By Kaspar Paseko
On the way to the laundromat I stop at the carwash. It had been one of those arguments that isn’t about what it’s about. I’d driven overnight out West and gone down some dirt tracks after the rain. There was nothing worth arguing about any more but now the car was covered in congealed eucalypt sap and mud. We get a discount at this carwash because my wife taught one of the sons English.
I sit in an old green velour armchair with my complimentary coffee. The mother opens the fridge door to cool herself between making coffee-while-you-wait and counting cash. The father with his brother spray high pressure hoses and shout over to his son to vacuum the next car in line. The boy must be wishing he was somewhere else. I remember doing jobs like that, shunting one unit from here to there in the same routine – junk mail, flowers, phone calls, planks, pizzas. I never much liked work. A sparrow dips and flutters in a puddle.
Waking up with the sunrise, pulling the sleeping bag around my ears and the beanie over my eyes, shifting a bit to ease the stiff joints and sore flesh from the cold concrete. There’s no ignoring it though. Security will be by soon enough. Sitting up and wriggling over to where the sun falls through the glassless window. Cold nights make us sun worshippers. And here is my friend the sparrow. Sparrow in the blue dawn light. A memory perching and gone again. There I am, a kid sitting on a bench in the city with nothing to do so I throw a bit of crust from my lunch to bring the bird a bit closer and a young woman walks by and says, “Look at all the friends he has.” and laughs with her friend. I didn’t mind so much but what I couldn’t understand was why anyone would even want to be like that. Still don’t. Don’t know why people care or don’t care. Why they can’t just leave each other be. Leave everything alone.
There are two kinds of roofs where nobody lives. Abandoned buildings and buildings under construction. The derelict buildings tend to have more people, more fucked up people. Construction sites are lonelier and cleaner but you have to get out early because of security. Not a bad view from this one. All the way across town, little roof after little roof, all the way into the middle where they pile themselves one up on top each other. Soon they’ll fill the roads to go to work to pay for their roofs. Fools would pay a lot for this view. Everyone calls their weakness virtue.
Always were a lot of sparrows at school. Always pecking at crumbs. The teacher said their Latin name was Passer Domesticus. I always used to scab cake off Scott. I was always envious of people who had food. But, to be fair, it’s not like I went hungry. Like Dad said, I can’t have been too hungry if I wouldn’t eat a vegemite sandwich, so why should he waste time making them? I had it better than Elroy. His had to get his own Weetbix for dinner. John’s mother was good. Anytime anyone came round she gave them a t-bone steak and huge helpings of three veg, even though she had was always doing shifts. She always let us hang out downstairs, no questions asked, especially if anyone had something go wrong. The cops or at home, or some toy gangster hassling you, or you just psyche out, whatever, you knew you could go there. Elroy’s mum let you do what you wanted because she didn’t give a damn about anything except leaning over a bucket of steaming water with a towel over her head. No-one could figure out why. Elroy said she said it was her sinuses. And his Dad was never there because he was always doing double shifts in the taxi to pay for his wife.
“Behave or the social workers’ll get ya.” he’d say. He was always worried the do-gooders would take his kid. “I’ll send you to boarding school!” he’d say, and I’d stand still in my crisp new clothes while he checked the part in my wet hair was straight. One day they asked me. Called me up to the office at school. Asked me if he did anything like that. It took a while but I figured out what they were insinuating and looked at the table, hating them for saying such things about my father. Never laid a finger on me. Never touched me. No one could ever say he ever. It was other people, people I never told anyone about, not even Dad because he couldn’t handle it. He would have murdered them. Or more likely he would have paced around all night trying not to murder anyone, because then he’d be in jail and who’d look after us? Nothing serious though. Nothing too bad ever happened to me. Just a little. Just like, at the train station, that guy miming a blow job at me, with a raise of the eyebrow. Or standing in the crowd at night watching the busker and there’s this guy standing too close behind grazing my arse with his cock. That sort of thing. Just little things. Plenty worse things happen.
