Today is the anniversary of my death and the universe shakes me from my slumber with a start. When the disorientation settles it dawns on me where I am, and what I’m about to do, again. I materialise into the body I had when alive and head down a familiar tree-lined street, bound for the corner shop. Sparrows fall silent as I shuffle under their rustling elm trees. The twenty-dollar note has returned to my clenched fist. The twenty is charmed with choice, I’ve understood this for a while, but I can’t as yet get control my hand to spend it.
This frustrates me to no end and, even though for this day I am a seen as a solid man with all human desires and senses reinstated, the stench of guilt eats at me. Years pass for the living and mobile phones transform from bricks to pebbles. And I am stuck to observe this for an eternity. Trapped by a stupid mortal mistake.
A northerly breeze warms my face and blowflies buzz in a symphony across my shoulders. At the traffic lights I round the corner and leave the side street behind. The main street bustles with weekend shoppers and doof doof music. The sky is a blanket of baby blue. I stretch my neck upward and savour the control, the movement a small freedom from my captor.
The pleasure is short lived. The skin under my beard itches but my fists remain stuck in my duffel coat pockets like fence posts set in concrete. Exhaust fumes irritate my nostrils as cars idle past. People stare in my direction when they hurry past, no doubt puzzled by the sight of a dishevelled man in his winter coat on such a beautiful day. Their noses crinkle before turning away.
And the creaking of the universe, as it waits, smothers me.
Past a row of crowded sidewalk cafés is the corner shop, oddly stoic and pale yellow paintwork out of date. Advertisements for meat pies and pastries peel off the windows. The plastic strips covering the shop door snap as a girl walks in ahead of me. She stops and holds her arm out for me to follow.
I shake my head. ‘Not yet.’
She disappears into the shop. I stand trembling outside and wait for the girl to leave. The air conditioning above the door hums and water drips from it onto my trouser leg. The newspaper’s headline is about the death of Dolly the sheep, and I recall the debate about her cloned birth only months before I died.
The girl should not be here to witness this. She’s never been here before. Hair rises on the back of my neck. The creaking of the universe becomes too difficult to ignore and my clenched teeth, throb. I push through the strips with my shoulder. The plastic wraps around my body and propels me inside the shop. Cool air strikes my face like the refrigerated beer section in a bottle shop. The floor stinks of old mop water.
The girl leans against the freezer with a Heaven ice-cream in one hand and a Magnum ice-cream in the other. She puts one back and picks it up again, as if she can’t decide what to have. She wears a sundress and no shoes. The bottom of her upturned foot is black with dirt. Her hip juts out and beach hair falls down her back, thinning out at the ends.
The girl glances up, peers at my matted hair and my sawdust-smudged pants. I must seem ancient to her. I wait for her eyes to narrow but only a curious ripple dints her forehead, like she might know me, and it unhinges me.
A fear crawling along my back digs deeper into my skin. The shame of how I spent my life mingles with the unease of her being here. This has always been between the shopkeeper and me. I don’t want anyone else to know. Which is absurd as this crime would have been on the news and in the papers.
Maybe I can will myself away and I squeeze the twenty-dollar note and shut my eyes. In darkness, I demand my feet to turn around, to leave this place, fruitlessly pushing my corporeal body against an invisible wall-block.
Unable to move forward or back, I stand at the shop entrance, anxiously shifting my weight from foot-to-foot. The universe tunes its creaking to a steady murmur. This is new, and butterflies rattle around my intestines.
‘Can I pay you tomorrow?’ the girl says, her voice a crystal chime. Startled, my eyes snap open to the shop’s harsh fluorescent lights. Her voice unfurls a part of my brain. A cruel trick of the universe, I think. Is she sent to torment me further?
Pushing away her voice, I concentrate on the next-door sidewalk café’s chattering patrons, mugs chinking, and dogs barking. Freshly ground coffee beans mingled with cigarette smoke lingers through the shop doorway. The memory of inhaling a mouthful of sweet smoke relaxes me.
The shopkeeper eyes me suspiciously, shrugs and faces the girl at the register. The girl stands beside the jars of mixed lollies and metal shelves stuffed with chip packets. She mustn’t have any money. I wonder if she’s a street kid and the protective urge to offer her money surprises me.
The shopkeeper slides the Magnum ice-cream across the glass counter back towards her, his expression kind. ‘No. Yours,’ he says in a Balkan accent.
The girl bounces on her feet like a child. ‘For free? Ta.’
