to the table and brushes shell fragments into his palm and empties them in the trash.

“I forgot to check the team. I need to do that.”

“You haven’t forgotten those mules since you were eight years old,” says Cal.

“Weird day,” says Marty, buttoning his houndstooth coat over his chest.

The cold stings his face, burrows up his sleeves. The moonlight is oily on the snow. He hears the team moving in the pen, sees their blue shapes taking form beyond the rail fence. Of course he had remembered to water them, to lay out the feed and to stow the empty sacks before dark. The mules shuffle indifferently as he approaches. He steps up on the first rail and leans his elbows over the fence and whistles. Their heads turn his way and then shake his presence off as if escaping a fly.

“Get your rest,” he whispers. “You’ve got a mother of a big tree to haul down.”

Marty steps off the fence. He can see Cal through the window, cradling his head, elbows propped on the table’s edge.

“Get your rest,” he says again, this time sure he means it.

The Storyteller of Ulatphet by Arijit Sen

The Storyteller of Ulatphet by Arijit Sen

 Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009 1. ‘Let me,’ the Storyteller said, ‘let me tell you a story.’ The crowd grew silent. The Storyteller of Ulatphet, the keeper of Ulatphet’s memories, was about to speak, the story was about to begin. ‘This is the story,’ the […]

Physiological Drought by Matthew Salesses

Physiological Drought by Matthew Salesses

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009 I can hear his hands slapping over his flat stomach from the bathroom, where he is pouring out the buckets of water we’ve saved for these makeshift showers. At the beginning of the drought, before the city reservoir ran dry, […]

Anton by Chris Powici

Anton by Chris Powici

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009

He shambled in an hour before last orders—tatty brown wool suit, patched at the elbows, old style John Lennon glasses that made his eyes look like dark pennies—settled himself in the corner between the dartboard and the cigarette machine and sat there like a bloody waxworks most nights through that long wet summer.

I tried talking to him once but he had what you’d call a Slav accent. He mumbled something about the city…its strange music, then a cough got his throat and I left him to his whiskey. After that he kept his thoughts to himself. Sometimes he’d glance out the window at the kids swigging vodka by the war memorial, the cab drivers hustling fares in the rain, and this funny sad look would slip across his face as if he’d seen it all before. But mostly he’d just sit there, cradling his drop of scotch like it was holy water and listening to every cry, laugh, shout the bar threw up. Every last word.

October came. It seemed he’d disappeared off the face of the earth. We thought he’d dragged himself back home, wherever that was. Then Doug read in The Gazette that he’d fallen in the canal out by the dye works and died of pneumonia three days later at The General. The paper said his name was Anton. He’d been a doctor once.

The pub went quiet. Doug called for a drink in his honour but I couldn’t face everyone gabbing about how Anton was one of us at heart—liked his scotch, kept himself to himself. So I just kept staring at that empty space under the Guinness mirror until I found myself in Anton’s chair, laid my hands on the same the beer-stained, broke-legged table and listened to the women shuffling home from the day shift at the hospital kitchens, the market lads stacking fruit crates, pigeons scrambling for bits of skin and peel. As if I could feel the city breathing in my ear. As if all that talk, all that noise, meant something.

Losing Him by Anna Peerbolt

Losing Him by Anna Peerbolt

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009 Around midnight, unable to sleep, Esther gets up. She keeps a fifth of whiskey behind a stack of National Geographics in the hall closet. She gets a juice glass from the kitchen, pours in a couple of jiggers and sits […]

Blood and Ashes by Madison Leigh

Blood and Ashes by Madison Leigh

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009 She asked that her ashes be buried in the rose bed, and he had done so.  Nevertheless, every time he glanced out of his studio window, he entertained the notion of digging up the bushes.  He wearied of seeing her phantom […]

The Summer of ’89 by Nicole Lee

The Summer of ’89 by Nicole Lee

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009

‘The girls here are like watermelons,’ says Scully. ‘Hard to crack and full of seeds.’

It’s hot. We’re straddled round the kitchen table, stuck like slugs to our chairs.

‘You reckon?’

‘I like them fierce,’ says Gaz, his mouth full of Weetbix.

‘Dude! You’re supposed to eat Weetbix with milk, not orange juice!’

‘Nah, the lady at corner shop told me.’

‘The lady at corner shop eats guinea pigs for breakfast.’

Gaz looks at me.

‘Johnny, tell him what the lady said.’

‘She said with your Weetbix, not in your Weetbix, numbnuts.’

Scully pisses himself. I grin. Gaz catapaults mushy Weetbix at our heads.

