My house is chafed with soft rot. The paint has peeled, and the heartwood is falling away in caseous lumps that don’t splinter, even if you pick at them. Grandpa’s flat is downstairs. He looks small inside a stained shirt and waterproof parka. The newsreels illuminate his profile with blue light.
I iron clothes for twenty-five dollars per hamper. Steam rises from the clothes, releasing a plume of odours: the alkali tang of deodorants, starch, and cheap perfume resins. You can imagine the people who inhabit the clothes. There’s a woman’s shirt with a bank logo and I imagine her picking up her car keys and walking out the door to work. A man’s shirt is paint-spattered. I imagine him laying down sheets and repainting his kitchen, barefoot on a stepladder. With each crease in the fabric I intrude into these bright and precious houses – doors that would never open for me in real life.
A man on the television has a whitetail stag in the cargo tray of his pickup and a twelve-gauge over his shoulder. His unarmed hand holds the velveteen crown of the stag’s antlers aloft, to prove their span. The deer’s eyes are black-glazed in a ventriloquist stupor.
‘Never seen a deer in real life. Just a reindeer’, I say.
‘Pests.’ Grandpa shakes his head. ‘Would come of a morning and eat all our roses.’
The water crackles in the iron. ‘Never shot a gun. Not even an air rifle.’
Grandpa laughs and scratches behind his ear. ‘I have. Automatic rifles, in the reserves. Too much recoil. None of us could shoot straight.’ His teeth are the color of ivory dominoes. The gingivitis has stripped back his gumline, making the teeth look particularly long. I wear a pit-stained cotton shirt, oversized jeans, and a pair of black underwear I took from my mother’s closet. Grandpa has a fiscal ledger beside him. The left column bears the name of my dead grandma Barbara, and Joyce and Carol and all the others from her long-disbanded tennis club. The right column lists their imagined scores. Grandpa notes the results of these games for hours a day.
‘I’m leaving’, I say.
Grandpa stares at me with dim alarm. ‘Where you going?’
‘Dinner. At Samuel’s house.’
Grandpa raises his eyebrows. ‘How long’ll that take?’
‘A few hours, probably.’
‘When’ll you be back?’
‘In a few hours. I guess.’
Even if I know an exact time, I can’t tell him. He is trying to determine if he has enough time to call a taxi to Dan Murphy’s and back for two bottles of Scotch, then hide them behind the refrigerator before I arrive home.
But Grandpa seems satisfied with my answer. ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it? You need to make some friends.’
‘I’ll be quiet when I get back. I won’t disturb you.’
Grandpa turns back to the television. ‘I can sleep through anything’, he says.
Samuel has broad arms from chopping lantana, and skin with a pale sheen like the underside of a shark. I have known him since I was twelve. At the end of Mum’s eulogy, he strode out of eyeshot before the hearse reached the end of the funeral home’s driveway. I asked Mum’s work registrar for his number. Now I shadow him around coffee-shops and beaches. Every so often he dispenses a cherished detail about Mum’s working life — cigarette breaks outside the veterinary clinic, or work parties. Samuel doesn’t work at Mum’s clinic anymore. He works at the reptile park, out in the back room — a bucket of live mice, to one side, and an empty bucket on the other. He picks up a mouse, snaps its neck, and drops it into the empty bucket. He does this until the empty bucket is full of dead mice.
That evening, I eat dinner with his family before he takes me to the spare-room in his parents’ house. It contains two striped futons separated by a coffee table and a large flat-screen television.
‘Haven’t sat at the table for a family meal since I was a kid’, I tell him.
‘I was thinking about that.’ He smiles, cigarette nodding in his lips at each word.
Samuel owns a box full of crocodile teeth. They’re from the banks of the Ganges — he sifted them from their shit. In India, you can even buy human teeth, he tells me, because the Indians are true entrepreneurs. He collects bones and teeth, but he doesn’t hunt. He thinks it’s so pointless, those rich people who pay to shoot lions from the back of cars, or poke rifles from the bars of cages.
‘We should merge the prisons and the zoos and make a spectacle of it’, he says, ‘like the Romans did’.