She must be at least twenty and I do a quick calculation in my head. She is my daughter’s age. A shiver bolts through me that my coat cannot protect me from. This needs to stop I beg the universe. I don’t want to be here anymore. Let me go.
A groan resonates in my vocal cords. My ear lobes sting and hands shake in my pockets like the DTs. Even though I hardly touched a drop of alcohol in my thirty-six years, preferring to invest everything on the gambling rush I’d inherited from the old man. Frosty air catches in my lungs. I hunch over and cough, swallowing nicotine-coated phlegm.
The folded paper edges of the twenty-dollar note digs into my palm. I found it outside the TAB, the day the answering machine informed me of my daughter’s birth. My ex made the call. I never called back. I was artist who spent my days gambling. My debts, even then, had me ransacking warehouses and queuing up at Cash Converters.
The rotten gene had kicked in as Dad predicted. My life was a mess and no kid needed me. In the studio I rented above a garage, I remember stretching out on an unmade mattress and gazing in despair at the tools scattered over my cutting bench. It had been months since I’d sold a carving at the gallery, and rent was due, but I couldn’t bring myself to gamble the twenty. Instead, I shoved it inside a battered wooden cigar box, believing it to be a gesture of good luck from the universe for trading in my daughter.
Weeks later I received a Polaroid in the mail of a baby swaddled in a pink blanket. Years later I got another one of her fourteenth birthday out the front of a cinema with two friends, a Pulp Fiction poster in the background. It went in the box too.
But the morning I died my wallet was as empty as my gut. I checked the landlord’s bin for scraps and raided the ashtray for butts before snatching out the twenty-dollar note from the cigar box. Then, on second thought, I dragged out my great grandfather’s WWI Webley Revolver from under the mattress.
Holding up a shop looked so damn easy on the idiot box.
‘Pie and smokes?’ the shopkeeper says, offering my usual order. I stand tormented at the shop entrance. The pinball machine by the window starts up another round of dinging and whirling, begging for a coin to be shoved in its slot.
The girl picks up the ice-cream, starts to unwrap it, then glances at me and puts it on the counter, in no hurry to leave. I wonder if she is a friend of my daughters going to report to her about a man who looks like her dad. The urge fires in me to clamp my hands on her scrawny shoulders and shake the ambivalence out of them. I want to shove her away. Can’t you see something is wrong here, get out.
I speak out the side of my mouth to the shopkeeper. ‘You bet.’
It is always the same reply and I chew on the coarse hair below my lip. Does the shopkeeper see me as a déjà vu moment? I realised a few years ago he didn’t deserve to be put in this position, but it hasn’t changed anything. Maybe now, because of the girl’s presence, he will chose differently.
The shopkeeper reaches around to the cigarette shelf behind him. The years haven’t been kind to him, and the last few shirt buttons refuse to contain his midsection. He turns around, straightens his shirt and gives me the once over.
‘Change your mind?’ he says, with a weary tone.
The hold on my feet at the shop entrance lets go. My breath quickens and feet drag out each step towards him. The counter runs in an L-shape down the entire left side of the shop. The shelves along the wall are littered with faded labels of canned food and dusty cleaning products. I halt at the register. The possibility of this ending differently, eases the clinching in my chest.
The register is a scuffed white plastic, with a key above the numbers. The key is a tarnished bronze with sticky tape wound around the top. I stare at the girl, astounded at her stupidity. Why doesn’t she leave or does the universe hold her here too?
She might be stuck, melded to the spot next to me. Her palm is spread flat on the glass, and black polished fingernails flick at the ice-cream wrapper lying on the counter. It must be melting but she doesn’t seem to care. She is busy searching my face, as if trying to place me.
The shopkeeper’s features sharpen. He reeks of cooking fat. He slaps a red-and-white cigarette packet on the counter and picks up the pie tongs.
‘You sell carving today, hey?’ he says, knowing my routine in life well.
‘Nuh,’ I say, paranoid his suspicion has clocked the gun in my pocket. He knew the wooden statues only sold in spurts, usually when a housewife lingered inside the gallery and told her gardening group.
The shopkeeper claps the metal tongs together. ‘Dole day not till Thursday; you get lucky on dogs then? I wont give no more credit.’
He knows I’m up to no good, I’m sure of it and I nod as if I understand and focus on the freckles dotting the girl’s arm. The buzzing of the lights winds up a notch and the greasy meat pie he places inside the brown paper bag sickens me. The hand with the twenty refuses to budge, and I desperately want to explain, I have the cash and I chose wrong.
‘What sort of carvings?’ the girl says in a high-pitched quaver, as if she has clocked me too and it upsets her.