The phone rings. It’s Maria. She wants to talk. I tell her to G-E-T-F-U-C-K-E-D. Since Year 8, no girl’s ever got in the way of a good summer. Except for Henry O’Loan.

‘You’re right,’ I say, hanging up. ‘Full of fucking seeds.’

Scully laughs.

The phone rings again. This time it’s Mum. She starts to apologise about the money, but I hang up and grab the keys. It’s time we got outta here.

We kick up to the beach in Scully’s MX5. Makes us look like the fucking kings of the country. Sure feels like it. The air pineapple-tops us, squeezing past our ears like fresh juice. I wink at a chick in a polka dot bikini. She flicks her hair.

At the beach, we catch some waves. The polka dot chick’s got friends. From the surf they look like dalmatians. Up close they’re just as eager. We work our magic. Gaz takes Tracey home. I take home Carla. Scully doesn’t take anyone home, just wanks and sprays the sand with his sauce. Afterwards we drink VB and challenge the arsebutts from the Coast to a boat race. We win hands down. They kick us out when they realise we’re underage. No worries. We sit on the beach and howl and get pissed.

Yeah, my mates are dead set, I reckon.

*

We’re sitting around eating lychees and mangoes. It’s the best thing Scully’s smuggled back from Thailand. It’s the only thing Scully’s smuggled back from Thailand. The rest is all how Scully’s a winner with the Thai girls, how Scully’s dad overtook some arselicking drug company, whatta whatta. But this stuff—this is awesome. Gaz’s mouth is geysering as he sucks a buttcheek of durian gloopy like pudding. Me, I go for the dragonfruit. The kiwi sweet flesh is cool on my tongue. I suck on it like an ice block.

‘Nah,’ says Gaz. ‘All girls here are like durian. Horny on the outside, and smelly on the inside.’

‘Fuck you’re a wanker, Gaz,’ says Scully.

Gaz smirks into his jackfruit.

‘I’m serious, but,’ continues Scully. ‘The girls here are like watermelons. If they had breasts like ‘em, that’d be orright…’

‘So, what, we try Thai, then,’ I snort. ‘That’s all you can talk about.’

‘Fuck it, yeah. Or Spanish, or Japanese. Mango chicks are the best. All yellow and sweet the whole way through.’

‘Nah, I’d want a banana,’ I say. ‘White on the inside.’

Pure on the inside,’ growls Scully. ‘Virginal.’

‘You could try a custard apple,’ suggests Gaz. ‘Ugly as a dog, but sure as hell to be pure as white on the inside.’

‘You’re a wanker, I’m tellin’ ya.’

The air is fat with sleepy heat. Sleepy heat that nestles behind our eyeballs and hacks at the pulley of our lids. Scully pulls out a bunch of bananas. They’re the chubbiest, most neon yellow bananas I’ve ever seen. They taste like velvet. Scully swallows six of them, and we kill ourselves as he coughs them back up, sticky yellow smush. We hoot and gulp them down, chucking the skins in front of passing cars.

*

So it begins. The search for exotic fruit. It’s not long till we find one. A killer dump’s just soured my back when Scully points her out to me. She’s reading a book on the bay where the rocks cleave into two. It’s in English.

‘Fuck, she’s yours, mate. No readers for me!’

She’s cute. She’s got an upturned nose and a jet black fringe. I’m too sore to go back out so what the hell. My grin’s as wide as a beach.

‘Whatcha reading?’

She looks up. ‘Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.’

Her voice has the staccato catch of the Chinese. Eh, close enough.

‘Yeah, yeah, awesome book. Won the Booker prize. My dad’s an English teacher,’ I add quickly.

Her lips unzip into a smile.

‘So is mine,’ she says.

Scully and Gaz walk up, sniggering behind their surfboards.

‘G’day sweetheart, I’m Scully. Scully by name, and one a hell of a sculler by nature.’

She shakes his hand and peers at him. Her fringe parts, a wind fart. Scully sniggers. He’s impressed. As we walk away, he elbows his arms around Gaz’s neck and mine.

‘Good work, Johnny boy. Don’t talk much, but who needs conversation?’

I turn to look at her back. Milk porcelain.

Fuckin’ jeezus, yeah.

*

She’s there on Sunday, and Monday too, reading. Every time I reach the crown of a wave I sneak a peek. She sits like one of those hourglass things. Legs folded under, seagull’s wings. Sometimes I walk past and she’s on her stomach. Every so often I wink. Every so often she winks back.

She’s from Beijing. I remember something on TV about some demonstration in a square. ‘Gee, it’s lucky you got out before then, hey,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ she says.

‘You must miss your family, huh.’

‘I don’t think that they miss me,’ she says. She seems to be reading the same line over and over again.