I sit up too quickly and hit my head on the window ledge behind the lounge. He touches my head gently. I recoil at the awkwardness of his sudden affection, as if that gesture ignited some latent charge from each previously missed opportunity for contact, each cautiously passed teaspoon and coffee mug.
He looks at the white tally-marks of scar tissue on my arm.
I look away. ‘Just cutting’, I say.
‘You don’t have to hide those from me, you know. Every woman I’ve been with has them.’ He leans back and taps a cigarette out of his pack. ‘I won’t tell you it’s wrong, and I won’t tell you to stop. What difference would it make?’ He stands up. ‘That’s my attitude towards things, anyway. You want a drink?’
‘You drinkin’?’ I ask.
‘Nope. Thought you might want to.’
My cheeks are hot. ‘No thanks, actually.’
‘We got beer, red wine, white wine, whiskey.’
‘I’m all good. I’m on Luvox. You know Eric Harris was on Luvox?’
‘Eric Harris.’ He closes the door to the hall.
‘The Columbine guy.’
Samuel tells me about Roland Loomis’ Modern Primitives. Today’s youth are all lost because there are no rites of passage any more. He shows me a sepia photograph depicting an expanse of wimpled scar-tissue, unfurling across the back of an Aboriginal man. The man’s expression is inscrutable, except for the jagged slant of his nose and outline of his thick eyelashes.
Samuel rolls up his pant legs until they form a cuff above each knee. On each of his knees are pale white dots, the size of shoelace eyelets. ‘This is where they hung me from’, he says. ‘Suspension is the hanging of the body from titanium hooks’, he tells me. ‘It made me feel weightless’, he adds.
Samuel goes to the bathroom and returns with his coarse beard shaved away. He yawns before he looks at his phone. ‘Pretty late. Can crash here. If you want.’
I think of his mother. Maybe she will make me a cooked breakfast. ‘If that’s okay.’
‘Saves you driving me home tonight’, I reason.
He averts his eyes, strokes his jawline. ‘Yes, I did’, he says, softly. He rarely looks at me directly.
I tell him about the night my grandmother died, and my mother slipped into my room at midnight. When she got into bed with me, her kimono and terrycloth bathrobe reeked of sweat and wine. She chanted ‘My mum’s dead’, and sobbed, then asked me to hold her. I pretended to be asleep.
I talk excitedly. It is good to be listened to. ‘You know, I feel ugly all the time’, I tell him, lying on the lounge, arm over my head. ‘You know how I see myself?’
‘I don’t think you’re ugly’, he says. ‘Not at all.’
Samuel decides he will sleep in this room, too. ‘The paint smell, in my bedroom.’ He wrinkles his nose, then asks, ‘Have you ever been in a relationship before?’
‘Guys just want to save me. I can read it in them.’ Sometimes my voice gains this unfamiliar air of expertise, as if I actually know how men work. ‘They get off on it, the helplessness.’
‘You don’t need to be saved.’ A low urgency enters his voice. ‘Tell me who you’ve been with. I might know them.’
I become frustrated. ‘Why are asking me this stuff?’
‘Would it be weird if I kissed you? Could I?’
‘No’, I whisper, immediately.
‘Do you mean “No”, don’t come over, or “No”, it wouldn’t be weird?’
I squint my eyes shut, my hands clenching into fists as they rest on my thighs. ‘Okay. I mean, it wouldn’t be weird.’
I don’t look at him. As he moves towards me, the wire under the lounge upholstery creaks. His mouth is hot. Taste of ash. I hate the sound of him kissing me. I turn my face away.
‘You wanna do this?’ he asks me.
‘Maybe not.’ His proximity gives me a forced awareness of my own body. My palms are upturned and loose at my sides, ‘Because of something bad happening to me when I was a kid.’
The weight of his chest meets me at each inward breath.
I can’t breathe. ‘I’m not right’, I say. ‘No one can decide what’s wrong — they’ve been trying since I was fifteen.’
He chuckles, his voice unexpectedly warm. ‘I think you give yourself too much credit.’
