Wednesday 12 January 2011

His Lucky Day: a short story

OK, I know it’s time to get back to some theology here at F&T. But first, here’s one more story – admittedly a bit long for a blog post, sorry about that. Some people said they found the last story too depressing, so I thought I’d write one with a happy ending. This one's called “His Lucky Day.”

In a white house with a red roof, in the quiet suburb of Clear Lake on the outskirts of Houston, shortly after sunrise an alarm clock rang, and he was awake. He shaved and showered, checked his shoes for scuff marks, buttoned his neatly pressed shirt, selected a tie, the blue one with the stripes, and went downstairs. He sat at the little round table and had a bowl of Toasted Honey Crunch cereal, a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a tall cup of steaming black coffee. Then he went upstairs, cleaned his teeth, made the bed, took the dark blue sports bag from under the bed, opened it, put in two bottles of water, a clean shirt, the Smith & Wesson .38 Special and four boxes of ammunition, and closed the bag. On the way out he checked his tie knot in the mirror, straightened it a little. He drove fifty minutes to work. In the car he wore dark glasses and listened to 88.7 FM, where he heard Beethoven and Chopin and Shostakovich and the morning news.

The camera panned across the scene, the big glass doors at the front of the building, the cars and flashing lights, the white news vans, the officers with rifles and black helmets, the crowd of bystanders behind the police barricade, the helicopters circling above. It panned back to the front door of the bank, and to the woman who had begun to read the teleprompter as she paced slowly forwards. She recapped the story, the investment banker who opened fire on his co-workers earlier today, reports from cell phones inside the bank confirming at least six dead and many wounded, police have surrounded the building and the entire block here in downtown Houston has been cordoned off, the gunman is still at large, just moments ago – here she left the teleprompter and began to ad lib – we heard gunshots from the second floor of the bank, police snipers have occupied the adjacent buildings. As she mentioned the police snipers (the last thing she would ever say in front of a news camera), two things happened at the same time: there was another series of gunshots in the background, and the heel of her Gucci shoe slipped into a sidewalk grate. At that moment, the most important and exhilarating moment of her life, her first appearance on live television, the heel snapped, her ankle twisted, and she fell. Her hip was broken, she would walk with a slight limp for the rest of her life, and her career in live television was finished, though the video achieved considerable celebrity on YouTube, where it was viewed nearly a million times in the first week, and later won a satirical award as the most dramatic and riveting news blooper of all time.

In Alice Springs, a woman known to everyone in those parts as Auntie Joy was making her cup of tea and watching the live update on the Texas Bank Shooter. She held the cup in one hand and dunked the Dilmah teabag with the other, and had been doing this for exactly two minutes when, right before her eyes, there were gunshots and the reporter on the tellie dropped like a stone to the ground. On three occasions Auntie Joy had seen people fall like that: the shooting accident with little Billy when they were camping out by the Rock as children; the morning at the train station when that young fellow, a blow-in from up north, had thrown himself on the tracks, and Auntie Joy had seen the whole thing and had not spoken for three days afterwards; and the night her husband, Lord rest him, had gone down with a stroke while they were brushing their teeth and making jokes together in the bathroom. That is why, when the girl on the tellie fell, Auntie Joy’s eyes stung with tears, the cup clattered across the kitchen floor, the teabag went sliding under the fridge (where it would remain for several years), and her foot was slapped by scalding hot Dilmah tea. When Auntie Joy cried out, you couldn’t have said for sure whether it was for the stab of pain in her foot, or for the TV reporter, or for her husband or the boy on the tracks, or for dear little Billy.