‘Don’t think my mum misses me either,’ I say.

Her smile is sort of broken.

*

We’re invited to her housewarming party. Scully and Gaz are stoked. There are heaps of cute Chinese chicks in the room, from Singapore to Hong Kong. All white as sheep on the inside. They’re sort of surprised by the three of us, but we know how to work it. Scully’s got one already, over near the TV, and Gaz isn’t far behind on the couch.

She’s there too of course. I find her in the kitchen, warming up these crispy roll things. They’re kind of honey coloured and I want to bark like a dog, although I don’t. Instead, I try to look casual by leaning against the doorway. No point wasting time.

It comes out like I’ve got the runs. ‘You’re a virgin, right,’ I say. Shit.

She laughs and puts the rolls on the kitchen bench. ‘No,’ she says. ‘And I’m not a banana.’

I gape.

Her smile is whipped butter.

She says, ‘Come to my room.’

Scully gallops like a chimpanzee in the background. I give him the finger.

In her room, I go to turn out the light, but she puts a hand on my wrist. Okay. I swing off my shirt and unbuckle my belt. My gut’s in a rut.

She undresses slowly, peeling her vanilla body. I can’t stop looking. My mouth is dull desert. I’m sweating. Something’s not right.

‘Please, can we turn the light off?’

Her brow crinkles. ‘Why?’

‘Um, because, I like it better in the dark.’

She turns it off. Her scent is tangy pineapple. My balls are so tight it feels like they’re gonna burst from their skin. I breathe her in. The edges of her scent are acrid, bristly against the insides of my nostrils. She reaches out and I gasp. Her touch sears. I try to tell myself to just breathe damnit but then her smell floods my lungs, milk thick, and I am choking, I can’t breathe, and she’s holding me, her flesh the shock of cold bathroom tiles, and I’m on the floor, now on the chair, and again on the floor.

I come to on the bed. She’s looking down on me, hair curtaining around her face. I can’t see her expression.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry,’ she says. There’s pity in her voice.

She passes me my pants and I put them on.

‘I’m a paw paw,’ she says.

We stare at each other. Then she turns on the light, closing the door as she leaves.

*

‘Didja go her, didja go her?’

‘Yeah, yeah, course.’

‘Sick!’ says Gaz.

‘What did I say about virgins, mate,’ says Scully.

‘Aw, dunno, that real girls make you feel inadequate?’

‘Fuck it, back off, mate,’ he says, hands in the air. ‘I was only teasing.’

*

I fuck a Mandy, and a Kate, but she’s always there, reading. Sometimes I walk past and she’s on her stomach. Every so often she winks. Every so often I wink back. Jeezus, we’re like fucking lighthouses.

Gaz’s got onto some Tasmanian chick. He keeps asking me to compare. I tell him to try harder, coz Tasmanians are just Victorians who can swim.

When Mum finally pisses off, she’s moved on to Thomas Keneally. One day I’m up early for a surf and she’s sitting quietly on the sand, reading. Next morning, I take Dad’s copy of Schindler’s Ark with me on my run.

*

She likes lounging on the beach, looking out to the sea. Surfers ricochet off the waves, sinking into tubes like billiard balls. Scully and Gaz are the ones giving me the finger.

She waves back at them, all innocent like.

‘You like your friends, yes?’

‘Yeah, course I do.’

‘Would you die for them?’

‘Ah, dunno about that.’

Her eyes glisten. ‘I have many friends back home in China.’

‘Are they students too?’

‘Yes,’ she says.

A breeze laps at my cheeks. The sea is shiny metal. If she were Jesus, she could walk all the way home.

I tell her this. She says, ‘Who is Jesus?’

*

I take her to a church. I want to wait outside, but she hauls me in.

Inside, the darkness swirls like mercury. I stand at the back near the door but she’s walking around touching everything. She’s fascinated by the rainbow windows. The ceramic smile of the Virgin Mary. The rows and rows of pews. I last about fifteen minutes before dragging her outside.

‘What’s wrong?’ she says.

‘I hate churches,’ I say. ‘Reminds me of having to sing hymns.’

‘But is it not a place where people get married?’

‘Yeah,’ I groan. ‘And christened and confirmed and jeezus knows what else. Hey, you’re not going to tell Gaz and Scully that I took you here, are ya?’

‘My cousin got married,’ she says, as if over tea and bickies with God.

We stop at the fish and chip shop for lunch. Grease clingwraps our fingers.

‘This Jesus man,’ she says in between wheels of calamari. ‘What else does he do?’