He leans over me to switch off the lampshade. It becomes dark enough that opening or shutting my eyes doesn’t make a difference. He takes off my shirt, shoes, socks, and my jeans. He peels my mother’s underwear from my body. The mass of his torso is solid and square, pinning me to the lounge.
‘Help me.’ I don’t shout this. I say it.
With his hands squeezing my arse, he says ‘What?’ like he doesn’t hear me. His erection is pressed against my thigh. He has decided this will happen and there is nothing I can do about it. Then I feel nothing. I turn my head and wait. Thin line of light under the door to the hallway.
Samuel drives me home when he’s done.
‘Didn’t tell me you were a virgin’, he says.
‘You didn’t ask.’
‘God. I did suspect.’ He sighs. ‘I’m older and I should’ve known better. You’re not as honest as you think you are, you know.’
For a while there is silence, and the streetlight passes into the car in intervals, until I speak. ‘What did I do wrong?’
‘Think I’d rather just go home and sleep it off.’
I feel a hot surge of tears stinging my eyes. I blow my nose on the inside of my shirt. Cool mucus sticks to my chest. He will not see me cry. ‘No jobs around here’, I say. ‘Think I’ll join the military.’
‘You can’t be a soldier, in the army. They don’t treat women right.’
‘Whatever. I didn’t even mean it. They don’t let people like me in.’
He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, then back at the road. ‘You know. If you’re okay with what happened tonight, then so am I.’
‘It’s not even a big deal.’
‘No need to tell everyone, right?’
I imagine a shotgun. I cradle the barrel with both hands, on account of its heft and my weak arms. Samuel is kneeling in front of me, faced away, palms open in an attitude of surrender. His shadow falls in front of him because I am the source of light.
The car is humming in first gear, cruising around the terminus of an unfamiliar cul-de-sac. ‘This isn’t the way to my street. Where are you going?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know’, Samuel replies, turning the car in a wide arc.
When I get home there’s enough light outside to show that the windows are dirty, fine hairs and dust glowing on the panes. I eat seven peanut butter sandwiches. I indulge an impulse to curl up on the cool linoleum and listen to the living sounds of the house. Floorboards shrink and the fridge motor ticks into high gear. A thin film of awareness covers every curve of my body, like the slime of raw chicken.
I take a notebook and a blue ballpoint pen and write the exact details of the night in linear order, searching for an answer in the words. It seems to lie somewhere in the memory of Samuel’s ugly mouth, the coarseness of the hair on his lower stomach, the mold of his eyelids around his downcast gaze. I slap myself in the face so hard that my ears ring.
As the ringing fades, there’s a hushed sound coming from Grandpa’s floor, like the whistling friction of trouser legs. It turns out Grandpa is crawling up the stairs.
‘Nah, nah.’ Grandpa looks at the blue carpet on the steps then up at me in alarm, as if he is discovering my presence anew each time. He smells like Scotch. I shouldn’t have left him alone.
I grab his arm. I picture myself bending it gently, irreversibly in my grip. ‘Stand up’, I say.
‘Nah, nah, nah’, he says.
I give up and shepherd his crawl to the only accessible bed on this floor. It was Mum’s recovery bed for after chemo sessions. He climbs on it and lies on his back. I tuck him in. In my irritation and need to avoid touching him, I fling the sheets too far. It covers his face like a burial shroud.
When he resurfaces, he clutches the sheets to his chin. ‘Beautiful girl’, he says, and then winces, turns his face into the pillow and sobs.
I get on my bike, and ride down the main street. The young man across the road is standing in the yard with a garden hose in his hand. The dawn rays light him up as I get close. There is no birdsong.
I remember his parents howling and the neighbours congregating outside their rusted fence, whispering, as if speculating on the progress of a house fire. He was only a boy then, toeing a worn soccer ball from one side of the yard to the other with inconsolable lethargy.
The young man is slumped, gaze set firmly downward. I coast slowly now, pushing the brakes. He is directing the garden-hose at a square of turf, long churned-up. I stop. A clear stream of water roils the earth and makes mirror-faced pools in the divots.
This story is being published in Prendergast, J (ed) 2018 Ace anthology: Arresting, contemporary stories by emerging writers, Canberra: Recent Work Press.