Three doors down, an old cattle dog heard a woman bellowing from her kitchen, and he put down the shoe and lifted his grizzled head and barked twice. He had a weakness for shoes, a tremendous weakness, it was true. He had killed a six-foot brown snake, had braved the great housefire back in 98, had split the ear of a Rottweiler in a fight, but against shoes he was powerless. Once when the people went away for the weekend, he had jumped the fence and prowled the streets all night, quiet as a thief, eyes glinting in the moonlight. When they returned two days later, they found him sleeping in the backyard, innocent as a baby, with thirty-one unmatched shoes spread out around him, shoes lovingly appropriated from the doorsteps of thirty-one houses in Alice Springs, all beautifully, assiduously chewed. After he heard the woman’s cry and performed the obligatory barks, he resumed his work upon the shoe; around the corner and down the road, six more dogs, one of them a black Rottweiler with a torn ear, began to bark.

He had been reading on the front veranda, sprawled across the big cane chair, and had fallen asleep. He woke with a start, sat bolt upright, said bloody dogs. The book, still lying open on his stomach, was a Penguin paperback, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, he was up to the part where they go to Lyme, just before Louisa Musgrove has her fall. Nobody knew of his guilty secret, his taste for literature. His friends didn’t know it, certainly the blokes at work would never know it. Some guys looked at dirty pictures or dressed in women’s clothes, he read English novels of the nineteenth century. The bedroom cupboard was full of them, crinkly old black paperbacks nearly worn to death, Hardy, Thackeray, Trollope, Collins, George Eliot, the Brontës, all of Dickens and Austen. He could have recited from memory the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, though he never would have admitted it, and you’d never see him do it, not in a million years. This was how he passed the time on the long night shifts at Toddy’s Resort, when the cleaning was finished, when there were still a couple hours to spare, he’d go out to the backroom, make himself comfortable, crack open a Penguin paperback, read till dawn. He’d even written a few stories himself on those nightshifts, mysteries after the manner of Wilkie Collins, though he’d always destroyed them afterwards, running the pages through the shredder at work so that no one would ever find out. When he woke that afternoon to the barking of the dogs, he looked up just in time to see a rickety circus bus coughing and spluttering its way up Mulara Street towards the Stuart Highway. The words MISTER BONG BONG AND THE BANANA REPUBLIC were painted in bright rainbow colours down the side, and in the front beside the driver was a woman he recognised at once, though he had not seen her in nearly fifteen years. For several seconds he did not breathe. Then he jumped to his feet, stuffed the book in his back pocket, and ran to get his keys.

When the circus troupe arrived in Eumundi they headed straight for the markets. She spent the first couple of hours walking on stilts, then stood on a corner juggling, collecting coins in her huge checkered top hat, while a hand-drawn sign announced that the Banana Republic Circus Troupe would be performing tomorrow avo in the Eumundi showground. Then Little Jim brought the balloons and the gas tank, and for the rest of the morning she made balloon animals, not only poodles and giraffes and elephants, but also penguins and crocodiles and lobsters and bouquets of flowers and centipedes and redback spiders and fairies with movable wings. She had once spent an entire day on a single balloon sculpture, two big fish swimming above a brightly coloured coral reef in a shaft of sunlight. A bookshop owner in Dubbo had given her fifty bucks for it, and she’d been happy when she saw it there, exhibited like a work of art in the shop window. That what was she was doing, inflating and tying and twisting balloons, making a pirate for a piratical little boy with his grandmother, when she saw him standing there. He stood a whole hour, said nothing, watched her twist the balloons as the children lined up and watched and went away. When the markets were closing and the crowds had thinned out, he approached her at last, timidly, like a little boy, said hello Penny. He bought roasted macadamia nuts and two cups of ginger beer and they sat on a bench in the shade, talking for the first time in thirteen years. He’d seen the bus in Alice Springs and followed them (he still had dad’s old Ford) for four days, all the way through Port Augusta, Broken Hill, Bourke, Goondiwindi, Brisbane, finally to Eumundi. He’d followed them to servos and diners along the way, he’d seen their act in Port Augusta, but he didn’t have the guts to come talk to her, not till now, not till Eumundi. Dad’s dead Penny, he said at last. Come home.