But I can’t answer. Nothing is changing and I don’t want her to get hurt. All I can do is watch the train wreck unfold in slow motion like when a glass drops and, as it falls, you think you can catch it but is smashes anyway.
Following a deadly script, my gun hand foolishly creeps out of my coat pocket. The grip is wet with sweat. One finger curls around the trigger and one on the hammer. I force the revolver to dangle at my thigh, awkward and unyielding. I want to spit out the sour taste flooding my mouth. An immense wave of regret consumes me, drowning out the sidewalk chatter, the air conditioner, the itching and scratching of the universe.
The girl reminds me of sunflowers and rain. The cigarette packet on the counter both comforts and taunts me. Sweat trickles down my brow and past the curve of my nose. I sniff. Panic races around my blood stream like whippets at the track. The shopkeeper puffs out his chest and cracks his knuckles waiting for me to pay, to pull out my lucky twenty.
The girl gasps at the sight of the gun.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ I say to her, instead of my usual, give me the money and smokes. My hand with the gun waves erratically around the shop as if it doesn’t know what to do with itself. The bottom of my coat knocks her ice-cream onto the floor with a dull splat. She remains standing, shaking and pale, beside me. Her chin dimples, and tears fill her eyes.
Her crying reminds me of my ex. Recognition hits me like a cricket bat to the ear. It’s my kid all grown. Christ, what is she doing here? Anguish and dread rocket through me, not her. I made a deal with the universe. I stayed out of her life, why bring her to me now?
The spell keeping the twenty in my pocket dissolves. Astonishing relief washes over me at the freedom to move that hand. Out of the corner of my eye the shopkeeper grimaces, reaches under the counter and tugs open a cardboard box. I drop the gun. It slams against the concrete floor with a cathartic thump. I frantically step forward to hand over the twenty, to finally spend it and break this curse.
But a brutal force knocks me to the floor. Oxygen rushes out of me and a biting pain too intense to endure replaces everything. I’m on the ground, spread-eagled with a burning bullet inside my ribcage. My eyes roll and the ceiling sways. A gurgled laugh spills out of my throat.
It never did play out like on the telly and again the battle-scarred shopkeeper hits me with a pre-emptive bullet, never the cash and smokes. My father’s sandpaper voice jeers at me from my past, rotten, boy, rotten to the core.
When my vision clears, I squint at the shopkeeper. He stares in horror at the sawed-off shotgun in his hand. Smoke trails out the stumpy barrel and taints the air. He reacts as if he’s never shot me before.
In agony, I wait for the curtain to draw closed, furious as hell at the universe for forcing my child to endure this sight. Then a jolt of terror chokes me, will she be here next year? It is all too much and I silently plead to be sent to my purgatorial slumber.
But no rest follows and, while my throbbing, molten lava of a mind attempts to process this, my daughter kneels beside me, in my blood, eyes wide, and face swollen from crying.
She is truly the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.
‘Dad?’ she says, through the ringing of the gun blast. ‘Mum has a picture… I never got to meet you. You’re supposed to be dead.’
I have no explanation and am lost in her realness. I miss her with a fierceness I never knew existed. How her singsong voice matches my ex’s and her pale-lashed eyes are the same honey brown with emerald flecks. How her mother also hated wearing shoes.
‘Shoes,’ I say, spluttering fluid between my teeth. ‘You need shoes.’
She rattles her head side-to-side. ‘What?’
My vision blurs, and the lights overhead fade. Flashes of what might have been, what was and what may be play over in my mind’s eye.
‘Don’t turn out… like me,’ I say, my tongue thick and struggling to form words. I want to warn her she is better than me and can escape the sins of the father. The old man was wrong, we have a choice and I could have done things differently. After not having control for so long and regaining it for this brief moment, I know now I should have been in her life. Gave up the gambling. I could have fed and clothed her. It was possible. Why didn’t I realise this then? There was always a choice and I made all the wrong ones.
Unable to speak coherently, I raise my fist with the twenty folded in it off the floor. Praying it’s high enough for her to notice. It must be, and sunflower perfume eases the sting in my nostrils. She leans over my body. Soft fingers press open my hand and take the twenty-dollar note away.
‘I wont,’ she says.
In the energy surrounding her body I sense choices vibrating around her, to pay the shopkeeper or buy shoes, or the freedom to grieve for the ghost of her old man. On some level she must understand this, because with a soothing tug on my soul, the universe lets me go.
Second place in the Geelong Writer’s short story competition –
Judged by Maria Takolander