“The judge is a professional.” He said, “Don’t believe me. Don’t believe your mother. Why would the judge give me custody when the woman always gets custody?” She always said he was the best liar she ever knew. No one ever said what she was supposed to have done. It was before I can remember.
I only ever saw him touch someone once. Waiting for the ferry at night. She’d come down to argue. He is a liar. She is a liar. The same shit they always say. I gave up on truth a long time ago but I’ve always known that the more they hated each other the more it meant they love me. Neither of them can bear to live without me. Neither can bear to leave me with someone they hate. Going through our bags he realised she’d stolen our passports. I waited by the bags for someone to come back listening to three tall young American tourists. “Did you see that?” “Asshole.” “When he comes back, let’s teach him a lesson.”
In our room at the YMCA I finished another story and went to the window and looked down at the flat grey roof of the next building and the brown brick walls. Looking to the right, far down in the street, I noticed there was a pizza shop. There was a story in the newspaper where some mothers of some kids who’d died of a drug overdose banded together and caught the dealer. One of the mothers worked in a pizza shop so they put the dealer in the pizza oven and cooked him to death. It could be that same pizza shop down there. I left the room and wound my way around the corridors to the toilet. Making my way to the end of the urinal I glanced at the cubicles and there, with the door wide open, was an old man sitting on the toilet jerking off. I only caught a glimpse because I looked away straight away. I was confused for a moment. Did I really see that? Why didn’t he close the door? Is he going to get me? With people around? He didn’t look menacing at all, just very sad, miserable, more miserable than anyone, so miserable he didn’t care anymore how miserable it was. I needed to piss and didn’t know where there was another toilet, so I stepped back to a point at the urinal where he couldn’t see me and pissed, hoping he wouldn’t come out.
Back in our room I went to the window and looked out again. A warm breeze on my face. I read in the library that people who try to commit suicide by jumping off skyscrapers are often saved by a strong updraft, strong enough to sweep the weight of a human body up and onto a ledge. It made it sound as if it was a good thing they were saved, but if their life was so bad they wanted to die, wasn’t it cruel to make them live it? Wouldn’t they feel ashamed that they had failed even at this last thing they ever wanted to do? That would be about the most embarrassing thing that could happen to somebody who already felt that bad about themselves. I could picture a suicide, saved in this way, thanking God for the miracle of lifting them onto that overhanging ledge and giving them a second chance. But then it seemed more like God was laughing at them. What about those who jumped again? To have to think over that final decision all over again. And to decide again without a doubt. Or is it worse that if most people didn’t jump the second time, that meant most people who killed themselves made a mistake. I looked down at the concrete. Imagine it. You make up your mind. You take that step. Falling, you swallow your breath, there’s a long few moments, enough time to realise what you had done before you hit the ground. And in that last moment – a mistake. What would that thought be in that one brief last moment, with no more thoughts to come, the thought that all your life amounted to, that you could not say to anyone?
I tore a page out of my notebook, made a paper aeroplane and threw it. The updraft was good, lifting it higher and over onto the grey roof opposite. I tore out more pages and carefully ripped them around the edges to make spirals, like a Minties wrapper, and weighted the middle bit by scrunching it into a small ball and putting spit on it, dropping them out the window and watching them float up and back out of sight over the top of the building. One failed suicide after another flying up over the roof.
Here I am, free. No one to care for. No one to care for me. Free from any friend who might have concern for me. Worth nothing. Free. Free to live or die without troubling anybody at all. You can sit and see a man fat, in a suit, bragging on his phone, hated by everyone and then another person, they might be happy or sad, but you can see that wherever they go, they are loved at a glance. Sometimes sitting here, I look at faces and fall in love with each and every one, like I can see past everything at who they are. Every single one is a weed growing through a crack in the concrete. They might only flower for a day and die, but they grow anyway. They walk here on earth, one footstep falls in front of me, and they are gone again. Other times, to be honest, I hate them all. The world would be better off if we all were dead and the sparrows had dominion over the earth. There would be no one to be miserable, and nothing and no one to make them miserable. All our cares amount to nothing and no-one will remember what I worried about today. It doesn’t matter if we worry or not. No-one notices for long that once someone sat here with a bowl, who no longer sees the sun and who the sun no longer sees. The sparrows go here and there. It doesn’t matter if concrete is cold and porridge is warm. Either way, another day may as well come. Other times, it’s just an endless stream of empty automatons. Mostly it is that. You can grab them, hold still their mechanisms long enough to rap your knuckle on their head and chest. Hollow. All these streets and buildings full of empty people.