The markets were starting to close, she had decided to call it a day, when her last customer came to the booth. She was a pretty young thing, Aboriginal girl, mid 20s she guessed, dressed up like a clown with a canvas bag on her shoulder and a catastrophe painted on her face. Come in luv, come in, she said to the girl, have a seat. How much, asked the girl doubtfully without sitting down, and the woman patted her arm and said sit down luv, it’s on me. Then, seeing she had embarrassed the girl, she added with a wink and a gesture to the huge top hat the girl was holding, I mean a woman like me would pay to read the fortune of a girl like you, and besides, you’re my last for the day. The girl smiled then, and the woman saw that she’d been crying, her clown’s cheeks were smudged with tears. She sat down and the woman laid out five cards on the table. She looked at them a long time. That was when her hands began to tremble and the big silver earrings started to wobble and her face went all pale, as white as the High Priestess on the card in the middle of the table. She leaned forwards a moment, clasped the girl’s hands violently, and whispered something so faintly that I do not know whether the girl ever heard it, the dark and fatal prophecy that she’d seen there written in the cards. Then she tumbled backwards from the chair, quite dead, as the girl gasped and the table turned on its side and all the cards were scattered on the ground.

He was in his office cubicle on the eleventh floor of the redbrick Parramatta building, behind towers of printed pages and handwritten receipts, doing the tax for a little Chinese restaurant down on Phillip Street, punching numbers on the keyboard and hitting the tab key, over and over, honest to God a monkey could do it, he’d often thought so. He’d just decided to get another Diet Coke – it was nearly 3.00 – when he got the phone call. There was complete silence in his cubicle for two minutes. When he hung up the phone, a pile of receipts tottered over the edge, fluttering like greasy confetti around his feet. When he stood up, he could not remember what he had done with his keys, and had to stand there a moment, staring at his desk like a fool. On his way to the lift, when someone asked if he was feeling alright, he said with a small apologetic smile, I think my wife has died. In the car, he tried calling his daughter’s mobile but it was turned off, he’d have to go home and wait for her. How could he tell her? What could he say? She would blame him, she’d say it was all his fault, he could see that. Was it his fault she left the way she did? Was it his fault she’d been too bloody selfish to stick it out? Christ, when other people have a midlife crisis they buy a boat or screw the secretary or take up landscape painting. But she goes and runs off with her good-for-nothing hippie friends, at the age of fifty-five, thinking she’s a psychic, selling fortunes to morons up in Queensland. Was it his fault she’d never come back, never even bothered to call? They’d had to drive up there, him and his daughter, and beg her to come home, and she’d just looked at them, calm and smiling, like it was all a dream or a big bloody private joke. The man on the phone said she’d died there, right there, in her booth in the middle of the markets. He wiped his eyes furiously. God how he hated that fucking woman, God how he loved her.

The boy had left school early that day, slipping out before his last English class. He had walked to the bus stop on Pennant Hills Road, where Marie was already waiting. On the bus to Beecroft they talked about her new CDs, a box set of Beethoven’s nine symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic; Cluytens is sublime, she said, and the boy agreed with all his heart. They walked to her house on Blackwood Close. As always, they left their shoes and schoolbags by the front door, got a drink from the kitchen, then went down the hall to her room, rummaged for a few minutes among the CDs, put on the music, and took off their clothes. That is how he came to be wearing nothing but his school socks when, twenty minutes later, while the speakers throbbed out the propulsive rhythms of Beethoven’s Ninth (it was the second movement), the door crashed open and Marie’s father stood inside the room. He was home early. He looked like he’d been crying, but instantly his face went the colour of beetroot and his eyes turned murderous red. He stammered as if to speak. The boy tumbled headfirst to the floor, still half tangled in the sheets and Marie’s milk-white thighs. The man in the doorway flailed about for something to hold on to, and the nearest object was a tall glass vase, which he plucked and brandished above them like a club. Somehow the boy found his feet and, quick as a thunderclap, launched himself across the bed and out the open window. Running in nothing but the skin God gave him and his high blue school socks, he tore across the backyard and catapulted over the fence, he could hear behind him the drums of Beethoven and the crash of furniture and profanities being hurled across the room and, above that, something else, a single, unbroken note, a sound so strange that he did not recognise it until he had already cleared the next fence. It was the long, wild, wailing shriek of the girl he loved.