‘Well, he was a bit of a hero, they say,’ I begin. ‘Walked on water, saved a few people. This and that, you know. Went on a hunger strike…’

‘A hunger strike?’ she says. ‘My cousin went on a hunger strike.’

God clearly makes a good cuppa.

*

She takes me to Chinatown. I’m a giraffe amongst zebras. The shop windows are paintstripped and the flies are determined. Little black helmets dart around me, duck into shops and yelp in their monosyllables. Outside the temple I hesitate.

‘Are you scared?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Course not.’

On the contrary, I’m awestruck. The buddha’s belly is an entity of its own. It could star in its own movie, like, The Attack of the Giant Beergut, or something. However, she doesn’t seem to notice me, just lights up some incense sticks. The tips bulge like amber before crumbling. I kneel next to her and sneeze. I’m not sure I like the place.

We eat the fruit we brought to be blessed. The oranges taste like ash.

‘Well, that was nice,’ I say.

‘You think so?’ she says.

‘Um, it was alright,’ I say.

She tries not to look disappointed.

Dad asks me where his Bryce Courtenay collection is. I shrug and tell him he’s lost the plot.

*

‘Fuckit, Johnny, you’re like a puppy dog around that slit.’

‘Piss off, Scully!’

‘Speak any Chinese, Johnny? Go to any yum cha? Don’t worry, soon enough you will.’

‘I said piss off!’

*

‘What’s wrong?’ she says.

‘Nothing.’

She puts her hand in mine. I cup it like a maple leaf.

She says, ‘Come to my room.’

*

At first things are sweet. She gets me excited pretty quick, and we can give rabbits a run for their money. But after sex she always wants to go out. I take her to the beach where she sulks. Walnut wombat eyes shrouded by her fringe.

‘What?’ I say.

‘I thought things would be…I don’t know,’ she says.

‘What did you expect?’ I say. ‘Commitment? A free ticket to middle-class mundanity?’

She doesn’t reply. We stare at the sea.

*

Our tree is lopsided but at least it’s real. Mum’s allergic to firs, but it’s my choice this year. On TV is a recap of all the events of the year. I eat cereal out of its box as I watch. There’s earthquakes and there’s the White House. There’s footage of men and women scrambling over a wall, spilling into open arms and embraces. There’s a huge courtyard and a statue. Tanks like crabs scuttling over people, alive and dead. A guy my age drags a girl in his arms. There’s blood on his body. There’s no legs on hers.

‘Gee, lucky that type of stuff doesn’t happen here in Australia,’ says Dad.

‘Yeah,’ I say.

*

We make love hard and fast tonight. There’s a storm inside her. I can’t keep up. She grabs my cock and twists it so hard it burns.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says afterwards.

‘That’s okay,’ I say.

‘No, I meant about lying.’

‘About what?’

She’s breathless. ‘About having friends and family.’

‘What do you mean?’ I say. But she rolls over and pretends to sleep.

I trace the shelf of her spine. Lickity lemon split and mine all mine.

*

Of all people, Scully’s the one to tell me. One morning I’m up for my morning surf. There’s a crowd around the bay where the rocks cleave into two. Scully’s waving at my face but I don’t see him. ‘Fuckit, Johnny,’ he’s saying. ‘Don’t look, I tell ya.’ And I’m saying ‘What? What’s wrong?’ and I’m barging through the crowd and I’m looking down and I’m faltering…

Barbs of surfspit on my cheeks. Vomit on my feet. Is it mine? Prickly flames on my tongue. Yes, it’s mine. I think I hear Scully but it could just be the wind.

It takes them a few hours to identify the body. She’s unrecognisable with the bloating. They’re sending her back to be cremated with the others. When they ask if she has any friends here, I can’t speak.

They say she was trying to walk on water, that summer of ‘89.

I try to tell Gaz, but he’s as clueless as a goldfish. All he can say is ‘Fuck. Fuck.’ Finally I just say ‘Yeah, fuck off!’ and he does.

Scully doesn’t need telling.

When they have the funeral it’s not like the one we had for Gramps in the cornerside church. Instead, everyone dresses up in white and runs ribbons like a red gash through the air. When they come to the rocks they tip the embers in the urn into the sea. Everything tastes like ash.

In the new year, I sit on the beach, waiting for the dawn. The sea is shinymetal. Every so often it winks. Every so often I wink back.

Ghost Town Catholic by John M. Anderson

Ghost Town Catholic by John M. Anderson

Poetry, Vol. 3.1, March 2009 Because the priest’s fingers are ninety they retain light. The acolyte cups lavabo bowl in palm (so young he’s translucent too) and pours pure water to wash wriggling mountain stream sweet-flesh fish trout-bright from consecration The chapel door stands open […]