Then there was that time with the blood on the lip. That was probably when I was most scared, though I wasn’t really a kid anymore then. It was raining and everyone was looking for somewhere dry. This guy offered a chug from a bottle of port and you have to be polite or they might get angry, and he explained he’d been in for murder and ended up breaking a bottle and cut his hand as he did it. Out of nowhere he made as if to cut my throat. I flinched into his other arm and he had me in a headlock. “You’ve got beautiful lips.” he said and wiped blood on my mouth. Then he let me go. “I’ve got to go now.” I said and walked out. Before then I thought nothing would happen to me because I wouldn’t give anyone any reason. Some people don’t need a reason. Anyway, worse happens to other people. For someone else that might have just been the start of it. I can’t complain. The hardest thing is, if you don’t have money, walking past all the baklava in a bakery window. No, let’s be honest. What’s worst is knowing no one will ever touch you. Not a hand. Not a kiss. What woman wants a man with no prospects? No prospects at all. Can’t bring himself to give a flying fuck about prospects. They sent me to work in telemarketing once. Like they thought that would teach me the value of a dollar and the pride of a job well done. Fair enough someone has to wash dishes and chop tomatoes but I was never any good at it. Weak. Careful. Thinking of other things. Do it faster, doesn’t have to be perfect. No good at anything. Waste of everyone’s time. Anyway, the only reason all these suckers fill the roads on the way to work is because they’re terrified of not having a roof over their head, while the boss gets rich. My father taught me how to live with nothing. So I’m not afraid of losing anything. Free. Everyone calls their weakness virtue.
The hills were low and undulating like an ocean with the wind rippling through the tall stalks of young green wheat. There hadn’t been any towns or even a house for hours, just the two lane road cutting through the endless fields. I couldn’t remember at what point it had started being just green fields and nothing else, and it showed no sign of having an end. The sun was getting low and there was something by the road up ahead, an old wooden shack. We pulled over. He went in first to check no-one was already there. I followed close, trying to tread quietly on the creaking boards, listening. Half the roof had fallen in, and half the floorboards were broken. We set up a small cooking fire inside and ate our baked beans looking at the stars through the roof. Lying there waiting to sleep the air was cool and there was nothing around but the wind and the grass and I wondered if the owner of the land might come, or someone would see our car and I’d wake in the middle of the night and see a silhouette against the sky and not know what kind of person it was.
Their family must have lived there for thousands of years but they’d be killed if they went home. Now they build a home out of a car wash.
It was the same argument we never have. The same reason there’s never a welcome when I’ve been away.
“You hate us because you have to work because of us.”
“No, it’s the opposite.”
“You’re going to leave me.”
“I’m still here.”
“You will. All men do. You will, just like your father, and you’ll take the kids because you know you can.”
I stopped for a bacon and egg roll and coffee. I went west and turned on to quieter roads and, once the sun had been down for a while, pulled over on a stretch where the car could be away from the road. There was a small town beyond the paddocks and over the creek and no houses nearby. The air was cool and clean. Down the embankment the long dewy grass wet the cuffs of my jeans. I pissed on a fence post, looking at the stars. It was cold but in the boot was one of her long musty old winter coats from Vinnies. It had always been a bit tight and was getting mildewy so she’d tried to throw it out one spring clean. It was a unique jacket with a Russian design. It would look good on our daughter when she was older. It only needed a dry clean so I’d snuck it into the car boot. The rumble of a truck woke me up from time to time and seeing the headlights glowing white then red in the dew on the car window I remembered where I was and when. I’d turn to get more comfortable on the car seat and pull the musty jacket back over my face. It was good to be home.