Jen had been studying all day for tomorrow’s big chemistry exam, she was tired as hell, making another pot of coffee, rubbing her eyes and yawning at the kitchen sink, when, looking up, she saw this guy, stark naked, sprinting across the backyard, his enormous half-erect member springing from side to side as he ran. From the sound of it, he was running away from someone, a woman who’d started screaming like a banshee next door. Before the naked sprinter had made it past the garden shed, she’d whipped out her phone and taken a picture. (It would later become famous on social networking sites, and would lead to the boy’s eventual expulsion from his elite private school: that was how his promising career as a concert violinist was aborted.) A moment later, the streaker had bounded over the fence and disappeared into Mrs Walcott’s vegetable garden. While the coffee brewed, Jen sent a text message to her best friend – OMG, you’ll never guess what I just saw from the kitchen window, lol – and attached the photo. She took the coffee and went back to her bedroom, back to the chemistry textbooks that were lying in ambush on the floor, plastered in frantic pink and yellow stickynotes. But after seeing the backyard streaker she found she couldn’t concentrate, she texted the pic to a few more friends, uploaded it on Facebook, replied to comments from her friends, checked her email, and next morning sat her CHEM311 exam at the University of Sydney, which she failed.

Two seconds after Jen had sent the text message, a young woman in a tight dress and dark glasses reached for her phone and read the message, smiling. She clicked to open the attached photo. She waited for it to load. But she would never get to see the backyard streaker with his shock of red hair, his improbably high blue socks, his lanky bent knees, his soon-to-be-famous airborne penis, for at that moment the front wheel clipped the curb and her car began to spin. In the next three-and-a-half seconds, her thoughts became clear and precise. She solved the problem of quantum gravity; she realised that her friends and lovers had never meant more to her than the love of her father; she recalled the lessons from Sunday school, and discovered that she had believed in God all along, had always believed, though secretly; and she saw that she would miss her 3.30 appointment at the King Street Hair Salon in Newtown, and wondered if she’d ever be able to get another appointment in time for the ceremony. For tonight she was graduating from her Masters in physics, her father was flying in from Seoul, he would arrive in two hours in a new suit, face shining, bearing gifts.

He was walking down Carillon Avenue with his backpack and guitar case, just past the Missenden Road lights, when a little red two-door car came spinning towards him. It looked, he thought, like one of the whirligigs he had played with as a boy. He stood quite still, and knew that he was going to die. He wondered if the guitar would be damaged, he hoped not. He flinched as the car spun closer. But both he and the guitar were saved by a telephone pole which brought the car to a sudden, miraculous halt, just a few feet from where he stood. His ears still ringing from the shriek of twisted metal, he put down the guitar and let the backpack slide to the footpath. He took four steps to the wreck and bent down at the thin squashed window. There was only one person in the car, an Asian girl with dark glasses. She was perfectly still, except for her lips, which were moving soundlessly, as though searching for the right words. Blood streamed from lacerations on her face. Carefully he removed the glasses, out of habit he folded them, even though they were smeared in blood and one of the lenses was already broken, and put them on the road. Then he took off his shirt and pressed it to the place beside her ear, trying to staunch the bleeding. He tried to find something to say to her, something reassuring, and he was still trying to find the right thing to say when the ambulance arrived, and someone in uniform took his bloodied hands and led him away from the girl, saying sorry mate, she’s gone, come sit down here, sorry mate, nothing you can do. He sat on the curb a long time, he accepted a cup of water from the ambulance driver, he watched the police directing traffic and the firemen cleaning oil from the road, someone came with wet towels and cleaned his hands and face, how did he get so much blood on his face, he was surprised to see the red wet towels in front of him. When he had given his statement to the police, he opened the backpack and dug out a clean shirt, a white T-shirt that had “429 FM, Living It” across the front. He shouldered his backpack and picked up the guitar case and kept walking.

Khalid Rashid Hassan, whose English was poor and who had come to Sydney two years ago, who had once lived in the biggest house on the street but now slummed with his wife and two children in a damp one-bedroom flat with a broken doorknob and the constant noise of traffic and, God protect them, the biggest cockroaches they had ever seen in their lives, an electrical engineer with degrees from three European universities, whose passions were French literature, old maps, and the way his wife’s neck leaned ever so slightly to one side as she was speaking: here he is, Khalid Rashid Hassan, and it is his lucky day, though he does not know it yet. After another week of fourteen-hour shifts, he had woken that morning, his day off, with a cold. Perhaps we must blame the cold for his uncharacteristic actions that day, his lapse in judgment, his moral torpitude, but in any case, whatever the reasons, at 4.00 that afternoon Khalid Rashid Hassan found himself standing at a newsagent on King Street, blushing from ear to ear, and handing over money, may God forgive him, for a lottery ticket. The man behind the counter showed him how to fill out the ticket, you just choose five numbers from this table, put a cross over your numbers, any numbers you like. He stood a while holding the pencil stub, looking at the numbers. First he selected the 3 and the 8 (his wife’s birthday was the third of August), but after that he was stuck, he could not think of another three numbers. He looked out on the footpath, a man with a sad face and dirty long hair was walking up the road, smoking a cigarette and carrying a guitar. His shirt had three numbers on the front, big and red, and without further ado these numbers were marked down on the lottery ticket, 4-2-9. Two days later, Khalid Rashid Hassan won ten million dollars in the Saturday night Powerball, and that is how he came to be proprietor of Hassan Antiquarian Maps on King Street, the country’s finest trader of maps and navigational literature. Each morning he would kiss his wife and children and leave their quiet street to set out for the shop. When it was not busy, he would recline in one of the small brown armchairs by the window reading French literature, Stendhal and Mallarmé and Rimbaud, and from time to time his wife would visit him at the shop, and as she talked her neck would crane to one side, ever so slightly, beneath the fine smooth silk of her hijab.


Paul Tyson said...

Funny you should dream this up Ben, cause thats pretty close to how I came to miss out on being a concert violinist (but it was an SLR not a phone in those days) hence I have had to resort to theology instead.
Great story - flux , contingency and chaotic integration... and in it all, something more... great story.

Paul Anderson said...

I'm going to miss Christmas break and the short stories.

You should publish these. I'd buy the book haha.

Fat said...

I loved reading this series of vignettes - each connecting to the next almost with a butterfly effect. I was looking for a full circle but I guess life doesn't work like that.
Well written Ben.

db said...

Just stumbled upon your blog through a series of links to do with Tom Waits! Enjoying the stories mate!

Dale said...

Ben, you are too Cheeky :)

Anonymous said...

Ha, love the dog with the weakness for shoes!

Sharon said...

I absolutely love this.

Anonymous said...

Ben, have you heard of paragraphs?

Anonymous said...

Ah, you've made me smile today, Ben.

besideourselves said...

Too long by half.

Keep writing stories like this and no one will want you to stop.

byron smith said...

I had read the opening and was just about to complain that all your stories are set in the US, but then you end up in Beecroft, King St, Carillon Avenue and Missenden Road, tracing my life.

Anonymous said...

Just read this in a cafe 100m from the traffic lights on the corner of Carillon St and Missenden Rd in Newtown. Gave me the willies. Hope no one took a photo ;)

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